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Authors: C. S. Forester

The African Queen (5 page)

BOOK: The African Queen

“Come on,” said Rose. “Aren’t we going to start?”

, Miss?”

“Yes, now. Come along.”

Allnutt was up against hard facts again. It was enough, in his opinion, to have agreed with the lady, to have admitted her to be right, as a gentleman should. Allnutt’s impression was that they might start to-morrow if the gods were unkind; next week if they were favourable. To set off like this, at half an hour’s notice, to torpedo the German navy seemed to him unseemly, or at least unnatural.

“There isn’t two hours of daylight left, Miss,” he said, looking down the backwater to the light on the river.

“We can go a long way in two hours,” said Rose, shutting her mouth tight. In much the same way, her mother had been accustomed to saying “a penny saved is a penny earned,” in the days of the little general shop in the small north country manufacturing town.

“I’ll ’ave to get the ole kettle to boil agine,” said Allnutt. Yet he got down from his seat and took up his habitual attitude beside the engine.

There were embers still glowing in the furnace; it was only a few minutes after filling it with wood and slamming the door that it began its cheerful roar, and soon after that the engine began to sigh and splutter and leak steam. Allnutt commenced the activities which had been forced upon him by the desertion of his two Negro hands—winding in the anchor, shoving off from the bank, and starting the propeller turning, all as nearly simultaneously as might be. In that atmosphere, where the slightest exertion brought out sweat, these activities caused it to run in streams; his dirty jacket was soaked between his shoulder blades. And, once under way, constant attention at the furnace and the engine gave him no chance to cool down.

Rose watched his movements. She was anxious to learn all about this boat. She took the tiller and set herself to learn to steer. During the first few minutes of the lesson she thought to herself that it was a typical man-made arrangement that the tiller had to be put to the right to turn the boat to the left, but that feeling vanished very quickly; in fact, under Allnutt’s coaching, it was not very long before she even began to see sense in a convention which spoke of “port” and “starboard.” Rose had always previously had a suspicion that that particular convention had its roots in man’s queer taste for ceremonial and fuss.

The voyage began with a bit of navigation which was exciting and interesting, as they threaded their way through backwaters among the islands. There were snags about, and floating vegetation, nearly submerged, which might entangle the screw, and there were shoals and mudbanks to be avoided. It was not until some minutes had elapsed, and they were already a mile or two on their way, that a stretch of easy water gave Rose leisure to think, and she realized with a shock that she had left behind the mission station where she had laboured for ten years, her brother’s grave, her home, everything there was in her world, in fact, and all without a thought.

That was the moment when a little wave of emotion almost overcame her. Her eyes were moist and she sniffed a little. She reproached herself with not having been more sentimental about it. Yet immediately after, a new surge of feeling overcame the weakness. She thought of the
Königin Luise
flaunting her iron cross flag on the lake where never a white ensign could come to challenge her, and of the Empire needing help, and of her brother’s death to avenge. And, womanlike, she remembered the rudenesses and insults to which Samuel had patiently submitted from the officialdom of the colony; they had to be avenged, too. And—although Rose never suspected it—there was within her a lust for adventure, patiently suppressed during her brother’s life, and during the monotonous years at the mission. Rose did not realize that she was gratified by the freedom which her brother’s death had brought her. She would have been all contrition if she had realized it, but she never did.

As it was, the moment of weakness passed, and she took a firmer grip of the tiller, and peered forward with narrowed eyelids over the glaring surface of the river. Allnutt was being fantastically active with the engine. All those grey pencils of steam oozing from it were indicative of the age of that piece of machinery, and the neglect from which it had suffered. For years the muddy river water had been pumped direct into the boiler, with the result that the water tubes were rotten with rust where they were not plugged with scale.

The water feed pump, naturally, had a habit of choking, and always at important moments, demanding instant attention lest the whole boiler should go to perdition—Allnutt had to work it frantically by hand occasionally, and there were indications that in the past he or his Negro assistants had neglected this precaution, disregarding the doubtful indication of the water gauge, with the result that every water tube joint leaked. Practically every one had been mended at some time or other, in the botched and unsatisfactory manner with which the African climate leads man to be content at unimportant moments; some had been brazed in, but more had been patched with nothing more solid than sheet iron, red lead, and wire.

As a result, a careful watch had to be maintained on the pressure gauge. In the incredibly distant past, when that engine had been new, a boiler pressure of eighty pounds to the square inch could be maintained, giving the launch a speed of twelve knots. Nowadays, if the pressure mounted above fifteen the engine showed unmistakable signs of dissolution, and no greater than four knots could be reached. So Allnutt had the delicate task of keeping the pressure just there, and no higher and no lower, which called for a continuous light diet for the furnace, and a familiarity with the eccentricities of the pressure gauge, which could only be acquired by long and continuous study. Nor was this attention to the furnace made any easier by the tendency of the wood fuel to choke the draught with ash—Allnutt, when stoking, had to plan his campaign like a chess player, looking six moves ahead at least, bearing in mind the effect on the draught of emptying the ash pan, the relative inflammability of any one of half a dozen different kinds of wood, the quite noticeable influence of direct sunlight on the boiler, the chances of the safety valve sticking (someone had once dropped something heavy on this, and no amount of subsequent work on it could make it quite reliable again), and the likelihood of his attention being shortly called away to deal with some other crisis.

For the lubrication was in no way automatic nowadays; oil had to be stuffed down the oil cups on the tops of the cylinders, and there were never less than two bearings calling for instant cooling and lubrication, so that Allnutt, when the
African Queen
was under way, was as active as a squirrel in a cage. It was quite remarkable that he had been able to bring the launch down single-handed from the mine to the mission station after the desertion of his crew, for then he had to steer the boat as well, and keep the necessary lookout for snags and shoals.

“Wood’s running short,” said Allnutt, looking up from his labours, his face grey with grime, and streaked with sweat. “We’ll have to anchor soon.”

Rose looked round at where the sun had sunk to the tree-tops on the distant bank.

“All right,” she said, grudgingly. “Well find somewhere to spend the night.”

They went on, with the engine clanking lugubriously, to where the river broke up again into a fresh batch of small waterways. Allnutt cast a last lingering glance over his engine, and scuttled up into the bows.

“Round ’ere, Miss,” he called, with a wave of his arm.

Rose put the tiller over and they surged into a narrow channel.

“Round ’ere again,” said Allnutt. “Steady! There’s a channel ’ere. Bring ’er up into it. Steady! Keep ’er at that!”

They were heading upstream now, in a narrow passage roofed over by trees, whose roots, washed bare by the rushing brown water, and tangled together almost as thick as basket-work, constituted the surface of the banks. Against the sweeping current the
African Queen
made bare headway. Allnutt let go the anchor and, running back, shut off steam. The launch swung stationary to her mooring with hardly a jerk.

For once, in a way, Rose had been interested in the manoeuvres, and she filled with pride at the thought that she had understood them. She didn’t usually trouble; when travelling by train she never tried to understand railway signals, and even the Italian first officer had never been able to rouse her interest in ship’s work. But to-day she had understood the significance of it all, of the necessity to moor bows upstream in that narrow fast channel, in consequence of the anchor being in the bows. Rose could not quite imagine what that fast current would do to a boat if it caught it while jammed broadside on across a narrow waterway, but she could hazard a guess that it would be a damaging business. Allnutt stood watching attentively for a moment to make certain that the anchor was not dragging, and then sat down with a sigh in the sternsheets.

“Coo!” he said, “it’s ’ot work, ain’t it, Miss? I could do a drink.”

From the locker beside her he produced a dirty enamel mug, and then a second one.

“Going to ’ave one, Miss?” Allnutt asked.

“No,” said Rose, shortly. She knew instinctively that she was about to come into opposition with what Samuel always called Rum. She watched, fascinated. From under the bench on which he sat Allnutt dragged out a wooden case, and from out of the case he brought a bottle, full of some clear liquid like water. He proceeded to pour a liberal portion into the tin mug.

“What is that?” asked Rose.

“Gin, Miss,” said Allnutt. “An’ there’s only river water to drink it with.”

Rose’s knowledge of strong drink was quite hazy. The first time she had ever sat at a table where it was served had been in the Italian steamer; she remembered the polite amusement of the officers when she and her brother had stiffly refused to drink the purple-red wine which appeared at every meal. During her brother’s ministry in England she had heard drink and its evil effects discussed; there were even bad characters in the congregation who were addicted to it, and with whom she had sometimes tried to reason. At the mission, Samuel had striven ineffectively for ten years to persuade his coloured flock to abandon the use of the beer they had been accustomed to brew from time immemorial—Rose knew how very ineffective his arguments had been. And there were festivals when everybody brewed and drank stronger liquors still, and got raging drunk, and made fearful noises, and all had sore heads the next morning; and not even the sore heads had reconciled Samuel to the backsliding of his congregation the night before.

And the few white men all drank, too—although up to this minute Rose, influenced by Samuel’s metaphorical description, had been under the impression that their tipple was a fearsome stuff called rum, and not this innocent-appearing gin. Rum, and the formation of unhallowed unions with native women, and the brutal conscription of native labour, had been the triple-headed enemy Samuel was always in arms against. Now, Rose found herself face to face with the first of these sins. Drink made men madmen. Drink rotted their bodies and corrupted their souls. Drink brought ruin in this world and damnation in the next.

Allnutt had filled the other mug overside, and was now decanting water into the gin, trying carefully but not very effectively to prevent too much river alluvium from entering his drink. Rose watched with increasing fascination. She wanted to protest, to appeal to Allnutt’s better feelings, even to snatch the terrible thing from him, and yet she stayed inert, unmoving. Possibly it was that common sense of hers which kept her quiescent. Allnutt drank the frightful stuff and smacked his lips.

“That’s better,” he said.

He put the mug down. He did not start to be maniacal, nor to sing songs, nor to reel about the boat. Instead, with his sinfulness still wet on his lips, he swung open the gates of paradise for Rose.

“Now I can think about supper,” he said. “What about a cup o’ tea, Miss?”

Tea! Heat and thirst and fatigue and excitement had done their worst for Rose. She was limp and weary, and her throat ached. The imminent prospect of a cup of tea roused her to trembling excitement. Twelve cups of tea, each, Samuel and she had drunk daily for years. To-day she had had none—she had eaten no food either, but at the moment that meant nothing to her. Tea! A cup of tea! Two cups of tea! Half a dozen great mugs of tea, strong, delicious, revivifying! Her mind was suffused with rosy pictures of an evening’s tea drinking, a debauch compared with which the spring sowing festivities at the village by the mission station were only a pale shade.

“I’d like a cup of tea,” she said.

“Water’s still boiling in the engine,” said Allnutt, heaving himself to his feet. “Won’t take a minute.”

The tinned meat that they ate was reduced, as a result of the heat, to a greasy semi-liquid mass. The native bread was dark and unpalatable. But the tea was marvelous. Rose was forced to use sweetened condensed milk in it, which she hated—at the mission they had cows until Von Hanneken commandeered them—but not even that spoilt her enjoyment of the tea. She drank it strong, mug after mug of it, as she had promised herself, with never a thought of what it was doing inside her to the lining of her stomach; probably it was making as pretty a picture of that as ever she had seen at a Band of Hope lantern lecture where they exhibited enlarged photographs of a drunkard’s liver. For a moment her body temperature shot up to fever heat, but presently there came a blissful perspiration—not the sticky, prickly sweat in which she moved all day long, but a beneficent and cooling fluid, bringing with it a feeling of ease and well-being.

“Those Belgians up at the mine wouldn’t never drink tea,” said Allnutt, tilting the condensed milk tin over his mug of black liquid. “They didn’t know what was good.”

“Yes,” said Rose. She felt positive friendship for Allnutt welling up within her. She slapped at the mosquitoes without irritation.

When the scanty crockery had been washed and put away, Allnutt stood up and looked about him; the light was just failing.

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