Sanders of the River
Chapter XII: The Lonely One
Mr. Commissioner Sanders had lived so long with native people that he had absorbed not a little of their simplicity. More than this, he had acquired the uncanny power of knowing things which he would not and could not have known unless he were gifted with the prescience which is every aboriginal’s birthright.
He had sent three spies into the Isisi country--which lies a long way from headquarters and is difficult of access--and after two months of waiting they came to him in a body, bearing good news.
This irritated Sanders to an unjustifiable degree.
“Master, I say to you that the Isisi are quiet,” protested one of the spies; “and there is no talk of war.”
“H’m!” said Sanders, ungraciously. “And you?”
He addressed the second spy.
“Lord,” said the man, “I went into the forest, to the border of the land, and there is no talk of war. Chiefs and headmen told me this.”
“Truly you are a great spy,” scoffed Sanders; “and how came you to the chiefs and headmen? And how did they greet you? ‘Hail! secret spy of Sandi’? Huh!”
He dismissed the men with a wave of his hand, and putting on his helmet went down to the Houssa lines, where the blue-coated soldiers gambled in the shade of their neat white barracks.
The Houssa captain was making palatable medicine with the aid of a book of cigarette papers and a six-ounce bottle of quinine sulphide.
Sanders observed his shaking hand, and talked irritably.
“There’s trouble in the Isisi,” he said, “I can smell it. I don’t know what it is--but there’s devilry of sorts.”
“Secret societies?” suggested the Houssa.
“Secret grandmothers,” snarled Sanders. “How many men have you got?”
“Sixty, including the lame ‘uns,” said the Houssa officer, and swallowed a paperful of quinine with a grimace.
Sanders tapped the toe of his boot with his thin ebony stick, and was thoughtful.
“I may want ‘em,” he said. “I’m going to find out what’s wrong with these Isisi people.”
By the little river that turns abruptly from the River of Spirits, Imgani, the Lonely One, built a house. He built it in proper fashion, stealing the wood from a village five miles away. In this village there had been many deaths, owing to The Sickness; and it is the custom on the Upper River that whenever a person dies, the house wherein he died shall die also.
No man takes shelter under the accursed roof whereunder the Spirit sits brooding; the arms of the dead man are broken and scattered on his shallow grave, and the cooking-pots of his wives are there likewise.
By and by, under the combined influences of wind and rain, the reed roof sags and sinks, the doorposts rot; elephant-grass, coarse and strong, shoots up between crevices in wall and roof; then come a heavier rain and a heavier wind, and the forest has wiped the foul spot clean.
Imgani, who said he was of the N’Gombi people, and was afraid of no devils--at any rate, no Isisi devil--stole doorposts and native rope fearlessly. He stole them by night, when the moon was behind the trees, and mocked the dead spirits, calling them by evil and tantalising names.
Yet he went cautiously to work; for whilst he did not hold spirits in account, he was wholesomely respectful of the live Isisi, who would have put him to death had his sacrilege been detected, though, strangely enough, death was the thing he feared least.
So he stole the accursed supports and accursed roof-props, and would have stolen the roofs as well, but for the fact that they were very old and full of spiders.
All these things he came and took, carrying them five miles to the turn of the river, and there, at his leisure, he built a little house. In the daytime he slept, in the night he trapped beasts and caught fish, but he made no attempt to catch the big bats that come over from the middle island of the river, though these are very edible, and regarded as a delicacy.
One day, just before the sun went down, he went into the forest on the track of zebra. He carried two big hunting-spears, such as the N’Gombi make best; a wickerwork shield, and on his back, slung by a strip of hide, a bunch of dried fish he had caught in the river.
A man of middle height was Imgani, spare of build, but broad of shoulder. His skin shone healthily, and his step was light. As he walked, you saw the muscles of his back ripple and weave like the muscles of a well-trained thoroughbred.
He was half an hour’s journey within the forest, when he came upon a girl. She was carrying a bundle of manioc root on her head, and walked gracefully.
When she saw Imgani she stopped dead, and the fear of death and worse came in her eyes, for she knew him to be an outcast man, with no tribe and no people. Such men are more dreadful than the ingali, who rears up from the grass and plunges his poison-fangs in your leg.
They stood watching one another, the man leaning with both hands on the spears, his cheek against them; the girl trembled.
“Woman, where do you go?” said Imgani.
“Master, I go to the village which is by the river, this being the path,” she flurried.
“What have you there?”
“Manioc, for bread,” she whispered thickly.
“You are a root-eater,” said Imgani, nodding his head.
“Master, let me go,” she said, staring at him.
Imgani jerked his head.
“I see you are afraid of me--yet I want nothing from you,” he said. “I am Imgani, which means the Lonely One; and I have no desire for wives or women, being too high a man for such folly. You are safe, root-eater, for if I wished I would fill this forest with the daughters of chiefs, all very beautiful, all moaning for me.”
The girl’s fear had disappeared, and she looked at him curiously. Moreover, she recognised that there was truth in his claim of austerity. Possibly she was a little piqued, for she said tartly enough, employing an Isisi proverb:
“Only the goat bleats at the mouth of the leopard’s cave--the Isisi grow fat on strangers.”
He looked at her, his head cocked on one side.
“They say in the lower country that the Isisi sell men to the Arabi,” he said musingly. “That is bad talk; you may go.”
With another jerk of his head he dismissed her.
She had gone some little distance when he called her back.
“Root-eater,” he said, “if men ask you who I be, you shall say that I am Imgani the Lonely One, who is a prince amongst the princes; also that I have killed many men in my day--so many that I cannot count them. Also say that from my house, which I have built by the river, to as far as a man can see in every way, is my kingdom, and let none stray therein, except to bring gifts in their hands, for I am very terrible and very jealous.”
“Lord,” said the girl, “I will say all this.”
And she went, half running, in the direction of the village, leaving Imgani to continue on his way.
Now this village had many young men eager to please the girl, who carried manioc, for she was a chief’s daughter, and she was, moreover, fourteen, a marriageable age. So when she came flying along the village street, half hysterical in her fear, crying, babbling, incoherent, there was not wanting sympathy nor knight valiant to wipe out the insult.
Six young men, with spears and short swords, danced before the chief and the chief’s daughter (how important she felt, any woman of any race will tell you), and one of them, E’kebi, a man gifted with language, described from sunset to moonrise, which is roughly four hours, exactly what would happen to Imgani when the men of the Isisi fell upon him; how his eyes would shrivel as before a great and terrible fire, and his limbs wither up, and divers other physiological changes which need not be particularised.
“That is good talk,” said the chief; “yet, since Sandi is our master and has spies everywhere, do not shed blood, for the smell of blood is carried farther than a man can see. And Sandi is very devilish on this question of killing. Moreover, this Lonely One is a stranger, and if we catch him we may sell him to the Arabi, who will give us cloth and gin for him.”
Having heard all this, they sacrificed a young goat and marched. They came upon the house of Imgani, but the Lonely One was not there, for he was trapping beasts in the forest; so they burnt his house, uprooted his poor garden, and, being joined by many other Isisi people, who had followed at a respectful distance, lest Imgani’s estimate of his own prowess were justified by results, they held high revel, until of a sudden the sun came up over the middle island, and all the little stars in the sky went out.
Imgani saw all this, leaning on his spears in the shadow of the forest, but was content to be a spectator.
For, he reasoned, if he went out against them they would attempt to kill him or beat him with rods, and that his high spirit could not endure.
He saw the flames lick away the house he had built with such labour.
“They are foolish people,” he mused, “for they burn their own, and perhaps the spirits of the dead will be displeased and give them boils.”
When all that was left of his habitation was a white heap of ash, a dark-red glow, and a hazy wisp of smoke, Imgani turned his face to the forest.
All day long he walked, halting only to eat the fish he carried, and at night time he came upon another Isisi village, which was called O’Fasi.
He came through the village street with his shoulders squared, his head erect, swinging his spears famously. He looked neither to the left nor to the right; and the villagers, crowding to the doors of their huts, put their clenched knuckles to their mouths, and said: “O ho!” which means that they were impressed.
So he stalked through the entire length of the village, and was making for the forest-path beyond, when a messenger came pattering after him.
“Lord,” said the messenger, “the capita of this village, who is responsible to the Government for all people who pass, and especially for thieves who may have escaped from the Village of Irons, desires your presence, being sure that you are no thief, but a great one, and wishing to do honour to you.”
Thus he recited, and being a peaceable man, who had been chosen for the part because he was related by marriage to the principal wife of the chief, he kept a cautious eye on the broad-headed spear, and determined the line of his flight.
“Go back to your master, slave,” said Imgani, “and say to him that I go to find a spot of sufficient loneliness, where I may sleep this night and occupy myself with high thoughts. When I have found such a place I will return. Say, also, that I am a prince of my own people, and that my father has legions of such quantity that, if every fighting man of the legions were to take a handful of sand from the bottom of the river, the river would be bottomless; also say that I am named Imgani, and that I love myself better than any man has loved himself since the moon went white that it might not look like the sun.”
He went on, leaving the messenger filled with thought.
True to his promise, Imgani returned.
He came back to find that there was a palaver in progress, the subject of the palaver being the unfortunate relative by marriage to the chief’s principal wife.
“Who,” the chief was saying, “has put shame upon me, being as great a fool as his cousin, my wife.”
“Master,” said the poor relation humbly, “I entreated him to return; but he was a man of great pride, and, moreover, impatient to go.”
“Your mother was a fool,” said the chief; “her mother also was a fool, and your father, whoever he was, and no man knows, was a great fool.”
This interesting beginning to a crude address on hereditary folly was interrupted by the return of Imgani, and as he came slowly up the little hillock the assembly took stock of him, from the square, steel razor stuck in the tight-fitting leopard-skin cap to the thin bangles of brass about his ankles.
The chief, a portly man of no great courage, observed the spears, noting that the hafts were polished smooth by much handling.
“Lord,” said he mildly, “I am chief of this village, appointed by the Government, who gave me a medal to wear about my neck, bearing on one side the picture of a great man with a beard, and on the other side certain devil marks and writings of vast power. This was given to me that all people might know I was chief, but I have lost the medal. None the less, I am chief of this village, as this will show.”
He fumbled in the bosom of his cloth and brought out a bag of snake skin, and from this he extracted a very soiled paper.
With tender care he unfolded it, and disclosed a sheet of official notepaper with a few scrawled words in the handwriting of Mr. Commissioner Sanders. They ran:
“To all Sub-Commissioners, Police Officers, and Commanders of Houssa Ports:
“Arrest and detain the bearer if found in any other territory than the Isisi.”