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   Chapter 11 THE WITCH-DOCTOR.

Sanders of the River By Edgar Wallace Characters: 24142

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02


Nothing surprised Sanders except the ignorance of the average stay-at-home Briton on all matters pertaining to the savage peoples of Africa. Queer things happened in the "black patch"-so the coast officials called Sanders' territory-miraculous, mysterious things, but Sanders was never surprised. He had dealings with folks who believed in ghosts and personal devils, and he sympathised with them, realising that it is very difficult to ascribe all the evils of life to human agencies.

Sanders was an unquiet man, or so his constituents thought him, and a little mad; this also was the native view. Worst of all, there was no method in his madness.

Other commissioners might be depended upon to arrive after the rains, sending word ahead of their coming. This was a good way-the Isisi, the Ochori, and the N'Gombi people, everlastingly at issue, were agreed upon this-because, with timely warning of the Commissioner's approach, it was possible to thrust out of sight the ugly evidence of fault, to clean up and make tidy the muddle of folly.

It was bad to step sheepishly forth from your hut into the clear light of the rising sun, with all the débris of an overnight feast mutely testifying to your discredit, and face the cold, unwavering eyes of a little brown-faced man in immaculate white. The switch he carried in his hand would be smacking his leg suggestively, and there were always four Houssa soldiers in blue and scarlet in the background, immobile, but alert, quick to obey.

Once Sanders came to a N'Gombi village at dawn, when by every known convention he should have been resting in his comfortable bungalow some three hundred miles down river.

Sanders came strolling through the village street just as the sun topped the trees and long shadows ran along the ground before the flood of lemon-coloured light.

The village was silent and deserted, which was a bad sign, and spoke of overnight orgies. Sanders walked on until he came to the big square near the palaver house, and there the black ruin of a dead fire smoked sullenly.

Sanders saw something that made him go raking amongst the embers.

"Pah!" said Sanders, with a wry face.

He sent back to the steamer for the full force of his Houssa guard, then he walked into the chief's hut and kicked him till he woke.

He came out blinking and shivering, though the morning was warm.

"Telemi, son of O'ari," said Sanders, "tell me why I should not hang you-man-eater and beast."

"Lord," said the chief, "we chopped this man because he was an enemy, stealing into the village at night, and carrying away our goats and our dogs. Besides which, we did not know that you were near by."

"I can believe that," said Sanders.

A lo-koli beat the villages to wakefulness, and before a silent assembly the headman of the N'Gombi village was scientifically flogged.

Then Sanders called the elders together and said a few words of cheer and comfort.

"Only hyenas and crocodiles eat their kind," he said, "also certain fishes." (There was a general shudder, for amongst the N'Gombi to be likened to a fish is a deadly insult.) "Cannibals I do not like, and they are hated by the King's Government. Therefore when it comes to my ears-and I have many spies-that you chop man, whether he be enemy or friend, I will come quickly and I will flog sorely; and if it should again happen I will bring with me a rope, and I will find me a tree, and there will be broken huts in this land."

Again they shuddered at the threat of the broken hut, for it is the custom of the N'Gombi to break down the walls of a dead man's house to give his spirit free egress.

Sanders carried away with him the chief of the village, with leg-irons at his ankles, and in course of time the prisoner arrived at a little labour colony on the coast, where he worked for five years in company with other indiscreet headmen who were suffering servitude for divers offences.

They called Sanders in the Upper River districts by a long and sonorous name, which may be euphemistically translated as "The man who has a faithless wife," the little joke of Bosambo, chief of the Ochori, and mightily subtle because Sanders was wedded to his people.

North and south, east and west, he prowled. He travelled by night and by day. Sometimes his steamer would go threshing away up river, and be watched out of sight by the evil-doing little fishing-villages.

"Go you," said Sarala, who was a little headman of the Akasava, "go you three hours' journey in your canoe and watch the river for Sandi's return. And at first sign of his steamer-which you may see if you climb the hill at the river's bend-come back and warn me, for I desire to follow certain customs of my father in which Sandi has no pleasure."

He spoke to two of his young men and they departed. That night by the light of a fire, to the accompaniment of dancing and drum-beating, the son of the headman brought his firstborn, ten hours old, squealing noisily, as if with knowledge of the doom ahead, and laid it at his father's feet.

"People," said the little chief, "it is a wise saying of all, and has been a wise saying since time began, that the firstborn has a special virtue; so that if we sacrifice him to sundry gods and devils, good luck will follow us in all our doings."

He said a word to the son, who took a broad-bladed spear and began turning the earth until he had dug a little grave. Into this, alive, the child was laid, his little feet kicking feebly against the loose mould.

"Oh, gods and devils," invoked the old man, "we shed no blood, that this child may come to you unblemished."

The son stirred a heap of loose earth with his foot, so that it fell over the baby's legs; then into the light of the fire stepped Sanders, and the chief's son fell back.

Sanders was smoking a thin cigar, and he smoked for fully a minute without saying a word, and a minute was a very long time. Then he stepped to the grave, stooped, and lifted the baby up awkwardly, for he was more used to handling men than babes, gave it a little shake to clear it of earth, and handed it to a woman.

"Take the child to its mother," he said, "and tell her to send it to me alive in the morning, otherwise she had best find a new husband."

Then he turned to the old chief and his son.

"Old man," he said, "how many years have you to live?"

"Master," said the old man, "that is for you to say."

Sanders scratched his chin reflectively, and the old man watched him with fear in his eyes.

"You will go to Bosambo, chief of the Ochori, telling him I have sent you, and you shall till his garden, and carry his water until you die," said Sanders.

"I am so old that that will be soon," said the old man.

"If you were younger it would be sooner," said Sanders. "As for your son, we will wait until the morning."

The Houssas in the background marched the younger man to the camp Sanders had formed down river-the boat that had passed had been intended to deceive a chief under suspicion-and in the morning, when the news came that the child was dead-whether from shock, or injury, or exposure, Sanders did not trouble to inquire-the son of the chief was hanged.

I tell these stories of Sanders of the River, that you may grasp the type of man he was and learn something of the work he had to do. If he was quick to punish, he acted in accordance with the spirit of the people he governed, for they had no memory; and yesterday, with its faults, its errors and its teachings, was a very long time ago, and a man resents an unjust punishment for a crime he has forgotten.

It is possible to make a bad mistake, but Sanders never made one, though he was near to doing so once.

Sanders was explaining his point of view in regard to natives to Professor Sir George Carsley, when that eminent scientist arrived unexpectedly at headquarters, having been sent out by the British Government to study tropical disease at first hand.

Sir George was a man of some age, with a face of exceptional pallor and a beard that was snowy white.

"There was a newspaper man who said I treated my people like dogs," said Sanders slowly, for he was speaking in English, a language that was seldom called for. "I believe I do. That is to say, I treat them as if they were real good dogs, not to be petted one minute and kicked the next; not to be encouraged to lie on the drawing-room mat one day, and the next cuffed away from the dining-room hearthrug."

Sir George made no answer. He was a silent man, who had had some experience on the coast, and had lived for years in the solitude of a Central African province, studying the habits of the malarial mosquito.

Sanders was never a great conversationalist, and the three days the professor spent at headquarters were deadly dull ones for the Commissioner.

On one subject alone did the professor grow talkative.

"I want to study the witch-doctor," he said. "I think there is no appointment in the world that would give me a greater sense of power than my appointment by a native people to that post."

Sanders thought the scientist was joking, but the other returned to the subject again and again, gravely, earnestly, and persistently, and for his entertainment Sanders recited all the stories he had ever heard of witch-doctors and their tribe.

"But you don't expect to learn anything from these people?" said Sanders, half in joke.

"On the contrary," said the professor, seriously; "I anticipate making valuable scientific discoveries through my intercourse with them."

"Then you're a silly old ass," said Sanders; but he said it to himself.

The pale professor left him at the end of the fourth day, and beyond an official notification that he had established himself on the border, no further news came of the scientist for six months, until one evening came the news that the pale-faced old man had been drowned by the upsetting of a canoe. He had gone out on a solitary excursion, taking with him some scientific apparatus, and nothing more was heard of him until his birch-bark canoe was discovered, bottom up, floating on the river.

No trace of Sir George was found, and in the course of time Sanders collected the dead man's belongings and forwarded them to England.

There were two remarkable facts about this tragedy, the first being that Sanders found no evidence either in papers or diaries, of the results of any scientific research work performed by the professor other than a small note-book. The second was, that in his little book the scientist had carefully recorded the stories Sanders had told him of witch doctors.

(Sanders recognised at least one story which he had himself invented on the spur of the moment for the professor's entertainment.)

Six more or less peaceful months passed, and then began the series of events which make up the story of the Devil Man.

It began on the Little River.

There was a woman of the Isisi people who hated her husband, though he was very good to her, building her a hut and placing an older wife to wait upon her. He gave her many presents, including a great neck-ring of brass, weighing pounds, that made her the most envied woman on the Isisi River. But her hatred for her husband was unquenched; and one morning she came out from her hut, looking dazed and frightened, and began in a quavering voice to sing the Song of the Dead, mechanically pouring little handfuls of dust on her head, and the villagers went in, to find the man stark and staring, with a twisted grin on his dead face and the pains of hell in his eyes.

In the course of two days they burned the husband in the Middle River; and as the canoe bearing the body swept out of sight round a bend of the river, the woman stepped into the water and laved the dust from her grimy body and stripped the green leaves of mourning from her waist.

Then she walked back to the village with a light step, for the man she hated best was dead and there was an end to it.

Four days later came Sanders, a grim litt

le man, with a thin, brown face and hair inclined to redness.

"M'Fasa," he said, standing at the door of her hut and looking down at her, as with a dogged simulation of indifference she pounded her grain, "they tell me your man has died."

"Lord, that is true," she said. "He died of a sudden sickness."

"Too sudden for my liking," said Sanders, and disappeared into the dark interior of the hut. By and by Sanders came back into the light and looked down on her. In his hand was a tiny glass phial, such as Europeans know very well, but which was a remarkable find in a heathen village.

"I have a fetish," he said, "and my fetish has told me that you poisoned your husband, M'Fasa."

"Your fetish lies," she said, not looking up.

"I will not argue that matter," said Sanders wisely, for he had no proofs beyond his suspicions; and straightway he summoned to him the chief man of the village.

There was a little wait, the woman pounding her corn slowly, with downcast eyes, pausing now and then to wipe the sweat from her forehead with the back of her hand, and Sanders, his helmet on the back of his head, a half-smoked cheroot in his mouth, hands thrust deep into his duck-pockets and an annoyed frown on his face, looking at her.

By and by came the chief tardily, having been delayed by the search for a soldier's scarlet coat, such as he wore on great occasions.

"Master, you sent for me," he said.

Sanders shifted his gaze.

"On second thoughts," he said, "I do not need you."

The chief went away with a whole thanksgiving service in his heart, for there had been certain secret doings on the river for which he expected reprimand.

"M'Fasa, you will go to my boat," said Sanders, and the woman, putting down her mortar, rose and went obediently to the steamer. Sanders followed slowly, having a great many matters to consider. If he denounced this woman to the elders of the village, she would be stoned to death; if he carried her to headquarters and tried her, there was no evidence on which a conviction might be secured. There was no place to which he could deport her, yet to leave her would be to open the way for further mischief.

She awaited him on the deck of the Zaire, a straight, shapely girl of eighteen, fearless, defiant.

"M'Fasa," said Sanders, "why did you kill your husband?"

"Lord, I did not kill him; he died of the sickness," she said, as doggedly as before.

Sanders paced the narrow deck, his head on his breast, for this was a profound problem. Then he looked up.

"You may go," he said; and the woman, a little puzzled, walked along the plank that connected the boat with the shore, and disappeared into the bush.

Three weeks later his spies brought word that men were dying unaccountably on the Upper River. None knew why they died, for a man would sit down strong and full of cheer to his evening meal, and lo! in the morning, when his people went to wake him, he would be beyond waking, being most unpleasantly dead.

This happened in many villages on the Little River.

"It's getting monotonous," said Sanders to the captain of the Houssas. "There is some wholesale poisoning going on, and I am going up to find the gentleman who dispenses the dope."

It so happened that the first case claiming investigation was at Isisi City. It was a woman who had died, and this time Sanders suspected the husband, a notorious evil-doer.

"Okali," he said, coming to the point, "why did you poison your wife?"

"Lord," said the man, "she died of the sickness. In the evening she was well, but at the dark hour before sun came she turned in her sleep saying 'Ah! oh!' and straightway she died."

Sanders drew a long breath.

"Get a rope," he said to one of his men, and when the rope arrived Abiboo scrambled up to the lower branch of a copal-gum and scientifically lashed a block and tackle.

"Okali," said Sanders, "I am going to hang you for the murder of your wife, for I am a busy man and have no time to make inquiries; and if you are not guilty of her murder, yet there are many other abominable deeds you have been guilty of, therefore I am justified in hanging you."

The man was grey with terror when they slipped the noose over his neck and strapped his hands behind him.

"Lord, she was a bad wife to me and had many lovers," he stammered. "I did not mean to kill her, but the Devil Man said that such medicine would make her forget her lovers--"

"Devil Man! What Devil Man?" asked Sanders quickly.

"Lord, there is a devil greatly respected in these parts, who wanders in the forest all the time and gives many curious medicines."

"Where is he to be found?"

"Lord, none know. He comes and goes, like a grey ghost, and he has a fetish more powerful than a thousand ordinary devils. Master, I gave the woman, my wife, that which he gave to me, and she died. How might I know that she would die?"

"Cheg'li," said Sanders shortly to the men at the rope-end, and cheg'li in the dialect of the River means "pull."

* * *

"Stop!"

Sanders was in a changeable mood, and a little irritable by reason of the fact that he knew himself to be fickle.

"How came this drug to you? In powder, in liquid, or--"

The man's lips were dry. He could do no more than shake his head helplessly.

"Release him," said Sanders; and Abiboo loosened the noose and unstrapped the man's hands.

"If you have lied to me," said Sanders, "you die at sunset. First let me hear more of this Devil Man, for I am anxious to make his acquaintance."

He gave the man ten minutes to recover from the effects of his fear, then sent for him.

"Lord," said he, "I know nothing of the Devil Man save that he is the greatest witch-doctor in the world, and on nights when the moon is up and certain stars are in their places he comes like a ghost, and we are all afraid. Then those of us who need him go forth into the forest, and he gives to us according to our desires."

"How carried he the drug?"

"Lord, it was in a crystal rod, such as white men carry their medicines in. I will bring it to you."

He went back to his hut and returned a few minutes later with a phial, the fellow to that which was already in Sanders' possession. The Commissioner took it and smelt at the opening. There was the faintest odour of almonds, and Sanders whistled, for he recognised the after-scent of cyanide of potassium, which is not such a drug as untutored witch-doctors know, much less employ.

* * *

"I can only suggest," wrote Sanders to headquarters, "that by some mischance the medicine chest of the late Sir George Carsley has come into the possession of a native 'doctor.' You will remember that the chest was with the professor when he was drowned. It has possibly been washed up and discovered.... In the meantime, I am making diligent inquiries as to the identity of the Devil Man, who seems to have leapt into fame so suddenly."

There were sleepless nights ahead for Sanders, nights of swift marchings and doublings, of quick runs up the river, of unexpected arrivals in villages, of lonely vigils in the forest and by strange pools. But he had no word of the Devil Man, though he learnt many things of interest. Most potent of his magical possessions was a box, "so small," said one who had seen it, and indicated a six-inch square. In this box dwelt a small and malicious god who pinched and scratched (yet without leaving a mark), who could stick needles into the human body and never draw blood.

"I give it up," said Sanders in despair, and went back to his base to think matters out.

He was sitting at dinner one night, when far away on the river the drum beat. It was not the regular lo-koli roll, but a series of staccato tappings, and, stepping softly to the door, the Commissioner listened.

He had borrowed the Houssa signalling staff from headquarters, and stationed them at intervals along the river. On a still night the tapping of a drum carries far, but the rattle of iron-wood sticks on a hollowed tree-trunk carries farthest of all.

"Clok-clok, clockitty-clock."

It sounded like the far-away croaking of a bull-frog; but Sanders picked out the letters:

"Devil Man sacrifices to-morrow night in the Forest of Dreams."

As he jotted down the message on the white sleeve of his jacket, Abiboo came running up the path.

"I have heard," said Sanders briefly. "There is steam in the pucapuc?"

"We are ready, master," said the man.

Sanders waited only to take a hanging revolver from the wall and throw his overcoat over his arm, for his travelling kit was already deposited on the Zaire, and had been for three days.

In the darkness the sharp nose of his little boat swung out to the stream, and ten minutes after the message came the boat was threshing a way against the swift river.

All night long the steamer went on, tacking from bank to bank to avoid the shoals.

Dawn found her at a wooding, where her men, working at fever speed, piled logs on her deck until she had the appearance of a timber-boat.

Then off again, stopping only to secure news of the coming sacrifice from the spies who were scattered up and down the river.

Sanders reached the edge of the Dream Forest at midnight and tied up. He had ten Houssa policemen with him, and at the head of these he stepped ashore into the blackness of the forest. One of the soldiers went ahead to find the path and keep it, and in single file the little force began its two-hour march. Once they came upon two leopards fighting; once they stumbled over a buffalo sleeping in their path. Twice they disturbed strange beasts that slunk into the shadows as they passed, and came snuffling after them, till Sanders flashed a white beam from his electric lamp in their direction. Eventually they came stealthily to the place of sacrifice.

There were at least six hundred people squatting in a semi-circle before a rough altar built of logs. Two huge fires blazed and crackled on either side of the altar; but Sanders' eyes were for the Devil Man, who leant over the body of a young girl, apparently asleep, stretched upon the logs.

Once the Devil Man had worn the garb of civilisation; now he was clothed in rags. He stood in his grimy shirt-sleeves, his white beard wild and uncombed, his pale face tense, and a curious light in his eyes. In his hand was a bright scalpel, and he was speaking-and, curiously enough, in English.

"This, gentlemen," said he, leaning easily against the rude altar, and speaking with the assurance of one who had delivered many such lectures, "is a bad case of trynosomiasis. You will observe the discoloration of skin, the opalescent pupils, and now that I have placed the patient under anaesthetics you will remark the misplacement of the cervical glands, which is an invariable symptom."

He paused and looked benignly around.

"I may say that I have lived for a great time amongst native people. I occupied the honourable position of witch-doctor in Central Africa--"

He stopped and passed his hand across his brow, striving to recall something; then he picked up the thread of his discourse.

All the time he spoke the half-naked assembly sat silent and awe-stricken, comprehending nothing save that the witch-doctor with the white face, who had come from nowhere and had done many wonderful things-his magic box proved to be a galvanic battery-was about to perform strange rites.

"Gentlemen," the old man went on, tapping the breast of his victim with the handle of his scalpel, "I shall make an incision--"

Sanders came from his place of concealment, and walked steadily towards the extemporised operating-table.

"Professor," he said gently, and the madman looked at him with a puzzled frown.

"You are interrupting the clinic," he said testily; "I am demonstrating--"

"I know, sir."

Sanders took his arm, and Sir George Carsley, a great scientist, consulting surgeon to St. Mark's Hospital, London, and the author of many books on tropical diseases, went with him like a child.

* * *

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