There are occasions when great transitions are accomplished with minimal fuss. The absorption of the Transvaal into the bosom of the British Empire was accomplished by one Theodore Petroch, backed by force of a mere twenty-five mounted policemen, striding into Pretoria upon the authority of Queen Victoria herself, as filtered through the diligent offices of Lord Carnaervon. This bloodless coup was intended to foster a great unity among Britons and Boers (white-skinned Christians to a man): an axis, if you will, against the looming threat of an increasingly unpredictable, dark-hued Zulu Nation.
In truth, so mired was the Transvaal in economic and social chaos, that the proud Afrikaaners scarcely noticed their annexation for the greater good. Petroch knew, however, that this situation would not long endure; and those agitating elements in Boer society, so long a thorn in the Empire’s side, would again begin to marshal their insidious forces. The threat of conflict, both within this new Province and without, was all too real; the prospects for collateral damage immense.
Fortunately, however, Theo had a plan…
South Africa, 1878
She had become, quite simply, a stunningly beautiful woman. This he had not anticipated, for his notion of her appearance remained coloured by the slightly buck-toothed, apple-cheeked child she had been when last he saw her. What stood before him now was a vision of pulchritude almost beyond imagining: a pale heart of a face, cheekbones still prominent, yet softened now to porcelain perfection; a subtly concave nose ending in an aristocratic, delicate point; slender, subtly sensual lips; slightly rounded, deep brown eyes that flashed intelligence; a rich aurora of pale umber curls that shone a tad coppery beneath the African sun. She sported a fine travelling ensemble of blue and cream, hinting at a gracefully slender figure. Just for a moment, Petroch wished he were not a relation, however distant; and certainly not a contentedly married gentleman – even if his wife and family were safely ensconced in another continent. ‘Twas but a passing fancy, and he dismissed it.
“Daliah-Neale Sladen,” he blurted, “You are truly all grown up.”
She smiled: a thin, knowing crescent; those great front teeth evidently consigned to her past.
“Thank you, Sir Theo,” her Scottish lilt added lustre to both name and newly acquired title. “Or shall I call you Uncle?”
‘Uncle’: there seemed something a little perverse in her addressing him as such.
“Yes,” he coughed. “I’d like that – Uncle it is.”
“I’ll own, I was a wee bit surprised at your summons, Uncle. How did you even know I was in Africa?”
“Ah, the jungle drums tell all, my dear. This continent may be vast, but the British here are as close-knit as a rural village. I expect your husband finds much the same in India.”
“I wouldn’t know,” she replied quickly, a touch too blithely; he did not pursue it.
“And how are things in Lagos? Have you saved all the souls in that blighted city for Our Lord already?”
“My concern these past two years has been saving lives, Uncle – I am trusting The Lord to take care of his own work.”
“You will do great things, Child,” he soothed, taking her arm. “You have that fire within you.”
He led her on a brief tour of the inner city, laid like a geometric maze around the church that was its looming, resonating heart. He could have strolled with such a comely accoutrement for many hours, but she seemed to tire quickly for one of a mere twenty-six years – perhaps the long trek from Nigeria had sapped her more than she realised. So they made for the High Commissioner’s residence: Buchan House gleamed behind ornate iron gates like the cliffs of Dover themselves; whitewashed, British and resolute. She seemed astonished, perhaps even a touch offended, by its grandeur.
“This is my prize,” he said, only half apologetically. “Reward for issuing the proclamation to bring the Transvaal into the Empire.”
“A grand and noble deed, for our dear Queen’s honour,” she commented. He thought he detected sarcasm in her voice, and his response was sharper than intended.
“I merely did what had to be done – this Republic would have collapsed otherwise, into utter anarchy. And much as I revere our Monarch, her interest in Africa is negligible at best – becoming Empress of India has forever turned her head in the Sub-Continent’s direction, I fear.”
“So Uncle, tell me,” she said later, over tea, “As one who has effectively conquered a country, what possible difficulty could you have that would require seeking me out, and requesting my help?”
Though he had had many weeks to prepare his answer, still the directness of her question caught Petroch off-guard. He took a moment to think.
“I mentioned earlier, our Queen is remote from the concerns of Africa. She delegates everything to Carnarvon: he in turn delegates all to the High Commissioner; I am the High Commissioner’s assistant, therefore ultimately much of the administrative burden falls upon me.”
“Uncle, I asked what you require of me, not for your place in the political hierarchy…”
“Please my dear, indulge me just a moment. In the past, it has been my lot, as you know, to deal directly with the native populations of this region; to spend my time among the blacks in an effort to understand their ways of thinking, and how best to ameliorate their more savage tendencies. However, of late, the high commissioner’s attention has been more and more drawn by the looming Russian threat, and he has begun to neglect the concerns closer to home. That is why I was the one to enter this city, not him. That indeed, is why he is not on this continent even as we speak – he attends the Balkan Conference, with no less than the Prime Minister himself, leaving me to fulfil most of his function, if not the actual office.”
“Uncle…” Daliah was all but rolling her eyes in exasperation.
“Yes, yes, I am coming to the point. If I am to deal with the Afrikaaners, as it seems I must for the time being, then necessarily I neglect my contacts with the natives. Therefore, I need someone to take on that role for me: someone who has already spent time among black peoples, and someone I trust implicitly.”
“Uncle, I am truly flattered, but I ask again, what real use can I be? I have spent but two years with one West African tribe, not to be compared to your Zulus and such: how could I possibly match up to your decades of local experience?”
“Is that self-doubt I hear, Mrs Sladen? When you were in your husband’s London hospital, did you doubt your ability with the patients there?”
She blanched a little at mention of her husband, he noted, but her expression remained firm.
“I doubted my abilities many times,” she said quietly. “But I never doubted the rightness of what I was doing.”
“Then trust me when I say your contribution may be no less valuable here. In fact, you don’t even have to trust me, for you may receive the story from another perspective. As part of the attempted rapprochement I have engaged a senior Boer leader – once one of the Empire’s most implacable foes – as my advisor. His name is Pieter Nimegen, and he will be joining us for supper this evening.”
Daliah seemed less than impressed.
“Really, Uncle, on my first night, I am to listen to two bureaucrats talking shop?”
“Not entirely,” he answered with a smile. “Herr Nimegen will be bringing his wife with him. I have a feeling you and she might get along…”
Pieter Nimegen was a burly, thickset man whose face seemed somehow too large for his head. He was, Daliah guessed, slightly younger than ‘Uncle’ Theo, perhaps mid-fifties. There was something fascinating about watching the two men interact – when they shook hands, they seemed to be fencing; their cordial greetings carried a clear sub-current of hostility, of old foes trying to find a basis for cooperation, even friendship.
Nimegen presented his wife with evident self-satisfaction verging on smugness, as well he might. She was ridiculously young, seeming barely half her husband’s age (a correct impression, as it turned out: she was all of twenty-three). Her name was Tilly, and Daliah was intrigued, not to say a little peeved, to note that she was easily the most beautiful woman the latter had encountered since reaching the African continent. She possessed a wide, noble face with soft high cheekbones and a heavy chin that implied strength of character. Her nose and mouth were both incongruously delicate, though the latter had a subtle lushness to its ripe Cupid’s bow. Great grey eyes met your gaze head on and seemed to look right through you; they were ringed with long black lashes and shone like polished granite beneath sensually thick brows. Tilly had a rich, seemingly riotous aurora of dark russet hair, fighting to be free of the pins holding it in style: it softened the overall slightly weather-beaten aspect of her complexion; twenty plus summers under a fierce South African sun. She wore a maroon dress that was simple, overtly inexpensive, and utterly fetching.
Their first attempts at communication were a somewhat comical clash of accents: Tilly’s clipped, guttural English found little common ground with Daliah’s rolling, loch-and-glen singsong. It did not help that Mrs Nimegen, possibly in deference to her husband, affected gentle but overt hostility to all manifestations of the British Empire. And yet, faced with the threat of an evening full of politics and shoptalk, both women were obliged to work at it.
“Daliah-Neale,” Tilly repeated, after introductions. “That seems rather a mouthful.” Her eyebrows were wryly raised; her bright smile difficult to interpret as mocking.
“Och, call me ‘Danny’ – everyone else does. Well, everyone except Uncle here…”
The smile remained in place, quizzical now – still Daliah could not tell if she was being appraised or somehow ridiculed.
“You are Sir Theo’s niece, then?”
Mention of his name brought Petroch crashing into the moment.
“I am afraid it would take some time and many complex diagrams to convey my precise relationship to the lovely Mrs Sladen,” he chortled. “Suffice to say, we are both twigs upon a large and very verdant family tree.”
“That is good to hear,” Nimegen boomed, slipping a paternal arm about his wife. “My people, too, appreciate the greatness of a large family. I am hopeful that Tilly here will soon bear me the first of many, many fine children.”
Knowing guffaws all round, except that Daliah just happened to catch Tilly’s eye as these words were uttered: deep within them was a little flicker of light. For an instant, for less than an instant, she looked even younger than her twenty-three years, almost a child - a slightly scared child, at that.
Servants, inevitably black, brought the meal – Daliah found it difficult to ignore them like she should, for they reminded her, for all their immaculate starchiness, of the people she had all but abandoned at Sir Theo’s summons. The visitors sat stiffly aloof as food was served: had it come by some form of mechanical conveyance – a miniature railway perhaps – they would doubtless have shown more warmth. Daliah noted that the Nimegens were utterly silent with the servants present, while her own continual thanks drew disapproving glances, even from her precious ‘uncle’. Possibly in retaliation, she was called upon to say Grace, doing so with mumbling clumsiness and flaming cheeks, for she had imagined such niceties left long behind her in London.
They were barely past the hors d’oeuvres when the shoptalk, and the bickering, began.
“All my people really need to know, Sir Theo,” Nimegen barked, “is when your mighty Empire is going to deal with Cetshwayo and his marauding Zulus?”
“Oh come now, Pieter,” Petroch rose to the challenge like a tennis player, “They can hardly be called ‘marauding’. A few cattle thefts here and there, to replace stock they have lost to disease – for this you would have us wage war?”
“We know from bitter experience you cannot trust these Blacks,” he pronounced it ‘Bleks’. “Give them an inch, they will take many miles. Frankly I find it typical, if disappointingly so, that the British Empire should rush to conquer a race of peaceful Whites, yet leaves the savages to wreak havoc.”
“I’d hardly call it a conquest,” Sir Theo chortled. “All we did was salvage an impossible situation: a few more months of your economic quagmire, you would have reverted to a level well below that of the most feral Zulus.”
“We were working on the problems,” Nimegen huffed. “All we required was time.”
“Yes, another two hundred years or so, and things would be going swimmingly, I’m sure…”
And so it went on, the arguments rising and falling like a music hall hubbub. Daliah knew she should listen, for there would be information useful to her future sorties among the ‘Bleks’, but she was struggling under a sudden, sweeping wave of tiredness. With an effort she rode it out, and when she felt a little better she became aware of eyes trained upon her. She looked up, just in time to catch Tilly Nimegen glancing away. Smiling inwardly, she spoke.
“I wonder, kind sirs, if we might table this discussion for another time? Please remember there are ladies present, who know or care little for such intrigues…”
Nimegen seemed unduly ruffled by her words.
“Frankly, Madam, among my people, it is vital that all engage in the struggle for freedom, even the fairer sex. Is that not correct, my dear?”
Tilly nodded, and again there seemed that glint of apprehension.
“Well, I disagree with you Pieter, as ever,” Petroch boomed. “I believe my ‘niece’ is correct – it is impolite of us to burden beauty with our grand concerns. Let us call a truce, at least until brandy and cigars, for their sakes, hmm?”
“Very well,” Nimegen shrugged. “Then perhaps your ‘niece’ might care to tell us her story – for instance, how does such an English rose come to be out here in Africa?”
“I am a Scottish rose,” said Daliah firmly, “and I volunteered to come here. I trained for missionary work in Aberdeen, and I spent two years among the Natives in Namibia, before Sir Theo summonsed me.”
“I suppose that, having sent my wife and children back to Blighty for safety, I was missing family,” Petroch interjected. “When I found out little Daliah-Neale was working and living over here, I just had to see her.”
“And you say you actually lived among the blacks?” This was Tilly Nimegen, speaking at last. “Why should anyone want to do that?”
Daliah met her with a level gaze. “I felt it was important: one needs to understand people if one is going to help them. Simplest way to understand them is to live their lives…”
“I should point out my ‘niece’ is a fiercely determined young woman,” Petroch broke in again, “and has been since childhood. There was an incident I myself personally witnessed, involving a mallet… go on, my dear, you tell them.”
Daliah smiled, blushing. “There was a group of boys, they had this hammer… they dared me to stand still while they swung it towards my face. I accepted, with a counter-dare of my own.”
“Which was?” Mrs Nimegen was sat forward now, engaged. Or maybe any other subject than politics was sufficient to rivet her.
“If I won, they had to attend Sunday school.”
“For some boys, that is a horror beyond endurance,” Sir Theo chuckled. “But do you know, the blessed girl just stood there, cool as you like, while these ruffians swung a mallet – a mallet – mere inches in front of her face. Extraordinary spectacle.”
“And a bumper Sunday school class,” Daliah added blithely.
“Knew from that moment on, she was destined to do good works,” Petroch smiled. “In fact, that was how she met her husband: she was a volunteer nurse in London; he was running the hospital.”
“I prefer not to talk about that time, Uncle,” responded Daliah, a distinct chill in her voice. Nimegen, however, did not notice.
“I must say it seems a trifle odd, that you should be in Africa Mrs Sladen, and your husband in India. What sort of marital arrangement is that?”
“One that suits us,” she replied, meeting his eyes. She glanced briefly at Tilly, thought she saw a flicker of admiration.
“Yes, well, my dears,” Sir Theo announced, “I fear dessert has been and gone, and Pieter and I must return to our ongoing struggle for consensus. I trust we can leave you ladies to amuse yourselves for an hour so?”
They repaired to a study, and Daliah was reminded of boxers emerging from their corners, ready to resume battle. She took Tilly’s arm, leading her from the dining room.
“Don’t ask me where we’re going,” she muttered. “I still don’t know my way around this place.”
“What was it like, being a nurse?” Tilly asked suddenly. Her manner was so earnest, it momentarily disarmed Daliah’s inbuilt reluctance.
“It was Hell,” she sighed. “The hospital was in a poor district of London. We all did our best, but cholera was rampant – people died around us, men, women, children…”
“But at least you met your husband – surely that was a compensation?”
“I thought so, at the time.”
Tilly was perceptive enough to let this remark pass.
“You know, I sometimes think I would like to have been a nurse,” she said softly. “But I am not sure if I have the temperament.”
“Temperament is immaterial: kind heart or cold, collected or flighty, all can play their part. What matters is an appreciation that everything is fleeting, life especially. You must seize each day as if it is your last, because for some poor souls that is truly the case.”
They passed through a door, to find themselves unexpectedly out in fresh air. Buchan house possessed a garden, a walled parody of formal Englishness fashioned from tropical profusion. In the pinking light of sunset it had a dreamy, primordial ambience.
“Well, Mrs Nimegen,” said Daliah gaily, “Would you care to get lost in the jungle with me?”
Tilly giggled nervously, but allowed herself to be led. The garden was craftily laid out, with numerous twisting paths and carefully sited trees and shrubs that made it seem larger than it truly was – they quickly lost sight of the house, which was at once thrilling and slightly unnerving. It seemed a likely place for secrets to come out, so Daliah chanced her arm.
“I hope you won’t think me intrusive, but I’m a little curious as to how you and Herr Nimegen came to be married. After all…” she broke off, believing her next thought churlish.
“He is old enough to be my father,” Tilly completed the sentence for her. “In fact, it is largely because of my father that it happened. He had known Pieter since boyhood - they had been on the Great Trek together. Pieter was married once before, many years ago, and my Father was Best Man – unfortunately his wife died, of malaria, not very long after. They lost contact after that – Pieter was becoming active in politics, but my father has always been just a simple farmer. Much later, they found each other again, and by that time I was on the scene: Father knew that Pieter was still a lonely man, and I of course held the great Herr Nimegen almost in awe. There were certain machinations – you know how families are.”
Daliah grunted her assent. She weighed her next question carefully, decided to let it run.
“And are you happy?”
The beat was quick, almost imperceptible, before Tilly answered. But it was definitely there.
“I don’t believe I could be happier.”
They had stumbled across a curiosity – indeed, since this was an English garden, it could be deemed a folly: a hexagonal summerhouse, fashioned from iron and wood, its single door as elaborately glazed as a church window. Out of girlish curiosity Daliah tested the handle, and the door opened with a grinding creak. She stepped inside, and Tilly followed her. The interior was nothing, just the smallest of floors and a narrow bench running around the five enclosing sides, each section seating two, at a pinch. It was a tiny, cut off world: a fragment of Englishness transplanted to a distant continent. Even the air within seemed somehow different.
“And you, Mrs Sladen?” asked Tilly, after a contemplative pause, “Are you happy, with your husband half a world away?”
Daliah smiled in the summerhouse’s studious half-light. “I told you: call me Danny.”
And she reached out gently, as if to brush back a stray wisp of Tilly’s hair – instead, in quick darting motion her elegant fingers plucked the key pins restraining the woman’s locks. Waves and curls of frothing auburn fell about Mrs Nimegen’s face and neck, tumbling over her shoulders, fiery as the deepening sunset. She gasped.
“Just what do you think you are doing?”
“Being true to my credo,” Daliah whispered. “I am seizing this day.”
And she curled a lock about her fingers, drew Tilly’s face towards her, and kissed her with fierce, wet-lipped passion. Emotion manifested as jolts coursing through Tilly’s body: she stiffened, softened, stiffened again; she mewled and finally began to struggle. Pulling free, she flashed a stinging slap across Daliah’s cheek. Daliah rode the blow, taking a moment to savour its sting.
“Och, that’s very good, Tilly,” she murmured, ruefully rubbing her face. “Very well done – you have defended your virtue admirably. Now: shall we see what it is you really want?”
She took Tilly’s face in her hands, pulling her close again, and their mouths softly collided. The crush of Daliah’s lush lips stole Tilly’s breath, and she swooned momentarily, clinging to the other woman’s shoulders for support. Daliah’s tongue surged forward, a long probing lap between Tilly’s own lips, filling her mouth with pulsing, dizzying, treacly sweetness. Helplessly she swallowed saliva that was not purely her own, vaguely understanding that a transaction had occurred; that more than a breath had been truly lost. She pulled away, for survival this time, gulping the thin air of the summerhouse. She was trembling; her heart thundered; she was still holding on to Daliah.
“I…” she tried to speak, her voice seeming distant and strange. “I…”
“Hush,” Daliah put a finger to Tilly’s lips, “Don’t say it. Don’t say anything…”
Another kiss: Daliah’s tongue filled Tilly’s mouth again, still an alien presence yet now tinged with warm familiarity. It dabbed across Tilly’s teeth, slithered against her gums, teased and curled and coaxed her own tongue in swirling, saturated spirals. Tilly swooned again, just a little, and was unsure if she fainted onto the bench or if Daliah had manoeuvred her there. They were side-by-side now, Daliah’s fingers brushing her cheeks, her hair: mouth maintaining a ruthless torrent of kisses, fast upon slow, hard upon soft. Tilly was aware dimly that the pounding of her heart had become a great leaden pulsing that seemed to consume her entire body: she felt heat rising, and incipient dampness; she seemed to sense individual beans of moisture forming in the hollow of her throat, under her arms, between her breasts, and another place her still prudish conscience refused to acknowledge.
In the midst of another cascading kiss Tilly was suddenly aware that Daliah’s hands had moved: now they pulled, none too stealthily, at the bow securing the neckline of her dress. She gave a stifled yelp of shock and fear, her hands reflexively snapping upward to repel this intrusion. But things became confused then, Tilly’s hands tangling in Daliah’s and as much abetting as denying her efforts. Wordlessly they wrestled, bent somehow upon the same objective: the bow yielded, the neckline loosened; Tilly’s bodice became slack about her shoulders. The lacy edge of a chemise appeared: under Daliah’s implacably picking nails it stretched and sagged. Like a harvest moon emerging, Tilly’s breast spilled into the light. To her own eyes it seemed so pale, a soft creamy tumulus upon which the nipple sat proud, a wide heraldic disc, already taut and tingling; yet to Daliah’s hungry gaze it was as tanned and toasted as the rest of Tilly’s skin – Africa’s ochre tattoo. She kissed the nipple, lightly sucking its teat with her lips, then sweeping her tongue tip around the aureole’s coppery fringe. Tilly moaned, suffused with a feathery bliss, at once erotic and deeply maternal – her breast seemed to strain upward, the nipple eager to engorge into soft, warm mouth. She thought of wet-nurses; knew the secret pleasures of their craft. Lulled, she was but dimly aware of Daliah’s hands descending, fumbling in the fading light, seeking the heavy hem of her dress, the attendant silky froth of petticoat. Slowly fabric slithered up her legs, over her knees: Tilly held herself passive, no longer resisting, but determined not to encourage, even inadvertently. As her shame was exposed, so its need seemed to intensify: a shrieking, slithery ache, a ravenous want for something beyond naming. But with need came fear, of pain inculcated from a score or more of difficult, disastrous nights, each one a bitter wedding sequel. Her long, slender, stockinged legs were being gently but decisively parted, and she knew what that meant.
“Please,” she whispered, averting her face, “Be gentle with me…”
Yet, the first touch of her vulva was like nothing she had felt, or imagined, before. A light, seamstress stroke with a single fingertip: curling up between dewy labia, softly tugging the stiffened nub of her enraged clitoris. A concentric, shimmering wave of raw ecstasy surged through her, making her shudder and sigh, wringing the tension from her muscles, leaving her gelatinously pliant. One stroke: it opened her like a flower, like ripened fruit; sundered the partition between outer flesh and inner self; left her mindlessly, ineluctably feminine. Were there a man, she thought dreamily, he would penetrate her with ease; fill her with vibrant seed; make a mother of her.
But Daliah was not a man: her agenda, her intentions were quite different, though no more or less honourable. She drew back a moment, surveying in the last slanted rays of sunlight the conquered field: beneath a delta crown of bristling black curls the fiery red labia flourished swollen, parted, all but dripping with fluid desire; the clitoris a shy shining jewel ‘neath its silky scarlet hood.
“My God,” she breathed, “But you are so beautiful down there…”
And she knelt, as if in reverence, placing her face between Tilly’s silk-sheathed thighs, sliding her tongue deep into the dilated, earthy, flowing sweetness. Tilly cried out, guttural and hoarse, as raw sensation flared in her vagina, resonating like an echo through every extremity of her being. As that tongue lapped slow upon her quivering labia, as it swirled her throbbing clitoris, she moaned something in breathless, fractured Dutch that sounded to Daliah like obscenities but was likely wholly innocent. Tilly’s hands gripped hard to the edge of the little bench, her only anchor against the uncontrollable lifting of her hips, the slow helpless oscillation of her flesh, vibrant as an instrument under Daliah’s virtuoso mouth. She was by turns all tension, abraded by these hard surfaces, this tiny uncomfortable space; and all softness, melted by saliva, steeped in her own fragrant emissions. It took a while to realise these sensations were but parts of the same thing, a thunderous clenching pulse that encompassed her heartbeat, her breathing; implacable flexing of muscles in her thighs, her tummy, her pelvis, her anus. By the time she appreciated all this it was too late to save herself: she let her body surge forward, and with a trill of choking, anguished cries climaxed into Daliah’s warm and willing mouth.
Next she knew, Tilly was shivering and sobbing in the woman’s arms, stupid as a baby, and feeling newborn.
“I never…” she tried to speak through cathartic streams of tears and mucus, “I never knew. I never dreamed…”
She could say no more, for words were redundant, irrelevant. Daliah held her softly, soothingly, as long as she dared: it was beginning to go dark.
“We’d better get you fixed up,” she said at last, with a nurse’s brisk efficiency. “The men will be expecting us…”