ROGUE OF ROUXVILLE by Adam Yamey is available at:
Frederiks shook a hand bell on his desk three times. A native woman bustled through the door.
“Bring us some coffee, Antje, and something to eat with it.”
“We’ve got butter biscuits, kokoscraps, and …” she began.
“Ach, bring the coconut ones, please,” Jakob said quickly.
Frederiks admired his visitor’s decisiveness. A few minutes later, he watched him devouring the biscuits greedily. When they were finished, his eyes widened as he watched Jakob pouring the coffee down his throat, hardly swallowing. It was as if he were emptying it down a drain or pouring it into a well. His astonishment increased when, without pausing for breath, his visitor downed one glass of brandy, followed immediately by another, emptying both at lightning speed.
“I feel much better now.”
“Shall I show you around?” he enquired, watching Jakob getting to his feet, without exhibiting even the slightest ill-effect after his sudden intake of alcohol.
“Lead on, Mr Frederiks,” Jakob said, following his host through the outer office and then out into the yard, where the bright sunlight made him narrow his eyes.
They entered an ill-lit, noisy shed. When his eyes had adapted to the darkness, Jakob noticed two natives cutting a thick tree trunk with a two-handled saw. As they moved the tool back and forth rhythmically, the beads of perspiration on their dark skins glistened in a beam of light that was shining through the dusty air from a glass window high above them.
“Stink wood,” shouted Mr Frederiks, trying to make his voice heard above the sawing. “It’s bleddy hard to cut. These two boys are my best cutters.”
“And what are they doing over there?” Jakob asked, pointing to another two men, who were hacking away at a trunk in a dark corner.
“Stripping bark: we sell it for kindling. A nice little side-line you know.”
“Nothing wasted here.”
“Exactly, now come this way, Mr…”
“Jakob will do.”
They stepped out into the yard just in time to watch the arrival of a wagon drawn by a train of six oxen. Its bulky load was covered with dusty tarpaulins. The driver and his native assistant saluted Mr Frederiks, and he responded by nodding his head up and down discretely, just once.
“It’s a consignment of English oak,” he explained, turning to Jakob. “They’ve brought it from our agent in Port Elizabeth. I’m expecting another two wagons to follow soon.”
“Now, I understand why you need such a big yard.”
“Come over here,” said Frederiks, hurrying him towards another warehouse.
They entered the dark, cool spacious building. It was full of stacks of neatly arranged planks.
“We store timber, and season it in here.”
“That’s sandalwood. It comes from India … extremely expensive. There’s a furniture maker here in Graaff who’s got his eye on it.”
“And what’s this?” Jakob asked, tapping one of his knuckles against some thick planks.
“Teak: it’s a hard wood from the East Indies, very difficult to cut, quite expensive, but it wears well.”
“This also smells good,” Jakob said, bending over to put his nose close to another stack of planks.
“Moths wouldn’t agree with you. It’s Spanish cedar.”
“Then, it must be ideal for wardrobes.”
“Yes, that’s right,” Frederiks said, impressed by his young customer’s interest and curiosity about his timber, which was greater than that displayed by many other customers.
“You are so knowledgeable about wood.”
“You could say that I was brought up with wood, Jakob. My father and his father were carpenters. So was my great-grandfather. He built ships for the Dutch East India Company. Come now, I’ve got three more stores to show you, each of them filled with a variety of woods.”
They left the warehouse, and began walking across the yard, stepping across the long shadows cast by the buildings surrounding it.
“It’s getting late and you must want to rest after your long journey. I’ll show you the rest tomorrow, and then we can sit down and discuss your requirements.”
The two men returned to Fredericks’ office, and sat facing each other.
“Are you feeling alright, Mr Frederiks?” Jakob asked, seeing that his host’s countenance had become drawn.
“Shall I call for help?”
“Ag, no, I’m not ill. I’m just a little tired, and I’ve just realised what a bad host I am.”
“I wouldn’t agree.”
“But, I am. You’ve travelled so far, and I haven’t even asked you whether you’ve found accommodation.”
“I’ve nothing arranged. We came straight here as soon as we arrived in Graaff.”
The timber merchant, who believed that a book cannot be judged by its cover, looked at Jakob for a minute. He decided that despite his unprepossessing attire and his disorderly crop of hair, he seemed to be an agreeable young man with a lively mind.
“We’ll put you up,” he said suddenly.
He thought that that it would it would do no harm for his daughter to meet someone whose foreign accent betrayed that he had seen more of the world than any of the other young men she had met; their horizons and aspirations did not extend much beyond than the edge of the town.