Monday, December 26, 2016

Long Odds (1886)

by H. Rider Haggard

One of the enduring characters of Victorian literature is the adventurer Allan Quatermain, created by H. Rider Haggard. This adventurous hero first made his way into print in the novel King Solomon’s Mines in 1885. One of the interesting things about Haggard’s works about Quatermain is that they appeared completely out of chronological order, coming in whatever order the writer was inspired to put his adventures down on paper. In that first novel the character is fifty-five years old. “Long Odds,” from the following year, however, comes from near the end of the great adventurer’s life. Shortly after telling this story to the narrator, “the death of his only son so unsettled him that he immediately left England, accompanied by two companions, his old fellow-voyagers, Sir Henry Curtis and Captain Good, and has now utterly vanished into the dark heart of Africa.” The story was first published in Macmillan’s Magazine in 1886, and later included in a collection of stories entitled, Allan’s Wife and Other Tales, the following year. Haggard wrote only a handful of short stories about Quatermain, preferring to chronicle most of his adventures in the novels that followed.

The story begins as a reminiscence by Haggard’s famous protagonist, Allan Quatermain, as an old man. But not right away. The actual narrator first tells how he was even in a position to hear the story after spending a few days at the old adventurer’s home.

          He had eaten his dinner and drunk two or three glasses of old port . . . It was an unusual thing for
          him to do, for he was a most abstemious man . . . Consequently the good wine took more effect on
          him that it would have done on most men, sending a little flush into his wrinkled cheeks, and making
          him talk more freely than usual . . . Generally he would not, for he was not very fond of narrating his
          own adventures, but to-night the port wine made him more communicative.

Walking about his study, looking at his many trophies, Quatermain stops before the head of a lion and claims the beast is still giving him trouble. The narrator asks him to tell the story and he obliges. The year was 1879, and Quatermain was in Africa and heard about quite a lot of ivory that was being brought out to the coast from the interior. “It was a risky thing to go into the country so early, on account of the fever, but I knew that there were one or two others after that lot of ivory, so I determined to have a try for it.” Haggard’s description of the countryside in the grip of fever is wonderful, with mists and smoke all about personifying the dreaded disease.

          I used to creep from the waggon at dawn and look out. But there was no river to be seen--only a long
          line of billows of what looked like the finest cotton wool tossed up lightly with a pitchfork. It was the
          fever mist. Out from among the scrub, too, came little spirals of vapour, as though there were hundreds
          of tiny fires alight in it--reek rising from thousands of tons of rotting vegetation. It was a beautiful place,
          but the beauty was the beauty of death; and all those lines and blots of vapour wrote one great word
          across the surface of the country, and that word was ‘fever.’

At one point he comes upon a deserted village and after uncovering the body of a dead woman he goes inside one of the huts. There were five dead natives inside, including a baby, but on the way out he sees a pair of eyes in the corner and hears screaming as he leaves. It turns out to be an old woman left for dead. Quatermain feeds her and takes her to the next village before continuing on his journey.

His first meeting with the lion comes as his group has stopped to rest for the night. When the driver of the wagon comes back with only one of the oxen, named Kaptein, after putting the others out to feed in the grass, Quatermain is furious and sends two men out to find them. Eventually it gets dark, and when the ox begins to get restless the hunter goes out to take a look around without his gun. In the next instant the great lion is on the back of Kaptein biting his neck. Quatermain trips going for his gun, and is forced to play dead while the lion sniffs at his leg. There’s nothing he can do but wait while the lion feeds, and when the animal roars after finishing, it’s returned by another roar close by which he realizes can only be his mate. “Hardly was the thought out of my head when I caught sight in the moonlight of the lioness bounding along through the long grass, and after her a couple of cubs about the size of mastiffs.” The four of them continue to eat, and presently one of the cubs begins licking Quatermain’s leg. “The more he licked the more he liked it, to judge from his increased vigour and the loud purring noise he made.” It’s only after he begins praying for forgiveness of his sins that the men come back with the oxen and scare the lions off.

The next day, the hunter’s dander up, he decides to hunt down the lions. “Like a fool, I determined to attack the whole family of them.” A few hundred yards from the wagon, he studies the terrain and determines that, if they are around, they would be hiding in the reeds near a water hole, “as there is nothing a lion is fonder of than lying up in reeds, through which he can see things without being seen himself.” As for how to flush them out, he decides that fire will do the trick. The wind was up and heading away from the wagon, so he and his partner, Tom, set fire to the reeds while Quatermain runs around to the opposite side out in the open to wait for them to emerge. “It was a risky thing to do, but I used to be so sure of my shooting in those days that I did not so much mind the risk.” After the false alarm of a reedbuck jumping out first he begins to hear the roaring of the lions. They wait on the edge of the reeds, reluctant to come into the open, but soon the heat becomes too much for them. “I never saw a more splendid sight in all my hunting experience than those four lions bounding across the veldt, overshadowed by the dense pall of smoke and backed by the fiery furnace of the burning reeds.”

This is where Haggard ratchets up the suspense. Quatermain has a clear shot of the male as the group is running for the nearby trees. “I was on, dead on, and my finger was just beginning to tighten on the trigger, when suddenly I went blind--a bit of reed-ash had drifted into my right eye. I danced and rubbed, and succeeded in clearing it more or less just in time to see the tail of the last lion vanishing round the bushes.” Needless to say, after all he had been through, “If ever a man was mad I was that man.” Now the hunter throws all caution to the wind and heads into the trees after them. “I was determined that I would either kill those lions or they should kill me.” But the trees and scrub brush afford the lions much more cover than the grass and Quatermain has to move slowly and methodically. Then one of the cubs makes a break for it and, turning quickly, he manages to shoot him in the spine while his partner Tom finishes him off. But that’s when the trouble begins.

          I opened the breech of the gun and hurriedly pulled out the old case . . . when I tried to get in the new
          case it would only enter half-way; and--would you believe it?--this was the moment that the lioness,
          attracted no doubt by the outcry of her cub, chose to put in an appearance . . . Slowly I stepped back-
          wards, trying to push in the new case. It would not go in, so I tried to pull it out. It would not come out
          either, and my gun was useless . . . The lioness was creeping forward on her belly without a sound, but
          lashing her tail and keeping her eye on me; and in it I saw that she was coming in a few seconds more.

Quatermain tries to push the bullet in until his hand slips and the case cuts his wrist--brandishing the scars on his wrist for the narrator to see--all the while waiting for the lioness to pounce on him. It’s then that he hears Tom yelling from behind him, warning him that he’s been backing up toward the wounded cub all along and that he needs to change directions, which he does. Finally, when she realizes he’s not going toward the cub, the lioness bounds off back into the trees. Tom desperately tries to get Quatermain to call off the hunt, but he’s having none of it. He tells Tom to climb up a tree if he’s scared--which he does--then he wraps a handkerchief around his bleeding wrist and heads back into the trees in search of the other three lions.

Armed now with two bullets in his double-barreled rifle, he throws a rock into the bushes and out comes the other cub. The hunter expertly dispatches it with a shot to the heart. Then the lioness comes out after the cub and he puts the other bullet into her ribs. While he reloads the lioness attempts to kill him before she bleeds out, but by then Quatermain puts another bullet into her heart and finishes her off. “Naturally I was considerably pleased with myself, and having again loaded up, I went on to look for the black-maned beauty who had killed Kaptein.” For the next hour the hunter goes up onto the brush and rocks looking for the lion making sure not to miss a spot, but finds nothing. Finally, he decides to give up for the day, and turning back one last time he suddenly sees something. “On the top of the mass of boulders, opposite to me, standing out clear against the rock beyond, was the huge black-maned lion. He had been crouching there, and now arose as though by magic.”

          But he did not stand long. Before I could fire--before I could do more than get the gun to my shoulder--
          he sprang straight up and out from the rock, and driven by the impetus of that one mighty bound came
          hurtling through the air towards me . . . Without a sight, almost without aim, I fired . . . Next second I
          was swept to the ground, and the lion was on the top of me, and the next those great white teeth of his
          had met in my thigh--I heard them grate against the bone.

Fortunately for Quatermain, the bullet hit home and the lion had only enough energy to stand up once before collapsing on top of him. He was also lucky that the lion hadn’t crushed the bone in his thigh. Nevertheless, “I need scarcely add that I never traded the lot of ivory at Sikukuni's. Another man got it--a German--and made five hundred pounds out of it after paying expenses. I spent the next month on the broad of my back, and was a cripple for six months after that. I have been lame ever since, and shall be to my dying day.”

In terms of literary merit to the story, there’s very little. And that’s exactly the point. This is an adventure yarn from start to finish, and the only goal is to make the readers’ pulse beat quicker and heart pound harder as Quatermain faces certain death. Of course today there’s something unseemly in the protagonist’s hunting down of animals out of pure spite, and his bravery a hundred and fifty years ago now seems like little more than unchecked ego. He was Hemingway before there was Hemingway. But putting that aside, this is a view into a world of adventure that captivated Victorian audiences. Africa was the wildest and most mysterious place on earth. The animals were exotic and sometimes ferocious. “It was wonderfully exciting, work, for I never was sure from one moment to another but that he would be on me. I took comfort, however, from the reflection that a lion rarely attacks a man--rarely, I say; sometimes he does, as you will see--unless he is cornered or wounded.” Unlike Joseph Conrad’s more pessimistic--and more realistic--view of African colonialism later on, H. Rider Haggard presented readers with an escape from their stuffy drawing rooms and hum-drum lives by taking them on adventures that, in the days before cinema, were the most exciting thing imaginable. And on that score, H. Rider Haggard’s “Long Odds” doesn’t disappoint.

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