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The Bride of Argyle - by Raymond Muller (Bungalow 29)

It was the first time any of us had seen a ghost.

One always assumes that when you finally get to see a ghost, you will react with shock, horror, terror and all the blood in your veins will turn to ice.  It was nothing like that at all. When we saw the ghost of Bonnie McPherson one bright moonlit night in the elephant hide on Argyle farm, it was as if it was the most natural thing in the world that we would see her, albeit somewhat unexpectedly. We weren’t necessarily pleased to see her, but her presence did not frighten us and there was no terror involved. The overwhelming emotion we felt was sadness and compassion.

We had been roaming around Argyle farm one night on our Land Rover, looking for signs of big game. There was a full moon shining with the intensity of a thousand fluorescent lights. It was one of those nights when the moon was so bright that you couldn’t see the stars even though there was not a cloud in the sky. It was one of those mid-winter nights in the Lowveld that had just a bite of chilliness to it and made you want to cuddle up under a blanket on the back of the land rover. After having no sightings other than an occasional wildebeest and zebra we decided to head to the confines of the elephant hide. Have a cup of coffee out of the flask, warm up and maybe, with a bit of luck, see a herd of Elephant drinking under the moonlight.

Instead, we encountered the ghost of Bonnie McPherson sitting forlornly on one of the benches in the hide. Of course we didn’t know that she was the ghost of Bonnie McPherson just then, we just knew she was a ghost and we found out who she was the ghost of a few days later.

She did not say anything, she just sat there, a metaphysical incarnation of a person who had previously lived and she had a strange luminous transparency to her. She was pale. Of course all ghosts are pale, but we suspected that even in real life she would have been pale. Her fine blonde hair neatly adorned with a crown of faded flowers, framed her angelic face. Cornflower blue eyes, a light rouge dusting her cheeks and pale red lips neatly pursed into a faint wan smile presented the only color in her otherwise bleak monochromatic facade. She made no eye contact with us and the expression on her face did not change, either because ghosts are unable to change their expressions or because she simply chose not to. She wore a simple white lace dress and that, together with a small posy of dried veldblommetjies which she clutched in her fragile hand, clearly indicated to us that she was not just a ghost, but that she was the ghost of a bride. Whether she had died just before her wedding or shortly thereafter was impossible to tell but if one works on the assumption that ghosts wear the clothing they had on when they died, then it was apparent that this ghost had died on her wedding day. Perhaps you are now starting to understand why we reacted with sadness and compassion instead of fear and terror.

Days later we were to discover that she was not only the ghost of a bride, but the ghost of a jilted bride and had we known that then, our sadness and compassion would have been even deeper.

We took an unusual trip back to our bungalow from the elephant hide as the ghost had decided to hitch a ride with us. There was apparently not much we could do when she climbed aboard our vehicle and took a seat on the back bench. Various attempts to shoo her away failed and we reluctantly drove off with our uninvited passenger.  Conversation was unusually stilted that night. The social etiquette of what to say or what not to say in front of a ghost was not high on any of our lists of skills and as such we resorted to silence. The ghost herself offered no contribution to the discussion but seemed quite at home in the back of the land rover.

We must have presented an interesting spectacle driving through the bush that night and fortunately we did not encounter any other game vehicles on the drive. The whole scenario would have been very difficult to explain. Getting back to the bungalow brought the conundrum of what to do with her to the fore. Debate went back and forth as to the merits of inviting her in to the bungalow versus simply leaving her to her own devices. The problem was solved when one of us went back to check on her. She was curled up on the back seat of the land rover, having commandeered one of our blankets.  Whether she felt the cold or simply chose to follow a familiar human ritual of bundling up on a cold night, it was clear that she looked comfortable and intended to stay the night.  We were thankful that she had resolved the situation for us by choosing to sleep on the land rover as we all agreed that it would have been uncomfortable for us to have her in the bungalow but we would have felt equally bad to simply turn her out into the night.

Dawn rose the next morning and we were interested to see if the ghost was still there or had left us. There was no sign of her and the blanket she had trussed herself up in the night before lay casually discarded on the floor of the vehicle. It appeared that she had left us but we wondered if she was possibly still there but that we simply could not see her in the bright light of day.  As the day progressed and night started to fall it became apparent to us that she had not left us and was still very much there. It seems that the luminous transparency of a ghost makes them a lot more visible at night and virtually unseen during the daytime.  So we faced a second night with the ghost, unsure of what we were supposed to do, unsure of the purpose of her presence in our lives, unsure of next steps. She eventually started to move about, seemingly more awake and active as the night wore on and she finally walked up to the bungalow and pointed to a shovel leaning against the wall.

It’s interesting to see how much communication can actually occur through gestures and it became quite clear that she wanted us to grab the shovel and follow her, which we did. She hopped back up in the land rover and she pointed the way forward with a delicate finger. We followed her directions into the night, driving deep into the bush on Argyle, eventually coming to a halt under the boughs of a giant wild fig tree.  By now we were communicating quite well with each other and we started digging at an exact spot under the tree, following her clear but silent instruction. The digging soon resulted in the clanging of metal against metal and a long slim box was soon unearthed. Stored within the metal box was a beautiful old rifle, packed in grease and neatly wrapped in oil cloth. We uncovered the rifle under the light of the moon and stared in wonder at it. The ghost in the meantime had been sitting on an old log waiting for us to unearth the prize that she had led us to. After she was sure that we had the rifle in our possession and were not intent on placing it back in the hole we had just excavated, she walked off into the bush.  After a few feet she stopped and gave a shy wave; an apparition in a lace wedding dress, clutching a small posy of flowers. She stopped from time to time and on her last turn I could swear that she gave a broader smile, proving at least that ghosts were able to change their expressions if they wanted to. She certainly gave the impression of being happier. This made us feel better even though we were very perplexed by the whole affair.

We inspected the rifle on our return to the bungalow and were able to ascertain a few things. It was an old Mauser, the type of rifle that the Boers used to lethal effect against the British in the Anglo Boer war. It was in pristine condition and the only aberration to its perfect condition was a series of hundreds of tiny notches carved into the wooden stock. Clearly the owner of the rifle had cared deeply for the rifle, giving it the name “Ou Betsie” which was neatly engraved on the barrel in an elaborate copperplate font. Two empty cartridge shells were wrapped up together with the rifle. We had unearthed a bushveld mystery and we pondered this strange series of events deep into the night. What could the connection be between the ghost and the rifle?  We would soon find out. The answer required less investigative skill than one would think.

The decision was made to talk to Oom Boetman Slabbert. Oom Boetman and his wife were denizens of the bushveld and had lived in the Umbabat area for many years and we decided that if anyone knew about the presence of a ghost on Argyle, it would be them.  We presented ourselves on their doorstep a few days later and after a few knocks we were invited in by the kindly old couple. The living room was in a state of disarray, with a variety of bushveld knick-knacks lying around. Pride of place amongst the various antelope heads and wooden carvings went to a large stuffed leopard in the corner. Its glassy-eyed countenance surveying over all who entered and it presented an obvious but moth-eaten talking point.  We politely listened to the story of how he had been attacked by the leopard one evening and how his short sighted wife had mercifully killed the beast with a single shot. Oom Boetman still walked with a limp after the incident and his only way through the pain was to take frequent sips of medicinal brandy from an old hip-flask.

He positioned himself in an old dusty armchair and scooched around a bit until he was comfortable.

  “A ghost you say? The ghost of a young woman?”  He scratched his head and thought for a while. “ It could be the ghost of Bonnie McPherson “ he said , thinking deeply as if there were many ghosts that he had to eliminate before deciding on the right one.

“A bride? Yes, yes. That was Bonnie. People have been known to see her from time to time. Shame, poor Bonnie, it was a very sad story. How was she looking? “  . We assured him that other than her paleness, she looked fine and seemed in reasonable shape. We gave him an overview of our interactions with her, carefully omitting any detail about finding the gun. We had still not decided what to do about the gun. Half of the group felt it imperative to hand the gun over to the camp management. The other half of the group subscribed to the finders-keepers theory of life and wanted to hang on to it. The matter being largely unsettled, the decision was made not to mention the gun to Oom Boetman lest we added further conflict into a somewhat contentious disagreement.

Oom Boetman settled down further into his chair and spent the next few minutes laboriously stoking his pipe. He emitted plumes of blue smoke into the air until finally he got his pipe to an even burn and began to talk. He would point his pipe accusingly at us from time to time when he needed to emphasize a point.  The discomfort of the old chairs we sat in was alleviated by the heightened enjoyment of listening to a seasoned story-teller.

“You ever wonder where Argyle got its name from. Seems strange to many that in an area where most of the farms are named in Afrikaans or Shangaan that you would have the name Argyle. It seems strangely out of place, but there is a simple enough answer to this. Back in the eighteen hundreds, old man Jock McPherson had come out to South Africa from Scotland looking for white gold, ivory, and hunted these parts as a young man. The locals liked him and got on well with him , what with him being Scottish and them  having a common enemy with the Boerevolk “   For a brief moment Oom Boetman looked a little embarrassed. “ You know, the English “.

“He eventually settled right here and named his farm Argyle, reminding him of his home so far away. He sent away for a wife from Scotland and fairly soon thereafter she arrived; a shy rather sickly young Presbyterian girl from a different world, thrust into the heat and dust and wilderness of the Lowveld.  The travelling predikant from Bushbuckridge married them and pretty soon she was with child. That would be Bonnie. Well things didn’t go as well as planned and soon after Bonnie’s arrival, the mother went down with blackwater fever and died. She is buried here on Argyle but interestingly her ghost has never shown up. Seems her soul was not for the bushveld and if she is roaming somewhere, it’s probably around a loch somewhere back in Scotland. Bonnie grew up with Jock as her father and companion and they formed a very strong and inseparable bond. She never went to school but instead she learned to ride and hunt and shoot and apparently she made a fine bushveld haggis for Jock, using bits and pieces of the impala instead of the sheep like they would have in Scotland.  Life was good for both of them until Hermanus Lottering arrived one day and swept her off her feet. “

The story was briefly interrupted by Oom Boetman’s wife who presented us with a tray of coffee and koeksusters. She didn’t say much other than she shook her head and muttered how wild bushveld men were known to disrupt the lives of decent young women.  There was something clearly autobiographical in her statement and Oom Boetman rolled his eyes and gave an apologetic shrug.

“Hermanus Lottering was a transport rider who led an ox-wagon from Pilgrim’s Rest to Delagoa Bay in Portuguese East Africa and he passed through the area frequently often stopping on the various farms where he would enjoy a home cooked meal and spin hunting stories to the farmers around the fire at night. It seems he had an eye for the ladies and he left a trail of broken hearts right through the bushveld. Bonnie and he were soon in love and were betrothed to be married. Jock was delighted that his beautiful young daughter had found herself a strapping young man.  The people in the district were excited for the wedding but unfortunately the damn Englishmen started the war and all plans were put on hold as the young men in the district mounted up and rode off to war. It would be a few years before Hermanus and Bonnie would see each other again.”

It seemed as if we had unearthed an interesting story and we fidgeted while Oom Boetman once again fired up his pipe as the tobacco had long burned out. We waited patiently for him to complete his ritual and for him to start off again. 

“Let me tell you something about Hermanus Lottering. A braver man there never was.  Of course all the boers were brave, but Hermanus was the bravest of them all. He was an excellent shot and pretty soon he and his trusty Mauser which he called “Ou Betsie” were cutting a path of destruction through the British. He killed a whole platoon, then a company, even a brigade of the despised rooinekke, all by himself. He was a good Christian man though and he buried each man that he shot after saying a brief prayer asking God to forgive them for their stupidity for fighting against the Boers. He made a small notch on his rifle stock with his knip-mes for each man he killed. Legend has it that there were many hundreds of notches on his rifle. Stories of his bravery went far and wide.  The British eventually gave a wide berth to the whole eastern Transvaal, for fear of running into him. Roberts, Kitchener and Milner all of them, quaked in their boots when his name was mentioned. Even the name of de la Rey did not cause as much anxiety in the British camps as did Lottering. Brave was not really sufficient enough of a word to describe him though. He became a god, a legend and all the while Bonnie remained faithfully waiting for him at Argyle. Waiting for the day when the war would be over so they could marry and live the life she wanted. “

Oom Boetman was a marvelous story-teller yet I had some doubt as to the veracity of his story. I had a reasonable knowledge about the Boer War and this chap Lottering was unknown to me, although I was by no means an expert, so it was hard for me to quibble. Oom Boetman must have sensed some of my skepticism as he stopped and with pointed pipe, addressed the issue head on.  “The war continues to be a divide between us Boers and you English “He was sadly correct as neither side had not moved on very much in the last hundred years.  “Lottering may have been a Boer scoundrel to your forebears, but to us, he was indeed a hero. A magnificent but flawed man. You should look him up, there are many stories written about him “

He continued his story after having suitably admonished me.

“Well Lottering returned to Argyle after the war and plans for the wedding started at once. It must be said though, that while Lottering was a brave man and a hero of the war, things had changed for him during the conflict. His greatness had somehow had a pernicious effect on his character. Never a modest man, he had become vainglorious and proud and rather pompous and self-important. Always a ladies man, he now unfortunately started to attract the attentions of the kind of woman who is drawn to a man of this sort and he soon became secretly enamored of a young woman named Elsie Brink. She was a Jezebel if ever there was one and the two of them secretly planned to elope. Unfortunately for Bonnie Mc Pherson, this all became a bit of a mess and on the very day of her wedding she found that Hermanus Lottering and Elsie Brink had absconded in his ox-wagon and she was literally jilted at the altar. Now the altar was a stump of an old ironwood tree that had been lugged into the boma at Argyle, but it was an altar nonetheless and it became the site of great sorrow and grief for Bonnie and for Jock Mc Pherson. You can imagine the scandal and the uproar that ensued. People had come for miles around to attend the wedding and now the disappearance of Lottering meant that the wedding party was in jeopardy. The men and women had put on their dancing shoes and were ready for a big opskop and the smell of the ox braaiing on the spit and the jugs of peach brandy sitting in the shade of the stoep created a dilemma for the guests. To partake would be a great sign of disrespect to the jilted bride, yet to let it all go to waste would be an even greater shame. The bushveld ensemble that had been tuning their instruments ready to belt out a rendition of “here comes the bride“ sat there disconsolately, not sure about what to do next. It appears that a mournful dirge would have been more appropriate”

“To add to the confusion Jock and Bonnie had disappeared. It was assumed that Jock had ridden off in pursuit of Lottering and Elsie. Bonnie, God bless her, had run off into the bush, inconsolable in her grief. Search parties set off and their findings were not good. Some miles away the ox wagon of Lottering was found under the shade of a wild fig tree and on closer inspection Lottering and Elsie Brink were both found lying side by side on a feather mattress in the back of the covered wagon. Each lay there with a bright crimson patch on their chest. Only an expert marksman could have placed the bullets through the hearts of these two with such deadly accuracy. Funnily enough, great shot that he was, Lottering was not able to protect himself and his trusty rifle “Ou Betsie “ was nowhere to be found, and it was clear that the shots to the hearts were Mauser shots ”

Oom Boetman stopped and sighed. The story had a clear impact on him and he waited a while, composing himself, dabbing at his eyes with an old handkerchief. He continued after taking a gulp of his coffee which had now gone completely cold.

“Well of course the local constable had been at the wedding and he and a few of the young guests soon rounded up Jock. They placed him in cuffs and took him off to the gaol at Hoedpruit. Jock long protested his innocence but of course the law took its course and he was eventually tried and convicted of murder. Poor Jock, they hung him in the jail in Pretoria. Some say he was innocent but it was right after the war and sentiment ran high amongst the Boerevolk. Jock may have been a Scot and not an Englishman, but people didn’t care too much at that point. He was British enough to make him guilty and of course he had killed a great hero of the Boer War, so his fate was sealed.”

With that Oom Boetman sat back and looked at us with the air of a man who has just successfully completed telling a great story, except of course he had left out one very important point, he had neglected to tell us what had happened to Bonnie and needed to be prompted to properly finish the story.

“Ah yes Bonnie, well that was a tragedy. She ran off after the wedding as you know, being inconsolable in her grief and all of that. Of course the lions must have got her. A few months later all that was found of her were a few of her bones and the remains of her tattered wedding dress under some thorn bushes. Right here on Argyle. So that explains why we see her ghost here from time to time. A sad story, a very sad story indeed”

With that Oom Boetman stood up and bade us all good night and went off to bed.

As good a story as it was, there were still some unresolved questions which troubled us. The issue of the gun was never satisfactorily resolved and remains a point of contention to this day. While we have never agreed on the rightful disposition of the gun, we all agree that it helped us solve the real riddle of the ghost of Bonnie McPherson.

A gunsmith of some repute had appraised the rifle after the finders – keeper’s faction of the family had run the gun through the bushveld checkpoint all the way to Johannesburg. He was duly informed of the story that the gun belonged to a Boer war hero named Lottering who had apparently killed a good many hundreds of British soldiers judging by the notches on the stock.

After careful evaluation over the next few days, the gunsmith summonsed us to share his verdict.

“Ladies and gentlemen I have some interesting news. It’s clearly an authentic old Mauser rifle from the Boer war. Quite valuable really and the interesting inscription on the rifle barrel can certainly be tied back to one Hermanus Lottering. It seems he was a young veldkornet who rode under Viljoen so your old chap Boetman was certainly correct in that part of his story. Only thing is, the lack of pitting in the barrel suggests that this rifle was never fired. Or if it was fired, it was only fired once or twice. Certainly if Lottering killed hundreds of British soldiers, he didn’t do it with this rifle. These two cartridges that came with it were probably the only two shots ever fired with this rifle. He smiled wistfully “A rifle like this deserved to be put to good use. I do hope the shooter put those two shots right on target. The beauty of this rifle is that someone neatly packed it away after use, took their time to grease it and wrap it in oil cloth. Where did you say you found it? In an old metal case buried under a tree? Well it’s quite obvious that the person who buried this rifle meant for it to be found later.”

 

Footnote:

For those of you who did not get the full story, either because you were not paying attention or because of the subtlety of the ending, let me make sure I spell this out for you.

Poor Jock was clearly wrongfully accused and the person who placed those heart shots was indeed Bonnie McPherson. She was a good shot and she was able to exact her revenge against the philandering Lottering and the wanton Elsie. It also seems that Lottering was not quite the war hero he made himself out to be.

Why Bonnie chose us to be the stewards of her mystery we will never know. I suspect she thought we were kind people who would ensure that her story would be told. She has never been seen since so we can only hope her soul is now finally at rest.

The rifle situation was never resolved and years later the debate still rages about what to do with it. Fortunately it has never been fired again.

Ingwelala reserve consists of four separate farms; Argyle, Si-Bon, Buffelsbed and Op Goedehoop. Argyle stands out as the only English name in the area which is populated with the likes of Ntsiri, Umbabat, and Ndlopfu etc. . . . It has always been a bit of an outlier to me.  Now that I write this, Si-Bon also stands out as the only French sounding name in the district. Might make for another story?

This story is entirely fictional and all characters in it are not based on any living people.

 

© R Muller