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   Chapter 6 THE DANCING STONES.

Sanders of the River By Edgar Wallace Characters: 24334

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02


Heroes should be tall and handsome, with flashing eyes; Sanders was not so tall, was yellow of face, moreover had grey hair. Heroes should also be of gentle address, full of soft phrases, for such tender women who come over their horizon; Sanders was a dispassionate man who swore on the slightest provocation, and had no use for women any way.

When you place a man upon a throne, even though that throne be a wooden stool worth in the mart fourpence more or less, you assume a responsibility which greatly outweighs all the satisfaction or personal gratification you may derive from your achievement. There is a grave in Toledo, a slab of brass, over a great king-maker who lived long enough to realise his insignificance. The epitaph upon that brass tomb of his is eloquent of his sum knowledge of life and human effort.

PULVIS

ET

NIHIL

says the inscription, and Powder and Nothing is the ultimate destiny of all king-makers.

Sanders was a maker of kings in the early days. He helped break a few, so it was in obedience to the laws of compensation that he took his part in reconstructive work.

He broke Esindini, Matabini, T'saki-to name three-and helped, in the very old days, and in another country, to break Lobengula, the Great Bull.

King-maker he was beyond question-you could see Republicanism written legibly in the amused grin with which he made them-but the kings he made were little ones-that is the custom of the British-African rule, they break a big king and put many little kings in his place, because it is much safer.

Somewhere about 12° north, and in longitude 0°, is a land which is peculiar for the fact that it is British, French, German, and Italian-according to which map of Africa you judge it by.

At the time of which I write it was neither, but it was ruled by Mensikilimbili for the Great King. He was the most powerful of monarchs, and, for the matter of that, the most cruel. His dominion stretched "from moonrise to sunset," said the natives, and he held undisputed sway.

He had a court, and sat upon an ivory throne, and wore over the leopard skins of his rank a mantle woven of gold thread and scarlet thread, and he administered justice. He had three hundred wives and forty thousand fighting men, and his acquaintance with white men began and ended with the coming of a French Mission, who presented him with a tall hat, a barrel organ, and one hundred thousand francs in gold.

This was Limbili, the great King of Yitingi.

The little kings of the Southern lands spoke of him with bated breath; his name was uttered in a low voice, as of a god; he was the symbol of majesty and of might-the Isisi people, themselves a nation of some importance, and boastful likewise, referred to themselves disparagingly when the kingdom of Yitingi was mentioned.

Following the French Mission, Sanders went up as envoy to the Limbilu, carrying presents of a kind and messages of good will.

He was escorted into the territory by a great army and was lodged in the city of the king. After two days' waiting he was informed that his Majesty would see him, and was led to the Presence.

The Presence was an old man, a vicious old man, if Sanders was any judge of character, who showed unmistakable signs of anger and contempt when the Commissioner displayed his presents.

"And what are these, white man?" said the king. "Toys for my women, or presents for my little chiefs?"

"These are for your Greatness," said Sanders quietly, "from a people who do not gauge friendship by the costliness of presents."

The king gave a little sniff.

"Tell me, white man," he said; "in your travels have you ever seen so great a king as I?"

"Lord king," said Sanders, frank to a fault. "I have seen greater."

The king frowned, and the crowd about his sacred person muttered menacingly.

"There you lie," said the king calmly; "for there never was a greater king than I."

"Let the white man say who is greater," croaked an aged councillor, and a murmur of approval arose.

"Lord," said Sanders, looking into the eyes of the old man who sat on the throne, "I have seen Lo Ben."[2]

The king frowned again, and nodded.

"Of him I have heard," he said; "he was a great king and an eater-up of nations-who else?"

"King," lied Sanders, "also Ketcewayo"; and something like a hush fell upon the court, for the name of Ketcewayo was one that travelled north.

"But of white kings," persisted the chief; "is there a white king in the world whose word when it goes forth causes men to tremble?"

Sanders grinned internally, knowing such a king, but answered that in all his life he had never met such a king.

"And of armies," said the king, "have you ever seen an army such as mine?"

And so through the category of his possessions he ran; and Sanders, finding that the lie was to save himself a great deal of trouble, lied and acclaimed King Limbili as the greatest king in all the world, commander of the most perfect army, ruler of a sublime kingdom.

It may be said that the kingdom of Yitingi owed its integrity to its faults, for, satisfied with the perfection of all his possessions, the great king confined his injustices, his cruelties, and his little wars within the boundaries of his state. Also he sought relaxation therein.

One day, just after the rains, when the world was cool and the air filled with the faint scent of African spring, Sanders made a tour through the little provinces. These are those lands which lie away from the big rivers. Countries curled up in odd corners, bisected sharply on the map by this or that international boundary line, or scattered on the fringe of the wild country vaguely inscribed by the chartographer as "Under British Influence."

It was always an interesting journey-Sanders made it once a year-for the way led up strange rivers and through unfamiliar scenes, past villages where other white men than Sanders were never seen. After a month's travel the Commissioner came to Icheli, which lies on the border of the great king's domain, and with immense civility he was received by the elders and the chiefs.

"Lord, you have come at a good moment," said the chief solemnly, "to-night Daihili dances."

"And who is Daihili?" asked Sanders.

They told him; later they brought for his inspection a self-conscious girl, a trifle pert, he thought, for a native.

A slim girl, taller than the average woman, with a figure perfectly modelled, a face not unpleasant even from the European standpoint, graceful in carriage, her every movement harmonious. Sanders, chewing the end of his cigar, took her in at one glance.

"My girl, they tell me that you dance," he said.

"That is so, master," she said; "I am the greatest dancer in all the world."

"So far I cannot go," said the cautious Commissioner; "but I do not doubt that your dancing is very wonderful."

"Lord," she said, with a gesture, "when I dance men go mad, losing their senses. To-night when the moon is high I will show you the dance of the Three Lovers."

"To-night," said Sanders briefly, "I shall be in bed-and, I trust, asleep."

The girl frowned a little, was possibly piqued, being a woman of fifteen, and in no wise different to women elsewhere in the world. This Sanders did not know, and I doubt whether the knowledge would have helped him much if he did.

He heard the tom-tom beating, that night as he lay in bed, and the rhythmical clapping of hands, and fell asleep wondering what would be the end of a girl who danced so that men went mad.

The child was the chief's daughter, and at parting Sanders had a few words to say concerning her.

"This daughter of yours is fifteen, and it would be better if she were married," he said.

"Lord, she has many lovers, but none rich enough to buy her," said the proud father, "because she is so great a dancer. Chiefs and headmen from villages far distant come to see her." He looked round and lowered his voice. "It is said," he whispered, "that the Great One himself has spoken of her. Perhaps he will send for her, offering this and that. In such a case," said the chief hopefully, "I will barter and bargain, keeping him in suspense, and every day the price will rise--"

"If the Great One need her, let her go," said Sanders, "lest instead of money presents he sends an army. I will have no war, or women palaver, which is worse than war, in my country-mark that, chief."

"Lord, your word is my desire," said the chief conventionally.

Sanders went back to his own people by easy stages. At Isisi he was detained for over a week over a question of witch-craft; at Belembi (in the Isisi country) he stopped three days to settle a case of murder by fetish. He was delivering judgment, and Abiboo, the Sergeant of Police, was selecting and testing his stoutest cane for the whipping which was to follow, when the chief of the Icheli came flying down the river with three canoes, and Sanders, who, from where he sat, commanded an uninterrupted view of the river, knew there was trouble-and guessed what that trouble was.

"Justice!" demanded the chief, his voice trembling with the rage and fear he had nursed, "justice against the Old One, the stealer of girls, the destroyer of cities-may death go to him. Iwa!---"

The very day Sanders had left, the messenger of the great king had come, and with him a hundred warriors, demanding the dancing girl. True to his pre-arranged scheme, the chief began the inevitable bargaining over terms. The presents offered were too small. The girl was worth a hundred thousand rods-nay, a thousand bags of salt.

"You were mad," said Sanders calmly; "no woman is worth a thousand bags of salt."

"Well, that might be," admitted the outraged father; "yet it would be folly to begin by naming a price too low. The bargaining went on through the night and all the next day, and in the end the envoy of the great king grew impatient.

"Let the woman be sent for," he said, and obedient to the summons came Daihili, demure enough, yet with covert glances of encouragement to the unemotional ambassador, and with subtle exhibitions of her charms.

"Woman," said the messenger, "the greatest of kings desires you, will you come?"

"Lord," said the girl, "I wish for nothing better."

With that, the hundred armed warriors in attendance at the palaver closed round the girl.

"And so," said Sanders, "you got nothing?"

"Lord, it is as you say," moaned the old chief.

"It is evident," said Sanders, "that an injustice has been done; for no man may take a woman unless he pay. I think," he added, with a flash of that mordant humour which occasionally illuminated his judgments, "that the man pays twice, once to the father, and all his life to his wife-but that is as may be."

Six weeks later, after consultation, Sanders sent a messenger to the great king, demanding the price of the woman.

What happened to the messenger I would rather not describe. That he was killed, is saying the least. Just before he died, when the glaze of death must have been on his eyes, and his poor wrecked body settling to the rest of oblivion, he was carried to a place before the king's hut, and Daihili danced the Dance of the Spirits. This much is now known.

Sanders did nothing; nor did the British Government, but hurried notes were exchanged between ambassadors and ministers in Paris, and that was the end of the incident.

Two Icheli spies went up into the great king's country. One came back saying that the dancing girl was the favourite wife of the old king, and that her whims swayed the destinies of the nation. Also he reported that because of this slim girl who danced, many men, councillors, and captains of war had died the death.

The other spy did not come back.

It may have been his discovery that induced the girl to send an army against the Icheli, thinking perchance that her people were spying upon her.

One day the city of Icheli was surrounded by the soldiers of the great king, and neither man, woman nor child escaped.

The news of the massacre did not come to Sanders for a long time. The reason was

simple there was none to carry the message, for the Icheli are isolated folk. One day, however, an Isisi hunting party, searching for elephants, came upon a place where there was a smell of burning and many skeletons-and thus Sanders knew--

"We cannot," wrote Monsieur Leon Marchassa, Minister for Colonial Affairs, "accept responsibility for the misdoings of the king of the Yitingi, and my Government would regard with sympathetic interest any attempt that was made by His Majesty's Government to pacify this country."

But the British Government did nothing, because war is an expensive matter, and Sanders grinned and cursed his employers genially.

Taking his life in his hands, he went up to the border of Yitingi, with twenty policemen, and sent a messenger-a Yitingi messenger-to the king. With the audacity which was not the least of his assets, he demanded that the king should come to him for a palaver.

This adventure nearly proved abortive at the beginning, for just as the Zaire was steaming to the borders Sanders unexpectedly came upon traces of a raiding expedition. There were unmistakable signs as to the author.

"I have a mind to turn back and punish that cursed Bosambo, Chief of the Ochori," he said to Sergeant Abiboo, "for having sworn by a variety of gods and devils that he would keep the peace; behold he has been raiding in foreign territory."

"He will keep, master," said Abiboo, "besides which, he is in the neighbourhood, for his fires are still warm."

So Sanders went on, and sent his message to the king.

He kept steam in his little boat-he had chosen the only place where the river touches the Yitingi border-and waited, quite prepared to make an ignominious, if judicious, bolt.

To his astonishment, his spies brought word that the king was coming. He owed this condescension to the influence of the little dancing girl, for she, woman-like, had a memory for rebuffs, and had a score to settle with Mr. Commissioner Sanders.

The great king arrived, and across the meadow-like lands that fringe the river on both sides Sanders watched the winding procession with mingled feelings. The king halted a hundred yards from the river, and his big scarlet umbrella was the centre of a black line of soldiers spreading out on either hand for three hundred yards.

Then a party detached itself and came towards the dead tree by the water side, whereon hung limply in the still air the ensign of England.

"This," said Sanders to himself, "is where I go dead one time."

It is evidence of the seriousness of the situation, as it appealed to him, that he permitted himself to descend to Coast English.

"The king, the Great One, awaits you, white man, offering you safety in his shadow," said the king's messenger; and Sanders nodded. He walked leisurely toward the massed troops, and presently appeared before the old man squatting on a heap of skins and blinking like an ape in the sunlight.

"Lord king, live for ever," said Sanders glibly, and as he raised his hand in salute he saw the girl regarding him from under knit brows.

"What is your wish, white man?" said the old king; "what rich presents do you bring, that you call me many days' journey?"

"Lord, I bring no presents," said Sanders boldly; "but a message from a king who is greater than you, whose soldiers outnumber the sands of the river, and whose lands extend from the east to the west, from the north to the south."

"There is no such king," snarled the old man. "You lie, white man, and I will cut your tongue into little strips."

"Let him give his message, master," said the girl.

"This is the message," said Sanders. He stood easily, with his hands in the pockets of his white uniform jacket, and the king was nearer death than he knew. "My master says: 'Because the Great King of Yitingi has eaten up the Icheli folk: because he has crossed the borderland and brought suffering to my people, my heart is sore. Yet, if the Great King will pay a fine of one thousand head of cattle and will allow free access to his country for my soldiers and my commissioners, I will live in peace with him.'"

The old man laughed, a wicked, cackling laugh.

"Oh, ko!" he chuckled; "a great king!"

Then the girl stepped forward.

"Sandi," she said, "once you put me to shame, for when I would have danced for you, you slept."

"To you, Daihili," said Sanders steadily, "I say nothing; I make no palaver with women, for that is not the custom or the law. Still less do I talk with dancing girls. My business is with Limbili the king."

The king was talking rapidly behind his hand to a man who bent over him, and Sanders, his hands still in his jacket pockets, snapped down the safety catches of his automatic Colts.

All the time the girl spoke he was watching from the corners of his eyes the man who talked with the king. He saw him disappear in the crowd of soldiers who stood behind the squatting figures, and prepared for the worst.

"Since I may not dance for you," the girl was saying, "my lord the king would have you dance for me."

"That is folly," said Sanders: then he saw the line on either side wheel forward, and out came his pistols.

"Crack! Crack!"

The shot intended for the king missed him, and broke the leg of a soldier behind.

It had been hopeless from the first; this Sanders realised with some philosophy, as he lay stretched on the baked earth, trussed like a fowl, and exceedingly uncomfortable. At the first shot Abiboo, obeying his instructions, would turn the bows of the steamer down stream; this was the only poor satisfaction he could derive from the situation.

Throughout that long day, with a pitiless sun beating down upon him, he lay in the midst of an armed guard, waiting for the death which must come in some dreadful form or other.

He was undismayed, for this was the logical end of the business. Toward the evening they gave him water, which was most acceptable. From the gossip of his guards he gathered that the evening had been chosen for his exit, but the manner of it he must guess.

From where he lay he could see, by turning his head a little, the king's tent, and all the afternoon men were busily engaged in heaping flat stones upon the earth before the pavilion. They were of singular uniformity, and would appear to be specially hewn and dressed for some purpose. He asked his guard a question.

"They are the dancing stones, white man," said the soldier, "they come from the mountain near the city."

When darkness fell a huge fire was lit; it was whilst he was watching this that he heard of the Zaire's escape, and was thankful.

He must have been dozing, exhausted in body and mind, when he was dragged to his feet, his bonds were slipped, and he was led before the king. Then he saw what form his torture was to take.

The flat stones were being taken from the fire with wooden pincers and laid to form a rough pavement before the tent.

"White man," said the king, as rude hands pulled off the Commissioner's boots, "the woman Daihili would see you dance."

"Be assured, king," said Sanders, between his teeth, "that some day you shall dance in hell in more pleasant company, having first danced at the end of a rope."

"If you live through the dancing," said the king, "you will be sorry."

A ring of soldiers with their spears pointing inward surrounded the pavement, those on the side of the tent crouching so that their bodies might not interrupt the Great One's view.

"Dance," said the king; and Sanders was thrown forward. The first stone he touched was only just warm, and on this he stood still till a spear-thrust sent him to the next. It was smoking hot, and he leapt up with a stifled cry. Down he came to another, hotter still, and leapt again-

"Throw water over him," said the amused king, when they dragged the fainting man off the stones, his clothes smouldering where he lay in an inert heap.

"Now dance," said the king again-when out of the darkness about the group leapt a quivering pencil of yellow light.

Ha-ha-ha-ha-a-a-a!

Abiboo's Maxim-gun was in action at a range of fifty yards, and with him five hundred Ochori men under that chief of chiefs, Bosambo.

For a moment the Yitingi stood, and then, as with a wild yell which was three-parts fear, the Ochori charged, the king's soldiers broke and fled.

They carried Sanders to the steamer quickly, for the Yitingi would re-form, being famous night fighters. Sanders, sitting on the deck of the steamer nursing his burnt feet and swearing gently, heard the scramble of the Ochori as they got into their canoes, heard the grunting of his Houssas hoisting the Maxim on board, and fainted again.

"Master," said Bosambo in the morning, "many moons ago you made charge against the Ochori, saying they would not fight. That was true, but in those far-off days there was no chief Bosambo. Now, because of my teaching, and because I have put fire into their stomachs, they have defeated the soldiers of the Great King."

He posed magnificently, for on his shoulders was a mantle of gold thread woven with blue, which was not his the night before.

"Bosambo," said Sanders, "though I have a score to settle with you for breaking the law by raiding, I am grateful that the desire for the properties of others brought you to this neighbourhood. Where did you get that cloak?" he demanded.

"I stole it," said Bosambo frankly, "from the tent of the Great King; also I brought with me one of the stones upon which my lord would not stand. I brought this, thinking that it would be evidence."

Sanders nodded, and bit his cigar with a little grimace. "On which my lord would not stand," was very prettily put.

"Let me see it," he said; and Bosambo himself carried it to him.

It had borne the heat well enough, but rough handling had chipped a corner; and Sanders looked at this cracked corner long and earnestly.

"Here," he said, "is an argument that no properly constituted British Government can overlook-I see Limbili's finish."

* * *

The rainy season came round and the springtime, before Sanders again stood in the presence of the Great King. All around him was desolation and death. The plain was strewn with the bodies of men, and the big city was a smoking ruin. To the left, three regiments of Houssas were encamped; to the right, two battalions of African Rifles sat at "chop," and the snappy notes of their bugles came sharply through the still air.

"I am an old man," mumbled the king; but the girl who crouched at his side said nothing. Only her eyes never left the brick-red face of Sanders.

"Old you are," he said, "yet not too old to die."

"I am a great king," whined the other, "and it is not proper that a great king should hang."

"Yet if you live," said Sanders, "many other great kings will say, 'We may commit these abominations, and because of our greatness we shall live.'"

"And what of me, lord?" said the girl in a low voice.

"You!" Sanders looked at her. "Ho, hi," he said, as though he had just remembered her. "You are the dancing girl? Now we shall do nothing with you, Daihili-because you are nothing."

He saw her shrink as one under a lash.

After the execution, the Colonel of the Houssas and Sanders were talking together.

"What I can't understand," said the Colonel, "is why we suddenly decided upon this expedition. It has been necessary for years-but why this sudden activity?"

Sanders grinned mysteriously.

"A wonderful people, the English," he said airily. "Old Man Limbili steals British subjects, and I report it. 'Very sad,' says England. He wipes out a nation. 'Deplorable!' says England. He makes me dance on the original good-intention stones of Hades. 'Treat it as a joke,' says England; but when I point out that these stones assay one ounce ten penny-weights of refined gold, and that we've happed upon the richest reef in Central Africa, there's an army here in six months!"

I personally think that Sanders may have been a little unjust in his point of view. After all, wars cost money, and wars of vengeance are notoriously unprofitable.

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