THE SUN IS ALWAYS SETTING
It was in 1903 that I travelled with a party of high and low men to the Brazillian Shield in a bid to trap hot water bottles for the MacMillan-Jones company. It had been a bitter winter in Old Blighty (ah, the maddening duality of the expatriate! You miss it when you’re gone, and damn it upon your return. It’s the heat or the cold and that’s the curse of empire). John Sinnet’s little boy related, with wide-eyed embellishment, of the miserable terrier they had glimpsed outside the Garrick, its front paws affixed to the base of a lamp post. Even the Kennet of my home town had frozen to the core, suspending trout and bullhead in desolate dreaming. It was a sort of grim amusement in that lengthening hour, until it bid me to recall far colder nights and my face grew very long indeed.
And so to that dreamland called Amazon. It was not my first visit, but my first, and only, with Dixon Allerdyce.
Allerdyce was a thing from the old days, the black days, when men gave names to the lightning. His own had been given to me by that slovenly colossus Roxburgh (a true poonah if ever there was one), who spent his nights watching rough diamonds like Allerdyce fell the giants of the world in the ring at the Bedford Stores. I was surprised to learn later that he had rowed in the Blue Boat for Oxford, though their victory was somewhat marred by a dramatic war of blades on the river. He had fallen from the world since then, moving in circles where great deeds were not recorded in tomes or papers, but traded like chits around rough-hewn tables. I suspected that he must have served at some point, doubtless disbarred for some unpleasant bit of business. The Macmillan-Jones men thought him perfectly suited for the heat and stink of that prehistoric country.
He offered me a cigar on the day we met, perched upon the deck of the steamboat Rosalita. It was a perfect Havana, and his eyes twinkled with cold delight to present it. I considered this gift, along with the Lee-Enfield slung upon his neatly muscled shoulder, and imagined I had learned a great deal about the worldy, deadly Allerdyce.
It was a strange bunch that he led. Trappers, mercenaries, old sweats still limping from Magersfontein. Financial malaise was likely the one thing they had in common. They were survivors clinging to the same bit of driftwood; glad for the conversation, but essentially trapped. I did not envy them.
No amount of foresight can ever prepare a man for the jeopardies of the Amazon, nor simple fear ever diminish its majesty. Not even the divine Julius could have raised columns to rival the unending kapok tree. It would be easy to imagine whole armies of men vanishing among those solemn brethren, such are the lengths of their shadows, the immeasurable breadth of their being. Here is the planet as it must be at heart; immense and unknowable, titanic in appetite. Even the loveliest orchids; the fragrant laelia, and the fragile leptotes, care not a bit for the whimsies of man. And yet what wonder beneath the shining roof! If God exists at all, it must be within the portentous hush of men made as babes by the artistry of jungle. A poet might sup forever upon such obscene duality.
When the river became too narrow, or the vegetation too dense for the passage of the Rosalita, we travelled in cedar canoes, along streams of pea-green glass. Allerdyce was of terrific value when it came to boat work, waving away our guide with a dismissive – and rather inappropriate – gesture. Neither was he a sluggard when it came to the hunt. I dare say his shooting was the equal of any military man, myself included, and wondered at the route he had taken to perfect such skill. Once, as we navigated a route notorious for piranha, I heard the guides chatting in their native language, excited by some present revelation.
‘What is that word they keep repeating?’ I asked Corbett, as he sifted the dirt from his nails with a sailors knife.
He shrugged, ‘Allerdyce answered a question for them.’
‘Oh? And what was that?’
‘He told them we were killers.’
That was the start of it. Allerdyce had staked his claim to our purpose, and nobody saw fit to correct him. His words were one thing of course; his blunt demeanor quite another. One night, as we made camp, I heard one of the others take exception to his rulings.
Mallory, his name was, a miserable old sot who could sweat for England. ‘Don’t tell me how where my water lies!’ he cried. ‘I was putting men in the ground at Balaclava when you were just a dream in your father’s pantaloons.’
He was obviously drunk, and saw no great trangression in waving his machete to stress the point he’d failed to make. Allerdyce was having none of it. He moved across the camp as though hardly disturbed; you could well imagine the whole debacle to exist over nothing more trivial than an ill-made saloop. He was on Mallory before any of us could react, removing the weapon with a neat pinch upon his wrist, and landing the poor fool in the dirt with a well-placed sweep of the leg.
Would that it stopped there.
Allerdyce removed the rifle slung upon his back, and let the bitter end drift towards the sweat-soaked face beneath him.
‘Now,’ he said, as the tip of the barrel found its place upon Mallory’s brow, ‘has any other man here lost faith in my competance?’
We stood and said nothing. I have no doubt that any among us was more than capable of action, but the cost was easy to see. As I looked across their faces, I saw an all-too-familiar hunger, and found myself wondering upon my choices. ‘We are none of us in doubt,’ I said. ‘There can hardly be a man here who needs to prove himself on the battlefield.’
Allerdyce nodded. ‘Good,’ he said. ‘Good.’ He pulled Mallory to his feet, threw the poor devil a hankerchief, and returned to his hideaway, as though nothing of great importance had transpired. And I suppose it hadn’t.
That was the thought that occupied my attention for much of the journey ahead. Every time I looked upon the fatigued and petulant Mallory, I could not shake the notion that we were invisible men, tramping through a world that had no need for us. Paying, perhaps, for some yet unspoken sin. Wakefield had said something simliar once. Almost certainly Wakefield.
fter three days of travel through great morasses of pestilent insects, the trees became sparser, making way for banks of luxuriant grasses where caiman bathed in the sun. We bedded down among monstrous ferns, amazed by the disparity of such lush verdure and the cruel frost of home. These ruminations brought a great melancholy upon me, and I turned all night, tormented by the effortless cruelty of beauty.
I woke at some point, or was woken by my guest, to a swig of noxious brandy and the devil’s own eyes upon mine.
This was a different Allerdyce altogether. A man inebriated far beyond the meagre ambitions of our piggish friend Mallory. He had painted his face with clay or some such, and was cheerily singing The Battle-Field. His rifle, as always, hung upon his shoulder.
I tackled him to the ground before he could do himself an injury. He fell like a hunk of butchered meat. ‘What do mean by it man?’ I cried.
‘Horsford,’ he croaked, as docile as a lamb, ‘if you don’t get off of me now, I swear I shall be forced to do you an injury.’
‘Get over yourself Allerdyce,’ I said.
‘You know Mallory was in the Crimean?’ he whispered. ‘Fat old Mallory! What do you make of the rest of these boys eh? I took you for an Indian man the second I set eyes on you.
‘Yes,’ I said, feeling the gloom of my thoughts upon me once more. ‘That, and more.’
‘This jungle means to put an end to us,’ he said. ‘This whole damned Earth seeks to put us in the soil.’ He spat on the ground and grunted.
‘We did our time for country,’ I said, disturbed by his turn of mind. ‘Us… and those we left behind.’
‘You must have bagged some prizes over the years?’
‘I’m not one for thinking that way.’
‘Ever do in one of your own?’
I halted, uncertain of his intentions. ‘A water-bearer perhaps,’ I said. ‘For cowardice. And you know as well as I how a bullet may travel in the fray.’
‘Dear old mother Blighty,’ said Allerdyce, rising to his feet. ‘What’s her secret, eh Horsford? How does she do it?’
‘Where are you going?’ I asked, as he wobbled towards the bushes.
He waved his arm and laughed. ‘I shouldn’t worry. File it away under duty.’
I lay there for a while, in the heat and the stink, and felt the ice of ancient times fall upon me.
llerdyce wheeled around one more time, a grin of delight upon his burgundy lips. ‘Do you know Horsford,’ he belched, ‘when we arrive tomorrow, I’m going to shoot every single one of the little perishers. Every single bloody one of them.’
We rose in the morning to birdsong and mosquitoes, and trudged inland upon Allerdyce’s command. Some of the men were growing weary, unused to the wet heat and the cost of motion. The jungle does not receive visitors gladly, and knows well how men love to mark their progress. It denies them with branch and bramble, inch by inch, hour by hour, until ten metres of headway becomes a holy conquest, and then a joke, and then a Biblical torment.
I tried not to allow myself to be swayed by such notions. I thought of home and hearth, but found little there to sway me. All of it seemed like some distant dream, a tale spun by young George Sinnet. I turned instead to Dixon Allerdyce and his ruthless ambition, the ambition which must be put to task in a land such as this. It was with great relief then, that our efforts were rewarded on the fifth day, when the ivory palms gave way to a carpet of soil, and we stood, half-awake, at the edge of an open glade, where marvellous creatures looped the boughs of a redwood tree like bright thoughts flashing in the mind of a child.
When a flock of birds crosses the firmament, it is so often in such pristine formation that a man can only step back and consider the great organising power that lies behind them. The hot water bottles of the Amazon did not share such structure.
They were wild, chaotic things, tumbling and whirling for the sheer pleasure of flight. Never once did I see two collide, nor lose itself in the tangles of the uppermost branches. They marvelled upon their freedom, as no free born man ever will.
Allerdyce slid a hand through the marshlands of his scalp, again across his bristled cheeks. He loosed a request that I might unsling my rifle and claim one for our party. A small show of defiance, I suspected, in the face of such indifferent massing.
I shouldered my weapon and took aim. It would be a dander of a shot to bag one of those beauties, and I am certain he bade me to miss. I did not. I am no fly-by-night amateur, and my typical game is deadlier by far. I stole a grin and strode through the glade to inspect my prize. It was a small one, an infant perhaps. The blast had shredded much of its anatomy about the bottom, but had failed to kill it outright. The rubbery body rippled in pain, contorting in such grotesque undulations that I rather lost my appetite for the kill. It whistled as it died, like some otherwordly piper. I thought of Wakefield laid out along the Bara, the snow and the sleet like some phantasmal force that smothered everything I ever held true.
‘Get on with it then,’ said the grinning Allerdyce. ‘Haven’t you heard? An injured wolf is more dangerous than a healthy one.’
I steadied my rifle. ‘No it isn’t.’
The shot seemed to ring for an eternity, spooking the bottles into a cloud of motion that ebbed and eddied like some frenzied serpent.
‘Jolly good,’ said Allerdyce. ‘Pick another.’ He stared into the jungle, though his mind was elsewhere. I had seen that singular countenance so many times before.
The body says dance and the band says play, and hell to interference. I have known many men who never stopped to consider the cost of their righteous power. They fail themselves first, but everything else comes soon enough.
I stood in the glade and watched the group inspect our prize. One of them lifted the infant aloft upon the muzzle of his gun. They laughed as it flapped like some great bodiless mouth.
‘They won’t risk leaving that tree, not this time of day,’ said Allerdyce. ‘Fetch your sacks gentlemen, and we’ll line our pockets.’
I have said that I’ve known many men like Allerdyce, but I am not fool enough to count myself their better. Mercy is a great luxury when it might be afforded, but a luxury nonetheless. We cleared much of the tree in about an hour, the bottles falling like leaden weights between the branches. The larger ones were full of some piping fluid, not quite water, and ill-thought of by our guides. I was glad it lacked the countenance of blood.
By the time we were through, we had enough to stack a trophy room. We emptied them with our knives and set to hanging them upon a fallen log. Some, I noticed, bore a familial pattern, and I gathered the idea of a great brood nestling in the trees, the mother and father protecting their spawn until they were fit to leave the nest.
‘You saw it too,’ said Mallory, as he peeled the flesh from some great fruit. ‘I dare say we netted the whole clan.’
‘And how do you feel?’ I said.
‘I don’t know. Ashamed I suppose. And not ashamed either.’
‘They were no threat to us.’
‘They will warm the nation. What does it matter what we think?’
He was right of course. As we had been right to leave Wakefield, useless Wakefield, shivering and alone as we trudged toward victory. I could still see his blackened limbs raised in pitiful salute, hear his cracked and swollen song.
‘You must have bagged some prizes,’ I found myself parroting, though Mallory was too busy feeding to hear. The rest of the men were busying themselves with one of the dead bottle, kicking it too and fro in some half-cut game. There was a large rent in its side and I suppose they considered it spoiled. Orson, our Cumbrian giant, took to placing it up upon his head, entertaining the men with his parody of the infantry march. ‘For King and Country,’ he bellowed, turning on his heel with expert poise. Bits of finely arranged anatomy dripped upon his nose and made a mess of his silken neckerchief.
‘You know,’ said Allerdyce, emerging from the thicket behind them, ‘I dare say a man could make an industry of this. Why not head back and polish off the rest? Or at least make a bit of sport.’
‘Hardly sport,’ I said, lifting my rifle against him.
It would be hard to overstate their astonishment, and latterly, their fury. The bedlam of so many is hard to translate, and I shall make no effort here. Suffice to say that their mad proclamations were almost enough to drown out the rush of movement above us as I found myself facing the pluck of Dixon Allerdyce.
‘Put that weapon down,’ he said, ‘or I kill you where you stand.’
I made no great motion. ‘I suppose I shall have to say the same,’ I replied. ‘A tiresome business, I know, but there it is.’
I know the proving ground when it lies before me, and Allerdyce knew it too. It is a tragedy of some great making when such men pass from the world, for though their deeds may be in question, their courage can never be so. It will be men like Dixon Allerdyce who burn this world of all its lovely life, and it will be those made of the same hard stuff that break their chains to stop them.
The men begged for peace. The sound of their protest was swallowed up by the whirling rush of bottles above us. Faster and faster they moved, like some ramshackle carousel bent upon tearing itself apart.
‘Seems easy doesn’t it old boy?’ said Allerdyce. ‘We’ve only got to win once, and they’ve got to win so many. We’re a cut above you and I.’
‘I would dearly love,’ I said, through gritted teeth, ‘to attend your townhouse one day and see all that you have won.’
He gave a small, mirthless smile. ‘What a prize you would make Horsford,’ he said, ‘and what little I might be for you.’
‘It would be no little thing,’ I said.
‘Perhaps. Perhaps not.’
We drew it out a little longer, as my blood demanded, but we both of us knew the finish. I blew out my breath and lowered the gun. Allerdyce did the same.
The men thought our little spat most unamusing, and I made no further show to stop them, electing to spend a little time with myself while they pursued their ends. Allerdyce was the last to go.
‘Seems to me,’ I said, ‘that we could have gone this way at any point.’
A blast of gunfire split the air. Allerdyce gave a little nod and said no more. The song of the jungle was all around us, consuming our spirit for talk. After a while he got up and walked away. The blasting continued for some time, along with the whooping of the men and their little military ditties. The trees did not change, indeed, nothing else changed, save for the slow, imperceptible slide of day into night.