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Home DUCTS.ORG Issue 12 | Winter 2003 the webzine of personal stories
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Poor Cousins

Sheila Kohler

For my maiden great aunts: Maud, May and Winnifred.

Here he is,” we all whispered, as we spied the young man who strode so unsuspectingly, so enthusiastically along the dust road to our house in the heat of the December afternoon. This was Kimberley, early in the twentieth century, when men still flocked to the diamond town and stood on the edge of the Big Hole and contemplated the number of people swarming down the sides with their picks shovelling the loose blue soil, and dreamed of riches. It was the time when the water cart would wake us in our small, hot bedrooms in the mornings, as it sprinkled water on the roads in an effort to settle the invincible dust, and when we were still greatly troubled by swarms of flies.

We were sitting out on the narrow veranda, where we spent most of our days, in an effort to escape the trapped heat of our small house with its corrugated iron roof and thin, plastered walls. Despite the heat and dust and flies our mother did not tolerate idleness in her girls. She insisted we rise early and take up our work before nine. We crocheted blankets, we embroidered tablecloths, table napkins, initials on sheets, we made beaded handbags, we knitted, we did petit point or we darned our clothes, and we gossiped-- how we gossiped !-- endlessly and often about our cousins, who lived not far from us but in a better part of town. We spoke of their fine clothes, their diamonds, and the receptions they gave in their grand home, to which we were not always invited, or, if we were, received the invitation ignominiously at the last minute.
Only after luncheon, in the high heat of the afternoon, were we finally allowed to retreat to our beds and our books. “No reading in the mornings!” Mother would say severely, as though it were a great sin. Sammie, our youngest or laatlam (late lamb), born when mother was already fifty years old, was particularly fond of reading novels. She read George Eliot and Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters who were, like us, three girls. Sometimes she would sneak into the bathroom to finish a chapter or two on the sly in the morning.

On this December afternoon Sammie watched, as we all did, as the young man climbed our steps two at a time in his shiny new boots, his waist coat and fob watch. He sweated in the heat and dabbed at his forehead with a fine white handkerchief. Mother rose to welcome him and to shake his hand with some enthusiasm. He looked at her with pleasure, too, we suspected. Mother, at sixty- seven, was still, though heavy, a handsome woman, in her good pink silk dress with the ruffles around the neck, a frizz of white curls on her high forehead. She introduced us all to him, as she had done to so many before. “My three daughters,” she said, smiling at him: “Crawford, Brett, and Sam,” running our names together as though we were one.
He looked us over, his dark brown gaze lingering on each of our faces in turn, as we lifted them toward him. We are three girls in our family, as are our cousins, our mother’s brother’s children, who are about the same ages as us. They are Maud, May, and Winnifred, but we have been given boys’ names for some reason, perhaps because of our lost brothers.

At twenty-five Crawford was still slender and shy, with gentle blue eyes and wispy blond curls, which she washed with lemons to heighten the blond lights, and fluffed up around her face with her fine, white fingers, which always trembled a little as she worked or when she helped us button our dresses. At twenty-three Brett was taller and plumper and bolder with pink cheeks and deep brown eyes--perhaps the prettiest of us all, with her freckled skin and rebellious brown curls, which she washed in beer to bring out the red lights and tied back from her face with a black velvet ribbon. Sammie was only seventeen, that December day. She had always been fragile and somewhat wayward, as a result of being cosseted and Mother’s pet. She had light green eyes with a sort of distant, hazy expression, which made them seem almost transparent. She still got to bathe in milk to keep her skin so delicately pale, and her hair was a pale wheat color, too. The two dead boys were Eugene, whom none of us remember, as he was born first and only lived to be three and drowned in the river behind the house. There was a baby boy, too, who died at birth, as so many infants did in those days.

Now, Mother gestured graciously to this young man to sit in the wicker chair. She asked him if he would care for a cup of tea, on this hot day, or perhaps he might want to indulge in something stronger? He nodded his blond head and flashed his teeth with some enthusiasm and wiped his brow and said he would start with tea and might go onto something stronger, surveying our cramped veranda, the wicker furniture which Sammie’s cat had scratched, and the thin maidenhair fern which drooped in a pot, and the three of us sweating in our best silk dresses. Mother sent us off to bring out the tea tray, which we had prepared earlier in the kitchen.

We left the veranda, but not before we had got a good look at the chap, or should we risk using the phrase the fly we were hoping to catch in our web? He sported a mustache, which drooped at the sides, and gave him a slightly mournful and interesting air. His soft dark eyes, taking in the scene, seemed innocent or if not innocent, unaware. He had an embarrassment of riches in his large white teeth, which he was willing to share with us, flashing them at us generously. He brushed back his blond forelock to show us his low forehead. We all decided he was one of the most promising of the many candidates we had seen.

Mother had already shown us a picture of the man several days before. We had studied his portrait carefully. We scrutinized at our leisure the strong broad shoulders and what appeared to be sturdy legs in the high boots and the large hands on the hips. From a good English family, Mother had said and cocked her head to one side appraisingly. He had recently sold a farm in Natal. We had heard about the blue banana trees on the farm and the dogs. He had brought several dogs with him, apparently. Sammie, who loved animals, approved of this and reminded us that our cousins loved dogs, too. “Attractive, don’t you think?” Mother had said, taking the picture carefully from us and asking for our opinion on the matter. We had all agreed. “And quite prosperous, I gather. He’s here in Kimberley for the diamonds, apparently, like so many of them. Perhaps a little on the extravagant side, has already acquired a few debts on the gaming table, drunk a little too much champagne in the company of women, but what young man who comes to this town does not behave in this way?”

Crawford murmured something understanding. Crawford was always very understanding. Sammie, in her innocence, said she thought he looked like a good man. Brett said he didn’t look too bright to her, but he would do just fine for our purposes. Mother put his photograph into an envelope with all the others and placed it behind the clock on the mantelpiece. Mother had an unfailing ability to track down these young men, who came to our town and had a certain unsuspecting swagger about them. They strode down our road and climbed our steps two at a time, not knowing what lay ahead. She sniffed them out, ferreted them from their hiding places and brought them forth for her inspection and ours. She read the newspapers, the gossip columns, the ladies’ magazines, and any periodicals which spoke of single men of some stature and social position who might have a small flaw or two. They were not difficult to find, as there were still many more men around here than women, so many of them having come to the diamond fields to make their fortunes.

Mother was particularly tolerant where these men were concerned. She looked for them anywhere she could find them. She kept up with old friends and acquaintances, sometimes even writing to strangers, making up some story of having known a relative of theirs. “A little white lie in a good cause,” she would tell us, as she lay down her pen and passed around her letter, as we sat around her on the verandah. We would read her adroit words, which seemed to say something but did not actually say anything at all. We would smile and go on with our handiwork.

We had been up early that morning, because we knew the suitor was coming, and each time one of them came, we could not help hoping, though so far we had not been successful in our endeavor.

We had helped the servant straighten up the house, and we had made our own beds and cut flowers from the garden for the vases. We had baked the scones ourselves and brought forth the good English raspberry jam. We had covered over everything with netting to keep off the flies, and we had spiked the pitcher of lemonade with something stronger, which was usually used for medicinal purposes, in order to produce a moment of euphoria in our victim and predispose him to our plan.
Now we crowded down the dark corridor of the house to fetch the tea tray to offer to this one, giggling a little at our game, but at the same time feeling too old for this sort of behaviour. We did not consider what we were doing sinful. As mother would say, “All is fair in love and war,” and though this did not qualify exactly as either, we did not disagree. Even Sam, who sometimes voiced certain qualms of conscience, confessed to feeling that this time, we must be more persuasive. We must prevail.

“He seems absolutely perfect, don’t you think? How could anyone resist?” she whispered enthusiastically, while Brett put on the kettle, and Crawford measured out the tea carefully. We all nodded eagerly. We often sent our only servant, a young maid, home on these occasions, to save money, but also because we felt she might simply hinder our manoeuvres. As the years went by, this was becoming more and more serious work, we were aware. Time was running out for us. We followed one another in solemn procession: Crawford, in her fine cream silk which she had inherited from one of our cousins, carried the tea pot; Brett, in the scarlet lace which had come from the same source, handled the tea tray; and Sammie, in pale mauve chiffon with leg of mutton sleeves and the decollete which had once been Crawford’s and was a little too tight for Sam and gave her the appearance of having more of a womanly figure than she actually possessed, brought up the rear with the spiked lemonade . In silence we trooped down the dark corridor and back onto the veranda.

Unlike our cousins’ house ours is small and dark and very hot in the summer and cold in winter because of the corrugated iron roof. It has what is known as a shot- gun corridor which leads from the front door to the back, all the rooms leading off it on either side. We were all born here, and we had always lived here, and by this point we expected we would all go on living here all our lives, though that was not to be.

We had lived here through the siege during the Boer War, when we had had to hide down in the tunnels built for our protection. It was Crawford who saw the native girl who was walking down the street balancing a big bundle of washing on her head, the way they do, walking tall and straight when the shell sent the head with the washing flying through the air. In this town where substantial sums of money were made and lost fast by whites and blacks alike, where black men had come to buy guns for their chiefs, and where the soil had been turned over constantly in the hope of spotting a diamond, we had all seen acts of violence at first hand.

The back garden is what we love the best about our house. It is quite large with a wild tangle of trees and long grasses, which lead down to the river. In those days, however, we spent much of our time in the shadows of the verandah. We swatted at the flies with a fly-catcher and kept our eyes peeled for the suitors, who were, our mother had explained, our only hope of salvation.

Though our family, according to mother, on her side is descended from distinguished people, aristocrats, with a family crest--we are connected in some way with a Baron von Oudtshoorn, and various distinguished judges-- apparently, the Baron had been robbed of his lands, and our inheritance, lost. Mother’s older brother, our Uncle Charles, was a wealthy man, who had come to Kimberley about the same time as Cecil Rhodes. He had made his fortune in the diamond fields, but our poor Mother had married our father, a dashing man with ginger side-burns, for love. He held a distinguished position as Government Secretary until after the death of his second boy, who was born just before Sam, when our father was involved in some kind of administrative scandal -- we thought this was most unfair and were certain he had been unjustly accused-- and was dismissed for “gross irregularities in keeping of the public accounts.” He was brought to trial and actually sent to jail or rather, had had to spend six months in a hotel room, as the jail in the city was not considered fit to incarcerate a white man. We have never been told exactly where our father went after that, whether he took to the bottle or took his own life or took up with some other woman to overcome his shame. Mother never mentioned his name in our house, and so we believed he had come to some bad end. Our Uncle Charles, our cousins’ father, unlike our own, was devoted to his three girls and indeed, quite fond of us, too. He had helped Mother in times of trouble with our school fees and had often paid Sammie’s doctor bills. Unlike our missing father, he spent a great deal of his time in his girls’ company and watched over them most jealously. As for us, we were, Mother had told us repeatedly, left entirely to our own devices. Our finances were in an increasingly precarious state. There was no respectable work which we were qualified to do, neither nursing nor teaching which were about the only things a woman could do at that time, and Mother’s family pride kept us from entering the trade: selling shoes or handkerchieves at the stores. She had other schemes in mind for our future.

When the three of us had returned to the attack on the verandah, Crawford helped Mother pass around the tea cups, and Brett passed the buttered scones, and Sammie just sat back down on the swing-seat and sighed. She swung back and forth slowly, balancing her cup and staring at the suitor hopefully in the heat. We all stared at him.

He asked if he might take off his jacket, and Mother said, “Please, please, go right ahead,” and he stood up to perform this operation and we were able to admire his muscles through his fine shirt. We thought he looked increasingly attractive when he was in his shirt sleeves and silk waistcoat sitting next to Sammie and talking openly about his ridgebacks and his farm, his mustache drooping in a melancholy way, swinging back and forth in the heat and the flies and what he must have realized, surely, were our straitened financial circumstances.

Crawford sat down in the wicker chair and blinked her big blue eyes, which filled so easily with tears, and took up her embroidery, which she had laid aside. Crawford is wonderful at embroidery. Brett stared at the suitor frankly with her dark brown eyes, and even young Sam at seventeen was taking a keen interest in the situation. She asked what were the names of his dogs, and he said there were three, and they were called Prince, Roger, and Savoy. The young man turned increasingly red under all this intense feminine scrutiny.

When the man asked for a glass of our special lemonade, Mother filled it to the brim and watched him gulp down the strong stuff. Then she brought up the subject quite directly, which we felt, because of the desperate circumstances, was wise. She turned to him, a little pink in the face, fanning herself with her heart-shaped fan which our uncle had given her, and said, “You must meet my nieces, you know. They live on Inglewood Road, number fourteen, not far from here,” and waved her hand airily in that elegant direction at the end of our street.

“Your nieces?” the man said, looking a little confused and staring at us as though he thought he might have been mistaken in our identity. We all nodded back at him, and Brett said brightly, “Our cousins: Maud, May and Winnie, three girls just like us.”
Our mother gushed on. “Such lovely girls they are, too, and such a lovely, big house.

"Their father, my brother, Charles, was very lucky on the diamond fields, you see, and was able to buy a handsome property for his family. He adores his three girls,” Mother said with much sincere enthusiasm and smiled. Mother was not lying. Indeed our cousins were pretty girls, and indeed their house was fine and their father did adore his girls. In fact, Mother always said that he could not bear the thought of parting with even one of his daughters, and his greatest fear was that they might marry someone unsuitable and leave him, alone. Our uncle, having lived in Kimberley for many years and having seen men do extraordinary things in order to acquire a fortune (one man had swallowed twenty- two diamonds in order to steal them), had become very suspicious as to men’s motives and was convinced everyone was after his large fortune and the fine diamonds he had bestowed upon his three girls. We all smiled and felt almost generous, at that moment, sharing this good news with the young man. After all, we could also have added that our Uncle Charles was ailing, that he had recently suffered a stroke, but did not, out of modesty. The suitor, too, looked rather pleased, though whether it was at this new prospect or not, we were not quite sure as yet. He kept on swinging on the swing-seat looking almost dreamy, we thought. He seemed moved to write something down on a piece of paper, which we presumed was our cousins’ elegant address. Perhaps it was just the spiked lemonade, provided for that reason, that had given his brown eyes a velvet softness, almost a look of sadness, and caused him to dangle one arm with abandon over the back of the swing-seat. Or was it, we wondered, the thought of these other girls, our cousins, after all, and so wealthy, with their diamond fortune, that brought the glow to his eyes and cheeks.

Mother smiled at the suitor in a suggestive way and said, “I’ve always loved my nieces, so pretty and fortunate and despite all they have, quite unspoiled, do you know? Girls who know how to keep a home,” and waved her hands around our small one, the cramped veranda with the straggly maidenhair fern and the chipped china on the tray, where the flies had now settled on what was left of the scones. She gestured towards our small front garden, with its dusty hollyhocks and faded geraniums strangled in dry soil, to convey by contrast her nieces’ fortune. The suitor said politely, “As do your girls I’m sure.”

“They do the best they can,” Mother said modestly and managed to imply our poverty and our cousins’ wealth, untold wealth, which we knew their father, our Uncle Charles, had left to us in his strange will, in the case any one of his daughters were to marry.

He was willing to render all three of his daughters destitute, such was his fear of a man marrying one of them for his money. All we needed was one wedding for his fortune to pass from them onto us, the poor cousins. The suitor continued to look a little surprised and disconcerted by Mother’s words, but clearly he was feeling cheerful and in an expansive mood and asked for more lemonade. Mother raised her eye-brows slightly at what she must have considered , after all, an unnecessary expenditure at this point. Still she had Crawford fill his glass and looked at her watch and said, “I’m sure they would be delighted if you visited.” Mother went on rather breathlessly to describe some of the interesting features of their house, a rather good collection of Timlin paintings, she said. “Do you know the painter, William Timlin, such a brilliant man, with such an unusual imagination?” The suitor shook his head and rose then and glanced at the three of us, a little sheepishly.

The sun was setting by then and the shadows lengthening and there was a pleasant cool breeze on the terrace. The suitor seemed loath to move on. “I know they are on the look-out for just such a handsome and clever young man as you seem to be,” Mother added and smiled most graciously. We all nodded and shook the young man’s hand, and neither Crawford nor Brett noticed, as the suitor slipped a note into Sam’s hand, asking her to meet him later that night. Nor did we hear her slip out of the house after dinner and rush recklessly along the road, and no one knew then that this suitor would never marry one of our cousins, so that we might inherit their fortune, but, instead, our own youngest sister, our Sam. We were listening, pleased with our performance, as the suitor turned to leave and go down our steps, as Mother added.

“I wouldn’t mention your visit to us to my nieces. Simply say a well-meaning neighbor gave you their name.”

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