The man who broke the bank of Monte Carlo


The man who broke the bank of Monte Carlo

In his own eyes, Oom Boxer looked like the Prince of Wales. He mortgaged his Free State estate to roam Europe and lived for pleasure. He ended his life in penury but never regretted a thing, writes DOMINIQUE BOTHA.


I LIKE being alone on the farm with my father. Everything is going downhill but he only looks ahead. I submit to his dictates. At sunset we make a pilgrimage to the family cemetery to lay flowers on the graves of a long line of finger-wagging Bothas.

The graveyard is enclosed by a wall built during World War 2 by Italian prisoners-of-war: Luigi, who longed to stay on at the farm after peace was declared, and the other one whose name Pa has forgotten. They were the first people Pa saw eating macaroni.

Everyone gets a flower. Even the remittance man, Hercules Boxer, over whom Pa sighs: “Every family has one.”

The ‘old scallywag’ deserves a flower too.
The ‘old scallywag’ deserves a flower too.

Hercules P Botha, aka Boxer, never did a day's work in his life but was quick to sing: “As al dag Sondag was, en Kermis in die week, dan vreet en slaap ek net, en werk o nooit geen steek." General Koos de la Rey, the lion of the Western Transvaal, was also a Hercules. He, however, completed his 12 labours to reconcile Boer and Brit before a stray bullet on the road between Lichtenburg and his heart drove his volk off course.

Inside the cemetery lies an open hand of Paul Michiel Bothas. The first one was trumped by his heart. The second married too late. The third burnt his lungs. The fourth was barely of age. And my brother, the fifth Paul Michiel, the last wild card of a wasted hand, was bequeathed to the red soil and red grass at the age of 27. He died in September, the birthday month of our great poet, when the veil of summer is as frail as poppies, just a promise. A distant, rumbling promise.  

“Teatime.” My father stands up. He is in lockstep with a lifelong clockwork of constants: early to rise, all hands on deck and done talking. But also, 40 winks and wine at dinner. Therein lies a lesson. My mother is torn loose from her habits and she is faltering. 

I follow Pa out of the cemetery down a colonnade of syringas towards the lawn, where we will sit on wire chairs under a stinkwood tree and wait for Mieta to bring out the tea. The air is so quiet you can hear the crush of time. Pa leans back in his chair with his hands folded behind his head.

“You will not find a better place anywhere in the world than the Free State in autumn. That is what Oom Boxer used to say to me. I have seen the world, my child. Palaces and interesting people. But a better place than the Highveld in autumn you will not find.”

By then Boxer was living out his days in the same outbuilding where Luigi the prisoner of war had cooked macaroni. Still dressed in a three-piece suit and top hat, even towards the end, when he had nothing left except his memories of Paris and the word froufrou, which refers to the seditious sound of a woman’s silken petticoats rustling as she promenades.

No one gave Boxer alcohol any more.  As soon as he touched a drop, he would drink himself into a stupor until the money ran out. Then he would resort to selling anything he had left to get his hands on more. At the time, he who shall remain nameless sold spirits to black people illegally because European liquor was forbidden to them. Oom Boxer bribed the servants to smuggle in liquor which he hid in a brown paper bag under the bed. Eventually he would lie in his own piss and excrement and the mattresses would have to be burned.

The mesh door slams shut behind Mieta as she carries the tray with clinking cups across the lawn.

“Mieta, do you still remember oubaas Boxer?”

She shakes her head and laughs shyly into her sleeve. “E ha, ha ke mo tsebe." There is no way Mieta would have known oubaas Boxer, but she knows, and I know, that the night has eyes. The owl in the cypress tree remembers the melodies from the family songbook that went up in flames during the war. The dust devils know the alto part. The red grass knows the chorus.

Mieta’s people: her great-grandmother Vytjie, maestro of milktart, and ntate moholo Mokhoaladi Jakob Phukwile, the grand old man of the werf.
Mieta’s people: her great-grandmother Vytjie, maestro of milktart, and ntate moholo Mokhoaladi Jakob Phukwile, the grand old man of the werf.

Portraits of Mieta’s great-grandmother Vytjie, maestro of milktart and aia of all, and ntate moholo Mokhoaladi Jakob Phukwile, the grand old man of the werf, hang in the hallway. Ouma Koeksie commissioned an artist from Potchefstroom to paint their likenesses. At Vytjie’s funeral, Oom Sias Bezuidenhout cried inconsolably, like a child for his mother. At night Vytjie tries to climb out of the picture frame but Mokhoaladi Jakob stops her.

“Did it not bother Ouma Koeksie having to give food and lodging to spongers like Oom Boxer?” I ask my father.

He sighs.

“In those days everyone had houses and chickens and the food was simple but plentiful. Luckily for Boxer, you could move between family and sponge off them at leisure.”

Moreover, the southern Free State side of the family has always been particularly hospitable. A hundred and fifty years ago, Sir Harry Smith enjoyed breakfast with oubaas Jacobs on Touwfontein, next to Boomplaats, where the first skirmish between Boer and British would take place later that afternoon. Afterwards, oubaas Jacobs was pilloried for entertaining the enemy. He asked his detractors to explain how he was supposed to stop the British army on his own before breakfast while the joint Free State and Transvaal commandos failed to do it later in the day. In any event, ordinary Boer hospitality required that he receive a passing traveller decently.

It is expected of me to pour, but Pa insists the tea must draw properly. The borehole is rich with lime that makes the water softer and sweeter than elsewhere, and is drawn from a tank where drowned bats are fished out once a week, which makes for the best tea.

Across from us, on the other side of the river, the sun is setting behind Wolwefontein, the original family farm that Uncle Boxer squandered on booze, now in the loving hands of the Geldenhuyses, a good-looking family with dark hair who cultivate rugby heroes and roses. Oom Boxer was the last of 17 children born at Wolwefontein and grew up under an umbrella of siblings with family farms spread around him like a picnic blanket. As far as the eye could see it was Bothas and Besters and Bormans, and Dreyers and Derksens and Delports, and Jordaans and Marais and Naudés. And Geldenhuyses. Before the Boer War people had many children.

Pa says Oom Boxer was spoilt by his mother, who lured him to school with the promise of a fresh slate and a dappled horse. Boxer carefully cut open the seam of the blazer of the boy sitting in front of him with a small blade so that the jacket fell apart in two halves like a naartjie when the boy stood up, and dipped the plaits of the girls sitting in front of him in the inkpot on his desk.

“Were there schools in the Free State so soon after the Great Trek?” I ask.

Pa is affronted by my question. “Of course, yes. That missionary Van der Kemp called the trekboers uncivilised and lazy, but 15 years after the Trek Sir George Grey visits the Free State and is so impressed by what he sees that he donates £15,000 of his own money to start Grey College. And don’t forget, the Free State won first prize as Model Republic of the World at the Chicago World's Fair in 1893.”

Pa swallows his tea in one go and holds out his cup for more.

“No, the missionaries were prejudiced. For example, there were never any prostitutes in the Free State, and in those days it was common for women to become prostitutes.”

The hereafter should be a convivial place for my father, back in the Model Republic where he can gently sponge off family memories. These days he drives around the Free State visiting relatives in his bakkie wearing white gloves with a bottle of Jameson’s whisky filled with water jammed in next to the gear shift. It is an excellent container so why waste it, he says. The speed cops give him suspect looks.

Did Uncle Boxer fight in the Boer War, I want to know.

Pa sighs. “Of course, yes. You had no choice, between 16 and 60 you had to go on commando.”

Boxer’s father was too old to go. He despised Paul Kruger so much his heart gave in and he was buried in Kroonstad because the English did not allow burials on farms during the war. Perfidious Albions. When peace came, his wife Johanna Maria had his remains exhumed and reburied him on Wolwefontein. Just before he died, he wrote a missive that was later published:

“When l now see the country around Kroonstad made into a desert, the farms burnt, and my people huddled together in refugee camps, absolutely destitute, and living on the charity of the British, then I burn with indignation to hear that the cruel author of all this avoidable misery, Paul Kruger, is rich, snug and safe in Europe and going to be received by the Queen of Holland and made a hero of. A hero who was known in the Free State, 30 years ago, before he found better means of enriching himself, as a swindler dealing in oranges and tobacco, and one whom we strongly suspected of being a wily slave dealer."

Pa stirs the sugar into his tea, absorbed.

“The poor bittereinders. It a was common delusion that 60,000 Russians, Americans and Frenchmen were on the water and expected daily, that China had invaded and occupied England, and that God was killing the British all over the world with the bubonic plague.”

So does that mean we were hensoppers, I ask Pa.

“Good heavens Dominique, do you think the Boers ran around in the veld like cattle with the English on horseback chasing after and catching them with a net? Everyone who was defeated was by definition a hensopper. Your choices were signing the oath and going back to your farm or becoming a prisoner-of-war and being exiled to Ceylon or St Helena. Three-quarters of the Boers ended up being so-called hensoppers."

After the war, two of Boxer’s brothers studied law in the Netherlands: Christiaan Botha went on to become judge president of the Free State and Theuns Louis died of delirium tremens in the Kimberley Club. The others returned to the banks of the False River: Boxer to Wolwefontein with its fine orchard and 85 head of Friesian dairy cows; Paul Michiel to Thornvale, where he rebuilt the fine sandstone house from ashes and planted teff; and Jan Poll to raise cattle on Tweedronk with his famously beautiful wife, Miets.

Much to Jan Poll’s disgust, Boxer idled away the days on the stoep, drinking coffee and reading the newspaper. Jan Poll was building a dam and his daily commute took him past Boxer’s front door. When Boxer saw that his brother was at a safe distance, he saddled up and went off to visit Miets. Jan Poll eventually caught Boxer and Miets in flagrante in the wagon shed, beat his brother to within an inch of his life, then rounded up his herd and Miets and trekked to South West Africa. They were never heard from again.

Mother Johanna’s health deteriorated and the family decided to send her to Germany for a health cure, with Boxer as chaperone because he was the youngest and still unmarried. From the dusty hinterland they travelled, Boxer and his mother, over thousands of sea miles aboard the Union Castle postal boat, all the way to Le Havre where they disembarked and took the train to Wiesbaden via Paris. That was the coup de foudre. The fateful moment. Boxer dropped his mother off in Germany and made his way back to the city of love. Then he sent a telegram to the family urging them to wire more money for the matriarch’s treatment.

“Paris is full of wonderful people,” he told my father. “On Sunday morning everyone goes to church and then to the races at Longchamps and in the evening to Folies Bergère. After the meal the wives go home and then the dancers comes down into the audience and then they are naked.”

Pa’s eyes still twinkle at the recollection.

Uncle Boxer spent the next seven years roaming Europe, Wolwefontein hocked to the hilt to pay for his suits and cigars. He told Pa: “One day I was walking through the streets of London. You could barely see your own hand in front of you, so dense was the fog. They call it pea soup, and to my astonishment I saw the Prince of Wales walking towards me. And when we almost ran into each other, I realised to my surprise that it was my own reflection that I saw in the shop window."

Boxer claimed  he also fought in World War 1. Pa doesn't know if it's true. There was no conscription in the world wars in South Africa. Why would you volunteer? To go and wallow in frozen mud and be eaten up by lice? What for? Perhaps it would have given Boxer something to do, and by then he was already bankrupt; at least he would have had a salary as a serviceman and afterwards a pension.

When he was demobbed, the family decided to allow him and Koen Bezuidenhout, another family charity case, to live in the small house at Rietpan. Koen was a dour Dutchman and Boxer foiled him at every turn. With pietswartvark as children. Dat verdomde spel! With card games as adults. Dat bokkel! Dat bokkel!

Boxer did nothing all day except read the newspaper and go for long walks dressed like the Prince of Wales. He did not help Koen with any of the chores. Koen put food on the stove before going out to milk the cow and pleaded with Boxer to keep an eye on the pots. Boxer simply took  the pots off the stove and quickly returned them when he saw Koen coming back. Koen could never figure out why the food was so slow to cook. Dat bokkel!

Boxer was, however, conscientious about collecting his pension. It fell to the young Bruce Evans to administer soldiers' pensions and he did this from the farm office on Shackleton. Koen would harness the cart then he and Boxer would ride over to Shackleton. When they arrived, Boxer would say to Koen: “Wait here by the horses, I'll go see Bruce on behalf of both of us." Oom Boxer was considerably older than Bruce, and out of courtesy Bruce would offer him tea. Boxer gratefully accepted the offer, “Thank you that would be very nice, but would you be so kind as to also send some out to my man?”

Pa sighs. Boxer was meant for better things than he experienced, far away from bubonic plague and termite mounds and August winds.  And Jan Poll wanting to beat him to death. Reduced to living in a back room on an isolated farm with nothing left but the largesse of his brother’s children. Walking along the dusty farm road with his cane and London hat singing the popular dance hall ditty The Man Who Broke the Bank of Monte Carlo to the cattle egrets.

Pa does a lot of research these days. Then he speaks in English about everything he reads in Wikipedia. “Eat ease" is how he pronounces “it is" in English. The Prince of Wales shot 30,000 head of game at Bainsvlei. “Eat ease shocking,” he says, “They were not sportsmen, they were exterminators.” Every few sentences he clears his throat and spits phlegm into a handkerchief which he inspects before folding it away. He  expounds on the marvels devised by British engineers in the 1930s and says he is perplexed by the state of Great Britain today. “Yes, my child, when the English fell, they fell far. Not even one London bus is manufactured in England today.”

The hinge of the front door's screen groans and slams shut behind Mieta as she walks up to announce that dinner is ready in the kitchen. Two boiled potatoes. Boiled beans under a net and a piece of sausage. Mieta, exterminator of potatoes. Pa no longer drinks white wine; he says it gives him a sour stomach but insists on pouring me a glass.

“The last time I saw Boxer was just before I left the farm for university. In the 1950s cancer was a death sentence. I took him to Kroonstad hospital and on our way back Boxer asked me to stop the car on that hill near Bella Vista. He got out and stared across the veld over the land that once belonged to him, that he sold to the Geldenhuyse in 1913.  He then got back in the car and told me to drive on, and after a while he spoke:

“People say Jannie Geldenhuys is virtuous. That is indeed so. But it is easy for Jannie to be virtuous, while for me temptation lies in wait. Yes child, I fell far. I know I'm going to die, but I am not suddenly going to grasp at straws to save my soul. I don’t regret the life I wasted. I had too much pleasure.”

The dark comes fast and deep. The Great Jeweller unrolls his velvet cloth, studded with engagement rings, which drives every amorous frog in the vlei into a frenzy. Every reed and sprig is starstruck. Every leaf and tree Andromeda drunk.

The kitchen is suddenly stifling. Pa gets up to open the windows and a cool wind floods the room.

And then the hallelujah is upon us, the night becomes the nave of the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, swings a censer over an arch of one thousand and one nights, and drives the pilgrims from their graves with incense of fresh earth and clarion thunder to the highveld dance of the storm. The wedding to which everyone is invited. Want die werf is wyd en die bruilof is groot. The Grootjies and Vytjie and ntate moholo Mokholadi Jakob Phukwile. And Luigi and the other one whose name Pa forgot. And Ouma Koeksie and Oupa Boetie. All the Paul Michiel Bothas. Even our old Voortrekker Lourens Rasmus all the way from Bruintjieshoogte. And Oom Boxer, dancing towards us with the red rose in his buttonhole, like Pa remembers him.

And with the last wave of the wind he calls: “Yes, my child, I have seen the world, palaces and interesting people, but true happiness is raindrops on the highveld, which are as small as the smallest pennies."

Like a cloudburst, your life is over. Like a brass band, drunk and fiery and fast. And the flesh of memory is like the veil of summer in September, as frail as poppies, just a promise. A distant, rumbling promise.  

♦ VWB ♦

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