C. S. (Cecil Scott) Forester.

The sky and the forest online

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

Fleuron remarked, all the reports they had gathered in-
dicated that this was no more than a suburb of Loa's town,
which lay somewhere not far inland. It only remained to
count the dead and see if among the wounded there were
any who could increase their information, and so Fleuron
and Talbot, surrounded by their guard, made their way
back to the beach.

Halfway down the bluflf Fleuron stopped beside a dead
man, face downward on the slope. He lay in a pool of blood,
his back, below his right shoulder blade, torn wide open by
the exit of the soft-nosed .45 bullet which had entered his
breast. But on his head there was still a headdress of twisted
iron, and about the arms and neck there were spiral iron
ornaments, while beside the body lay an ax — Talbot no-
ticed the excellence of the workmanship.

"A chief, I fancy. Captain," said Fleuron.

He poked the body with his foot, and then at his order
two of his men turned it over for them to examine it fur-
ther. It was not the face of a young man, but that of a man

[ 299 ]


of middle age at least. The breast was scarred with tattooing,
but the face was hardly disfigured; the closed eyes and re-
laxed muscles conveyed an impression of peace.

"He must have been killed in the first moments of the at-
tack," said Fleuron, looking round him at the comparative
distances from the brow and the beach.

"I expect I killed him myself," supplemented Talbot —
he remembered stopping more than one warrior in mid-
career on the bluff; he smiled deprecatingly as he said this,
for the English gentleman's habit of not calling attention
to personal exploits was still strong.

**I expect you did, Captain," said Fleuron.

**I wonder who he is," speculated Talbot.

"That we shall soon know. I intend to find out," an-
swered Fleuron.

The wounded man who was carried up the bluff to the
corpse — groaning as his shattered thighbone was jarred by
his bearers — enlightened them instantly, the moment he
set eyes on the dead face.

"Lanu," he said. "Lanu. Lord."

Even with Lanu dead the awe and respect in his voice
were quite unmistakable.

"Oh, it's Lanu, is it?" said Fleuron.

He asked further questions and turned back to Talbot
when the wounded man had answered them.

"This," he said — with a wave of his hand to the corpses
littering the bluff and the beach — "This was the only army
left. It was as I thought; the other twin was killed when
they attacked us in canoes. Every man was killed then —

[ 300 ]


not a single one came back. So Lanu stood to fight here with
all the soldiers left and the old men — look at that gray
head over there. And Lanu is dead, and you saw how many
fighting men escaped from here."

"If the twins are dead, and Lanu is dead, we ought not
to have any more trouble," said Talbot.

Fleuron turned back to the wounded man with a further
question, and received an almost voluble reply. Twice at
least Talbot caught the word "Loa."

"No," said Fleuron at length. "We shall still have to fight.
There is this Loa still alive. He is undoubtedly a man, al-
though whether Loa is his name or his title I still cannot say.
He is at his town, up there, with his wives and the women
of the country."

"And his ivory too, please God," said Talbot.

"Without doubt."

Talbot looked round about him at the dead again.

"Too many men have been killed," he said. "Who will
gather rubber? The Baron will not be pleased."

"The Baron?" Fleuron's gesture indicated deep contempt
for the Baron's displeasure. "He ought to know, even if he
does not, what we have been through here. And there will
be the women left. We must restrain these devils when we
reach the town. No killing — not too much, at least. From
the women we can breed. Thanks to polygamy in twenty
years we can have this forest as full of men as a sausage is
full of meat."

Twenty years? The suggestion started Talbot on an un-
fortunate train of thought. Twenty years of discomfort, of

[ 301 ]


loneliness, of misery and of bloodshed — twenty years in the
service of King Leopold. Talbot hated the thought of twenty
years more of Africa; and yet if he were not to have to en-
dure them it could only be because he was dead, and Talbot
did not want to die. During the past two years he had once
or twice touched the revolver at his belt, meditatively, and
then withdrawn his hand, for Talbot was sufficiently afraid
of the unknown to dread hurling himself through the dark
portals of another world. He felt suddenly and desperately
unhappy. To shake himself out of the mood he occupied
himself with his task again.

"We must make ready, then," he said, "for this move on
Loa*s town."

[ 302 ]



The way through the forest from the port to the town was
clearly marked; it was something more like a road than any-
thing else Central Africa could show. Clearly there had been
a great deal of coming and going between the two places,
with armies going out, and armies returning with plunder
and slaves, with trading parties and messengers. But that
portion of the Army of the Independent State of the Congo
under Talbot's command made the advance from one place
to the other with considerable caution, extended on a wide
front, and scanning carefully every yard of the way ahead.
The necessity for care was early borne in upon them, for
there were pitfalls everywhere, and poisoned skewers con-
cealed beneath the leafmold, and bent bows hidden in the
undergrowth ready to let loose poisoned arrows at a touch on
a strand of creeper. The forest had its human defenders, too;
not many of them, but a few who flitted from tree to tree
ahead of the advancing line and who sought opportunities
of launching poisoned arrows from safe cover. The soldiery
fired at these people whenever an opportunity presented it-
self, and often indeed when one did not. Sometimes the
whole advancing line would break out into desultory firing,
while Talbot raved furiously at this waste of ammunition

[ 303 ]


on shadows that had no ears. Hardly any of the bullets dis-
charged found a billet in a human target; only one or two
lucky shots brought down bowmen who had incautiously
exposed themselves.

Talbot, with his bodyguard about him, walked along
after the skirmish line. He made use of his eyes as he walked,
and he saw that his guard did the same; besides traps and
pitfalls there was always the chance that one of those bow-
men ahead had managed to creep through the line and was
lying in ambush, arrow on string, waiting for a white man
to shoot at. Although his pace was perforce leisurely, so as
not to overtake the firing line, rivers of sweat ran down his
skin in the stifling steamy air of the forest. Talbot looked
back with regret to his sojourn in the Lady Stanley, under
the open sky, with the chance of an unimpeded breeze. This
gloomy forest, with the tree trunks standing like ghosts in
the twilight, oppressed him the more forcibly because so
much of the campaign up to now had been waged on the
banks of the open river. He hated this forest, with its dark-
ness and silence. Holding his revolver ready in his right
hand, he mopped his face and neck continually with the
grubby rag which had once been a handkerchief in his left.

Cries echoing back from ahead of him told him of a new
development in the situation, and, continuing along the
path, he soon discovered the reason for them. They had
reached the outskirts of the town. But here there was some-
thing a little unusual for Central Africa — a deliberate at-
tempt to fortify the place. The path entered the abandoned
clearings that ringed the town, as they did every town in this

[ 304 ]


area, but the well-trodden and well-marked point of en-
trance was blocked by a stout palisade. The tangle of small
growth and creepers, where it existed, was the best of de-
fense against a surprise attack, but the belt round most
towns was never continuous. It was always intersected by
footpaths, and there were frequent broad gaps where the
banana groves and manioc gardens were under cultivation.
Always before it had been easy to force a way into a town
by one route or another; this was the first time Talbot had
ever seen any artificial obstruction to an entrance.

The palisade was lofty and dense; examining it from be-
hind the cover of the nearest tree Talbot could see that there
was another one twenty yards in the rear of it — a remark-
able precaution against surprise. The uprights were driven
into the earth, and clearly extended into the undergrowth
on either side of the gap, while the horizontal members were
bound stoutly to the uprights by split cane; Talbot could
see a kind of wicket gate in the palisade, but the split cane
fastenings around it were so dense and numerous that it was
obvious that it did not constitute a weak point in the de-
fenses. There was no glimpse to be got of any human de-
fenders of the gate, but one of his Batetela headmen showed
Talbot a long arrow with a jagged wooden head — with
poison in the barbs as usual — which had come sailing over
the palisade from some point in the undergrowth. There
could be no doubt that at least a few archers were waiting,
hidden, within sight of the palisade, so that any attempt to
storm the defenses without preparation would incur severe

[ 305 ]


Fleuron came up to report; he had been with the ad-
vanced guard and on reaching the gate had moved along the
defenses to his right in search of a weak point.

"Dense undergrowth — undergrowth of a difficulty quite
incredible — as far as I can see, Captain," said Fleuron. "At
the only weak point there was a palisade like this one. That
was when I turned back. I left half my guard there. This Loa
will have palisaded all points, one may be sure. I will try in
the other direction if you wish."

"There would be no advantage to be gained by that, I
fancy," said Talbot.

He could send a note back to the Lady Stanley and have
the six-pounder sent up to him. A few rounds from the gun
would make short work of those palisades. But the day was
already far advanced; to unship the gun and bring it ashore,
and mount it on its traveling carriage and drag it along the
path, would take hours, days perhaps. Or he could make use
of a more primitive method of attack; burning faggots
piled against the palisades under a heavy covering fire from
rifles would burn the palisades down. But that would take
time too; he would have to wait for the embers to cool at
first one barrier and then at the other.

"Oh, damn it all to hell," said Talbot in a fit of pettish

He wanted to end this business quickly. He had enough
men — too many of them, for that matter. Why should
he trouble to keep them alive? There could not be more than
a few old men left to defend the town. He issued his orders
harshly and savagely; and Fleuron, noticing the expression

[ 306 ]


on his face, bit oif short the protest he automatically had be-
gun to raise at his first realization of what was in Talbot's
mind. A hundred riflemen, strung among the trees, pre-
pared to cover the attack. Fleuron and Talbot took rifles,
too, but that was not for the same purpose. The Batetela
headman and the twenty men with axes who were selected
for the attempt looked at the rifles in the white men's hands.
Those rifles, if they refused to move, meant certain and im-
mediate death; the poisoned arrows from the defenses meant
death not quite so certain and not quite so immediate. Their
teeth and eyeballs gleamed in the twilight as they chattered
to each other debating the hideous choice. An angry word
and an impatient gesture from Talbot settled their decision.
They gripped their axes and they ran with despairing haste
up the broad path. A shaft of sunlight reached over the tops
of the trees and illuminated the little crowd as they came to
the foot of the menacing palisade. Their axes rang against
the stubborn cane fastenings. They hacked and hewed fe-
verishly, with excited cries.

Here came the arrows, surely enough. Two men backed
away, with feathered shafts hanging from the barbed heads
driven deep into them — the whole group followed their
example and broke back again, but Fleuron stepped forward
and shot one of them mercilessly, and they turned back
again to their task. The rifles helped them; the Remington
bullets went crashing through the undergrowth in search of
the bowmen hidden there who launched those arrows. Fleu-
ron shouted an encouragement — or a warning. It reached
the ears of the axmen and added to their exertions. Fran-

[ 307 ]


tically they hacked and pulled, treading their dead and
wounded underfoot. One man reached up and clutched the
upper horizontal bar, flung his weight on it and was joined
by two others, and their united exertions tore the thing
down. Two uprights were dragged aside so that they leaned
drunkenly in opposite directions. There was a passage of
some sort through the first palisade, and Fleuron, yelling
loudly, recalled the survivors of the axmen. By giving them
a chance of life he could expect greater enthusiasm from
those that would have to follow them.

The arrangements for the final assault were quickly
made. A hundred spearmen on either side of the entrance
were to attack straight before them, plunging directly into
the undergrowth and struggling through as best they could.
They might turn the flank of the defense should it be pro-
longed. Another body of axmen was collected to deal with
the farther palisade. A hundred spearmen were to follow on
their heels, and turn to right and left after passing the
nearer palisade and seek out the defenders who might be
hidden in the undergrowth along the entrance path. Spear-
men, newly brought into the ranks of the Army from the
forest, were cheaper than the riflemen who had been given
training in the use of firearms. Along the path was ranged
the main assaulting column, destined to burst through when
the way should be cleared for them. They were excited and
eager, keyed up at the thought of entering into the legend-
ary mysteries of Loa's town.

Sweating and shouting, Talbot and Fleuron hastened
about to get all in order.

[ 308 ]


"Go!" shouted Fleuron at last, and the attackers hurled
themselves forward.

Talbot watched the axmen burst through the first pal-
isade. The spearmen followed them. Throughout the belt of
undergrowth came muffled shouts as the assaulting spear-
men plunged and struggled in the entangling mass. As he
had expected, the entrance path was sown thick with poi-
soned skewers, but he had sent in enough men to be able to
bear losses. He saw one of the axmen climb straight up the
second palisade, poise himself for a moment, and then leap
down beyond it. Mad with excitement, the man did not de-
lay a moment, but rushed straight ahead, waving his ax, to-
wards the town. It was time.

"Go!" roared Fleuron again, and the waiting column
charged yelling up the path.

For a while the whole entrance was jammed as they
forced their way through the wreck of the first barrier;
then they flowed on to reach the second one just as it began
to give way. Talbot saw them pouring forward and nodded
to his escort. They closed round him as they had been drilled
to do; there was less chance of a poisoned arrow reaching
him when he was surrounded by human bodies. They were
wild with excitement, chattering and shouting as they hur-
ried forward with Talbot in their midst. They entered the
narrow path through the undergrowth, so narrow that the
files on each side of him pressed up against him so that his
nostrils were filled with the smell of their sweating bodies,
and they picked their way through the shattered barrier
while the undergrowth round them still echoed with the

[ 309 ]


cries of the attackers plunging about after the last few de-
fenders. They hurried up the path and through the second
barrier, emerging into the main street of the town, the sun-
shine blazing down upon it.

Their point of entrance was about the middle of it; at the
ends to the left and right it widened out into something like
open squares; street and squares were lined with large sub-
stantial houses constructed of split boards thatched with
leaves. At the far end to the right Talbot's eye was caught
by a large area of greenery, with straggling trees emerging
out of it, filling the whole center of the square. That must
be the sacred grove, and near it must be the chief's house
and the treasury and the important buildings. It was thither
that he directed his escort, hurrying down the street while
around him he saw and heard the hideous sights and sounds
of a town taken by assault. He would have to beat these
fiends off their prey, but first he had better secure the treas-
ury and put a guard over it.

But round about the grove there was no sign of any
chief's house. This looked like the poorer end of the town,
as one might say. Here were the forges with their stone an-
vils, a small heap of charcoal yet remaining, the boxlike bel-
lows lying beside it, and everywhere inches deep in the dead
sparks of a thousand years' of smith's work. The houses con-
tained nothing except poor domestic utensils and moaning
women. The sacred grove was not at all impressive on close
inspection. It was small; a single short path led to a little
clearing in the center, and in the clearing there were a few
human bones, but not very many, and no treasure what-

[ 310 ]


The palace of this Loa must be at the other end of the
town after all. Talbot cursed and hastened back up the
street. Halfway along he met Fleuron, busily engaged in the
organization of conquest. His escort stood guard over a herd
of frightened women who crouched and huddled together
with rolling eyes as they heard the shrieks of those whom
Fleuron had not been able to protect.

"Have you seen this Loa, Sergeant?" demanded Talbot.

"No, Captain. Unless he is among those old men, and I
am sure he is not."

None of those trembling gray heads could belong to the
man who had conquered all this area of Africa and who had
inspired the devotion which had caused his army to an-
nihilate itself in his defense, Talbot pushed on up the street
towards the farther open space. Of course. He had been a
fool not to see the large houses there. That most distant one,
with the decorated gable ends, must be Loa's palace. There
were herds of frightened women here, too, women with
babies in their arms, women standing weeping with little
children thrust behind them. The tide of the assailants was
only just beginning to lap up as far as here. The sun blazed
down into the open space as Talbot strode up it, with his
disorganized escort hastening after him.

There was an eddy among the women clustering round
the big house. They parted, and two people advanced from
among them. Talbot knew Loa when he saw him; there
could in fact be no mistaking him. He had been tall, al-
though his height was lessened because his back was a little
bent. He walked stiffly but with immense dignity, his head
back despite his bent shoulders. He was corpulent without

[ 3" ]


being obese — maybe advancing years had already removed
the fat of middle age. Over his shoulders hung a leopardskin
cloak, vivid in the sunshine; about his neck and arms were
spiral ornaments of iron, and in his right hand glittered an
ax, brightly polished to reflect the sunlight. Beside him
hobbled a skinny old woman, her thin breasts swinging with
the exertion of keeping up with him. As she hastened along
at his side she never took her eyes from his face, craning for-
ward and peering up to see it.

Talbot sorted hurriedly through his memory for words.

"Stop!" he shouted, in one of the few dialects in which he
had any mastery.

He threw his left hand up, palm forward, in the universal
gesture commanding a halt; his right hand held his revolver
ready. Loa did not appear to hear him — certainly he did
not look at him. He continued to stride forward, his eyes
directed at a point over Talbot's head. One of Talbot's
escort dropped on one knee beside him, and leveled his rifle.

"Stop!" shouted Talbot again.

This Loa, if he could by any lucky chance be won over,
might be useful, seeing the devotion he could inspire. With
him as a local under-governor, it would not be nearly so
difiScult to organize the district for rubber collecting and
ivory hunting. But Loa only walked forward, with the piti-
less sky overhead looking down at him, the friendly forest
far away, beyond the houses. Talbot's revolver was cocked
and pointed at his breast, but apparently Loa did not see it,
nor the leveled rifle of the kneeling escort. Then at the last
moment Loa sprang, whirling back the ax for a last blow.

[ 312 ]


But the stiffness of his fifty years betrayed him; he could
not leap fast enough to catch the white man entirely off his
guard. Talbot just managed to leap aside, in a most undigni-
fied fashion, without even time enough to pull the trigger.
But the rifle of the kneeling escort had followed Loa*s move-
ments, and the bullet struck Loa in the side as he poised on
one foot with the ax above his head. From side to side the
heavy bullet tore through him, from below upwards, ex-
panding as it went. It struck below the ribs on his right side.
It pierced his liver, it tore his heart to shreds, and, emerging,
it shattered his left arm above the elbow. So Loa died in that
very moment, the ax dropping behind him as he fell over
with a crash. The rifleman tore open the breech, slid in an-
other cartridge, and slammed the breechblock home. The
skinny old woman saw Loa fall, and looked down at his
body for one heartbroken moment. She uttered a shrill
scream, and then raised her spider arms. It was as if she were
going to attack Talbot with her fingernails; perhaps that
was in her mind, but there could be no certainty about it,
for the rifleman pulled the trigger again, and the skinny old
woman fell dying beside the body of her Lord.

[ 313 ]

The novel of a strong man who
was afraid to he a human being.



This novel by the creator of Horatio Horn-
blower had reached only a small proportion of
Mr. Forester's reading public when it went out
of print in this country in 1943. Yet its hero.
Sir Herbert Curzon, ought to be as famous as
Horatio Hornblower, and certainly its theme
deals with men and affairs that are coming to be
as crucially a part of this as they were of the
world of a generation ago.

Mr. Forester says he wrote the story to in-
terest and to entertain, with no thought of in-
struction. But for those who read it with sym-
pathetic understanding there is a lesson about
the means and ends of militarism, its slowness
in changing, its quickness to defend itself, its
blindness to the complete impossibility of war
as a solution of anything. There is also ironic
appreciation of the fact that Hitler read the
GENERAL and is said to have recommended it
to his friends.

The story tells how Herbert Curzon rose to
dizzv heights of command; how a general makes
love; how great ladies make history. He was the
kind of officer G. H. dreams of: a man who
never asked why, who thought only of how; a
man who dared much with his own and with
other men's lives. Briefly it is a story of a pro-
fessional soldier who made a very good thing of
war, especially of World War I.

C. S. Forester has

been hailed by critics on
both sides of the Atlantic
as the peer of Marryat,
Cooper and Nordhoff and
Hall in story -telling. He
has been accredited^ with
the capacity of. Conrad,
the ability of Masefield
and the adventurous spirit
of-Xever. His novels ap-
peal equally to both young
and old. In the words of
Ernest Hemingway, "I
recommend Forester to
.everyone literate I know."


Blank & Stoller


Included in the above, and
• ^' also available separately:

^eat to Quarters ;

Ship, of the Line «'

Flying Colours









1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 20

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