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The Keepers of the King's Peace By Edgar Wallace Characters: 27950

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03

Everybody knows that water drawn from rivers is very bad water, for the rivers are the Roads of the Dead, and in the middle of those nights when the merest rind of a moon shows, and this slither of light and two watchful stars form a triangle pointing to the earth, the spirits rise from their graves and walk, "singing deadly songs," towards the lower star which is the source of all rivers. If you should be-which God forbid-on one of those lonely island graveyards on such nights you will see strange sights.

The broken cooking-pots which rest on the mounds and the rent linen which flutters from little sticks stuck about the graves, grow whole and new again. The pots are red and hot as they come from the fire, and the pitiful cloths take on the sheen of youth and fold themselves about invisible forms. None may see the dead, though it is said that you may see the babies.

These the wise men have watched playing at the water's edge, crowing and chuckling in the universal language of their kind, staggering groggily along the shelving beach with outspread arms balancing their uncertain steps. On such nights when M'sa beckons the dead world to the source of all rivers, the middle islands are crowded with babies-the dead babies of a thousand years. Their spirits come up from the unfathomed deeps of the great river and call their mortality from graves.

"How may the waters of the river be acceptable?" asks the shuddering N'gombi mother.

Therefore the N'gombi gather their water from the skies in strange cisterns of wicker, lined with the leaf of a certain plant which is impervious, and even carry their drinking supplies with them when they visit the river itself.

There was a certain month in the year, which will be remembered by all who attempted the crossing of the Kasai Forest to the south of the N'gombi country, when pools and rivulets suddenly dried-so suddenly, indeed, that even the crocodiles, who have an instinct for coming drought, were left high and dry, in some cases miles from the nearest water, and when the sun rose in a sky unflecked by cloud and gave place at nights to a sky so brilliant and so menacing in their fierce and fiery nearness that men went mad.

Toward the end of this month, when an exasperating full moon advertised a continuance of the dry spell by its very whiteness, the Chief Koosoogolaba-Muchini, or, as he was called, Muchini, summoned a council of his elder men, and they came with parched throats and fear of death.

"All men know," said Muchini, "what sorrow has come to us, for there is a more powerful ju-ju in the land than I remember. He has made M'shimba M'shamba afraid so that he has gone away and walks no more in the forest with his terrible lightning. Also K'li, the father of pools, has gone into the earth and all his little children, and I think we shall die, every one of us."

There was a skinny old man, with a frame like a dried goatskin, who made a snuffling noise when he spoke.

"O Muchini," he said, "when I was a young man there was a way to bring M'shimba M'shamba which was most wonderful. In those days we took a young maiden and hung her upon a tree--"

"Those old ways were good," interrupted Muchini; "but I tell you, M'bonia, that we can follow no more the old ways since Sandi came to the land, for he is a cruel man and hanged my own mother's brother for that fine way of yours. Yet we cannot sit and die because of certain magic which the Stone Breaker is practising."

Now Bula Matadi ("The Stone Breaker") was in those days the mortal enemy of the N'gombi people, who were wont to ascribe all their misfortunes to his machinations. To Bula Matadi (which was the generic name by which the Government of the Congo Free State was known) was traceable the malign perversity of game, the blight of crops, the depredations of weaver birds. Bula Matadi encouraged leopards to attack isolated travellers, and would on great occasions change the seasons of the year that the N'gombi's gardens might come to ruin.

"It is known from one end of the earth to the other that I am a most cunning man," Muchini went on, stroking his muscular arm, a trick of self-satisfied men in their moments of complacence; "and whilst even the old men slept, I, Koosoogolaba-Muchini, the son of the terrible and crafty G'sombo, the brother of Eleni-N'gombi, I went abroad with my wise men and my spies and sought out devils and ghosts in places where even the bravest have never been," he lowered his voice to a hoarse whisper, "to the Ewa-Ewa Mongo, the Very Place of Death."

The gasp of horror from his audience was very satisfying to this little chief of the Inner N'gombi, and here was a moment suitable for his climax.

"And behold!" he cried.

By his side was something covered with a piece of native cloth. This covering he removed with a flourish and revealed a small yellow box.

It was most certainly no native manufacture, for its angles were clamped with neat brass corner-pieces set flush in the polished wood.

The squatting councillors watched their lord as with easy familiarity he opened the lid.

There were twenty tiny compartments, and in each was a slender glass tube, corked and heavily sealed, whilst about the neck of each tube was a small white label covered with certain devil marks.

Muchini waited until the sensation he had prepared had had its full effect.

"By the Great River which runs to the Allamdani,"[1] he said slowly and impressively, "were white men who had been sent by Bula Matadi to catch ghosts. For I saw them, I and my wise men, when the moon was calling all spirits. They were gathered by the river with little nets and little gourds and they caught the waters. Also they caught little flies and other foolish things and took them to their tent. Then my young men and I waited, and when all were gone away we went to their tents and found his magic box-which is full of devils of great power-Ro!"

He leapt to his feet, his eye gleaming. Across the starry dome of the sky there had flicked a quick flare of light.

There came a sudden uneasy stirring of leaves, a hushed whisper of things as though the forest had been suddenly awakened from sleep.

Then an icy cold breeze smote his cheek, and staring upward, he saw the western stars disappearing in swathes behind the tumbling clouds.

"M'shimba M'shamba-he lives!" he roared, and the crash of thunder in the forest answered him.

Bosambo, Chief of the Ochori, was on the furthermost edge of the forest, for he was following the impulse of his simple nature and was hunting in a country where he had no right to be. The storm (which he cursed, having no scruples about river and water, and being wholly sceptical as to ghosts) broke with all its fury over his camp and passed. Two nights later, he sat before the rough hut his men had built, discussing the strange ways of the antelope, when he suddenly stopped and listened, lowering his head till it almost touched the ground.

Clear to his keen ears came the rattle of the distant lokali-the drum that sends messages from village to village and from nation to nation.

"O Secundi," said Bosambo, with a note of seriousness in his voice, "I have not heard that call for many moons-for it is the war call of the N'gombi."

"Lord, it is no war call," said the old man, shifting his feet for greater comfort, "yet it is a call which may mean war, for it calls spears to a dance, and it is strange, for the N'gombi have no enemies."

"All men are the enemies of the N'gombi," Bosambo quoted a river saying as old as the sun.

He listened again, then rose.

"You shall go back and gather me a village of spears, and bring them to the borderland near the road that crosses the river," he said.

"On my life," said the other.

Muchini, Chief of the Inner N'gombi, a most inflated man and a familiar of magical spirits, gathered his spears to some purpose, for two days later Bosambo met him by his border and the chiefs greeted one another between two small armies.

"Which way do you go, Muchini?" asked Bosambo.

Now, between Muchini and the Chief of the Ochori was a grievance dating back to the big war, when Bosambo had slain the N'gombi chief of the time with his own hands.

"I go to the river to call a palaver of all free men," said Muchini; "for I tell you this, Bosambo, that I have found a great magic which will make us greater than Sandi, and it has been prophesied that I shall be a king over a thousand times a thousand spears. For I have a small box which brings even M'shimba to my call."

Bosambo, a head and shoulders taller than the other, waved his hand towards the forest path which leads eventually to the Ochori city.

"Here is a fine moment for you, Muchini," he said, "and you shall try your great magic on me and upon my young men. For I say that you do not go by this way, neither you nor your warriors, since I am the servant of Sandi and of his King, and he has sent me here to keep his peace; go back to your village, for this is the way to Death."

Muchini glared at his enemy.

"Yet this way I go, Bosambo," he said huskily, and looked over his shoulder towards his followers.

Bosambo swung round on one heel, an arm and a leg outstretched in the attitude of an athlete who is putting the shot. Muchini threw up his wicker shield and pulled back his stabbing-spear, but he was a dead man before the weapon was poised.

Thus ended the war, and the N'gombi folk went home, never so much as striking a blow for the yellow box which Bosambo claimed for himself as his own personal loot.

At the time, Mr. Commissioner Sanders, C.M.G., was blissfully ignorant of the miraculous happenings which have been recorded. He was wholly preoccupied by the novelty which the presence of Patricia Hamilton offered. Never before had a white woman made her home at the Residency, and it changed things a little.

She was at times an embarrassment.

When Fubini, the witch-doctor of the Akasava, despatched five maidens to change Sandi's wicked heart-Sanders had sent Fubini to the Village of Irons for six months for preaching unauthorized magic-they came, in the language of Bones, "doocedly undressed," and Patricia had beaten a hurried retreat.

She was sometimes an anxiety, as I have already shown, but was never a nuisance. She brought to headquarters an aroma of English spring, a clean fragrance that refreshed the heat-jaded Commissioner and her brother, but which had no perceptible influence upon Bones.

That young officer called for her one hot morning, and Hamilton, sprawling on a big cane chair drawn to the shadiest and breeziest end of the verandah, observed that Bones carried a wooden box, a drawing-board, a pad of paper, two pencils imperfectly concealed behind his large ear, and a water-bottle.

"Shop!" said Hamilton lazily. "Forward, Mr. Bones-what can we do for you this morning?"

Bones shaded his eyes and peered into the cool corner.

"Talkin' in your sleep, dear old Commander," he said pleasantly, "dreamin' of the dear old days beyond recall."

He struck an attitude and lifted his unmusical voice-

"When life was gay, heigho!

Tum tum te tay, heigho!

Oh, tiddly umpty humpty umty do,

When life was gay-dear old officer-heigho!"

Patricia Hamilton stepped out to the verandah in alarm.

"Oh, please, don't make that hooting noise," she appealed to her brother. "I'm writing--"

"Don't be afraid," said Hamilton, "it was only Bones singing. Do it again, Bones, Pat didn't hear you."

Bones stood erect, his hand to his white helmet.

"Come aboard, my lady," he said.

"I won't keep you a minute, Bones," said the girl, and disappeared into the house.

"What are you doing this morning?" asked Hamilton, gazing with pardonable curiosity at the box and drawing-board.

"Polishin' up my military studies with Miss Hamilton's kind assistance-botany and applied science, sir," said Bones briskly. "Field fortifications, judgin' distance, strategy, Bomongo grammar, field cookery an' tropical medicines."

"What has poor little making-up-company-accounts done?" asked Hamilton, and Bones blushed.

"Dear old officer," he begged, "I'll tackle that little job as soon as I get back. I tried to do 'em this mornin' an was four dollars out-it's the regimental cash account that's wrong. People come in and out helpin' themselves, and I positively can't keep track of the money."

"As I'm the only person with the key of the regimental cash-box, I suppose you mean--?"

Bones raised his hand.

"I make no accusations, dear old feller-it's a painful subject. We all have those jolly old moments of temptation. I tackle the accounts to-night, sir. You mustn't forget that I've a temperament. I'm not like you dear old wooden-heads--"

"Oh, shut up," said the weary Hamilton. "So long as you're going to do a bit of study, it's all right."

"Now, Bones," said Patricia, appearing on the scene, "have you got the sandwiches?"

Bones made terrifying and warning grimaces.

"Have you got the board to lay the cloth and the paper to cover it, and the chocolates and the cold tea?"

Bones frowned, and jerked his head in an agony of warning.

"Come on, then," said the unconscious betrayer of Lieutenant Tibbetts. "Good-bye, dear."

"Why 'good-bye,' dear old Hamilton's sister?" asked Bones.

She looked at him scornfully and led the way.

"Don't forget the field fortifications," called Hamilton after them; "they eat nicely between slices of strategy."

The sun was casting long shadows eastward when they returned. They had not far to come, for the place they had chosen for their picnic was well within the Residency reservation, but Bones had been describing on his way back one of the remarkable powers he possessed, namely, his ability to drag the truth from reluctant and culpable natives. And every time he desired to emphasize the point he would stop, lowe

r all his impedimenta to the ground, cluttering up the landscape with picnic-box, drawing-board, sketching-blocks and the numerous bunches of wild flowers he had culled at her request, and press his argument with much palm-punching.

He stopped for the last time on the very edge of the barrack square, put down his cargo and proceeded to demolish the doubt she had unwarily expressed.

"That's where you've got an altogether erroneous view of me, dear old sister," he said triumphantly. "I'm known up an' down the river as the one man that you can't deceive. Go up and ask the Bomongo, drop in on the Isisi, speak to the Akasava, an' what will they say? They'll say, 'No, ma'am, there's no flies on jolly old Bones-not on your life, Harriet!'"

"Then they would be very impertinent," smiled Pat.

"Ask Sanders (God bless him!). Ask Ham. Ask--" he was going on enthusiastically.

"Are you going to camp here, or are you coming in?" she challenged.

Bones gathered up his belongings, never ceasing to talk.

"Fellers like me, dear young friend, make the Empire-paint the whole bally thing red, white an' blue-'unhonoured an' unsung, until the curtain's rung, the boys that made the Empire and the Navy.'"

"Bones, you promised you wouldn't sing," she said reproachfully; "and, besides, you're not in the navy."

"That doesn't affect the argument," protested Bones, and was rapidly shedding his equipment in preparation for another discourse, when she walked on towards Sanders who had come across the square to meet them.

Bones made a dive at the articles he had dropped, and came prancing (no other word describes his erratic run) up to Sanders.

"I've just been telling Miss Hamilton, sir and Excellency, that nobody can find things that old Bones-you'll remember, sir, the episode of your lost pyjama legs. Who found 'em?"

"You did," said Sanders; "they were sent home in your washing. Talking about finding things, read this."

He handed a telegraph form to the young man, and Bones, peering into the message until his nose almost touched the paper, read-

"Very urgent. Clear the line. Administration.

"To Sanders, Commission River Territories. Message begins. Belgian Congo Government reports from Leopoldville, Bacteriological Expedition carriers raided on edge of your territory by Inner N'gombi people, all stores looted including case of 20 culture tubes. Stop. As all these cultures are of virulent diseases, inoculate Inner N'gombi until intact tubes recovered. Message ends."

Bones read it twice, and his face took on an appearance which indicated something between great pain and intense vacancy. It was intended to convey to the observer the fact that Bones was thinking deeply and rapidly, and that he had banished from his mind all the frivolities of life.

"I understand, sir-you wish me to go to the dear old Congo Government and apologize-I shall be ready in ten minutes."

"What I really want you to do," said Sanders patiently, "is to take the Wiggle up stream and get that box."

"I quite understand, sir," said Bones, nodding his head. "To-day is the 8th, to-morrow is the 9th-the box shall be in your hands on the 15th by half-past seven in the evening, dear old sir."

He saluted and turned a baleful glare upon the girl, the import of which she was to learn at first hand.

"Duty, Miss Patricia Hamilton! Forgive poor old Bones if he suddenly drops the mask of dolce far niente-I go!"

He saluted again and went marching stiffly to his quarters, with all the dignity which an empty lunch-box and a dangling water-bottle would allow him.

The next morning Bones went forth importantly for the Ochori city, being entrusted with the task of holding, so to speak, the right flank of the N'gombi country.

"You will use your discretion," Sanders said at parting, "and, of course, you must keep your eyes open; if you hear the merest hint that the box is in your neighbourhood, get it."

"I think, your Excellency," said Bones, with heavy carelessness, "that I have fulfilled missions quite as delicate as this, and as for observation, why, the gift runs in my family."

"And runs so fast that you've never caught up with it," growled Hamilton.

Bones turned haughtily and saluted. It was a salute full of subdued offence.

He went joyously to the northward, evolving cunning plans. He stopped at every village to make inquiries and to put the unoffending villagers to considerable trouble-for he insisted upon a house-to-house search-before, somewhat wearied by his own zeal, he came to the Ochori.

Chief Bosambo heard of his coming and summoned his councillors.

"Truly has Sandi a hundred ears," he said in dismay, "for it seems that he has heard of the slaying of Muchini. Now, all men who are true to me will swear to the lord Tibbetti that we know nothing of a killing palaver, and that we have not been beyond the trees to the land side of the city. This you will all say because you love me; and if any man says another thing I will beat him until he is sick."

Bones came and was greeted by the chief-and Bosambo was carried to the beach on a litter.

"Lord," said Bosambo weakly, "now the sight of your simple face will make me a well man again. For, lord, I have not left my bed since the coming of the rains, and there is strength neither in my hands and feet."

"Poor old bird," said Bones sympathetically, "you've been sittin' in a draught."

"This I tell you, Tibbetti," Bosambo went on, as yet uncertain of his ruler's attitude, since Bones must need, at this critical moment, employ English and idiomatic English, "that since the last moon was young I have lain in my hut never moving, seeing nothing and hearing nothing, being like a dead man-all this my headman will testify."

Bones's face dropped, for he had hoped to secure information here. Bosambo, watching his face through half-closed lids, saw the dismal droop of the other's mouth, and came to the conclusion that whatever might be the cause of the visit, it was not to hold the Ochori or their chief to account for known misdeeds.

"O Bosambo," said Bones, in the river dialect, "this is sad news, for I desire that you shall tell me certain things for which Sandi would have given you salt and rods."

The Chief of the Ochori sat up in his litter and went so far as to put one foot to the ground.

"Lord," said he heartily, "the sound of your lovely voice brings me from the grave and gives me strength. Ask, O Bonesi, for you are my father and my mother; and though I saw and heard nothing, yet in my sickness I had wonderful visions and all things were made visible-that I declare to you, Bonesi, before all men."

"Don't call me 'Bonesi,'" said Bones fiercely. "You're a jolly cheeky feller, Bosambo-you're very, very naughty, indeed!"

"Master," said Bosambo humbly, "though I rule these Ochori I am a foreigner in this land; in the tongue of my own people, Bonesi means 'he-who-is-noble-in-face-and-a-giver-of-justice.'"

"That's better," nodded the gratified Bones, and went on speaking in the dialect. "You shall help me in this-it touches the people of the Inner N'gombi--"

Bosambo fell back wearily on to the litter, and rolled his eyes as one in pain.

"This is a sorrow for me, Bo-Tibbetti," he said faintly, "but I am a sick man."

"Also," continued Bones, "of a certain box of wood, full of poisons--"

As well as he could Bones explained the peculiar properties of germ culture.

"Oh, ko!" said Bosambo, closing his eyes, and was to all appearances beyond human aid.

* * *

"Lord," said Bosambo, at parting, "you have brought me to life, and every man of every tribe shall know that you are a great healer. To all the far and quiet places of the forest I will send my young men who will cry you aloud as a most wonderful doctor."

"Not at all," murmured Bones modestly, "not at all."

"Master," said Bosambo, this time in English, for he was not to be outdone in the matter of languages, for had he not attended a great mission school in Monrovia? "Master, you dam' fine feller, you look 'um better feller, you no find um. You be same like Moses and Judi Escariot, big fine feller, by golly-yas."

All night long, between the visits which Bones had been making from the moored Wiggle to the village (feeling the patient's pulse with a profound and professional air and prescribing brandy and milk), Bosambo had been busy.

"Stand you at the door, Secundi," he said to his headman, "and let one of your men go to the shore to warn me of my lord Tibbetti's coming, for I have work to do. It seems this Maker of Storms were better with Sandi than with me."

"Tibbetti is a fool, I think," suggested Secundi.

Bosambo, kneeling on a rush mat, busy with a native chisel and a pot of clay paint, looked up.

"I have beaten older men than you with a stick until they have wept," he said, "and all for less than you say. For this is the truth, Secundi, that a child cannot be a fool, though an old man may be a shame. This is the word of the blessed prophet. As for Tibbetti, he has a clean and loving heart."

There was a rustle at the door and a whispered voice.

The box and the tools were thrust under a skin rug and Bosambo again became the interesting invalid.

In the morning Bosambo had said farewell, and a blushing Bones listened with unconcealed pleasure to the extravagant praise of his patient.

"And this I tell you, Tibbetti," said Bosambo, standing thigh-deep in the river by the launch's side, "that knowing you are wise man who gathers wisdom, I have sent to the end of my country for some rare and beautiful thing that you may carry it with you."

He signalled to a man on the bank, and his servant brought him a curious object.

It was, Bones noted, a square box apparently of native make, for it was fantastically carved and painted. There were crude heads and hideous forms which never were on land or sea. The paint was brilliant; red, yellow and green indiscriminately splashed.

"This is very ancient and was brought to my country by certain forest people. It is a Maker of Storms, and is a powerful ju-ju for good and evil."

Bones, already a collector of native work, was delighted. His delight soothed him for his failure in other respects.

He returned to headquarters empty-handed and sat the centre of a chilling group-if we except Patricia Hamilton-and endeavoured, as so many successful advocates have done, to hide his short-comings behind a screen of rhetoric.

He came to the part of his narrative where Bosambo was taken ill without creating any notable sensation, save that Sanders's grey eyes narrowed a little and he paid greater heed to the rest of the story.

"There was poor old Bosambo knocked out, sir-ab-so-lutely done for-fortunately I did not lose my nerve. You know what I am, dear old officer, in moments of crisis?"

"I know," said Hamilton grimly, "something between a Welsh revivalist and a dancing dervish."

"Please go on, Bones," begged the girl, not the least interested of the audience.

"I dashed straight back to the Wiggle," said Bones breathlessly, "searched for my medicine chest-it wasn't there! Not so much as a mustard plaster-what was I to do, dear old Miss Hamilton?" he appealed dramatically.

"Don't tell him, Pat," begged Hamilton, "he's sure to guess it."

"What was I to do? I seized a bottle of brandy," said Bones with relish, "I dashed back to where Bosambo was lyin'. I dashed into the village, into his hut and got a glass--"

"Well, well!" said Sanders impatiently, "what happened after all this dashing?"

Bones spread out his hands.

"Bosambo is alive to-day," he said simply, "praisin'-if I may be allowed to boast-the name of Bones the Medicine Man. Look here, sir."

He dragged towards him along the floor of the hut a package covered with a piece of native sacking. This he whisked away and revealed the hideous handiwork of an artist who had carved and painted as true to nature as a man may who is not quite certain whether the human eye is half-way down the nose or merely an appendage to his ear.

"That, sir," said Bones impressively, "is one of the most interestin' specimens of native work I have ever seen: a gift! From Bosambo to the jolly old doctor man who dragged him, if I might so express it, from the very maws of death."

He made his dramatic pause.

Sanders bent down, took a penknife from his pocket and scraped the paint from a flat oblong space on the top.

There for all men to see-save Bones who was now engaged in a relation of his further adventure to his one sympathizer-was a brass plate, and when the paint had been scraped away, an inscription-

Department du Médicins, Etat Congo Belge.

Sanders and Hamilton gazed, fascinated and paralysed to silence.

"I've always had a feelin' I'd like to be a medicine man." Bones prattled on. "You see--"

"One moment, Bones," interrupted Sanders quietly. "Did you open this box by any chance?"

"No, sir," said Bones.

"And did you see any of its contents?"

"No, sir," said Bones confidentially, "that's the most interestin' thing about the box. It contains magic-which, of course, honoured sir and Excellency, is all rubbish."

Sanders took a bunch of keys from his pocket, and after a few trials opened the case and scrutinized the contents, noting the comforting fact that all the tubes were sealed. He heaved a deep sigh of thankfulness.

"You didn't by chance discover anything about the missing cultures, Bones?" he asked mildly.

Bones shook his head, shrugged his shoulders, and looked disconsolately at his chief.

"You think I've been feeble, but I haven't lost hope, sir," he said, with fine resolution. "I've got a feelin' that if I were allowed to go into the forest, disguised, sir, as a sort of half-witted native chap, sir--"

"Disguised!" said Hamilton. "Good Lord, what do you want a disguise for?"

* * *

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