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The Keepers of the King's Peace By Edgar Wallace Characters: 29368

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03

Ko-boru, the headman of Bingini, called his relations together for a solemn family conference.

The lower river folk play an inconsiderable r?le in the politics of the Territories, partly because they are so near to headquarters that there is no opportunity for any of those secret preparations which precede all native intrigues, great or small, and partly because the lower river people are so far removed from the turbulent elements of the upper river that they are not swayed by the cyclonic emotions of the Isisi, the cold and deliberate desire for slaughter which is characteristically Akasavian, or the electrical decisions of the Outer N'gombi.

But they had their crises.

To Bingini came all the notables of the district who claimed kinship with Ko-boru, and they sat in a great circle about the headman's hut, alternately eyeing the old headman and their stout relative, his daughter.

"All my relations shall know this," began Ko-boru, after Okmimi, the witch-doctor, had formally burnt away the devils and ghosts that fringe all large assemblies, "that a great shame has come to us, every one, because of Yoka-m'furi. For this Yoka is to Sandi as a brother, and guides his little ship up and down the river, and because of this splendid position I gave him my own daughter by the first of my wives."

"S'm-m!" murmured the council in agreement.

"Also I built him a hut and gave him a garden, where his wife might work, and he has sat at family palavers. Now, I tell you that Yoka-m'furi is an evil man, for he has left my daughter, and has found another wife in the upper river, and he comes no more to this village, and my daughter weeps all day.

"For three seasons he has not been to this village; when the moon comes again, it will be four." He said this with proper significance, and the flat face of the melancholy girl by his side puckered and creased miserably before she opened her large mouth to wail her woe.

For the man who deliberately separates himself from his wife for four seasons and does not spend twenty-four hours-"from sunrise to moonset" in her village is automatically divorced and freed from all responsibility. This is the custom of all people from the lands of the Great King to the sea.

"Now, I have had a dream," Ko-boru went on, "and in this dream it was told me that I should call you all together, and that I and the chief of my councillors and friends should go to Sandi and tell him what is true."

"Brother and uncle," said Bechimi of G'lara, "I will go with you, for once I spoke to Sandi and he spoke to me, and because of his cunning memory he will recall Bechimi, who picked up his little black stick, when it fell, and gave it to him."

Five were chosen to accompany Ko-boru, and they took canoe and travelled for less than five miles to the Residency.

Sanders was entertaining Patricia Hamilton with stories of native feuds, when the unexpected deputation squatted in the sun before the verandah.

"O Ko-boru," hailed Sanders, "why do you come?"

Ko-boru was all for a long and impressive palaver, but recognized a certain absence of encouragement in the Commissioner's tone. Therefore he came straight to the point.

"Now, you are our father and our mother, Sandi," he said, in conclusion, "and when you speak, all wonders happen. Also you have very beautiful friends, Militini, who speak a word and set his terrible soldiers moving like leopards towards a kill, and Tibbetti, the young one who is innocent and simple. So I say to you, Sandi, that if you speak one word to Yoka, he will come back to my daughter, his wife."

Sanders stood by the rail of the stoep and looked down upon the spokesman.

"I hear strange things, Ko-boru," he said quietly. "They tell me stories of a woman with many lovers and an evil tongue; and once there came to me Yoka with a wounded head, for this daughter of yours is very quick in her anger."

"Lord," said the flustered Ko-boru, "such things happen even in love."

"All things happen in love," said Sanders, with a little smile, "and, if it is to be, Yoka will return. Also, if it is to be, he will not go back to the woman, and she will be free. This palaver is finished."

"Lord," pleaded Ko-boru, "the woman will do no more angry things. Let him come back from sunrise to moonset--"

"This palaver is finished," repeated Sanders.

On their way back to Bingini the relatives of Ko-boru made a plot. It was the first plot that had been hatched in the shadow of headquarters for twenty years.

"Would it be indiscreet to ask what your visitors wanted?" asked the girl, as the crestfallen deputation was crossing the square to their canoe.

"It was a marriage palaver," replied Sanders, with a little grimace, "and I was being requested to restore a husband to a temperamental lady who has a passion for shying cook-pots at her husband when she is annoyed."

The girl's laughing eyes were fixed upon his.

"Poor Mr. Sanders!" she said, with mock seriousness.

"Don't be sorry for me," smiled Sanders. "I'm rather domestic, really, and I'm interested in this case because the man concerned is my steersman-the best on the river, and a capital all-round man. Besides that," he went on seriously, "I regard them all as children of mine. It is right that a man who shirks his individual responsibilities to the race should find a family to 'father.'"

"Why do you?" she asked, after a little pause.

"Why do I what?"

"Shirk your responsibilities," she said. "This is a healthy and a delightful spot: a woman might be very happy here."

There was an awkward silence.

"I'm afraid I've been awfully impertinent," said Patricia, hurriedly rising, "but to a woman there is a note of interrogation behind every bachelor-especially nice bachelors-and the more 'confirmed' he is, the bigger the question mark."

Sanders rose to her.

"One of these days I shall do something rash," he threatened, with that shy laugh of his. "Here is your little family coming."

Bones and Hamilton were discussing something heatedly, and justice was on the side of Lieutenant Tibbetts, if one could judge by the frequency with which he stopped and gesticulated.

"It really is too bad," said the annoyed Hamilton, as he mounted the steps to the stoep, followed by Bones, who, to do him justice, did not adopt the attitude of a delinquent, but was, on the contrary, injured virtue personified.

"What is too bad, dear?" asked the girl sympathetically.

"A fortnight ago," said Hamilton, "I told this silly ass--"

"Your jolly old brother is referrin' to me, dear lady," explained Bones.

"Who else could I be referring to?" demanded the other truculently. "I told him to have all the company accounts ready by to-morrow. You know, sir, that the paymaster is coming down from Administration to check 'em, and will you believe me, sir"-he glared at Bones, who immediately closed his eyes resignedly-"would you believe me that, when I went to examine those infernal accounts, they were all at sixes and sevens?"

"Threes an' nines, dear old officer," murmured Bones, waking up, "the matter in dispute being a trifle of thirty-nine dollars, which I've generously offered to make up out of my own pocket."

He beamed round as one who expected applause.

"And on the top of this," fumed Hamilton, "he talks of taking Pat for an early morning picnic to the village island!"

"Accompanied by the jolly old accounts," corrected Bones. "Do me justice, sir and brother-officer. I offered to take the books with me, an' render a lucid and convincin' account of my stewardship."

"Don't make me laugh," snarled Hamilton, stamping into the bungalow.

"Isn't he naughty?" said Bones admiringly.

"Now, Bones," warned the girl, "I shan't go unless you keep your word with Alec."

Bones drew himself up and saluted.

"Dear old friend," he said proudly, "put your faith in Bones."

* * *

"H.M. Launch No. 36 (Territories)," as it was officially described on the stores record, had another name, which she earned in her early days through certain eccentricities of construction. Though she might not in justice be called the Wiggle any longer, yet the Wiggle she was from one end of the river to the other, and even native men called her "Komfuru," which means "that which does not run straight."

It had come to be recognized that the Wiggle was the especial charge of Lieutenant Tibbetts. Bones himself was the first to recognize this right. There were moments when he inferred that the Wiggle's arrival on the station at the time he was making his own first appearance was something more than a coincidence.

She was not, in the strictest sense of the word, a launch, for she possessed a square, open dining saloon and two tiny cabins amidships. Her internal works were open to the light of day, and her engineer lived in the engine-room up to his waist and on deck from his waist up, thus demonstrating the possibility of being in two places at once.

The Wiggle, moreover, possessed many attributes which are denied to other small steamers. She had, for example, a Maxim gun on her tiny forecastle. She had a siren of unusual power and diabolical tone, she was also fitted with a big motor-horn, both of which appendages were Bones's gift to his flagship. The motor-horn may seem superfluous, but when the matter is properly explained, you will understand the necessity for some less drastic method of self-advertisement than the siren.

The first time the siren had been fitted Bones had taken the Wiggle through "the Channel." Here the river narrows and deepens, and the current runs at anything from five to seven knots an hour. Bones was going up stream, and met the Bolalo Mission steamer coming down. She had dipped her flag to the Wiggle's blue ensign, and Bones had replied with two terrific blasts on his siren.

After that the Wiggle went backwards, floating with the current all ways, from broadside on to stern first, for in those two blasts Bones had exhausted the whole of his steam reserve.

She was also equipped with wireless. There was an "aerial" and an apparatus which Bones had imported from England at a cost of twelve pounds, and which was warranted to receive messages from two hundred miles distant. There was also a book of instructions. Bones went to his hut with the book and read it. His servant found him in bed the next morning, sleeping like a child, with his hand resting lightly upon the second page.

Sanders and Hamilton both took a hand at fixing the Wiggle's wireless. The only thing they were all quite certain about was that there ought to be a wire somewhere. So they stretched the aerial from the funnel to the flagstaff at the stern of the boat, and then addressed themselves to the less simple solution of "making it work."

They tried it for a week, and gave it up in despair.

"They've had you, Bones," said Hamilton. "It doesn't 'went.' Poor old Bones!"

"Your pity, dear old officer, is offensive," said Bones stiffly, "an' I don't mind tellin' you that I've a queer feelin'-I can't explain what it is, except that I'm a dooce of a psychic-that that machine is goin' to be jolly useful."

But though Bones worked day and night, read the book of instructions from cover to cover, and took the whole apparatus to pieces, examining each part under a strong magnifying glass, he never succeeded either in transmitting or receiving a message, and the machine was repacked and stored in the spare cabin, and was never by any chance referred to, except by Hamilton in his most unpleasant moments.

Bones took an especial delight in the Wiggle; it was his very own ship, and he gave her his best personal attention.

It was Bones who ordered from London especially engraved notepaper headed "H. M. S. Komfuru"-the native name sounded more dignified than Wiggle, and more important than "Launch 36." It was Bones who installed the little dynamo which-when it worked-lit the cabins and even supplied power for a miniature searchlight. It was Bones who had her painted Service grey, and would have added another funnel if Hamilton had not detected the attempted aggrandizement. Bones claimed that she was dustproof, waterproof, and torpedo-proof, and Hamilton had voiced his regret that she was not also fool-proof.

At five o'clock the next morning, when the world was all big hot stars and shadows, and there was no sound but the whisper of the running river and the "ha-a-a-a-ha-a-a-a" of breakers, Bones came from his hut, crossed the parade-ground, and, making his way by the light of a lantern along the concrete quay-it was the width of an average table-dropped on to the deck and kicked the custodian of the Wiggle to wakefulness.

Bones's satellite was one Ali Abid, who was variously described as Moor, Egyptian, Tripolitan, and Bedouin, but was by all ethnological indications a half-breed Kano, who had spent the greater part of his life in the service of a professor of bacteriology. This professor was something of a purist, and the association with Ali Abid, plus a grounding in the elementary subjects which are taught at St. Joseph's Mission School, Cape Coast Castle, had given Ali a gravity of demeanour and a splendour of vocabulary which many better favoured than he might have envied.

"Arise," quoth Bones, in the cracked bass which he employed whenever he felt called upon to deliver his inaccurate versions of Oriental poets-

"Arise, for morning in the bowl of night

Has chucked a stone to put the stars to flight.

And lo! and lo!... Get up, Ali; the caravan is


Oh, make haste!"

("Omar will never be dead so long as Bones quotes him," Hamilton once said; "he simply couldn't afford to be dead and leave it to Bones!")

Ali rose, blinking and shivering, for the early morning was very cold, and he had been sleeping under an old padded dressing-gown which Bones had donated.

"Muster all the hands," said Bones, setting his lantern on the deck.

"Sir," said Ali slowly, "the subjects are not at our disposition. Your preliminary instructions presupposed that you had made necessary arrangements re personnel."

Bones scratched his head.

"Dash my whiskers," he said, in his annoyance, "didn't I tell you that I was taking the honourable lady for a trip? Didn't I tell you, you jolly old slacker, to have everything ready by daybreak? Didn't I issue explicit an' particular instructions about grub?"

"Sir," said Ali, "you didn't."

"Then," said Bones wrathfully, "why the dickens do I think I have?"

"Sir," said Ali, "some subjects, when enjoying refreshing coma, possess delirium, hallucina

tions, highly imaginative, which dissipate when the subject recovers consciousness, but retain in brain cavity illusory reminiscences."

Bones thrust his face into the other's.

"Do you mean to tell me I dreamt it?" he hissed.

"Sir," said Ali, "self-preservation compels complete acquiescence in your diagnosis."

"You're childish," said Bones.

He gave a few vague instructions in the best Bones manner, and stole up to the dark Residency. He had solemnly promised Sanders that he would rouse the girl without waking up the rest of the house.

They were to go up stream to the Village Island, where the ironworkers of the Akasava had many curious implements to show her. Breakfast was to be taken on the boat, and they were to return for tiffin.

Overnight she had shown Bones the window of her room, and Hamilton had offered to make a chalk mark on the sash, so there could be no mistaking the situation of the room.

"If you wake me before sunrise, I shall do something I shall be sorry for," he warned Bones. "If you return without straightening the accounts, I shall do something which you will be sorry for."

Bones remembered this as he crept stealthily along the wooden verandah. To make doubly sure, he took off his boots and dropped them with a crash.

"Sh!" said Bones loudly. "Sh, Bones! Not so much noise, you silly old ass!"

He crept softly along the wooden wall and reconnoitred. The middle window was Hamilton's room, the left was Sanders's, the right was Patricia's. He went carefully to the right window and knocked. There was no answer. He knocked again. Still no reply. He knocked loudly.

"Is that you, Bones?" growled Sanders's voice.

Bones gasped.

"Awfully sorry, sir," he whispered agitatedly-"my mistake entirely."

He tiptoed to the left window and rapped smartly. Then he whistled, then he rapped again.

He heard a bed creak, and turned his head modestly away.

"It's Bones, dear old sister," he said, in his loudest whisper. "Arise, for mornin' in the bowl of light has--"

Hamilton's voice raged at him.

"I knew it was you, you blithering--"

"Dear old officer," began Bones, "awfully sorry! Go to sleep again. Night-night!"

"Go to the devil!" said a muffled voice.

Bones, however, went to the middle window; here he could make no mistake. He knocked authoritatively.

"Hurry up, ma'am," he said; "time is on the wing--"

The sash was flung up, and again Bones confronted the furious Hamilton.

"Sir," said the exasperated Bones, "how the dooce did you get here?"

"Don't you know this room has two windows? I told you last night, you goop! Pat sleeps at the other end of the building. I told you that, too, but you've got a brain like wool!"

"I am obliged to you, sir," said Bones, on his dignity, "for the information. I will not detain you."

Hamilton groped on his dressing-table for a hair-brush.

"Go back to bed, sir," said Bones, "an' don't forget to say your prayers."

He was searching for the window in the other wing of the Residency, when the girl, who had been up and dressed for a quarter of an hour, came softly behind him and tapped him on the shoulder.

"Wow!" screeched Bones. "Oh, Lord, dear old sister, you gave me the dickens of a fright! Well, let's get along. Thank heavens, we haven't disturbed anybody."

He was followed to the boat with the imprecations of two pyjamaed figures that stood on the stoep and watched his lank body melt in the darkness.

"Send us a wireless when you're coming back!" roared Hamilton.

"Cad!" said Bones, between his teeth.

Ali Abid had not been idle. He had aroused Yoka, the steersman, and Boosoobi, the engineer, and these two men had accepted the unexpected call with the curious readiness which natives show on such occasions, and which suggests that they have pre-knowledge of the summons, and are only waiting the word.

In one of the small cabins Ali had arranged the much-discussed company accounts ready for his lord's attention, and there was every promise of a happy and a profitable day when Yoka rang the engines "ahead," and the Wiggle jerked her way to midstream.

The east had grown pale, there was a murmur from the dark forests on either bank, the timorous chirping or bad-tempered squawk of a bird, a faint fragrance of burning gumwood from the fishing villages established on the river bank, where, in dancing spots of light, the women were tending their fires.

There is no intermediate stage on the big river between darkness and broad daylight. The stars go out all at once, and the inky sky which serves then becomes a delicate blue. The shadows melt deeper and deeper into the forest, clearly revealing the outlines of the straight-stemmed trees. There is just this interregnum of pearl greyness, a sort of hush-light, which lasts whilst a man counts twenty, before the silver lances of the sun are flashing through the leaves, and the grey veil which blurs the islands to shapeless blotches in a river of dull silver is burnt to nothingness, and the islands are living things of vivid green set in waters of gold.

"The sunrise!" said Bones, and waved his hand to the east with the air of one who was responsible for the miracle.

The girl sat in a deep wicker chair and breathed in the glory and the freshness of the scene. Across the broad river, right ahead of the boat, a flock of parroquets was flying, screeching their raucous chorus. The sun caught their brilliant plumage, and she saw, as it seemed, a rainbow in flight.

"Isn't that wonderful?" she whispered.

Bones peered up at the birds, shading his eyes.

"Just like a jolly old patchwork quilt," he said. "What a pity they can't talk till you teach 'em! They're awful bad eatin', too, though some fellers say they make a good curry--"

"Oh, look, look!"

The Wiggle was swerving to the southern bank of the river, and two majestic flamingos standing at the water's edge had arrested the girl's attention.

"They're bad eatin', too," said the informative Bones. "The flesh is fishy an' too fat; heron are just the same."

"Haven't you a soul, Bones?" she asked severely.

"A soul, dear ma'am?" Bones asked, in astonishment. "Why, that's my specialty!"

It was a delightful morning for the girl, for Bones had retired to his cabin at her earnest request, and was struggling with the company accounts, and she was left to enjoy the splendour of the day, to watch the iron-red waters piling up against the Wiggle's bows, to feel the cool breezes that swept down from the far-away mountains, and all this without being under the necessity of making conversation with Bones.

That gentleman had a no less profitable morning, for Ali Abid was a methodical and clerkly man, and unearthed the missing thirty-nine dollars in the Compensation Record.

"Thank goodness!" said Bones, relieved. "You're a jolly old accountant, Ali. I'd never have found it."

"Sir," said Ali, "some subjects, by impetuous application, omit vision of intricate detail. This is due to subjects' lack of concentration."

"Have it your way," said Bones, "but get the statement out for me to copy."

He awoke the girl from a profound reverie-which centred about shy and solemn bachelors who adopted whole nations of murderous children as their own-and proceeded to "take charge."

This implied the noisy issuing of orders which nobody carried out, the manipulation of a telescope, anxious glances at the heavens, deep and penetrating scrutinies of the water, and a promenade back and forward from one side of the launch to the other. Bones called this "pacing the bridge," and invariably carried his telescope tucked under his arm in the process, and, as he had to step over Pat's feet every time, and sometimes didn't, she arrested his nautical wanderings.

"You make me dizzy," she said. "And isn't that the island?"

* * *

In the early hours of the afternoon they re-embarked, the capita of the village coming to the beach to see them off.

They brought back with them a collection of spear-heads, gruesome execution knives, elephant swords, and wonder-working steel figures.

"And the lunch was simply lovely, Bones," agreed the girl, as the Wiggle turned her nose homeward. "Really, you can be quite clever sometimes."

"Dear old Miss Hamilton," said Bones, "you saw me to-day as I really am. The mask was off, and the real Bones, kindly, thoughtful, considerate, an'-if I may use the word without your foundin' any great hope upon it-tender. You saw me free from carkin' care, alert--"

"Go along and finish your accounts, like a good boy," she said. "I'm going to doze."

Doze she did, for it was a warm, dozy afternoon, and the boat was running swiftly and smoothly with the tide. Bones yawned and wrote, copying Ali's elaborate and accurate statement, whilst Ali himself slept contentedly on the top of the cabin. Even the engineer dozed at his post, and only one man was wide awake and watchful-Yoka, whose hands turned the wheel mechanically, whose dark eyes never left the river ahead, with its shoals, its sandbanks, and its snags, known and unknown.

Two miles from headquarters, where the river broadens before it makes its sweep to the sea, there are three islands with narrow passages between. At this season only one such passage-the centre of all-is safe. This is known as "The Passage of the Tree," because all boats, even the Zaire, must pass so close beneath the overhanging boughs of a great lime that the boughs brush their very funnels. Fortunately, the current is never strong here, for the passage is a shallow one. Yoka felt the boat slowing as he reached shoal water, and brought her nearer to the bank of the island. He had reached the great tree, when a noose dropped over him, tightened about his arms, and, before he could do more than lock the wheel, he was jerked from the boat and left swinging between bough and water.

"O Yoka," chuckled a voice from the bough, "between sunrise and moonset is no long time for a man to be with his wife!"

* * *

Bones had finished his account, and was thinking. He thought with his head on his hands, with his eyes shut, and his mouth open, and his thought was accompanied by strange guttural noises.

Patricia Hamilton was also thinking, but much more gracefully. Boosoobi sat by his furnace door, nodding. Sometimes he looked at the steam gauge, sometimes he kicked open the furnace door and chucked in a few billets of wood, but, in the main, he was listening to the soothing "chook-a-chook, chook-a-chook" of his well-oiled engines.

"Woo-yow!" yawned Bones, stretched himself, and came blinking into the sunlight. The sun was nearly setting.

"What the dooce--" said Bones. He stared round.

The Wiggle had run out from the mouth of the river and was at sea. There was no sign of land of any description. The low-lying shores of the territory had long since gone under the horizon.

Bones laid his hand on the shoulder of the sleeping girl, and she woke with a start.

"Dear old shipmate," he said, and his voice trembled, "we're alone on this jolly old ocean! Lost the steersman!"

She realized the seriousness of the situation in a moment.

The dozing engineer, now wide awake, came aft at Bones's call, and accepted the disappearance of the steersman without astonishment.

"We'll have to go back," said Bones, as he swung the wheel round. "I don't think I'm wrong in sayin' that the east is opposite to the west, an', if that's true, we ought to be home in time for dinner."

"Sar," said Boosoobi, who, being a coast boy, elected to speak English, "dem wood she no lib."

"Hey?" gasped Bones, turning pale.

"Dem wood she be done. I look um. I see um. I no find um."

Bones sat down heavily on the rail.

"What does he say?" Pat asked anxiously.

"He says there's no more wood," said Bones. "The horrid old bunkers are empty, an' we're at the mercy of the tempest."

"Oh, Bones!" she cried, in consternation.

But Bones had recovered.

"What about swimmin' to shore with a line?" he said. "It can't be more than ten miles!"

It was Ali Abid who prevented the drastic step.

"Sir," he said, "the subject on such occasions should act with deliberate reserve. Proximity of land presupposes research. The subject should assist rather than retard research by passivity of action, easy respiration, and general normality of temperature."

"Which means, dear old Miss Hamilton, that you've got to keep your wool on," explained Bones.

What might have happened is not to be recorded, for at that precise moment the s.s. Paretta came barging up over the horizon.

There was still steam in the Wiggle's little boiler, and one log of wood to keep it at pressure.

Bones was incoherent, but again Ali came to the rescue.

"Sir," he said, "for intimating SOS-ness there is upon steamer or launch certain scientific apparatus, unadjusted, but susceptible to treatment."

"The wireless!" spluttered Bones. "Good lor', the wireless!"

Twenty minutes later the Wiggle ran alongside the gangway of the s.s. Paretta, anticipating the arrival of the Zaire by half an hour.

The s.s. Paretta was at anchor when Sanders brought the Zaire to the scene.

He saw the Wiggle riding serenely by the side of the great ship, looking for all the world like a humming bird under the wings of an ostrich, and uttered a little prayer of thankfulness.

"They're safe," he said to Hamilton. "O Yoka, take the Zaire to the other side of the big boat."

"Master, do we go back to-night to seek Ko-boru?" asked Yoka, who was bearing marks which indicated his strenuous experience, for he had fought his way clear of his captors, and had swum with the stream to headquarters.

"To-morrow is also a day," quoth Sanders.

Hamilton was first on the deck of the s.s. Paretta, and found his sister and a debonair and complacent Bones waiting for him. With them was an officer whom Hamilton recognized.

"Company accounts all correct, sir," said Bones, "audited by the jolly old paymaster"-he saluted the other officer-"an' found correct, sir, thus anticipatin' all your morose an' savage criticisms."

Hamilton gripped his hand and grinned.

"Bones was really wonderful," said the girl, "they wouldn't have seen us if it hadn't been for his idea."

"Saved by wireless, sir," said Bones nonchalantly. "It was a mere nothin'-just a flash of inspiration."

"You got the wireless to work?" asked Hamilton incredulously.

"No, sir," said Bones. "But I wanted a little extra steam to get up to the ship, so I burnt the dashed thing. I knew it would come in handy sooner or later."

* * *

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