The shrine loomed ahead. A saturnine mud structure built in isolation—far away from any village or huts in the area—on the brow of a craggy hill. It was hidden from sight by wild banana and pawpaw trees but our eagle-eyed Captain caught sight of it as we passed and, piqued with curiosity, marched us uphill along a squiggly path towards it.
The slaves beseeched us not to go any further but we ignored their pleas and trudged on through abandoned farmland, hacking our way past impeding banana leaves and dead lianas. There was silence everywhere—a very tense silence. Suddenly, out of nowhere, a mouse bird swooped down on a terrified gerbil, hiding among the farm ridges, and chased it downhill. This gave us quite a scare and some of our men ducked for cover. We laughed uneasily as we watched the rodent scurry off and chided each other for our pusillanimity. As we drew nearer to the shrine, we were greeted by arboreal creatures all around us. A tree-frog scrutinized our group quizzically from a nearby pawpaw and then hurriedly scrambled up the tree with its right eye still fixed on us.
In no time, we were standing before the shrine. It was a small inconspicuous mud structure with external walls that were skillfully raked to form creative murals on the surface. As usual there were no windows and a straw curtain shielded the doorway, making it virtually impossible to see within. The building appeared desolate and its surroundings unkempt. There was firewood and broken earthenware everywhere with weed growing in between the cracks. Certainly, gardening was not one of the inhabitant’s favourite pastimes.
The curtain flapped in the wind momentarily to reveal a dark and dreary interior. Could anyone actually be in there? It seemed unthinkable.
Capt. Abraham lit his pipe. He had not quite gotten over losing another man to the jungle and was in such an irascible mood that he had uttered little since Richardson’s burial. Nobody dared to address him either.
After a few short puffs, he said drily, “Well? What are we waiting for? Let’s go in.”
“I’d rather stay here, if it’s all the same with you,” Mr. Hawksworth said.
“Suit yourself,” the Captain grunted. He had little patience for the clerk’s antics now.
We went in—Capt. Abraham, Lord Powell, Hookes, O’Brien, and me. Fisher stayed behind with the others and our agitated slaves.
Capt. Abraham pushed the curtain aside and Hookes lit a lamp he brought along. We scanned the room. Idols and fetishes made of bronze, ivory, and wood littered every corner of the room. There was a faint smell of putrid flesh in the air—possibly the remains of an animal sacrifice. It was mixed with another scent—one alien to me—which made breathing almost unbearable.
“Marvellous!” exclaimed O’Brien, caressing a bronze statue rapaciously. “I’m taking this beauty.”
“Just look at this,” I said awestricken, pointing to a sack-like sculpture secured with a metal chain. “Beautiful!”
It was an image of Osanyin—god of medicine—or so I was later told. I found my attraction to it strangely fortuitous considering my profession.
“The boys at African Association will never believe . .”
Someone coughed quietly behind us, giving us a jolt. Hookes clutched his pistol and spun round, ready to confront our adversary.
It was Mr. Hawksworth. He stood in the doorway— his small frame and round eyeglasses silhouetted against the midday sun.
“May I remind you, gentlemen that we have a schedule to follow? We need to be back on board that ship in five days time with the agreed number of slaves to make our trip worthwhile. Recall that our last capture was a couple of days ago and our food rations are depleting. We have no time for this . . . We need to move on!”
“All in good time, clerk,” Capt. Abraham growled. “All in good time.”
“Captain, I must protest . . .!”
O’Brien seized the clerk by the collar and rammed him against the mud wall. His glasses flew across the room and his perfectly knotted cravat was squeezed into the Irishman’s fist, choking him in the process.
Mr. Hawksworth’s eyes were wide open as he gasped for air. “Unhand me, you rash fool! Unhand me!” he squealed.
“I bid you good fortune with that,” Lord Powell chuckled, returning to the effigy he had been admiring. He raised it to the lamp for a better assessment and gasped in delight. It was an exquisite figurine well-crafted from dark ebony with bulging eyes.
The Irishman glared down at the diminutive Mr. Hawksworth with growing rage. “Not one more word— not one more syllable out of you or, by all that is holy, I will . . .”
Olu, who was just entering the shrine—on Fisher’s directive—to see what the fuss was about, suddenly cried out and directed our attention to a corner of the room.
An old man sat there on a mat, watching us without a word.
“Look! Babalawo! Medicine man!”
A witchdoctor. The witchdoctor! The same one we had seen at the Oba’s village! What was he doing here?
He stared at me with those cold, lifeless eyes of his. They were now burning with hatred. I shrunk away from his stare and wondered why he focused on me so.
“Ahh, it’s only a little old man,” O’Brien scoffed, releasing his grip on Mr. Hawksworth—who crumbled to the floor gasping.
“Him babalawo,” Olu insisted. He prostrated himself before the witchdoctor and implored for forgiveness.
The witchdoctor did not utter a word. He ignored the sprawled body in front of him and continued to stare at me.
I shuddered. Slowly, I replaced his Osanyin fetish and craved for a reprieve. His gaze was relentless yet.
Capt. Abraham chuckled to himself quietly as he circled our decrepit host, scrutinizing him in the lamplight like a medical specimen.
The witchdoctor did not budge. His eyes did not shift or blink once though his lower jaw moved about like a ruminant, thanks to an almost absent dentition.
“Should I do him in, sir?” Hookes inquired with an eagerness in his tone.
The Captain spat upon the old Negro. “No. Leave him be. Let him die in his own good time—which is not very far by the look of things. Take everything valuable here and let’s get back to our business in this forsaken land. You heard Mr. Hawksworth.”
Before long, every item of value was plundered. The shrine was laid bare. We left the witchdoctor still sitting hunched on the mat and still staring at me with those cold grey eyes until we were out of sight.
It was a disturbing experience. I pondered over it for a while as we journeyed, wondering why his gaze had been fixed on me. What had I done to him that the others hadn’t? Why me? Did he by some devilish wizardry identify me as a rival in his chosen profession? Had he seen me at work in the village the other day and considered me a threat to his line of work? If this were so, I had no qualms in returning to the shrine and setting his mind at ease in that regard for I had no interest in establishing a practice in Africa—none whatsoever.
As we made our way downhill, I turned to take a last look at the shrine. And there he was again—standing at the entrance of the shrine and glaring down at me!
Quickly, I turned away with my heart racing wildly. Nobody else seemed to have noticed so I chose to keep it to myself.
I looked at Mr. Hawksworth. He looked ruffled and indignant. I was almost certain he would write extensively on today’s episode in his next report. He had to have the last laugh. The odds of his betrayal must have also crossed the Captain’s mind for he admonished the clerk at length on this. A report he would live to regret, he said.
Later on that day, we arrived at our next village. It was a tiny, remote community at the foot of a hill— another of the Oba’s many rival neighbours. We raided it at sunset, killing those who resisted and taking about half of the village as slaves and captives.
Mr. Hawksworth had been right. We could not afford to lose the element of surprise as it was instrumental to our success and survival. As we moved deeper into the rainforest, stealth was vital to our strategy if we wished to fulfill our mission and get back to the ship alive. If word of our attacks spread to the surrounding villages, they would be put on alert and could rally their forces into a coalition strong enough to crush us in spite of our superior arms. The jungle would become our graveyard. We could easily be ambushed on our way back to the ship or surrounded by threatening tribes and left to die of thirst and starvation. Even worse, these natives could wait till we were out of ammunition then stage a counter-attack. After all, they were in their element and could take all the time in the world. Yes, Mr. Hawksworth was right— there was no denying the risks we faced by dawdling on our mission. It was just the superciliousness with which his reservations had been expressed and its poor timing that had us all irked. The danger was very real. We could only count on their disunity, the animosity in the region, and their incessant tribal wars to work in our favour until our business here was done.
We shackled the captives in readiness for their despatch to the ship the following day. Upon reaching the Mater Lucia, the coffle’s escort team was to be relieved by another group who, with the help of one of our guides, was expected to join us at an agreed location—one all our guides were familiar with.
On that fateful night, Lord Powell and I stayed awake conversing by the campfire. The others had retired early after the day’s gruelling raid. As we had been mere spectators, we were not as exhausted as the others and chose to stay awake for a while longer. We recollected our childhood days together and the fun we had. Although he was three years older and of nobility, we had grown up the closest of friends and shared so many fond memories together. We recalled with nostalgia how as children we had been oblivious of the war around us—how we had played in the fields while the rest of Britain pondered over America’s Declaration of Independence and its impact.
“I say, do you remember our first visit to the theatre?” Lord Powell asked.
I remembered. We had gone to a classic pantomime with his parents at the special invitation of the Lord Mayor of London himself. It was a most memorable night for us. There was a harlequin in the play—the first time we had seen one—who threw us into fits of laughter every time he appeared. I nearly fell off the balcony. That evening, both of us decided to be harlequins when we grew up.
“We were young and naive. I do believe we lost contact at the start of the French revolution? You reappeared a portly aristocrat with a significantly vast estate,” I laughed. “Still a true lover of adventure and a passionate disciple of Aufklarung.”
“Ah! Aufklarung! Let’s all not forget good old Aufklarung! We had a saying: ‘Dare to know’. Well, ‘Dare to know’ is right!” Lord Powell shook his head meditatively and dug his cane into the sand. “See what it has cost us.”
I smiled at his sarcasm.
Aufklarung was a growing world movement that sought the enlightenment of society through the rejection of traditional beliefs, religion and political ideas for more rational concepts and empirical research.
“And you, ol’ boy . . . you returned a successful doctor, married to a very charming wife and . . . any children?”
“Two—a boy and a girl,” I answered.
“Splendid. Good for you.”
“What about you?”
“What about me?” he asked
“I mean, any children of yours?”
“None. I was married once upon a time,” he replied reluctantly. “She divorced me after two years of marriage but not without robbing me of a fortune.”
He poked at the fire with his staff agitatedly. “Women! The Good Book did warn us about them, you know? There was Eve, Jezeebel, Delilah . . . Now, one would think that was ample warning! But no, we had to add to our catalogue of woes the name Marie-Antoinette—a woman who single-handedly brought an end to the entire French monarchy with her insensitivity and vanity! ‘Let them eat cake’ indeed! I say to you, Reggie, women are the bane of society!”
“You aren’t insolvent or in debt at the moment, I hope?”
“I was at the time,” he answered drily, still poking at the fire. “The economy was in a slump.”
I smiled. Lord Powell’s idea of bankruptcy would not conform to the general interpretation of the word.
“How is your sister?”
“Edith?” he asked.
“Do you have another?”
In the light of the fire, I noticed a flush of red suddenly appear on his cheeks. His cane poked into the fire assiduously.
“Could we change the subject, please?”
I shrugged. “If you wish, but I always thought there were no secrets between us.”
With one forceful poke that sent cinders flying, he faced me and spoke effusively, “Do you really want to know? Do you? Okay! She requested for some money from me and sailed off to Haiti where she met and married a mulatto—the son of a sugar cane plantation owner. Now they have two coloured children and I’ve severed all ties with her. Are you satisfied now?” He shook his fist angrily at the moon. “Confound Aufklarung and all its postulations! See the mess it has put us in. Now people don’t seem to know their place in society!”
He stood up abruptly and walked away, cursing as he did so. Before reaching the nearest tree, he paused, slouched his shoulders and slowly turned—his eyes full of pain and regret.
“Forgive me, old friend. That didn’t come out right . . . I didn’t mean to . . .”
“I understand, I understand. I-I’m sorry about Edith. A crying shame.”
“It’s all this talk about enlightenment, freedom and equality . . . it’s giving people ideas. Even those that don’t have the capacity to comprehend it! I’m only thankful my mother did not live to see it. To have coloured grandchildren,” he grimaced at the thought, “and a Negro son-in-law. Mercy me!”
Lord Powell steadied himself then paced around the fire with his hands behind his back.
“You know, Reggie, I get really upset when I come across those Quakers and so-called abolitionists! They’re damn good lobbyists, you know? They’ve even made Wedgwood’s cameo fashionable, of all things!”
I stared at him blankly.
“Oh, come, now! You’ve seen it before. That bloody slave medallion with the words Am I not a man or a brother?’ written on it. Ah, now you remember! Completely scandalous, I tell you! How dare they insinuate such . . . ?”
There was a rustle in the bushes. The night suddenly felt colder.
“What the devil . . . ?”
Lord Powell cautioned me with a gesture. Frozen to the spot, we listened.
Then it came. The same unearthly, high-pitched tootle we had heard some days ago followed by the same deep, melancholic drone.
There was an eerie silence afterwards.
“Should . . . should I wake the others?” I inquired with my heart pounding.
“What on earth for? No, no, my good man. Why rouse the others for what could possibly be an animal?” Lord Powell answered with a twinkle in his eyes.
I frowned sardonically. His adventurous spirit had resurfaced. “What sort of animal would make that kind of sound? A monkey?”
“Don’t be absurd.” Lord Powell’s eyes sparkled excitedly. “It’s more likely to be a rare African bird or a rodent.”
I knew he did not believe that for an instant.
“Let’s not take chances, Percy. If there’s something out there . . .”
“Then I’m going to find out what it is,” he said firmly. “And that’s my last word!”
With that, he forced his way through some shrubs with his powerful stick, heading in the direction the noise had come. In his left hand was his pistol raised in readiness for any sudden attack. In a final rustle of leaves, the nobleman vanished into the dense undergrowth.
I stood there in the light of the full moon and prayed that he would hurry back. For the crickets were no longer chirping and, in spite of the campfire, the air had suddenly grown cold and still. I stood there with my hair on end as minutes passed. After what felt like an hour and still no sign, I began to fear the worst for my childhood friend—that he had indeed uttered his last word.