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The People of the River
A Commissioner Sanders Story
By Edgar Wallace
MysteriousPress.comCopyright © 2014 MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Integrated Media, Inc.
All rights reserved.
A CERTAIN GAME
SANDERS HAD BEEN AWAY on a holiday. The Commissioner, whose work lay for the main part in wandering through a malarial country in some discomfort and danger, spent his holiday in travelling through another malarial country in as great discomfort and at no less risk. The only perceptible difference, so far as could be seen, between his work and his holiday was that instead of considering his own worries he had to listen to the troubles of somebody else.
Mr. Commissioner Sanders derived no small amount of satisfaction from such a vacation, which is a sure sign that he was most human.
His holiday was a long one, for he went by way of St. Paul de Loanda overland to the Congo, shot an elephant or two in the French Congo, went by mission steamer to the Sangar River and made his way back to Stanley Pool.
At Matadi he found letters from his relief, a mild youth who had come from headquarters to take his place as a temporary measure, and was quite satisfied in his inside mind that he was eminently qualified to occupy the seat of the Commissioner.
The letter was a little discursive, but Sanders read it as eagerly as a girl reads her first love letter. For he was reading about a land which was very dear to him.
"Umfebi, the headman of Kulanga, has given me a little trouble. He wants sitting on badly, and if I had control " Sanders grinned unpleasantly and said something about "impertinent swine," but did he not refer to the erring Umfeb? "I find M'laka, the chief of the Little River, a very pleasant man to deal with: he was most attentive to me when I visited his village and trotted out all his dancing girls for my amusement." Sanders made a little grimace. He knew M'laka for a rascal and wondered. "A chief who has been most civil and courteous is Bosambo of the Ochori. I know this will interest you because Bosambo tells me that he is a special protégé of yours. He tells me how you had paid for his education as a child and had gone to a lot of trouble to teach him the English language. I did not know of this."
Sanders did not know of it either, and swore an oath to the brazen sky to take this same Bosambo, thief by nature, convict by the wise provision of the Liberian Government, and chief of the Ochori by sheer effrontery, and kick him from one end of the city to the other.
"He is certainly the most civilised of your men," the letter went on. "He has been most attentive to the astronomical mission which came out in your absence to observe the eclipse of the moon. They speak very highly of his attention and he has been most active in his attempt to recover some of their property which was either lost or stolen on their way down the river."
Sanders smiled, for he himself had lost property in Bosambo's territory.
"I think I will go home," said Sanders.
Home he went by the nearest and the quickest way and came to headquarters early one morning, to the annoyance of his relief, who had planned a great and fairly useless palaver to which all the chiefs of all the land had been invited.
"For," he explained to Sanders in a grieved tone, "it seems to me that the only way to ensure peace is to get at the minds of these people, and the only method by which one can get at their minds is to bring them all together."
Sanders stretched his legs contemptuously and sniffed. They sat at chop on the broad stoep before the Commissioner's house, and Mr. Franks—so the deputy Commissioner was named—was in every sense a guest. Sanders checked the vitriolic appreciation of the native mind which came readily to his lips, and inquired:
"When is this prec—when is this palaver?"
"This evening," said Franks.
Sanders shrugged his shoulders. "Since you have gathered all these chiefs together," he said, "and they are present in my Houssa lines, with their wives and servants, eating my 'special expense' vote out of existence, you had better go through with it."
That evening the chiefs assembled before the residency, squatting in a semi-circle about the chair on which sat Mr. Franks—an enthusiastic young man with a very pink face and gold-mounted spectacles.
Sanders sat a little behind and said nothing, scrutinising the assembly with an unfriendly eye. He observed without emotion that Bosambo of the Ochori occupied the place of honour in the centre, wearing a leopard skin and loop after loop of glittering glass beads. He had ostrich feathers in his hair and bangles of polished brass about his arms and ankles and, chiefest abomination, suspended by a scarlet ribbon from that portion of the skin which covered his left shoulder, hung a large and elaborate decoration.
Beside him the kings and chiefs of other lands were mean, commonplace men. B'fari of the Larger Isisi, Kulala of the N'Gombi, Kandara of the Akasava, Etobi of the River-beyond-the-River, and a score of little kings and overlords might have been so many carriers.
It was M'laka of the Lesser Isisi who opened the palaver.
"Lord Franki," he began, "we are great chiefs who are as dogs before the brightness of your face, which is like the sun that sets through a cloud."
Mr. Franks, to whom this was interpreted, coughed and went pinker than ever.
"Now that you are our father," continued M'laka, "and that Sandi has gone from us, though you have summoned him to this palaver to testify to your greatness, the land has grown fruitful, sickness has departed, and there is peace amongst us."
He avoided Sanders' cold eye whilst the speech was being translated.
"Now that Sandi has gone," M'laka went on with relish, "we are sorry, for he was a good man according to some, though he had not the great heart and the gentle spirit of our lord Franki."
This he said, and much more, especially with regard to the advisability of calling together the chiefs and headmen that they might know of the injustice of taxation, the hardship of life under certain heartless lords—here he looked at Sanders—and need for restoring the old powers of chiefs.
Other orations followed. It gave them great sorrow, they said, because Sandi, their lord, was going to leave them. Sandi observed that the blushing Mr. Franks was puzzled, and acquitted him of spreading the report of his retirement.
Then Bosambo, sometime of Monrovia, and now chief of the Ochori, from-the-border-of-the-river-to-the-mountains-by-the- forest.
"Lord Franki," he said, "I feel shame that I must say what I have to say, for you have been to me as a brother."
He said this much, and paused as one overcome by his feelings. Franks was doubly affected, but Sanders watched the man suspiciously.
"But Sandi was our father and our mother," said Bosambo; "in his arms he carried us across swift rivers, and with his beautiful body he shielded us from our enemies; his eyes were bright for our goodness and dim to our faults, and now that we must lose him my stomach is full of misery, and I wish I were dead."
He hung his head, shaking it slowly from side to side, and there were tears in his eyes when he lifted them. David lamenting Jonathan was no more woeful than Bosambo of Monrovia taking a mistaken farewell of his master.
"Franki is good," he went on, mastering himself with visible effort; "his face is very bright and pretty, and he is as innocent as a child; his heart is pure, and he has no cunning."
Franks shifted uneasily in his seat as the compliment was translated.
"And when M'laka speaks to him with a tongue of oil," said Bosambo, "lo! Franki believes him, though Sandi knows that M'laka is a liar and a breaker of laws, who poisoned his brother in Sandi's absence and is unpunished."
M'laka half rose from his seat and reached for his elephant sword.
"Down!" snarled Sanders; his hand went swiftly to his jacket pocket, and M'laka cowered.
"And when Kulala of the N'Gombi raids into Alamandy territory stealing girls, our lord is so gentle of spirit—"
"Liar and dog and eater of fish!"
The outraged Kulala was on his feet, his fat figure shaking with wrath.
But Sanders was up now, stiffly standing by his relief, and a gesture sent insulter and insulted squatting to earth.
All that followed was Greek to Mr. Franks, because nobody troubled to translate what was said.
"It seems to me," said Sanders, "that I may divide my chiefs into three parts, saying this part is made of rogues, this part of fools, and this, and the greater part, of people who are rogues in a foolish way. Now I know only one of you who is a pure rogue, and that is Bosambo of the Ochori, and for the rest you are like children.
"For when Bosambo spread the lie that I was leaving you, and when the master Franki called you together, you, being simpletons, who throw your faces to the shadows, thought, 'Now this is the time to speak evilly of Sandi and well of the new master.' But Bosambo, who is a rogue and a liar, has more wisdom than all of you, for the cunning one has said, 'I will speak well of Sandi, knowing that he will stay with us; and Sandi, hearing me, will love me for my kindness.'"
For one of the few times of his life Bosambo was embarrassed, and looked it.
"To-morrow," said Sanders, "when I come from my house, I wish to see no chief or headman, for the sight of you already makes me violently ill. Rather I would prefer to hear from my men that you are hurrying back with all speed to your various homes. Later, I will come and there will be palavers—especially in the matter of poisoning. The palaver is finished."
He walked into the house with Franks, who was not quite sure whether to be annoyed or apologetic.
"I am afraid my ideas do not exactly tally with yours," he said, a little ruefully.
Sanders smiled kindly.
"My dear chap," he said, "nobody's ideas really tally with anybody's! Native folk are weird folk—that is why I know them. I am a bit of a weird bird myself."
When he had settled his belongings in their various places the Commissioner sent for Bosambo, and that worthy came, stripped of his gaudy furnishings, and sat humbly on the stoep before Sanders.
"Bosambo," he said briefly, "you have the tongue of a monkey that chatters all the time."
"Master, it is good that monkeys chatter," said the crestfallen chief, "otherwise the hunter would never catch them."
"That may be," said Sanders; "but if their chattering attracts bigger game to stalk the hunter, then they are dangerous beasts. You shall tell me later about the poisoning of M'laka's brother; but first you shall say why you desire to stand well with me. You need not lie, for we are men talking together."
Bosambo met his master's eye fearlessly.
"Lord," he said, "I am a little chief of a little people. They are not of my race, yet I govern them wisely. I have made them a nation of fighters where they were a nation of women."
Sanders nodded. "All this is true; if it were not so, I should have removed you long since. This you know. Also that I have reason to be grateful to you for certain happenings."
"Lord," said Bosambo, earnestly, "I am no beggar for favours, for I am, as you know, a Christian, being acquainted with the blessed Peter and the blessed Paul and other holy saints which I have forgotten. But I am a better man than all these chiefs and I desire to be a king."
"How much?" asked the astonished Sanders.
"A king, lord," said Bosambo, unashamed; "for I am fitted for kingship, and a witch doctor in the Kroo country, to whom I dashed a bottle of gin, predicted I should rule vast lands."
"Not this side of heaven," said Sanders decisively. He did not say "heaven," but let that pass.
"Ochori is a little place and a little people," he said, half to himself; "and by my borders sits M'laka, who rules a large country three times as large and very rich—"
Sanders clicked his lips impatiently, then the humour of the thing took possession of him.
"Go you to M'laka," he said, with a little inward grin, "say to him all that you have said to me. If M'laka will deliver his kingdom into your hands I shall be content."
"Lord," said Bosambo, "this I will do, for I am a man of great attainments and have a winning way."
With the dignity of an emperor's son he stalked through the garden and disappeared.
The next morning Sanders said good-bye to Mr. Franks—a coasting steamer gave the Commissioner an excuse for hurrying him off. The chiefs had departed at sunrise, and by the evening life had resumed its normal course for Sanders.
It ran smoothly for two months, at the end of which time M'laka paid a visit to his brother-in-law, Kulala, a chief of N'Gombi, and a man of some importance, since he was lord of five hundred spears, and famous hunters.
They held a palaver which lasted the greater part of a week, and at the end there was a big dance.
It was more than a coincidence that on the last day of the palaver two shivering men of the Ochori were led into the village by their captors and promptly sacrificed.
The dance followed.
The next morning M'laka and his relative went out against the Ochori, capturing on their way a man whom M'laka denounced as a spy of Sandi's. Him they did to death in a conventional fashion, and he died uncomplainingly. Then they rested three days.
M'laka and his men came to the Ochori city at daybreak, and held a brief palaver in the forest.
"Now news of this will come to Sandi," he said; "and Sandi, who is a white devil, will come with his soldiers, and we will say that we were driven to do this because Bosambo invited us to a dance, and then endeavoured to destroy us."
"Bosambo would have destroyed us," chanted the assembly faithfully.
"Further, if we kill all the Ochori, we will say that it was not our people who did the killing, but the Akasava."
"Lord, the killing was done by the Akasava," they chanted again.
Having thus arranged both an excuse and an alibi, M'laka led his men to their quarry.
In the grey light of dawn the Ochori village lay defenceless. No fires spluttered in the long village street, no curl of smoke uprose to indicate activity.
M'laka's army in one long, irregular line went swiftly across the clearing which separated the city from the forest.
"Kill!" breathed M'laka; and along the ranks the order was taken up and repeated.
Nearer and nearer crept the attackers; then from a hut on the outskirts of the town stepped Bosambo, alone.
He walked slowly to the centre of the street, and M'laka saw, in a thin-legged tripod, something straight and shining and ominous.
Something that caught the first rays of the sun as they topped the trees of the forest, and sent them flashing and gleaming back again.
Six hundred fighting men of the N'Gombi checked and halted dead at the sight of it. Bosambo touched the big brass cylinder with his hand and turned it carelessly on its swivel until it pointed in the direction of M'laka, who was ahead of the others, and no more than thirty paces distant.
As if to make assurance doubly sure, he stooped and glanced along the polished surface, and M'laka dropped his short spear at his feet and raised his hands.
"Lord Bosambo," he said mildly, "we come in peace."
"In peace you shall go," said Bosambo, and whistled.
The city was suddenly alive with armed men. From every hut they came into the open.
"I love you as a man loves his goats," said M'laka fervently; "I saw you in a dream, and my heart led me to you."
"I, too, saw you in a dream," said Bosambo; "therefore I arose to meet you, for M'laka, the king of the Lesser Isisi, is like a brother to me."
M'laka, who never took his eyes from the brass-coated cylinder, had an inspiration.
"This much I beg of you, master and lord," he said; "this I ask, my brother, that my men may be allowed to come into your city and make joyful sacrifices, for that is the custom."
Bosambo scratched his chin reflectively.
"This I grant," he said; "yet every man shall leave his spear, stuck head downwards into earth—which is our custom before sacrifice."
M'laka shifted his feet awkwardly. He made the two little double-shuffle steps which native men make when they are embarrassed.
Bosambo's hand went slowly to the tripod.
"It shall be as you command," said M'laka hastily; and gave the order.
Six hundred dejected men, unarmed, filed through the village street, and on either side of them marched a line of Ochori warriors—who were not without weapons. Before Bosambo's hut M'laka, his brother-in-law, Kulala, his headmen, and the headmen of the Ochori, sat to conference which was half meal and half palaver.
"Tell me. Lord Bosambo," asked M'laka, "how does it come about that Sandi gives you the gun that says 'Ha-ha-ha'? For it is forbidden that the chiefs and people of this land should be armed with guns."
"Sandi loves me," he said simply, "for reasons which I should be a dog to speak of, for does not the same blood run in his veins that runs in mine?"
"That is foolish talk," said Kulala, the brother-in-law; "for he is white and you are black."
"None the less it is true," said the calm Bosambo; "for he is my cousin, his brother having married my mother, who was a chief's daughter. Sandi wished to marry her," he went on reminiscently; "but there are matters which it is shame to talk about. Also he gave me these."
Excerpted from The People of the River by Edgar Wallace. Copyright © 2014 MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Integrated Media, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com.
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