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!
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