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A Spear of Summer Grass

Ryder didn't say a word, but his silence was comfortable. He wasn't upset in the least. My silence was different. Mine had sharp edges and a thorny underbelly, and my biggest annoyance was that he didn't seem to notice. I had planned to punish him with it, but if he didn't even care, there wasn't much point. I finally sighed and asked the inevitable.

"How much further?"

He shrugged. "Nobody measures in miles in Africa. Journeys are measured in time—a two-day walk, a four-hour drive. But it depends on the roads. When the rains have come, it can take two days to get to Nairobi. It's dry just now, so we'll only be another half hour or so."

I resorted to my stocking flask then, taking discreet sips at first, but subsiding eventually into the deep pulls of an accomplished drinker. I felt only a little better as we approached Fairlight. There were no gates—or rather, there were, but they were rusted, hanging limply from broken hinges.

"I do hope this is not a sign of things to come," I muttered darkly, but Ryder said nothing. He wore a grim smile I did not like, and I soon realized why.

The estate was, in kindest terms, a wreck. The fences were broken, offering a gap-toothed smile to the savannah beyond, while the house itself was long and low, squatting with its back to the drive. It was built of solid stone and handsome enough, but the trim was chipped and peeling and the boards of the veranda were warped. I alighted from the truck without a word and stood, overcome by the awfulness of it all. From the overgrown bushes to the torn curtains at the windows, the entire place lacked care. I thought of the sketches in Nigel's diary and could have wept. It was like being shown a photograph of a winsome orphan one meant to adopt, only to arrive and find the child had rickets and a snotty nose and was dressed in rags. I felt my shoulders sag as I stood, rooted to the spot.

Of all emotions, disappointment is the most difficult to hide. Rage, hatred, envy—those are easy to mask. But disappointment strikes to the heart of the child within us, resurrecting every unsatisfactory Christmas, every failed wish made on a shooting star. And I made no attempt to hide it. The journey had been tiring, the company less than enjoyable, and the various stresses of the day had finally taken their toll.

I turned to find Ryder watching me closely. "You might have warned me."

"It seemed kinder to let you hang onto your illusions for a little while longer."

I gave him a chilly look. "I'm afraid I haven't any cash on me. You will have to ask Dora for what we owe you. Good day."

He gave a snort. He strode forward and took my arm. "Come with me."

I had little choice. The hand on my arm was firm and for a moment it was delicious to give myself up to being bossed around. He led me up to the veranda and around the house to where the property overlooked the edge of a large green lake. The sun was dipping low to the ground, brushing the last of its warm rays over the shimmering surface, and turning the waters to molten gold. A flock of flamingos rose suddenly, flashing their gaudy feathers in a pink farewell as they departed. Across the lake a hippopotamus wore a crown of water lilies draped drunkenly over one eye and munched contentedly as a light breeze ruffled the lake water. I took a deep breath and saw, for just an instant, the Africa I had thought to find. Then, in a violent burst of crimson and gold, the sun shimmered hotly on the lake and was gone, sinking below the horizon, leaving only purple-blue shadows lengthening behind.

"There's no such thing as evening in Africa," he told me. "Now the sun is down, you'd best get inside. There's no moon tonight, so the lions will be out."

I turned to face him. "Are you saying that just to scare me?"

"No, I'm saying it to save you. You strike me as the type of woman just stupid enough to go for a walk in this country and get herself eaten."

I thought for a moment then shrugged. "You're probably right about that. Thank you for this," I said, waving a hand toward Lake Wanyama. "It is truly lovely."

"Africa is a complicated place, Miss Drummond. It's the most beautiful place on earth and the most dangerous. Don't forget that."

"I won't," I promised.

He hesitated. "You have staff in the house. They aren't worth much, but they do know how to find me. I have a boma about ten minutes' walk from here. If you need me, send one of the houseboys. Do not try to find me on your own under any circumstances."

I nodded. "Understood."


Still he did not leave, and the strange twilight created an atmosphere that was oddly intimate. "It was kind of you to show me the lake at sunset."

A quirk of the lips was the nearest he came to a smile. "I just didn't want to see you give up so fast. It doesn't suit you."

And with that he turned and strode away into the gathering darkness.

Dora called to me then and I joined her on the front veranda. An assortment of servants had emerged from the house and were shuffling towards the pile of baggage, haphazardly taking as little as possible before scuttling into the house with it.

"Is there any sort of organization?" I asked her. "Anyone in charge?"

She shrugged. "I asked, but they don't seem to understand English."

"Of course they understand English. You there, yes, you with the turban. Are you the boss?"

He shook his head and pointed to a cottage some little distance away. The place was dark and shuttered, and after a lengthy conversation involving more hand signals than words I discovered that the farm manager lived in that cottage but was not presently at home.

"It seems we are not expected," I told Dora. "I suppose Mr. Fraser's insistence on my departing Nairobi so suddenly has caught the staff on the hop. We weren't scheduled to arrive for almost a week yet," I reminded her. I turned back to the fellow in the turban. "May we go inside at least instead of standing out here getting devoured by insects?"

I swatted at the various things trying to suck my blood and the fellow understood me at once. He gestured for us to follow and we entered Fairlight at last. I gave a sigh of relief. It wasn't as bad as I had feared based on the outside. Of course, candlelight makes everything look nicer, and I realized Fairlight was not wired for electricity. There were candles and paraffin lamps instead.

"How very nineteenth-century," I murmured. "Is there food?" I mimed eating.

He nodded and waved us through. The entry hall, paneled in some very nice tropical woods, gave onto a pleasant drawing room with a broad fireplace with a mossy velvet fender. The dusty parquet floors were scattered with moth-eaten hides of various animals, and trophy heads hung on the walls, staring with blank, glassy eyes. The stuffing was spilling out of the armchairs, but at least they looked comfortable, and I sank into one with an audible sigh.

He disappeared down a service passage and reappeared a few minutes later with a tray.

"Soup," he said, pointing to the tray. There was no soup to be found, but there was a mixed rice dish with bits of unidentifiable meat and curry spices, some roasted potatoes, flatbreads, and more boiled eggs.

"By the time we leave Africa, I'm going to be clucking," I told Dora.

"Don't complain. At least you know a boiled egg can't poison you," she said, peering suspiciously at the meat.

I was too ravenous to care. I forked in the food as fast as I could, and I was happy to find there was a rice pudding for dessert and happier still to find the supply of booze. I poured us each a nightcap and we stretched out by the fire.

"I'm so tired I don't think I can get up to go to bed," Dora said at last.

"I know." I eyed the oozing sofa with distaste. "You realize we will have to do something about this place. If we're going to be in exile for months, we cannot live like savages."

"Hush," she said, her eyes closed. "They'll hear you."

"No, they won't. And they don't think of themselves as savages. Besides, I wasn't talking about them. It's one thing to live in a hut with a leopard skin for a blanket because you don't know better. It's entirely different to live in these conditions and do nothing to improve them," I told her, plucking a loose feather out of the upholstery.

"Tomorrow," she promised, her voice drowsy. She began to murmur her prayers, but I kept talking.

"We'll make a list," I said, warming to the idea. "It will be nice to have a project. And Nigel will be very happy to know the place is being spruced up. Materials might be an issue, but labor should be cheap."

Dora's only reply was a snore, and I lay awake, watching the shadows on the ceiling. We never did get up and go to bed. My first night at Fairlight was spent drinking on a moldering sofa in a house that wasn't mine, listening to the sounds of a darkness that was darker than any I had ever known.

The next morning I awoke to find Dora poking me in the shoulder and an assemblage of various native fellows standing in a line staring at me curiously.

"What the devil is their problem?"

I tried to roll over, but Dora stopped me. "Well, you do look a bit of a fright."

I sat up and took inventory. Crumpled silk dress stained with red dust and Ryder's fingerprints on the arm. Shoes caked in mud and buffalo blood. Empty flask on my lap, and I knew without even looking in a mirror that yesterday's makeup would be smeared everywhere.

"Say no more. Is there hot water?" I croaked.

"After a fashion," she said. She pushed a cup of hot coffee into my hands. I detest coffee and she knew it, but it did the trick. I drank it down and lurched to my feet.

She showed me to the bathroom and I turned back to face her. "Is this a joke? Dodo, I count seven different kinds of insects, including a spider that may well be poisonous."

"Spiders are arachnids," she corrected.

I slammed the door in her face and applied my bloody shoe to the lurkers in the bathtub. I eradicated all, except one little scorpion that dodged behind the toilet. I flung myself into the hot water and scrubbed, grateful that she had unpacked my French-milled soaps and a proper washcloth. After I was clean and dry and had washed my hair, I felt a pinch better.

Dodo had laid out a particularly fetching frock of green and black figured silk with green suede shoes, and as I put them on I wondered if they'd make it through the day. This country was hard on shoes, I thought ruefully. The white suede pair that had been covered in Anthony Wickenden's blood had been burned by the Norfolk staff, and the white silk ones soaked in buffalo blood would be next. I could have cried.

A Spear of Summer Grass
by by Deanna Raybourn