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Authors: C. S. Forester

The African Queen (8 page)

BOOK: The African Queen

“But they won’t be able to stop us.”

“Won’t be able—! Don’t talk silly, Miss. They’ll ’ave rifles. Some of them machine guns, p’raps. Cannon p’raps. The river ain’t more than ’alf a mile wide.”

“Let’s go past at night, then.”

“That won’t do, neither. ’Cause the rapids start just below Shona. That ’ill Shona stands on is the beginning of the cliffs the river runs between. If we was to go past Shona in the dark we’d ’ave to go on darn the rapids in the dark. An’ I ain’t goin’ darn no rapids in the dark, neither. An’ I ain’t goin’ darn no rapids at all, neither, neither. We didn’t ought to ’ave come darn as far as this. It’s all dambloody barmy. They might find us ’ere, if they was to come out in a canoe from Shona. I’m goin’ back to-morrer up to that other backwater we was in yesterdye. That’s the sifest plice for us.”

Allnutt had shaken off all shame and false modesty. He preferred appearing a coward in Rose’s eyes to risking going under fire at Shona, or to attempting the impossible descent of the gorges of the Ulanga. There was not going to be any more hankypanky about it. He drank neat gin to set the seal on his resolution.

Rose was white with angry disappointment. She tried to keep her temper, to plead, to cajole, but Allnutt was in no mood for argument. For a while he was silent now, and made no attempt to combat Rose’s urgings, merely opposing to them a stolid inertia. Only when, in the growing darkness, Rose called him a liar and a coward—and Rose in her sedate upbringing had never used those words to anyone before—did he reply.

“Coward yerself,” he said. “You ain’t no lady. No, Miss. That’s what my poor ole mother would ’ave said to
. If my mother was to ’ear you—”

When a man who is drinking neat gin starts talking about his mother he is past all argument, as Rose began to suspect. She drew herself stiffly together in the sternsheets while Allnutt’s small orgy continued. She was alone in a small boat with a drunken man—a most dreadful situation. She sat tense in the darkness, ready to battle for her life or her virtue, and quite certain that one or the other would be imperiled before morning. Every one of Allnutt’s blundering movements in the darkness put her on the
qui vive
. When Allnutt knocked over his mug or poured himself out another drink she sat with clenched fists, convinced that he was preparing for an assault. There was a frightful period of time, while Allnutt was in muddled fashion reaching beneath the bench for the case of gin to find another bottle, during which she thought he was crawling towards her.

But Allnutt was neither amorous nor violent in his cups. His mention of his mother brought tears into his eyes. He wept at his mother’s memory, and then he wept over the fate of Carrie, which was his name for the brawny Swahili-speaking Negress who had been his mistress at the mine, and who was now heaven knew where in the train of Von Hanneken’s army. Then he mourned over his own expatriation, and he sobbed through his hiccups at the thought of his boyhood friends in London. He began to sing, with a tunelessness which was almost unbelievable, a song which suited his mood—

“Gimmy regards ter Leicester Square,

Sweet Piccadilly an’ Myefair.

Remember me to the folks darn there;

They’ll understa-and.”

He dragged out the last note to such a length that he forgot what he was singing, and he made two or three unavailing attempts to recapture the first fine careless rapture before he ceased from song. Then in his mutterings he began to discuss the question of sleep, and, sure enough, the sound of his snores came before long through the darkness to Rose’s straining ears. She had almost relaxed, when a thump and a clatter from Allnutt’s direction brought her up to full tension again. But his peevish exclamations told her that he had only fallen from the seat of the floor boards, mugs, bottle and all, and in two minutes he was happily snoring again, while Rose sat stiff and still, and chewed the cud of her resentment against him, and the reek of the spilt gin filled the night air.

Despair and hatred kept her from sleep. At that moment she had no hope left on earth. Her knowledge of men—which meant her knowledge of Samuel and of her father—told her that when a man said a thing he meant it, and nothing on earth would budge him from that decision. She could not believe that Allnutt would ever be induced or persuaded or bullied into attempting to pass Shona, and she hated him for it. It was the first time she had ever really set her heart on anything, and Allnutt stood in her way, immovable. Rose wasted no idle dreams on Quixotic plans of getting rid of Allnutt and conducting the
African Queen
single-handed; she was levelheaded enough and sufficiently aware of her own limitations not to think of that for a second.

At the same time she seethed with revolt and resentment even against the godlike male. Although for thirty years she had submitted quite naturally to the arbitrary decisions of the superior sex, this occasion was different. She wanted most passionately to go on; she knew she ought to; conscience and inclination combined to make her resent Allnutt’s change of front. There was nothing left to live for, if she could not get the
African Queen
down to the lake to strike her blow for England; and such was the obvious sanctity of such a mission that she stood convicted in her own mind of mortal sin if she did not achieve it. Her bitterness against Allnutt increased.

She resolved, as the night wore on, to make Allnutt pay for his arbitrariness. She set her teeth, she chewed at her nails—and Rose’s mother’s slipper had cured her of nail-biting at the age of twelve—as she swore to herself to make Allnutt’s life hell for him. Rose had never tried to raise hell in her life, but in her passion of resentment she felt inspired to it. In the darkness her jaw came forward, and her lips compressed until her mouth was no more than a thin line, and there were deep parentheses from her nostrils to the corners of her mouth. Anyone who could have seen Rose at that moment would have taken her for a shrew, a woman with the temper of a fiend. Now that Samuel was dead, Rose had no use for patience or resignation or charity or forgiveness or any of the passive Christian virtues.

Nor was her temper improved by a night of discomfort. Cramps and aches made her change her position, but she could not, even if she would, lie down in the sternsheets where Allnutt was all asprawl across the boat, and she would not make her way forward to take up Allnutt’s usual nest among the explosives. She sat and suffered on the ribbed bench, on which she had sat all day, and even her shapely and well-covered hindquarters protested. She slept, towards morning, by fits and starts, but that amount of sleep did nothing towards mollifying her cold rage.

Dawn revealed to her Allnutt lying like a corpse on the floor boards. His face, hardly veiled by the sprouting beard, was a dirty grey, and from his open mouth came soft but unpleasing sounds. There was no pleasure in the sight of him. Rose got to her feet and stepped over him; she would have spurned him with her foot, save that she did not want to rouse him to violent opposition to what she was going to do. She dragged out the case of gin, took out a bottle and stripped the lead foil from the end. The cork was of the convenient kind which needs no corkscrew. She poured the stuff overside, dropped the bottle in after it, and began on another.

When for the third time the glug-glug-glug of poured liquid reached Allnutt’s ears he muttered something, opened his eyes, and tried to sit up.

“Jesus!” he said.

It was not the sight of what Rose was doing which called forth the exclamation, for he still did not know the reason of the noise which had roused him. Allnutt’s head was like a lump of red-hot pain. And it felt as if his head, besides, were nailed to the floor boards, so that any attempt at raising it caused him agony. And his eyes could not stand the light; opening them intensified the pain. He shut his eyes and moaned; his mouth was parched and his throat ached, too.

Allnutt was not a natural-born drinker; his wretched frame could not tolerate alcohol. It is possible that his small capacity for liquor played a part in the unknown explanation of his presence in German Central Africa. And one single night’s drinking always reduced him to this pitiful state, sick and white and trembling, and ready to swear never to drink again—quite content, in fact, not to drink for a month at least.

Rose paid no attention to his moaning and whimpering. She flung one look of scorn at him and then poured the last bottle of the case overside. She went forward and dragged the second case of gin out from among the boxes of stores. She took Allnutt’s favourite screwdriver and began to prize the case open, with vicious wrenches of her powerful wrist. As the deal came away from the nails with a splintering crash, Allnutt rolled over to look at her again. With infinite trouble he got himself into a sitting position, with his hand at his temples, which felt as if they were being battered with white-hot hammers. He looked a her quite uncomprehending with his aching eyes.

“Coo, Jesus!” he said, pitifully.

Rose wasted neither time nor sympathy on him; she went calmly on pouring gin overside. Allnutt got to his knees with his arms on the bench. At the second attempt he got his knees upon the bench, with his body hanging overside. Rose thought he would fall in, but she did not care. He leaned over the gurgling brown water and drank feverishly. Then he slumped back onto the bench and promptly brought up all the water he had drunk, but he felt better, all the same. The light did not hurt his eyes now.

Rose dropped the last bottle into the river, and made certain there was no other in the case. She returned to the sternsheets, passing him close enough to touch him, but apparently without noticing his presence. She took her toilet things from her tin box, picked up a rug, and went back again into the bows. By the time Allnutt was able to turn his head in that direction the rug was pinned across the funnel stay to the funnel, screening her from view. When she took down the rug again her toilet was obviously finished; she folded the rug, still without paying him the least attention, and began to prepare her breakfast, and then to eat it with perfect composure. Breakfast completed, she cleared all away, and came back into the stern, but she still gave him neither look nor word. With an appearance of complete abstraction she picked out the dirty clothes from her tin box and began to wash them overside, pinning each garment out to dry to the awning overhead. And when she had finished the washing she sat down and did nothing; she did not even look at Allnutt. This was, in fact, the beginning of the great silence.

Rose had been able to think of no better way of making Allnutt’s life a hell—she did not realize that it was the most effective way possible. Rose had remembered occasions when Samuel had seen fit to be annoyed with her, and had in consequence withdrawn from her the light of his notice and the charm of his conversation, sometimes for as much as twenty-four hours together. Rose remembered what a dreadful place the bungalow had become then, and how Samuel’s silence had wrought upon her nerves, until the blessed moment of forgiveness. She could not hope to equal Samuel’s icily impersonal quality, but she would do her best, especially as she could not, anyway, bring herself to speak to the hateful Allnutt. She had no reliance in her ability to nag, and nagging was the only other practicable method of making Allnutt’s life hell for him.

During the morning, Allnutt did not take very special notice of his isolation. His wretched mind and body were too much occupied in getting over the effects of drinking a bottle and a half of overproof spirit in a tropical climate. But as the hours passed, and draught after draught of river water had done much towards restoring their proper rhythm to his physiological processes, he grew restless. He felt that by now he had earned forgiveness for his late carouse; and it irked him unbearably not to be able to talk as much as he was accustomed. He thought Rose was angry with him for his drunkenness; he attached little importance, in his present state, to the matter of his refusal to go on past Shona and down the rapids.

“Coo, ain’t it ’ot?” he said. Rose paid him no attention.

“We could do wiv anuvver storm,” said Allnutt. “Does get yer cool fer a minute, even if these little b-beggars bite ’arder than ever after it.”

Rose remembered a couple of buttons that had to be sewn on. She got out the garment and her housewife, and calmly set about the business. At her first movement Allnutt had thought some notice of his existence was about to be taken, and he felt disappointed when the purpose of the movement became apparent.

“Puttin’ yer things to rights prop’ly, ain’t yer, Miss?” he said.

A woman sewing has a powerful weapon at her disposition when engaged in a duel with a man. Her bent head enables her to conceal her expression without apparently trying; it is the easiest matter in the world for her to simulate complete absorption in the work in hand when actually she is listening attentively; and if even then she feels disconcerted or needs a moment to think, she can always play for time by reaching for her scissors. And some men—Allnutt was an example—are irritated effectively by the attention paid to trifles of sewing instead of to their fascinating selves.

It took only a few minutes for Allnutt to acknowledge the loss of the first round of the contest.

“Ain’t yer goin to answer me, Miss?” he said, and then, still eliciting no notice, he went on—“I’m sorry for what I done last night. There! I don’t mind sayin’ it, Miss. What wiv the gin bein’ there to my ’and, like, an’ the ’eat, an’ what not. I couldn’t ’elp ’avin’ a drop more than I should ’ave. You’ve pyed me back proper already, pourin’ all the rest of it awye, now ’aven’t you, Miss? Fair’s fair.”

Rose made no sign of having heard, although a better psychologist than Allnutt might have made deductions from her manner of twirling the thread round the shank and the decisive way in which she oversewed to end off. Allnutt lost his temper.

“ ’Ave it yer own wye, then, yer psalm-singing ole bitch,” he said, and pitched his cigarette end overside with disgust, and lurched up into the bows. Rose’s heart came up into her mouth at his first movement, for she thought he was about to proceed to physical violence. His true purpose fortunately became apparent before she had time to obey her first impulse and put down her sewing to defend herself. She converted her slight start into a test of the ability of the button to pass through the hole.

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