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The Keepers of the King's Peace By Edgar Wallace Characters: 28433

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03

To Isongo, which stands upon the tributary of that name, came a woman of the Isisi who had lost her husband through a providential tree falling upon him. I say "providential," for it was notorious that he was an evil man, a drinker of beer and a favourite of many bad persons. Also he made magic in the forest, and was reputedly the familiar of Bashunbi the devil brother of M'shimba-M'shamba. He beat his wives, and once had set fire to his house from sheer wickedness. So that when he was borne back to the village on a grass bier and the women of his house decked themselves with green leaves and arm in arm staggered and stamped through the village street in their death dance, there was a suspicion of hilarity in their song, and a more cheery step in their dance than the occasion called for.

An old man named D'wiri, who knew every step of every dance, saw this and said in his stern way that it was shameless. But he was old and was, moreover, in fear for the decorum of his own obsequies if these outrageous departures from custom were approved or allowed to pass without reprimand.

When M'lama, the wife of G'mami, had seen her lord depart in the canoe for burial in the middle island and had wailed her conventional grief, she washed the dust from her body at the river's edge and went back to her hut. And all that was grief for the dead man was washed away with the dust of mourning.

Many moons came out of the sky, were wasted and died before the woman M'lama showed signs of her gifts. It is said that they appeared one night after a great storm wherein lightning played such strange tricks upon the river that even the old man D'wiri could not remember parallel instances.

In the night the wife of a hunter named E'sani-Osoni brought a dying child into the hut of the widow. He had been choked by a fish-bone and was in extremis when M'lama put her hand upon his head and straightway the bone flew from his mouth, "and there was a cry terrible to hear-such a cry as a leopard makes when he is pursued by ghosts."

A week later a baby girl fell into a terrible fit and M'lama had laid her hand upon it and behold! it slept from that moment.

Ahmet, chief of the Government spies, heard of these happenings and came a three days' journey by river to Isongo.

"What are these stories of miracles?" he asked.

"Capita," said the chief, using the term of regard which is employed in the Belgian Congo, "this woman M'lama is a true witch and has great gifts, for she raises the dead by the touch of her hand. This I have seen. Also it is said that when U'gomi, the woodcutter, made a fault, cutting his foot in two, this woman healed him marvellously."

"I will see this M'lama," said Ahmet importantly.

He found her in her hut tossing four bones idly. These were the shanks of goats, and each time they fell differently.

"O Ahmet," she said, when he entered, "you have a wife who is sick, also a first-born boy who does not speak though he is more than six seasons old."

Ahmet squatted down by her side.

"Woman," said he, "tell me something that is not the talk of river and I will believe your magic."

"To-morrow your master, the lord Sandi, will send you a book which will give you happiness," she said.

"Every day my lord sends me a book," retorted the sceptical Ahmet, "and each brings me happiness. Also it is common talk that at this time there come messengers carrying bags of silver and salt to pay men according to their services."

Undismayed she tried her last shot.

"You have a crooked finger which none can straighten-behold!"

She took his hand in hers and pressed the injured phlange. A sharp pain shot up his arm and he winced, pulling back his hand-but the year-old dislocation which had defied the effort of the coast doctor was straightened out, and though the movement was exquisitely painful he could bend it.

"I see you are a true witch," he said, greatly impressed, for a native has a horror of deformity of any kind, and he sent back word of the phenomenon to Sanders.

Sanders at the same time was in receipt of other news which alternately pleased him and filled him with panic. The mail had come in by fast launch and had brought Captain Hamilton of the Houssas a very bulky letter written in a feminine hand. He had broken the glad news to Commissioner Sanders, but that gentleman was not certain in his mind whether the startling intelligence conveyed by the letter was good or bad.

"I'm sure the country will suit her," he said, "this part of the country at any rate-but what will Bones say?"

"Bones!" repeated Captain Hamilton scornfully. "What the dickens does it matter what Bones says?"

Nevertheless, he went to the sea-end of the verandah, and his roar rivalled the thunder of the surf.


There was no answer and for an excellent reason.

Sanders came out of the bungalow, his helmet on the back of his head, a cheroot tilted dizzily.

"Where is he?" he asked.

Hamilton turned.

"I asked him to-at least I didn't ask him, he volunteered-to peg out a trench line."

"Expect an invasion?" asked Sanders.

Hamilton grinned.

"Bones does," he said. "He's full of the idea, and offered to give me tips on the way a trench should be dug-he's feeling rotten about things ... you know what I mean. His regiment was at Mons."

Sanders nodded.

"I understand," he said quietly. "And you ... you're a jolly good soldier, Hamilton-how do you feel about it all?"

Hamilton shrugged his shoulders.

"They would have taken me for the Cameroons, but somebody had to stay," he said quietly. "After all, it is one's business to ... to do one's job in the station of life to which it has pleased God to call him. This is my work ... here."

Sanders laid his hand on the other's shoulder.

"That's the game as it should be played," he said, and his blue eyes were as soft and as tender as a woman's. "There is no war here-we are the keepers of the King's peace, Hamilton."

"It's rotten...."

"I know-I feel that way myself. We're out of it-the glory of it-the chance of it-the tragedy of it. And there are others. Think of the men in India eating their hearts out ... praying for the order that will carry them from the comfort of their lives to the misery and the death-and the splendour, I grant you-of war."

He sighed and looked wistfully to the blue sea.

Hamilton beckoned a Houssa corporal who was crossing the garden of the Residency.

"Ho, Mustaf," he said, in his queer coast Arabic, "where shall I look for my lord Tibbetti?"

The corporal turned and pointed to the woods which begin at the back of the Residency and carry without a break for three hundred miles.

"Lord, he went there carrying many strange things-also there went with him Ali Abid, his servant."

Hamilton reached through an open window of the bungalow and fished out his helmet with his walking-stick.

"We'll find Bones," he said grimly; "he's been gone three hours and he's had time to re-plan Verdun."

It took some time to discover the working party, but when it was found the trouble was well repaid.

Bones was stretched on a canvas chair under the shade of a big Isisi palm. His helmet was tipped forward so that the brim rested on the bridge of his nose, his thin red arms were folded on his breast, and their gentle rise and fall testified to his shame. Two pegs had been driven in, and between them a string sagged half-heartedly.

Curled up under a near-by bush was, presumably, Ali Abid-presumably, because all that was visible was a very broad stretch of brown satin skin which showed between the waistline of a pair of white cotton trousers and a duck jacket.

They looked down at the unconscious Bones for a long time in silence.

"What will he say when I kick him?" asked Hamilton. "You can have the first guess."

Sanders frowned thoughtfully.

"He'll say that he was thinking out a new system of communicating trenches," he said. "He's been boring me to tears over saps and things."

Hamilton shook his head.

"Wrong, sir," he said; "that isn't the lie he'll tell. He will say that I kept him up so late last night working at the men's pay-sheets that he couldn't keep awake."

Bones slept on.

"He may say that it was coffee after tiffin," suggested Sanders after a while; "he said the other day that coffee always made him sleep."

"'Swoon' was the word he used, sir," corrected Hamilton. "I don't think he'll offer that suggestion now-the only other excuse I can think of is that he was repeating the Bomongo irregular verbs. Bones!"

He stooped and broke off a long grass and inserted it in the right ear of Lieutenant Tibbetts, twiddling the end delicately. Bones made a feeble clutch at his ear, but did not open his eyes.

"Bones!" said Hamilton, and kicked him less gently. "Get up, you lazy devil-there's an invasion."

Bones leapt to his feet and staggered a little; blinked fiercely at his superior and saluted.

"Enemy on the left flank, sir," he reported stiffly. "Shall we have dinner or take a taxi?"

"Wake up, Napoleon," begged Hamilton, "you're at Waterloo."

Bones blinked more slowly.

"I'm afraid I've been unconscious, dear old officer," he confessed. "The fact is--"

"Listen to this, everybody," said Hamilton admiringly.

"The fact is, sir," said Bones, with dignity, "I fell asleep-that beastly coffee I had after lunch, added to the fatigue of sittin' up half the night with those jolly old accounts of yours, got the better of me. I was sittin' down workin' out one of the dinkiest little ideas in trenches-a sort of communicatin' trench where you needn't get wet in the rainiest weather-when I-well, I just swooned off."

Hamilton looked disappointed.

"Weren't you doing anything with the Bomongo verbs?" he demanded.

A light came to Bones's eyes.

"By Jove, sir!" he said heartily, "that was it, of course.... The last thing I remember was...."

"Kick that man of yours and come back to the bungalow," Hamilton interrupted, "there's a job for you, my boy."

He walked across and stirred the second sleeper with the toe of his boot.

Ali Abid wriggled round and sat up.

He was square of face, with a large mouth and two very big brown eyes. He was enormously fat, but it was not fat of the flabby type. Though he called himself Ali, it was, as Bones admitted, "sheer swank" to do so, for this man had "coast" written all over him.

He got up slowly and saluted first his master, then Sanders, and lastly Hamilton.

Bones had found him at Cape Coast Castle on the occasion of a joy-ride which the young officer had taken on a British man-of-war. Ali Abid had been the heaven-sent servant, and though Sanders had a horror of natives who spoke English, the English of Ali Abid was his very own.

He had been for five years the servant of Professor Garrileigh, the eminent bacteriologist, the account of whose researches in the field of tropical medicines fill eight volumes of closely-printed matter, every page of which contains words which are not to be found in most lexicons.

They walked back to the Residency, Ali Abid in the rear.

"I want you to go up to the Isongo, Bones," said Sanders; "there may be some trouble there-a woman is working miracles."

"He might get a new head," murmured Hamilton, but Bones pretended not to hear.

"Use your tact and get back before the 17th for the party."

"The--?" asked Bones.

He had an irritating trick of employing extravagant gestures of a fairly commonplace kind. Thus, if he desired to hear a statement repeated-though he had heard it well enough the first time-he would bend his head with a puzzled wrinkle of forehead, put his hand to his ear and wait anxiously, even painfully, for the repetition.

"You heard what the Commissioner said," growled Hamilton. "Party-P-A-R-T-Y."

"My birthday is not until April, your Excellency," said Bones.

"I'd guess the date-but what's the use?" interposed Hamilton.

"It isn't a birthday party, Bones," said Sanders. "We are giving a house-warming for Miss Hamilton."

Bones gasped, and turned an incredulous eye upon his chief.

"You haven't a sister, surely, dear old officer?" he asked.

"Why the dickens shouldn't I have a sister?" demanded his chief.

Bones shrugged his shoulders.

"A matter of deduction, sir," he said quietly. "Absence of all evidence of a soothin' and lovin' influence in your lonely an' unsympathetic upbringin'; hardness of heart an' a disposition to nag, combined with a rough and unpromisin' exterior-a sister, good Lord!"

"Anyway, she's coming, Bones," said Hamilton; "and she's looking forward to seeing you-I've written an awful lot about you."

Bones smirked.

"Of course," he said, "you've overdone it a bit-women hate to be disillusioned. What you ought to have done, sir, is to describe me as a sort of ass-genial and all that sort of thing, but a commonplace sort of ass."

Hamilton nodded.

"That's exactly what I've done, Bones," he said. "I told her how Bosambo did you in the eye for twenty pounds, and how you fell into the water looking for buried treasure, and how the Isisi tried to sell you a flying crocodile and would have sold it too, if it hadn't been for my timely arrival. I told her--"

"I think you've said enough, sir."

Bones was very red and very haughty.

"Far be it from me to resent your attitude or contradict your calumnies. Miss Hamilton will see very little of me. An inflexible sense of duty will keep me away from the frivolous circle of society, sir. Alert an' sleepless--"

"Trenches," said Hamilton brutally.

Bones winced, regarded his superior for a moment with pain, saluted, and turning on his heel, stalked away, followed by Ali Abid no less pained.

He left at dawn the next morning, and both Sanders and Hamilton came down to the concrete quay to see the Zaire start on her journey. Sanders gave his final instructions-

"If the woman is upsetting the people, arrest her; if she has too big a hold on them, arrest her; but if she is just amusing them, come back."

"And don't forget the 17th," said Hamilton.

"I may arrive a little late for that," s

aid Bones gravely. "I don't wish to be a skeleton at your jolly old festive board, dear old sportsman-you will excuse my absence to Miss Hamilton. I shall probably have a headache and all that sort of thing."

He waved a sad farewell as the Zaire passed round the bend of the river, and looked, as he desired to look, a melancholy figure with his huge pipe in his mouth and his hands thrust dejectedly into his trousers pockets.

Once out of sight he became his own jovial self.

"Lieutenant Ali," he said, "get out my log and put it in old Sanders' cabin, make me a cup of tea and keep her jolly old head east, east by north."

"Ay, ay, sir," said Ali in excellent English.

The "log" which Bones kept was one of the secret documents which never come under the eye of the superior authorities. There were such entries as-

"Wind N.N.W. Sea calm. Hostile craft sighted on port bow, at 10.31 a.m. General Quarters sounded 10.32. Interrogated Captain of the hostile craft and warned him not to fish in fair-way. Sighted Cape M'Gooboori 12.17, stopped for lunch and wood."

What though Cape M'Gooboori was the village of that name and the "calm sea" was no more than the placid bosom of the Great River? What though Bones's "hostile craft" was a dilapidated canoe, manned by one aged and bewildered man of the Isisi engaged in spearing fish? Bones saw all things through the rosy spectacles of adventurous youth denied its proper share of experience.

At sunset the Zaire came gingerly through the shoals that run out from the Isongo beach, and Bones went ashore to conduct his investigations. It chanced that the evening had been chosen by M'lama, the witch, for certain wonderful manifestations, and the village was almost deserted.

In a wood and in a place of green trees M'lama sat tossing her sheep shanks, and a dense throng of solemn men and women squatted or sat or tiptoed about her-leaving her a respectable space for her operations. A bright fire crackled and glowed at her side, and into this, from time to time, she thrust little sticks of plaited straw and drew them forth blazing and spluttering until with a quick breath she extinguished the flame and examined the grey ash.

"Listen, all people," she said, "and be silent, lest my great ju-ju strike you dead. What man gave me this?"

"It was I, M'lama," said an eager woman, her face wrinkled with apprehension as she held up her brown palm.

The witch peered forward at the speaker.

"O F'sela!" she chanted, "there is a man-child for thee who shall be greater than chiefs; also you will suffer from a sickness which shall make you mad."

"O ko!"

Half dismayed by the promise of her own fate; half exalted by the career the witch had sketched for her unborn son, the woman stared incredulously, fearfully at the swaying figure by the fire.

Again a plaited stick went into the fire, was withdrawn and blown out, and the woman again prophesied.

And sometimes it was of honours and riches she spoke, and sometimes-and more often-of death and disaster. Into this shuddering group strode Bones, very finely clad in white raiment yet limp withal, for the night was close and the way had been long and rough.

The sitters scrambled to their feet, their knuckles at their teeth, for this was a moment of great embarrassment.

"Oh, M'lama," said Bones agreeably, and spoke in the soft dialect of the Isisi by-the-River, "prophesy for me!"

She looked up sullenly, divining trouble for herself.

"Lord," she said, with a certain smooth venom, "there is a great sickness for you-and behold you will go far away and die, and none shall miss you."

Bones went very red, and shook an indignant forefinger at the offending prophetess.

"You're a wicked old storyteller!" he stammered. "You're depressin' the people-you naughty girl! I hate you-I simply loathe you!"

As he spoke in English she was not impressed.

"Goin' about the country puttin' people off their grub, by Jove!" he stormed; "tellin' stories ... oh, dash it, I shall have to be awfully severe with you!"

Severe he was, for he arrested her, to the relief of her audience, who waited long enough to discover whether or not her ju-ju would strike him dead, and being obviously disappointed by her failure to provide this spectacle, melted away.

Close to the gangway of the Zaire she persuaded one of her Houssa guard to release his hold. She persuaded him by the simple expedient of burying her sharp white teeth in the fleshy part of his arm-and bolted. They captured her half mad with panic and fear of her unknown fate, and brought her to the boat.

Bones, fussing about the struggling group, dancing with excitement, was honourably wounded by the chance contact of his nose with a wild and whirling fist.

"Put her in the store cabin!" he commanded breathlessly. "Oh, what a wicked woman!"

In the morning as the boat got under way Ali came to him with a distressing story.

"Your Excellency will be pained to hear," he said, "that the female prisoner has eradicated her costume."

"Eradicated...?" repeated the puzzled Bones, gently touching the patch of sticking-plaster on his nose.

"In the night," explained this former slave of science, "the subject has developed symptoms of mania, and has entirely dispensed with her clothes-to wit, by destruction."

"She's torn up her clothes?" gasped Bones, his hair rising and Ali nodded.

Now, the dress of a native woman varies according to the degree in which she falls under missionary influence. Isongo was well within the sphere of the River Mission, and so M'lama's costume consisted of a tight-fitting piece of print which wound round and round the body in the manner of a kilt, covering the figure from armpit to feet.

Bones went to the open window of the prison cabin, and steadfastly averting his gaze, called-


No reply came, and he called again.

"M'lama," he said gently, in the river dialect, "what shall Sandi say to this evil that you do?"

There was no reply, only a snuffling sound of woe.

"Oh, ai!" sobbed the voice.

"M'lama, presently we shall come to the Mission house where the God-men are, and I will bring you clothing-these you will put on you," said Bones, still staring blankly over the side of the ship at the waters which foamed past her low hull; "for if my lord Sandi see you as I see you-I mean as I wouldn't for the world see you, you improper person," he corrected himself hastily in English-"if my lord Sandi saw you, he would feel great shame. Also," he added, as a horrible thought made him go cold all over, "also the lady who comes to my lord Militini-oh, lor!"

These last two words were in English.

Fortunately there was a Jesuit settlement near by, and here Bones stopped and interviewed the stout and genial priest in charge.

"It's curious how they all do it," reflected the priest, as he led the way to his storehouse. "I've known 'em to tear up their clothes in an East End police cell-white folk, the same as you and I."

He rummaged in a big box and produced certain garments.

"My last consignment from a well-meaning London congregation," he smiled, and flung out a heap of dresses, hats, stockings and shoes. "If they'd sent a roll or two of print I might have used them-but strong religious convictions do not entirely harmonize with a last year's Paris model."

Bones, flushed and unhappy, grabbed an armful of clothing, and showering the chuckling priest with an incoherent medley of apology and thanks, hurried back to the Zaire.

"Behold, M'lama," he said, as he thrust his loot through the window of the little deck-house, "there are many grand things such as great ladies wear-now you shall appear before Sandi beautiful to see."

He logged the happening in characteristic language, and was in the midst of this literary exercise when the tiny steamer charged a sandbank, and before her engines could slow or reverse she had slid to the top and rested in two feet of water.

A rueful Bones surveyed the situation and returned to his cabin to conclude his diary with-

"12.19 struck a reef off B'lidi Bay. Fear vessel total wreck. Boats all ready for lowering."

As a matter of fact there were neither boats to lower nor need to lower them, because the crew were already standing in the river (up to their hips) and were endeavouring to push the Zaire to deep water.

In this they were unsuccessful, and it was not for thirty-six hours until the river, swollen by heavy rains in the Ochori region, lifted the Zaire clear of the obstruction, that Bones might record the story of his salvage.

He had released a reformed M'lama to the greater freedom of the deck, and save for a shrill passage at arms between that lady and the corporal she had bitten, there was no sign of a return to her evil ways. She wore a white pique skirt and a white blouse, and on her head she balanced deftly, without the aid of pins, a yellow straw hat with long trailing ribbons of heliotrope. Alternately they trailed behind and before.

"A horrible sight," said Bones, shuddering at his first glimpse of her.

The rest of the journey was uneventful until the Zaire had reached the northernmost limits of the Residency reserve. Sanders had partly cleared and wholly drained four square miles of the little peninsula on which the Residency stood, and by barbed wire and deep cutting had isolated the Government estate from the wild forest land to the north.

Here, the river shoals in the centre, cutting a passage to the sea through two almost unfathomable channels close to the eastern and western banks. Bones had locked away his journal and was standing on the bridge rehearsing the narrative which was to impress his superiors with a sense of his resourcefulness-and incidentally present himself in the most favourable light to the new factor which was coming into his daily life.

He had thought of Hamilton's sister at odd intervals and now....

The Zaire was hugging the western bank so closely that a bold and agile person might have stepped ashore.

M'lama, the witch, was both bold and agile.

He turned with open mouth to see something white and feminine leap the space between deck and shore, two heliotrope ribbons streaming wildly in such breeze as there was.

"Hi! Don't do that ... naughty, naughty!" yelled the agonized Bones, but she had disappeared into the undergrowth before the big paddle-wheel of the Zaire began to thresh madly astern.

Never was the resourcefulness of Bones more strikingly exemplified. An ordinary man would have leapt overboard in pursuit, but Bones was no ordinary man. He remembered in that moment of crisis, the distressing propensity of his prisoner to the "eradication of garments." With one stride he was in his cabin and had snatched a counterpane from his bed, in two bounds he was over the rail on the bank and running swiftly in the direction the fugitive had taken.

For a little time he did not see her, then he glimpsed the white of a pique dress, and with a yell of admonition started in pursuit.

She stood hesitating a moment, then fled, but he was on her before she had gone a dozen yards; the counterpane was flung over her head, and though she kicked and struggled and indulged in muffled squeaks, he lifted her up in his arms and staggered back to the boat.

They ran out a gangway plank and across this he passed with his burden, declining all offers of assistance.

"Close the window," he gasped; "open the door-now, you naughty old lady!"

He bundled her in, counterpane enmeshed and reduced to helpless silence, slammed the door and leant panting against the cabin, mopping his brow.

"Phew!" said Bones, and repeated the inelegant remark many times. All this happened almost within sight of the quay on which Sanders and Hamilton were waiting. It was a very important young man who saluted them.

"All correct, sir," said Bones, stiff as a ramrod; "no casualties-except as per my nose which will be noted in the margin of my report-one female prisoner secured after heroic chase, which, I trust, sir, you will duly report to my jolly old superiors--"

"Don't gas so much, Bones," said Hamilton. "Come along and meet my sister-hullo, what the devil's that?"

They turned with one accord to the forest path.

Two native policemen were coming towards them, and between them a bedraggled M'lama, her skirt all awry, her fine hat at a rakish angle, stepped defiantly.

"Heavens!" said Bones, "she's got away again.... That's my prisoner, dear old officer!"

Hamilton frowned.

"I hope she hasn't frightened Pat ... she was walking in the reservation."

Bones did not faint, his knees went from under him, but he recovered by clutching the arm of his faithful Ali.

"Dear old friend," he murmured brokenly, "accidents ... error of judgment ... the greatest tragedy of my life...."

"What's the matter with you?" demanded Sanders in alarm, for the face of Bones was ghastly.

Lieutenant Tibbetts made no reply, but walked with unsteady steps to the lock-up, fumbled with the key and opened the door.

There stepped forth a dishevelled and wrathful girl (she was a little scared, too, I suspect), the most radiant and lovely figure that had ever dawned upon the horizon of Bones.

She looked from her staggered brother to Sanders, from Sanders to her miserable custodian.

"What on earth--" began Hamilton.

Then her lips twitched and she fell into a fit of uncontrollable laughter.

"If," said Bones huskily, "if in an excess of zeal I mistook ... in the gloamin', madame ... white dress...."

He spread out his arms in a gesture of extravagant despair.

"I can do no more than a gentleman.... I have a loaded revolver in my cabin ... farewell!"

He bowed deeply to the girl, saluted his dumbfounded chief, tripped up over a bucket and would have fallen but for Hamilton's hand.

"You're an ass," said Hamilton, struggling to preserve his sense of annoyance. "Pat-this is Lieutenant Tibbetts, of whom I have often written."

The girl looked at Bones, her eyes moist with laughter.

"I guessed it from the first," she said, and Bones writhed.

* * *

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