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   Chapter 13 THE SEER.

Sanders of the River By Edgar Wallace Characters: 23762

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02


There are many things that happen in the very heart of Africa that no man can explain; that is why those who know Africa best hesitate to write stories about it.

Because a story about Africa must be a mystery story, and your reader of fiction requires that his mystery shall be, in the end, X-rayed so that the bones of it are visible.

You can no more explain many happenings which are the merest commonplaces in latitude 2° N., longitude (say) 46° W., than you can explain the miracle of faith, or the wonder of telepathy, as this story goes to show.

In the dead of a night Mr. Commissioner Sanders woke.

His little steamer was tied up by a wooding-a wooding he had prepared for himself years before by lopping down trees and leaving them to rot.

He was one day's steam either up or down the river from the nearest village, but he was only six hours' march from the Amatombo folk, who live in the very heart of the forest, and employ arrows poisoned by tetanus.

Sanders sat up in bed and listened.

A night bird chirped monotonously; he heard the "clug-clug" of water under the steamer's bows and the soft rustling of leaves as a gentle breeze swayed the young boughs of the trees that overhung the boat. Very intently he listened, then reached down for his mosquito boots and his socks.

He drew them on, found his flannel coat hanging behind the door of his tiny cabin, and opened the door softly. Then he waited, standing, his head bent.

In the darkness he grinned unpleasantly, and, thumbing back the leather strap that secured the flap of the holster which hung by his bunk he slipped out the Colt-automatic, and noiselessly pulled back the steel envelope.

He was a careful man, not easily flurried, and his every movement was methodical. He was cautious enough to push up the little safety-catch which prevents premature explosion, tidy enough to polish the black barrel on the soft sleeve of his coat, and he waited a long time before he stepped out into the hot darkness of the night.

By and by he heard again the sound which had aroused him. It was the faint twitter of a weaver bird.

Now weaver birds go to sleep at nights like sensible people, and they live near villages, liking the society of human beings. Certainly they do not advertise their presence so brazenly as did this bird, who twittered and twittered at intervals.

Sanders watched patiently.

Then suddenly, from close at hand, from the very deck on which he stood, came an answering call.

Sanders had his little cabin on the bridge of the steamer; he walked farther away from it. In the corner of the bridge he crouched down, his thumb on the safety-catch.

He felt, rather than saw, a man come from the forest; he knew that there was one on board the steamer who met him.

Then creeping round the deck-house came two men. He could just discern the bulk of them as they moved forward till they found the door of the cabin and crept in. He heard a little noise, and grinned again, though he knew that their spear-heads were making sad havoc of his bedclothes.

Then there was a little pause, and he saw one come out by himself and look around.

He turned to speak softly to the man inside.

Sanders rose noiselessly.

The man in the doorway said "Kah!" in a gurgling voice and went down limply, because Sanders had kicked him scientifically in the stomach, which is a native's weak spot. The second man ran out, but fell with a crash over the Commissioner's extended leg, and, falling, received the full weight of a heavy pistol barrel in the neighbourhood of his right ear.

"Yoka!" called Sanders sharply, and there was a patter of feet aft, for your native is a light sleeper, "tie these men up. Get steam, for we will go away from here; it is not a nice place."

Sanders, as I have tried to explain, was a man who knew the native; he thought like a native, and there were moments when he acted not unlike a barbarian.

Clear of the danger, he tied up to a little island in mid-stream just as the dawn spread greyly, and hustled his two prisoners ashore.

"My men," said he, "you came to kill me in the dark hours."

"Lord, that is true," said one, "I came to kill, and this other man, who is my brother, told me when to come-yet it might have been another whom he called, for I am but one of many."

Sanders accepted the fact that a chain of cheerful assassins awaited his advent without any visible demonstration of annoyance.

"Now you will tell me," he said, "who gave the word for the killing, and why I must die."

The man he addressed, a tall, straight youth of the Amatombo people, wiped the sweat from his forehead with his manacled hands.

"Lord, though you chop me," he said, "I will not tell you, for I have a great ju-ju, and there are certain fetishes which would be displeased."

Sanders tried the other man with no greater success. This other was a labourer he had taken on at a village four days' journey down stream.

"Lord, if I die for my silence I will say nothing," he said.

"Very good," said Sanders, and nodded his head to Abiboo. "I shall stake you out," he added, "flat on the ground, your legs and arms outstretched, and I will light a little fire on your chests, and by and by you will tell me all I want to know."

Staked out they were, with fluffy little balls of dried creeper on each breast, and Sanders took a lighted stick from the fire his servants had built.

The men on the ground watched his every movement. They saw him blow the red stick to a flame and advance toward them, then one said-

"Lord, I will speak."

"So I thought," said Sanders; "and speak truth, or I will make you uncomfortable."

If you ask me whether Sanders would have employed his lighted stick, I answer truthfully that I think it possible; perhaps Sanders knew his men better than I know Sanders.

The two men, released from their unhappy position, talked frankly, and Sanders was a busy man taking notes in English of the conversation which was mainly in Bomongo.

When his interrogation was completed, Sanders gathered up his notes and had the men taken on board the steamer. Two hours later the Zaire was moving at its fullest speed in the direction of a village of the Akasava, which is called in the native tongue Tukalala.

There was a missionary to Tukalala, a devoted young American Methodist, who had elected to live in the fever belt amongst heathen men that he might bring their hearts to the knowledge of God.

Sanders had no special regard for missionaries; indeed, he had views on the brotherhood which did him no particular credit, but he had an affection for the young man who laboured so cheerfully with such unpromising material, and now he paced the little bridge of his steamer impatiently, for it was very necessary that he should reach Tukalala before certain things happened.

He came round a bend of the little river just as the sun was going down behind the trees on the western bank, and the white beach before the mission station showed clearly.

He motioned with two fingers to the man at the wheel, and the little steamer swung almost broadside to the swift stream and headed for the bank, and the black water of the river humped up against his port bow as though it were a sluice gate.

Into the beach he steamed; "pucka-pucka-pucka-puck," sang the stern wheel noisily.

Where the missionary's house had stood was a chaos of blackened debris, and out of it rose lazy little wisps of smoke.

He found the missionary dressed in white duck, greatly soiled, lying face downwards, and he found some difficulty in raising him, because he was pinned to the ground with a broad-bladed elephant spear which had been broken off flush with his shoulders.

Sanders turned him on his back, closed the patient's eyes, staring, it seemed, hungrily at the darkening sky as though at the last questioning God's wisdom.

The Commissioner took a gaudy bandana handkerchief from his pocket, and laid it on the dead man's face.

"Abiboo," he said softly to his sergeant, "dig me a great hole by that copal gum, for this man was a great chief amongst his people, and had communion with gods."

"He was a Christ man," said Abiboo sagely, who was a devout follower of the Prophet, "and in the Sura of Mary it is written:

"'The sects have fallen to variance about Jesus, but woe, because of the assembly of a great day to those who believe not!'"

Abiboo bore the title of Haj because he had been to Mecca and knew the Koran better than most Christians know the Bible.

Sanders said nothing. He took a cigar from his pocket and lit it, casting his eyes around.

No building stood. Where the mission station with its trim garden had been, was desolation. He saw scraps of cloth in the fading light. These were other victims, he knew.

In the mellow light of the moon he buried the missionary, saying the Lord's Prayer over him, and reciting as much of the Burial Service as he could remember.

Then he went back to the Zaire and set a guard. In the morning Sanders turned the nose of the Zaire down stream, and at sunset came to the big river-he had been sailing a tributary-and where the two rivers meet is the city of the Akasava.

They brought the paramount chief of all the people to him, and there was a palaver on the little bridge with a lantern placed on the deck and one limp candle therein to give light to the assembly.

"Chief," said Sanders, "there is a dead white man in your territory, and I will have the hearts of the men who killed him, or by The Death I will have your head."

He said this evenly, without passion, yet he swore by Ewa, which means death and is a most tremendous oath. The chief, squatting on the deck, fidgeting with his hands, shivered.

"Lord," he said, in a cracked voice, "this is a business of which I know nothing; this thing has happened in my territory, but so far from my hand that I can neither punish nor reward."

Sanders was silent save for an unsympathetic sniff.

"Also, master," said the chief, "if the truth be told, this palaver is not of the Akasava alone, for all along the big river men are rebellious, obeying a new ju-ju more mighty than any other."

"I know little of ju-jus," said Sanders shortly, "only I know that a white man has died and his spirit walks abroad and will not rest until I have slain men. Whether it be you or another I do not care-the palaver is finished."

The chief rose awkwardly, brought up his hand in salute, and went shuffling down the sloping plank to land.

As for Sanders, he sat thinking, smoking one cigar after another. He sat long into the night. Once he called his servant to replace the candle in the lantern and bring him a cushion for his head. He sat there until the buzzing little village hushed to sleep, until there was no sound but the whispering of bat wings as they came and went from the middle island-for bats love islands, especially the big vampire bats.

At two o'clock in the morning he looked at his watch, picked up the lantern, and walked aft.

He picked a way over sleeping men until he came to that part of the deck where a Houssa squatted with loaded carbine watching the two prisoners.

He stirred them gently with his foot, and they sat up blinking at his light.

"You must tell me some more," he said. "How came this bad ju-ju to your land?"

The man he addressed looked up at him.

"Lord, how comes rain or wind?" he said. "It was a sudden thought amongst the people. There were certain rites and certain dances, and we chopped a man; then we all painted our faces with camwood, and the maidens said 'Kill!'"

Sanders could be very patient.

"I am as your father and your mother," he said. "I carry you in my arms; when the waters came up and destroyed your gardens I came with manioc and salt and saved

you; when the sickness came I brought white men who scraped your arms and put magic in your blood; I have made peace, and your wives are safe from M'Gombi and Isisi folk, yet you are for killing me."

The other nodded.

"That is true talk, master-but such is the way of ju-jus. They are very High Things, and do not remember."

Sanders was worried; this matter was out of his reach. "What said the ju-ju?"

"Lord, it said very clearly, speaking through the mouth of an old man, M'fabaka of Begeli--"

"M'fabaka of Begeli?" repeated Sanders softly, and noted the name for a speedy hanging.

"This old man saw a vision, and in this vision, which he saw with great pain and foaming at the mouth and hot eyeballs, he saw white men slain by black men and their houses burnt."

"When was this?"

"When the moon was full"-six days ago, thought Sanders-"and he saw a great king with many legions marching through the land making all white men fear him."

He went on to give, as only a native memory can recall, the minutest detail of the king's march; how he slew white men and women and put their house to flames; how his legions went dancing before him.

"And all this happened at the full of the moon," he finished; "therefore we, too, went out to slay, and, knowing that your Highness would be coming as is your custom to give judgment at this season of the year, it was thought wise to kill you, also the Christ-man."

He told all this in a matter-of-fact tone, and Sanders knew that he spoke the truth.

Another man would have been more affected by that portion of the narrative which touched him most nearly, but it was the king ("a great man, very large about the middle"), and his devastating legions who occupied the Commissioner's thoughts.

There was truth behind this, he did not doubt that. There was a rising somewhere that he had not heard of; very quickly he passed in mental review the kings of the adjoining territories and of his own lands.

Bosambo of Monrovia, that usurper of the Ochori chieftainship, sent him from time to time news of the outlying peoples. There was no war, north or south or east.

"I will see this old man M'fabaka of Begeli," he said.

Begeli is a village that lies on an in-running arm of the river, so narrow that it seems like a little river, so still that it is apparently a lake. Forests of huge trees slope down on either bank, and the trees are laced one to the other with great snake-like tendrils, and skirted at foot with rank undergrowth. The Zaire came cautiously down this stretch of calm water, two Maxim guns significantly displayed at the bridge.

A tiny little steamer this Zaire. She had the big blue of England drooping from the flagstaff high above the stern wheel-an ominous sign, for when Sanders flew the Commissioner's flag it meant trouble for somebody.

He stood on the deck coatless, signalling with his raised fingers to the man at the wheel.

"Phew!" An arrow was shivering in the wooden deck-house. He pulled it out and examined its hammered steel point carefully, then he threw it overboard.

"Bang!"

A puff of smoke from the veiling foliage-a bullet splintered the back of his deck-chair.

He reached down and took up a rifle, noticed the drift of the smoke and took careful aim.

"Bang!"

There was no sign to show where the bullet struck, and the only sound that came back was the echo and the shrill swish of it as it lashed its way through the green bushes.

There was no more shooting.

"Puck-apuck-puck-apuck-puck," went the stern wheel slowly, and the bows of the Zaire clove the calm waters and left a fan of foam behind. Before the village was in view six war canoes, paddling abreast, came out to meet the Commissioner. He rang the engines to "Stop," and as the noise of them died away he could hear in the still air the beating of drums; through his glasses he saw fantastically-painted bodies, also a head stuck upon a spear.

There had been a trader named Ogilvie in this part of the world, a mild, uncleanly man who sold cloth and bought wild rubber.

"Five hundred yards," said Sanders, and Sergeant Abiboo, fiddling with the grip of the port Maxim, gave the cartridge belt a little pull, swung the muzzle forward, and looked earnestly along the sights. At the same time the Houssa corporal, who stood by the tripod of the starboard gun, sat down on the little saddle seat of it with his thumb on the control.

There came a spurt of smoke from the middle canoe; the bullet fell short.

"Ogilvie, my man," soliloquised Sanders, "if you are alive-which I am sure you are not-you will explain to me the presence of these Schneiders."

Nearer came the canoes, the paddle plunging rhythmically, a low, fierce drone of song accompanying the movement.

"Four hundred yards," said Sanders, and the men at the Maxims readjusted the sights.

"The two middle canoes," said Sanders. "Fire!"

A second pause.

"Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha!" laughed the guns sardonically.

Sanders watched the havoc through his glasses.

"The other canoes," he said briefly.

"Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha!"

This gunner was a careful man, and fired spasmodically, desiring to see the effects of his shots.

Sanders saw men fall, saw one canoe sway and overturn, and the black heads of men in the water; he rang the steamer ahead full speed.

Somebody fired a shot from one of the uninjured canoes. The wind of the bullet fanned his face, he heard the smack of it as it struck the woodwork behind.

There came another shot, and the boy at the wheel turned his head with a little grin to Sanders.

"Lord," he mumbled in Arabic, "this was ordained from the beginning."

Sanders slipped his arm about his shoulder and lowered him gently to the deck.

"All things are with God," he said softly.

"Blessed be His name," whispered the dying boy.

Sanders caught the wheel as it spun and beckoned another steersman forward.

The nose of the steamer had turned to the offending canoe. This was an unhappy circumstance for the men therein, for both guns now covered it, and they rattled together, and through the blue haze you saw the canoe emptied.

That was the end of the fight. A warrior in the fifth boat held his spear horizontally above his head in token of surrender, and ten minutes later the chief of the rebels was on board.

"Master," he said calmly, as they led him to Sanders' presence, "this is a bad palaver. How will you deal with me?"

Sanders looked at him steadily.

"I will be merciful with you," he said, "for as soon as we come to the village I shall hang you."

"So I thought," said the chief without moving a muscle; "and I have heard it said that you hang men very quickly so that they feel little pain."

"That is my practice," said Sanders of the River, and the chief nodded his head approvingly.

"I would rather it were so," he said.

It was to a sorrowful village that he came, for there were many women to wail their dead.

Sanders landed with his Houssas and held a high palaver under the trees.

"Bring me the old man M'fabaka who sees visions," he said, and they brought him a man so old that he had nothing but bones to shape him.

They carried him to the place of justice and set him down before the Commissioner.

"You are an evil man," said Sanders, "and because your tongue has lied many men have died; to-day I hang your chief upon a tree, and with him certain others. If you stand before your people and say, 'Such a story, and such a story was a lie and no other thing,' you may live your days; but, if you persist in your lying, by my God, and your god, you shall die!"

It was a long time before the old man spoke, for he was very old and very frightened, and the fear of death, which is the ghost of some old men, was on him.

"I spoke the truth," he quavered at last. "I spoke of what I saw and of what I knew-only that." Sanders waited.

"I saw the great king slay and burn; yesterday I saw him march his regiments to war, and there was a great shouting, and I saw smoke."

He shook his head helplessly.

"I saw these things. How can I say I saw nothing?"

"What manner of king?" asked Sanders.

Again there was a long interval of silence whilst the old man collected himself.

"A great king," he said shakily, "as big as a bull about the middle, and he wore great, white feathers and the skin of a leopard."

"You are mad," said Sanders, and ended the palaver.

* * *

Six days later Sanders went back to headquarters, leaving behind him a chastened people.

Ill-news travels faster than steam can push a boat, and the little Zaire, keeping to mid-stream with the blue flag flying, was an object of interest to many small villages, the people of which crowded down to their beaches and stood with folded arms, or with clenched knuckles at their lips to signify their perturbation, and shouted in monotonous chorus after the boat.

"Oh, Sandi-father! How many evil ones have you slain to-day? Oh, killer of devils-oh, hanger of trees!-we are full of virtues and do not fear."

"Ei-fo, Kalaba? Ei ko Sandi! Eiva fo elegi," etc.

Sanders went with the stream swiftly, for he wished to establish communication with his chief. Somewhere in the country there was a revolt-that he knew.

There was truth in all the old man had said before he died-for die he did of sheer panic and age.

Who was this king in revolt? Not the king of the Isisi, or of the M'Gombi, nor of the people in the forelands beyond the Ochori.

The Zaire went swinging in to the Government beach, and there was a captain of Houssas to meet him.

"Land wire working?" said Sanders as he stepped ashore.

The Houssa captain nodded.

"What's the palaver?" he asked.

"War of a kind," said Sanders; "some king or other is on the rampage."

And he told the story briefly.

The Houssa officer whistled.

"By Lord High Keeper of the Privy Purse!" he swore mildly, "that's funny!"

"You've a poisonous sense of humour!" Sanders snapped.

"Hold hard," said the Houssa, and caught his arm. "Don't you know that Lo Benguela is in rebellion? The description fits him."

Sanders stopped.

"Of course," he said, and breathed a sigh of relief.

"But," said the perplexed Houssa officer, "Matabeleland is three thousand miles away. Rebellion started a week ago. How did these beggars know?"

For answer Sanders beckoned a naked man of the Akasava people who was of his boat's crew, being a good chopper of wood.

"I'fasi," he said, "tell me, what do they do in your country to-day?" The man grinned sheepishly, and stood on one leg in his embarrassment, for it was an honour to common men that Sanders should address them by name.

"Lord, they go to hunt elephant," he said.

"How many?" said Sanders.

"Two villages," said the man, "for one village has sickness and cannot go."

"How do you know this?" said Sanders. "Is not your country four days by river and three days by land?"

The man looked uncomfortable.

"It is as you say, master-yet I know," he said.

Sanders turned to the Houssa with a smile.

"There is quite a lot to be learnt in this country," he said.

* * *

A month later Sanders received a cutting from the Cape Times. The part which interested him ran:

" . . . the rumour generally credited by the Matabele rebels that their adherents in the north had suffered a repulse lacks confirmation. The Commissioner of Barotseland denies the native story of a rebellious tribe, and states that as far as he knows the whole of his people have remained quiet. Other northern Commissioners state the same. There has been no sympathetic rising, though the natives are emphatic that in a 'far-away land,' which they cannot define, such a rebellion has occurred. The idea is, of course, absurd." Sanders smiled again.

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