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   Chapter 4 No.4

The Explorer By W. Somerset Maugham Characters: 26121

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04


There was some rough shooting on the estate which Mrs. Crowley had rented, and next day Dick went out to see what he could find. Alec refused to accompany him.

'I think shooting in England bores me a little,' he said. 'I have a prejudice against killing things unless I want to eat them, and these English birds are so tame that it seems to me rather like shooting chickens.'

'I don't believe a word of it,' said Dick, as he set out. 'The fact is that you can't hit anything smaller than a hippopotamus, and you know that there is nothing here to suit you except Mrs. Crowley's cows.'

After luncheon Alec MacKenzie asked Lucy if she would take a stroll with him. She was much pleased.

'Where would you like to go?' she asked.

'Let us walk by the sea.'

She took him along a road called Joy Lane, which ran from the fishing town of Blackstable to a village called Waveney. The sea there had a peculiar vastness, and the salt smell of the breeze was pleasant to the senses. The flatness of the marsh seemed to increase the distances that surrounded them, and unconsciously Alec fell into a more rapid swing. It did not look as if he walked fast, but he covered the ground with the steady method of a man who has been used to long journeys, and it was good for Lucy that she was accustomed to much walking. At first they spoke of trivial things, but presently silence fell upon them. Lucy saw that he was immersed in thought, and she did not interrupt him. It amused her that, after asking her to walk with him, this odd man should take no pains to entertain her. Now and then he threw back his head with a strange, proud motion, and looked out to sea. The gulls, with their melancholy flight, were skimming upon the surface of the water. The desolation of that scene-it was the same which, a few days before, had rent poor Lucy's heart-appeared to enter his soul; but, strangely enough, it uplifted him, filling him with exulting thoughts. He quickened his pace, and Lucy, without a word, kept step with him. He seemed not to notice where they walked, and presently she led him away from the sea. They tramped along a winding road, between trim hedges and fertile fields; and the country had all the sweet air of Kent, with its easy grace and its comfortable beauty. They passed a caravan, with a shaggy horse browsing at the wayside, and a family of dinglers sitting around a fire of sticks. The sight curiously affected Lucy. The wandering life of those people, with no ties but to the ramshackle carriage which was their only home, their familiarity with the fields and with strange hidden places, filled her with a wild desire for freedom and for vast horizons. At last they came to the massive gates of Court Leys. An avenue of elms led to the house.

'Here we are,' said Lucy, breaking the long silence.

'Already?' He seemed to shake himself. 'I have to thank you for a pleasant stroll, and we've had a good talk, haven't we?'

'Have we?' she laughed. She saw his look of surprise. 'For two hours you've not vouchsafed to make an observation.'

'I'm so sorry,' he said, reddening under his tan. 'How rude you must have thought me! I've been alone so much that I've got out of the way of behaving properly.'

'It doesn't matter at all,' she smiled. 'You must talk to me another time.'

She was subtly flattered. She felt that, for him, it was a queer kind-of compliment that he had paid her. Their silent walk, she did not know why, seemed to have created a bond between them; and it appeared that he felt it, too, for afterwards he treated her with a certain intimacy. He seemed to look upon her no longer as an acquaintance, but as a friend.

A day or two later, Mrs. Crowley having suggested that they should drive into Tercanbury to see the cathedral, MacKenzie asked her if she would allow him to walk.

He turned to Lucy.

'I hardly dare to ask if you will come with me,' he said.

'It would please me immensely.'

'I will try to behave better than last time.'

'You need not,' she smiled.

Dick, who had an objection to walking when it was possible to drive, set out with Mrs. Crowley in a trap. Alec waited for Lucy. She went round to the stable to fetch a dog to accompany them, and, as she came towards him, he looked at her. Alec was a man to whom most of his fellows were abstractions. He saw them and talked to them, noting their peculiarities, but they were seldom living persons to him. They were shadows, as it were, that had to be reckoned with, but they never became part of himself. And it came upon him now with a certain shock of surprise to notice Lucy. He felt suddenly a new interest in her. He seemed to see her for the first time, and her rare beauty strangely moved him. In her serge dress and her gauntlets, with a motor cap and a flowing veil, a stick in her hand, she seemed on a sudden to express the country through which for the last two or three days he had wandered. He felt an unexpected pleasure in her slim erectness and in her buoyant step. There was something very charming in her blue eyes.

He was seized with a great desire to talk. And, without thinking for an instant that what concerned him so intensely might be of no moment to her, he began forthwith upon the subject which was ever at his heart. But he spoke as his interest prompted, of each topic as it most absorbed him, starting with what he was now about and going back to what had first attracted his attention to that business; then telling his plans for the future, and to make them clear, finishing with the events that had led up to his determination. Lucy listened attentively, now and then asking a question; and presently the whole matter sorted itself in her mind, so that she was able to make a connected narrative of his life since the details of it had escaped from Dick's personal observation.

For some years Alec MacKenzie had travelled in Africa with no object beyond a great curiosity, and no ambition but that of the unknown. His first important expedition had been, indeed, occasioned by the failure of a fellow-explorer. He had undergone the common vicissitudes of African travel, illness and hunger, incredible difficulties of transit through swamps that seemed never ending, and tropical forest through which it was impossible to advance at the rate of more than one mile a day; he had suffered from the desertion of his bearers and the perfidy of native tribes. But at last he reached the country which had been the aim of his journey. He had to encounter then a savage king's determined hostility to the white man, and he had to keep a sharp eye on his followers who, in abject terror of the tribe he meant to visit, took every opportunity to escape into the bush. The barbarian chief sent him a warning that he would have him killed if he attempted to enter his capital. The rest of the story Alec told with an apologetic air, as if he were ashamed of himself, and he treated it with a deprecating humour that sought to minimise both the danger he had run and the courage he had displayed. On receiving the king's message, Alec MacKenzie took up a high tone, and returned the answer that he would come to the royal kraal before midday. He wanted to give the king no time to recover from his astonishment, and the messengers had scarcely delivered the reply before he presented himself, unarmed and unattended.

'What did you say to him?' asked Lucy.

'I asked him what the devil he meant by sending me such an impudent message,' smiled Alec.

'Weren't you frightened?' said Lucy.

'Yes,' he answered.

He paused for a moment, and, as though unconsciously he were calling back the mood which had then seized him, he began to walk more slowly.

'You see, it was the only thing to do. We'd about come to the end of our food, and we were bound to get some by hook or by crook. If we'd shown the white feather they would probably have set upon us without more ado. My own people were too frightened to make a fight of it, and we should have been wiped out like sheep. Then I had a kind of instinctive feeling that it would be all right. I didn't feel as if my time had come.'

But, notwithstanding, for three hours his life had hung in the balance; and Lucy understood that it was only his masterful courage which had won the day and turned a sullen, suspicious foe into a warm ally.

He achieved the object of his expedition, discovered a new species of antelope of which he was able to bring back to the Natural History Museum a complete skeleton and two hides; took some geographical observations which corrected current errors, and made a careful examination of the country. When he had learnt all that was possible, still on the most friendly terms with the ferocious ruler, he set out for Mombassa. He reached it in one month more than five years after he had left it.

The results of this journey had been small enough, but Alec looked upon it as his apprenticeship. He had found his legs, and believed himself fit for much greater undertakings. He had learnt how to deal with natives, and was aware that he had a natural influence over them. He had confidence in himself. He had surmounted the difficulties of the climate, and felt himself more or less proof against fever and heat. He returned to the coast stronger than he had ever been in his life, and his enthusiasm for African travel increased tenfold. The siren had taken hold of him, and no escape now was possible.

He spent a year in England, and then went back to Africa. He had determined now to explore certain districts to the northeast of the great lakes. They were in the hinterland of British East Africa, and England had a vague claim over them; but no actual occupation had taken place, and they formed a series of independent states under Arab emirs. He went this time with a roving commission from the government, and authority to make treaties with the local chieftains. Spending six years in these districts, he made a methodical survey of the country, and was able to prepare valuable maps. He collected an immense amount of scientific material. He studied the manners and customs of the inhabitants, and made careful observations on the political state. He found the whole land distracted with incessant warfare, and broad tracts of country, fertile and apt for the occupation of white men, given over to desolation. It was then that he realised the curse of slave-raiding, the abolition of which was to become the great object of his future activity. His strength was small, and, anxious not to arouse at once the enmity of the Arab slavers, he had to use much diplomacy in order to establish himself in the country. He knew himself to be an object of intense suspicion, and he could not trust even the petty rulers who were bound to him by ties of gratitude and friendship. For some time the sultan of the most powerful state kept him in a condition bordering on captivity, and at one period his life was for a year in the greatest danger. He never knew from day to day whether he would see the setting of the sun. The Arab, though he treated him with honour, would not let him go; and, at last, Alec, seizing an opportunity when the sultan was engaged in battle with a brother who sought to usurp his sovereignty, fled for his life, abandoning his property, and saving only his notes, his specimens, and his guns.

When MacKenzie reached England, he laid before the Foreign Office the result of his studies. He pointed out the state of anarchy to which the constant slave-raiding had reduced this wealthy country, and implored those in authority, not only for the sake of humanity, but for the prestige of the country, to send an expedition which should stamp out the murderous traffic. He offered to accompany this in any capacity; and, so long as he had the chance of assisting in a righteous war, agreed to serve under any leader they chose. His knowledge of the country and his influence over its inhabitants were indispensable. He guaranteed that, if they gave him a certain number of guns with three British officers, the whole affair could be settled in a year.

But the government was crippled by the Boer War; and though, appreciating the strength of his arguments, it realised the necessity of intervention, was disinclined to enter upon fresh enterprises. These little expeditions in Africa had a way of developing into much more important affairs than first appeared. They had been taught bitter lessons before now, and could not risk, in the present state of things, even an insignificant rebuff. If they sent out a small party, which was defeated, it would be a great blow to the prestige of the country through Africa-the Arabs would carry the news to India-and it would be necessary, then, to despatch such a force that failure was impossible. To supply this there was neither money nor men.

Alec was put off with one excuse after another. To him it seemed that hindrances were deliberately set in his way, and in fact the relations of England with the res

t of Europe made his small schemes appear an intolerable nuisance. At length he was met with a flat refusal.

But Alec MacKenzie could not rest with this, and opposition only made him more determined to carry his business through. He understood that it was hard at second hand to make men realise the state of things in that distant land. But he had seen horrors beyond description. He knew the ruthless cruelty of the slave-raiders, and in his ears rang, still, the cries of agony when a village was set on fire and attacked by the Arabs. Not once, nor twice, but many times he had left some tiny kraal nestling sweetly among its fields of maize, an odd, savage counterpart to the country hamlet described in prim, melodious numbers by the gentle Goldsmith: the little naked children were playing merrily; the women sat in groups grinding their corn and chattering; the men worked in the fields or lounged idly about the hut doors. It was a charming scene. You felt that here, perhaps, one great mystery of life had been solved; for happiness was on every face, and the mere joy of living was a sufficient reason for existence. And, when he returned, the village was a pile of cinders, smoking still; here and there were lying the dead and wounded; on one side he recognised a chubby boy with a great spear wound in his body; on another was a woman with her face blown away by some clumsy gun; and there a man in the agony of death, streaming with blood, lay heaped upon the ground in horrible disorder. And the rest of the inhabitants had been hurried away pellmell on the cruel journey across country, brutally treated and half starved, till they could be delivered into the hands of the slave merchant.

Alec MacKenzie went to the Foreign Office once more. He was willing to take the whole business on himself, and asked only for a commission to raise troops at his own expense. Timorous secretaries did not know into what difficulties this determined man might lead them, and if he went with the authority of an official, but none of his responsibilities, he might land them in grave complications. The spheres of influence of the continental powers must be respected, and at this time of all others it was necessary to be very careful of national jealousies. Alec MacKenzie was told that if he went he must go as a private person. No help could be given him, and the British Government would not concern itself, even indirectly, with his enterprise. Alec had expected the reply and was not dissatisfied. If the government would not undertake the matter itself, he preferred to manage it without the hindrance of official restraints. And so this solitary man made up his mind, single handed, to crush the slave traffic in a district larger than England, and to wage war, unassisted, with a dozen local chieftains and against twenty thousand fighting men The attempt seemed Quixotic, but Alec had examined the risks and was willing to take them. He had on his side a thorough knowledge of the country, a natural power over the natives, and some skill in managing them. He was accustomed now to the diplomacy which was needful, and he was well acquainted with the local politics.

He did not think it would be hard to collect a force on the coast, and there were plenty of hardy, adventurous fellows who would volunteer to officer the native levies, if he had money to pay them. Ready money was essential, so he crossed the Atlantic and sold his estate in Texas; he made arrangements to raise a further sum, if necessary, on the income which his colliery in Lancashire brought him. He engaged a surgeon, whom he had known for some years, and could trust in an emergency, and then sailed for Zanzibar, where he expected to find white men willing to take service under him. At Mombassa he collected the bearers who had been with him during his previous expeditions, and, his fame among the natives being widely spread, he was able to take his pick of those best suited for his purpose. His party consisted altogether of over three hundred.

When he arrived upon the scene of his operations, everything for a time went well. He showed great skill in dividing his enemies. The petty rulers were filled with jealousy of one another and eager always to fall upon their friends, when slave-raiding for a season was unsuccessful. Alec's plan was to join two or three smaller states in an attack upon the most powerful of them all, to crush this completely, and then to take his old allies one by one, if they would not guarantee to give up their raids on peaceful tribes. His influence with the natives was such that he felt certain it was possible to lead them into action against their dreaded foes, the Arabs, if he was once able to give them confidence. Everything turned out as he had hoped.

The great state which had aimed at the hegemony of the whole district was defeated; and Alec, with the method habitual to him, set about organising each strip of territory which was reclaimed from barbarism. He was able to hold in check the emirs who had fought with him, and a sharp lesson given to one who had broken faith with him, struck terror in the others. The land was regaining its old security. Alec trusted that in five years a man would be able to travel from end to end of it as safely as in England. But suddenly everything he had achieved was undone. As sometimes happens in countries of small civilisation, a leader arose from among the Arabs. None knew from where he sprang, and it was said that he had been a camel driver. He was called Mohammed the Lame, because a leg badly set after a fracture had left him halting, and he was a shrewd man, far-seeing, ruthless, and ambitious. With a few companions as desperate as himself, he attacked the capital of a small state in the North which was distracted by the death of its ruler, seized it, and proclaimed himself king.

In a year he had brought under his sway all those shadowy lands which border upon Abyssinia, and was leading a great rabble, mad with the lust of conquest, fanatic with hatred of the Christian, upon the South. Consternation reigned among the tribes to whom MacKenzie was the only hope of salvation. He pointed out to the Arabs who had accepted his influence, that their safety, as well as his, lay in resistance to the Lame One; but the war cry of the Prophet prevailed against the call of reason, and he found that they were against him to a man. His native allies were faithful, with the fidelity of despair, and these he brought up against the enemy. A pitched battle was fought, but the issue was undecided. The losses were great on both sides, and Alec was himself badly wounded.

Fortunately the wet season was approaching, and Mohammed the Lame, with a wholesome respect for the white man who for the moment, at least, had checked his onward course, withdrew to the Northern regions where his power was more secure. Alec knew that he would resume the attack at the first opportunity, and he knew also that he had not the means to withstand a foe who was astute and capable. His only chance was to get back to the coast, return to England, and try again to interest the government in the undertaking; if they still refused help he determined to go out once more himself, taking this time Maxim guns and men capable of handling them. He knew that his departure would seem like flight, but he could not help that. He was obliged to go. His wound prevented him from walking, but he caused himself to be carried; and, firing his caravan with his own indomitable spirit, he reached the coast by forced marches.

His brief visit to England was already drawing to its close, and, in less than a month now, he proposed to set out for Africa once more. This time he meant to finish the work. If only his life were spared, he would crush for ever the infamous trade which turned a paradise into a wilderness.

Alec stopped speaking as they entered the cathedral close, and they paused for a moment to look at the stately pile. The trim lawns that surrounded it, in a manner enhanced its serene majesty. They entered the nave. There was a vast and solemn stillness. And there was something subtly impressive in the naked space; it uplifted the heart, and one felt a kind of scorn for all that was mean and low. The soaring of the Gothic columns, with their straight simplicity, raised the thoughts to a nobler standard. And, though that place had been given for three hundred years to colder rites, the atmosphere of an earlier, more splendid faith seemed still to cling to it. A vague odour of a spectral incense hung about the pillars, a sweet, sad smell, and the shadows of ghostly priests in vestments of gold, and with embroidered copes, wound in a long procession through the empty aisles.

Lucy was glad that they had come there, and the restful grandeur of the place fitted in with the emotions that had filled her mind during the walk from Blackstable. Her spirit was enlarged, and she felt that her own small worries were petty. The consciousness came to her that the man with whom she had been speaking was making history, and she was fascinated by the fulness of his life and the greatness of his undertakings. Her eyes were dazzled with the torrid African sun which had shone through his words, and she felt the horror of the primeval forest and the misery of the unending swamps. And she was proud because his outlook was so clear, because he bore his responsibilities so easily, because his plans were so vast. She looked at him. He was standing by her side, and his eyes were upon her. She felt the colour rise to her cheeks, she knew not why, and in embarrassment looked down.

By some chance they missed Dick Lomas and Mrs. Crowley. Neither was sorry. When they left the cathedral and started for home, they spoke for a while of indifferent things. It seemed that Alec's tongue was loosened, and he was glad of it. Lucy knew instinctively that he had never talked to anyone as he talked to her, and she was curiously flattered.

But it seemed to both of them that the conversation could not proceed on the strenuous level on which it had been during the walk into Tercanbury, and they fell upon a gay discussion of their common acquaintance. Alec was a man of strong passions, hating fools fiercely, and he had a sardonic manner of gibing at persons he despised, which caused Lucy much amusement.

He described interviews with the great ones of the land in a broadly comic spirit; and, when telling an amusing story, he had a way of assuming a Scottish drawl that added vastly to its humour.

Presently they began to speak of books. Being strictly limited as to number, he was obliged to choose for his expeditions works which could stand reading an indefinite number of times.

'I'm like a convict,' he said. 'I know Shakespeare by heart, and I've read Boswell's Johnson till I think you couldn't quote a line which I couldn't cap with the next.'

But Lucy was surprised to hear that he read the Greek classics with enthusiasm. She had vaguely imagined that people recognised their splendour, but did not read them unless they were dons or schoolmasters, and it was strange to find anyone for whom they were living works. To Alec they were a deliberate inspiration. They strengthened his purpose and helped him to see life from the heroic point of view. He was not a man who cared much for music or for painting; his whole ?sthetic desires were centred in the Greek poets and the historians. To him Thucydides was a true support, and he felt in himself something of the spirit which had animated the great Athenian. His blood ran faster as he spoke of him, and his cheeks flushed. He felt that one who lived constantly in such company could do nothing base. But he found all he needed, put together with a power that seemed almost divine, within the two covers that bound his Sophocles. The mere look of the Greek letters filled him with exultation. Here was all he wanted, strength and simplicity, and the greatness of life, and beauty.

He forgot that Lucy did not know that dead language and could not share his enthusiasm. He broke suddenly into a chorus from the Antigone; the sonorous, lovely words issued from his lips, and Lucy, not understanding, but feeling vaguely the beauty of the sounds, thought that his voice had never been more fascinating. It gained now a peculiar and entrancing softness. She had never dreamed that it was capable of such tenderness.

At last they reached Court Leys and walked up the avenue that led to the house. They saw Dick hurrying towards them. They waved their hands, but he did not reply, and, when he approached, they saw that his face was white and anxious.

'Thank God, you've come at last! I couldn't make out what had come to you.'

'What's the matter?'

The barrister, all his flippancy gone, turned to Lucy.

'Bobbie Boulger has come down. He wants to see you. Please come at once.'

Lucy looked at him quickly. Sick with fear, she followed him into the drawing-room.

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