The Lady’s Guide to Escaping Cannibals – Emmanuelle de Maupassant

OVERHEAD, the sun blazed fiercely. Sweat trickled from his forehead, but Captain de Silva kept his spyglass steady. “What’re we doin’ ’ere, Cap’n?” His quartermaster pushed his wad of tobacco from one side of his mouth to the other. “I tell ye, the place be cursed.” Several of the crew had gathered behind them on the Tween Deck, listening to what passed between their captain and Old Tom. Jorge understood why they were uneasy. The waters were shadowed by more than the island’s long-simmering volcano. There were stories about Vanuaka—of savagery, of dark vele magic, of death. No ship liked to sail too close—as if mere proximity would bring the evil eye. Why, then, was he here? Jorge had no answer—only a feeling. Through the spyglass, he watched three gebo launching—the canoes of the Vanuaka islanders, with their toto isu mounted on the prow. There was no mistaking those totems, with their jutting jaws and enlarged heads, the lips spread wide to reveal chiselled teeth dyed red. Moving fast, they weren’t fishing, nor ferrying a corpse to the next island for burial, but cutting through the water as if in pursuit. Of what, he couldn’t tell. Even Vanuaka’s warriors wouldn’t attack a vessel such as his.

Their spears and arrows were no match for pistols. Some way off, the lead canoe stilled its oars and the forward occupant stood, loading a single shaft into his bow. Arcing through the air, it covered a thousand yards before hitting the water, some distance from The Marguerite. A warning shot? Perhaps. The islanders sat for a moment before taking up oars again. Turning the gebo around, they headed back. There was nothing more to see. His quartermaster was right. It served no purpose to bring them so close to Vanuaka. Wiping his neck scarf across his eyes, Jorge gave the order.

“Westward, Tom. We’ve time to make up.” “Aye, Cap’n.” Tom spat his tobacco over the side and nodded his approval. “Full sails, lads. Look sharp!” No one needed telling twice. Kofi and Aldrix were already halfway up the rigging, eager to unfurl the main sail. Jorge turned his face to the wind. It was fair, alright; he’d been unwise to delay them thus far. He was making for the bow when the cry came from above.

“Adaro!” Jorge’s young cousin, Afu, hung from the top of the main mast, his arm outstretched, his body rigid. “Adaro!” he shouted again. There was a sudden stillness. Every man ceased in his labour, casting eyes out over the water. Tom yelled back. “It’ll be a dolphin yer seeing, Afu. Untie them ropes an’ get down ’ere.” “’Tis adaro!” Afu’s eyes were wide with fear. Jorge raised the spyglass again. What was his cousin seeing? The sea was full of mysteries.

He’d witnessed too much he couldn’t explain to discount superstition entirely, but he didn’t believe in adaro—those malevolent sea spirits intent on tricking the unwary. With gills behind the ears, fins, and a tail instead of feet, they were said to be more fish than man. Jorge scanned the waves. Nothing. Just sea foam. A few petrels bobbing on the water. And then it appeared from beneath, gliding, the dorsal fin breaking the surface. A bull shark. “I see it, Cap’n.” His helmsman, Erico, was beside him.

“It’ll make good eating if we can harpoon it.” Jorge realized he’d been holding his breath. He almost laughed. And then they heard the scream. Unearthly. Chilling. Before them was a sight so ghastly Jorge felt the bile rise in his throat. He saw what he hadn’t before, that the shark was carrying something in its jaws—a man thrashing to break free. Others had seen it too and Erico was already fetching the crossbow. Affixing the end of the line to the deck’s chock, he rested the stock to his shoulder and took aim.

“Lord save ’im!” Old Tom leaned over the gunwale. “No man ought to die like that.” Jorge fought down his revulsion. If Erico missed the shark, he hoped the spear would strike the man’s heart. Better a quick end than the agony of being torn by razored teeth. The bolt flew, whipping the line behind it, curving through the air, until the line stretched near to its limit and pulled taut. It had found its target. JORGE TOOK the launch boat alone to retrieve the poor devil, leaving the shark to be hauled in. One look told him there could be no question of recovery. His torso was deeply pierced where the shark had taken hold, but another injury marked the body: the shaft of an arrow, buried in the man’s back.

The same arrow the warrior had let loose? Jorge would have bet a hundred sovereigns upon it. Fair-haired and pale-skinned, the upturned face was that of a European, fiercely sunburnt, his nose and cheeks peeling, the lips blistered raw. There was no point telling him he’d pull through. It would be a lie. Better for Jorge to find out what he could. The man would have family somewhere, waiting for him. Jorge grasped his palm. “What’s your name?” The man’s lids, swollen red, fluttered briefly but didn’t open. “I’ll tell your people I found you. Speak if you can.

” Jorge kept his eyes on the dying man’s mouth, bent his head closer, to catch anything he might say, but he lay unmoving. He was too far gone; a blessing, no doubt, for he’d be in terrible pain. Jorge looked at the hand, limp within his. The fingers were long and elegant, the smallest adorned with a ring of gold inset with a hunk of some golden stone. Topaz? Worth something. If it came off easily, he’d keep it. Otherwise, it could stay where it was. He hadn’t the stomach to cut off the man’s finger for the sake of a few coins. Twisting the band, it slid to the knuckle, revealing a white stripe beneath. Jorge tugged again and the ring came off fully.

He supposed he might as well check the man’s pockets. There might be something else of value. He found only a square of paper, tightly folded. If it were a letter, it might hold some clue as the poor bastard’s identity. Opening it, Jorge peered at what remained. The edges were already disintegrating, and the ink had blotted and bloomed, making the contents difficult to decipher, but it wasn’t a letter. Someone had drawn a picture—starfish-shaped, with a rising hill at the centre. He looked back to the island, recalling its shape from the charts. Not a hill but a volcano, and the five arms were its headlands. A landing point was marked and, above, a place to climb—rather like a branching tree.

Jorge frowned. Was this what had brought the stranger to Vanuaka? Some idea of treasure, and this was his map? If so, then avarice had gifted its own reward. Nevertheless, Jorge felt uneasy. Regardless of his intent, it could hardly be that the man had ventured here alone. Where were his men, and where was his ship? Someone had agreed to bring the fool here. Back on The Marguerite, Afu still clung high on the rigging, watching him. Others, too, were staring—leaning over the gunwale. They’d be wondering what was keeping him. Either the man was alive or he was dead. If the latter, it served no purpose to sit here.

With a sigh, Jorge lifted him beneath the shoulders. Whatever his sins, a man deserved a few kindly thoughts to follow him to his grave. He’d heave him over and speak a Christian prayer; that would have to do. However, as the man’s head came upright, crimson bubbled from his mouth. Tipping him quickly to one side, giving the man a chance to draw air, Jorge pressed again. “Who are your people?” The answer was a whisper. “Bath—she—” The man gasped, choking, coughing up more blood onto the deck of the little boat. “—bahhhh.” More sighed than spoken, the low wheeze, expelled through parched lips, was his last. C HA P T E R O NE The Fairfax Hotel, Port Moresby, British New Guinea 12th October, 1899 BATHSHEBA LOWERED herself onto the edge of the bed, dabbing the cool cloth to her face and neck.

She gave a long sigh. Never had she felt so grubby, the moisture trickling between her breasts and down her back. Was this what hell was like—being eternally braised in a stew of torrid humidity? Sebastian had mentioned the heat, but she simply hadn’t been able to imagine. Now, she no longer needed to. “Your bath will be ready in no time at all, m’lady.” Hattie appeared at the door to the adjoining room. “The water’s quite clean looking, and I put in a few drops of the hibiscus oil you like.” Bathsheba smiled her thanks. What would she do without Hattie? The journey from England would have been most unpleasant without her loyal maid and companion at her side. Not that Bathsheba didn’t consider herself capable.

Nor did she shy from a little discomfort. The present accommodation, for instance, arranged for her by Sebastian, was hardly luxurious. Besides the bed, there was only a small table, with two rattan chairs to sit upon. Nevertheless, the two long windows, with great shutters to close at night, allowed plenty of light to enter, and the walls were painted prettily in yellow. Being a corner room, she could look out over both the harbour and the marketplace, filled with horse-drawn carts and merchants hawking their wares—vivid hued fabrics in teetering stacks, an array of spices, and fruits piled high. There seemed a never-ending tide of customers, and smaller vendors, too—women carrying heaped mangoes and papaya in baskets atop their heads, others with trays of fish or eggs. The windows were latched open for the moment, allowing a gentle breeze to stir the hanging voiles. Being on the uppermost floor, they were somewhat removed from the more pungent harbour odours and those of the street, and the traders’ calls drifted upwards half-muted. The facilities at her father’s camp would likely be more primitive still, but Bathsheba reminded her that none of that would matter—only that she’d joined them at last. She’d telegraphed from Jakarta to confirm the approximate date of her ship’s arrival and the hotel had promised to send a message to the camp, at Vuru—a few hundred miles down the coast.

It would only be a few days before Sebastian came to collect her. “Here, let’s help you out of these clothes.” Hattie moved to unbutton her mistress’s travelling costume. “We’ll soon have you feeling refreshed. A nice bath is just what’s needed; then, we can see about some supper.” Hattie’s nimble fingers worked quickly, removing all encumbrances until Bathsheba stood in her chemise and drawers. Carefully, she unclasped the silver locket from her neck, which held the tiny portrait of Sebastian. “I’ll go down and see about a table.” Giving the skirt and jacket a shake, Hattie placed them over a wide hook protruding from the wall and folded the blouse over her arm. She was so conscientious.

She’d have the shirtwaist rinsed through and hanging up to dry in no time. Not that Bathsheba intended to put those clothes on again. The muslin dresses she’d brought would be far cooler. “And I’ll bring tea when I come up again. Best thing, they say—even when it’s hot,” Hattie chattered on, clearly feeling far more energetic than Bathsheba felt. It was rather a relief to hear the door click shut. Much as she appreciated Hattie’s attentions, Bathsheba yearned for a little peace and quiet. Easing herself beneath the fragranced water, Bathsheba closed her eyes and sent up a silent prayer for the bounty of the Fairfax’s plumbing. The passage had lasted many weeks, and what a journey it had been. She’d sailed only once before, when she’d been but five years old, accompanying her mother back to England from Sierra Leone.

This journey had been altogether different. With only Hattie as chaperone, she’d had such freedom—even managing some short excursions at their landing ports. They’d passed through the Strait of Gibraltar and across the Mediterranean before reaching Port Said and the Suez Canal. Emerging into the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, they’d made the final leg—past Ceylon and Las Islas Filipinas, all the way to Moresby. Now, here she was—on the very opposite side of the world, ready to embark on the next stage of her adventure. Leaving Biddingford had been the right decision. She’d been cast adrift since the death of her husband. The place she’d called home was now his son’s—overseen by his young wife, and filled with their already growing brood. Lord Asquith’s will had made provision for her, of course: a financial settlement of more money than she’d ever have cause to spend, and permission for her to stay as long as she wished at Biddingford Hall, or at their London townhouse. However, she’d felt in the way almost immediately, a feeling only consolidated by a sojourn with her late mother’s family.

Of course, she had Hattie, and a great many cousins, uncles and aunts: a whole host of people eager to give her advice on what she should do, now that she was three years widowed. Advice that pointed in a single direction—for her to remarry at the earliest convenience. It didn’t seem to matter who, as long as he matched her in social and financial standing—someone whom the family could approve of. But she’d already travelled that path, and it hadn’t brought her happiness—no more than it had done for her own parents. She supposed that her mother must have been enraptured by her father, once upon a time, for the marriage appeared ill-advised. He’d come from a long line of academics, lacking the sort of income that would keep them in style in London, and without intention of curbing his work for the sake of a wife. No sooner were they wed than he’d whisked her mother to the Gold Coast of West Africa. Whatever adventurous spirit had inhabited her mother was squashed by the heat and insects, lack of Society and, Bathsheba suspected, her husband’s indifference. She was thoroughly unsuited to the life Bathsheba’s father led and, by the time Bathsheba was five, her mother had abandoned hope altogether and decamped back to England. As a consequence, Bathsheba had grown up hardly knowing her father, his trips home being so infrequent as to make him a stranger.

Not so Sebastian, who’d been seven at the time of the marriage. Between terms at Eton and then Oxford, he’d joined Bathsheba and his stepmother at Biddingford Hall.

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