Being the full and frank confession of Brigadier Sir George A.M.F MacPhail: soldier, adventurer, impostor.
I did not think at all. I ran after McTavish like the blind fool I was. The slope was exceeding steep, and I lost my footing, cannoning into him so that we both rolled over shrubs and rocks and scrub until we reached the bottom.
“God damn you!” he cried, hauling himself to his feet. “You stupid, impertinent young…” He broke off, staring around him. “What the devil?”
I rose gingerly, flinching before the blows I was sure would come. But he paid me no heed — he was looking up at the ridge, where not a soul was in sight. His face contorted and he ground his teeth.
“Run off, would you?” he bellowed, waving his fist. “Cowards! Traitors! Cockchafing bastard sons of two-shilling whores!” He went on for some time in this vein, but I shall not record it, for his language quickly became ungentlemanly. At length he dusted himself off, hoisted his elephant gun and walked away towards the forest, railing as he went. I hurried after him, for I was unarmed save for a small dagger I had stolen from one of the native guides. Had I a better weapon, I might have taken my chances with the beasts.
We made slow progress, for McTavish had clearly injured himself rolling down the hill—the further we walked, the more his left foot dragged and the more heartily he cursed. We did not meet a single creature, for which I was profoundly thankful — I know now, of course, that they had come to fear men, and McTavish’s cursing doubtless alerted them of our presence a clear mile away. Once we came to the forest, I grew bold and began to explore my surroundings, for McTavish was easy to track, and I was nimble enough in those days to shin up and down trees like a monkey. At first, this was all very harmless — I found fruit I dared not eat, and water I dared not drink, and woodland creatures that scuttled off before I could lay hold of a rock. I was casting about for one when I found the body.
The man — for what woman would enter this cursed place? — lay at the foot of a tree. The state he was in I dare not describe. I was an undertaker’s boy, and I puked three times before I could get a good look at him. He was decked in rusty black rags, and around the neck was a dull silver chain with a crucifix — a fine thing even to my eye, silver and ebony. One arm was outstretched, and at his chewed and fretted fingertips lay a drift of coarse paper, wrinkled by the damp and crossed over and over again in dense crooked writing.
I am not proud of what I did. I gathered up the pages and thrust them into my shirt, and then I lifted up his poor head — what was left of it — removed the chain from around his neck, and pocketed the crucifix. I suppose I thought I might sell it, should I survive to leave that place, and pay for my passage home — for if I was certain of one thing, it was that I wanted to go home. But I never did sell it. It stays in a locked drawer in my bedside table, and I never look at it, but neither will I let it go. For what happened in that valley will stay with me until I die, and no priest and no pardon could lift my burden from me.
© Alix Montague 2016