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   Chapter 9 THE WOOD OF DEVILS.

Sanders of the River By Edgar Wallace Characters: 23017

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02


Four days out of M'Sakidanga, if native report be true, there is a trickling stream that meanders down from N'Gombi country. Native report says that this is navigable even in the dry season.

The missionaries at Bonginda ridicule this report; and Arburt, the young chief of the station, with a gentle laugh in his blue eyes, listened one day to the report of Elebi about a fabulous land at the end of this river, and was kindly incredulous.

"If it be that ivory is stored in this place," he said in the vernacular, "or great wealth lies for the lifting, go to Sandi, for this ivory belongs to the Government. But do you, Elebi, fix your heart more upon God's treasures in heaven, and your thoughts upon your unworthiness to merit a place in His kingdom, and let the ivory go."

Elebi was known to Sanders as a native evangelist of the tornado type, a thunderous, voluble sub-minister of the service; he had, in his ecstatic moments, made many converts. But there were days of reaction, when Elebi sulked in his mud hut, and reviewed Christianity calmly.

It was a service, this new religion. You could not work yourself to a frenzy in it, and then have done with the thing for a week. You must needs go on, on, never tiring, never departing from the straight path, exercising irksome self-restraint, leaving undone that which you would rather do.

"Religion is prison," grumbled Elebi, after his interview, and shrugged his broad, black shoulders.

In his hut he was in the habit of discarding his European coat for the loin cloth and the blanket, for Elebi was a savage-an imitative savage-but still barbarian. Once, preaching on the River of Devils, he had worked himself up to such a pitch of enthusiastic fervour that he had smitten a scoffer, breaking his arm, and an outraged Sanders had him arrested, whipped, and fined a thousand rods. Hereafter Elebi had figured in certain English missionary circles as a Christian martyr, for he had lied magnificently, and his punishment had been represented as a form of savage persecution.

But the ivory lay buried three days' march beyond the Secret River; thus Elebi brooded over the log that smouldered in his hut day and night. Three days beyond the river, branching off at a place where there were two graves, the country was reputably full of devils, and Elebi shuddered at the thought; but, being a missionary and a lay evangelist, and, moreover, the proud possessor of a copy of the Epistle to the Romans (laboriously rendered into the native tongue), he had little to fear. He had more to fear from a certain White Devil at a far-away headquarters, who might be expected to range the lands of the Secret River, when the rains had come and gone.

It was supposed that Elebi had one wife, conforming to the custom of the white man, but the girl who came into the hut with a steaming bowl of fish in her hands was not the wife that the missionaries recognised as such.

"Sikini," he said, "I am going a journey by canoe."

"In the blessed service?" asked Sikini, who had come under the influence of the man in his more elated periods.

"The crackling of a fire is like a woman's tongue," quoted Elebi; "and it is easier to keep the lid on a boiling pot than a secret in a woman's heart."

Elebi had the river proverbs at his finger-tips, and the girl laughed, for she was his favourite wife, and knew that in course of time the information would come to her.

"Sikini," said the man suddenly, "you know that I have kept you when the Blood Taker would have me put you away."

(Arburt had a microscope and spent his evenings searching the blood of his flock for signs of trynosomiasis.)

"You know that for your sake I lied to him who is my father and my protector, saying: 'There shall be but one wife in my house, and that Tombolo, the coast woman.'"

The girl nodded, eyeing him stolidly.

"Therefore I tell you that I am going beyond the Secret River, three days' march, leaving the canoe at a place where there are two graves."

"What do you seek?" she asked.

"There are many teeth in that country," he said; "dead ivory that the people brought with them from a distant country, and have hidden, fearing one who is a Breaker of Stones.[4] I shall come back rich, and buy many wives who shall wait upon you and serve you, and then I will no longer be Christian, but will worship the red fetish as my father did, and his father."

"Go," she said, nodding thoughtfully.

He told her many things that he had not revealed to Arburt-of how the ivory came, of the people who guarded it, of the means by which he intended to secure it.

Next morning before the mission lo-koli sounded, he had slipped away in his canoe; and Arburt, when the news came to him, sighed and called him a disappointing beggar-for Arburt was human. Sanders, who was also human, sent swift messengers to arrest Elebi, for it is not a good thing that treasure-hunting natives should go wandering through a strange country, such excursions meaning war, and war meaning, to Sanders at any rate, solemn official correspondence, which his soul loathed.

Who would follow the fortunes of Elebi must paddle in his wake as far as Okau, where the Barina meets the Lapoi, must take the left river path, past the silent pool of the White Devil, must follow the winding stream till the elephants' playing ground be reached. Here the forest has been destroyed for the sport of the Great Ones; the shore is strewn with tree trunks, carelessly uprooted and as carelessly tossed aside by the gambolling mammoth. The ground is innocent of herbage or bush; it is a flat wallow of mud, with the marks of pads where the elephant has passed.

Elebi drew his canoe up the bank, carefully lifted his cooking-pot, full of living fire, and emptied its contents, heaping thereon fresh twigs and scraps of dead wood. Then he made himself a feast, and went to sleep.

A wandering panther came snuffling and howling in the night, and Elebi rose and replenished the fire. In the morning he sought for the creek that led to the Secret River, and found it hidden by the hippo grass.

Elebi had many friends in the N'Gombi country. They were gathered in the village of Tambango-to the infinite embarrassment of the chief of that village-for Elebi's friends laid hands upon whatsoever they desired, being strangers and well armed, and, moreover, outnumbering the men of the village three to one. One, O'Sako, did the chief hold in greatest dread, for he said little, but stalked tragically through the untidy street of Tambango, a bright, curved execution knife in the crook of his left arm. O'Sako was tall and handsome. One broad shoulder gleamed in its nakedness, and his muscular arms were devoid of ornamentation. His thick hair was plastered with clay till it was like a European woman's, and his body was smeared with ingola dust.

Once only he condescended to address his host.

"You shall find me three young men against the Lord Elebi's arrival, and they shall lead us to the land of the Secret River."

"But, master," pleaded the chief, "no man may go to the Secret River, because of the devils."

"Three men," said O'Sako softly; "three young men swift of foot, with eyes like the N'Gombi, and mouths silent as the dead."

"-- the devils," repeated the chief weakly, but O'Sako stared straight ahead and strode on.

When the sun blazed furiously on the rim of the world in a last expiring effort, and the broad river was a flood of fire, and long shadows ran through the clearings, Elebi came to the village. He came unattended from the south, and he brought with him no evidence of his temporary sojourn in the camps of civilisation. Save for his loin cloth, and his robe of panther skin thrown about his shoulders, he was naked.

There was a palaver house at the end of the village, a thatched little wattle hut perched on a tiny hill, and the Lord Elebi gathered there his captains and the chief of the village. He made a speech.

"Cala, cala," he began-and it means "long ago," and is a famous opening to speeches-"before the white man came, and when the Arabi came down from the northern countries to steal women and ivory, the people of the Secret River buried their 'points' in a Place of Devils. Their women they could not bury, so they lost them. Now all the people of the Secret River are dead. The Arabi killed some, Bula Matadi killed others, but the sickness killed most of all. Where their villages were the high grass has grown, and in their gardens only the weaver bird speaks. Yet I know of this place, for there came to me a vision and a voice that said--"

The rest of the speech from the European standpoint was pure blasphemy, because Elebi had had the training of a lay preacher, and had an easy delivery.

When he had finished, the chief of the village of Tambangu spoke. It was a serious discourse on devils. There was no doubt at all that in the forest where the caché was there was a veritable stronghold of devildom. Some had bad faces and were as tall as the gum-trees-taller, for they used whole trees for clubs; some were small, so small that they travelled on the wings of bees, but all were very potent, very terrible, and most effective guardians of buried treasure. Their greatest accomplishment lay in leading astray the traveller: men went into the forest in search of game or copal or rubber, and never came back, because there were a thousand ways in and no way out.

Elebi listened gravely.

"Devils of course there are," he said, "including the Devil, the Old One, who is the enemy of God. I have had much to do with the casting out of devils-in my holy capacity as a servant of the Word. Of the lesser devils I know nothing, though I do not doubt they live. Therefore I think it would be better for all if we offered prayer."

On his instruction the party knelt in full view of the village, and Elebi prayed conventionally but with great earnestness that the Powers of Darkness should not prevail, but that the Great Work should go on triumphantly.

After which, to make doubly sure, the party sacrificed two fowls before a squat bete that stood before the chief's door, and a crazy witch-doctor anointed Elebi with human fat.

"We will go by way of Ochori," said Elebi, who was something of a strategist. "These Ochori folk will give us food and guides, being a cowardly folk and very fearful."

He took farewell of the old chief and continued his journey, with O'Sako and his warriors behind him. So two days passed. An hour's distance from the city of the Ochori he called a conference.

"Knowing the world," he said, "I am acquainted with the Ochori, who are slaves: you shall behold their chief embrace my feet. Since it is fitting that one, such as I, who know the ways of white men and their magic, should be received with honour; let us send forward a messenger to say that the Lord Elebi comes, and bid them kill so many goats against our coming."

"That is good talk," said O'Sako, his lieutenant, and a messenger was despatched.

Elebi with his caravan followed slowly.

It is said that Elebi's message came to Bosambo of Monrovia, chief of the Ochori, when he was in the despondent mood peculiar to men of action who find life running too smoothly.

It was Bosambo's practice-and one of which his people stood in some awe-to reflect aloud in English in all moments of crisis, or on any occasion when it was undesirable that his thoughts should be conveyed

abroad.

He listened in silence, sitting before the door of his hut and smoking a short wooden pipe, whilst the messenger described the quality of the coming visitor, and the unparalleled honour which was to fall upon the Ochori.

Said Bosambo at the conclusion of the recital, "Damn nigger."

The messenger was puzzled by the strange tongue.

"Lord Chief," he said, "my master is a great one, knowing the ways of white men."

"I also know something of white men," said Bosambo calmly, in the River dialect, "having many friends, including Sandi, who married my brother's wife's sister, and is related to me. Also," said Bosambo daringly, "I have shaken hands with the Great White King who dwells beyond the big water, and he has given me many presents."

With this story the messenger went back to the slowly advancing caravan, and Elebi was impressed and a little bewildered.

"It is strange," he said, "no man has ever known an Ochori chief who was aught but a dog and the son of a dog-let us see this Bosambo. Did you tell him to come out and meet me?"

"No," replied the messenger frankly, "he was such a great one, and was so haughty because of Sandi, who married his brother's wife's sister; and so proud that I did not dare tell him."

There is a spot on the edge of the Ochori city where at one time Sanders had caused to be erected a warning sign, and here Elebi found the chief waiting and was flattered. There was a long and earnest conference in the little palaver house of the city, and here Elebi told as much of his story as was necessary, and Bosambo believed as much as he could.

"And what do you need of me and my people?" asked Bosambo at length.

"Lord chief," said Elebi, "I go a long journey, being fortified with the blessed spirit of which you know nothing, that being an especial mystery of the white men."

"There is no mystery which I did not know," said Bosambo loftily, "and if you speak of spirits, I will speak of certain saints, also of a Virgin who is held in high respect by white men."

"If you speak of the blessed Paul--" began Elebi, a little at sea.

"Not only of Paul but Peter, John, Luke, Matthew, Antonio, and Thomas," recited Bosambo rapidly. He had not been a scholar at the Catholic mission for nothing. Elebi was nonplussed.

"We will let these magic matters rest," said Elebi wisely; "it is evident to me that you are a learned man. Now I go to seek some wonderful treasures. All that I told you before was a lie. Let us speak as brothers. I go to the wood of devils, where no man has been for many years. I beg you, therefore, to give me food and ten men for carriers."

"Food you can have but no men," said Bosambo, "for I have pledged my word to Sandi, who is, as you know, the husband of my brother's wife's sister, that no man of mine should leave this country."

With this Elebi had to be content, for a new spirit had come to the Ochori since he had seen them last, and there was a defiance in the timid eyes of these slaves of other days which was disturbing. Besides, they seemed well armed.

In the morning the party set forth and Bosambo, who took no risks, saw them started on their journey. He observed that part of the equipment of the little caravan were two big baskets filled to the brim with narrow strips of red cloth.

"This is my magic," said Elebi mysteriously, when he was questioned, "it is fitting that you should know its power."

Bosambo yawned in his face with great insolence.

Clear of Ochori by one day's march, the party reached the first straggling advance guard of the Big Forest. A cloud of gum-trees formed the approach to the wood, and here the magic of Elebi's basket of cloth strips became revealed.

Every few hundred yards the party stopped, and Elebi tied one of the strips to a branch of a tree.

"In this way," he communicated to his lieutenant, "we may be independent of gods, and fearless of devils, for if we cannot find the ivory we can at least find our way back again."

(There had been such an experiment made by the missionaries in traversing the country between Bonguidga and the Big River, but there were no devils in that country.)

In two days' marches they came upon a place of graves. There had been a village there, for Isisi palms grew luxuriously, and pushing aside the grass they came upon a rotting roof. Also there were millions of weaver birds in the nut-palms, and a choked banana grove.

The graves, covered with broken cooking pots, Elebi found, and was satisfied.

In the forest, a league beyond the dead village, they came upon an old man, so old that you might have lifted him with a finger and thumb.

"Where do the young men go in their strength?" he mumbled childishly; "into the land of small devils? Who shall guide them back to their women? None, for the devils will confuse them, opening new roads and closing the old. Oh, Ko Ko!"

He snivelled miserably.

"Father," said Elebi, dangling strips of red flannel from his hand, "this is white man's magic, we come back by the way we go."

Then the old man fell into an insane fit of cursing, and threw at them a thousand deaths, and Elebi's followers huddled back in frowning fear.

"You have lived too long," said Elebi gently, and passed his spear through the old man's neck.

* * *

They found the ivory two days' journey beyond the place of killing. It was buried under a mound, which was overgrown with rank vegetation, and there was by European calculation some £50,000 worth.

"We will go back and find carriers," said Elebi, "taking with us as many of the teeth as we can carry."

Two hours later the party began its return journey, following the path where at intervals of every half-mile a strip of scarlet flannelette hung from a twig.

There were many paths they might have taken, paths that looked as though they had been made by the hand of man, and Elebi was glad that he had blazed the way to safety.

For eight hours the caravan moved swiftly, finding its direction with no difficulty; then the party halted for the night.

Elebi was awakened in the night by a man who was screaming, and he leapt up, stirring the fire to a blaze.

"It is the brother of Olambo of Kinshassa, he has the sickness mongo," said an awe-stricken voice, and Elebi called a council.

"There are many ways by which white men deal with this sickness," he said wisely, "by giving certain powders and by sticking needles into arms, but to give medicine for the sickness when madness comes is useless-so I have heard the fathers at the station say, because madness only comes when the man is near death."

"He was well last night," said a hushed voice. "There are many devils in the forest, let us ask him what he has seen."

So a deputation went to the screaming, writhing figure that lay trussed and tied on the ground, and spoke with him. They found some difficulty in gaining an opening, for he jabbered and mouthed and laughed and yelled incessantly.

"On the question of devils," at last Elebi said.

"Devils," screeched the madman. "Yi! I saw six devils with fire in their mouths-death to you, Elebi! Dog--"

He said other things which were not clean.

"If there were water here," mused Elebi, "we might drown him; since there is only the forest and the earth, carry him away from the camp, and I will make him silent."

So they carried the lunatic away, eight strong men swaying through the forest, and they came back, leaving Elebi alone with his patient. The cries ceased suddenly and Elebi returned, wiping his hands on his leopard skin.

"Let us sleep," said Elebi, and lay down.

Before the dawn came up the party were on the move.

They marched less than a mile from their camping ground and then faltered and stopped.

"There is no sign, lord," the leader reported, and Elebi called him a fool and went to investigate.

But there was no red flannel, not a sign of it. They went on another mile without success.

"We have taken the wrong path, let us return," said Elebi, and the party retraced its steps to the camp they had abandoned. That day was spent in exploring the country for three miles on either side, but there was no welcome blaze to show the trail.

"We are all N'Gombi men," said Elebi, "let us to-morrow go forward, keeping the sun at our back; the forest has no terrors for the N'Gombi folk-yet I cannot understand why the white man's magic failed."

"Devils!" muttered his lieutenant sullenly.

Elebi eyed him thoughtfully.

"Devils sometimes desire sacrifices," he said with significance, "the wise goat does not bleat when the priest approaches the herd."

In the morning a great discovery was made. A crumpled piece of flannel was found on the outskirts of the camp. It lay in the very centre of a path, and Elebi shouted in his joy.

Again the caravan started on the path. A mile farther along another little red patch caught his eye, half a mile beyond, another.

Yet none of these were where he had placed them, and they all bore evidence of rude handling, which puzzled the lay brother sorely. Sometimes the little rags would be missing altogether, but a search party would come upon one some distance off the track, and the march would go on.

Near sunset Elebi halted suddenly and pondered. Before him ran his long shadow; the sun was behind him when it ought to have been in front.

"We are going in the wrong direction," he said, and the men dropped their loads and stared at him.

"Beyond any doubt," said Elebi after a pause, "this is the work of devils-let us pray."

He prayed aloud earnestly for twenty minutes, and darkness had fallen before he had finished.

They camped that night on the spot where the last red guide was, and in the morning they returned the way they had come. There was plenty of provision, but water was hard to come by, and therein lay the danger. Less than a mile they had gone before the red rags had vanished completely, and they wandered helplessly in a circle.

"This is evidently a matter not for prayer, but for sacrifice," concluded Elebi, so they slew one of the guides.

Three nights later, O'Sako, the friend of Elebi, crawled stealthily to the place where Elebi was sleeping, and settled the dispute which had arisen during the day as to who was in command of the expedition.

* * *

"Master," said Bosambo of Monrovia, "all that you ordered me to do, that I did."

Sanders sat before the chief's hut in his camp chair and nodded.

"When your word came that I should find Elebi-he being an enemy of the Government and disobeying your word-I took fifty of my young men and followed on his tracks. At first the way was easy, because he had tied strips of cloth to the trees to guide him on the backward journey, but afterwards it was hard, for the N'Kema that live in the wood--"

"Monkeys?" Sanders raised his eyebrows.

"Monkeys, master," Bosambo nodded his head, "the little black monkeys of the forest who love bright colours-they had come down from their trees and torn away the cloths and taken them to their houses after the fashion of the monkey people. Thus Elebi lost himself and with him his men, for I found their bones, knowing the way of the forest."

"What else did you find?" asked Sanders.

"Nothing, master," said Bosambo, looking him straight in the eye.

"That is probably a lie!" said Sanders.

Bosambo thought of the ivory buried beneath the floor of his hut and did not contradict him.

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