As the visitor stepped off his bicycle and wheeled it to the verandah, Major Carruthers saw he was young, thirty perhaps, sturdily built, with enormous strength in the thick arms and shoulders. His skin was burnt a healthy orange-brown colour. His close hair, smooth as the fur of an animal, reflected no light. His obtuse*, generous features were set in a round face, and the eyes were pale grey, nearly colourless.
Major Carruthers instinctively dropped his standards of value as he looked, for this man was an Afrikander, and thus came into an outside
category. It was not that he disliked him for it, although his father had been killed in the Boer War*, but he had never had anything to do with the Afrikaans people before, and his knowledge of them was hearsay, from Englishmen who had the old prejudice. But he liked the look of the man: he liked the honest and straightforward face.
As for Van Heerden, he immediately recognized his traditional enemy, and his inherited dislike was strong. For a moment he appeared obstinate and wary*. But they needed each other too badly to nurse old hatreds, and Van Heerden sat down when he was asked, though awkwardly, suppressing reluctance, and began drawing patterns in the dust with a piece of straw he had held between his lips.
Major Carruthers did not need to wonder about the man's circumstances: his quick acceptance of what were poor terms spoke of a long search for work.
He said scrupulously*: "I know the salary is low and the living quarters are bad, even for a single man. I've had a patch of bad luck, and I can't afford more. I'll quite understand if you refuse."
"What are the living quarters?" asked Van Heerden. His was the rough voice of the uneducated Afrikander: because he was uncertain where
the accent should fall in each sentence, his speech had a wavering*,
halting sound, though his look and manner were direct enough.
Major Carruthers pointed ahead of them. Before the house the bush sloped gently down to the fields. 'At the foot of the hill there's a hut I've been using as a storehouse. It's quite well-built. You can put up a place for a kitchen."
Van Heerden rose. "Can I see it?"
They set off. It was not far away. The thatched hut stood in uncleared
bush. Grass grew to the walls and reached up to meet the slanting
thatch. Trees mingled their branches overhead. It was round, built of
poles and mud and with a stamped dung floor. Inside there was a stale
musty smell because of the ants and beetles that had been at the sacks
of grain*. The one window was boarded over, and it was quite dark.
In the confusing* shafts of light from the door, a thick sheet of felted
spider web showed itself, like a curtain halving the interior, as full of
small flies and insects as a butcher-bird's cache. The spider crouched*,
vast and glittering, shaking gently, glaring at them with small red
eyes, from the centre of the web. Van Heerden did what Major Carruthers would have died rather than do: he tore the web across with his bare hands, crushed the spider between his fingers, and brushed them lightly against the walls to free them from the clinging silky strands* and the sticky mush of insect-body.
"It will do fine," he announced.
He would not accept the invitation to a meal, thus making it clear this was merely a business arrangement. But he asked, politely (hating that he had to beg a favour), for a month's salary in advance. Then he set off on his bicycle to the store, ten miles off, to buy what he needed for his living.
Major Carruthers went back to his sick wife with a burdened feeling, caused by his being responsible for another human being having to suffer such conditions. He could not have the man in the house: the idea came into his head and was quickly dismissed. They had nothing in common, they would make each other uncomfortable - that was how he put it to himself. Besides, there wasn't really any room. Underneath, Major Carruthers knew that if his new assistant had been an Englishman, with the same upbringing, he would have found
a corner in his house and a welcome as a friend. Major Carruthers threw off these thoughts: he had enough to worry him without taking on another man's problems.
Source: Caught between Cultures, Klett, Stuttgart 2006, pp. 84-86
* obtuse - stumpfsinnig
* Boer War - see additional text below
* wary - argwöhnisch, skeptisch
* scrupulous - peinlich, behutsam
* wavering - wankend, bebend
* grain - Getreide
* confusing - verwirrend, unübersichtlich
* crouched - zusammengekrümmt
* strands - Fäden
1. Both Major Carruthers and Van Heerden are mutually biased. What are their reasons for them being prejudiced?
2. From what you have read about Carruthers in the whole story, what type of character is he? Also take into account his relationship to his brother.
3. What type of narrator does D. Lessing employ in her story?
4. Concerning all the story, how does nature correspond with the characters' feelings?
5. How does D. Lessing succeed in maintaining suspense throughout the story?
Colonization and civilization
Under the protection of the British crown white settlers farmed so-called 'empty' lands where before only natives had lived. The British brought their civilization and culture with them. In Rhodesia two colonizing cultures clashed - that of the British and the Dutch or Boers (who had arrived long before the British Crown ruled the colony).
The Boers considered themselves to have been chosen by God as the masters of the land and felt they had the right to enslave its black population. The British colonial administration, on the other hand, had a more liberal, humanitarian policy towards the natives. The gulf between the two cultures was increased by social differences: the
British settlers saw the Boers as uncivilized, backward farmers; the Boers felt that the British were an ungodly people. There was little
contact between the two groups and most British settlers failed to learn Afrikaans, the language spoken by the Boers.