NQO  (1917) 
by Charles Beadle

Extracted from The international magazine (New York), December 1917, pp. 361-365.


NQO

By Charles Beadle

I.

One of the thousands turned out yearly by the British educational machine, grandiosely ignorant save of the verb "to rule," Bob Byron was switched at twenty into the position of Assistant Deputy Commissioner for Native Affairs in Southern Rhodesia. Civilized peoples think as spoiled children do; Byron happened to think as an unspoiled child, which comes near to "seeing black." After twelve months of service an unknown lion stuck a paw into his destiny and gave him the satrapy by chewing his superior, the Deputy Commissioner.

Caste upheld Byron where a Solomon would have fallen. A native problem which would have baffled any other white appeared to Byron to be obvious; the native logic satisfied his mind. Shut off in a native world he learned the dialects slowly and very thoroughly. Natives loved him as a child loves an adult who still believes in fairies. He abandoned the stereotyped methods calculated to impress the native mind; he would stalk into a hostile camp with a riding whip, hold an indaba squatting with the elders, and settle a difficult problem with apparent ease. He earned the nickname of Native Bob, and became invaluable to the Administration.

But when whites began to come into the country he developed an absurd sense of equity—an inability to comprehend that the opening up of a country required the exploitation of native labor. Accordingly he was labelled "difficult;" and the foxy old Governor, who knew nothing of natives and cared less, but knew Byron's value, had him removed to the most remote district on the Portuguese Border.

As the strands of a white man's normal interests atrophied, Byron grew the more absorbed in the black mind. To native legends and songs he listened until his brain was cluttered with them. No sense of artistry bade him give to his fellows these impressions of beauty and horrific mystery; rather, the native reticence inhibited any suggestion to translate these sagas into his own tongue. His was not an introspective type of mind, so that he was never aware of the influence permeating the texture of his thought processes.

As the years wore on the manifestations grew more marked: he began to dread the biannual furlough, enforced for medical reasons. England became a land of chilly mists in which many of his kind had been doomed by a fever-ruined health to dawdle out their lives among an alien folk, tormented by vain dreams of the sudorific glory that was theirs. Native Bob lost all desire to see his own people; for his tongue was stiffened to English words, his eyes were haunted by vast spaces and his ears by the throb of drums in the shrill silence; that hypnotic throb which rouses unconscious resistance to the civilized inhibitions—a conflict expressed by the white man in, "Oh, damn those drums!" Also it was borne upon him, without any realization of abnormality, that the frantic strivings after pleasure and gain which composed "Civilization" were—stupid! His fellows spoke to him of things he knew not of; white women asked of him—things of which they did not know.

So glad was the heart of Native Bob to leave this purgatory for his quinine-soaked paradise of solitude and heat—and the distant pulse of drums by night.

And to him came black destiny walking in a uniform.


II.

At the northern foot of the gaunt watershed of the Pungwe, is Nani, a lone koppje, bald topped save for a single euphorbia which stands sentinel over a domed mass of granite that chance, in the glacial epoch, had balanced upon a crag; and in the shadow of Nani, like great brown lizards dozing, lay the square bungalow and native huts of D. C. Robert Byron.

On the wide verandah sat Native Bob. As he stared down the yellow Mazoe valley the pale eyes appeared to be listening to the mutter of a drum in the shrill silence. Away across the curve of bleached grass a dark smudge moved from the shadow into the oblique rays of the sun; flickered and steadied, developing into four dots. He raised a glass of whisky and sparklet from the table beside him with the jerky action of fever-worn nerves. His scrawny features were mapped by the sun and malaria; his beard was rusty and streaked with grey; yet was he young by the standards of tropic life.

The violet shadows crept stealthily across the valley and ate up the moving dots. An intombizaan, whose white cotton robe, wound above the firm breasts and under the armpits, fell in classic folds, glided, lithe as a leopard, from the doorway, refilled the glass and as noiselessly disappeared. As the grotesque shadow of the sentinel upon the summit of Nani shot the crest of the eastern hillside, a tall figure in a khaki uniform of shirt and knickers, red striped, carrying a brass wired knobkerry, emerged from a thicket of elephant grass; following him came a stunted Mashona with a rifle upon his skinny shoulders and two women bearing loads wrapped in grass mats upon their heads, their hips swaying rhythmically.

At the gate of the zareba the leader stiffened as he swung aside, and marched across the compound with an exaggerated military step. On the edge of the verandah he halted abruptly before the white man, and raising the right hand high above his head, ejaculated a bass: "N'koss!"

Impassively Byron regarded the figure silhouetted against the amber sky, the tribal cicatrices below each temple gleaming blue in the half light. At a murmured word and a slight nod, the hand came rigidly to the knicker seam. A few questions and grunted replies, a jerky military salute, the ebon legs turned stiffly and the tall figure marched away with automatic precision …

As lieutenants to his overlordship Byron had one dozen native police. They were recruited, on the principle that kinship leads to treason, from alien tribes. Every man who served under Native Bob was a model to all the Rhodesias. One of those splinters of fate which change the course of mice and nations had pierced the foot of the sergeant; through the aperture an evil spirit had entered into the body and had ousted the soul of that sergeant into the ghostland. To fill what a soulless Headquarters termed a "vacancy," they sent, acting on their favorite maxim of handing over any native difficulty to Native Bob, a certain sergeant Ufumbula who, said the accompanying report, "exercised an unusual control over his men as well as natives, but was given to incorrigible outbreaks of savagery."

From the ease of loin cloth in the acrid smoke of his hut among his women, Ufumbula was summoned to the presence of the white man, whom he discovered in a yellow silk dressing gown lounging on a charpoy on the verandah. Ufumbula knew the reputation of Native Bob as well as any native. So the taboos of the white man's drill game were left behind with the uniform. Ufumbula returned Byron's greeting in the dialect with native dignity of manner and sank upon his haunches… Before the indaba was over, Native Bob understood the secret of Ufumbula's "unusual control over his men"—Ufumbula was a witch doctor.

Ufumbula came from the Pungwe valley, far over the gaunt mountains of the mist; rich was he in a folk lore and magic as new to Byron as a hive to a honey bird.

After the manner by which Native Bob had won his nickname and his power over the natives, these two spent the hot evenings in the telling of legends and stories of bloody deeds and black; in grave discussions, as between medicine men, upon the merits of turning water into blood—by the aid of permanganate of potash; of the divining of the future in the entrails of birds and beasts; of the "smelling out" of predetermined victims as possessors of the evil eye; and also they spoke of deeper mysteries, things forbidden even to any native who was not of the initiated.

So the administration of Native Bob ran sweetly. By day they played the white man's game: Deputy Commissioner for Native Affairs Byron, seated in the Chair of Authority, satrap of the great white King across the seas, assisted by sergeant Ufumbula—and by night they foregathered to attend to the serious things of life.

Then as the first rays of the moon greened the lone euphorbia beside the dome of granite, and the drums pulsed like an artery in the inscrutable face of the mother of death and mystery, did Ufumbula begin the revelation of the motive which had urged him from the murmuring river to the uplands to seek service with the white man; the search for an ingredient to complete the making of a potent talisman that none could resist, such as the mighty Ingombaan had possessed; a talisman to be composed of a part of the heart of a leopard to give courage, of the lung of a gazelle to give swiftness, a tooth of a crocodile to give cruelty, of a certain portion of a virgin to bestow the power to command love, and—but to mention the missing ingredient was taboo, lest the familiar spirit of a rival should overhear.

When the telling of the tale was done they sat silent—carven figures in chrysoprase and lazulite in the turquoise heat.

Through the insectile anthem pulsed that rhythm, a single beat, monotonous, soaking into the white man's being as the first rain soaks into the sand of a river bed. The influence of the drums was always the same; he grew restless, yet remained immobile, receptive to the spell probing ever deeper into the subconscious, vitalizing the clutter of legends and sagas in his mind.

The drums ceased. Being seemed in suspension. Began a slower beat—as in the Marche Funèbre, throttling the feverish urge to the labor of a failing heart.… The pauses hurt, producing the illusion of an arterial control. The sense of inability to resist increased. He closed his eyes in masochistic longing, like a woman in sweet expectancy of a lover's fierce caress.… Images floated mistily; red impulses stirred. Myths pranced into reality. Grew an obsession that he was being possessed by the spirit Nqo—the sublimation of all his ancestors.

A change of rhythm partially awoke him. He saw that the intombizaan was squatting beside him. He was swaying unconsciously. Ufumbula was chanting in a minor key. Native Bob obeyed the urge to repeat the incantation in endless repetition. Inyama congo! … Inyama congo! … The meat is red!… The meat is red!… The meat is red!…

Now he had the illusion that he had been expelled from his body by Nqo, who seemed bound by some fixed law to repeat those two words for ever. His body trembled in a faint alarm, yet was soothed by the delicious joy of being possessed.… The three figures swayed in unison, and the hum of their voices rose like a gigantic mosquito dancing.…

Suddenly the drums changed to exultation; an imperative summons to action. Fear and delight danced madly. Nqo plucked at his sullen limbs; stabbed internally; wrenched back his lips in a lupine snarl. Hysteric groans in sympathy came from the native camp. The rhythm began to exercise a pneumonic control, seemed like a hand convulsively clutching his lungs. In the eyes of Ufumbula was the glare of the epileptic. Broke a falsetto chant ending in the "ough! ough! ough!" of the maddening chorus. The pallid ghost of reality drowned slowly.

"Oh, my friend, Nqo hath spoken!"

The whisper came at a moment when dissociation of mind was almost complete. Ufumbula rose up like a buck from out the grass. Unconscious of the surrender of his will, Byron obeyed.

In the native compound a large fire warred with the moon. Blue and yellow tints flickered on the dusky limbs of bodies dancing in grunting unison. A circle of women who were crouched in a shuffling dance, screamed shrilly in the staccato chorus as spear crashed against shield, knobkerry against calabash.

All suddenly there leaped the great figure of Ufumbula with horrific cries. Scattering symbolic embers, wild eyes rolling and hands outclawed, spewing froth and screams, he led the hysteric orgy.… Beside him pranced and gasped a white man who wrestled with the yellow ghost of Nqo.


III.

The art of the medicine man, be he white or black, orator or witch doctor, is to play upon the emotions of the people by exuding powerful stimuli without permitting himself to be controlled by his own suggestions.

A dream is most vivid immediately upon awakening; so were the confused memories of the night to Native Bob. The first emotions were amazement and terror—similar to the emotions of a Puritan maid overtaken by passion. As a drunken parson fears that the congregation may remark his heavy eyes, so did Byron dread the possible loss of prestige of the white man. Yet he could not distinguish any trace of insolence in the manners of his servants, and the placidity of gazelle brown eyes reassured him. The images of that saturnalia faded; became the incredible happenings of a nightmare. Clearly could he recall impressions up to a point—after which they merged into the phantastic quality.

Haunted by the mysterious uncertainty, he opened the business of the day nervously. But the eyes of Ufumbula and his subordinates were as inscrutable as ever, irreproachable; the game was played with the habitual solemnity.

But as he sat that evening upon the verandah with his whisky and sparklet, penates of his white estate, he was puzzled by a sense of relief—the satisfaction of an animal which has slaked a thirst. Yet behind a pale wonder at the monstrous dream of a yellow ghost with intoxicating hands there lurked a longing. As he watched the village smoke rise in lazy spirals on the heavy air unrippled by the throb of drums, he knew that he was listening, and as a drunkard sternly denies his own desire even as he lifts the glass up to his lips, so Native Bob forbade that Ufumbula should be summoned to his presence.

But as the great moon leaped, like a released balloon, above a hairy ridge, came Ufumbula stalking with an easy grace. No word said Native Bob, but listened as Ufumbula began to talk as if no buck had fed, no lion had roared with satisfaction since the telling of his epic story.

No drums were there that night, for the feast of the full moon was passed. Inscrutable as a sphinx the witch doctor sat and talked, thinking in perceptive images of the goal to which his impulse urged, and quietly lounged the white man, scarcely conscious of the elemental ego craving for the mental drug which loosed the bonds of civilized taboos.… But upon the fourth night Ufumbula brought with him a hand drum and with it wove a black cocoon.… In the hut of Ufumbula squatted Native Bob, mumbling incantations to the rhythmic throb in the acrid air of smoke and native sweat.

Thus, easily and inevitably, developed a complete state of dissociation of personality; the link between Deputy Commissioner Robert Byron and Native Bob thinned to the texture of a spider's web. Orgies there were of which every native from the Zambesi to the Limpopo knew, but no white as much as heard a whisper, for he was one of them, of the caste of the medicine man.


IV.

Then with the tightening of the heart strings came a summons from Headquarters which disturbed the dual lives of Native Bob and merged them into one. There was to be a conference upon the native labor problem. Reluctantly, and as sulkily as a schoolboy at the end of a holiday, went Native Bob; and with him Ufumbula, smart and soldierly in his uniform, a credit to the power of Deputy Commissioner Byron, a veritable familiar to Native Bob.

In the capital of tin bungalows scattered like a frightened flock of sheep around a red-bricked Residency at the foot of a wooded koppje, Native Bob shocked the Commissioner of Native Affairs by an uncompromising refusal to urge the dignity of labor and the advantages of miners' phthisis and pneumonia upon his swarming peoples.

"Damn the man! Been so long among 'em that he's half nigger himself," commented the Native Labor agent, thinking ruefully of his pound a head.

"'Straordinary! 'straordinary!" muttered Sir George irritably. "The man's invaluable. Only got to raise his finger and they'd come like flies!" and determined to detain Native Bob until the coming of a governor from Downing Street.

So it was that Native Bob was condemned. The shyness of the up-country man is proverbial, a morose breed given to monosyllables and orgies of contemplative silences. In Native Bob these phenomena were exaggerated by the conflict of a half-freed primitive with the atrophied white partially resuscitated by social contact with his kind; the black in him was forced into the background, and it protested as furiously as a recaptured leopard after tasting blood again. In his official capacity social life was forced upon him, so that even talks with Ufumbula were taboo. At Government House and private dinners he appeared a sullen misogynist even as compared with his fellows from the back veldt; painful to observe in the presence of women white and clothed.

Now in the township dwelt one Mrs. Stella Downend, the buxom wife of a treasury official, possessed of two things, each more virtuous than the other. The first was a daughter, pallid in the heat, of body slim, of beauty none; and the second was a robust hallucination that she understood men. As sex projects romance so was the relation of the one to the other. As her husband was a member of the boiled shirt brigade, the wildest place she had ever seen was Salisbury; nevertheless, she made a specialty of the up-country man. She could scent him from afar; would lie in wait as stealthily as a wild cat, and no matter how skilled the quarry was in jungle lore, he knew not enough to escape this ferocious animal, seeking prey for her young. She informed him that she understood him; that his lonely life in the "frightful jungle" must be "perfectly awful"; that what he required was young society—which was the cue for the daughter to break cover. She would herd the two from tennis court to dinner, from picnics to the card table, supremely unconscious that she would have answered the call by a fit of hysteria had she known what was baying and snarling for expression in the mind of the stammering victim.

Native Bob as Deputy Commissioner of Native Affairs was big game. After him she loosed Sybil.

That he did not respond nor even reply to questions, mattered not at all; Sybil chattered for him, at him, round him. The sight of this morose, sallow man haunted by the slim young gadfly provided grim amusement to his silent kin, for his persecution was their immunity. After a fortnight Native Bob was seriously contemplating a bolt to his station without official permission, or the resignation of his office. Although there leaped a joy within him at the latter proposition, the economic chain held him fast.

His health began to suffer. He became obsessed by a fear that he would lose control. At the sound of distant drums the torture became acute, and often when he was beside Sybil's lithe young body the throb through the warm night caused to well a terrible impulse which shook his hands like an ague. What object that impulse had he did not know. Many times the urge to abandon his will became so intense that to save himself he rose abruptly and left her. But his rudeness caused no remark, nor did it slacken the efforts of the huntress; for all up-country men were "queer, y'know, my dear!"

Through the mask of Ufumbula's official face as he rigidly escorted Native Bob about the social paths there gleamed an impelling invitation, prompting the impulse to cry, "Oh, my friend, let us go," to flee away over the shimmering horizon to the places of shrill silence; and at times the brown eyes rested upon the slim white girl, and then upon the white man, conveying an autocratic message, which Native Bob would desire to obey and yet deny.


V.

To celebrate the coming of the viceroy of the great white king beyond the seas a great indaba was commanded, to be preceded by a dance of two thousand warriors. Fortunately for Native Bob, official etiquette forbade the employment of his services in a district that was not within his jurisdiction; but the news disturbed and worried him. Tied by the official leg in a plane that was no longer his, he feared the influence of the drums. But escape was impossible. Relentlessly the day grew near; stinging and baiting, the gadfly buzzed around him; more insistent grew the mysterious message in the eyes of Ufumbula.

The Governor arrived. Salisbury looked like an ant heap disturbed. For three days glided long snakes of warriors into the long yellow valley to the persistent throb of drums from the hour of the monkey to the resting of the bat.

From the maze of the official reception and the Governor's dinner party stalked Native Bob in white duck, an unaccustomed sword at his hip, haggard and sallow, with absent listening eyes; to luncheon, dinner and the race course, pursued by the blue-eyed cheetah, haunted by the terror of the impulses that writhed within him. From women white and clothed he fled to sit upon the club verandah as long as any man was there, clinging with desperate hands, drinking hard to drown the terrible sound of drums by night, fearful of the lonely bungalow policed by white taboo.

All the morning pulsed the drums, a single beat, relentlessly persistent through the yellow glare. As the triangular shadow of the koppje began to devour Pioneer street, the dusky red road to Buluwayo became alive with mule carts, jinrikshas, horses and a few coughing automobiles, swarming to a point a mile away, where, like a huge black fan against a yellow dress, a great mass of natives squatted, awaiting the coming of the Governor.

Native Bob, helmeted and sullen, sat beside Miss Sybil Downend in a mule cart, shrinking in apprehensive fear from her white-gowned limbs. That persistent throb seemed to beat upon his brain. Reality appeared like a wet rock from which, if he relaxed his clutch, he would slip into the dread pool of beautiful dreams. A faint illusion of the arterial control persisted. Vague images danced and faded like mists upon a river. Reality was false; to his own hurt he was clinging to that which did not exist.

"Oh," exclaimed a voice beside him, "I do wish those horrible drums would stop, don't you? They make me feel funny—as if I were choking. And yet I want to laugh—or something. I don't know what. Don't they make you feel like that? Ah—but I expect you're used to them, aren't you?"

He turned to stare at her. Something in his mind kicked for freedom at every throb; his muscles contracted spasmodically. He clutched the cushion of the seat.

"Oh, how queer you look!… Why, what's the matter?"

He wrenched his eyes away; struggled and was conscious of the distending of his nostrils; heard a mechanical portion of his mind making his stiff lips say: "I'm afraid I've got a touch of the sun." The words suggested escape. He continued hurriedly: "You must excuse me. I had better go back. I'm not well."

He called out to the driver to pull up, and rose.

"Oh, I'm sorry!" she exclaimed. "Do let me come back with you, Mr. Byron! I don't want to see this silly old show. Perhaps I can help or do something."

"No. Go on," he said imperatively. "Your mother will expect you," and he stepped down from the cart, bidding the driver to continue.

He stood in the dusty road, staring stupidly, conscious of Sybil's anxious face. He wondered if he were really ill. If only those drums would stop or—— A sais came along upon a brown mare. Native Bob barked an order to dismount, leaped up, gave the mare a cut with his riding whip and galloped furiously across the veldt.

The thud of the hoofs seemed in time to the rhythm of the drums. Sweeping in a great circle round the koppje he arrived at his tin-roofed bungalow with the mare in a lather.


VI.

He hurried within and tore off the uniform of white with the impatience of a lover. He shrank from the inhibited suggestion of the white taboo. In the yellow robe he squatted in an inner room. Excitement had produced a physical reaction. He drank thirstily. The distant throb sought him out and possessed him. He began to sway in beatific relief.

The roar of the royal salute at the coming of the Governor contracted his muscles; sent a gleam into the pale eyes. The pulse of the drums changed to the staccato beat. The reality of the white man's environment faded. The orgasmic grunts began to exercise the pneumonic control; the invisible hand squeezed his lungs, causing him to grunt in unison.… The tall figure of Ufumbula towered above him, sank and appeared to blend with his own personality.

The illusion of complete absorption into the rhythm intensified. His arteries pulsed under the delicious domination. Masochistic enjoyment became ineffable. The spirit of Nqo possessed him. The Universe throbbed.

"Inyama congo!… Inyama congo!… The meat is red! The meat is red! The meat is red! The meat is red! The meat is red! The meat is red!…"

A tenuous voice, incalculably distant, was saying:

"Oh, Mr. Byron, I just came back to see—oh, what are you doing?"

The words had no meaning. Some part of him, detached, understood. But—Nqo saw not.

"The meat is red! Red! Red! The meat is red! Red! Red!…"

Rhythm had changed. Nqo—saw! Limbs of white. Flesh! Flesh! Desire to act. Act! Act! Nqo was blood. Blood! Blood! Rhythm was blood! Blood! Blood!…

"The meat is red! Ough! Ough! The meat is red! Ough! Ough! The meat is red! Ough! Ough!..…"


VII.

Like a singed spot in a blue blanket was the place of Nqo in the light of the great full moon.

From the indigo shadows of the forest rose the throb of drums and the grunts of many voices. In the circle of the sacred ground was a calabash upon a fire. Yellow kisses flickered on the body of a grotesque figure dancing. His voice was as the roaring of a bull. A lion's mane was set upon his head. His face was three feet long; and his limbs were decked with human bones. In his whitened hands he held an object black and shrivelled, the heart of a white slain by her kind for the making of the potent talisman of the mighty Ingombaan .… and beside him pranced and jibbered … a frantic god of jade with amber beard .… Nqo.

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


The author died in 1944, 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.