The French Mistress
On the 23rd of January 1911, a paragraph appeared in the Diggers Gazette under the heading––
Yesterday at 7.40 PM a young woman was struck by a locomotive as she attempted to cross the tracks between platforms at Park Station. The Station Master, Mr Piet Joubert stated that the public had been strictly warned not to cross the tracks except by the overhead bridge
The Woman whose name is being withheld by the authorities until her relatives are notified is in serious condition in the Johannesburg City Hospital . . .
‘And the same man was with her,’ said Charlotte.
It was odd––that the newspaper made no mention of him.
Charlotte had witnessed the entire incident.
‘I noticed the woman because something about her––the way she moved her hands to her throat as if in prayer–– reminded me of Miss Moodie. Do you remember my French teacher Miss Moodie? I didn’t see the man clearly. His face was in shade, turned to one side–all that showed were his watch chain, silver-tipped cane, and spats.’
‘So what?’ said Arthur. His pretty face with cheeks like fluffy apricots glowered with peeve. He would have seen it too if he hadn’t gone to the washroom. ‘So what?’
Little pest! There were moments when she wanted to twist her young brother’s ears off––slowly.
‘Go on, go on!’ cried the two Aunts McNicoll in unison. They flapped their small, clawed hands at Arthur, hushing him, wanting every gory detail.
She and Arthur were waiting for the Germiston train on the main platform. The woman who looked like Miss Moodie the beautiful-much-loved French teacher at Forest Town School for Girls was wearing a fashionable hobble skirt––
‘Was it embroidered? Georgette or satin? Velvet and lace with points at the hem?’ ––the greedy aunts had to know.
Charlotte who didn't give tuppence for fashion thought the gown might have had a broad stripe, perhaps cream and dark something, anyway she did recall a feather hat with a fine net veil knotted under the chin, partially obscuring a lovely profile. Gloves and a fluffy yellow parasol . . . The couple stood at the dim end of the platform, conversing, perhaps even arguing or was that her imagination? It seemed to Charlotte the man grabbed the woman’s arms tightly and the woman had tried to twist away.
‘Ahhh!’ the ancients clutched each other with crepey glee. ‘Go on, go on!’
Two local trains steamed in and departed and Charlotte assumed they had boarded one of them. Arthur was showing her a matchstick and balsam guillotine he had assembled complete with a razor blade, ‘It’s for decapitating flies. I get the other lads to catch the flies and for a ha’penny, they can watch me execute their flies.’
‘Gruesome little beast,’ said Charlotte. She tried to box his ears but he slipped away in the direction of the Gentlemen’s room.
That’s when she saw the couple below the platform. They were distant silhouettes among the cryptic patterns of crisscross metal in the twilight, Le crepuscule! Charlotte said it aloud, remembering her French with pleasure.
Were they going to the Tea Kiosk on the opposite side? How tricky it must be to walk in that awkward skirt gathered just below the knee. They would have been better off using the overhead bridge. The man went first, helping her, gripping his silver-tipped cane and the parasol in his left hand, holding both of her hands with his right, helping her.
‘Milk-O!’ Now came the cry of the milk-boy in Rissik Street, ‘Milk-O’. Charlotte recalled this because it was so sweet a call before the abrupt roar of the deadly missile that burst from between two parked goods trucks. It was over almost before it happened. Charlotte had a sense of chaotic ripping darkness disappearing into a long whistling scream––the woman was almost across––reaching out ––and the man pushing her back––but was it so? The parasol rose like a frighted bird caught in the headlights, floated down and fell . . .
Afterwards, the police came to her platform and asked questions. Charlotte had been the only other witness. The man had left the scene by then and had told the police that he was simply escorting the woman across the tracks after she asked him to change a guinea. He claimed he tried to push her out of the way of the oncoming locomotive. To Charlotte, it looked quite otherwise and she told them so . . .
Anyway, the police were not interested in a schoolgirl’s opinion, not when the man was the Mayor, Otto Von Veltheim, one of the wealthiest men on the Reef with a questionable reputation for his diamond dealings He claimed he had never met the woman before. All this came out later.
Charlotte and Arthur Hellyer were staying with their aunts while their parents visited Grandmother Hellyer in Capetown.
‘Charlotte. I expect you to keep your eye on Arthur while we are away––and make sure he completes his homework before supper. . .’ Just one of the items on her mother’s list of things to be done in her absence.
Charlotte adored her aunts who were no problem at all; they were mischievous, chatty spinster twins in their seventies; they spent their days reading Walter Scott and Charles Dickens, indulging in local gossip––and best of all, they retired immediately after supper.
‘Aha! Charlotte, do look at the handsome villain!’ The Aunts McNicholl pointed at the Otto Von Vetheim's photo in the Diggers Gazette. ‘Butter wouldn’t melt in his mouth don’t you think? His poor wife . . .’ (The mayor's personal life too was frequently scrutinized by the newspapers.)
Well, thought Charlotte, at least her aunts believed her.
Turns out it was Miss Moodie. The French teacher. Both her legs had been severed. She didn’t die immediately. She was mostly in a coma.
Charlotte visited her every day. She sat at her bedside for as long as she was allowed, telling her teacher how much she loved lessons with her. She would read to her from the book they had studied together: Le Notaire du Havre, the first novel of the Chronique des Pasquier.
Charlotte read slowly, praying that Miss Moodie might wake and smile again at her tentative pronunciation of the Duhamel classic––
‘Ma douce Charlotte – mais je t’adore tes efforts! Lis cette phrase une fois de plus pour moi.’
(‘Sweet Charlotte – I love you trying! Do read that sentence again for me.’)
––after this, she would pull Charlotte close to her and kiss both her cheeks and once, even once, her lips. . .
Charlotte blushed with secret pleasure at this sweet memory and wept silently beside the wounded woman-shape barely alive in the hospital bed.
She was with her on the day she died. Helen Moodie opened her eyes just once to smile at her.
‘If I were a horse, they’d shoot me.’
‘Though Miss Moodie said it in French. . .’ Charlotte told her aunts.
‘Si j’etais un cheval, ils me tiraient dessus.’