July 10th 1888
Dearest Lady Julia,
I am not sure that I can stand much more of this country. You wouldn’t recogonise me at all. I am as brown as the mahogany trees that encircle this small landing and my clothes, well, they are worn thin and our boots are leaking. We made our camp by the stinking River Congo, dark and muddy, with no real shoreline at all. It flows past slowly, full with the debris of the jungle. Most nights we hear a crash of a rotten tree splashing into the mire, bringing yet more leaves and branches that tangle and snag on our fish lines.
All our tents have mildew and the ropes are rotten. We have supplies but the meal biscuits are like powder, full of weevils. The fish we catch are bone dense and flesh thin tasting of mud. The whiskey stock is fine and we usually manage a good supper and all are in good cheer in spite of the problems, though the constant drumming from the native area keeps me awake and is getting to me.
The last mail and post arrived on a steam boat from the mission station in Bumba. Two Irish priests dressed in extraordinary heavy grey cloaks and sporting long beards stayed with us for a few days so we could prepare letters and the requests for fresh supplies. It was a pleasure to have some new company though saying grace in this heathen land at each meal was tiresome. Your letter had taken over four months from Scotland and I read it each day until the paper, drenched from my sweat and the constant damp disintegrated.
I managed to save your picture though and it lies under my sodden pillow. It may well be autumn by the time you read this and I think of the smell of the cool pine trees by the loch and your soap fresh face. Do you remember the walk back to the house worrying about what your father might say as you had accepted me as your husband. We need not have worried but now I am unsure whether I will ever make it home to you, but I know you can find happiness without me.
The natives have made fires and the thick green canopy above us ensures the smoke drifts not up but towards us. I am coughing terribly and fear the fever may be upon me. I have to constantly smack my arms and legs, trying to keep small beetles and ants from making homes in me, or perhaps hiding in the folds of my shirt waiting for me to relax my attention. The neckerchief you gave was once red but is now sodden, black and torn so often do I wipe my neck and face. I wish it was your hand that gently caressed me rather than this rag that scrapes and pushes dirt deeper into my skin.
In my tent I can almost hear the jungle growing towards me. Roots like curious snakes slip quietly in the night hours over decaying vegetation, through rat burrows and spider webs to find the canvas. Occasionally a beast roars somewhere but nothing disturbs the monkeys in the dark. They are sleeping cradled in crags of wenge, agba and iroko trees, their babies clutching tight with tiny fingers into the adult’s fur. Nut husks drop and patter onto the roof of the tent but it is the rain that we dread the most.
It starts with a light dull rumble so indiscernible at first that you think it might be your mind. Then in the gloom and through the trees you see a sheet of silent lightning covering the sky, just for a moment. Then, we count the seconds till the big clap of thunder and we can judge the distance and how much time we have. We huddle into our tents at this, waiting for the deluge. The leaves start to rustle, the insects cease their shrilling and the jungle birds take flight. The monkeys snug now, ease themselves deeper into the trees. The rain when it comes is hard and hot like small lead pellets and soon the canvas is like a drum skin, the tune all skiffle and wire. The ground becomes deep with muddy water, the rain drops bounce and explode with droplets in the puddles making round rings. Our bed cots are raised up so we lie with our possessions bundled on top of us to save them from the wet.
And then just as it had started, it stops and the sound of the jungle comes back. It is enough to turn your mind as all I want is silence and just for once to be be able to sleep.
I want dry sheets, your body near mine and to be back home.
Your loving husband to be.