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"With the most lavish of language, Karen Mercury has written an unusual but well researched historical romance." —Fresh Fiction
"A gripping historical tale that takes you on a roller-coaster ride." —Historical Romance Club
Mavasarona Bay, Madagascar
The orchid was exquisite.
The coconut-hued petals of the Angraecum sesquipedale bounced like a ballerina's twirling skirt as Dagny crawled with bated breath onto the branch of the tree. The largest, most delightful specimens grew twenty feet above the ground on trees not in the lushest areas of the rain forest, but in random straggling trees on the edges of woods. As it required considerable force to knock the heartbreakingly rare specimen from the branch, Dagny Ravenhurst crept like a limbless circus performer, and unfolded the clasp knife between her teeth. When she tried to whisper, "Come to me, my beautiful darling," her words came out as the wheeze of the asthmatic. She was so intent on her prey, she drooled on the metal knife.
Tentatively, one hand over the other like a torpid chameleon, her hands gripped the branches, hands tough from years of clinging to trees and waiting in suspended immobility for animals to appear. She was clad in the apex of Paris fashion. One of the joys of her newly elevated status in life was the employment she provided for a parade of laundresses.
"Mademoiselle!" cried Izaro, her local plant and animal scout. Dagny didn't want to look down, for surely she must be poised over the turquoise bath of the Indian Ocean by now, but she could imagine Izaro, tawny limbs akimbo with indignation, voluminous white lamba scarf slung across his bony shoulders. Under the shade of his wide, plaited reed hat, his screwed-up face always seemed to wonder, What is with this insane vazaha woman? She dresses like she's attending a ball, yet she engages in the daily pursuit of a phantom miscalled pleasure. "Mora, mora!" Slowly, slowly. "That branch is much too weak for your ... for you."
Crazy man, Dagny thought. He's implying that I'm fat! I may be a bit more bountiful than some of those walking skeletons who promenade in Broadway in New York, but I believe that the business of man's life is eating. The only reason I stayed in New York as long as I did was because most common councilmen believed indulging in delicious oysters caused sudden death if eaten in unlucky months that are without the letter R! So I remained behind in town to swallow the juicy dainties ... and the canvass backs ... macaronis ... jellies ... alamode beef ...
Dagny had no option in the matter. Most of her life she'd been in mortifying poverty. She'd worn the costumes more suited for a rag doll than an adult woman, men sobbing that her rib bones hurt their kingly figures, until she'd given up even looking in the larder at the roaches that devoured her last bite of biscuit. She -and her family of two brothers-shambled about like anatomical displays of bones, hiding their shame with ill-fitting burnooses and capes, their caved eyes like vortices of the sea that sucked men to their death. Passersby must have thought them denizens of opium dens, and that they might have been in their fantasies, but they could ill afford that luxury.
Living was much improved now, and Dagny intended to indulge at the spoils of the grand table.
The closer she came to the shivering, delicate sesquipedale, the more it resembled a fantastic bird of paradise in flight, with a long forked swallowtail, hummingbird's head, and the strangely mammalian arms of a swooping bat. Not seen since 1822-at least not by vazaha or written in dry vazaha journals-Dagny thought of sending the orchid to the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew, or perhaps this institution she had only heard of the other day, gardens with the strange name of Pamplemousses, a few islands over on the Mauritius where the French ruled, only two days' sail in a small schooner.
"Missus!" Izaro whined. "Come back! We must call some of the coconut climbing boys to get that flower for you!"
Her brother Salvatore was something of a naturalist, as well. Proclaiming that Malagasy rocks were the oldest under the sun, today he'd gone on an expedition to Iron Mountain to inspect some primitive and rude smelting furnaces. He worshipped his "rocks" with fanatical devotion, but it was all so adorable that Dagny was often fond of telling him he had rocks instead of brains.
It was her own monomaniacal quest that had brought them here to the End of the World, an island detached from mainland Africa so many eons ago it had sprouted a wild assortment of endemic beings found nowhere else: fragile orchids that could only live under glass, coral masquerading as swords and lace, mythical underground caverns where translucent blind fish bumped into rocks and animals without backbones fell over, and the crowning oddity of them all: the aberrant and oft-murdered aye-aye, supposed to be a squirrelly rodent, though Dagny was skeptical of that, and imagined the thing of the same lemur family as the cuddly toylike monkeys that enjoyed taking the sun. It was met with dread superstition among Malagasy natives and no small wonder, with its batlike ears, ever-growing incisors that gnawed through coconut shells, skeletal hands with a frighteningly elongated middle finger for digging grubs from trunks, and, so it was rumored, an odor so funky one wished one were walking on the mephitis of the East River trash barge instead of standing next to this devil's messenger.
Then there was the carnivorous fossa cat as big as a panther, a terrible animal that killed rats and snakes by sticking its tail down a hole and farting.
Dagny could lean a few inches closer and easily swipe the orchid where it adhered so tenaciously to the branch. If only rice were not the main staple of life on this island! She removed the slimy knife from her mouth and muttered, "Rice ... rice pudding ... rice syllabub ... fried rice ... Oh! I could live here forever, if only I could find civilized food worthy of a naturalist's daughter!" If she raised the knife just so high, it was possible she would gain enough momentum to cleave the glorious orchid below the pedicel, and even if it fell to Izaro below, he was waiting to catch it in his net. "If only there was someone worthy in this backward bush! If only-"
A sharp crack heralded Dagny's precipitous plummet. Still clutching the knife, the fall was long enough, almost languorous in her retarded motion through the warm, feathery pillows of air that she had enough time to ponder, If I were smart, which I plainly must not be, I'd use this knife to cut the laces of my bodice, as these cotton petticoats, when wet, will certainly drag me to the bottom of the bay.
As though in one of those oddly immediate dreams when one tries to grab the matchbox to light the lamp and one's ghostly hand sallies right through the solid object, she remotely observed that the broken tree branch floated down at a much swifter rate than her descent. How odd. Do I not weigh more than that branch? Releasing the useless knife, she reached out to touch the orchid, its petals the velvet of blancmange. Although she knew to touch it would mean its death, in an emotional pirouette worthy of Marie Taglioni, Dagny clutched the flower to her bosom, smearing her face in the delightful petals that hearkened her back to childhood gardens, before everything had gone frightfully wrong.
She hit the water's surface with an explosive bang and immediately sank at least fifty feet.
She was right: the yardage of cotton embalming her dragged her to the very bottom of the lagoon. Lucky she'd left her hat back on the bluff with Izaro. An angelic grove of peachy coral coruscated in the celestial light beamed to Dagny's depths by a sun that now seemed high overhead indeed.
This is it, then. I am meant to die here, staring at this six-foot iron-colored Cretaceous fish that looks like an armored fossil sent straight from Ultima Thule, and.... A trondro? Dagny touched the ugly, sedate fish lips with the orchid-crowned branch. Neither fish nor flora recoiled in fear, both undulating with contentment in the cozy womblike waters. Why, ichthyologists would be pleased to see you ... you ugly, extinct Cretaceous fish!
* * *
These were usually the happiest of times for Tomaj, the days immediately after careening his beloved Stormalong, when the most heinous heaving-down work was done, that awful yet irresistible job that brought men together in an other-worldly camaraderie. They were at their most haggard and frowzy, eager to spend their gun-money on the few pleasures the island had to offer-the few they didn't already possess. Though they'd broken a mast in the Strait of Malacca, they'd replaced the jury-mast and were all an end now, embayed with their old flotilla in their glorious port of Mavasarona, and the joy was palpable as the men went about their making and mending. Men reefed the newly set sails, and the absence of a pennant told any potential raiders they were out of commission, though Tomaj reveled with glee knowing his bow-chasers were at standby, the match-tubs back in place.
Tomaj assisted the joiner in chiseling some gingerbread work. He leaned against a water-butt, and as he would never want to muss his Marcella waistcoat, he tucked a kerchief into the cambric frill of his shirt, opened fashionably at the throat and dressed up with a lacy cravat. No matter what his workaday task in Mavasarona, Tomaj enjoyed the role of dasher.
The crews had all been home to their wives, screwed their brains out, and now were laid up in ordinary moored at the anchorage. Hands lounged about on the windlass and forecastle deck, cut-splicing and crowning fag-ends of ropes. More sedate fellows made neat Flemish fakes, and palm-and-picket men sewed canvas while other young gents played a boisterous game of skittles, the balls bowling heavily across the deck. As they had no back-board, the balls had a tendency to disappear down the scuppers, so someone had ingeniously brought out a harness-casket-from Slushy the Bootblack Boy's galley, presumably, to judge from the racket Slushy raised, scampering about with his spidery limbs flailing. The young sportsmen only teased, claiming the toughness of the meat inside the casket was because Slushy had forgotten to remove the harness of the horse he packed in it.
The entire luminous tableau might have been a serene painting by Pocock. Zaleski, a crotchety Britisher with the most mellifluous tenor, took up belting "Round the Corner, Sally."
Round the corner is a long, long way, To Valipo and Caleo Bay Round the corner we must roam, We don't care if we never go home.
Other men joined in, and their coarse and lusty singing brought a smile to Tomaj's mouth.
The quartermaster Antoine Youx hove into sight, casually setting his tall, scrawny bum on the water butt. "Êtes vous tout droit, Capitaine?"
"The foot of the fore topsail has been repaired," Youx informed him. "Find anything out in Tamatave?"
"I stopped in at the Port Admiral's office. Remember that Soper fellow, the Lloyd's of London agent? He was there. Told me an interesting tale. Another Lloyd's agent in Smyrna had a pirate's brain, picked in brine in a jar"-Youx gasped in horrified surprise-"and he intended to take it to Baltimore to be tested."
"Tested? For what?" Youx was a craggy, worn-out character who looked much older than his thirty and five years. The nautical life did that to one, if one was always like Youx, jumping aloft in the riggings and forever sliding down the shrouds and backstays, insisting on reefing and furling because allegedly every other experienced foretop-man was a grossly incompetent looby, even the men who'd been with them since New Orleans. Still, he was an honest, straightforward, bang-up cove, an extremely willing and able worker doing his best to honor his predecessor. Best of all, he'd selflessly chosen not one or four or five Malagasy wives, as most hands did, but, following Tomaj's illustration, merely rotated women into his chambers based upon whim or the weather.
Standing, Tomaj took the kerchief of wood shavings to the rail and dumped them overboard. He thought of the tea-wagon they'd just captured last month, chock-a-block with dates and rice. The men, irate at being unable to find the usual gold bars or bags of loose gems that Indiamen often carried, had flung overboard all the dates, most especially the hated rice. Rice! What use had any Mavasaroan for the ubiquitous pasty garbage? "I imagine they want to study it, maybe palpate different sections to discover what turns moral, upright citizens-you know, bankers and insurance men, such as we were-into deviate, blood-thirsty, pillaging despots."
Youx threw his head back and laughed heartily. With the myriad of smile lines radiating from his eyes, when he laughed he resembled a sun-dried plum-a handsomely Gallic one, to be sure. "Aye. Weren't we all bankers at one time? I, myself, was a broker of fine stocks with the Barclay firm, and played chess with Louis de la Bourdonnais."
"Ah, his own automaton could beat Bourdonnais at chess."
A school of brilliant angelfish gathered to inspect the wood shavings, their dorsal fins frothing the water's surface, spraying adamantine droplets and elbowing out the small lemony butterfly fish. I'm sick to death of rice, thought Tomaj. Perhaps tonight back at the house I'll get Ramonja to concoct a nice dressed lobster with macaronis ... The smoke of his kitchen emits incense worthy of the gods.
"A pickled pirate's brain?" The joiner Smit finally reacted to Tomaj's news. "I never. Did he happen to say whose brain it was?"
Eighty yards away in the lagoon there came a loud splash of something heaved from a great height. It was no ball, as there was no report, but the crew, being engaged in a skittish trade, ran like riggers to the rail. Tomaj dashed forward, dodging the gunners McInerny, Castillo, and Hegemsness as they flung down their marline spikes, shakings and oakum scattering.
Over the lagoon, Tomaj saw only an indefinite cat's paw where the skin of the water had been pierced. Grasping the boatswain Broadhecker by the sleeve, Tomaj demanded, "A fish, did you see?"
"That's the mightiest fish I've ever heard. A humpback, we'd see from here. I'm taking the longboat ashore to get the quarter-gunners." As Stormalong carried twenty-eight guns, Tomaj felt it prudent to keep seven of the skilled, intelligent orphans aboard, tough boys picked up in various ports of the world. "Might I use your speaking trumpet? I'm sure they can hear me from their houses."
"It's in the binnacle."
Tomaj turned to Zaleski. "Yes."
"I'm not shooting you a line, old man." The venerable salt affected a false air of humility, holding his fusty old Turkish skull-cap. "But that weren't no shot, nor fish. Looked to me like a fancy lady." A few men who backed Zaleski up in his absurd claim smiled widely, displaying an array of noisome, rotten teeth.
Tomaj barked, "There's quite a large difference between a giant fish and a fancy lady, Zaleski. What makes you say a fancy lady fell into the drink?"
The gangly man gestured sincerely with the cap. "Because it were, Balásházy! Answer me this: What sort of ball is rigged out in a shade o' orange satin what looks like the color of the Imam's palace at sunset?"
Tomaj glanced at the able seamen behind Zaleski. "Do you agree? Did you see a lady as well?"
"Aye, sir, definitely a lady, soaring through the sky with frilly petticoats all aflutter."
"We was standing right there in the waist rattling down some shrouds when we sees this orange bloom whaling through the sky like a plumy heron."
Tomaj saw no more ripples over the lagoon. A Malagasy fellow stood at the foreshore, gesticulating wildly like a shorebird flapping his white lamba, wading three steps into the water only to race back to the beach as though a colossal hammerhead lurked in the coral shoals. Whisking the speaking trumpet from Broadhecker's grip as he jogged past, Tomaj bellowed out in Malagasy, "You there! Did a lady just fall into the lagoon?"
Of course, he couldn't hear the fellow's answer, the fellow not possessing his own speaking trumpet, so Tomaj ordered Broadhecker, "Call Firebrand!" Firebrand was their best swimmer, having spent time on one of those West Indies islands where most seamen lolled about all day sipping drinks from coconut shells.
"Ashore in Harmony Row," piped a hand.
"I'll be cursed." Tomaj paced the deck, his hands shaped into claws. He pointed a sudden stiff forefinger at a cowering hand. "Frost! You're always diving down for shellfish and mollusks!"
"Sorry, Captain," Frost said. "I can only get the clams that bite me around the calves and knees, sort of ... like."
Excerpted from Strangely Wonderful by Karen Mercury Copyright © 2007 by Karen Mercury. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Posted October 12, 2013
Was only able to get through 7 chhapters before I gave up. Very hard to understand the story and the characters all seem very stilted. Had to break out a dictionary for a lot of words, which is not necessarily a bad thing, but made for a trying time to understand motivations of characters. Will try again to finish at a later time but for right now, will leave it where I left it.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
One of the most interesting historical romances I have ever read. It had situations not normally found in historical romances, but I enjoyed it throughly, and want to read more by this author!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted December 9, 2008
In 1828 in Madagascar, pirate captain and harbormaster exiled Hungarian Count Tomaj Balashazy rescues naturalist Dagny Ravenhurst when she fell from a tree into his lagoon. He takes her to his plantation fortress home where she explains she climbed the tree to grab a rare orchid. When he asks if he can see her, she explains she has a secret lover. Her brother Sal arrives to take her home.------------- Dagny supports herself, her two brothers (Sal and Zeke), and her research into the island¿s unique strangely wonderful animals, by being industrialist Paul Boneaux¿s paramour. She is especially interested in a scary looking lemur that the natives fear. As Dagny finds herself falling in love with poetic Tomaj, Paul is constructing a palace for his mistress Malagasy Queen Ranavalona. Soon Paul and Tomaj, already rivals for control of the island¿s economy explode over Dagny in turn the ire of the Queen ignites as she insists her boy toy remain loyal to her exclusively even if that means killing her competror for his affection.----------- The third Karen Mercury nineteenth century African adventure (see THE HINTERLANDS and THE FOUR QUARTERS OF THE WORLD) is an excellent historical tale in which once again the locale steals the show. The lead triangle is fully developed protagonists whose sexual activities make the equator feel like a polar cap. Using the real Queen Ranavalona, (see Keith Laidler¿s book FEMALE CALIGULA RANAVALONA, THE MAD QUEEN OF MADAGASCAR for more about her), adds to the realism of a great historiographic look at Madagascar through THE STRANGELY WONDERFUL TALE OF COUNT BALASHAZY.---------Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.