C. S. (Cecil Scott) Forester.

The sky and the forest online

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the bones in a bundle across his palm. Without looking
down, he put the ends of the bones on the table and with-
drew his hand so that they fell with a clatter on the wood
-T- some woman within earshot, crouching in her house,

[ 49 ]


heard that clatter and moaned softly with fear and appre-
hension. Still without looking down Loa put his forefinger
among the bones and stirred them gently, just a little. Then
at last he looked down at the pattern the bones had made.
In the flickering firelight the bones were faintly visible
against the dark wood. The pattern told him nothing at
first, not even when he rested his forearms on his knees and
his brow on his hands and peered down at them for a long
time. Loa remembered Vira's hint that Soli was Uledi's
mother's brother's son. Uledi had owned a knob of pure
iron which hung on a string round her neck. She was the
principal shareholder in an iron cooking pot with tripod
legs — a miracle of workmanship and convenience. Such
things might well tempt her principal heir, and yet there
was no hint of Soli's features in the pattern the bones had
assumed. It reminded him more of the gable end of Huva's
house, and yet there was no conviction about the likeness.
He pressed his brow against his hands unavailingly; the
bones lay uncommunicative, nor could he feel any stirrings
of his spirit.

Having sat for so long he raised his eyes again to the dark
sky, as black as the black treetops that ringed the town so
closely. He gathered the bones up into his hand again, laid
them on the table with his palm flat upon them, and then
spread them by a twist of his hand. He stirred them again
with his finger and then slowly transferred his gaze to them.
The fire was glowing red, and the white bones reflected the
color. Then one of the logs in the fire fell down, and a little
flame sprang up, dancing among the embers. Now the bones

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began to move, shifting on the table, and Loa felt his
knowledge and his power surging up within him. That was
a serpent undulating in the shadow, a little venomous snake
with red eyes. And these were the rocks at the river's edge,
and there was the broad river. The lowering sun was re-
flected in red from its whole surface. There! Someone had
thrown an immense stone into the river, breaking the re-
flection into a thousand concentric rings. First they spread,
and then they contracted and were swallowed up in a dark
spot in the middle. The dark spot opened. Was that a flower
expanding in the center of it? A flower? A flower, perhaps,
but that was Uledi herself within the opening petals —
Uledi in her convulsions with the foam on her lips. She
turned over on her side and reached out frantically to the
full extent of her right arm. She was reaching for — what
was that? What was that which evaded her grasp? Some-
thing which scuttled for concealment among the shadows
over there. Was it Soli, running as he had run for the pro-
tection of the crowd before Loa's ax? Loa groaned with the
anguished effort of trying to see. Somebody looked back at
him over his shoulder for a moment from the shadows;
white teeth and white eyeballs. That flashing grin was like
Lanu's. It could not be Lanu, not his little son. No, it was
a devil's face, now that it showed more clearly, a devil's
face, frantic with malignant rage. The most frightful pas-
sions played over it, the way waves of combustion played
over the glowing charcoal of Litti's furnace fire. The bared
teeth champed, the eyeballs filled with blood. It was utterly
terrifying. Loa swayed as he squatted. The flame died ab-

[ 51 ]


ruptly in the fire, and as darkness leaped at him he was
momentarily conscious of the cold chill of the sweat in
which he was bathed. Then his head sank onto the table.
It was several minutes before he roused himself, cramped
and almost shivering. There was a foul taste in his mouth,
and his legs were weak as he stood up. The bones, when he
gathered them together, were cold and lifeless to his touch.
And yet he had only to close his eyes to see again that
frightful face. Somebody inhuman, of supreme malignancy,
had poisoned Uledi. Loa's simple theology recognized the
possibility of the existence of devils, but there was no pro-
found lore about them. The major catastrophes of nature
passed his world by; his people never knew famine, or
droughts, or frost, or earthquake. There was no need in con-
sequence to postulate the existence of evil forces in the
world, working against the happiness of mankind. The little
people in the forest, with their poisoned arrows and their
pitfalls, were human enough; no man could attribute super-
natural qualities to men and women whom he not infre-
quently killed and ate. And disease — sleeping sickness,
malaria, typhoid, smallpox and all the other plagues that
kept the population constant and stagnant — was simply
not recognized as such. Loa knew of no dread Four Horse-
men, and his complex language with its limited vocabulary
eflfectively restrained him from ever venturing into theo-
logical speculations. Besides, he knew himself to be god; it
was not a question of belief or conviction, but one of simple
knowledge. He called his wayward sister the moon out of
the river every month, and she came. The sky and the forest

[ 52 ]


and the river were his brothers. Nasa his father had been
a god before him, and still was a god, leading somewhere
else the same life he had led here, attended by his wives,
regulating when necessary the simple affairs of his people,
and possibly — no one could be quite sure — eating meat
rather more often than he had down here.

But there were devils in the world, as Loa vaguely knew.
He had heard a story of some, a family of three devils, like
men but covered with hair like monkeys, who had once
come to the town, before even the time of his father Nasa,
and who had torn men and women into fragments before
succumbing to the rain of poisoned arrows directed at them.
It was a devil something like this, judging by what he had
seen among the bones, who had been responsible for the
poisoning of Uledi. The little that Loa knew about devils
chiefly concerned their aimless ferocity, so there was noth-
ing surprising in the fact that one of them should have poi-
soned Uledi, who had never done him any harm or even set
eyes on him as far as Loa knew. The matter was satisfacto-
rily settled, then, and Loa could announce on the morrow
how Uledi had come to die. If he had seen anything else
among the bones — if the gable end of Huva's house had
stood out more clearly and for a longer time, if he had seen
Soli's face, or if the bones had arranged themselves in the
pattern of somebody's scar-tattooing, it would have been
different. There would have been a human miscreant to de-
nounce. The circumstances of the moment would dictate
the procedure to follow after that; if the accused were not
well liked, or if his (or her) motive were at all obvious, he

[ 53 ]


would be instantly speared or strangled or clubbed or be-
headed, but if he protested with sufficient vehemence or elo-
quence he might be given a further chance. There were
beans that grew in the forest; Indeharu knew about them.
They would be steeped in water, and the accused would have
to drink the water. Usually he suffered pains and sickness,
and frequently he died. If he lived, it was a proof that he
had not really intended to kill his victim, but on the con-
trary had done it by accident or without the intention of
actually causing death. The ordeal would be considered a
sufficient lesson to him and the case could be dismissed with
a caution.

Loa's strength was coming back to him. His legs could
carry him easily now. He walked into the darkness of his
house, finding his way with the ease of a lifetime's experi-
ence, and set the bones back in their proper place beside the
wooden figure which symbolized something a little vague
in Loa's existence. The half-dozen skulls nailed to the wall
— relics of bygone days and of distinguished individuals —
showed up faintly white, just sufficiently to permit him to
see where he stood. The elephants' tusks, treasured memen-
toes of the few occasions when elephants had fallen into the
town's pitfalls, stood in the farther corner, beyond the bed.
A whole precious leopardskin had been consumed to pro-
vide the leather strips that crisscrossed the bed's framework,
and another skin lay on it. No other bed like it existed in
the town; it raised the occupant above the earth and the
myriad insect plagues to be found there, it was cool and
springy and comfortable. That was the whole furniture of

[ 54 ]


the house except for the few other symbols that hung on
the walls — even Loa was not quite sure what most of them
implied. The dried snakeskins, the bunch of feathers, had
something to do with his royal divinity. Because of that, he
thought little about them, although they struck terror into
mere humans.

Loa came back to the doorway of his house.

"Musini!" he called. "Bring the girl to me."

He had a new wife whom he had only acquired that day:
Pinga, daughter of Gumi. Loa heard a low wail of terror,
cut short by Musini's urgent whispering. Musini as an old
woman of twenty-five had small patience for the whims of
a girl of fourteen.

**I bring her, Loa," said Musini, loudly.

Two dark figures appeared in the faint glow of the dying
fire; Loa could just distinguish the girl's slight form as
Musini pushed her forward with her hand on her shoulder.
The girl hung back and wailed again.

"Go on, you little fool," said Musini brusquely, giving
her a final shove.

Pinga's timid steps brought her within Loa's reach as he
stood in the shadow of the doorway. He reached out and
took her wrist, but at his touch she cried out and tried to
pull away from him.

"Idiot!" said Musini's disgusted voice from outside by the
fire, but after her first startled movement Pinga stood still
except for the tremblings that shook her. Loa, his hand still
grasping her wrist, could feel her quivering. He displayed
remarkable patience.

[ 55 ]


*'Why not come to me?" he asked.

"I am frightened."

*'You are frightened of me?"

**Of you. Lord, of course. But it is not that. I am fright-
ened of this house — of this house."

The terrors of the god's house presented themselves to
her more violently as she thought of them, and she began
to drag back from his grasp again.

"Do not be frightened," said Loa. ''There is nothing here
to hurt you."

"And it is what you have been doing. Lord. What you
have been doing this short time past."

Loa was at a loss for a moment. It was very hard for him
to realize the effect of the abject terror which lay over the
town when it was known that he was at work identifying
a criminal; it was something he was aware of theoretically,
but he had never known terror himself and was no judge
in consequence of what it did to other people. And his
house, the house with the skulls, and snakeskins, and the
bunch of feathers, and the carved idol, was his home as he
had always known it. He could have small sympathy for
those of his people who would, literally, rather die than
cross its awful threshold.

"That should not frighten you," he said.

"But it does. Lord. My belly tells me I am afraid. You
have been here with the dead. You have been finding out
about things, and — and — I do not want to go in there."

That thoroughly nettled Loa.

"You are a little fool, as Musini said," he declared, testily.

It irritated him that someone should display such marked

[ 56 ]


antipathy because he had been divining — divination was
one of his natural functions. The girl might as well be
frightened because he breathed, or because he had two eyes.
It made a personal matter of it, and changed his lack of
sympathy to more active annoyance; the girl sensed all this,
and her teeth chattered with fear. Paralyzed, she ceased to
pull away from him, and stood unresisting.

"Enough has been said," said Loa, with decision.

He dragged her roughly over the threshold, into the
greater darkness within. Her active terror renewed itself
there, as she thought of the idol and the bunch of feathers
close beside her, and she screamed. Loa had his hands upon
her now, and the touch of her flesh was rousing in him in-
stincts which overmastered any remaining reasonableness
surviving his previous irritation.

Musini wished to extinguish the fire. It had not rained all
day, and in that wooden village there was danger in leaving
a fire unattended during the night. She had assembled some
of the other women, and they had filled wooden pitchers
with water and brought them to the fire. Pitcher after
pitcher was emptied upon the embers, at first with sharp
hissing and sputtering, and in the darkness the heavy steam
which arose brought its wet smell to their nostrils. By the
time Musini's turn came and she emptied her pitcher the
embers were sufficiently quenched for there to be almost no
reaction, and there was hardly a sound save the splash of
the water on the dead fire. And inside the house the screams
had ceased.

Musini looked at the dark mass of the house, almost in-

[ 57 ]


visible in the darkness, before she took her way back to her
own house. It was not the first time by any means, and by
no means would it be the last, that she had brought a young
new wife over to Loa's house, most of them trembling and
frightened. It was beyond her capacity to wish that she did
not have to do this; the conception of human love was
something she knew almost nothing about, and the idea of
a personal love for Loa the god never occurred to her. She
may have noticed that these events upset her and disturbed
her, made her sharp-tongued and self-assertive, but even if
she did she did not make all the possible deductions from
the fact. It was so long since she had become the mother of
Lanu her son; men had many wives when they could afford
to buy them, and Loa of right had all he desired. She did
not know that she wished he did not desire them.

[ 58 ]



Delli's fantastic story of the strange people with magic
weapons and unnecessary clothing, who had raided her
town and carried off the inhabitants, was on its way to
being forgotten, like Delli. Had the life of the town pro-
ceeded undisturbed for another thousand years, as it had
done for the last thousand years, some small fragments of
the tale might have survived, imbedded in the lore of the
town like fossils in a sedimentary stratum, in the same way
as there lingered the memory of the family of gorillas which
had wandered into the town thirty years back and which
had been slain after a bloody battle. There were still oc-
casional allusions to Delli's story in the gossip of the town;
it was still a comparatively fresh joke to shout out "Bang
bang!" in imitation of her. But nobody thought of making
any deductions from her story; still less did it rouse any
feeling of apprehension. The only raiders the town knew
about from its own experience, the only enemies that ex-
isted, were the little people of the forest. They were a pesti-
lential nuisance in the persistence with which they stole
plantains and manioc, and the poisoned skewers and pitfalls
with which they beset the forest paths made excursions into
the forest dangerous, but all that was part of experience

[ 59 ]


and tradition. Nobody else had ever raided the town, and
nobody ever would. Such a thing might well happen to out-
landish people with outlandish speech like Delli's, but it
could not happen to the town, which was really the world
— anything outside it was unreal and of quite doubtful

So that at nights the town lay quiet and unapprehensive.
No one dreamed of setting a guard; no one ever lay down
to sleep with any doubts as to the morrow. Certainly Loa
did not. He was secure not merely in the unchanging pres-
ent, but also in his knowledge of his own divinity. His lack
of imagination about guns and slave raiders might well be
excused. He did not know — he could not know — of their
existence. He was even unaware that there were parts of
the world where the trees did not grow so densely as to cut
off the light from the surface of the earth. Two warnings
like Delli's, the arrival of another refugee, and he might
have come to believe in the necessity for taking precautions,
even at the vast sacrifice of some of his belief in his divine
nature. But a single, isolated instance was not, and could
not be, enough to make him realize the danger approaching
the town — all this aside from the fact that he and his in-
experienced people could probably never have displayed
enough imagination to devise efficient military precautions.

In the Central African forest there often comes a chilly
hour before dawn, when the temperature drops to that of
a hot summer's day in England. The insect pests grow som-
nolent, evaporation is easier, and a man who has lain naked
through the night, and who has spent almost all his life

[ 60 ]


in an atmosphere like that of a Turkish bath, may reach
gratefully for a cover and pull it over him, only half awake,
and then fall into an hour of the most restful sleep granted
him. Loa had done exactly that, and he was more deeply
asleep than he had been during the whole night, when the
slave raiders launched their attack. They came from the far
end of the town, across the marshy stream beside Litti's
ironworks, where there were no overgrown clearings to im-
pede their advance, and they were halfway up the street
before the alarm was given.

Loa heard the first screams and cries in his sleep, and
muttered a protest against them, turning over angrily, but
the musket shots woke him fully. He sat up on his bed lis-
tening to the turmoil down the street. Another musket
shot echoed in the darkness, and there was no mistaking it.
Loa remembered Delli's "bang bang," and a torrent of rec-
ollections poured into his brain. The gray-faced men with
clothes on, the killings and the fighting . . . His ceremo-
nial battle-ax lay as always beside the bed, and he seized it
and sprang to his feet; the girl who had shared his bed was
whimpering with fear in the darkness. He paid her no at-
tention, but rushed madly out of the house and down the

Even outside it was still dark. Loa saw an orange spurt of
flame and heard the report of a musket halfway down the
street whence the screams were coming. He had no fear,
not even of the guns; his rage at this intrusion carried him
in furious haste down the street. Women and children were
running past him in the opposite direction, most of them

[ 6i ]


screaming; one of them cannoned into his legs and almost
brought him down, but he managed to keep his feet and
hurried on. The last house in the street was on fire, and by
the light thrown by the flames he could see a group of men
gathered round the doorway of another house. People were
running out of the door, and as they emerged they were
struck down. Loa came yelling up to the group before they
were aware of their danger. He swung his ax with all the
strength of both arms; the edge of the blade came down on
a man's shoulder and clove deep into his body, smashing
him to the ground. With another yell Loa whirled the ax
again. Someone raised his arm in a futile attempt to guard
himself; the ax cut through the forearm as though it had
not been there and then shattered the skull. But even while
he was dealing the blow someone hit him with a club. It
was like an explosion inside his head. He staggered, stupefied
but not quite unconscious. Before him there was a white-
clothed figure at which he struck, but the man guarded
himself with his gun barrel and the ax blade glanced oflF.
Somebody struck him a frightful blow with a club on his
left side; the breath came out of his body in a groan, and
the pain was atrocious. He reeled, and his arms had no
strength to raise his ax again. There was another blow on
his head. Orange flames and white clothing wheeled in cir-
cles round him and his knees could not sustain him. He fell
on all fours and yet stiE strove to rise, but he could not.
Strive as he would, he could not even stay on hands and
knees, but collapsed limply face downward, with only a
trace of consciousness left him. There was stamping and

[ 62 ]


screaming all round him, as he vaguely knew, but the
dreadful pain he was suffering occupied most of his atten-
tion, while before his closed eyes circled tangled shapes and
colors which effectually prevented him from thinking.

Loa was a brave man, though his courage was indistin-
guishable from stupidity. As soon as he could he roused
himself from his lassitude. His head reeled as he sat up, and
the pain in it made him sick — pain was something he
hardly knew, and this great pain was a total novelty to him,
but yet he strove to ignore it, for he had to go on fighting
for his people. The fighting round him had ceased, and the
noise of the struggle now centered higher up the street
towards his own house. There was a gray faint light of dawn
now, by which he could see the two dead bodies that lay
beside him. The upturned face of one of them — the man
he had almost cloven in half when he struck him on the
shoulder — was far blacker than Loa's own chocolate com-
plexion, and the tattooing on cheeks and forehead unlike
anything Loa had ever seen before. The gaping mouth
seemed to grin, and already there were flies gathering round
it. All this Loa seemed to see without seeing. What he took
note of was his ax lying there; he had to feel towards it
before he could grasp it, for it was hard to focus his eyes.
There was a knob-headed club, too, and for some reason he
took that in his other hand. He got unsteadily on his legs,
stepping clumsily over the other dead man, and went stag-
gering up the street to do further battle for his people, ax
in one hand, club in the other.

The raid had already achieved its main objectives. The

[ 63 ]


men who had shown fight had been killed. A good many
women and children, and a few men, had been secured as
prisoners already, and were being driven in groups down
to the far end of the street where they could be conven-
iently herded together. There were men and women and
children hiding in the overgrown clearings round the
town, and they could be dealt with next, those of them
who could easily be caught.

Here came Pinga and half a dozen half-grown children,
driven along by a couple of the black men, whose spears
bore long broad heads of iron, and who carried in their left
hands oval shields of hide. The guards raised a shout when
they saw Loa reeling towards them, coated with blood and
dust, and they came to meet him, while Pinga and the chil-
dren fell into a wailing helpless group. Loa plunged forward
on uncertain legs, but his enemies noted his massive frame
and the bloody ax in his hand and came cautiously to the
encounter, separating so as to attack him front and rear,
and holding their shields before them, their spears poised
either to thrust or to throw. For some seconds they circled.
Loa sprang forward and struck, but the man he struck at
evaded his blow, and Loa only just wheeled round in time,
swinging his ax, to ward oflF the attack of the other. It
could not have lasted much longer; a few more seconds
and one or other of those spears would have been through

But down the street came a white-clothed leader, one of
the "gray-faced" Arab halfcastes, with at his heels a dozen
Negro fighting men. The Arab took in the situation at a

[ 64 ]


glance. He took note of Loa's sturdy bulk, and shouted to
the spearmen not to kill him, while a sharp order to his own
escort sent them to take him alive. Loa was ringed now by
enemies, and he stood there, desperate, but with no thought
of yielding entering his mind. The Arab saw his ferocious
determination, the scowling brow, the lips crinkling back
in a snarl to show the white teeth, and he put his hand to
the pistol in his sash. But a noose of rope, dexterously
thrown from behind, dropped over Loa's head and pinioned
his arms. His frantic strength tore the rope from his cap-
tor's hands, but before he could free himself it had been

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Online LibraryC. S. (Cecil Scott) ForesterThe sky and the forest → online text (page 4 of 20)