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© David De Angelis 2017 – all rights reserved
1. BONES AND THE BEE
2. THE TERRIBLE TALKER
3. THY NEIGHBOUR AS THYSELF
4. THE GHOST WALKER
5. THE KING'S SCEPTRE
6. IN THE MANNER OF LIPSTICK
7. THE SPLENDID THINGS
8. BONES THE PSYCHIC
9. THE RICH WOMAN
10. THE KEEPERS OF THE TREASURE
11. THE PRESENT
12. M'GALA THE ACCURST
MAKARA, Chief of Kobala'ba, was paddled down the river to within ten miles of the residency, and here he hired new paddlers from a lower-river village, leaving the ten girls who had paddled him so far in charge of the village headman.
He was young and skinny and beautiful to see, for not only did he wear the robe of monkey skins which is the robe of his rank, but his forearms were invisible under brass bangles; his hair was dyed red with ingola, his legs shone with oil, and he wore anklets of copper that clinked as he walked to the residency, where Mr. Sanders awaited him.
"I see you, lord Sandi," he greeted the Commissioner, and his voice had the quality of boredom and weariness.
"I see you, little chief," said Sanders, and there was acid in his tone. "And yet as I sat here before my fine house watching you come from the river, I had a strange thought. For it seemed to me that you were not Makara, son of Lebulana, son of Elibi that warrior, but a dancing woman of Kobala'ba, such as a man can buy for a thousand matakos." If Makara felt shame he showed none.
"In my land all men are pretty," he said complacently. "Even in Kobala'ba I wear a feather in my hair and sometimes about my waist."
Sanders showed his teeth in a smile that was entirely mirthless.
"Rather would I see you with a spear in your hand and a shield on your arm, Makara," he said. "It seems that there are too many women in Kobala'ba—"
"Lord," said Makara eagerly, "that is why I came; for soon your lordship will send to us for the rubber and fish which you steal from us every year for your government, and because we are few men we have nothing to give."
Sanders took a cheroot from his pocket and lit it before he replied, his audience watching him anxiously.
"Was there tribute when I sent before?" asked Sanders. "And when I sent before then, did I find skins and rubber, and before then, even? Makara, your people of all the people on the river pay no tax to my king. And because you are far away and I cannot come in my little ship along the shallow river, I think you laugh at me. Strange stories come along the river to me—of women who hunt and women who fish, and women who build houses. It seems that there is a new race of slaves growing under my eyes; slaves who are penned like dogs and beaten like dogs. Which is against all the laws of all the tribes, but terribly against my law. Some day I will come and see."
"Lord, all that you hear is lies," said Makara, "for my young men are very strong and brave, and women have their proper place, which is in the fields and at the fires—"
"And at the paddles?" asked Sanders significantly. "My spies tell me that women brought you down the river, and that you left them at the village of Chubiri, so that I should not be offended. The palaver is finished."
Makara went back to his village a little uneasy.
For all that Sanders had heard was true: Makara had brought about a revolution in the custom of the country. In this black hinterland, men have a defined place and the sphere of their activities is rigidly confined by immemorial custom. For example, no woman is allowed to build a hut. The most lordly of the tribes reserve that work to men, partly, it is believed, because house—building has been the work of man since the beginning of time, and partly because, as is well known, a terrible curse lies on any roof that is thatched by a woman. No matter how indolent men may be, the erection of a house is their sole prerogative. On the other hand, no man with any spirit will till a field or grow corn or soak manioc or cook a meal. There once was a tribe so degraded that the men cooked their own dinners, and the name of that tribe was a reproach from the Lado to Eschowe. No woman may hunt or fish: that also is man's job, and the folk of Kobala'ba had terribly offended in this respect.
"They come by night from the little river between the grass," reported an indignant petty chief of the Isisi; "ten women in each canoe, and they spear fish under the eyes of my young men, and when my fisher men speak to them they answer them shamefully. Now, lord, because these are Akasava folk we can do nothing. A moon and a rime of a moon ago, I sent word to the great chief of the Akasava and told him of this terrible thing. He said that Kobala'ba was a country by itself, and that though the people were of his tribe they mocked him. Also, lord, they say that in Kobala'ba the women take their spears and hunt in the forest, and that the men sit at home in their huts, which is strange to me."
It is true that the village of Kobala'ba was sometimes called a country by itself, and with good reason. At the end of a shallow and narrow little creek which runs into the great river, and separated from all the world by a crescent of swamp, is a little lake on the northern shore of which rises a hog's back of good solid land. Here are long, sunny slopes where corn may be grown, and groves of Isisi palms affording pleasant shade, and behind the knoll a ten—mile depth of forest, where men can hunt profitably, and women, too, as it seemed.
North of the creek is a girdle of swamp that separates the hunting ground from the forest of the Ochori; eastward is swamp again; to the west a desolation that is sometimes river and sometimes marsh. The isolation of KQbala'ba is complete. It is a dry oasis in a desert of water and near water, where crocodiles breed, and tiny mosquitoes rise in dense white clouds at every sunset.
In the days of the bad King Elibi, when his spears were triumphant from the Ghost Mountains to the Little River, Kobala' ba was uninhabited. Its inaccessibility, its isolation, the age—old legend of ghosts and devils, as many as the grasses that grew on its slope, made this place an undesirable residence. When Sanders broke Elibi in the early days of his mission, the remnants of an Akasava fighting regiment made its way to the little lake, taking the goats and wives it had acquired by violence. Here they established themselves in the huts they built, and raised a new generation, which was mainly feminine—a phenomenon peculiar to the union of warriors and slaves. And that was the peculiarity of Kobala'ba, which persisted through the years, that three girls were born for every boy: so that in the course of time Kobala'ba was a village of straight —backed young women and puny youths who sat at the doors of their huts and were waited upon by sisters and cousins, mothers and aunts innumerable.
With the death of the old chief and the coming of Makara, a considerable change came over the economic life of Kobala'ba, and he discovered an easy way to wealth. Slavery became systematized; he sent out bands of women hunters, at first under the guidance of a man, eventually by themselves, and there accumulated in the village great stores of skins and rubber. His canoes brought him fish to be dried in the sun, and, with the skins and rubber, exported secretly across the frontier into the French territory.
Makara in another land might have become a captain of industry, for he was blessed with the gift of organization. Slavery is forbidden, but women have a price on the Great River, and it is lawful to buy wives. Makara and his enthusiastic men recruited a new kind of labour; his canoes went up and down the river seeking "wives." On the day he came to Sanders there were half a thousand women in his compounds and as many roving the forest in search of pelts.
At the end of three weeks' hard paddling, Makara's weary paddlers brought him to his village and to a domestic problem; for one of his wives, the tall T'lini, had led a band of huntresses into the forest and had returned almost empty—handed. Makara held a conference, which was attended by the forty—seven grown males of the village.
"We must not beat her or lay her in the sun," he said, "for presently Sandi will come, and she will tell evil stories about us. Let us be kind to her, and after Sandi is gone I will do certain things that will make her sorry."
T'lini, who had lain for twenty—four hours, her hands and feet tied together, in the big pen where the surplus women were kept, was released and well fed, and for seven days the male heads of families assembled their quotas and rehearsed them in the story they must tell. And it might well have been that the slave community would have grown undetected, and with it the wealth of Makara, had not science in two stout volumes come to Lieutenant Tibbetts of the King's Houssas.
Bones spent a fortnight of intensive reading and study before he started in to impart his newly acquired knowledge to the indigenous natives.
"What is it Bones is swotting so hard?" asked Sanders one night after Bones had made an unceremonious and hasty departure from the dinner table.
Hamilton knocked off the ash of his cheroot in his coffee cup, and his nose wrinkled disparagement.
"Science," he said laconically.
"Very admirable," murmured Sanders, and waited for the explosion, for Hamilton was on the touchy side, having just recovered from an attack of malaria.
"Science!" sneered Hamilton. "Astronomy, natural history, botany, biology... My God, if he'd only keep it to himself!"
The two handsomely illustrated books which had come to Bones by the last mail dealt with science in a popular way, in all its aspects. The volumes had been edited by a great savant, the articles written, by men with the gift of informing in the most simple language. Bones read and was fascinated. The two volumes exceeded in interest the modest expectations which were aroused by the sample page so cunningly dispatched to him.
"Science will have no mysteries for Bones," said Hamilton bitterly, "except perhaps the science of keeping the company accounts, and the science of doing a simple job without making a hash of it."
Sanders chuckled quietly.
"Bones must have spent a fortune on his correspondence lessons—but there's nothing selfish about him: he passes on all he learns."
"That's what I'm afraid of," said Hamilton darkly.
A fortnight after Bones had received these volumes of instruction, he gathered together the Houssas on the square, and with them their wives and families, and pointed to the star—encrusted sky, for it was a glorious night in early December—such a night as English astronomers dream about but never see.
"All people listen," said Bones in the Arabic of the Coast. "What are these little stars you see? Some are suns and some are worlds, greater than all this world—"
"Lord," interrupted a sergeant of Houssas respectfully, "if they be suns, why is it night, for all men know that when the sun shines it is daytime? Yet these little things shine only at night."
Bones explained laboriously, more or less inaccurately, and at the end violently.
Sergeant Abiboo reported the lecture to Hamilton.
"There is no doubt, Militini," he said, "that the lord Tibbetti is sick with the fever. For, as your lordship knows, when men are ill they imagine strange things, such as people walking about with heads like crocodiles."
"Why do you say this, Abiboo?" asked Hamilton.
"Because, lord," said the sergeant decisively, "Tibbetti told us that these stars are suns, when all men know they are stars, being the spirits of the dead, according to the Kaffirs, but, as we true believers know, the bright eyes of the blessed houris that look down from Paradise."
Bones, in disgust, turned from astronomy to biology. In consequence there was a marked coldness in the demeanour of the Houssas, and women scowled at him from their huts when he walked through the lines.
One Kano lady laid a complaint before Sanders.
"Tibbetti has shamed us all, for he told us that we were monkeys cala cala, and lived in frees and had tails; also that all men were once fishes, which is a terrible thing to say."
"The lord Tibbetti has made you a great riddle," said Sanders tactfully, "but because you are a stupid woman you cannot understand its mystery."
He passed a hint to Hamilton, and Hamilton, who never hinted, brought Bones to the carpet.
"You're demoralizing the detachment, Bones, with this pseudo— science of yours. Keep off biology and astronomy, and confine your lectures to metaphysics."
"Thank you, Hamilton, dear old officer. I don't know much about physics, but what about the odd spot of chemistry, dear old sir? Why does a seidlitz powder fizzle? You don't know, old boy! Don't pretend you do—"
"Metaphysics has nothing whatever to do with chemistry," said Hamilton coldly.
"Then," demanded the scornful Bones, "why call it physics—I ask you, dear old thing?
Don't answer if you feel you're incriminating your jolly old self."
Bones was due for a trip to the Akasava. There were palavers to be held, a certain amount of taxation to be collected. More especially, Sanders wanted exact information as to what was happening at Kobala'ba.
The night before Mr. Tibbetts left on his journey, Hamilton uttered a word of warning.
"When you get to Makara's village don't be scientific—if you are, confine yourself to insects. You can't do any harm there. If you start working off little pieces about the universe to the bloodthirsty Akasava, you'll probably start a couple of wars. And I absolutely forbid you to talk about evolution. The Darwinian theory is distinctly unpopular amongst the Houssas. It may bring you into some disrepute with people who hunt monkeys and eat fish—"
"Tell them about Bones," put in Sanders. "An object lesson in industry will do the Akasava no harm."
"A little astronomy, dear old Commissioner!" pleaded Bones. "What about the jolly old constellation of O'Brien? What about Beetlegrease, the notorious and ever—famous star that's a hundred and fifty million times bigger than the sun?"
"Orion and Betelgeuse are the two words you're groping for," said Hamilton sternly,
"and you'll not say a word about them. You remember the trouble we had with the
Northern Ochori people over the moon, sir?"
Long before Bones had taken science seriously, he had explained to the wild and terrified people of the Ochori the substance, character and origin of the lunar orb, with disastrous consequences; for the Northern Ochori, who blamed Bosambo for everything that had happened to the world since its beginning, gathered their spears and went up against their paramount chief. You cannot overturn settled convictions without producing unexpected reactions, and it took Sanders the greater part of a year to convince these misguided people that their first information about the moon was correct, namely, that it was the bright hole in the sky through which M'shimbaM'shamba made his entrances and exits from a disturbed and storm-swept earth.
Kobala'ba is not easily reached. The motor launch dropped Bones at the scarcely visible mouth of the shallow river, and for four days he was paddled through bush and grass and virgin mosquito hordes—a painful experience.
He came to Kobala'ba in the dark of an evening; and, knowing him to be at hand, the villagers burnt a big bonfire on the beach, which served the double purpose of beacon and illumination.
It was not the chief Makara who met him, but T'lini, his wife, a very tall and supple girl of seventeen.
"Lord, I see you! I am T'lini, wife of Makara."
"I see you, T'lini," said Bones, peering at her. "Yet I think I would rather see the chief, your husband, for I do not make palaver with women."
He looked left and right along the crowded beach. Not a warrior was to be seen; only these straight, ebony figures regarding him gravely. She read his thoughts and said: "There are few men in this village, lord Tibbetti, and these put themselves to bed early, because of the cold air of night which gives them pain in their throats."
Bones gaped at her. "Good lord!" he said, in English.
"Also, lord," she went on quickly, "these women you see are the wives of our warriors, and they are so happy that they dance with joy because their men are kind. And every day we work in the fields whilst our husbands go hunting in the forest."
Bones screwed his monocle into his eye, and T'lini shrank back in terror.
"Tell me, T'lini, are you of this village?"
She nodded, which meant "No."
"I come from B'lini on the river. Makara bought me for a bag of salt, also my own sister and the daughter of my father."
Bones scratched his nose but said nothing. He walked to the hut that had been made for him. Here was a fine skin bed to spread his valise upon, and, rejecting the inevitable offer of service with the invariable excuse, he lay down and slept, for he was a very tired man.
It was dark when he woke: the phosphorescent dial of his watch told him it was within a quarter of an hour of dawn, and he rose and dressed. The place was already alive; fires were burning before each hut; shadowy figures flitted up and down the broad street; and with the first violent light of the sun he saw a small body of men coming down from the far end of the village, where Makara's hut was. Makara himself led the party, and very formidable it was, for each man carried a bunch of hunting spears, though the fineries which decked their persons seemed a little inappropriate.
"O Tibbetti, I see you!" boomed Makara. "Give me salt* if I did not come to you last night, but I and my young men, who have been hunting for many days in the forest, were tired. And to—day we go out on a long and terrible journey to find fish and rubber for Sandi and his king."
"That is a good palaver," said Bones satirically, as he glared at the hunting party through his eyeglass. With the exception of Makara, they were very fat young men, whose flabby flesh suggested anything but prolonged exercise. "But first you shall tell me what place is this."
He pointed to a bare square of hard earth, where once a slave pen had stood—recently, he guessed. It had its fellow a few paces down the slope towards the river. His quick eyes detected a third and a fourth. Four big huts that had been recently demolished.
There were others in all probability, if he looked for them.
Makara answered glibly enough, but his explanation was lame. Bones watched the hunters disappear through the thin woods that lead to the greater forest, and then he called an assembly of all the people, and went up to the palaver house, to find himself con fronting a crowd of a thousand sober—faced women.
"O people," said Bones, "I have come a long way because my lord Sandi cannot make this journey to see you. By night and by day I have journeyed in my canoe along a terrible little river to take taxes for my king. And none are here. For the men who should be warriors and hunters are like children, and have grown lazy, so that there is no rubber or fish for my Government. Now I will tell you a story about bees that you may tell your children and your men."
Bones had an amazing vocabulary. They listened fascinated whilst he told the story of the economy of the hive. When he had finished, T'lini, who was squatting at the foot of the little hill, rose.
"Lord, that is a great riddle," she said. "Now tell me and my sisters: these little things who fly and do no work—are they men folk or women folk?" "Men folk," said Bones, in an unguarded moment.
"And, lord, those who work and gather riches—what are they?"
Bones explained again; became a little inarticulate as they drew him out of his depth.
"That is a good tale," said T'lini, when he had finished. "Rubber we have got, and the skins of wild beasts, but we do not see these things again, and when we ask our lords they say that Sandi has come with his soldiers and taken them for his Government. Now tell us, lord Tibbetti, how may the women bees live through the cold, wet days, but do not the little things that fly and do no work eat up all the riches the women bees have gathered?"
Bones, sure of himself, explained.
"T'lini, that is a good question. Now I will tell you. They who do no work are killed when the wet days come, for the little women bees drive them from the nest and destroy them. And the next season come new little men and they last their season, and at the end are killed."
"Who rules this land of bees?" asked T'lini.
"One who is higher than any—a queen," said Bones, waxing poetical; "one who is as great as Sandi and wiser than I. And all the bee—women honour this one and bow their heads and clap their hands with joy whenever this high one walks abroad." He saw nearly a thousand mouths opened in amazement and was gratified.
Later that day he sent a messenger with a letter to Sanders.
Dear Sir dear sir [it ran rapidly],
Kobalarber is full of feamales feemailes femmales but the men have gone hunting I don't think I don't think.
[Bones had this little trick of repetition.]
I talked about beas bes and how they worked in a scentific sientific manner. Femails deeply impresed. Shall stay the week am giving annother leckture on botny to—morow.
A month later he returned to headquarters.
"Did you give 'em any science?" asked Hamilton.
"Bee—ology, dear old sir—the habits and customs of the jolly old bumble, and a few words about the naughty old honey—maker, as per my letter of the 24th inst. The whole proceedings terminated with a vote of thanks to the chairman."
"Did you see Makara?" asked Sanders.
"Not too much, sir. I stayed in the village four days, and the naughty old deceiver and his boy friends didn't come back. They'd only gone about four miles into the forest."
He struck a more serious note when he told the results of his investigations.
"Slavery, eh? I was afraid so," said Sanders gravely. "An ingenious idea, and not the first time it has been practised in the Akasava country."
He sent for a carrier pigeon and, writing a message, flew the bird to one of his spies on the Upper River. Long before the order for Makara's arrest could be executed, there was an alarming outbreak of science at Kobala'ba.
* * * * *
A few nights after Bones' departure, Makara squatted by the fire of his hut, relating to certain close friends, counsellors and male sycophants, the details of a summary administration of justice. For he had taken T'lini his wife and had beaten her till he was tired, and she had run away into the forest to join a party of wives in their search for a peculiarly succulent monkey that was very satisfying to Makara's epicurean taste.
"She cried 'Wow!' and put her hands up," said Makara with relish. "Then she made a great noise and put her arms so..."
He stopped, peering up the village street towards the wood, where a small column had emerged from the trees—a column that must be made up of hunting parties that were not due for days, and should have been scattered, through the hundred and fifty square miles of game preserves. They marched steadily, carrying neither monkeys nor skins, and there was something very peculiar about their solidarity. Ominous, too, for the red of the setting sun turned their spear—heads to the colour of blood.
"O woman," said Makara, in a passion, as T'lini approached him, "I will whip you—"
A spear—head dropped to his throat and pricked him sorely. He collapsed in a panic and was incapable of resistance, as two strong women bound him foot and hand. They laid the forty—seven males of Kobala'ba, fan fashion, about the palaver house, and T'lini, the chief's wife, spoke.
"Tibbetti, the son of Sandi, told us this tale," she said, looking down at the horrified face of her husband, who was the victim nearest to her. "Cala cala all the bee women worked and gathered their magic from flowers, and the bee men sat at home in their huts and ate all that was brought to them, and did no work and killed their wives. And then all the bee women held a palaver and they said: 'From this day we will kill the bee men at the end of every season, and in the next season we will get new men and kill them also when we are done with them.' And Tibbetti said that because of this great magic all the bee people are happy, so that you hear them singing as they go about their work. Tibbetti told us this, and he is wise, for he has three eyes and sees more than we."
She walked to the side of her husband and looked down at him, her spear poised.
"Now I think we shall be happy," she said, and struck as he had taught her...
So slowly did news travel in that backwater of life that it was nearly a month before Sanders heard of the happening. It was brought by a lithe woman warrior who carried her spears with an air.
Sanders listened, and, seasoned as he was to strange happenings in this strangest of lands, the simple recital took his breath away.
"And now there are no men in obala'ba," concluded the messenger, "but next season we will go to the river villages and take such as we wish. But, Sandi, we wish for a ruler, and because we know you are kind to your people we have had a great palaver, and this is agreed, that we ask you, Sandi, to send us your son Tibbetti, that he may be our Queen Bee according to his magical words."
"Deuced awkward," said Bones dismally, as he pulled at his long nose.
THERE was a man of the Isisi whom all feared—even the very chief of that nation. He was no great warrior, nor was he skilled in magic. His name was M'anin and he was of the common people: a tall, thin man with a stammering voice, who did no more than talk. But his talk was very bitter and he respected nobody. Once, in the days of his beginnings, the chief of his village (afterwards chief of the tribe, and eventually hanged for the murder of a missionary) had taken a pliant chicotte and had gone in search of the talker. And M'anin had seen him coming and was panic—stricken, for he had spoken very evilly of this chief and certain of his wives. Yet, though his heart was like water, he met the chief with outward insolence, having in his soul the dim beginnings of a theory which happened to be right; and this theory was that he who talks and talks and supports one boldness with another may cow even the strongest and most enraged man or woman.
"I see you, chief," he greeted, his furious master. "Oh ko! You are like a monkey that is caught by a spear! Now I must tell you the truth—you have a bad face and you are no proper chief for this village. And if Sandi knows this he will, put you away."
So strong and bold were his words that the chief wilted before him.
"M'anin, have I spoken evilly of you? Have I done ill to you? And yet you make me foolish before my people."
M'anin looked at him thoughtfully.
"I speak truth, and if any man be hurt by truth that is his palaver. I speak as my mind is—even to Sandi."
He grew to maturity well hated but uninjured. Men, and women too, went out of their way to placate him; choice foods came to his house, lest the giver writhe under the lash of his criticism. Though the Isisi are river folk, and uncleanliness an abomination, none cavilled at M'anin, who never brought his body to the water. He dwelt apart with a fat woman, in shape like a beetle, and she was the audience on whom he practised when others failed. He neither hunted nor worked, and because he brought little to his own larder he was wont to sit at food with such families as advertised the excellence of their meals by the fragrance of their cooking pots. And none dared deny him for fear of his tongue.
And sometimes he would stand with his back to a tree, surrounded by young men, and talk of the bad ness of such things as were in their eyes good. In his eyes the wealthy Ogani, the hunter, and Wlini, whose canoes haunted the river, were an offence, and he reserved his bitterest gibes for those who had passed him in the race.
"Let all people look at Ogani, whom men call a great hunter. To me he is like a fish upon land, leaping here and there and opening and shutting his silly mouth...Oh, people, why do you shiver at Sandi? For is he not a man with one life and can he eat two meals at once? He is no great ruler, for did not the crops fail?"