Flynn Patrick O’Flynn was an ivory poacher by profession, and modestly he admitted that he was the best on the east coast of Africa. Rachid El Keb was an exporter of precious stones, of women for the harems and great houses of Arabia and India, and of illicit ivory. This he admitted only to his trusted clients; to the rest he was a rich and respectable owner of coastal shipping.
In an afternoon during the monsoon of 1912, drawn together by their mutual interest in pachyderms, Flynn and Rachid sat in the back room of El Keb’s shop in the Arab quarter of Zanzibar, and drank tea from tiny brass thimbles. The hot tea made Flynn O’Flynn perspire even more than usual. It was so humid hot in the room that the flies sat in languid stupor upon the low ceiling.
‘Listen, Kebby, you lend me just one of those stinking little ships of yours and I’ll fill her so high with tusks, she’ll damn nigh sink.’
‘Ah!’ replied El Keb carefully, and went on waving the palm-leaf fan in his own face – a face that resembled that of a suspicious parrot with a straggly, goatee beard.
‘Have I ever let you down yet?’ Flynn demanded aggressively, and a drop of sweat fell from the tip of his nose onto his already damp shirt.
‘Ah!’ El Keb repeated.
‘This scheme has a flair. It has the touch of greatness to it. This scheme . . .’ Flynn paused to find a suitable adjective, ‘...this scheme is Napoleonic. It is Caesarian!’
‘Ah!’ El Keb said again, and refilled his tea cup. Lifting it delicately between thumb and forefinger, he sipped before speaking. ‘It is necessary only that I should risk the total destruction of a sixty-foot dhow worth . . .’ prudently he inflated the figure, ‘...two thousand English pounds?’
‘Against an almost certain recovery of twenty thousand,’ Flynn cut in quickly, and El Keb smiled a little, almost dreamily.
‘You’d put the profits so high?’ he asked.
‘That’s the lowest figure. Good God, Kebby! There hasn’t been a shot fired in the Rufiji basin for twenty years. You know damn well it’s the Kaiser’s private hunting reserve. The Jumbo are so thick in there I could round them up and drive them in like sheep.’ Involuntarily Flynn’s right forefinger crooked and twitched as though it were already curled around a trigger.
‘Madness,’ whispered El Keb, with the gold gloat softening the shape of his lips. ‘You’d sail into the Rufiji river from the sea, hoist the Union Jack on one of the islands in the delta and fill the dhow with German ivory. Madness.’
‘The Germans have formally annexed none of those islands. I’d be in and out again before Berlin had sent their first cable to London. With ten of my gun-boys hunting, we’d fill the dhow in two weeks.’
‘The Germans would have a gunboat there in a week. They’ve got the Blu¨cher lying at Dar es Salaam under steam, heavy cruiser with nine-inch guns.’
‘We’d be under protection of the British flag. They couldn’t dare touch us – not on the high seas – not with things the way they are now between England and Germany.’
‘Mr O’Flynn, I was led to believe you were a citizen of the United States of America.’
‘You damn right I am.’ Flynn sat up a little straighter, a little more proudly.
‘You’d need a British captain for the dhow,’ El Keb mused, and stroked his beard thoughtfully.
‘Jesus, Kebby, you didn’t think I was fool enough to sail that cow in myself?’ Flynn looked pained. ‘I’ll find someone else to do that, and to sail her out again through the Imperial German navy. Me, I’m going to walk in from my base camp in Portuguese Mozambique and go out the same way.’
‘Forgive me.’ El Keb smiled again. ‘I underestimated you.’ He stood up quickly. The splendour of the great jewelled dagger at his waist was somewhat spoiled by the unwashed white of his ankle-length robe. ‘Mr O’Flynn, I think I have just the man to captain your dhow for you. But first it is necessary to alter his financial circumstances so that he might be willing to accept employment.’
The leather purse of gold sovereigns had been the pivot on which the gentle confusion of Sebastian Oldsmith’s life turned. It had been presented to him by his father when Sebastian had announced to the family his intention of sailing to Australia to make his fortune in the wool trade. It had comforted him during the voyage from Liverpool to the Cape of Good Hope where the captain had unceremoniously deposited him after Sebastian’s misalliance with the daughter of the gentleman who was proceeding to Sydney to take up his appointment as Governor of New South Wales.
In gradually dwindling quantity the sovereigns had remained with him through the series of misfortunes that ended in Zanzibar, when he awoke from heat-drugged sleep in a shoddy room to find that the leather purse and its contents were gone, and with them were gone the letters of introduction from his father to certain prominent wool-brokers of Sydney.
It occurred to Sebastian as he sat on the edge of his bed that the letters had little real value in Zanzibar, and with increasing bewilderment, he reviewed the events that had blown him so far off his intended course. Slowly his forehead creased in the effort of thought. It was the high, intelligent forehead of a philosopher crowned by a splendid mass of shiny black curls; his eyes were dark brown, his nose long and straight, his jaw firm, and his mouth sensitive. In his twenty-second year, Sebastian had the face of a young Oxford don; which proves, perhaps, how misleading looks can be. Those who knew him well would have been surprised that Sebastian, in setting out for Australia, had come as close to it as Zanzibar.
Abandoning the mental exercise that was already giving him a slight headache, Sebastian stood up from the bed and, with the skirt of his nightshirt flapping around his calves, began his third minute search of the hotel room. Although the purse had been under his mattress when he went to sleep the preceding evening, this time Sebastian emptied the water jug and peered into it hopefully. He unpacked his valise and shook out each shirt. He crawled under the bed, lifted the coconut matting and probed every hole in the rotten flooring before giving way to despair.
Shaved, the bed-bug bites on his person anointed with saliva, and dressed in the grey three-piece suit which was showing signs of travel fatigue, he brushed his derby hat and placed it carefully over his curls, picked up his cane in one hand, and lugging his valise in the other, he went down the stairs into the hot noisy lobby of the Hotel Royal.
‘I say,’ he greeted the little Arab at the desk with the most cheerful smile he could muster. ‘I say, I seem to have lost my money.’
A silence fell upon the room. The waiters carrying trays out to the hotel veranda slowed and stopped, heads turned towards Sebastian with the same hostile curiosity as if he had announced that he was suffering from a mild attack of leprosy.
‘Stolen, I should imagine,’ Sebastian went on, grinning. ‘Nasty bit of luck, really.’
The silence exploded as the bead curtains from the office were thrown open and the Hindu proprietor erupted into the room with a loud cry of, ‘Mr Oldsmith, what about your bill?’
‘Oh, the bill. Yes, well, let’s not get excited. I mean, it won’t help, now, will it?’
And the proprietor proceeded to become very excited indeed. His cries of anguish and indignation carried to the veranda where a dozen persons were already beginning the daily fight against heat and thirst. They crowded into the lobby to watch with interest.
‘Ten days you owe. Nearly one hundred rupees.’
‘Yes, it’s jolly unfortunate, I know.’ Sebastian was grinning desperately, when a new voice added itself to the uproar.
‘Now just hold on a shake.’ Together Sebastian and the Hindu turned to the big red-faced, middle-aged man with the pleasantly mixed American and Irish accent. ‘Did I hear you called Mr Oldsmith?’
‘That is correct, sir.’ Sebastian knew instinctively that here was an ally.
‘An unusual name. You wouldn’t be related to Mister Francis Oldsmith, wool merchant of Liverpool, England?’ Flynn O’Flynn enquired politely. He had perused Sebastian’s letters of introduction passed on to him by Rachid El Keb.
‘Good Lord!’ Sebastian cried with joy. ‘Do you know my pater?’
‘Do I know Francis Oldsmith?’ Flynn laughed easily, and then checked himself. His acquaintance was limited to the letterheads. ‘Well, I don’t exactly know him person to person, you understand, but I think I can say I know of him. Used to be in the wool business myself once.’ Flynn turned genially to the hotel proprietor and breathed on him a mixture of gin fumes and good-fellowship. ‘One hundred rupees was the sum you mentioned.’
‘That’s the sum, Mr O’Flynn.’ The proprietor was easily soothed.
‘Mr Oldsmith and I will be having a drink on the veranda. You can bring the receipt to us there.’ Flynn placed two sovereigns on the counter; sovereigns that had so recently reposed beneath Sebastian’s mattress.
With his boots propped on the low veranda wall, Sebastian regarded the harbour over the rim of his glass. Sebastian was not a drinking man but in view of Flynn O’Flynn’s guardianship he could not be churlish and refuse hospitality. The number of craft in the bay suddenly multiplied miraculously before his eyes. Where a moment before one stubby little dhow had been tacking in through the entrance, there were now three identical boats sailing in formation. Sebastian closed one eye and by focusing determinedly, he reduced the three back to one. Mildly elated with his success, he turned his attention to his new friend and business partner who had pressed such large quantities of gin upon him.
‘Mr O’Flynn,’ he said with deliberation, slurring the words slightly.
‘Forget that mister, Bassie, call me Flynn. Just plain Flynn, the same as in gin.’
‘Flynn,’ said Sebastian. ‘There isn’t anything – well, there isn’t anything funny about this?’
‘How do you mean funny, boy?’
‘I mean’ – and Sebastian blushed slightly. ‘There isn’t anything illegal, is there?’
‘Bassie.’ Flynn shook his head sorrowfully. ‘What do you take me for, Bassie? You think I’m a crook or something, boy?’
‘Oh, no, of course not, Flynn,’ and Sebastian blushed a shade deeper. ‘I just thought – well, all these elephants we’re going to shoot. They must belong to somebody. Aren’t they German elephants?’
‘Bassie, I want to show you something.’ Flynn set down his glass and groping in the inside pocket of his wilted tropical suit, he produced an envelope. ‘Read that, boy!’
The address at the head of the sheet of cheap notepaper was ‘The Kaiserhof. Berlin. Dated June 10, 1912’, and the body of the letter read:
Dear Mr Flynn O’Flynn,
I am worried about all those elephants down in the Rufiji basin eating up all the grass and smashing up all the trees and things, so if you’ve got time, would you go down there and shoot some of them as they’re eating up all the grass and smashing up all the trees and things.
Kaiser Willem III.
Emperor of Germany.
A vague uneasiness formed through the clouds of gin in Sebastian’s skull. ‘Why did he write to you?’
‘Because he knows I’m the best goddamned elephant hunter in the world.’
‘You’d expect him to use better English, wouldn’t you?’ Sebastian murmured.
‘What’s wrong with his English?’ Flynn demanded truculently. He had spent some time in composing the letter.
‘Well, I mean that bit about eating up all the grass – he said that twice.’
‘Well, you got to remember he’s a German. They don’t write English too good.’
‘Of course! I hadn’t thought of that.’ Sebastian looked relieved and lifted his glass. ‘Well, good hunting!’
‘I’ll drink to that,’ and Flynn emptied his glass.
Sebastian stood with both hands gripping the wooden rail of the dhow and stared out across a dozen miles of water at the loom of the African mainland. The monsoon wind had ruffled the sea to a dark indigo and it flipped spray from the white-caps into Sebastian’s face. Overlaying the clean salt of the ocean was the taint of the mangrove swamps, an evil smell as though an animal had died in its own cage. Sebastian sniffed it with distaste as he searched the low, green line of the coast for the entrance to the maze of the Rufiji delta.
Frowning, he tried to reconstruct the Admiralty chart in his mind. The Rufiji river came to the sea through a dozen channels spread over forty miles, and in doing so, carved fifty, maybe a hundred, islands out of the mainland.
Tidal water washed fifteen miles upstream, past the mangroves to where the vast grass swampland began. It was there in the swampland that the elephant herds had taken shelter from the guns and arrows of the ivory hunters, protected by Imperial decree and by a formidable terrain.
The murderous-looking ruffian who captained the dhow uttered a string of sing-song orders, and Sebastian turned to watch the complicated manoeuvre of tacking the ungainly craft. Half-naked seamen dropped out of the rigging like over-ripe brown fruit and swarmed around the sixty-foot teak boom. Bare feet padding on the filthy deck, they ran the boom back and forward again. The dhow creaked like an old man with arthritis, came round wearily on to the wind, and butted its nose in towards the land. The new motion, combined with the swamp smell and the smell of freshly-stirred bilges, moved something deep within Sebastian. His grip upon the rail increased, and new sweat popped out like little blisters on his brow. He leaned forward, and, to shouts of encouragement from the crew, made another sacrifice to the sea gods. He was still draped worshipfully across the rail as the dhow wallowed and slid in the turbulent waters of the entrance, and then passed into the calm of the southernmost channel of the Rufiji basin.
Four days later, Sebastian sat cross-legged with the dhow captain on a thick Bokhara carpet spread upon the deck, and they explained to each other in sign language that neither of them had the vaguest idea where they were. The dhow was anchored in a narrow water-way hemmed in by the twisted and deformed trunks of the mangroves. The sensation of being lost was not new to Sebastian and he accepted it with resignation, but the dhow captain, who could run from Aden to Calcutta and back to Zanzibar with the certainty of a man visiting his own outhouse, was not so stoical. He lifted his eyes to the heavens and called upon Allah to intercede with the djinn who guarded this stinking labyrinth, who made the waters flow in strange, unnatural ways, who changed the shape of each island, and thrust mud banks in their path. Driven on by his own eloquence, he leapt to the rail and screamed defiance into the brooding mangroves until flocks of ibis rose and milled in the heat mists above the dhow. Then he flung himself down on the carpet and fixed Sebastian with a stare of sullen malevolence.
‘It’s not really my fault, you know.’ Sebastian wriggled with embarrassment under the stare. Then once again he produced his Admiralty chart, spread it on the deck, and placed his finger on the island which Flynn O’Flynn had ringed in blue pencil as the rendezvous. ‘I mean, it is rather your cup of tea, finding the place. After all, you are the navigator, aren’t you?’
The captain spat fiercely on his deck, and Sebastian flushed.
‘Now that sort of thing isn’t going to get us anywhere. Let’s try and behave like gentlemen.’
This time the captain hawked it up from deep down in his throat and spat a lump of yellow phlegm into the blue pencil circle on Sebastian’s map, then he rose to his feet and stalked away to where his crew squatted in a group under the poop.
In the short dusk, while the mosquitoes whined in a thin mist about Sebastian’s head, he listened to the Arabic muttering and saw the glances that were directed at him down the length of the dhow. So when the night closed over the ship like a bank of black steam, he took up a defensive position on the foredeck and waited for them to come. As a weapon he had his cane of solid ebony. He laid it across his lap and sat against the rail until the darkness was complete, then, silently, he changed his position and crouched beside one of the water barrels that was lashed to the base of the mast.
They were a long time coming. Half the night had wasted away before he heard the stealthy scuff of bare feet on the planking. The absolute blackness of the night was filled with the din of the swamp; the boom and tonk of frogs, the muted buzz of insects and the occasional snort and splash of a hippo, so that Sebastian had difficulty in deciding how many they had sent against him. Crouching by the water barrel he strained his eyes unavailingly into the utter blackness and tuned his hearing to filter out the swamp noises and catch only those soft little sounds that death made as it came down the deck towards him.
Although Sebastian had never scaled any academic heights, he had boxed light heavyweight for Rugby, and fast-bowled for Sussex the previous cricket season when he had led the county bowling averages. So, although he was afraid now, Sebastian had a sublime confidence in his own physical prowess and it was not the kind of fear that filled his belly with oily warmth, nor turned his ego to jelly, but rather, it keyed him to a point where every muscle in his body quivered on the edge of exploding. Crouching in the night he groped for the cane that he had laid on the deck beside him. His hands fell on the bulky sackful of green coconuts that made up part of the dhow’s deck cargo. They were carried to supplement, with their milk, the meagre supply of fresh water on board. Quickly Sebastian tore open the fastenings of the sack and hefted one of the hard round fruits.
‘Not quite as handy as a cricket ball, but–’ murmured Sebastian and came to his feet. Using the short run up he delivered the fast ball with which he had shattered the Yorkshire first innings the previous year. It had the same effect on the Arab first innings. The coconut whirred and cracked against the skull of one of the approaching assassins and the rest retired in confusion.
‘Now send the men,’ roared Sebastian and bowled a short lifter that hastened the retreat.
He selected another coconut and was about to deliver that also when there was a flash and a report from aft, and something howled over Sebastian’s head. Hastily he ducked behind the sack of coconuts.
‘My God, they’ve got a gun up there!’ Sebastian remembered then the ancient muzzle-loading Jezail he had seen the captain polishing lovingly on their first day out from Zanzibar, and he felt his anger rising in earnest.
He jumped to his feet and hurled his next coconut with fury.
‘Fight fair, you dirty swine!’ he yelled.
There was a delay while the dhow captain went through the complicated process of loading his piece. Then a cannon report, a burst of flame, and another potleg howled over Sebastian’s head.
Through the dark hours before dawn the lively exchange of jeers and curses, of coconuts and potlegs continued. Sebastian more than held his own for he scored four howls of pain and a yelp, while the dhow captain succeeded only in shooting away a great deal of his own standing rigging. But as the light of the new day increased, so Sebastian’s advantage waned. The Arab captain’s shooting improved to such an extent that Sebastian spent most of his time crouching behind the sack of coconuts. Sebastian was nearly exhausted. His right arm and shoulder ached unmercifully, and he could hear the first stealthy advance of the Arab crew as they crept down towards his hide. In daylight they could surround him and use their numbers to drag him down.
While he rested for the final effort, Sebastian looked out at the morning. It was a red dawn, angry and beautiful through the swamp mists so the water glowed with a pink sheen and the mangroves stood very dark around the ship.
Something splashed farther up the channel, a water bird perhaps. Sebastian looked for it without interest, and heard it splash again and then again. He stirred and sat up a little straighter. The sound was too regular for that of a bird or a fish.
Then around the bend in the channel, from behind the wall of mangroves, driven on by urgent paddles, shot a dugout canoe. Standing in the bow with a double-barrelled elephant gun under his arm and a clay pipe sticking out of his red face, was Flynn O’Flynn.
‘What the hell’s going on here?’ he roared. ‘Are you fighting a goddamned war? I’ve been waiting a week for you lot!’
‘Look out, Flynn!’ Sebastian yelled a warning. ‘That swine has got a gun!’
The Arab captain had jumped to his feet and was looking around uncertainly. Long ago he had regretted his impulse to rid himself of the Englishman and escape from this evil swamp, and now his misgivings were truly justified. Having committed himself, however, there was only one course open to him. He lifted the Jezail to his shoulder and aimed at O’Flynn in the canoe. The discharge blew a long grey spurt of powder from the muzzle, and the potleg lifted a burst of spray from the surface of the water beyond the canoe. The echoes of the shot were drowned by the bellow of O’Flynn’s rifle. He fired without moving the pipe from his mouth and the narrow dug-out rocked dangerously with the recoil.
The heavy bullet picked up the Arab captain’s scrawny body, his robe fluttered like a piece of old paper and his turban flew from his head and unwound in mid-air as he was flung clear of the rail to drop with a tall splash alongside. He floated face down, trapped air ballooning his robe about him and then he drifted away slowly on the sluggish current. His crew, stunned and silent, stood by the rail and watched him depart.
Dismissing the neat execution as though it had never happened, O’Flynn glared up at Sebastian and roared, ‘You’re a week late. I haven’t been able to do a goddamned thing until you got here. Now let’s get the flag up and start doing some work!’