C. S. (Cecil Scott) Forester.

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It was all plain now. A canoe with many men in it, seven
or eight at least and perhaps a dozen, had crept into the
shore here, concealed by the point from Musini and Lanu
in the gully. The men in the canoe had seen the fire from
the river and had paddled silently to the shore close beside
it. Creeping round the point they had peered round to see
the woman and the boy intent on their work at the fire —
a pair of deep footprints showed where a single scout had
stood still for a long time staring at them unseen to make
sure it was not an ambush. Presumably he had turned and
beckoned to his fellows. Then had come the sudden rush;

[ 174 ]


Musini and Lanu had been seized — it was then they had
uttered the screams Loa had heard — and carried ofiF to the
canoe; and now they were gone, Loa could not tell whither,
for a canoe leaves no tracks. The sun plunged into the for-
est across the river, leaving above it a pile of purple cloud.
In a few moments it would be dark, and Loa, distracted
with misery though he was, hastened back to the fire to
search about it in the last gleam of daylight. He did not
find what he feared he might; look as he would, he could
see no drop of blood upon the torn-up ^arth. Whatever else
had happened, it was probable that neither Musini nor Lanu
had been wounded. No spear had pierced them, certainly.
No club had dashed out their brains; even if they had been
merely clubbed into insensibility a drop or two of blood
would have probably fallen from the battered scalp, and
he could be almost sure that none had done so. Night swept
down upon him even while he bent to reread the story of
the torn earth. He stumbled back again to where the canoe
had grooved the beach, the last place where his wife and
son had touched the earth, and there, in the darkness, his
misery overcame him. He sat down and wept, his forearms
on his bent knees, his face upon his forearms, shaken by his
sobs, while round him the water lapped and gurgled and

In time he grew calmer, with the calmness of something
approaching despair. He looked out unseeing in the black-
ness of the night across the river. Overhead a star or two
showed faintly between the clouds; there was no moon.
Oddly at that moment of supreme misery he realized that

[ 175 ]


he had not, for a very long time, called the moon from out
of her retirement in the river. There had been a time when
he and his whole world had sincerely believed that she would
not leave it if he did not call her, that the nights would
remain dark if he did not summon his wayward sister back
to the sky. His sister! Alone there by the pitch-dark river
Loa had a moment of self-realization, of self-contempt. The
moon was no more a sister of his than she was a sister of the
little people's. He was a mere mortal, like anyone else, and
the most lonely and miserable of mortals at that, and the
most useless. It was his grievous fault that Musini and Lanu
had been captured. He remembered with a sneer his pre-
caution in going to reconnoiter the landward side of their
camp, without any thought at all for the peril that menaced
them from the water. He had even seen the canoe across the
river, and in his utter folly he had given it no thought. The
dark invisible water lapping at his feet mocked him as he
sat with his face in his hands.

It was a terrible night, a night of misery and despair, in
which his few moments of sleep were tortured by frightful
dreams. He was a gregarious animal suddenly confronted
with the possibility of lifelong compulsory solitude, a de-
fenseless animal without a friend in the world, the prey of
every living creature in the forest. But that was only part
of his emotion. He was stirred as deeply as might be by the
loss of his wife and child, Musini and Lanu, who had stood by
him when he was a slave, who had chosen to encounter
hardship and peril to set him free, whose devotion to him
had never faltered. He had a sense not merely of physical

[ 176 ]


loss, but of spiritual loss as well. "While there was emotion
left in him he wept for Musini and Lanu, until at last he
was completely exhausted. Even with the dawn he still sat
in melancholy apathy. Possibly he might have stayed there
and starved if a new stimulus had not aroused him. It beat
upon his ear for some time before it penetrated into his
consciousness — the steady rhythm of a drum. A drum!
There was no doubt about it. Not very far away in the for-
est a drum was beating out an exciting, triumphant meter,
borne clearly through the trees to his ears. He had no doubt
that it came from the town whose odors his nostrils could
just detect. It called him to action, roused him to do some-

His subconscious may have been at work during the
night, underneath his misery. Or the sound of the drum
may merely have called forth a prodigy of thinking in his
brain. The town was near. Was it not possible that it had
been people from the town, incredibly using a canoe, who
had captured Musini and Lanu? And in that case was it not
likely that Musini and Lanu were still captives in the town?
They had been carried off alive — they probably had not
been slain yet. It was not so much hope as a ferocious deter-
mination that filled him and quickened his sluggish pulse.
He picked up ax and bow and arrows. A few forest beans
scattered round the remains of the fire caught his notice,
and he ate them raw for a scanty breakfast, and he drank
deeply of the water of the river. Then he started oflF towards
the town, desperate, the enemy of mankind. The sound of
the drum came more and more clearly through the trees, ac-

[ 177 ]


companying the scent of humanity. It almost made Loa
abandon the caution of movement which had become ha-
bitual to him; but he still instinctively scanned the ground
before him for pitfalls and poisoned skewers; he still halted
at every glade to look ahead and listen for enemies. Along
with the sound of the drum he now heard human voices,
roaring a chorus to the meter. There must be some kind of
rejoicing in the town.

His sense of direction told him that he was keeping closer
to the river than he expected, and he had not gone downhill
at all — he was walking along the top of the bluff. He had
no clear idea of what he was going to do; actually he was so
desperate that he may have been courting sudden death.
The forest suddenly became dense and overgrown, with
shrubs and creepers intermingled, and, with the noise of the
town increasing, he guessed he had reached the edge of the
belt of old clearings round the town. With his mind sud-
denly made up, he plunged into the undergrowth, creeping
under, climbing over, hacking a way through with his ax,
keeping a wary eye open the while for snakes. The sweat
poured down his dark skin, for in the undergrowth the heat
was intense and the labor heavy. He wriggled on and on
cautiously, with the din of the town growing ever greater,
until at last he parted a bush in front of him and had a
clear view. He could see a circle of houses of a strange type
— round houses, thatched differently from what he was ac-
customed to. They faced onto a central space; between the
houses he could see something of it, and the coming and
going of many people, first this way and then that way. A

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dance was certainly in progress. He wanted a better view
than this, and he turned to his right and began to crawl
along, keeping in the final fringe of dense vegetation
through which progress was not too difficult and yet which
screened him from possible sight as long as he kept down.
A hundred yards of this opened up a wider vista between
the huts. He could see fully into the central open space.
Cautiously he backed into the undergrowth, and, lying full
length, parted the grass stems before his eyes as he looked
out. A man lying flat is more likely to escape observation
than one standing up, being below the natural eye-level.

There were trees standing in this open space, unlike the
main street of his own town, and at the far side the dance
was going on; more people than he could count (and yet,
he thought, less than had dwelled in his own town) moving
from side to side in a great semicircle to the beat of the
drum, which was out of his sight. Under a great tree a little
group of standing figures centered about a seated one; Loa
could just make out the movement of fans which, he guessed,
were keeping the flies ofiF the chief. He had no word for
"chief"; he had to phrase it to himself that if this were his
town that man would be he. He almost thought of the chief
as the "Loa" of the town — the clearest proof that Loa had
learned much in the last weeks regarding his own relative
importance, both present and past. But it was not the chief,
it was not the dance, that attracted Loa's attention. He did
not spare so much as a glance for the tethered goats which
meant milk and meat. What attracted his attention was a
little palisade of stakes in the shade of another tree, a good

[ 179 ]


deal nearer. It was more than a palisade; it was a cage,
wound about with creepers. Loa's heart nearly came out of
his mouth as he saw it and guessed what it might imply. He
swallowed painfully and fought down the impulse to crawl
farther out of the undergrowth for a nearer view. It was
just the sort of pen in which humans destined for food
might be fattened; but, look as he would, he could see noth-
ing — so closely woven were the sides of the pen and so
deep the shade in which it stood — of what was inside it, if

Everything he could see of it told him that it was in use;
it seemed to be complete, and no one would trouble to re-
build a pen when the victims had been taken out. But if
the inmate, or inmates, were lying down — as was to be
expected — he would not be able to see them. Loa looked all
round the village and the open space. He was as near to the
pen as he could ever get unobserved; there would be no ad-
vantage in a further change of position. He set himself to
wait, to see what would happen. The sun blazed down into
the undergrowth around him so that he was in a steady
trickle of sweat; insects plagued him and hunger and thirst
assailed him, but he forced himself to lie there waiting; he
called to his assistance all the endless patience of the forest.

If there was a victim in the cage it might well be Musini
or Lanu — they even might both be there. He had not real-
ized, when they camped the night before, either how near
they were to the town nor how near the town was to the
river. It was confirmation of his previous theory. Being as
near to the river as this the town might easily be populated

[ i8o ]


by the canoe-using people whom he knew to exist, and if
it were, it seemed far more likely that it was a canoe from
this town which had captured his wife and child than one
from any other town. If that were the case it would be
Lanu and Musini who would be in that cage. Their captors
would certainly fatten them before eating them; Loa re-
membered realistically how worn and thin they both were.
He called forth fresh reserves of patience.

At last the drum ceased to beat and the dance stopped. At
first in ones and twos and then in an increasing stream peo-
ple began to leave the place of the dance and distribute
themselves through the town. Loa lay very close to the earth
and peered out with only one eye, for there was much more
chance of detection now that there were idle eyes to glance
round the circle of vegetation that hemmed in the town.
People entered the houses near at hand; Loa could hear the
voices of the women, sometimes raised stridently as they
chided the children. Then an old woman emerged from one
of the houses; on her white hair she carried a big wooden
jar; in each hand a wooden dish. Loa watched her with tense
excitement. Straight to the pen she went, squatted carefully
with her head still upright to put down what she held in
her hands, and then lifted down the jar. Then she began to
unfasten the pen. She passed in the big jar, and received
it back again — Loa could not see from whom. Then she
passed in one of the wooden platters, and proceeded to open
the pen at another point. She passed in the jar, took it back,
and passed in the other platter. She went to the first place
again, took out the platter, passed in the jar again, and re-

[ i8i ]


ceived it back. She fastened up the pen at that point, and
then exactly repeated her actions at the second place. Then,
with empty jar and platters, she made her way back to the
house again. There could be no clearer proof that there were
two people in the pen — a child could have made that de-
duction. Loa was quite certain. And the fact that two peo-
ple were there made it more likely that they were Lanu and
Musini; pairs of victims must be rare.

Loa lay in the undergrowth while the sun mounted over
the town and the heat rose to its hideous maximum. It was
plain enough that if he intended to rescue his family he
must wait until nightfall — a child could have made that
deduction, too. But it was not so easy to make detailed plans.
Loa had to make his unaccustomed mind think; what was
harder still, he had, almost for the first time in his life, to
set himself consciously to work observing and learning. He
had to study the town and its ways, basing his plans on
what he saw and on the deductions to be drawn from his
observations. His forehead wrinkled with the effort. And
he was very thirsty, and if he had not been so acutely con-
scious of his thirst he would have been unpleasantly hungry.
It called for all Loa's reserves of character to make himself
lie there and rivet his whole attention on what was going on
before him.

On the far side of the clearing, over on his right, there
seemed to be an entrance into the town, by which numerous
people came and went. Yet the river must be very close at
hand there. Yes, of course. There were women coming and
going, and without any doubt they were bearing water jars

[ 182 ]


on their heads; to judge by their gait, empty jars when they
went out and full ones when they returned. There was a
house concealing the actual pathway from Loa's view; he
could only see people as they emerged from it and as they
entered into it. Yet there was just a subtle difference in their
manner of walking the moment they appeared or disap-
peared; Loa strained his splendid eyesight to make sure.
There could be no doubt about it. At that point there was
a steep downslope, and that house must be built on the very
lip of the bluff running down to the river, and up that
slope the town's drinking water must be carried.

Men used the same entrance frequently. Loa saw a little
group come striding in with something of triumph in their
manner. One of them bore a string of glittering white
things which he displayed for inspection to the passers-by
before disappearing into a house. Loa could not imagine
what they were, for he had never seen fish before, but he
did at least reach the conclusion that the town's canoes must
lie at the water's edge at the foot of the path there. He
could think of no other reason for men to use the path.

When, during the coming night, he had freed Musini and
Lanu, they would have to escape from the town. Over there
was one possible exit; so much he knew. At least half of the
town was closely ringed in by tangled second- growth for-
est, such as was sheltering him at the moment. It might offer
shelter, but it offered small possibility of escape. No one in
darkness could possibly make his way into the under-
growth for more than a yard or two. It might be that the
three of them could hide there during the darkness, and

[ 183 ]


with the coming of light make their way out through the
tangled belt — the way he had come — to the freedom of
the forest. That would be very dangerous, all the same, be-
cause the moment the escape was discovered there would
be a serious search, and they might be tracked and hunted
down in the undergrowth. It was a possible scheme, but not
a very good one. Loa's utterly untrained mind struggled
frantically with these alternatives. It was a terrible effort to
deal thus with theories, for he had done hardly any theo-
retical thinking in his life. To weigh one intangible against
another was for Loa an exercise far more unusual and ex-
hausting than the schoolmen had found the theological
speculations of the Middle Ages.

On the far side of the town, beyond the point where the
dance had taken place, women appeared every now and
then carrying hands of bananas on their heads. At that end
of the town, as far as Loa could vaguely make out, there
was some sort of street running into the open square, and
it was from this street that the bananas were being brought
in. That must be the way to the cultivated ground, to the
banana groves and the manioc gardens, and it was another
possible way of escape to the forest. But Loa ruled that out
as soon as his mind was able to weigh the pros and cons; it
was a long way over there, it involved going down a street,
and there was no certainty that the way would not be
barred by clearings, or that they could find it in the dark
if it were not. Loa began to pay more and more attention to
the exit from the town to the river. He was not consciously
learning its bearings — his imagination was not lively

[ 184 ]


enough to lead him to do that — but he was learning them

Another old woman was carrying out food and drink to,
the pen. Loa watched all her actions, which were just similar
to those of the old woman who had preceded her. He saw
the big jar of water being handed in, and he groaned with
desire. His unexercised imagination was quite capable of
visualizing the cool water in that jarj his parched tongue
moved over his dry lips at the thought of a long drink. As
thirst began to consume him, Loa almost came to envy
Musini and Lanu in their pen. The temptation began to
come to him to withdraw again into the overgrown clear-
ing, to find his way out through it back to the river where
he could slake his thirst in the hope of returning to his pres-
ent hiding place before dark. Loa resisted the temptation;
everything about that scheme was too dangerous. It was for
the sake of Musini and Lanu that he forbore; peril to him
meant peril to them, and in that case he was prepared to
endure his thirst.

Thirst at least made him forget his hunger. The appe-
tizing odors that came from the cooking pots excited no
emotion in him at all; he analyzed them with curiosity and
interest, but they did not make him hungry as he lay there
slowly roasting — simmering, rather — in the shade. The
strange unknown smell of cooking fish came to his nostrils,
and he observed it with distaste, for to him it was unpleas-
ant; it heightened the prejudice, the hatred, he felt towards
this town, so that when a stronger whiff of it than usual
reached him he unconsciously wrinkled his upper lip in a

[ 185 ]


snarl and his hand went out to the ax that lay beside him.
The great heat of the day was over now for him; it was a
grateful moment — a moment almost sharply defined —
when the sun ceased to glare down on him and the tops of
the trees behind him interposed between him and the sun.
The shadows in the open space of the town became longer,
and with the movement of the sun he could see the pen
more clearly. It was very like any pen that would have been
constructed in his own town, except that it had been given
little gable ends and ridgepole roof, almost like the houses
in his own town and in contrast with the houses in this
town. The roof was thatched with leaves, presumably to
keep out the rain, for the tree under which it stood gave it
shade. Certainly this town gave much attention to its cap-
tives. Even as Loa watched he saw a third meal taken out to
the pen, and how many had been given before his arrival
he did not know. Musini and Lanu were being well fed in
preparation for their feeding of others. And as the shadows
grew longer still, Loa saw the same old woman who had
brought the last meal escorted over to the pen by a couple
of men. They took lengths of creeper and tethered her to
the pen, by the waist and by the ankle, apparently — it was
too far off for the smallest details to be seen — and left her
there. That was exactly the way Delli had been guarded
after her capture; it ensured that the prisoners would not
pick apart during the night the fibers that caged them in.
That was all that was in the minds of the townspeople —
it was all that had been in Loa's mind when he had given
the same orders regarding Delli — but it was a complica-

[ i86 ]


tion when it came to a question of rescue from without. Loa
grimly noted on which side of the pen the old woman chose
to lie down.

Evening was nearly at hand now. The shadows of the
trees were stretching far, far, across the open space. A cou-
ple of boys gathered together the half-dozen goats that had
been tethered to browse on the edge of the town, and herded
them away to some unseen destination where presumably
they would be safe from the nocturnal attack of leopards.
Everybody in the town, it seemed, chose this time of day
to come out to gossip and exchange news, just as they did in
Loa's own town. There were passers-by innumerable in the
open space — a few of them clustered now and then about
the pen to view the curious couple confined there. Loa
thought from their movements that they laughed heartily,
and this puzzled him a little. Even if he had remembered
how everyone had laughed at Delli it would not have helped
him to draw the right conclusion. He had not learned yet
to be objective enough to think of Musini and Lanu as
figures of fun to strangers. He saw the spectators slap their
thighs and prance in apparent amusement, and he could not
think why. But he did not let that problem bother him; he
conscientiously devoted those last few minutes of daylight
to a final study of the ground, so that when darkness came
he was ready for action.

The first impulse was to move at once, but he resisted it
sternly. He had to wait until the town was asleep. The limi-
tations of his vocabulary and the culture in which he lived
expressed themselves in his lack of any idea corresponding

[ 187 ]


to the word "hour." He could divide the day from sunrise
to noon, from noon to sunset, but he could not express to
himself the idea of waiting a couple of hours. "As long as
it would take a man to get hungry" would have been one of
his ways of expressing the period of time it would be de-
sirable to wait, but Loa was hungry already and any such
term would have appeared absurd to him in consequence.
In the utter darkness of the night there were a few gleams
of light in the town, but only two or three. On the far side
there was the glow of a fire, and near it were two small
points of light. There could not well be more, not even in
this town where fish from the river supplemented an almost
purely carbohydrate diet. Oil to supply fat was far too
scarce and precious to be wasted in lamps, although even
Loa was acquainted with lamps — a wooden saucer of oil in
which floated a lighted wick of vegetable fiber. If men
wanted to stay awake, they could sit in the dark or by the
light of a fire; but few men did. The night was the time for
sleep, eleven hours of it at least, and any light at night time
attracted so many insects as to make it undesirable to stay
near it.

It was not surprising to see the lights soon go out and the
fire die away to nothingness, but Loa still waited. Now his
brother the sky came to his help — the sky which so often
before had malignantly plagued him; furthermore, the help
the sky brought was in the form of the rain which usually
distressed him. There was a very distant rumble of thunder,
so distant that not even a glimmer of lightning was visible
in the town, and then came the first heavy drops, falling

[ i88 ]


like pebbles on his back. Loa blessed the rain. He turned
over and opened his mouth to the sky, and the rain that
fell into it eased his frightful thirst. Soon it was raining
with African violence, deluging down as if the whole at-

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Online LibraryC. S. (Cecil Scott) ForesterThe sky and the forest → online text (page 12 of 20)