The Jungle Law
THE JUNGLE LAW
THE heat was worse than usual when Whitehouse, agent for the United Traders, worked out problems with a pack of cards in his West African factory. Dinner had not long been cleared away, and the large room smelt of cooking, mildew, and palm-oil. Though the building was raised on piles above the river bank, everything was damp, and Whitehouse's duck jacket was marked with rings of mould. Outside, the oily stream gurgled in the mist, drifting down from swamps where the sun sucked up sour exhalations that poison the white man's body and often derange his brain. A drum beat monotonously in the compound, and the factory boys, crouching beside their fires, sang to keep the ghosts away.
Whitehouse's hair was turning grey, which was unusual, since Europeans do not, as a rule, live long in West Africa. He was now immune from fever, though he had had it in all its forms, and his skin was tight and yellow, like old parchment. The United Traders trusted him, and he was feared by the bushmen, because he knew things about them that few white men guessed. Much of what he knew was startling, for the civilisation of the African colonies does not go beneath the surface yet.
Jackson, his clerk, the last of many, and hardier than most, lay in a cane chair with half-closed eyes. He had been whitewashing oil puncheons in the sun all day.
"Cards," he said, "are all right when a fresh young Government man turns up, and you can win a pound or two, but there's something distinctly humorous in your playing an old maid's game alone."
"It depends upon the Government man," Whitehouse rejoined. "They're not all easily plucked, and I've known you experiment upon the wrong kind. In this country a European must exercise his brain, or, if he lives long enough, it gets like a bushman's. That's sometimes an advantage and sometimes a danger. The climate's not the worst thing we have against us."
Jackson was frankly puzzled by his chief. Of recent years there have been ameliorating changes in the African colonies, but Whitehouse had arrived in days when, although sickness was more common, a white man's death was not always due to natural causes. Stories of his firm-handed dealing with commercial opponents were told in the bush, and it was said that he was poison-proof, but he had few of the outward characteristics of the vanishing palm-oil ruffian. Yet Jackson knew that the black headmen traders rarely broke their word to him. Presently Whitehouse looked up.
"Somebody's coming; there's trouble on foot."
"I hear nothing. How do you know?"
"I can sense trouble—smell it, if you like," Whitehouse answered.
Jackson laughed. "The bushmen think you a bit of a magician, but it's a cheap trick. You haven't been taking quinine until your head's chiming like a bell, and I suppose you hear a canoe paddling fast, although I can't."
"The explanation's plausible," Whitehouse replied; and Jackson, opening the door, heard the measured splash of paddles in the mist.
A few minutes later he brought a very young white man into the room. The lad's hair was wet with perspiration, his face was thin and flushed, and when he put his hand on the table, scattering Whitehouse's cards, he shook like a leaf.
"It's the first time you have come to see us, Cross, although you have been out eighteen months," Jackson remarked.
"That's true," said the other awkwardly. "Martin kept me busy, and you took two or three of our best customers after he died."
"We did—it was business," Whitehouse answered. "This is a grim country, and, back in the bush, the black trader now and then takes his rival's life. Then I expect your employers warned you to have nothing to do with the United, and no doubt we're a pretty hard lot. But you've got fever. Give him a dose of our cure-all, Jackson."
Cross looked dubiously at the bottle, but Whitehouse filled a big wineglass and said: "Drink it quick!"
The lad obeyed, wondering why he did so, and gasped, for the bitter, fiery liquor took his breath away. Whitehouse indicated Jackson's chair.
"Now sit down and tell us what is wrong."
"Shotille sent us a large quantity of kernels, but the canoes were seized on the way. One of his boys turned up, bleeding from acut, and said Headman Saidu had chopped the lot."
"Ah!" said Whitehouse rather sharply. "However, it looks as if the loss was Shotille's."
"No. He sent the kernels in payment for goods supplied. I've let him have a lot of gin and cloth the last six months. The kernels would have gone some way to square the account."
Whitehouse nodded. Kernels are the seeds of the palm-fruit, which are pressed for oil, and oil had risen in price since war broke out.
"I see. But Shotille's known as a tricky rogue. Why did you trust him with the goods?"
Cross hesitated. Whitehouse was a rival, and commercial jealousy is keen in West Africa. Still, the lad was ill, and badly needed help.
"I'd lost our safe customers, and had to take a risk," he said. "I thought, if I could keep things going, the firm might give me the agent's post. I've been agent for eight or nine months, you know, but the balance was going against me. When you have fever every few weeks, and can't eat or sleep——"
"Exactly. You got desperate, and speculated to straighten the account? But why not let things go? There are better countries for a young man than this."
Cross had not meant to take the other into his confidence, but something urged him, and, after months of sickness and solitude, he felt a pressing need of sympathy. He spoke impulsively, in disjointed sentences, but the story he told was, in some respects, not uncommon.
He had been a junior clerk in England, with a widowed mother, and two sisters, who worked hard for their living, and he hinted something about a girl who was as poor. When the chance came to better his fortune by going to West Africa, he seized it eagerly, and, on arriving, found Martin, the agent, ill, and the other assistant crazed with drink and fever. The assistant died, and the outbreak of war prevented his being replaced. Martin alternately recovered and relapsed, and Cross did the work of the factory as best he could, until the agent also succumbed. Then he thought of going home and enlisting; but the climate had already set its mark on him, and he feared he would not pass the doctor. Moreover, the firm had raised his pay, and asked him to hold on until they could find an agent, which they said was difficult just then. The War had cut down his mother's scanty income, one of his sisters was ill, and the girl, who had lost her situation, was working for very small wages in a munitions factory. Cross thought he saw how he might help them all if he could hold out, because an agent's post was worth three hundred pounds a year and commission.
Whitehouse listened quietly. The lad had pluck, for nerve was needed to manage the unruly factory boys and carry on an intricate trade when one was sick. Besides, nobody knew better than Whitehouse the horrors of loneliness when one suffers from the black depression the malaria causes.
"Well," he said, "we'll get to business. You don't seem to understand that chopping doesn't altogether mean armed robbery. It's an old custom that the Government thought they'd stamped out, but the War seems to have encouraged the bushmen to begin the game again. Suppose A owes a debt to B, and won't pay. B, if he is strong enough, seizes value to cover from C, who collects, in turn, from the weaker D. The logic's typically African."
"But who robbed Saidu?"
"I don't know, but I have my suspicions, and mean to find out. It must have been a powerful man, because Saidu's an impudent thief himself," Whitehouse answered dryly. Then he turned to Jackson. "Tell them to get up steam on the launch."
An hour or two later the launch, crowded with a very mixed assortment of Africans, clanked away into the sour-smelling mist. Whitehouse, who ruled with a firm hand, preferred unsophisticated boys, and his escort included a number of raw pagan Kroos, skilled in the use of the matchet knife. Besides these, he had several big river-men, who carried long-Dane guns, and two or three more with Arab blood, whom he suspected of having deserted from the Hausa constabulary. Few white men could have handled them, but they obeyed him.
"Our business is peaceful, but it's well to take precautions, particularly when the Hausas are all away on German soil," he said.
Jackson answered with a joke, but Cross, who sat in the stern, shivering under a dirty blanket, said nothing. His head and back ached intolerably, and his skin was wet with chilly sweat, but he must hold out until the business was done. If he could recover the chopped kernels and put things straight, he might be appointed agent at three hundred pounds a year. The mist got thicker as the launch steamed on. Rank exhalations rose from the wave her bows threw off, and her wake lapped noisily upon banks of festering mire. Ghostly trees loomed out of the vapour and vanished astern as she sped through the dark down the slow, muddy stream.
It was dazzlingly bright when she stopped next morning at a glaring sand bar. Raw-green palms and dingy cottonwoods cut, harshly sharp, against a sky of intense blue, and the river shimmered in the heat like melted brass. A row of clumsy dug-out canoes lay against the bank, and in the largest sat a tall man dressed in loose folds of white cotton. He was of pure negro type, and strongly built, except for his monkey-like legs, kit wore a certain air of dignity. Indeed, his expression was somewhat truculent when Whitehouse and his companions landed and came towards him. There were a number of half-naked negroes in the rest of the canoes, and they stopped chattering and looked up with keen curiosity as the traders approached. Whitehouse wondered how many had matchets and how many flint-lock guns, but he boarded the canoe and gave Saidu a careless nod, after which he began to turn over the greasy black kernels with his feet.
"A very second-class lot. Shotille, as usual, has measured in a good deal of dirt and shell," he remarked to Cross, who sat down limply on the gunwale. Then he took out a piece of red rag, a strip of plaited grass, and two or three cowries, and put them down on the cargo.
"You savvy them thing, Saidu?" he said.
Saidu was a man of importance in the back country, where he traded, and sometimes plundered, on an extensive scale, but he glanced at the simple objects with half-concealed shrinking.
"What does it mean?" Cross asked Jackson.
"Ju-Ju. Looks easy, but if you don't know all about the business, it's a risky trick. I tried it once, but the beggars found me out, and I nearly lost my life. Anyhow, Saidu daren't move his canoe while that bit of rag is there."
"I savvy," said the negro sullenly. "Why you make them t'ing?"
"Perhaps I take him off when the palaver's set," Whitehouse replied. "Why you go chop Shotille's kernels?"
"They're really the firm's kernels, and I want them back," Cross broke in.
Whitehouse gave him an indulgent look. "Not at all. Chopping of any kind is rather out of date, but it's unthinkable that a bushman should lay hands on a white man's goods."
Then he turned to Shotille, who half defiantly began his explanation. He had gone to trade with an agent across the neighbouring frontier, taking very good monkey skins, a little ivory, and oil; but the agent told him there was war palaver, and chopped the lot. Saidu maintained that he had used the English word. Therefore, since it seemed that the white men had removed the ban upon native customs, he had lain in wait near Shotille's village, and seized the letter's goods in satisfaction of the debt.
Whitehouse lighted a cigarette and smoked silently for some minutes, while nobody spoke. Then he said to Cross: "I think we'll let him keep the kernels. They're a poor sample, and, if you sent them home, your people would have trouble with the oil millers."
Cross got something of a shock, but he felt he could trust his rival, and dubiously agreed. Whitehouse, who picked up the rag and grass and beads, turned to Saidu.
"I take them thing off, but remember this—if you chop trade goods again, see you do it where them bush Dutchman lib. Cappy Maitland and his Hausa man, with plenty gun, go burn your village one time if there's any more chopping palaver on British soil." He waved his hand commandingly. "Now call them canoe boy. Palaver set!"
The canoes pushed off, and with a measured thud of paddles slid away down the dazzling stream. Whitehouse told his Kroo cook to make breakfast, and they ate the meal, sitting on the hot sand in the narrow shade of a clump of palms. Cross felt somewhat better, for malarial fever is worse at night, but he overcame his impatience until he thought Whitehouse was ready to talk.
"It looks as if I'd lost the kernels, but I hoped you had some plan," he said anxiously.
"He probably has a number, but one is pretty obvious," Jackson interposed. "The native's idea of chopping is that it should carry on across country, always leaving the last victim farther off the first; but there's really no reason why it shouldn't, so to speak, recoil upon the fellow who started it."
"Ah!" said Cross, in a more hopeful tone. "But who is the Berma man who started it?"
"They spell it Bohme, but I believe Saidu's pronunciation's nearly right. He runs the German factory across the frontier, and, I'm inclined to think, relies too much upon the irregular forces his countrymen have raised. From what one hears, they're very irregular indeed." Then he looked at Whitehouse. "Bohme's store-sheds should be pretty full, because he can't have shipped much since our side captured most of the Woermann family."
Cross laughed. The Woermann steamers bore the names of their owner's relatives, and a number had been seized when hiding in a muddy river mouth.
"Bohme must take the consequences," Whitehouse remarked. "Nobody would have interfered with him if he'd kept quiet, and in my opinion the war palaver should never have been raised in this country. Here we are, a few hundred Europeans scattered among the swamps, depending for our safety on the white man's prestige, and we're now teaching the bushmen our weakness and how to master us. However, since Bohme began the game——"
"But the kernels!" Cross interrupted. "They're gone, and I'm left with a claim I can't enforce on Shotille."
Whitehouse smiled. "I think the claim lies against Bohme, and he can't complain if we enforce it according to the jungle law. Besides, now Maitland and his Hausas are away, there's no court of appeal." He pondered for a minute or two, and then resumed: "We'll risk it. Bohme, no doubt, knew that Maitland wasn't in the neighbourhood, but probably does not suspect that he's drawn off Hauptman Erlanger's native forces."
The launch swung out into the stream, and late in the evening moved slowly up a narrow, mangrove-shrouded creek that smelt like a sewer. It was very dark, for the branches met overhead, and now and then she scraped across banks of mud that clung to keel and bilge as if reluctant to let her go; but Jackson sounded with a boathook, and there were men on board who had spent their lives in navigating the intricate tunnels through the mangroves. A better channel led to the German factory, but Whitehouse thought this would be watched, and meant to make his visit unannounced. Bohme would take precautions if he knew he was on his way. By and by they entered a lagoon, where most of the party landed, and followed a foot-wide trail through grass that grew to their shoulders, until they spread out when tall, black cottonwoods cut against the sky. They made very little noise, and when they stopped at a spot where the trees were thinner, Whitehouse was satisfied that their advance had not been heard.
He had chosen the boys with an extensive knowledge of the strength and weakness of the African's character, and none were tame negroes. Some, indeed, had hunted coloured tax-collectors in the Liberian bush; others had raided rival trading villages in the back country, and a few had enjoyed a brief military training. It was not surprising that he should have been able to gather such a band, for although there was a railway in the colony, and handsome Government offices on the coast, the light of civilisation burned like a feeble candle set in Cimmerian gloom.
Cross realised something of this as he lay, panting and soaked with perspiration, among the buttress roots of a giant cottonwood and dully looked about. There was a belt of tall grass, touched with silver by the moon, in front of him, and beyond it a neat galvanized iron house and a row of whitewashed sheds. Lights glimmered in the building, which had a strangely civilised look, and somebody was playing a fiddle remarkably well. Cross was not a critic, but he thought the music good. Then he saw a woolly head and naked arm project from the wet leaves close by, and farther off the twinkle of a matchet blade. That was all, however, and, except for the music, everything was very still.
Then there was a stealthy rustle, and a black figure rose from the grass, moved forward, and fell with a smothered cry. More dark forms appeared, the grass rustled all round him, and, getting on his feet, he struggled forward behind the half-seen boys. A flint-lock gun flashed near the house, there was an echoing report, and then a wild clamour and a hurried splash of paddles. Plunging forward with beating heart and tingling nerves, he reached the verandah steps, and saw Whitehouse, whose figure cut black against the light, on the level space above.
A burly man in white duck, with his hair brushed straight up from his square forehead, and a pistol in his hand, stood farther back, and near him a companion, who held a fiddle bow.
"Something of a surprise, Herr Bohme! But you can put down the pistol," Whitehouse remarked. "We have come on business, and none of your boys are badly hurt, though we had to seize a couple who should have kept a better watch. You ought to have known that the bushman sentry doesn't like to feel alone at night. However, we'll come in and talk."
They entered a very clean, comfortably furnished, and well-lighted room, and, as they sat down, Jackson followed, hot and breathless.
"Their boys have bolted," he said to Whitehouse. "I think Amadu can be trusted to see they don't come back."
Bohme said nothing, but waited with an inscrutable face, and Cross envied his coolness. The musician leaned upon the table, watching the intruders with a puzzled frown. He wore ophthalmic spectacles of green and yellow, and looked shrivelled, as if he had evaporated in the heat.
"Well," resumed Whitehouse, "we must get to business. You seized some goods belonging to Headman Saidu, who is a British subject. May I ask why?"
"This is war-time," Bohme answered in good English. "A man from a British village had insulted our flag by beating a soldier Hauptman Erlanger lent us, and stealing his rifle. A rifle is worth much in Africa."
"You're not a humorous race, or you might see the joke, but personalities are bad form," Whitehouse remarked. "By way of getting satisfaction, you robbed Saidu?"
"It was not robbery, but a custom well understood by the people," the musician broke in. "Besides, one must use force when there is no other remedy."
Whitehouse shook his head. "A dangerous doctrine when the force changes hands, and the custom's old and bad. But, as I'm not much of a philosopher, I'll give you this."
He put down a sheet of paper on which he had made a few calculations, and smiled when Bohme examined it with naïve surprise.
"A debit note. As we've come here at some inconvenience, I must ask for payment now."
"But this is frankly plunder!"
"No," said Whitehouse, "it's a balancing of accounts. You appealed to the law of the jungle, which is based on the principle of an eye for an eye, but, unfortunately, doesn't state whose eye. One's probably as good as another, from the bushman's point of view. He believes, as you do, in force, and the practice was that the transferred debt should be collected from somebody weaker; but this was a matter of convenience, and not an essential point. If the creditor levied upon somebody strong enough to levy back, he must take the consequences. Very well. You robbed Saidu, and Saidu robbed Shotille, but as we sometimes deal in oil, I can't have Shotille's credit damaged, and am here to press his claim."
"You see, we're able to press it," Jackson added. "Every boy you had about the place is hiding in the bush, and ours are rather a hard lot, who'd much enjoy wrecking this house."
"In short, you had better pay up," Whitehouse resumed. "Law and force and ethics are all on our side."
"But the claim's preposterous! There is, in any case, a gross overcharge."
"In Africa the loser pays expenses, even when his goods won't satisfy the claim," Whitehouse rejoined, in a meaning tone.
The others sullenly gave way, and for the next hour Whitehouse's boys were busy removing goods from the store and loading them into canoes. Then he bade the traders good-bye with ironical politeness, and the launch steamed away with the canoes in tow.
"I'd recommend you to credit Shotille with the chopped kernels, and ship this stuff home instead," he said to Cross, who crouched near the engine, shivering, but sensible of overwhelming relief.
"You have taken a big load off my mind," the lad answered, with awkward gratitude. "It's a service I can't forget or, I'm afraid, repay. In fact, I hardly see——"
"Why we interfered?" Whitehouse suggested. "Well, you're a competitor, but we're all Britons, and in a sense—the American sense—Bohme isn't even white. However, there are a few bundles of rather choice skins I would like."
"Take them, of course," said Cross. "You see, I've really got much more than I lost, and, in a way, Shotille ought to be credited with the extra value."
"That's easily got over—a matter of book-keeping," Jackson remarked, with a chuckle.
Cross did not answer. The fever shook him, as it generally did at night, his head ached, and his brain was dull, but as he crouched beside the clanking engine, he was conscious of a poignant satisfaction. He might keep things straight, and be confirmed in the agent's post. Three hundred pounds a year and commission were worth suffering for. In a wide sense the lad was right, because it is, after all, by suffering that the white man conquers Tropical Africa.
Copyright, 1915, by Harold Bindloss, in the United States of America.