G. K. Chesterton and Nikolay Gumilyov go to Africa together. A short story in honor of Gumilyov's 135th birthday.
We're foot—slog—slog—slog—sloggin' over Africa —
Foot—foot—foot—foot—sloggin' over Africa —
(Boots—boots—boots—boots—movin' up and down again!)
There's no discharge in the war!
Streams of salty sweat ran down Gilbert's puffy cheeks, glistened in round pearls on his forehead, ran down his neck into his white collar, and chafed his greasy skin. On his shoulder hung a huge beige bag filled with objects of all shapes and sizes, but almost all of them were quite useless in the heat of the African sun at its zenith. He moved forward, letting out a heavy sigh with each slow, measured step, as if to tell of his dissatisfaction.
Nikolai, who had gone two hundred yards ahead, stopped on a shallow hill and looked through his binoculars with great interest. Unlike his companion, he was dressed for the weather — white shirt with sleeves rolled up, beige shorts, cork helmet. A tattered rifle dangled on his back, and a faded peacock feather adorned his helmet.
The wind carried isolated sounds — the clanking of hooves, the rustling of bushes — and provided the travelers with a pleasant chill. “Nikolai,” Gilbert turned to his companion still looking through his binoculars, “we need to sit down and have a snack”.
“Every great deed begins and ends with food and drink, Nikolai. Philosophers are silent about this, preferring tedious asceticism, but poets should know.”
Nikolai shook his head and took out a cigarette, vaguely following his companion's strange and inappropriate ritual. Gilbert carefully placed the bag on the ground and pulled out a checkered plaid. Spreading it out on the low, burned grass, he sat down with a broad smile and focused his attention on the place setting. With surprisingly nimble movements he began to take out an assortment of cheeses, bread, butter, honey, and assorted cuts; even two hard-boiled eggs somehow survived the voyage.
Plates, saucers, forks, and knives were wiped clean with a silk handkerchief and gleamed with a royal sheen. Gilbert set out half a dozen brown bottles of ale on a plank and placed two mugs in the middle of the sumptuous picnic. “Have a seat, mate!”
Nikolai extinguished his cigarette, threw the butt to the ground, carefully pressed down on it with his boot, and moved toward the lonely English feast.
“Haven't you had enough yet?”, the poet half-heartedly complained.
“It's all about your neck,” Gilbert replied with a little chow, and chugged down his remark with a generous gulp of sizzling, red-brown ale. Nikolai looked at him in bewilderment.
The Englishman savored his Russian friend's confusion for a few moments — or maybe he was just enjoying the ale — and answered only after another sip and a deep sigh.
“It's too long, almost like a giraffe's. You aspire to the sublime, which means you reach for the sky,” Gilbert began to explain his philosophy. — But why should you reach for the sky when your feet hurt? Blisters would make it uncomfortable to walk on the moon, and before any journey you must have a snack. Otherwise you won't have the strength. Imagine you appear before Apollo and your blood pressure drops and your stomach rumbles. That would be very embarrassing. So eat.”
Along with the last phrase, Gilbert handed his skeptical friend a piece of lush white bread, on which a piece of Stilton lay in perfect peace.
“You're a monarchist, Nikolai. And the Stilton is the king of cheeses. Where is your respect?!”
The dumbfounded Russian poet had no reply and silently took the sandwich in his hands.
“Thank you, Gilbert.”
“Always a pleasure, my friend. You'll have a Cheshire later.”
The travelers were unaware of it, but the savannah dwellers were watching this strange scene intently. A fat English writer and a slender Russian poet sat on a plaid in the middle of the African wasteland and ate, drank, joked, talked — first they ran out of ale, and the bread soon followed.
A lilac-breasted roller was watching with interest; her friends soon joined her. The antelopes stood near a puddle and interrupted their observation of the strange people only for short sips of water. Even the lone sand puppy stopped its mating rituals for a moment and stared at the picnic.
After smoking another cigarette, Nikolai threw his head back, gazing up into the blue sky.
“I love nature. Not a soul around, just us and Africa. Can you imagine, we might even be the first people in history to walk this earth. It's almost awkward.”
“Awkwardness should be saved for meeting lovely lasses and receiving gifts. Nature doesn't take much pity on us, so there's no reason to be shy.”
“Sometimes I dream of being a hermit. You just haven't seen the Russian forests, Gilbert. They're beautiful, they're better than any temple. The Spirit lives in them and God lives in them.”
The Englishman took off his already unbuttoned surcoat and frowned.
“You're wrong. Worshipping nature is even worse than worshipping man. It too seamlessly devolves into worship of impersonal mystery, frenzy, and even cruelty. One might accidentally become a pagan or even a Prussian, and that is something I do not wish on anyone. Friendship with a greengrocer does more good than friendship with the greens he peddles.”
Contemplating this latest remark, Nikolai pulled out another cigarette, and Gilbert took a moment to get a pipe out of his bag.
“A man should make himself a fairy tale,” the poet suddenly declared through a cloud of tobacco smoke.
“Better to believe in fairy tales than in yourself,” the writer replied with a smile, filling his pipe with Virginian tobacco.
“Speaking of fairy tales,” Nikolai remarked, “some monsters seem to be appearing on the horizon.”
He grabbed his binoculars and looked to the East. Strange noises could be heard, either growling or laughter. A small cloud of dust rose on the horizon, and the growling kept getting closer.
“Hyenas,” Nikolai said through gritted teeth. — Vile beasts.”
He put the binoculars aside and grabbed his rifle.
“I hope there's enough ammunition.”
Gilbert nonchalantly continued smoking his pipe. He blew thick clouds of smoke, furrowed his brow once more, and pondered.
“I love dogs,” he declared. — But these dogs aren't right.”
“Well, yeah, they don't mind eating us,” Nikolai replied. He took aim and fired the first shot. Gilbert shuddered at the sudden rumble and almost dropped the pipe from his hands.
The growling, screeching, and demonic laughter already seemed noticeably closer than it had been a few minutes before. The Englishman was leisurely rummaging through his bag while the Russian let the hyenas get closer.
“Come get sum,” he whispered to himself.
“Do you know why I don't like the savanna, Nikolai?”, Gilbert said to the confident gunslinger. Without waiting for an answer, he added, “because there is food growing in my garden. Nourishing, beautiful and natural. Here there's only this little grass, and it burns up in the sun. And the dogs here are ugly.”
Nikolai did not answer — he was focused on shooting, trying to hit one of the prairie dogs with every shot.
“But the hyenas are familiar to me,” Gilbert continued, “they are barely different from the heads of the London banks. They resemble the species we know — hyenas to dogs, bankers to people — but they are still very different, and not for the better. They like to gather in packs, but they don't like to work. If we were cadavers, they'd be much more interested, but they're afraid of your rifle, even though they're much more numerous.”
The rifleman barely listened to Gilbert's speech as he continued to blast away at the hyenas, who were already approaching at a rather dangerous distance. Every miss would mean that they would be mauled. Somewhere in the back of his head, in addition to the tension, he felt annoyed at the uselessness of his companion.
“There it is!”, Gilbert suddenly exclaimed with such joy that Nikolai couldn't help but turn around, hoping to see at least a revolver in the chubby writer's hands. But he was holding only a small leather case. In a state of complete serenity, he began to fill his pipe again.
“You need different tobacco for different situations,” he replied to his friend's puzzled look. — So there you go. If it were not a pack of hyenas on the horizon — or rather, already noticeably closer — but a noble lion, he would be happy to sit down with us for tea. Because a lion is a king, just like us. You will be the king of Russia, won't you, Nikolai?”
The warrior poet decided not to pay attention to the mad speech of the Englishman and continued shooting. It was successful: the hyenas began to retreat.
“Cowards,” Nikolai spat, rather than said, wryly.
“Cowards,” Gilbert confirmed. — I tell you. Nibbling on the bones of the defenseless, that's their nature. Both hyenas and bankers.”
Nikolai only shook his head.
“Do you have anything stronger than ale?” he asked.
“A silly question,” Gilbert replied, and handed Nikolai a flask. — What Englishman goes camping without brandy?”
Silence again covered the savannah, interrupted only occasionally by the singing of distant birds, the clatter of hooves, and the rustling of bushes.