Gillatly's March

Gillatly's March  (1907) 
by Harold Bindloss

From Windsor Magazine, Vol 26, 1907

Gillatly's bearers were pushing on as fast as possible through the dripping forest aisles. They were not men who loved exertion, but Gillatly usually travelled in haste, and, sick or well, they were afraid of him. Black men passing through that forest without headman Tuesday's permit, were also not infrequently shot in the back with a gaspipe gun, and the bearers were woolly-haired aliens from Liberia....



IT was very hot in the little West African factory where trader Gillatly lay, with the perspiration streaming from him, propped up on his trestle bed. He was sick of fever, which, however, was nothing unusual in that country, and he had emerged from a sharp struggle with the malaria more often than he could remember. Still, it had left its mark on him, for he was gaunt, hollow-faced, and grim, a silent, self-contained man, who had made himself respected in a savage land, and, what was more to the purpose, had made the factory pay, in spite of the enmity of the bush magicians and Tuesday, the Mendi headman. It was, however, no fault of theirs that Gillatly was living still, for white men who incur the disapprobation of the dusky potentates occasionally die without apparent cause in that country, where there is nobody to hold an autopsy.

The black darkness of a great palm forest shut the lonely factory in, and no sound but the gurgle of the yellow river, down which the produce came, rose from outside, but a negro swathed in white cotton sat in a steamer-chair discoursing on politics in the musical bush tongue. He was also a trader and a comparatively honest man, and Carter, the book-keeper, listened anxiously, for there had been rumours of another native rising, which would interfere with the commerce of that factory. Gillatly, however, betrayed no particular interest until the bushman took himself away. Then he got up very shakily, moved across the room as though to test his strength, and dropped into a chair.

"It's serious. I think they mean it this time, and it's the first blow that counts," he said. "Unless Phillips has come up, there's only Jardine at the outpost."

It seemed to Carter that his superior was very ill that night, but Gillatly did not care to be worried about his health, so the book-keeper said: "You fancy Tuesday would risk a dash at the outpost?"

Gillatly nodded. "Every nigger who has a gun would join him if he burnt the place; and Jardine's very young. If you will order out the hammock-boys, I'll go along and warn him."

Carter protested. "It's a two-days' journey, and you're not fit for it. You will remember what the West Indias' doctor told you about your heart. If you are quite sure that fellow told us the truth, I'll go myself."

Gillatly smiled drily. "There has been something wrong with my heart the last ten years, and during that time I've kept my end up in spite of Tuesday and all his friends," he said. "I wouldn't like him to get ahead of me now; and if the outpost goes down, there will be very little trade done in this country. I've been through two risings, you see."

"I believe what happened at the last one was a trifle horrible?" said Carter.

Gillatly slowly clenched, a clawlike hand. "It was too horrible to happen again. I was at the mission before the column got through, and I don't want to remember what I saw. Tinsley had his wife there, and a niece of his for female teacher. We couldn't tell which was which when we buried them together. But hadn't you better call the hammock-boys?"

Carter did so, and, when twenty minutes later a relay of woolly-haired bearers stood beneath the verandah, lifted Gillatly into the hammock. He gasped a little as he lay down, and Carter, who was not a demonstrative man, felt impelled to shake hands with him.

"I wish you had sent me instead," he said.

Gillatly smiled curiously. "You will be wanted here. For ten years I and headman Tuesday have spoiled each other's plans, and I'm not going to leave him a free hand now. The game has to be played out, and the stake is a big one."

Then the dusky bearers swung the hammock-pole to their woolly crowns, and faded into the night with a soft patter of naked feet, while Carter went back to the desolate factory. He had, when Gillatly was communicative—which was, however, not often the case—gleaned a few details of his ten-years' quarrel with the headman, and the black traders had told him more. It had been a bitter quarrel, fought out doggedly, one lonely white man, whose assistants usually died before they could help him much, pitted against the representative of the powers of darkness; but Gillatly had held his own, by open valour when it would avail him, and shrewd diplomacy. Once only had he called a detachment of the West Indias in, for he had found it wiser to play off the jealousy of the other tribes who dealt with him against the headman's schemes, and knew to a hair's-breadth how the balance should be adjusted. It was, of course, a risky game, but risks count for little in a land where no man knows how soon the fever may strike him down. Still, Carter, who did not like the curious greyness he had seen in Gillatly's face, was anxious about his chief that night.

In the meanwhile Gillatly's bearers were pushing on as fast as possible through the dripping forest aisles. Low-hanging withes of creepers smote them as they passed, thorns scarred their bare ankles, and rent the loose cotton robes that fluttered about them, while the way they trod was miry, and the black darkness thickened by drifting steam. They were not men who loved exertion, but Gillatly usually travelled in haste, and, sick or well, they were afraid of him. Black men passing through that forest without headman Tuesday's permit, were also not infrequently shot in the back with a gaspipe gun, and the bearers were woolly-haired aliens from Liberia. Accordingly, for their own sakes, they made what speed they could.

They halted an hour when the sun swung up above the forest and stray rays of brightness beat down into the steamy shade, and cooked a meal over a little fire, which was, for various reasons, put out as soon as possible. Gillatly, however, made his breakfast of a mouthful of brandy bitter with quinine, and said nothing to any of them. Then fresh bearers took up the pole, and the rest walked behind past endless colonnades of cottonwood trunks, until the foot-wide path plunged into a quaking swamp. Then, slashing a way with the matchet, they blundered through thickets of ten-foot cane, and floundered knee-deep, and sometimes waist-deep, in the foulest kind of mire, with a horrible smell of corruption rising about them, and the sunrays burning pitilessly down on Gillatly's hammock. It was afternoon, and every man was worn out, when they reached dry land again and hung the hammock between two palms. Frypan, the factory cook, stewed a sweet potato and sundry pieces of a fowl in yellow oil, and offered the mess to Gillatly, who abused him faintly and ate nothing. Frypan afterwards said his eyes were half-closed, and his lips the colour of a piece of cotton.

It was dark when they went on again, not because they wanted to, for they would much sooner have lain down to rest, but because everybody knew there were evil spirits in that forest, and men who now and then chopped travellers up with matchets, too, while the outpost was not very far away now. Still, they stopped again in an hour or two, and Frypan asked Gillatly if he wanted anything. He got no answer, and he and his companions stood silent about the hammock, with the mist, which was hot like steam, drifting past them. Their master was evidently very ill indeed, for, though one of them pinched him, he said nothing whatever.

Then fear came upon them, for as yet they had felt that if there was any difficulty with matchet-armed bushmen or spirits, Gillatly, whom they had confidence in, would deliver them. They had more than once seen him drive a mob of discontented customers, some of whom had gaspipe guns, out of the factory, when it was only by an effort he kept on his feet, but there was evidently little to be expected from a man who could not speak. Still, they could reach the outpost in another two hours' march, and they started, worn-out as they were, at a shuffling run. The hammock lurched and jolted, and once or twice the men who carried it fell down, but Gillatly made no protest. Their legs were rent by thorns, there was very little cotton left on some of them, but still, with the haste that fear gives, they held on.

In the meanwhile, Phillips, the officer of armed constabulary, who had just arrived there, sat talking with Lieutenant Jardine, of the West India battalion, in the outpost. A stockade straggled about it, and the handful of black soldiers, who had spent a few unpleasant weeks there, were asleep. Phillips' detachment were also asleep in another tottering shed, for the West Indias were troops of the Line, and looked down, with some little reason, upon the barefooted policemen. Their character, indeed, was not of the best, and in the case of one or two of the other detachments their presence in any district was not invariably regarded as a benefit; but Phillips, who picked Mohammedans when he could get them, had chosen and drilled his half-company well, and convinced them that it was a perilous thing to disobey him.

It was very stuffy in the bare room, and the big paraffin lamp diffused an unpleasant smell, though the door into the verandah was open, and the steamy draughts came in. It was also too hot to sleep, and Phillips lay, tired with the long march, in his chair. There was a good deal of mire still about him, and his uniform was considerably the worse for wear. His face was, as usual, almost expressionless, and he had curiously steady eyes, for he knew a good deal about that country, and what he had seen there would probably have sufficed to make most men grave. Jardine knew more about tennis and amateur dramatics, and was usually somewhat fastidious about his attire, though he had very little beyond his pyjamas on just then.

"Of course I'm glad to see you, but it really wasn't necessary to send you up," he said. "My men are quite enough to keep order here, and the bushmen have been behaving in an almost suspiciously exemplary manner."

Phillips smiled a little. "Exactly," he said. "When they're unusually quiet, it's a sign there is mischief on hand. Have you seen Gillatly the last week or two?"

"No," and Jardine made a little gesture of impatience. "I went over twice, and he didn't seem especially cordial, though perhaps the fault was mine. You see, I'm in charge up here, and not Gillatly, and as he did not appear to recognise the fact, I had to remind him of it delicately."

There was a faint twinkle in Phillips's eyes, but he only said: "You have seen nothing that would suggest there is anything in the rumours about a rising?"

Jardine laughed. "No," he said. "A bushman came in and told me Tuesday was getting ready to cut the white men's throats; and when he asked for half a sovereign's worth of cotton, I gave it him. Next day another fellow came along and said the first one was a fraud and didn't know the right tale. He was prepared to tell it me, but he wanted twice as much cotton. There was, however, no making anything of what he had to say, except that I was not to believe the other fellow's story; and the fact is, I'm getting sceptical about the thing."

Phillips lighted a cigar. "Well," he said drily, "we will hope you're right; but the one white man who could tell us what is going on is Gillatly."

There was silence after this, and Phillips sat staring thoughtfully into the blue cigar-smoke. He knew nothing definite about what was happening in the bush, but he suspected a good deal, and one thing was plain. Any success that chief Tuesday might, if he came out, achieve would start a conflagration that a strong battalion of West Indias could scarcely extinguish. He had also lighted his second cigar when the hoarse cry of a sentry rose from beyond the stockade, and there was a shouting in the bush. Then a black policeman came up the stairway and raised his hand in salute.

"White man lib!" he said.

Phillips glanced at Jardine. "Gillatly!" he said. "We will hear something now."

They went down together, and the stockade gate swung open. A West India sergeant stood in front of it holding a lantern, and a barelegged policeman with bayonet glinting over his ordered rifle on either side. Then, amidst a patter of weary feet, the bearers came in, gasping, thorn-scarred, and tattered, with fear in their dusky faces, and a hammock jolting in the midst of them. They appeared vastly relieved when the stockade gate swung to behind them.

"Halt!" said Jardine. "This way with the lantern, sergeant. You seem to have come along in a hurry, Mr. Gillatly."

There was no answer, and Jardine laid his hand on the hammock awning, and, for no apparent reason, stopped a moment. Still, he could see the vague terror in the bearers' faces. Then, while the sergeant raised the lantern, he flung the awning back, and gasped. Gillatly, who did not move at all, was staring at him with glassy eyes.

"Good Heavens!" he said hoarsely, "the man is dead!"

There was a murmur of voices, for the bearers had also seen; but Phillips, who asked a few questions, raised his hand. "Silence there!" he said. "Bearers, march! Bring that lantern to the armoury, sergeant."

The bearers shuffled forward, and when Phillips made a sign, the sergeant, who did not seem desirous of lingering, went out with them, leaving the white men alone with Gillatly. Phillips glanced at him gravely.

"I wonder what he has to tell us," he said.

Jardine, who had been looking at something more pleasant, turned to his comrade. "Can't you understand?" he said a trifle hoarsely. "Gillatly will never tell us anything."

Phillips shook his head. "It was not without a purpose he left his factory, very sick; and when Gillatly took a thing in hand, he usually accomplished it. You see, I knew him. Yes, here's a pencil. Roll back the hammock-cloth."

Jardine did it with a shiver, and a little greasy pocket-book fell out. Phillips picked it up, and stood flicking over the pages with the lamplight on his face. There was no doubt in it, only a quiet expectancy, as though he knew what he would find.

"Trading accounts; lists of gum and rubber packets," he said. "Nothing on this page, either—but here it is. I knew he had brought a message for us."

He laid the book in Jardine's hand, which shook a little as he read, with difficulty: "Expect Tuesday and his fighting boys soon after you see me."

Phillips stood for a moment very straight beside the dead man, who stared up at him with sightless eyes, and swung up his hand to his big sun-helmet. Then he touched Jardine's shoulder and drew him away.

"He never wasted words, and the writing tells its story very plain," he said. "It is what one would have expected from Gillatly, and quite enough. He was a match for Tuesday, living, and he has struck a blow which, I think, will smash him, dead."

Jardine asked no questions, for he knew what men thought of Phillips. "I shall be glad to do what you suggest," he said.

Phillips called the black sergeant.

"Fall your men in as quietly as you can," he said.

There was a patter of naked feet and a jingle of steel. Shadowy objects appeared in the compound and fell into line, broke up into little groups again, and moved towards the stockade. Then the gate swung open, and Phillips's policemen flitted out of it file by file. They sank into the blackness of the bush, the last faint footfall died away, and deep silence settled down again upon the lonely outpost. Still, Jardine's heart beat faster than usual as he stood in an angle of the stockade, staring at the darkness which encompassed him. He could neither see nor hear anything, and the impressive silence remained unbroken while an hour went by.

Then there was a crackle of undergrowth outside the stockade, a sentry cried out, and a gaspipe gun flashed. A howl came out of the blackness, and shadowy objects came running towards the stockade. They never reached it, for Jardine, who had grown suddenly and portentously collected, raised his voice. Then the blaze of a volley lighted the stockade and there was a smashing of undergrowth that was drowned by shrieks and cries. The ejector levers rattled—for the magazine had not come in then—the rifles flashed again, and headman Tuesday's bushmen melted away as silently as they came. They had doubtless expected to fall upon half-awake and unarmed men, but still, in place of the one they had intended, another surprise awaited them.

A crackle of riflery broke out in their rear, and Phillips's policemen met them as they fled. A few dropped their arras and stood still; most threw them down and ran, which was probably wise of them. Then, for Phillips risked no pursuit, the bugles rang hoarsely, and there was a shout from the West Indias when the policemen came back with a group of prisoners in the midst of them. Most of these were flung into the guardroom, where the West Indias tied their wrists and ankles; but Phillips led two or three into the light beneath the verandah, and pointed to one who held himself scornfully erect and was dressed in loose white cotton.

"This is a somewhat famous man who has managed to retard the progress of this district for at least ten years," he said. "I don't know if you recognise him."

"Headman Tuesday!" said Jardine.

Phillips nodded. "I want you to take especial care of him until I can march him to the coast. He is worth it. I did not consider it advisable to follow the others in the dark; but there will be no more talk of rebellion in this district now. It seems to me we owe a good deal to Gillatly."

The negro stopped him with a gesture. "If I had known that you were here, I would not have come, for I could have burned a mission and waited until the others joined me," he said in his own tongue. "Still, there is a thing I do not understand. You were waiting ready."

Phillips nodded, and signed to an orderly that he wanted a lantern. Then, as they passed the door of the armoury, with two files behind them, he opened it and flung the light within.

"It was," he said, "Gillatly who told me."

The headman glanced at the rigid object beneath the hammock-cloth and made a curious little gesture.

"That man's Ju-Ju is a great one. He is the one of you who knew everything, and for ten years he has mocked at me," he said. "But he is dead; and it was not my people who killed him."

Phillips smiled grimly. "Yes," he said. "He was dead when he told me. You were foolish, Tuesday. How could you expect to beat the white men, when one of them who had no tongue to speak with was too strong for you?"

"He had a great Ju-Ju," said the headman. "There are not many of you like him."

He was bestowed in a storeroom, with a policeman to keep him company and a West India outside the door; for headman Tuesday was not without his pride, and the African appears to possess a curious facility for shuffling out of this life which other peoples are not endued with. Phillips had also no desire that his prisoner should accomplish his own extinction, because he fancied the Government would prefer the task left to them.

A few injured men were brought in, a guard posted, and the white men went to sleep. But before the sun was high next morning the troops fell in again, and West India and barelegged policemen followed with arms reversed when Gillatly started on his last march. They stopped, however, beside an open trench where Phillips, standing bareheaded, recited as much of the last office as he could remember—and he had heard it more often than he cared about in that country. Four aliens in blue uniform raised the hammock and lowered it at a sign, there was a rattle of flung down mould, and with a rhythmic tramping and jingle of steel the rest came back again.

Then headman Tuesday, who, seated with two guards behind him, had watched from the verandah, spoke to Phillips as he went by.

"He will not come back," he said. "Five years I waited, and, but for that man, I would have burnt this place and driven you into the sea. It will not be so the Government will bury me."

"No." said Phillips drily, "I don't think it will."

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1926.

The author died in 1945, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 75 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.