Continuing the diary of an anonymous nineteenth-century Jesuit, translated and annotated by Brigadier Sir George A.M.F MacPhail (author of Through Borneo with Blunderbuss).
A tragedy has befallen us: Father Olivero is dead. Requiem æternam [etc. – G.M.]
I can barely comprehend it, but I shall try to set down today’s events as they occurred, without sparing my own part in the dreadful affair.
I rose at dawn. I was so excited at the prospect of making a closer acquaintance of this valley and its creatures that I had barely slept. How I rue it now! In my exhaustion-befuddled state I was half convinced that the mysterious giants would have melted away, and I did not wait for the others to wake – I left our camp at the foot of the hill and ran out into the plain, casting about me for a sight of them.
The family – for so I believe them to be – were gathered around a watering-hole. I could not stay where I was. I held my breath and crept closer and, as I approached, one of the animals stretched out its neck and began to drink. I could see the water coursing up its throat in great boles. To see this monstrous thing behaving like any living creature in need of water was almost more than my poor mind could absorb. I fell to my knees in the long grass and prayed with a fervour I had not felt in years, praising God for the splendour of His creation – a creation which, I am convinced, we shall never fully understand.
Then there was a cry at my back, and I turned to see Father Dalmasso running towards me. He stopped as he caught sight of the creatures, and crossed himself and spoke a prayer against evil – but still he watched them for a long moment before he approached me and placed a hand on my shoulder.
“Come away, lad,” he said. “My God, we thought you were lost.”
The scene that awaited me back at our encampment I shall not trouble to describe. It did not last long, at any rate. Huddled as we were against the foot of the incline, we had no source of food or water and would have to find both as a matter of urgency. To share the watering place of the beasts was not to be contemplated, and so we set off for the woods, which we believed would offer us protection and shelter. Father Spada took the lead, Dalmasso and I close upon his heels, and Father Olivero followed at a little distance.
Father Olivero was much given to this behaviour, trailing behind and alternating fretful complaint with sullen silence. We were never able to persuade him to keep up with us and so I am afraid we neglected to try. He grumbled for a few minutes or so and then fell silent, and I am ashamed to say that we were a little way into the woods before we realised that he was no longer with us. I was the last in our party, and had it only occurred to me to look back, he might still be alive as I write this. May God forgive me, for I shall never forgive myself.
For a few seconds we could only stand and look around us. The cool shade of the woods suddenly seemed horribly dark, and I felt as if plunged into icy water. Then Father Spada hefted the spear and said “Stay!”, and ran back along the path we had taken, calling for Father Olivero.
I will never forget what followed. He fell silent mid-cry, and stopped – he looked intently into the woods for a moment and then, raising the spear, began to walk slowly backwards until he reached the place where we stood.
“Start walking,” he whispered, without turning around. “Silently.”
For some time we crept on in that way, Father Dalmasso and I walking gingerly ahead and Spada with his back to us, brandishing the spear. After some time he seemed to breathe again, and said that he believed we were at a safe distance now, and then he thrust the spear into Father Dalmasso’s hands, and was sick behind a tree. Father Dalmasso began to ask what had happened, but Spada could only shake his head and say: “Pray for him. Pray for his soul.”
We were by then deep in the woods, and now felt that we would, after all, be much safer in the open plains. But there was no question of retracing our tracks, and no clear path to the outside. We were weak with hunger and thirst, sunburnt and footsore – Father Spada was close to collapse. And so, for lack of any better choice, we walked a little further until we found a stream, and made our encampment there.
Here we sit, with our backs to the fire and our eyes on the forest. Dalmasso has caught a few small mammals, but the smell of the roasting meat turns my stomach. I must eat, but I cannot. Father Spada has begun to talk, and I cannot imagine that I will eat again.
It was a bird that killed Father Olivero. An enormous misshapen bird with a snout for a beak, and teeth, and a terrible curving claw on each foot. It mantled over his body like a hawk with its prey, and Spada swears that Olivero cried out when it began to tear at him.
[The rest of this entry is short but unreadable. I fancy the poor man’s hand was shaking so badly that he could not write legibly, and finally gave up the effort altogether. – G.M.]
© Alix Montague 2015