A letter from Africa

Prof. Dr. Alan Wadcroft – Prof. Dr. Margaret Enderby – The fate of the Hammond expedition – The letter from Africa – A mysterious mineral – In search of Hammond

“Much though it would excite the imagination of Mankind to live in a world inhabited by narwhales three to six hundred foot long, my analyses on bone strength, muscle mass, and required food (please find attached) quite rule this out. In summary, such a creature would need to spend roughly thirty hours per day eating, simply to sustain itself. There being only twenty-four hours in a day, we can confidently consign the existence of such a creature to the realm of fable.” — Prof. Wadcroft, in a letter to Prof. Pierre Arronax of the Paris museum.

I hadn’t seen Dr. Enderby for several weeks. This in itself was not unusual, since our specialisations are quite different. The most we saw of each other in those days was an occasional shared glance at one of those incredibly boring social functions at Algernon University in Ipswich. She is that comfortable kind of friend where you can not see each other for an eternity, and then meet and pick up where you left off. Dr. Margaret Enderby, widow of the world-famous crypto-zoologist Professor Gerald Enderby, was and is the leading authority on Neolithical hominids, as well as an accomplished expert on Newtonian physics, which shares little with my own specialisations of biology, alchemy and geography. We saw more of each other when Gerald was still alive. At University, sometime in the Neolithic era, Gerald was two beds over from mine in the dorm, and we often crammed for exams together, until we went our separate ways. The last time I saw Enderby, she wished to consult me on the specifics of some obscure reaction involving amino acids, and I was able to supply her with most of the needed information. Dr. Enderby is excellent company, and I was pleasantly surprised to see her entering my office.

“What ho, Wadcroft, what are you up to?” she said, in that cheerful blustering voice of hers that has her students hanging on her every word.

“I am just finishing a letter to one of my colleagues in Paris, to the effect that one of his theories is a load of bollocks.”

Enderby laughed, sitting down in one of my chairs. “Making some poor Frenchie’s life miserable? Honestly, Wadcroft. Some day, someone will do the same to you.”

“I should bloody well hope so,” I said. “Science progresses over the corpses of disproven theories. Today’s profound truth and wisdom is tomorrow’s discredited folly. But what brings you here? Do you need some creature identified?”

“Hah! I haven’t needed anything identified since I shot that chupacabra that was the end of poor Gerald. A post-humous triumph for him. Scabrous coyotes my foot. No, I’m here for something else that’s been hiding. Do you remember Hammond?”

“Hammond?”

It took me a few moments to remember the man. He was a Doctor of Geography at Miskatonic University in Arkham. What I remember most about him were his unending lamentations on how he was overlooked for some bizarre expedition to the Antarctic region. To my taste, he was slightly too enthusiastic in describing how that entire expedition was wiped out by some kind of cryptid indigenous to the region.

“Ah. Of course. What about him?”

“He was on an expedition into darkest Africa, searching for some mysterious mineral. Seemed to think it was the key to the future of Mankind.”

“What kind of mineral?”

Enderby raised her hands. “Rock. Not really my department is it? He did send me a sample, so maybe you can shed some light on it. But anyway, Hammond and all of his expedition have vanished from the face of the Earth.”

“That seems to happen fairly regularly to expeditions of theirs, doesn’t it?”

“Oh do be quiet, Wadcroft,” said Enderby, eyes gleaming. “You are just prejudiced against them because they study all these shadowy cults.”

“And for perfectly good reasons,” I said. “If there is one thing I simply cannot abide, it’s make-believe and mumbo-jumbo. Things happen for perfectly good physiological reasons. Saying that this or that is done by the Power of the Ancient Gods, or some such nonsense, is simply giving up.”

Enderby looked at me silently, with a slight smile on her face that suggested that I was wrong, and in a few moments I’d realise it.

“What if there really are Ancient Gods, Wadcroft?”

“If there are, then you may be sure that none of those eldritch documents they hold so dear has any bearing upon them. Hammond once showed me a transcript. Honestly. Rantings and ravings of madmen!”

Enderby grinned at me. “Well, I am happy to say that this expedition contained nothing occult. Good simple rock-bashing in the African jungles. Their last contact was a month ago, and then the dirigible couldn’t find their camp anymore.”

“Moved on, had they?”

“Hammond isn’t stupid enough just to up sticks and bugger off. Something…” Enderby’s dramatic pauses are a thing of beauty. “Must have happened to him.”

This, of course, led to the question of what, exactly, might have befallen Hammond’s expedition. The African jungle is a place of many dangers, but Hammond’s university was well-funded, and its expeditions well fitted out.

“Any indication of what might have happened?”

“Not a shred of evidence,” said Enderby. “The captain of the Boreas found their camp site, but all they found there was a chest full of undeveloped photographic plates and a store of rock samples. Which they sent to our colleagues in Cairo. They developed the photographs, and they declared themselves stumped. So they made prints of the plates and sent them to us.”

Enderby reached in her bag, and pulled out an envelope, from which she produced a few photographs. She put them all on my desk and turned them over. They were images of the men at work, busily chopping away at the side of a mountain. No doubt the images had been intended for the newspapers, but their most prominent features were ghostly images, wisps of an unearthly smoke-like nature, surrounding the workers, who did not even seem to notice. I looked up at Enderby.

“Somebody spoiled the plates, allowing the light in.”

“Pah! What sort of idiots do you think our colleagues in Cairo are? They swear that all the plates were received in good condition, and treated with all proper care and attention. They had the whole of Arkham looking on their fingers. They were hardly going to mess up evidence of this nature. So, Wadcroft, what do you think it is?”

I pulled out my pipe and reached in my desk drawer for some Canaster tobacco. Filling a pipe properly, so that it keeps burning till the last strand of tobacco, is not a thing to be done in haste. Pipes are a great gift to those of us who occasionally need to collect our thoughts.

“It would appear to be a phenomenon that is invisible to the eye, but not to the photographic plate.”

“Professor Makhmoud of Cairo University writes that some superstitious souls might interprete these images as Djinns, or perhaps Ifrits.”

“To add some local charm to what would otherwise be a rather dull nigh-insoluble mystery,” I said. I pushed the photos back to Enderby. “Something must have gone wrong during the development process. I can think of no other explanation. There is a tent in this picture. The door is flapping in the wind, and yet, it does not seem to have any effect on these… wisps.”

Enderby looked over her shoulder, then bent forward to me, with a conspiratory grin. “Ghosts and spirits do not drift away upon the wind, Wadcroft.”

“Oh dash it, Margaret. I simply cannot believe you have come here to weary my ears with ghost-stories and unscientific nonsense. Do you really hold that Hammond and his companions have been abducted by ghosts?”

“No,” said Enderby, to my intense relief. “I think that theories on supernatural agencies are best entertained after we have exhausted all the possibilities of human involvement. Either poor Hammond and his companions have ended up in the cooking pots of some of the natives, or sunk into some swamp, got lost in the rain forest, or… They have run into some competing expedition.”

“Who then proceeded to murder them, hide the bodies and steal their equipment? That would be most uncollegial of them.”

“Perhaps. But the consensus in Cairo was that Hammond was on to something. Something big. And at any rate, we cannot allow scientific expeditions to go missing without a trace!”

“What are you suggesting,” I said. “That we should go looking for them? Can’t the Arkham lot take care of their own?”

“Normally, they would,” said Enderby, “But a significant number of them have popped into the House for the Bewildered for a while, owing to eldritch emanations from goodness only knows where. So they’ve asked us. We’re much closer to Hammond’s expedition anyway. The dirigible Boreas is moored at the docks in Ipswitch.”

“And it can bloody well stay there,” I said. “I have work to do here. The data from the Rammelsberg expedition in the Harz need to be collated. They think there is argentiferous ore there, and initial results suggest they may be right.”

“What? Ordering rows of numbers and drawing pictures? You? That’s what graduate students are there for, Wadcroft. Put away that pen and grab your pith helmet. You have an expedition to set up.”


Of course, I did not drop everything there and then, and storm out of my office to darkest Africa. I hadn’t had my supper yet, and there was also the trifle of organising a group of men to walk into the jungle that had so recently swallowed up a whole group of scientists. In order to get people to walk into such a jungle, one must take pains to ensure that these people have a better than average chance to walk out again. People are peculiar that way. Enderby had shown me the rock samples from the Hammond expedition, but they were singularly uninteresting. Some variety of pitchblende, not very common, but not as thrilling to the imagination as gold or silver or coal would have been. I therefore concluded that Hammond and company must have found something else to excite them. I must admit, my curiosity is easily tickled, and a stroll through one of Creation’s most beautiful wildernesses drew me much more than months of bending over geological calculations. My undergraduates would, no doubt, thank me for the opportunity to take this labour off my hands when they reached the stage to fob the dull jobs off on others.

The first thing I did, was to meet with Captain Gaskin of the Boreas. One of the University’s hansoms took me quickly to Ipswich Port. Several large steamers were moored at the docks, and the dirigible Boreas floated serenely some thirty foot above them, tethered fore and aft to two of the towers built for the purpose. I climbed the winding stairs, and walked through the corridor to the entrance. I showed my University badge to one of the airmen, and was taken to the cabin of Captain Gaskin. As I entered, he rose to shake my hand in that hearty, direct, and to my taste overly familiar way that all Americans have. I politely refused his offer of a cigar, can’t stand the things, accepted a glass of whisky and soda for politeness’ sake, then sat down to discuss Hammond’s expedition.

“Got a bad feeling about this, Professor,” he said. “When expeditions just up and go missing without leaving a clue, that usually means that something took ’em.”

“You do seem to be terribly unlucky,” I said. “What do you think is the nature of that ‘Something’, if I may ask?”

“Could be anything, anything,” said the Captain. “I could tell you tales to freeze the blood in your veins.”

“So could the esteemed Mr. Edgar Allen Poe,” I said. “I have no use for guesses, I need data. Something to inform the choices I will have to make. What, in your opinion, happened to them?”

Captain Gaskin laughed, revealing bright polished teeth. “You will not guess, Professor, but you’re asking me to? I cannot possibly say. You’ve seen the photographs, haven’t you? And the inexplicable features on them?”

“I have, captain,” I said. “I assume you mean the veils of smoke or some such, that can be seen on them.”

“Yes, Professor,” said Gaskin. “I think those shades may have some bearing upon the final fate of the expedition. The natives tell many stories. Stories of… other worlds, that their spirits could pass into, sometimes bringing back artifacts made of a metal that is not of this Earth.”

I have to admit that this kind of drivel weighs heavily upon my patience. Ever since the honoured professor Mendeleev formulated his periodic table of the elements, there has been no such thing as an unknown element. Unseen, perhaps, or undiscovered, but the properties of all elements, we now know, are governed wholely by the weight and count of their particles. Some of my scepticism must have been written on my face. Captain Gaskin rose from his chair, and paced up and down his cabin.

“You don’t believe me, Professor? Do you think that the whole of Creation can be captured in neat formulae and mathematical equations? I have seen things, Professor, that I dare you to explain. Things that would drive you insane if you saw them.”

“Nonsense. If Science teaches us one thing, it is that Nature can only follow the laws set out from the beginning. For unexplained, seemingly inexplicable phenomena, the only correct emotion is one of joy, for if there were none, we would have finished the great book that lies before us, and weep as Alexander the Great did, seeing there were no more lands to conquer.”

“That time will not come in our days, Professor,” said Captain Gaskin. “The mysteries of Creation will outlive us all. But be that as it may. Our local people haven’t found a trace of Hammond’s doings. Professor Hammond would not simply walk off without leaving any clue as to where he was going, so I must assume that these photographs are just that. Have you studied them in detail?”

“I have, Captain,” I said. “I can find no such clue. It will therefore be necessary to go to the locus and obtain more information. But tell me, Captain. Why do you come to us with this request? Surely, one of the London universities could serve you equally well?”

The Captain walked to the porthole and looked out, cigar all but forgotten in his hand behind him. The smoke slowly rose up. He looked over his shoulder.

“You’d say that, wouldn’t you? All the London universities are better funded than you are, have more resources, so why come to the small university named after Charles Algernon Parsons?” The captain turned round, and looked at me, eyes filled with an angry light. “God-damned conflict of interest, that’s what. All these fine folk in this great nation’s capital are looking into the same things that we are. For all we know, they are responsible for the disappearance of Professor Hammond and his expedition. In short, we can’t trust them. So we cast our net further abroad, and we have found nobody who has the jungle experience necessary to pull off an earnest search. Nobody except you, Professor. Perhaps, with a month’s time, I could find someone else to go find Hammond, but we don’t have that time. To put it bluntly, Professor, if you can’t help us, Hammond is as good as dead. Will you help us?”

I positively detest being put on the block like this, especially if the reason for it is in-fighting and the unhealthy politics of competing universities. But such conviction was in the Captain’s eyes that I could not ignore this request and sleep at night. A fellow scientist was in trouble. I was determined to prove to this man that not all British universities put their petty competitions before the lives and well-being of people dedicated ultimately to the same goal. I could no more have refused him than I could have refused to breathe the air. What a fool I was. I should have known better. Still, what is done, is done, and we can only learn from our mistakes after we make them. I rose to my feet and held out my hand to the Captain.

“Since there are no others who will,” I said, “Algernon University will accept this task. Our masters can work out any issues of funding.”

“The dirigible Boreas is at your disposal, Professor. I look forward to proving you wrong regarding the mysteries of this world, and others.”

Next: A simple matter of energy


Copyright: © 2014 Menno Willemse. All rights reserved.

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