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Authors: Wilbur Smith

A Falcon Flies

BOOK: A Falcon Flies
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This book is for my wife and the jewel
of my life, Mokhiniso, with all my love
and gratitude for the enchanted years
that I have been married to her
1860

A
frica 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.'

BOOK: A Falcon Flies
2.81Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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