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   Chapter 5 THE SPECIAL COMMISSIONER.

Sanders of the River By Edgar Wallace Characters: 25505

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02


The Hon. George Tackle had the good fortune to be the son of his father; otherwise I am free to confess he had no claim to distinction. But his father, being the proprietor of the Courier and Echo (with which are incorporated I don't know how many dead and gone stars of the Fleet Street firmament), George had a "pull" which no amount of competitive merit could hope to contend with, and when the stories of atrocities in the district of Lukati began to leak out and questions were asked in Parliament, George opened his expensively-bound Gazetteer, discovered that the district of Lukati was in British territory, and instantly demanded that he should be sent out to investigate these crimes, which were a blot upon our boasted civilisation.

His father agreed, having altogether a false appreciation of his son's genius, and suggested that George should go to the office and "get all the facts" regarding the atrocities. George, with a good-natured smile of amusement at the bare thought of anybody instructing him in a subject on which he was so thoroughly conversant, promised; but the Courier and Echo office did not see him, and the librarian of the newspaper, who had prepared a really valuable dossier of newspaper cuttings, pamphlets, maps, and health hints for the young man's guidance, was dismayed to learn that the confident youth had sailed without any further instruction in the question than a man might secure from the hurried perusal of the scraps which from day to day appeared in the morning press.

As a special correspondent, I adduce, with ill-suppressed triumph, the case of the Hon. George Tackle as an awful warning to all newspaper proprietors who allow their parental affections to overcome their good judgment.

All that the Hon. George knew was that at Lukati there had been four well-authenticated cases of barbarous acts of cruelty against natives, and that the Commissioner of the district was responsible for the whippings and the torture. He thought, did the Hon. George, that this was all that it was necessary to know. But this is where he made his big mistake.

Up at Lukati all sorts of things happened, as Commissioner Sanders knows, to his cost. Once he visited the district and left it tranquil, and for Carter, his deputy, whom he left behind, the natives built a most beautiful hut, planting gardens about, all off their own bat.

One day, when Carter had just finished writing an enthusiastic report on the industry of his people, and the whole-hearted way they were taking up and supporting the new régime, the chief of the village, whom Carter had facetiously named O'Leary (his born name was indeed Olari), came to him.

Carter at the moment was walking through the well-swept street of the village with his hands in his coat pockets and his big white helmet tipped on the back of his head because the sun was setting at his back.

"Father," said the Chief Olari, "I have brought these people to see you."

He indicated with a wave of his hand six strange warriors carrying their shields and spears, who looked at him dispassionately.

Carter nodded.

"They desire," said Olari, "to see the wonderful little black fetish that my father carries in his pocket that they may tell their people of its powers."

"Tell your people," said Carter good-humouredly, "that I have not got the fetish with me-if they will come to my hut I will show them its wonders."

Whereupon Olari lifted his spear and struck at Carter, and the six warriors sprang forward together. Carter fought gamely, but he was unarmed.

When Sanders heard the news of his subordinate's death he did not faint or fall into a fit of insane cursing. He was sitting on his broad verandah at headquarters when the dusty messenger came. He rose with pursed lips and frowning eyes, fingering the letter-this came from Tollemache, inspector of police at Bokari-and paced the verandah.

"Poor chap, poor chap!" was all that he said.

He sent no message to Olari; he made no preparations for a punitive raid; he went on signing documents, inspecting Houssas, attending dinner parties, as though Carter had never lived or died. All these things the spies of Olari reported, and the chief was thankful.

Lukati being two hundred miles from headquarters, through a savage and mountainous country, an expedition was no light undertaking, and the British Government, rich as it is, cannot afford to spend a hundred thousand pounds to avenge the death of a subordinate official. Of this fact Sanders was well aware, so he employed his time in collecting and authenticating the names of Carter's assassins. When he had completed them he went a journey seventy miles into the bush to the great witch-doctor Kelebi, whose name was known throughout the coast country from Dakka to the Eastern borders of Togoland.

"Here are the names of men who have put shame upon me," he said; "but principally Olari, chief of the Lukati people."

"I will put a spell upon Olari," said the witch-doctor; "a very bad spell, and upon these men. The charge will be six English pounds."

Sanders paid the money, and "dashed" two bottles of square-face and a piece of proper cloth. Then he went back to headquarters.

One night through the village of Lukati ran a whisper, and the men muttered the news with fearful shivers and backward glances.

"Olari, the chief, is cursed!"

Olari heard the tidings from his women, and came out of his hut into the moonlight, raving horribly.

The next day he sickened, and on the fifth day he was near to dead and suffering terrible pains, as also were six men who helped in the slaying of Carter. That they did not die was no fault of the witch-doctor, who excused his failure on account of the great distance between himself and his subjects.

As for Sanders, he was satisfied, saying that even the pains were cheap at the price, and that it would give him great satisfaction to write "finis" to Olari with his own hand.

A week after this, Abiboo, Sanders' favourite servant, was taken ill. There was no evidence of fever or disease, only the man began to fade as it were.

Making inquiries, Sanders discovered that Abiboo had offended the witch-doctor Kelebi, and that the doctor had sent him the death message.

Sanders took fifty Houssas into the bush and interviewed the witch-doctor.

"I have reason," he said, "for believing you to be a failure as a slayer of men."

"Master," said Kelebi in extenuation, "my magic cannot cross mountains, otherwise Olari and his friends would have died."

"That is as it may be," said Sanders. "I am now concerned with magic nearer at hand, and I must tell you that the day after Abiboo dies I will hang you."

"Father," said Kelebi emphatically, "under those circumstances Abiboo shall live."

Sanders gave him a sovereign, and rode back to headquarters, to find his servant on the high road to recovery.

I give you this fragment of Sanders' history, because it will enable you to grasp the peculiar environment in which Sanders spent the greater part of his life, and because you will appreciate all the better the irony of the situation created by the coming of the Hon. George Tackle.

Sanders was taking breakfast on the verandah of his house. From where he sat he commanded across the flaming beauties of his garden a view of a broad, rolling, oily sea, a golden blaze of light under the hot sun. There was a steamer lying three miles out (only in five fathoms of water at that), and Sanders, through his glasses, recognised her as the Elder Dempster boat that brought the monthly mail. Since there were no letters on his table, and the boat had been "in" for two hours, he gathered that there was no mail for him, and was thankful, for he had outlived the sentimental period of life when letters were pleasant possibilities.

Having no letters, he expected no callers, and the spectacle of the Hon. George being carried in a hammock into his garden was astonishing.

The Hon. George carefully alighted, adjusted his white pith helmet, smoothed the creases from his immaculate ducks, and mounted the steps that led to the stoep.

"How do?" said the visitor. "My name is Tackle-George Tackle." He smiled, as though to say more was an insult to his hearer's intelligence.

Sanders bowed, a little ceremoniously for him. He felt that his visitor expected this.

"I'm out on a commission," the Hon. George went on. "As you've doubtless heard, my governor is the proprietor of the Courier and Echo, and so he thought I'd better go out and see the thing for myself. I've no doubt the whole thing is exaggerated--"

"Hold hard," said Sanders, a light dawning on him. "I gather that you are a sort of correspondent of a newspaper?"

"Exactly."

"That you have come to inquire into--"

"Treatment of natives, and all that," said the Hon. George easily.

"And what is wrong with the treatment of the native?" asked Sanders sweetly.

The hon. gentleman made an indefinite gesture.

"You know-things in newspapers-missionaries," he said rapidly, being somewhat embarrassed by the realisation that the man, if any, responsible for the outrages was standing before him.

"I never read the newspapers," said Sanders, "and--"

"Of course," interrupted the Hon. George eagerly, "we can make it all right as far as you are concerned."

"Oh, thank you!" Sanders' gratitude was a little overdone, but he held out his hand. "Well, I wish you luck-let me know how you get on."

The Hon. George Tackle was frankly nonplussed.

"But excuse me," he said, "where-how--Hang it all, where am I to put up?"

"Here?"

"Yes - dash it, my kit is on shore! I thought--"

"You thought I'd put you up?"

"Well, I did think--"

"That I'd fall on your neck and welcome you?"

"Not exactly, but--"

"Well," said Sanders, carefully folding his napkin, "I'm not so glad to see you as all that."

"I suppose not," said the Hon. George, bridling.

"Because you're a responsibility-I hate extra responsibility. You can pitch your tent just wherever you like-but I cannot offer you the hospitality you desire."

"I shall report this matter to the Administrator," said the Hon. George ominously.

"You may report it to my grandmother's maiden aunt," said Sanders politely.

Half an hour later he saw the Hon. George rejoin the ship that brought him to Isisi Bassam, and chuckled. George would go straight to the Administrator, and would receive a reception beside which a Sahara storm would be zephyrs of Araby.

At the same time Sanders was a little puzzled, and not a little hurt. There never had been a question of atrocities in his district, and he was puzzled to account for the rumours that had brought the "commissioner" on his tour of investigation-could it be a distorted account of Olari's punishment?

"Go quickly to the ship, taking a book to the lord who has just gone from here," was his command to a servant, and proceeded to scribble a note:-

"I am afraid," he wrote, "I was rather rude to you-not understanding what the devil you were driving at. An overwhelming curiosity directs me to invite you to share my bungalow until such time as you are ready to conduct your investigation."

The Hon. George read this with a self-satisfied smirk.

"The way to treat these fellows," he said to the Elder Dempster captain, "is to show 'em you'll stand no nonsense. I thought he'd climb down."

The Elder Dempster captain, who knew Sanders by repute, smiled discreetly, but said nothing. Once more the special correspondent's mountain of baggage was embarked in the surf boat, and the Hon. George waved a farewell to his friends on the steamer.

The Elder Dempster skipper, leaning over the side of his bridge, watched the surf boat rising and falling in the swell.

"There goes a man who's looking for trouble," he said, "and I wouldn't take a half-share of the trouble he's going to find for five hundred of the best. Is that blessed anchor up yet, Mr. Simmons? Half ahead-set her due west, Mr. What's-your-name."

It was something of a triumph for the Hon. George. There were ten uniformed policemen awaiting him on the smooth beach to handle his baggage, and Sanders came down to his garden gate to meet him.

"The fact of it is--" began Sanders awkwardly; but the magnanimous George raised his hand.

"Let bygones," he said, "be bygones."

Sanders was unaccountably annoyed by this generous display. Still more so was he when the correspondent refused to reopen the question of atrocities.

"As your guest," said George solemnly, "I feel that it would be better for all concerned if I pursued an independent investigation. I shall endeavour as far as possible, to put mys

elf in your place, to consider all extenuating circumstances--"

"Oh, have a gin-swizzle!" said Sanders rudely and impatiently; "you make me tired."

"Look here," he said later, "I will only ask you two questions. Where are these atrocities supposed to have taken place?"

"In the district of Lukati," said the Hon. George.

"Olari," thought Sanders. "Who was the victim?" he asked.

"There were several," said the correspondent, and produced his note-book. "You understand that I'd really much rather not discuss the matter with you, but, since you insist," he read, "Efembi of Wastambo."

"Oh!" said Sanders, and his eyebrows rose

"Kabindo of Machembi."

"Oh, lord!" said Sanders.

The Hon. George read six other cases, and with every one a line was wiped from Sanders' forehead.

When the recital was finished the Commissioner said slowly-

"I can make a statement to you which will save you a great deal of unnecessary trouble."

"I would rather you didn't," said George, in his best judicial manner.

"Very good," said Sanders; and went away whistling to order dinner.

Over the meal he put it to the correspondent:

"There are a number of people on this station who are friends of mine. I won't disguise the fact from you-there is O'Neill, in charge of the Houssas; the doctor, Kennedy, the chap in charge of the survey party; and half a dozen more. Would you like to question them?"

"They are friends of yours?"

"Yes, personal friends."

"Then," said the Hon. George, gravely, "perhaps it would be better if I did not see them."

"As you wish," said Sanders.

With an escort of four Houssas, and fifty carriers recruited from the neighbouring villages, the Hon. George departed into the interior, and Sanders saw him off.

"I cannot, of course, guarantee your life," he said, at parting, "and I must warn you that the Government will not be responsible for any injury that comes to you."

"I understand," said the Hon. George knowingly, "but I am not to be deterred. I come from a stock--"

"I dare say," Sanders cut his genealogical reminiscences short; "but the last traveller who was 'chopped' in the bush was a D'Arcy, and his people came over with the Conqueror."

The correspondent took the straight path to Lukati, and at the end of the third day's march came to the village of Mfabo, where lived the great witch-doctor, Kelebi.

George pitched his camp outside the village, and, accompanied by his four Houssas, paid a call upon the chief, which was one of the first mistakes he made, for he should have sent for the chief to call upon him; and if he called upon anybody, he should have made his visit to the witch-doctor, who was a greater man than forty chiefs.

In course of time, however, he found himself squatting on the ground outside the doctor's house, engaged, through the medium of the interpreter he had brought from Sierra Leone, in an animated conversation with the celebrated person.

"Tell him," said George to his interpreter, "that I am a great white chief whose heart bleeds for the native."

"Is he a good man?" asked George.

The witch-doctor, with the recollection of Sanders' threat, said "No!"

"Why?" asked the Hon. George eagerly. "Does he beat the people?"

Not only did he beat the people, explained the witch-doctor with relish, but there were times when he burnt them alive.

"This is a serious charge," said George, wagging his head warningly; nevertheless he wrote with rapidity in his diary:-

"Interviewed Kelebi, respected native doctor, who states:

"'I have lived all my life in this district, and have never known so cruel a man as Sandi (Sanders). I remember once he caused a man to be drowned, the man's name I forget; on another occasion he burned a worthy native alive for refusing to guide him and his Houssas through the forest. I also remember the time when he put a village to the fire, causing the people great suffering.

"'The people of the country groan under his oppressions, for from time to time he comes demanding money and crops, and if he does not receive all that he asks for he flogs the villagers until they cry aloud.'"

(I rather suspect that there is truth in the latter statement, for Sanders finds no little difficulty in collecting the hut-tax, which is the Government's due.)

George shook his head when he finished writing.

"This," he said, "looks very bad."

He shook hands with the witch-doctor, and that aged villain looked surprised, and asked a question in the native tongue.

"You no be fit to dash him somet'ing," said the interpreter.

"Dash him?"

"Give 'um present-bottle gin."

"Certainly not," said George. "He may be satisfied with the knowledge that he is rendering a service to humanity; that he is helping the cause of a down-trodden people."

The witch-doctor said something in reply, which the interpreter very wisely refrained from putting into English.

* * *

"How go the investigations?" asked the captain of Houssas three weeks later.

"As far as I can gather," said Sanders, "our friend is collecting a death-roll by the side of which the records of the Great Plague will read like an advertisement of a health resort."

"Where is he now?"

"He has got to Lukati-and I am worried"; and Sanders looked it.

The Houssa captain nodded, for all manner of reports had come down from Lukati country. There had been good crops, and good crops mean idleness, and idleness means mischief. Also there had been devil dances, and the mild people of the Bokari district, which lies contiguous to Lukati, had lost women.

"I've got a free hand to nip rebellion in the bud," Sanders reflected moodily; "and the chances point to rebellion--What do you say? Shall we make a report and wait for reinforcements, or shall we chance our luck?"

"It's your funeral," said the Houssa captain, "and I hate to advise you. If things go wrong you'll get the kicks; but if it were mine I'd go, like a shot-naturally."

"A hundred and forty men," mused Sanders.

"And two Maxims," suggested the other.

"We'll go," said Sanders; and half an hour later a bugle blared through the Houssas' lines, and Sanders was writing a report to his chief in far-away Lagos.

The Hon. George, it may be said, had no idea that he was anything but welcome in the village of Lukati.

Olari the chief had greeted him pleasantly, and told him stories of Sanders' brutality-stories which, as George wrote, "if true, must of necessity sound the death-knell of British integrity in our native possessions."

Exactly what that meant, I am not disposed to guess.

George stayed a month as the guest of Lukati. He had intended to stay at the most three days, but there was always a reason for postponing his departure.

Once the carriers deserted, once the roads were not safe, once Olari asked him to remain that he might see his young men dance. George did not know that his escort of four Houssas were feeling uneasy, because his interpreter-as big a fool as himself-could not interpret omens. George knew nothing of the significance of a dance in which no less than six witch-doctors took part, or the history of the tumble-down hut that stood in solitude at one end of the village. Had he taken the trouble to search that hut, he would have found a table, a chair, and a truckle bed, and on the table a report, soiled with dust and rain, which began:

"I have the honour to inform your Excellency that the natives maintain their industrious and peaceable attitude."

For in this hut in his lifetime lived Carter, Deputy Commissioner; and the natives, with their superstitious regard for the dead, had moved nothing.

It was approaching the end of the month, when the Hon. George thought he detected in his host a certain scarcely-veiled insolence of tone, and in the behaviour of the villagers something more threatening.

The dances were a nightly occurrence now, and the measured stamping of feet, the clash of spear against cane shield, and the never-ending growl of the song the dancers sang, kept him awake at nights. Messengers came to Olari daily from long distances, and once he was awakened in the middle of the night by screams. He jumped out of bed and pushed aside the fly of his tent to see half a dozen naked women dragged through the streets-the result of a raid upon the unoffending Bokari. He dressed, in a sweat of indignation and fear, and went to the chief's hut, fortunately without his interpreter, for what Olari said would have paralysed him.

In the morning (after this entirely unsatisfactory interview) he paraded his four Houssas and such of his carriers as he could find, and prepared to depart.

"Master," said Olari, when the request was interpreted, "I would rather you stayed. The land is full of bad people, and I have still much to tell you of the devilishness of Sandi. Moreover," said the chief, "to-night there is to be a great dance in your honour," and he pointed to where three slaves were engaged in erecting a big post in the centre of the village street.

"After this I will let you go," said Olari, "for you are my father and my mother."

The Hon. George was hesitating, when, of a sudden, at each end of the street there appeared, as if by magic, twenty travel-stained Houssas. They stood at attention for a moment, then opened outwards, and in the centre of each party gleamed the fat water-jacket of a Maxim gun.

The chief said nothing, only he looked first one way and then the other, and his brown face went a dirty grey. Sanders strolled leisurely along toward the group. He was unshaven, his clothes were torn with bush-thorn, in his hand was a long-barrelled revolver.

"Olari," he said gently; and the chief stepped forward.

"I think, Olari," said Sanders, "you have been chief too long."

"Master, my father was chief before me, and his father," said Olari, his face twitching.

"What of Tagondo, my friend?" asked Sanders, speaking of Carter by his native name.

"Master, he died," said Olari; "he died of the sickness mongo-the sickness itself."

"Surely," said Sanders, nodding his head, "surely you also shall die of the same sickness."

Olari looked round for a way of escape.

He saw the Hon. George looking from one to the other in perplexity, and he flung himself at the correspondent's feet.

"Master!" he cried, "save me from this man who hates me!"

George understood the gesture; his interpreter told him the rest; and, as a Houssa servant reached out his hand to the chief, the son of the house of Widnes, strong in the sense of his righteousness, struck it back.

"Look here, Sanders," forgetting all his previous misgivings and fears concerning the chief, "I should say that you have punished this poor devil enough!"

"Take that man, sergeant," said Sanders sharply; and the Houssa gripped Olari by the shoulder and flung him backward.

"You shall answer for this!" roared the Hon. George Tackle, in impotent wrath. "What are you going to do with him? My God! No, no!-not without a trial!"

He sprang forward, but the Houssas caught him and restrained him.

* * *

"For what you have done," said the correspondent-this was a month after, and he was going aboard the homeward steamer-"you shall suffer!"

"I only wish to point out to you," said Sanders, "that if I had not arrived in the nick of time, you would have done all the suffering-they were going to sacrifice you on the night I arrived. Didn't you see the post?"

"That is a lie!" said the other. "I will make England ring with your infamy. The condition of your district is a blot on civilisation!"

* * *

"There is no doubt," said Mr. Justice Keneally, summing up in the libel action, Sanders v. The Courier and Echo and another, "that the defendant Tackle did write a number of very libellous and damaging statements, and, to my mind, the most appalling aspect of the case is that, commissioned as he was to investigate the condition of affairs in the district of Lukati, he did not even trouble to find out where Lukati was. As you have been told, gentlemen of the jury, there are no less than four Lukatis in West Africa, the one in Togoland being the district in which it was intended the defendant should go. How he came to mistake Lukati of British West Africa for the Lukati of German Togoland, I do not know, but in order to bolster up his charges against a perfectly-innocent British official he brought forward a number of unsupported statements, each of which must be regarded as damaging to the plaintiff, but more damaging still to the newspaper that in its colossal ignorance published them."

The jury awarded Sanders nine thousand seven hundred and fifty pounds.

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