1897. In an isolated station in the Belgian Congo, an Englishman is to be tried for the murder of a native child. Imprisoned in a makeshift jail, Nicholas Frere awaits the arrival of the Company's official investigator while his friend, James Frasier, attempts to discover the circumstances which surround the charge.
The world around them is rapidly changing: the horrors of the Belgian Congo are becoming known and the flow of its once-fabulous wealth is drying up. Unrest flares unstoppably into violence.
Frere's coming trial will seek to determine considerably more than the killing of a child. But at the heart of this conflict is a secret so dark, so unimaginable, that one man must be willingly destroyed by his possession of it, and the other must both sanction and participate in that destruction.
In a narrative of ever-quickening and growing intensity, The Book of the Heathen explores notions of honor, friendship, justice and reason in a world where men have been forced by circumstance to descend into an abyss of savagery and terror. Robert Edric's The Book of the Heathen is a stunning novel that truly evokes a Conradian heart of darkness.
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About the Author
Robert Edric is the author of several acclaimed novels including The Broken Lands, which was the first of his novels to be published in America. He currently lives in East Yorkshire.
Robert Edric is the author of several acclaimed novels. The Broken Lands is the first of his novels to be published in America. He currently lives in East Yorkshire.
Read an Excerpt
The Book of the Heathen
By Robert Edric
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2000 Robert Edric
All rights reserved.
Across the river the Custom House gun was fired, and at the instant it sounded I raised my pen from the chart on which I was working so that my momentary distraction might not become a waver, an irregularity on the contour where none otherwise existed, a tree in the treeless desert, or, worse still, a blot, the map-maker's clumsy footprint.
It was two in the afternoon, and the gun was normally fired only at the start and close of each day's trading; for it to be fired then suggested an unexpected arrival or some alarm.
I rose from my desk and removed the weights from my chart, allowing it to roll stiffly inwards until all its new country was lost. I knew that no arrival of any consequence had been anticipated that day, and that none of the usual business of such arrivals – none of the excited gatherings, the shuffling of the smaller vessels, the congregation of the traders and middle-men – had preceded the gun.
I waited as the shot faded in its smothered echoes, and even before these were gone my mind turned from the possibility of a vessel to the near-certain conviction that what the gun heralded was the return of Frere.
I remained where I stood, unable to act upon that conviction. He had been gone from us for fifty-one days – and perhaps I alone knew that much – and fifty-one days was a lifetime in that place.
Securing my chart in a strong-box, I went outside.
The river beyond the compound was broad and high, and the far shore was so crowded with vessels and stalls and men moving among them that it was impossible to determine what might be happening there.
Fletcher and Cornelius emerged together from one of our warehouses, and they too stood and looked across the water. I heard Fletcher say something and then laugh. Cornelius came to me, and I knew without asking that he shared my concern regarding Frere. He pointed to where a drift of pale smoke hung above the trees. We searched the river in both directions, but saw nothing.
'Perhaps Hammad,' he said, but with no real conviction.
Fletcher walked closer to the water's edge. He raised the binoculars from his chest and focused them on the distant shore, slowly scanning whatever he saw there. We watched him for several minutes, waiting for him to tell us what he'd seen.
Cornelius wiped an already saturated cloth over his wet face.
'We'll know soon enough,' he said.
I had been about to suggest finding someone to take us across to the Belgians, and perhaps Cornelius suspected this, for he repeated, 'Soon enough,' and then left me, his words a check to my impulse.
Soon after, a second, lesser shot sounded across the water, but this was of no consequence, a pistol or a rifle in the hands of a man who fired it with no more thought for the consequences than a child throwing a stone.
I stood in the full heat of the sun for several minutes longer before returning to the relative cool of my room and the smaller, more calculated dramas of my map.
* * *
It was a joke they played in those mongrel towns of Yaba, Kabinda and Boma. Each newly arrived European was met and told there was a certain place to be seen and a decision to be made prior to his journey inland. It was a joke less frequently played by the French and Portuguese, and not at all by the Belgians since the Lado debacle – something better suited, everyone was agreed, to the schooled and face-saving determination of the English. And the joke was this: someone would await these excited newcomers, greet them effusively and then take them to the nearest overgrown graveyard, whereupon they would be asked to pick out a grave-site for themselves and then be asked whether they wished to be buried facing the sea upon which they would never sail home again, or inland, where they were certain to die.
Some saw the joke for what it was and despised the men who played it, the men who moved not ten miles in any direction year in year out. Others grew angry and marched cursing away from the bone-yards. And others still, those men so unexpectedly and painfully conscious of everything they had left behind them – men whose entire lives and their every possession, their names and futures included, still hung in the balance – took the joke at its true worth and pointed to the particular plots they might prefer. Some even went so far as to conquer the joke and the men who played it and put down a deposit on their chosen sites.
I learned all this from Fletcher. He and Abbot were taken together to the graveyard at Boma. Upon realizing their purpose there, Abbot, already weak and emaciated from his illness at sea, vomited a fine spray of yellow bile over his feet. Fletcher, having been aware all along of what was happening, took out his pistol, pushed it into the cheek of the Zanzibari who had taken them, forced him to his knees and told him to wipe Abbot's boots clean with his sleeve. The man laughed and begged not to be shot. He prostrated himself, and Abbot retched again, this time over the man's head and shoulders. Fletcher watched for a moment, looked slowly around them, and then pointed his pistol to the side of the man and fired into the dirt. Scavenging dogs froze briefly at their digging, waited, and then resumed. The Zanzibari screamed and clasped his hands over the back of his head.
I heard all this on Fletcher's return to the Station. He had been gone two months on rubber business, and had planned his visit to Boma so that he might collect Abbot, our new senior clerk, and travel back with him on the mission steamer. Upon their return, Abbot, still suffering, demanded to be shown to his quarters and to be left alone there. I asked Fletcher what he thought of the man, but all he would say was, 'Untrustworthy,' – the shaky plinth upon which Abbot for ever afterwards stood. Then Fletcher told me how much he had paid for his own burial plot at Sinda almost twenty years earlier, and how he had demanded a certificate of sale to prove his ownership of this unthinkable future.
* * *
James Charles Russel Frasier. My name. A staff and guide of a name. The Leicestershire Russels, the Northamptonshire Frasiers. A history and a geography of a name. Two baronets, three members of parliament, one secretary of state; two lord justices; one bishop, still serving, and military men beyond number garlanded with praise and burnished by success. A cradle to grave of a name.
I have seen none of these people for three years, and neither sent nor received any communication for ten months.
Educated at Rugby, Trinity and Sandhurst, I served with the Seventh Fusiliers in India and Kandahar, and afterwards with Brackenbury in Egypt. I believe the phrase is 'Served with Honour and Distinction'. I was wounded twice at Tel-el-kebir and still bear both marks – one on my shoulder, the other across my thigh.
And now I have lost all that. I am not a man given to exaggeration or melodrama, but, equally, I am a man no longer in possession of that history and geography, that staff, guide, light and sustaining warmth. The great enterprise upon which I and the others here were once embarked has collapsed and left us barely recognizable as the men we once were.
As a girl, my mother was a companion of the young Queen, and my father walked the corridors of state as though he were passing along the clean, dry stalls of his stables. My great-uncle – whom I will not name – swept his palm across a map and thousands of men moved one way and then another. As a small boy I imagined him just as capable of controlling the ebb and flow of the tides. A man possessed of faith in himself is possessed of everything, that great-uncle once told me. By extension, I can only assume that a man who once had that faith and who has it no longer is possessed of nothing.
When I was four years old and about to be dispatched to the first of my schools, my General uncle visited me and presented me with a short sword. He told me something of the man he had killed and from whom he had taken it. He spoke of this man – an Afghan tribesman, I remember – with great respect, affection almost. At the time I was a frightened child with a frightened child's grasp of the spreading world and I understood little of what he was telling me.
When I first came here, the whole world was devoted to the unstoppable profit of our enterprise. Profit at a cost we none of us then truly understood; or a cost we carelessly ascribed elsewhere. On the occasion of my being introduced to Fletcher by Cornelius we were interrupted by the arrival of three Kallisa River savages who had escaped from the diamond beds there and who had brought stolen gems to sell to us. Cornelius examined these. It was a poor crop. But the savages remained excited about the size of the stone still in the stomach of the third man, which he was having difficulty passing. Cornelius squeezed and prodded the man's stomach, saying that if what he could feel was a diamond, then judging by its size it was a valuable one. Fletcher pushed the three men out of the room, accusing them of wasting our time. If the diamond could not be produced then it was of no value. He told the men to come back when it was in their hands. Two of the men returned the following day with the gem. Fletcher quizzed them on the whereabouts of the man who had carried the stone, and they became evasive, saying he was in the forest tending to his wounds.
'It could have been worse,' Fletcher said. 'They could have brought us his corpse.'
Cornelius concurred with this, and he washed the stone with brandy before handling it.
* * *
For the rest of the day I remained distracted, unable, despite sitting at my desk for several hours longer, to concentrate on the minutiae of my charts. I sought no-one out and was visited by no-one. The work of the compound went on around me.
Late in the afternoon, I went to find Abbot. At his insistence, our meetings now took place daily. He falsely imagined the two of us to be allies because of the complementary nature of our work here. In addition to being the appointed map-maker, I am also employed as a 'technical overseer' to the Company's various concessionary enterprises. Upon long ago enquiring what this entailed, I was reassured that my work would become obvious to me upon my arrival. I was told this by a senior Company official who laughed softly at everything I asked him and then laughed again at his own indulgent and dismissive answers. This secondary role, I soon discovered, was merely to inhabit the spaces left by those already here. Accordingly, I had some relation with all the senior officers, but Abbot was the only one among these keen to establish our shared functions and responsibilities in any formal or official – for which, understand officious – manner.
He was a man much given to facts and figures, a man who did not believe he had fully mastered or understood the nature of a situation unless he had reduced it to his meticulously kept columns and pages. Needless to say, his understanding of a great deal was, of necessity, incomplete and superficial. He had come to the Company straight from the Merchant Taylor's School, had worked in the Tilbury office for two years as an excise collector, and had then, I imagine, pleaded to be sent here.
Upon meeting Abbot, I had guessed his age to be twenty-two or -three and was surprised when he angrily declared himself to be nine years older.
He was not in his office, where I expected to find him, surrounded by the ledgers and files with which he clothed himself, and I was told by Bone that he had been seen earlier at the quarry. 'Sticking his nose in,' was what Bone said. I debated abandoning my search for the man, but had I not sought him out he would in all likelihood have come looking for me later and then filled the evening with the talk he considered to be conversation.
The quarry stood almost a mile from the Station and its river anchorage. It was the first of the Company's endeavours in the region, inherited from its previous owners in a distant and increasingly profitless transfer of shares. Its original purpose had been to provide ballast for a proposed railway east along the line of the Lulindi towards Lake Albert; and following that the stone and foundations for a new town. Like a great deal else, neither of these projects progressed much beyond the impressive-looking maps upon which they were first planned. The railway started its journey, the town was staked out, the forest felled and foundations laid, but there everything ended. Now the quarry sent its stone elsewhere. Some thin veins of iron and gold had been struck and a smelter built. Labour was unending and cheap. Twenty years ago, a bed of cloudy emeralds had also been discovered, and this was enough for the operation to be expanded in limitless expectation.
I exhausted myself on the climb to the ridge overlooking the workings. I saw Abbot ahead of me, gesticulating to a group of men sitting around him. As I approached he lowered his voice, and one by one the men rose and walked away from him. Some wore cloths around their loins, but most were naked, though with the appearance of being clothed by virtue of the clay which coated them.
Abbot saw me approaching and immediately stopped shouting. He took out his watch and studied it, perhaps hoping to suggest to me that he had been betrayed by it into missing our rendezvous.
He was standing alone by the time I reached him.
I waited for him to speak.
'They work for an hour and rest for an hour,' he said. 'They have no idea.'
I looked down the steep slope beneath us and saw the line of men follow a narrow path to the floor of the hole. Several hundred others worked elsewhere, most visible only by their motions, unseen when they stopped moving against the shovelled earth.
'Take their names,' I suggested.
'They will have lied to you.'
'I know. But I took down their lies all the same.' He tapped the ledger he held beneath his arm.
'Is it progressing?'
'It always progresses.' It was a common enquiry and answer, as all-encompassing and as meaningless as the collision of two clouds. He began to point out to me where rock had recently been excavated, to where a band of one per cent ore was being followed. Within the greater scheme of things – and we were forever being made aware of this greater scheme of things, the excuse of the receding future – it was decided that when the work in the quarry was completed the excavated hole would be filled with diverted river water and afterwards be employed as a reliable source of power to drive the turbines of either a larger smelter or whatever industry arose within the proposed town. I knew from a cursory study of the geology of the place that none of this was going to happen. Abbot alone professed faith in these impossibilities.
'You needn't have come,' he said, as though I were his subordinate and he my beneficent superior. He looked away to the far side of the quarry. 'Will you survey the new work for your charts?'
'Of course.' It was clear to me that he wanted to ask me about Frere.
'You heard the gun,' I said, unwilling to indulge him beyond the few facts of the matter. It was by then common knowledge that Frere sat in the Belgian gaol.
'Can we be certain it's him?' he said.
'I think so.'
Abbot had been the source of a great deal of amusement to Frere, and though seldom openly hostile towards each other, there was a degree of antagonism between the two men, nurtured and shaped mostly by Abbot, which, prior to Frere's disappearance, had grown increasingly uncontainable. Upon Frere's disappearance, and then again upon the tales of his actions reaching us, Abbot had become brave and had openly condemned him. Now, with Frere's return, he was again less certain of himself and his accusations. He understood my own attachment to Frere, but never doubted that this was misplaced, and that he, Abbot, might provide a more suitable companion and confidant. 'Suitable' was the word he used.
'What will happen to him?' he said.
'I don't know.'
'He surely won't be allowed to stay here.'
'I don't know.'
He paused. 'What will you do?'
Like Cornelius, he harboured some notion of Frere's contagion; unlike Cornelius, he did not understand the true nature of that contamination.
Excerpted from The Book of the Heathen by Robert Edric. Copyright © 2000 Robert Edric. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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