Miss Alexandra Tennant – The lost brother – No place for a lady – The guest lecture – The gentle giant – The Beast of Algernon
Essential things to bring on a jungle expedition: Never walk into any survival situation without a means to produce fire. A flint and steel will work even when wet, and never run out, unlike sulphurous matches. A good strong knife, it goes without saying, is essential. Bring two sets of clothing, one dry set for sleeping, one wet for walking, and use them only for their designated purposes. A lady’s feet being essential in getting her out of all kinds of trouble, invest in good running and climbing boots. If you must bring a man, make sure he has a generous amount of flesh on his bones and cannot run quite as fast as you can. — The young lady’s adventuring guide, by A. L. Tennant.
As soon as I walked into Professor Wadcroft’s office, I knew it had been a mistake to dress for the occasion in a blue dress with matching gloves and parasol. I was wearing the one corset I own, to be worn for convention’s sake on occasions where diplomacy rather than action is called for. Carl refers to this as “disguising myself as a girl”. You could almost see the old dinosaur’s intelligence leaking from his skull, to be replaced with an unctuous, condescending manner. While I’m usually quite able to dispel any worries anyone might have as to my competence, I cannot do that wearing these self-inflicted torture devices. At least I was not wearing one of those ridiculous small hats that are all the rage these days. Why a lady of any intelligence would allow such a thing on her head is a mystery to me. The Gazette is suspiciously quiet on the subject.
I had presented my calling card to the porter, and the Professor made a show of studying it, then looking at me over the rim of his glasses.
“Miss Alexandra L. Tennant, I presume?”
“Yes, Professor. How do you do?”
“How do you do. How may I help you?”
I took a deep breath. Carl’s very life might depend on whether I’d be able to persuade the professor to let me join him on his expedition. This was not a moment for pride.
“Sir, it has come to my attention that you are preparing an expedition into Africa, to search for the lost expedition of Professor James Hammond of Miskatonic University.”
“Indeed I am, young lady,” said Wadcroft. “Indeed I am. Why should this interest you?”
“My brother, Carl Tennant, is a member of Professor Hammond’s expedition. He has disappeared with the others, and I must find him. To this end, I would request that you let me join your search.”
Wadcroft’s eyebrows made an honest bid for freedom, and only habit caused them to stay attached to his face.
“Miss Tennant, that is quite out of the question. We will be travelling to darkest Africa! We will be in constant danger, from the natives as well as from the harsh climate itself. This expedition is no place for a lady.”
“Professor, I am fully aware of this. Carl and I have often accompanied our father, Lord Tennant, on his expeditions, since we were barely ten years old. I am familiar with the climate and circumstances of the African deserts and jungles. I assure you, I will be a useful addition to your expedition.”
“I am sorry, Miss Tennant. We simply cannot afford to take you with us, simply as a cook. Every member of our expedition has specific knowledge, specific experience, essential to our very survival. To bring an unknown quantity such as yourself into the group would endanger us all.”
The tribes that live in the deserts of Egypt, near the River Nile, have an interesting meditational technique that allows them to regulate their breathing under all circumstances. Upon learning of it, my father insisted that Carl and I familiarise ourselves with it. That day, it served me well, as I was angry enough to scream at the old fart, but by sheer force of will I prevented myself from doing that.
“That is good, Professor, since I have never been a cook. You have seen my calling card. Did you note, by any chance, the crosshair pattern on the shield?”
“I did, Miss Tennant. That sign is normally used by marksmen, or sharp shooters, as they prefer to be called. A family crest, I assume?”
“We prefer the term ‘sniper’, Professor. It is not a family crest, it is my own. I was third in my class when I qualified to use it. I am also a qualified mountain guide, ship’s carpenter, navigator, and stevedore. I have accompanied my father on seven expeditions along the coast of Africa, at times venturing inlands for several months at a time. I daresay you will find I can handle myself in a jungle. I can also make myself understood to some extent in a half-dozen or so African languages. If it pleases you, Professor, I am at your service.”
I turned down my eyes, looking at my hands folded in my lap, waiting for the Professor to overcome his prejudice. I could feel his eyes on me. How could such a pretty young thing be a hardened traveller?
There was a knock on the door, and someone opened it. A large woman walked in, holding a wooden board with many pieces of paper clipped to it.
“Get your signing hand warmed up, Wadcroft,” she said. “It’s going to be a long day for it… oh pardon me. I didn’t realise you had company.”
I got up, and looked at the woman. Evidently, Professor Wadcroft did not consider her to be a lady, as she was dressed in a jungle outfit, complete with a revolver at her side. I would probably have done well to accessorise in a similar fashion.
“Ah, Margaret,” said Wadcroft. “Yes I do, but I think we have nearly finished our business. Professor Margaret Enderby? Miss Alexandra Tennant.”
Prof. Enderby and I shook hands, and exchanged polite how do you do’s. She held my hand a moment longer, frowning.
“Tennant… Tennant…” A look of recollection passed over her face. “You are Philip’s little girl? Oh my, how you’ve grown! How is the old codger? Did he find the lost city of, um, Hooptyfloop?”
“Hnctplep, Ma’am,” I said. “Yes, he did. Unfortunately he fell into the ruins five years ago and is presumed dead. His guides refused to enter the city to recover his body.”
“I’m very sorry to hear that, my dear. Are you joining our little stroll, then? Wadcroft must have pulled a few strings to get you.”
“I came on my own initiative, Ma’am. Carl is with the Hammond expedition.”
“Splendid!” Professor Enderby patted my hand in an overly familiar fashion. “I’ll get you the waivers and the disclaimers that mean if you die it’s your own damn fault, and we can get this trip on the road.”
“Now wait a minute, Margaret!” Wadcroft rose to his feet. “I hadn’t agreed to take Miss Tennant.”
“Don’t be an arse, Wadcroft,” said Enderby. “You don’t ‘take’ an adventurer of Miss Tennant’s calibre, you politely ask her to join you, and pay her what she asks for.”
“My motives are not financial, Professor Enderby,” I said. “I am only looking for my brother, dead or alive.”
“Hah!” Enderby raised her hands in the air, pointed at Wadcroft. “You don’t recognise talent when it falls into your lap, and you,” she pointed at me with a stabbing finger. “You don’t pick up some extra money when you can. I am surrounded by idiots!”
I spent the afternoon in a Simoom of paperwork, maps, and preparations. I didn’t mind, because I would be going to Africa after all. I would find my brother Carl, dead or alive. I signed away my rights to complain if I happened to be left stranded in the desert, I signed away my rights to sue if I died of an impressively long list of tropical diseases, several of which I am sure only affect livestock. I pledged my loyalty to the Expedition Leader and acknowledged that his or her word would be final in any decision. I agreed that my share in any proceeds would go to the University. In short, with Carl looking over my shoulder and shaking his head, I became a slave to Algernon University in all but name. For the term of this expedition, not for life, I hasten to add, though considering where we were going, the difference might turn out to be academic. When finally there was no dotted line to be found that did not have my name on it, I dropped the paperwork on Prof. Wadcroft’s desk. Then I accosted a passing student in the hallway, who allowed me the use of her dorm room to change into a more practical outfit. Every time I take off that damned corset I swear I’ll burn it, and yet I never do.
This dorm room was like any other I’ve ever been in. Bunk beds, stone floor, cold in winter, hot in summer, simultaneously Hell on Earth and a Heaven of promises. It had a beautiful, large, solid mahogany table, so I took the opportunity to lay out all my personal equipment for the expedition. Three khaki outfits for use in desert or jungle, small supply of quinine, medicine to regulate the stools, plasters and bandages, light-weight parang style machete, climbing gear, all-environment suit, and so on. Finally, with the girl looking on wide-eyed, I opened the case of my main weapon, a heavily customised Mauser SR-220, nicknamed “Fräulein”. It used to belong to a friend of my brother’s, who had a very slight build. It came with Mauser’s superb range and accuracy, and most of the customisations made it more transportable and easier to use. I checked it for dirt, assembled it.
“Miss?” The girl who’d shown me the dorm hesitated. “Is that… allowed?”
“Almost certainly not,” I said. “Rules are for the obedience of fools, and the guidance of the wise.”
“Are you in trouble?”
I looked at her, blonde plaits, ugly school uniform, and a worried look on a rather plain face, and still I imagined a glimmer of something else. Interest. Fascination. I walked over to the window and opened it. Then, I put a round in the magazine, clicked it in.
“When you’re a sniper, you don’t hang out of the window. You may as well paint a target on your chest and wave flags. You hide inside, like so.”
I grabbed the pillows off two beds, put them at the foot end and rested my rifle on them.
“Come up here.”
“Nobody will ever know. Come. Lie down. Hold the rifle, look through the scope.”
I put the girl’s hand on the grip, finger on the trigger guard.
“This is a hair trigger. The rifle will fire if you so much as think of pressing it. That’s why you put your finger there. Never move it until you are ready to kill.”
I could hear the girl’s breath, wavering. With a noise that sounded much louder than it really was, I pulled back the bolt and chambered the round. Then I took the safety off.
“Careful now. It’s ready to fire.”
“Miss? I’d prefer it if this thing weren’t loaded.”
My face was next to the girl’s. She was only half a head shorter than I, and my rifle was exactly the right size for her. Her cheek was resting against the stock in exactly the same way mine normally was. I lowered my voice to a whisper. “There is no such thing as an unloaded weapon. All weapons, by definition, are loaded. That rule prevents accidents. Now look, and tell me what you see.”
“People,” said the girl. “Walking about.”
“Do you see the man on the bench, smoking a pipe, reading a book?”
I saw the rifle move slightly as she aimed for him. I turned the dial to enlarge the image. “Put the crosshair between his eyes. Don’t move your finger.”
The girl was breathing too quickly for a good shot. I watched her wet her lips, concentrate. She’d be able to see the man breathe in the smoke from his pipe, blow it out, blink.
“That man now lives only by your leave. The power to end his life is in your finger. There is nothing he can do to stop you. Nothing at all. All you need to do is move your finger. He will be dead, and you will be a murderer.”
“I… I don’t want to.”
“Good. It’s easy to obey a rule that you couldn’t break even if you wanted to. To obey a rule that you could break, without being found out, with the greatest of ease, to obey it because you find the rule good, that is the essence of being good.”
I put the safety on, helped the girl down from the bed, unchambered the round, and disassembled my rifle. I put the parts back in their place in the chestnut wood case lined with dark blue velvet. The girl looked out of the window. The man knocked his pipe against the arm rest, put a bookmark in his book and walked away.
“That gun wasn’t really ready to fire, was it?”
“It most certainly was.”
“But if I’d tried to pull the trigger, you’d have stopped me, right?”
“No. I couldn’t have.”
“But you’d have knocked away the gun wouldn’t you?”
“Rifle. And no. By doing that, I would merely have risked killing someone else. Imprecision is the cardinal sin for snipers.”
The girl’s face was a sight to see, incredulity slowly melting away, the reality of the experience slowly asserting itself. The recognition of the power that had been in her hands only a moment ago. The look in her eyes changed, and an inward, unconscious smile was on her lips.
“I really could have killed him.”
The girl looked into my eyes, searching.
“How many people have you killed?”
There is something in the eyes that changes after you take the life of another Human being. She had obviously noticed it. There were hopes for this girl.
“Eight. Ask a soldier, and he’ll have to guess. We snipers know exactly. I have also not killed people, though I could have. Like you did just now. That is as much part of a sniper’s work as killing is.”
I packed my belongings in my trunk, clothes, equipment, pretty dress, potential death.
“Thank you for letting me change here,” I said.
“Thank you for…” The girl laughed to herself, then looked up at me. “Thank you.”
I walked into the hall, dragging my luggage, and Professor Enderby hailed me from the other side.
“Tally ho, Miss Tennant. Drop your things on the pile and follow me. We’re going to pick up some special equipment.”
I dropped my trunk in front of a functionary, who stuck an Algernon University label on it, marked it “Miss Alexandra Tennant, personal”, and had a pair of University slaves put it on the stack marked Wadcroft Expedition as I signed for it. As we walked down a flight of stairs, we were joined by Professor Wadcroft.
“Ah. Miss Tennant,” said Wadcroft. “We are going to meet someone. Before we do, please keep in mind that he is a little… odd. Most ladies find him somewhat intimidating, but I assure you he is the gentlest soul in the world.”
We came to a door made out of steel, when most doors in the University were made of dark oak. Wadcroft turned the wheel in the middle, and opened it. A blast of noise greeted us, metal grinding on metal. A metallic smell was in the air. We were in a large hall, dimly lit by gas lights. It was filled with large machines made out of steel, like the very abode of Hephaestos. In front of one of the machines stood a giant. His arms looked as thick as my waist, albeit with corset, and he was wearing a safety mask and an apron. With infinite concentration, he was holding a piece of metal against a grinding wheel. A fountain of sparks hit the man’s apron and his bare arms, but he did not seem to notice.
Wadcroft reached out and pulled a chain hanging from the ceiling next to the door. A bright flash of light illuminated the scene for a splintered moment. The giant took the piece of metal away from the wheel, then looked round at us. He put the metal bar on a work table next to the others, then raised his mask, revealing a thick beard and deep dark eyes. He walked towards us, looked at Wadcroft alone.
“Good day, Andrew, how are you doing?”
“Grinding the struts for a lifting platform,” said the giant. “They have to fit at a thirty-degree angle and still support the whole. I over-dimensioned them by a factor of five.”
“Very good, Andrew,” said Wadcroft. “You’ve met Professor Enderby, haven’t you?”
The giant turned his eyes to Professor Enderby without a word, then back to Wadcroft. Wadcroft pointed a hand at me.
“Let me introduce you to Miss Alexandra Tennant. Miss Tennant, please meet Andrew Parsons, the grandson of the famous Charles Algernon Parsons, after whom our University is named.”
Despite the brute’s appearance, I gave him a friendly smile, and held out my hand.
“How do you do, Mr. Parsons.”
The man looked at my hand. Then, his gaze slowly went from my feet, up to my head. He made no attempt to take my hand. When he spoke, his voice was deep, as he rattled off a list of measurements.
“One hundred and seventy-four. Shoulders thirty-three. Hips thirty-five. Legs eighty-seven. Approximate weight…”
“Yes thank you Andrew,” said Enderby. “The metric system is bad enough as it is. No need to apply it to guests.”
The massive man bowed his head. “Yes, Professor.”
While I cannot claim any great beauty, my proportions have been observed before, if not with as much precision. Those observers, though, were evidently hoping that I might invite them to study more closely. Nothing in this huge man’s bearing betrayed any such intentions.
Enderby looked at me. “Don’t let Andrew worry you, Miss Tennant. He is only remembering your sizes so he can fix you up with body armour, or fit you inside one of his contraptions.”
“Indeed,” said Wadcroft. “Andrew, please stop measuring up our guests, and apologise to Miss Tennant.”
Andrew bowed his head, took off his glove and held his hand out to me. “I am sorry, Miss Tennant.”
My hand disappeared in his, and he held it as if it were a piece of porcelain, which I suppose it might well be given his obvious strength. He would not meet my gaze. It seemed to me that the phrase ‘I am sorry’ had no meaning to him at all, but merely were words to say when someone was hurt or offended around him.
“Excellent,” said Wadcroft. “Andrew, we are here because we need one of your devices. We need the Beast of Algernon.”
“Yes, Professor,” said Andrew. He turned round without another word, and walked over to a large set of double doors. He pushed them open and turned on the lights. In the middle of the room stood a monstrous creation of black metal, as large as a crofter’s cottage. It looked like some sort of vehicle, but it had no wheels. Instead it ran on rails like a locomotive, but the rails were attached to the machine itself, so that it would lay a track for itself, then pick it up again once it had passed. At the top were three smoke-stacks. I looked at Andrew. His hand was on one of the rail tracks, and his eyes were glowing with something nearing love.
Wadcroft looked at me, and held out a hand to the vehicle. “Miss Tennant? This is the Beast of Algernon. This is our transport for the expedition.”
Enderby looked round the room, frowning, as if something was bothering her.
“How are we going to get it out?”
Copyright: © 2014 Menno Willemse. All rights reserved.