Sanders of the River
Chapter XIV: Dogs of War
Chiefest of the restrictions placed upon the black man by his white protector is that which prevents him, when his angry passions rise, from taking his enemy by the throat and carving him with a broad, curved blade of native make. Naturally, even the best behaved of the tribes chafe under this prohibition the British have made.
You may be sure that the Akasava memory is very short, and the punishment which attended their last misdoing is speedily forgotten in the opportunity and the temptation which must inevitably come as the years progress. Thus, the Akasava, learning of certain misdoings on the part of the Ochori, found themselves in the novel possession of a genuine grievance, and prepared for war, first sending a message to “Sandi,” setting forth at some length the nature of the insult the Ochori had offered them. Fortunately, Sanders was in the district, and came on the spot very quickly, holding palaver, and soothing an outraged nation as best he could. Sanders was a tactful man, and tact does not necessarily imply soft-handedness. For there was a truculent soul who sat in the council and interpolated brusque questions.
Growing bolder as the Commissioner answered suavely, he went, as a child or native will, across the border line which divides a good manner from a bad. Sanders turned on him.
“What base-born slave dog are you?” he asked; and whilst the man was carefully considering his answer, Sanders kicked him down the slope of the hill on which the palaver house stood, and harmony was once more restored.
Very soon on the heels of this palaver came a bitter complaint from the Isisi. It concerned fishing nets that had been ruthlessly destroyed by the Lulungo folk, and this was a more difficult matter for Sanders to settle. For one thing, all self-respecting people hate the Lulungo, a dour, wicked, mischievous people, without shame or salt. But the Isisi were pacified, and a messy war was averted. There were other and minor alarums--all these were in the days’ work--but Sanders worried about the Lulungo, because of their general badness, and because of all his people, Isisi, Ikeli, Akasava, and Ochori, who hated the Lulungo folk with a deep-rooted hatred. In his own heart, Sanders knew that war could only be postponed, and so advised London, receiving in reply, from an agitated Under-Secretary in Whitehall, the urgent request that the postponement should cover and extend beyond the conclusion of “the present financial year--for heaven’s sake!”
They had a proverb up in the Lulungo district--three days’ march beyond the Akasava--and it is to this effect: “When a man hath a secret enemy and cannot find him, pull down his own hut and search among the dbris.” This is a cumbersome translation. There is another proverb which says, “Because of the enemy who lives in the shadow of your hut”; also another which says, “If you cannot find your enemy, kill your dearest friend.” The tendency of all these proverbs is to show that the Lulungo people took a gloomy view of life, and were naturally suspicious.
Sanders had a cook of the Lulungo tribe, down at M’piti--which model city served as Mr. Commissioner’s headquarters. He was a wanderer, and by way of being a cosmopolitan, having travelled as far north as Dacca, and as far south as Banana--and presumably up the Congo to Matadi. When he came to M’piti, applying for work, he was asked his name and replied in the “English” of the Coast:
“Master, dey one call me Sixpence all’time. I make ‘um cook fine; you look ‘um for better cook, you no find ‘um--savvy.”
“And what,” said Sanders, in the Lulungo dialect, “what mongrel talk do you call this?”
“Master, it is English,” said the abashed native.
“It is monkey talk,” said Sanders, cruelly; “the talk of krooboys and half-bred sailors who have no language. What are you called by your people?”
“Lataki, master,” said the cook.
“So shall you be called,” said Sanders. “Further, you shall speak no language but your own, and your pay will be ten shillings a month.”
Lataki made a good cook, and was a model citizen for exactly three months, at the end of which time Sanders, returning unexpectedly from a hunting trip, found Lataki asleep in his master’s bed--Lataki being very drunk, and two empty gin bottles by the bedside testifying mutely to his discredit. Sanders called his police, and Lataki was thrown into the lock-up to sober down, which he did in twenty-four hours.
“I would have you understand,” said Sanders to the culprit the next day, “that I cannot allow my servants to get drunk; more especially I cannot allow my drunken servants to sleep off their potations on my bed.”
“Lord, I am ashamed,” said Lataki cheerfully; “such things happen to a man who has seen much of the world.”
“You may say the same about the whipping you are about to receive,” said Sanders, and gave an order to the sergeant of police.
Lataki was no stoic and when, tied to a tree, ten strokes were laid upon his stout back by a bored Houssa, he cried out very loudly against Sanders, and against that civilisation of which Sanders was the chosen instrument.
After it was all over, and he had discovered that he was still alive, albeit sore, he confessed he had received little more than he deserved, and promised tearfully that the lesson should not be without result. Sanders, who had nothing more to say in the matter, dismissed him to his duties.
It was a week after this that the Commissioner was dining in solitude on palm-oil chop--which is a delicious kind of coast curry--and chicken. He had begun his meal when he stopped suddenly, went to his office, and brought in a microscope. Then he took a little of the “chop”--just as much as might go on the end of a pin--smeared it on a specimen glass, and focussed the instrument. What he saw interested him. He put away the microscope and sent for Lataki; and Lataki, in spotless white, came.
“Lataki,” said Sanders carelessly, “knowing the ways of white men, tell me how a master might do his servant honour?”
The cook in the doorway hesitated.
“There are many ways,” he said, after a pause. “He might----”
He stopped, not quite sure of his ground.
“Because you are a good servant, though possessed of faults,” said Sanders, “I wish to honour you; therefore I have chosen this way; you, who have slept in my bed unbidden, shall sit at my table with me at my command.”
The man hesitated, a little bewildered, then he shuffled forward and sat clumsily in the chair opposite his master.
“I will wait upon you,” said Sanders, “according to the custom of your own people.”
He heaped two large spoonfuls of palm-oil chop upon the plate before the man.
“Eat,” he said.
But the man made no movement, sitting with his eyes upon the tablecloth.
“Eat,” said Sanders again, but still Lataki sat motionless.
Then Sanders rose, and went to the open doorway of his bungalow and blew a whistle.
There was a patter of feet, and Sergeant Abiboo came with four Houssas.
“Take this man,” said Sanders, “and put him in irons. To-morrow I will send him down country for judgment.”
He walked back to the table, when the men had gone with their prisoner, carefully removed the poisoned dish, and made a meal of eggs and bananas, into neither of which is it possible to introduce ground glass without running the risk of instant detection.
Ground glass--glass powdered so fine that it is like precipitated chalk to the touch--is a bad poison, because when it comes in contact with delicate membranes right down inside a man, it lacerates them and he dies, as the bad men of the coast know, and have known for hundreds of years. In the course of time Lataki came before a judge who sat in a big thatched barn of a courthouse, and Lataki brought three cousins, a brother, and a disinterested friend, to swear that Sanders had put the glass in his own “chop” with malice aforethought. In spite of the unanimity of the evidence--the witnesses had no less than four rehearsals in a little hut the night before the trial--the prisoner was sentenced to fifteen years’ penal servitude.
Here the matter would have ended, but for the Lulungo people, who live far away in the north, and who chose to regard the imprisonment of their man as a casus belli.
They were a suspicious people, a sullen, loveless, cruel people, and they were geographically favoured, for they lived on the edge of a territory which is indisputably French, and, moreover, unreachable.
Sanders sent flying messages to all the white people who lived within striking distance of the Lulungo. There were six in all, made up of two missions, Jesuit and Baptist. They were most unsatisfactory people, as the following letters show:
The first from the Protestant:
“Dear Mr. Commissioner, --My wife and I are very grateful to you
for your warning, but God has called us to this place, and here
we must stay, going about our Master’s business, until He, in
His wisdom, ordains that we shall leave the scene of our
Father Holling wrote:
“Dear Sanders, --I think you are wrong about the Lulungo people,
several of whom I have seen recently. They are mighty civil,
which is the only bad sign I have detected. I shall stay because
I think I can fight off any attack they make. I have four
Martini-Metford rifles, and three thousand rounds of ammunition,
and this house, as you know, is built of stone. I hope you are
Sanders took his steamboat, his Maxim gun, and his Houssa police, and went up the river, as far as the little stern-wheeler would carry him. At the end of every day’s journey he would come to a place where the forest had been cleared, and where, stacked on the beach, was an orderly pile of wood. Somewhere in the forest was a village whose contribution to the State this ever-replenished wood-pile was. Night and day two sounding men with long rods, sitting at the steamer’s bow, “stubbed” the water monotonously. Shoal, sandbank, channel, shoal. Sometimes, with a shuddering jar, the boat would slide along the flat surface of a hidden bank, and go flop into the deep water on the other side; sometimes, in the night, the boat would jump a bank to find itself in a little “lake” from which impassable ridges of hidden sand barred all egress. Then the men would slip over the sides of the vessel and walk the sandy floor of the river, pushing the steamer into deep water. When sixty miles from the Baptist Mission, Sanders got news from a friendly native:
“Lord, the Lulungo came at early morning, taking away the missionary, his wife, and his daughter, to their city.”
Sanders, yellow with fever, heavy-eyed from want of sleep, unshaven and grimy, wiped the perspiration from his head with the back of his hand.
“Take the steamer up the river,” he said to Abiboo. “I must sleep.”