MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK
• 1 •
THE FAIRY FLAG
1893: A Girl Tells a Magical Story to Her Younger Sister
The fire crackled quietly inside the stone room. Olive, who was thirteen, had her knees pulled up under her chin. Her long red hair curled all the way down to the floor. She was shaking. Not because of the cold, but because she was certain that a fairy princess from another world, in all her bright and terrible glory, was going to appear before her. The walls flickered in the firelight.
Olive drew up a tartan wool blanket. Her older sister, Flora, was seated across from her in a rocking chair. Flora’s young face, squared by brown shoulder-length hair, became nearly wicked in the smallness of the room, filled with trembling shadows. Flora began to tell her sister, in quiet tones, a story that happened a long time ago.
This was the story of the MacLeod family of Scotland, said Flora, more or less. One summer’s day, the clan chieftain, a wise and handsome warrior, walked onto his green lands on the lonely Isle of Skye. After getting just slightly lost, he came upon a small stone bridge with an arch cut through the middle. Though he did not completely know how, the good and lost chief felt that the bridge had a strange feeling about it, like the air before a storm. Overcome by curiosity, he put his hand on his sword and walked across the little bridge. Olive listened as her sister, who was fifteen, took her time to enunciate the next part very carefully. By crossing the bridge, the chief disappeared from the world and entered another. He had found the way to the magical realm of the Sith Sidhe: the Still Folk, the Other Ones.
The Faerie world.
The chief was brave, so he did not fear this glittering, beautiful place. At least that’s what he told himself. In truth, the chief could never fully recall the time he spent there. Except for one detail. During his time in the magical kingdom, the handsome young chieftain did the unthinkable: He fell in love. She was a fairy princess, a Bean Sith. She was beautiful, with long red hair and a shimmering green dress that shone like an emerald. Flowers that never wilted were neatly set into her hair. But her father, the grim and powerful Fairy King, forbade them to be married. When she begged him to reconsider, the king proposed a “hand-fasting,” a trial marriage, on the promise that it would last only for one year and a day. When their time was up, his daughter would have to return to the fairy kingdom—alone, and never to leave it again. The couple agreed, and their almost-wedding was held on the chief’s birthday. Their hands entwined, they passed back over the bridge to the proper world. There, on the Isle of Skye, they enjoyed a full year of married life in the family castle of Dunvegan. The couple were happy beyond all other measures of worth.
Near the end of the year, the princess gave birth to a healthy—and exceedingly loud—male heir to the MacLeod line. But their time had expired, and the princess had to leave her bonny boy behind to return to her magical homeland. She and her husband made secret plans to escape, but in the end they knew that the magic of the Fairy King was too powerful. He would find them wherever they went. So, on that last day, that painful one day after a year of perfect happiness, the princess walked tearfully across the bridge. But just before she passed into the bright world, she begged that her baby son never be left alone, for the sound of his crying would be too much to bear. The princess, who was now a mother, knew that no matter which world she lay in, she would always be able to hear her son. Her husband agreed and watched her go.
That night, the chief’s beard was wet with tears. To lift his mood, the clan threw a birthday feast in his honor with rich food, dancing, and music. The baby was kept in his room in the castle tower as a nursemaid watched over him. But the night was long, and the boy’s nurse could listen to the sounds of revelry for only so long before she sneaked away to join the festivities, leaving the baby alone in the cold tower room.
When the baby started to cry, no one heard him over the skirling bagpipes below. As the party went on, the chief sat at his head table, his head heavy with drink. But when he looked out over the room and saw his son’s nurse dancing up a storm, his wits returned to him. He sprang from his chair and ran upstairs to the tower.
With each step of the stone stairs, his yellow-and-black kilt whirling behind him, the chief began to hear the words of a strange, haunting song:
SLEEP, MY LITTLE CHILD, HERO GENTLE BRED,
DREAM, MY LITTLE CHILD, HERO BATTLE BRED.
When the chief reached the room, he slowly creaked open the door. The song was louder now, sung by a voice like spun silver:
SKIN LIKE FALLING SNOW, GREEN THY MAILCOAT,
LIVE THY STEEDS, DAUNTLESS THY FOLLOWING.
He knew that voice.
The chief, his heart beating like a great drum, stepped in. He saw his baby son in his cradle, lit by the dancing fire. Sitting in a rocking chair was the chief’s fairy wife, more beautiful than ever. She was singing her son to sleep. The chief saw her for a moment—an instant—before she vanished into thin air. His mouth was parted; he had just started to say her name.
Dumbfounded, the chief stepped closer to find his child fast asleep. The boy was wrapped in a bright silken blanket left behind by his mother. The chief knew then that she would never return.
Years later, when the child had grown into a man and the chief’s beard was streaked through with silver, the son told his father that he had a dream about the white shawl he had been given as a child. He said it was more than a scrap of cloth; it was a mighty fairy gift. It wasn’t a blanket, the son said, but a flag. The son said that if the clansmen ever found themselves in peril, they need only wave the flag three times and the fairies would come to their rescue. But, said the boy—for that is how his father always thought of him—the flag could only be used three times until it would disappear from the world forever, taking the bearer with it. The chief’s eyes narrowed thinking of this possibility. All these years this little blanket could have been the means to reunite with his beloved, whom he still greatly missed. He could wave it three times right now and be with her again.
But the chief, in his age and wisdom, had become a man who did things rather than only pretended them. He thought of his once-skinny self making his way across that bridge. He made his way up the old stone stairs of the tower, perhaps a bit slower, but as thundering as ever. His son followed him. In the old nursery he cast aside boxes until he located the fairy blanket. He looked at it very closely. He shut his eyes for a moment. He felt the embroidered stars between his thumbs. He could, he thought, hear the whispers of that old song again. How did it go?
He opened his eyes. He pushed the back of his hand over his face before anyone could see. He then ordered the flag to be locked away in an iron box until such time as the clan might need it. They called it the Bratach Sith, or the Fairy Flag. He lived the rest of his days alone.
Hundreds of years later, the ruthless MacDonalds, the mortal enemies of the MacLeods, raided Dunvegan Castle and set the church on fire. The surprised MacLeods were all but routed. The last of their forces, bloodied by sword and cudgel, met on the beach with the last of the clan’s treasure and remembered the old story that had been handed down from fathers to sons. They found and unfurled the flag and waved it over the cold sand. When they were done, their forces seemed to have increased magically, perhaps by tenfold. They marched on the MacDonalds, who were filled with fear and fled. The flag was put away again.
Many years passed, and a plague swept over the Isle of Skye, felling the Highland cattle and the sheep that provided soft wool. Famine came swiftly and without mercy. The starving MacLeods waved the flag in the wind once again. The fairy host appeared, glinting and without number, and rode out onto the meadows, touching each dying animal with their magic swords. The cattle stirred and the sheep bleated as the animals stood up again: The clan was saved.
There was only one more wave left of the Fairy Flag, said Flora eerily, from the rocking chair in front of the fire.
Where was it now? asked Olive quietly, though she already knew.
It was lost for a long time, Flora continued. Then, two hundred years ago, a witch named the Brahan Seer spoke a terrible prophecy. This witch was just a boy on the Isle of Lewis when he found a strange blue-and-black stone with a hole in it. When he picked it up and peered through, he was blinded in one eye, but was given the power of second sight. His prophecy was very specific—as witch’s prophecies sometimes are—and said that a day would come when three things would happen to the MacLeods: the clan heir would die; the MacLeod Maidens, that set of landmark rocks on the coast, would become the property of a rival family; and a single red fox would have her litter in the castle tower. On that day the MacLeods would fall from Dunvegan. The flag would not save them.
Worried at the strange nature of the prophecy, some of the men of the clan—the loud and substantial ones—roughly searched the old tower and found a steel chest. They were certain it contained the flag, which had not been seen for centuries. The men forced it open, but it was empty. Then, one of the men’s small sons spied a lump in the chest’s red lining. Hidden inside was a little key. It opened a second chamber in the bottom of the chest. When it clicked open, there was a strong scent of wood. The boy carefully lifted out a white square of fine silk, with crosses made of pure golden thread. There were tiny elf-spots—the marks of magic—stitched in red with great care. They had found the Fairy Flag.
At that same moment the MacLeod heir, a fine young man, died in an accident at sea. The rival Campbells assumed ownership of the Maiden Rocks, and a fox was seen pacing nervously in the west turret.
Olive drew her knees closer.
But luckily, though the flag itself had triggered the curse, it was not actually waved that day. Its presence alone was strong enough for the MacLeods to hold Dunvegan Castle. They hold it still today.
Flora nodded, satisfied with her telling of the tale. It always changed, as it had to.
As she went to sleep that night, Olive told herself not to be scared. It was a ridiculous tale.
Olive looked around her. In addition to the fireplace, with its orange fire, there was her blanket, colored poppy gold with thin lines of red and black. There was a high table, a piano, and the door. A crest was also visible, picturing a bull’s head over sable. On the other side of the fireplace a cold stone staircase wound its way up.
It was a truly ridiculous story, thought Olive, and no doubt Pooh-oh (her nickname for her sister) had added parts to make it even scarier.
But for all that Olive tried to convince herself of the fictitious nature of the story on that cold, drafty night, it would have been much easier if she and her sister weren’t in the Fairy Room itself in Dunvegan Castle on the Isle of Skye. It would have been easier if their last name were not MacLeod. Olive looked at the wooden door, imagining the long hall behind it.
Olive would sleep much better if the Fairy Flag itself weren’t downstairs in the drawing room, in a glass case next to an old cup and horn. The white flag was there, as Flora had described it, and just as Olive had stared at it every day since they had arrived.
Sleep might come easier if the story weren’t real.
• 2 •
THE PARTY GIRL AND THE NATURALIST
April 1908: Olive MacLeod Visits the Regent’s Park Zoo, Attends a Boisterous Dinner Party, and Later Meets a Man of Science
The snow fell gently upon the hippopotamus. The animal did not seem to mind, not in particular, but it was hard to know for sure. It was a cold, gray April day at the London Zoological Gardens, and though some of the animals shunned the snow (the lions) or even tasted it (the monkeys), for the most part it was viewed by visitors as an unavoidable natural phenomenon. Everything was outlined in a thin, cold layer of white.
A young woman walked briskly down the path from the Gazelle House. She was wrapped in a coat and wool scarves and wore fashionable black boots. As she turned her head, she pushed a long strand of red hair back until it disappeared somewhere on the other side of her ear, and behind her large hat. She looked anxious, as if someone were chasing her. She began to walk faster.
From behind her came a dull kind of stamping, followed by a roar.
Emerging in a loud swell of noise was a pack of boys, mostly school-aged and in far fewer layers of winter clothing. The lads bolted toward the caged hippopotamus, nearly knocking the redheaded woman down in the process. As her lock of hair escaped back to a less-than-agreeable position directly in front of her right eye, she lost sight of the children for a moment. She sighed. Of course these were her boys, the ones she was in charge of. As such, she imagined the worst sort of circumstances: fisticuffs, chomping, and the inevitable destruction of property. With a huff, she pushed the strand of hair back and, her vision restored, tried to focus on her charges. She counted quickly: ten … eleven … twelve … all were accounted for. The hair bounced back in front of her face, but she didn’t seem to mind. As the boys pointed and laughed at the hippos, Olive MacLeod felt satisfied that her little animals, the boys of the Children’s Happy Evening’s Association, were safe at least for the moment.
As they walked through the zoo, Olive followed the boys. They kept their distance from the bears, tried to get the parrots to say rude words, and argued whether what looked to be a clump of rope was really the tufted end of a lion’s tail, hiding away from the snow. The boys, in their thin flannel and caps, seemed utterly oblivious to the cold. But Olive could feel it. As always, the popular boys clumped together in laughing clusters of activity. The lonelier boys stood off alone and watched. She could see their faces. They saw apes, a pair of moose, and a finicky ostrich. They watched the sea lions sit on pedestals and bark. As they pushed their way across the paths, Olive even saw a stork, standing quietly in the background. The children did not have the time to see every animal, but they certainly tried. Olive liked the zoo well enough, but it was not her favorite thing. At least the snow had taken the edge off the zoo’s distinctive odor. Olive had a dinner party that night and didn’t want to have to make too many changes to her wardrobe.
At the end of their walk they met up with the other groups from the association at the zoo entrance. Olive’s group, well known for its misbehavior, arrived last. Olive noticed that all the other children were very excited. She saw that they were waving around small picture postcards of the animals. Olive’s heart sank. The other chaperones had bought these cards from the penny machines as souvenirs for their children. Olive quickly turned to her group. They watched as the other boys traded photos of yawning lions for lumbering elephants. Olive panicked. Why had the others not told her of this? She quickly eyed the machines and thrust her hands into her pockets. She had only folds of notes—not a penny among them. Olive looked around and grabbed the hand of one of her charges.
“Go,” she said, stuffing some pound notes into his hand, “Get some coppers for the penny in the slot!” But the boy just stood there, staring down at the significant amount of money that she had just put into his hand.
“Go!” she said. The boy sped off to the ticket gate.
Olive turned back to her group. They had seen the money. They were all staring up at her.
“Please, Miss MacLeod, we don’t want the cards,” said one boy with shiny black hair. “They are only bits of paper.” Olive smiled at his genuine sentiment, but she wanted them to have those postcards. The other boys who had them were beginning to brag.
There was another in her group who had worn the same wool cap all winter long. He came up to her and begged her to reconsider. This lad was younger and smaller, but the other boys liked him very much. He was also the son of a gentleman who had come down in the world to the level of the poor. As the boy urged his fellows to agree, Olive saw a hole in his darned trousers that revealed bare white skin. It was still snowing.
* * *
THE CRUMBS HAD HARDLY BEEN brushed off the white tablecloth when Olive watched her father, Sir Reginald MacLeod, leave the table with great, wobbling purpose, and make his way to the sitting room. He had a broad smile on his red face. He was the registrar general for Scotland and held a knighthood, but he certainly wasn’t acting like it. Olive laughed, knowing full well what was coming next. Her father’s tradition after their many dinner parties together at their country home in Vinters Park was well known. Everyone watched as he seemed to sway over the hearth rug as if it were some teetering boat, put his hand to his chest, took a deep breath, possibly burped, and made his familiar proclamation, in a very loud manner:
“And now,” he said, “let us be merry!” rolling both rs to their fullest, most slippery potential.
Across the table, Violet Asquith, the daughter of the prime minister, with her curly dark hair and wearing a black dress, rolled her eyes almost imperceptibly. “Old Waxworks” was their nickname for Sir Reginald because of his pinkish complexion and cotton-white side-whiskers. Once again he had been too eager. The dinner table was still filled with scraps of food, not to mention seated people of sophistication and intellect, talking to one another about politics and religion. They weren’t ready for games yet. Violet turned back to her conversation with a handsome man who was not her Archie. Not that it mattered.
From the head of the table, Olive stared at Violet’s choice of confidant. Violet tried to change position to avoid Olive’s glance, but it was impossible. She had a basilisk eye, that one, thought Violet. Some of the guests stood up, ready to give in and retire to the games. Olive rose herself, satisfied that Violet had noticed her attention. As she stood, people turned to look at Olive, as they always did. Olive was pale and lithe with sharp blue eyes, and though she was not very tall, her pulled-up red hair—wild and fiery—made it seem otherwise.
In the sitting room Olive became hostess, leading the party in games of epigrams, abstract conceits, and so forth. Theirs was always a bookish crowd, making the games a bit more competitive than the usual London party. Casual visitors who enjoyed dinner and conversation often vowed never to return after the singular experience of the games at Vinters. But for those who enjoyed the thrill of the clash, this portion of the party always went long into the night.
The party had moved to a game of aphorisms, where each player was supposed to describe another member of the group in the wittiest way imaginable. Someone described Sir Reginald as “a sunny peach on a garden wall,” at which he bowed so deeply that they feared he might have died. One of their friends called Violet “a blooming cornfield,” at which she laughed so infectiously she had to hold her hand to her mouth. Sir Reginald, having recovered from his bow, then pointed out a particularly colorless cousin who was sitting in the back of the room. He called her, in very polite tones, “a glass of water fit for a lady,” and the party roared. Olive laughed, her hands on her knees.
Suddenly one of the young men of the party crawled before Olive, his hand over his heart.
“Marry me,” he said.
Olive laughed again, which doubled as her response.
As the man walked off, defeated yet still smiling, he said with great style: “Her beauty was the embodiment of repose.”
This party had been going on for years.
As a girl growing up, Olive’s only friend was her sister, Flora. But she had been gone for a long time, having married a very serious man named Hubert Walter. When Flora accepted his proposal, Olive remembered Flora sitting and staring at her engagement ring as if it were locked to some invisible chain. Flora had most recently been in Belgium with her husband, who was helping to negotiate the government’s takeover of the Congo after atrocities had been reported there. Olive had recently attended a lecture on the subject, which was quite boring despite the horrors described.
Olive’s friends were a more eclectic group. First among them was Violet, the daughter of the newly elected prime minister, H. H. Asquith. There was also Blanche “Baffy” Dugdale, the gentile Zionist intellectual who lived in London and wrote letters to everybody. The men they socialized with were of similar pedigree and wealth if not entirely their equal. They included Archie Hamilton-Gordon, Violet’s beau, and Maurice “Bongie” Bonham-Carter, who worked for the P.M. and was a batsman for the Oxford Cricket Club. Olive’s trustworthy old friend Mr. Hardy was always there. But at the dinner parties Olive was always accompanied by her father. Everyone knew that Olive’s mother Agnes was ill, but she wasn’t seen very much about Vinters. She was rumored to be off with a relative or friend.
As the summer wore on, Olive and her friends congregated at dinner parties, teas, and on excursions to the Continent. They had a party on the Sunbury Belle, a boat on the Thames covered in cherries, grapes, and bananas. They drank iced coffee on the white deck. There were suitors, of course, but Olive treated them like meals at a table. She and Violet were often engaged to dance partners ten feet deep on any given night. Olive would creep up next to Violet at a party and say, “So-and-so is a dangerous character and you mustn’t dance with him.” Violet would just laugh in her face and declare it “the greatest rot.” They danced and laughed with all manner of men until, as Violet often put it, “the birds came out.” They would then retire to their core group and motorcar until dawn, their minds a blank as the sun rose to shed light on the ruins of their evenings.
Life, in fact, was rich and brilliant. Sometimes Olive looked around like she barely recognized it.
So when a friend asked her to come meet an explorer of some renown, it sounded somewhat boorish, but it held at least the promise of perhaps being interesting—which was her favorite thing—so she agreed, after only minimal persuasion.
* * *
THE MEADOWS WERE FLUSH with oxeye daisies when Olive and a friend drove south to Cranbrook on a late-summer day in 1908. They were traveling to Swifts Place, a country estate where Jane Austen had once lived, located near the quaint town of Cranbrook in Kent. As they drove, Olive took a deep breath, inhaling the smell of hay and the motor. The man they were going to meet was some sort of taxidermist who had built his own museum. The fact that he stuffed birds was hilarious to Olive. He was probably yet another Rifle Brigadier. No wonder her friend wanted company: She would need the protection. At least the ride had been worth it.
When they chugged along the main drive, Olive’s eyes widened at the sight of Swifts Place, a towering manor with three brick chimneys. Surrounded by green grass bursting with richly colored flowers, the house was grand and palatial. Olive guessed it must have at least twenty rooms. The explorer who was born there, was now living in Wilsley House, located on the back of the estate. As they passed Swifts Place onto a bumpier road, Olive saw another car quickly turn from the other side of the home and speed off in the other direction. The man who was driving was laughing.
They made their way for a bit until they saw the back of another house. As they pulled up to Wilsley House, a charming brick-and-tile house with steep gables, Olive saw that their host was waiting for them. He was trim and wore a light suit with a dark tie. His chestnut brown hair was parted on his left and close-shaven on the sides. His mustache was long, tapered at the ends, and full above his upper lip. As he welcomed them, his smile lay in his cheeks and in the outside corners of his dark eyes. Olive shook hands with him. He looked and felt military.
“Lieutenant Boyd Alexander,” the man said.
“Olive MacLeod,” she replied.
They sat down inside to a white tablecloth set with bone china. Olive was only half there, tired from the previous night’s festivities and the long drive. They were joined by a few other family and friends. The interior of the home was lain with oak panels. Olive saw various types of scientific equipment. She also spied books, mostly about Africa, but also works of Oscar Wilde, H. Rider Haggard’s Allan Quatermain adventures, and a slim volume titled Leaves of Grass. In one room, the walls were covered with dark murals. Along the bottom were painted a series of lean, white dogs that were hunting a terrified hare who occupied the furthest left panel. The upper panels were something else entirely. Olive saw that they depicted, in older, even darker hues, scenes from the Bible. She saw Sodom burning in fire. Someone must have seen the surprise on her face because they told her that the room had previously been used as a chapel.
As they lunched on soup and roast chicken someone remarked that Mr. Alexander had recently returned from Africa himself. In fact he had just been awarded the Founder’s Medal by the Royal Geographical Society. Olive perked up at this impressive news. She knew little of Africa other than it was beastly hot.
After some coaxing, Mr. Alexander told the table that his latest expedition had begun in Nigeria before going on to map the mysterious Lake Chad; the journey had taken three years. He said he eventually made his way to the Nile itself—an astonishing feat. Olive studied Mr. Alexander’s face as he pushed his spoon through his soup. As he spoke, in a thin voice, he seemed a thousand miles away.
Olive didn’t know how it came up, but Mr. Alexander—or someone else, she couldn’t remember—brought up that two of the expedition’s number had unfortunately died on the journey, a hunter named Gosling and a man named Claud. Olive found this to be terribly sad.
“Claud was my brother,” said Mr. Alexander.
There was another man named Talbot, but he departed the expedition before its close. Mr. Alexander had a trusty servant named José Lopez who remained, but he also left before the final journey. When Mr. Alexander reached the Nile, in rags and parched for water, he was the final member left of the original party.
Now Olive regarded this Mr. Alexander with something close to pity.
Lunch was finished on milder topics. As the others dispersed, Mr. Alexander beckoned his two guests: It was time to see his museum.
* * *
AS THEY LEFT THE DINING ROOM, Olive imagined a great, two-story gallery filled with stuffed leopards, apes, and perhaps even a lion skin. Majestic birds of near-prehistoric size would be suspended from wires above the rich wooden display cases. She shivered, wondering if Mr. Alexander’s great collection might include some shrunken heads.
Olive was surprised when they walked outside the grand house and back into the sun. Olive blinked and looked around—she spotted a carriage house down the lane. But when they walked right by the carriage house and into a small yard, Olive grew even more confused.
“Here it is,” said Mr. Alexander.
They were standing in front of an outhouse.
The small structure was built of horizontal slats of wood. The roof was slanted, and there was a rectangular door on hinges. Olive could not believe it; she was already rehearsing what she would tell Violet.
“There is only room for two,” he said.
When he opened the door and beckoned Olive inside, she caught her breath, but only because she could not believe what she saw.
Inside this wooden outhouse, covering every interior inch, was a sprawling miniature jungle. Olive’s gaze got lost in the series of branches and leaves twisting and flowering from the ground up to the gables of the roof. But the real wonder of the scene was that covering the branches were countless birds of the most colorful shades and shapes. Olive soon realized the precariousness of their position. She instinctively went to shut the door so that none of the birds would escape the little sanctuary. But then she realized that wouldn’t be necessary. All the birds were cold and stuffed, frozen and still in their dead Eden.
There were tiny birds with yellow beaks, larger ones with orange tufts on their heads, and red birds with feet of the brightest white. This secret, surprising jungle was one of the strangest and most spectacular tableaus Olive had ever seen.
Boyd Alexander seemed to come alive in that tiny, sacred place. He rattled off the names of the birds with great skill, especially when it was in another language. He told her stories about where he had found this bird and that. They all had stories, though their names were being said so fast that Olive could hardly remember them.
“The red thrush is more lovely in voice than the nightingale,” said Mr.Alexander, “though shyer than she.” He told Olive how he had waited for hours “to catch sight of the maker of such pure music—but never to see more than a flash of red in the interval of silence.” This Mr. Boyd Alexander, who was standing very close to Miss Olive MacLeod, had a way with words. As he talked, Olive spied his signet ring, which showed a crescent, an elephant, and a fleur-de-lis in silver-white and black.
After Olive left the little museum, it was time to make their good-byes. Mr. Alexander smiled under his mustache, and his dark eyes softened when he came to Olive. As they drove home, Olive was glad she had come. Mr. Alexander had proved to be a most interesting host, though she had to admit she found him lonely and lost.
She was surprised when she got a letter from him.
He wanted to see her again.
* * *
WHEN OLIVE SUSAN MIRANDA MACLEOD was born, in St. George’s Hanover Square in London, on February 17, 1880, her two-year-old sister Flora was anxiously awaiting her. From that moment forward, as the family moved around London, to Scotland, then to Kent, the sisters were inseparable. Flora was very sensible and practical: Olive was always the more rebellious one. When their mother tried to separate their bedtimes, Olive simply refused. In fact, their mother soon found that it was pointless to try to punish Olive for anything. If Olive was sent to bed early, she would sleep late the next morning. If she was told she couldn’t have a treat, she would loudly claim that she no longer liked it. This is why Olive chose to invite Mr. Alexander to Vinters, where Flora could function as her conscience at the ready. Flora had recently come home with her husband and young children, and though she had been somewhat removed from Olive’s life since her marriage, her opinion still very much mattered to her.
Olive also wanted Flora to meet Mr. Alexander because her sister was a first-rate investigator. Almost as soon as he arrived and sat himself down to dinner, Flora began asking him about his personal losses in the jungle.
“How helpless you must have felt,” said Flora, “seeing them die.” She was relentless in her interrogation and unafraid to ask questions of men.
“It made me more determined to succeed,” answered Mr. Alexander. “The expedition had cost us so dear; I could not afford to fail.”
“Isn’t that splendid grit?” said Flora, glancing down the table at anyone who was listening.
Mr. Alexander told them another story of how he and his companion, José Lopez, tracked down an okapi, a rare and most curious animal that most had considered a myth.
Once again Olive noticed that Mr. Alexander became excited when talking about Africa.
“The sublime creature is short,” he said, his hands moving to help in the imagining, “with horizontal, zebra-like stripes on its two legs. Its body is covered with a soft brown fur, making it difficult to spot. Its head is deer-like, with some white and grey.” His eyes drifted far away during the minutely detailed description. Mr. Alexander explained that they finally found and shot one, bringing its striped skin back home with them as proof of their deed.
As the table congratulated him, Mr. Alexander was sure to paint the victory as a shared one between himself and José. When asked how they met, Mr. Alexander said that he had rescued José as a boy from a small fishing village on the island of St. Nicolas during an expedition in Cape Verde. Since then, they had been on numerous adventures together, some of them quite dangerous. Mr. Alexander paused, his eyes on the children, then announced that he supposed he could tell them another story from Africa.
It was early evening when he found himself wandering down a path in the jungle, sick with fever. Mr. Alexander stopped when he noticed two lions, a male and a female, calmly sitting on the path ahead. Mr. Alexander backed off, went the long way around, and sent word to José, who was following behind, to do the same. But his friend did not get the message and later saw the male lion at a pool, where he took a shot that felled him. But after a few moments, the lion rose up again, with only some broken teeth to show for it. José went to find Mr. Alexander. They were in trouble.
Knowing they had a wounded lion in the area, Mr. Alexander and José got their long guns. But Mr. Alexander was still sweating with fever, so as José left to scout, he looked quietly around the camp. It was then that Mr. Alexander described seeing a “large mass of live yellow, crouching under the screen of branches of an overhanging bush.” The lion roared and leaped at the shivering Mr. Alexander. He was done for. But just then, José appeared from the trees and fired a shot that made the lion bound away in fear. His friend had saved his life.
When someone asked what happened next, Mr. Alexander took a sip of his drink and said that they hunted the beast down, and he shot him in the head.
At the conclusion of the interview masquerading as a meal, Mr. Alexander went to the next room to play with Flora’s children, who seemed to adore him. In addition to his practical jokes, he won them over with tales of the arched and scaly pangolin. He then only slightly terrorized them with stories of huge vampire bats with teeth like sharks. Flora smiled. She had been the recipient of near-infinite advice about men from Olive over the years, almost all of it critical. But Flora now beckoned her sister’s ear. Her only criticism was that Mr. Alexander seemed a little tolerant of the Congo government, but Olive thought she felt that way about everyone. Boyd believed that native rulers should be worked with closely to help eliminate the slave trade. His eyes burned with a fire of hatred when he talked about slavery. Olive could not imagine the horrors he had seen firsthand. Flora was quite pleased.
“I have never seen anybody,” said Flora, “so simple nor so generous, nor one who thought so slowly—the combination is charming.”
Flora, the safe and good storyteller, had made her pronouncement. Olive had much to consider.
* * *
BY THE TIME THE SUMMER HAD RIPENED into September, Mr. Alexander had no doubts about his feelings for Olive MacLeod. Even though he had never been in love before, he told his brother Herbert, a well-regarded watercolorist who entertained thoughts of visiting the South Pole. Though he was initially wary of this new woman, when Herbert met Olive he understood his brother’s position completely. Of all Boyd’s living siblings—including Marion and Robin, his identical twin—it was Herbert who was closest. Herbert had helped Boyd write his last book, From the Niger to the Nile. When they were done, they set off fireworks into the night sky over Swifts Place in celebration.
To her friends Olive seemed to be a little worried. She found Boyd Alexander interesting. She couldn’t put her finger on it, but there was something about him that greatly intrigued her. But it was all so sudden. There were other things to consider. Yet, he interested her. When he sent her a bit of heather from the Weald, the wild fields around Wilsley, she put it in the locket around her neck.
But there was something on the horizon that threatened everything. Before he met Olive, Mr. Alexander had been planning a return trip to Africa. He was going to leave at the end of the year, along with José Lopez, to map a new route through the forbidden deserts, all the way up to Egypt. And, of course, to collect more birds. Though he had been a soldier, Boyd was first and foremost a birder. Even as his column marched across Africa to the battle of Kumassi in 1900, José still followed as part of the relief crew, collecting the birds that Boyd felled along the way. Boyd was once reprimanded by his superior officer for running off to a forest to look for birds with José even though the area was still crawling with enemy soldiers.
The trip they were planning would be filled with danger on a grander scale. Wadai and Dar Fur, the vast, unmarked regions east of Lake Chad and southwest of the great city of Khartoum, were places of unrest. Muhammad Ahmad, the Mahdi who was prophesied to bring about the end of all evil, had defeated the British at Khartoum just over twenty years ago. The Mahdi hung the head of his adversary, Maj. Gen. Charles George Gordon, in the branches of a tree.
Followers flocked to the Mahdi, believing he was created from the sacred light of the Prophet’s heart. When he died of typhus the following year, his regime fell apart, and the British—with the Egyptians—retook Khartoum. But the death of one leader begat the rise of another. A young Arab fighter named Ali Dinar assassinated and replaced the sultan of Dar Fur. A mysterious ruler who shunned any kind of visitation, he was the one the British were worried about.
This was the inferno that Mr. Alexander was set to travel through. It was going to be quite an adventure.
But then came Olive.
Since their second meeting Olive had decided to read Mr. Alexander’s book From the Niger to the Nile. One passage seemed to explain why he had to leave: “Every explorer looks upon the map of that part of the world which particularly calls him,” he wrote, “and endeavors to find a spot that still affords opportunity for the special powers he may possess for finding out the secrets that it hides.”
Boyd knew that his mother, Mary, did not want him to go, but he suspected she would be eager to be rid of José for a while. She frequently complained, in her own cultivated way, that one kitchen maid or another was giving far too much attention to José, who was presenting the girl with brooches and compliments. Boyd couldn’t help but laugh in agreement. José’s dark eyes had earned him a reputation among the servants at Swifts Place. There was also the issue of money and resources that had already been committed to the trip. It was simply too late to cancel. Mr. Alexander had to return to Africa.
“Well, it’s got to be done now, everyone expects it of me,” said Mr. Alexander to Herbert. His trip to the Nile had won him medals, awards, and scientific acclaim. He felt he could not do anything less. “You see,” he said, “when once one is a marked man one is not allowed to stop.” He then added with a laugh, “I don’t suppose I shall get any rest till I leave my bones in Africa.”
Olive had told no one about Boyd except for her sister. Their friendship felt like a secret, but not the kind that hurt to keep. They met and walked among the lime trees of Swifts Place, where they sat on a bench and had a deep conversation. That is why it was not a surprise when, soon after, Boyd Alexander asked Olive MacLeod to marry him in the church near his family home. Not long after, he shipped off to Africa from Liverpool on December 12, 1908.
Boyd promised Olive he would see her again in one short year.
He said he had something to do.
FATE OF LIEUT.
VICTIM OF NATIVE
The Foreign Office Has Been Informed By The French Government, Through The British Ambassador At Paris, That News Has Been Received From Nyeri, In Wadai, That Lieut. Boyd Alexander, The Well-Known Explorer, Has Been Murdered. No Details Of The Tragedy Are Yet To Hand.
Copyright © 2020 by Brad Ricca.