Hell's Gate: first two chapters.
BRITISH EAST AFRICA 1898
THE RIFT VALLEY
Reuben Cole watched his son David hold the rifle. The boy’s blond hair was stained dark beneath the bush hat and small beads of sweat gathered on his forehead. Intense concentration was etched all over his face. Reuben turned and looked across the savannah at the gazelle that was grazing about one hundred yards from them. In his own hands was the Gibbs Farqhuarson rifle, the most powerful hunting rifle in Africa that could kill a charging buffalo at three hundred yards. He had it ready in case David failed to kill the gazelle, but simply wounded it.
Above them the unseasonal clouds blotted out the sun, keeping the heat pressed in like a warm blanket. There was no breeze and the heat seemed to suffocate them. In the distance the rain blackened the sky above the horizon. Somewhere a train whistle sounded, carrying effortlessly through the air. Reuben heard it and looked at David. The boy never moved, his eyes focused on the gazelle. Reuben looked back at the animal as it lifted its head to the sound of the whistle. Satisfied there was no threat, the gazelle dropped its head and continued to graze.
David held his breath and squeezed the trigger. The rifle bucked in his hands and the gazelle dropped instantly. He cocked the rifle and held it steady, his eyes still focused on the gazelle. Then he relaxed and looked at his father with a self-satisfied grin on his face.
‘Clean shot, mister,’ he said.
Reuben smiled and put his hand on the boy’s shoulder. ‘Not bad for a twelve year old. Looks very good, David. It won’t be long before you’ll be wanting to use the Gibbs.’ He stood up. ‘Let’s go see what you’ve bagged.’
David set the safety catch on his rifle and followed his father to where they had tethered their horses. He felt good, grown up. This had been the day his father had promised him for his twelfth birthday – to lead a hunt.
David was no stranger to shooting, and his ability with a rifle was never in doubt. But Reuben only let David hunt with him when their manservant Mirambo was with them, carrying a second rifle. There was no mother waiting at their farm for David to return with his prize; she had died several years earlier, and Reuben had never remarried. It was something he kept reminding himself he had to do, to find David a mother. He just hadn’t got round to doing anything about it, but finding a woman willing to sacrifice herself to the savage climate of the Rift Valley would be difficult.
They reached the gazelle and Reuben lifted it up on to David’s horse. David tied it securely and remounted. He felt a sudden thrill run through his body and the soft, blond hairs on his arms lifted in response. Now David was like the native boys; he had passed through to manhood with his first kill. He was now a man.
‘Have you decided yet, Major?’
Joseph Grundy, chief administrator to the British East Africa railway company, was standing beside Major Kingsley Webb, commandant of the British East Africa Rifles in Nairobi. They were standing beneath a canopy, sheltering from the rain on the platform at Nairobi’s railway station. Major Webb had a rubberised cape around his shoulders. He was a tall man whose features were a little gaunt, but beneath bright blue eyes they served to make him devilishly handsome. His hair was blond and had a natural curl to it. Shed of his uniform, Major Webb was a powerful man with a body honed to an almost arrogant perfection by years in the army. His current service in the inhospitable climate of East Africa had done nothing to lessen that perfection. And nothing to lessen his desire to serve except, perhaps, back with his regiment in Northern India.
‘Have I decided what?’
‘Whether to move the soldiers up the line.’
Grundy’s concern was from a purely commercial standpoint. As chief administrator to the railway company at Nairobi (and quite literally governor of the camp), he was responsible for a sprawling conurbation of well over four thousand souls. Trade for the company, which went hand in glove with construction, was of paramount importance. By now the company should have been carrying fare-paying passengers, along the entire length of the line from Mombasa on the east coast to Nairobi camp itself. This said nothing of the cargo, supplies, raw materials and the like which should now be forming a major part of the company’s two-way traffic. But because of political instability in Uganda, the proposed destination of the railway line, and the inherent vulnerability there since the Uganda Mutiny, troops were being brought in from India to fill the vacuum created in that country. As a result of which the army had slapped a ban on all civilian and commercial traffic while reinforcements were put in place. The few trains the company had were now being used for troop carrying.
To add to the problem for Grundy, the rains had returned. Nobody knew why. The wet season had passed and now the lands should have been dry and dusty. But instead the rains were turning the earth into a quagmire, which bedevilled everything and anything that moved. And whenever the rain stopped, something that tended to happen with incredible speed, the sun transformed the railway camp into a hot, steaming Turkish bath.
The unpredictable weather also meant progress on the line was hauntingly slow. In good conditions the plate laying gangs could lay track at the rate of one mile a day. But as the rains brought landslides and washed out large sections of the track, many of the gangs had to be diverted from the normal tasks to prop up and repair the line. Their progress was often reduced to little more than half a mile each day.
Webb considered his options. He had been doing little else all day. If they were unable to move the troops up to the railhead because the track was unsafe due to the rain, it would mean six hundred soldiers making temporary camp at Nairobi. Not to mention the pack animals travelling with them. Since the beginning of the Uganda mutiny the previous year, they had witnessed the movement of almost twenty thousand soldiers and countless animals up to the railhead and into Uganda. It was difficult enough at the camp containing outbreaks of dysentery, malaria and other odious diseases without the added burden of the extra soldiers. Conditions in the camp, sprawled as it was over a large area, were almost primeval. They had but one hospital, which could barely cope. And with the drinking dens springing up, prostitution and the inevitable consequences of a burgeoning town, the influx of six hundred thirsty, sex starved soldiers appalled even the most leviathan of minds.
Major Webb almost shuddered at the thought of it. The truth was that he didn’t know the answer to Grundy’s question; he would have to wait for the weather to relent and for the railway engineers to report on the condition of the track.
Reuben was about to mount his horse when he heard a sound like a small explosion. It rolled on for several seconds and the ground seemed to tremble slightly beneath his feet. His horse flared its nostrils and became restless. Reuben calmed the animal and mounted up quickly. He glanced over his shoulder, looking back at Mount Longonot in the distance as it towered over the Rift Valley. David leaned forward in his saddle and stroked the neck of his horse, calming it down.
‘What was that, Dad?’ he called, turning towards Reuben.
His father didn’t answer him at first, but continued to study Mount Longonot. Then he shrugged and looked across at David. ‘I think it’s the railway engineers; doing some blasting.’ He hoped he was right, but his heart told him otherwise. ‘Not to worry, we’ll get back to the farm. I’m sure Mirambo will be very pleased with your first kill.’
He pulled on the reins of his horse and David did the same. In unison the two horses moved off, heading towards Reuben Cole’s farm in the Rift Valley.
High up the slope of the escarpment, watching from behind good cover, was Piet Snyder, a Dutchman whose catalogue of crimes marked him down as one of the worst criminals on the Continent of Africa. His evil reputation was well known among not just the burgeoning, white population in Africa, but most of the native Africans.
Piet Snyder was not just a convicted felon. He was a slave trader.
He slammed the telescope shut and smiled as Reuben and David moved off. Soon, he thought, he would have the prize he sought – and immense power.
Two short blasts from the train’s whistle punctured the air again. They could see the iron horse now, rattling its way towards the station. It was an old Indian ‘F’ class, with a huge boiler dome above three large, driving wheels. Its cowcatchers and massive headlamps belonged to the American West, but here in Africa’s wild tormented land, this diminutive giant provided all the guts and muscle that were needed to blaze a pioneering trail through the virgin bush
The locomotive began to slow, its speed dropping noticeably. Despite the rain, heads appeared through open windows as the soldiers looked out in curiosity at Nairobi’s drab, colourless cluster of beleaguered township.
As well as passenger carriages, there were also flat cars and cattle trucks. The flat cars were well loaded with weaponry and stores of all manner and description. And it was obvious from the baying coming from within the animal wagons that there was a reasonable mix of horses and donkeys.
The arrival of the train seemed to bring everything to life. People began to appear from their hideaways where they sheltered from the rain and suffered the humidity in mumbling complaint. Porters began assembling on the platform and beside the track, their overseers patiently waiting before bellowing out orders.
The noise from the animal wagons increased as the occupants sensed the pending change and bellowed their approval. Or lack of it. Little black children ran laughing beside the train. They were laughing despite the rain, and as they ran, so their tramping feet sent arcs of red mud into the air. And the rain began to slow to a simple downpour as in deference to the general air of noise and excitement created by the train’s arrival. There were more screams of delight from the children as great gouts of steam issued from beneath the wheels of the clanking locomotive as it ground to a halt.
Major Webb looked along the length of the carriages. By now it looked as if all the soldiers were bent on thrusting their heads through the open windows. From one of the carriages a young, fresh-faced army lieutenant stepped down on to the platform when the train stopped. He was carrying a dispatch case. He glanced up and down the length of the platform. With the lieutenant was a tall, elderly gentleman who wore a long tailcoat over pinstriped trousers. He had a Panama hat on his head and with the spats on his shoes, he looked quite incongruous and out of place in the backwater that was Nairobi railway camp. This tall, elegant man was Sir Charles Ruskin, government administrator to the East African Railway Company and Joseph Grundy’s boss. Together Sir Charles and the young lieutenant walked along the platform to where Major Webb and Grundy were standing.
‘Major Webb?’ The young lieutenant spoke first. When Webb acknowledged him he smiled and saluted. ‘Lieutenant Maclean, sir, your new adjutant.’
‘Good morning Lieutenant Maclean. Welcome to Nairobi.’ Webb shook his hand after returning the salute. He then turned to the tall man and saluted him. ‘Sir Charles, good to see you again.’
Ruskin smiled back. ‘And you, Major.’ He doffed his hat, and then he shook hands with Webb and Grundy. ‘Damn rain,’ he said, letting go of Grundy’s hand. ‘Seem to remember it was like this on my last visit to Nairobi, what?’
‘Yes, but that was during the rainy season, Sir Charles,’ Grundy answered lightly. ‘We do have hot weather occasionally, you know.’
‘Yes, and then it’s too damn hot.’ He spoke to Major Webb. ‘Lieutenant Maclean has been extremely good company for me, Major. I believe he will be an asset to you.’
‘Well, he will restore our complement of officers to two,’ Webb told him a little acidly. It was not before time, either, he thought to himself. Lieutenant Maclean’s predecessor had succumbed to malaria some three months earlier and was buried in the small cemetery beside the English church.
‘Oh, by the way, Major, I was asked to pass on a message to you.’
‘What was that, Sir Charles?’
‘Miss Hannah Bowers. She sends her apologies but cannot leave Machakos for a few days because her father still has church business to attend to.’
Major Webb thanked Sir Charles and tried not to show his disappointment. Hannah Bowers was the daughter of the Reverend Aubrey Bowers, chaplain to the British East Africa Company. It was almost an open secret among the British Community at Nairobi, that Hannah and Major Webb were very close, and everyone expected them to marry. But Hannah had refused to give him an answer to his proposal of marriage until her mother returned from England. Major Webb had hoped that Hannah would be on the train with news of her mother’s impending return.
Webb turned to the young officer. ‘Nothing goes according to plan in this place,’ he grumbled. ‘Like I said, welcome to Nairobi.’
Despite the rain assaulting Nairobi camp, there was nothing on the escarpment, north of the Rift Valley, where the sun burned down through a haze as the wind lifted the dust from the valley floor, funnelling it along the escarpment walls. Reuben glanced up and closed his eyes against the shimmering glare. He could feel the heat, trapped like liquid in the cradle between the hills. It enclosed him like a suffocating blanket. He removed his slouch hat and drew the back of his hand across his forehead. The sweat gathered and dripped from his brow. He jammed the hat back on his head and sighed heavily. The horse’s ears pricked up, catching the sound and it moved restlessly beneath him. He calmed it, rubbing his hand along its neck and urged it forward into a steady trot through the dry, savannah grass.
Ahead of him, high up on the slope, David rode effortlessly, his slight figure moving easily as the horse climbed to higher ground. It was almost as though the horse knew the air would be sweeter and cooler up there. Across the horse’s back lay the body of the gazelle. It’s beautiful, yellow coat with the distinctive black flash rocked crazily as David guided the horse through the coarse scrub grass that carpeted the slopes. Like his father, David was wearing a slouch hat. His blond hair hung beneath it in curls darkened by sweat. His young, strong arms were tanned a deep, golden brown and he was wearing a heavily stained shirt over canvas trousers. He rode well forward in the saddle.
He pulled the horse up and looked back over his shoulder to his father who was now half way up the slope. Below Reuben was a canopy of evergreen forest. They had skirted this and were now negotiating the escarpment, avoiding the outcroppings of rock and tumbling vegetation, as they moved towards the top. Reuben was barely two hundred feet behind him, but looked diminutive against the vast slope. David caught his father’s upward glance and waved. Somehow this small gesture made him feel so adult; he felt he had achieved a status. He now believed he knew what it must be like for the young, African boys when they bridge that challenging gap that separates youth from manhood. His chest swelled with a feeling of mutual pride and achievement.
As Reuben moved higher up the valley slope he was able to see dark, ash coloured smoke rising above the distant hills in towering columns. The smoke drifted beyond the peaks of the volcanic escarpment. He had seen it much earlier that morning for the first time. It had puzzled him then, but now, together with the oppressive heat, it disturbed him even more.
The reason for Reuben’s disquiet was that it was now the month of June, the time of the southeast wind known as the Kuzi, and the temperature should have been falling. Instead, the swirling, red dust was clamping the heat in, turning the valley into a devil’s cauldron. Earlier it had been rain, unusual and unwelcome. Now it was this appalling heat. As he rode, Reuben could again feel distant earth tremors rolling like thunder claps from beyond the cliffs of Hell’s Gate, the brooding volcano once believed to be extinct: the towering Mount Longonot.
He dug his heels into the horse’s flanks. There was a renewed urgency to reach journey’s end now; Reuben understood the portents too well. He had learned a great deal about the Rift Valley with its savage, yet breath-taking scenery; the strange but wonderful primeval rock formations and the heart-stopping volcanic disturbances. For several years he had struggled to build his farm which nestled in the cradle of the valley. It had been hard, daunting and back breaking work. A battle against nature’s intolerance, and he wanted nothing to threaten him or wreck those years of toil. Reuben feared for his home too. The house had been built high on the escarpment slope to catch the wind. It sprawled over an extensive plateau and afforded protection from the dreaded tsetse fly which spread its fever prevalently in the lower wetlands.
His thoughts were interrupted by a shout. It was David. The boy had cleared the high ground and had a commanding view of the valley and the farm. From his vantage point he could see a magnificent panorama marching away into the distance. Extinct volcanoes incongruously topped with caps of trees, thrust their peaks up towards the blue sky. Mountainous wedges of rock tilted over at crazy angles. White pillars of salt rock eroded by centuries of wind formed grotesque shapes and stood erect like monolithic sentries. Whole swards of forest swept up into the distant foothills until their succulent shades of green merged with the duller hues of the rock. The view shimmered through the coruscating heat and a fine cloak of red and orange dust rose up to scatter the light from the sun. Beyond the awesome cliffs of Hell’s Gate, which formed a natural barrier between the farm and the volcanic escarpment, stood Mount Longonot. It smouldered and rumbled like a glowering sentinel, coughing grey ash into the Kuzi wind which carried the volcanic dust to lay a carpet of grey in the distant hills.
But the view was of little interest to David. As Reuben brought his horse to a stop beside him, David spoke in a rush, the words tumbling from his lips.
‘Look father, in the valley – water!’
Reuben leaned forward, gripping the saddle horn. The leather creaked under the strain. He could see the water clearly. It meandered through the farm, round small hillocks and into shallow depressions. It flowed from the direction of Hell’s Gate. He looked at it for some time before settling back into his saddle. David noticed the hard, fixed stare in his father’s grey eyes.
‘There was no water there when we left,’ he said quietly. ‘So why is it there now?’
It was a moment or two before Reuben could answer. Eventually he gathered up the reins. ‘I don’t know, David,’ he replied. ‘We’ll have to find out. Come on.’
They cantered easily over the coarse grass, angling down the escarpment slope towards the valley floor. The presence of water on his land troubled Reuben immensely. If it remained during the dry season it would turn the farm into a quagmire when the seasonal rains came. As if to test his fears, another sound like a distant thunder clap shattered the sky above Mount Longonot. He shook his head in dismay and spurred his horse into a gallop.
They covered the remaining distance to the farmhouse at a steady pace, skirting the clusters of whistling thorn bush and acacia trees that grew at random, and putting the weaver birds to flight; their small, yellow breasts lost against the gold of the savannah. The body of the dead gazelle lurched crazily as David rode alongside his father.
Mirambo, the Kikuyu, watched them come, like two insects scurrying across the landscape. He watched with feelings of relief and pleasure, his eyes brightening as he walked from the house. Some would have called him servant, or house boy, but to Reuben he was a friend. He lived on Reuben’s land with his wife and children, sharing the everyday tasks of the farm. Together they had built it, grafted hard at it and spilled blood for it. They were like partners in a great adventure, and Mirambo was never aware of anything but the deep, abiding friendship. He waved as Reuben and David rode their horses into the high, thorned boma.
‘Jambo Bwana Cole,’ he called out. ‘Jambo Sana David.’
The red dust flew from the horses’ hoofs into small, swirling clouds as they reined to a halt. Reuben slipped gratefully from the saddle and immediately released the girth buckle. Steam poured from his horse’s flanks and white foam flecked its mouth.
‘Jambo Mirambo,’ he called back. He pulled the saddle from the horse’s back and laid it across his shoulder. He nodded in the direction of the water flowing through the farm. ‘Maji.’
Mirambo nodded and his long ear lobes swung loosely. He raised two fingers. ‘Mbili siku.’
‘Two days?’ Reuben’s forehead creased into a deep frown.
Mirambo pointed towards the column of smoke spiralling up from Mount Longonot. Reuben walked over and laid his hand on Mirambo’s shoulder in greeting.
‘Kesho, tomorrow. We shall go there tomorrow. But today.....’ He left it unsaid and pointed down into the valley.
Mirambo’s black face could not hide the look of impending doom. He knew the search for the source of the water would be inevitable and likely to begin that very day. In his heart he knew where that search would take them. And in his pagan mind it carried them into the legends of Kikuyu folklore.
There was an excited shout, a clamouring of voices as Mirambo’s children appeared from behind the farmhouse. They were running to see what great prize David had brought home with him. David had removed his saddle and laid it on the fence of the boma. Now he heaved the dead gazelle from his horse and dropped it on to the red earth with a mighty thud. For a moment the threat of the rising water was forgotten and the children began singing and shouting while David fussed around the dead animal. Mirambo flashed his teeth in a wide grin and walked over to him. He pushed his own children aside and studied the gazelle with care, making appreciative noises in his throat.
‘What do you think, Mirambo?’ David asked keenly, his eyes gleaming brilliant blue in the sun. ‘It was an excellent shot.’ He pointed to the mark where the bullet had entered just below the gazelle’s ear.
Mirambo was pleased for the boy. He removed David’s hat and ran his long, black bony fingers over his hair. ‘Vyema, vizuri.’
David whooped with joy and called over to his father. His face was vibrant and beaming. ‘See mister, Mirambo says it is excellent.’
Reuben’s mind was too preoccupied to do justice to the occasion, but he tried manfully to respond to David’s enthusiasm. ‘So it is, David, an excellent prize. We are all very proud of you. But now we have more pressing things to attend to.’ He turned away. ‘Give the gazelle to Mirambo to skin for you,’ he called over his shoulder. ‘And bring your saddle into the kibanda.
Mirambo lifted David’s saddle from the fence rail of the boma and handed it to David. It almost dwarfed him as he carried it to the livery stable. Unlike his father, David had forgotten everything about the water and all its implications. The only thought that filled the boy’s head was the sheer excitement of the last few days.
High up on the escarpment, again in safe cover, Piet Snyder watched through his telescope and smiled in satisfaction. Soon he would have the prize.
Major Webb relaxed in reasonable comfort in his dining chair. He was seated at the table in the private room of the railway club with his three guests. They had enjoyed a good meal and were now relaxing with their port and cigars. The two waiters, both army personnel, had withdrawn and the talk was now of military and political matters.
‘I find the army’s decision to hold the rolling stock at Kilindi quite astonishing.’ Joseph Grundy’s opinion did not surprise any of them. ‘My company is supposed to be operating a viable, commercial enterprise between Mombasa and Nairobi. I find it most difficult with the army’s heavy hand bearing down on us.’
‘It’s my understanding, ‘Major Webb told him, ‘that your company is being compensated because of what is, essentially, a government decision.’ He looked directly at Sir Charles.
Sir Charles responded. ‘I think you have to blame the foreign office for this,’ he said. ‘After all, they do tend to panic.’
‘The army has never been its own master,’ Lieutenant MacLean offered. ‘Although I believe this decision would have originated from army H.Q. at Machakos rather than Downing Street.’
‘Could it not be that the army is simply accommodating government thinking?’ Grundy put to him. ‘Surely it was not the army’s choice to flood Uganda with thousands of troops?’
Major Webb drew deeply on his cigar. He had the benefit of intelligence reports and the welter of information they offered. He wondered just how much these men understood of the situation. He suspected Sir Charles Ruskin knew a great deal, whereas Joseph Grundy’s daily hours were devoted to the railway and its progress. Movement of soldiers and political sabre rattling were of little importance to him if they had no direct bearing on company progress and profits, despite their real effect. But the reality would have a far greater impact. The fact was that the exiled Bugandan leader, Mwanga, once monarch of all Uganda, was massing an army of Muslims to fight against the British
Mwanga first came to power in 1884 at the age of seventeen. Although he had been educated by Catholic missionaries, his elevation to the throne had been a bad mistake.
When James Hannington had been appointed Bishop of all Uganda, it had proved to be too much for Mwanga; Hannington was found murdered on the banks of the River Nile before he had set foot in his new diocese. Mwanga denied culpability, but the murder had his mark all over it. It was the one act that proved Mwanga’s instability and sent alarm bells ringing through the corridors of power in Whitehall.
Mwanga was thrown in jail, but his time there was to be short-lived. The Kaiser’s Imperial Germany were now actively engaged in plotting to expand its empire in East Africa. Intelligence reports suggested that Mwanga was to be a key figure in this planned expansion and, unsurprisingly, he had ‘escaped’ from his jailers who happened to be under the control of the Germans.
Major Webb’s concern was not wholly with events in Uganda, but of something much closer to home: Nairobi. Reports were coming in from his scouting parties of a migration of Masai and Wakamba tribes to the Mau Plateau, west of the Rift Valley. The incidence of raiding parties had increased dramatically. There were also reports that the raiding parties were being organised by a European, a Dutchman known as Pete Snyder. Snyder was a maverick, a renegade and an ex-convict. His crooked exploits in South Africa had earned him fearsome reputation, a reputation that remained with him after he had been hounded from that country.
On his own, the presence of Snyder would have presented no real problem to the major. But the Masai build up was ominous in that it presented a buffer to the railway company, and therefore the government’s progress towards Uganda — their ultimate goal. But it was all the more sinister if it was being orchestrated by a white man.
Webb’s own appraisal of the situation, based on intelligence reports, was that the threat came not just from the Masai, or the Wakamba, but from the Imperial German government. But it was a fear that he could not express publicly because he had no real evidence to corroborate it.
‘So, Major,’ Sir Charles said. ‘What are you going to do about it?’
Webb blew out a stream of cigar smoke. ‘Do about what, Sir Charles?’
‘This damn nonsense of holding the trains at Kilindi? Totally unnecessary in my view.’
Grundy liked that. Sir Charles was a powerful boss and ally to work with. He had practically skewered Major Webb with his directness, although Grundy knew he was only doing it for devilment.
Webb affected a contrite response. ‘What can I do, Sir Charles? Machakos issued the order. Only they can rescind it.’
Sir Charles Ruskin leaned forward. His manner seemed just a little more serious. ‘If this railway does not succeed, Major, there are plenty of people back in England who will rub their hands with glee. I can assure you of that.’ He raised his hand and pointed his finger at the major. Mark my words; Salisbury’s government will fall. He has a very small majority in the House and it wouldn’t take much to topple him.’
‘What is your opinion, Lieutenant MacLean?’ Grundy asked him.
‘What is my opinion?’ MacLean repeated, hoping to gain a little breathing space while he considered his response. ‘As a serving officer my loyalty is to my Queen, my country and my regiment.’
‘Balls to your loyalty, young man,’ Sir Charles cut in. ‘What is your damn opinion?’
‘My opinion would be of little value here, Sir Charles, in view of the short period I’ve spent in Africa.’
‘Bloody man’s a politician,’ Grundy roared with laughter.
‘Good,’ Sir Charles bellowed. ‘Three on to one now Major. You lose. Rescind the order!’
Major Webb laughed along with them. It was good, fair hearted baiting at the army’s expense.
‘You know, Sir Charles, if I could devote my time and energy to ensuring the trains run, then perhaps my task here would be a great deal simpler,’ Webb declared, a little more seriously. ‘But I have a much wider and infinitely more difficult job to do here as you well know.’
‘Yes, I accept that,’ Sir Charles agreed, nodding vigorously. ‘Something of a policeman’s role though, wouldn’t you say?’
Major Webb did not like the use of the word nor all that it implied. Although he was responsible for law and order in the region, it was Grundy’s responsibility to police the railway company and its employees.
‘I shall always see my role here as that of a soldier offering protection to all of Her Majesty’s subjects.’
‘And we’ve needed some of that lately,’ observed Grundy.
MacLean looked up in surprise. ‘Why is that, sir?’
It was Major Webb who answered. ‘The natives, as they say, have been getting restless. Our patrols have been skirmishing with renegade bands lately. Nothing more than that.’ He wished he had been speaking the absolute truth.
MacLean lifted the port and refilled their glasses. Grundy lit another cigar.
‘Would you say there was a relationship between native aggression and progress on the line, sir?’ he asked the major. Webb exchanged glances with Grundy. This time it was Grundy who answered for the major.
‘If you take the railway line as a single entity then I’m sure we would agree; the tribes are as alive to commercial enterprise as any market man anywhere. The line brings goods, essentials and the like. They trade with us and, more or less, they leave us alone. So, more trade, more harmony and less aggression.
‘From here all the way back to Mombasa,’ Webb added for clarity. ‘But beyond that we are still virtually pushing into uncharted territory. We also have the settlers to consider. Most of them have land concessions well away from the line. We have to protect them as well.’
‘You have farmers in the Rift Valley, don’t you?’ Maclean asked Major Webb.
‘Several,’ Webb replied.
‘Independent sort of bunch,’ Grundy said.
Lieutenant MacLean raised his eyebrows. To a man of his station and upbringing, coupled with a paucity of experience in Africa, he couldn’t understand how anybody could actually live so independently in such a hostile land.
Sir Charles nodded. ‘But you still have to keep an eye on them.’
Major Webb shrugged. ‘An Englishman and his castle, but they still require our protection.’
The conversation went many ways after that and only a reminder of the time from one of them brought the evening to a close. The port decanter and two wine bottles stood empty, and half a dozen cigar butts lay crushed in the ashtrays. They were happy men as they walked out into the night air. It was a starry night. No rain. They were happy and content. And perhaps, a little drunk.
Piet Snyder listened carefully, watching the black man’s lips move with bewildering speed, picking out the words and turning them into a jumble of Dutch patois. He made sense of them and spoke to the man, articulating slowly, promising the prize that Mwanga valued above all else, above even that of a kingdom.
‘Kabarega must be made to understand that this will be difficult, but it will be done. You must explain this to him,’ Snyder insisted. ‘And tell him his brother will be pleased’
‘My master will be at the gathering in ten days,’ the black man replied. ‘You will be ready?’
Snyder’s mouth opened beneath the black beard. His teeth were yellow. He knew the black man’s word was Kabarega’s own. ‘It is as certain as Mwanga being crowned king again.’ He said it with apparent confidence, not trusting himself to admit that ten days was not enough time.
The black man smiled. He liked the sound of that word: king. It meant power. ‘My master will understand the difficulties. There are always many soldiers.’
Snyder nodded and brushed his hand over his face. The flies moved away and buzzed briefly round his head before darting back into his beard again. ‘The soldiers are not the problem.’ He brushed at the flies again. ‘It is the journey back. If the British patrols see us, they will act swiftly.
‘But not as swiftly as the Masai warriors.’ He grinned again. Snyder thought he looked a slimy bastard, but he probably gave the man the same impression.
‘Ten days is not much,’ Snyder told him with a shake of his head. He held out his hand. ‘Do you have a list of the demands?’
The word was not right, but it was all part of the barter, the trade, and it amounted to the same thing.
The black man was carrying a bag of goatskin over his shoulder. He took a sheet of paper from it and handed it to Snyder. Snyder took the paper and spread it open on his knee. The writing was thin, but legible. It was also in Swahili, the common language of East Africa. It would have been difficult for a man speaking the coastal Swahili to understand the broken patois of the interior, but the written word was easily decipherable.
Snyder read through the document carefully. When he had finished reading it he looked up at the black man. ‘I will take this to the Imperial governor. He will draw up the formal document for his envoy to bring to Kabarega. In ten days,’ he added.
The black man bowed his head and straightened from his squatting position.
‘You have a great reputation, Dutchman. You will not let us down.’ It sounded more like a command rather than an expression of faith in the Dutchman’s ability.
Snyder watched him go. Ten days he thought again. Not much time. If he moved swiftly he could have the document in the governor’s hands and be back in the British Protectorate by dusk. With luck and good fortune on his side he would reach the Rift Valley the following evening. He pushed himself up from the log on which he had been sitting and turned to a tall Masai youth who had been standing patiently a few feet from him.
‘I’ll be on the Mau Escarpment two days from now. Wait for me there.’
The tall youth nodded and left. He ran with the unaffected ease in the characteristic stride so common to these fine young warriors. Snyder pulled himself up on to his horse, thankful that he had no need to be subjected to the desire to run everywhere, and headed south, towards the next rendezvous, and to the next step in the expansionist plans of the Imperial German Empire.
As Major Webb and Lieutenant Maclean reached the platform, they could see Sir Charles Ruskin and Joseph Grundy were already standing beside the waiting train. Smoke drifted up from the stack on top of the boiler. Steam whiskered its way from beneath the wheels. The line of carriages behind the tender was almost empty. Webb knew there would be some passengers on board, but not many. The army had raised no objection to fare paying passengers travelling east.
Sir Charles greeted them warmly. ‘Thank you for an entertaining evening, Major,’ he said. ‘And remember, it was three against one.’
Webb laughed. ‘I’ll sack my adjutant.’
Sir Charles and Grundy stepped up into an empty carriage.
‘I’ll pass your greetings on to the Reverend Bowers and his lovely daughter, Major. What do you say?’
‘Thank you Sir Charles, I would appreciate that. And could you make sure they return as soon as possible?’
‘Of course my dear boy,’ Ruskin promised. ‘Have them back with you in a week’s time.’ He leaned out of the carriage window. ‘If you have the damn trains running by then.’
Major Webb stood back, still smiling. There was a shout from the guard and a piercing blast from the train’s whistle. A fierce jet of steam bellowed across the ground and the tiny engine strained as the carriages clanked on their couplings. Then, with a mighty chug and a slipping of the drive wheels, they were moving.
Webb saluted as the train pulled away. Then suddenly, he felt a strange foreboding in his heart that stayed there until the train disappeared from view.
Mirambo shouldered the dead gazelle with considerable ease and sauntered towards his own, small home. He lived there, about fifty yards from the main farmhouse, in what Reuben often referred to as ‘that independent Kikuyu kingdom that had better not get any bigger’. It was a condition that Reuben made when Mirambo moved on to the plateau that his children would have to go once they had achieved their own independence. The last thing he wanted was a spawning, Kikuyu nation on his doorstep.
Mirambo first met Reuben when he worked as a porter for him during Reuben’s trek from Mombasa to the Rift Valley. David was only a baby. Although it was unusual for a native to leave the security of his own homeland, unless working as a porter on expeditions into the interior, Mirambo had fallen into the lure of working with the white ‘bwanas’. He soon found the stories were fabrications put about by the bwanas themselves in order to disguise the real hardships and deprivations that would have to be endured. Mirambo also learned to his bitter resentment of the disease and hunger that were to become his constant companion. Of the burning, trackless deserts and wilderness; the intense cold at night up in the mountainous highlands and the insufferably dark, dank forests that fought you every step of the way. He had seen the ravages of disease brought on by the tsetse fly and debilitating swamp fever. He had known the savage fury of tribal attacks. Lived with it, suffered from it and hated it.
But the one thing Mirambo feared the most, above all else, was the despised slave traders spreading their odour of death and fear across the entire continent. They came from the east, from Arabia, and from the west from a place they called the Americas. They came in sprawling caravans that stretched from one horizon to another in a chain of human indignity, misery and suffering.
Mirambo had seen all this with his own eyes and known the stink of fear restrict the breath in his throat. It was an intolerable sore that ate its way into the heart of Africa, denuding it of its youth, its potential and its lifeblood — men, women and children, even babes in arms. It mattered nought to the slave traders. Nothing mattered to them except that they convey their human cargo of abject misery to be sold into the stinking slave markets of Mombasa and Zanzibar, or cast into the hold of a funereal ship and be damned to hell across some raging sea.
It was against this background of fear and uncertainty that Mirambo unwittingly laid the seeds of his fate, and he had agreed to remain in the Rift Valley and work with the white Bwana Cole.