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Authors: C. S. Forester

The African Queen (6 page)

BOOK: The African Queen

“Ain’t seen no crocodiles in this arm, Miss, ’ave you?” he asked.

“No,” said Rose.

“No shallows for ’em ’ere,” said Allnutt. “And current’s too fast.”

He coughed a little self-consciously.

“I want to ’ave a bath before bedtime,” he said.

“So do I.”

“I’ll go up in the bows an’ ’ave mine ’olding on to the anchor chain,” said Allnutt. “You stay down ’ere and do what you like, Miss. Then if we don’t look, it won’t matter.”

Rose found herself stripping herself naked right out in the open, with a man only a dozen feet away doing the same, and only a slender funnel six inches thick between them. Somehow it did not matter. Rose was conscious that out of the tail of her eye she could see a greyish-white shape lower itself over the launch’s bows, and she could hear prodigious kickings and splashings as Allnutt took his bath. She sat naked on the low gunwale in the stern and lowered her legs into the water. The fast current boiled around them, deliciously cool, tugging at her ankles, insidiously luring her further. She slipped over completely, holding on to the boat, trailing her length on the surface of the water. It was like paradise—ever so much better than her evening bath at the mission, in a shallow tin trough of lukewarm water, and obsessed with the continual fear that the unceasing curiosity of the natives might cause prying eyes to be peering at her through some chink or crevice in the walls.

Then she began to pull herself out. It was not easy, what with the pull of the current and the height of the gunwale, but a final effort of her powerful arms drew her up far enough to wriggle at last over the edge. Only then did she realize that she had been quite calmly contemplating calling to Allnutt for assistance, and she felt that she ought to be disgusted with herself, but she could not manage it. She fished a towel out of her tin box of clothes and dried herself, and dressed again. It was almost dark by now, dark enough, anyway, for a firefly on the bank to be visible, and for the noises of the forest to have stilled so much that the sound of the river boiling along the banks seemed to have grown much louder.

“Are you ready, Miss?” called Allnutt, starting to come aft.

“Yes,” said Rose.

“You better sleep ’ere in the stern,” said Allnutt, “case it rains. I got a couple of rugs ’ere. There ain’t no fleas in ’em.”

“Where are you going to sleep?”

“For’ard, Miss. I can make a sort of bed out o’ them cases.”

“What, on the—the explosives?”

“Yerss, Miss. Won’t do it no ’arm.”

That was not what had called for the question. To Rose there seemed something against nature in the idea of actually sleeping on a couple of hundredweights of explosive, enough to lay a city in ruins—or to blow in the side of a ship. But she thrust the strangeness of the thought out of her mind; everything was strange now.

“All right,” she said, briefly.

“You cover up well,” said Allnutt, warningly. “It gets nearly cold on the river towards morning—look at the mist now.”

A low white haze was already drifting over the surface of the river.

“All right,” said Rose again.

Allnutt retraced his steps into the bows, and Rose made her brief preparations for the night. She did not allow herself to think about the skins—black or white, clean or dirty—which had already been in contact with those rugs. She laid herself on the hard floor boards with the rugs about her and her head on a pillow of her spare clothing. Her mind was like a whirlpool in which circled a mad inconsequence of thoughts. Her brother had died only that morning and it seemed at least a month ago. The memory of his white face was vague although urgent. With her eyes closed, her retinas were haunted with persistent after-images of running water—water foaming round snags, and rippling over shallows, and all agleam with sunshine where the wind played upon it. She thought of the
Königin Luise
queening it on the lake. She thought of Allnutt, only a yard or two from her virgin bed, and of his naked body vanishing over the side of the launch. She thought again of the dead Samuel. The instant resolution which followed to avenge his death caught her on the point of going to sleep. She turned over restlessly. The flies were biting like fiends. She thought of Allnutt’s drooping cigarette, and of how she had cheated him into accompanying her. She thought of the play of the light and shade on the water when they had first anchored. And with that shifting pattern in her mind’s eye she fell asleep for good, utterly worn out.

Chapter 3

actually contrived to sleep most of the night. It was the rain which woke her up, the rain and the thunder and lightning. It took her a little while to think where she was, lying there in the dark on those terribly hard floor boards. All round her was an inferno of noise. The rain was pouring down as it can only in Central Africa. It was drumming on the awning over her, and streaming in miniature waterfalls from the trees above into the river. The lightning was lighting up brilliantly even this dark backwater, and the thunder roared almost without intermission. A warm wind came sweeping along the backwater, blowing the launch upstream a little, so that whenever it dropped for a moment the pull of the current brought her back with a jerk against her moorings like a small earthquake. Almost at once Rose felt the warm rain on her face, blown in by the wind under the awning, and then the awning began to leak, discharging little cataracts of water on to the floor boards round her.

It all seemed to happen at once—one moment she was asleep, and the next she was wet and uncomfortable, and the launch was tugging at her anchor chain. Something moved in the waist of the launch, and the lightning revealed Allnutt crawling towards her, very wet and miserable, dragging his bedding with him. He came pattering up beside her, whimpering, for all the world like a little dog. The leaky awning shot a cataract of water down his neck.

“Coo!” he said, and shifted his position abruptly.

By some kind of chance, Rose’s position was such that none of these direct streams descended upon her; she was only incommoded by the rain in the wind and the splashes from the floor boards. But that was the only space under the awning as well-protected. Allnutt spent much time moving abruptly here and there, with the pitiless streams searching him out every time. Rose heard his teeth chattering as he came near her, and was for a moment minded to put out her arm and draw him to her like a child; she blushed secretly at discovering such a plan in her mind, for Allnutt was no more a child than she was.

Instead, she sat up and asked—

“What can we do?”

“N-nothing, Miss,” said Allnutt, miserably and definitely.

“Can’t you shelter anywhere?”

“No, Miss. But this won’t last long.”

Allnutt spoke with the spiritless patience bred by a lifetime’s bad luck. He moved out of one stream of water into another. Samuel, in the same conditions, would have displayed a trace of bad temper—Rose had to measure men by Samuel’s standard, because she knew no other man so well.

“You poor man!” said Rose.

“You poor chap” or “You poor old thing” might have sounded more comradely or sympathetic, but Rose had never yet spoken of men as “chaps” or “old things.”

“I’m so sorry,” said Rose, but Allnutt only shifted uncomfortably again.

Then the storm passed as quickly as it came. In a country where it rains an inch in an hour, an annual rainfall of two hundred inches means only two hundred hours’ rain a year. For a little while the trees above still tossed and roared in the wind, and then the wind died away, and there was a little light in the backwater, and with the stillness of dawn the sound of the river coursing through the tree roots overshadowed every other noise. The day came with a rush, and for once the sun and the heat were beneficent and life-giving, instead of being malignant tyrants. Rose and Allnutt roused themselves; the whole backwater steamed like a laundry.

“What’s to be done before we move on?” asked Rose. It did not occur to her that there was anything they might do instead of moving on. Allnutt scratched at his sprouting beard.

“Got no wood,” he said. “ ’Ave to fill up with thet. Plenty of dead stuff ’ere, I should fink. An’ we’ll ’ave to pump out. The ole boat leaks anyways, an’ wiv all this rine—”

“Show me how to do that.”

So Rose was introduced to the hand pump, which was as old and as inefficient as everything else on board. In theory one stuck the foot of it down between the skin and the floor boards, and then worked a handle up and down, whereupon the water beneath the boards was sucked up and discharged through a spout overside; by inclining the boat over to the side where the pump was, the boat could be got reasonably dry. But that pump made a hard job of it. It choked and refused duty, and squeaked and jammed, and pinched the hands that worked it, all with an ingenuity which seemed quite diabolical. Rose came in the end to hate that pump more bitterly than anything she had ever hated before. Allnutt showed her how to begin the job.

“You go and get the wood,” said Rose, settling the pump into the scuppers and preparing to work the handle. “I’ll do this by myself.”

Allnutt produced an axe which was just as rusty and woebegone as everything else in the boat, hooked the bank with the boat hook, and swung himself ashore with the stern painter in his hand. He vanished into the undergrowth, looking cautiously round at every step for fear of snakes, while Rose toiled away at the pump. There was nothing on earth so ingeniously designed to abolish the feeling of morning freshness. Rose’s face empurpled, and the sweat poured down as she toiled away with the cranky thing. At intervals Allnutt appeared on the bank, dumping down fresh discoveries of dead wood to add to the growing pile at the landing place, and then, pulling in on the stern painter, he began the ticklish job of loading the fuel on board, standing swaying perilously on the slippery uneven foothold.

Rose quitted her work at the pump to help him—there was by now only a very little water slopping below the floor boards—and when the wood was all on board, the waist piled high with it, they stopped for breath and looked at each other.

“We had better start now,” said Rose.

“Breakfast?” said Allnutt, and then, playing his trump card, “Tea?”

“We’ll have that going along,” said Rose. “Let’s get started now.”

Perhaps Rose had all her life been a woman of action and decision, but she had spent all her adult life under the influence of her brother. Samuel had been not merely a man, but a minister, and therefore had a twofold—perhaps fourfold—right to order the doings of his womenfolk. Rose had always been content to follow his advice and abide by his judgment.

But now that she was alone the reaction was violent. She was carrying out a plan of her own devising, and she would allow nothing to stop her, nothing to delay her. She was consumed by a fever for action. That is not to belittle the patriotic fervour which actuated her as well. She was most bitterly determined upon doing something for England; she was so set and rigid in this determination that she never had to think about it, any more than she had to think about breathing, or the beating of her pulse. She was more conscious of the motive of avenging her brother’s death; but perhaps the motive of which she was most conscious was her desire to wipe out the ten years of insults from German officialdom to which the meek Samuel had so mildly submitted. It was the thought of those slights and insults which brought a flush to her cheek and a firmer grip to her hand, and spurred her on to fresh haste.

Allnutt philosophically shrugged his shoulders, much as he had seen his Belgian employers do up at the mine. The woman was a bit mad, but it would be more trouble to argue with her than to obey her, at present; Allnutt was not sufficiently self-analytical to appreciate that most of the troubles of his life resulted from attempts to avoid trouble. He addressed himself, in his usual attitude of prayer, to the task of getting the engine fire going again, and while the boiler was heating he continued the endless task of lubrication. When the boiler began to sigh and gurgle he looked inquiringly at Rose, and received a nod from her. Rose was interested to see how Allnutt proposed to extricate the launch from the narrow channel in which she was moored.

It was a process which called for much activity on Allnutt’s part. First he strained at the anchor winch, ineffectively, because the current which was running was too strong to allow him to wind the heavy boat up to the anchor. So he started the screw turning until the
African Queen
was just making headway against the current, and then, rushing forward, he got the anchor clear and wound in. But he did not proceed up the backwater—there was no means of knowing if the way was clear all the way up to the main stream, and some of these backwaters were half a dozen miles long. Instead, he hurried back to the engine, and throttled down until the launch was just being carried down by the current, although the engine was still going ahead.

This gave her a queer contrariwise steerageway, in which one thought in terms of the stern instead of the bow. Allnutt left the engine to look after itself, and hastened back to take the tiller from Rose’s hand; he could not trust her with it. He eased the
African Queen
gently down until they reached the junction with the broad channel of the main backwater. Then he scuttled forward and jerked the engine over into reverse, and then, scuttling back to the tiller, he swept the stern round upstream, keeping a wary eye on the bow meanwhile lest the current should push it into the bank, and then, the moment the bow was clear, while catastrophe threatened astern, he dashed forward again, started the screw in the opposite direction, and came leaping back once more to the tiller to hold the boat steady while she gathered way downstream. It was a neat bit of boatmanship; Rose, even with her limited experience, could appreciate it even though some of the implications were lost upon her—the careful balance of eddy against current at the bend, for instance, and the subtle employment of the set of the screw to help in the turn. She nodded and smiled her approval, but Allnutt could not stay for applause. Already there were danger signals from the engine, and Allnutt had to hand over the tiller and resume his work over it.

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