C. S. (Cecil Scott) Forester.

The sky and the forest online

. (page 15 of 20)
Online LibraryC. S. (Cecil Scott) ForesterThe sky and the forest → online text (page 15 of 20)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

from him, so that he was exposed on the surface of the
water to all the glare of the sky above him and on all sides.
He felt as insignificant as any insect as he sat frozen with
fear, mocked by the gurgling of the water around Lanu's
paddle. Certainly the water was jeering at him, if not
threatening him. His eyes could hardly focus on the farther
shore, where Musini squatted in the shade awaiting him —

[ 219 ]


he could only see her at intervals, when the swings of the
canoe brought her directly before him, for he could not
even turn his eyeballs to keep her continuously in sight.

But they drew up to her in the end, and she rose to greet

"First give me the ax," she said.

Loa handed it up to her, and then tried to stand to dis-
embark. The rocking of the canoe threw him into an active
panic. He was about to plunge for the shore, careless of the
results to the canoe and to Lanu, but, to his credit, he re-
strained himself, sitting down and allowing the canoe to re-
gain its stability while Lanu sighed with relief. Then he rose
more calmly, clutched the roots in the bank, and cautiously
heaved himself out. Lanu did not follow him; he sat on in
the canoe, grasping the paddle with one hand and a root
with the other.

"Father," said Lanu, "cannot we keep this canoe?"

^*^Keep it?" exclaimed Loa, utterly astonished.

"Yes," said Lanu.

It was a new toy to him. He had mastered his fears, and
it had been a delightful and exciting experience to learn to
control the canoe on the alien water. He had the feeling that
he wanted to paddle canoes all the rest of his life.

"We cannot do that!" said Loa, uttering the first words
that came into his head.

"Oh," said Lanu.

It could hardly be said that he was disappointed. It was
something more than life could really offer, to own a canoe.
Gone almost beyond memory were the days when he was a

[ 220 ]


privileged little boy who sometimes wore a leopardskin
cloak, and who had a real steel ax such as marked him out
far above his playmates. But as the vision receded facts came
into his mind to support his despairing plea.

"We might get more fish," he said. "You like fish. You
could walk along the bank while I paddled down the river.
There might be other rivers to cross. We might — we might
even cross the big river!"

That was saying far too much, for to Loa the suggestion
was so fantastic as to demand instant rejection.

"No!" he said. "Never! Come out of the boat."

Lanu was near tears, and rebellion stirred within him, not
so much against his father as against fate; Musini saw it and
came to the rescue with a suggestion.

"Perhaps at home," she said, "you will have a canoe.
There we are near the big river, and perhaps Loa will give
you one. You will be able to make it."

It was some mitigation of Lanu's disappointment; it dis-
tracted him from his present desires by setting him thinking
about the future.

"I think I could," he said.

He looked down at the crazy craft that was suddenly so
dear to him, trying to note in his mind how it was con-
structed. A tree trunk had been hollowed out — Lanu saw
how the bow and stern were shaped — and to give more
freeboard a plank had been attached along each gunwale,
sewn to the dugout with fiber, in much the same way as
the houses which he just remembered had been built by Tolo
and Tolo's brothers.

[ 221 ]


**Come, my son," said Loa, more gently.

Now that the initial shock of Lanu's revolutionary sug-
gestion had died away, he could talk more reasonably, espe-
cially as the nervous tension of his first trip in a boat was
dying away too. He held out his hand to Lanu and swung
him up onto the bank, and the masterless canoe drifted
away from the shore.

"I shall keep this," said Lanu, indicating the paddle which
he still retained in his hand — in point of fact he actually
did keep it by him for two whole days in the forest, as a
memento of the canoe.

They turned to enter again into the forest, all of them a
little subdued and silent. Somewhere at the back of Loa's
mind strange thoughts were stirring, awakened by Lanu*s
absurd suggestion about the canoe and by Musini's equally
absurd suggestion about making one. Could it be? Might it
happen? Fish were 'undoubtedly good to eat. Out on the
broad river a man — not Loa, certainly not Loa, but con-
ceivably Lanu — might enjoy a freedom of movement and
an ability to carry baggage that the forest could not offer.
The slave raiders had made use of the river. The most vault-
ing ideas, quite shapeless at the moment, were coming to
life in Loa's brain, such fantastic ideas, in fact, that Loa was
disturbed by them, tried to put them out of his mind in his
distrust of novelty.

Musini brought him back to the world of the matter-of-

"We have these birds to eat," she said — she had fastened

[ 222 ]


to her girdle the birds picked out of the water after the up-
setting of the canoe. "We should eat them soon."

So that same day that he first tasted fish and first went
upon the water Loa had his first taste of duck. It was indeed
a revolutionary day.

[ 223 ]



Their woodcraft had inevitably improved immeasurably
since first they had been compelled to live in the forest.
Once they had been town dwellers, living a definitely urban
life on the produce of a cultivated land, and Loa even more
than the others had been an ignoramus about the practical
details of life among the trees; he had not had Lanu's intense
and recent experience on the fringe of the forest with his
playmates. But months of education in the hardest school of
all had taught them much. They could flit like shadows
through the forest. No mushroom half hidden in leafmold
could escape their keen observation. They could read the
tracks of the little people and detect instantly their buried
skewers and their pitfalls. They were not so continuously
hungry and they could make their way among the trees
without often coming against obstructions, which their
newly developed senses enabled them to avoid without ac-
tual thought. And all this enabled them to travel with far
greater speed than when they had first begun their journey.
They kept the great river on their right hand, cutting off
the bigger loops by keeping to the high ground without any
difficulty at all, and they were only just conscious of their
improvement. If they had been asked, they would certainly

[ 224 ]


have hesitated before agreeing that they had improved —
at the back of their minds was a feeHng that behind them,
at the point where Loa had been rescued from the slavers,
was a bad country where Hfe was very difficult, and that
here life was easier.

The river made a wide, shallower curve than usual, but
in the curve the land was marshy as always, and Loa
branched away from the river without hesitation. There
was something almost resembling a track here, a path trod-
den by the forest antelope and by the little people along the
easiest going, and Loa led the way along it, silent of tread,
quick of eye, alert and ready for instant action. His eye for
ground, naturally good, and cultivated now to a high con-
dition of efficiency, told him that the river was approaching
him again on his right hand, for the slope was increasing —
imperceptibly to anyone save himself — and the character
of the forest was changing, imperceptibly, again, to almost
anyone save himself. Only the minutest differences told him
this, but he was in no way surprised when the light through
the trees on his right front began to increase, when the up-
hill trend of the ground became more steep, and the leaf-
mold under his feet grew thinner so that he could feel rock
beneath it. At the crest the rock broke clean through the
surface into a succession of low pinnacles, and Loa came out
from the trees into an open space at the lip of the bluflF, with
the great river beneath him.

He had been ready for something like this, but not ex-
actly this. He shrank down, he almost cowered before what
he saw, yet it was not his usual weakness in the presence of

[ 225 ]


great distances. When Lanu and Musini came up to him he
could not speak; he moved his Hps but could make no
sound, so overpowering was his emotion. Lanu looked round
him, at the rocks, at the curve of the river, at the trees
growing densely about them, projecting horizontally from
the steep bank in their quest for light and air. He rubbed
his eyes like someone in a dream.

"I have seen this before," he said, and Loa nodded, his
chest heaving.

Musini had sat down on a lichen-covered block of rock,
for her pregnancy was now so far advanced as to make her
seize every opportunity to rest. She looked round her too.

"It is our river," she said. "This is where we used to come
from our town."

"It is where you used to speak to the moon," said Lanu to
Loa, and stopped a little guiltily. They all knew that Loa
had not summoned his sister the moon out of the river for
months and months now, and yet she still came back to the
sky after each absence.

"So it is," said Loa, hoarsely.

"Through there lies the way home. Only a little way,"
said Musini, pointing through the forest.

"Yes indeed," agreed Lanu excitedly.

He seized a lump of rock in both hands, whirled it round,
and flung it out into the stream, where it raised a splash.
That was what he used to do when he was brought here in
that other life, but now it was a far larger rock that he
threw. He was almost a man now.

"Let us go," he said. "What are we waiting for?"

[ 226 ]


Loa looked round at the two of them. They had not had
his experience. They had never known what it was to be a
god one day and a slave the next. This was a moment of
triumph, to return after all these uncounted months to a
familiar place, but Loa had learned to distrust moments of
triumph. He felt apprehensive; he did not know exactly
why. But his apprehensions goaded him to a convulsive
mental effort, as he made himself try to picture what he ex-
pected to find if he went home along the forest path. The
first feeling was that he would find it as he had always seen
it, always save for the one morning when the slave raiders
came. The orderly street with the tall wooden houses on
each side, the throngs of women going about their domestic
business, even Litti the worker in iron busy at his forge.
That was the mental picture that memory conjured up; and
he knew, with strange clairvoyance, that Musini and Lanu
could see similar mirages. But Loa was a realist now, and no
dreamer. The last time he had seen the town the houses had
been in flames, a third of the people were captives of the
slave raiders, children and old men and women had been
lying in a tangled mass of corpses. Loa remembered that
once at least during his recent travels he had set foot on the
site of a town, a mere area in the forest where the saplings
contended with the shrubs and only a few half -choked
banana trees remained as evidence that man had once culti-
vated the spot. Certainly this was all that they might find

And on the other hand . . . ? Loa remembered the en-
counters he had had with people from his town while he was

[ 227 ]


a slave. They had hardly known him, and they had not
treated him as a god. So preoccupied were they with their
own affairs that they had not evinced any of the respect or
the terror which his appearance had once demanded. If
there were any people in the town they would have been
preoccupied with their affairs for many months. How
would they treat him? For a moment Loa felt that he did
not care. He would not mind being the least considerable of
all the men in the town if only he were home again. He
would content himself with no other wife than Musini, he
would reconcile himself to begging help of other men to
build a house, and Lanu would have to work hard to buy
himself a wife; he would endure anything just to be home.
His homesickness was intense enough at that moment to
make any sacrifice agreeable if he could satisfy it.

This was all very well, but Loa, standing woodenly with
his wife and son growing more and more excited in front
of him, felt yet other doubts and apprehensions. He could
not define them at all, but his recent experiences taught him
to be doubtful, to take nothing for granted. Fear had been
part of the air he breathed for many months now, and he
still felt fear. His whole attitude was in the strangest con-
trast not only with that of Lanu and Musini but also with
his own of a few moments ago. His recent life had been
a partial education for him. He had acquired a certain
amount of logical ability, he had learned something of hu-
man nature, and, above all, he knew now that he did not
live in a settled world where the unprecedented did not hap-
pen. He slid his hand up his bowstave, bent it, and slipped

[ 228 ]


the string into the notch, and then gently twanged the
string to make certain the weapon was ready for immediate
action. He examined his three arrows to see that the heads
were properly secured and that the notches of the barbs still
retained their viscid poison. With his bow over his left shoul-
der he put out his right hand and gently took the little ax
from Lanu, who happened to be carrying it at that moment.

The others looked at him in some surprise, their ebullience
dying away when they noticed the gravity of his demeanor.

"Lord," said Musini, slipping naturally into the respect-
ful form of address. "What do you fear?"

Loa the god could not say "I do not know," which would
have been the truth, nor could he say "Everything," which
would have been a close approximation to the truth. He
could only turn a terrible eye on his wife, a cold glare that
repressed even Musini and reduced her to apologetic mum-
blings. Lanu caught the infection and strung his bow with-
out further words, waiting for Loa to make the next move.
Loa looked back across the broad river, sullen yet metallic
under the sun. He even looked up at his brother the sky;
he lingered unaccountably as he spun out these last few mo-
ments before starting out on what he felt in his bones to be
a decisive move which would aflfect the rest of his life —
affect it to the extent, even, of ending it abruptly, maybe.
It was strange to be seeking excuses for lingering here un-
der the callous observation of the sky, when almost at a
stride he could gain the comforting twilight of the forest;
but he could not put off the move for long, not under the
eyes of Lanu and Musini, nor under his own eyes. He

[ 229 ]


hitched his bow more comfortably on his shoulder, took a
fresh grip of the little ax, and started along the path to the

Lanu and Musini walked with him in silence, the former
out at one side of him, the latter in the rear, weighed down
somewhat by the burden she was carrying. Lanu scanned
the forest ahead of them as keenly as ever he had. In the
neighborhood of a town there was always added danger
from the little people, who were likely to hang round it
both to rob the banana and manioc plantations and to put
themselves in the way of obtaining live meat. Chips had
been taken out of the bark of several trees which they
passed; a gesture from Lanu called Loa's attention to chips
of different heights and appearance — both the little peo-
ple and real men had passed this way within the last few
weeks, to judge by the fact that lichens had hardly had time
to establish themselves on the cut surfaces. And Lanu
pointed, too, to footprints at the base of trees, which, to
judge by his expression, confirmed that conclusion. Loa
glanced at them wisely, but he was not woodsman enough
to draw from the faint indications that survived any in-
ferences on which he could rely.

There was something, however, which offered unmis-
takable proof that men were living near. They could smell
the town as they approached it, the wood smoke and the
decaying refuse; only the merest trace stealing on the air,
imperceptible to any but nostrils long accustomed to the
scent of river and forest. It even seemed that their ears could
catch the faint sounds of a community; at any rate, what

[ 230 ]


Lanu thought he heard worked him up to a fresh pitch of
excitement so that he grinned and gesticulated to his father,
who stoHdly ignored him. This was the path Loa had trod-
den scores of times; the changes in the forest, eternal yet
everchanging, could not prevent Loa from recognizing
parts of it. Here, just where he had expected it, began the
tangled second growth of the abandoned clearings, and at
this point, even to a tyro's eye, it was obvious that the path
entered into the tangle. Loa plunged in ahead with the ax.

It was the time when the struggle for existence in the
vegetable world in that clearing had reached its climax,
when the saplings were stoutly grown and yet not large
enough to kill by their shade the undergrowth which had
first occupied the cleared space. The saplings grew thick, in
desperate rivalry with each other, while all about them the
shrubs and creepers competed with each other in a waist-
deep tangle. Nor had the felled trees yet been reabsorbed
into the forest; there were still trunks and branches sufiS-
ciently solid to halt a man, although one lichen-covered
trunk onto which Loa climbed crumbled utterly to pieces
under his feet — honeycombed to rottenness by white ants,
presumably. Sweating with the exertion and the close heat,
Loa plunged on; the path could not be called defined in any
sense, for there had not been enough coming and going of
men or of game to make any impression on the rapid growth
of the vegetation. Then he parted the last bush, and gazed
out at the town.

It was all so different. There was a street, and there were

[ 231 ]


houses, and the houses were built, as they always had been,
of thick planks split by wedges from tree trunks, and
roofed with a thatch of phrynia leaves. But it was not the
same street, not the street that had so often appeared to
Loa's mental vision in his fits of homesickness. The houses
were on different sites, and there were not so many of them.
At this end of the town, where Loa had lived, the forest had
begun to encroach. Loa's own house, and Musini*s house,
and the big multiple-house which had sheltered some of his
wives, had all disappeared, their places partly taken by a
few poor houses and partly by a mass of scrub and creeper
which had already established itself on the vacant sites. Not
merely was the town smaller, but its center of gravity had
apparently shifted towards the other end, towards the
marshy brook and Litti's forge. Loa gulped as he gazed out,
partly with excitement but mainly in a childlike disap-
pointment that everything was not the same as he remem-
bered it — even though at one time he had been realist
enough to remember the conflagration that had started in
the town when he was a captive of the slave raiders. But it
might as well be a different town, and not his home at all.
Lanu had come up beside him and was staring out at the
town too, and the changes that he noticed were having a
sobering eflfect on him, judging by his silence and immobil-
ity. There were people walking about the town, and it was
upon them that Loa turned his attention after his first
sweeping glance. Here was a woman with a hand of bananas
on her head. Loa was not sure that he remembered her;
maybe it was some daughter of Gooma, the man who was so

[ 232 ]


expert at cutting the hardwood wedges for plank splitting
— Gooma had a string of daughters. Over there a man with
a bow in his hand came striding out of a house, and Loa
knew him at once. It was Ura, Nessi's husband — it was
just as well Nessi was dead then, for living she would have
been a tedious complication in any future settlement. Ura
must have made his escape when the raiders attacked the
town, as must all of these people. A woman emerged from
the same house with a little child whom she laid in the shade
of the eaves. That was Nadini, and she had been one of Loa's
own wives — he remembered her quite distinctly. So she
was Ura's wife now. Loa boiled with indignation. He was
not sure about how long he had been away, but judging by
Musini's condition that child was not his; it must be Ura's.
Loa came to some rapid but grim decisions regarding Ura's
fate, and Nadini's, and the child's.

At the end of the town there were a good many people
visible, and all of them were vaguely familiar to Loa. His
memories were all jumbled and distorted now, what with
his present stress of emotion and the intensity of his experi-
ences since he had seen them last. There were some girls,
laughing and joking as they bore wooden water jars on their
heads on their way back from the brook. He could not put
names to them.

"Let us go," he said, aloud but to himself.

He took a fresh grip of his little ax and plunged out into
the open, and Lanu and Musini followed him. Nadini
caught sight of them emerging from the undergrowth; the
naked man, lean and scarred, ax in hand; the almost full-

[ 233 ]


grown boy, and the woman far gone in pregnancy. She
stared at them with unbeHeving eyes. One of the girls saw
them and called the others' attention to them; one of them
was surprised enough to allow her jar to fall from her head.

"It is Loa!'' cried Musini loudly behind him. "Loa, our

She ran from behind him, clumsy because of her bulky
condition, to go before him.

"It is Loa!" she cried again.

She waved her arms at Nadini and the girls, and went
down in the proper attitude of respect, knees and elbows on
the ground, face close to it, setting the example and then
looking round to see if the other women were following it.
They did not. Nadini leaned against the doorway of her
house, her hand to her heart. The girls nudged each other
and giggled in embarrassed fashion. It crossed Loa's mind
that he could stop and remonstrate with them, but some
consuming instinct within him said "Go on!" and he strode
on down the street, forbearing to get involved in some un-
dignified squabble before he should reach whatever vital
situation was awaiting him at the far end. Musini scrambled
to her feet again and once more ran grotesquely in front of
him to herald his approach. On went Loa to the far end of
the town, that end where in his day the riff raff, the low-
born, had dwelt with a lack of dignity only relieved by the
presence of one or two respectable families such as that of
Litti the worker in iron. Loa had always had a faint snob-
bish contempt for this end of the town.

There was a fair-sized group of people there which

[ 234 ]


opened up and spread as Musini came up, lumbering and

"It is Loa!" cried Musini, again, once more going down in
the attitude of abasement.

There were some cries of astonishment from the group,
and someone started to his feet from where he had been sit-
ting in the center of it. It was SoH, once a leader of the low-
class society who had frequented this end of the town. Loa
knew him to be Soli, but the first thing Loa was really con-
scious of was the fact that the seat Soli had just quitted was
a tripod, a distorted stool, very like the one he himself had
always sat on to hear the counsels of his advisers and to give
judgment in disputed cases. No one save Loa the son of Nasa
(whose name no one save Loa could utter) might sit on a
tripod stool of that sort. And hanging over Soli's shoulders
was a leopardskin cloak — the garment, if not of gods, at
least of princes. And in Soli's hand was a battle-ax which
Loa instantly recognized as having once been his own
— his own ceremonial ax, presumably discovered amid the
ruins after the departure of the slavers, and now desecrated
by Soli's touch. Loa flamed with uncontrollable rage.

But if Loa was angry, so was Soli. His face was distorted
with passion as he watched Loa approach.

*'Kill him!" shrieked Soli, with a wave of his arm to the
group around him.

"It is our Lord, our Lord Loa," said Musini, raising her
face from the ground.

The group stirred but made no decisive movement, save
for Ura; out of the tail of his eye Loa was conscious that

[ 235 ]


Ura was fumbling with bow and arrow. Loa's instincts came

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 15 17 18 19 20

Online LibraryC. S. (Cecil Scott) ForesterThe sky and the forest → online text (page 15 of 20)