Imperfect company – Mr. John Smith – A restless night on the plains – Show of mercy
In any adventure, the time may come when there is no other alternative but to fight. This is usually seen as a failing in one’s preparedness, but sometimes, we have no option. There are women who say that a woman can be as strong as any man. Those women have never fought a man, and if ever they did, would most likely do badly. Men have more muscle than we have, and that’s the long and short of it. Fortunately, there are many ways in which we can compensate for the difference in strength, with skill, courage, guile, and determination. Father had Carl and me learn several different kinds of martial arts. Carl favoured boxing, I favoured a style of Jiu-jitsu perfected in Brazil. We practiced together as a matter of course, and never went easy on each other. I have had to go to school with a black eye and a note from Father, Carl with his arm in a sling and a note from Mother. Carl was always stronger than I was, but in terms of fights lost or won, we were about evenly matched.
Mental attitude is the key to winning, even survival. Any unprepared person who suddenly finds a pair of hands on their throat will freeze. And then die. A prepared person will counter with a double punch to the solar plexus, then break the hold with a triangular punch upwards. A little fear heightens the reflexes and sharpens the focus. Too much of it paralyses. I would say that the key skill is to control one’s fear.
Of course, a well-practiced Kimura arm lock helps as well.
— Alexandra Tennant, The young lady’s adventuring guide
We were on our way to the mountains that Wadcroft had pointed out. As there was nothing to see or do until we arrived, he had retired to one of the bunks down below. In his place, Officer Klemm now rode, and I sat next to him for a bit of fresh air. Also, to be honest, I was finding the constant looks of the soldiers on me a bit tedious. Did they have no women in Prussia? Were they away from home for so long that they needed to re-acquaint themselves with the phenomenon? At least Klemm seemed interested only in the strategic aspects of Africa’s countryside. Where we were going, there was modest tree cover, but we hadn’t found any dense jungle yet. I have no doubt that the Beast could have forced its way through, but it would have been a shame to damage the countryside. Even outside the Beast, it was hot and humid. This meant that perspiration had little chance to evaporate and cool one down, which can easily lead to heatstroke. My shirt was sticking to my skin. Pity any unwitting creature who wears something here that goes transparent when wet. Neither I nor Officer Klemm spoke until he raised himself, looking through the binoculars to our right. He bent down to call through the hatch.
“Herr Parsons, please halt the vehicle.”
Andrew brought the Beast to a smooth stop. Strapped into his chair, with his head in the periscope visor, it almost seemed like he was a part of the machine he’d built mostly with his own hands. The Beast responded to his touch as if Andrew was the brain of a living creature of dark metal.
Margaret’s head came up through the hatch. “Wotcha Klemm, what’s up?”
“Another settlement, Frau Professor.” Klemm handed her the binoculars. “I am not an anthropologist, but my guess is that this is not as friendly a place as the last.”
Margaret looked at the village, adjusting the focus of the binoculars. I could see her wince.
“Not by a long shot. Many more warriors. The spears they are carrying are no good for hunting. Animals, that is.”
“Genau,” said Klemm. “Do you think we need to enter that village?”
Margaret lowered the binoculars, and tapped her fingers on the metal plate of the Beast a few times.
“We may do, I’ll ask Alan.”
Wadcroft was stirred from his bunk, climbed up top and took his turn with the binoculars. He frowned, then sniffed.
“We need the information from that village. They may have seen Hammond’s lot like the previous one.”
“Alan,” said Margaret, “this is a job for the boys. If I or Miss Tennant set a foot in there, we’re not likely to come out without trouble.”
I looked at Margaret. She didn’t look at all happy with the idea of entering. I tapped her shoulder.
“Now can I bring out my Mauser?”
“Jolly good idea,” said Margaret.
Officer Klemm coughed. “We should approach from the West, with the sun behind us. That will make it harder for them to detect us, and will also be optimal for heliograph communications. The Panzer should be our base of operations. I suggest Herr Professor Wadcroft, Herr Riley and Herr Nazeem approach the village, with my Jäger following them under cover, ready to provide fire support against a mass attack while Fräulein Tennant stays at the Panzer and eliminates anyone who threatens the main group.”
“Sounds like a plan, Klemm,” said Wadcroft. “Let’s get ready.”
Ten minutes later, I was lying on a small hill with my rifle, watching Wadcroft, Riley and Nazeem marching off towards the village, proud and tall. Next to me, Margaret and Klemm were watching the progress of the two groups of three soldiers who were keeping careful cover. Presumably, earlier expeditions had given them a healthy respect for the sharp eyes of tribal lookouts. As it was, Wadcroft and his friends were spotted about half way to the village, about eleven hundred meters away. An easy shot for my Mauser, which had an effective range of half again as much. We had agreed that if any of the men would raise their hands in the air and grab their wrist, I would shoot the persons most likely to harm them. In the crosshairs, I could see Wadcroft waving his arms about, indicating first Riley, then Nazeem. There were some negotiations, and then a man approached the group. I adjusted the magnification on my scope. To my surprise, he was wearing a tweed waistcoat, complete with watch chain. Apart from that, he was dressed like the rest of the villagers, grass coloured skirts, spears, shields, and, I couldn’t help noticing, some rather nicely muscled torsos.
As I was concentrating on possible threats, and drawing beads on warriors as they moved, I heard a sudden noise from Margaret.
“Oh bollocks. Alan, you idiot!”
I turned my scope back to our three adventurers just in time to see Wadcroft pointing his hand back at us, then making for us.
Klemm snarled. “Verdammt noch mal. The Professor is actually bringing them here. That is not what we have, have…” he struggled on a word. “Abgesprochen!”
Margaret jumped to her feet. “Alexandra, you keep them covered. Mr. Klemm? How quickly can you build a campfire?”
“I will find out,” said Klemm, and started gathering sticks.
Margaret ran over to the Beast. “Andrew! Back up. Get behind tree cover and stay out of sight. Keep it as quiet as you can. Hang on!”
Margaret jumped on top of the Beast, disappeared inside, and came up with one of the tent bags. The periscope on top of the Beast turned round and it rolled backwards, out of sight. Almost as an afterthought, Margaret filled up the teapot and put it next to the place where Klemm was piling up dry sticks and setting them alight. I could smell the kerosene oil. I felt Margaret’s hand on my shoulder.
“How far away are they?”
“Five hundred forty meters. Five hundred thirty five.”
“Alright. Get up and put that gun in the tent.”
I looked round, and saw to my surprise that Margaret had put up one of the shelters.
“That is… commendably quick,” I said, hiding my rifle.
Margaret grinned wickedly. “If you’re travelling in the wild with a gorgeous crypto-zoologist, sometimes you really need to pitch a tent now.”
“That is an exceedingly useful skill,” said Klemm dryly. “Would anyone like a cup of tea?”
Wadcroft arrived a few moments later, with Nazeem, Riley, and the strangely civilised African warrior, who introduced himself in perfect English as John Smith. Riley sidled up to me.
“Mind what you say. This guy is sharp. And our fearless leader just told him there were more of us.”
Riley wandered off to get a mug of tea from Margaret, and to warn her as well. I looked at Klemm. Obviously, he didn’t need the warning. He was sitting by the fire with an amicable smile on his face that conveyed nothing about what might be going on in his head, He saw me looking at him and gave an imperceptible nod.
Margaret turned to our new guest. “Mr. Smith? May I offer you some tea? Only Tetley’s, but none the worse for that.”
“Please, Ma’am,” said Mr. Smith.
Margaret poured out tea, added milk, and handed it to him. He breathed in the fumes and tasted appreciatively. “I think that tea is the only thing I miss from England.” He gave us a polite nod. “And of course, occasionally speaking the language.”
“How did you come to be in England, Mr. Smith?” I asked.
“I must have been fourteen years old or so. I was living near the banks of the White Nile. French soldiers came. They had previously been attacked by cannibals, which must have affected their judgement, so that they could no longer tell one black man from another. My village was burnt to the ground, all men, women and children slaughtered. I hid among the dead bodies, until a platoon of English soldiers came, found me, and adopted me as the platoon mascot. I brought them much luck, as casualties among my platoon were rare. At the end of their tour, the Colonel, named Wordsworth, invited me to return with him to England, and I accepted. The Colonel’s father, Lord Wordsworth, wished to prove that black children could do as well academically as white.” Mr. Smith gave us all a look. “A worthy pursuit, as I’m sure you’ll agree.”
“Sometimes,” said Wadcroft, “It is necessary to state the blindingly obvious. We have a few African students at Algernon. They are consistent high scorers.”
“Indeed,” said Mr. Smith. “So I studied. I learnt to speak English properly, I learnt my numbers, and then I studied law. The laws of your land are fascinating. Your Queen is the owner of all of England, Scotland, Wales. All those who live in those lands have their homes on loan from her. I simply could not believe that.”
Wadcroft laughed. “Yes, I imagine. The notion of not actually owning your property must be confusing.”
“No, that wasn’t it. It was the notion that anyone could own a piece of the world. If I build a hut somewhere, and say ‘This place is mine’, an elephant can come by and walk right over my bits of wood and grass. I have clothes, but only because nobody dares take them from me, or is kind enough to let me keep them. I can only truly own what I can defend.” Mr Smith pointed at Wadcroft. “Your civilisation has taken the weak, and made them strong.”
“My days were long. I was not a solicitor, but only a clerk. I made the calculations, wrote the papers. I would start before sunrise, and work until sundown. I would eat, sleep and then it would start again. My masters were satisfied with my work, and gradually, I was given more important tasks. To me, this simply meant that the numbers were larger, and that there were more of them. My wages did not rise, but I thought nothing of it. My masters…” Mr Smith smiled. “My employers spoke highly of me. All seemed well, and I was given more and more work to do. Unfortunately, the number of hours in the day…” Mr. Smith pulled out his watch and wound it. “Does any of you have the time? I should really remember to wind this.”
I pulled out my own watch. “A quarter past two Greenwich Mean Time. That means it’s a quarter past five here.”
“Thank you,” said Mr. Smith, adjusting his watch. “Well then, in order to do the work alotted to me, it became necessary to increase my working hours, first to twelve, then finally to eighteen hours. My employers were delighted, but the body cannot stand such long days, ladies and gentlemen.”
“That’s preposterous,” said Wadcroft. “There are laws against that. You were being exploited!”
“Indeed I was, Professor, but my specialities were probate and taxes. Employment law was, perhaps for less than honest reasons, kept away from me. And I lived for the praise of my employers. I was representing my race, and repaying the kindness of Lord Wordsworth for this opportunity. I was grateful.”
Mr Smith gave Margaret a hopeful look, and held out his tea mug. Margaret refilled it.
“Thank you. Now after a few months of work, this idyll came to an end. With my mind deprived of sleep, I made a critical error. Forgot to carry the one on a long addition, something like that. A trivial mistake that nonetheless embarrassed my employers. The gentleman who oversaw my work had long since stopped checking my calculations in earnest, since all the times he spotted errors, the mistakes turned out to be his.”
“Hah,” said Margaret. “I have to tell Andrew about that.”
Riley shot her a look. “How is Andrew, Professor? Still trying to calculate when the Moon is going to fall from the sky?”
Margaret blinked, realising that she’d misspoken, but recovered quickly. “Wearing out his slide rule at Algernon.”
Mr. John Smith looked at Margaret, and continued. “My colleague then availed himself of the advantage that his lighter skin granted him, and pointed out to my employers that they had been fools to trust a Negro. The conversation then quickly deteriorated, and it ended with my wages being reduced significantly, until the loss would be made good. This did not bother me much, because Lord Wordsworth let me stay in one of the side buildings of his mansion. But I felt I had lost the respect of my employers, and since I was no longer in their favour, I found that the other clerks now felt free to target me with a variety of unsavoury remarks.”
I looked at Mr. Smith’s eyes. He seemed quiet, at ease, peaceful. But I imagined underneath all that a burning rage. How could there not be? Still, he had actively sought us out for a cup of tea and a chat. Were there people who had left a better impression on him than those at his place of work?
Mr Smith sipped his tea. “Unfortunately, even with my diminished reputation, I was not given any less work to do. This sad story, and my employment, ended with me asleep on my desk, having done two full consecutive days of work. I could simply not go on, and went to tell my employers. Now my mind may have been addled by lack of sleep, but as I closed the door, I heard one of them making a remark, and I quote. ‘We are not allowed to whip them anymore.’ It was then that I fully realised the extent of my idiocy in working for these people. Back here, if any man were to make a similar comment to me, he would feel the weight of my hand, and the thrust of my weapons. I tell you this in the full knowledge that I never will have to make good on that threat, because we do not say such things to each other. Cannot say them, in fact. So after that, I collected my savings and shipped myself on the next liner back to Africa.”
“Hah. You should have come to us,” said Wadcroft. “A man of your obvious abilities would have done well at Algernon University.”
“Please describe to me what my day would have looked like.”
Wadcroft laughed. “Well, my intern days, to tell you the truth, would have looked much like what you were describing. My personal record is a three-day stint measuring and compiling the thermal properties of the combustion of the grains of varieties of Fagopyrum esculentum or buckwheat. Which is an important task, given that we will have to feed many more people come the next millennium or so. After that came the fun part of working with chemicals so aggressively hypergolic that they will ignite even wet sand. Those were the days.”
“Professor,” said Mr. Smith, “what does a man need to lead a fulfilling life? A comfortable place to sit, a roof over his head, a full belly, and the company of his fellows. Most of those I had at Lord Wordsworth’s manor, but to keep them, I could not enjoy them. When I returned to Africa, I could not find my family, but I joined this tribe. I kept this waistcoat, my watch, and the name that my benefactors had given me, as a reminder never to go back. This country is fertile, lush and rich. Today, I hunted with my brothers, and took three hours to find and bring down a pair of antelope, and another hour to prepare it. We can provide for our own tribe in four hours. After that, the day is mine to do with as I please.”
“So, what do you do then?” I said.
John Smith sat back, put his mug on the ground and grinned broadly.
“We make love to our women, and we make war on our neighbors.”
“We need to leave now,” said Klemm. “There will be an attack tonight.”
“Oh come on Klemm,” said Wadcroft. “Surely you don’t suspect Mr. Smith’s intentions?”
“Thanks to him being here, he now knows that we are a lightly armed group of two women and four men. He knows that our possessions are well worth the risk, and he does not know that we have a Panzer in reserve, nor does he know of our Jäger, unless he recognised me as a commander. He has told us that men of his tribe have spoken with Herr Hammond, but he conveniently could not tell us which way they went, giving us no option but to stay here and wait till he asks his tribesmen. I am worried, Herr Professor. Very worried indeed. These people are cannibals, and I have no desire to be eaten.”
“Well, they have been hunting. They don’t need any meat.”
Margaret stepped up. “Alan, the point of cannibalism is rarely to hunt up something good for the pot. Eating your enemies is a spiritual act, meant to take possession of their courage, their prowess.” She scowled. “Usually, the genitals are the preferred bit. Want to risk it? Be my guest.”
Andrew and the Jäger had joined us at the camp fire. One of them laughed and remarked in German that he would not mind someone only having a taste. I ignored him.
Professor Wadcroft made a few complicated noises. “Well alright then. But it’s getting dark. That makes it pretty damn likely that we’ll miss important clues.”
“We don’t need to travel far, Professor,” said Klemm, “just far enough that these people do not find us. They can read tracks no more than we can in the dark.”
Wadcroft sneered. “Do you think they’ll miss tracks of our vehicle? People can fall into them, they’re that deep.”
“As long as they don’t find us where they expect us,” said Klemm, “our own Wachen can see them before they see us. Then the night can pass without bloodshed.”
“You are against bloodshed? I seem to remember hearing otherwise.”
“Unnecessary bloodshed, Herr Professor.”
We all got on board the Beast, and Andrew stoked up the furnace. We made for a nearby hilltop, and pointed our best optical equipment at the place where we had left the fire burning, in an extra-high ring of wet stones. The woodsman in me cringed at the idea of leaving a burning fire behind, but all is fair in love and war. My rifle scope was not especially good in low light conditions, but still I could see the dark figures silhouetted against the firelight.
“Well,” I said, “That settles that.”
“They’re not idiots,” said Riley. “We’ll have them on our necks before tomorrow.”
“Well, then we need to make tracks,” said Wadcroft. “Andrew? Head east. I would have liked to know where Hammond went, but I’ll still wager that he went to have a look at those mountains. The position of this camp confirms it.” Andrew set the Beast in motion, but at Wadcroft’s suggestion only turned on the bright headlights after we reached the bottom of the hill. We rode on for several hours, until we came to a large plains, lit by the glorious light of the moon. The shadows of the mountains loomed ahead in the distance. Here, we would be able to see anyone coming towards us. We stopped, pitched a few tents, set a watch and went to an uneasy sleep.
I was asleep alone in a tent a few dozen yards away from the Beast. Margaret had chosen to sleep in one of the bunks inside, but I could not bring myself to disrobe, even partly, in full view of the soldiers. I was heartily sick of their company, truth be told, and longed for a bit of peace and quiet. Klemm had set a watch, and we could hear nothing but the soft sounds of the jungle, the wind, the song of crickets. I have often slept outdoors, in a tent, or even under the stars. The firmament, the Milky Way, the constellations, make for a spectacular view that is simply not available to city dwellers. Look at them long enough, and you will be struck by the fact that they are not moving, but it is you, and the small speck of dirt you are lying on, that is spinning in the celestial infinite. Nothing of the sort occurred to me that night, though, as I was tired.
I awoke with someone touching my leg. Startled, I turned round to find I was looking at a soldier’s face. He put his finger on his lips.
“Sei still,” said the soldier.
“Was ist los?” I asked.
“Nothing is wrong,” he said. “Everything is alright.”
“What the hell is going on?”
“You have been watching me,” said the soldier. “I noticed. I am a trained observer.”
“We’ve been sitting on each other’s laps. Of course I’ve been watching you.”
“Come now, Fräulein,” said the soldier. “I know the look. I know what it is you want. And I am willing to give it to you.”
“Piss off! Get out of my tent, or…”
“Ich liebe dich, mich reizt deine schöne Gestalt,” said the soldier. There was the soft noise, and the gleam of a knife.
That was a quote from Goethe’s Erlkönig. An uncle of mine was fond of singing the English translation of Schubert’s version of it. I knew well the next line. The time for reasoning, for talking, was over. I allowed my breath to quicken, to give the illusion of paralysed fear. The soldier raised his knife, to cut open the top of my pyjamas. That meant that the blunt side of the knife was towards my skin. There was one thing to do, and one moment to do it. With a quick movement of my hands. I gripped the man’s hand and twisted. He cried out in pain, and rolled over. I followed him, and the knife fell out of his hand. I managed to grab it by a part that wasn’t sharp, and rolled over backwards, out of the tent. He followed me outside, swearing under his breath. I faced him.
“Now I have the knife,” I said. “Still inclined to use force?”
Even I jumped up straight, so much authority was in this one Prussian syllable. The soldier stiffened, then stood to attention. Klemm walked up between us, turned to me, and wordlessly held out his hand. I gave him the knife. Hilt first. Klemm turned to his soldier.
“Explain yourself,” he said.
“Herr Oberst, Ich…”
“I was… I was looking to see if the lady was alright, Herr Oberst. I heard… disquieting noises. Fräulein Tennant must have misunderstood my intentions… taken the knife from my belt… I…”
“Enough! Miss Tennant’s clothes are torn and she has a cut on her breast. Do you suggest she did that herself? Schultz! Möller! Tie this man up and guard him. We will deal with this in the morning.”
I looked down, and only now saw. Ironically, I had probably done it myself, but that did not change the situation. My assailant was tied up, made to sit somewhere near the Beast. Two of his fellow soldiers stood over him with rifles. Margaret walked up to me with the medical kit, put her arm round me and led me into the Beast.
“Everybody out,” she said. “You too, Andrew.”
Everybody left. I sat down on one of the benches and let Margaret take my pyjama off to clean my wound. The sharp sting of iodine made me gasp, and I started to shake. Margaret looked into my eyes.
“Are you alright?”
I closed my eyes a moment. “Yes,” I said.
Margaret looked closer. “Like hell you are. Let me take care of this first.”
The wound had bled, but it didn’t warrant much more than a plaster. My beauty, such as it was, was not affected. Margaret gave me a fresh shirt, and put me in one of the bunks in a way that left me no way of protest. She opened her holster and took out her revolver, checked it to see it was loaded. Then she sat down on the bench next to my head and put her hand on my shoulder. No doubt Margaret knew exactly how many bullets she had. She hadn’t fired her revolver even once, this or any previous, expedition. This was just a show for my benefit.
“You get some sleep now.”
With the annoying pain nagging at me, and the surplus of adrenalin, I was sure that I would never be able to sleep. I was wrong. As soon as I closed my eyes, I was gone.
I woke up with the sun shining through the open hatch of the Beast. Margaret was sitting next to me, awake and alert. She pushed a mug of tea into my hand, cure for everything.
“I’m fine,” I said.
“I didn’t ask,” said Margaret, “and I don’t believe you.”
I shook my head. “I’ll live. What’s happening?”
“Klemm is dealing with it,” said Margaret.
“Oh this I have to see.”
I stepped out of the beast. The soldier who had tried to assault me was standing to attention in front of Klemm and the other soldiers. I looked at their faces. They only glanced at me, then turned their eyes away. Klemm didn’t even acknowledge me, and continued speaking to the soldier.
“You have left your post, in a combat situation, exposing us all to the possibility of attack. You did this in order to inflict your unwelcome presence upon a member of our expedition.”
“Jawohl, Herr Oberst,” said the soldier.
“Any man who does not know to keep his base instincts in check until they are needed does not belong in my Jäger. You are dismissed, and I order you to return to Khartoum immediately. About turn. Forward march!”
The soldier turned pale. I looked at him. There was no knife on his belt. He had no weapon. No means of defending himself. His hands were still tied behind his back. In the direction of Khartoum were people who had tried to kill us so they could eat us and ingest our fighting spirit. This was nothing less than a death warrant. If the natives didn’t get him, or the wild animals, he would starve. I had a very good reason to hate this man intensely, but my hatred had not had time to coalesce. I half opened my mouth to say something, but honestly, what? This man had tried to… I could not bring myself to even think the word, and I kept my silence. I did not have a voice in this decision.
As I watched, the man turned about, hesitated a moment, then simply walked away across the plains, towards the lions, the cannibals, death. I glanced at the faces of the other soldiers. They were looking at him, not at me, with angry expressions. There was no mercy there. He had left his post. Klemm’s face was hard as stone as he turned around and walked towards one of the tents, showing that for him, the matter was closed. I looked again at the soldier’s disappearing back. He was walking at the standard one-hundred and twenty steps per minute, not looking back. I imagined lions looking up, suddenly taking an interest in this moving figure. The native warriors behind us. I imagined him collapsing, exhausted, dried out. As long as I live, I will never forget that moment. Would Klemm or one of the soldiers have stopped that soldier, having taught him a lesson he wouldn’t forget? I think not. They might have, but I did not believe it then. I still do not believe it now, but the doubt will haunt me for the rest of my life.
This is what I did. I turned round. I stepped into the loading hatch of the Beast, and fetched my rifle. I assembled it, loaded it, and chambered a round. The soldier was now some seven hundred meters away. I adjusted my scope. I checked for windage. I aimed. I pulled the trigger. In my sight, I could see the man’s head burst open, blood spraying. He fell to the ground. I disassembled my rifle, cleaned the barrel with a long brush, as one should do after every firing. Then I put it back in its case, snapped the locks closed, and stepped into the vehicle. As I turned my back, I heard the voice of one of the soldiers.
“Mensch! Das war ein Kopfschuß!”
May I be forgiven.
Copyright: © 2014 Menno Willemse. All rights reserved.