Friday, April 13, 2018

Worth It All (Part 6 of 7)

* This is Part 6 of a historical fiction novella that I wrote in 2005, now publicly available for the first time. You can find the other parts by clicking the "Worth It All" link under the Full Series list in the sidebar.

The London Missionary Society had its beginnings in 1795, as the world began to turn upside down with the sparks of revolution rising in France. And there, in an unnoticed, worn-down building on the corner of Oxford Street, a different sort of revolution was taking place—one that would soon overtake the entire globe. Twelve years later, when Victor McNeill sought it out, the fledgling organization was in much the same position as it had been at its birth. By that time, it had placed a few bold missionaries throughout the far-flung territories of the Empire, but the Empire took no notice. There were wars to be fought, dictators to be beaten down. Such matters left little time for bringing religion to the heathen masses.
It was midafternoon when Ruben and Victor arrived in London. Rather than hail a coach, Victor decided to guide his friend on foot through the maze of streets that formed the southern fringe of the city. Ruben had never been more than twenty miles outside of Canterbury, and he gaped in amazement at all that caught his eye. Even though their route didn’t take them past the city’s grandest splendors, it was still far more than he had ever seen or expected, and his eyes were constantly roving over the old stone churches, statues, and monuments. His wonder was so full that it obscured him from seeing that it was really a fairly dirty city—crowded with orphans and beggars, flocked by ratty pigeons, and obscured in perpetual clouds of smoke. But despite all that, it had an ancient grandeur about it, a dignity which refused to be effaced.
Eventually, they made their way to Oxford Street, that broad thoroughfare of traffic that made its way along the northern bank of the Thames and formed the practical boundary between north London and the city proper. They came at last to an old building of dull red brick, on which hung a simple white sign reading: London Missionary Society, Established 1795. They looked up at it, smiled at one another, and drew a deep breath. They had to cough almost immediately and resolved to breathe a bit more conservatively in the future while in London.
Victor marched up to the door and used the brass knocker to announce their presence. After a few moments the door opened and a white-haired, bespectacled man stared out at them. He looked to be in his fifties, and his beard still bore two bold stripes of black, untouched by the age-frost that had taken the rest of his hair. A homely tweed coat hung from his lopsided shoulders, and his right hand grasped a simple wooden pipe.
“Good afternoon, gentlemen,” he said with a slight nod of his head. “What can I do for you today?”
“Is this the London Missionary Society?”
“Indeed. Would you like to hear a bit about our work?”
“Actually,” Victor said, glancing over at Ruben, “we would like to take part in your work. I’m sorry, I don’t know the protocols for being accepted under your society, but I thought we should come down and at least see how it works.”
“Splendid,” the man replied, standing aside from the doorway to allow them to enter.
The room in which they found themselves was warm and inviting, more like the drawing room of a home than the lobby of a society’s office. There were a few padded chairs arranged around a hearth, in which a small fire blazed brightly. Just behind the circle of chairs was a large table stacked with papers, and Victor could only hope that they wouldn’t be forced to plow their way through all that paperwork in one evening.
“My name is Nigel Burke,” said the man, giving them both a firm handshake. “Why don’t you lads have a seat, and I’ll be back directly with a spot of tea.”
He disappeared through a doorway at the back of the room, and the two friends spent a few moments warming their hands at the fire before collapsing in the two chairs nearest the hearth. It wasn’t more than a minute or two before Mr. Burke returned, bearing a tray on which stood three steaming cups of tea. After handing them their cups, he took the third and gently lowered himself into a large red chair.
“Well, lads, why don’t you tell me a bit about yourselves and what you would like to do. The Society has rules, certainly, but my personal rules take precedence. And my rules state that missionaries are people, and that people are unique enough so that all the rules in the world will never fit them completely. So go ahead, and tell me why you’re here.”
“Mr. Burke,” Victor began. “My friend and I would like to go and serve the Lord in Africa.”
“Africa, indeed? Tell me why.”
For the next few minutes, Victor relayed the experience of receiving his call to become a missionary and of the conversations with Julius in the preceding days that sparked his interest in taking the gospel to African tribes. When he had finished, Mr. Burke nodded astutely.
“On a purely bureaucratic level, Mr. McNeill, you would make a fine missionary. You have medical training, have received a divine calling to this work, and are obviously determined to make it work. Good. And what of Mr. O’Connell here?”
Ruben shifted uncomfortably. “Well, sir, I’m afraid I will not fit your checklist quite so well. I’ve been nothing but a common laborer all my life, a farmhand. I’ve no formal medical or religious training at all. And as for a specific call from the Lord, I can’t say it was as dramatic as Victor’s.”
Mr. Burke pursed his lips thoughtfully. “As I said, Mr. O’Connell, not all men will fit the same form. The one lesson I’ve learned in twelve years of working with the Society is that God sometimes uses the least qualified people to do his greatest works. Please continue.”
Ruben went on to tell his story, speaking of his determination to make a difference in the world. When he had finished, Mr. Burke leaned back in his chair, a peculiar twinkle in his eye.
“I would say, Mr. O’Connell, that it certainly was the Lord’s hand that drew you to this decision. I’ve no doubt that before your adventure is done, you will both find that you wouldn’t have made it nearly so far without each other. That is well. Now, lads,” he said, clapping his hands together, “Africa is a very large place indeed. Do you know where in that vast, dark continent you might like to go?”
“Well,” Victor cleared his throat, “I assumed it would have to be somewhere along the coast.”
“Most probably,” the older man chuckled, lighting his pipe. “We have no roads as yet into most of the interior.”
“Where do you need missionaries the most?” asked Ruben.
He spread his hands wide. “My boy, they are needed everywhere. We have a few missionaries working around the Cape of Good Hope. They’ve been there about five years. You could work with them for a time and learn what it takes to survive in Africa.”
“Wait just a minute,” Victor said, shaking his head. “Does this mean that we’ve been accepted under the society? Just like that?”
Mr. Burke shrugged. “Not quite, no. There are several more steps to fulfill. But our advisory board takes very seriously my recommendations. And from what I can see in my limited perspective, the two of have already been called and made fit for the work to come. Who am I to stand in the way of the servants of the Lord?”
“Thank you,” said Victor. “To answer your earlier question, though, I suppose that I do have a more distinct location in mind. Our servant Julius has been telling me stories—old stories that he heard from his mother. She had been born to a tribe called the Mbeno before being captured by slavers. Perhaps it would be fitting for us to try to minister there.”
Ruben nodded. “That’s right—we talked about this a bit on our ride to London, didn’t we? I rather think Julius himself would have wanted to render missionary labors there had his health permitted.”
Mr. Burke nodded. “Did this Julius indicate to you where the Mbeno tribe was located? It’s not a name I’m immediately familiar with.”
“He thought it might be in the coastal interior somewhere north of the Congo River’s mouth,” said Victor.
“The armpit of Africa!” Ruben added, referring to the great concave bent of the continent at just that spot.
“Well, you are the adventuresome ones, aren’t you?” said Burke. “We don’t have any missionaries in that area yet, nor anywhere near it. There is some European influence, however—more than one empire has staked a claim to the land. Portuguese, Dutch, British—we all have interests in that area—mostly slaves up to this point, but it’s not too far removed from the area known as the ‘Gold Coast’. Come to the table, lads. Let’s see what we can find for you.”
The next few hours consisted of the three men poring over dusty books and maps by the light of a single oil lantern. After some time, they decided that their best bet was to try to reach the port of Brass, at the mouth of the river called Niger, somewhat west of their target area. It was little more than a slave depot, but if the Mbeno were anywhere in that area, the slavers operating the station would know of them.
“Now, we don’t have any missionaries in that part of Africa at all,” he said. “So if you go, that means you will be pioneers for us. I’ll give you some reading materials on how to establish a mission station and so on. Of course, that also means that LMS won’t be able to offer much to you for the moment. Perhaps when this war ends and we begin to have a few more volunteers, we may be able to send you some helpers. But by that time you’ll hopefully be well established in your ministry.”
Victor nodded, trying to take it all in. It still hadn’t fully dawned on him that he was actually going to carry out this wild scheme—running to the ends of the earth, to a tribe no one had ever heard of, and facing the prospect of spending the rest of his life among them. Which, if current figures were to be believed, wouldn’t be very long at all.
“Now,” Burke held up a finger, bustling over to the other side of the room, where he retrieved what appeared to be a long scroll. He carried it out and began to unroll it on the table. It was a port manifest and schedule. He leaned in, running his finger down the page. “This is fairly recent information, so hopefully these ships are still planning on making their scheduled runs. You can never tell, though, what with the war and all.” He continued peering at the manuscript, all the while mumbling under his breath. “Probably want to leave very soon, hmm? With the weather and the seasons—we must consider that. It will be a long voyage, I imagine.” His finger stopped, and he glanced up at them.
“Will you be ready to leave in six weeks? I think perhaps we can work through your approval and documentation before then.”
“That soon?” Victor’s breath caught in his throat. “I don’t know. I had hoped for a little more time.”
“You haven’t much time, lad. Not if you want to go this year. The shipping routes won’t be the same year-round.”
“Is that the best we have, then? Six weeks?”
“Looks to be,” the older man replied, wrinkling his brow and pursing his lips in thought. “A merchanteer will be sailing for Lisbon from Portsmouth under the protection of a naval sloop. From Lisbon, you’re on your own. But there should be something that will get you…well, at least out to the Azores or Canary Islands. From there, you can begin embarking on slaver vessels and work your way around the coast.”
“Alright,” said Ruben, clapping a hand on his friend’s back. “I think that will work.”
Burke straightened up and chuckled. “Not a happy prospect, is it?—being cooped up on a ship for weeks on end.”
“If that’s what it takes to get to Africa,” Ruben shrugged.
“Yes,” he replied, scratching his wispy, white-haired scalp for a moment. “At least you’ll have your wives to keep you company along the way.”
Both men caught their breath in their throats and stared at the older gentlemen. He read their astonished gazes and flashed them a peculiar smile.
“You are married, aren’t you?”
“Well…no, sir,” Victor stammered. “Neither of us.”
“Ah,” he said, slapping the palm of his hand against his forehead. “Forgive me, gentlemen. I’m getting forgetful in my old age. Didn’t I tell you? That is one of the Society’s policies. Missionaries must be married. We’ve learned that it provides stability for the shock of undergoing such drastic culture change. It also curbs the possibility of one or both of the two of you falling into poor decisions and disgracing the Society, not to mention the good name of the Christian faith! Also, you’ll be traveling through ports and on slaving ships, coming face to face with some of the most depraved behaviors man has ever created. You’ll have need of the support of a good and godly woman.”
“Can’t the rule be changed for us?” Victor asked. “After all, we’re going together, as a team.”
“I’m afraid not,” he sighed. “I’ve already bent the rules considerably and rushed the process in my haste. Don’t either of you fine, handsome young men have prospects for marriage?”
“In just six weeks’ time?” Victor gaped.
Burke chuckled. “Well, other missionaries have done it. I would encourage you to try, lads. If not, we can opt rather to go through the normal procedures and look towards next year as a departure date. And keep in mind, it wouldn’t be a smart thing for the two of you to go out without the support of a mission society. I’ve no doubt the Lord could use you on your own, but for the sake of future missions work in Africa, it would be much more beneficial if you went under our name.”
The two young men faced each other for a long moment, stunned. Victor pondered the options. It might be wiser to wait a year, especially if they also had to be concerned with mustering enough money and supplies for the journey.
Then Ruben laughed. “Ah, we can do that!” he said, slapping Victor on the back. “Six weeks is plenty of time!”
Victor tilted his head and glared at his friend. “For you, perhaps. Don’t you remember that my prospects for marriage anytime soon have already been smashed to pieces by this whole affair?”
“You’ll find someone, old friend. Just keep your eyes open. The way I see it, if the Lord has called you to go, then He’ll provide for you. And if you need a wife to be able to go, He’ll see to it that you get a wife. All we have to do is pray and wait.”
Burke laughed. “Mr. O’Connell, hold onto your faith! You’ll have need of it in Africa.”
Victor sighed, looking back and forth between the two of them. After a few moments, he threw up his hands in defeat. “Alright,” he breathed. “I’ll try. I know the Lord will prove faithful to me. Otherwise, I suppose we’ll have to wait until next year.”
“Wonderful,” Burke said, clapping his hands together with pleasure. “I’ll send a letter to Portsmouth and inform them to prepare for four passengers. You’ll have to pay the initial fare, but our hope as a Society would be to render you with significant aid as we progress in this partnership.”
Victor nodded. “We can do that. Actually, you may also tell them of my medical training. I can work on board the ship as the physician if they have need of me.”
“Very good, that may work well. Alright,” he glanced up at them. “You have the materials I gave you to read and the forms to sign? Good. I shall make contact with you at least once before you depart, gentlemen. May God have His hand on you both. You will be in my prayers as you prepare for the journey.”
“Thank you,” Victor said with a slight bow. Taking a stack of papers and a few books beneath his arm, he and Ruben departed the little building. Emerging from the warmth of the cheery house into the darkening dusk, they stopped to gaze over the street. Talking and laughing about the meeting, they marched down to the river, where they hailed a coach to take them the remainder of the way to Dr. Taylor’s home, where Victor had interned.
The kindly old doctor was more than happy to have them stop in that evening, and he invited them to stay the night, just as Victor hoped and expected that he would. Over a simple dinner, they spoke at length about the practice and the general state of health in the populace of south London. Before long, however, Ruben excused himself and settled into a chair near a little woodstove, falling asleep almost instantly. Dr. Taylor said that he had received Victor’s letter only the day before, and he understood completely. He did, however, take a great deal of time to warn his young protégé about the dangers of tropical disease and the general lack of hygiene among the people to whom he was going. As for his own practice, the old doctor assured Victor that he could find another student from the School of Medicine.
It was late when they finally retired to sleep, and the following morning dawned over London with a thick wet drizzle falling in smooth curtains of mist from the heavens. Victor and Ruben walked around the city for a while, taking a few hours to see some of the more famous sites—Westminster Abbey, the Houses of Parliament, the royal palaces, and St. Paul’s Cathedral. As they entered the latter of these, Ruben nudged his friend in the side.
“Keep your eye open for any pretty, religiously-minded young women. You only have a few weeks.”
Victor laughed. “Maybe I’m desperate enough at this point that prettiness won’t be a valid factor.”
“Ah, just you wait. I’ll help you find someone.”
He raised a questioning eyebrow. “Yes, with charm like yours, the women will be flocking to us in no time at all.”
They didn’t spend a great deal of time in St. Paul’s before moving on and hiring a coach to take them back toward Canterbury. As they sat back together in the darkness of the enclosed carriage, Victor sighed.
“Well, it’s begun, old friend. The journey lies before us now.”
“Yes,” Ruben replied, glancing out the window at the rolling green countryside, which sparkled like a field of diamonds as the afternoon sun caught the drops left by a recent drizzle. “More journeys than just one, I think.”
“How so, old chum?”
“Well,” he said, looking at his friend, “we’re not merely beginning a journey that will take us to Africa. We’re also beginning a journey that will bind us to a spouse—a journey that in itself will lead us to heights of joy and sorrow we’ve never known before. And God calls us in our obligations to both those journeys.”
“Yes,” Victor mused aloud. “So it begins.”

~ ~ ~

Journal Entry: April 15, 1807 – Ruben O’Connell
            Due to the unprecedented nature of recent events, I’ve decided to begin keeping a journal. Hopefully I’ll be able to maintain the discipline such a task requires over the next weeks and months. But if, as Victor says, we may die soon after beginning our ministry in Africa, I think it would be good to leave behind at the very least a written legacy for future missionaries to follow.
We arrived back in Canterbury today. London was a fine city, all in all, but there is nothing to compare with one’s own home—the gates and cobblestones that frame the pattern of one’s heart. In any case, the most pressing problem to arise from our journey was the rule which dictated that both Victor and I must find wives before departing for Africa (hopefully within six weeks’ time). However, this problem also strikes me as somewhat amusing—even ironic—when considered in the light of recent events in our lives.
For me, who has had in former years as much success in wooing women as a drunken Frenchman trying to sing on key, the situation has suddenly reversed itself. Within the past week, I’ve stumbled into a friendship with Miss Patience Carmichael, who is everything and more that I could have dreamt of in a wife. And what’s more amazing is that she seems to reciprocate my feelings, as far as I can tell..
As for Victor, the situation is significantly different. All his life, he has had his eye on one woman alone—Miss Anna Nelson. And she also had her eye set on him, and everyone in town except for Lord Nelson could see that the two were destined for a common future. But when that common future now seems very likely to be a fantasy. And now poor Victor in the sorry position of finding a wife in so short a time, having lost his only serious prospect in the matter.
Now, I am a good friend, and as such, I must help him through this perturbing plight. And just in the way of a note to my future progeny—if any of you ever read this account and are still friends with the children of Victor McNeill and wish to force them into obligation to yourselves, then you have my permission to use your knowledge of the sacrifice I am about to make toward that end.
Yes, I am going to find a wife for Victor. Or save him the one he has already lost, whichever the case may be. Victor is handsome, charming, and intelligent, but lacking in the brash sort of haughtiness that might quickly spin a young lady’s heart—he hasn’t enough to convince one to come and die in Africa, anyway. Therefore, I will set my sights on a higher prize, though it is perhaps just as difficult—mending the relationship between Anna and Victor to the point at which they may wed. I cannot allow him to discover what I’m doing—he would dissuade me from it for the same reasons that he let Anna go in the first place. I will have to throw him off the trail a bit by appearing to help him find someone else. When it comes down to it, there are only four major hurdles in this operation, namely Victor, Lord Nelson, Anna, and Lieutenant Green, her present suitor. I am supremely confident that I can succeed.
Unfortunately, spending my time finding a wife for Victor means I’ll be forced to accelerate my plans to court Patience. But I’m willing to make that sacrifice. Perhaps tomorrow.
Lord God, please let this work.

~ ~ ~

Ruben sat back, twirling the quill between his fingers. Victor had taught him how to write years ago, and he was beginning to regret how little he had practiced it. The script was clumsy and smudged, but it was an accomplishment nonetheless. Setting the journal down, he leaned back in his chair and sighed. The yeasty scent of baking bread wafted from the little stove, where his mother and sisters were gathered, chattering away merrily as they worked on preparing the meal. With such a large family, it had been increasingly difficult to find food every day, but now many of the boys were old enough to work and bring in some income, so it looked as though things would be brightening for the O’Connells. His parents hadn’t received the news of his ambitions to become a missionary with overwhelming joy, but they seemed to be content with it.
Victor and Ruben had pledged not to tell anyone of their need to find wives, at least not until they made their respective proposals. But that wouldn’t keep him from spinning his scheme. He glanced out the window. It was still mid-morning, with plenty of daylight left for matchmaking. With an abrupt laugh, he stood up and stretched.
Glancing around the kitchen, he raised a brow and narrowed his eyes thoughtfully.
“Mother,” he called, “where’s Felice?”
“She’s gone to Uncle Donald’s house, Ruben. Left just after breakfast. But what of you? Do you think you can manage some plowing today?”
“Not today, Mother,” he said with a shake of his head. “But by tomorrow, I hope to have all my affairs in order.”
He marched out of the house and into the bright morning sunlight, and there he turned his steps toward the east, where the McNeill estate lay beyond the streets of the city. His face was flushed from the exertion of the rapid walk by the time he reached the McNeill home, but he bounded up the steps as if he still had all the energy of a child at play. He strode into the great house without even knocking on the tall wooden doors, veering immediately into the side room where Julius lay abed. The sage old servant regarded him with obvious delight as he entered, a wry smile curling the corners of his mouth.
Ruben looked down at him with his hands on his hips. “Still dodging work, are you, you old rascal?”
Julius chuckled soundlessly. “This is all the work they’ll let me do, Master Ruben. I’m hoping that tomorrow I’ll get back to the garden.”
“Well, don’t despair, old friend. I have some work for you to do today.”
Julius regarded him with a quizzical glance. “Is that so? I don’t know whether to trust you, Master Ruben. You have a mischievous fire in your eyes.”
“And you’ll have the same fire in your eyes when I tell you what I’m about. Has Victor told you of our plans to leave England in a few weeks?”
Julius nodded.
“Well, you mustn’t tell this to anyone else, but we’re also hoping to secure brides for ourselves before we go. And I’ve taken it upon myself to see that our dear friend Victor is reunited with his childhood companion.”
“Ah,” the servant breathed, now smiling broadly.
“So…you can expect that Miss Nelson will arrive here in a few hours. I’ll see to it that Victor isn’t here at the time. I want you to be able to speak to her alone first.”
“Why me?”
“Because she’s probably still concerned about the thought of going to Africa. If nothing else convinces her, I know that your passion and your story will be able to. That’s your task, old boy. Then Victor will come home, and the whole thing will rest in his hands again. Not an ideal situation, to get him involved again after what he told the poor girl last time, but I suppose we can’t do everything for him. So what do you say? Are you with me?”
Julius grinned. “I am with you, Master Ruben.”
“Good man. I’ll see you later today. Keep yourself up and awake for Miss Nelson.”
“Don’t worry about me. Go and see to Master Victor. He may have other ideas in his head, you know.”
Ruben threw him a wink. “Leave that to me.” He turned and left Julius’ sickroom, then proceeded down the main hallway of the grand old house. “Victor!” he called out. “Are you here, old friend?”
A voice sounded from upstairs: “Is that you, Ruben? Come on up.”
The young Irishman bounded up the stairs and flung open the door to Victor’s room to find his friend seated at the desk, a disordered array of papers scattered before him. “Good morning, Victor.”
“Good morning, Ruben. How are you?”
“Oh, I’m well. And what are you up to?”
“Just making lists of some things we need to bring with us. Medical supplies, trading goods, and that sort of thing.”
“Ah,” said Ruben, looking over his friend’s shoulder. “And how are you coming on arranging that other something that you need to bring with you?”
Victor laughed and leaned back in his chair. “Not so well. And you? Have you spoken to Patience yet?”
“No, not yet. I might go up there later today. But at the moment I’m more concerned with you.”
“With me?”
“Let’s be honest, Victor. You just don’t have my charms. It will be an uphill battle for you.”
Again Victor laughed, regarding his friend with a raised eyebrow. “And I suppose you have something in mind to remedy that?”
“Now that you mention it, I do. It just so happens that I know of a beautiful young lady, quite eligible for marriage, whom you’ll find walking south on the Dover road on foot. It would be gallant of you to go in your carriage and offer her a ride. You could even propose to her on the spot, if you like.”
Victor’s expression was guarded. “I don’t trust you, Rube. Not with something like this. Who is it? Anyone I know?”
“Oh, you know her. But I won’t tell you who it is. It will be a pleasant surprise.”
Victor frowned and put his quill-pen down. “Rube, you know this sort of thing makes me uncomfortable.”
“My boy, if you’re hoping to be able to get a girl to marry you within three weeks, comfort is something you have to throw to the wind. Step out and take a risk. You’re running out of time.”
He sighed and chuckled, running a hand through his hair in agitation. “Alright, Rube. I’ll go pick up this mystery woman. But the decision is still at my discretion—remember that. How will I recognize her?”
“Oh, you’ll know who it is as soon as you see her,” Ruben said with a knowing smile. “Trust me, Victor. I’m doing this for your own good.”
“Okay. I…I guess I’ll go hitch up Phaeton. And perhaps I can expect some happy news from you and Patience when I return?”
Ruben nodded astutely. “Perhaps you can.”
They strode outside together, and Ruben stood on the veranda and watched as Victor prepared the carriage. His mother Clara came out and, blushing heavily, he told her what they were about. Clara laughed and gave him her blessing. Finally, when he was ready to go, Victor clambered up onto the driver’s bench and threw Ruben a questioning glance.
“Are you sure about this?”
“Absolutely. Go on, now.”
As soon as the carriage had clambered out of sight down the street, Ruben bid Mrs. McNeill a hasty farewell and set off at a jog. It was a long jaunt over to the Nelson home on foot, but he was still bursting with energy.