Africa crouched low on the horizon, like a lion in ambush, tawny and gold in the early sunlight, seared by the cold of the Benguela Current.
Robyn Ballantyne stood by the ship’s rail and stared towards it. She had been standing like that since an hour before dawn, long before the land could be seen. She had known it was there, sensed its vast enigmatic presence in the darkness, detected its breath, warm and spicy dry, over the clammy cold exhalations of the current on which the great ship rode.
It was her cry, not that of the masthead, which brought Captain Mungo St John charging up the companionway from his stern quarters, and the rest of the ship’s company crowding to the ship’s side to stare and jabber. For seconds only, Mungo St John gripped the teak rail, staring at the land, before whirling to call his orders in the low but piercing tone which seemed to carry to every corner of the ship.
‘Stand by to go about!’
Tippoo the mate scattered the crew to their duties with knotted rope-end and clubbed fists. For two weeks, furious winds and low, sullen skies had denied them a glimpse of sun or moon, or of any other heavenly body on which to establish a position. On dead reckoning the tall clipper should have been one hundred nautical miles further west, well clear of this treacherous coast with its uncharted hazards and wild deserted shores.
The Captain was freshly awakened, the thick dark mane of his hair tangled, rippling now in the wind, his cheeks lightly flushed with sleep, and also with anger and alarm beneath the smooth darkly tanned skin. Yet his eyes were clear, the whites contrasting starkly against the golden-flecked yellow of the iris. Once again, even in this moment of distraction and confusion, Robyn wondered at the sheer physical presence of the man – a dangerous, disturbing quality that at the same time both repelled and attracted her intensely.
His white linen shirt had been stuffed hastily into his breeches, and the front was unfastened. The skin of his chest was dark and smooth also, as if it had been oiled, and the hair upon it was crisp and black, tight whorls of it that made her blush, reminding her too clearly of that morning early in the voyage – the first morning that they had run into the warm blue waters of the Atlantic Ocean below latitude 35° north, the morning which for her had been the subject of much torment and troubled prayer since.
That morning, she had heard the splash and drum of water on the deck above her, and the clank of the ship’s pump. She had left the makeshift desk in her tiny cabin on which she was working at her journal, slipped a shawl over her shoulders and gone up on to the maindeck, stepping unsuspectingly into the bright white sunlight and then stopping aghast.
There were two seamen working the pump lustily, and the clear sea water hissed from its throat in a solid jet. Naked, Mungo St John stood beneath it, lifting his face and his arms towards it, the water sleeking his black hair down over his face and neck, flattening his body hair over his chest and the muscled plane of his belly. She had stood and stared, completely frozen, unable to tear her eyes away. The two seamen had turned their heads and grinned lewdly at her while they kept the handles pumping the hissing water.
Of course she had seen a man’s naked body before, laid out on the dissection table, soft white flesh collapsing over bone, and with belly pouch slit open and the internal organs spilling out of it like butchers’ offal, or between the grubby blankets of the fever hospital, sweating and stinking and racked with the convulsions of onrushing death – but never like this, not healthy and vital and overwhelming like this.
This was a marvellous symmetry and balance of trunk to long powerful legs, of broad shoulders to narrow waist. There was a lustre to the skin, even where the sun had not gilded it. This was not an untidy tangle of masculine organs, half-hidden by a bush of coarse hair, shameful and vaguely revolting. This was vibrant manhood, and she had been struck with sudden insight as to the original sin of Eve, the serpent and the apples, here offered again, and she had gasped aloud. He had heard her and stepped from under the thundering jet of water, and flicked the hair from his eyes. He saw her standing near, unable to move or tear her eyes away, and he smiled that lazy, taunting smile, making no move to cover himself, the water still streaming down his body, and sparkling like diamond chips on his skin.
‘Good morning, Doctor Ballantyne,’ he had murmured. ‘Perhaps I am to be the subject of one of your scientific studies?’
Only then had she been able to break the spell, to whirl and rush back to her smelly little cabin. She expected to be greatly disturbed, as she threw herself on the narrow planks of her bunk, waiting to be overwhelmed by a sense of sin and shame, but it did not come. Instead, she was confused by a contraction of her chest and lungs that left her breathless, and a remarkable warmth of her cheeks and the skin of her throat, a prickling of the fine dark hairs at the nape of her neck, and the same warmth of other parts of her body which had so alarmed her that she flung herself hurriedly off the bunk and on to her knees to plead for a proper sense of her own unworthiness and a true understanding of her essential baseness and irretrievable wickedness. It was an exercise she had undertaken a thousand times in her twenty-three years, but seldom with so little success.
For the thirty-eight days of the voyage since then, she had tried to avoid those flecked yellow eyes and that lazy taunting smile, and had taken to eating most of her meals in her cabin, even in the daunting heat of the equator, when the taint of the bucket behind the canvas screen in the corner of the cabin had done little to pique her appetite. Only when she knew that heavy weather would keep him on deck did she join her brother and the others in the ship’s small saloon.
Watching him now as he conned his ship off the hostile coast, she felt that disturbing prickle once again, and she turned away quickly to the land that was now swinging across the bows. The tackle roared through the blocks and the yards creaked and crackled, the canvas flogged and then filled again with a crash like cannon.
At the sight of the land she almost overcame those earlier memories and was instead filled with such a sense of awe, that she wondered if it were possible that the land of birth could call so clearly and so undeniably to the blood of its children.
It did not seem possible that nineteen years had passed since as a four-year-old waif, clinging to her mother’s long skirts, she had last seen that great flat-topped mountain that guarded the southernmost tip of the continent sink slowly beneath the horizon. It was one of the only clear memories of this land that she retained. She could still almost feel the coarse cheap stuff that a missionary’s wife must wear and hear the sobs that her mother tried to stifle and feel them shake her mother’s legs beneath the skirts, as she clung closer. Vividly she recalled the fear and confusion of the little girl at her mother’s distress, understanding with childlike intuition that their lives were in upheaval, but knowing only that the tall figure that had been up to that time the centre of her small existence was now missing.
‘Don’t cry, baby,’ her mother had whispered. ‘We will see Papa again soon. Don’t cry, my little one.’ But those words had made her doubt that she would ever see her father again, and she had pushed her face into the coarse skirt, too proud even at that age to let the others hear her wail.
As always it had been her brother Morris who had comforted her, three years her senior, a man of seven years, born like her in Africa, on the banks of a far wild river with a strange exotic name, Zouga, which had given him his middle name. Morris Zouga Ballantyne – she liked the Zouga best and always used it, it reminded her of Africa.
She turned her head back towards the quarterdeck, and there he was now, tall but not as tall as Mungo St John, to whom he was speaking excitedly, pointing at the lion-coloured land, his face animated. The features he had inherited from their father were heavy but strong, the nose bony and beaked and the line of the mouth determined, harsh perhaps.
He lifted the glass to his eye again and studied the low coastline, scanning it with the care that he took with any project from the smallest to the greatest, before lowering it and turning back to Mungo St John. They spoke together quietly. An unlikely relationship had developed between the two men, a mutual, though guarded respect each for the other’s strengths and accomplishments. But if the truth be told, it was Zouga who pursued the relationship most assiduously. Always one to profit by any opportunity, he had milked Mungo St John of his knowledge and experience. He had done it with an exercise of charm, but since leaving Bristol harbour he had drawn from the Captain most of what he had learned in many years of trading and voyaging along the coasts of this vast savage continent, and Zouga had written all of it down in one of his calf-bound ledgers, storing knowledge against the day.
In addition to this, the Captain had genially undertaken to instruct Zouga in the mystery and art of astronomical navigation. Each day local apparent noon would find the two of them huddled on the sunny side of the quarterdeck with brass sextants poised, waiting for a glimpse of the fiery orb through the layers of cloud, or, when the sky was clear, eagerly sighting it, swaying to the ship’s motion, to hold the sun in the field of the lens as they brought it down to the horizon.
At other times they cut the monotony of a long tack with a contest of arms, taking turns at an empty corked brandy bottle thrown over the stern by a crewman, using a magnificent pair of percussion duelling pistols that Mungo St John brought up from his cabin still in their velvet-lined case, and loaded with care on the chart table.
They shouted with laughter, and congratulated each other as the bottles burst in mid-air in an explosion of shards bright as diamond chips in the sunlight.
At other times Zouga brought up the new Sharps breechloading rifle, a gift from one of the sponsors of the expedition, ‘the Ballantyne Africa Expedition’, as the Standard, that great daily newspaper, had named it.
The Sharps was a magnificent weapon, accurate up to the incredible range of 800 yards, with the power to knock down a bull bison at a thousand. The men who were wiping out the great herds of buffalo from the American prairie at this very time had earned the title ‘Sharpshooters’ with this weapon.
Mungo St John towed a barrel at the end of an 800-yard length of cable to act as a target, and they shot for a wager of a shilling a bout. Zouga was an accomplished marksman, the best in his regiment, but he had already lost over five guineas to Mungo St John.
Not only were the Americans manufacturing the finest firearms in the world (already John Browning had patented a breechloading repeating rifle that Winchester was evolving into the most formidable weapon known to man), but the Americans were also far and away the finest marksmen. This pointed up the difference between the tradition of the frontiersman with his long rifle, and that of massed British infantry firing smooth-bore muskets in strictly commanded volleys. Mungo St John, an American, handled both the long-barrelled duelling pistol and the Sharps rifle as though they were an extension of his own body.
Now Robyn turned away from the two men, looked back at the land and felt a small dismay to see it already sinking lower into the cold green sea.
She yearned towards it with a quiet desperation, as she had ever since that day of departure so long ago. Her whole life in the intervening years seemed to have been a long preparation for this moment, so many obstacles overcome, obstacles made mountainous by the fact she was a woman; there had been so much struggle against temptation to give in to despair, a struggle that others had read as wilfulness and vaunting pride, as stubbornness and immodesty.
Her education had been gleaned with such toil from the library of her uncle William, despite his active discouragement. ‘Too much book learning will only plague you, my dear. It is not a woman’s place to trouble herself with certain things. You would do better to assist your mother in the kitchen and learn to sew and knit.’
‘I can do both already, Uncle William.’
Later, his reluctant and grumbling assistance changed only slowly into active support when he at last assessed the depth of her intelligence and determination.
Uncle William was her mother’s eldest brother, and he had taken in the family when the three of them had returned almost destitute from that far, savage land. They had only their father’s stipend from the London Missionary Society, a mere £50 per annum, and William Moffat was not a wealthy man, a physician at King’s Lynn with a small practice, hardly sufficient for the ready-made family with which he found himself saddled.
Of course, later – many years later – there had been money, a great deal of money, some said as much as three thousand pounds, the royalties from Robyn’s father’s books, but it had been Uncle William who had shielded and sustained them through the lean times.
William had somehow found the money to purchase Zouga’s commission in his regiment, even selling his two prized hunters and making that humiliating journey to Cheapside and the moneylenders to do so.
With what William could raise, it was perforce not a fashionable regiment, and not even the regular army, but the 13th Regiment of Madras Native Infantry, a line regiment of the East India Company.
It was Uncle William who had instructed Robyn until she was as advanced in formal education as he was himself, and who had then aided and abetted her in the great deception of which she could never bring herself to be ashamed. In 1854 no hospital medical school in all of England would enrol a woman amongst their student body.
With her uncle’s help, and active connivance, she had enrolled, using his sponsorship and the assertion that she was his nephew, at St Matthew’s Hospital in the east end of London.
It helped that her name needed only changing from Robyn to Robin, that she was tall and small-breasted, that her voice had a depth and huskiness that she could exaggerate. She had kept her thick, dark hair cropped short, and learned to wear trousers with such panache that ever since, the tangle of petticoats and crinolines around her legs had irritated her.
The hospital governors had only discovered the fact that she was a woman after she had obtained her medical qualification from the Royal College of Surgeons at the age of twenty-one. They had immediately petitioned the Royal College to withdraw the honour, and the ensuing scandal had swept the length and breadth of England, made more fascinating by the fact that she was the daughter of Doctor Fuller Ballantyne, the famous African explorer, traveller, medical missionary and author. In the end, the governors of St Matthew’s had been forced to retreat, for Robyn Ballantyne and her Uncle William had found a champion in the small, rotund person of Oliver Wicks, editor of the Standard.
With a true journalist’s eye, Wicks had recognized good copy, and in a scathing editorial had called upon the British tradition of fair play, ridiculed the dark hints of sexual orgies in the operating rooms and pointed up the considerable achievement of this bright and sensitive young girl against almost insurmountable odds. Yet even when her qualification had been confirmed, it was for her only a short step along the road back to Africa, on which she had determined so long ago.
The venerable directors of the London Missionary Society had been considerably alarmed by the offer of the services of a woman. Missionary wives were one thing, were indeed highly desirable to shield the missionaries themselves against physical blandishments and temptations amongst the unclothed heathen, but a lady missionary was another thing entirely.
There was a further complication which weighed heavily against Doctor Robyn Ballantyne’s application. Her father was Fuller Ballantyne, who had resigned from the Society six years previously before disappearing once again into the African hinterland; in their eyes he had completely discredited himself. It was clear to them that her father was more interested in exploration and personal aggrandizement than in leading the benighted heathen into the bosom of Jesus Christ. In fact, so far as they were aware, Fuller Ballantyne had made only one convert in all his thousands of miles of African travel, his personal gunbearer.
He seemed to have made himself a crusader against the African slave trade, rather than an emissary of Christ. He had swiftly changed his first missionary station in Africa into a sanctuary for runaway slaves. The station at Koloberg had been on the southern edge of the great Kalahari Desert, a little oasis in the wilderness where a clear, strong spring of water gushed from the ground, and it had been founded with an enormous expenditure of the Society’s funds.
Once Fuller had made it a slave refuge, the inevitable had happened. The Trek Boers from the little independent republics which ringed the mission station to the south were the original owners of the slaves to whom Fuller Ballantyne gave sanctuary. They called ‘Commando’, the medium through which the Trek Boers dispensed frontier justice. They came riding into Koloberg an hour before dawn, dark swift horsemen, a hundred of them, dressed in coarse homespun, bearded and burned by the sun to the colour of Africa’s dark earth. The bright flashes of their muzzle-loaders lit the dawn, and then the burning thatch of the buildings of Fuller Ballantyne’s mission station made it bright day.
They roped the recaptured slaves together with the station servants and freedmen into long lines, and drove them away southwards, leaving Fuller Ballantyne standing with his family huddled about him, a few pathetic possessions which they had managed to save from the flames scattered at their feet, and the smoke from the smouldering, roofless buildings drifting in eddies about them.
It had confirmed in Fuller Ballantyne his hatred of the institution of slavery, and it had given him the excuse for which he had unwittingly been searching, the excuse to rid himself of the encumbrances which had until then prevented him from answering the call of the vast, empty land to the north.
His wife and two small children were packed off back to England for their own good, and with them went a letter to the directors of the London Missionary Society. God had made his will clear to Fuller Ballantyne. He was bidden to journey to the north, to carry God’s word across Africa, a missionary at large, no longer tied to one small station, but with the whole of Africa as his parish.
The directors were greatly troubled by the loss of their station, but they were further dismayed by the prospect of having to mount what seemed to be a costly expedition of exploration into an area which all the world knew was merely a vast desert, unpeopled and unwatered except around the littoral, a burning sand desert which stretched to the Mediterranean Sea four thousand miles northward.
They wrote hurriedly to Fuller Ballantyne, uncertain where exactly the letter should be addressed, but feeling the need to deny all responsibility and to express their deep concern; they ended by stating strongly that no further funds other than his stipend of £50 per annum could be voted for Fuller Ballantyne’s highly irregular activities. They need not have expended their energy and emotions, for Fuller Ballantyne had departed. With a handful of porters, his Christian gunbearer, a Colt revolver, a percussion rifle, two boxes of medicines, his journals and navigational instruments, Fuller Ballantyne had disappeared.
He emerged eight years later, down the Zambezi river, appearing at the Portuguese settlement near the mouth of that river, to the great chagrin of the settlers there who, after 200 years of occupation, had pushed no further than 100 miles upstream.
Fuller Ballantyne returned to England and his book A Missionary in Darkest Africa created a tremendous sensation. Here was a man who had made the ‘Transversa’, the overland passage of Africa from west to east coast, who had seen, where there should be desert, great rivers and lakes, cool pleasant grassy uplands, great herds of game and strange peoples – but most of all he had seen the terrible depredations of the slave-raiders upon the continent, and his revelations rekindled the anti-slavery zeal of Wilberforce in the hearts of the British people.
The London Missionary Society was embarrassed by the instant fame of their prodigal, and they hurried to make amends. Fuller Ballantyne had chosen the sites for future missionary stations in the interior, and at the cost of many thousands of pounds they gathered together groups of devoted men and women and sent them out to the selected sites.
The British Government, prevailed upon by Fuller Ballantyne’s description of the Zambezi river as a wide roadway to the rich interior of Africa, nominated Fuller Ballantyne Her Majesty’s Consul, and financed an elaborate expedition to open this artery of trade and civilization to the interior.
Fuller had returned to England to write his book, but during this period of reunion with his family, they saw almost as little of the great man as when he was in the depths of Africa. When he was not locked in Uncle William’s study writing the epic of his travels, he was in London hounding the Foreign Office or the directors of the L.M.S. And when he had gained from these sources all that he needed for his return to Africa, then he was travelling about England lecturing in Oxford or preaching the sermon from the pulpit of Canterbury cathedral.
Then abruptly he was gone again, taking their mother with him. Robyn would always remember the feel of his spiky whiskers as he stooped to kiss his daughter farewell for the second time. In her mind her father and God were somehow the same person, all-powerful, all-righteous, and her duty to them was blind, accepting adoration.