The Story of an African Farm, a Novel

Author: Olive Schreiner

Chapter 1. X. He Shows His Teeth.

Doss sat among the karoo bushes, one yellow ear drawn over his wicked little eye, ready to flap away any adventurous fly that might settle on his nose. Around him in the morning sunlight fed the sheep; behind him lay his master polishing his machine. He found much comfort in handling it that morning. A dozen philosophical essays, or angelically atuned songs for the consolation of the bereaved, could never have been to him what that little sheep-shearing machine was that day.

After struggling to see the unseeable, growing drunk with the endeavour to span the infinite, and writhing before the inscrutable mystery, it is a renovating relief to turn to some simple, feelable, weighable substance; to something which has a smell and a colour, which may be handled and turned over this way and that. Whether there be or be not a hereafter, whether there be any use in calling aloud to the Unseen power, whether there be an Unseen power to call to, whatever be the true nature of the "I" who call and of the objects around me, whatever be our meaning, our internal essence, our cause (and in a certain order of minds death and the agony of loss inevitably awaken the wild desire, at other times smothered, to look into these things), whatever be the nature of that which lies beyond the unbroken wall which the limits of the human intellect build up on every hand, this thing is certain—a knife will cut wood, and one cogged wheel will turn another. This is sure.

Waldo found an immeasurable satisfaction in the handling of his machine; but Doss winked and blinked, and thought it all frightfully monotonous out there on the flat, and presently dropped asleep, sitting bolt upright. Suddenly his eyes opened wide; something was coming from the direction of the homestead. Winking his eyes and looking intently, he perceived it was the grey mare. Now Doss had wondered much of late what had become of her master. Seeing she carried some one on her back, he now came to his own conclusion, and began to move his tail violently up and down. Presently he pricked up one ear and let the other hang; his tail became motionless, and the expression of his mouth was one of decided disapproval bordering on scorn. He wrinkled his lips up on each side into little lines.

The sand was soft, and the grey mare came on so noiselessly that the boy heard nothing till Bonaparte dismounted. Then Doss got up and moved back a step. He did not approve of Bonaparte’s appearance. His costume, in truth, was of a unique kind. It was a combination of the town and country. The tails of his black cloth coat were pinned up behind to keep them from rubbing; he had on a pair of moleskin trousers and leather gaiters, and in his hand he carried a little whip of rhinoceros hide.

Waldo started and looked up. Had there been a moment’s time he would have dug a hole in the sand with his hands and buried his treasure. It was only a toy of wood, but he loved it, as one of necessity loves what has been born of him, whether of the flesh or spirit. When cold eyes have looked at it, the feathers are rubbed off our butterfly’s wing forever.

"What have you here, my lad?" said Bonaparte, standing by him, and pointing with the end of his whip to the medley of wheels and hinges.

The boy muttered something inaudible, and half spread over the thing.

"But this seems to be a very ingenious little machine," said Bonaparte, seating himself on the antheap, and bending down over it with deep interest. "What is it for, my lad?"

"Shearing sheep."

"It is a very nice little machine," said Bonaparte. "How does it work, now? I have never seen anything so ingenious!"

There was never a parent who heard deception in the voice that praised his child—his first-born. Here was one who liked the thing that had been created in him. He forgot everything. He showed how the shears would work with a little guidance, how the sheep would be held, and the wool fall into the trough. A flush burst over his face as he spoke.

"I tell you what, my lad," said Bonaparte emphatically, when the explanation was finished, "we must get you a patent. Your fortune is made. In three years’ time there’ll not be a farm in this colony where it isn’t working. You’re a genius, that’s what you are!" said Bonaparte, rising.

"If it were made larger," said the boy, raising his eyes, "it would work more smoothly. Do you think there would be any one in this colony would be able to make it?"

"I’m sure they could," said Bonaparte; "and if not, why I’ll do my best for you. I’ll send it to England. It must be done somehow. How long have you worked at it?"

"Nine months," said the boy.

"Oh, it is such a nice little machine," said Bonaparte, "one can’t help feeling an interest in it. There is only one little improvement, one very little improvement, I should like to make."

Bonaparte put his foot on the machine and crushed it into the sand. The boy looked up into his face.

"Looks better now," said Bonaparte, "doesn’t it? If we can’t have it made in England we’ll send it to America. Good-bye; ta-ta," he added. "You’re a great genius, a born genius, my dear boy, there’s no doubt about it."

He mounted the grey mare and rode off. The dog watched his retreat with cynical satisfaction; but his master lay on the ground with his head on his arms in the sand, and the little wheels and chips of wood lay on the ground around him. The dog jumped on to his back and snapped at the black curls, till, finding that no notice was taken, he walked off to play with a black beetle. The beetle was hard at work trying to roll home a great ball of dung it had been collecting all the morning: but Doss broke the ball, and ate the beetle’s hind legs, and then bit off its head. And it was all play, and no one could tell what it had lived and worked for. A striving, and a striving, and an ending in nothing.


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Chicago: Olive Schreiner, "Chapter 1. X. He Shows His Teeth.," The Story of an African Farm, a Novel, ed. Macaulay, G. C. (George Campbell), 1852-1915 and trans. Evans, Sebastian in The Story of an African Farm, a Novel Original Sources, accessed April 22, 2024,

MLA: Schreiner, Olive. "Chapter 1. X. He Shows His Teeth." The Story of an African Farm, a Novel, edited by Macaulay, G. C. (George Campbell), 1852-1915, and translated by Evans, Sebastian, in The Story of an African Farm, a Novel, Original Sources. 22 Apr. 2024.

Harvard: Schreiner, O, 'Chapter 1. X. He Shows His Teeth.' in The Story of an African Farm, a Novel, ed. and trans. . cited in , The Story of an African Farm, a Novel. Original Sources, retrieved 22 April 2024, from