Bones of the River - Edgar Wallace - ebook

Bones of the River ebook

Edgar Wallace



Edgar Wallace was one of the most popular and prolific authors of his era. For his series set in the highly evocative world of West Africa he created two of his most beloved and enduring characters, Colonial Administrator Sanders and his eccentric companion Lieutenant Tibbetts, known to all as „Bones”. It is a time when the world’s most powerful nations are vying for colonial honor, a time of trading steamers and tribal chiefs. In the mysterious African territories administered by Commissioner Sanders, Bones persistently manages to create his own unique style of innocent and endearing mischief.

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Liczba stron: 314

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“LOOK after the chickens,” said Hamilton sardonically, “put the cat out, and don’t forget to wind up the clock,”

Lieutenant Tibbetts inclined his head with, as he believed, a certain quiet dignity.

“And take something for that stiff neck of yours,” added Hamilton.

Mr. Commissioner Sanders came back from the deck of the Zaire to the little concrete quay that jutted out from the residency grounds.

He was leaving on a short tour of inspection, and with him went Captain Hamilton and half a company of Houssas. Mr. Tibbetts, whose more familiar name was Bones, was staying behind in charge, and would be for seven days Deputy Commissioner, Deputy Commander of the troops, Deputy Paymaster-General, and Chief of Staff. He was also temporarily in control of twenty-five Orpington hens, three cockerels and a new fowl-house, the property of his superior officer. The cat and the clock were figments of Captain Hamilton’s imagination.

“And by the way”–Hamilton, one foot on the deck of the little steamer and one on the quay, turned–“cut out the fairy tales, Bones.”

Mr. Tibbetts raised his eyebrows patiently and looked resigned.

“If you have to entertain callers, tell ’em something useful such as: A squared plus B squared equals C squared–a little algebra would improve the moral status of the wandering Isisi.”

Once before, whilst Bones had been in charge of the station, there had come a canoe from the Isisi country, carrying a small chief with a grievance to lay before the Commissioner. And Bones, being unable to settle their problem, had improved the shining hour by giving them a rough-and-ready translation from Grimm. It was not a happy experiment, for when the little chief had gone back to his village he had practised the new magic, with disastrous results, for, failing to turn his nagging wife into a tree, he had, in his annoyance, beaten her so severely that she had died.

“Lord, the magic was as the lord Tibbetts told me, for I sprinkled her with water and said ‘Be thou a tree,’ but because the woman has an evil mind she would not obey the lord’s magic.”

Bones sniffed.

“Sarcasm, my dear old commander, is wasted on me. I shall simply shut myself up with my jolly old studies and refuse to see anybody. As to your indecent old cocks and hens, I refuse absolutely to have anything to do with ’em. There’s nothing in King’s Regulations about looking after chickens–I hate to remind you, but you really ought to know, dear old officer, that it’s not my duty to give them their milk or whatever nourishment the unfortunate animals want...”

“Good-bye, Bones,” called Sanders from the bridge. “O boy, let go the big rope!”

The hawser splashed into the water, and her stern wheel moving briskly, the Zaire slipped to midstream and set her nose to the tawny current.

“Teach ’em the new two-step!” shouted Hamilton derisively.

“Teach your own chickens!” screeched Bones.

Lieutenant Tibbetts had three day-dreams. In point of fact, he had near three hundred, but there were three favourites. The first of these had to do with the rescue of beautiful females from various dangers. Bones possessed (in his dream) a dark girl with big, luminous eyes and slim, svelte figure. And a fair girl with a complexion like milk and a figure that was not so slim; and a dashing and rather a fastish kind of girl, who got into scrapes against his earnest advice, defied him and went her own wilful way, leaving a stern young lover behind whose grief and anguish none would guess from a glance at his pale, set face. And when he rescued her, she used either to fall weeping into his arms, or fall weeping to her knees, or fall prostrate at his feet. She invariably fell one way or another, and was forgiven, or wasn’t forgiven, according to the mood in which Bones happened to be.

His second dream was of digging up enormous sums of money and buying a wonderful yacht, which would be manned by silent, saturnine and mysterious men. He would sail to unknown seas and reappear unexpectedly at Cowes. It wasn’t always at Cowes–but was invariably before a large, fashionable and appreciative audience. And beautiful girls would see the yacht come sailing majestically to its anchorage, and would say to one another or anybody who happened to be round:

“It is the The Yellow Vampire returned from one of its strange voyages. Look! That is Captain Tibbetts, the millionaire, on the bridge. They say he hates women. How I should like to know him!”

He had a third, and this was the dearest of all. It involved the discovery by the higher authorities of his extraordinary powers of organisation, his amazing knowledge of criminology, and the fear that his name inspired in the breasts of evildoers. Delicate and refined young women riding in the park would turn and gaze after his sombre figure and glance significantly at one another.

“That is Commissioner Tibbetts of the C.I.D. Never a day passes but his ruthless hand drags a murderer to the gallows. How black and sinister his life must be! I wish I could get an introduction to him.”

Bones had made many incursions into the realms of crime investigation. They had not been very successful. He had read books on criminology, and had studied learned text-books in which scientific men with foreign names tabulated the size of criminals’ ears and drew remarkable conclusions from the shapes of their noses. This branch of the study became unpopular when he found, in the shape of Captain Hamilton’s eyebrow, proof positive of homicidal tendencies.

Bones lay stretched in the shade of a little matted verandah before his hut It was a roasting hot day, with not so much as a breeze from the sea to temper the furnace-like atmosphere of headquarters.

Bones was not asleep. It was equally true that he was not awake. He was arresting a man whose crimes had baffled the police of the world until, misguidedly, he came into the orbit of that lynx-eyed sleuth, “Trailer” Tibbetts of Scotland Yard.

Suddenly the patter of bare feet, and Bones blinked and was awake. It was a lanky, barefooted corporal of Houssas, and he brought his hand stiffly to his scarlet tarbosh.

“There is a canoe from the upper country. I have told the men that they must wait until you have spoken.”

“Eh?” said Bones huskily. “What’s this nonsense? Arrest the man and bring him before me!”

He might have been reciting the Iliad for all the corporal understood, for he was speaking in English.

“Bring them,” he said at last. “And, Mahmet, have you given food to the cluck-cluck?”

“Lord, you said that you yourself would carry food to the cluck-cluck Water I gave them because they made fearful noises.”

Bones screwed in his eyeglass and glared.

“Bring the men: then take food to the birds which are as the apple of Militini’s eye, being his own aunts turned by enchantment–” He stopped, remembering Hamilton’s warning. Bones loved fairy stories.

So there came to him M’gula of the Upper Ochori, an old man of forty, with a big head and a wrinkled face.

“I see you, Tibbetti” he boomed, as he squatted in the hot sunlight.

“I see you, man,” said Bones. “Now, tell me why you have come in your big canoe. Sandi is not with me, having gone to the Isisi country, but I sit in his place and give justice.” This Bones magnificently.

“Lord, I have heard of you and your wise words. From the river-with-one-bank to the mountains of the old king, people speak of you clapping their hands. It is said that you are greater than Sandi, being a magician. For you take things in your hand and they disappear. Also from the air you take silver dollars. Also it is said that from an empty pot you have drawn beautiful things, such as birds and pieces of cloth and small animals.”

Bones coughed a little self-consciously. He had once performed a few conjuring tricks before an awestricken audience. Happily Hamilton knew nothing of this.

“So, lord, I came, knowing that the lord Sandi was going to the Isisi, because I have many thoughts that trouble my mind.” In a country where men have been known to travel a thousand miles to seek the answer to a riddle, it was not remarkable that one should make the long journey from the Ochori to find relief even from a trivial worry, and Bones waited.

“Lord, I am a man who has lived many years thinking greatly, but doing little-little. My own brother is chief of K’mana and has a medal about his neck, and men say ‘kwas’ to his judgments. Now I, who am greater than he because of my thoughts, am only a common man. Tell me, Tibbetti, must all men be as they were born?”

Bones began to take an interest.

“Man, what is your name?” And when his visitor had told him: “M’gula, many men have been born common, but have come to greatness. That is well known.”

Warming to his subject, and conscious of the improving character of his lecture, Bones became very voluble. He cited the story of a certain young Corsican officer of artillery who had reached for a throne; he told of a poverty-stricken boy in a rolling-mill (“a wonder of iron” he called him) who had acquired riches; he ransacked and misquoted history to preach the doctrine of opportunism, and M’gula of the Upper Ochori sat motionless, entranced.

“Now I see that you are wiser than M’Shimba, and greater than ghosts,” he said, when Bones had talked himself out. “And I have a warm feeling in my stomach because I know that men become great from their thoughts.”

He came again the next morning, and Bones, who in the meantime had raked up a few more historical instances, continued his discourse on Self-Help.

“The leopard comes once to the net” (thus he paraphrased the proverb of opportunity knocking at the door), “and if the net is fast, behold, he is your meat! But if the net is old and the pit is shallow, he goes and comes no more.”

M’gula went back to the Ochori country an enlightened man.

A month after his return, his brother, the chief, was seized with a passionate desire to stand up before the people of his village and recite the poem called “M’sa.” It is a poem by all standards, native or white, for it deals with death in a picturesque and imaginative way. There was not a man or a man-child from one end of the territory to the other who could not recite “M’sa” had he been so terribly defiant of devils and ju-jus. But it is the law that “M’sa” must be taught in whispers and in secret places from whence all birds have been frightened, for birds are notoriously members of the spirit world that carry news and chatter in their strange ways about the souls of men.

In a whisper must the poem be taught; in a whisper recited, and then the last word, which is “M’sa,” must never be uttered. No man has ever explained what “M’sa” means. It is enough that it is so fearful a word that it sets men shivering even to think of it.

It is recorded that for a hundred years no man, sane or mad, had spoken “M’sa,” so that when Busubu, the little chief of the Ochori, stood up by the village fire and, with some dramatic ability, recited the great poem in a tremendous voice, his people first sat frozen with horror at the sacrilege and its terrible significance, then broke and fled to their huts, hands to ears. In the night, when Busubu was sleeping, his two sons and his brother came to his hut and wakened him softly.

He rose and went with them into the forest, and they walked all night until they came to a big swamp where crocodiles laid their eggs. The waters of the pool rippled arid swirled continuously in the grey light of dawn.

They rested by the side of a small lake, and the brother spoke.

“Busubu, you have brought upon the people the terrible Ghost who shall make us all slaves. This we know because our father told us. This ghost is chained by the leg at the bottom of this swamp, waiting for the words of ‘M’sa’ to reach him, when he shall be free. Now, I think, Busubu, you must speak to this spirit.”

“O man and brother,” whimpered Busubu the chief, “I would not have said the terrible words if you had not told me that it was the order of Sandi that I should do this. For did you not come secretly to my hut and say that Sandi had killed the ghost and that all men might say ‘M’sa’ without fear?”

“You are mad and a liar,” said M’gula calmly. “Let us finish.”

And because they would not have his blood on their hands, they roped him to a tree near by where the ripples ran most frequently, and they put out his eyes and left him, They rested awhile within earshot of the place, and when, in the afternoon, they heard certain sounds of pain, they knew that their work was consummated and went back to the village.

“Now, Sons of Busubu,” said the uncle of the young men, “if this matter goes to the ear of Sandi, he will come with his soldiers and we shall hang. Tomorrow let us call a full palaver of the people in this village, and all those countrymen who live in the forest, and tell them that Busubu was mad and fell into the river, and was drowned.”

“His leg being caught by the terrible ones,” suggested his nephew helpfully. “And, M’gula, I will sit in my father’s place and give justice. When Sandi comes, and hearing me speak cleverly, he shall say: ‘This son of Busubu is my chief.’”

His proposal aroused no enthusiasm.

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