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   Chapter 2 KEEPERS OF THE STONE.

Sanders of the River By Edgar Wallace Characters: 22517

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02


There is a people who live at Ochori in the big African forest on the Ikeli River, who are called in the native tongue "The Keepers of the Stone."

There is a legend that years and years ago, cala-cala, there was a strange, flat stone, "inscribed with the marks of the devils" (so the grave native story-teller puts it), which was greatly worshipped and prized, partly for its magic powers, and partly because of the two ghosts who guarded it.

It was a fetish of peculiar value to the mild people who lived in the big forest, but the Akasava, who are neither mild nor reverential, and being, moreover, in need of gods, swooped down upon the Ochori one red morning and came away with this wonderful stone and other movables. Presumably, the "ghosts of brass" went also. It was a great business, securing the stone, for it was set in a grey slab in the solid rock, and many spear-heads were broken before it could be wrenched from its place. But in the end it was taken away, and for several years it was the boast of the Akasava that they derived much benefit from this sacred possession. Then of a sudden the stone disappeared, and with it all the good fortune of its owners. For the vanishing of the stone coincided with the arrival of British rule, and it was a bad thing for the Akasava.

There came in these far-off days ('95?) a ridiculous person in white with an escort of six soldiers. He brought a message of peace and good fellowship, and talked of a new king and a new law. The Akasava listened in dazed wonderment, but when they recovered they cut off his head, also the heads of the escort. It seemed to be the only thing to do under the circumstances.

Then one morning the Akasava people woke to find the city full of strange white folk, who had come swiftly up the river in steamboats. There were too many to quarrel with, so the people sat quiet, a little frightened and very curious, whilst two black soldiers strapped the hands and feet of the Akasava chief prior to hanging him by the neck till he was dead.

Nor did the bad luck of the people end here; there came a lean year, when the manioc[1] root was bad and full of death-water, when goats died, and crops were spoilt by an unexpected hurricane. There was always a remedy at hand for a setback of this kind. If you have not the thing you require, go and take it. So, following precedents innumerable, the Akasava visited the Ochori, taking away much grain, and leaving behind dead men and men who prayed for death. In the course of time the white men came with their steamboats, their little brass guns, and the identical block and tackle, which they fastened to the identical tree and utilised in the inevitable manner.

"It appears," said the new chief-who was afterwards hanged for the killing of the king of the Isisi-"that the white man's law is made to allow weak men to triumph at the expense of the strong. This seems foolish, but it will be well to humour them."

His first act was to cut down the hanging-tree-it was too conspicuous and too significant. Then he set himself to discover the cause of all the trouble which had come upon the Akasava. The cause required little appreciation. The great stone had been stolen, as he well knew, and the remedy resolved itself into a question of discovering the thief. The wretched Ochori were suspect.

"If we go to them," said the chief of the Akasava thoughtfully, "killing them very little, but rather burning them, so that they told where this godstone was hidden, perhaps the Great Ones would forgive us."

"In my young days," said an aged councillor, "when evil men would not tell where stolen things were buried, we put hot embers in their hands and bound them tightly."

"That is a good way," approved another old man, wagging his head applaudingly; "also to tie men in the path of the soldier-ants has been known to make them talkative."

"Yet we may not go up against the Ochori for many reasons," said the chief; "the principal of which is that if the stone be with them we shall not overcome them owing to the two ghosts-though I do not remember that the ghosts were very potent in the days when the stone was with us," he added, not without hope.

The little raid which followed and the search for the stone are told briefly in official records. The search was fruitless, and the Akasava folk must needs content themselves with such picking as came to hand.

Of how Mr. Niceman, the deputy commissioner, and then Sanders himself, came up, I have already told. That was long ago, as the natives say, cala-cala, and many things happened subsequently that put from the minds of the people all thought of the stone.

In course of time the chief of the Akasava died the death for various misdoings, and peace came to the land that fringes Togo.

* * *

Sanders has been surprised twice in his life. Once was at Ikeli, which in the native tongue means "little river." It is not a little river at all, but, on the contrary, a broad, strong, sullen stream that swirls and eddies and foams as it swings the corner of its tortuous course seaward. Sanders sat on a deck-chair placed under the awning of his tiny steamer, and watched the river go rushing past. He was a contented man, for the land was quiet and the crops were good. Nor was there any crime.

There was sleeping sickness at Bofabi, and beri-beri at Akasava, and in the Isisi country somebody had discovered a new god, and, by all accounts that came down river, they worshipped him night and day.

He was not bothering about new gods, because gods of any kind were a beneficent asset. Milini, the new king of the Isisi, had sent him word:

"Master," said his mouthpiece, the messenger, "this new god lives in a box which is borne upon the shoulders of priests. It is so long and so wide, and there are four sockets in which the poles fit, and the god inside is a very strong one, and full of pride."

"Ko, ko!" said Sanders, with polite interest, "tell the lord king, your master, that so long as this god obeys the law, he may live in the Isisi country, paying no tax. But if he tells the young men to go fighting, I shall come with a much stronger god, who will eat your god up. The palaver is finished."

Sanders, with his feet stretched out on the rail of the boat, thought of the new god idly. When was it that the last had come? There was one in the N'Gombi country years ago, a sad god who lived in a hut which no man dare approach; there was another god who came with thunder demanding sacrifice-human sacrifice. This was an exceptionally bad god, and had cost the British Government six hundred thousand pounds, because there was fighting in the bush and a country unsettled. But, in the main, the gods were good, doing harm to none, for it is customary for new gods to make their appearance after the crops are gathered, and before the rainy season sets in.

So Sanders thought, sitting in the shade of a striped awning on the foredeck of the little Zaire.

The next day, before the sun came up, he turned the nose of the steamer up-stream, being curious as to the welfare of the shy Ochori folk, who lived too near the Akasava for comfort, and, moreover, needed nursing. Very slow was the tiny steamer's progress, for the current was strong against her. After two days' travel Sanders got into Lukati, where young Carter had a station.

The deputy commissioner came down to the beach in his pyjamas, with a big pith helmet on the back of his head, and greeted his chief boisterously.

"Well?" said Sanders; and Carter told him all the news. There was a land palaver at Ebibi; Otabo, of Bofabi, had died of the sickness; there were two leopards worrying the outlying villages, and--

"Heard about the Isisi god?" he asked suddenly; and Sanders said that he had.

"It's an old friend of yours," said Carter. "My people tell me that this old god-box contains the stone of the Ochori."

"Oh!" said Sanders, with sudden interest.

He breakfasted with his subordinate, inspected his little garrison of thirty, visited his farm, admired his sweet potatoes, and patronised his tomatoes.

Then he went back to the boat and wrote a short dispatch in the tiniest of handwriting on the flimsiest of paper slips. "In case!" said Sanders.

"Bring me 14," he said to his servant, and Abiboo came back to him soon with a pigeon in his hand.

"Now, little bird," said Sanders, carefully rolling his letter round the red leg of the tiny courier and fastening it with a rubber band, "you've got two hundred miles to fly before sunrise to-morrow-and 'ware hawks!"

Then he gathered the pigeon in his hand, walked with it to the stern of the boat, and threw it into the air.

His crew of twelve men were sitting about their cooking-pot-that pot which everlastingly boils.

"Yoka!" he called, and his half-naked engineer came bounding down the slope.

"Steam," said Sanders; "get your wood aboard; I am for Isisi."

* * *

There was no doubt at all that this new god was an extremely powerful one. Three hours from the city the Zaire came up to a long canoe with four men standing at their paddles singing dolefully. Sanders remembered that he had passed a village where women, their bodies decked with green leaves, wailed by the river's edge.

He slowed down till he came abreast of the canoe, and saw a dead man lying stark in the bottom.

"Where go you with this body?" he asked.

"To Isisi, lord," was the answer.

"The middle river and the little islands are places for the dead," said Sanders brusquely. "It is folly to take the dead to the living."

"Lord," said the man who spoke, "at Isisi lives a god who breathes life; this man"-he pointed downwards-"is my brother, and he died very suddenly because of a leopard. So quickly he died that he could not tell us where he had hidden his rods and his salt. Therefore we take him to Isisi, that the new god may give him just enough life to make his relations comfortable."

"The middle river," said Sanders quietly, and pointed to such a lone island, all green with tangled vegetation, as might make a burying ground. "What is your name?"

"Master, my name is N'Kema," said the man sullenly.

"Go, then, N'Kema," he said, and kept the steamer slow ahead whilst he watched the canoe turn its blunt nose to the island and disembark its cargo.

Then he rang the engines full ahead, steered clear of a sandbank, and regained the fairway.

He was genuinely concerned.

The stone was something exceptional in fetishes, needing delicate handling. That the stone existed, he knew. There were legends innumerable about it; and an explorer had, in the early days, seen it through his glasses. Also the "ghosts clad in brass" he had heard about-these fantastic and warlike shades who made peaceable men go out to battle-all except the Ochori, who were never warlike, and whom no number of ghosts could incite to deeds of violence.

You will have remarked that Sanders took native people seriously, and that, I remark in passing, is the secret of good government. To him, ghosts were factors, and fetishes potent possibilities. A man who knew less would have been amused, but Sanders was not amused, because he had a great respons

ibility. He arrived at the city of Isisi in the afternoon, and observed, even at a distance, that something unusual was occurring. The crowd of women and children that the arrival of the Commissioner usually attracted did not gather as he swung in from mid-stream and followed the water-path that leads to shoal.

Only the king and a handful of old men awaited him, and the king was nervous and in trouble.

"Lord," he blurted, "I am no king in this city because of the new god; the people are assembled on the far side of the hill, and there they sit night and day watching the god in the box."

Sanders bit his lip thoughtfully, and said nothing.

"Last night," said the king, "'The Keepers of the Stone' appeared walking through the village."

He shivered, and the sweat stood in big beads on his forehead, for a ghost is a terrible thing.

"All this talk of keepers of stones is folly," said Sanders calmly; "they have been seen by your women and your unblooded boys."

"Lord, I saw them myself," said the king simply; and Sanders was staggered, for the king was a sane man.

"The devil you have!" said Sanders in English; then, "What manner of ghost were these?"

"Lord," said the king, "they were white of face, like your greatness. They wore brass upon their heads and brass upon their breasts. Their legs were bare, but upon the lower legs was brass again."

"Any kind of ghost is hard enough to believe," said Sanders irritably, "but a brass ghost I will not have at any price." He spoke English again, as was his practice when he talked to himself, and the king stood silent, not understanding him.

"What else?" said Sanders.

"They had swords," continued the chief, "such as the elephant-hunters of the N'Gombi people carry. Broad and short, and on their arms were shields."

Sanders was nonplussed.

"And they cry 'war,'" said the chief. "This is the greatest shame of all, for my young men dance the death dance and streak their bodies with paint and talk boastfully."

"Go to your hut," said Sanders; "presently I will come and join you."

He thought and thought, smoking one black cigar after another, then he sent for Abiboo, his servant.

"Abiboo," he said, "by my way of thinking, I have been a good master to you."

"That is so, lord," said Abiboo.

"Now I will trust you to go amongst my crew discovering their gods. If I ask them myself, they will lie to me out of politeness, inventing this god and that, thinking they please me."

Abiboo chose the meal hour, when the sun had gone out and the world was grey and the trees motionless. He came back with the information as Sanders was drinking his second cup of coffee in the loneliness of the tiny deck-house.

"Master," he reported, "three men worship no god whatever, three more have especial family fetishes, and two are Christians more or less, and the four Houssas are with me in faith."

"And you?"

Abiboo, the Kano boy, smiled at Sanders' assumption of innocence.

"Lord," he said, "I follow the Prophet, believing only in the one God, beneficent and merciful."

"That is good," said Sanders. "Now let the men load wood, and Yoka shall have steam against moonrise, and all shall be ready for slipping."

At ten o'clock by his watch he fell-in his four Houssas, serving out to each a short carbine and a bandoleer. Then the party went ashore.

The king in his patience sat in his hut, and Sanders found him.

"You will stay here, Milini," he commanded, "and no blame shall come to you for anything that may happen this night."

"What will happen, master?"

"Who knows!" said Sanders, philosophically.

The streets were in pitch darkness, but Abiboo, carrying a lantern, led the way. Only occasionally did the party pass a tenanted hut. Generally they saw by the dull glow of the log that smouldered in every habitation that it was empty. Once a sick woman called to them in passing. It was near her time, she said, and there was none to help her in the supreme moment of her agony.

"God help you, sister!" said Sanders, ever in awe of the mysteries of birth. "I will send women to you. What is your name?"

"They will not come," said the plaintive voice. "To-night the men go out to war, and the women wait for the great dance."

"To-night?"

"To-night, master-so the ghosts of brass decree."

Sanders made a clicking noise with his mouth.

"That we shall see," he said, and went on.

The party reached the outskirts of the city. Before them, outlined against a bronze sky, was the dark bulk of a little hill, and this they skirted.

The bronze became red, and rose, and dull bronze again, as the fires that gave it colour leapt or fell. Turning the shoulder of the hill, Sanders had a full view of the scene.

Between the edge of the forest and slope of the hill was a broad strip of level land. On the left was the river, on the right was swamp and forest again.

In the very centre of the plain a huge fire burnt. Before it, supported by its poles, on two high trestles, a square box.

But the people!

A huge circle, squatting on its haunches, motionless, silent; men, women, children, tiny babies, at their mothers' hips they stretched; a solid wheel of humanity, with the box and the fire as a hub.

There was a lane through which a man might reach the box-a lane along which passed a procession of naked men, going and returning. These were they who replenished the fire, and Sanders saw them dragging fuel for that purpose. Keeping to the edge of the crowd, he worked his way to the opening. Then he looked round at his men.

"It is written," he said, in the curious Arabic of the Kano people, "that we shall carry away this false god. As to which of us shall live or die through this adventure, that is with Allah, who knows all things."

Then he stepped boldly along the lane. He had changed his white ducks for a dark blue uniform suit, and he was not observed by the majority until he came with his Houssas to the box. The heat from the fire was terrific, overpowering. Close at hand he saw that the fierceness of the blaze had warped the rough-hewn boards of the box, and through the opening he saw in the light a slab of stone.

"Take up the box quickly," he commanded, and the Houssas lifted the poles to their shoulders. Until then the great assembly had sat in silent wonder, but as the soldiers lifted their burden, a yell of rage burst from five thousand throats, and men leapt to their feet.

Sanders stood before the fire, one hand raised, and silence fell, curiosity dominating resentment.

"People of the Isisi," said Sanders, "let no man move until the god-stone has passed, for death comes quickly to those who cross the path of gods."

He had an automatic pistol in each hand, and the particular deity he was thinking of at the moment was not the one in the box.

The people hesitated, surging and swaying, as a mob will sway in its uncertainty.

With quick steps the bearers carried their burden through the lane; they had almost passed unmolested when an old woman shuffled forward and clutched at Sanders' arm.

"Lord, lord!" she quavered, "what will you do with our god?"

"Take him to the proper place," said Sanders, "being by Government appointed his keeper."

"Give me a sign," she croaked, and the people in her vicinity repeated, "A sign, master!"

"This is a sign," said Sanders, remembering the woman in labour. "By the god's favour there shall be born to Ifabi, wife of Adako, a male child."

He heard the babble of talk; he heard his message repeated over the heads of the crowd; he saw a party of women go scurrying back to the village; then he gave the order to march. There were murmurings, and once he heard a deep-voiced man begin the war-chant, but nobody joined him. Somebody-probably the same man-clashed his spear against his wicker shield, but his warlike example was not followed. Sanders gained the village street. Around him was such a press of people that he followed the swaying box with difficulty. The river was in sight; the moon, rising a dull, golden ball over the trees, laced the water with silver, and then there came a scream of rage.

"He lies! He lies! Ifabi, the wife of Adako, has a female child."

Sanders turned swiftly like a dog at bay; his lips upcurled in a snarl, his white, regular teeth showing.

"Now," said Sanders, speaking very quickly, "let any man raise his spear, and he dies."

Again they stood irresolute, and Sanders, over his shoulder, gave an order.

For a moment only the people hesitated; then, as the soldiers gripped the poles of the god-box, with one fierce yell they sprang forward.

A voice screamed something; and, as if by magic, the tumult ceased, and the crowd darted backward and outward, falling over one another in their frantic desire to escape.

Sanders, his pistol still loaded, stood in open-mouthed astonishment at the stampede.

Save for his men he was alone; and then he saw.

Along the centre of the street two men were walking. They were clad alike in short crimson kilts that left their knees bare; great brass helmets topped their heads, and brass cuirasses covered their breasts.

Sanders watched them as they came nearer, then: "If this is not fever, it is madness," he muttered, for what he saw were two Roman centurions, their heavy swords girt about their waists.

He stood still, and they passed him, so close that he saw on the boss of one shield the rough-moulded letters:-

"AUGUSTUS CAE."

"Fever" said Sanders emphatically, and followed the box to the ship.

* * *

When the steamer reached Lukati, Sanders was still in a condition of doubt, for his temperature was normal, and neither fever nor sun could be held accountable for the vision. Added to which, his men had seen the same thing.

He found the reinforcements his pigeon had brought, but they were unnecessary now.

"It beats me," he confessed to Carter, telling the story; "but we'll get out the stone; it might furnish an explanation. Centurions-bah!"

The stone, exposed in the light of day, was of greyish granite, such as Sanders did not remember having seen before.

"Here are the 'devil marks,'" he said, as he turned it over. "Possibly-whew!"

No wonder he whistled, for closely set were a number of printed characters; and Carter, blowing the dust, saw-

"MARIUS ET AUGUSTUS

CENT . . . . . . . . . NERO

IMPERAT . . . . . IN DEUS

. . . . . DULCE."

That night, with great labour, Sanders, furbishing his rusty Latin, and filling in gaps, made a translation:

"Marius and Augustus,

Centurions of Nero, C?sar and

Emperor,

Sleep sweetly with the gods."

"We are they who came beyond the wild lands which Hanno, the Carthaginian, found . . .

"Marcus Septimus went up into Egypt, and with him Decimus Superbus, but by the will of C?sar, and the favour of the gods, we sailed to the black seas beyond. . . . . Here we lived, our ships suffering wreck, being worshipped by the barbarians, teaching them warlike practices.

. . . "You who come after . . . bear greetings to Rome to Cato Hippocritus, who dwells by the gate . . ."

Sanders shook his head when he had finished reading, and said it was "rum."

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