I FIRST MET MARY KINGSLEY, some years before the Boer War, at the home of three delightful old ladies who had been kind to me when I was a boy, and to whom she was as a daughter of the house. She had come back, as far as I remember, from one of her West African expeditions among practising cannibals, and was telling her hostesses all about it as they sat round the fire. Her even, disinterested tones were in precise key with the Victorian atmosphere and surroundings; but the matter of her discourse was heathen and adventurous.
It included, among other things, an episode at the back of some West African beyond, where she had been handed on as ‘M. Kingsley’ to an up-country trader or official, who when she reached his post was down with severe fever. And she continued substantially, these words. ‘So of course I had to nurse him. He was delirious, but my face seemed to remind him of his school mistress, and he’d gabble through his multiplication-tables when he wanted me to give him a drink. That was the only way to keep him quiet. I had several days of this. Then I felt I must get some sleep, so I covered him all over with tin biscuit-box lids to wake me if he was restless. And he was. The lids made an awful noise. I jumped up half asleep and began as usual. “Now, steady! Say your tables and I’ll give you your drink. Twice one are two” . . . Well, but you see the fever had left him and he was in his senses again and there was my ugly old face staring at him. out of nowhere. He stared too and then he whispered, “Who the hell are you?”‘
Explanations followed. She nursed him back to his feet again and went her wonderful way across rivers and, occasionally, the backs of crocodiles. Being human, she must have feared some things, but one never arrived at what they were. She did not like crocodiles acutely, but, as with all other created animals, made allowance for their habits. Once, when crossing a river by canoe, under charge of a respectful white Sergeant of some forlorn West African detachment, the thing upset. There was a flurried and muddy interlude ere she regained it. Said the Sergeant, boosting her on to the keel, ‘Do you still ‘appen to survive, Miss?’. ‘I do,’ said Mary Kingsley as soon as she was sure of the fact. ‘In that case,’ the Sergeant pursued, ‘I’d recommend you to tuck up your legs quick, Miss. They’re noomerous hereabouts.’ The three old ladies were enraptured.
I had never met anything like this before. We left the house together and talked all along from quiet Addison Road to peaceful Knightsbridge and back again. She talked slowly and walked softly with eyes ranging very far in front of her – talked of witchdoctors; rubber and oil trading (incidentally she traded in a small way to eke out her travelling expenses); cannibal preferences in joints; and native administration at large.
She was caught up afterwards by lectures and writings on the fishes, which, with Natural History and explorations and mountaineering, had been among the objects of her travels. But in those words, spoken or written, though one recognised the utter fearlessness of her and that controlled power that seemed to give her natural command of all situations, one did not, of course, get at her more intimate philosophy of things-at-large, as half-revealed, half-implied to the three charming old ladies, with whom she was all at ease.
In the early days of the Boer War she came to Cape Town of set purpose to relieve English nurses for work among our own peoples, by helping to tend sick and wounded Boer prisoners at Simon’s Town, the naval station. Sometimes she would put into our house near Wynberg for what she called ‘a Christian tea.’ Sitting on the stoep, her hands quite still in her lap, and looking across the Cape flats to the coloured ranges beyond, she would tell of single-handed night vigils over fever-stricken men whose speech she hardly understood. And notably of hand-to-hand campaigns, in which, to do them justice, other prisoners came to her aid, against a wounded Cape Colony farmer who had joined a rebel commando and was crazed with fear of being identified and punished when he should recover. His obsession led him to attempt stealthy escapes into the open at any hour of the night, and then, until he was overpowered and sat upon, to fight to exhaustion. All this sort of thing helped to kill her, for she was weakened by malaria and worn down by lack of help, and could not resist when the typhoid developed. But even during the short time that she served there, all who had come in contact with her, from Admirals to orderlies, knew and adored her as ‘Mary’; there being but one of her mould.
At her own wish her body was delivered to the sea from a little torpedo-boat, off Simon’s Town. And, as the Quartermaster of that uneasy craft used to say in after years: ‘That was how we buried Mary.’