C. S. (Cecil Scott) Forester.

The sky and the forest online

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wielded by Loa, who never went out on a raid, but who
lived in mysterious state in his own town, sometimes weav-
ing plans, but always, according to the frightened reports
of both his friends and his enemies, weaving spells that
brought him inevitable victory. In twenty years Loa had
spread his rule over a wide circle of the forest, so that his
boundaries came into touch on the one side with the waning
Arab dominion extending from the Great Lakes, and on
the other with the new power from Europe which was
slowly extending from the sea.

[ 268 ]


The battle for the mastery of Central Africa had already
been fought, and the Arabs had been defeated by the Euro-
peans, before the European tide began to flow finally to-
wards Loa's kingdom. Loa knew of the European victory;
he knew of the advancing European tide. He knew about
the rifles, and about the devil-driven canoes, ten times the
size of the biggest war canoe, which could make their way
up the river by reason of the fire in their bellies. He had no
superstitious fear of these things. He had been a god him-
self, and he was a god of a different kind now. The rifles
were merely an improvement on the firearms he had seen
in Arab hands — in his own hands, for that matter, for
one or two of his campaigns had resulted in the capture of
smooth bore muskets whose locks had ceased to function
even before their ammunition had been spoiled. Similarly
the devil-driven canoes were merely an unexplained im-
provement on the dugout. Loa had no superstitious fear of
them, but he feared them, all the same. He thought the in-
vaders from down the rivers would conquer him when the
clash came. But Loa was a very old man now, well into his
fifties, and loath to accommodate himself to changed cir-
cumstances. By yielding to the advancing power he might
be able to make terms; he knew vaguely of other chiefs who
(some of them out of fear of him) had submitted to the
new power, and who had been allowed to continue to live,
as tax gatherers and chief executioners, but Loa did not
want to live on those terms even if they should be granted
him. He did not want to live on those terms.

[ 269 ]



Captain Victor Augustus Talbot of the Army of the
Independent State of the Congo sat sweltering outside his
tent beside the river. Today the weather seemed hotter and
steamier than he had ever known it, and fever had brought
him down to a state of the lowest depression of mind. Fever-
ish images came unsummoned into existence in his mind's
eye. He thought of iced claret cup, deliciously cold, with
sections of lemons and oranges floating in the great silver
bowl of it, with an attentive mess-steward standing by it
ladle in hand eager to dip out any quantity demanded.
There would be cold food, too, salmon and cucumber —
he would never taste Wye salmon again — and chicken in
aspic and lobster with mayonnaise. Talbot found himself
smacking his sore lips at the thought of it. Instead of sitting
outside a sweltering shelter tent that a big dog could hardly
crawl into, he would be in the cool and shady marquee at
the edge of the cricket ground. Discreetly in the back-
ground there would be the regimental band playing senti-
mental airs, not loud enough to drown the pleasant sound
of ball against bat, and the languidly appreciative cries

[ 270 ]


of "Well hit, sir!" His friends, straw-hatted and striped-
blazered and white-flanneled, would lounge through the big
marquee with the unhurried elegance of English gentlemen,
trained to exhibit no emotion, unobtrusive and yet with
shoulders drilled straight in the finest regiment in the Eng-
lish Army, congratulating each other on the fine weather
for the cricket festival and perhaps even venturing a mild
protest against the July heat — the heat, by God! Talbot
shifted in the pool of sweat which had accumulated in his
camp chair and swore filthily. He thought of the claret cup
again, and of the muddy warm river water which was all he
had to drink, of the salmon and cucumber in the past and
of the few tins of beef — the contents quite liquid when
taken out — which alone stood between him and a pure Af-
rican diet.

He was not a very robust figure, and his face narrowed
down from above to a pointed chin under the straggling
fair beard. There were the remains of a weak good nature in
his features — the good nature which had led him, more
sinned against than sinning, into one of the historic scandals
of the Victorian Age, resulting in his resignation of his
commission in the Green Jackets. His family had turned
against him, his allowance had abruptly terminated, and he
had been faced, unexpectedly and for the first time in his
life, with the necessity of earning money enough to keep
himself from actual starvation. So he had accepted a com-
mission in the Army of the Independent State of the Congo.
King Leopold of the Belgians was his master, and in the
service of King Leopold men of weak good nature ei-

[ 271 ]


ther died or changed their natures, and Talbot still lived.

The subtlest and most avaricious of all the public figures
of Europe, Leopold, having contrived to obtain a mandate
from the civilized world giving him Central Africa as his
personal possession, was now proceeding to reap dividends
from it. It had been a risky speculation — as any specula-
tion must be which brings in profits of thousands of mil-
lions to a single individual — and for a brief while even
Leopold, with his vast personal fortune and extensive credit,
had been near to bankruptcy. The war with the Arabs, the
building up of an army and an administration, had cost
enormous sums. But now was the time of harvest. King Leo-
pold's servants were flooding into Central Africa, Europeans
with a hard taskmaster urging them on. They armed the
native soldiers with Europvean weapons, and gave them some
semblance of European discipline, so that opposition to their
advance was hopeless. Each new district conquered pro-
vided from the accumulation of ages an immediate supply
of ivory and gold, and as soon as the looting was completed
the inhabitants could be put to labor. Every district could
be assessed to produce a quota of palm oil or rubber or ivory
for sale for Leopold's benefit, and if that quota was not
forthcoming Leopold was peevish, and wrote peevishly to
his representatives, who in turn passed on his censures to
their subordinates.

There could be no excuse for not producing the quota,
for the men in local control had in their hands an instru-
ment admirably adapted for the production of palm oil and
rubber and ivory — an instrument whose usefulness they

[ 272 ]


Kad learned from the Arabs: the hippopotamus-hide whip,
the kurbash; in Belgian-French slang, the chicotte. And to
facilitate the application of the chicotte, and to open up
fresh fields for its employment, there was the Army. That
portion of the Army commanded by Captain Victor Au-
gustus Talbot was engaged at this moment in a campaign
to open up a fresh field. Someone in the Brussels office —
perhaps King Leopold himself — had noticed on the map a
large area not yet conquered, and had sent the peremptory
orders which had put the Army on the march, with Loa's
town as the objective.

Sergeant Fleuron, the product of a Brussels slum, came
up to report to his captain.

"Well?" asked Talbot.

"Perhaps they believe what they have been telling me,"
said Fleuron, "I do not."

"You interrogated each prisoner separately?"

"I did," said the sergeant.

In his hand there idly swung the hippopotamus-hide
whip which he had employed in his search for truth.

"What did they say?"

"Mostly lies, as usual. Some of the lies we had heard be-

"For example?"

Fleuron shrugged his shoulders before recounting the re-
sult of his investigations.

"There is a great king over there," he said. "Some say his
name is Loa and some say it is Lanu. Maybe Xoa' is their
word for *king.' Or maybe Lanu is the king and Loa is the

[ 273 ]


name of his god. Loa lives in a great town near the great
river. In the middle of the town he has a sacred grove. Too
sacred to speak about without persuasion."

"Crucifixion trees, and skulls nailed to branches," said
Talbot, out of his experience of sacred African groves.

"And ivory perhaps. Perhaps even gold," said Fleuron.

"Let's hope so," agreed Talbot. "What else did they say?"

"Loa has a mighty army."

"How many men?"

Fleuron shrugged again.

"These men never know. Fifty or five hundred — it is
all the same to them. Sometimes Lanu leads this army, and
sometimes — "

"Sometimes — ?"

Fleuron went on with what he was saying with consider-
able reluctance.

"Sometimes they are led by two great warriors, brothers
born at the same time."


"It sounds like nonsense, Captain, but all these fellows
say the same thing even after tasting the chicotte"

"But they cannot mean twins."

"It's twins that they mean. Captain, without a doubt.
They use the very word for twins. It's strange to hear them.
It's a surprise when they come out with it without any
shame. As much a surprise as if a nun were to use a dirty

"And who are these twins?" demanded Talbot.

"They are sons of Loa, or sons of Lanu — who can know

[ 274 ]


where the truth lies when they say such things? But they
are so aHke that no one can tell one from the other."

"I never know how these niggers tell each other apart
anyway," said Talbot. "They all look alike to me."

Sergeant Fleuron had other views. He had the keen wits
of the intelligent slum dweller, and in three years he had
learned much about Central Africa, including so many
languages that he was able to interpret almost any local
dialect. Africans to him were distinct individuals, which
made the application of the chtcotte a much more interest-
ing exercise. But he had far too much sense to contradict
his captain, so he went on with his report.

"They seem to worship this Loa in a quite devoted man-
ner," he said. "The tales they tell! It seems that a long time
ago — you can never be sure which century they are re-
ferring to — Loa went away. To heaven, maybe. When he
came back he brought these twins with him, and he started
working miracles. Apparently it was then that he con-
quered the country roundabout. He made men travel on
the water — from the way they talk, one would think he
had invented canoes."

"We've heard about his canoes before," said Talbot.

"Yes, Captain. He seems to have a navy, a genuine navy.
He rules all this length of river, from these cataracts here
to the falls above. A hundred miles of it, perhaps, and as far
inland on each bank as his armies can reach. Fifty miles
deep on each side, perhaps."

"A regular potentate," said Talbot. "I fancy we have
enough rifles to deal with him."

[ 275 ]


"Without a doubt, Captain. And there is much water
coming down the river at present."

"You mean?" asked the Captain.

"Now is the time to get the steamboat up the cataract."

"Now if ever," agreed Talbot.

He resented having to rouse himself to action. Getting
the steamboat up the cataract would be a laborious and
ticklish operation. Yet the approaching campaign would
be much facilitated by command of the river; and there
had been a good deal of sting in the last batch of orders
from the Baron. He would have to act soon — he would
have to act immediately. If he found excuses Sergeant Fleu-
ron might make a secret report on him. He groaned as he
shifted in his chair.

"Are the prisoners still alive?" he asked.

"Yes, Captain. And they will live. I can put them to
work. But I thought — "

"What did you think?"

"I thought we could use their ears. For our next report
for the Baron. They would be useful."

"Oh, do as you like about that. Why ask Tne?''

Fighting a war of conquest for a miserly old blackguard
in Brussels led to some curious complications. Any ordinary
government in wartime never stopped to count the cost, but
Leopold never stopped counting it. Every cartridge that was
used meant several centimes out of his pocket, and he in-
sisted on proof that as high a proportion of cartridges as
possible had been expended to good purpose. He was so de-
termined about it that his subordinates locally had to insist

[ 276 ]


too. The Baron to whom Talbot reported used to ask for
ears, and wrote irritating reprimands when the number of
right ears sent in was less than half the number of cartridges
expended. The prisoners Fleuron had been examining would
each provide a right ear without the expenditure of a single
cartridge, and even after that would still be available for
the labor of collecting rubber.

"I'll attend to it. Captain," said Fleuron.

Talbot groaned again as he hoisted his wasted and dis-
ease-racked body out of his camp chair.

"I'll come down and look at that damned cataract," he

So the next operation of that portion of the Army of the
Independent State of the Congo under Talbot's command
was the warping of the stern-wheeler Lady Stanley and her
subsidiary barges up the cataract. The racing currents there
were far too strong for the Lady Stanley* s feeble engines —
her boiler had had to be carried on men's backs through
the forest round the lower falls, so that it could not boast
much thickness of metal — but ingenuity and patience and
the labor of a thousand men took her up in time. There
were back eddies against the banks which sometimes gave
them as much as a hundred yards of ascent at a time. At
other times a cable had to be carried out ashore and attached
to a stout tree. Then the Lady Stanley would wind herself
up towards it — aided by five hundred men at the tow
ropes — and drop an anchor to help hold her while another
cable was carried up to another tree higher up. It was not
an inexpensive operation, for the Army was always stepping

[ 277 ]


into potholes in the river bottom and being swept away, or
breaking legs and arms in wrestling with the cables — forty
men were drowned when one of the cables parted against a
sharp rock — and there was always disease to carry off the

A thousand men, Talbot disposed of, of all shades of
black and brown; men with teeth filed to needlepoints,
men with shields of plaited reed, men with shields of hip-
popotamus hide, men armed with spears, with clubs, with
bows, with axes — and two hundred men armed with
Remington rifles for whom the Lady Stanley carried two
hundred cartridges per man. The Baron would want to see
twenty thousand right ears by the time those cartridges
were all used up! (He had not yet laid down any anatomical
equivalent for the six-pounder shells for the gun which
was mounted on the Lady Stanley's strengthened bow.) A
thousand men were under Talbot's command, with a white
sergeant and eight white corporals — his two lieutenants
had died of fever — and a couple of drunken white engi-
neers to attend to the boiler of the Lady Stanley. One of
them was a white-haired old reprobate who — according
to his own account — had shipped with Semmes in the Ala-
bama and had gone down with her when the Kearsarge sank
her oflF Cherbourg. Neither engineer ever paid any particu-
lar attention to Talbot's orders. They both knew their own
value too well, and the chicotte and the hangman's rope
which maintained a savage discipline among the colored
troops were not for them.

Talbot stood beside the cataract, watching a working

[ 278 ]


party bringing up the lower warp for attachment to the
tree by which he stood. They had to wade in the shallows
with their burden, slipping and stumbling, but doing their
best to keep their footing, not merely in fear of their lives
but in fear of the whip in the hand of the white corporal
wading beside them. Talbot could trust nobody beside him-
self to supervise the actual fastening of the cable to the tree
— experience had taught him a good deal to supplement the
sketchy knowledge acquired during his instruction in field
engineering at Sandhurst. He stood moodily looking on as
the working party splashed towards him; there were the
two barges to be dragged up the cataract after the Lady
Stanley had made the ascent, and time was passing and
losses were mounting.

From the forest some way lower down on his side of the
river came the distant report of a rifle, flattened and dis-
torted in its journey to his ear through the heated air be-
tween the trees. Talbot scowled; one of Fleuron's sentries,
half asleep, must have pulled the trigger, wasting a car-
tridge without an ear to show for it. Well, whoever it was
had an ear, anyway. But he had hardly thought this all out
when there were further reports, a regular fusilade, cli-
maxed by the rapid fire of a revolver. Fleuron was the only
person in that direction armed with a revolver. The natives
must be attacking there, and fiercely, too, for Fleuron to
be personally engaged. Talbot's own guard sprang into at-
titudes of attention, their fingers on their triggers, chatter-
ing to each other and peering into the twilight of the forest
towards where their sentries were posted. But Talbot stood

[ 279 ]


fast where he was — Fleuron would have to fight it out or
fall unassisted; Talbot had had too much experience of for-
est warfare to attempt to hurry to his relief in a rash move-
ment through the forest, which might well lead into an
ambush. The working party came hastily up with the warp,
glad to be under the protection of Talbot's riflemen, and
would have joined in the chatter if Talbot's harsh orders to
the corporal had not put them to work carrying the cable
round the tree while Talbot saw to the knotting of it.

The firing down the river died away with startling sud-
denness; everything was quiet. Talbot glanced down to the
Lady Stanley lying to the lower warp and her anchor, the
current foaming round her bow as though she was tearing
along although she was stationary. Everything was ready
for the next move provided the fighting had ceased, so he
picked up the white signal flag and stepped to the water's
edge and waved it. He saw the French engineer wave a red
flag in reply from the Lady Stanley's deck. Then down the
river a black crowd of men emerged from the trees at the
water's edge and split into two, each half taking one of
the two man-power ropes and moving up the stream to take
the strain on them. A white man directed their movements,
and by his helmet and his fragments of uniform Talbot rec-
ognized Fleuron, who had evidently survived the attack,
whatever it was.

When the man-power ropes were taut and the men
braced ready a white flag fluttered beside Fleuron, and Mas-
son answered it with a white flag. Talbot saw him step to
the steam capstan. The warp by which Talbot stood began

[ 280 ]


to tighten, rising out of the river in an ever-flattening arc
from which the water spouted in fountains, while the coils
round the tree groaned and creaked. There was always des-
perate anxiety in Talbot's mind at this moment in case the
warp should part. But the men at the ropes hauled away
lustily under the lash of their headmen's whips, and the
Lady Stanley slowly crawled up against the current. She
picked up her anchor as she came up to it, crept on, with
Masson at the wheel battling to keep her bows pointing out-
wards against the tug of the warp. She had made a full
hundred yards' gain before she was so nearly up to Talbot's
tree that it was useless to haul farther on the warp. Her
whistle sounded as Masson pulled the lanyard, and the men
at the ropes lay back against the strain as he dropped the
anchor, necessarily wasting a few precious yards as he al-
lowed the boat to drift back a trifle so that the anchor
could bite and divide the strain with the warp. Then, and
only then, did Masson wave his white flag again as a signal
for those in charge of the lower warp to cast off and begin
to carry it up above the one Talbot stood beside, and for
the men who towed to relax their efforts and fall gasping
on the bank.

Here came Fleuron with the sentries and guards who had
been stationed in the forest farthest downstream; now they
were to be sent on ahead to cover the further advance of
the warps — the expedition was like a caterpillar or a meas-
uring-worm, bringing up its tail to its head in readiness for
a fresh move. Fleuron had with him his detachment of rifle-
men and his bearers.

[ 281 ]


"What was that firing, Sergeant?" asked Talbot.

*'They tried to rush in upon us," replied Fleuron. He
made free use of anatomical and zoological expressions to
describe his enemies, so that his Belgian-French would have
been almost unintelligible to anyone who had not long been
associated with him.

"How many of them?"

"A full hundred. Maybe more. It was a well-timed rush
— they came at us all at once and from all points in the
forest. One sentry got a poisoned arrow — he was dead be-
fore I left him. My Hausa headman got a spear in his belly.
He's dead too. Wed have all been dead if the sentries had
not given plenty of warning. The rifles stopped them when
they came out of the trees."

Fleuron waved a hand towards one of his bearers who was
carrying a length of creeper. Upon it were strung, like
pieces of meat on a skewer, a large number of human ears.

"We killed thirty-four of them," said Fleuron. "I got five
of them myself in ^yc shots. Then they turned and ran
back, what was left of them. Oh yes, I brought this . . ."

He turned to another of his bearers, who opened the bag
he was carrying, crudely made from big leaves, and shook
out its contents with a thump on the ground. It was a hu-
man head, the eyes glaring and the mouth grinning.

"This was the leader," explained Fleuron: "the man who
headed the rush. He got a bullet through the heart, luckily,
as soon as he came out from the trees. He was wearing a
spiral iron collar and armlets, so I think he was a chief."

"A young man to be a chief," said Talbot, looking at the
unwrinkled features.

[ 282 ]


"Yes. It occurred to me that he might be one of those
young twins they all talk about, Captain. All the legends
say they are as like as two peas; so I thought I would pickle
this head in salt and see if we ever get the duplicate of it."

"As you will," said Talbot. "It will be an interesting an-
thropological study."

There was bitterness in his tone as he spoke; there was
something fantastically odd about Captain Victor Augustus
Talbot, late of the Green Jackets and once the darling of
London drawing rooms, standing beside a tropical river
callously looking over human heads and ears, even black

"Thank you. Captain," said Fleuron.

At his gesture the head was bundled back into the bag
again, and his scouts began to push cautiously into the for-
est to cover the further advance up the river to the point to
which the lower warp would then be conveyed. Cautiously
indeed they went, their rifles held ready across their breasts,
halting long and peering round the trees for fear of the
death which might come winging at them through the twi-
light. Talbot watched them go on ahead. Now the lower
warp was being unfastened and carried up the river by a
corporal's working party splashing through the shallows.
He would accompany it in its further journey to the next
suitable tree for its attachment. He was about to give the
word to his party when a shadow passed before his eyes and
something struck the tree beside him with a sharp rap. He
looked, and there, lying at the foot of the tree, was a long
arrow, feathered with a couple of leaves. The long slender
head of the arrow had broken against the tree and lay in

[ 283 ]


pieces beside the shaft, but Talbot could see the barbs that
had edged the head, and in the notches of the barbs the
thick greenish-brown poison. The arrow, bearing death
with it, had passed within two inches of his face. He
wheeled to face the forest, his revolver in his hand, but there
was nothing to be seen among the trees, nothing save the
backs of his sentries stationed out there with their rifles to
guard against attacks of this very sort. A fine watch they
were keeping! Talbot's lips wrinkled into a feeble snarl.
Whoever it was who had sped the arrow had ignored those

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