Being the full and frank confession of Brigadier Sir George A.M.F MacPhail: soldier, adventurer, impostor.
I was born to a respectable family in the outskirts of Edinburgh. I wager that surprises you, for I have always let it be given out that I was a mad Highlander, the runaway child of moor-dwelling peasants. I have spent my military life around English officers and foreign soldiers: two very different classes of men, but united in their willingness to believe me a savage, especially on account of my hair and my temper. I did not disabuse them.
My people were undertakers, and so too would I be, had I not taken my fate into my own hands. And this I did when I was just fifteen. I had had quite enough of helping my father to sew up orifices and fend off stink. I was of the opinion that, if I must spend my life up to my elbows in foulness, I might as well be something more dashing: a surgeon, say, or a zoologist. The former profession was beyond my parents’ means, the latter beyond their imagining. And so we quarrelled – definitively quarrelled. I suppose we might have made it up in time, but I was a hot-headed creature and I did not wait to find out. I took the housekeeping money from my mother’s purse and myself to Leith docks, where I signed up as crew of the King Midas, bound for the New World. The captain was a raving monomaniac called McTavish, whose sole desire it was to find the conquistador treasure rumoured to be buried in a hidden valley of the Amazon.
But sir! I hear you protest. Did not the McTavish expedition fail, and the entire crew perish?
The answer, in short, is yes – and no.
The passage was the worst of my life. My father had been strict, but here I was treated like a galley slave; I had chafed at handling the effluences of the dead, but now I spent all my waking hours mopping up those of the living. Many a time I wished myself home again, but I could not turn back. Even if I could, I would not, for I had my pride – and just as well, or I might have given into melancholy and cast myself overboard.
At length we made port, and McTavish set about finding men to strengthen our expedition. This proved difficult, for every man knew where we were headed, but none seemed prepared to countenance it. But McTavish had considerable funds, and in a few days had assembled a company of madmen and mercenaries the likes of which I have never again seen. I almost wished the expedition cancelled, for I was well-entrenched in Manaus – the pleasures of a Brazilian port city need no enumeration. Were the prospect of gold less tantalising, I might have stayed where I was and let McTavish and co. go to their doom without me. How I wish I had!
We reached the valley after a long and gruelling hike through the rainforests, in the course of which a good three-quarters of our mercenaries changed their minds and fled. We arrived exhausted, much-bitten, and bruised in body and spirit. The scene that met us I need not describe – our anonymous priest did a better job of it than I could ever manage. Suffice it to say that the view was the same and so were the beasts, great lumbering things of a size I can hardly credit even now. Only the atmosphere was different: McTavish swore profusely, and the remainder of our native troops shrieked and ran back into the forest. I thought them cowards then, but have since come to regard them as extremely sensible men.
The rest of us had little time to think. “Ho!” cried McTavish, and he raised his elephant gun and went charging into the valley.
© Alix Montague 2015