C.S. Forester's 1935 novel The African Queen is not John Huston's film The African Queen. No drumhead marriage, no torpedo-death for the Kaiser's Königin Luise.
What the novel does have is Forester constantly upsetting our preconceptions about his characters and their predicament, and doing it magnificently. As with Brown on Resolution (1929), Death to the French (1932), and The General (1936), we are constantly blind-sided by the complications and challenges the characters face and must overcome. The recurring theme in all these novels is the thwarting of plans, replanning, and then the thwarting of the newer plan.
As with Forester's Hornblower novels, where there are no great final fleet battles, and where Horatio even misses Trafalgar, it is the daily struggles of people working together against long odds that breeds suspense.
My favorite examples in The African Queen are of lovers Charlie and Rose succumbing to recurring bouts of malaria and becoming lost in the horizonless deltas of a river.
Another is Allnutt and Rose performing miracles on the Queen's twisted shaft and broken propeller blade:
"What was all that clattering just before we stopped?" asked Rose.
"We still got to find that out, old girl," said Allnutt. There was a cautious sympathy in his voice. He feared the very worst, and he knew what it would mean in disappointment to Rose. He had already looked up the side of the ravine, and found a small comfort in the fact that it was just accessible. If the _African Queen_ was so much disabled as he feared, they would have to climb up there and wander in the forest until the Germans found them - or until they starved to death. It said much for his new-found manliness that he kept out of his voice the doubts that he felt.
"How are we going to do that, dear?" asked Rose. Allnutt looked at the steep bank against which they were lying, and at the gentle eddy alongside.
"I'll 'ave to go underneath an' look," said he. "There ain't no other wye, not 'ere."
The bank was steep-to. There was four feet of water on the shore side of the boat, six feet on the river side, as Allnutt measured it with the boat hook.
" 'Ere goes," said Allnutt, pulling off his singlet and his trousers. They were wet through already, but it runs counter to a man's instincts to immerse himself in water with his clothes on.
"You stay 'andy wiv that rope, case there's a funny current darn at the bottom."
Rose, looking anxiously over the side, saw his naked body disappear under the bottom of the boat. His feet stayed in view and kicked reassuringly. Then they grew more agitated as Allnutt thrust himself out from under again. He stood on the rocky bottom beside the boat, the water streaming from his hair.
"Did you see anything, dear?" asked Rose, hovering anxiously over him.
"Yerss," answered Allnutt. He said no more until he had climbed back into the boat; he wanted time to compose himself. Rose sat beside him and waited. She put out her dry hand and clasped his wet one.
"Shaft's bent to blazes. Like a corkscrew," said Allnutt, dully. "An' there's a blade gone off the prop."
Rose could only guess at the magnitude of the disaster from the tone he used, and she underestimated it.
"We'll have to mend it, then," she said.
"Mend it?" said Allnutt. He laughed bitterly. Already in imagination he and Rose were wandering through the forest, sick and starving. Rose was silent before the savage despondency of his tone.
"Must 'a' just 'it a rock with the tip of the prop," went on Allnutt, more to himself than her. "There ain't nothink to notice on the deadwood. Christ only knows 'ow the shaft 'eld on while we was getting in 'ere. Like a bloody corkscrew."
"Never mind, dear," said Rose. The use of the words "Christ" and "bloody" seemed so oddly natural here, up against primitive facts, that she hardly noticed them, any more than she noticed Charlie's nakedness. "Let's get something dry, and have some dinner, and then we can talk about it."
She could not have given better advice. The simple acts of hanging things to dry, and getting out greasy tins from the boxes of stores, went far to soothe Allnutt's jangled nerves. Later, with a meal inside him, and strong tea making a hideous mixture in his stomach with bully beef, he felt better still. Rose returned them to the vital issue.
"What shall we have to do before we go on?" she asked. "I'll tell you what we could do," said Allnutt, "if we 'ad a workshop, an' a landin' slip, an' if the parcel post was to call 'ere. We could pull this old tub out on the slip and take the shaft down. Then we might be able to forge it straight agine. I dunno if we could, though, 'cause I ain't no blacksmith. Then we could write to the makers an' get a new prop. They might 'ave one in stock, 'cause this boat ain't over twenty years old. While we was waitin' we might clean 'er bottom an' paint 'er. Then we could put in the shaft an' the new prop, an' launch 'er, an' go on as if nothink 'ad 'appened. But we 'aven't got nothink at all, an' so we can't."
Thoughts of the forest were still thronging in Allnutt's mind.
It was Rose's complete ignorance of all things mechanical which kept them from lapsing into despair. Despite Allnutt's depression, she was filled with a sublime confidence in his ability; after all, she had never yet found him wanting in his trade. In her mind the problem of getting a disabled steamboat to go again was quite parallel with, say, the difficulties she would meet if she were suddenly called upon to run a strange household whose womenfolk were down with sickness. She would have to get to know where things were, and deal with strange tradesmen, and accustom herself to new likes and dislikes on the part of the men. But she would tackle the job in complete confidence, just as she would any other household problem that might present itself. She might have to employ makeshifts which she hated; so might Allnutt. In her own limited sphere she did not know the word "impossible." She could not conceive of a man finding anything impossible in his, as long as he was not bothered, and given plenty to eat.
"Can't you get the shaft off without pulling the boat on shore?" she asked.
"M'm. I dunno. I might," said Allnutt. "Means goin' under water an' gettin' the prop off. _Could_ do it, p'raps."
"Well, if you had the shaft up on shore you could straighten it."
"You got a hope," said Allnut. "Ain't got no hearth, ain't got no anvil, ain't got no coal, ain't got nothink, an' I ain't no blacksmith, like I said."
Rose raked back in her memory for what she had seen of blacksmith's work in Africa.
"I saw a Masai native working once. He used charcoal. On a big hollow stone. He had a boy to fan the charcoal."
"Yerss, I seen that, too, but I'd use bellers myself," said Allnutt. "Make 'em, easy enough."
"Well, if you think that would be better -" said Rose. "'Ow d'you mike charcoal?" asked Allnutt. For the life of him, he could not help entering into this discussion, although it still seemed to him to be purely academic - "all moonshine" as he phrased it to himself.
"Charcoal?" said Rose vaguely. "You set fire to great beehives of stuff - wood, of course, how silly I am - and after it's burnt there's charcoal inside. I've seen them do it somewhere."
"We might try it," said Allnutt. "There's 'eaps an' 'eaps of driftwood up on the bank."
"Well, then -" said Rose, plunging more eagerly into the discussion.
It was not easy to convince Allnutt. All his shop training had given him a profound prejudice against inexact work, experimental work, hit-or-miss work. He had been spoiled by an education with exact tools and adequate appliances; in the days of his apprenticeship, mechanical engineering had progressed far from the time when Stephenson thought it a matter of self-congratulation that the Rocket's pistons fitted her cylinders with only half an inch to spare.
Yet all the same, flattered by Rose's sublime confidence in him, and moved by the urgency of the situation, he gradually came round until he was half-disposed to try his hand on the shaft. Then suddenly he shied away from the idea again. Like a fool, he had been forgetting the difficulty which made the whole scheme pointless.
"No," he said. "It ain't no go, Rosie, old girl. I was forgetting that prop. It ain't no go wiv a blade gone."
"It got us along a bit just now," said Rose.
"Yerss," said Allnutt, "but -"
He sighed with the difficulty of talking mechanics to an unmechanical person.
"There's a torque," he said. "It ain't balanced -"
Any mechanic would have understood his drift at once. If a three-bladed propeller loses a blade, there are two blades left on one-third of its circumference, and nothing on the other two-thirds. All the resistance to its rotation under water is consequently concentrated upon one small section of the shaft, and a smooth revolution would be rendered impossible. It would be bad enough for the engine, and what the effect would be on a shaft fresh from the hands of an amateur blacksmith could be better imagined than described. If it did not break it would soon be again like the corkscrew of Allnutt's vivid simile. He did his best to explain this to Rose.
"Well, you'll have to make another blade," said Rose. "There's lots of iron and stuff you can use."
"An' tie it on, I serppose?" said Allnutt. He could not help smiling when his irony missed its mark altogether.
"Yes," said Rose. "If you think that will do. But couldn't you stick it on, somehow? _Weld_ it. That's the right word, isn't it? Weld it on."
"Coo, lumme," said Allnutt. "You are a one, Rosie. Reely you are."
Allnutt's imagination trifled with the idea of forging a propeller blade out of scrap iron, and hand-welding it into position, and affixing this botched propeller to a botched shaft, and then expecting the old _African Queen_ to go. He laughed at the idea, laughed and laughed, so that Rose had to laugh with him. Allnutt found it so amusing that for the moment he forgot the seriousness of their position. Directly afterwards they found themselves in each other's arms - how, neither of them could remember - and they kissed as two people might be expected to kiss on the second day of their honeymoon. They loved each other dearly, and cares dropped away from them for a space. Yet all the same, while Rose held Allnutt in her arms, she reverted to the old subject.
"Why did you laugh like that when I spoke about welding?" she asked in all seriousness. "Wasn't it the right word after all? You know what I mean, dear, even if it's not, don't you?"
"Crikey," said Allnutt. "Well, look here -"
There was no denying Rose; and Allnutt especially was not of the type to deny her. Moreover, Allnutt's mercurial spirits could hardly help rising under the influence of Rose's persistent optimism. The disaster they had experienced would have cast him into unfathomable despair if she had not been with him - despair, perhaps, which might have resulted in his not raising a finger to help himself. As it was, the discussion ended eventually, as was quite inevitable, in Allnutt's saying that "he would see what he could do," just as some other uxorious husband in civilization might see what could be done about buying a new drawing-room suite. And from that first yielding grew the hard week's work into which they plunged.
The first ray of hope came at the very beginning, when Allnutt, after much toil under water, with bursting lungs, managed to get the propeller off and out of the water. The missing blade had not broken off quite short. It had left a very considerable stump, two inches or so. In consequence it appeared more possible to bolt or fasten on a new blade - the propeller, of course, was of bronze, and as the new blade would have to be of iron there could be no question of welding or brazing. Allnutt put the propeller aside and devoted himself next to getting the shaft free; if he could not repair that it was useless to work on the propeller.
It was extraordinary what a prolonged business it was to free the shaft. Partly this was because it called for two pairs of hands, one pair inside the boat and one pair underneath the boat, and Rose had to be instructed in the use of spanners, and a very comprehensive code of signals had to be arranged so that Allnutt, crouching in the water underneath the boat, could communicate his wishes to her.
The need for all these signals was only discovered by trial and error, and there were maddening moments before they were fully workable.
The shaft was kinked in two places, close above and close below the bracket which held it steady, two feet from where it emerged from the glands, just above the propeller. There was no sliding it out through these bearings in either direction, as Allnutt discovered after a couple of trials. In consequence Allnutt had to work with spanner and screwdriver under water, taking the whole bracket to pieces, and, seeing that he had never set eyes on it in his life, and had to find out all about it by touch, it was not surprising that it took a long time. He would stand in the water beside the boat, his screwdriver in his hand and his spanner in his belt, taking deep breaths, and then he would plunge under, feel hastily for the bracket, and work on it for a few fleeting seconds before his breath gave out and he had to come out again.
The _African Queen_ was moored in moderately still water in the eddy below the rock, but only a yard or two away there was a racing seven-knot current tearing downstream, and occasionally some whim of the water expressed itself in a fierce underwater swirl, which swung the launch about and usually turned Allnutt upside down, holding on like grim death in case the eddy should take him out into the main current from which there would be no escape alive. It was in one of these swirls that Allnutt dropped a screw, which was naturally irreplaceable and must be recovered - it took a good deal of groping among the rocks beneath the boat before he found it again.
Before he had finished Allnutt developed a surprising capacity for holding his breath, and as a result of his prolonged immersions and exposures, his skin peeled off in flakes all over him. It was an important moment for Rose when at last, bending over the shaft in the bottom of the boat, she saw it slide out through the glands, and Allnutt emerged wet and dripping beside the boat with it in his hands.
Allnutt shook his head over the kinks and bends now revealed in the light of day - the terminal one was nearly half a right angle - but the two of them set themselves doggedly to the business of forging the thing straight again.
The sight of those kinks brought relief to Allnutt's mind in one respect. The fact that the metal had bent instead of breaking revealed that its temper was such that it might not suffer much from his amateur blacksmith's work - Allnutt was very well aware that what he knew about tempering was extraordinarily little. He comforted himself philosophically by telling himself that after all he was not dealing with a tool steel, and that obviously the shaft had a good deal of reserve strength, and that if he did not use extravagantly high temperatures and if he annealed the thing cautiously, he might not do too much harm.
There was not the slightest chance of their using very high temperatures, as they quickly discovered. Their attempts at making charcoal were complete and utter failures. When trying to reconstruct from memory what they had seen done, they soon discovered that they had seen with eyes unseeing. All they had to show in return for several piles of wood were heaps of white ashes and a few bits of what only a kindly person could have called charcoal. In desperation Allnutt resolved to try if he could not obtain a great enough heat with a wood fire and bellows. He made the bellows neatly enough with a couple of slabs of wood and an inch or two of piping and a pair of black, elbow-length gloves which Rose had carried in her tin box for ten years of Central Africa without wearing. When they found at last a good shape for their hearth of piled rocks Allnutt was relieved to discover that by energetic working of the bellows they could heat up that unwieldy shaft until he could actually alter its shape with his light hand hammer. They scorched themselves pretty well all over while using the flaring, inconsistent fuel, but all the same, the metal became soft enough to work in a manner of speaking, and Allnutt was becoming reconciled to makeshifts by now.
Nevertheless, under the urging of the bellows, at which Rose worked feverishly on her knees with scorched face, the open hearth consumed wood at an incredible rate. It was not long before they had gathered in every scrap of driftwood accessible in the ravine, and the work was as yet hardly begun. They had to climb the steep face of the ravine into the forest, and gather wood there. The heat was sweltering, they were bitten by insects of all sorts, they wore themselves out and their clothes into rags hacking paths through the undergrowth. No one on earth could have climbed down that cliff face with a load of wood; they had to drag the bundles to the verge and push them over the edge, and some fell direct into the river, and one or two caught on inaccessible ledges and were lost just as thoroughly although they were in sight, but they managed to profit by about half the wood they collected in the forest.
Curiously enough, they were as happy as children during these days of hectic work. Hard regular labour suited both of them, and as soon as Allnutt had become infected by Rose's passion to complete the job, they had a common interest all day long. And every day there was the blessed satisfaction of knocking off work in the late afternoon, and revelling in the feeling of comradely friendliness which drew them close together until passion was aroused and hand went out to hand and lip met lip. Rose had never known such happiness before, nor perhaps had Allnutt either. They could laugh and joke together; Rose had never laughed nor joked like that in the whole thirty-three years of her existence. Her father had taken shopkeeping as seriously as he (and her brother) had taken religion. She had never realized before that friendliness and merriment could exist along with a serious purpose in life, any more than she had realized that there was pleasure in the intercourse of the sexes. There was something intensely satisfying in their companionship.
Little by little that propeller shaft was straightened. Patient heating and patient hammering did their work. The major bends disappeared, and Allnutt turned his attention to the minor ones. He had to use a taut string now to judge the straightness of the shaft, and he had to make himself a gauge of wire for testing the diameter, so nearly true was it, and there came a blessed morning when even his exacting mind was satisfied, and he pronounced the shaft as good as he could make it. He could lay it aside now, and turn his attention to the far more difficult matter of the propeller blade.
In the end Allnutt made that new blade out of half a spare boiler tube. The operations on the shaft had taught him a good deal of the practical side of smith's work, and his experience with the propeller blade practically completed his education. Under the urging of necessity, and with the stimulus given him by Rose's confiding faith in his ability, Allnutt devised all sorts of ways of dealing with that boiler tube; it might almost be said that he reinvented some of his processes. He welded one end into a solid plate, and he worked upon it and beat it and shaped it until it gradually began to assume an appearance reminiscent of the other two blades which were his models.
The ravine rang with the sound of his hammer. Rose was his diligent assistant. She tended the fire, and worked the bellows, and, her hands shielded with rags, held the nominally cool end of the tube under Allnutt's instructions. Her nostrils were filled with the smell of scorching cloth, and she burned her fingers over and over again and nearly every single garment she and Allnutt possessed between them was burned and torn until they gave up the hopeless pursuit after decency, and she somehow enjoyed every minute of it.
There was intense interest in watching how the new blade took shape; there were exciting discussions as to how this difficulty or that was to be evaded. Allnutt found it all to his taste; there was gratification in the primitive pleasure of making things with his own hands.
"If my old dad," said Allnutt once, "had put me to blacksmithing when I was a kid, I don't think I should never have come to Africa. Coo! I might still -"
Allnutt lost himself in a pictured fantasy of a London working-class shopping district on a Saturday night, redolent with fried fish shops, garish with lights, and all a-bustle with people. He experienced a little qualm of homesickness before he came back to real life again, to the ravine with its pale red rocks, and the singing river, and the dazzling light, and the _African Queen_ rocking in the eddy down below, and Rose beside him.
"But then I shouldn't never have met you, Rosie, old girl," he went on. He fingered the embryo propeller blade. "Nor done all this. It's worth it. Every time it is, honest."
Allnutt would not have exchanged Rose for all the fried fish shops in the world.
Later the propeller blade began to demand accurate measurement, so like had it grown to its fellows. Allnutt had to invent gauges of intricate shape to make sure that the curvature and contour of the old blades were accurately reproduced, and before this part of the work was quite completed he turned his attention to the other end and set to work to forge a socket to fit over the broken stump, and to drilling holes by which it might be made comparatively safe. The moment actually came at last when the completed blade was slipped on over the stump, and Rose was given a practical demonstration of riveting - Allnutt made the rivets out of stumps of nails, and Rose had a trying time as "holder-on"; neither spanner nor pincers were really effective tongs.
The new blade was in position now, an exact match of its fellows, and to casual inspection seemingly secure, but Allnutt was not yet satisfied. He could appreciate the leverage exerted upon a propeller blade in swift rotation, and the strain that would come under the base - upon his makeshift joint. At the risk of slightly reducing the propeller's efficiency he joined all three blades together with a series of triangles of wire strained taut. That would help to distribute the strain around the whole propeller.
"That ought to do now," said Allnutt. "Let's 'ope it does."
Putting the propeller shaft back into position, and settling it into its brackets, and putting on the propeller again, called for a fresh spell of subaqueous activity on the part of Allnutt.
"Coo, blimy," said Allnutt, emerging dripping at the side of the _African Queen_. "I oughter been a diver, not a blinkin' blacksmith. Let's 'ave that other spanner, Rosie, an' I'll 'ave another go."
Allnutt was very dear to her now, and she thought his remarks extraordinarily witty.
When shaft and propeller were in position, there was very little chance of testing the work. Once they left the bank they would have to go down the next cataract, willy-nilly. Allnutt got up steam in the boiler, and sent the propeller ahead for a few revolutions, until the mooring ropes strained taut, and then he went astern for a few revolutions more. It was good enough proof that shaft and propeller would turn, but it proved nothing else. It did not prove that the propeller would stand up to a full strain, nor that the shaft would not buckle under the impulse of a head of steam. They would have to find that out amid the rapids and cataracts, with certain death as their portion if Allnutt's work should fail them.
The night before, they had both of them visualized this situation, and they had neither of them ventured to discuss it. They had lain in each other's arms. Rose's eyes had been wet, and Allnutt's embrace had been urgent and possessive, each of them consumed with fear of losing the other. And this morning they tacitly acknowledged their danger, still without mentioning it. Steam was up, a full cargo of wood was on board, they were all ready for departure, Allnutt looked about him for the last time, at their rock-built hearth, and his rock-built anvil, and the heap of ashes that marked the site of one of their charcoal burning experiments. He turned to Rose, who was standing stiff and dry-eyed beside the tiller. She could not speak; she could only nod to him. Without a word he cast off the moorings, and held the _African Queen_ steady in the eddy with the boat hook, while Rose scanned the surface of the river.
"Right!" said Rose, and her voice cracked as she said it. The sound of it hardly reached Allnutt's ears above the noise of the river and the hiss of steam. Allnutt pushed with the boat hook, and as the bows came out into the current he gingerly opened the throttle.
"Goodbye, darling," said Allnutt, bent over the engine.
"Goodbye, darling," said Rose at the tiller.
Neither of them heard the other, and neither was meant to; there was a high courage in them both....