Category Archives: (Mis)Adventures in Matabeleland
A Satirical take on the African Adventure trope. All apologies to H. Rider Haggard.
You must forgive me the horrors I am about to relate, if ever this missive finds its way to you. My hands falter in the writing, and yet I will stay true to my pledge, I will make my account known, in spite of its attendant darknesses.
What fools we were! What blind innocents, taken in by the first smiling countenance we stumbled upon! I know not how much time I have remaining to me, so I will relate what I can with due haste.
As of my last record, we were waiting for Chief Rezu, the devil, to organise a mission to guide us back to society. Ah! If only we had cleaved more closely to the exact wording of Mbubu’s translations! We ought to have seen this fate in wings – but, no, we must confront what this life gives us as per our station, lest we be unmanned in His vision. Forward!
As I said, we waited for this mysterious feast the Lord of the Mahagger told us of. A day passed, and another. As they ran by, spent in idleness here amongst these savages, our numbers began to thin, though we did not notice it at first. On the third morning, I was awoken by a great hubbub. Kaseem, who had since become the nominal leader of the Mohemmadans, in their reduced state, was accosting a rather ill-bred exemplar of the Mahagger. Of course, neither man, despite the invective ejected by both sides, could understand the other, and it wasn’t until Mbubu arrived that any sense could be made of the situation.
The noise of there altercation, though, was decidedly great, and crowd began to form. Soon enough, the ordained translator was located, and the two men were able to finally communicate. Kaseem, finding the first Mahagger he could, had started berating the man, demanding to know where his three compatriots were. It seemed that, over the course of the last three days, one after another of the Moslem mariners had simply disappeared. None had mentioned anything about leaving the camp to their brethren, nor had they elicited any odd behaviour, the way the bedeviled Faisal had before his own disappearance.
As dialogue was laboriously translated, one side to another, the gathering came to the attention of Chief Rezu. When the Head Man was made fully aware of the situation, it was as if a dark cloud passed over his Blackamoor’s face. All would be made clear to us in time, he said, and we were forced to concede to his authority in the matter.
Tensions rode high the remainder of the day, with a near-brawl between another two of the Arabians and a lone Mahagger tribe member. Thankfully, Kaseem was able to reign in his comrades, else, I’m not sure what would have happened. At last, night drew near, the appointed time for this mysterious feast, and for the revelation of the whereabouts of the absent Arabs.
We all gathered at the paved parade grounds that had been the site of our earlier celebrations. Evening was drawing on, and a great fire had been built in the centre of the space. A troupe of dancers began to wave and writhe before the flames, in a most diabolic manner – the twistings of their bodies, the infernal rhythm, it could in no-way be born of a well-intentioned purpose. Watching the spectacle, I grew aware of a strange furnace-like protrusion amidst the fire.
After a hair-raising crescendo of drums and wind instruments, the dancers abruptly withdrew, and, in their place – the missing Arabs! The three men, draped in chains and battered bodily, were dragged out from some hidden corner and forced to kneel before the raised dais of Chief Rezu and his Consorts. There were shouts from the imprisoned men’s peers, surprised to see their comrades returned in such a state. Before any could more than raise himself from where he sat, Mahagger guards armed with wickedly sharp spears cautioned against any brash action.
A Mahagger man, a Lieutenant of Rezu’s, stood on the platform and called for silence. These men, we were told, had committed the crime of assaulting the Chief’s Consorts, a crime for which there was only one punishment: death. Rezu’s grim face split into a smile, revealing those evil, cruelly pointed teeth. The men, for their own part, seemed to understand the gravity of what was said, and protested their innocence. Vicious blows from spear shafts silenced them.
Following a signal from the Lieutenant, two Mahagger approached the furnace, and, with the aid of pairs of metal tongues, removed a red-hot bronze vessel from the fires. The fiendish vessel, a bowl of broad dimensions, was carried to the first of the accused. Initially, we were at a loss as to what was meant to happen, and then, then it became all to clear. It was the first victim that understood ahead of us, letting out a low, animal howl before the glowing urn was up-ended over his head. I, I cannot put to writing the horror of that poor soul’s demise. I but close my eyes now and I see it playing out before me, again and again.
Amidst the howls and wild screeches, the Lieutenant once again signaled his accomplices. One of the chained Mohemmadans fainted dead away, and the other broke out into gibbering uncontrollably, at times laughing, others weeping, switching ‘tween the two in the blink of an eye. As the Mahagger brought a second bowl to bear, a great “Nein!” rolled across the plaza.
Hans had leapt to his feet, brandishing a revolver he had secreted somewhere about his person. Without waiting to see if his directive was followed, he shot dead the men holding the bowl. There was a moment of stillness once the incandescent object thudded to the ground, and all gathered paused, trying to grasp what had transpired. Then Chaos was loosed.
A battle erupted, as Hans turned his weapon on those spear-wielding Mahagger closer to us, and the Moslems sought to avenge their murdered comrade. Several of us, Anhalt, myself, others of his company, repaired to our erstwhile dormitories to arm ourselves. We had, of course, not brought our rifles with us to the “feast.”
As I had said, these buildings were but sticks and mud, hardly defensible. Following Anhalt’s lead, once we had acquired our guns, we made for the stone pyramids and their trackless galleries. As formidable as our modern arms are, we were hopelessly outnumbered without sufficient shelter.
It was as we beat our way across the village to the relative safety that the worst betrayal of all befell us. Just as we were nearing the portal to the underground catacombs, I espied Mbubu. I called out to him, thankful to see that he had made it through the carnage thus far unscathed. A Mahagger warrior rushed out from behind a building, running at his top speed toward us, equipped with spear and shield. Anhalt, my dear friend Herr Anhalt, shot the knave down, the force of the well-struck blow knocking the kaffir back some yards. Alas, he proved his worth as sportsman at the end! As the German knelt to reload his rifle, Mbubu, the deceiver, picked up the fallen spear, and, before I could utter warning, hurled it at Anhalt. The deadly missile struck the man full-on in the chest, his topee tumbling off his head into the dust at his feet.
Had I not restrained him, Hans would have run to engage Mbubu, hand to hand. Alas, a troop of Mahagger, lead by none other than Rezu himself, had just rounded the corner. We made haste to find a secure position within the complex, but, before we had quit the scene, Mbubu called to us. His face, lit from underneath by fire, was terrible to behold. “I am slave no-longer, devil white!” It was the last I saw of him.
We made it into the tunnel, though another spear caught one of the accompanying Germans, a man named Alexis, in the leg. He bravely held the entrance while we travelled further in. I can only hold to hope that he passed quickly. As it was, the black demons were on our tails promptly enough. We paused for a moment at a junction, shooting off a volley back at our pursuants. There were four of us then.
Conrad was felled when the rogues rushed us once more – the tightness of the corridors, it made reloading our guns exceedingly difficult, and we didn’t have time enough to cover our own retreat. The situation was growing desperate. Seeing an opportunity, knowing that we would be picked off individually if we didn’t come some defensible redoubt, Hans ushered myself and Jorge, the doctor, into the first room we came upon. The door, made of stone, was quickly shifted into place. It was then that we took notice of what dungeon we had barricaded ourselves in, what our last resting place would likely be.
Once we got a torch going, we saw that the room was filled with a grotesque menagerie of artefacts, likely some store-house for the holy relics of these villainous Mahagger. It was at that point that any lingering doubts about the innocence of those poor Moslems, any vestige of confusion, was removed from my mind. Jorge examined what looked to be the flute used in the celebration at our arrival. Scheinbein. Mensch. Shinbone, human. A shudder ran through me, remembering the haunting melodies played on that macabre instrument. If only we had listened to what our bodies were trying to tell us! Too late. Under Jorge’s expert eye, it was determined that the flesh had been removed not by tools but by teeth, human teeth. Not only have we fallen in with a tribe of murderous barbarians, but they exhibit that most unholy of tendencies, that most vile of sins, cannibalism.
The other artefacts, and there were many, showed much the same source in their construction. Things too ghastly to describe in close detail, but the use of skin, and bone, is quite common. Or, I should say, was. Whatever our fate, I can rest easy knowing that we have destroyed these evil relics.
Our situation is grim. They have tried the door three times, and thrice we have turned them back. But time is on their side. We are short of shot, and, what’s worse, we have no food nor any water. We will stand to the last, but I fear for our fate should we be captured alive.
I doubt that this will ever reach you, but, on the faintest glimmer of hope, I write.
Goodbye, my love,
Hugh Octavius Pleasant
Early January, 187-
My Darling Josephine,
Sultana amongst Queens, Contessa of the Peerage
We are saved! Oh, my heart, we are saved!
The auspicious choice to cut in-land, to leave behind the false promise of the river and the far shore, has set us on the course of success. Soon, no doubt, the suzerain Rezu, in his great beneficence, will organise a deputation to lead us back to civilisation! But, I jump ahead of myself.
As I wrote, there was a vote cast some few days ago, on whether to return to the sight of our stranding, or, on the advice of Herr Anhalt, to forge on into the wilderness. We were pushed into the decision due to a veritable cataract, a cascade that belongs more to a bestial epoch than our diminished age. Impassable, by any effort. So, we cast our ballots, as there was some disagreement, and kept to the rule of vox populi. Onward we strode!
The first leagues were difficult, to be sure. But, as I had mentioned, we were strengthened by the growing indications of inhabitance. Anhalt’s congenital interest in the antiquarian seemed to spread out amongst the rest of the group – we all shared the excitement he had earlier elicited, and it took but the smallest stack of masonry, the merest mud-bespattered periapt, uncovered in our zest to blaze a path, to set us all alight with a jovial perturbation! Well, I say ‘all of us,’ but I recall that the Moslems of our band were, at that point, possessed of a decidedly dolorous demeanour. We others, though, every mile brought an increase in levity we hadn’t felt since even before our ill-luck at mouth of the river, since before we visited those slave isles with their wicked trade.
The first signs of the Mahagger people, which is the name of this tribe that make their home here in the decadent city of Tör, were their eyes. Like animals of the wild, great hunting felines and such, we could see their eyes at night. At first, it set loose a prodigious fear in our breasts. They stalked us, those first nights, haunting the darkness as we delved deeper into their lands. Finally, when I could take no more, I instructed Mbubu to make an overture to them, to open dialogue and precipitate whatever was to come. I had had enough!
Rousing his whipchord body, Mbubu called out into the gloom. From amidst a group of three, maybe four sets of eyes came a barked, unintelligible response. A time elapsed, and then three of the natives entered into the glow of our campfire. One of them, whom must have been their leader, continued to speak to Mbubu in that queer, click-laden language. After some time, an accord seemed to be struck. The language being indiscernible, body language alone let us see this, the natives and Mbubu untensing visibly. They broke into smiles, revealing startlingly white, filed teeth. Ghastly in appearance as it was, the incontestably human gesture still put us at ease. Physically, they were smaller than Mbubu, though just as lean. Their heads are hairless – whether by artifice or naturally, I could not say. All three of the men, and the others that we would meet later, had a raised line of scars along their cheek bones that swept up to behind their ears. The women of the Mahagger tribe, who we would meet when we finally reached Tör, had instead of the facial scars a pictogram of sorts, a circle with an angled double line, on their stomachs. Perhaps dictated more by the environment than any sense of decorum, both sexes were quite scantily dressed, allowing the eye to discern the virility of their bodies, the simple power they possessed in their svelte musculature. There is something to be said for simple living, after all!
So, we met with our first examples of the august, most ancient Mahagger tribe. They supped with us that night, and, on the following morning, brought us to their city. Their knowledge of the surrounding area, the secret trails and the more sparsely vegetated glens, allowed us to make better time than we had since we entered this jungley wilderness. Traveling along the worn paths, our party was joined throughout the day by more and more of the tribal fellows, an honour guard to usher us into their burg.
As dusk was drawing close, we at last came clear of the obstructing herbage and found ourselves looking upon the great stone pyramids we had espied from afar previously. Titanic, they dominated the view. From where we stood, we could make out three separate buildings, rising above the treetops to some 150 feet. Not a match, then, for those storied tombs of Khufu, but, it must be noted, these Mahagger, who I have on good authority have inhabited this land since time immemorial, are dealing with a terrain much less hospitable to the human form than the Ancient Egyptians!
Alas, recent centuries have not been kind to the Mahagger, as evidenced by the fallen status we were presented with upon reaching their capitol. The generations that erected those granite monuments are long gone – the current people reside in crude mud and reed huts at the feet of their forebears’ temples.
Their reduced architectural abilities have not hampered their generosity, though! From our position at the edge of the brush, we could see a delegation on its way to meet us – seemingly, some of our escort had run ahead to notify those at our destination. At their head was none less than the Chief himself, the aforementioned Rezu, as well as his Royal Consorts, numbering five individuals of surpassing comeliness. In addition to the standard cheek scars, the suzerain had a pair of dimpled lines running the vertical length of forehead, set apart the width of the bridge of his broad nose. His Consorts, in addition to the customary feminine markings, sported a swirling pattern about their breasts. Yes! It is true! Womenfolk of the Mahagger go as unclothed about their torsos as their men, much to the consternation of we Europeans. When Mbubu translated our rightful shock, the women laughed it off, as if it were a great jest or the like! You must understand, these are a people for whom the Good Word is a novelty, a recent accession. They are a tribe lost to Time, let alone the universal understanding of decency. But, again, I am getting ahead of myself.
The deputation reached us, and a ceremonial proclamation, or so we must assume, was made, with Mbubu doing his hurried best to translate. Following his lead, we made our obeisance to the Regal ensemble. By way of Mbubu’s gloss, we were all individually made known to the Chief Rezu. Upon hearing whom we were and from whence we had journeyed, the man broke into a wide grin, revealing filed teeth identical to his subordinates. It was an image more jarring even than our first introduction to that specific, primal alteration – it could be accepted adorning the rude physiognomies of the tribesmen, but there, set in the stately visage of Rezu, it was a thing out of place. Yes, I admit it, this man bore about him, despite his barbaric surroundings, the stature of Royalty. A true-born King, if albeit a low one.
When our plight was made clear to him, the desperate situation we had been in erstwhile to our discovery of the land of the Mahagger, Chief Rezu grew sombre. Upon some reflection, he said that he knew of a way to help us. Though the Mahagger shunned the outside world, due to a religious taboo of some sort, they knew of the comings and goings on the borders of their land, and could guide us back to our place of resting. Or so Mbubu translated. For now, however, we were to be his personal guests.
That first night there were great celebrations – even if the Mahagger don’t usually mix with folk from beyond their country, they seemed well-enough pleased to have visitors. Much revelry ensued, with plenty of food and special, tribal dances performed for our benefit. You can understand the palpable relief we felt, and the slightly surreal nature of it all – in the span of less than 72 hours, we went from suffering severe deprivation, lost in an unknown land with little hope of salvation, haunted day and night by terrors we could not name, to relaxing amidst this quasi-civilised community, close enough to home to see it in the mind’s eye.
That being noted, the slight lack of balance we were all feeling, can render the next episode somewhat more understandable. Following the dances, a lone figure entered the broad, flag-stoned parade space. A youth of indeterminate sex, scarcely over the age of twelve by my estimation, proceeded to play for us a most haunting dirge upon a flute of what must have been the long-bone of some animal. It was quite beautiful, but disconcerting. Eerie, in an inexplicable way. There was a particular perturbation amongst our Mohammedan peers, but then, their distaste of the Arts is well known, isn’t it? It did, however, leave us all feeling a bit…unsettled. Abruptly, the song was finished, and so too was the night’s festivities. We were shown to the quarters which have housed us these past few nights – a luxury in comparison with what little shelter we could scrounge amidst the wet trees ad damp earth, even if the buildings were beyond vulgar, in truth.
In the intervening time between then and now, we have grown acquainted with our hosts. Spurred on by Anhalt, we have done much exploring of the architectonic wonders abounding this city. Beneath the pyramids is a network of catacombs, running deep into the earth and beyond even the ken of the learned Chief.
Ah! That reminds me! Rezu was telling us: we are not, evidently, the first white people the Mahagger have encountered! Yes, fantastic as it may sound, the Chief swears that, some several centuries ago, this very city of Tör was ruled over by a white woman of exceeding beauty, who was said to have been alive since the world itself was young. An un-aging Queen of terrifying attractiveness! We, understandably, chalked this up to myth – you know how these native-types are – but what a mystery, nonetheless! There are passages in the catacombs, rooms within the pyramids, which I have seen with my own eyes as I am a Christian man, that depict this ancient Queen, and it is true, the graven face is of no Nubian source. A mystery indeed!
I look forward to the exploration of these histories that our visit will no doubt spur on – this is, in fact, a great success for Herr Anhalt, and, no doubt, for the scientific community as a whole! And to think, if not for our wreckage, bleak as it may have seemed, this ancient tribe may have gone on, unbeknownst to the outer world, until at last the final representative died out, taking his secret knowledge with him to the grave. What good fortune we have had! Though the passing of our comrades is a grievous blow, to be sure, what cost is that stacked against the vast increase in human knowledge that will no doubt come of this? I regret only that I am not schooled in these sciences, these archaeologies, that I could do more work while I am here. That labour must be left to others.
The Chief has said that all will be organised for our final travels soon, but, first, there is meant to be a great feast, one to dwarf the celebrations that festooned our arrival. This will take place tonight or tomorrow night, the timing seems to be a bit unclear. These are a very holy people, in their own way, much given to omens and auguries. It is no doubt upon something of this sort that we wait.
Thus, I record, with great happiness, the events of the last few days. With any luck at all, I may soon be drawing this extraordinary Adventure to an end, and returning, if not home, then at least to the company of my compatriots in our most civilised Colony!
Hugh Octavius Pleasant
Early January, 187-
It’s only now that I realise that Christmas has passed, that it must be the New Year, now, born into such confused times as these. I suspect that, had we made our proper landfall, had we not met with disaster those precious few weeks ago, still my letters to you would not have arrived by now. I am gladdened by this – at least, at that time of the year so reserved for joy, my circumstances, the lack of any communication, will not have cast a pall over you.
Which makes the apprehension of the soon-to-be failure of arrival, the absent word, all the worse for me. What consternation it will be for you! What anxiety it will cause, the likes of which is only the worse for me, stranded here with no way of alleviating it for you. The thought of it, its imminence, has already began to cause palpitations in my own breast – or it would, if it was not already beset by the abominable climate, the constant danger, the stagnation that fills the nose with its jungle rot.
We’ve had to leave the shores of the river and make out across the uncharted wilderness these last few days. We had come to a cataract of great height, such that, burdened as we are, there was no hope of scaling it. Thus, our natural way forward blocked to us, we set about a discussion in many languages, to try to determine our next direction. The former crew of the ill-fated dhow were in favour, somewhat unanimously, of retracing our steps and, at great risk from the vapours of that swampy country, returning to the shores of the sea.
Against this position was stacked the wisdom of Herr Anhalt, who, it pleases me to say, has proved to be an excellent companion in the dire straits we’ve found ourselves in. He has proven to be one of the few things to buoy my spirit in the darkest hours, his ebullient outlook has rubbed off on all of us, I imagine.
Anhalt had argued that, especially given the growing signs of civilization we’ve stumbled across in our journey up-river, our best chances lay in finding the heart of this unknown society. Unlike the earlier vestiges I have recorded, the nearly over-taken embankments and the vegetation-choked edifices, the later examples look to have seen more modern maintenance – the aim of which remains a mystery to all of us. In one of his more fantastical moods, Herr Anhalt has theorised that we might be seeing the handiwork of a reduced caste of people, a degenerate group who, in veneration for a lost past, go through the motions of their ancestors, cleaning and repairing things that they have no use for nor understanding of, in a religious-like behaviour.
Thus, like the civilised, democratic men we all are, our future course was to be decided by vote. This was, of course, the only fair way of proceeding! We spent an afternoon rigging up a voting booth, of sorts, from a spare blanket and some stakes driven into the red, African earth. Given that we had two choices ahead of us, we set up two separate receptacles in the impromptu booth, using pots that we had carried with us from the marooned ship. The rightmost designated a return to the sea-shore, while the left spoke for continuing on into the bush. Stones were to be placed into each of the pots, one stone, one vote.
Upon making sure all of our polyglot group understood the process, we each dutifully filed in, one at a time, to cast our earthy ballot. As arguably the most dispassionate amongst us, it was decided that Mbubu would be the one to tally the votes, despite some reservations from the Arabs. Seven for the return to the ocean, and, winning by a wide margin, nine for Herr Anhalt’s plan!
Ah, yes. Looking over my notes, I see that I hadn’t yet treated upon the passing of Klaus, nor the demise of the three Arabs sailors. Much as I had expected, I regret to say, poor Klaus didn’t hold up much past the third day since my recounting his condition. By the time the Lord took him into His embrace, the blighted man was a shell of himself – if not for the morbidity of the subject, I would say that I was struck by how quickly the man shed his weight. I hadn’t dreamed it was possible to shrink so!
Alas, none of us being ordained in any denomination, we did what little we could to provide the poor man a proper, Christian burial. I can only pray that the Lord doesn’t look darkly upon us for delivering Klaus to Him unshriven.
Hafiz, the Arab I had mentioned before, recovered from his illness. The Lord works in mysterious ways. However, another of his brethren took ill just as he was on the upswing. It seemed as if, as Hafiz regained his strength, as he salvaged his colour, his comrade Amarion was struck, that he began to waste. A very queer affair, to be sure. When he eventually succumbed to whatever this strange affliction was, we, that is, we Europeans, left his last rites to his Mohammedan confederates. Their ways are not ours, and, who be we to intrude in their moment of solemn grief?
Whatever reason the Almighty had in sparing Hafiz from sickness, indiscernible to us, it did not keep Him from retrieving the man to His breast. The day after Amarion was laid to rest, Hafiz met his doom. We were walking along the river, just as we had for the previous days. Hafiz, I imagine he was unsteady on his feet, over-eager to show his vitality, keen to reassert himself in the land of the living, which he was so newly returned to. As I said, it is likely he shouldn’t yet have been left walking under his own power.
He was nearest the bank of the river, when, due perhaps to the general moistness of this clime, the earthen projection he was standing on collapsed beneath him, depositing him into the ostensibly calm waters. Several nearby logs, or, what we, in our naivety, had taken to be logs, came to life. Crocodiles! What then occurred is truly terrible to recount – the ill-fated man, already dazed by his fall, was set upon by the reptilian leviathans, with a great hue and cry. As he struggled with his scaly assailants, Hans and the other Germans in possession of guns strove to even the odds. Alas, despite their heroic efforts, it was too late for luckless Hafiz. He had already succumbed to the roiling, thrashing assault.
The strength of the Elephant guns, robust though they are, proved to be over-matched by the tough hide of those antediluvian beasts. One, it is true, was wounded severely, and would likely not live to see the end of that dark day. However, their numbers were so great, and the amount of ammunition left to us so precious, that it was quickly decided a full extermination of these devils was beyond our present abilities. Much to the dissatisfaction of the other Moslems, it was determined that we should leave the frame of poor Hafiz where it lay, in the clutches of the Crocodiles. He had already left it, and it would have been tempting fate to further try to retrieve it.
We carried on, all of us struggling to come to terms with what we had borne witness to. Unfortunately, it would be that event which proved to be the source of our next loss. Another of the Arabs, a man called Faisal, had always been close with Hafiz. It was he that had cared for Hafiz during the latter’s convalescence, he that had protested most stridently in his alien tongue at the abandonment of the dead man’s body.
The first day since Hafiz’s death, Faisal was seen to withdraw into himself. The man didn’t communicate with any of the other mariners, only took food when it was forced on him. Though I could not with honesty say, I do believe that he failed to sleep that night, nor any night thereafter. After three days of this behaviour, the man began to, well, to come apart. He would burst out laughing at inappropriate moments, would caper about as one mad, would carry on conversations with unknown, absent interlocutors. It was quite a disconcerting sight to see a man, erstwhile decidedly taciturn, so completely unhinged. This went on for some two more days. Come the dawn of the third, the soft-pated Faisal was no-where to be seen. After some deliberation, it was determined that no one had seen him since the night previous, and, we assumed, that he had slipped away at some point in the night. It is true, the benighted man may yet live, but I do not hold high hopes for him, given our wild and violent surroundings.
Thus, with their numbers so reduced, even voting as a bloc, the Arabians were unable to overturn the vote! These last days have been strenuous ones, as our going, away from the natural avenue of the river, is much belaboured and hindered. However, each mile seems to bring new wonders. When we crested that hill yesterday, we could see in front of us, at what precise distance it is difficult to fathom, great pyramidal edifices, climbing out of the jungle! It is likely there that we shall meet with whatever tribe or rabble call this hell home. I trust that Mbubu will be able to communicate with them, and that they will be able to direct us to more hospitable climes. Perhaps, they may even know a safe route back to civilisation!
Late December, 187-
My Shining Light, my Josephine
It’s been two days now since I last recorded my thoughts, and those two days have been the most difficult I’ve experienced in my life. I say this, but I can only see the coming weeks and months to be far worse, and so, perhaps I should describe them, not as my most trying period, but as a Purgatory, of sorts, the antechamber for something much worse. As you might guess, my frame of mind is not an optimistic one.
Some of our cohort have begun to show signs of illness – succumbing, no doubt, to the unhealthy vapours that surround us day and night. I pray that we reach higher ground soon. One of the Arab crew, his name, I believe, is Hafiz, has taken on a terrible colour – the man, not very robust to begin with, has developed a unhealthy shade to his dark flesh, and can be seen to sweat something profusely at every hour. Meanwhile, one of Herr Anhalt’s men, a certain Klaus, has been struck more directly. His fever is already at an advanced stage, and he vomits up what little he has left to him almost like clock-work. Without the appropriate medical attention and supplies, I fear he will not last long.
In stark contrast to our more unhealthy members, Mbubu is in his element. Honestly, I couldn’t say that I’ve seen him more pleased at any time in our months’-long acquaintance. Here we are, stranded in a barbarous country, surrounded by the Lord alone knows what menacing beasts, and he strides about, chipper than Disraeli propping up Papists. One would not be remiss in believing that he actually enjoys the bites of these stinging gnats, these devil-mosquitoes; that they fill him with a sense of well-being, rather than the awful irritation the rest of us receive. The flies in these parts, they are nothing like the marsh midges of home. Wing-span the breadth of my hand, if not greater. Needle the length of a quill. Savage land, antediluvian beasts. It stands to reason.
Oddly, though, there are signs that, once, long ago, this land may not have been as primitive as we now find it. Every few miles, we come across brick-work, the makings of old embankments built into the former river’s edge, before it shifted away and left them stranded in grassy hummocks. At one point, there must have been some organised society ‘round these parts, possessing greater technological abilities than are exhibited by Mbubu’s rough countrymen.
It has piqued the interest of Herr Anhalt no end, stirring in him the fires of scholarly passion. If Mbubu be counted a merry fellow, then Anhalt is a lively one, despite the uncertainty of our condition or our future. He has the upbringing to continue to express concern over poor Klaus, but you can see the tension it brings him to restrain himself so. I daresay, if we were slightly better prepared, I suspect that the good Saxon could think of fewer places he might wish to be. As it is, his constant desire to inspect the piles of masonry has hindered our progress up-river, poring over the shambled mounds each time we come across one. I can’t think we are headed towards any great place of Sanctuary – I have in fact begun to resign myself to our fate; to place myself fully into the hands of Providence – but I can see that the slowing of our pace has begun to grate somewhat on the nerves of the remaining Mohammedan crew. Herr Anhalt, in his lust for Antiquities, is, alas, blind to it. I will keep watch, to make sure the situation should not overboil into any great tragedy. If we are to survive this, we will need to band together, to express a proper, collegial attitude to one another, and see this through like Men! To divide ourselves against one another will only brook disaster.
Ah, evening draws close. The sun at last sets itself down, releasing us from its sweltering grasp. The steamy jungle is nearly bearable during the night. It is a shame that footing is so treacherous hereabouts, otherwise, it would be a straightforward choice to travel under the cloak of darkness, to avoid Helios’ wilting orb. Though I suppose there are the wild brutes to concern ourselves with, as well. They do seem to be more active during the night. It is a beneficent turn that we have as robust a man as Hans along with us – I fear that some of the coarse animal howls we are subjected to at night might prove to unsettle some of our less resolute comrades, otherwise. Just last night, the countryside echoed with the mad laughter of some sort of demon – Mbubu tells us that it was merely a type of wild dog, but I scarcely believe him – no dog, that ancient friend of man, could utter such a loathsome sound, such a spine-chilling racket.
I can see Hesperus rising. What with the thick foliage above us most times, the sight of the stars has grown much scarcer than it was while asea. It is not something I regret – they seem to peer down at us in a most inhospitable way, as if they were so many leering eyes, looking on with ill-intent. Oh, it is a grim mood that has grasped me!
H. O. P.
Late December, 187-
I do not know if this letter will ever reach you. I write it more as a way of cataloguing our current situation, dire as it is, than as a missive. Truth be told, I feel as if I need to record the recent events of the past to believe them myself, to try and make sense of what has happened to us.
It has been two days since we were wrecked. I do not know where we are, though there is some agreement that we are on that great river, the Zambezi, or in one of its branches as it drains into the Indian Ocean. But I get ahead of myself.
We were making good time, with a strong wind at our backs. Captain Ihsan, God rest his soul, thought we might make the Colonies a few days ahead of our anticipated arrival, even. Of a sudden, our benevolent weather turned against us. With nary a warning on the horizon at sundown, a storm struck us in the mid of the night. A storm, but no storm I’d ever yet experienced! It seemed as if the wind came from the four directions at once. Almost immediately, our sails were ripped from the dhow, so fierce were the gales. I think I shall remember the awful cracking of the timbers till my death day. The good Captain, and perhaps two or three of the crew, were caught in the ropes and rigging when the sails and masts fell overboard into the abyss of the sea. The hapless sailors, much as they had made their lives by the ocean, were in turn claimed by it. Do not think me a coward! There was no saving them – the sky was illuminated by a flash of lightning, the masts cracked, and, within 3 heartbeats, the men and the whole mess had been sucked down. I did see Ihsan, illuminated in a second flare of light, face shouting soundlessly, for but a moment. And then he and the rest were gone. The vision will haunt me. I but close my eyes and I am back there, deck bucking and rolling beneath me, lashed by wind and stung by rain, and the face of the doomed man, sinking beneath those malicious waves…
Our trials were not finished with the loss of the captain and the sails, though. No, the ship was driven inland at a frightful speed. In my foolishness, I saw this as a blessing, and cried out “We are saved!” Herr Anhalt, standing immediately next to me, for, in the din, my voice could not have carried further, shouted in my ears, pointing out the dark, tooth like shapes sometime-illumined in the stormy froth: “The rocks!” Whatever terror I had experienced before then, whatever sense of dread gripped me, was over-surpassed at once. As we were drawn down in a trough of a great wave, the rocky fangs rising up before us, my stomach also fell, far below me feet. I’m unashamed to say that I fainted in the face of it. It is not a small thing to be confronted with such a forceful testament of one’s own mortality.
I say I fainted, for that is what must have happened – the next situation I recall, chronologically, saw me bodily lashed to the rails of the ship, alongside all the remaining passengers of that ill-fated vessel. It was Mbubu, I was later to find out, who had saved my life, securing me with ropes to what little security availed him, preventing my unresisting body from being swept into the sea. He, Hans, and some of the more robust members of the crew saw to it that all remaining souls were secured, in hopes that, if the ship itself should break up, perhaps some would survive, attached to the flotsam rather than being lost singly, dashed against whatever the cruel stones had in store for us.
Alas, to be wrecked on those rocks, such was not our destiny that night. I know not how we avoided those great claws the mere sight of which had stolen my consciousness earlier, but we were thrust between so many crags and splinters of stone that, at each turn, it looked as if the ship would be claimed, punctured by talons sharpened by crashing waves. Nothing less than the Hand of Providence itself could have guided the ship safely through that maelstrom, and I daily thank Him for our deliverance.
Eventually, and it must have happened quickly enough from an outside perspective, though it seemed an eternity to us, we were through the chain of shoals. Still driven by wind and wave, our bark, rudderless, made for the river mouth. In a tidal bore that must have been one of the greatest known in these parts, certainly the largest I have heard tell of anywhere, we were thrust some distance upstream. For a time, the ship was sucked back down the river course, as the flood waters pulled back. However, soon enough a second great wave drove us inland once more, further than we had traveled initially. What followed sounds like something out of a tall tale, a fantasy, but, I assure you, it is nothing but the truth! I anticipate, if ever we make our way back to a civilized part of our world, that a delegation will be sent out from the Royal Society to study the phenomenon, it is so astounding. The process I have described, of being pulled back and thrust forward by the powerful sweeping of brackish waters, repeated itself, what must have been a dozen, sixteen times. There came a point where many of us, still lashed as we were to the ship, grew sick with the forwards and backwards motion we were subjected to and spilled the contents of our stomachs in a most unmanly way.
Suffice it to say, by the time the strengthy onslaught subsided, we found ourselves out of sight of the sea, well inland. The ship had come to rest on a sand bar to the side of the river, the early portion of what will one day become an oxbow lake, if my geographical training hasn’t failed me. Seeing that we were out of imminent danger, most of us dozed off where we were tied, uncaring for comfort or what the future might hold in store, only knowing in our exhausted state that we were out of immediate danger.
When morning broke, we arose to survey the wreckage. Of the storm, only its damage could be seen – the sky was open and cloudless, the serenity provided almost in a mockery of what it had unleashed upon us the night before. It was at that point we realized how far we had been pushed inland – what seemed an almost supernatural distance. Of the 28 who had been aboard not 18 hours before, only 20 were left. I had only witnessed the demise of the Captain, and thus can only assume that the others were swept to sea between my fainting and the securing of all remaining bodies. Of our stores, most of our food was lost or destroyed by the water. Fortunately, we have a good supply of shot, and Hans, as I have written previously, is an exceedingly quality sportsman. With a bit of luck, we should be able to live off the fruit of the country before long.
However, our current plight is akin to that of poor hapless Job – what the Lord provides with one hand, He takes away with the other. The very land that may provide us our life may in the end be the undoing of us. Our supply of quinine is nearly spent, and the vapours of the swamp, known to cause the Fever, already rise up about us. It is only exacerbated by this heat – we would, in fact, be better off with an overcast day.
To return to the sea, inadvisable. Even if we were able to shift our de-masted dhow, Captain Ihsan was our navigator. We would be hopelessly lost, even if the ship did prove sea-worthy. We Europeans have had to rely on Mbubu to communicate with the remaining members of the crew – Anhalt, learned as he is in the Antiquities, does not hold amongst his abilities conversational Arabic. And those crew that remain, speak nothing but. Once more I am rendered grateful for that timely choice of mine to recruit Mbubu to my side. If we are to come out of this alive, I suspect that I will grow to depend on him ever-more. As I was saying, none of the crew members, rude individuals that they are, could navigate the deep ocean or even the coast-lines themselves.
Thus, the only avenue that remains open to us is to carry on in the direction we were so mercilessly thrust – upriver. We do our best to remain optimistic about finding some community along the river’s shores. The alternative – hundreds of miles of trackless waste – is too grim to bear. The day has been taken up organizing what little remains to us of stores and equipment. Once it is divvied between each man, we will set out, and, with God smiling down on us, we shall reach Deliverance.
Hugh Octavius Pleasant
Though I try to keep my mind from it, if I should, over the course of our trek, perish, it buoys my spirit to think that, God willing, I will be able to make an account of myself to you, before I should render myself up to Providence.
I love you eternally,
We have arrived in that den of iniquity, Zanzibar. Mbubu hasn’t left the cabin since the first island could be seen on the horizon. Anhalt tells me that, before the strictures of Her Majesty’s well-intentioned Government came into play fifty years ago, the mass of human flesh flowing through these ports dwarfed the current deluge. I can only pray that, in coming years, we tighten the noose around this most repulsive of trades, and remove it altogether from the face of the earth.
It is odd, when you reflect on it, how the beauty of Nature obscures the evils of Man. Hides? No, hides is probably not the best way of describing it – throws into perverse relief is more akin to what I’m trying to express. The isles themselves, the sea around them, the clime itself, they are the most temperate and welcoming I’ve experienced in my decades of life. If there were ever a paradise remaining us here on Earth, this is how I imagine it would look. And yet, and yet… the azure of the sea is as ice in the heart, the plentiful heat of the air, so conducive to the growth of vegetation, lends its power equally to moral rot.
I go into the markets, not those of flesh, but rather that of more mundane vendibles – food-stuffs, ceramics, rare spices, intricate textiles – and I witness the smiling faces of the vendors, of the populace, happy in their commerce, drawing enjoyment from their to-and-fro haggling, each in their own way satisfied with the victories they have won. I look on their faces, and I see not the bright countenances. All at once, they contort, and it is as if I am surrounded by a horde of devils – their faces twist and redden, and their teeth grow into fangs, and horns sprout from their temples. It is as if the air itself, laden with the sins of their countrymen, infects them with its villainous potency.
I know not what it is that afflicts me so, if it isn’t my unusually capacious tendency for moral righteousness. I know, I know what evils eat away at the hearts of these men and women, stained as they are by their complicity, their penchant for looking in the other direction, or, worse still, accepting such a loathsome sin and being unworried by it in the least. How I long for a return to proper, civilized lands. How I look forward to once again being amidst our compatriots, those righteous Christians of Enlightened perspective!
When I first set out from Portsmouth those many months ago, I looked forward to seeing more of our great world, of being able to experience more of the pleasures and wonders that are provided us this side of Heaven. It is true that my separation from you rent my heart, but it was well-balmed by knowledge that my commercial duties would provide me opportunity to witness marvels, and that I could, in turn, relay them back to you. I am half way to reconsidering my good fortune in this travel, though, given what horrors I’ve had to face.
If there is one silver lining of the last few weeks, it is that that villain, Habib, that so monstrously attacked Mbubu, is no longer amongst us – fear not, he still has time to repent his heinous ways, he has not passed into the next life. No, it is rather that, whilst we were moored at Mombasa, the last port we visited before sailing on for Zanzibar, he was put ashore. Evidently, Mbubu’s spirited defence has impermanently crippled the wretch, and, with an extended convalescence owing, the captain Ihsan peremptorily put him ashore. The loss of a crewmember did cause some restive feelings on the captain’s part, but an explanation of the situation – it was Habib who assaulted Mbubu, after all! – and a bit of pecuniary assistance from me soon put him to rights. That is another thing I have noticed while abroad, one that has haunted me since entering the Mediterranean at Gibraltar: not a man seems to go about his business for the sake of his deserved pay. No, graft rules, and woe comes to he that can’t afford it! Lawlessness is lord, seemingly. I look forward to the day when the Empire is able to bring a respect for the proper way of things, and the proper place of each man comes to these turgid backwaters.
It is that thought, and that thought alone, that sustains me in this hellish place. I witnessed a particularly disturbing scene, just this morning, which I relate to you only in so far as to render my extreme mental distress intelligible, which must seem so out of keeping with my usual merry demeanour. I was taking my morning walk, as has become my habit while we are berthed here, strictly avoiding that quarter of the city I know to be the haunt of slavers and their debased clientele, when, out of a luxuriant villa flew a woman, skin as black as night and nude as the day she was born. Before I could avert my eyes to preserve what modesty I could for her, a fat Mohammedan came barreling after her, turban atop his head a-wobbling, sweat pouring down his distent face and into his dirty beard. It would seem that this poor woman was an escaped member of an Harem, a type of bondage designed for groups of women by Islamists for unutterable aims. In short, she was a slave. I was aghast to see that the man was armed with a bull-whip, that would better have been suited to the thrashing of dumb brutes than the offensive task he turned it to. Before I could leap to protect her, he lay about her defenceless body, chasing her down the street away from where I stood in shocked immobility. I could hear her cries for some time, though the pair quickly passed from my vision. Each wail was like a physical blow to me, shaking me to my core. Can you imagine the state I was in, gentle creature that I am, to have witnessed such a spectacle!? Suffice to say, my morning had been ruined, and all hope of a palliative walk amongst the Old City architecture rendered completely unthinkable. I returned to the ship directly once my stupefaction had worn off, and here I have remained ever since.
Thankfully, all this should be behind me, soon. We set out the day after next, and should reach the Colony in the early New Year. It will be inexpressibly good to be amongst good, English-speaking, British citizens once more. I dare say, its proximity is all that keeps me sane some hours.
I know that my next dispatch to you will find me in better spirits, in more wholesome environs, and in all-round happier circumstances than this current letter.
Hugh Octavius Pleasant
To my life’s anchor, Josephine
We arrived in Zeila just before the breaking of a storm, which has since kept us shore-bound these last days.
To think of you, drawn up in front of a large fire in the house in London, or perhaps out at your father’s Estate, cozied with one of those fine mince pies Etty makes so well, fills me with a warmth I’m afraid I’ve found in short supply here. Zeila, it seems, is not what it used to be. Herr Anhalt tells me that it is known to have been frequented by the Ptolemaic Greeks in the era of the Diadochi, and has been inhabited ever since. Alas, much as time has worn away the grandeur of that mighty lineage, so too has it laid waste to their coastal neighbours. Two in three of the rude buildings hereabouts stand abandoned, and those that are occupied, well, occupation is rather too kind a description to the sort of care that is taken in most.
The locals, in their pidgin language, tell me that this is decidedly unseasonable weather, and that I should be pleased to have arrived at such a temperate occasion. From what they tell me, and what little one can see of the hinterland through the rain, there is little but desert and waste for many miles. Zeila, I am told, was once a thriving port for the surrounding countryside, the sluice-gate of the Horn of Africa in it’s entirety, spilling out the collected wealth of the region: the dates by their thousands, the rare and valuable perfumes, the beautiful ivory of the mighty elephant, and, though it pains me to say, many hapless souls forced into bondage. Now? Now the palaces of yore crumble into dust, the markets, not due to weather alone, stand empty. Even the few Muhammedan temples that still stand are but husks of their former glory. Once, the proud shipping of the Adalites, for this was their Capital, ventured as far as distant Cathay! Now, a mere stopover for rough dhows as they hunt for richer lands. It is a testament to the manifest failure of the centralised Ottoman state – to possess a jewel of history, rich with fame, and to squander it, and allow it to rest in such ignominy.
I am reassured that, even if we should come upon comparatively uncouth locales ourselves, Her Majesty’s ministers, in their humane wisdom, recognise the relative worth of all human endeavour, be it Christian or heathen, and hold it in trust for all citizens of the Empire. Whilst still in Port Said, entertained by that otherwise benighted Embassy man, I heard tell of some new efforts across the sea, in the Raj, apparently, democracy is flourishing! This follows on the heels of Her Majesty’s recognition of the duty she owes to the Indians, identical to the one that she owes to all her subjects. I look forward to the Indians taking up more of the responsibility in their own governing, and I can only see good things coming from a more mature home-rule on their part. I trust it will bring us closer together, as two brotherly peoples with a common destiny. How proud we must be as subjects of the Empire, as we draw back the curtains of ignorance and shine the beam of Enlightenment around the globe!
Alas, returning to our sodden state here, I have some grave news to relay. I am not the only one to have experienced a fraying of nerves in this our dreary predicament. Mbubu was well-pleased to have made land-fall, if only to get some further space between him and the Moorish crew. However, the day before last, there was an altercation – while fetching me some of the local fruit at an indoor market, he came across some three of the dhow’s crew, who, despite their religious creed, seemed to be under that most intemperate of influences – a state of utter drunkenness. I’m not sure how it is that they learned of Mbubu’s past – perhaps there is some mark about him that denotes a liberated thrall – suffice it to say, they set about harassing the poor Ethiope, with words that I daren’t repeat here lest I offend your good conscience.
Habib, seemingly their chief and the least affected of the group, pulled a blade on Mbubu, and attacked the unarmed man in a most scurrilous fashion. The suppositions I had made previously of Mbubu’s character held true – the man is a true lion! Despite being slashed most grievously across the left arm, Mbubu over-mastered Habib, lifting him bodily and dashing him against the ground, once, twice, thrice!
It is luckily that Hans, that man-servant of Anhalt’s I spoke of last, was also in the locale. He was drawn to the melee by the sounds of the startled locals, and was able to restrain Mbubu before the latter could further blast the deserving Mohammedan. The two left the dazed scoundrels to put their ringleader back together, and repaired swiftly to the ship. Mbubu, though he seems to have bled fiercely, was set to rights in quick order by another of Herr Anhalt’s entourage who had some menial training as battle-field surgeon. I do hope that this rain clears up, that we might leave this diminished anchorage all the sooner, before any more like occurrences.
I must turn my mind to brighter reflections! Given that the nature of the embroilment was not of a lethal nature, I rest assured that, with a few expeditious words to Captain Ihsan, the whole matter can be smoothed over with ease!
My thoughts fly over the miles of sea and land to be with you,
Hugh Octavius Pleasant
Late September, 187-
My heart, my Josephine
Just as I’d prayed, we were able to find passage from Suez, one of the last dhows of the season, recently arrived from Aqaba, and only in port for that tide! Our luck was immense, and I can only look upon it as proof of God’s smiling on our venture here. The captain of the ship, in stark contrast to the hard-working master of the Greenwich, is a sly, oily Mohammedan. As you’ll recall from my last letter, my dear Mbubu, well, he has a bit of a history with men of this sort, and has been…understandably…rather uncomfortable since we joined the crew. The dhow is of a larger variety, or so I’m told, better to traverse the sometimes raucous seas hereabouts. As such, Mbubu, much to my chagrin, has been slightly remiss in his duties to me, and has remained holed up in our cabin.
Without his constant company, I’ve had to seek out the companionship of the other members of the crew, in order that I might stave off the boredom that is the everpresent menace of sea travel. Aside from the captain, that unsavoury fellow, Ihsan, there are some 18 members of the crew. Most hail from Arabia, much like their swarthy captain, and, as such, speak even less of the Queen’s than he himself does. However, they go about their work with a, granted, admirable amount of efficiency, and so, despite their brooding silence as it is directed towards me, I cannot in good conscience name them lax.
Another blessing has fallen into my lap in the form of the other passenger, though. A German, of a good family, who is setting out to hunt the African Great Lakes, alongside some six retainers, name of Anhalt. He is a man of broad learning, having acquired a degree from the prestigious Deutsches Archäologisches Institut. I’d dare posit that it over-reaches his talent as a sportsman, as I find it difficult to think that an individual could be dedicated to such an extensive and thorough nature to two very disparate subjects. While his physiognomy is a pleasant, robust one – a strong chin, and high forehead, capped by lustrous blonde hair and possessing a mouth both expressive and well-formed – he is a relatively slight man, standing some five and a half feet, with a weight of maybe around 9 stone, if I had to make a wager. Equipped with his elephant gun, Dunkelblau, and topee, he still strikes a diminutive figure, I’m afraid to say. I’m no strapping specimen myself, but, like I mentioned a moment ago, I am wary of his shot – I fear it would set him on his rear before ever laying low any rude beast.
He has, however, brought with him a more exemplary model of the Teutonic vigour. His attendant, Hans, hails from peasant stock near the Black Forest, stands somewhere north of six feet, and sports the largest moustache I’ve seen on a man. I dare say, it hangs from his face in two thick ropes for a good several inches. His is a visage that would have put fear into the heart of even Caesar. A modern-day Vercingetorix, an Alaric reborn! No reason to doubt his potency, I assure you!
Thus, despite Mbubu’s antisocial behaviour, I’ve found myself quite content on our voyage. Herr Anhalt has a superb command of our tongue, and he is a consummate conversationalist. He tells me that there have been recent expeditions into the more hidden parts of the Dark Continent the findings of which have yet to be disseminated to the greater Academic world – and, if what they claim is true, I can only imagine that they’d be the talk of the Academy for some years to come! Fantastic tales they are, of great and forgotten cities, the likes of which, in their ancient pedigree, would challenge Babylon itself for the well-spring of mankind and society! Anhalt has confided to me that the corroboration of these far-fetched claims are his mainmotivation in leaving sunny Germania. He hopes to investigate these remote locales himself, and, if he can, get a jump on their promotion amongst the English-speaking Universities. The sport hunting, while it is assuredly a passion of his, is largely a legerdemain, to throw off the unwanted attention of his colleagues.
It appears, then, that I have secured another travelling companion, at least for a little while. Herr Anhalt seeks to make landfall some distance north of the Zambezi, and, while Mbubu and I will be travelling further south than that by a goodly few miles, I will appreciate the company.
We have been sailing for some few days now, and the captain, that viscous Ihsan, tells me we should be reaching the Ottoman port of Zeila at some point late tomorrow. It is from there that I shall post this letter, as I don’t know if we’ll make land again before reaching the slaving isles of Zanzibar. While I am well-pleased to have found such temperate company, I’ll be happy for the chance to stretch my legs for an evening, and leave behind the perpetual stench of pitch and sweat. Till then, I must pinch my nose!
Keeping you in my heart,
Hugh Octavius Pleasant
My Darling Josephine
I write to you now from the village of Suez, grown up at the mouth of the Canal as it pours into the Red Sea. The Red Sea! To think, long past, but still, just here-abouts, the tread of that Great Man lead the Chosen People to their God-Given Freedom! Oh, the sands of legend here hold their own against those numberless grains of the Pharaonic Desert!
Ha, the wonder of the locale makes me forget myself – the trip down the Canal, while relatively staid, if hot, did not prove unuseful. You recall that Ethiope I wrote of, last letter? The hard-working deck-hand? Well, impressed by him as I was, I spoke with the Captain of the Greenwich. For a moderate fee, I was able to purchase the Negro’s services. I have acquired myself a valet, the likes of which few before have had the fortune of!
Oh, to hear his story! Why, my man, he is something worthy of the great tales! Mbubu, his name is, with this queer click type of sound at the start of it. I find it impossible to utter smoothly, but he elides over it with as much ease as your or I might the wordtea or crumpet. I’ve come into some good luck with his service, as, if his rather wondrous story is to be believed, he hails from quite close to that part of Africa that I’m headed – a few leagues to the North of the Dutch Transvaal.
How he came to be found here, in Egypt, is, if it is indeed true, and I still harbour some doubts, quite a tale. He was borninto one of those half-barbarian tribes, neither knowing the Succour of our Lord nor the miracles of modern science. The heathens, they still send off their young men, like you hear sometimes of the equally brutish North American Indians, they send them off into the wild, to make a man of ’em. Truthfully, I suppose that a rude education in the ways of beasts and bush better suits them for their future days than a Grammar School, but I suspect that says more about what they have to look forward to than anything else!
And so, you can envision the scene – our young Mbubu, a youth of some fourteen summers, rail thin and granted only the loin cloth that was his sole possession, is marched out into the scorching veldt, miles from his village. Once his elders deemed the distance great enough, they left him, to live or die, for the next fortnight or more. Before he was allowed to return, he had to kill that King of Africa, the lion, and could only do so with weapons he made himself. Our intrepid explorers have trouble enough with the noble beasts while armed with guns – let alone mere sticks! There is an inestimable quality about these savages my dear, one I fear has been bred out of most Modern Men by our soft living, save for those rare few, born into our ranks, that rise above us. I speak mainly of that characteristic of valour – their are many brave men in the Empire, and none too few courageous ones, but a man of valour, that is a rare thing indeed! My dear Mbubu, facing down the lion those many years ago, armed only with sharpened stake and poorly-cured loincloth as armour, well, he proved that he was in possession of valour. A steely nerve, and a calm mind by Jove!
He tells me that he conquered the lion that day, and, truthfully, I’ve no reason to disbelieve him, if he was even half the strapping example of manhood he is now as a youth. Alas! Like so many who are born of that special breed, that of the hero, our poor Mbubu was not through his trials yet. For the most part, the tribes in his country had given up this practice of coming-of-age, this ritual for their young men – not, as you might be quick to think, because it was so trying on them, no – but because, given the thoroughness of Dr. Livingstone and our Good Government in their drive against the immoral bondage of fellow men, those dusky slavers of Mohammedan extraction had been travelling further afield, snapping up youths from more and more distant locales. Such it was that our dear Mbubu, after facing down his lion with no more than his latent bravery, found himself falling ill of these dark devils, captured as a zanj. Weakened as he was by his ordeals, delirious with hunger and thirst, he stood no chance against them!
The chain gang he was attached to, manacled about the ankles, was driven back North, towards the Taganyika, which, if the Lord hadn’t smiled upon him, Mbubu would have been marched out to Zanzibar and herded into the waiting halls of the Sultan of Oman, bedecked in the cruellest of all trappings, that of human flesh.
I do go on, though! I’m happy to recount that Mbubu escaped his captors, and, through further trial and tribulation, made his way after several meandering years to this river boat, at just this time, under just this captain. It is truly a work of benevolent fortune that he should be plying the canal on just this boat at the very time that I find myself in need of a guide, and that, for me, someone who knows so well the Interior and particularly the characteristics of my destination should become so readily available.
As I said, I spoke with the good Captain, and we negotiated Mbubu’s contract. He is, you see, working as an indentured labourer. However, outfitted as I am with a goodly sum for my maintenance during this voyage, I had more than enough to buy up the contract remaining. And thus, under my more even hand – the good Captain, a Christian man, is still, at times…rather brusque in his demeanour. To be sure, his is a stressful occupation, but I imagine you can understand that this is a turn of good fortune for dear Mbubu. So, fear not! Your affianced is now in the care of what must be one of the most experienced guides in all of Africa, given his great travels! Why, he must have traversed most of West Africa already, and he is but 20 and 8 years of age, by his rough reckoning!
We set out along the coast shortly, though I am wrought with misgivings – it appears I’ve set out at the wrong time of the year, or very nearly so. I’m very close to the shift in the monsoon, and the winds that blow down from Arabia will, within the next few weeks, turn on their head. With strong winds on a nor’ easterly heading beating up the coast, travel by dhow will be quite impossible. As I set my pen down, my main hope is that there is still some shipping hereabouts for hire. Alas, this is a small and miserly place, this village of Suez.
No time for gloom, though, my heart! There is no doubt in my mind that God would not follow up such a boon as the securing of Mbubu with disaster for our now-joined travels. I must trust to Providence in all things! Excelsior!
Your Ever-Loving Fiance,
Hugh Octavius Pleasant
To my darling Josephine
I look forward with all of my distance-saddened heart to looking upon your face, your flaxen locks, your pearly skin once more.
I write to you from aboard the steamer Greenwich, as we make our way down the Suez proper, having just left the vicinity of Port Said. You wouldn’t believe the heat! The air positively ripples with it, and I’m quite often set to work mopping my brow with a kerchief. The Embassy man I met with in the city, if you could imagine his gall! advised me to adopt the linens of the locals, for my personal comfort. No! said I to he. No! If I must endure the discomfort of the elements, I shall do it with pride, as any self-respecting Englishman must! I swear, some few years stranded in this wild locale, and the man nearly set to a savage himself…would you believe, the man invited me to his place of residence, not much more than a stone hut, and offered me tobacco via one of those heathen Ottoman water-pipes? It’s nearly enough to break one’s faith in the Empire…
But enough of that rascal of an Embassy man – I must tell you of the Canal itself! Truly, it is a wonder of modern engineering. Say what you will of the Gallic spirit, but this, this is truly a miracle of reason and effort! One can only imagine how they must have driven those poor Egyptian dogs to complete it in only ten years – it is a mark of our good quality that Great Britain imposed itself on the French, requiring a humane and Christian treatment for those sad devils. You know, I got the real story on the Newport, which you may recall reading about in the broadsheets after the Canal’s opening – the French Empress was invited down to the grande opening by the local emir or whomever, and was meant to be the first through the Canal itself. On the evening immediately prior, Captain Nares, with much daring, piloted his vessel, HMS Newport, ahead of the Imperial barge. Come sun-up, to the bewilderment of the French, there sat the Newport, and nothing could be done to prevent her from sailing through into the Red Sea and claiming the honour for Her Majesty’s Navy! Of course, the official word was that Nares was admonished by the Admiralty, but I have it on confidence that he received a congratulatory letter for displaying the obvious superiority of the Royal Navy and the adventuring spirit of the English character. I would wager you hadn’t thought you’re affianced so skilled at playing the News Hound, eh? You’ll find, my abilities are more than they appear!
Oh, seemingly, some disturbance ashore – ah ha, it’s merely a local, looks to be a goatherd or some such. Hmm. He’s in an altercation with some gendarmes, look to be company men. Ah! They are making off with his goats. I cannot really discern what the commotion is all about, they are carrying on in some heathen tongue – I swear, one of the things I look most forward to upon reaching the Colony will be hearing the Queen’s own the tongue of everyman, whether he be Citizen or Kaffir. Too much of these strange Mohammedans around Egypt, it will be good to be back in lands where the word of our Lord, and his sweet Justice, have been brought and established. I know that you, gentle soul that you are, will be worrying after that blackguard goatherd, despite the fact that he is so morally below you that, upon meeting a woman of your pedigree in the street, he by all rights should lay himself in the mud at her feet. Fear not, my love! I’ve no doubt that, likely as it is that that is the all the material wealth the scoundrel possesses this side of Paradise, he’ll be able to apply for their return with ease within the city. Though they be French, those gendarmes are still Christian men, and will likely look over whatever crime it is that the blackamoor undoubtedly committed.
Mentioning blackamoors reminds me – their is a deckhand aboard the Greenwich the likes of which I’ve never seen! The darkness of his negroid flesh, it’d set your heart a-patter. Hand on my heart, his skin shines blue in the harsh sunlight, and his head, which is bald as an egg, shines in its oppressive glare. For all the heat, the man works as one possessed. If we had a cadre of them back on your father’s estate, well, I can’t but imagine that the receipts would balance in a matter of months! I can see, with some clarity, what it is about these people that causes our Colonial cousins to Sin as they do, using them in a most brutish and uncivilised manner. We must thank Providence that we good men of the Empire have found our reason in these past decades, and forsake the temptation!
Egypt is a most desolate land, my dear, nothing like the rolling fields of Kent or the lush fens of the Lake Country. Brown and tan, as far as my eyes have power to discern. It sets one to a mighty thirst, in little more than the beholding. Seeing it first hand, one can understand the hardship that faced those intrepid Jews as they marched their way to freedom. Much better to be traversing by way of coal-powered machinery, I must say!
I’ve heard that we’ll make it to the a large holding area in the canal, the Great Bitter Lake, they call it, some point in the early afternoon. I look forward to seeing the assemblage of shipping their, boats from all over the world, and none grander nor more proud than those of our own merchant navy! Perhaps, if I’m lucky, there may even be a ship of the line present! It’s true that the Ironclads have nearly rendered them obsolete, but I’ve heard that there are a few that still ply the trade-routes, assisting merchant vessels and protecting them from the heathen Corsairs that can still be found in the Mediterranean. It would be a great pleasure to behold those trusty ships that solidified our ascendency in the days of yore.
Alas, these furnace-like conditions do tire a body. I fear I must repair to a cooler area, though I suspect I’m unlikely to find one aboard the vessel at this hour. I will send this, express-post, once we’ve reached the community of Suez, at the end of the channel. Give my regards to your mother, and to dear Aunt Gerty. I hope that that spot of fever she was suffering from last you wrote has cleared up. Tell your father I’m making good time, and should, Providence willing, reach the rendezvous in the Colony in a few months.
I keep you forever in my heart,
Hugh Octavius Pleasant