The diary of an anonymous nineteenth-century Jesuit, translated and annotated by Brigadier Sir George A.M.F. MacPhail (author of Through Rhodesia With Revolver).
I will not set down in detail the terrible accident that brought us here. I will say only that the ship was entirely lost, and many good men with it, including my friend and confessor Father Gaetano della Bosca. None of the crew survived. Requiem æternam dona eis, Domine, et lux perpetua luceat eis: requiescant in pace. Amen.
Only four reached land: Father Spada, Father Olivero, Father Dalmasso and myself. I need hardly say that, having managed the perilous and exhausting swim, I was scarcely aware of my own existence, much less that of the others. I lay on the shore, coughing up salt water, and tried to come to terms with it all. Only after some time – it may have been minutes, it may have been hours – did I discover that the sun was blazing fiercely in my eyes, that I was thirsty, and that another poor soaked creature lay just a few feet away.
The four of us having at last found each other, having clung gratefully to each other and thanked God over and over for our miraculous escape, the arguments began.
Father Dalmasso did not want to leave the shore. How could we ever hope to be found, he said, if we did not stay within sight of passing ships? Father Spada, naturally, disagreed: he said that d–n few ships would pass this blighted place, we might all be dead long before they did, and he for one would expire where he stood if he did not find fresh water. I could see both sides of the question, but was inclined to agree with Father Spada about the water. I had swallowed a great deal of sea, and felt that my tongue might shrivel and fall out. Father Olivero said nothing, being too taken up with coughing. And so we set out to find water.
This we found, after considerable walking and much argument, in the form of a narrow stream: a brownish, unhealthy-looking runnel trickling down to the sea. The sight of it was so disheartening, after all our effort, that Father Olivero sat down in the sand and shook his head. “Come now,” said Father Spada, “this is but the mouth of the river. Follow it a little, and it will yield clear water.” And he pointed inland, where the little stream vanished into a forest the likes of which I had never seen in all my life: a forest of tall, thick trunks like pillars, beneath a dense green canopy. There was nothing to discuss: he marched off and we after him, once Father Olivero could be got to his feet.
The forest was cool, though dark and humid, and I felt a little better for the shade. We had gone but a short way when the stream broadened and seemed to become clearer, and after a while more I stopped and, kneeling on the bank, dipped a hand in the water and brought it cautiously to my lips. The water was sweet and cold and, before I could even take account of my actions, I fell to my hands and knees and began to guzzle like a thirsty animal.
“Safe, is it?” asked Father Dalmasso ironically – but Spada and Olivero had already joined me, and he was not long in drinking his share.
Once my thirst was quenched, and I had sat up and wiped my face, I began to feel that a brief rest might be of some benefit; but the thought had scarcely occurred there was a great shout, and Father Spada got to his feet and hared along the bank and into the forest. Father Spada is an excitable character and much prone to impulsive actions. He is a Sicilian, of course, but that may have nothing to do with it.
The rest of us were disinclined to follow. In a few moments he returned, all aglow. “I thought I spotted something,” he said, “and I was right. There have been people here, and not long past. Come!”
He led us to a spot a few metres away, where a bend in the stream created a sort of peninsula. Here was every evidence of human habitation: a dead fire with a blackened can in the embers, some sort of spear – a fearsome object with a barbed tip – a few charred small bones and, miraculous find! some sheaves of paper and a pencil, which I quickly gathered to myself. Spada picked up the can and cradled it in his hands.
“As I thought,” he said. “It is still warm. They can’t be far off.”
“I don’t much like this,” said Father Olivero, who had found his voice. But Spada paid no heed, and eyed the sheaves of paper in my arms as if he would take them from me. I clutched them tighter.
“A scientific expedition, perhaps,” he said. “One hears of such things. Anything written there?”
“No,” I said, without looking – Lord forgive me, but it turned out to be true.
“Olivero’s right,” said Father Dalmasso. “There’s something very queer about this place. Look at the state it’s been left in – I should ask myself why they were in such a hurry to leave. And that spear! Brutal thing. No, I don’t like it.”
But Spada would not hear it. He insisted that the travellers must be nearby, that they would certainly be friendly to us, and that the best thing we could do was get ourselves to the nearest high place and light a beacon to attract their attention.
I will not describe the discussion that followed, save to say that it grew more and more heated until all at once it was dark, and the forest was full of alarming noises. It was swiftly and unanimously decided that we should stay where we were and reassess our situation at dawn. We would sleep – if we could sleep – in shifts, and one of us would keep watch with the spear. Father Dalmasso contrived to re-light the dead fire, with the help of a heap of wood and much effort, and I am writing these lines in its comforting light.
[The rest of this entry consists of a long and convoluted prayer to the Virgin Mary, followed by a litany of pleas to various “saints” of the Society of Jesus. This can hold nothing of interest to the educated reader, and so I have not troubled to translate it. – G.M.]
© Alix Montague 2015