The Hex River Valley is a place of inestimable beauty. The floor of the valley is a rich carpet of meadow and vineyard, spotted every few thousand meters by a house with high, curved gables and dark imbuia shutters and, more often than not, a lapa with a thick thatched roof. On all four sides of the valley are distant peaks so blue they seem to fade into the sky, except in winter when a thick layer of snow is laid on top. The Hex River itself runs swift and icy and over the ages has sliced the Matroosberge into sharp points that pierce the sky.
I lived in a house in the Valley, a great house with flagged stone floors and a carved staircase and a proper hearth. My Oom Frans visited often, and he was a great legend-seeker, as he used to say. After supper, we would sit at his feet near the great fire and wait patiently while he filled his pipe and lit it. When it was burning steadily, he would start his tale:
In his youth, before the great railway was built over the treacherous Matroosberg pass, before the winery fields were planted and when the town was little more than a church and a market, said Oom Frans, there was a very well-know man who owned a homestead in the elbow of the Matroosberge, where the mighty mountains rise from the valley floor.
This man’s name was Meiring, and he owned a great deal of the most fertile pasture in the valley. However, he was a fair and honest man and rented his land at a good price for other farmers to feed their herds. However, as is often the case, his fair and lovely daughter, Eliza Meiring, was also rather self-centered. Such a beauty had Eliza that many men came as suitors to her father’s door. Her father, a good man, saw virtue in each one and counseled his daughter well, but she was too haughty and found fault with every man her father brought in. Except for one man, Schalk.
Little is known of Schalk, save his first name, but he should have been possessed of great wit and charm to woo Meiring’s daughter as he had. In short, they fell in love, but to satisfy her pride, Eliza decreed that she would not marry him, unless he was to climb to the Matroosberge and pluck from there a single blood-red disa. The disa is an exquisite flower, but it grows only in the most inaccessible of inaccessible places: high up in the moist and mossy shadows at the very peak of the Matroosberg mountain range.
Schalk, though daunted by this task, loved Eliza very much, so he set off to conquer the Matroosberge and pluck a disa from the shadows, and in so doing, conquer his love‘s heart. Schalk set off alone, and went into the Langhoek kloof and climbed there, until he beheld those beautiful flowers of his love’s desire, where they glowed from a damp and lichen-covered cliff. But the Matroosberge are a treacherous range, and as Schalk grabbed hold of a disa on the cliffside, his balance failed him and he slipped, tumbling down the steep ravines and breaking on the rocks below.
When they brought news to Eliza that Schalk, her love, and plummeted to his death with disa in hand, she was stricken with grief and remorse. So great was her sadness that her demand had caused the death of Schalk, that she went quite insane. Her father, Meiring, had little choice but to keep his daughter caged in her room and keep a close eye on her. Eliza would sit and stare, wringing her hands, at the Matroosberge, in the direction of Langhoek kloof, all day and all night, occasionally weeping, but for the most part in deathly silence.
One midnight, a full moon, Eliza managed to work her window open, and quietly slipped through. In her madness, she took up the path that Schalk had taken, through the foothills and up into the Matroosberge, to Langhoek kloof. Somewhere on that lonely and windy crag, Eliza Meiring sat and wept. But the crags of the dangerous Matroosberge are not fit for sitting and weeping and come the light of day, Eliza’s broken body lay at the bottom of the ravine.
But Eliza Meiring is not all gone: her shadow still wanders by moonlight along the ravines and cliffs of the Matroosberge, a pale ghost in a long white nightdress with silver eyes and floating hair, wringing her hands and crying out for her long lost love.
The fire had almost burned down at this point, and Oom Frans’ words would seem to linger in our ears for many minutes afterward, while we sat in the whistling silence of the night wind. At last, he would knock his pipe against his stool and stand slowly, and we would rush to the window and press our faces against the glass to see if we could catch a glint of a white nightdress against the deep blue of the distant Matroosberge.