'I wonder what is behind Richard's transfer,' said George Sharp, Superintendent of Police, irritably. 'He's a fool to ask to be sent to that place. He's not a youngster anymore. It's such a rough place. He will have to travel a lot. There is plenty of deep sand and thick mud everywhere.' He slowed down in front of the District Commissioner's Residence and searched for a parking place.
'I say George, it's going to be quite a party,' his wife Wendy exclaimed, while looking at all the cars parked around. 'I hope it will be a success, for Richard's sake.'
George stopped the car and looked at his wife with suspicion.' Anything I don't know of Wendy? You women always seem to have first-class information.'
'Do you think so darling?' Wendy smiled, 'maybe you are right in a way, except we call it a woman's intuition.'
Richard's new district was on the border of the Okavango Swamps in the North Western part of Bechuanaland (now Botswana). It was a bushy country teaming with game and birds. The village or rather the camp where Randall had his headquarters was a tiny place. A few houses, a store, a butcher shop, a police station. Further in the bush was an African village surrounded by lands under cultivation. For miles and miles around there was nothing but flat bush dotted with tiny African settlements, marked by rivers, streams and tracks.
'What is that?' George called. 'A domestic crisis, No, I don't believe it. They're so fond of each other, and he is such a tactful man. How we shall miss his tact and social talents here. He has always managed to straighten out all our problems, and smooth out all our differences. And we're not exactly an easy community. What foolishness to allow him to bury himself in the wilderness.'
They got out of the car and moved towards the large white house surrounded by old jacaranda trees. They joined a group of newly arrived guests and walked together, talking in subdued voices.
'The place won't be the same without Richard.'
'Yes, we've been lucky to have him here for so long. I hate to lose him.'
Richard Randall, handsome in his white colonial uniform, welcomed his guests warmly. He was a dark haired man, well preserved (though already in his fifties), tall and lean. He had a friendly face and engaging manners. There were smiles and handshakes and Richard's hearty voice, 'So good of you to come.'
On the green, freshly clipped lawns, among the frangipani and hibiscus trees, stood tables and chairs shaded by colorful umbrellas. An impressive bar was placed under the jacaranda trees. The African waiters in their white uniforms and red turbans waited attentively upon the ladies. The women relaxed in the chairs, and the men pushed to the bar. One person, however, was missing.
'It's just like her,' one woman murmured to the other, 'to keep us waiting, still it does not matter anymore I suppose.'
'There she is,' the women watched Elizabeth Randall descending the steps to the garden. Their old resentment grew. She walked gracefully and slowly without looking at anybody. Her fashionable green dress went well with her pale blond hair. From afar her face seemed smooth and unlined. She wore a hat gloves and stockings. She looked fresh and elegant.
'I should be all hot and bothered on the day of our departure,' whispered Betty from the Veterinary Department to Joan, the wife of the Postmaster. 'But look at her.'
Joan laughed, 'Don't forget she has Richard for a husband. He does the packing, he supervises the servants, and he makes all arrangements. I bet you she hasn't lifted a hand for this farewell party, but she continued to be so very tired,' they giggled.
'She is very beautiful,' a young woman, wife of the newly arrived Agricultural Officer said with open admiration.
'She was,' said the wife of a Senior Agriculture Officer with resentment. 'But her looks and clothes are about all she is. Suzie, do you know why I insisted you wear a hat, gloves and stockings? Elizabeth Randall is terribly fashion conscious, always has been. It was her desire to educate us in this respect. She tried to impress social grace upon us. She would always appear immaculately dressed, and whether one liked it or not, one had to follow suit. We couldn't afford to be looked down on by her. Here we are in the middle of the bush, and instead of being relaxed and cool, we had to behave as if we were in the court of Queen Elizabeth. A little snob, that's what she is.'
'Fancy,' a woman whispered from another table. 'She has forgotten her sun glasses. I've never before seen Elizabeth without them. She hates the sun.'
'Quite right,' agreed her friend. 'Her house has always reminded me of catacombs, dark and curtained from top to bottom. She cannot stand the sun. She is so delicate.'
'Well, I think she is,' a thin, ugly woman with merry eyes and bright smile, a newly appointed lady doctor, interrupted. 'I think she is a sick person. But whether she does not bring it upon herself is another matter. I wonder whether this is not her self-defiance. Maybe she feels that she is ignored, unwanted'
'Ignored, my foot,' Winifred Smith, the Senior Medical Officer's wife exploded. 'Who ignores whom? Just watch her. She ignores us all the time,' They watched her standing next to her husband, talking to the men.
'Elizabeth Randall has essentially always been a man's woman. Unfortunately, she has had the pleasure of being the centre of their admiring glances less and less. Even her expensive cosmetics cannot conceal the fact that she is getting on in years. Oh, here come the refreshments. I'm quite famished.' Helping themselves to food, Winifred and her friends watched Elizabeth and Richard.
'He adores her,' Wendy Sharp said between mouthfuls of pie.
'The world is full of fools,' Winifred searched for her favorite tit-bits in the tray. 'And men are mostly fools when it comes to beautiful women. The more you do for them, less they appreciate you. This is another piece of wisdom. I have nothing against Richard, but the way he carries on about his doll-like wife is more than I can stand. Don't you agree Wendy?'
'George, thinks that we have something to do with Richard's transfer,' Wendy reached for another pie.
Winifred burst into laughter. 'Really, men are funny creatures. They attribute more importance to us than we possess. How could we transfer the Randall's? Do we have authority to do it? I, as the wife of the Senior Medical Officer, could not even make Elizabeth work for our Red Cross clinic, or bake a cake for a fete. Really, men are funny creatures.
But here she comes at last.'
Elizabeth walked towards them leaning on her husband's arm. The men followed carrying glasses. Elizabeth looked tense, and even her voice was strained when she greeted them.
'So glad you have managed to come,' she was repeating, clinging to her husband's arm. Richard's voice boomed behind her. 'Yes, we could not possibly leave without a proper good-bye to all and our last drink together. You have all been pretty wonderful to us.'
The women looked embarrassed. The men intoned, 'For he's a jolly good fellow'.' There were speeches and toasts. Elizabeth was very quiet and looked forlorn.
'Good-bye, my dears.' The last to say good-bye were the Doctor and Mrs. Smith. The doctor watched Elizabeth kindly. 'Look after yourself. It's going to be pretty rough up there. Remember to take anti-malaria tablets, sleep under a mosquito net, boil your water, take a good rest every afternoon, and write to me whenever you need anything, headache pills, nerve tonic and so forth.'
Winifred burst out laughing. 'William, you make me laugh! With Richard around, she is as safe as if she were in the middle of London. Do you remember, how we were stationed 25 years ago right in the middle of the desert? We had an old dilapidated house, a kitchen outside under a sheet of corrugated iron, and no toilet facilities. We used to have an invasion of red ants; we used to find scorpions on our sheets, and snakes under ours beds. Our first son was born when you were away, and our old maid Sarah delivered him.'
'You don't look like a martyr,' the Doctor interrupted her laughing,
Winifred simply shrugged her massive shoulders. 'I suppose I had to do it, having you for a husband.'
The place where the Randall's stayed was picturesque enough. The lazy flowing river was just below their house. The banks of the river were densely covered with evergreen trees and shrubs. From morning till night the birds sang joyfully amongst the twigs and reeds. The wild ducks and geese circled round and round the water. A slim graceful duiker or steenbok would appear in the grass and look curiously around. A blue monkey would watch him from the tree. For safety's sake a turtle would put his head back into his shell. There were masses of bougainvilleas and arum lilies in Elizabeth garden. Enormous butterflies flew from flower to flower glittering in the sun. There was only beauty and tranquility in their place, but Elizabeth complained.
'I have nothing to do. The servants take care of the house and the garden, and I'm left alone without you for days and days.'
'Come with me on safari, darling. The bush is so beautiful after the rain. When you sleep under the starry sky and wake up with the sun rising over the trees, you have a new lease on life.'
'I need rest Richard,' Elizabeth answered dully, 'you said yourself; you welcomed this change for my sake, so that I might have absolute peace. I shall feel rotten after being in your truck for so many hours, having no comfortable bed to sleep in, and not eating decently prepared food. I shall rather stay here and rest.'
'Please yourself darling. I only wish you were happier and enjoyed life. Try to find some interests to occupy your mind.'
Elizabeth smiled sarcastically.' The newspapers come with a week's delay, our order for books hasn't come yet, and what must I do with all these hours which lay ahead of me every day? Oh Richard! I wish we could go home.' She looked at him with tears in her green eyes.
'We are due for leave in less than a year's time. Think of the glorious time ahead of us. I must admit I sometimes feel like having a rest too. I could do with some quiet fishing at home, reading books, and seeing some good plays.'
'Going to cinema, window shopping, staying in good hotels, seeing some well-dressed people,' Elizabeth continued dreamily, 'Richard, that is what we both need. We need to go back to England and to stay there for good.'
Richard smiled indulgently, 'You would not like to clean our flat, cook, wash and do all the shopping by yourself. We love England for holidays, and when the time is up, we are glad to return to Africa. You know that don't you? We agreed long ago that we always want to be together. I know darling, but what a sacrifice it is for you to be here. But still, we're together that's the main point.' He kissed her gently. 'I love you, Elizabeth, and I wish I could make you happier. By the way,' he looked at her with uncertainly, 'I've met a delightful girl. She is so different from the usual crowd. Still, I don't know if you'd approve of her. She is quite a character. Mind you, she can afford to be. She is Lady Margaret Birch. She has a ranch here. Her husband died a couple years ago, and left her a small fortune. She comes and goes as it pleases her. She lives alone in a shack on the ranch, and seems as happy as a lark. Do you want to meet her?'
'But of course!'
'No hat, gloves, or stockings. I'm afraid she does not possess them in her wardrobe,' Richard looked rather sheepish.
'Ask her for a drink tomorrow evening,' said Elizabeth rather excited. 'I don't care what she wears.'
Lady Margaret Birch arrived in her battered Land-Rover, wearing slacks and a shirt. Seeing Elizabeth immaculately dressed, she apologized for her clothes, explaining that she had flown to her ranch with a paper bag.
'I was in such a hurry to catch the plane. The idea of coming here came to me while I was shopping on a foggy day in London. It was grey and cold. So I rushed to my house, grabbed few things, phoned the airport, and here I am.'
Richard laughed heartily. 'You wouldn't catch my wife doing that. What will you have to drink, Lady Margaret? Where would you like to sit?'
'Call me Margaret and I should love to sit outside. The moon is full tonight. I hate rooms. They remind me of my home in England.'
Elizabeth followed her meekly outside. Her good humor was ebbing. But Richard seemed unaware of her mood. He was animated, and enjoyed his conversation with the girl. They talked about game and safaris, bad roads and the beauty of the bush. Elizabeth felt uncomfortable. The mosquitoes kept biting her. The croaking of frogs were loud and disturbing. She hated them; she could never sleep well on account of them. But neither Margaret nor Richard seemed to mind. They laughed and joked, slapping mosquitoes or sometimes scratching their legs and arms. Elizabeth was fuming. She watched Margaret with resentment. She was pretty in a dark way, but too masculine, and too straight forward. Not Richard's kind, she mused relieved. She could rest assured.
'Nice girl, so natural, so unsophisticated in spite of all her money,' Richard said after she had left.
'I thought you did not like her type,' Elizabeth looked at him accusingly.
Richard laughed happily. 'Oh sure, she's rather too masculine and all of that. I prefer them to be less assured, a little helpless and very feminine. I know one of them, from whom I chose amongst many.' He drew Elizabeth to him and kissed her warmly. 'Still,' he mused, 'Margaret is an ideal companion for safaris. You'd better watch out, my little wife,' he winked at her merrily.
Margaret became their constant guest. In the beginning Elizabeth was flattered. However, she soon became anxious. She did not like the look in Margaret's eyes when she watched Richard. She had this soft, tender look which was disturbing. Elizabeth also resented her animation when Richard was present and her gaiety when she made him laugh and her dreamy eyes when he was gone. The girl was getting prettier by the day. She even wore frocks sometimes. They were bought in a local store and were not quite becoming, but strangely enough, she looked good in them. Elizabeth was to tried to warn Richard.
'The girl is too interested in you, Richard.'
'Oh, rest assured that Margaret is not a romantic type my dear, she is down to earth and all that. She is a modern woman. Besides, what would she see in an old faddy daddy man like me anyway?'
Elizabeth went with Margaret to see her ranch. The place was lonely and the house was in a state of partial dilapidation.
'Sue me,' Margaret laughed, 'I am as happy as a lark, here.'
Elizabeth was uneasy as they walked down to the river.
'When are you going back to England, Margaret?'
'I don't know,' the girl laughed. 'Tomorrow, or in a year's time, it all depends.'
'Depends on what?'
'It all depends on the weather. I hate the rain. But it seems to me that the rainy season is in the air.' She sniffed the air with her pretty, small nose. 'Still, I mustn't be selfish, this country is always thirsty. Look at my grand papas,' she pointed at the baobabs. I have four of them, the biggest in the district. Even the elephants cannot do them any harm, but they too need water to survive.' She ran to one of them and lovingly touched its swollen trunk. 'They will be here long after I'm gone.' She looked sadly away.
'Have you seen any elephants in the vicinity?' Elizabeth looked nervously around.
'They come now and then to drink water from the river. I'll show you the place I often watch them drinking.'
Elizabeth had had enough of the walk. She was tired and complained of her high-healed shoes. They returned to the car and drove back to the camp.
When Margaret suggested another outing, Elizabeth refused.
'But you must go out, Elizabeth. You're as pale as a corpse. It will do you the world of good. You cannot stay indoors and go on doing nothing. It will kill you.'
'When you reach my age and have been in Africa as long as I have, you'll feel the same. I'm not strong. Richard says I need a lot of rest.'
'Fiddlesticks. I thrive on the sun and I'm not so young. I will be thirty-six next month. Still, I don't allow myself to brood, we live but once.'
'You are very fortunate,' Elizabeth answered curtly.
'And you! Margaret exclaimed. 'You have a wonderful husband, you're sheltered, protected, loved. And you are a beautiful woman.'
'I was,' Elizabeth said with bitterness.
'As long as your husband thinks you are, that's all that matters.
Elizabeth looked at the girl sharply, but Margaret was gazing outside. 'It's getting cooler and the clouds are collecting. I think it will rain soon. Is Richard going on safari?'
'I think so.'
'He shouldn't,' Margaret called, 'he does not look well.'
'He can take care of himself,' Elizabeth answered coldly. 'He always does.' She stopped abruptly and watched the girl. 'What about having dinner with me when Richard is gone?' she added kindly. 'It would cheer us up.'
They dined together on the second day after Richard's departure. It was raining heavily.
'Second day of rain,' Margaret murmured. She looked depressed. 'I wonder how Richard is?'
'He is all right,' Elizabeth said angrily, 'he always manages fine, rain or
no rain, though he seemed to be restless the night before he left. He complained of a headache. But what's the use of expecting a man to listen to his wife. His work and his hobbies are always first. I stopped worrying about his safaris a long time ago.'
Margaret nibbled on her food and kept looking at the window. Elizabeth
was getting impatient. Here it was, her lovely menu prepared by the cook, and her artistically laid table; all unnoticed! The girl had no right to worry about Richard.
'Margaret,' she started violently.
But her next words were cut off by the entrance of two agitated servants.
'Madam, a man from the Podi pan wants to have a word with you.'
'What is it?' Elizabeth said sharply.
'It is about Mr. Randall.'
Margaret was running to the kitchen. Elizabeth shrugged her shoulders and followed her.
'I can't believe it,' Elizabeth exclaimed when the mud-covered African
related how he had walked for hours through the bush to bring the message that Mr. Randall was ill, and his truck was stuck near the Podi Pan.
'He said, I must go to the Police station and get help. I must not worry the Madam. But the station is shut, nobody was there, so I came here,' he ended lamely.
'How is Mr. Randall?' Margaret asked breathlessly.
'He shivers a lot, and sometimes he sleeps and talks plenty, then he calls for water and looks very red.'
Margaret was rushing to the door, and calling Elizabeth. 'Fetch your First Aid Kit, medicines blankets and some food. We must go at once.'
'Where to,' Elizabeth exclaimed.
'To the Podi Pan. The men can try the police station later. But there is no time to lose.'
Elizabeth shivered. 'You mean we go all alone?
Margaret nodded savagely, 'My Land-Rover has two seats. But if you prefer to stay at home, I shall take one of your servants.'
'I'll go,' Elizabeth said miserably.
' 'Very well then, get ready. I'll just get some more petrol.' She rushed into the night.
The night was dark. The trucks were muddy and slippery. The car wipers could not wipe off the deluge of water quick enough. Margaret cursed and swore. They passed low bridges overflowing with water, they skidded again and again, and they went in mad zigzags from one side of the bush to the other. Margaret drove as if she were possessed. Elizabeth held frantically to the door. Pools of water kept splashing the car left and right. Sometimes the car hit a pot hole and thick mud covered the windows, completely obstructing Margaret's view. The track became more and more muddy and finally disappeared in heaps of mud. Margaret was using four-wheel drive to plough through the mud. The Land-Rover went for a few hundred yards and stopped. It would not budge. The engine roared, the wheels were turning, but it did not move an inch.
Margaret switched off the engine. 'We're stuck,' she announced,' and only ten miles to go.' She began to quickly undress in the cabin. 'Still we can try to get out of this mess by making a platform out of branches and stones. You'd better do the same. You'll ruin your beautiful clothes,' she looked at Elizabeth sarcastically,' and get wet on top of it.'
Margaret was stark naked.
'What do you want me to do?' Elizabeth whispered frightened.
'Get undressed,' Margaret snapped. 'We shall get drenched working in the rain.'
'I can't, I can't,' Elizabeth whimpered. 'I'll catch a cold. I shall get pneumonia Margaret, I'm scared. Don't ask me to do it.'
'Oh, shut up,' Margaret looked at her with furious eyes. 'You pampered useless doll. No wonder they despised you in Bonalapye. You have neither heart nor guts. Damn you, it is for Richard that we're trying to get out of this slimy hole. And if I don't manage to get the car out, I shall very well walk to him with the medicines and leave you to sink right here in this very mud,' she got out and slammed the door hard.
Elizabeth was sobbing and began to undress rapidly.
'Margaret, where are you?' she screamed rushing out in the rain.
Twigs, branches, stones, all went under the wheels. They worked frantically, trying to get the car moving.
'Let me try again,' Margaret shouted.
Elizabeth watched the wheels trying to grip the platform. She was covered with mud, her body aching, she was scratched all over by bushes and her lip was bleeding.
'It's no good, we shall never make it,' Margaret announced with resignation.
'What about Richard?' Elizabeth turned to Margaret.
'I don't think it bothers you very much,' Margaret shouted furiously.
They stared at each other, two naked disheveled women standing before the front lights of the car.
'You are in love with him,' Elizabeth screamed.
'I am,' Margaret shouted back,' and it's none of your business. I've a right to love anybody I please. You don't deserve him anyway. You're ruining his life. I've tried hard enough to change you for his sake. But you won't because you are a damned selfish woman, and you'll remain such till you die. They told me about you, 'Hat Gloves and Stockings,' they call you. You made Richard's live Hell over there. Do you know who transferred Richard? The women of Bonalapye. They did it. Richard could no longer stand the fun and talk about you. You were a laughing stock there. That's why he asked for a transfer to a place where there is no white community. He who always loved people and social life, he has sacrificed it all for you, but the trouble with him is that he is such a fool,' she was beating the bonnet with her fists.
'I was trying to do what I considered best for Richard's position,' Elizabeth shouted back, 'but the women despised me from the beginning. They were jealous of my looks, of my smart clothes, and of Richard's love for me. When I tried to be friendly with them, and teach them how to dress, they accused me of telling them how they should be dressed in our company. When I wanted to join their charitable works, they accused me of a lack of sincerity. When we entertained, they were afraid of my popularity with the men. I who have never flirted with any of them, Oh, what's the use! They made me what I am,' she shook her head nervously.
'Oh, what's the use,' Margaret repeated. 'Let's get going, Elizabeth.'
Elizabeth looked at the younger woman strangely.
'Are you sure you want me to go with you?'
'If you have enough guts,' Margaret snapped angrily, 'you could at least feed your precious husband on anti-malaria tablets, you had plenty. He hasn't been well for sometime. Haven't you noticed?
Elizabeth shook her head miserably, 'Richard has always been so healthy. It was I who was delicate and sickly.'
Margaret burst into laughter, 'You amuse me, Elizabeth. Take now the medicine and some food. I'll take blankets and the rest. But I warn you, it is going to be pretty rough.'
Elizabeth nodded. 'I have no guts, but as it happens, I love Richard.'
The rain stopped before dawn. Richard was grateful for the sudden quietness. His fever was gone but he felt weak and tired. He started to doze again when suddenly he heard voices outside.
'Where is Mr. Randall? 'Where is he?'
He recognized Elizabeth's voice and jumped out of his camp bed. What was she doing in the bush at this time of the day? Who had brought her? She was going to get a fright seeing him ill. He was trying to dress when the flap was lifted up and two strange creatures appeared in his tent. He stared at them. They were covered in thick mud. Barefooted, and wrapped in blankets, hair plastered to the skulls, faces brown; they were unrecognizable except for their eyes. One had green eyes, the other had brown ones.
'Elizabeth!' Richard shouted.
The green-eyed creature gave a shrilling sound and flung herself into his arms. He was quite unaware of the other mud-covered person, who had very wet brown eyes and had quietly slipped out of the tent.
'Forgive me, Richard,' Elizabeth sobbed.
'Forgive you?' Richard exclaimed bewildered, 'for what, my love?'