By Johannes Adriaan Snyman
When a young woman lives on a farm all by herself, deliberately keeping herself from the rest of society, it becomes a rather dreadful challenge to distinguish reality from invented stories. Contributing to the challenge is the fact that more than often, the gossip roaming about is based on actual events, seen or heard by the very society initiating the account, thus eliminating all possible doubt that what is being said could indeed be of an artificial nature. It is because of this then that I find the story of Helena Artenton, indisputably one of the most difficult stories to tell.
The Anglo Boer war left many of the Afrikaans school teachers, either through injury or death, unable to continue their occupation, and it so happened that a man by the name of Arno Botha, barely twenty-four years of age, was appointed as a high ranking official to participate in the draft regulation for education in the Union of South Africa. I myself was sent from Pretoria to go and assist Mr. Botha in matters the newly found government referred to as linguistic barriers. Arrie, (the title Mr. Botha didn’t last beyond our first encounter) was from the Free State and needless to say a hefty Afrikaans farmer with a ferocious love for the Afrikaans language. His English could be compared to that of the German missionary in Westville trying to speak Zulu. Being temporarily stationed in Pietermaritzburg, Arrie and I became very good friends and, as is the habit of Afrikaners, we could go on for hours complaining about the bizarre ways of our English speaking neighbors. We would develop our craft in uttering our grievances so well that most people, rather than being offended would just shake their heads at the remarkable entertaining fashion we conducted ourselves in. Arrie especially, would go out of his way to make known to the tea drinking community what he, along with the entire Republic of the Free State thought of the Vredesverdrag van Vereeniging. Arrie was set in his ways and it would have taken something phenomenal to bring a change to some of his extreme, yet justified viewpoints. Barely two months passed before something phenomenal did come along. It came along in the form of a very attractive lady, attending the Dutch Reformed Church in the misty town of Pietermaritzburg.
It seemed strange at first, this fair looking woman, with dark eyes, wearing only black Sunday after Sunday. She kept to herself at all times, not speaking a word to any of the members in the congregation. Particularly strange was the fact that nor the reverent, nor the church elder, or anybody else for that matter could recall an English speaking person ever attending the Dutch Reformed Church. It came as no coincidence then that Arrie, as it were a visitor to the congregation himself, being the first person to reach out to her, advancing to a level of, if one can call it that, speaking terms. She didn’t seem exceedingly friendly, but with Arrie being an exceptionally straight forward man, he managed to not only get her name, but also invite himself over to her place for dinner the following week. Most fascinating of all was how Arrie, as if struck by lightning, all of a sudden lost his sense of reason by acquiring a fondness for the British culture, even admiring the bizarre ways of the British nation. His sense of reason temporarily surfaced when he realized he might need some assistance expressing himself in English, and consequently invited me to come along. Something that did not cross Aries’ mind at the time was the fact that to avoid the small society of Pietermaritzburg’s special attention to the possible improper conduct of a very outspoken Afrikaner, it would have only been natural for Arrie to be accompanied by another person, on the occasion of such a visit.
Consequently we took the steep, muddy road which through the forest, up the hill in a northern direction. The late Tuesday afternoon grew dark as the mist was moving slowly down the side of the mountain and it wasn’t long before the horse cart was fully covered in a thick and unwanted dense fog. Even though our destination for the evening wasn’t too far out of town, we missed the turnoff to the farmstead twice and consequently, came to a halt practically inches from the house. Albeit in a very low tone, Arrie suddenly felt the urge to mention that if it wasn’t for the horses’ wit of knowing to stop and not continue to walk right through the wall, we most certainly would have disembarked from the horse cart right next to the coffee table in the lounge. Seeing how close to the house we actually came to a halt, it reminded him also of a story in the Bible where the donkey of some prophet came to a halt because a wall in its way, and if he wasn’t mistaken the donkey started to argue about the matter. ‘At least our horses aren’t as arrogant as that, fancy they to be arguing over such matters’, Arrie expressed his thoughts.
I, on the other hand thought it appropriate to sternly remind Arrie that it was no such time as to be talking about horse carts in lounges and talking donkeys, all the while our host stood on the front porch of the cottage waiting for us to come in. That very moment, it struck me that, even through the fog, I could see her wearing that very distinctly black dress. I’m not sure why it came as such a surprise to me. Perhaps I somehow had it in the back of my mind that she wore the dress only to church on Sundays. Still, her dressing code did not make her any measure less attractive. Her manner of standing, her gracious way of moving about and the slight downward tilting of her head when she looked at you all added to the discourse of a most delightful, yet slightly mysterious young woman.
She waved us in and with a formal, but polite greeting we entered the cottage.
It might have been as a result of the discomfort of the journey through the cold and wet weather but the spacious cottage felt very hospitable and even with the little amount of conversation going on, our host had a rather cheerful air around her. Arrie more than once came to the point of opening his mouth for the purpose of uttering something he thought would contribute to the discussion, but between his extremely limited knowledge of the English language and his remarkable strong will to not make a fool of himself, he thought the better of it.
With supper at hand, we were invited to be seated at the dining table which stood in a section of the house adjoined to the living room on the one side, and the kitchen on the other end. While sitting down, she saw me noticing two Martini-Henry rifles hanging on the far side of the wall. Helena and I looked at each other for a moment in silence.
She then, with a firm voice said slowly; “Mr. Vorster, under usual circumstances it would have been quite rude of me to directly enquire about your insolvent in the recent conflict between our two nations, yet I suppose that you yourself have had an experience in the last couple of years which would testify to the fact that each and every rifle has an exceptionally distinct story to tell?”
Slightly baffled by her forwardness, I replied in an almost forced casual manner: “Indeed Mrs. Artenton, indeed. I can assure you though; that here on the Southern part of Africa, unlike in the decent town of Europe, the stories of our rifles includes conflict with man, and nature alike.”
With those words, Helena and I reached a mutual understanding of each other, as if our souls connected without any logical explanation.
The room was rather dim as the dark and heavy mist enfolded the entire house with only a few candles lightening what served as the dining room.
“I am however more interested in the stories of those two rifles against the wall there,” I said quite at ease but with such a tone, that Arrie realized if ever there was a time for him to keep quiet, it was then.
She hesitated a moment, and then started her narrative.
“You Afrikaners don’t know what it was like coming over to South Africa… They told us that if ever we were captured, it would be the end of us. They told us you were barbarians, of the worst kind, savagely torturing your enemies to death in the most awful possible manner.”
Helena’s face was lit by the light of two candles on the table, and the shadows falling on her moving lips, gave her speech an over-dramatic effect.
“I came over from England with my husband,” she continued. “With me being trained as a nurse, my husband and I, barely married, thought it a noble idea for me to help Her Majesty’s Royal Army with all matters medical, as necessity dictated. I so strongly held to the believe that we, the big and civilized British empire, were fighting against a notorious savage enemy, as we were convinced over and over again from our superiors. That believe was reinforced not only when my husband was killed in one of the battles in Elandslaagte, but also at the sight of how many of our beloved soldiers died in mere expedition excursions. The bullets rained down upon our young, inexperienced soldiers in a way no proper person would deem as noble fighting.”
Helena’s voice was that of sincere meaning, not at all judgmental or of blameworthiness.
“I myself didn’t have time to mourn my husband at the time, for I was caught up in the siege of Ladysmith… Oh! The many deaths I’ve seen! I so hated the Afrikaners…”
I was now genuinely intrigued by this account, and slightly raised an eyebrow when I asked; “What happened? What changed your mind?”
Her mouth formed a faint smile, almost as if embarrassed by her former naivety.
“I was helping out, performing my duties as a nurse in a makeshift military hospital no more than five kilometers outside Ladysmith. I do not at all understand military conduct, but during the siege of the town, our leaders apparently reached an agreement to make this hospital neutral, treating casualties from both British and Boer. We started out with an initial hundred beds, but toward the end it grew to a thousand-nine-hundred beds in rows, with over ten thousand admissions received and treated, most of them British. There, in that hospital, I saw the heart of the Afrikaner Boer. It was there where I saw, amidst conditions of war, the humanity, caring and loving way the Afrikaner nation conducted itself toward its own, as well as to the fearsome imperial enemy. There I saw the courageous hearts of a farming people, not at all like what we were told to believe, a barbaric people lacking any form of decency. I never in my wildest dreams thought that I would see so much kindness, so much lightheartedness amid military conflict, all coming not from my own people but from the very people we were fighting.”
“I’m confused,” I proclaimed with no sign of a change in facial expression, “You helped so many of your fellow countrymen, probably saved hundreds of lives. What then, Mrs. Artenton would be the reason for your unpopularity among the English in this town?”
I paused for a moment and then added; “If I may be so blunt to assume your distance from town, coupled with your attending the very Afrikaans, Dutch Reformed church, as terms less friendly with the English occupants in town?”
“Not at all Mr. Vorster, not at all.” She softened her gaze on me, and her voice filled the room with a welcoming essence. “I was so swayed by the notion of a decent Afrikaner people, their families and their children, that as the war advanced, a Boer commando came around my farmhouse for some food and refreshments. They were only about eight farmers on horseback, and conducted their way in a sociable, non threatening manner.”
Helena’s eyes lit up in the candle light as she brought the event to mind. “I noticed two of the farmers didn’t have rifles, and I offered them the rifles of my late husband, these very Martini Henry’s you see hanging on the wall. Word got out that I helped them, and so, in all stately affairs of British demeanor, I became an enemy of the empire.”
Oddly, she smiled broadly as she uttered the words, ‘enemy of the empire’ as if it gave her great pleasure not to be associated with the Royal Queen’s service.
Our conversation was then interrupted with the maid bringing in a vegetable soup as a starter, and Arrie, feeling his input to the evening necessary but not sure of what to say, exclaimed his very wise, thoughtful and calculated words; “Ah! How lovely the smell of the soup!”
As the three of us started enjoying our starters, I carefully put the spoon down on the table, sat back and said; “Mrs. Artenton.”
She looked up from her dish and replied amused; “Yes Mr. Vorster?”
Without thinking why, I paused for a moment.
“I know that hospital you were talking about. It is called the Intombi hospital. I was stationed some distance from there to guard the offloading of patients from the daily train arriving from Ladysmith, making sure there were no soldiers or weapons on that train. Later on, you were short on staff there, and we helped getting the wounded from the carriages to the hospital beds. I recall seeing a young lady there. I also recall her being exceptionally hard working.”
“Yes Mr. Vorster?” Helena stopped eating, and knew where this line of talk was heading.
“Yes Mrs. Artenton. The lady I saw was not wearing black though. It could be because she wasn’t mourning her husband’s death at the time? I know it is not my place to say this, but maybe that lady will wear a white dress sometime again?”
“On the contrary Mr. Vorster, you are quite right,” giving her head a nod she said in an overly attractive manner; “Maybe even as soon as tomorrow morning, that lady will be wearing a dress, other than black again.”