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STUDENTS' PROJECTS > THE STORY OF MY LIFE > PART IV : IN SOUTH AFRICA > First Day in Pretoria

19. First Day in Pretoria

Pretoria station in 1893 was quite different from what it was in 1914. The lights were burning dimly. The travellers were few. I let all the other passengers go and thought that, as soon as the ticket collector was fairly free, I would hand him my ticket and ask him if he could direct me to some small hotel or any other such place where I might go; otherwise I would spend the night at the station. I must confess I shrank from asking him even this, for I was afraid of being insulted.

The station became clear of all passengers. I gave my ticket to the ticket collector and began my inquiries. He replied to me courteously, but I saw that he could not be of any considerable help. But an American Negro who was standing near by broke into the conversation.

“I see,” said he, “that you are an utter stranger here, without any friends. If you will come with me I will take you to a small hotel, of which the proprietor is an American who is very well known to me. I think he will accept you.”

I had my own doubts about the offer, but I thanked him and accepted his suggestion. He took me to Johnston’s Family Hotel. He drew Mr. Johnston aside to speak to him, and the latter agreed to accommodate me for the night, on condition that I should have my dinner served in my room.

“I assure you,” said he, “that I have no colour prejudice. But I have only European custom, and if I allowed you to eat in the dining room, my guests might be offended and even go away.”

“Thank you,” said I, “even for accommodating me for the night. I am now more or less acquainted with the conditions here, and I understand your difficulty. I do not mind your serving the dinner in my room. I hope to be able to make some other arrangement tomorrow.”

I was shown into a room where I now sat waiting for the dinner and thinking, as I was quite alone. There were not many guests in the hotel, and I had expected the waiter to come very shortly with the dinner. Instead Mr. Johnston appeared. He said : “I was ashamed of having asked you to have your dinner here. So I spoke to the other guests about you, and asked them if they would mind your having your dinner in the dining room. They said they had no objection, and that they did not mind your staying here as long as you liked. Please, therefore, come to the dining room, if you will, and stay here as long as you wish.” I thanked him again, went to the dining room and had a hearty dinner.

Next morning I called on the attorney, Mr. A. W. Baker. Abdulla Sheth had given me some description of him, so his cordial reception did not surprise me. He received me very warmly and made kind inquiries. I explained all about myself. Thereupon he said: “We have no work for you here as barrister, for we have engaged the best lawyer. The case is a prolonged and complicated one, so I shall take your assistance only to the extent of getting necessary information. And of course, you will make communication with my client easy for me, as I shall now ask for all the information I want from him through you. That is certainly an advantage. I have not yet found rooms for you. I thought I had better do so after having seen you. There is a fearful amount of colour prejudice here, and therefore it is not easy to find lodging for such as you. But I know a poor woman. She is the wife of a baker. I think she will take you and thus add to her income at the same time. Come, let us go to her place.”

So he took me to her house. He spoke with her privately about me, and she agreed to accept me as a boarder at 35 shillings a week.