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   Chapter 10 THE LOVES OF M'LINO.

Sanders of the River By Edgar Wallace Characters: 26782

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02


When a man loves one woman, whether she be alive or dead, a deep and fragrant memory or a very pleasant reality, he is apt to earn the appellation of "woman-hater," a hasty judgment which the loose-minded pass upon any man whose loves lack promiscuosity, and who does not diffuse his passions. Sanders was described as a woman-hater by such men who knew him sufficiently little to analyse his character, but Sanders was not a woman-hater in any sense of the word, for he bore no illwill toward woman kind, and certainly was innocent of any secret love.

There was a young man named Ludley who had been assistant to Sanders for three months, at the end of which time Sanders sent for him-he was stationed at Isisi City.

"I think you can go home," said Sanders.

The young man opened his eyes in astonishment.

"Why?" he said.

Sanders made no reply, but stared through the open doorway at the distant village.

"Why?" demanded the young man again.

"I've heard things," said Sanders shortly-he was rather uncomfortable, but did not show it.

"Things-like what?"

Sanders shifted uneasily in his chair.

"Oh-things," he said vaguely, and added: "You go home and marry that nice girl you used to rave about when you first came out."

Young Ludley went red under his tan.

"Look here, chief!" he said, half angrily, half apologetically, "you're surely not going to take any notice-you know it's the sort of thing that's done in black countries-oh, damn it all, you're not going to act as censor over my morals, are you?"

Sanders looked at the youth coldly.

"Your morals aren't worth worrying about," he said truthfully. "You could be the most depraved devil in the world-which I'll admit you aren't-and I should not trouble to reform you. No. It's the morals of my cannibals that worry me. Home you go, my son; get married, crescit sub pondere virtus-you'll find the translation in the foreign phrase department of any respectable dictionary. As to the sort of things that are done in black countries, they don't do them in our black countries-monkey tricks of that sort are good enough for the Belgian Congo, or for Togoland, but they aren't good enough for this little strip of wilderness."

Ludley went home.

He did not tell anybody the real reason why he had come home, because it would not have sounded nice. He was a fairly decent boy, as boys of his type go, and he said nothing worse about Sanders than that he was a woman-hater.

The scene that followed his departure shows how little the white mind differs from the black in its process of working. For, after seeing his assistant safely embarked on a homeward-bound boat, Sanders went up the river to Isisi, and there saw a woman who was called M'Lino.

The average black woman is ugly of face, but beautiful of figure, but M'Lino was no ordinary woman, as you shall learn. The Isisi people, who keep extraordinary records in their heads, the information being handed from father to son, say that M'Lino came from an Arabi family, and certainly if a delicately-chiselled nose, a refinement of lip, prove anything, they prove M'Lino came from no pure Bantu stock.

She came to Sanders when he sent for her, alert, suspicious, very much on her guard.

Before he could speak, she asked him a question.

"Lord, where is Lijingii?" This was the nearest the native ever got to the pronunciation of Ludley's name.

"Lijingii has gone across the black water," said Sanders gently, "to his own people."

"You sent him, lord," she said quickly, and Sanders made no reply.

"Lord," she went on, and Sanders wondered at the bitterness in her tone, "it is said that you hate women."

"Then a lie is told," said Sanders. "I do not hate women; rather I greatly honour them, for they go down to the caves of hell when they bear children; also I regard them highly because they are otherwise brave and very loyal."

She said nothing. Her head was sunk till her chin rested on her bare, brown breast, but she looked at him from under her brows, and her eyes were filled with a strange luminosity. Something like a panic awoke in Sanders' heart-had the mischief been done? He cursed Ludley, and breathed a fervent, if malevolent, prayer that his ship would go down with him. But her words reassured him.

"I made Lijingii love me," she said, "though he was a great lord, and I was a slave; I also would have gone down to hell, for some day I hoped I should bear him children, but now that can never be."

"And thank the Lord for it!" said Sanders, under his breath.

He would have given her some words of cheer, but she turned abruptly from him and walked away. Sanders watched the graceful figure as it receded down the straggling street, and went back to his steamer.

He was ten miles down the river before he remembered that the reproof he had framed for the girl had been undelivered.

"That is very extraordinary," said Sanders, with some annoyance, "I must be losing my memory."

Three months later young Penson came out from England to take the place of the returned Ludley. He was a fresh-faced youth, bubbling over with enthusiasm, and, what is more important, he had served a two-years' apprenticeship at Sierra Leone.

"You are to go up to Isisi," said Sanders, "and I want to tell you that you've got to be jolly careful."

"What's the racket?" demanded the youth eagerly. "Are the beggars rising?"

"So far as I know," said Sanders, putting his feet up on the rail of the verandah, "they are not-it is not bloodshed, but love that you've got to guard against."

And he told the story of M'Lino, even though it was no creditable story to British administration.

"You can trust me," said young Penson, when he had finished.

"I trust you all right," said Sanders, "but I don't trust the woman-let me hear from you from time to time; if you don't write about her I shall get suspicious, and I'll come along in a very unpleasant mood."

"You can trust me," said young Penson again; for he was at the age when a man is very sure of himself.

Remarkable as it may read, from the moment he left to take up his new post until he returned to headquarters, in disgrace, a few months later, he wrote no word of the straight, slim girl, with her wonderful eyes. Other communications came to hand, official reports, terse and to the point, but no mention of M'Lino, and Sanders began to worry.

The stories came filtering through, extraordinary stories of people who had been punished unjustly, of savage floggings administered by order of the sub-commissioner, and Sanders took boat and travelled up the river hec dum.

He landed short of the town, and walked along the river bank. It was not an easy walk, because the country hereabouts is a riot of vegetation. Then he came upon an African idyll-a young man, who sat playing on a squeaky violin, for the pleasure of M'Lino, lying face downwards on the grass, her chin in her hands.

"In the name of a thousand devils!" said Sanders wrathfully; and the boy got up from the fallen tree on which he sat, and looked at him calmly, and with no apparent embarrassment. Sanders looked down at the girl and pointed.

"Go back to the village, my woman," he said softly, for he was in a rage.

"Now, you magnificent specimen of a white man," he said, when the girl had gone-slowly and reluctantly-"what is this story I hear about your flogging O'Sako?"

The youth took his pipe from his pocket and lit it coolly.

"He beat M'Lino," he said, in the tone of one who offered full justification.

"From which fact I gather that he is the unfortunate husband of that attractive nigger lady you were charming just now when I arrived?"

"Don't be beastly," said the other, scowling. "I know she's a native and all that sort of thing, but my people at home will get used to her colour--"

"Go on board my boat," said Sanders quietly. "Regard yourself as my prisoner."

Sanders brought him down to headquarters without troubling to investigate the flogging of O'Sako, and no word passed concerning M'Lino till they were back again at headquarters.

"Of course I shall send you home," said Sanders.

"I supposed you would," said the other listlessly. He had lost all his self-assurance on the journey down river, and was a very depressed young man indeed.

"I must have been mad," he admitted, the day before the mail boat called en route for England; "from the very first I loved her-good heavens, what an ass I am!"

"You are," agreed Sanders, and saw him off to the ship with a cheerful heart.

"I will have no more sub-commissioners at Isisi," he wrote acidly to the Administration. "I find my work sufficiently entertaining without the additional amusement of having to act as chaperon to British officials."

He made a special journey to Isisi to straighten matters out, and M'Lino came unbidden to see him.

"Lord, is he gone, too?" she asked.

"When I want you, M'Lino," said Sanders, "I will send for you."

"I loved him," she said, with more feeling than Sanders thought was possible for a native to show.

"You are an easy lover," said Sanders.

She nodded.

"That is the way with some women," she said. "When I love, I love with terrible strength; when I hate, I hate for ever and ever-I hate you, master!"

She said it very simply.

"If you were a man," said the exasperated Commissioner, "I would tie you up and whip you."

"F-f-b!" said the girl contemptuously, and left him staring.

To appreciate the position, you have to realise that Sanders was lord of all this district; that he had the power of life and death, and no man dared question or disobey his word. Had M'Lino been a man, as he said, she would have suffered for her treason-there is no better word for her offence-but she was a woman, and a seriously gifted woman, and, moreover, sure of whatever powers she had.

He did not see her again during the three days he was in the city, nor (this is the extraordinary circumstance) did he discuss her with the chief. He learned that she had become the favourite wife of O'Sako; that she had many lovers and scorned her husband, but he sought no news of her. Once he saw her walking towards him, and went out of his way to avoid her. It was horribly weak and he knew it, but he had no power to resist the impulse that came over him to give her a wide berth.

Following this visit, Sanders was coming down stream at a leisurely pace, he himself at the steering wheel, and his eyes searching the treacherous river for sand banks. His mind was filled with the problem of M'Lino, when suddenly in the bush that fringes the Isisi river, something went "woof," and the air was filled with flying potlegs. One struck his cabin, and splintered a panel to shreds, many fell upon the water, one missed Sergeant Abiboo's head and sent his tarbosh flying.

Sanders rang his engines astern, being curious to discover what induced the would-be assassin to fire a blunderbuss in his direction, and Abiboo, bare-headed, went pattering forward and slipped the canvas cover from the gleaming little Maxim.

Then four Houssa soldiers jumped into the water and waded ashore, holding their rifles above their heads with the one hand and their ammunition in the other, and Sanders stood by the rail of the boat, balancing a sporting Lee-Enfield in the crook of his arm.

Whoever fired the shot had chosen the place of killing very well. The bush was very thick, the approach to land lay through coarse grass that sprang from the swamp, vegetation ran rank, and a tangle of creeper formed a screen that would have been impenetrable to a white man.

But the Houssas had a way-they found the man with his smoking gun, waiting calmly.

He was of the Isisi people-a nation of philosophers-and he surrendered his weapon without embarrassment.

"I think," he said to Sergeant Abiboo, as they hurried down the bank to the river-side, "this means death."

"Death and the torments of hell to follow," said Abiboo, who was embittered by the loss of his tarbosh, which had cost him five francs in the French territory.

Sanders put up his rifle when he saw the prisoner. He held an informal court in the shattered deck cabin.

"Did you shoot at me?" he asked.

"I did, master," said the man.

"Why?"

"Because," the prisoner replied, "you are a devil and exercise witchcraft."

Sanders was puzzled a little.

"In what particular section of the devil department have I been busy?" he asked in the vernacular.

The prisoner was gazing at him steadily.

"Master," he replied, "it is not my business to understand these things. It is said to me, 'kill'-and I kill."

Sanders wasted no more time in vain questions. The man was put in irons, the nose of the steamer turned again down stream, and the Commissioner resumed his vigil.

Midway between B'Fani and Lakaloli he came to a tying-up place. Here there were dead trees for the chopping, and he put his men to replenish his stock of fuel.

He was annoyed, not because a man had attempted to take his life, nor even because his neat little cabin forward was a litter of splinters and broken glass where the potleg had struck, but because he nosed trouble where he thought all was peace and harmony.

He had control of some sixteen distinct and separate nations, each isolated and separated from the

other by custom and language. They were distinct, not as the French are from the Italian, but as the Slav is from the Turk.

In the good old times before the English came there were many wars, tribe against tribe, people against people. There were battles, murders, raidings, and wholesale crucifixions, but the British changed all that. There was peace in the land.

Sanders selected with care a long, thin cigar from his case, nibbled at the end and lit it.

The prisoner sat on the steel deck of the Zaire near the men's quarters. He was chained by the leg-iron to a staple, and did not seem depressed to any extent. When Sanders made his appearance, a camp stool in his hand, the Commissioner seated himself, and began his inquisition.

"How do they call you, my man?"

"Bofabi of Isisi."

"Who told you to kill me?"

"Lord, I forget."

"A man or a woman?"

"Lord, it may have been either."

More than that Sanders could not learn, and the subsequent examination at Isisi taught Sanders nothing, for, when confronted with M'Lino, the man said that he did not know her.

Sanders went back to his base in a puzzled frame of mind, and Bofabi of Isisi was sent to the convict establishment at the river's mouth. There matters stood for three months, and all that Sanders learnt of the girl was that she had a new lover whose name was Tebeki, and who was chief of the Akasava.

There were three months of peace and calm, and then Tebeki, coveting his neighbour's wife, took three hundred spears down into the Isisi country, burnt the village that sheltered her, crucified her husband, and carried her back with him.

In honour of this achievement Tebeki gave a feast and a beer dance. There were great and shameless orgies that lasted five days, and the strip of forest that fringes the river between the Isisi and the lower river became a little inferno.

At the end of the five days Tebeki sat down to consider his position. He was in the act of inventing justification for his crime, when Sanders came on the scene. More ominous were the ten Houssas and the Maxim which accompanied the brown-faced little man.

Sanders walked to Tebeki's hut and called him out, and Tebeki, blear-eyed and shaky, stepped forth into the hot sunshine, blinking.

"Tebeki," said Sanders, "what of O'Sako and his village?"

"Master," said Tebeki, slowly, "he put shame upon me--"

"Spare me your lies," said Sanders coldly, and signed to the Houssas.

Then he looked round for a suitable tree. There was one behind the hut-a great copal-gum.

"In half an hour I shall hang you," said Sanders, looking at his watch.

Tebeki said nothing; only his bare feet fidgeted in the dust.

There came out of the hut a tall girl, who stood eyeing the group with curiosity; then she came forward, and laid her hand on Tebeki's bare shoulder.

"What will you do with my man?" she asked. "I am M'Lino, the wife of O'Sako."

Sanders was not horrified, he showed his teeth in a mirthless grin and looked at her.

"You will find another man, M'Lino," he said, "as readily as you found this one." Then he turned away to give directions for the hanging. But the woman followed him, and boldly laid her hand on his arm.

"Master," she said, "if any was wronged by O'Sako's death, was it not I, his wife? Yet I say let Tebeki go free, for I love him."

"You may go to the devil," said Sanders politely; "I am getting tired of you and your lovers."

He hanged Tebeki, expeditiously and with science, and the man died immediately, because Sanders was very thorough in this sort of business. Then he and the Houssa corps marched away, and the death song of the woman sounded fainter and fainter as the forest enveloped him. He camped that night on the Hill of Trees, overlooking the sweeping bend of the river, and in the morning his orderly came to tell him that the wife of O'Sako desired to see him.

Sanders cursed the wife of O'Sako, but saw her.

She opened her mission without preliminary.

"Because of the death I brought to O'Sako, my husband, and Tebeki, my lover, the people have cast me forth," she said. "Every hand is against me, and if I stay in this country I shall die."

"Well?" said Sanders.

"So I will go with you, until you reach the Sangar River, which leads to the Congo. I have brothers there."

"All this may be true," said Sanders dispassionately; "on the other hand, I know that your heart is filled with hate because I have taken two men from you, and hanged a third. Nevertheless, you shall come with us as far as the Sangar River, but you shall not touch the 'chop' of my men, nor shall you speak with them."

She nodded and left him, and Sanders issued orders for her treatment.

In the middle of the night Abiboo, who, in addition to being Sanders' servant, was a sergeant of the Houssas, came to Sanders' tent, and the Commissioner jumped out of bed and mechanically reached for his Express.

"Leopards?" he asked briefly.

"Master," said Sergeant Abiboo, "it is the woman M'Lino-she is a witch."

"Sergeant," said the exasperated Sanders, "if you wake me up in the middle of the night with that sort of talk, I will break your infernal head."

"Be that as it may, master," said the sergeant stolidly, "she is a witch, for she has talked with my men and done many wonderful things-such as causing them to behold their children and far-away scenes."

"Have I an escort of babies?" asked Sanders despairingly. "I wish," he went on, with quiet savageness, "I had chosen Kroomen or Bushmen"-the sergeant winced-"or the mad people of the Isisi River, before I took a half-company of the King's Houssas."

The sergeant gulped down the insult, saying nothing.

"Bring the woman to me," said Sanders. He scrambled into his clothing, and lit his tent lantern.

After a while he heard the pattering of bare feet, and the girl came into his tent, and regarded him quietly.

"M'Lino," said Sanders, "I told you that you were not to speak with my men."

"Lord," she said, "they spoke with me first."

"Is this true?"

The sergeant at the tent door nodded. "Tembeli, the son of Sekambano, spoke with her, thus disobeying orders, and the other men followed," he said.

"Bushmen by gad!" fumed Sanders. "You will take Tembeli, the son of Sekambano, tie him to a tree, and give him twenty lashes."

The sergeant saluted, produced a tawdry little notebook, all brass binding and gold edges, and made a laborious note.

"As for you," said Sanders to the woman, "you drop your damned bush-mesmerism, or I'll treat you in the same way-alaki?"

"Yes, lord," she said meekly, and departed.

Two Houssas tied Tembeli to a tree, and the sergeant gave him twenty-one with a pliable hippo-hide-the extra one being the sergeant's perquisite.

In the morning the sergeant reported that Tembeli had died in the night, and Sanders worried horribly.

"It isn't the flogging," he said; "he has had the chicotte before."

"It is the woman," said the sergeant wisely. "She is a witch; I foresaw this when she joined the column."

They buried Tembeli, the son of Sekambano, and Sanders wrote three reports of the circumstances of the death, each of which he tore up.

Then he marched on.

That night the column halted near a village, and Sanders sent the woman, under escort, to the chief, with orders to see her safely to the Sangar River. In half an hour she returned, with the escort, and Sergeant Abiboo explained the circumstances.

"The chief will not take her in, being afraid."

"Afraid?" Sanders spluttered in his wrath; "Afraid? What is he afraid of?"

"Her devilry," said the sergeant; "the lo-koli has told him the story of Tebeki, and he will not have her."

Sanders swore volubly for five minutes; then he went off to interview the chief of the village.

The interview was short and to the point. Sanders knew this native very well, and made no mistakes.

"Chief," he said at the end of the palaver, "two things I may do; one is to punish you for your disobedience, and the other is to go on my way."

"Master," said the other earnestly, "if you give my village to the fire, yet I would not take the woman M'Lino."

"So much I realise," said Sanders; "therefore I will go on my way."

He marched at dawn on the following day, the woman a little ahead of the column, and under his eye. Halting for a "chop" and rest at mid-day, a man of the Houssas came to him and said there was a dead man hanging from a tree in the wood. Sanders went immediately with the man to the place of the hanging, for he was responsible for the peace of the district.

"Where?" he asked, and the man pointed to a straight gum-tree that stood by itself in a clearing.

"Where?" asked Sanders again, for there was no evidence of tragedy. The man still pointed at the tree, and Sanders frowned.

"Go forward and touch his foot," said the Commissioner, and, after a little hesitation, the soldier walked slowly to the tree and put out his hand. But he touched nothing but air, as far as Sanders could see.

"You are mad," he said, and whistled for the sergeant.

"What do you see there?" asked Sanders, and the sergeant replied instantly:

"Beyond the hanging man--"

"There is no hanging man," said Sanders coolly-for he began to appreciate the need for calm reasoning-"nothing but a tree and some shadows."

The Houssa looked puzzled, and turned a grave face to his.

"Master, there is a man hanging," he said.

"That is so," said Sanders quietly; "we must investigate this matter." And he signed for the party to return to the camp.

On the way he asked carelessly if the sergeant had spoken with the woman M'Lino.

"I saw her, but she did not speak, except with her eyes."

Sanders nodded. "Tell me," he said, "where did you bury Tembeli, the son of Sekambano?"

"Master, we left him, in accordance with our custom, on the ground at the foot of a tree."

Sanders nodded again, for this is not the custom of the Houssas.

"We will go back on our tracks to the camping place where the woman came to us," he said.

They marched until sundown, and whilst two men pitched his tent Sanders strolled round the little camp. The men were sitting about their cooking-pots, but the woman M'Lino sat apart, her elbows on her knees, her face between her hands.

"M'Lino," he said to her, halting suddenly before her, "how many men have you killed in your life?"

She looked at him long and fixedly, and he returned the stare; then she dropped her eyes. "Many men," she said.

"So I think," said Sanders.

He was eating his dinner when Abiboo came slowly toward him.

"Master, the man has died," he said.

Sanders looked at him narrowly.

"Which man?"

"The man you chicotted with your own hand," said Abiboo.

Now, the Commissioner had neither chicotted a man, nor had he ordered punishment, but he replied in a matter-of-fact tone, "I will see him."

On the edge of the camp there was a little group about a prostrate figure. The Houssas fell apart with black looks as Sanders came near, and there was some muttering. Though Sanders did not see it, M'Lino looked strangely at Ahmid, a Houssa, who took up his rifle and went stealthily into the bush.

The Commissioner bent over the man who lay there, felt his breast, and detected no beat of heart.

"Get me my medicine chest," he said, but none obeyed him.

"Sergeant," he repeated, "bring my medicine chest!"

Abiboo saluted slowly, and, with every appearance of reluctance, went.

He came back with the case of undressed skin, and Sanders opened it, took out the ammonia bottle, and applied it to the man's nose. He made no sign.

"We shall see," was all that Sanders said when the experiment failed. He took a hypodermic syringe and filled the little tube with a solution of strychnine. This he jabbed unceremoniously into the patient's back. In a minute the corpse sat up, jerkily.

"Ha!" said Sanders, cheerfully; "I am evidently a great magician!"

He rose to his feet, dusted his knees, and beckoned the sergeant.

"Take four men and return to the place where you left Tembeli. If the leopards have not taken him, you will meet him on the road, because by this time he will have waked up."

He saw the party march off, then turned his attention to M'Lino.

"My woman," he said, "it is evident to me that you are a witch, although I have met your like before"-it was observed that the face of Sanders was very white. "I cannot flog you, because you are a woman, but I can kill you."

She laughed.

Their eyes met in a struggle for mastery, and so they stared at one another for a space of time which seemed to Sanders a thousand years, but which was in all probability less than a minute.

"It would be better if you killed yourself," she said.

"I think so," said Sanders dully, and fumbled for his revolver.

It was half drawn, his thumb on the hammer, when a rifle banged in the bushes and the woman fell forward without a word.

Ahmid, the Houssa, was ever a bad shot.

* * *

"I believe," said Sanders, later, "that you took your rifle to kill me, being under the influence of M'Lino, so I will make no bad report against you."

"Master," said the Houssa simply, "I know nothing of the matter."

"That I can well believe," said Sanders, and gave the order to march.

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