This is the first time that the Knolly Estate has allowed the great man's memoirs to be published. What follows is the forty-eighth section of 'An African Adventure'.
There was a knock at the door, and there stood Ladybuoy. He took in the situation, paying particular attention to the decanter of port. Or rather, the decanter of port that was now at half-mast.
'Ah!' he said, eyeing our reams of correspondence. 'I can see you have got yourselves up-to-date with world events?'
Bertie launched himself at the officer. 'South America? South bally America? Since when did we have anything to do with South America?'
'Hmmm... Not that up-to-date, it would seem...'
Bertie had the poor chap almost pinned to the wall, so I tried to defuse the situation. 'Bertie, I suggest you give the Lieutenant some breathing space and stop treading on his toes. It would seem that we need to listen first before we can make any judgement. And we are acutely aware the Admiral does not want to leave with any more extra passengers than he has to.'
Ladybuoy gave a wan smile as he straightened his collar. Bertie stepped away, mumbling an apology.
'Gentlemen, if you would care to follow me, I think it may be prudent to remove ourselves from the Admiral's quarters while he still has something left in his decanter. Please follow me to the ward room, where I am assured that we will not be bothered while we talk and eat.'
'Eat? Well why didn't you say so, young fellah?' exclaimed Bertie, putting his arm around Ladybuoy. 'Lead on, lead on... there will be some drink too, I hope?'
I shook my head and followed the two new lifelong companions along corridors and up a narrow stairway, until we arrived in the officers' wardroom. Alas, I was not able to catch any more of their conversation, but there was much laughter along the way, which assured me that Bertie was in a less melancholy mood, though how long this was to last would depend on what we learned over the next hour or so — and how much port was available in the wardroom.
In the room, a table was laid for three and — save for a steward — the wardroom was ours and ours alone. We took our seats and Ladybuoy began our briefing. 'You are now aware that the St George will be sailing within the next few hours and that it involves issues in South America...' We nodded as the soup was served. 'What your orders did not make clear is that you are actually going to Washington —' Bertie looked at me, raised his eyebrows and missed his mouth with the soup spoon. '— which, if you had read to the bottom of the page rather than stopping at the word 'Venezuela', you might have realised.'
'It don't actually say that, though,' interjected Bertie, flourishing his spoon and flicking more soup about his person.
'True, true. But nor does it say you are both travelling to South America.'
I pulled out the document from my jacket pocket and quickly scanned the page. He was right, of course. 'But we are definitely going to North America?'
'Indeed, yes. It was hoped that you would be there by now. Alas, you have been caught up in events which may well prove to be an embarrassment to many. Thankfully, I am not a politician, but like your good selves, I find that I have to do their bidding.'
'Ah! So we are surplus to requirements?' I asked.
'On this continent, yes. But your knowledge of things and people American means that your joint talents are needed elsewhere.' Ladybuoy had our full attention now, so much so that our soup was getting cold. 'Let me enlighten you as to what has been happening on the other side of the Atlantic since you set sail from... hmmmm... Hamburg, wasn't it?'
'Indeed,' I replied. 'I can see that there is little we can hide from you... or your masters.'
Ladybuoy waved this last comment away and continued. 'You are both aware, I am sure, of the Monroe Doctrine and what it means to the United States?'
Bertie paused while in mid-reach for a bread roll. 'Something about the fact that they will not tolerate foreign enterprises on the American continent, is it not?'
I raised my eyebrows at this simplistic yet succinct view of international politics and he grinned, blissfully unaware that the sleeve of his jacket was immersed in the cold soup. 'Bertie, sometimes you astound me! Oh... and you have something in your teeth.'
'Bertie is quite correct, and it is in such a situation that we find ourselves in British Guiana,' continued Ladybouy.
'It just so happens to border with Venezuela, and since 1840 or so the discovery of gold in the area means that territorial disputes have intensified,' I added.
'So why are we being packed off to Washington?' asked Bertie.
'Well,' continued Ladybouy, 'earlier this year, the US Secretary of State Olney invoked a broader interpretation of said doctrine, demanding arbitration on behalf of the Venezuelan Government. The PM offered to submit some of the area, but not all of it.'
'I can see where this is going,' I interjected, 'but pray, continue.'
'I have question,' piped up Bertie. 'Any more soup?' A steward appeared as if from nowhere and ladled seconds into Bertie's bowl.
'Lord Salisbury's reply was seen as a rebuff to Olney. Only a few days ago, President Cleveland wrote to the US Congress, denouncing British refusal to arbitrate and maintained that it was the duty of the United States to take steps to determine the boundary. Moreover, they are required to resist any British aggression beyond that line once it had been determined.'
'Great Scott! We are at war with the United States of America! It's worse than I thought.'
'Oh, oh, oh! Trouble in America... panic in America... and surely that plays into Rhodes' global domination plans,' added Bertie.
Ladybuoy seemed to look somewhat aghast at Bertie's statement. 'That is an interesting point of view and one that I had clearly not thought of. However, neither nation wishes to fight, and as of yesterday a conciliatory note was sent from London to Washington, recognising the new broad interpretation of the Monroe Doctrine and agreeing to an American commission. Your new mission, should you choose to accept it — and you really have no choice, so I don't know why I said that — is to oversee the setting-up of this commission.'
'So! Christmas in Washington. Could be a lot worse,' said Bertie. 'Ah, good! Here comes the second course.'
'I must admit that this has all come as a bit of a shock — to be pulled away at a critical moment and all that. But as Bertie and I have suspected, we have found ourselves in the right place at the right time. Or the wrong place at the wrong time, depending on one's viewpoint,' I said.
Ladybouy glanced at this pocketwatch. 'Gentlemen, I have told you all that I know. We have an hour left. So now maybe you would be so good as to tell me what you have been up to since you arrived in Africa?'
'Yes indeed, and I would hope that the information we provide will be shared amongst both services and government agencies. I also require you to deliver a message as soon as you step ashore.'
'You have my word, Knolly, as an officer and a gentleman. Now, eat up before this gets cold.'
Over the remaining courses we told our tale, with Bertie adding bits here and there and doing remarkable sound effects throughout. Ladybuoy took copious notes on napkins and eventually had to resort to scrawling on the tablecloth. During this discourse, I made a point of asking him how he spelt his surname — 'Ladybouy', 'Ladybuoy' or 'Ladyboy'? — all of which I seemed to have used in my shorthand diary. He was astounded by the fact that the rumours of flying machines were indeed true (Bertie surpassed himself here with sounds of elastic ropes, thundering horses and throbbing engines), was shocked by the alliance that seemed to be forming between the Boer government and Germany, and the colour visibly drained from his face (and Bertie's) when we spoke of the Countess Von Kronenburg going commando.