January 19, 1981 12:00 PM

The resourceful Paul de Pré has emigrated to what is known today as South Africa. There he transformed the failing vineyards of his neighbor, Willem van doorn, and made good on his boast that the wine they produced in the Stellenbosch valley would be sought after in Europe. From the moment De Pré first saw the Van doorn farm, Trianon, he coveted the gabled house and broad meadows. Now Willem was dead and his son, Marthinus, farms the land. De Pré decides to marry Van doorn’s 15-year-old daughter, Petronella, as a first step to taking over Trianon. But the vintner’s plans are thwarted. Petronella is in love with Bezel Muhammad, a black slave from Malaysia.

No amount of Biblical glossing helped the Van doorns face their catastrophe, nor were the teachings of the Dutch Reformed Church of much assistance. One spring morning when Marthinus was working at the vines, he was summoned by the frantic ringing of a bell, and suspecting that this meant fire, he ran toward the big house, shouting, “De Pré! De Pré! Where in hell are you?” But when he reached the house and found only his wife, Annatjie, tall and red-faced, standing in the kitchen with Petronella, he was glad he had come alone.

“Send the boys away,” his wife said brusquely, and their two sons were dismissed, even though Hendrik, now 13, could guess that the emergency had something to do with babies.

Annatjie gasped, “This one wants to marry Bezel Muhammad!” And when Marthinus looked at his daughter, she nodded so vigorously that her pigtails bobbed.

Marthinus sat down. “You want to marry a slave?” When his daughter nodded again, he asked, “Does he know about this?” And before she could reply, he demanded, “Do you have to get married?”

She shook her head and held out her hands to her father. “I love him, and he’s a good man.”

Marthinus ignored this and said, “I could find you a dozen husbands at the Cape.”

“I know,” Petronella said, “but I would not be happy with them, Father.”

The way she said Father melted Van doorn. Extending his arms, he said, “Before he died, old Willem told me he had wanted to marry a slave. Said he regretted not doing so every day of his life.”

Marthinus looked at his wife, a woman who had contracted a marriage almost as bizarre: in her case she accepted a white husband she had never seen; Petronella was taking a black-brown man she had known for three years. When Annatjie shrugged, the girl took it as a sign that her marriage was approved, but her father said quietly, “Leave us now, Petronella.”

In his confusion Marthinus turned to his Bible, but he found no guidance. There was, of course, constant fulmination against Israelite men marrying Canaanite women, but nothing about the reverse, and it began to look as if God was much more concerned about young men than about their sisters. In the end Marthinus realized that the decision must be made by the Van doorns alone, and when reached, must be defended by them against whatever opposition the community might organize.

The more the Van doorns studied Bezel, the more acceptable he became. He was clean and hardworking, he was durable like his black ancestors, poetic like his brown Malay forebears. And he was a Christian. Petronella produced a canvas bag containing coins with which to buy his freedom; Bezel had earned the money making cupboards for the neighbors. “I give him his freedom,” Marthinus declared, pushing back the bag.

When Paul de Pré learned of Petronella’s marriage plans, he fell into a rage. He was so eager to gain possession of Trianon that he had his own designs on the girl. True, she was only 15 and he 34, but on a frontier where wives often died in childbirth, it was not uncommon for a patriarch to take himself four wives in sequence. The bride was always about 17, the man growing older and older. He had been giving serious thought to Petronella and now he heard with dismay that she was about to be married to a slave.

Frantic, he ran across to Trianon, bursting through the doors. “I’ve come to seek your daughter’s hand in marriage.”

“She’s already taken,” Annatjie said.

“Muhammad? The slave?”

“Yes.”

“But there hasn’t been a wedding!”

“Perhaps there was, perhaps there wasn’t,” Annatjie said calmly.

“You would never allow a slave…”

“Perhaps we will, perhaps we won’t,” she said, and when he started to rave, she said without any show of anger, “Neighbor De Pré, you’re making a fool of yourself.”

Paul appealed to Marthinus, who remembered too vividly his father’s dying comment on what marriage meant at the edge of a wilderness: “Tell Hendrik and Sarel to find the best women they can and cling to them.”

“I think we’ll let things work themselves out,” Marthinus said, and for five months he did not see De Pré at the vineyard, but when the time came to blend the wine, with Trianon’s harsher grapes giving character to De Pré’s gentler ones, Paul could not stay away, and it was he who made the final selections: “This wine in barrels, for the slaves in Java. But this good one we put in casks for Europe.” And it was with this vintage that Trianon became an established name, even in Paris and London.

It was Annatjie who first detected Paul de Pré’s grand design. She was a hard-minded woman who even as a child had learned to calculate what others might be wanting to do to her. Other girls at the orphanage had been afraid of emigrating to Brazil or South Africa, but she had perceived this as her only avenue of escape and had never moaned over the consequences of her act. When the man who chose her first at the Cape rejected her, she did not fly into tears, satisfied that someone else would want her in his lonely outpost, and when Marthinus van doorn stepped forward to claim her, she was not surprised.

With her own children, Annatjie was a firm-minded mother, insisting that they work on the land with the slaves and Hottentots during the day and learn their letters at night after the table was cleared. She was desperately afraid they would be illiterate, and made them read with her from the only book the family owned, the big Bible whose Dutch words were printed in heavy Gothic script. For a child of 7 to try to decipher them was much like unraveling a secret code, but the ability to do so was the mark of a good human being, and patiently she drilled her offspring. In this she succeeded, but in her determination to make them hardworking farmers, like the ones she had known as a girl in Holland, she failed, for as the years passed, the white men of Africa grew accustomed to seeing black bodies bent down over the fields. It seemed God’s ordination that labor be divided so that men like the Van doorns could supervise while slaves and servants toiled. The expression “Oh, that’s slave’s work” was heard increasingly.

Annatjie was distressed when young Hendrik showed no interest in reading, and learned under duress. For some reason that she did not understand, he inclined toward the wilderness, the tracking of animals and the exploration of valleys yet unsettled. She often wondered what would happen to him, for he was not tractable like the De Pré boys. They were hungry for news of the France their father had known, but her children were content with Africa.

Annatjie’s other concern was little Sarel, whose reticence had worried her from cradle days. As long as he had to be compared only to Hendrik, who was himself quiet, she could rationalize: “Sarel’s a good boy. He just doesn’t attract much attention.” But when he had to be judged against the De Pré lads, his deficiencies became apparent. He spoke more slowly, reacted tardily, and never showed anger the way boys should. She was not yet prepared to admit that Sarel was slow-witted and would have fought anyone who said so, but she did worry: “He’s a slow developer. Not to be compared with the others.”

The Van doorns owned their original 60 morgen, plus 120 acquired since coming to the valley. Paul de Pré owned only the 60 granted him by Karel van Doorn in lieu of cash, but already he had plans to pick up another farm, and had sharp eyes for several bits of unclaimed land beyond that. One evening De Pré came to Trianon with an astonishing proposal: “Why don’t we merge the two farms? I’ll contribute mine so that we can operate the vineyards as a single unit.”

“But what would you do?” Marthinus asked.

“Work with you. We can make this the best wine farm outside of France.”

“You’d give up your morgen?”

“We’d be partners. What difference does it make who owns this piece of land or that?”

Marthinus said, “But we own 180 morgen. You have only 60. What kind of partnership is that?”

“If I stop tending the grapes, how much are yours worth, tell me that?”

“We’d farm it some other way. But we’d never give up our land.”

“Think about it,” De Pré said, and after three weeks, when the subject was not returned to, he announced one night, “I now have 106 morgen and will soon have 200.”

When he was gone, Annatjie talked seriously with her husband. “I’m sure Paul has plans to take over Trianon. I often wondered why he never planted a hedge between our properties. Now I know.”

“I think he just wants a good relationship. As he said, working the fields as a single unit.”

“Marthinus, he’s a peasant. A French peasant. And French peasants do not surrender their land easily. Never.” When her husband started to uphold the Huguenot, she interrupted: “Remember how you defended your land when he proposed a partnership? Well, if you love your land, Paul de Pré worships his. And if he’s willing to give us his, it’s only because he thinks he sees a way to gain control over the whole estate later on.”

Marthinus pondered this. He and Annatjie were older than De Pré and would probably die sooner. But there were the three Van doorn children to inherit Trianon.

“You cannot count on that,” Annatjie warned. “Petronella has a dark husband, and they won’t try to hold the land. And I’ve had grave suspicions that Hendrik won’t want to stay here. He’s like his grandfather. Eyes to the east. One day he’ll wander off and we’ll see him no more.”

“There’s still Sarel. He loves the soil.”

“De Pré is sure he can outwit Sarel, and he intends to win.”

“But he could well be an old man before this happens. You and I aren’t going to die tomorrow.”

“De Pré himself—yes, he will be old, but his boys will be young. And able. And older than Sarel. Three determined Huguenots against one young Dutchman who’s not…”

“Not what?” Marthinus asked aggressively, and the words she had sworn never to utter came forth: “He’s not too quick.”

“What do you mean?” He spoke in anger, for his wife had opened a subject he had for some time been trying to avoid, and he reacted defensively: “There’s nothing wrong with Sarel!”

The forbidden subject having been broached, she plowed ahead: “He’s a wonderful child and we both love him, but he’s not too quick. No match for the De Prés.” And when she began slowly to recite the deficiencies which could no longer be masked, Marthinus had to admit that his young son was limited.

“So how do we protect ourselves against De Pré?”

“I think we look first at the land,” she said. “What’s good for the land?”

Marthinus sat for a long time, staring at a flickering candle, and finally said, “The sensible thing would be to join the two farms, operate them as one, and make some really fine wine.”

“I think we should do so,” Annatjie said.

“But you said you were afraid of De Pré?”

“I am, but I think that together you and I will prove a match for him.”

So to De Pré’s astonishment, the Van Doorns came to him and said that papers should be drawn combining the two holdings and that De Pré should go to the Cape to formalize the documents, for such joining of land would never be permitted without Compagnie sanction. And it was this trip which altered everything at Trianon, for when Henri and Louis de Pré had a sustained opportunity to see the bustling town, now with about a thousand inhabitants of myriad coloring, they were enchanted by it.

Malays in turbans, Javanese in conical hats, swarthy Madagascans in loincloths, handsome dark women from St. Helena, and high Compagnie officials in fine suitings with lace at the collar—these were the people that formed the Cape parade. While the elder De Pré arranged for the uniting of the farms, a French ship put into the bay, and stately parties were held at the fort. One night the Huguenots, as fellow Frenchmen, were invited to attend, and the boys heard their native language spoken with elegance, and saw for themselves what a superior group the French were.

The captain of the French vessel, impressed by the manliness of the boys, invited them to visit his ship, where they ate with the officers and spoke of France. When the ship departed, the boys stood on the quay, saluting, and after that they had no interest whatever in working the fields at Trianon or inheriting the grand design their father was putting together.

In 1698 Henri announced that he was sailing back to Europe. This was not unusual; every return fleet which stopped at the Cape enticed a few burghers, disgusted with the difficulties of farming or terrified by the prospect of being forever lost in the African wilderness, to abandon the settlement.

As for the other son, Louis, 18 years old, the sights and adventures of the Cape had corrupted him. He wanted no more of the wilderness farm or the placid offerings of Stellenbosch. “I want to work at the Cape,” he declared. “The Compagnie’s wine contractor needs an assistant. I’ll join him.”

In 1700 Louis de Pré left the vineyards of Trianon for the Cape, where he married a Dutch girl and prospered in all he attempted. His father’s plans fared less well. Paul was 40, the best winemaker in the district, full partner in the profitable Trianon winery, but a man now without children or a wife. He lived alone in the small house, took some of his meals at Trianon, and fended off the Van doorns when they persisted in trying to find him a wife. “Why is he so obstinate?” Marthinus asked one night after Paul had left to walk the short distance to his lonely house.

“You know what I think?” Annatjie said to her husband. “I think he is interested in only one thing—he still hopes that Hendrik will leave us and that he can bring Louis and his sons back here to take over. He intends that this shall be a De Pré farm before he dies.”

“He is dreaming.”

“I saw him the other day drawing designs in the dust—uniting all the little huts into fine buildings stretching out like arms from this one. It could be quite fine, as he plans it.”

“Let him do it. Bezel likes nothing better than to start carpentering a new building.” The wings that De Pré had sketched could easily be erected between seasons, but Annatjie guessed correctly that he would not start until the farm was more securely in his grasp.

Trianon now comprised about 380 acres with access to water. It owned more than 30 slaves from various parts of Africa, the eastern ocean and Brazil. Fifty Hottentots and Coloureds worked also from 5:30 at dawn till 7 at night, receiving no wages; they were given food, tobacco, an occasional blanket, and the right to graze the few animals that remained from their once-vast herds. Each day they would queue up with the slaves for a splendid reward: a pint of raw wine.

One evening a local farmer, Andries Boeksma, arrived to buy a cask of Trianon at the very time the slaves and servants were lined up for their tot, and he observed, “Maybe they have bartered away their freedom, but what a marvelous way to forget the past.”

And then the Bushmen struck. The little brown tribesmen had watched with dismay as white farmers kept extending their holdings farther into traditional hunting grounds. At first they had merely observed the invasion, retreating 10 miles ahead of the plow, but now they were beginning to fight back. On many mornings a farmer on the outskirts of Stellenbosch would awaken to find his kraal broken, a prize ox slaughtered in a gully, and the spoor of Bushmen leading north toward the open country.

Every tactic had been used to combat the voracious raiders: armed Hottentots had been sent against them, commandos had been mounted, guards had been posted on 24-hour duty, but the little men loved animal meat and the placid cows of the Dutchmen were so inviting that they circumvented every device the farmers tried. Losses were beginning to mount intolerably, and by August of 1702 most of the farmers in the vicinity of Stellenbosch had decided they must eliminate the pests.

The group was led by Andries Boeksma, who argued that since the Bushmen were not human, they could be wiped out ruthlessly. Other farmers, guided by Marthinus van doorn, contended that Bushmen had souls and must not be shot like wild dogs; he was willing to have the worst offenders disciplined, even hanged if they persisted, but he defended their basic humanity. At first the community divided evenly, the older men insisting the Bushmen were not much different from dogs or gemsboks, the younger granting they just might be human.

After a week of debate it was agreed that the argument be settled by recourse to the Bible, but no guidance could be found there, because little people with enormous bottoms and poisoned arrows had never molested the Israelites. When a vote was taken, it stood ll-to-6 in favor of exterminating the Bushmen, since it was decided that they were animals and not human. But before the commandos could start north, Hendrik van doorn, who was 21 years old, startled the assembly by volunteering a special piece of evidence:

“When I was tracking with the Hottentots we followed a rhinoceros for some days, and when we had it well located in a valley, we went to bed expecting to shoot it in the morning, but when we reached its resting spot, we found that the Bushmen had slain it in a pit. This angered us, and we started tracking the Bushmen, and at last we came upon where the clan was camped. We saw that they had tame dogs with them, and we concluded that if they could tame dogs, they must be human beings like us and not animals as many had proposed.”

His evidence stunned the 11 men who had voted to kill off all the little people in the way hyenas were destroyed if they came too near a farm, and Boeksma said gravely, “If they can tame dogs, they’re human and we cannot shoot them all.” To hear the leader of the commandos reason thus impressed the others, and the final vote was 16-to-1 that the Bushmen were human, the lone dissident arguing, “Human or not, if they steal my cattle, they have to be dealt with.” He would say no more in public meeting, but he planned to kill every Bushman he saw.

The 17 horsemen found a substantial spoor to follow, the trail of five or six Bushmen dragging cattle parts back to camp, and for several days they narrowed the gap between the two parties. On the fourth day Boeksma saw signs which satisfied him that the Bushmen must be close at hand, hiding perhaps behind low rocks: “They know we’re after them, so they won’t lead us to their camp. That proves this bunch are scavengers, and we can kill them all.” This was agreed upon, even by those who had defended them: the little things might in principle be human, but this particular group were cattle thieves who must be slain.

So the commandos, practicing extreme caution, since everyone feared that terrible flight of poisoned arrows which brought agonizing death, moved toward the rocks that could be hiding thieves. When Boeksma saw twigs move, he shouted, “There they are!” and his followers cheered as they swept down on their target.

There was so much gunfire that none of the Bushmen had any chance of escape, but as they fell, one man maintained control and calmly aimed his arrow at a specific rider, launching it just before he collapsed with four bullets in him. The arrow struck Marthinus van doorn in the neck, and lodging deep within, it broke apart.

By nightfall he felt dizzy and asked Andries Boeksma to cut the arrowhead out, but the big Dutchman said, “I can’t do it, Marthinus. I’d cut your throat.” So the agony increased, and at dawn Marthinus was again pleading that the arrow be cut out, but the men agreed with Boeksma that this was impossible. They built a litter and slung it between two horses, helping to get Van doorn back to the apothecary at Stellenbosch, but by midday the poison had spread furiously, and by late afternoon he died.

“Shall we bury him here?” Boeksma asked Hendrik, “or would your mother want him at Trianon?”

“Bury him here,” Hendrik said. The Van doorns had never feared the veld. So the commandos broke into two groups, one to dig a grave, one to gather stones that would mark it, and when the hole was deep enough to keep away hyenas, Marthinus van doorn, 43 years old, was buried. Boeksma, as leader of the commandos, said a brief prayer, then tied the bridle of Van doorn’s horse to his and started homeward.

Hendrik would never forget what happened at Trianon. when the mournful procession rode in to inform Annatjie of her loss. It was not what his mother did that shocked him; she was resolute, as he had expected—a tall, gaunt woman of 51, with rough hands and a deep-lined face from the frontier. She nodded and started to cry, then pushing her knuckles into her eyes asked, “Where did you leave the body, Andries?”

“Decently buried…out there.”

“Thank you,” she said, and that was all.

Nor was it her impersonal reaction that appalled young Hendrik—he knew that she was not the wailing kind. It was what happened after the commandos had ridden off. No sooner had the horsemen left Trianon than Paul de Pré hastened over from his homestead, crying out in a loud voice, “Mon Dieu, is Marthinus dead?”

“Why do you ask?” Hendrik said.

“I saw the empty horse. The way the bridle was tied to Boeksma’s.”

“And what did you think?”

“Marthinus could very well be dead.”

“He’s dead,” Hendrik said. “Mother’s inside.” He saw the avidity with which the Huguenot hurried through the door. Hendrik should not have listened to the conversation, but he did, hearing De Pré say excitedly, “Annatjie, I’ve heard the dreadful news. My heart is pained for you.”

“Thank you, Paul.”

“How did it happen?”

“Bushmen. Poisoned arrow.”

“O mon Dieu! You sorrowful woman.”

“Thank you, Paul.”

There was a silence which Hendrik could not interpret, and then De Pré’s voice, urgent and nervous: “Annatjie, you’ll be alone, trying to work the vineyard. I’ll be alone, trying to do the same. Should we not join forces? I mean…well, I mean…What I mean is, should we not marry, and hold the place together?”

Hendrik quivered at the brazenness of such a question, at the awful impropriety of its coming on this day, but he was restrained from bursting into the room and thrashing the Frenchman by what his mother replied: “I knew you would come quickly to ask that question, Paul. I know you’ve been plotting and scheming and wondering how you could gain control of the Trianon. I know you’re nine years younger than I am and that not long ago you wanted to marry my daughter, not me. And I know how shameful it is of you to ask that question this night. But you’re a poor, hungry man, Paul, with only one desire, and I have pity on you. Come back in seven days.”

De Pré spent those days in drawing plans, in adding up acreages and in supervising the slaves and the Hottentots as they prepared the grapes for harvest. He neither went to the big house nor attended the memorial service in Stellenbosch at which the predikant and the commandos told those who gathered of Marthinus van doorn’s heroism. He stayed completely apart, working as he had never worked to get Trianon in top condition, and at eight o’clock in the morning of the eighth day he walked over to Trianon in his pressed clothes.

He did not find Hendrik there. The young man had loaded his wagon—first putting in it, carefully wrapped, his grandfather’s Bible and brown-gold crock—with the equipment necessary for a life on the veld, and with a slave and two Hottentot families, he departed for the lands beyond the mountains, taking with him a small herd of cattle and sheep. Before leaving he had said farewell to Petronella and Bezel Muhammad: he judged they were as happy as human beings were allowed to be on this earth, but he could not know that their two dark children would soon be lost in that human wilderness called Coloured; for a brief while they and their descendants would be remembered as Van doorns, but after that, their history, but not their bloodline, would vanish. Later, it would become fashionable to claim that all such half-castes were the spawn of those lusty sailors who could not control their urges at the halfway house between Europe and Asia. That a Van doorn had contributed to the number of Coloureds would be unthinkable.

Hendrik had no feeling about his brother Sarel; the boy showed no courage, no deep interest in anything, and he guessed that with the two De Pré boys gone, Sarel would inherit the vineyards; but in this development Hendrik had no interest whatever. He did have enormous feeling for Annatjie and supposed that in her place he would do as she was doing; she had been a most excellent mother, loving and understanding; he had seen how tenderly she had cared for his grandmother, and she had been just as attentive to Paul de Pré’s motherless boys. Tears came to his eyes as he admitted to himself that after this day he might never see his mother again, for this break was final; Trianon and the lovely river and the white walls and the gables were lost forever. With his wagon he headed eastward, as old Willem had done years before.

The wedding took place in the church at Stellenbosch at eleven in the morning. Now Paul de Pré was master of Trianon.

Next week, in the final excerpt from The Covenant, Paul de Pré battles his formidable Dutch daughter-in-law for control of Trianon.

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