An Unofficial Affair
AN UNOFFICIAL AFFAIR.
A STORY OF THE WEST AFRICAN FOREST.
BY HAROLD BINDLOSS.
A HAGGARD, fever-worn white man lay panting in a tent beside a muddy river which flows through the great palm-forests on the northern border of a certain British colony in Western Africa.
The flickering light of a smoky lamp fell upon the sufferer's hollow face, while a comrade, scarcely less sickly, knelt close by, turning over the contents of a medicine chest, and anathematising the mosquitoes which settled thirstily upon him now that his hands were too busy to drive them away. The rain swirled down the canvas above, and the darkness outside seemed filled with the rush of the tropical deluge.
The sick man was Kirkstone Lindley, a civil officer of the British service, and his companion Lieutenant Marvin, in command of a detachment of black troops, and the two had been sent up into the fringe of the wild "hinterland" on a diplomatic visit to a bush headman. Inland traders had complained bitterly that certain lawless chieftains levied blackmail on all the oil passing through their dominions, and occasionally seized the rubber-gatherers as slaves. This, they pointed out, seriously interfered with the commerce of the western border, and Lindley went north to explain to the depredators that the Government objected strongly to such proceedings. The bush headman, however, was quite aware that the authorities would be very loth to send up a costly expedition into his pestilential swamps, and felt himself master of the situation.
So at first he made lying promises, and, it is probable, tampered with the provisions supplied the little party, for most West African natives are adepts at vegetable poisoning. Afterwards, when a mysterious sickness broke out among the handful of black troops, and both the white officers went down with fever, he changed his tone, and Lindley considered it prudent to retire. Now he lay camped beside the river, waiting until his men recovered strength to continue the southward march.
Presently Marvin said, "All the anti-pyrin's done, and I'll have to give you the old draught again. It can't be helped, you know."
Lindley stretched out a burning, claw-like hand. "Headache and deafness are almost worse than fever," he answered, as he gulped the bitter mixture down. Then Marvin added, thoughtfully, "I hardly like to worry you now, but I can't see my way out of this at all. Most of the carriers are crippled with Guinea-worm, or pretend to be; the rest would bolt if they got the chance; and only half the men are fit for duty. The scouts say the bushmen are gathering about us in force, and it would be precious awkward if they were to rush us now."
"It's hard to lie helpless when there's so much to be done," was the feeble answer, "but it can't be helped, and you never know your luck—especially in Africa. Anyway, we can only wait, and that's the worst of all." Then, with a groan, the sick man turned his face from the light, for his head ached intolerably, and a burning pain racked every joint. Marvin sat still in despondent silence, listening to the roar of falling water, while the rain came down as it only can in the tropics, smiting the quivering palm-fronds like solid rods, and beating the lilies into shreds of white. It was overpoweringly hot, with a clammy, steamy heat, which crushes the life out of an unacclimatised European, and the fire of the malaria was in his blood as well.
Presently he sprang to his feet as the crash of an over-loaded flint-lock gun rang out above the sound of the deluge, and a handful of jagged potleg ripped through the canvas. Lindley raised himself on one elbow, and Marvin turned down the lamp for safety's sake. An illuminated tent makes too good a target for even an indifferent marksman to miss.
"Those weary bushmen," he said. "After the Haussa stalked the last I thought they had learned better. Lie still, Lindley; I suppose I must go and see."
As he stepped forth from the tent a clamour of startled voices rose through the rain, and he heard the hoarse challenge of a Haussa sentry. The ringing of a Snider and a crackle of brushwood followed, and then all was still again. When the white man's eyes became accustomed to the darkness he made out a group of shadowy figures standing, rifle in hand, beside frail shelters of plaited palm boughs, half-hidden by the mist that rose like steam from the soaking earth. A swarm of naked carriers floundered aimlessly about the camp, and presently a big black sergeant, with the blood of the northern Moslem in his veins, strode forward, and raised a dripping hand in salute.
"Any order, sah?" he said; and his officer answered, "Send two of your best men to catch that fellow if they can, and keep those carriers still——" Marvin broke off suddenly, for the misty forest reeled before his eyes, but with an effort he added, "Double the sentries; palaver set," and dragged himself away. When he reached the tent he mixed a draught from the medicine chest and flung himself down upon the mats, shaking in every limb. "I never thought I was so bad as that," he said half-aloud. "What on earth will become of us now?" Then his overtaxed strength gave way, and he sank into the limp insensibility which occasionally brings relief from the pains of intermittent fever.
An hour later a sentry, hearing a suspicious rustling of undergrowth, fired his rifle at a venture, and when the worn-out men staggered to their feet again they found that the portion of the camp where the bush carriers, being heathen, lay apart was empty. All had vanished silently into the forest while the others slept, and, what was worse, most of the provisions and ammunition cases had vanished with them too. Thereupon Sergeant Aweh approached the tent, and drawing apart the canvas peered. inside. By the faint light of the turned-down lamp he saw one figure tossing upon the mats, and moaning as if in pain, while another leaned back against a deal case, very grim and silent, with a big revolver hanging by a lanyard about its neck. The set teeth grated as he listened, and the fingers of one hand clenched themselves, but the Moslem knew his officer was not awake, and closing to the wet canvas he slipped quietly away.
Shortly afterwards an informal council was held beneath a bower of palm-fronds, which leaked like a large-meshed colander, and five men of a soldier race which has served the British Government very faithfully in the forests of Western Africa took part therein. They were Haussas from a healthy land beyond the fever-belt, who had journeyed south to enter the service of a power they had heard was even greater than that of the northern Arabs.
"The matter is very plain," said Sergeant Aweh, in the semi-Arabic tongue of the hinterland. "The officer-men are both sick, and they will die if they stay here much longer. We are few, and the sickness is upon us also, so if the bushmen fall upon us now there is no hope of escape."
Aweh glanced at the rest, who nodded approval, and said there was wisdom in the words, and that Allah had doubtless given their comrade an understanding mind. Then he continued, "The white officers must not die, for they are just masters and kind; neither is it fitting that the naked heathen should slay the faithful when they are too sick to fight. Now beyond the Malumba river an officer of the other white nation holds an outpost with many little black soldiers, and, if it be the will of Allah, I and another may reach them and ask for help. Who comes with me?"
Then one private, who acted as tent-orderly, said he had heard the white men discuss that very plan, and decide that it was impossible; while another, who had once accompanied a frontier survey, declared that the bush tribes were accursed devil-worshippers, who would assuredly hack the messengers in pieces.
Aweh settled the matter by bringing his Snider-but viciously down upon the speaker's bare foot, and saying:
"At the worst, two men can but die, and here there is no hope. Therefore, I, Sergeant Aweh, go for one, and I ask not the officers, for they would assuredly say 'No,' being too sick to understand."
"I also," said a private, rising to his feet; "but we go by different ways, that if the heathen spear the one, the other may bear the message. Lend me ten rounds of ammunition, Amadu, and you the long sword-bayonet, Corporal Attou."
Then the conference broke up, and presently a startled sentry dropped his rifle from the present as his sergeant's voice whispered the password behind him and saw two figures slip past and vanish into the rain like flitting ghosts.
When his temperature fell,with the coolness before the dawn, Marvin awoke somewhat better, for the intermittent fever is always worst at night, and as the first grey light filtered down through the vapour he staggered forth from the tent. He listened gravely to the story of the carriers' desertion, but frowned when he heard that two of his most reliable men were missing as well, apparently, for no reason whatever. Then he went back to the tent with a set face, and met Lindley's enquiring eyes.
"Worse than ever," he said sombrely. "All the carriers have bolted, and taken the provisions, too. That, however, is only what I expected; but I can't understand Aweh and Shalule deserting. They were the best we had, and I would have trusted them with my life."
"So would I," was the feeble answer. "Well, we must just wait events, and do the best we can, but it is hardly likely we'll ever see the coast again."
Five days later it happened that Captain Lucien Thurot, who, with a company of black Senegali soldiers, ruled over a wild region where territory under the protection of France adjoined the British colony, held high festival in his rickety headquarters. Thurot was a restless little individual, whose inborn love of excitement and merriment many fevers had failed to quite crush out, and his duty was to keep what order he could among the turbulent tribesmen, and see that the perfidious English made no encroachments on the territory of France. Nevertheless he occasionally made long journeys to visit the British officers across the border, for he generally found them provided with choice cordials, and some of them could even sing the songs of his own land.
On the night in question, three brother officers of the French service and one English trader had gathered themselves together from reeking swamp and steamy forest. This they did periodically, because they were hungry for the mere sound of a European voice, and the meeting, which generally resolved itself into a three days' carnival, was strictly unofficial, and never mentioned in the reports. Indeed, it sometimes happened that the wily bushman took advantage of their absence to carry off his neighbour's wives or wipe out an offending village.
A glare of many candles lighted up the long room of the pile-raised building, while outside the wet palm-fronds clashed and rustled before a fanning of fiery air, and the mist rolled in columns across the face of the quaking swamps. Inside it was fiercely hot; the damp trickled in great globules down the wainscot, and through the open casements there entered the mingled odours of aromatic wood-smoke, lily-flowers, and the exhalations of river mud, which form the West African bouquet. The guests, however, were well used to both heat and damp, and disregarded the oven-like temperature as they made merry over their wine. The sword of the pestilence hung above their heads, as it were, by a single hair, but they were in boisterous spirits, and applauded vigorously when the English trader, after attempting to tune a dilapidated banjo, commenced a ditty which they could not understand. The indifferent verses were of the pastoral order, and told of English meadows and honeysuckle in deep sunk lanes, and seemed strangely out of place in that region of heat and malaria, pestilence and sudden death.
Then the singer, whose courage had given way at last beneath the racking pain of rheumatic fever and the loneliness of Africa, laid down his banjo with a sigh. "It's a curious world," he said. "Two years ago this night I had all that man could desire, and now I'm stewing like a lost soul in this land of fever. I suppose if the malaria wiped us all out to-morrow no one on earth would care."
"C'est la vie," answered his Gallic neighbour, who understood in part. "Mais alors! here is good wine, and camaraderie, and for the rest it is all the the same in fifty year. Ah! the brave Antoine, he sing now—like an angel, you say?"
"I thought they only played on harps," said the trader, smiling in spite of himself. Then he lapsed into silence, for a young officer, whose hollow face was curiously flushed, leaned against a pillar with a trophy of savage arms above his head, and chanted in a ringing voice a ballad of revenge and lost Lorraine. This time there was tumultuous applause, which subsided into laughter as a discordant pounding of monkey-skin drums rose up from the compound below, and unlovely voices broke out into the paddling chanty, "Acha ho." The African is an imitative being, and the negro hewers of wood, inspired by sundry bottles of gin bestowed upon them by the visitors, had extemporised a vociferous concert of their own. But the giver of the feast was equal to the occasion. Carrying a heavy decanter in his hand, he proceeded, none too steadily, towards the verandah, and leaning over the balustrade, hurled the missile among the crouching musicians below with a cry of "Maudits animaux." A heavy thud followed, and the music ceased suddenly amid the crash of splintering glass, while Lieutenant Antoine took his host to task for wasting the precious vintage on the outside of an unappreciative Krooboy.
Afterwards there was a pause, and the silence was only broken by the patter of heavy drops upon the thatch, and the rustle of palm branches swaying overhead, until a harsh challenge from a sentry beyond the gate rang through the steamy air. Then the verandah stairway creaked, and a Senegali sergeant entered the room. A wild and draggled object pushed past him into the glow of the lights, and the officers stared in amaze as a tall negro stood before them, leaning heavily upon the fouled muzzle of a Snider rifle. The mire of many a swamp was crusted from ankle to knee; thorns had scored red lines upon both hands and face; and the shreds of uniform which covered one massy arm were caked and stiff with blood.
The sergeant commenced some rambling explanation, and the guests looked on wondering, until the trader said, "A British Haussa," and went forward, carrying a goblet of wine; but the soldier shook his head and answered in his own tongue, "I am a Moslem, neither will I eat until you have heard. Listen, white men." Then he told the story of the disease-stricken and beleagured camp, and the officers listened with all their ears, while the trader explained such portions as they could not understand. The merriment had faded from their faces before the narrative was done, and Lieutenant Thurot said, "In five days he came, and the bushmen watch every ford. It was a wonderful march—if the tale is true."
The trader translated, and the Moslem's fingers tightened a little about the rusty Snider barrel as he answered grimly, "It is all true—of what use are lies. There were many bushmen, but my people know all the tricks of foreign warfare, and there are now dead scouts beside the fords."
Then Lieutenant Antoine broke in: "I know that tribe. They burned our Gillata village and shot my despatch-carrier, and the English Marvin, I know him too—a good comrade. It is well, then, that we make an example of these pigs of bushmen—eh?"
A hurried consultation followed, after which Captain Thurot favoured the Senegal sergeant with many and somewhat confused instructions, the result of which was that he took the worn-out messenger away, and regaled him with the best the stores contained. Then a bugle rang out through the darkness, and a sound of hurrying feet and jingle of rifle-swivels rose up from the misty compound. An hour later Captain Thurot and another officer of France crawled into their hammocks, while the trader chuckled as he lay in his own. A hoarse shouting of orders followed, a line of black soldiers swung out of the compound, and filed away beneath the palms; and presently the tramp of feet and crackle of undergrowth grew fainter and fainter, until it died away into the silence of the forest.
One morning, when the deluge had given place to the fierce sunlight which now and then varies the monotony of the rains, Lieutenant Marvin was seated upon an overturned case in the doorway of his tent. He was then a gaunt and sickly skeleton, with eyes that glittered with fever, but the man who lay beside him, and whom he was trying to feed with scraps of mouldy biscuit and rancid sardines, was in a still more pitiable plight.
"It's no use," said Lindley at length, "I'm afraid I'm too far gone to eat that now. I dreamt I was back in headquarters, Harry, with iced wine and fruit before me, but the fever is doing its work thoroughly, and I'll never see the Marina again."
"That's nonsense," broke in the other, with an assurance he was far from feeling. "Your temperature is going down, and we'll take you through all right yet."
Then the speaker's face grew dark as he added, "We'll have to smash the bushmen first; they're evidently going to rush us to-day."
Lindley made no response, though there was a faint smile in his eyes which showed he quite understood the hopelessness of the case, and Marvin glanced uneasily towards the forest. The tufted fronds of the palms behind the strip of plume-grass and reeds in which the camp lay, with the river in front and the forest behind, rose sharply in a lace-like tracery of green against the brightness above. Here and there fleecy wreaths of mist hung low down among the tall, columnar stems, while an odour as of all manner of spices hung over the whole place, and mingled with the hothouse-like smell of steaming earth. The glare from the river was trying to the eyes, and the burning heat of Africa pierced pitilessly through the tall grass tussocks among which a handful of sickly, half-famished black soldiers lay. All was very still save for the drowsy gurgle of the river among the reeds, and Marvin found it strangely hard to realise that the silent bush was filled with the skulking foe.
Presently a stealthy crackling of undergrowth came out of the forest, and the two white men grasped hands without a word. Marvin limped slowly towards one corner of the breastwork of interlaced palm-branches and thorns, his hot fingers closing about the butt of a big revolver, while his comrade followed him wistfully with his eyes. Both knew that death was very near them then, but the officer's voice rose clearly as he said, "No man fires without my word. If the bushmen once get inside they will cut you up very small; so you had better fight hard to-day."
A fierce growl made answer, and there was a clicking of breech-blocks as a man here and there made sure that the cartridge-rim lay snugly home. Then with set teeth and black fingers clenched tightly about the trigger-guards, they waited the coming of the foe.
Suddenly a crackle of firing leapt from trunk to trunk round two sides of the breastwork, and the air seemed filled with a whirring flight of potleg, which struck white splinters from the branches and strewed the camp with the fallen tassels of plume-grass. The echoes rolled across the forest, and Marvin raised his hand. "Hold your fire until you see them," he cried, and a sudden stillness followed, a stillness that was strongly trying to the nerves. Then a succession of heavy ringing reports, very different from the sputter of native flintlock guns, fell upon his ears.
"Stolen rifles among them, too; but where can they be firing now," he said half aloud. And there was a jingle of swivels as the men about him fidgeted uneasily with there rifles. Next moment the forest seemed alive with rustling creatures, and Marvin strained his eyes in vain to pierce the blue wreaths of acrid vapour which hung over the undergrowth, for the smoke could not rise into that saturated air. Again creepers and brushwood crackled, then opened up before a wild rush of hurrying men, and as the vapour curled aside before a little puff of air the white men said grimly, "Now comes the end."
Still there was no charge of leaping, matchet-armed figures upon the breastwork, and Marvin could feel his nerves tingle and tighten as he waited. Then the blood stirred madly in his veins, for a European voice called aloud, and there was rapid hammering of rifles beneath the palms. Another order rang out, followed by an ear-splitting shout, something between a roar and a yell, and he knew that a detachment of French Senegalis were driving the foe through the forest. For five minutes there was nothing to be heard but the smashing down of brushwood, the rending of creepers, and a desultory ringing of rifles, and then a bugle sent its shrill call across the misty palms. Presently little groups of ebony-faced, blue-clad figures strode out of the forest, and came tramping through the plume-grass, and Marvin found himself grasping the hand of a perspiring French officer, while he struggled to find something appropriate to say, for the words seemed to stick in his dried-up throat.
"It is nothings, comarade," the other answered, smiling. "The bushman he is not wait for my Senegali him to écrasser, cochons, cochons"; and the English trader broke in with a chuckle, "The cochons knew better than that, and you can thank those two men of yours we ever got here at all. One reached the outpost half-dead, and we picked the other up on the way, dragging himself along with a reed spear in his side. However, we've brought provisions and drugs, and I enlisted carriers for you, too—at the point of the bayonet, so to speak; it took one section all their time to get them here at all. And now, no more talking, we're going to fix up a high-class meal, and have a great time afterwards."
The trader was as good as his word, and the festivities broken off at the outpost were renewed on an extensive scale,Senegalis, who were Moslem too, fraternised with the British Haussas. Even Lindley, after being regaled on tinned soups and a little good wine, felt fresh hope and strength awake within him, and, lying propped against a roll of matting, laughed until the tears ran down his hollow cheeks at the sallies of his Gallic friends.
Finally, just as the coppery sun dipped behind the forest and the burning day came to a close, Marvin sent for the two men who had carried the tidings, and addressed them briefly: "For leaving camp without an order there is extra drill," he said, "but the officers of the Government do not forget faithful service; wait and see what shall come about." And Sergeant Aweh silently raised his hand in salute, and helped his wounded comrade away.
Captain Thurot also had something to say. "I like not many prècis and letters from the Administration," he observed; "this is altogether an affair personal, between brothers of the sword. So you send me provisions back some day—and there is no writing of reports."
Marvin laughed and agreed, the more so that he had no desire for much weary official investigation; and next morning, with many assurances of their eternal admiration and friendship, the French officers took themselves away. In due time the little party safely reached the coast, but, like many other things which happen in the frontier bush, the whole details of that journey are not to be found in any colonial record. As the kindly soldier of France had said—it was an entirely unofficial affair.
- "Bushman" is the term universally used on the West Coast to describe the forest tribes, i.e., men of the bush.