The White Flag
A percentage of the South African Boers--how large or how small that
percentage is has not been determined--is possessed of a rudimentary
conscience, much as the oyster has incipient eyes, and the snake
initiatory articulations for feet, which in the course of long ages may,
under suitable conditions, develop into an active faculty.
If Jacob Van Heeren possessed any conscience at all it was the merest
protoplasm of one.
He occupied Heerendorp, a ramshackle farmhouse under a kopje, and had
cattle and horses, also a wife and grown-up sons and daughters.
When the war broke out Jacob hoisted the white flag at the gable, and he
and his sons indulged their sporting instincts by shooting down such
officers and men of the British army as went to the farm, unsuspecting
Heerendorp by this means obtained an evil notoriety, and it was ordered
to be burnt, and the women of Jacob's family to be transferred to a
concentration camp where they would be mollycoddled at the expense of
the English taxpayer. Thus Jacob and his sons were delivered from all
anxiety as to their womankind, and were given a free field in which to
exercise their mischievous ingenuity. As to their cattle and horses that
had been commandeered, they held receipts which would entitle them to
claim full value for the beasts at the termination of hostilities.
Jacob and his sons might have joined one of the companies under a Boer
general, but they preferred independent action, and their peculiar
tactics, which proved eminently successful.
That achievement in which Jacob exhibited most slimness, and of which he
was pre-eminently proud, was as follows: feigning himself to be wounded,
he rolled on the ground, waving a white kerchief, and crying out for
water. A young English lieutenant at once filled a cup and ran to his
assistance, when Jacob shot him through the heart.
When the war was over Van Heeren got his farm rebuilt and restocked at
the expense of the British taxpayer, and received his wife and daughters
from the concentration camp, plump as partridges.
So soon as the new Heerendorp was ready for occupation, Jacob took a
large knife and cut seventeen notches in the doorpost.
"What is that for, Jacob?" asked his wife.
"They are reminders of the Britishers I have shot."
"Well," said she, "if I hadn't killed more Rooineks than that, I'd be
ashamed of myself."
"Oh, I shot more in open fight. I didn't count them; I only reckon such
as I've been slim enough to befool with the white flag," said the Boer.
Now the lieutenant whom Jacob Van Heeren had killed when bringing him a
cup of cold water, was Aneurin Jones, and he was the only son of his
mother, and she a widow in North Wales. On Aneurin her heart had been
set, in him was all her pride. Beyond him she had no ambition. About him
every fibre of her heart was entwined. Life had to her no charms apart
from him. When the news of his death reached her, unaccompanied by
particulars, she was smitten with a sorrow that almost reached despair.
The joy was gone out of her life, the light from her sky. The prospect
was a blank before her. She sank into profound despondency, and would
have welcomed death as an end to an aimless, a hopeless life.
But when peace was concluded, and some comrades of Aneurin returned
home, the story of how he had met his death was divulged to her.
Then the passionate Welsh mother's heart became as a live coal within
her breast. An impotent rage against his murderer consumed her. She did
not know the name of the man who had killed him, she but ill understood
where her son had fallen. Had she known, had she been able, she would
have gone out to South Africa, and have gloried in being able to stab to
the heart the man who had so treacherously murdered her Aneurin. But how
was he to be identified?
The fact that she was powerless to avenge his death was a torture to
her. She could not sleep, she could not eat, she writhed, she moaned,
she bit her fingers, she chafed at her incapacity to execute justice on
the murderer. A feverish flame was lit in her hollow cheeks. Her lips
became parched, her tongue dry, her dark eyes glittered as if sparks of
unquenchable fire had been kindled in them.
She sat with clenched hands and set teeth before her dead grate, and the
purple veins swelled and throbbed in her temples.
Oh! if only she knew the name of the man who had shot her Aneurin!
Oh! if only she could find out a way to recompense him for the wrong he
These were her only thoughts. And the sole passage in her Bible she
could read, and which she read over and over again, was the story of the
Importunate Widow who cried to the judge, "Avenge me of mine adversary!"
and who was heard for her persistent asking.
Thus passed a fortnight. She was visibly wasting in flesh, but the fire
within her burned only the fiercer as her bodily strength failed.
Then, all at once, an idea shot like a meteor through her brain. She
remembered to have heard of the Cursing Well of St. Elian, near Colwyn.
She recalled the fact that the last "Priest of the Well," an old man who
had lived hard by, and who had initiated postulants into the mysteries
of the well, had been brought before the magistrates for obtaining money
under false pretences, and had been sent to gaol at Chester; and that
the parson of Llanelian had taken a crowbar and had ripped up the wall
that enclosed the spring, and had done what lay in his power to destroy
it and blot out the remembrance of the powers of the well, or to ruin
But the spring still flowed. Had it lost its virtues? Could a parson,
could magistrates bring to naught what had been for centuries?
She remembered, further, that the granddaughter of the "Priest of the
Well" was then an inmate of the workhouse at Denbigh. Was it not
possible that she should know the ritual of St. Elian's spring?--should
be able to assist her in the desire of her heart?
Mrs. Winifred Jones resolved on trying. She went to the workhouse and
sought out the woman, an old and infirm creature, and had a conference
with her. She found the woman, a poor, decrepit creature, very shy of
speaking about the well, very unwilling to be drawn into a confession of
the extent of her knowledge, very much afraid of the magistrates and the
master of the workhouse punishing her if she had anything to do with the
well; but the intensity of Mrs. Jones, her vehemence in prosecuting her
inquiries, and, above all, the gift of half a sovereign pressed into her
palm, with the promise of another if she assisted Mrs. Winifred in the
prosecution of her purpose, finally overcame her scruples, and she told
all that she knew.
"You must visit St. Elian's, madam," said she, "when the moon is at the
wane. You must write the name of him whose death you desire on a pebble,
and drop it into the water, and recite the sixty-ninth Psalm."
"But," objected the widow, "I do not know his name, and I have no means
of discovering it. I want to kill the man who murdered my son."
The old woman considered, and then said: "In this case it is different.
There is a way under these circumstances. Murdered, was your son?"
"Yes, he was treacherously shot."
"Then you will have to call on your son by name, as you let fall the
pebble, and say: 'Let him be wiped out of the book of the living. Avenge
me of mine adversary, O my God.' And you must go on dropping in pebbles,
reciting the same prayer, till you see the water of the spring boil up
black as ink. Then you will know that your prayer has been heard, and
that the curse has wrought."
Winifred Jones departed in some elation.
She waited till the moon changed, and then she went to the spring. It
was near a hedge; there were trees by it. Apparently it had been
unsought for many years. But it still flowed. About it lay scattered a
few stones that had once formed the bounds.
She looked about her. No one was by. The sun was declining, and would
soon set. She bent over the water--it was perfectly clear. She had
collected a lapful of rounded stones.
Then she cried out: "Aneurin! come to my aid against your murderer. Let
him be blotted out of the book of the living. Avenge me on my adversary,
O my God!" and she dropped a pebble into the water.
Then rose a bubble. That was all.
She paused but for a moment, then again she cried: "Aneurin! come to my
aid against your murderer. Let him be blotted out of the book of the
living. Avenge me on my adversary, O my God!"
Once more a pebble was let fall. It splashed into the spring, but there
was no change save that ripples were sent against the side.
A third--then a fourth--she went on; the sun sent a shaft of yellow
glory through the trees over the spring.
Then someone passed along the road hard by, and Mrs. Winifred Jones
held her breath, and desisted till the footfall had died away.
But then she continued, stone after stone was dropped, and the ritual
was followed, till the seventeenth had disappeared in the well, when up
rose a column of black fluid boiling as it were from below, the colour
of ink; and the widow pressed her hands together, and drew a sigh of
relief; her prayer had been heard, and her curse had taken effect.
She cast away the rest of the pebbles, let down her skirt, and went away
* * * * *
It so fell out that on this very evening Jacob Van Heeren had gone to
bed early, as he had risen before daybreak, and had been riding all day.
His family were in the outer room, when they were startled by a hoarse
cry from the bedroom. He was a short-tempered, imperious man, accustomed
to yell at his wife and children when he needed them; but this cry was
of an unusual character, it had in it the ring of alarm. His wife went
to him to inquire what was the matter. She found the old Boer sitting up
in bed with one leg extended, his face like dirty stained leather, his
eyes starting out of his head, and his mouth opening and shutting,
lifting and depressing his shaggy, grey beard, as though he were trying
to speak, but could not utter words.
"Pete!" she called to her eldest son, "come here, and see what ails your
Pete and others entered, and stood about the bed, staring stupidly at
the old man, unable to comprehend what had come over him.
"Fetch him some brandy, Pete," said the mother; "he looks as if he had a
When some spirits had been poured down his throat the farmer was
revived, and said huskily: "Take it away! Quick, take it off!"
"Take what away?"
"The white flag."
"There is none here."
"It is there--there, wrapped about my foot."
The wife looked at the outstretched leg, and saw nothing. Jacob became
angry, he swore at her, and yelled: "Take it off; it is chilling me to
"There is nothing there."
"But I say it is. I saw him come in----"
"Saw whom, father?" asked one of the sons.
"I saw that Rooinek lieutenant I shot when he was bringing me drink,
thinking I was wounded. He came in through the door----"
"That is not possible--he must have passed us."
"I say he did come. I saw him, and he held the white rag, and he came
upon me and gave me a twist with the flag about my foot, and there it
is--it numbs me. I cannot move it. Quick, quick, take it away."
"I repeat there is nothing there," said his wife.
"Pull off his stocking," said Pete Van Heeren; "he has got a chill in
his foot, and fancies this nonsense. He has been dreaming."
"It was not a dream," roared Jacob; "I saw him as clearly as I see you,
and he wrapped my foot up in that accursed flag."
"Accursed flag!" exclaimed Samuel, the second son. "That's a fine way to
speak of it, father, when it served you so well."
"Take it off, you dogs!" yelled the old man, "and don't stand staring
and barking round me."
The stocking was removed from his leg, and then it was seen that his
foot--the left foot--had turned a livid white.
"Go and heat a brick," said the housewife to one of her daughters; "it
is just the circulation has stopped."
But no artificial warmth served to restore the flow of blood, and the
Jacob passed a sleepless night.
Next morning he rose, but limped; all feeling had gone out of the foot.
His wife vainly urged him to keep to his bed. He was obstinate, and
would get up; but he could not walk without the help of a stick. When
clothed, he hobbled into the kitchen and put the numbed foot to the
fire, and the stocking sole began to smoke, it was singed and went to
pieces, but his foot was insensible to the heat. Then he went forth,
aided by the stick, to his farmyard, hoping that movement would restore
feeling and warmth; but this also was in vain. In the evening he seated
himself on a bench outside the door, whilst his family ate supper. He
ordered them to bring food to him. He felt easier in the open air than
Whilst his wife and children were about the table at their meal, they
heard a scream without, more like that of a wounded horse than a man,
and all rushed forth, to find Jacob in a paroxysm of terror only less
severe than that of the preceding night.
"He came on me again," he gasped; "the same man, I do not know from
whence--he seemed to spring out of the distance. I saw him first like
smoke, but with a white flicker in it; and then he got nearer and became
more distinct, and I knew it was he; and he had another of those white
napkins in his hand. I could not call for help--I tried, I could utter
no sound, till he wrapped it--that white rag--round my calf, and then,
with the cold and pain, I cried out, and he vanished."
"Father," said Pete, "you fell asleep and dreamt this."
"I did not. I saw him, and I felt what he did. Give me your hand. I
cannot rise. I must go within. Good Lord, when will this come to an
When lifted from his seat it was seen that his left leg dragged. He had
to lean heavily on his son on one side and his wife on the other, and he
allowed himself, without remonstrance, to be put to bed.
It was then seen that the dead whiteness, as of a corpse, had spread
from the foot up the calf.
"He is going to have a paralytic stroke, that is it," said Pete. "You,
Samuel, must ride for a doctor to-morrow morning, not that he can do
much good, if what I think be the case."
On the second day the old man persisted in his determination to rise. He
was deaf to all remonstrance, he would get up and go about, as far as he
was able. But his ability was small. In the evening, as the sun went
down, he was sitting crouched over the fire. The family had finished
supper, and all had left the room except his wife, who was removing the
dishes, when she heard a gasping and struggling by the fire, and,
turning her head, saw her husband writhing on his stool, clinging to it
with his hands, with his left leg out, his mouth foaming, and he was
snorting with terror or pain.
She ran to him at once.
"Jacob, what is it?"
"He is at me again! Beat him off with the broom!" he screamed. "Keep him
away. He is wrapping the white flag round my knee."
Pete and the others ran in, and raised their father, who was falling out
of his seat, and conveyed him to bed.
It was now seen that his knee had become hard and stiff, his calf was as
if frozen; the whiteness had extended upwards to the knee.
Next day a surgeon arrived. He examined the old man, and expressed his
conviction that he had a stroke. But it was a paralytic attack of an
unusual character, as it had in no way affected his speech or his left
arm and hand. He recommended hot fomentations.
Still the farmer would not be confined to bed; he insisted on being
dressed and assisted into the kitchen.
One stick was not now sufficient for him, and Samuel contrived for him
crutches. With these he could drag himself about, and on the fourth
evening he laboriously worked his way to a cowstall to look at one of
his beasts that was ill.
Whilst there he had a fourth attack. Pete, who was without, heard him
yell and beat at the door with one of his crutches. He entered, and
found his father lying on the floor, quivering with terror, and
spluttering unintelligible words. He lifted him, and drew him without,
then shouted to Samuel, who came up, and together they carried him to
Only when there, and when he had drunk some brandy, was he able to give
an account of what had taken place. He had been looking at the cow, and
feeling it, when down out of the hayloft had come leaping the form of
the Rooinek lieutenant, which had sprung in between him and the cow,
and, stooping, had wrapped a white rag round his thigh, above the knee.
And now the whole of his leg was dead and livid.
"There is nothing for it, father, but to have your leg amputated," said
Pete. "The doctor told me as much. He said that mortification would set
in if there was no return of circulation."
"I won't have it off! What good shall I be with only one leg?" exclaimed
the old man.
"But father, it will be the sole means of saving your life."
"I won't have my leg off!" again repeated Jacob.
Pete said in a low tone to his mother: "Have you seen any dark spots on
his leg? The doctor said we must look for them, and, when they come,
send for him at once."
"No," she replied, "I have not noticed any, so far."
"Then we will wait till they appear."
On the fifth day the farmer was constrained to keep his bed.
He had now become a prey to abject terror. So sure as the hour of
sunset came, did a new visitation occur. He listened for the clock to
sound each hour of the day, and as the afternoon drew on he dreaded with
unspeakable horror the advent of the moment when again the apparition
would be seen, and a fresh chill be inflicted. He insisted that his wife
or Pete should remain in the room with him. They took it in turns to sit
by his bedside.
Through the little window the fire of the setting sun smote in and fell
across the suffering man.
It was his wife's turn to be in attendance.
All at once a gurgling sound broke from his throat. His eyes started
from his face, his hair bristled, and with his hands he worked himself
into a sitting posture, and he heaved himself on to his pillow, and
would have broken his way through the backboard of his bed, could he
have done so.
"What is it, Jacob?" asked his wife, throwing down the garment which she
was mending, and coming to his assistance. "Lie down again. There is
He could not speak. His teeth were chattering, and his beard shaking,
foam-bubbles formed on his lips, and great sweatdrops on his brow.
"Pete! Samuel!" she called, "come to your father."
The young men ran in, and they forcibly laid the old Boer in bed,
And now it was found that the right foot had turned dead, like the left.
* * * * *
On the evening of the seventeenth day after the visit to the well of
Llanelian, Mrs. Winifred Jones was sitting on the side of her bed in the
twilight. She had lighted no candle. She was musing, always on the same
engrossing topic, the wrong that had been done to her and her son, and
thirsting with a feverish thirst for vengeance on the wrongdoer.
Her confidence in the expedient to which she had resorted was beginning
to fail. What was this recourse to the well but a falling in with an old
superstition that had died out with the advance of knowledge, and under
the influence of a wholesome feeling? Was any trust to be placed in that
woman at the workhouse? Was she deceiving her for the sake of the
half-sovereign? And yet--she had seen a token that her prayer would
prove efficacious. There had risen through the crystal water a column of
Could it be that a widow's prayer should meet with no response? Was
wrong to prevail in the world? Were the weak and oppressed to have no
means of procuring the execution of justice on the evildoers? Was not
God righteous in all His ways? Would it be righteous in Him to suffer
the murderer of her son to thrive? If God be merciful, He is also just.
If His ear is open to the prayer for help, He must as well listen to the
cry for vengeance.
Since that evening at the spring she had been unable to pray as usual,
to pray for herself--her only cry had been: "Avenge me on my adversary!"
If she tried to frame the words of the Lord's Prayer, she could not do
so. They escaped her; her thoughts travelled to the South African veldt.
Her soul could not rise to God in the ecstasy of love and devotion; it
was choked with hate--an overwhelming hate.
She was in her black weeds; the hands, thin and white, were on her lap,
nervously clasping and unclasping the fingers. Had anyone been there, in
the grey twilight of a summer night, he would have been saddened to see
how hard and lined the face had become, how all softness had passed from
the lips, how sunken were the eyes, in which was only a glitter of
Suddenly she saw standing before her, indistinct indeed, but
unmistakable, the form of her lost son, her Aneurin, and he held a white
napkin in his right hand, and this napkin emitted a phosphorescent
She tried to cry out; to utter the beloved name; she tried to spring to
her feet and throw herself into his arms! But she was unable to stir
hand, or foot, or tongue. She was as one paralysed, but her heart
bounded within her bosom.
"Mother," said the apparition, in a voice that seemed to come from a
vast distance, yet was articulate and audible--"Mother, you called me
back from the world of spirits, and sent me to discharge a task. I have
done it. I have touched him on the foot and calf and knee and thigh, on
hand and elbow and shoulder, on one side and on the other, on his head,
and lastly on his heart, with the white flag--and now he is dead. I did
it in all sixteen times, and with the sixteenth he died. I chilled him
piecemeal with the white flag; the sixteenth was laid on his heart, and
that stopped beating."
Then she lifted her hands slightly, and her stiffened tongue relaxed so
far that she was able to murmur: "God be thanked!"
"Mother," continued the apparition, "there is a seventeenth remaining."
She tried to clasp her hands on her lap, but the fingers were no longer
under her control; they had fallen to the side of the chair-bed, and
hung there lifeless. Her eyes stared wildly at the spectre of her son,
but without love in them; love had faded out of her heart, and given
place to hate of his murderer.
"Mother," proceeded the vision, "you summoned me, and even in the world
of spirits the soul of a child must respond to the cry of a mother, and
I have been permitted to come back and to do your will. And now I am
suffered to reveal something to you: to show you what my life would have
been had it not been cut short by the shot of the Boer."
He stepped towards her, and put forth a vaporous hand and touched her
eyes. She felt as though a feather had been passed over them. Then he
raised the luminous sheet and shook it. Instantly all about her was
Mrs. Winifred Jones was not in her little Welsh cottage; nor was it
night. She was no longer alone. She stood in a court, in full daylight.
She saw before her the judge on his seat, the barristers in wig and
gown, the press reporters with their notebooks and pens, a dense crowd
thronging every portion of the court. And she knew instinctively, before
a word was spoken, without an intimation from the spirit of her son,
that she was standing in the Divorce Court. And she saw there as
co-respondent her son, older, changed in face, but more altered in
expression. And she heard a tale unfolded--full of dishonour, and
She was now able to raise her hands--she covered her ears; her face,
crimson with shame, sank on her bosom. She could endure the sight, the
words spoken, the revelations made, no longer, and she cried out:
"Aneurin! Aneurin! for the Lord's sake, no more of this! Oh, the day,
the day, that I have seen you standing here."
At once all passed; and she was again in her bedroom in Honeysuckle
Cottage, North Wales, seated with folded hands on her lap, and looking
before her wonderingly at the ghostly form of her son.
"Is that enough, mother?"
She lifted her hands deprecatingly.
Again he shook the glimmering white sheet, and it was as though drops of
pearly fire fell out of it.
And again--all was changed.
She found herself at Monte Carlo; she knew it instinctively. She was in
the great saloon, where were the gaming-tables. The electric lights
glittered, and the decorations were superb. But all her attention was
engrossed on her son, whom she saw at one of the tables, staking his
It was indeed her own Aneurin, but with a face on which vice and its
consequent degradation were written indelibly.
He lost, and turned away, and left the hall and its lights. His mother
followed him. He went forth into the gardens. The full moon was shining,
and the gravel of the terraces was white as snow. The air was fragrant
with the scent of oranges and myrtles. The palms cast black shadows on
the soil. The sea lay still as if asleep, with a gleam over it from the
Mrs. Winifred Jones tracked her son, as he stole in and out among the
shrubs, amid the trees, with a sickening fear at her heart. Then she saw
him pause by some oleanders, and draw a revolver from his pocket and
place it at his ear. She uttered a cry of agony and horror, and tried to
spring forward to dash the weapon from his hand.
Then all changed.
She was again in her little room in the dusk, and the shadowy form of
Aneurin was before her.
"Mother," said the spirit, "I have been permitted to come to you and to
show to you what would have been my career if I had not died whilst
young, and fresh, and innocent. You have to thank Jacob Van Heeren that
he saved me from such a life of infamy, and such an evil death by my own
hand. You should thank, and not curse him." She was breathing heavily.
Her heart beat so fast that her brain span; she fell on her knees.
"Mother," the apparition continued, "there were seventeen pebbles cast
into the well."
"Yes, Aneurin," she whispered.
"And there is a seventeenth white flag. With the sixteenth Jacob Van
Heeren died. The seventeenth is reserved for you."
"Aneurin! I am not fit to die."
"Mother, it must be, I must lay the white flag over your head."
"Oh! my son, my son!"
"It is so ordained," he proceeded; "but there are Love and Mercy on
high, and you shall not be veiled with it till you have made your peace.
You have sinned. You have thrust yourself into the council-chamber of
God. You have claimed to exercise vengeance yourself, and not left it to
Him to whom vengeance in right belongs."
"I know it now," breathed the widow.
"And now you must atone for the curses by prayers. You have brought
Jacob Van Heeren to his death by your imprecations, and now, fold your
hands and pray to God for him--for him, your son's murderer. Little have
you considered that his acts were due to ignorance, resentment for what
he fancied were wrongs, and to having been reared in a mutilated and
debased form of Christianity. Pray for him, that God may pardon his many
and great transgressions, his falsehood, his treachery, his
self-righteousness. You who have been so greatly wronged are the right
person to forgive and to pray for his soul. In no other way can you so
fully show that your heart is turned from wrath to love. Forgive us our
trespasses as we forgive them that trespass against us."
She breathed a "Yes."
Then she clasped her hands. She was already on her knees, and she prayed
first the great Exemplar's prayer, and then particularly for the man who
had wrecked her life, with all its hopes.
And as she prayed the lines in her face softened, and the lips lost
their hardness, and the fierce light passed utterly away from her eyes,
in which the lamp of Charity was once more lighted, and the tears formed
and rolled down her cheeks.
And still she prayed on, bathed in the pearly light from the summer sky
at night. Without, in the firmament, twinkled a star; and a night-bird
began to sing.
"And now, mother, pray for yourself."
Then she crossed her hands over her bosom, and bowed her head, full of
self-reproach and shame; and as she prayed, the spirit of her son raised
the White Flag above her and let it sail down softly, lightly over the
loved head, and as it descended there fell from it as it were a dew of
pale fire, and it rested on her head, and fell about her, and she sank
forward with her face upon the floor. R.I.P.
The Westminster Scholars The White Lady Of Rownam Avenue Near Stirling