C. S. (Cecil Scott) Forester.

The sky and the forest online

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sentries, and had crept up and singled him out for a target.
The sentries were still ignorant of the danger to which he
had been subjected. There was only the inscrutable forest
before him.

Talbot's headman saw his captain's gestures, saw the
broken arrow lying on the ground, and guessed what had
happened. Vociferously he berated the sentries for their
negligence, and under his urgings some more of Talbot's
escort advanced a little way into the forest in search of the
assassin, but in a few moments Talbot himself called them
off. It was only a waste of time to seek a single enemy among
the trees. Once let him get the Lady Stanley and the barges
up this infernal cataract and he would be able to deal ade-
quately with these devils. He would make them pay for the
misery and danger he was enduring.

[ 284 ]



The Lady Stanley had completed the ascent of the cataract,
and now she lay at anchor in the midst of the wide river.
Beside her lay one of the two barges, hauled up the cataract
by the aid of the Lady Stanley's steam capstan and by the
eflforts of five hundred men at the ropes. It only remained
to haul up the second barge, and Talbot would be master of
all the reach of river between the cataract and the upper
fall. Five hundred men with their equipment and food
could be packed into those barges and transported about the
river faster than any man could walk in the open — far
faster than any large body could move through the forest
— while the six-pounder cannon at the Lady Stanley's bows
would show her enemies something they knew nothing of
as yet. Masson and Carver, the French-speaking and Eng-
lish-speaking engineers, were relaxing after their labors
with the aid of some bottles of trade gin on board the Lady
Stanley, while the sun plunged down into the forest, light-
ing the broad steamy surface of the river a sullen red. Tal-
bot was on board as well, having had himself paddled out to
her in a canoe, but he had not yet begun upon the gin. He
was leaving that until after sunset; tonight he would drink
himself into a stupor, maybe, but first he would enjoy the

[ 285 ]


amenities of the steamboat. On the wide river here there
would be a breath of air, different from the stifling atmos-
phere of the forest. There would be no ants to creep into
his clothes. He could have a properly adjusted mosquito net
under which he could lie naked and enjoy a more comfort-
able night — in fact he might not even avail himself of the
gin at all, for Talbot was of that self-centered type to
whom alcohol often makes no appeal. A night amid quiet
and comfortable surroundings meant more to him than a
debauch, and out here in the middle of the river there was
no chance of assassination.

He would get the second barge up the cataract tomorrow,
and move direct upon this town of Loa's, or Lanu's, or
whatever the name of the chief might be. They would stand
and fight for their capital and their sacred grove, and he
could crush them then — there would be no need to pursue
them through the forest trying to bring an elusive enemy to
action, losing men all the time through ambushes and booby
traps and disease, only to find in the end that shortage of
supplies would necessitate a retreat without a victory. Tal-
bot in two years of continuous active service had learned
much about forest warfare.

The sun had reached the forest, and black night was close
at hand. Talbot walked forward and spoke to the two Coast
Negroes who supplied the anchor watch. It was their easy
duty to stay awake during the night and keep a lookout in
case the Lady Stanley should drag her anchor, or in case the
current should bring some floating tree down across her
cable, or a prowler should come alongside in a canoe deter-

[ 286 ]


mined upon theft. He warned them to keep a good lookout.
In the barge alongside, half a dozen men were caterwauling
their native songs, as was their habit when not kept busy;
Talbot leaned over the side and sharply told them to be
quiet — he did not want that howling to keep him awake.
The twenty riflemen of his bodyguard were already sleeping
by the tatfrail, and down below in the stifling cabin Masson
and Carver were drinking together; the sweat gleamed on
Carver's bald head with its fringe of white hair. At present
they were amicable, even demonstratively friendly. Later
they might quarrel, but on the other hand they might sleep
without disturbing him. He bade them good night civilly
and returned on deck to where Kamo his servant had made
up his bed. The fool had laid the mattress so that his head
would be under the low part of the mosquito net, so he
walked aft to where Kamo was asleep on the bare planks
beside a bollard and kicked him awake and made him do it
over again. Then at last with the ease of long practice he
slipped in under the net, which he tucked in under the mat-
tress all round, and laid himself down with a sigh of relief
and fatigue, secure from insect plagues. The last thing he
did before falling asleep was to unbuckle his pistol belt; he
took his revolver from its holster and laid it on the mattress
convenient to his hand.

The tropical night is twelve hours long. After Talbot had
been asleep a couple of hours the evening thunderstorm
broke overhead; the thunder and the lightning and the roar
of the rain on the awning above him only slightly disturbed

[ 287 ]


him. He woke no more than to assure himself that his re-
volver was still at hand, and then he slept again, deeply,
reveling in the coolness and the unaccustomed feeling of
security. So he was wide awake and fully rested long before
dawn, even a little chilled by the small wind that stirred
the damp air. Under the awning, lying relaxed and com-
fortable, he could see nothing of the late rising moon, and
could not guess at the time. He thought of all that had to be
done during the coming day; to begin with it would not be
a bad idea to take the opportunity of seeing if the men on
watch were awake. He strapped on his revolver again and
with a sigh slipped out from under the mosquito net — his
joints ached when he moved and he felt the fleeting feeling
of well-being deserting him. It was too good to last. Walk-
ing quietly forward he found, as he expected, the anchor
watch sound asleep, one man stretched out snoring and the
other sitting with his forehead on his knees, equally uncon-
scious. Two well-placed kicks woke them up, and they
grabbed for their rifles while Talbot turned away smiling
grimly to himself at the thought of how they would pay for
their slumbers in the morning. He stood by the rail and
breathed the velvet night; the little breeze had wakened
small waves on the broad surface of the river, which lapped
against the Lady Stanley's side in harmony with the gurgle
of the current round her bows. Low in the sky the moon in
her last quarter shed a faint light on the black water surface.
A long, long way oflf the water surface was blacker still
— a solid nucleus in the velvet darkness. Talbot peered at it
idly, and then with growing attention. There was a large

[ 288 ]


black mass over there. Then he started, and gripped the
guardrail as he concentrated his attention on what he saw.
There had been a faint gleam of reflected light over there,
and soon after he saw it repeated at another point — moon-
light gleaming, perhaps, on a wet canoe paddle. He saw it
again and his suspicions were confirmed. He had his pistol in
his hand on the instant, without willing it. There were three
— four — many canoes paddling towards the Lady Stanley,
closing in on her. Talbot fired a shot from his revolver as the
quickest way of rousing the ship. He fired again and
shouted, stamping on the deck to wake Carver and Masson
down below. Yells of defiance reached his ears from across
the river; round the canoes the water was churned white
by paddles in furious action. From forward came the re-
ports of rifles and stabbing tongues of flame as the lookouts
opened fire, and Kamo came running up to him beside the
rail; Kamo's rifle went off into the air — pure waste in the
excitement, and Kamo was yelling weirdly as he snatched
open the breach and reloaded.

More black figures appeared on deck as the crew awoke,
and overside the fellows asleep in the barge came to their
senses with loud cries. Tense and nervous with excitement,
Talbot was still able to think. He put away his revolver,
snatched the rifle from Kamo, and leveled it with careful
aim at the leading canoe. The shot went home, and he
grabbed a cartridge from Kamo, reloaded, and fired again.
By now his bodyguard was awake, and, lining the rail,
were firing away enthusiastically into the mass of the canoes.
Some of the bullets must be hitting the target, enough at

[ 289 ]


least to hinder the rush, and at that moment came a decisive
intervention. From behind him came a deafening report,
a Winding flash of Hght; someone, Masson or Carver, had
roused himself and reached the six-pounder forward,
trained it round, and fired. Talbot saw the shell burst among
the canoes, and he heard an outburst of screams, but for
several seconds after the flash he could see nothing. The cries
and the firing in the barge redoubled; a canoe had run
alongside and boarded it in the darkness, and now a death
struggle was being fought out hand to hand there. As he
looked down into the barge he could see black figures glis-
tening in the light of the rifle-flashes. Again the cannon went
off and blinded him, but wild yelling behind him made him
swing around. As his eyesight returned he saw, dimly, dark
figures swarming over the guardrail on the starboard side
— another canoe must have run alongside the steamer there.
He felt fear within him, but he was like a cornered animal
and could only decide to fight it out to the last. His voice
cracked as he tried to shout, and he ran across the deck at
these new invaders, reversing his grip on the rifle as he ran.
He brought down the butt on a black head with a crash, and
around him the crew and his bodyguard rallied and flung
themselves on the enemy. Someone was standing on the
guardrail about to leap down — Talbot's whirling rifle butt
dashed him overside again. There could not have been more
than fiye or six men, a single canoe load, engaged in this
attack, and soon they were all dead, and Talbot had a
breathing space as he stood beside the rail almost alone. On
the other side of the ship a rifle was now firing rhythmically

[ 290 ]


and steadily down into the barge, and the flashes illuminated
Carver's bald head — already there was more light than
came from the rifle flashes, and dawn was at hand. Talbot
walked across and stood by Carver, who was systematically
killing every man in the barge, for he did not know which
was friend and which was foe, and he was taking no
chances. Carver was cursing filthily between each shot; he
was wildly agitated about these "wretched niggers" attack-
ing at dawn like any white army, and also about their hav-
ing the sense and insolence to choose for their objective the
Lady Stanley, There were indeed frightening implications
about all this; if the attack had been successful, if the Lady
Stanley had been captured by the enemy and wrecked or
burned, any further advance would have been delayed for
at least a year. And — Talbot thought of this with a tremor
— if it had succeeded he would be dead like the inanimate
corpses all round him, and his skull would go to decorate the
crucifixion tree in Loa's grove — if indeed he were not
taken alive, to shriek his life away on that same tree. With
the dying- away of his excitement Talbot felt an unhappy
cold fit overcoming him. He had come here to Central
Africa because otherwise he would have had to beg his bread
in a London gutter, and at this moment he regretted his
choice. He would live longer in a gutter than he would here;
nor would life in a gutter possibly be as hideous as this. A
shout from Masson, forward, made him swing round.

*T have them, the assassins!" he shouted.

He was training round the six-pounder gun on its pivot,
looking along the sights and bracing himself against the

[ 291 ]


shoulder-piece. There was a gray light over the water
now, and streaks of gray mist drifted over its surface. From
out of one of the gray streaks emerged a dark shape, dis-
torted in the faint light, but just recognizable as a canoe
paddling furiously away from the steamer, and a good half-
mile away from it. Talbot went over and stood behind Mas-
son as he sighted the gun. When the gun bellowed out Tal-
bot saw a momentary black pencil-mark against the gray;
it was the path of the shell speeding on its low trajectory.
Straight to the canoe it went, to burst in smoke and spray,
out of which for a second rose one end of the canoe standing
vertically out of the water.

"A good shot, eh. Captain?" said Masson, turning so that
Talbot was once more aware of how white Masson's teeth
gleamed amidst the black of his mustache and beard.

Masson now had a telescope to his eye and was sweeping
it round over the river.

"A canoe bottom up there," said Masson. "And another
beside it. Ha! No, that one is empty. Not a soul alive in it.
Not a damned soul. That was another good shot of mine.
Captain, was it not? The first I fired — the shot that struck
in the midst of the canoes."

"It was that which stopped them," agreed Talbot. "It
would have been hard to keep them out of the steamer if
they had all got alongside."

Masson walked to the rail and looked over, Talbot along
with him.

"One empty canoe there," said Masson. "Another full of
water and corpses."

[ 292 ]


"There were some which got alongside the barge," said

"And not a man left," said Masson. "They have had a
lesson, these men of Loa."

The soft lead Remington bullets made severe wounds at
point-blank range, but there were yet some men alive who
had been struck by them, in the barge and on the deck, and
they could be prevailed upon to speak — Talbot sent ashore
for Sergeant Fleuron to carry out the interrogation. But
Fleuron had hardly to make use of his peculiar talents, for
a man torn by a fearful wound would readily answer ques-
tions if a bowl of water were withheld from him only a few
inches from his dry lips. He would gasp out all he knew, for
Fleuron to interpret it to Talbot. . . . Yes, the attack on
the Lady Stanley had been made by Loa's whole fleet. That
did not mean all Loa's fighting men — Lanu was still on
shore at the head of a great army. The fleet had been led by
one of the twins ... at that information Fleuron showed
annoyance, for if the other twin were dead and at the bot-
tom of the river all his trouble in pickling that head in order
to compare likenesses was wasted. . . . Loa's town was up
the river here, a long two days' journey by canoe in calm
weather. The port stood beside the river, on that bank, and
Loa's town was only a short distance away from it. Yes, the
speaker knew the port when he saw it — he actually lived
there. . . .

The two men who survived their wound and their exam-
ination both knew the port; with Talbot's permission Fleu-
ron had their wounds bandaged to keep them alive, and he

[ 293 ]


had them laid on deck, secured to the guardrail, for their
guidance might save a good deal of trouble when the final
advance should be made. They lay on the deck looking
round with frightened eyes at everything about them. They
were terrified at being aboard this immense devil-driven
canoe. Even the wealth of iron all about them frightened
them; so did the strange white men — so did the strange
black men. The shriek of the steam whistle, the clank of the
capstan as the second barge was slowly wound up the last
of the cataract, and the roar and bustle when it was drawn
alongside, set their white eyeballs rolling. Talbot spared
them a glance. These men, shaking with fright, were prob-
ably fair specimens of the men who had attacked them.
Their fear only proved the fanaticism that must animate
them. The attack had been boldly made, even against these
frightful machines. They had come on in the face of rifle
fire and even of shellfire, and the three or four surviving
canoes had flung themselves in a forlorn hope against the
steamer's sides. Such wild courage could only be the result
of a frantic belief in their own cause. And there was still an
army of such fanatics awaiting them on the riverbank, un-
der the command of this Lanu. Well, in that case they
would stand and fight, and not have to be pursued through
the forest. That would mean a quick finish to the campaign.
The barges were both alongside now, both jammed full of
chattering black soldiers. Even to them, who had served the
white invaders for some time, the prospect of this trip by
water was exciting and a little frightening. The deck of the
Lady Stanley was heaped with wood for fuel, so much that

[ 294 ]


Talbot could confidently rely on going all the way up
against the current to the next fall and back again if neces-
sary without having to risk a working party ashore to cut
more. There were great bags of food; not quite enough to
make him feel at ease regarding the supply problem, but all
that could be swept up from the country behind him despite
the protests of the civil authorities. There were cartridges in
plenty for the business in hand. So every possible precaution
had been taken, and it was time to start. Talbot shouted an
order to Sergeant Fleuron, and Fleuron, with many exas-
perated orders, set about the business of casting off the
barges and stationing men at the anchor windlasses. Talbot
caught Masson's eye, and Masson nodded, and sent down a
bell signal to Carver below to admit steam to the cylinders.
Slowly the current took the Lady Stanley astern; another
note on the bell and she forged ahead, turning to push her
nose accurately between the sterns of the two barges. The
beat of the stern wheel quickened and the Lady Stanley
headed upstream at several miles an hour through the water,
at nearly two miles an hour over land. The barges wallowed
along ahead of her — Talbot, and the Belgians and French-
men too, felt they would never grow used to this method of
pushing a tow instead of pulling it, but it was necessary
with a stern-wheeler, and was no novelty to Carver, who at
some time had worked in a Mississippi steamer. Beside Tal-
bot the wounded prisoners clasped each other's hands in ter-
ror at the vibration of the monster beneath them.

In due course the Lady Stanley and the barges she was
pushing arrived in the river opposite the port of Loa's town.

[ 295 ]


The two wounded prisoners pointed the place out eagerly
enough — they seemed to be glad to see their home again
— but it was really hardly necessary, for anyone could
know it for what it was at a glance. The Lady Stanley hung
in midriver, her stern wheel just pushing her against the
current, while Talbot surveyed the place through his tele-
scope. It was like a number of other Central African towns,
perched upon a rocky bluflf overlooking the river; the
houses a little strange to Talbot's eyes in that they were long
and rectangular, instead of circular as they usually were
lower down the river. Even through his telescope Talbot
could make out no sign of life; not a soul was stirring al-
though he had a good view into much of the village street.
The path down the bluflf was clearly visible, and on the
beach at its foot lay a single canoe, while beyond the village
Talbot thought he could just make out signs of the usual
banana groves on the outskirts. But there was no move-
ment, not even a wreath of smoke.

"Try a shot at 'em and see if you can wake 'em up," sug-
gested Carver, who had left the engineroom to come up on
deck and watch the course of events.

"All right," said Talbot, and Carver walked forward to
the six-pounder.

He trained the gun round and sighted it; the gun went
off with a loud bark and a shout went up from the massed
soldiers in the barges as, amid the smoke and dust, they saw
the side of the most prominent house crumple outwards.
Carver swung open the breech and inserted another round.

"That will do,'* said Talbot; he was accountable to the
Baron for those six-pounder shells.

[ 296 ]


There was no point in wasting further time; it was hope-
less to think of trying to exhaust the patience of Africa. If
the town were going to be defended he must force the de-
fenders to show their hand. A brief colloquy with Carver
settled the details of the landing, and Talbot went into the
bows to give Sergeant Fleuron his orders. Then he came
back to line his riflemen up along the guardrail. The Lady
Stanley dropped back down the river to give herself room
to get up speed, and then came forward again, pushing the
barges valiantly ahead of her. She backed her stern wheel
momentarily, and the barges were cast off, heading on up
the river under their own momentum with Fleuron and a
corporal at the tillers taking them diagonally across to the
beach. Up onto the beach they ran side by side, with a grind-
ing of the pebbles beneath them, and amid wild yells from
the black soldiers. They had captured towns before, and if
they could not look forward to loot they could at least expect
an orgy of cruelty and rape. Over the bows tumbled the
leading men, and it was at that moment that the defenders
showed themselves. There was an answering yell, and dark
figures showed themselves everywhere on the bluff, some
leaping down with brandished weapons, and others stand-
ing, feet braced wide apart, drawing their bows to send their
arrows down into the crowd on the beach. But there were
rifles awaiting them — Talbot himself was kneeling on the
deck of the Lady Stanley along with his picked shots, the
guardrail forming a convenient rest for his rifle. The range
was a mere hundred yards, and he could not miss, sending
shot after shot home; from the deck of the Lady Stanley,
from the barges and from the beach, a hail of lead met

[ 297 ]


the charging men. Even so, some of them got through,
and plunged into a bloody melee on the beach with those
men who had landed. But numbers as well as weapons
were against them. The whole force which had attacked
amounted to less than a couple of hundred men, and there
were more than five hundred in the barges. It had been a for-
lorn hope, a bold attempt to beat back the invaders by as-
sailing them at the most favorable moment — not favor-
able enough. Fleuron's soldiers poured ashore and club and
ax and spear fought out the battle on the beach, while Tal-
bot and his riflemen picked off the archers on the bluff
above. On the beach the battle was won, and the invaders
began to push forward; but many more of the defenders
died on the beach than turned to try to make their escape
up the bluff, running the gantlet of the rifle fire from the
steamer. The yelling victors swarmed up the bluff after
them, mad with victory; Talbot saw them start the ascent,
but he could not watch them enter the town, for his atten-
tion was distracted.

Fleuron's barge, freed from the weight of the hundreds
of men crammed into her, had come adrift from the beach
and was rapidly being carried downstream again; moreover,
as Fleuron agitatedly shouted to his captain, her bottom had
been damaged when she went aground and she was leaking
badly. The Lady Stanley had to go down the river after her,
imperiling herself amid the shallows close inshore, and heave
her a line to bring her fussily back and beach her again to
save her from sinking. Talbot and Fleuron hastily landed
and went up the path to the town, the sweat streaming

[ 298 ]


down them with their hurry as they went past the many
dead. In the town £.ye hundred mad men were raging
through the houses, finding Kttle enough on which to vent
their fury. There had been three old women in the town,
and they had been killed by the first arrivals without a
thought for the sport they might have afforded to the cooler
heads. Otherwise the place was deserted, abandoned. There
were a few poor cooking utensils, the usual domestic gear,
but no ivory, no treasure house, nothing worth saving for
the benefit of His Majesty the King of the Belgians. But as

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