San Cassimally bio photo

San Cassimally

Scottish-Mauritian novelist and playwright.

Email Twitter Facebook LinkedIn Patreon Cowbird Kirkus

Donald was told that because of the rapids, the Essequibo was unnavigable, but he decided that if a circle had to be squared, he was the man to do it. He was healthy, bold and determined, had muscles, and above all he valued what he thought of as his common sense. Money was not a problem; he would get some bullocks and a cart, take along as many strong arms as might be needed, so they could help pull the craft on land when necessary. Of course the men accompanying him would have to hack and hew through the dense forest to permit displacement by rolling the craft on logs over rocky terrain. Difficult? Certainly, but what an exhilarating challenge!

Yarrekhu had also said that if that proved too difficult, it would be easy enough to locate Amerindian tribes who had their settlements along the way, and borrow, hire or buy boats from them in order to continue. If no can, we steal, he had said, you have guns, and Donald was not sure if he was joking. Yarreku had by now become his right hand man in matters organisational. He had proposed that his wife Korobona should join them and be their cook, and suggested the inclusion in the team of a wrestler by the name of Hameed who had the strength of a bull, and would be handy for carrying loads. Considering the size of the boat, the load the scientist was taking along with him, Yarreku estimated that he would need six more strong pairs of hands, and Donald said to go ahead and hire them. These people were all delighted to be able to earn some extra money, specially as Yarreku had told them the ‘Englishman’ paid well.

Charlotte was on the veranda looking intently at some recently arrived Illustrated London News when Donald walked in. She had not been expecting him, but was clearly delighted. She threw herself into his arms and began showering him with her hot passionate kisses. Donald was quite used by now to what he once thought of as her exuberant passion. They’re in, she whispered, and our nest’s too damp anyway. He smiled and shook his head to indicate that he had not come for that. He wanted to tell her immediately that he was thinking of asking her to join him on his trip, but she said that she absolutely had to show him some sketches of kangaroos and wallabies which the Illustrated claimed were the first sketches of those natives of Australia ever published in England. She really had a passion for scientific knowledge. Yes, he was sure that she would make an excellent companion, not only on the trip, but for the rest of their lives. At that point, he had never even once thought of the dangers that he would be exposing her to. He took hold of her hands, looked into her eyes, and said, ‘Charlotte darling, I want to ask you something.’ Her eyes lit up, she had been hoping that he would do just that very soon. She squeezed his hands in anticipation.

‘Charlotte darling, I have been thinking of asking you for some time now, you know how I feel about you, would you like —’

‘Yes, yes, of course,’ she said happily, ‘of course I would.’ He marvelled again at her quick grasp of the situation. Suddenly her face darkened a bit.

‘You’ve got to ask Père first of course,’ she added.

‘I wouldn’t dream of not doing that,’ he said, very slightly hurt that she could imagine that he would not. Then neither spoke for some time, and concentrated on the magazine. Mr Emsworth then appeared, and Charlotte’s face lit up.

‘Père,’ she said, she loved using the French appellation, ‘Don has something to ask you.’

‘Yes, Donald?’

‘You know I am going on a study trip up the Essequibo, and as Charlotte is fascinated by nature, she might like to accompany me.’ The young woman frowned, but then looked amused, and the old man began to cough uneasily.

‘These sorts of things are best handled by my dear wife,’ he said finally. He called the garden boy who was pruning a mango tree and ordered him to call the memsahib. She came in a hurry. Donald repeated her question.

‘Well, yes,’ she said after giving the matter a full minute’s consideration, ‘but I could not imagine allowing that, seeing that you are not even engaged.’ It was Don’s turn to begin coughing uneasily and bluster.

‘Oh, I… eh, I… you know, would not dream of taking a young lady along with me… unless… unless she was… were, eh… sort of affianced. I mean to me.’

‘Are you asking me to marry you then?’

‘I sort of thought… that would be… how shall I out it?… a sort of integrated process… engagement and… eh… the trip.’ That was not really a lie; he had in fact decided to propose to her, but was not sure how to do it; he was grateful that it had happened sort of accidentally.

The old man stood up and patted the young man on the shoulder, whilst Mrs Emsworth immediately started drawing a list of who to invite to the wedding in her head.

‘Oh, I… eh… sort of thought that it would be presumptuous on my part to buy a ring before knowing that you approve,’ he lied.

‘Well we do old chap, we do,’ said Emsworth gruffly.

Charlotte loved him for his unworldliness, and thought that in return for all those things she knew he would teach her, she too would have a lot of fun teaching him the ways of the world once they were married. On the next day he ordered a diamond ring from Vaghjees, the Indian jeweller in Carmichael street, and went ahead full tilt with the preparations for the expedition. She wanted to be properly equipped for the trip, and shocked the West African tailor who had set up shop soon after he was freed by asking for man’s trousers to be made for her. But he delivered six beautifully crafted pairs of men’s trousers for her in two days. They were perfect, seeing that he had calculated the measures from sight, not wishing to touch a white mistress.

In a matter of days, everything was ready. Eight healthy bullocks had spent three nights in the precincts of the Taj Mahal. Food for the expedition had been bought, equipment assembled, and on the appointed morning, Yarrekhu turned up with the people he had hired, but there was no Korobona. Donald had not immediately noticed the absence, but Hameed the wrestler was very agitated, and seemed to be having an argument with the Amerindian. When Donald enquired what the spat was about, Hameed explained that he was going nowhere if there was no one to cook his meals. Yarrekhu explained that he and Korobona had had a fight, and that she had run to mother’s.

That was how Devi got drafted in. She was very happy to be going, but said that she could not go without arranging for her Baba to be looked after. Donald was very understanding, and postponed the departure by one day. She went to the Mandir, gave money to the Pandit, and he promised that he would do everything needed to keep Baba comfortable. When she told Baba about her having to go away, he did not seem to understand, and just smiled. The least she could do was to spend a few hours with him, cleaning him with a wet cloth, changing his clothes, cutting his toenails, grooming him, feeding him, massaging his neck and head.

The first stage was the journey to the mouth of the Essequibo. It took them a whole day, on foot and in the bullock cart to get to the point where they were going to board the craft. When they arrived at that place, they were pleased that everything seemed in order. The craft looked frail, but Donald trusted Yarrekhu who had been responsible for ordering it from some reliable Amerindians he had transacted with in the past. There were three more healthy bullocks which were traded off for the three tired ones, and foodstuffs and other commodities like paraffin and candles and Lucifers.

Charlotte, Donald, Yarrekhu and the freed Wilson took their position on the boat, whilst Devi and the others accompanied the land party. The men installed Devi in the cart with all the equipment and provisions whilst they walked. There was enough room on the cart for perhaps two more people squeezing, and the plan was that every now and then two members of the party would take seats beside Devi for a rest. There was obviously no road, but Yarrekhu had said that his cousin Okoronote could always find a way of driving a cart, with two bullocks pulling through any forest, however thick. The two cousins were going to communicate with each other by some signals they had learnt as children.

‘When I back, Korobona, she home,’ Yarrekhu said with a laugh. That was probably the longest sentence he had ever used with Donald. They were on their way. Until that moment, the greatest adventure that Charlotte had experienced, was going on a picnic with her cousins back in Somerset. Now, the excitement that was generated by this expedition was like the flow of the Essequibo compared to the trench which took water from the pond to water their gardens. She decided that this was a sort of picnic on an epic scale, and her dearest wish was to be a help to the man she loved, not a hindrance. Don had briefed her on the objectives of the expedition, and she hoped that she would be up to the job of taking down notes as he dictated them to her.

Devi was quite excited too. She remembered how Baba used to take her and her brother, and Ma sometimes on trips. She never tired of those boat journeys. They had seen gharials, monkeys, gazelles, tigers, and she had always felt safe with Baba there. No harm could happen. In spite of what had happened with Jagdeo, she was not afraid of those men; they were all so strong and brawny, but without exception they struck her as being good sorts. She also had the conviction that with Mr Donald around, she would be as safe as she had been with her Baba. Okoronote seemed very sure of himself, and he directed the men to cut a path open for the ghari with their machetes. She was pleased to see Mr Donald looking so happy; he was a good man and deserved to have a good wife. It was so obvious to her that Miss Charlotte was exactly the sort of person who would make him an excellent consort; she seemed so kind, she was so beautiful, so tall, so white… She was so pleased when he told her that they had become engaged. She was not quite sure why they were going on this trip though, but knew that Mr Donald liked to study nature. Still it puzzled her that he thought it was worth spending a small fortune, just for fun.

Progress was slow, owing to the thickness of the growth. Okoronote and that other Carib were constantly exchanging signals, making sounds like owls or monkeys by whistling through their teeth. The ghari shook a lot, and when sunset was approaching, they stopped. Devi was surprised to find that the boat was already there, anchored and moored. The white couple were seated on the ground eating sandwiches and drinking tea which they had made over a spirit lamp. The men picked twigs, and she lit a fire with a stick of Lucifer, and began cooking. Yarrekhu gave her meat and vegetables that had already been cut and boiled by his wife, before she ran off to mother.

They say that Yarrekhu is a magician, that he can make birds stay still so he can catch them. She had heard a story about how once, in a jungle with some other people, a jaguar appeared suddenly. Everybody wanted to scramble away, but Yarrekhu stopped them by raising his hand and gently shaking his head. The jaguar had seen them, and everybody thought that he was going to pounce. Mothers grabbed their young ones in a vain attempt to protect them. They looked at the Monkey man, and he only smiled. Then calmly he moved a few steps forward towards the beast, which seeing him approaching, stood still. Finally, when the two were almost within touching distance of each other, Chachi Padma had said, the jaguar offered him his head to scratch, which made the killer cat purr like a kitten. He then whispered some words to him, and the beast turned and walked away slowly. She did not know if this was true, people in this country liked to tell stories like this one, but she had heard it many times. True or not, she felt safe knowing that he was around. He would not let Mr Donald do anything reckless, because you never know with him, he is the nicest man she had ever met, knew so many things because he had learned so many books, but books do not tell you everything; she supposed that he was vulnerable. He caught sight of her and smiled and waved at her. Miss Charlotte did the same. Many people had told her that the white people were very proud and haughty; indeed when she saw them on the streets in the city, they looked pretty forbidding, but those she knew struck her as the contrary of proud and haughty.

The men ate and smacked their lips to show appreciation, and as the sun was going down, everybody scrambled to pitch their tents. There were two or three lamps, but Miss Charlotte said not to waste paraffin. Yarrekhu and the men then took the bullocks to the river to drink. They did not need to be specially fed, as there was plenty of vegetation that they chewed upon on the way. Devi joined the men taking the bullocks to the riverside, and Charlotte, seeing this decided to do the same. She thought that the white lady was not only kind hearted, but also the most beautiful woman she had ever cast eyes upon. She slept like a baby that night.

Next day the land party made a quick start, and Mr Donald said that as the boat was faster, they did not need to hurry. He and Charlotte went for a walk, with Wilson carrying the photographic equipment, Yarrekhu having stayed to attend to the boat. The terrain was rocky, and they went to explore the bush. In a clearing, Donald who had the eyes of a cat saw something, raised his hands, and there, Charlotte had her first zoological epiphany: on a branch of a tree that she did not know, sat a green tree frog; she had never seen a frog of that size, he was as big as a fully grown chicken. Wilson sprang towards the creature, grabbed it by the legs, and in the twinkling of an eye he had done something to it, and the animal was dead. Donald was taken aback; at the very least he would have liked to study the creature, perhaps take a photograph of it.

‘Good food,’ Wilson said smacking his lips. Charlotte was horrified to begin with, but then agreed with the young scientist that it was no different from eating fish or chicken if one liked that sort of thing, and added that he would ask Wilson to let him have a taste. Charlotte pursed her lips, then her face lit up, and she said that Don was right, she will try it too. After all, the plan was to find as much food as possible en route. Wilson put the dead frog in his bag, and they made their way back to the boat.

The progress of the craft on the brown choppy waters of the Essequibo was moderate but steady. Don was becoming quite proficient at manoeuvering it under the guidance of the Monkey Man. So far Charlotte had enjoyed every minute. Although she had been fascinated by what Don had to say about his quest, she sometimes had doubts about her suitability for such a life. She knew her weaknesses; as the only girl, she had been spoiled by her doting parents who reluctantly had to let her brother Samuel go to study at Marlborough in England. She liked being served tea in bed in the morning, she had no taste for housework and got easily bored. On the other hand, she had always been fond of reading, of learning new things. Uncle Percy with whom she had stayed for a few years used to say that a day is wasted if one had not learned a new fact before sunset, and she was a staunch believer of that creed. She was as excited as Don whenever they came across anything new. Whenever they stopped, Yarrekhu and Wilson would throw a line in the water, and the latter caught a pacu, which might have weighed five pounds; another one or two, and dinner for the whole party was secured. Yarrekhu and Wilson also caught a few perai. Piranhas, exclaimed Donald, and he explained to Charlotte that they were carnivorous, usually swam in small shoals, and they could, and indeed, had been known to devour the feet of unwary people walking across their paths. The pacu was related to them, but they were mainly herbivorous although on occasions they were known to gobble up smaller fishes. Don had a number of notebooks among his things for making notes and sketches of any interesting specimens that they encountered. She asked if she could help, and he was delighted. Yes, he said with a laugh, that’s why I brought you along. At first he gave her instructions on what were the important features, and she would write down some notes, which Don found impressive. She soon got the hang of this work, and in no time at all she was taking down notes off her own bat. You know, he said in admiration, you are a natural scholar. She was greatly heartened by this. Because of her proficiency, he was able to concentrate on doing sketches whilst their images were fresh in his mind.

The moment they landed, Yarrekhu saw a turtle, and ran after it, caught it and put it on its back.

‘Food for when no food,’ he said curtly. He then carried it to where the bullocks were, and put him in a pannier. A live turtle is easy to transport, did not go bad, and can be cooked any time. Devi cooked the pacu with a curry sauce and there was no doubt that this was the first time such aromas were entering the nostrils of the forest. Don and Charlotte went out arm in arm into the bush, which made Yarrekhu uneasy, but the young scientist had taken his shotgun with him. Charlotte felt so alive, breathing the slightly musty forest air and walking through the vegetation soaked in the dripping of accumulated dew, unbothered by branches and thorns. Suddenly on the ground beneath some vines, she saw a shiny dark purple object and bent down to pick it up. It was like some objet d’art made of porcelain that one buys at an expensive jeweller’s. The young scientist was baffled, but only for half a minute, after which his frown dissolved into recollection.

‘It can only be one thing, and that’s a tinamou egg,’ he said, and explained about that very shy bird with a genius for keeping out of sight. They scrambled back to the party, and Yarrekhu breathed a sigh of relief to see them back so soon. Donald said something to Yarrekhu who ordered one of the men to go get Mr Donald’s photographic equipment, and this time the two men accompanied the young couple to where the egg was. Yarrekhu studied the terrain, looked at the trees, and nodded.

‘Him here,’ he pronounced dramatically. Then he started making a sound best described as ‘khreeorooroo’ repeatedly, and indicated that he wanted silence by putting his index finger on his mouth. Soon there was a distinct rustle in the brush, and everybody held their breaths. Yarrekhu saw him first, and pointed in its direction. When everybody had finally seen him, Yarrekhu walked towards the bird which was no bigger than a partridge, with a dark brown top coat and a tea coloured lower body. He made some soothing sounds and drew nearer and nearer to the tinamou, which seemed hypnotised by him. Charlotte would not have been surprised if he had bent down and picked the little fellow in his hands. When he was satisfied that everything was in control, he beckoned Donald who took the equipment from Wilson, and the two of them came forward. The bird stayed still whilst he fitted his camera on the tripod. He looked into the eyepiece and pressed the shutter; the bird seemed completely unperturbed, and he was able to take another photograph before, on a sudden impulse it took off. He did not fly so much as run away at lightning speed with its feet scarcely touching the ground, and finally disappeared into the bush.

‘Him gone,’ said Yarrekhu needlessly. Charlotte tried to get Yarrekhu to explain what he had done, and asked why he could not do that to all the other birds that Mr Don wanted photographed, and he said, ‘Some family, some no.’

Later when she saw him charm a tapir, he said, ‘Tapir family.’ She wondered if jaguar was family.

Photo Credit: CC-BY-NC-ND seth m

The trip continued, not one day resembling another, but the density of chuggers was one constant. Fortunately Dr Laker had provided Donald with an ample supply of quinine. They encountered a number of birds and other creatures. There were some narrow escapes with scorpions and giant tarantulas. The men would collect palm grub whenever they saw palms; they found eggs, edible roots and greens, wild garlic, more turtles. After her initial reservation, Charlotte readily sampled everything, and did not find anything revulsive any more.

On one of the many islands where they stopped, there was a waterfall, and Charlotte decided to go take a shower there. The rest of the party was a safe distance away, and Yarrekhu had said that there was no danger on the island. She was making her way towards the waterfall when on a sudden impulse she asked Devi if she wanted to join her. Although surprised, as she never felt safe going into the pools, she said yes. The two women from two completely different worlds walked side by side, one in men’s trousers, the other in a makeshift skirt, until they got to their destination. Charlotte took all her clothes off, but Devi was shy of doing the same thing. ‘Go on, the men are not watching,’ the white girl urged, and Devi smiled, shrugged and followed suit. Unbeknownst to them, Don was seated on a high rock with his prized Porro-Prism binoculars, studying the lie of the land with no idea where anybody was. Suddenly the two young women came into his view, and he was stunned by the sight. Side by side were a statuesque white body and a frail golden-brown body, both of the female sex allowing water to wrap round them, the flow of the water producing an eerie shine and the contrast of their hair very striking. One had platinum-blonde hair which seemed twice its real size as water flowed over it, and the other one was shiny charcoal. He could not honestly say which one was the more glorious. At that moment his dearest wish was that he had been a painter; no one but a Millais or a William Blake, would have been able to do justice to such a sublime vision. He watched them in rapture, unable to move his eyes away, like an art connoisseur, not like a man seeking a cheap thrill, but that did not stop him feeling a violent surge below, but it was beyond sexual. He knew Charlotte’s beautiful body inside out, but this was the first time he was seeing Devi as a woman; so far she had only been Devi the cook, the devoted servant. What a stunning body she had too! He never guessed what perfect proportions were hidden under those drab garments that she usually wore. It was an image that he felt sure he would never ever forget. What made this even more certain was something Charlotte said that night.

‘Darling, I went for a shower under the waterfalls with Devi today.’

‘I know, I saw you.’

‘You know what happened to Peeping Tom,’ she teased.

‘I wasn’t peeping, it was purely accidental… I was only —’ He wondered why he was feeling guilty all the same.

‘I know, silly, I was only teasing.’ They held each other tight; it was then that she heard herself say the most surprising thing that she had ever said; it was as if somebody else had spoken those words through her. ‘Nobody can convince me that when God made us, he meant that some of us would be masters and others servants.’ She had not even thought those thoughts before, they just sprouted with the spontaneity of mushrooms in summer after a peal of thunder. The power of the notion left Don staggered.

‘I know you’re going to say, it’s not God’s work, but Man’s,’ she added. He was not going to say that, and just signified his assent to the sentiment by saying “hmm” and nodding vigorously. He was thinking of Devi’s body by the side of Charlotte’s. Indeed, how can anybody from another planet, assuming that there were people on other planets — and there is plenty of hard evidence for believing that there were — coming on earth and seeing those two women under the waterfall understand that the function of one of them was to serve and be subservient to the other? What was there to tell them apart? Now, he agreed with Charlotte wholeheartedly, and nodded emphatically.

As the river became impassable at one point, the original plan was put in action The men carried the boat expertly harnessed to bullocks by Yarrekhu, and they continued their trip on land. It was then that they encountered the jaguar. As usual it was Yarrekhu who spotted the proud beast.

Photo Credit: CC-BY-SA Eric Kilby

‘Yaguaraté,’ he whispered. Donald saw him in his Porro and passed them over to Charlotte who gasped as she saw the spotted beast standing proudly on a rock. She looked questioningly at the animal charmer who glumly said, ‘Yaguareté only family Yaguareté.’

Donald tried to assemble his equipment, but before he had finished, Yaguareté had turned back and was gone. They saw another one shortly after, quite unexpectedly, as it suddenly came into view at a turning. He saw them and glared. Yarrekhu said ‘Shout all body!’ And everybody started hollering like a demented witches’ convention, and scared the killer cat away.

There was no doubt about the success of the enterprise. Before setting out, Donald had said to Charlotte that he would consider the expedition a success if they encountered no more than two of the following: a jaguar, an arapaima, an anaconda or a tinamou. So far they had seen three, and they had a whole week before they planned to turn back. They had seen capybaras and manatees, giant otters, sloths and caimans. They had even eaten caiman which they found rather bland, even curried. Yarrekhu cooked turtle Carib style by killing it and cooking it in its carapace as a cooking pot, with jungle herbs; Charlotte loved it.

As far as birds were concerned, Donald doubted that anyone before him could have collected such a wealth of information. He had photographed hundreds of them, often with Yarrekhu working his magic on them. Many were as yet unclassified or unknown, even in scientific literature. His friend and colleague Henry Walter Bates would surely be delighted when he read his report and saw his photographs and sketches. Charlotte ended up with aching fingers, having to write down their specifications. The list was endless, and included the Spotted Puffbird, the Red-throated Caracara, Warbling Antbirds, Golden-headed Manakins, Golden-collared and Yellow-throated Woodpeckers, Black-bellied Cuckoos, Caica, Green-tailed Jacamars, Brown-crowned Motmots, Orange-breasted Falcons, Grey-headed Mites, Pink-throated Becards, Bright-rumped Attila, the Crimson Topaz. Altogether there was a list of just over one hundred and twenty birds, including many photographed and probably seen by a scientist for the first time. Each one was drawn and photographed, with approximate measurements and descriptions of their salient characteristics. Donald felt that he had only seen the tip of this great iceberg of knowledge, and was already planning many more such trips in the interest of science.

After just one more day, they were due to start on the return trip, when he would swap water for land. At one point on that last day, Yarrekhu stopped the boat; Donald knew that he would only do such a thing for a reason.

‘Arapaima,’ he whispered. Wilson’s face lit up, and he got his gear ready; it was almost always ready anyway. Yarrekhu bent down and looked into the water, which surprised Donald, as it was pretty murky.

‘Him big,’ he said. Wordlessly he indicated a direction to Wilson who cast his line. Almost immediately they felt a lurch on the boat, and Wilson burst out laughing. It took him almost an hour before he was able to haul it in, with the help of everybody onboard. Charlotte screamed like an excited child when she saw the size of the fish. Donald watching her thought what a lucky man he was to have caught her. Yarrekhu stroked the huge monster, whispering some Carib words, and he stopped wriggling. The scientist managed to assemble his photographic equipment and took photographs of the huge fish from all angles. With the help of his fiancée, he measured its length and its maximum girth. It was about six feet, the height of a very tall man. He estimated its weight to be about the same as that tall man, probably one hundred and eighty pounds. As far as he knew, that was the heaviest fresh water fish in existence.

Wilson took two steps towards the monster fish, brandishing his sword, but Yarrekhu stepped in to block him. The two men exchanged some angry words, and finally Yarrekhu seemed to have won the argument, and deftly liberating the fish from the hook by a twist of the wrist, he threw it back into the waters.

‘Him family,’ he said, ‘no eat family.’

Photo Credit: CC-BY Ian Mackenzie

The return journey took much less time, as many of the paths that Okoronote had cut were available, and the boats were obviously much easier to manoeuvre downstream. Devi had never felt so alive as during those weeks on the Essequibo, although she worried about Baba, but she told herself repeatedly that the poor man hardly recognised her anyway, and would not have missed her. She had been very relaxed; everybody was nice to her, no one treated her like a servant. She was so happy that Mr Donald and Charlotte (‘Don’t call me Miss Charlotte, we are friends, just call me Charlotte.’) were going to be married shortly; she loved both of them like family, and would do anything for them.

Donald had thought that he would need a few months to work on his report and put together a massive paper that his friend Bates would no doubt be happy to arrange for publication. He would have liked to get married as soon as possible, but knew that Mrs Emsworth as well as his own mother would be disappointed if the wedding could not be celebrated in great pomp. Afterwards he would be off again; there was so much more to do. It was a huge country, and he had only skimmed the surface; there was so much more to be seen; there were reputedly over five hundred species of birds, and he had hardly seen a quarter of them; he had yet to see a harpy eagle for instance. He needed to see the Potaro river, which a fellow tribesman of Yarrekhu had claimed culminated into the Kaieteur, the mightiest waterfall anybody had even come across. There was Mount Roraima, the Kanuku Mountains, the Rupununi and Rewa rivers. And he was determined to do all this with his soon-to-be wife; they shared everything, they understood each other without words, and he also had to admit that her body no less than her intellect, excited him to the point of madness. They would get married as soon as it could be arranged. Mum and dad would certainly not want to miss it, and Charlotte’s cousin Clara from Somerset would move heaven and earth to come over, seeing that she had been hoping to come for a visit for quite some time.

It would take a minimum of three months.

They reached home without any major incidents, and the Emsworths were overjoyed at seeing their beloved daughter come back safe and sound, tanned like a native and exuding good health. Her whole body seemed enveloped in an aura of happiness and her eyes had a new spark. It was so obvious that the weeks they had spent together had done nothing to dampen her love for this admirable young man who rose in their esteem every time they saw him. First they were going to have the best Christmas ever, and then they will begin to plan the wedding.

‘Are there any letters for me?’ Charlotte asked, and Mum gave her four of five letters, all from England. She recognised Clara’s handwriting, and retired to her room to read it.

The young fiancés met on the next day, when she came to Taj Mahal Villa, and Don immediately noticed that something was amiss. He asked what the matter was, and looking away she said there was nothing. They were seated under the veranda, and Devi brought them some tea and Indian pakoras that she had made. She was surprised that Charlotte just looked at them and said thank you. Usually her eyes would beam with joy when she saw Devi’s offerings. It was this which convinced Don that there was indeed something amiss. Donald looked at her, perplexed, and gradually alarm started rising in him.

‘No, sweetheart,’ he said suddenly, ‘you need to tell me what I have done wrong.’

A tear spontaneously dripped from her left eye and she did not seem to notice. She blushed, opened her handbag and produced Clara’s letter, and giving him the first page, saying, ‘Read it, dearest.’

The Vicarage

Frobisher Street



12 October 1863

My dearest Lotte,

Let me first congratulate you on your engagement; I knew this was on the cards the moment I read your letter almost six months ago. From your description of this paragon, I already considered him my brother. I shall now begin preparing my voyage. Father is very happy to let me go, just give me ample notice so we can arrange a booking. My hands are trembling with excitement as I am thinking of crossing the Atlantic in a steamer.

You asked me whether I shall follow you into matrimony, and although Jonas Dormeuil-Thunderby is an admirable young man and we do love each other so much, I am afraid that I shall not marry him, at least not yet. I remember your meeting darling Papa’s friend Reverend John Davies and his daughter Emily when they came for a visit from Gateshead some years ago, when we were both dizzy little girls. I got to know Emily over the years, and as I no doubt told you in my letters, she is one of the brightest persons I have ever met, and I could listen to her for hours. She has always been very angry that women are not able to benefit from the same sort of education as men, and she has devoted all her life so far towards putting that pitiful situation right. It was difficult, but now, dearest coz, her efforts are coming to fruition. Cambridge has agreed to try, on an experimental basis, to allow women to study there (at Cambridge). At her instigation, a college called Girton College is going to be created, which will be dedicated to us, creatures of the supposedly weaker sex. We are only the weaker sex because men have wished us to be so! If you were not on the point of entering matrimony, I would go down on bended knees to beg you to join me there, for it is my dearest wish to have a full education. You’ve heard me air my views on the matter long enough. Papa is very happy for me, but that does not mean that I will miss the wedding of my best friend and dearest cousin I am so excited, and cannot wait.

‘So,’ said Donald, ‘why should that make you miserable, dearest?’

‘Can’t you see? Oh Don dearest, don’t for a moment doubt that I love you with all my heart, and that marrying you was my dearest wish —’

‘Was? Why did you say was?’

She said nothing. There was an embarrassing silence for a while, and both had the same idea, and bent forward to grab one of Devi’s pakoras, clearly for no other reason than that they were both too stunned to say anything.

‘Well, Don sweetheart,’ she said after munching in silence for a while, ‘getting a serious education was something I had always hoped might have been possible when I was in Taunton, but got used to the idea that this was unrealistic, and I had lost my enthusiasm for learning, until I met you, when I discovered that my great craving for knowledge was not at all extinguished, but was only dormant. I now know that I could not be fulfilled unless I too, like Clara did my utmost to go to Girton. I am not breaking my engagement to you, dearest, only asking you to postpone our union.’ She paused, looked at him obliquely and added, ‘Only for three years… eh… maybe four.’

‘I could not live without you for a week, let alone four or five years,’ Don said almost tearfully, ‘I won’t let you go.’

‘But you must let me go if you love me… this is something I must do, dearest.’

‘But surely you don’t have to go now, the college isn’t going to start for another year or so…’

‘If I don’t go now, I will find it more difficult… I believe the best course is to join Clara and start preparing myself… I feel so inadequate.’

Clearly her decision had already been taken. Donald knew her passionate nature and felt that once she was out of his sight, she would be lost to him. She would immerse herself in her studies, and he had no doubt that she would do as well as anybody; why shouldn’t she? He perfectly understood that his happiness was going to be swept away in the tide of her gnawing need to satisfy her academic ambition.

‘I had so much hoped that you and I —’ She put her hand to his lips to stop him saying any more. They both knew, deep down, that this was the end for them, although both pretended otherwise.

Charlotte left Georgetown a month later on board the paddle steamer Albany, bound for Liverpool.

Get every new chapter of Magnetite by email every Friday