October 23, 2017

 

Lucky Anton

 
 
 

Even after the Judge had pronounced the verdict, still there remained a certain degree of confusion in the minds of many of us who were present in the court upon that day.

And this, I believe, was particularly so within the circles of those of us who knew more of the events that led up to the tragic deaths upon which the Judge had declared his verdict.

It is altogether possible that the confusion to which I refer arose, in part at least, from an acquaintance with the intricacies and complexities of the legal profession which was less extensive than that of those learned men who wore wigs and black gowns, and had real collars on their shirts (which were washed each and every single week) and who wore socks under their veldskoens, even.

That may indeed have been so. Nevertheless, there seemed to us -- or to me, at least -- to have been many unanswered questions concerning the untimely deaths of those two persons to whom the learned advocates and the Judge continually referred as the "Deceased" (this, as if they were suffering from some infectious condition and would better have been confined within the government disease isolation clinic at Blesbokfontein than in the government morgue at Witbank). But that will be as it may.

The court case to which I refer is, of course, the celebrated trial of Sannetjie Van Wyk, the mother of "Lucky" Anton Van Wyk, the latter being, before his tragic and untimely death, my very closest friend.

Anton -- people said -- had been born with every advantage that could possibly be extended to any mortal by the Almighty.

Some people -- either from envy or smallness of spirit -- (the latter, regrettably, not being an altogether uncommon characteristic in the Calvinistic platteland) some people even went so far as to say that if it had been possible for the Almighty to err (which, of course, it was not) then it would, possibly, have been the excusable fault of excessive generosity in the extent of His bounteous gifts bestowed upon the unworthy Anton Van Wyk.

And there may, indeed, have been a degree of truth in these assertions. For Anton was big of stature, handsome in appearance, and of even and pleasant disposition. Added to these advantages, Anton had been born into an old family well-established in both social standing and financial security.

People said that Anton had always been lucky, and indeed this had been his nickname since childhood: the name his family and friends called him: "Gelukke Anton."

But this was not correct in the strictly truest sense.

Not at the time to which I refer, at least, because at that particular time Anton was dead. And further, it was generally accepted among those people who had given the matter any serious consideration, that he had died in the most unlucky of circumstances.

But the question that confused us at the time (and still, I confess, confuses me, at least, even now) is whether Anton was murdered, or died as the result of a most unfortunate accident, or whether he committed suicide, even.

In order to allow you the opportunity to judge the facts for yourselves, I shall attempt to relate at least some of the more significant circumstances leading to his untimely passing.

In a fit of deep depression -- it was said -- Anton Van Wyk had jumped from the roof of the block of flats in Yeovil (which is in Johannesburg) in which his mother and stepfather lived. They no longer live there, of course, because Anton's stepfather also died (shortly after Anton) and Anton's mother subsequently re-married and moved to other, more suitable accommodation, with her third husband.

A fall from that tall block of flats in Yeovil, Johannesburg, would certainly have killed most men, but Lucky Anton was unharmed by the descent itself. By a miraculous occasion of fortune, the workmen who had been painting the flats had had insufficient time (or commitment) to remove the safety net below the scaffolding, which they had partially dismantled. And it was into this net that Lucky Anton fell.

But even the very best quality sort of net could not have protected Anton from the shotgun wounds that he sustained during his fall.

And at this juncture I shall lead you to the farm called "Ver Genoeg", near Vreedendaal, for this is where I believe that the whole problem originated.

Anton's mother was a beautiful woman in those days: and still is, although her cornflower hair is greyer now, and her eyes sadder, more wrinkled and less strikingly blue. But her heart was crushed in tragic circumstances when Koos, her first husband and Anton's father, was shot and killed on their farm by a robber who was never apprehended. It was a senseless act of brutality, for nothing was stolen from the farm and it had, then, to be assumed that Koos Van Wyk had had disturbed the robber during the commission of his crime.

Anton attended the memorial service to honour the name of his departed father at the Nederduitse Gereformeerde Kerk in Vreedendaal, and of course Tjokkie Sonnekus and I were with him to lend comfort and support on that very saddest of days.

In fact it was Tjokkie Sonnekus who provided the bottle in a brown paper packet from which Anton sipped -- to calm himself -- before his ordeal in the Gereformeerde Kerk in Vreedendaal.

But we left the Kerk, -- Anton, Tjokkie and I -- soon after Anton (who had, by that stage, calmed himself to a significant degree) likened Predikant Du Plooy to a "kaffir piss pot" when the Predikant said those things about Anton's father's tragic death being the will of the Lord. And those other things he also said about Anton's mother having the right to future happiness, and to choose with whom she wished to spend the rest of her life.

For, in her bereaved and vulnerable state, Anton's mother had fallen for support into the arms of that very same Predikant, Gerrit Du Plooy.

It was perhaps natural that this should happen, for Du Plooy had been a good friend and regular visitor at the Van Wyk farm prior to Koos' untimely demise. Indeed, in a selfless act of friendship and support of the bereaved widow he had even moved into the farm shortly thereafter, in order to assist her in those aspects of farm management with which a woman could not reasonably be expected to be fully acquainted.

Some of the conservative volk of Vreedendaal had whispered, then, that the liaison was unseemly -- or at least untimely -- and some went so far as to say that the Predikant had visited the farm far too frequently before Koos died even; and sometimes in the late afternoon or early evening, as well, when Koos had not been there, either.

And it should at this stage be noted that Lucky Anton was one of those people.

He went so far as say -- to the police constable at Witbank, even -- that it was a very strange coincidence that the bullet that killed his father had been fired from a .44 calibre revolver. For a few days after the murder of Koos Van Wyk, Predikant Du Plooy had made a report to the police station at Vreedendaal, that his very own .44 calibre Ruger revolver had been stolen. And that was not found at the time, either, although of course it may have been that it was stolen from Du Plooy by the robber, who then proceeded to the Van Wyk farm, shot Koos, and escaped with Du Plooy's revolver.

The police at Witbank had, naturally, in the course of their normal business, considered Lucky Anton's suspicions concerning the disappearance of Du Plooy's revolver in some detail.

They had even gone so far as to ask Predikant Du Plooy a number of well-considered questions about his own whereabouts around the time when Koos Van Wyk was shot. The police investigations had, of course, eventually come to nothing when the many subtle and searching questions presented by the police constable from Witbank were met by a similar number of vague and confusing answers from Predikant Gerrit Du Plooy.

But many of the conservative folk of Vreedendaal were still perturbed that the Predikant of their Gereformeerde Kerk should have taken up with the widow of his dead friend so soon after her bereavement. And further, they expressed concern that their Predikant should own a revolver of a calibre as large as a .44 magnum.

It was unbecoming, they said, that the Predikant of the Nederduitse Gereformeerde Kerk at Vreedendaal should feel the need for a .44 revolver, when the Predikant of the Gereformeerde Kerk at Vosloosrus felt no requirement for a revolver of any larger than a .38 calibre.

They said it might be perceived as an insult to the dorp of Vreedendaal: almost. It seemed to suggest to the burghers of Vosloosrus -- and other dorps in the Transvaal platteland -- that Vreedendaal was a more dangerous place to live in, than Vosloosrus or the other dorps; or that the burghers of Vreedendaal were somehow less law-abiding or upstanding than the burghers of the other dorps.

And the conservative burghers of Vreedendaal told the moderators of their Gereformeerde Kerk, further, that they felt this degree of unease not only because their Predikant had felt the need for a revolver of greater calibre than the Predikant of Vosloosrus, but also that their Predikant had lost his revolver, even.

It was burden enough - the conservative burghers said -- that the burghers of Vosloosrus and the other dorps should think that Vreedendaal was a more dangerous place to live in than their own dorps, or that the burghers of Vreedendaal were less law-abiding. Yes, that alone was bad enough, they said. But for it also to be known by the burghers of Vosloosrus and the other dorps, that the Predikant of the Vreedendaal Kerk was also more careless than the Predikant of the Kerk at Vosloosrus or the other dorps, (and in particular, more careless with guns, even) well, that was altogether more than the conservative burghers of any dorp could be expected to accept.

It came to pass that Predikant Du Plooy discovered, at around this time, that the pressures of his ministry at the Gereformeerde Kerk at Vreedendaal, combined with the duties he had voluntarily assumed at the farm belonging to the Van Wyk widow, were of such a burdensome nature that his health was being affected.

With a heavy heart and despite numerous entreaties from his congregation, (he told the final meeting of the Gereformeerde Kerk Moderators) he felt compelled, reluctantly, to resign his ministry at the Gereformeerde Kerk at Vreedendaal.

Ex-Predikant Du Plooy told his neighbours that he felt a deep gratitude towards his congregation when all of them stayed away from his final Sunday morning service because they were so saddened by his imminent departure that they felt they would be unable to control their sadness.

This was all very many years ago, of course, but I still remember, clearly, "Lucky" Anton telling Tjokkie Sonnekus and me, in the car as we left the memorial service (after Anton had called his future stepfather a kaffir piss pot) that one day he would shoot the bastard who had murdered his father.

Thinking back now, it would have been better if Anton had shot Du Plooy, rather! For the life of Anton's mother had been a misery almost from the day that she married the man who had been the Predikant of the Gereformeerde Kerk at Vreedendaal.

For Du Plooy had soon become jealous, and violent towards her. When he was unwell, (and taking medicinal brandywyn to control the malady) he had often beaten and tormented her. And so merciless had the beatings become that even the conservative volk of Vreedendaal who had once questioned the propriety of her liaison with Du Plooy, began then, to question why she should remain with him.

Once, she had been in sufficient misery to contact Anton, on the telephone, even, telling her son, in a terrified and trembling voice, what Du Plooy had done.

On that occasion, gravely ill, and having taken even more medicine than was normal, Du Plooy had taken his double-barreled shotgun and pointed it at the window of the flat into which they had moved after they were forced to sell the farm in order to pay for his ongoing medical treatment. He had then pulled one trigger, blowing out the frame of the window, shattering glass and splintering wood, and leaving heavy pellets embedded in the plaster. Then he had pointed the weapon at Anton's mother and slowly pulled the second trigger.

And he had laughed at her terror, because he had deliberately not loaded the second barrel.

"One day," she had told Anton later, "I will myself load both barrels of the shotgun, and I will blow out a window in the flat. And then I will point the gun at him and pull the second trigger!"

I know this, for Anton told me himself when we were sadly drinking peach mampoer at Loftus Versveld after a rugby match when the Engelsmen from Natal -- with the help of an Engelse referee -- had beaten our beloved team.

Anton had wanted then, and at many other times (he told me), to thrash his mother's tormentor, and to throw him from the window of the flat. But his mother had begged him against such action, for she was a sweet and gentle-natured woman, and loved her son dearly, not wanting to cause him any further trouble.

But the words Anton told me his mother had used at that time, have stayed in my memory ever since. For she told him, then: " ... It is I who have made this terrible mistake, and it is I who must pay for it."

And it was these words as much as anything that was said at the trial of Anton's mother, (for the murder of her husband and her son) which have caused me the confusion to which I earlier referred.

Tjokkie Sonnekus and I attended each of the nine days that were required to hear the confusing evidence relating to this unusual saga, and we both listened with deep concentration to the harrowing (and often conflicting) evidence. Together we watched the misery of Lucky Anton's mother as she sat with quiet dignity, eyes downcast, pale, drawn and trembling, as one terrible detail followed another in dreadful procession.

A tragically beautiful woman was being slowly destroyed before our very eyes.

And yet, in a strange way that I am unable to explain to you, there was an unmistakable change during the last few days of the trial. The change in no way related to the manner of Anton's mother, who remained small: tragic: alone: defeated. It concerned, more, the manner in which she was treated by the Judge (with his collar and wig and his black gown, and with real woollen socks under his veldskoens, as well). And also the manner in which she came to be treated by her accusers, even.

It was Tjokkie Sonnekus -- who sat with me on each of the days (except the second Wednesday, after a rugby dinner the previous night when he had eaten something which did not agree with him, and was unwell) -- who first pointed out the change to me.

The Judge's clerk -- Tjokkie noted, with an astuteness to which I was unaccustomed -- the Judge's clerk had brought a glass of water to the table where Anton's mother sat. And the water had ice in it, even. It was a hot day, but not as hot as the previous day, when even the native dogs had not left the sparse shadow of the single thorn tree outside the courthouse; or the day before that, which had been even hotter, almost. And on those days the Judge had not permitted water to be taken to the prisoner. A prisoner could not normally expect Judges' clerks to run around after him (or her), attending to his (or her) every whim, as if those Judges' clerks were like the native waiters at the seaside in Durban when you have driven down to the coast from the Transvaal for ten days holiday in December. No, that was not how business was normally conducted in the courts of the Transvaal in those days.

As the days passed, however, the Judge seemed to become less harsh on the defendant and more amenable to the objections of the defense advocate who had been hired by Anton's mother. And the Judge began to interrupt the attorney who was prosecuting the case against Anton's mother, correcting him and telling him he was "out of order" when a lonely breeze blew the prosecuting attorney's papers onto the floor and the prosecuting attorney had not had the time to put them back in the correct sequence.

And Tjokkie Sonnekus and I were not the only people who noticed this subtle change in the attitude of the Judge.

The defense attorney who was representing Anton's mother became aware of it also, and that man -- growing hourly in confidence in the glowing light of his new-found acceptance -- stood taller, puffing out his chest, throwing out his left foot further and thrusting his thumbs ever deeper into the pockets of his dark striped waistcoat as he attacked the evidence of a succession of prosecution witnesses.

There was also a change in the collective attitude of the conservative volk of Vreedendaal as they sat in the visitors' gallery garbed in their Sunday best finery. And this, I noted, was the case even amongst those who had once questioned the wisdom of Anton's mother in choosing a new partner so soon after the death of her first husband.

Their initial muted condemning whispers slowly became audible utterances of sympathy towards the defendant, as more and more sordid details of the ill treatment to which Anton's mother had been subjected, became shameful public knowledge.

One thing only, remained unchanged throughout those long, hot days. And that was the demeanour of the accused woman. In her grief she seemed have no concern as to what the fates held in store for her, for they had already done their worst. And we all (in the visitors' gallery, at least) mentally bowed our heads with her and wished that, by any means, her pain could be over.

The prosecutor was strangely subdued in his summing up of the case, and he seemed almost embarrassed when he demanded (deferentially) the supreme penalty allowed by law if either count of murder was found to be proved beyond reasonable doubt.

The defense attorney, in stark contrast, spoke for slightly more than three hours: his chest now even more visibly puffed. He strutted back and forth in front of the jury, and on at least two occasions, (although there may well have been more) he actually turned his back on the Judge without being cuffed or rebuked, even, by his Worship. Moreover, when his papers were blown to the floor by another rare gust of wind, and then he could not find them all, even, and the ones he did find were all jumbled up, the Judge did not call him to put them in order, either. This I noticed even before Tjokkie Sonnekus brought it to my attention.

Finally the Judge called a short recess, which time he needed -- he said -- to confer with the prosecution and defense attorneys, and then with the accused herself to clarify a few points in the notes he had taken during the course of the trial.

We discussed the case quietly amongst ourselves, Tjokkie Sonnekus and I, during this final break in proceedings as we stood behind the high fence by the courthouse (for this was not Johannesburg, and there was no small room for the convenience of menfolk). But we could reach no consensus with regard to the probable verdict, and as a woman's life hung precariously in the balance, it was with feelings of considerable trepidation that we responded to the bell rung by a black man summoning us back to the courtroom.

The Judge, during the course of his lengthy summing up instructions to the jury had then, with admirable ability, summarised the facts in this confusing case, as far as they were known.

He reminded the jury that, in the testimony of Anton's mother, (to whom he referred as a credible and honest witness) she had admitted to firing the shotgun blasts that had ended the lives of both her husband and her very own beloved son. Those facts were uncontested, he informed the jury.

He then refreshed their minds concerning her other testimony, reminding them that the lady had -- with great sincerity -- reconstructed the events of that day when the two men died.

Upon that fateful afternoon Gerrit Du Plooy had, to counteract exceptional pain, taken very much more of his medicinal brandywyn than would normally have been prescribed by a person more recognisably qualified in the medical profession.

And Du Plooy had again beaten his wife, but so severely that she had telephoned her son, in desperation, begging him to meet her and take her away from "that madman" who had so tormented her.

"Lucky" Anton (although the Judge did not refer to him as such) had driven for three hours at great speeds from his farm in the Northern Transvaal in order to come to her assistance.

Gerrit Du Plooy had continued in the interim to seek relief from his pain, becoming more confused and unwell, and his temper correspondingly more malevolent. An altercation between the two men had been the inevitable result of Anton's arrival, and Du Plooy (being far smaller and lighter than Anton) had staggered to the bedroom and returned with a .44 calibre revolver, with which he threatened the younger man and his mother.

Du Plooy waved the revolver dangerously, (Anton's mother had testified) shouting that he had already dealt with one Van Wyk, and that a couple more would be a matter of only the very smallest concern to him.

Anton had been devastated by the confession (Anton's mother had further testified) and it had only been her ardent pleas that had finally persuaded Anton that he should leave without further delay, in order not to precipitate any further disaster.

Sobbing quietly, she had related to the court what were to be the last words that she would ever speak to her son.

"Ek lief vir jou, seun" ("I love you, son.")

Lucky Anton had then left the flat, while she attempted to calm her husband, Gerrit Du Plooy. But it had been to no avail and eventually, in mortal fear for her own life, she had reached for the shotgun and fired a warning shot out of the window in the hope that it would bring her husband to his senses.

A woman could not be expected to understand -- the Judge patiently explained to the jury -- that such an action would be likely further to infuriate a man holding a gun, and particularly, (the Judge placed great emphasis upon this point) if that man was in any way confused or disorientated.

On this occasion the Judge had, indeed, been correct in his observation, because the warning shot had infuriated the befuddled Du Plooy (Anton's mother had told the court) and he had again raised the revolver and pointed it at her.

The Judge paused then for a moment to allow the jury the opportunity to understand the tragedy of the situation before continuing in a soft voice. " ... And in a final and belated act of self-preservation, she shot him with the second barrel of the shotgun."

The accused could remember no more until the police constable -- in response to a report concerning the gunfire -- had broken into the flat and revived her. The constable had testified that Du Plooy had been found lying in a pool of his own blood, with most of the back of his head missing, and a .44 calibre Ruger revolver still clasped firmly in his left hand.

The poor woman, so recently widowed for the second time, had again fainted when informed by the sympathetic police constable that her son had also died from shotgun wounds, and his body lay in a net above the pavement below her window.

The Judge had been uncustomarily precise in his final instructions to the twelve just men of the jury.

The charge of murder required proof of what he referred to as "intent" -- which he clarified for the benefit of those amongst us who were not so legally informed -- as meaning that the murderer (or murderess) had actually meant to kill the victim.

The Judge further instructed the jurors that in his opinion, (which he informed them was a much more legal sort of opinion than any of their own opinions) -- in his opinion this "intent" could not be proved to the satisfaction of even an ordinary sort of a person who did not have a legal opinion, because Anton's mother could not have known at what precise instant her son Anton would have been passing the window through which she had discharged the shotgun. This was even more so -- he told them -- because according to Anton's mother's evidence -- which he had no reason to disbelieve in this matter -- according to her evidence, Anton had neglected to inform his mother of his intention to jump off the roof at all, even.

The Judge said many other things, also. But what confused my non-legal mind most were the things about which he said nothing.

Things like the unresolved discrepancies in witnesses' evidence about the timing between the two shotgun blasts. Or the apparent lack of alcohol in the blood of Gerrit Du Plooy. And some other things, also, like the simple native who mistakenly thought that the white man had fallen from the window, (which had been blown out by the shotgun blast) rather than from the roof. Or the discovery of quantities of Anton's blood on the windowsill, which may, of course -- as the defense attorney had surmised -- have come from when Anton had cut himself when shaving, earlier. And of course it was quite possible that Du Plooy may, indeed, have chosen to hold the heavy revolver in his left hand, even though he had been right-handed.

We agreed with the Judge though, when he said that much of the evidence had been vague and contradictory.

But so obvious was his sympathy for the bereaved mother that it came as no surprise, (to those of us who had taken the time to follow the case in its entirety) when the jury came back -- after a mere few minutes of deliberation -- and returned a verdict of "Not Guilty" with regard to both charges of murder.

Now I am not that sort of a man who would begrudge any person happiness, (particularly after such a series of tragic losses) so I was pleased for Anton's mother when she found love again and married the Judge soon after the conclusion of her courtroom ordeal.

But even after all these years, I cannot, still, rid myself of the deep inner feeling that I knew "Lucky" Anton in a far more intimate manner than the learned Judge. Nor can I dispel completely, the nagging belief that Anton was not that sort of a man who would take his own life. Not even in the dreadful circumstances which I have sadly recorded here for your consideration.

But what has caused me the deepest concern over all these many years, is the unshakeable conviction that Anton would have strangled, with his very own hands, even, any person of the Good Lord's creation who had harmed his beloved father, Koos.

Except his mother: maybe.

Article © KK Brown. All rights reserved.
Published on 2006-05-08


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