Howard Woolf came striding toward me. I could clearly make out the star-shaped scar on the right-hand side of his forehead. I had once been obliged to remove a shell splinter from his skull under the most adverse circumstances.
We human beings tend to transfigure events in our past, no matter how awful they were at the time. I had met many old soldiers who enthused about magnificent battles in which they’d driven the enemy before them like hounds pursuing a terrified fox. It was as if war to them were just a welcome escape from the monotony of civilian life.
In 1900, I myself had volunteered to serve as a medical officer in the British Army’s South African campaign against the Boers-European settlers of largely Dutch extraction.
My initial enthusiasm soon gave way to disillusionment. The field hospitals were inadequately equipped. They lacked not only drugs and dressings but also food and clean drinking water. Many more casualties were sustained as a result of successive typhus epidemics than of actual combat. Death surrounded us on every side, and death in its nastiest, most squalid guise.
It was in these chaotic conditions that we medical officers had to perform surgical operations-for instance, the removal of some shrapnel deeply embedded in the skull of Howard Woolf, then a young NCO.
I had received an invitation from Woolf some weeks before. The former soldier had settled in Cape Province and was running a farm north of Cape Town. And so, after over a decade, I once more set foot on South African soil and found myself looking up from the quayside at the mighty bulk of Table Mountain. The outskirts of the rapidly growing city now extended almost as far as its rocky gray flanks.
“Welcome, Sir Arthur!” Woolf shook my hand. He had intended his invitation to be a token of his gratitude. Were it not for me, as he put it in his letter, he would have bled to death in the Boer War. He would never have been fortunate enough to found a family and farm his land.
Howard Woolf was now a strapping man of thirty-five. In order to welcome me with due ceremony, he had squeezed into a dark suit that had patently become too small for him.
I drew a deep breath and loosened my shirt collar. England had sent me on my way with fog and rain, whereas the heat prevailing here was exceptional even for this part of the world.
Two black porters trudged past us, groaning under the weight of several suitcases. Following them at a distance where a young man and his wife, who was sheltering from the blazing sun beneath a parasol. I detected from snatches of their conversation that they were Boers.
“How are you all getting along together these days?” I asked Woolf in a low voice. “Things are slowly improving,” he replied. “Some of my neighbors are Boers. On the land, it’s important to let bygones be bygones and help one another.”
He led the way to his automobile and stowed my luggage aboard. We got in and he drove off. “A Wolseley,” I remarked as the vehicle jolted along a potholed road. “I used to own a somewhat older model.