C. S. (Cecil Scott) Forester.

The sky and the forest online

. (page 13 of 20)
Online LibraryC. S. (Cecil Scott) ForesterThe sky and the forest → online text (page 13 of 20)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

mosphere had been made of water. The roar of it was tre-
mendous; he allowed himself to wriggle out from the un-
dergrowth into the open space, and he instantly found a
puddle from which he could drink his fill. While the rain
fell nothing could be seen or heard; now was the time for

The string of his bow had long been released. He slid his
arm into the loop and slung the bow over his shoulder, and
then with ax in one hand and two arrows in the other he
proceeded to crawl forward towards the pen. The roar of the
rain made elaborate precautions unnecessary, but Loa took
no risks. He inched himself forward through the mud into
which the bare earth of the open space had immediately
been converted. The very houses between which he first
passed were invisible on either side of him. Chance depres-
sions made big pools in which he had to be careful not to
splash, but all the same he went straight through them.
There was the danger that in the night he would not find
the pen; although his sense of direction was acute and al-
though he had studied for so long the line he had to follow
he could not possibly risk making any detour from the
straight. He crawled on and on in the roaring darkness, on
and on, until, inevitably, the doubt began to grow in his
mind as to whether he had taken a wrong direction and had
passed the pen by. For some moments he stopped to consider

[ 189 ]


that possibility, with the rain deluging upon him, soaking
his woolly hair so that the water poured into his eyes and
incommoded him. There was nothing for it but to crawl
on; if his luck had been bad he would know it when he
reached the far side of the open space, and that would be
the time to think what he should do next. He put forward
his hand to resume crawling, and snatched it back as if it
had touched something red-hot. What he had touched was
a wet and bony human foot. During that time when he had
been considering he had been lying within a yard of the old
woman tethered to the pen. As the realization came to him
he drew up his knees to spring. The old woman uttered a
bad-tempered squawk. She must have been nodding off even
in the rain, for she did not appreciate the significance of
that slight touch on her foot. Perhaps she had not felt it,
perhaps she attributed it to a wind-blown leaf, or perhaps in
her stupefied condition she did not react quickly to it al-
though she knew what it implied. That little squawk, al-
most unheard in the rain, was her instant undoing. The
touch of her foot and the sound of her voice told Loa —
told his instincts, for he acted quicker than thought — how
her body was lying, and his spring carried the weight of his
body upon her with a crash, and his hands sought urgently
for her throat. His knees in her skinny belly squirted all the
wind out of her. His hands found her hair, her face, her
throat, and closed upon it. But the struggle was frightful.
She was only a skinny old woman, but the pangs of suffoca-
tion called out tremendous efforts from her limbs. Her first
convulsion threw him off her, but his hands luckily retained

[ 190 ]


their grip on her throat, wet and sHppery as it was. It was a
lean and skinny throat, and his hands almost encircled it so
that their grip was not easily broken, and his thumbs sank
deep between the stringy cords on each side. She thrashed
about, her legs striking against the pen, but it did not last
long. The convulsions died away, and Loa squeezed with his
powerful hands until his thumbs almost met round her flat-
tened windpipe. He maintained his grip until he was long
certain that she was dead, and then he rose up on his knees,
hitching back the bow that still hung from his shoulder.

"Musini!" he whispered.

"Loa!" came the instant reply. "Lord!"

"Father!" said Lanu.

It might not have been they, after all — Loa had no cer-
tainty of it — but not then nor at any subsequent time did
Loa ever think of that possibility.

"Be quiet," he ordered, and he turned aside in the dark-
ness to feel for the little ax where he had left it; the little ax
which Litti the worker in iron had made so long ago at Loa's
order as a gift to Lanu, and which had been so immeas-
urably valuable to them ever since. He approached the pen
with it, and felt in the rainy darkness to ascertain what he
should do. The pen, as was to be expected, was constructed
of stout stakes and crossbars fastened together with vegeta-
ble fiber, and he set to work with the ax to sever the fasten-
ings. It was not easy, for those fastenings were of split cane
which almost turned the ax's edge. Loa chopped and tugged;
he tore the nail loose on his left forefinger almost without
noticing it, before he managed to cut through three sets of

[ 191 ]


the fastenings. Then he laid hold of the upright and put
out all his strength, tugging, with his eyes starting out of
his head in the darkness, until a final ounce of effort tore
the upright free.

"Let me try to come through," whispered Musini, who
sensibly and with remarkable self-control had contrived to
stay quiet during Loa's efforts. Loa felt her wriggling in the
darkness, her hands touching his knees as she put her arms
through. The pen shook with her struggles, and soon Loa
knew that she was squeezing through.

"Lord, I am free," whispered Musini, rising to her feet
beside him in the darkness. She trod on the dead woman as
she spoke, but that did not alter the tone of her voice at all.
Her hands patted his shoulders, and she nuzzled her face
against his wet chest.

But this was no moment for tenderness. Loa shoved Mu-
sini away from him, for his mind was obsessed with the
business in hand — had he not, with incredible self-disci-
pline, kept his mind on it for many hours past? It could no
more be diverted at present than a charging elephant.

"Lanu," he said, and felt his way to Lanu's end of the

"I am here. Father," whispered Lanu.

Loa felt in the darkness along the top of the pen.

"This is the fastening to cut. Father," said Lanu.

Loa felt his hand touched by Lanu's, which he had put
outside the cage, and he was guided to the place. He hacked
in the darkness at the tough cane, more than half his blows
missing their mark, until, feeling in the darkness, he felt

[ 192 ]


that the fastenings had parted. And he felt, too, Lanu's
hand upon him again.

"Cut the one below, Father," said Lanu. "I will finish the
unfastening of this one."

Lanu used the mode of address common between children
and used by ordinary children towards their parents; obedi-
ently Loa addressed himself to the lower fastening. He
chopped and chipped away until the fibers parted, and then,
crouching low, began on the next one below. When this
had given way he put out his strength to tear the upright
free from the cage, but it would not yield. He had to cut
another fastening, and this time, when he tugged at the
upright, it gave way with a splintering crash that could pos-
sibly have been heard in the houses despite the noise of the

"I can come through now, Father," said Lanu, and Loa
felt him squeeze himself through the gap. Loa was conscious
that Musini was embracing their son in the darkness.

"Let us go," he said, and added, "I must take my arrows."

There was no diverting Loa from his purpose; haste could
not overcome him in this present mood of his, as this last
speech of his proved. He felt for, and found, his arrows in
the darkness where he had left them to spring on the old
woman, and he gave them and the bow to Lanu, retaining
the little ax for himself.

"Come with me," said Loa, setting off into the darkness,
so dark still, with the rain falling heavily, that Lanu took
his hand and Musini his other arm so as not to part from

[ 193 ]


There was no need now to crawl along in an effort, ex-
pensive in time, to achieve utter silence. The old woman
was dead, and no one else in the town would be specifically
on guard, so that they could walk, slowly and with caution,
through the mud of the open space. The rain beat down on
their naked bodies quite remorselessly, with a stupefying
effect; it was as well that Loa had a plan in his mind at the i
start. But Musini still had to ask questions.

"Whither, Lord?" she whispered.

"River," growled Loa. 1

The single word was all that was necessary. During their
confinement in the cage Musini and Lanu had had time
enough to familiarize themselves with the topography of
the town, and it was by river they had been brought here.
But it was Loa who guided them; perhaps because of the
numbing effect of the rain his instincts had full play, and
his sense of direction could guide him without interference
from thought. A sudden sound at Musini's very elbow made
them stop dead, all three of them, rigid, until their minds,
slower than their physical reactions, told them that what
they had heard was the maa-aaing of a nanny goat sheltered
somewhere near. There was no further sound, and they
moved forward again feeling their way with the utmost
caution. The bleating of the goat told them they had reached
the ring of the town; invisible to them, houses must be on
either side of them. They paused at every stride, testing the
ground beneath their advancing feet before transferring
their weight. Loa's sense of balance first told him that they
were on a downward slope; they were over the lip of the

[ 194 ]


bluff and on the path down to the water. He felt pebbles
under his feet, and Musini and Lanu on each side of him
were pressing in upon him; the path was deeply worn and
intended for the use of people in single file. And as the path
steepened before them they could tell that they were among
trees again; the noise of the rain on the leaves told them
that if nothing else did. Steeper and steeper grew the path,
and then through the roar of the rain their ears caught an-
other noise, that of the river, which, sweeping round the
bend, came swirling against the foot of the bluff. The next
moment Loa, striding forward with less than his usual cau-
tion, stumbled over something solid in his path which the
touch of his hands told him must be a canoe. They had
reached the river.

"Whither now, Lord?" asked Musini as Loa felt round
for the ax that he had dropped.

"This way," said Loa, turning to the left — downstream
as ever.

Only a few steps took them among the trees, into the
odorous forest where they could feel the leafmold under
their feet again. It was a nightmare experience. The trees
grew thicker and lower here on the water's edge, and many
of them were out of the vertical. The slope of the bluff was
steep, and although that was a valuable guide for direction
in the dark, it made walking difficult with one foot always
higher than the other. They bumped into trees, and they
slipped and slithered on the wet leafmold. Always present
in their minds was the fear of snakes and of pitfalls. Their
rate of progress was deplorably slow, but they maintained

[ 195 ]


it for a couple of hours before Loa called a halt. He was
weary, although Musini and Lanu, after twenty-four hours
of complete rest and good food in the pen, were still fresh.
Loa slept, belly down, his face pillowed on Musini's thigh,
while the others dozed fitfully as the rain ceased.

It was Lanu who woke Loa, shaking him by the shoulder
so that he started up in alarm.

"Father — Lord," said Lanu. "The light comes."

Only the smallest possible grayness was leaking in
through the trees around them, but Lanu was as fully aware
as Loa of the value of these minutes. At dawn, or not long
after, the death of the old woman and the escape of the
prisoners would be discovered in the town. Almost for cer-
tain there would be pursuit; conceivably, despite last night's
rain, their tracks would be picked up. It was vitally neces-
sary that they should make the most of the few minutes'
grace which they had gained. Once deep in the forest and
they would be safe, save for some unfortunate and unfore-
seeable chance, from the townspeople.

"Let us go," said Loa, scrambling to his feet.

He ached in every joint, but he made no remark about it.
Aching joints were part of the life of the forest — he might
as well have remarked on the fact that there were trees
round them. He was desperately hungry, too, but that was
equally part of the life of the forest.

They could just see the tree trunks about them now, and
could pick their way along the slope, while beneath them
the river gurgled and chuckled. Very soon full daylight
came — for them the greenish twilight of the forest. They

[ 196 ]


hurried along as fast as they could, taking care to make no
sound, but not seeking for food, and pausing to listen and
look for an ambush by the little people less than they would
have done normally. They listened for sounds of pursuit
coming from behind them, but they heard nothing; the
gentle wind that was blowing in their faces would carry
sound away as well as the smell of the town — in their
nostrils there was only the scent of the forest, untainted by
smoke or humanity.

The slope of the bluff soon became vertical again, so that
they found themselves walking on the lip among the tan-
gled trees, with the water some forty feet directly below
their right hands. Soon they came to a point where the
bank had given way, and Loa emerged momentarily to a
view over a long reach of the river, but only momentarily,
for he sprang back, his gestures fixing the others motionless.
On the broad surface of the river was a canoe, and now a
canoe was an object of fear instead of idle curiosity. They
peered at it through the leaves, as it passed rapidly down-
stream with its paddles gleaming wet in the sunlight. Lanu
was shaking his fists at it, threatening it with his arrows,
and mouthing boyish curses at it — he was far too cautious
to say them aloud.

Another canoe was following closely behind, and they
could see the men at the paddles plainly enough. It was re-
assuring that they were not looking at their bank as they
passed it. That did not seem as if they were consciously
pursuing them, but canoes were such strange unknown
things that it was hard to be sure. A moment later Loa had

[ 197 ]


another shock of fear, for the two canoes swung round in
the current and lay alongside each other. Loa felt sure that
this implied that the paddlers knew they were there and
were concerting pursuit of them. But just as he was about to
lead a flight deeper into the forest the paddlers bent to their
work again, urging the canoes upstream on diverging
courses, while a man in the bow of one of them threw over-
board armful after armful of some brown material — Loa
could not see more exactly what it was, but the proceeding
attracted his curiosity and he lingered to watch, against his
better judgment. After a while the man ceased to throw the
material overboard, and the canoes toiled on upstream par-
allel to each other, and Loa could see they were connected
together at the bows by some sort of rope. It was an odd
kind of ceremony; over the water came the song of the
paddlers as they worked; the words were indistinguishable
but the rhythm was marked.

Loa could not tear himself away from the spectacle, al-
though he well knew that they should be on their way, but
Lanu and Musini seemed equally fascinated, and after some
time their curiosity was rewarded by the sight of the canoes
inching together again, while this time a man in the bow of
each canoe hauled out of the river the brown material
previously thrown in, which apparently had all the time
been suspended in the water from a rope between the canoes.
At intervals one man or the other would stoop and pluck
something glittering white out of the material, and throw it
in the bottom of the boat.

"Fish," said Musini, using a word that Loa had never
heard before.

[ 198 ]


"Very good," said Lanu, with a pat at his stomach.

It was a fishing canoe that had captured them the day be-
fore, they explained to him in whispers; they had seen the
things and had later eaten them, but this was the first time
they had known how they were caught. The word for fish
had completely disappeared from Loa's language (if indeed
it had ever had a place there) from the time when Nasa his
father had gone up against the riverside village and wiped
it out. But Loa was impressed by the stress Lanu laid upon
the excellence of their eating qualities; one of the old
women who had fed them yesterday had told them the
name and persuaded them to try the new delicacy, and the
townspeople who had gathered round the pen had been
vastly amused to hear that the captives did not know what
fish was and had never heard the name.

The canoes passed on up the river, casting their net again
as they went; the incident was comforting as it tended to
show that any pursuit of Loa and his family was not being
pressed to the utmost. Yet as the canoes passed out of sight
Loa turned his face downstream again.

"Let us go," he said, as he had said a hundred times be-

There was no pursuit from the town that they ever knew

[ 199 ]



They went on along the river as before, and as before they
starved most of the time with an occasional overfull meal to
sustain them. The bluff on which the town stood was suc-
ceeded by marshy bottom land as the river wound back in
the opposite loop. Here there was treacherous and difficult
going, where the trees stood waist-deep in slime, so that they
had to pick their way from root to root, and where the mos-
quitoes ceased to be a pest to become a plague that made life
almost unbearable. Clouds of mosquitoes followed them
closely as they floundered through the marsh, and leeches
clung to them and sucked their blood — they early found
that if they tore the horrid things off without letting them
drink their fill the jaws remained in the flesh to cause a sore
that was hard to heal. Their bare feet, horny though they
were, were bruised and cut by the unseen roots in the mud,
the sky still dripped upon them, and there was more than
one night when it was impossible to light a fire in the gen-
eral wetness.

It was at a despairing moment in this misery that Loa
decided upon leaving the river. Child of the sky, the river
was betraying them, was taking advantage of a too close
association. Loa turned his back on the water and led his

[ 2CX) ]



family directly away from it, intending vaguely to attempt
to use it as a guide without keeping close to it, hard though
that would be in the forest. It was thus he learned to keep
to the higher ground above the river and cut across the
necks of the loops, avoiding the bottoms altogether and sav-
ing an enormous amount of distance. It was an almost auto-
matic process. They left the marshes to find themselves on
firm ascending ground; turned to the right to keep parallel
with the river, and shortly afterwards discovered that they
were on the bluff at the head of the next loop, with two
long reaches of the river stretching away before them, with
sky and river their friends and allies again instead of their
irritating enemies.

"That is the way we shall go," said Loa, pointing along
the line of the bluff.

He had learned the lesson of the nature of the river, how
it looped round marshes and ran to meet bluffs, and he spoke
with an assurance that drew a respectful glance even from

"It will be good to have easy walking again," said Musini.
"Those marshes were not good for the child."

"The child?" said Loa, off his guard.

The word Musini had used was one that implied a little
baby, and not even as a highly exaggerated endearment
could it be applied to Lanu.

"Yes, the child," said Musini. She bellowed with sudden
laughter. "Ho! Ho! Ho! Lord, can you lie with a woman
all these nights and not expect a child?"

Musini meant the question as pure rhetoric, but it came

[ 201 ]


very close to the truth. Loa had become a father so often,
and with such small after-consequences to himself, and he
had had so many other matters to occupy his mind of late,
that the possibility had not crossed his mind. Moreover,
Musini was an old woman — here was Lanu whose existence
proved that — and it was a shock to realize that she was
still fruitful. Loa was a little nettled at this revelation of his
lack of forethought; he was nettled, too, at Musini's jocular
treatment of it and at the way Lanu joined in her laughter.
It all stressed the fact which had been brought home to him
on other occasions: that he might be a god, he might at least
have superhuman powers and qualities, but he could not
obtain from those close to him the respect those powers and
qualities should ensure for him. It was faintly irritating,
especially coming right on the heels of such an important
discovery as the practicability of cutting across the necks
of the loops of the river. He strode off in something of a
huff, only slightly mollified later when Lanu and Musini
both brought him mouthfuls of food which they had found
for themselves.

Keeping to the high ground close above the river they
made considerable progress for some days. There were many
things Loa did not realize about this journey of theirs. He
knew that they had wasted a great many days by keeping
close to the water's edge, but it never dawned upon him that
they were within a great arc of the river, along the chord of
which he had been conducted by the slavers, so that even
allowing for the new saving by cutting off the loops his re-
turn journey was at least twice as long as the outward one

[ 202 ]


had been. Moreover, so slowly did they move, thanks to the
need for precaution and the need for finding their food,
that each day's march was far smaller than he had made on
the average when driven by the slavers. Taking all factors
into consideration Loa, if ever he were to reach home, would
undoubtedly spend twenty days on the return journey for
every day that he had spent going out.

There was a further and special reason for the slavers to
travel by the chord and not by the arc, leaving untouched
the few towns along the riverbank in the curve; Loa never
made the correct deduction, although the facts were made
plain to him. The great curve of the river lies on one of the
upper plateaus of Central Africa; the upper and lower ends
of the curve are marked by cataracts and waterfalls; Loa
never saw anything of the upper falls, but they were now to
reach the lower ones. The tangled forest rose slowly into a
low barrier of hills, right across the path of the river, which
broke through them here; Loa and the others, close above
the water, passed through the same gap without climbing
the hills. They knew that the bluffs were growing steeper,
and that the loops were not so marked as the river straight-
ened itself, but they were not prepared for what they saw
when they came to the lip of the gorge. They had heard,
even in the forest, the louder noise the river was making;
now they could see why. The river was far narrower, con-
fined between steep banks, and it was angry at the restric-
tions imposed upon it. It was running with furious speed,
roaring with rage. The rocks that impeded its passage were
smothered in foam. The swirls upon its surface were not

[ 203 ]


the subtle sleek things that they had been accustomed to see
higher up; here they were frantic violent struggles, convul-
sions like those of the old woman when Loa had his hands
on her throat. Anyone could see that the cliffs were trying
to strangle the river; and the noise of the cataract was tre-

"The river fights with the forest," said Musini at Loa's
side, looking down at the deafening turbulence. Matter-of-
fact person though Musini was, she nevertheless had an apt
word on occasions.

They were destined to see a good deal of the cataract over
its twenty miles of length, for its gorge deepened and the
cliffs shutting it in grew steeper, compelling them to pick
their precarious way at the very brink of the water, where
the rocky surface practically prohibited the growth of vege-
tation, although the cliffs that rose above them bore trees
in every ledge, and elsewhere were covered with brilliant
lichens and mosses. Shut in between the cliffs, Loa was not

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 13 15 16 17 18 19 20

Online LibraryC. S. (Cecil Scott) ForesterThe sky and the forest → online text (page 13 of 20)