A black-browed angry-looking man he was, and the games he played with his children were always angry games: he was chasing them, he was growling at them, he was snapping his teeth at them, while they shrieked with delight and fear, going pale and tense with fear, but coming back for more, and hanging on to his hands when he declared that they had had enough. There was a boy and a girl, both dark-haired and thin, the boy a little older than his sister and protective towards her with servants and strangers, with everyone but his father: he did not dare to protect her when his father sprang at her from behind a bush, and carried her shrieking, upside down, to his lair that was, he told them, littered with the bones of other children that he had already eaten.
The mother sat aside from these games—she sat at the tea table at the head of the small sweep of lawn towards the swimming bath, beyond which were the trees where her husband and children played, or she lay in the sun on the side of the swimming bath, with a towel about her head, and it was only rarely that she called to them or warned them of their father’s stealthy, mock approaches. She sun-bathed or she read in the sun; they were all sun-tanned in that family, from spending so much time at their swimming bath, and from their annual six-weeks’ holiday at the Cape, where they lived the life simple in a seaside cottage with only one servant. The big house in Johannesburg seemed to have innumerable servants, all black men in gleaming white jackets and aprons and little white caps like those of an Indian political movement, but in fact only another sign of their servitude, and these black men kept the house like a house on show: the house shone, unmarked by the pressures, the stains and splashes, the disorder of living. Not that the children were the least bit tidy—they dropped things about them as they went, and left the toys and the sticks and the items of clothing lying where they had been dropped, but the servants followed, picking up things and putting them in drawers, as though that was all that they had been born for, this dance of attendance on the two nervous, dark-haired children. And the mother, who had been poorly brought up, loved it in the children that they had, so without question or wonder, the insolence of wealth. Once when he had hardly been more than a baby she had asked the boy: “Would you like to be a little black boy?”
The child had been puzzled that his mother should have asked this. “No,” he said, frowning, bringing his fine dark eyebrows together, and looking up in puzzled distaste.
The puzzlement had left the boy’s face, and there had been only distaste as he replied, “They have nasty clothes.” And for this he had been given a kiss, which he accepted demurely. The children accepted their mother’s affection as a matter of course; it was for their father’s mock-anger that they lived. The mother knew this and did not resent it: she believed that the insolence she loved in them had come from their father, and for her her husband’s violence was profoundly confused with his wealth.
But sometimes, watching the children at their perilous play with their father, even the mother would be afraid. She would lift her eyes from her book, or unwrap the towel which had been muffling the sun’s rays to a yellow blur on her eyes, and her heart would sink with fear to see them run and stand breathing behind some tree while their father prowled on tiptoe towards them. So frail they seemed, with their bony elbows poking out from their short-sleeved blouses, and their knees large and round below the dress or khaki shorts that each wore. And he seemed so determined, so muscular in the casual clothing he wore in the evenings, after he had come from work, so large above the children, with so much black hair on his arms. But she accepted his violence and his strength, and she never protested against the games. She would sometimes watch them play, but her eyes would go back to the book, or she would again carefully wrap the towel about her eyes and her ears, and sink back into her drowse. She seemed sunken under her husband, under his wealth, under his strength; they had come down upon her as the sun did where she lay at the side of the swimming bath, and she questioned them no more than she could have questioned the sun. She had submitted to them.
The father laughed, showing his white teeth, when the children ran yelling from him. In the shadows of the trees they waited for him to come again. He moved slowly towards them, and a lift of his arm made them scamper. He was king of his castle—and castle enough the house was too, in its several acres of ground, and its trees that cut it off from sight of the road.
Then one night the burglar came to their house. It was not for nothing that their house, like every other house in Johannesburg, had every window barred with steel burglar-proofing, that every door had a double lock, that two large dogs were let loose in the grounds at night. It was not for nothing that the father had a revolver in his wardrobe, always loaded and on a high shelf out of reach from the children, for the burglars in Johannesburg can be an ugly lot—gangsters, marauders, hard black men who seem to have nothing to lose, who carry with them knives and knuckledusters and guns.
But this one was not one of these. This one was a boy, a fool, a beginner, come by himself to the wrong house, barked at by the dogs where he stood in the darkness of a corner of the garage between the large painted fender of a car and a workbench behind him. He did not-even reach for one of the chisels on the bench behind him, but stood squeezing the fingers of one hand in the grasp of the other, as though by that alone he might be able to stop the shivering which shook his shoulders in quick, awful spasms.
But the house did not know what he was and what he might do. The whole house was wild with lights and shouts and the banging of doors. Men, women, they had tumbled out pell-mell from the rooms in which they slept: one of the servants had been roused by the barking of dogs and had seen the burglar slipping into the garage. The house had all been in darkness, and still, so still that not even the trees had moved under the brilliance of the stars in the early morning sky, when the shouts of the servant had first come calamitously upon it. Wild, hoarse, archaic, the shouts had sounded, like the shouts a dreamer might dream he is making, in his deep terror of the darkness around him. Then there had been the other shouts, the house in uproar.
And the father in his pajamas and dressing gown, with the revolver thrust unsteadily before him, advancing across the back yard. The servants fell in behind him, even the one who had been guarding the window of the garage. “Get to the window, you fool!” the father shouted. “Guard the window!” Unwillingly, one or two went to the window, while the father came closer to the garage door.
He did not know what might be behind the door; he found that he could not push the garage door open, for fear the burglar might spring at him. He was a stranger to himself, roused out of bed by hoarse shouts, hurried downstairs by danger, chilled by the early morning air: to him it seemed that he had never before seen the place he was in; never before felt the lock under his hand, never felt the painted smooth wood under his hand; and when he looked back, the house, with the light falling on the paved yard from the open kitchen door, was the house of a stranger, not his at all. The servants were simply people, a throng, some carrying improvised clubs in their hands, all half-dressed, none of them known, all of them strangers.
He could not push the door open. The dread of opening himself to whatever might be there was too great. The servants pushed a little closer; and he felt his fear growing tighter and closer within him. They pressed so closely upon him his fear had no room to move, and when he did at last lift up the revolver it was in desperation, to drive away the people who constricted his fear and pressed it suffocatingly upon him. He lifted the revolver and shouted, “Leave me!” He tilted it towards the stars and fired. The clamor of the shot was more loud and gross in his ears than he could have imagined, and with it there sprang from the muzzle a gout of flame, vivid in the darkness, like a wild eager tongue. When the servants shrank back he felt a momentary sense of release and relaxation, as though he had done the thing for which he had been dragged out of bed, and could be left now to go in peace. Then he felt the door behind him budge.
He leaped away from the door so violently that he stumbled and fell, and he was on his knees with the revolver scratching uselessly against the paving when the burglar came out of the garage. The servants too had staggered back when their master had leaped towards them, so the burglar stood alone in the doorway, with his hands still squeezed together, but lifted now to his chest, like some one beseeching mercy. From where he sprawled on the ground the master could only gasp: “Catch him. Get round him.” And one or two of the men-servants came forward. They hesitated, and then they saw the spasms shaking the burglar, so they came to him and took him roughly, pinioning him. Their master was struggling to his feet.
Bring him into the kitchen, he said. There was a sigh from the group of servants, and a babble, then eagerly they began jostling the burglar towards the kitchen, and he went unresistingly.
To the father the kitchen too looked harsh and strange, a place of urgency, and there seemed to be so many people in it: all the servants, and his wife, and the two children, and the burglar, and the servants’ friends, those who had been sleeping illegally but without harmful intent in the rooms in the back yard. These shrank back now, as if only now realizing that the events of the night might have consequences for themselves too, and not only for the burglar they had helped to catch.
You’ve phoned the police? the father asked.
Yes, the mother said. “The flying-squad’s coming.”
The father sat down at the kitchen table, blowing his cheeks out with exhaustion, feeling the tension beginning to ebb from the pit of his stomach. He could not look at the burglar. The mother too, for different reasons, avoided looking at the burglar, but the two children, in their neat white pajama suits, had eyes for nothing else. They knew all about burglars: they had grown up in Johannesburg, and they knew why the steel bars lay across their bedroom windows, and why they were not allowed outside the house after nightfall, and why the dogs roamed loose at night. But this was the first burglar they had seen. Even the revolver loose in their father’s hand could not draw their eyes from the burglar.
He stood in the middle of the kitchen, and his dark eyes were dazed, unseeing. He was a young African—he looked no more than seventeen—an undersized, town-bred seventeen years of age. He was wearing a soiled gray sports coat and a pair of ragged trousers that reached only about halfway down his shins, and when the spasms came he shook from his shoes upwards, even his strained brown ankles shaking, his knees, concealed by cloth, shaking, his loins, his shoulders, his head, all shaking. Then the fit would pass and he would simply stand, supported on each side by the household servants.
He seemed to see nothing, to look at nothing, to hear nothing: there seemed to be within him a secret war between his will and the spasms of shaking that came upon him, like a fit. The color of his face was terrible: he was gray, an ash-gray, a gray like that of the first thinning of the darkness after a rain-sodden night. Sometimes when every other part of his body was free of the spasm, his mouth would still be shaking; his lips were closed, but they shook, as if there were a turbulence in his mouth that he had to void. Then that too would pass.
The little boy at last looked away from the burglar to his father, and saw him sitting weakly in the chair, exhausted. The hand that held the revolver lay laxly on the kitchen table, and from it there rose a faint acrid scent, but the gun looked in his hand like a toy. The father could not move and he could not speak, he sat collapsed, until even the servants looked curiously at him, as the little boy had done, from the burglar to him, and then back to the burglar again. They murmured a little, uncertainly; the two who were holding the burglar loosened their grip on him and shuffled their feet. They waited for direction from their master, but no direction came. The little boy waited for action from his father, but no action came. The boy’s fine-featured face was turned to his father, and when the father met his son’s gaze he looked away. The son was the first to see that his father could make no action, could give no word.
So he gave the word himself. In a voice that was barely recognizable as his own, his face with its little point of a nose contorted, he screamed in rage and disappointment: “Hit the burglar! Hit the burglar!” He danced on his bare feet, waving his small fists in the air. “Why don’t you hit the burglar? You must hit the burglar.” His voice was high and strident, and he danced like a little demon in his light pajamas. “Hit!” he screamed. “Hit!” His little sister joined in because she heard her brother shouting, and she added her high yell to his: “Hit the burglar!”
Get the children out of here! the father shouted. The children had raised their voices for a moment only, but it had seemed endless, their little voices shrilling for blood. “What are they doing here?” the father shouted in a fury at the mother, pulling himself up at last. “Get them out of here!” But he made no move to help the mother, though he saw that she could not manage both dancing, capering children. And the little boy saw that his father did not move towards him, so again he screamed, “Hit the burglar!”
Jerry, the mother said to one of the servants, “help me. Don’t stand there!” She was grappling at arm’s length with the flailing hands of the little girl.
The dark body of the servant bent over the boy. Then he sprang back, waving his hand. The boy had bitten him. So he too being near distraught with excitement and this last unexpected little assault, reached out and hit the little boy across the back of the head. The boy staggered; he fell down and lay on the sparkling kitchen floor. But it was only for a moment. He came up growling, with hands lifted, curled inwards, and fell upon the burglar. It took two servants to prise him off, and when he was finally carried away over the black powerful shoulder of the one, he had left two deep scratches on the face of the burglar, both from the forehead down, broken by the shelf of bone over the eyes, and continued down the cheeks. The burglar had made no effort to defend himself, knowing what would hap pen to him if he did anything to hurt the child.
Then the police came and took the burglar away. By that time the children were safe and quiet in the nursery; and later the mother too fell asleep after taking a sedative.
But the servant who had hit the boy was dismissed the very next day, by the mother, who could not bear it that a servant should have struck a child of hers. Least of all the son to whom she now submitted, the son who after the night the burglar had come to the house was not afraid to protect his sister, when her father fell upon her in their games in the garden, and who fought, when he himself was picked up and carried away, as an adult might fight, with his fists and his feet and his knees, to hurt. His will was stronger than his father’s, and soon they were facing each other like two men, and the wild games and the shrieking among the trees grew rarer. For the father was afraid of the games he sometimes still had to play with his son, and there was none among them who did not know it, neither the son, nor the daughter, nor the mother, nor the father from whose hands in one night the violence in the family had passed.