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The rivals of Sherlock Holmes : early detective stories

BOOK: The rivals of Sherlock Holmes : early detective stories
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THE BLACK HOUSE

Paul Theroux was born and educated in the United States. After graduating from university in 1963, he travelled first to Italy and then to Africa, where he worked as a Peace Corps teacher at a bush school in Malawi and as a lecturer at Makerere University in Uganda. In 1968 he joined the University of Singapore and taught in the Department of English for three years. Throughout this time he was publishing short stories and journalism, and he wrote a number of novels, among them Fong and the Indians, Girls at Play and Jungle Lovers. In the early 1970s Paul Theroux moved with his wife and two children to Dorset, where he wrote Saint Jack, and then on to London. He was a resident in Britain for a total of seventeen years. In this time he wrote a dozen volumes of highly praised fiction and a number of successful travel books, from which a selection of writings were taken to compile his book, Travelling the World (Penguin, 1992). Paul Theroux has now returned to the United States, but he continues to travel widely.

Paul Theroux’s many books include Picture Palace, which won the 1978 Whitbread Literary Award; The Mosquito Coast, which was the 1981 Yorkshire Post Novel of the Year and joint winner of the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, and was also made into a feature film; Riding the Iron Rooster, which won the 1988 Thomas Cook Travel Book Award; and Millroy the Magician. Most of his books are published by Penguin.

Fiction

Waldo Jungle Lovers Saint Jack The Black House The Family Arsenal Picture Palace World’s End The Mosquito Coast The London Embassy O-Zone My Secret History Chicago Loop Millroy the Magician

T ravel

The Great Railway Bazaar The Old Patagonian Express The Kingdom by the Sea Sunrise with Seamonsters Riding the Iron Rooster The Happy Isles of Oceania Travelling the World

PAUL THEROUX

The Black House

©

Penguin Books

PENGUIN BOOKS Published by the Penguin Group

Penguin Books Ltd, 27 Wrights Lane, London W8 5TZ, England

Penguin Books USA Inc., 375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014, USA

Penguin Books Australia Ltd, Ringwood, Victoria, Australia

Penguin Books Canada Ltd, 10 Alcom Avenue Toronto, Ontario, Canada M4V 3B2 Penguin Books (NZ) Ltd, 182-190 Wairau Road, Auckland 10, New Zealand

Penguin Books Ltd, Registered Offices: Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England

First published in the USA by Houghton Mifflin Company 1974 Published in Penguin Books (UK) 1986 Published in Penguin Books (USA), 1996 10 9 8 7 6 5

Copyright (g) Paul Theroux, 1974 All rights reserved

Printed in England by Clays Ltd, St Ives pic

Except in the United States of America, this book is sold subject to the condition that it shall not, by way of trade or otherwise, be lent, re-sold, hired out, or otherwise circulated without the publisher's prior consent in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition including this condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser

For Blanche Gregory

‘Thus I; faltering forward,

Leaves around me falling,

Wind oozing thin through the thorn from norward,

And the woman calling.”

—Thomas Hardy, “The Voice”

The Times, Tuesday November 9 The Bwamba

From Dr. A. B.W. Munday

Sir, It is to be regretted that your correspondent (“Tribal War in Western Uganda,” 25 Oct.) did not trouble himself to probe more deeply into the conflict between the Bwamba and Batoro peoples, and saw fit only to repeat the confused observations of a generation of misfit District Commissioners.

The wisdom of comparing the Bwamba to other quarrelsome African peoples is questionable; to publish this comparison is folly. “A repetition of the Ibo adventure,” he writes. On the contrary—colour is conceivably their only common denominator. This is not a great deal different from comparing an Englishman with, say, an Italian. An exercise in derision, but dangerous as well. A report such as his can be of no possible benefit in understanding the nature of the issues or the lapses for which both sides may be held accountable.

As it happens, I have recently returned from a long residence in Uganda and am presently engaged in writing a social history of the Bwamba. Without going into further detail, may one simply hope that when this study is published it will afford access to the sources of conflict and put paid to the notion

that “civilized” society has nothing to learn even from so small and remote a people?

Yours faithfully,

Alfred M unday

Bowood House, Four Ashes,

Near Bridport, Dorset

Nov. 2.

2

The stillness of the country bedroom sealed their privacy and prompted them to continue the argument they had begun that morning on the train from Waterloo. But no sooner had he said to his wife, “Damn you”—saying it in the casual unemphatic way of the married person who has repeated it often without meaning it—than in the ensuing silence that had an unusual purr of safety, there was a human mutter against the wall. They were alarmed and disappointed —they were not alone, they could not explain that what had surely been overheard was simple exasperation. Then Mr. Flack was at the door, and Emma Munday at her open suitcase; and her husband placed himself across the room, at the window, pretending he had not meant anything serious.

“It’s so green,” said Alfred Munday, recovering his

voice. He looked out the window. It was the “guest” wing of The Yew Tree. He and Emma were the only guests. He stopped himself from speaking the next thought that occurred to him, that it was the kind of open landscape—there, out of the English window—that might have held groups of grazing zebra, or a distant regatta of tall white egrets, or some swart-sniffing wildebeest.

It was silly, but his eye, used to Africa, alert for the remarkable or strange, would not be quieted. In some places visions were interchangeable for Munday, and the comfort of a familiar detail often inspired an absurdity: once, he had woken in a hotel room in Kampala, and, chilled by the roaring air conditioner, looked sleepily out at the gray lowering sky; for seconds he believed those woolly clouds were about to release a blizzard of snow. That was on the equator, at sea level. Now he looked again at the human curves on the shoulders of the Dorset hills and wondered at their emptiness. He said, “It’s as green as Africa.” “You should know, sir.” That was Mr. Flack, the landlord of The Yew Tree. He said it as a friend, but he was positioned like a stranger, just outside the door of Munday’s room, in his overcoat, with his fists clenched at his sides.

“Should I indeed?”

“Seeing as how you’ve been down there.”

So Mr. Flack knew. Munday was cautioned and guardedly he said, “Quite.”

“I was there myself,” Mr. Flack went on. “During the last war. In the desert—I was at Tel el Kebir. Later on I was laid up in a hospital in Capetown. Malaria. That’s how I lost my teeth—they had to pull them all out. Part of the cure. When my teeth were gone I was right as ninepence.” He worked his mouth reflectively for a moment. “Had some blacks in the regiment, too.”

Munday became interested. “Africans?”

“Hindus,” said Mr. Flack. “Beautiful little chaps they were. Tremendous fighters. They had these dirty great kukris’' He blinked and looked at Emma to explain. “That’s a type of knife, sharp as anything, and they knew how to use them. Oh, we had some times.” Munday had turned to the window when Mr. Flack said, “Hindus.” He said, “I didn’t go in—I was getting my doctorate.” He felt an explanation was required: he had no war stories. “In any case I have a bad heart.”

“My ticker was none too good,” said Mr. Flack, and it sounded to Munday like a rebuke. “I had these dizzy spells and went all cold in me hands and feet. They gave me six months to live.”

“You look fine to me,” said Munday.

“That was thirty years ago,” said Mr. Flack. He leaned forward into the doorway to confide, “You’re looking at a man of seventy!”

“I don’t believe it,” said Munday. He spoke what he felt; Mr. Flack’s round figures sounded like lies. But Munday took a closer look and changed his mind.

“I’d be a lot stronger if I hadn’t come down with double pneumonia during that hard winter—that was ’sixty-three. We were snowed up here for six weeks— no bread, no papers, and most of the cattle died. It was over the top of the pillar box. I’ll show you the snapshots some time. That’s what gave me my chest.” He coughed; a rich deep wheeze traveled down his throat and slowed and thinned to a whistle. “I hope you and the missus like walks. There’s some lovely walks here. And masses of history.”

“We’re quite looking forward to the walks,” said Emma.

“I’ll lend you my maps,” said Mr. Flack. “I was a great walker once, but I don’t do much of it these days what with the pub and my chest. And my missus has arthritis. Still.”

Hearing the whiffling accent, Munday said with encouragement, “Why, you’re a Londoner.”

“Born and bred in Tulse Hill,” said Mr. Flack, pronouncing it “Towse Hew.” “I had a pub there for years, The Anchor, near the station. That’s going back a bit—twenty years ago.”

Munday said, “What made you choose Dorset?” “Same reason as you, I fancy.”

“And what reason is that?”

“Retirement, sort of. This is a good place for a retired gent.”

“Of course,” said Munday, but he was looking out the window again, past the thick black-green trees that gave the inn its name. “That’s our house, isn’t it?” Mr. Flack excused himself and entered the room.' He peered over Munday’s shoulder and said, “That’s the roof. Any idea when you’ll be moving in?”

“Just as soon as our sea freight arrives. It’s already in London, so it’s just a matter of getting it off the dock and down here in a lorry.”

“Could take ages,” Mr. Flack said gravely. “I can tell you’ve been away for a little while. You don’t know these dockers and their go-slows.”

“Well hope for the best,” said Munday. “In the meantime we’re counting on your hospitality.”

“It’s so kind of you to put us up,” said Emma. “We were told you don’t take many lodgers.”

“Not these days,” said Mr. Flack. “But years ago The Yew Tree was packed out with guests. Came from all over. We did lunches, cream teas, the lot. After old Mrs. Clissold died—she was a tower of strength—there was no one to clean. My missus can’t manage the stairs, you see. It’s her legs. Still, you’re very welcome to stay as long as you like. You’ll find it cheap and cheerful. The bar opens at six. Come down and have a drink if you’re free.”

“We’ll just finish this unpacking,” said Munday. “Right you are,” said Mr. Flack. He smiled at Munday, made a slight bow to Emma and walked stiffly out, shutting and latching the door.

“He thinks I’m retired,” said Munday in a whisper. “Aren’t you?”

“No,” said Munday, “and I don’t like the word.”

Emma opened her suitcase and took out a sponge bag. She said, “He’s quite a talker.”

“Six months to live!”

“And he knew you’d been to Africa,” said Emma. “He must have seen your letter to The Times”

“Must have.” Munday was encouraged. His letter corrected an inaccurate news story; it also announced that he was in England again. It was why he had used the house’s address rather than The Yew Tree’s. He hoped old friends would notice that he was back and settled, that he hadn’t changed; but he had frequently written letters to The Times from Africa, reviving issues three months old, beginning, “I hope it is not too late for a distant subscriber to add a few words, as I have only just seen the copy dated—,” and he ended with his address, “The Yellow Fever Camp, Bundibugyo, Bwamba District, Uganda.”

He was anxious for his old colleagues to know that he was working on the book he had promised. In the letter he said, “presently engaged,” which was not true. The book—all Munday saw of the future—was not written, it was not started; it was a valise of unsorted note cards and partially-filled copy books, kept over a period of ten years in Africa. Some were in Emma’s handwriting, his rambling dictation, a method he had begun when the mission doctor cautioned him about his blood pressure. Dictation hadn’t worked; he couldn’t speak and think clearly at the same time, and anyway his blood pressure had continued to rise. There was part of a diary, too, the observations of a new arrival, a beginner: enthusiastic paragraphs entered the first year, celebrations which succeeding years of repetition had turned into commonplaces, for what had seemed unique was only strange, and when, with familiarity, it ceased to be strange—the plant life, the sunlight, the smells—it was beneath notice.

He had also said, “a social history.” Not that. It would be anthropology, as travel and discovery—not a study, but a record of a people and an account of his own movements and changes in attitude, his experience of the climate and language, the kind of book that had once been written by learned and opinionated explorers. Munday had not taken his long residence lightly, and he had biases. He would risk what errors of judgment were unavoidable in such circumstances and write as a man who had lived closely with an alien people; his responses would be as important as the behavior that caused those responses. He had entered the culture and assisted in practices whose value he saw only as an active participant; witchcraft and sorcery had almost brought him to belief in those early years because he had been more than a witness. That was at the core of the book. It was the kind of book that had ceased to be attempted except by amateurs and hacks; all the excitement had gone out of anthropology—he had been away when the attitude changed; his eagerness to explore was no longer fashionable. His early paper, “Hunger and The Uncanny,” was dismissed as tendentious, gullible, and anecdotal. Now he was refuted more cold-bloodedly with sociology—statistics, models, punched cards, computer verdicts, and young men crouched with clipboards at the fringes of villages. Anthropology, the most literate of the sciences, whose nearest affine was the greatest fiction, had degenerated to impersonal litanies of clumsy coinages and phrases of superficial complexity, people of flesh and bone to cases or subjects with personalities remaining as obscure as their difficult names, like the long Latin one given to the pretty butterfly. He did not use those words.

BOOK: The rivals of Sherlock Holmes : early detective stories
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