When the annals of desperation were written, Stewart Hastings figured his name would have its own chapter. What was it going to take to acquire a competent guide into the Liberian jungle? Clearly his visit to this harborside tavern was another complete waste of time.
Six days to interview a promising list of a dozen names, and yet not a willing guide among them. The wages Stewart had offered the previous candidates should have been enough, but the joke was on him. Apparently he was the only man foolish enough to take big money for an expedition into cannibal territory.
He put his sterling on the wooden bar for the meal he’d just eaten, stepped outside and headed off to meet the final name on his list of potential guides. From his understanding of the street layout, his destination wasn’t far from the boarding house where he had rented a room.
The cool ocean breeze off the promontory invigorated him, providing a momentary relief from the overheated barroom whose smells of whiskey, palm oil and humanity had left him with a throb behind his right temple. The relief quickly faded as he walked the moonlit, turf-covered streets. Whoever said tropical countries didn’t get cold had never been to Monrovia on a September night. After the daily rains let up, the temperature drop had him jamming his hands in his pockets and hunching his shoulders against the chill.
He couldn’t have come all the way to Africa only to lose his best hope of securing his and his ailing mother’s future. With little more than a day before his ship departed, the outlook was bleak. Exploring for mineable geological deposits in a little-mapped jungle area was difficult enough, but add in cannibals and subtract a guide and the task became downright impossible.
His dead father’s drunken rants echoed in his memory. Maybe the son of a dock worker would never be more than a scholarship boy trying to shake off the stench of the slums. With no family name to propel him to success, failure was always a strong possibility. This time it wasn’t an option he could allow.
He had to persist. His mother’s heart doctor was right. Even without the results from that newfangled electrocardiograph machine, the signs were all there, no matter how she tried to hide them. She reached for her digitalis more frequently, became short of breath working in her garden. Spending her days scrubbing the floors of the rich was a ticket to an early grave. She needed the rest and diet the doctor prescribed. Stewart had promised her a better life the day they buried his father. Now that she was ill, he couldn’t fail in that promise.
He had to find a guide and meet his deadline. His hard-won degree from Harvard would mean nothing to his financial future if chaperoned by a reputation for failure.
He crossed Broad Street. Moonlight mocked the darkened light poles lining the avenue. Another confirmation of the government’s financial crisis, one his employer hoped would drive down prices for the Putu Mountains area mining concession they planned to make an offer on.
Clouds rolled across the moon, forcing him to temper his stride or risk a misstep. A figure came toward him in the dark. His hand reflexively moved to the knife at his side and then relaxed as the figure grew closer. A lone Liberian woman with a sleeping baby strapped to her back, hurrying along the otherwise deserted streets. A tiny prick hit his heart as he watched the child’s head gently bobbing with the mother’s swaying pace until the pair was out of sight. He’d always wanted a large family, but without a wife that would never happen. Even if he was ever deluded enough to believe in love again, what woman would have him once she’d seen the scars the Great War had left?
A high-pitched scream rent the night, piercing and abruptly cut off.
The woman with the baby? Wrong direction. Every instinct the military had honed in him rushed to the forefront.
There. The sound came from the cross-street just ahead. Near his boarding house. He moved quickly, keeping to the deepest shadows as he assessed the situation.
Two native men with a woman struggling between them. She held a thick book, clutching the volume as if it was written in gold.
Robbery? Why won’t the woman give it up? It’s only a book. Hardly worth her life.
These two miscreants left him no choice but to intervene. Attacking a woman, no less. His frustration boiled to the top. The man he was to interview might not wait, but Stewart couldn’t walk away.
He looked for any others hiding in the wings as he pulled the blade from its leather scabbard. Only the two. He banished fleeting thoughts of the consequences for pulling a knife on Liberian citizens. No one attacked a helpless woman in front of him without repercussion, not since the first time he was big enough to stand up to his father.
Stewart closed in without signaling his presence. She dropped her book and… Oh, that had to hurt. Bet they didn’t expect her to fight back. He stifled a laugh when one assailant grabbed his foot, hopping and howling. An umbrella tip made an effective weapon. Silently he applauded her while continuing to move forward. The little lady was a feisty one, he’d give her that.
The other native pressed something white up to her face. Moonlight blazed out as the clouds retreated. A handkerchief fluttered to the ground when the attacker loosed his grip on her face and each man grabbed an arm. The woman sagged and Stewart’s anger rose. What had they done to her?
One of her attackers looked up before Stewart got close enough to disable him. The man froze, his eyes glued to the cold steel in Stewart’s hand.
Stewart dropped his voice to a chilling softness. “Let the woman go, and I’ll allow you to live.” Whether they spoke Liberian English or a local dialect, his tone said the same thing in any language.
The two men exchanged a quick glance, not loosening their hold on the woman. Not smart. At six-foot-three, Stewart had them each by a good nine inches of height. More when you added in the six inches of steel in his hand.
The one on his right tensed. Always a mistake to telegraph your intentions. Stewart stepped in and punched him with his free hand. The man flew backward, releasing the woman’s arm as he fell. The other attacker grabbed her closer and pulled his own knife. His cohort picked himself up off the ground.
These two weren’t giving up. He’d hoped the sight of an armed man would have put them to flight. His options dwindled. He couldn’t risk the woman’s safety in a knife fight.
He watched for any signal of their next move. Both assailants stood wide-eyed, uncertainty growing in their eyes. Ha! Probably hadn’t expected any interference.
A door squeaked to his left. The attacking duo glanced toward the sound and froze. Stewart risked a quick look. A tiny female figure walked out the front door of the boarding house where he’d rented a room. Momma Elliott shook her finger at the two, loudly threatening them in another language.
Stewart braced. How to protect two women?
But no attack came. Both men took one look at the wizened little black woman with her head wrapped in blue country cloth and a righteous fervor of scolding on her tongue and they promptly dropped their victim and ran.
Stewart lunged for the falling woman, grabbing an arm and hoisting her up. He barely managed to keep her head from hitting the ground where her book had fallen. Momma Elliot marched out after the fleeing men with a warrior’s air about her. If he’d had a platoon of women that brave at the front, they’d have routed the Germans much sooner.
Once the miscreants were out of sight, she turned her attention to Stewart, schooling him with her impatient tone. “Well, what are you standing there for, Mr. Hastings? Are you going to bring her inside or not?” She picked up the book and umbrella, turned and walked back through the doorway.
With the unconscious woman in his arms, he followed the warrior grandma. The young woman he carried was a feather’s worth of weight. Her hat bobbed precariously, a casualty of the confrontation. Her hair had escaped its confines. Silken strands brushed his left hand.
She smelled like cinnamon, but with every gentle exhale came a sickly sweet odor.
His stomach roiled at the buried memory. The last time he’d inhaled that odor, his own life hung in the balance. Chloroform explained everything he’d seen: the white cloth and her loss of consciousness when clearly she was more a fighter than a fainter. Where would two natives in a primitive country get such a dangerous chemical? Chloroform was too elaborate for a simple robbery. Something else, then. Kidnapping?
He stepped into the entryway. His boots sounded thunderous on the polished floors. No Momma Elliott. From deep in the house he heard her sharp, urgent tones. A young native boy dressed as if he’d come from a Sunday meeting blurred right past him and out the door before Stewart could speak.
The parlor to his left appeared unoccupied, and it came equipped with the answer to the problem in his arms—a davenport.
He gently placed his slight burden on the rosy velvet-covered couch. He felt for the hat pin where he’d seen his mother reach a thousand times and removed the young woman’s dangling straw creation. He found a small pillow for her comfort and then turned up the oil lamp on the table beside her. The light revealed the mahogany color of her errant hair and its cascading waves. Her pale skin seemed almost translucent; dark lashes a smudge on the porcelain complexion. When he considered her small-boned frame, his anger at the men who’d attacked her stirred anew.
What if she became sick from the medicine? Chloroform had a deadly reputation even in trained hands. He’d relax once she woke up. Maybe Momma Elliott had gone to get smelling salts. That’s what the hospital nurse had used when his former fiancée had fainted at the sight of his mustard gas burns. Worked like a charm. Maybe too well. Julianne had sputtered, averted her eyes and left as soon as she’d recovered.
He’d received her engagement regrets by messenger later the same day. Somehow he’d failed her by returning less than the whole man she’d watched ship off to war. His shirts would hide the damage, but she couldn’t face seeing those scars for the rest of her life.
He told himself he was well rid of her if that was the measure of her character. He’d let a pretty face and protestations that love could overcome their class differences override his better judgment. He’d let his guard down.
He wouldn’t make that mistake again.
Stewart shrugged off the memory and moved closer to check the woman on the davenport. No evident sign of distress from the drug. A familiarity nagged at him.
Julianne. This woman with her stunning beauty reminded him of Julianne. Both women were small-boned and had a similar hair color. This one had higher cheekbones, a daintier nose, generous lips and, on closer observation, a small faded scar on her left cheek. Unlike his mustard burns, her little imperfection added appeal, keeping her from being too perfect. Still, if she and Julianne had ever met, Julianne would have taken to her bed, mirror in hand, and fretted for a week at being eclipsed.
“Come on,” he said softly. “Wake up. Fret, complain, anything—just wake up.” What color would those eyes be? If only she would open them.
Spry steps in the hall broke his study.
Momma Elliott entered the room with a basin of water and a rag in her hand. She eyed the unconscious woman and looked around as if expecting to see someone else in the room. She must have heard him talking. She knelt beside the sofa, dampened her cloth and folded it into a compress. “You did well, Mr. Hastings, to grab her up from those scoundrels. Gradoo has always been a disappointment to his mother. But to hurt a woman… A foreign woman… He’ll be lucky to avoid a hanging if the magistrate’s in the wrong mood.”
“You recognized those ruffians?”
“One of them. Taught him in Sunday school as a young lad. Obviously didn’t take his Bible to heart. Didn’t recognize the other Kru man with him. But, birds of a feather….”
“No wonder they ran, seeing as you’re able to identify them. Is she going to be all right? I think they gave her chloroform.”
Momma Elliott seemed to weigh his words. “Now that is surely a strange thing. Where would those two get something like chloroform? Good thing this one is tougher than she appears. I nursed her through the malaria when she first arrived from Connecticut. Still, for caution’s sake, I’ve asked for the doctor to come around.”
He nodded toward the unconscious woman. “Does she live nearby?”
“No, Miss Baldwin is rooming with me for a few days. She’s attending a mission conference. They’re installing the new bishop from the States. Only something big like that would bring her out of the jungle.”
“She lives in the jungle?”
“Of course. Miss Baldwin is a missionary spreading the Gospel to one of the interior tribes.”
Stewart couldn’t hold back the proverbial jaw drop. He’d saved a missionary who lived in the jungle. His mother’s voice and all her notions of God’s plans flooded his mind. Easy to see why she believed such things. He could almost believe it now. Almost. But rational thought reasserted itself. Missionary or not, no one would send a single woman anywhere near where he needed to go. Every time he’d been specific about his destination, grown men paled and refused. Or they laughed outright.
“Something wrong, young man?”
“Sorry, ma’am. Just thinking.” Might as well ask. “You don’t happen to know what tribal area she, uh, missions in, do you?”
Her head cocked at the sound of footsteps on the porch. “You can ask her all about it once she wakes. Wait here. Keep an eye on her while I greet the doctor.” She headed for the front door.
Now he was grasping desperation by the throat. Asking Miss Baldwin would be a waste of time. To a lone woman, working in the interior probably meant a little ways outside the city.
Oh, no. A waste of time…time. He groaned and checked his watch. As soon as Momma Elliott came back with the doctor, he’d have to leave. He hoped the man he was to interview had waited.
A soft rustle caught his attention. He looked and got his answer. Brown. Lovely, deep brown eyes opened and blinked. She blinked again and the unfocused look began to fade from her eyes. When she tried to sit up, his reverie broke. “Miss, uh, Baldwin. Please don’t move. Just lay still. Momma Elliott will be right back.”
Her focus flitted around, taking in her surroundings before stopping to look at his face. For one short moment the room lost all its air as he fell into the depths of her serene gaze. How could she wake so calm after what she’d just been through?
He tilted his head downward. “I’m sorry. I couldn’t hear you.”
She whispered again.
He shook his head and apologized, bending to catch her words. “Do you need something?”
Her soft voice quavered. “Nothing. You…you asked…”
She tried again. “You…asked…where.”
“Where? Oh. You heard me talking to Momma Elliott.”
She nodded and whispered again. “Putu. Near the Putu Mountains. I work with the Pahn.”
His limbs turned to marble. The answer to his dilemma had been dumped literally into his arms. Or had it? Unease snaked its way into his thoughts just as Momma Elliott and a redheaded woman with a medical bag, waddling with the weight of the child she carried in her rounded belly, bustled into the room. A woman doctor? And her patient another woman who couldn’t protect herself in the relative safety of the city, yet lived among cannibals? What kind of country was this?
He gave a nod to Momma Elliott and headed for the front door. Even if he missed his meeting, he didn’t regret his actions. Not when a woman had been in danger. But he sincerely hoped the guide wasn’t too impatient and he would agree to the job. Otherwise Stewart would be trying to talk the woman he’d saved into saving him. Not good since the last time he’d placed his future in the hands of a beautiful woman, it disappeared in a cloud of mustard gas.
Anna Baldwin awakened to bright morning sunshine streaming in her bedroom window, Dr. Mary Mayweather attending at her side, and two sure conclusions about her life: God was looking out for her, as evidenced by last night’s providential rescue, and He wouldn’t have called her to the mission field without providing for her. True, last night was a trial of some magnitude. Being attacked, chloroformed and almost kidnapped made the news she’d received at the conference pale in comparison. At least she was still alive to serve another day, something she had failed to thank her blue-eyed rescuer for making possible.
Now she had to find a way to stay beyond the short weeks her limited funds left her. But first she had to reason with Dr. Mary. The good doctor wanted Anna to lounge in bed. Clearly a woman so heavy with child should be following her own orders. Anna rebuked herself for such an uncharitable thought about her dear friend. She was grateful that missionaries like Dr. Mary and her pastor husband had taken her under their tutelage when she’d first arrived. Still, they’d trusted her to God’s care when they’d helped establish her post with the Pahn, so being overprotective now about a random attack on city streets seemed a contradiction in that trust.
No, she needed to be out of bed so she could begin the process of looking for a new source of funding. This foggy-brained feeling from the drug would pass.
Dr. Mary sat on the edge of Anna’s bed. “Anna, did you hear me? Three days’ rest, minimum. Chloroform can be hard on the heart.”
“Three days? My ship leaves for Garraway tomorrow morning, Dr. Mary. And I can’t count on the Elder-Dempster Company refunding my fare.” Anna stifled a rising panic. “Even if they change my ticket, I have no money for the additional change fees.”
“Not to worry. I’ll ask my William to talk to them. Most steamship lines bend their rules to accommodate God’s work. Missionaries are lucrative business for them. If there is a fee, I’m sure we can appeal to the bishop for discretionary funds.”
Hot tears built a pool behind Anna’s eyes. She fought them back and spoke once she trusted her voice. “Is it really all about money? Even here as a missionary? No, an ex-missionary. I’m losing my posting over money. The bishop has already drawn on his discretionary funds to keep me here a little longer while I seek a new source of support.”
Dr. Mary tilted her head. “Well, that explains a lot. When you left the mission conference in such a hurry last night, I feared something was wrong. What happened to the support money your church promised?”
“They fell on hard times. It’s a small congregation, but they scraped and saved to help me get here. Their monthly pledge after my parents blocked all access to the trust my grandmother left me was a godsend.” Anna picked at a stray thread on her bedcovers. “Originally, I planned to fund my support myself. The trust included a monthly allowance from the interest. As long as I was frugal, that money would have been most of what I needed to stay here.”
“You never told me your parents so actively opposed you.”
Anna shuddered. “Because it does no good to dwell on their past actions. Having a missionary daughter went against all their social ambitions. They wanted me to marry someone handpicked for his social and financial standing. Blocking my trust was only one of the ways they dealt with my refusal. My only consolation is that the entire trust comes under my control once I marry or turn thirty-five, whichever comes first.”
“But eight years is a long time to wait when you’re in need now. Maybe like my father did, they’ll come around eventually. If you do end up having to return home, surely the time apart will have softened their hearts.”
Anna shuddered, remembering. “You don’t know my parents.” She reached out and gripped Dr. Mary’s arm. “And other than my facility with languages, I have no useful skills for employment. Returning home is one problem, but I have to get back to the Pahn. How can I live with myself if I can’t get the tuition to send Taba to the boarding school at Newaka? I promised him. You know what will happen to a twelve-year-old convert if I can’t get him out of the clutches of the devilmen. Once they get him into the sequestered Poro school…”
Dr. Mary paled. “He won’t be coming back out.”
Anna looked at Dr. Mary, waiting for some answer. After a moment Dr. Mary spoke in a low, serious tone. “I can’t tell you what God is going to do in your life or Taba’s right now. I can only remind you of how seconds before the Pahn chief was about to succeed in his plan to kill me, God proved He does work all things to the good. Whatever happens, don’t forget that fact. William and I are living testaments to God’s sovereignty in all things.”
Anna was humbled remembering the story of how Dr. Mary and her husband, Pastor William Mayweather, had narrowly avoided death at the hands of the cannibal tribe. “I believe, but I counted on Bishop Michaels to advance Taba’s tuition money. Before the board’s overhaul of financial policies, my request would have been no problem. Bishop Michaels is clearly sympathetic, but the new rules leave no room for any debt. He’s done what he can so I can return to the village temporarily and try to secure Taba’s safety.”
“Anna, does Taba’s family hold any status or wealth in the village?”
“No, which is why I was counting on my funds to help with tuition. I already made arrangements with Karl and Hannah Jansen when I passed through Newaka. They promised to keep him for two years if I can come up with the money for one.”
Dr. Mary absently rubbed her swollen belly. “The Jansens would be ideal, but even they can only stretch their sterling so far. Why not send Taba to Nynabo with us? We can manage.”
“You’re too close. Nana Mala proved that when he stormed your compound with armed warriors. The devilmen have enough reach that Taba wouldn’t be safe if he stayed with you.”
“Point taken. What about asking Bishop Michaels to let you use your return ticket funds while you seek other means of support?”
Anna shook her head and the room spun. “No. You know the rules—no service under the Mission Board’s policies unless your return fare is banked against the day you leave the mission field.”
Dr. Mary stood. “Continue to pray, Anna. God has a plan for this boy’s life and yours. Sometimes God provides in ways we don’t expect. Look at last night. God provided a rescuer when you needed one.” She grinned at Anna. “A tall, strong one at that.”
Anna felt the heat rise in her cheeks. “Dr. Mary!”
“What? I still have high hopes for you to find a fellow laborer in the mission field.”
“And you think you’ll help me find one by trying to play matchmaker with a total stranger? You don’t give up, do you? Not everyone can find a man like your William. Finding a husband isn’t a priority for me, and I don’t think our Heavenly Father would send me a mate by way of a robbery attempt.” She snorted. “Sounds like one of my father’s poorly thought-out schemes. Never mind the consequences to me, because the end of things always justified the cost, especially since he wasn’t the one paying it.”
Dr. Mary took her medical bag from the nightstand. “I guess it is a little farfetched. God often requires sacrifice of us, but He has our best interests at heart. Pray and ask what He would have you do. Three days of bed rest should give you ample time to come to a conclusion.”
With no extra funds, missing the ship would curtail most of Anna’s options. She had to be on the SS Boma when it left in the morning. She hadn’t been this desperate since she’d escaped to the ship that carried her to Liberia, thwarting her parents’ plans to marry her off to the odious Dr. Reginald Hightower. Even without God’s call to the mission field, she couldn’t have married a man who’d made it clear that her “excess” of religion was unacceptable in his social circles.
God had provided a means for her then, so she had to believe that He would supply the means for Taba’s safety now. She respected Dr. Mary, but she would be on that ship.
As if she’d read her thoughts, Dr. Mary added, “Anna, I see that look. I’ll go to the bishop if necessary. Don’t you even think about sailing tomorrow. Missionaries who live long enough to serve past their first bout of malaria are too scarce here. He may have just arrived in Liberia, but even the bishop knows not to take chances with your health.”
Anna weighed her options. The bishop could prevent her from ever returning to the Pahn if he so chose. She’d have to get him on her side before staging a rebellion against Dr. Mary’s orders. “Fine, I’ll stay abed.”
“Three days, Anna.”
Dr. Mary knew her too well. Anna couldn’t promise that so she changed the subject. “You know, being a doctor doesn’t make you right about everything. Take matchmaking, for example. I still can’t believe you’d even suggest that being rescued by a blue-eyed, blond, Viking-like warrior type is a basis for an enduring, Godly marriage.”
Dr. Mary laughed. “Blue eyes, huh? So you did notice him before he left.”
Anna cheeks heated to an alarming degree. A thundering rap on the bedroom door saved her from any reply.
Dr. Mary opened the door. “Just a moment, Bishop.”
Anna reached for the wrapper at the foot of her bed. Dr. Mary admitted a concerned-looking Bishop Michaels, the fringe of white hair on his head standing straight out all round like a demented halo.
Anna fanned her cheeks and forced her facial muscles into a pleasant smile. The bishop. If she couldn’t have his blessing to get on the ship tomorrow, how was she going to tell him she now needed more money just to return to an unfunded posting? This might be the proverbial last straw. She was at a loss as to how to spin it into gold.
Dr. Mary said, “Anna, I’ll send Momma Elliott right up with some nice broth. Send word if you need me again. Bishop, I’ll see you at meeting tonight.” She left the door open.
The bishop stood, hat in hand, sincerity to the forefront. “My dear Miss Baldwin. I have been ever so worried about you and not ceased to pray since I heard the terrible news. We all have. Are you all right? Have they caught your attackers?”
“No, the magistrates have no word about the two men. They left an hour ago with promises to keep looking. But, I’m fine, Bishop. Only frustrated to be idle when so little time remains to me in Liberia.”
The bishop’s cheery countenance brightened further. “And yet, even in this trying situation, God has made a way. I have found the answer to all your problems, and he’s waiting in the hallway.” He stepped outside the room.
Anna’s nerves sounded an alarm. The answer to all her problems? Her father’s favorite phrase, the one that always preceded disaster in her life, now straight from the lips of Bishop Michaels. She shuddered and fought against the memories. No, this is not my father, but my spiritual authority. The bishop, a man who steeps his life in prayer and seeks God’s Will. Wait, did the bishop say “he”?
Two decidedly male voices in the hall, one the bishop’s. The sound of the other scratched at her memory. Finally the bishop walked back in followed by a familiar-looking man, cap in hand, who ducked his blond head to step through the doorway. His crisp, white, high-collared shirt, jodhpurs and polished boots presented a striking picture. When his chin lifted as he cleared the doorway, she caught site of his squared-off jaw and a patrician nose that didn’t quite follow its original lines. She couldn’t help but smile at the sight of him. “Oh, it’s you! I never got the chance to thank you last night. You saved me from those men. Thank you.”
He grinned and humor sparked in his memorable blue eyes. “You were doing a pretty good job at fighting them off when I showed up. I think you’d have had them if it weren’t for the chloroform.” Her rescuer looked expectantly at the bishop standing next to him.
“Miss Anna Baldwin,” the bishop said, “let me formally introduce you to Mr. Stewart Hastings, a mining engineer with the American Mining Corporation. He and I just finished a long talk in the parlor. I believe it was God’s providence Mr. Hastings came along when he did. Had he not come to Monrovia on his current assignment…well, I shudder to think what would have happened to you last night.”
Her rescuer brushed off the compliment. “You give me too much credit, sir. Momma Elliott actually scared the miscreants off. I just held them at bay till she came on the scene.”
Was that a wink?
The bishop shook his head. “You’re too modest, sir.” He turned to address Anna. “Now that we’re all acquainted, we can get on with the plan.” The bishop rocked onto the balls of his feet, eager to impart his idea.
Anna asked. “The plan?”
“Yes, my dear. I found a way to solve all our problems. Rather, I should say God has provided.”
There was that phrase again. Tacking on God’s provision still left her uneasy. And Mr. Hastings studiously looking everywhere but at her?
The bishop’s eyes twinkled. “I haven’t told Mr. Hastings, but while hearing his tale, the solution for both of you became obvious. It’s clear you two are a match made in Heaven.”
Anna almost came out of her sickbed. Was everyone in creation trying to marry her off?
Shock rendered Stewart mute. Had the kindly bishop been out in the brutal Liberian sun too long? Except it was only midmorning. By the look on Anna’s face, she harbored similar questions.
Bishop Michaels prattled on. “Mr. Hastings saved you, Miss Baldwin, and now you can save each other.”
Stewart ground his teeth to hold back a rebuttal. Was this some evangelical approach to win his soul? If so, the bishop had another think coming. God already had ample opportunity to show up in the trenches of the Great War.
Stewart found his voice. “Sir, even if I were a praying man, which I’m not, I’m not sure I would understand the course of this conversation.”
The bishop gave him a patient look. “Didn’t you just explain to me in the parlor how you exhausted your other possibilities and were in need of a guide to the interior while you explore for mineral deposits? In the Pahn territory and surrounding area? I believe you named a generous figure for the service you need.”
“I did, but…”
The bishop waved his hand. “Miss Baldwin here is in immediate need of an income and you are in need of a guide. Ergo, you two are a match made in Heaven.”
Stewart caught sight of Anna’s eyes widening in shock and disbelief. They must be mirroring his own. He hadn’t taken Bishop Michaels for an escapee from Bedlam when they’d first met. A match made in Heaven? “Bishop Michaels, Miss Baldwin told me last night that she works with the Pahn. But, with no offense intended to her, I need a guide, not a wife.”
The choking sounds coming from Miss Baldwin were alarming. Both men looked at her with concern. The bishop asked her, “Are you all right, my dear? Do you need water?”
She shook her head violently and managed to croak a response. “Not even to save my place here in Africa would I—”
The bishop broke in. “No, no. You both mistake me.” He turned back to Stewart. “I’m proposing a business agreement, one that will effectively save Miss Baldwin from having to make an untimely return home to Connecticut from the mission field.
“With the budget you mentioned, she can take you to the village and secure a relationship for you with the chief. Then she can afford to stay among the Pahn people another three months while she searches for longer-term funding. Along with the government permission your company already obtained for exploration, you, in turn, will have one of the only outsiders acceptable to the chief to vouch for you and your mining enterprise. God has provided for your needs, too.”
Anna protested. “Bishop, with all respect, Nana Mala is one of the most warlike and unpredictable chiefs in the interior. Government permission will only provoke him. We might lose any further chance to win souls in this village over mixing man’s business with God’s, especially since Mr. Hastings has already proclaimed himself an unbeliever. I cannot see… Oh, Mr. Hastings, I meant no slight.”
“None taken.” Being categorized as an unbeliever might be awkward in her view, but not in his. At least she had the sense to see how unworkable this plan really was, even if her reasons were different from his. He’d thought he was coming to discuss a guide, not hire Miss Baldwin.
The bishop’s jovial tone sobered. “Sometimes we need others, my dear, to see what’s best for us. I believe this situation will serve the Gospel by keeping one of my most fervent missionaries in a tribe that, if reached for Christ, could turn the tide in many surrounding villages. I’m sure you can manage the distinction between business needs and the Gospel.” He gave a fatherly smile. “Unless, of course, you have another financial solution, one God revealed since our conversation last night?”
She didn’t say anything at first, but Stewart could see the gears of thought turning. She nodded.
Was she really considering this? Was it money that swayed her? As for the bishop, he had lost his mind? But manners dictated Stewart not declare the sentiment aloud. “Bishop Michaels, I cannot see how your suggestion could possibly work. Look at her.” Stewart pointed. “She’s clearly incapacitated. I only wanted information on finding a guide. The last thing I need is a female missionary slowing me down on the trail.”
Anna glared. For a missionary she sure could give a look that would peel paint off a battleship.
Stewart ignored her and continued. “Besides, she’s an unmarried woman. Even if I had no objection, you can’t tell me you missionaries would send the two of us into the jungle alone.”
The bishop was not dissuaded. “Of course not. She’ll need someone to travel with her on board ship for her recovery and the proprieties of ship life. I met the perfect candidate last night at a late supper hosted in my honor. She and her husband are returning to their coffee plantation outside of Harper. Then, once in the jungle, you’ll be surrounded by your caravan. Last night’s incident notwithstanding, most Liberian men are quite protective of missionary women, as those who have served alone have found in the past. I think you’ll see that the caravan itself is more than sufficient as a chaperone.”
Every obstacle Stewart could think to raise was steamrolled flat by the bishop’s growing enthusiasm. He continued unhampered. “Besides, Mr. Hastings, even I know that being guided into the area isn’t enough. Not if you want to come back safely. You need Miss Baldwin.”
If he wanted to come back safely? He’d survived the Germans. Miss Baldwin had barely survived Monrovia. How could the bishop even suggest…?
The bishop must have taken Stewart’s silent ruminations for acceptance. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to secure this companion for Miss Baldwin in the little time left before you two depart. Sir, if you will deposit half the funds with the Mission Board’s secretary, then you can make the rest of your arrangements directly with Miss Baldwin for the balance upon completion.”
For such a well-rounded man, the bishop was quick on his feet. Stewart stared at the now-empty doorway. What just happened? He’d been waltzed right into another situation where a beautiful woman would be making arrangements for his life. He had a deadline; dragging a woman along through the jungle would only slow him down. No, if he was to fail, he’d rather it be on his own terms and not the result of a woman’s whims, as before, or her innate physical frailties.
“I’m sorry, Miss Baldwin, but despite what the bishop thinks, there is no way this arrangement will work. Nothing personal, but I simply wanted the name of a guide, and felt sure you could steer me to one, since you must use one yourself. I’m in haste and can’t possibly consider taking the extra time that bringing a woman along would entail, no matter how valuable the bishop believes your contribution would be. If you could see fit to give me the name of someone willing to go there, I will send a letter of explanation to the bishop later today and be on my way.”
Her answer was delayed by the arrival of Momma Elliott with the promised bowl of broth. She placed it at the bedside and went to sit in a corner rocker. “Don’t mind me. I’ll just wait over here so the two of you can finish your conversation.”
Anna smiled at Momma Elliot, and then her voice, both gentle and authoritative, insisted, “Mr. Hastings, I’m afraid you do not understand the gravity of the situation, especially where the chief’s reaction to you being in his territory is concerned. The danger is greater than you realize.”
The sincerity of her tone carried through. She believed him to be in danger.
“I served in the trenches of the Great War. I feel confident I can handle the danger of jungle travel. The government has offered the territory’s mineral rights for sale. Certainly we wish to have good local relations, but ultimately the chief has no authority over these plans.” He softened his tone. “I do not wish to disappoint you, Miss Baldwin. I understand how much you need the money, so if you could just direct me to one of the guides you missionaries use, I’d be willing to pay you for the information.” He hated the distress shadowing those lovely brown eyes, but there was nothing else he could do for her.
Her pale cheeks flushed at the implication. Delicate hands punctuated her frustration as she spoke. “Yes, I need the money, but that’s not why I cannot let you go in there without me. Since the recent attempts of government troops to implement the infamous Hut Tax, Nana Mala views all outsiders with suspicion of working on the government’s behalf. He will not welcome you, even if you could find another guide. Which, by the way, you won’t.”
He got it. She wasn’t sharing her guides. “I appreciate the warning.” He turned to follow the bishop’s path out the door. Now what? He had no one else to interview. Should he board the ship and hope to find one further down the coast? Every step toward the doorway felt like one step closer to failure, and failure, where his mother’s future was concerned, wasn’t an option.
Her soft voice stopped him. “Apparently my warning wasn’t strong enough. For your own sake…”
“Dear lady, I don’t wish my continued refusal of your services to humiliate you. I am sorry for your situation. I’m also well acquainted with desperation born of financial need. I would help you if I could. However, if you aren’t willing to share the names of your resources, I shall simply have to proceed without them. My deadline demands it. But I’m not one to hold a grudge, so I sincerely hope we can both conduct a civil relationship together once you reach the village after me.”
She expelled a deep breath. “Of course, Mr. Hastings. In fact, I’m quite certain civility will not be an issue between us.”
“Good.” He tipped his head and smiled at her agreement. “Then I’ll see you in the village when you arrive.” He nodded to Momma Elliott, who shook her head with ill-concealed amusement.
He didn’t clear the door frame before Anna’s words froze his limbs in place. “Probably not, Mr. Hastings. Should you arrive without me to intervene with the chief on your behalf, it’s more than likely that you will be killed on the spot.”