Martin Marsick was a brilliant, if extremely emotional man. When he returned to Paris in 1903, he was penniless and an outcast. Back in those days society frowned on his failed marriage, especially the way he deserted his wife in 1900 to elope with the wife of a friend. Before that fateful adventure, he was a highly respected musician and any of his performances on his violin (produced by Antonio Stradivari in 1705) was lauded as a tour de force.
When he was approached by the young Jan Bantjes, he gladly accepted him as a student in 1907. Jan – whose name was anglicised to John – was the grandson of the similarly named man; although he never spoke about his grandparent in public. The reference to slavery was still very much a moral debate and roots indicating such a background, created a social divide. However, the original Jan Bandjies was famous in his own right. He was the man who drew up the treaty with Dingaan for Piet Retief, worked closely with Andries Pretorius and later taught Paul Kruger to read and write. It was the family’s success in the goldfield that provided the finances for John Bantjes to further his musical studies overseas.
In Paris John also met the one-legged woman that so influenced his future. This lady of ill-repute took the young John under her wing (in a manner of speaking) and provided food and lodging, amongst other things. Here John met Jack Dawson, an energetic young man with an unusual talent for doing charcoal drawings. Jack was fascinated by the female form in various degrees of dress and undress – but not because, as his friends assumed, for the erotic portrayal of the female form. His speciality was hands. He would spend hours and hours with a model to get the hands exactly right.
It was Jack who started talking about going to America. Here was the new era, the new horizon that beckoned to adventurous young men with big dreams. Jack insisted he would go, despite the fact that he had no money.
John was more methodical. In the beginning of 1912 there was talk about a new ship that would sail regularly between the New World and England. The employment agents, Messrs FN and CW Black of Liverpool, then advertised for ‘men of calibre and integrity’ to apply for work as waiters, porters, cooks and…entertainers. Wallace Hartley called for musicians to present themselves in South Hampton for auditions, and here John Bantjes met the distinguished Belgian violinist, Georges Krins. Hartley couldn’t decide who was the better of the two and suggested they flip a coin. Krins called heads, and so earned his place amongst the musicians onboard the RMS Titanic.
John Bantjes was devastated. He was amongst the crowd that watched the great ship leaving harbour on April 10, 1912. He also saw – in complete surprise – his friend Jack Dawson disappearing up the gangway at the last minute. At his shouted question, Jack turned around, waved his ticket in the air triumphantly, and shouted the single word: Poker!
On his return to Paris, John said a sad goodbye to the lady who had been so good to him. On parting, she said something he’d never forget.
“You’re going back to your country now, John, and it is right that you do so. I will miss you, but the call of your homeland is now stronger than your desire to stay. I have little to give you, except a bit of wisdom I’ve picked up over the years.” She took his hands and held them tightly. “Everything happens with a purpose. And never, never aim for the top. It gets hot up there. Be satisfied with what you have and make peace with your circumstances. Aim just a little lower, and you’ll have a life of joy and happiness. You’ll see: when you think about me, you’ll understand.”
Over the years, the descendants of John Bantjes followed many paths. Some became doctors and engineers, but none of them ever served on a board or acted as a chairman. From father to son, the wisdom of the French woman was conveyed as part of their upbringing. Although her name has been forgotten, her wisdom still endures and the children of the children of John Bantjes remain true to his wishes.
He might have been aboard that ship if he had his wish. He could have played poker with Jack on the lower decks. He might even have met the lady we know as Rose deWitt Bukater while on board. His finest hour might have arrived with the music he would have been playing with the other seven musicians in the early hours of 15 April 1912. But he would never have reached America.
Now, when John Bantjes, affectionately known as Platnees, walks down the only street in Rolbos, Gertruida often wonders why he remains in Rolbos. A man with such a mechanical knowledge, such artistic flair and such honest integrity may make it big in Upington or Cape Town. Surely he can do so much better than helping them all survive in the Kalahari?
Then again, Gertruida – who knows (almost) everything – will never know the joy of relief when you fail in your attempt to reach the top. Old John Bantjes insisted that his family remembered the French woman – if not her name, then at least her wisdom
(Author’s note: this post was published at 2:15 am, as is fitting for the story. Most of the information contained in the story is true, but this remains a work of fiction. The Bantjes family indeed contributed much to South Africa’s history and it is with respect and deference their name is used here. Still, a story is but a skeleton without its characters and so it remains important to note that resemblance to any person contained herein; living or dead; is purely, ahem, coincidental.)