First published in Resurrection Engines, an anthology of Scientific Romance published by Snowbooks, and edited by Scott Harrison.
We were invited to write a steampunk take on a classic of Victorian/Edwardian literature. I decided it was time for a Suffragette take on H. Rider Haggard.
A Tale of Modern Women in the Dark Continent
My beloved aunt, Phyllis Charteris, has received none of the plaudits lavished on the laurel-garlanded heroes who explore the remote heart of Africa. The Royal Geographic Society might deign to acknowledge Mary Kingsley after the success of her publication, ‘Travels in West Africa’ but there is not one quarter-inch of a newspaper column recording my aunt’s achievements.
Such injustice has galled me ever since my return from the trackless swamps of the upper Zambesi. However I was sworn to secrecy for reasons which this narrative will soon explain.
Now Mr H Rider Haggard has published the reminiscences of his Cambridge acquaintance sheltering beneath the pseudonym “Horace Holly”. Consequently I am free to share my aunt’s achievements with the world.
But I am outstripping my story’s proper order. Our family’s ties with the Cape Colony were first established by my grandfather’s brothers, both mining engineers. When my brother Eustace took up a position with Lloyds Bank in Cape Town, I had recently concluded my studies at Somerville Hall in Oxford. I decided to go with him as his housekeeper but in hopes that this outpost of Empire might offer more opportunities for educated women than dismissing us as mere blue-stockings.
I had no notion of how wondrously my hopes would be fulfilled.
Naturally I was mindful of following in Aunt Phyllis’s footsteps. She had travelled out to marry a dear friend of one of her cousins, met when both young men returned home for their university education. Alas, her fiancé succumbed to malaria while she was on board ship. Declining to return to England, she joined her uncle’s household as governess to his younger children.
Family lore relates that Phyllis found herself ill-suited to such domesticity. When the ruins of Great Zimbabwe were discovered, she insisted on inspecting these wondrous remnants of lost civilisation for herself.
That was the last heard of her for over two decades. Now I am able to take up her story and a marvellous tale it is.
We established ourselves comfortably in the Cape. Eustace applied himself diligently to his trade while I kept house and we enjoyed such polite society as the colony offered. My brother’s superior at the bank proved to be a keen historian of the region, eager to learn every detail of our family’s dealings in Africa. After eighteen months of exemplary service from Eustace, he granted my brother an extended leave of absence to visit the long-lost cities of Mashonaland, fondly believing that we both shared his fascination with these primitive civilisations.
In truth, Eustace and I were resolved search out any hint of our mysterious aunt’s fate. What we found proved more astonishing than our most extravagant imagining.
Though our initial discoveries were not promising. On our arrival at the ruins, we discovered a score of pompous antiquarians engaged in debates as to whether the Queen of Sheba, the Phoenicians or the Arabs had erected these aedifices. None recalled our aunt or any mention of her by their predecessors.
Eustace and I broadened our enquiries; ensuring word of our quest was carried to the local tribes with the promise of modest reward for reliable information. Still, alas, no news was forthcoming.
We were ready to despair when a visitor sought out our tent. Major Tobias, formerly of the Royal Engineers, proved to be a bronzed, sharp-eyed Africa-hand fit for any adventure. Knowing this area and its peoples intimately, he had discovered several aged natives who recalled our aunt’s arrival with convincing detail.
Major Tobias escorted us to their humble, hospitable encampment. These brethren, more courteous than any London clubmen for all their animal hide garments, told us that Aunt Phyllis had indeed been visiting Great Zimbabwe when the antiquarians’ received word of still more fabulous cities lost beyond the marshlands of uppermost Zambesi.
Those scholarly gentry had quailed at the thought of such hostile lands. Then as now, those marshes teem with the continent’s most dangerous animals along with blood-curdling tales of cannibal natives.
Aunt Phyllis scorned such lily-livered vapours, declaring that she no more believed in anthropophagi than in one of Herodotus’s rocs swooping down to carry off an elephant.
Wild beasts did not deter her. With no interest in game hunting, she spurned the notion of laboriously traversing the wilds on foot in hopes of bagging some trophy. Instead she hired a steam launch captained by a youthful American adventurer named Allnutt. Equipped with the latest comforts and conveniences, she ventured into the unknown.
‘What did she discover?’ Eustace asked hopefully.
Alas, our genial ebony-skinned hosts exchanged doubtful looks and still more dubious murmurs.
‘They have no more to tell you.’ Major Tobias lit a contemplative cheroot; its fragrance warding off the night’s biting insects. ‘Though that might be significant. If a steam launch had come to grief in any of the main channels, we might have expected some wreckage to have washed downstream after twenty years of annual floods.’
My heart warmed to hear his words espousing our cause. ‘Do you think we might learn more, if we traced her steps? Do these gentlemen know anything of her intended route?’
As Tobias asked, I saw the aged tribesmen nod and smile. My spirits rose further.
Eustace still looked troubled. ‘Every European swears those marshes are a death trap. We could sink in the same mire as Aunt Phyllis never to be seen again.’
Tobias showed fine white teeth in a confident smile. ‘I have returned safe from exploring several tributaries cutting across that sodden plain. Aye and heard rumour of these self-same cities which your aunt sought. I believe they are there for the finding.’
‘And how might we communicate with anyone in that region?’ Eustace demanded stubbornly. ‘We have no notion of their language.’
Tobias was undaunted ‘From what these gentlemen say, these lost tribes have a passing acquaintance with Arabic. I learned enough to get by in the Sudan.’
‘What would you rather show your colleagues at the bank, Eustace?’ I urged. ‘Sketches of dusty scholars scraping at these ruins or the first drawings of a realm forgotten by history for centuries?’
No man’s weaknesses are a mystery to his sister. I could see that prospect tantalized my brother. Indeed, I could not think of anyone better suited to recording such a find. Had circumstance allowed, Eustace’s paintings would have graced the Royal Academy.
‘We could voyage some way upstream,’ he allowed. ‘We might learn more of her fate.’
‘We might return with discoveries to make all our fortunes.’ Tobias drew on his cheroot, dark eyes glinting beneath his saturnine brow.
Following Aunt Phyllis’s example before us, we lost no time in securing a steam launch. Major Tobias assured us he could manage both the engine’s operation and the river’s navigation. He also undertook to outfit the vessel with all necessary appurtenances and provisions. As we boarded a few days later, I also noted reassuring evidence of a military man’s prudence; a stack of gun and ammunition cases.
Eustace was didn’t notice any such things. He was too busy gaping wide-eyed at me. I matched him stare for stare.
‘You surely didn’t imagine that I would venture into the wilderness in skirts and petticoats?’
‘What—?’ He was still lost for words.
‘It is a bicycling suit.’
I fancy my grey Norfolk flannel attire was the first of its kind to be tailored in Africa. My Cape Colony dressmaker had never heard of such a thing but when I showed her the fashion plates I had obtained from the Rational Dress Society in London, she willingly set to with shears and needle.
She and I were both well satisfied with the results. The bodice was no different from any other in my wardrobe while the bloomer trousers were sufficiently full-cut to pass for a skirt at first glance. If they gathered below the knee rather than falling to my ankle as a skirt would, my lower legs were decently clad in cotton stockings, canvas spats and sturdy shoes.
‘You seem to have mislaid your bicycle, Miss Charteris.’ Major Tobias’s chuckle cut Eustace’s protest short, more amused than censorious. ‘Now,’ he continued briskly, ‘let’s get underway.’
Eustace climbed aboard the launch without further complaint. Perhaps he had realised that with my broad brimmed hat and a veil proof against insects, I was better dressed for hazards ahead than he was.
Not that we faced any undue hardship on our initial journey up the lazily curving river, overhung with fever trees. Eustace filled his sketch book with depictions of crocodiles, hippopotami, roan waterbuck with great curving horns and a myriad different species of waterfowl. The closest we came to the continent’s most fearsome predator was hearing a lion’s roar in the distance as we made fast to the bank one evening. We had reached a vast expanse of swamp bounded on the far horizon by the distant cones of long-extinct volcanoes.
I shivered despite the heat. It was a blood curdling sound.
‘The roaring lion catches no game. That’s what the Baganda say.’ Tobias was readying his gun before venturing ashore to shoot a bird for the spit. He had proven himself a crack shot.
‘Then we won’t hear any warning should such a beast be hunting us?’ I was hardly reassured.
‘I say.’ Sitting in the prow, Eustace turned to us before Tobias could answer. ‘Does that look like a natural bank to you?’
He had been sketching what we took for a sluggish stream entering the river, picturesquely choked with water-lilies, some white, some blue.
‘That is stonework under those creepers.’ Eustace pointed with an insistent pencil. ‘That is a canal.’
‘I believe you’re right.’ As I agreed, Tobias grunted his assent.
I looked from Eustace to the major and back again. ‘That must be a sign of the lost city which Aunt Phyllis sought.’
‘I believe you’re right.’ Tobias echoed my words with a grin.
‘We must see where the waterway leads.’ Eustace was already stowing away his drawing equipment. ‘I’ll reawaken the boiler.’
Our grandfather’s mechanical aptitude had become evident in my brother on this journey, giving the lie to those who would argue such talents cannot coexist with an artistic temperament.
‘Not before morning.’ Tobias’s tone brooked no argument. ‘It will soon be night and we have no notion how far that channel may be navigable.’
‘We want to get back safely,’ I reminded my mutinous brother, patting the varnished gunwale of our loyal craft. ‘We dare not hole her on some submerged log in the darkness.’
Thus we dined on fresh-killed waterfowl roasted over a small fire and later I settled to sleep in the stern of the launch. Eustace took the first watch from the prow, anchored hard against the bank. Tobias slept beside him to wake refreshed at midnight.
Then in the small hours of the morning, I woke to feel a hand on my shoulder. As I struggled to shrug off the shrouds of sleep, fingers slid across my mouth. A scream swelled in my throat before I recognised the reassuring scent of Tobias’s tobacco and realised he was counselling me to silence.
His moustache tickled my ear as he leaned down to whisper. ‘Natives are approaching.’
I sat up, grateful that I had merely loosened my clothing for sleep rather than undress. ‘Eustace?’ Looking up at Tobias in the eerie African moonlight, I mouthed my brother’s name rather than speak it.
The major reassured me with a nod towards the prow and a smile. He offered me his hand and we made our way forward.
I could see faint movement amid the dense foliage on the canal’s bank. Moonlight struck cold flashes of steel from spears held by shadowy figures. I swallowed to find my mouth dry with apprehension. Glancing at Tobias, I saw he had his rifle ready while Eustace grasped the revolvers with which he had become proficient during his time in the Cape.
A voice hailed us from the darkness. ‘Hello the boat.’
We looked at each other, astonished. The speaker’s words were unmistakably English, although with the accents of some souk at the opposite end of this continent.
‘Hello ashore,’ Tobias replied cautiously.
‘We wish you no harm,’ the voice promised, ‘but there are those close at hand who would kill you. You must head back downstream at once.’
‘Are they sincere?’ Eustace hissed at Tobias.
‘They’re not sticking us with those lion spears.’ The major shrugged before replying to the unseen speaker. ‘We are well-armed.’
‘But you are only three and all too easily overwhelmed,’ our interlocutor insisted, ‘once your bullets are spent.’
‘What do you know of bullets?’ Eustace asked before Tobias could speak.
‘How do you speak such fluent English?’ That was my most urgent question.
On reaching the Cape we had soon learned the folly of the insular Briton’s conviction that all natives can be induced to understand, if the mother tongue of Empire is spoken at sufficient volume.
My words prompted a veritable commotion ashore. The unseen leader silenced his companions with a curt command in some African language. He stepped forward onto the stones edging the canal.
‘Madam who speaks,’ he asked breathlessly, ‘what is your name?’
I looked to Eustace and Tobias for guidance only to see them as much at a loss as myself. Unable to see how an honest answer could hurt us, I replied.
Fresh excitement erupted amid the shadows.
‘Charteris!’ ‘Charteris!’ ‘Charteris!’
The natives repeated our name time and again, their voices like wind rushing through reeds.
‘I am Eustace Charteris. What is that to you?’
My brother’s challenge rang through the night, even if it sounded more suited to the playing fields of Wyrkyn than remotest Africa.
As the native leader took another step, Tobias lit a lantern. Its glow revealed a tall African, strongly built and lighter in colour than those living near Great Zimbabwe. He wore a leopard skin cloak and to our astonishment, short trousers and a cotton shirt.
‘Are you related to Miss Phyllis Charteris?’
I was ready to wake and find this all a dream. Such an exchange belonged to the river bank at Henley Regatta not this muddy wilderness.
Eustace found his voice. ‘We are her nephew and niece.’
‘Then you are most welcome,’ the cotton-clad African said fervently. ‘But you are still in grave danger—’
‘Don’t think we’ll be leaving before you tell us what you know of our aunt!’
I strove to ameliorate my brother’s brusqueness. ‘May I ask your name, sir?’
‘I am Bartholomew.’ The African ducked his head for want of a hat to tip to me. ‘But you must leave with us. There are tribes in these marshes who will seize any stranger—’
‘While you prefer to persuade us to walk to your cooking pots?’ Tobias hefted his rifle.
Bartholomew astonished us all with a laugh. ‘We have forsworn such barbarism thanks to Miss Charteris.’
‘When did she come to your tribe,’ Tobias demanded, still wary, ‘and in what manner?’
As Bartholomew replied with swift urgency, the major looked to myself and Eustace. Our nods confirmed that the African’s account agreed with what we knew of our lost aunt’s history.
‘Please,’ Bartholomew urged as he concluded, ‘let us take you to safety and to Miss Charteris.’
‘She is still alive?’ Only now did I realise that was an unlooked-for marvel.
‘Very much alive,’ Bartholomew promised. ‘But we must leave before we are discovered. Come ashore, I beg you!’
Eustace rose but Tobias barred his way with the gun’s barrel. ‘If our route lies along this canal, we will bring the boat. If there are hostile tribes at hand, we will travel faster and more safely by water.’
‘We will bring your boat,’ Bartholomew assured him, ‘but we can carry you to Miss Charteris with our own far swifter vessel.’
‘Are we game?’ Tobias looked at me and at Eustace. ‘Shall we trust in this fellow’s good faith?’
‘It’s that or turn tail.’ I was convinced of Bartholomew’s sincerity.
As it turned out, so was Eustace. ‘Right ho.’
It was not till much later that I thought to ask my brother and Tobias if they had expected another boat, when Bartholomew spoke of a vessel. Indeed they had, and their astonishment equalled my own when they saw the conveyance awaiting us. But once again, I am anticipating myself.
Once we had got ashore, a party of Africans clad like Bartholomew took charge of our steam launch, stirring the boiler to life with admirable efficiency.
Bartholomew led us a short distance from the canal to an expanse of solid ground rising from the foetid marsh. A great grey shape loomed out of the darkness, surrounded by tiny figures. Then I realised my eyes were deceiving me. Those were fully grown men.
Eustace pulled up so short that I stepped on his heels. ‘What is—?’
‘An aerostat?’ For the first time, I heard Major Tobias at a loss.
A gang of Africans were hanging onto ropes restraining a vast balloon. A long basket slung beneath it had an engine at one end and the night breeze carried the distinctive odour of the coal gas inflating it.
Bartholomew gestured proudly towards the dirigible. ‘We sail right over the heads of our enemies while they flounder in the marshes.’
Urgent shouts interrupted my question.
‘We have been seen!’
There was no mistaking Bartholomew’s fear.
We ran for the basket as the Africans let out their ropes. Barely had we scrambled aboard before those on the ground loosed their hold and melted into the undergrowth.
As the great airship soared upwards, I glimpsed new arrivals racing into the clearing below. They waved ferocious spears as moonlight glistened on their flesh, bare but for knotted loincloths. Vicious cries rose into the night.
‘What—?’ Eustace turned towards the stern of this remarkable vessel as the unmistakable force of propulsion drove a fresh breeze into our faces.
I expected to hear a sound akin to our steam launch’s motor. Instead the device driving the propeller emitted something between a purr and a whine. This balloon was no plaything of the winds but their unquestioned mistress.
Another African wearing a leopard skin over his clothing was in charge of this curious engine. We were soon to realise such a pelt was a particular badge of honour.
He had seen Eustace’s wide-eyed interest. ‘Batteries,’ he said succinctly. ‘Electric motor.’
I could see Eustace was full of questions. Like me however, he swallowed his curiosity for the present, preferring to secure a firm hold of the sturdily woven basket’s rail.
‘Astonishing.’ Tobias gazed around before a noise drew his attention at the prow.
A dusky crewman stood behind a signal lantern such as the Royal Navy favour, working its shutters with swift efficiency. Glimmers from a distant hill replied.
‘Miss Charteris will know to expect us?’ Tobias queried.
Bartholomew nodded. ‘The telegraph will carry a message from that ground station.’
‘Telegraph?’ Eustace couldn’t resist an exclamation.
Bartholomew nodded again. ‘Miss Charteris told us of it—’
Tobias laughed. ‘Your aunt has brought more useful knowledge to these shores than the missionary brethren.’
‘But they have devices unheard of in England,’ Eustace objected.
He indicated our vessel’s engineer. The African held what appeared to be a lantern until he wound a handle on one side. Its lens glowed with a strange brilliance owing nothing to oil or candle.
‘Clockwork,’ our laconic engineer explained.
We could only exchange glances of silent wonder, and hope that such mysteries would be clarified.
Meanwhile our softly humming craft forged onwards over the vast marsh towards the volcanic hills. At first we could see bright fires below in the darkness, betokening camps or villages. Soon such glints receded to pinpricks and I shivered in the cold of the airship’s ascent.
‘Here.’ Tobias wrapped a length of thick cotton cloth around my shoulders. I confess I found his closeness as much a comfort as the warm blanket.
‘Is this where you live?’ Eustace was intent on the view ahead. ‘Inside this natural fortress?’
Bartholomew spoke briefly to the signal lamp’s operator. The youth sent eloquent gleams to the ground below before our newfound guide explained.
‘All the Amahagger peoples dwell in such strongholds. There have been generations of warfare between our tribes. But we have risen above such destructive rivalry. We are no longer in thrall to She-who-must-be-obeyed.’
‘We are guided by She-who-thinks-for-herself!’
At this declaration from our hitherto monosyllabic engineer, every African aboard the fantastical vessel cheered aloud.
‘Oh!’ Sudden descent into the dead crater took me unawares. Before I could decide to drop the blanket to seize the rail with both hands, Major Tobias’s strong arms bracketed me.
Thanks to this unexpected proximity, I realised he had stowed a revolver in a trouser pocket. Grateful as I was for such forethought, I was beginning to hope such defences would prove unnecessary.
‘Do you suppose that’s a natural breach or did they mine out an entrance?’ Eustace was studying a narrow cleft in the crater wall, silhouetted against the night sky.
‘Those who came before us, who built the ancient city of Kor, shaped these rocks,’ Bartholomew replied.
‘So there is a lost realm in these marshes.’ Tobias’s whiskers tickled my ear once again.
‘A place of many marvels.’ But Bartholomew’s tone darkened. ‘Forbidden to us by the selfishness of She-who-must-be-obeyed and the savagery of those whom she has enslaved.’
Tobias’s arms tightened comfortingly around me as I shivered, this time at the thought of what might have transpired if those hostile tribesmen had been the first to espy our launch.
More immediate dangers became apparent. The breath froze in my throat as the boards beneath our feet tilted this way and that. The airship finally landed with a jolt which startled an oath from Eustace that our nurse would have punished with a mouthful of carbolic soap. I was too relieved to have made landfall to remonstrate.
‘This way, if you please.’
Bartholomew opened a wicker gate in the basket’s side as two Africans brought a gangplank to ease our descent.
Whirring all around us heralded a constellation of those clockwork lamps. As Eustace and I set foot on the fragrant turf, a susurration of wonder rose from the assembled natives.
‘Charteris…’ ‘Charteris…’ ‘Charteris…’
Bartholomew led us through the throng towards a doorway carved in the volcanic rock. A winding passage branched into further tunnels and caverns but this was far from some ominous gloomy labyrinth. Gas lighting put shadow and superstition alike to flight.
With a crowd of Africans following us, we could not pause to study the rooms which we passed. From the scant glimpses I snatched this was a hive of industry. Belt driven looms and all manner of other machines stood idle while their operators enjoyed their night’s rest. Well-earned rest, judging by the products of their labours piled high in baskets. Cloth in one cave, lathe-turned wooden bowls in the next, brass cogs and similar mechanical constituents in those that followed.
Some caverns boasted long tables carved from the very rock. These were laid out with microscopes and finely pointed tools alongside what looked like the constituent parts of my music box at home. Other doorways revealed intricate assemblages of glass flasks and pipes, copper bowls and burners while the slowly stirring air was flavoured with a chemical tang.
At the end of a long corridor, Bartholomew threw open a neatly fitted door. ‘She-who-thinks-for-herself!’
A grey-haired English woman sat at an elegant writing desk where a telegraph machine chattered. A chesterfield for more easeful repose stood beside a bookcase filled with leather bound tomes while a dining table stood framed with four chairs opposite. Carpets reminiscent of oriental design softened both the floor and the rough-hewn rock walls and a further door stood ajar, revealing the corner of a canopied bed.
She looked up from the strip of paper spooling across her fingers and smiled at us both before studying Eustace with frank amusement.
‘No one could deny you for a Charteris. You are the living image of my brother William.’
For my part I was dumbstruck by the vision of what I might expect in my looking glass several decades hence.
‘You must be Hilda.’ Phyllis rose to offer me her hand. She paused to study my bicycling suit before nodding with approval. ‘You must let me take a pattern from such eminently practical garments.’
‘Of course.’ I studied our aunt’s dress in turn. As old-fashioned as the cut was, the cloth was as well-finished as anything from Bond Street.
Aunt Phyllis smiled. ‘You thought to find me in animal skins?’
Eustace was gaping at the remarkable room. ‘We never thought to find anything like this.’
‘Who is your companion?’ Our aunt turned her steely gaze on the third member of our party.
‘Major Vincent Tobias.’ He offered a brief bow. ‘We came in hopes of effecting a rescue, madam, but that seems entirely superfluous.’
‘Indeed,’ Phyllis said crisply. ‘Hilda, I do hope you won’t be missish and I will explain in due course, but you will need to kiss Major Tobias to avoid unhelpful complications during your visit.’
I stared at her. ‘I—’
‘By your leave.’ Tobias slid an arm around my waist, drew me close and obeyed our aunt’s instruction.
His fervour indicated he’d long been contemplating such an intimate embrace. I confess he wasn’t alone.
‘I say!’ Eustace protested.
‘You will need to be quick on your feet, my boy,’ Phyllis warned him. ‘Among the Amahagger a girl can lay claim to any man with such a kiss. Then he’s honour bound to satisfy her until she tires of him. We need no such complications for you.’
As Eustace blushed to the roots of his hair, she turned to me. ‘Has there been any further reform of the franchise and parliamentary elections in England? What of married women’s property rights?’
‘There has been some progress.’ I was still struggling to regain my composure after Tobias’s kiss.
‘Not much, I’ll wager.’ Aunt Phyllis shook her head. ‘Among the Amahagger, men and women live on terms of perfect equality and free of the shackles of marriage. Yet the Europeans have the temerity to call Africans savages.’
‘But Bartholomew spoke of slaves among these tribes.’ I wriggled free of Tobias’s arm with a look to warn him against making any unwarranted assumptions until I had decided what I wanted of him.
‘He spoke of threats of violence from She-who-must-be-obeyed.’
The major’s words prompted a hum of consternation among the Africans clustered in the doorway.
‘I will explain,’ Aunt Phyllis assured him. ‘But you must be famished. Bartholomew, kindly ask Cook to serve supper.’
Once again the incongruity of her words and our situation rendered me speechless. Shortly afterwards we were all too busily engaged in eating for conversation. Aunt Phyllis had dined earlier so she regaled us with her own adventures while we satisfied our hunger.
As Eustace had surmised, her launch had become stuck fast in the trackless marshes. As Mr Allnut laboured to free the vessel, a party of Amahagger tribesmen happened upon them. The natives were fleeing one of those murderous battles of which Bartholomew had spoken.
These noble savages refused to leave my aunt and her companion to the mercies of the cannibals pursuing them, though it was only much later when she had learned something of their tongue that my aunt truly understood the peril she had faced. At the time she feared the worst was to befall her.
Arriving at this crater unmolested however, an elder proved to have some knowledge of an African language familiar to Mr Allnutt. It was soon agreed that the young American would strike northwards in hope of returning with aid, both for my aunt and for this beleaguered Amahagger tribe. He would assuredly travel faster alone and for all its perils, this rock-girt sanctuary seemed the safest haven she could hope for.
Alas, Mr Allnutt was never seen nor heard from again. As the weeks of his absence lengthened to months my aunt was forced to conclude she was now all alone in this wilderness.
‘Yet you have civilized these people most wonderfully.’ Eustace looked up from his potted meat to marvel at the room’s comforts.
Aunt Phyllis fixed him with an acerbic gaze. ‘You cannot imagine that these men and women are perfectly capable of doing all this for themselves? You agree with those arrogant fools who regard the African as some species of unfinished European, as if by the same logic, a rabbit is some species of unfinished hare? A pony an unfinished horse? Rather than people perfectly fitted by nature for this region and as capable of learning and invention as men and woman of any complexion?’
She looked around the chamber. ‘I told them of my life in England and as I explained, they were inspired to discover how they might enjoy such conveniences for themselves. They had Mr Allnutt’s steam launch to investigate and dismantle as well as all our other equipment and my own possessions. While I had no direct knowledge of a telegraph’s mechanisms or of automata or electric motors, once I had described such a thing, the brightest intellects among the Amahagger soon fathomed their mysteries. This region is rich in metal and coal to fuel their advances.
‘Do not think these tribes will stand helplessly by,’ she advised Eustace caustically, ‘while Europeans plunder their natural wealth.’
‘Please,’ I intervened to save my poor brother from undeserved rebuke, ‘go on with your story.’
‘I will allow—’ our aunt moderated her tone somewhat ‘— when I first arrived, these Amahagger were living in a state of primitive superstition. They clothed themselves in skins and in the linen wrappings stripped from the mummies for whom the ancient inhabitants of Kor had fashioned these catacombs. Their race was devastated by successive plagues, leaving the craters empty until the Amahagger abandoned their nomadic ways and settled here.
‘They even burned those long-dead bodies as torches for want of anything better.’ She shook her head as though astonished by her own recollection before continuing with a combative glint in her eye. ‘Once I had learned the local tongue though, I discovered why these tribes were so primitive compared to those further south. The fault lay with the tyrant queen who ruled them all.’
‘She-who-must-be-obeyed.’ Major Tobias’s murmur prompted a fresh shiver of unease around the door.
Aunt Phyllis tsked with exasperation. ‘I left England infuriated by the way men consider the cleverest woman’s intelligence only fit to serve as a whetstone for her brother or her husband’s scientific or literary endeavours. I found myself amongst these people for whom such a notion is ridiculous, not to say barbarous. And yet they were in thrall to a woman whose entire ambition is to subjugate herself to some lost Adonis for whom she eternally yearns.
‘Their queen,’ she explained more briskly, ‘lives largely in retirement, relying on her brutal legions to enforcer her rule through terror and bloodshed. She emerges on rare occasions to issue edicts to stop the worst of the warfare between these tribes but beyond that she is largely an indolent ruler and a woman utterly foolish for love.’
‘Few tribes I’ve encountered would stand for that,’ Tobias observed cautiously.
Aunt Phyllis pursed her lips. ‘I said she was largely indolent. The one craft she has evidently studied is chemistry. It is an ancient science after all. She offers her loyal subjects medicines that convince them of her magical powers, and she has some vapour to fill the air around her that reduces the strongest-willed men to abject adoration, not to say helpless lust.
‘More than that, it is said—’ here her tone wavered between scepticism and apprehension ‘—that she has uncovered the secret of eternal life.’
Aunt Phyllis cut Eustace’s disbelief short. ‘There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy.’
‘But what of this queen’s legions and the other hostile tribes?’ Tobias returned to the military question. ‘How have your hosts kept their advances safe from plunder or destruction? I’ve seen no sign of firearms, not even muskets.’
‘Alas, Mr Allnutt took our small store of weaponry so the Amahagger had no pattern to follow and my explanations were found lacking some vital detail.’ My aunt’s eyes brightened. ‘Still, Bartholomew tells me your boat is well supplied with armaments.’
Eustace and I exchanged apprehensive glances as Aunt Phyllis continued.
‘Until now, our advantage has lain in superior communications enabling far more coherent use of tactics on the battlefields as well as hydraulic and other defences making this crater an impregnable fortress.
‘But you are correct, major,’ she said briskly, though Tobias had not spoken further, ‘we cannot rely on that forever, nor yet upon whatever improvements the Amahagger will make on the guns you have brought. We must confront this queen ‘she-who-must-be-obeyed’!’
I realised with a thrill of terror that she was looking straight at me.
‘We need two to manage the smallest airship. Do not fear. When we land in Kor her legions will not harm us. They have orders to take anyone with white skin straight to her and since women can resist her beguilement —’
Eustace protested barely a breath ahead of Major Tobias.
‘We can and we will.’ Aunt Phyllis was adamant. ‘It is up to us to convince her that a life spent languishing after some man is a waste of a woman’s potential. We will show her all that this tribe has achieved and invite her to share in all that might arise from unity among the Amahagger!’
I cannot now think of that first evening without regret, nor of the expedition which I made with my aunt, soaring above the long-dead volcanoes and marshes in the Amahagger airship. We had such high hopes, all to be dashed.
As Mr Haggard relates, Ayesha never yielded in her irrational infatuation, or in her belief that her long-dead love would return. Lest you incline to sympathy, remember that her obsession was nearly the death of Horace Holly and Leo Vincey. Ultimately, it proved the death of Ayesha, as you will discover in Mr Haggard’s book.
But that fatal conclusion is by no means the end of my tale. After her outright rejection of all our reasoned arguments, my aunt and I made a second secret journey to the lost city of Kor.
Because She-who-must-be-obeyed had indeed learned the secret of eternal life. However as Aunt Phyllis observed after our audience with the tyrant queen, that prize had been entirely wasted on someone so foolishly romantic. She and I agreed that a mature woman who had outgrown the storms of youthful passion would be far better placed to make best use of such a gift.
So now I can give fair warning to those eager to invest in Mr Rhodes’s arrogant plan to drive a railroad from the Cape to Cairo, plundering Africa’s gold and diamond fields as he goes. To those willing to turn a blind eye to King Leopold’s barbarities in the Congo Free State for the sake of enriching themselves. To those who would make freak-show exhibits of the native population in the manner of the tragic Hottentot Venus.
All the Amahagger peoples are now united in peace, prosperity and democracy under the tutelage of a new and eternal governess with myself, Eustace and Major Tobias ready to serve as their ambassadors and advisors.
These Africans will not stand idly by while their mineral wealth is plundered and their lands annexed. They have all learned to follow the wise example of She-who-can-think-for-herself.