‘The Orchid Hunters’ by Priya Sharma

Priya Sharma lives in the UK. She has had short stories accepted by a variety of magazines including Albedo One, On Spec, Fantasy Magazine, Dark Tales, Not One of Us and Zahir. Her story, ‘The Bitterness of Apples’, appeared in the first issue of Alt Hist. More information can be found at www.priyasharmafiction.co.uk

You can read the first part of the story for free below. If you would like to read more please order the second issue of Alt Hist.

The Orchid Hunters

by Priya Sharma

July 27th 1892

I wrote to Kitty again today. Marcus raised an eyebrow at me as I handed the letter to the first mate. He’s so trusting of the natives but not our fellow Englishmen. When I pressed him on the point he muttered something about colonial savages and I pretended not to understand his meaning.

It pains me to admit that Marcus is correct. Captain Dawkins of The Liberty is a prime example. He is the colour of mahogany and it makes him appear dirty. He’s slovenly and eyes the half naked native women. I despair. We are among the ungodly and the fallen and all because of a damned flower.

August 1st 1892

The town’s chaplain met the steamer on the jetty. I am no religious zealot. Christianity is an English duty that should be practiced with English moderation. Still, I am relieved to be met by a man of the cloth, even if he is a Welsh one. When I said as such to Marcus he became very cold with me.

August 2nd 1892

The chaplain and his wife held a dinner this evening in our honour. It was attended by some desperate looking missionaries and our own Captain Dawkins of The Liberty.

‘An orchid?’ Our host was incredulous.

Out here, in darkest Africa, there was no way he could know that orchids have set the English gentry aflame.

‘At the request of Lord Huntley of Cheshire.’

Maria, the servant, spilt some wine upon the tablecloth. The chaplain chided her. There was perspiration on her neck and one of the buttons on her uniform was missing.

‘Are orchids so dangerous that it requires two of you?’ The chaplain’s wife was sharp. The rest of the company tittered nervously. She must rule them with an iron rod.

Marcus was engaged in chewing the tough fowl before us, so I explained.

‘Lord Huntley thought it prudent to send a pair of men for a greater chance of success. It’s perilous out here, among the snakes and crocodiles.’

‘A costly venture.’

I ignored this vulgarity from Dawkins. My ambitions are finer than that.

The chaplain’s wife leant forward, having spied an opportunity. Her small black eyes flitted between Marcus and myself, unsure of where to settle.

‘I think we may be of help to you.’

‘How so?’

‘You’ll encounter several different tribes in the interior. You’ll need a guide who knows their languages, as well as the geography. We have a man who’d be perfect.’

‘I don’t think so.’ I wasn’t keen to be in her debt.

‘Hold on,’ Marcus cut across me. ‘Tell me more.’

I was furious that he saw fit to contradict me but I bit my tongue, not wanting to draw more attention to it.

‘Oliver’s a native. We took him in when his parents died. He’s strong and his English is excellent.’

‘He’s a fine shot too,’ her husband added.

‘He’s so useful to us,’ she continued. ‘He’d be difficult to spare. He’s almost like a son.’

I doubt her breast harbours anything that might pass for maternal feeling.

‘We’d compensate you for his time.’

I wanted to kick Marcus under the table for that. The woman didn’t look at me again, deferring to Marcus in everything for the rest of the evening.

Marcus and I sat on the veranda after the others had gone to bed. Our cigar smoke filled the pools of lamp light. He ignored my anger at his behaviour over dinner.

‘So Philip, is she worth all this?’ His cigar glowed as he sucked on it.

Damned impertinence. He was referring to Kitty. I suppose the time for correcting him is long past. My father was too generous with him, more than owing to the orphaned nephew of my governess, and now Marcus is accustomed to taking liberties. Marcus left for South Africa with a gold expedition when I was in my final year at Eton. Since his return to Carfax we are over familiar strangers and he ignores my attempts to put our relationship on a proper footing. My father’s dying wish was that our governess, and Marcus after her, have lifelong use of a cottage by the river at Carfax. I can never wholly be rid of him.

‘Well, I suppose you must do something to distinguish yourself from Kitty’s other admirers but there are far easier quests she could have sent you on.’

‘How dare you. She is devoted to her father’s happiness. I can only hope she will be as devoted to mine.’

‘Indeed,’ he replied with a smirk.

I have always found orchids faintly indecent. That Lord Huntley pursues them with such passion disconcerts me. My own father was for the manly occupations of hunting and fishing. To be embroiled in Huntley’s scheme for botanical glory is too ridiculous.

We smoked in silence. The river was below us, its movements so languid that it was almost motionless. Ripples fanned out on its surface, a sinuous curve sliding on the water as if on oil and then it was gone.

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