Visits of Friends
The visits of my friends to the farm were happy events in my life, and the farm knew it.
When one of Denys Finch-Hatton’s long Safaris was drawing to its end, it happened that I would find, on a morning, a young Masai standing upon one long slim leg outside my house. “Bed^ar is on his way back,” he announced. “He will be here in two or three days.”
In the afternoon, a Squatter Toto from the outskirts of the farm sat and waited on the lawn, to tell me, when I came out: “There is a flight of Guinea-fowl down by the bend of the river. If you want to shoot them for Bed^ar when he comes I will come out with you at sunset to show you where to find them.”
To the great wanderers amongst my friends, the farm owed its charm, I believe, to the fact that it was stationary and remained the same whenever they came to it. They had been over vast countries and had raised and broken their tents in many places, now they were pleased to round my drive that was steadfast as the orbit of a star. They liked to be met by familiar faces, and I had the same servants all the time that I was in Africa. I had been on the farm longing to get away, and they came back to it longing for books and linen sheets and the cool atmosphere in a big shuttered room; by their campfires they had been meditating upon the joys of farm life, and as they arrived they asked me eagerly: “Have you taught your cook to make an omelette a la chasseur?—and have the gramophone records from ‘Petrouchka’ arrived by the last mail?” They came and stayed in the house also when I was away, and Denys had the use of it, when I was on a visit in Europe. “My Silvan Retreat,” Berkeley Cole called it.
In return for the goods of civilization, the wayfarers brought me trophies from their hunts: Leopard and Cheetah skins, to be made into fur coats in Paris, snake and lizard skins for shoes, and marabout feathers.
To please them I experimented, while they were away, with many curious recipes out of old cookery books, and worked to make European flowers grow in my garden.
Once, when I was at home, an old lady in Denmark gave me twelve fine peony-bulbs which I brought into the country with me at some trouble, as the import regulations about plants were strict. When I had them planted, they sent up, almost immediately, a great number of dark carmoisin curvilinear shoots, and later a lot of delicate leaves and rounded buds. The first flower which unfolded was called Duchesse de Nemours, it was a large single white peony, very noble and rich, it gave out a profusion of fresh sweet scent. When I cut it and put it in water in my sitting-room, every single white person entering the room stopped and remarked upon it. Why, it was a peony! But soon after this, all the other buds of my plants withered and fell off, and I never got more than that one flower.
Some years later I talked with the English gardener of Lady McMillan, of Chiromo, about peonies. “We have not succeeded in growing peonies in Africa,” he said, “and shall not do so till we manage to make an imported bulb flower here, and can take the seed from that flower. This is how we got Delphinium into the Colony.” In that way I might have introduced peonies into the country and made my name immortal like the Duchesse de Nemours herself; and I had ruined the glory of the future by picking my unique flower and putting it in water. I have very often dreamed that I have seen the white peony growing, and I have rejoiced because after all I had not cut it off.
Friends from farms up country, and from the town, arrived at the house. Hugh Martin, of the Land Office, came out from Nairobi to entertain me; a brilliant person, versed in the rare literature of the world, who had passed his life peacefully in the Civil Service of the East, and there, amongst other things, had developed an innate talent for looking like an immensely fat Chinese Idol. He called me Candide, and was himself a curious Doctor Pangloss of the farm, firmly and placidly rooted in his conviction of the meanness and contemptibleness of human nature and of the Universe, and content in his faith, for why should it not be so? He hardly ever moved out of the large chair in which he had once placed himself. With his bottle and glass before him, and a sedately beaming face, he there spread and expanded upon his theories of life, luminating with ideas, like some fantastical quick phosphoric growth of matter and thought, a fat man at peace with the world and resting in the Devil, with the stamp of cleanliness upon him that the Devil’s disciples bear, in preference to many of those of the Lord.
Young, big-nosed Gustav Mohr from Norway, of an evening suddenly swooped on the house from the farm he managed, on the other side of Nairobi. He was a rousing farmer and helped me in the work of the farm in word and deed, more than any other man in the country,—with a simple vigorous readiness as if it were standing to reason that farmers, or Scandinavians, were to slave for one another.
Here he was now flung on to the farm by his own burning mind, like a stone out of a volcano. He was going mad, he said, in a country which expected a man to keep alive on talk of oxen and sisal, his soul was starving and he could stand it no longer. He began the moment he came into the room and went on till after midnight, holding forth on love, communism, prostitution, Hamsun, the Bible, and poisoning himself in very bad tobacco all the time. He would hardly eat, he would not listen, if I tried to get a word in he shrieked, glowing with the fire within him, and butting the air with his wild light head. He had much in him to rid himself of, and was generating more as he spoke. Suddenly, at two o’clock at night, he had no more to say. He would then sit peacefully for a little while, a humble look on his face, like a convalescent in a hospital garden, get up, and drive away at a terrible speed, prepared to keep alive, once more, for a while, on sisal and oxen.
Ingrid Lindstrom came to stay on the farm when she could get away for a day or two from her own farm, her turkeys and market-gardening at Njoro. Ingrid was as fair of skin as of mind, and the daughter and wife of Swedish officers. She and her husband had come out with their children to Africa on a joyous adventure, a picnic, to make a fortune quickly, and had bought up flax-land because at that time flax was £5OO a ton, and when, just after that, flax fell to £4O and flax-land and flax-machinery were worth nothing, she put in all her strength to save the farm for her family, planning her poultry farm and her market garden, and working like a slave. In the course of that strife she fell deeply in love with the farm, with her cows and pigs, Natives and vegetables, with the very soil of her bit of Africa, in such a great desperate passion that she would have sold both husband and children to keep it. She and I, during the bad years, had wept in one another’s arms at the thought of losing our land. It was a joyful time when Ingrid came to stay with me, for she had all the broad bold insinuating joviality of an old Swedish peasant woman, and in her weather-beaten face, the strong white teeth of a laughing Valkyrie. Therefore does the world love the Swedes, because in the midst of their woes they can draw it all to their bosom and be so gallant that they shine a long way away.
Ingrid had an old Kikuyu cook and houseboy named Kemosa, who filled a number of offices with her, and looked upon all her activities as his own. He slaved for her in the market-garden and poultry-yard, and also acted as a Duenna to her three small daughters, travelling with them to and from their boarding school. When I came up to visit her on her farm at Njoro, Ingrid told me, Kemosa lost all his balance of mind, let go his hold of everything else, and made the grandest possible preparations for my reception, killing off her turkeys, so much was he impressed with Farah’s greatness. Ingrid said he looked upon his acquaintance with Farah as upon the greatest honour of his existence.
Mrs. Darrell Thompson of Njoro, whom I hardly knew, came out to see me when the doctors had informed her that she had only got a few more months to live. She told me that she had just been buying a pony in Ireland, a prize-jumper,—for horses were to her, in death as in life, the height and glory of existence,—and that now, after she had talked with the doctors, she had at first meant to cable home to stop him from coming out, but then she had made up her mind to leave him to me when she herself should die. I did not think much about it until, after her death half a year later, the pony, Poor-box, made his appearance at Ngong. Poor-box when he came to live with us, proved himself the most intelligent being on the farm. He was not much to look at, stumpy and long past his youth, Denys Finch-Hatton used to ride him, but I never cared much to do so. But by pure politics and circumspection, by knowing exactly what he wanted to do, amongst the young shining fiery horses brought out for the occasion by our wealthiest people of the Colony, he won the jumping competition of Kabete, which was held in honour of the Prince of Wales. With his usual collected unassuming mien and countenance he brought home a big silver medal and, after a week of extreme anxiety, raised great radiant waves of rapture and triumph in my household and on all the farm. He died from horsesickness, six months later, and was buried outside his stable under the lemon trees, and much lamented; his name lived a long time after him.
Old Mr. Bulpett, whom the Club called Uncle Charles, used to come out to dine with me. He was a great friend of mine, and a kind of ideal to me, the English gentleman of the Victorian age, and quite at home in our own. He had swum the Hellespont, and had been one of the first to climb the Matterhorn, and he had been, in his early youth, in the ‘eighties perhaps, La Belle Ot'ero’s lover. I was told that she had ruined him altogether and let him go. It was to me as if I were sitting down to dinner with Armand Duval or the Chevalier des Grieux themselves. He had many lovely pictures of Ot'ero, and liked to talk about her.
Once, at dinner at Ngong, I said to him: “I see that La Belle Ot'ero’s memoirs have been published. Are you in them?”
“Yes,” he said, “I am in them. Under another name, but still there.”
“What does she write about you?” I asked.
“She writes,” he said, “that I was a young man who went through a hundred thousand for her sake within six months, but that I had full value for my money.”
“And do you consider,” I said and laughed, “that you did have full value?”
He thought my question over for a very short moment. “Yes,” he said. “Yes, I had.”
Denys Finch-Hatton and I went with Mr. Bulpett for a picnic to the top of the Ngong Hills on his seventy-seventh birthday. As we sat up there we came to discuss the question of whether, if we were offered a pair of real wings, which could never be laid off, we would accept or decline the offer.
Old Mr. Bulpett sat and looked out over the tremendous big country below us, the green land of Ngong, and the Rift Valley to the West, as if ready to fly off over it at any moment. “I would accept,” he said, “I would certainly accept. There is nothing I should like better.” After a little time of thought he added: “I suppose that I should think it over, though, if I were a lady.”