Lieutenant Bones - Edgar Wallace - ebook

Lieutenant Bones ebook

Edgar Wallace



Wallace was a prolific author responsible for several series of popular novels featuring bold adventurers and crime fighters. 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”. However, yet again, the trouble-prone Bones, while meaning to assist, only manages to spread his own unique style of innocent and endearing mischief. Those who love classic adventure especially set against an African backdrop will discover a rich vein of reading pleasure in the six books of the Colonial adventures of Sanders and Bones set on the „Dark Continent”.

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THERE was a lawless group of villages set upon a wooded ridge at the confluence of B’suri and the Great River, and these villages were called by the name of the largest, M’fumbini-falapa. It had another name which I will not give, lest this story falls into the hands of innocent people who speak the B’mongo tongue, but it may be translated in a gentlemanly way as “Everlastingly nasty.” It was neither clean within, nor picturesque from without. The huts straggled and strayed without order or symmetry. They were old huts, and patched huts, and many were uglified by the employment of rusty scraps of galvanized iron, for near by, cala-cala long ago, an optimistic British company had erected a store for the collection of palm nuts. The enterprise had failed, and the store had been left derelict, and in time the wild had grown round and over it. And the people of M’fumbini had in their furtive, foraging way taken scraps–they did nothing systematically or thoroughly–and had added abomination to abomination until their village was an eyesore and an offence to all beholders.

Sanders had argued and ordered, held palaver after palaver, but all to no purpose. They were an isolated folk, for here the rivers run very swiftly together, and landing on the littered beach was attended by risks which their neighbours seldom cared to accept. So they lived alone with their skinny children and their indescribable wives, and were disowned both by the Isisi and the N’gombi, with whom they claimed tribal associations.

The effect of environment on character has been too often noted to require enlarging upon in this narrative. The M’fumbini folk were liars and thieves, who practised magic and believed in horrible ju-jus. Lonely fishermen who speared their waters had a habit of disappearing and there can be no doubt that they were “chopped,” for the M’fumbini were cannibals. Only once were they detected.

Mr. Commissioner Sanders arrived on a certain night and surprised the villagers at a particularly unpleasant festival. At dawn his soldiers strapped the hands and feet of the chief, slipped a rope round his neck, and hanged him to a very high tree. Sanders might have saved himself the trouble. Within a year the new chief had developed a secret society called “Three Sticks,” which enjoyed a ritual which is not reducible to print.

If they were isolated, they sent out their scouts and spies, who ranged through the Territories, wandering mendicants who lived on the hospitality of friendly or apathetic tribes, and avoided those who were neither friendly nor quiescent. These travellers learnt many things, but one N’kema, a shrewd youth with one eye–he would, of course, have been killed by the healthy tribes, which do not tolerate any kind of bodily deformity–returned on a certain day with news, and there was a grand palaver.

“N’kema, my own sister’s son,” introduced the chief to the squatting assembly, “has heard many wonders, and my ju-ju has whispered to me that there is truth in his words. Hear him, people, s’ibi m’laka”

And N’kema spoke, and told of a white man who had come to the Territories, and by strange instruments had made a marvellous liquid which drove people to wild happiness, and of how the people had brought rubber and ivory and all the most splendid possessions to exchange for the Waters of Madness. But Sandi, the fox, smelt him out and killed him, and now all the people were crying out for the magic waters.

“And this I learnt, O chief and people, that in far countries, where the River-With-One-Bank runs, [The Sea–EW] there is much Water-That-Burns, and the fire-ships bring them in big pots and float them to shore. Now, I think that if we dig up our ivory, and I go to these wonderful places and trade the ‘teeth’ for the water, and bring it here secretly, we shall be rich.”

“That is mad talk,” snarled the chief, “for what will Sandi do? Is it not the law that all ivory teeth and rubber and the beautiful things which we find shall go before Sandi, and he shall make a book for their going out? And is it not the law that all things which come into these lands shall go before Sandi and his young men and soldiers? And is it not the law and the high word of Sandi that the Waters of Madness shall not come into this land? O N’kema, I think you are a fool!”

“Lord, Lord,” said the one-eyed man eagerly, “I have very cunning thoughts in my head, for in the night, when Sandi sleeps, I will take a big canoe filled with treasure past his fine house and along the River-With-One-Bank to the places where I may trade. Also I have found a man of the Akasava, who has lived in these far lands, who will guide me.”

The palaver lasted until early in the morning, and all the next night the chief, accompanied by his counsellors, dug with mysterious rites the old store places of the community, and on a moonless night, when, as fortune would have it, a white mist lay over the delta, N’kema and his laden canoes passed the river sentry and struck along the seashore to the north. Of his subsequent arrival at the port of a certain independent country, of his chaffering, of his bargaining, and his ultimate success, it is not necessary to speak here. He came into a new land and a new world, and learnt, perhaps for the first time, of war great beyond his comprehension. He was, at any rate for the time being, nearer to this world convulsion than were his masters.

The breath of war occasionally blew toward the Territories–a gusty puff of short duration, which almost carried the thunder and rumble of guns that did not cease by day and night. Then the gust would pass, and there would be a stillness and a silence which were almost painful. Literally, the War came sometimes by letter, sometimes by newspaper, and now and again, at great and glorious intervals, through another and more intimate medium. The native clerk in the telegraph office would arrive breathlessly with a large yellow form bearing many thumbprints, but conveying, in the ill-spelt message from Administrative Headquarters, a story of thrilling achievement.

For an hour, for a day, there would be a strange silence in and about the Residency. The effect upon the three men who were the recipients of the news was strangely different. At first the news would gather four heads together over a big map which was outspread upon the dining table–the fourth was that of Patricia Hamilton, the Houssa Captain’s sister, as eager and as enthusiastic a strategist as any–and they would trace with a pencil the lines of new villages taken, and would solemnly drink the health of their Army, and then they would melt away, each to his or her separate world of dreams.

For Patricia Hamilton it was a sad little world, peopled by suffering women-folk. Mr. Commissioner Sanders would wander off into the woods of the Residency, and what his thoughts were, none knew. Captain Hamilton grew silent and almost morose. He had volunteered for service with his regiment, and had made the larger sacrifice by remaining in the wild Territories to keep the King’s peace amidst two million people with cannibalistic tendencies.

Lieutenant Tibbetts howled his regret to the skies, until he was savagely dismissed by his superior, and departed in a sweat of energy, with a wholly unsympathetic platoon, to invent new trench systems.

Sometimes days would pass before the reaction wore off and the men became wholly normal. Sanders was ever the first to recover, for wherever his sympathies might lie, however much he might regret a life misspent as a political officer, his job of work lay near at hand.

Only once did the War come to the Territories in tangible shape. Bones was strolling on the beach one hot afternoon, when over the horizon came a big black blur of smoke. He dashed madly up the beach, leapt intervening flower-beds, and vaulted over the rail of the veranda, to the alarm of three people who were sitting down, patiently awaiting his more dignified arrival to tea.

“Where the dickens have you been, Bones?” demanded Hamilton. “I have been yelling myself hoarse to call you to tea.”

Bones saluted.

“The mail in the offing, sir,” he said.

“The mail?” said Sanders, with a frown. “Why, she was here on Tuesday. She’s not due again for another fortnight.”

“The mail in the offing,” repeated Bones, “sighted by me at five-twenty-five p.m., west-west, north by west.”

There was a hasty search for binoculars and field glasses, and presently four pairs were levelled upon the smudge of smoke, from which had emerged a stumpy mast and what seemed to be one huge funnel belching black smoke.

“I don’t know what it is,” said Sanders, after a while, “but it is not the mail.”

“I think, sir,” said Hamilton, not taking his eyes from the oncoming craft, “it is a destroyer.”

Now, the destroyer is a type of warship which is never seen on the African coast. There were dainty little white gunboats and occasionally a dazzling cruiser–nothing more and nothing less. Neither the submarine, nor the destroyer, nor the battleship, nor yet the battleship-cruiser, finds her way to these latitudes, and the three men experienced that sense of pleasant novelty which the introduction of the real thing provokes in a world of make-believe.

“She is heading here,” said Bones. “I shouldn’t be at all surprised,” he said solemnly, “if the Government had sent for me.”

“What would they want with you, Bones?” demanded Hamilton.

“You never know,” fenced Bones. “That article I wrote for The Widford Chronicle–”

Hamilton groaned.

“Have you been writing to the papers again?” he said, in a tone of resignation.

“It was a little thing,” said Bones modestly. “As a matter of fact, it was in a letter to my dear old Uncle Henry, I happened to mention casually that I had thought out a new way of upsetting the calculations of the jolly little torpedo, and, like a silly old ass, he sent the letter to the papers.”

Whatever his words might be, there was nothing in his tone which suggested that Bones blamed his relative for his indiscretion.

“Naturally, these things get about,” he went on deprecatingly, “and I shouldn’t be a bit surprised if the Admiralty noticed the article. Now, my idea about torpedoes–”

“It is a destroyer, all right,” said Sanders, as the boat swung slowly round to the anchorage, and her four squat funnels stood out against the white-hot western sky. “She’s a big ship, too. There goes her steam pinnace.”

“Of course,” said Bones, with a little cough, “it will be rather awkward, Ham, my dear old skipper, my leaving you suddenly; but when one’s country calls for the best men and the best brains”–he shrugged his shoulders–“what can one do? Naturally, I shall hate leaving you all, but I must go just I where I can best serve the jolly old Empire. War,” he babbled on, “upsets all our preconceived ideas of seniority and promotion, et cetera. Napoleon was a general at twenty-one–or it may have been twenty-four. Nelson was an admiral at twenty-six. Fellows who were lieutenants one year were commanding divisions the next. It is the fortune of war, dear old fellow.” He patted Hamilton’s shoulder sympathetically. “Don’t forget, dear old superior officer pro tem.,” he said, huskily, ‘that you will always have a friend at court in old Bones. Don’t bother to send in your name. Walk right into my office. Never stand on ceremony with me, Ham, old friend. Never think of me as Admiral Sir Augustus Tibbetts, the torpedo expert, but just as plain Bones; I will never forgive you if–”

“I wish to Heaven you’d shut up, Bones!” said Hamilton. “Come down to the beach and give these fellows a salaam.”

The sturdy little pinnace came swiftly across the rolling waters, crashed over the breakers, and grounded on the soft beach. A naval officer in white duck and sun helmet leapt out, and the officers exchanged perfunctory salutes before the men in the uniforms began an exchange of confidences. “Cheerio!” said Bones. “How’s the game?”

The officer who had landed was a tall, good-looking youth of twenty-five. He flashed his white teeth in a sympathetic grin, and came up the beach to greet the two.

“Awfully sorry to come barging into your Arcadia,” he said, “but I suppose you have heard there’s a war on?” Hamilton smiled but Bones was on his dignity.

“Dear old lieutenant-commander,” he said severely, “what is this strange news you bring us?”

The naval officer chuckled. “Anyway,” he said, “I want to see your Intelligence officer.”

“Our–?” demanded the mystified Hamilton.

“The Intelligence Officer–the Secret Service man.” The naval man looked from one to the other and Bones leapt to the occasion.

“Dear old nameless sir,” he said, confidentially linking his arm with the visitor’s, “we understand. You want to see me about a jolly old torpedo catcher?”

“Not on your life,” corrected the Officer firmly, “I want–”

“Come up to the Residency, sir,” laughed Hamilton. “I’m afraid we’re all Intelligence Officers.”

“Some more so than others, of course, dear old sea-dog,” interrupted Bones, maintaining his grip of the sailor’s arm. “Some of us–it isn’t for me to say which–have an aptitude for mystery an’ secrecy, an’ some of us couldn’t keep our silly little tongues from waggin’ if we tried. Now, talkin’ about torpedoes–”

Hamilton was introducing the officer to Sanders. His name was apparently Bagshott.

“I was told I should find an Intelligence Officer at most of our Coast headquarters,” he apologized, and went on to explain that he had not touched the Coast, having come straight across from a certain Atlantic island, and that he was not–this very apologetically–acquainted with these waters.

“The fact is, sir”–he came to serious business, in the way that naval officers have, with a rush–“there’s a U-boat hanging around here. Last week she made an attack on the C. and C. mail, just missing her propellers by a fraction of an inch. She’s awfully far away from her base, but these new fellows can travel an enormous distance. Two days ago she sank a Norwegian steamer; we got her S O S in time to arrive before she went under.”

“We can hardly help you, I’m afraid,” said Sanders, “though, of course, we will put ourselves entirely at your disposal. What can we do?”

“Have you ever tried catching submarines with nets?” asked Bones, with sudden excitement. “Gracious goodness, dear old thing, what an idea! Came to me all of a sudden–in a flash, dear old Ham! Put a jolly old net under ‘em an’ haul ‘em up. D’ye see what I mean, dear old naval officer?”

Lieutenant-Commander Bagshott did not even smile. “I’m afraid somebody has anticipated you,” he said gravely,

“What–about fishin’ for ‘em with magnets?” demanded Bones energetically and in no way abashed by the rebuff. “Get half a dozen magnets–”

“Be quiet, Bones! What can we do?” asked Sanders.

“You can tell me something about the river–how deep it is. The charts we have aren’t much use; these African rivers silt up, and the soundings change every week.”

“It’s jolly deep in places’–Bones was loath to abandon his self-appointed position as Intelligence Officer–‘simply fearfully deep, dear old mariner!”

“I can give you all that information,” said Sanders. “What else?”

“I want you to appoint an officer or some very reliable person–”

“One and the same, sir an’ friend,” murmured Bones, “if you get the right kind of soldier-man.”

“Hit him on the head, Pat!” begged her brother earnestly. “Go on, sir. What will his duties be?”

“Watch the mouth of the river by night. She may sneak in and spend the day submerged. Also keep an eye open for any strange craft that puts in an appearance in these waters. There is a supply vessel somewhere about. It won’t be a pleasant job, because it may mean a month of watching.”

“Say no more, sir,” said Bones solemnly, shaking hands with the visitor; “consider it done. An’ if you and your bonny old crew ever want to pass the silent watches of the night, the password’s ‘Vigilance,’ an’ the officer of the watch is Lieutenant Augustus Tibbetts, R.N.” He stood erect and saluted.

“You aren’t Royal Navy, are you?” asked the astonished officer.

“‘R.N.’, my cheery lad,” said Bones, “stands, in this case for ‘River Nelson’.”

“I’ll arrange for the watch to be kept,” said Hamilton, ignoring the volunteer; “it will give us an interest in life.”

An hour later the big destroyer was steaming back over the horizon, and by sundown had disappeared.

The duty began that night, Hamilton taking the steam launch to the middle of the one navigable channel and anchoring for the night.

At one o’clock in the morning he heard a stealthy sound, and turned his night glass to the river’s mouth, but saw nothing. Five minutes later a canoe came out of the darkness, and somebody hailed him in a hoarse whisper: “Seen anything, dear old Captain?”

“Is that you, Bones? What the devil are you doing here?”

“Watchin’ and waitin’, dear old officer, watchin’ an’ waitin’. Any sign of the jolly old pirate?”

“Go back to bed, you silly ass!”

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