By James A. Michener
January 12, 1981 12:00 PM

Seventeenth century South Africa was a melting pot. Portuguese merchants, Dutch and German farmers and roving Arab and African traders streamed to the vast, rugged country. Perhaps the most industrious of the immigrants were the Huguenots, the early French Protestants, who believed in the teachings of reformer John Calvin. In 1685, prompted by the Catholic clergy, Louis XIV suppressed the dissident religion by revoking the Edict of Nantes. It had guaranteed the Huguenots freedom of worship for nearly a century. At Louis’ command, all Protestant books were burned. Marriages performed by Huguenot clergymen were declared invalid and non-Catholic children were ordered to convert. Many Huguenots fled abroad, depopulating entire provinces. Having no Fatherland, they became determined colonists.

In his novel The Covenant James Michener introduces a fictionalized Huguenot, Paul de Pré, who has abandoned his vineyard in Caix and taken his wife, Marie, and their young sons north to Amsterdam. “The new laws can burn in hell,” De Pré declares. “We’ll walk to the ends of the earth till we find refuge.” He is hired as a gardener by two Dutch sisters-in-law, the Bosbeecq widows. Subsequently, they find him a better job with a prosperous neighbor, Karel van Doorn, a director of the Dutch East India Trading Company. But first, they proffer advice.

The widows spoke alternately, with one making a point and her sister-in-law another: “He’s one of the leading citizens of Amsterdam. You’re lucky to be working for him.” “But watch him.”

“At the Compagnie, you’ll see his portrait painted by Frans Hals.”

“And at the Great Hall of the Arquebusiers, you’ll see him in Rembrandt’s painting of the civic guard. He’s there with my husband, standing beside him.”

“And you’ll notice that her husband has his right hand closely guarding his pocket, which is a good thing to do when Karel van Doorn’s about.”

“But for a young man like you, he’s an influential person to know.”

Paul de Pré, who was being lectured by the Bosbeecq widows, was 25 years old. He would profit from being Van Doorn’s gardener, though he would be expected to work at such a speed that at the end of three hours he was on the verge of collapse. Anything less than signs of total exhaustion indicated laziness, and Van Doorn was apt toward the end of the third hour to slip away from his desk at the Compagnie and watch through the garden wall, hoping to catch his workman resting. When he did, he would rush in and berate Paul as an idle, good-for-nothing Frenchman.

But a hard-nosed French farmer was an adequate match for any avaricious Dutch merchant, and De Pré devised a score of ways to defeat his employer and end the daily three-hour stint in moderately rested condition. In fact, he rather liked the game, for he found Van Doorn meticulously honest in his payments, and when occasionally De Pré returned to the garden on his own time to finish a job, his employer noticed this and paid extra.

“The one thing that perplexes me,” Paul told the widows one afternoon, “is that during all the time I’ve worked for him, he’s never once offered me anything to eat or drink.”

“He’s a miserly man,” one of the women said. “Anyone who steals from the Compagnie in Java and from the government in Amsterdam and from his own brother…”

“He never steals from me,” De Pré said.

“Ah! But don’t you see? The Bible says that you must treat your servants justly. If word got out that he maltreated you, his entire position might crumble. He would no longer be among the elect, and all would know it.”

“I don’t understand,” Paul said.

“It’s very simple. A man can steal millions from the government, because the Bible says nothing about that. But he dare not steal a stuiver from a servant, because on that both the Bible and John Calvin are very strict.”

“But doesn’t the Bible say anything about a little food and drink?”

“Not that I can recall.”

Then, on the very next day, Karel van Doorn offered his gardener Paul de Pré a drink, not at his house but in the Compagnie offices. He had come home at the beginning of the third hour and said abruptly, “De Pré, let’s go to my offices. I need your advice.”

So they walked across town to where a new batch of German mercenaries waited, imploring Karel as he passed, for they knew him to be one of the Lords XVII, the council of directors of the Compagnie, but Van Doorn ignored them. When he was seated behind his desk he said without amenities, “They tell me that in France you made wine.”

“I did.”

“What do you think of this?” From a drawer in his desk Karel produced a bottle of white wine and encouraged the Frenchman to take a glass.

“How is it?” Van Doorn asked.

Pursing his lips and spitting onto the floor, De Pré said, “The man who made that ought to be executed.”

Van Doorn smiled thinly, then broke into a laugh. “My brother made it.”

“I’m sorry. But it’s a very bad wine. It shouldn’t be called wine.”

“My own opinion.”

“They told me that your brother’s in Africa?”

“This comes from his vineyard. He’s been working it for 30 years.”

“He must have a very poor vineyard.”

“I wonder if he mixes in something beside grapes?”

“He wouldn’t dare.”

“Then how can it be so bad?”

“In making wine, there are many tricks.”

“Could this wine be saved?”

Gingerly De Pré took another sip, not enough to strangle him with its badness but sufficient for him to judge the miserable stuff. “It has a solid base, Mijnheer. Grapes are grapes, and I suppose that if a vintner started fresh …”

“I have a report here. It says the vines are still healthy.”

“But are they the right kind?”

“What do you think should be done?”

De Pré sat with his hands in his lap, staring at the floor. Desperately he wanted to get back to the soil, in Java Preferably, where gold proliferated, but his heart beat fast at the possibility of once more raising grapes and making good wine. Since he did not know what to say that might further his plans, he sat dumb.

“If the Compagnie were to send out some men who knew wine,” Van Doorn was saying as if from another room. “And if those men took with them new strains of grape, couldn’t something be done?”

Ideas of wonderful challenge were coming at him so fast that De Pré could not absorb them, and after a while Van Doorn said, “Let’s look at the map,” and he led the way to a council chamber decorated with a Rembrandt group portrait and a large map that had been done by Willem Blaeu of Leiden. On it four spots showed conspicuously: Amsterdam, Batavia, the Cape of Good Hope and Surinam in South America.

“We’re concerned with these three,” Karel said, jabbing at the Cape, which stood midway between Amsterdam and Java. “If our ships sailing south could stop at the Cape and load casks of good red wine and strong vinegar, they could maintain the health of their men all the way to Java. And we’d save the freightage which we now spend on bottles from France and Italy.” Suddenly the spot representing the Cape assumed considerable importance.

“But the soil—will good vines grow there?” De Pré asked.

“That’s what we intend to find out,” Van Doorn said. “That’s why I’ve been watching you so closely.”

De Pré stepped back.

“You didn’t think that I hired you to simply clean up my garden?” Van Doorn laughed. “I could have hired a hundred Germans to do that, good gardeners some of them.” He actually placed his arm about De Pré’s shoulders, leading him back to the first office. “What I sought, De Pré, was an estimate of you Huguenots. What kind of people you were. How you worked. How dependable you were religiously.”

“Did you find out?” De Pré was angered with this man, but his own canny approach to life made him respect the Dutchman’s caution.

“I did. And your honest reaction to my brother’s wine has made up my mind.” He rose and strode nervously about the room, galvanized by the prospects of new engagements, new opportunities to snaffle a florin here or there.

Resuming his seat, he said softly, “De Pré, I must swear you to secrecy.”

“Sworn.”

“The Lords XVII are going to send three shiploads of Huguenots to the Cape. We like you people—your stubborn honesty, your devotion to Calvinism. Your family is going to be aboard one of those ships, and you”—he reached over and slapped De Pré on the knee—”you will take with you a bundle of first-class grape vines.”

“Where will I get them?”

“In France. From some area whose vines you can trust.”

“They won’t send vines to Amsterdam. Forbidden.”

“No one sends the vines, De Pré. You go get them.”

“I’d be shot.”

“Not if you’re careful.”

“The risk…”

“Will be well paid for.”

Again he rose and stormed about the room, tossing his white head this way and that. “Well paid, De Pré. I hand you this first bag of coins now. I hand you this second bag when you return to Amsterdam with the grapevines. And if you get them to the Cape, you and I will sell them to the Compagnie and share the profits.”

De Pré studied the offer, and he was glad that the Bosbeecq women had alerted him to this canny gentleman: He was buying the vines with Compagnie money, and then, selling them back to the Compagnie for more of its money. He remembered something one of the women had told him: “Van Doorn has a mind that never stops working. As a Compagnie official, he imports cloves from Java. And whom does he sell them to? To himself as a private trader. So he earns double, except that he trebles the price of cloves, since he’s the only one who has any, and makes a princely profit.” Here was a man to be wary of, but he also remembered something else the women had said: “But he dare not steal a stuiver from a servant.”

“Will you pay me the two other times?” he asked directly.

“Would I dare do otherwise? A member of the council?”

And then De Pré’s stolid French honesty manifested itself: “You didn’t share with your brother.” The widows had explained that when Karel’s mother died in Java, he had hurried out and sold her possessions and smuggled all the money into Amsterdam. His brother Willem, the failing vintner, had not received a silver shilling.

Van Doorn ignored the insult. “In life,” he said, “accidents occur. My brother was a dolt. He gave me no help in spiriting the family fortune out of Java. He was a man to be forgotten. You’re a man to be remembered.”

Five months later Paul de Pré and his family sailed for the Cape on the Java. She was a medium ship, not small and swift like a flute, nor large and wallowing like an East Indiaman. It was a slow ship, requiring 130 days for the tedious passage, and it carried no lemons or pickled cabbage. For four long months the passengers , ate only salted meat, and scurvy rampaged through the lower decks.

At the 100th day Paul became aware that his wife, Marie, was not handling the long passage at all well. She began to cough blood. Frantically Paul sought assistance among the passengers, but to no avail. There were scholars aboard the Java, and a failed clergyman, and some excellent farmers, but no doctors or nurses, and Paul had to watch in despair as his wife declined.

The Java rolled and pitched through the South Atlantic, with all hands praying that the wind would steady so they might make land before everyone was dead. Under these circumstances it was not strange that Marie de Pré should sink closer and closer to unconsciousness; her husband watched in horror as her vital signs diminished. A few days later she died and was buried at sea.

When the Java finally anchored in the lee of Table Mountain, Paul de Pré, 30 pounds lighter than when he sailed, reported to the captain, asking for his final payment for acquiring the grapevines. Instead of handing over any money, the captain informed Paul that Mijnheer van Doorn had arranged for the delivery of some 120 acres of land toward the eastern mountains. He produced a document affirming this: “The Compagnie Commander at DeKaap is directed to give the French emigrant Paul de Pré 60 morgen of the best land, contiguous to the farm of Willem van Doorn in the settlement of Stellenbosch, there to raise grapes and make wine.”

By paying De Pré in Compagnie kind rather than his own money, Van Doorn had saved himself 90 florins.

Paul, brooding over the loss of his wife, was halfway across the desolate flats before the immensity of Africa struck him, and he was suddenly overcome with dread lest this enormous continent reject him, tossing him back into the sea. The land was so bleak, the vast emptiness so foreboding that he began to shiver, feeling himself rebuked for his insolence. Clasping his two sons to protect them from the loneliness he felt, he muttered in French, “Our grapes will never grow in this Godforsaken soil.”

That night the Dutchman in whose wagon he was riding pitched camp on the loneliest stretch of the flat-lands, and Paul stayed awake, listening to the howling wind and testing the harsh, sterile earth with his fingers. Driven with fear, he rose to inspect his grape cuttings, to see if they were still moist, and as he replaced their wrappings he thought: They are doomed.

But toward the end of the second day, when the laden wagon completed its traverse of the badlands, he was allowed a far gentler view of Africa, for they now traveled along the bank of a lovely river edged by broad meadows and protected by encompassing hills. He thought: This is finer than anything I knew in France or Holland! A man could make his home here!

Begging the driver to halt, he lifted his sons down so that they could feel the good earth that was to be their home, and when he had filtered it through his fingers he looked up at the Dutchman and shouted in French, “We shall build a vineyard so great…” When the driver looked at him in stolid unconcern, for he understood not a word De Pré was saying, Paul cried in Dutch, “Good, eh?” and the driver pointed with his whip: “Ahead, even better.”

They camped that night beside the river, and by noon the next day they saw something that sealed Paul’s love of his new home. It was a farmhouse, low and wide, built of mud bricks and wattles, and so set down against the hills rising behind it that it seemed always to have been there. He noticed that it stood north to south, so that the west face looked toward Table Mountain, still visible on the far horizon. From this secure house a lawn of grass reached out, with four small huts along each side for tools and chickens and the storage of hay; they were so placed, and at such an angle, that they seemed like arms stretching to invite strangers. Paul whispered to himself, “Mon Dieu! I should like to own this farm!”

“Has the master a daughter?” he asked the driver.

“He does.”

“How old?” he asked casually.

“Nine, I think.”

“Oh.” He said this in such a flat, disappointed voice that he added quickly, lest he betray himself, “That’s good. Someone for my boys to play with.”

“He has two sons as well.”

“Interesting.”

“But you understand, the farm really belongs to the old man.”

“Who?”

“Willem van Doorn. And his old wife, Katje.”

“Three generations?”

“Working the fields, you live a long time.”

When they reached the farmhouse, coming down the lane between the eight huts, a tall Dutchman, broad of face and open in manner, came out to greet them: “I’m Marthinus van Doorn. Are you the Frenchman?”

“Paul de Pré, and these are my sons Henri and Louis.”

“Annatjie!” the farmer cried. “Come meet our neighbors!” And from the house came a tall, gaunt woman with broad shoulders and big hands. She was obviously quite a few years older than her husband, in her late thirties perhaps, and she bore the look of one who had worked extremely hard. She did not smile easily, as her husband had done when greeting the strangers, but she did extend a practical welcome: “We’ve been waiting for your knowledge of grapes.”

“Is it true, you’ve made wine?” her husband asked.

“A great deal,” Paul said, and for the first time the woman smiled.

“The old man is out with the slaves,” Van Doorn said. “Shall we go see him?”

In the field was a crippled old man in his mid-60s, walking sideways as he supervised the slaves in pruning vines. “Father, this is the Frenchman who knows how to make good wine.”

“After 30 years they send someone,” he joked. Since that first joyous pressing decades ago, hundreds of thousands of vines had been planted at the Cape, assuring a local supply of wine, but even the best vintages remained far inferior to those of Europe.

The old man jammed his pruning knife into his belt, walked awkwardly to greet the newcomer, and said “Now, let’s figure out where your land’s to be.”

“I have a map…”

“Well, let’s fetch it, because it’s important that you get started right.”

When the map was spread, the old man was delighted: “Son, they’ve given you the very best land available. Sixty morgen! With water right from the river! Where will you build your house?”

“I haven’t seen the land yet,” Paul said hesitantly.

“Let’s see it!” the old man cried, almost as if the land were his and he was planning his first house. “Annatjie, Katje! Get the boys and we’ll go see the land.”

So the entire Van Doorn establishment—Willem and his wife, Katje; Marthinus and Annatjie; and the children Petronella, Hendrik and little Sarel—set off to see the Frenchman’s land. After they had surveyed it and assessed its strengths, all agreed that he must build his house at the foot of a small mound that would protect it from eastern winds. De Pré, however, said with a certain stubbornness, “I’ll build it down here,” but his reasons for doing so he would not divulge. They were simple: When the Van Doorns indicated the spot they were recommending, he immediately noticed that it did not balance the house they had built, and he wanted his home to be in harmony with theirs, for he was convinced that one day these two farms must be merged, and when that time came he wanted the various buildings to be in balance.

“We’ll put it here,” he said, and when several of the Van Doorns started to protest the obvious unwisdom of such a location, old Willem raised a hand and quieted them: “Look! If the house is put here, it balances ours over there. The valley looks better.”

“Why, so it does,” Paul said, and soon the building commenced. Willem Van Doorn sent his slaves to work on the walls, as if the house were to be his own, while the three De Prés toiled alongside the swarthy Madagascans.

“De Pré’s a Frenchman,” Willem said approvingly. “He knows how to work for what he wants.” And as the house grew, its mud bricks neatly aligned, the Van Doorn family willingly conceded that it was not only spacious, but also solid and attractive.

“It’s a house that needs a woman,” old Katje said, and on the next evening when the Frenchman came to dinner at her house, she asked him bluntly, “What are your plans—it’s time you had a wife.”

“I have no plans.”

“You better get some. Now, you take Marthinus”—she pointed to her sturdy son—”he was born at the Cape when there were no women, none at all available for young men. So we moved out here to Stellenbosch, except it wasn’t named that in those years, and here I was—the only woman for miles around. So what to do?”

Paul looked at Marthinus and then at Annatjie, and asked, “How did he find her?”

“Simple,” old Katje continued. “She was a King’s Niece.”

This news was so startling that Paul stared in a most ungentlemanly manner at the tall, ungainly woman. “Yes,” Katje said, “this one was a King’s Niece, and you’d better be sending for one of them, too.”

“What do you mean?”

“Orphans. Amsterdam’s full of girl orphans. No one to give them in marriage, no dowry, so we call them the King’s Nieces, and he gives them a small dowry and ships them out to Java and the Cape.”

“How did…”

“How did Marthinus know that Annatjie was his? When news of the ship reached out here, we supposed all the girls would be gone. But I told Marthinus, ‘Son, there’s always a chance.’ So he rode at a gallop, and when he got to the wharf all the girls were gone.”

She placed her work-worn hands on the table, then smiled at her husband. “I was what you might call a King’s Niece also. My rich uncle shipped me out here to marry this one. Never saw him before I landed. Thirty years ago.”

“But if the girls were all gone, how did your son…”

Old Katje looked at Marthinus and laughed. “Spirit, that’s what he had. Got to the ship, all the girls gone. But before he rode back empty-handed he heard that one of the men at the fort didn’t like the girl he got, so he shouted, ‘I’ll take her!’ And one of the other men said, ‘You haven’t seen her!’ But Marthinus shouted again, ‘I’ll take her,’ and the girl was sent for, and there she is.”

Paul could not determine in what spirit the woman pointed to her daughter-in-law, whether in derision for being so much older than her son, or in disgust at her being so ungainly, or in pride for having had the strength to surmount such a poor beginning. “Look at her fine children,” the old woman said, and Paul noticed that the three youngsters were looking at their mother with love. He would never have told his children such a story, but when he and his sons got home, he was startled to hear Henri say, “Father, I hope when you go to the ship, you get someone like Annatjie.”

The De Pré boys found their new surroundings even more exciting than the canals of Amsterdam. The spaciousness enchanted them; they loved the flashing sight of animals moving through the swards of long grass; and playing with the Van Doorn children was a joy. But the Dutchman they loved was old Willem. He moved slowly among the vines, his left leg out of harmony with his right, and he coughed a lot, but he was a reservoir of stories about Java and the Spice Islands.

Paul studied the old Dutchman and was confused. Willem proved the most generous of neighbors, lending his slaves whenever needed. He was in no way the dour and heavy Dutchman Paul had expected, but he did have one mortal failing; he could not make good wine. In a way, this was not surprising, for none of his countrymen could, either. For a thousand years Frenchmen to the south of Holland and Germans to the east had made fine wines, but the Dutch had never mastered it.

“Van Doorn,” Paul said one day in exasperation, “to make good wine requires 15 proper steps. And you’ve done all of them wrong except one.”

Willem chuckled. “What one?”

“The direction of your vines. They don’t fight the wind and the sun.” De Pré studied the lines and asked, “How did you get that right?”

And then an inexplicable thing happened. The old man stood among his vines, and dropped his hands, and tears came to his eyes. His shoulders shook, and after a long time he said, “A slave girl instructed me a long time ago and they branded her on the face, here and here. And she fled into the wilderness with my first two sons. And by the grace of God she may still be alive somewhere out there.” He placed his hands over his face and bowed his head. “I pray to God she’s still alive.”

So many things were implied in what the old man said that Paul concluded it was wisest to ask nothing, so he returned to the making of wine: “Really, Mijnheer, you’ve done everything wrong, but when my good grapes join yours, I do believe we can blend them into something good. In two years they’ll be begging for our wine in Java.”

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