“Ruud Bongers’s mother,” Woolf told me, raising his hand in greeting.
The old woman responded with a nod. At close range, she looked like a mummy, with tiny little eyes and a wrinkled face. The little black flies that had plagued me earlier had settled on her head and around her eyes. She twitched briefly only when one of the insects tried to crawl into her half-open mouth.
A thickset man with hands the size of dustpans emerged from the front door. He removed his pipe from his mouth, gave me an appraising glance, and turned to my companion.
“What is it, Woolf?” He spoke English with a strong accent, but he did at least refrain from addressing us in Afrikaans.
“My car has broken down. A problem with the radiator,” said Woolf. He proceeded to introduce me to Ruud Bongers.
“Well, well,” was the Boer’s sole response. He stared past us as if hoping that we would simply disappear.
I was surprised. Hadn’t Woolf just told me that people out here helped one another regardless of their origin?
“Howard!” Ruud Bongers was firmly elbowed aside by a dainty, little red-haired woman. “Please come in and bring your friend with you.”
“His car has packed up,” Bongers growled.
“Well,” said the woman, “Howard wouldn’t ask us for help unless the problem was a serious one.”
“I could repair the car with some tools and the right materials,” Woolf said. “We wouldn’t want to presume on your hospitality for no good reason.”
I bowed and introduced myself to Mevrou Bongers.
“Sir Arthur is a brilliant doctor,” said Woolf, touching his scar. “I would have died but for him.”
Bongers came to life. “All right, Woolf, let’s see if we can find something useful in the barn. Then we’ll go and see your car.”
He lit an oil lamp and led the way. I made to follow the two men, but Mevrou Bongers asked me to stay. “I doubt if a doctor will be required to help repair the vehicle, and I’m sure you’re rather hungry.”
Minutes later I was seated in front of a bowl of delicious lamb stew. The parlor was sparsely furnished but clean as a new pin.
The old woman had followed us in and subsided onto a chair beside the stove, whence she watched me with her tiny little eyes.
The petite but determined woman with the long red hair was, as I had supposed, Ruud Bongers’s wife. Her name was Tessa.
For a while, she questioned me about life in England and, more particularly, about my work as a doctor. My name meant nothing to her, so I refrained from mentioning my literary activities. I have never approved of self-advertisement.
I had scarcely finished my stew when Tessa Bongers disclosed the reason for her interest in my medical knowledge.
“My daughter is sick. Might I ask you to examine her?” I rose at once. “By all means,” I told her.
We ascended a narrow staircase that led to an attic room under the eaves, where a little girl was lying in bed. There was a mobile above her head: some carved wooden elves, slowly rotating.