C. S. (Cecil Scott) Forester.

The sky and the forest online

. (page 5 of 20)
Online LibraryC. S. (Cecil Scott) ForesterThe sky and the forest → online text (page 5 of 20)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

seized again by others. They swung him round; he dropped
ax and club, and someone reaching out caught him by the
foot and brought him down with a crash. They threw
themselves upon him, and they were experienced in secur-
ing refractory prisoners. Someone roped one of his wrists.
He actually got to his feet, heaving off the half-dozen men
who clung to him, but they brought him down again, flung
their weight upon him, secured his other wrist, and bound
the two together behind his back. Then they got to their
feet, and looked down at him still lying in the dust, his
wrists tied behind his back and the first rope with which
he had been noosed still coiled round him. Loa glared up at
them from where he lay. He saw the Arab looking down
at him, the white clothes and the gay sash, the lean dark
face with the coarse cruel lips — a face unlike any he had
ever seen before.

"Get up," said the Arab.

Despite his queer accent the words were intelligible to

[ 65 ]


Loa, but nobody had ever given Loa orders in his life, and
he still had no intention of yielding.

"Get up," said the Arab again.

Loa may have been too dazed, both by the turn of events
and by his recent struggles, to obey or to reply. Yet even
if he had not been he probably would have acted in the
same way, with a stubborn obstinacy.

The Arab took from his sash a small whip. It was made
from a single strip of hippopotamus hide, tapering from a
convenient thickness for the hand at one end to the fineness
of a knitting needle at the other. Flexible, hard, and im-
perishable, it was ideal for its purpose; a perfect example of
mankind's ingenious inhumanity, in that so comparatively
rare a material as hippopotamus hide should have been
found by experiment to make the best whip for the whip-
ping of men, and women. It was the dreaded kurbash;
wherever the Arab culture penetrated in Africa it carried
the kurbash with it — fire and sword and the kurbash en-
forced Arab dominance over the more primitive races.

The Arab swung the kurbash slowly in his hand.

"Get up," he said for the third time, and still Loa dis-

The Arab struck suddenly and sharply, and Loa started
with the pain. It was like sudden fire in his shoulder — an
instant acute agony and a lingering intense smarting.

"Get up," said the Arab; now he made the thong of the
kurbash whistle menacingly in the air.

He knew how to handle these dull-witted pagans who
were even ignorant of the virtues of the hippopotamus hide

[ ^ 1


until they were demonstrated. Now he struck again three
times; it was like being touched three times with a hot
iron, and Loa, in his sitting position with his hands bound
behind him, fell over on his side as he started at the pain
of it.

"Get up," said the Arab, with another swinging cut de-
livered with the full force of his arm, and Loa, without
knowing what he was doing, scrambled to his feet; the Arab
slashed him again so that the startling pain made Loa leap
clear off the ground.

"Next time do as I say," said the Arab.

Bewildered, Loa tried to run, but one of the black spear-
men caught the trailing rope that encircled his chest and
arms and halted him, and the Arab, following him with
three quick steps, struck him again and again, each time
the pain being so unexpectedly great that Loa jumped into
the air.

"Now go along," said the Arab.

Loa stared about him with frantic disbelief. Pinga and
the children were huddled together in a terrified group,
terrified not merely at what was happening to them but
even more at the sight of Loa treated in this way; that was
the clearest proof of the end of their world. The faces of
the black spearmen wore expressions of dull disinterest;
they had so often seen unruly captives reduced to obedience
with the kurbash; those who had caught his rope had done
so as indifferently as if Loa had been a refractory billy goat.
There was no aid in all the world, in all the world which an
hour ago had been indisputably his own, in its entirety,

[ 67 ]


where every object, living and dead, had been dedicated to
his service. Now he was utterly alone in it, brought down
from superhuman to subhuman in a moment of time. There
was agony of mind and spirit in the realization, as far as
realization went in that unhappy hour.

The spearmen were herding Pinga and the children down
the street.

"Go along," said the man who held Loa*s rope, and when
Loa did not start immediately he reached forward with his
spear to prick him with the point.

The gesture sufficed; Loa had learned the lesson of pain,
and he started to walk before his captor down the street.
At the far end everyone who had been caught was herded
together, many men and very many women and children,
naked black spearmen standing guard over them under the
orders of a few white-clothed Arabs. At the sight of Loa
there arose a thin wailing from the crowd, to see their god
and king driven along at the end of a rope. Some of the
people even fell down, instinctively, in the attitude of pros-
tration as he approached. The Arab guards laughed at the
spectacle, and one of them idly swung his whip with a
crack upon the salient curves of a prostrate fat old woman
so that she sprang up again with a startled cry, fingering
herself in bewilderment. Loa looked round at the misery
about him, and sorrow overcame him. Sorrow not merely
at his own plight, at his own frightful deposition from di-
vinity, but sorrow too at the plight of his people. Tears ran
down his cheeks, and he stood there sobbing, his hands
bound behind him so that he could not cover his face.

[ 68 ]


Many of the raiders were at work beating the overgrown
clearings for fugitives; once or twice the loud bang of a
musket shot could be heard, as the pursuers brought down
a group of pursued for a warning to the rest to stop. Every
now and then small groups of captives were brought in
and added to the herd.

On the edge of the herd was one of the little people of
the forest, with a rope round him, the end of it held by a
spearman. It must have been he who had guided the raiders,
for the wandering forest pygmies knew the paths and de-
rived much of their food from the plantations of the towns-
people. He was a bright-eyed little manikin, naked like all
his people, watching with rapt curiosity the destruction of
the vast town and the gathering together of this enormous
mass of people. Seven hundred people, men, women, and
children, had lived in Loa's town. A hundred had been
killed, three hundred captured. Of those three hundred per-
haps thirty would eventually survive the march across Af-
rica for sale in the slave markets of the Nile valley, of
Abyssinia, and of Arabia across the Red Sea.

Two Arabs came along herding a dozen young men of
the town, who were bearing on their shoulders the ivory
tusks that had been stored in Loa*s house. They were a
prized collection, of no intrinsic value at all — no one in
the town had ever thought of carving ivory — but beyond
price for sentimental reasons. Every pair was a memento of
a notable occasion when an elephant had been taken in a
pitfall, when the whole town had gone on a twenty-four
hour orgy of meat eating, whose memory, and that of the

[ 69 ]


feeling of triumph, gave pleasure for years afterwards.
Every forest village — although Loa did not know it —
had similar accumulations of ivory going back for cen-
turies, and it was the existence of these hoards, as much as
the chance of capturing slaves, which had lured the Arabs
across Africa from Zanzibar and the Nile. But the sight of
his lost collection moved Loa almost as much as the plight
of his people; the tears ran down his cheeks and dropped
upon his dusty chest.

Here came a spearman, limping awkwardly. A barbed
arrow was stuck in the calf of his leg, and he was holding
the end of it in his hand so that it would not trip him as
he walked. He lay stoically still while one of the Arabs
freed the barbs from the flesh with a knife and then cut
deeply all round the small wound so that the blood ran in
streams — these raiders had had long acquaintance with the
forest arrows. Loa looked down at the arrow as it lay on
the ground. It was one of Soli's, he could see. So Soli had
been alive and free at least until lately, and had taken some
sort of revenge upon the raiders. The last batch of arrow
poison had been of good strength, and probably had not
yet grown too old. Definitely not; the wounded man as he
sat there was looking round him in a bewildered fashion.
He was babbling foolishly, pointing at nothing. Now his
eyelids were drooping, and now he was laying himself down
to sleep. Loa watched his death with savage enjoyment.

The nearest house suddenly caught fire and was rapidly
consumed by the flames that ran up the dry wood; pre-
sumably some ember had been smoldering beside it for some

[ 70 ]


time — two other houses had burned earlier in the day,
scattering burning brands. The fire spread to the next house,
Huva's; the flames roared in the thatch of dry leaves, and
the heat was noticeable even where they were.

Now there was a bustle and a stir among the raiders.
Another party was arriving. First came a white-robed Arab
with a dozen spearmen. And then emerged the head of a
short column, and at the sight of the first people in it Loa
caught his breath with horror. They were naked men, men
like his own people, and they were linked together in pairs
by long sticks whose forked ends were clasped about their
necks. Loa remembered what Delli had said about those
forked sticks. Each man bore a burden upon his head, and
at a command from an Arab they all halted and dropped
their bundles on the ground. Two of the bundles jangled
loudly as they fell, and when they were opened they con-
tained short lengths of iron chain; the first chains that Lo*.
had ever seen, and he could not imagine their purpose. He-
learned immediately. i

Others of the slaves carried between them bundles of
forked sticks similar to those about their own necks. A man
of authority among the spearmen — he wore a bristling
headdress and his face and body were scarred with fantastic
tattooing — picked up one of the sticks. They were £yq
feet long and forked at both ends. He pointed to the two
nearest young women.

"Come here," he said.

He put a fork on the shoulders of one of them, and an-
other man took a hammer and staples and one of the lengths

[ 71 ]


of chain, and stapled the latter to the forked ends about
the girl's neck, tightly so that she could just breathe with
comfort. He clapped the other fork on the other girl's
shoulders and stapled a chain to that, too. So the two girls
were fastened to each other rigidly five feet apart, unable
to touch each other, and yet free to move as long as they
moved in unison. They could never run away through the
forest bound together like that, and yet each was perfectly
free to carry a bundle on her head, and any unwieldy
package could be slung from the stick between them. Then
he tore oflf the bark-cloth kilts from the girls so that they
were naked, and then he turned to another pair.

"Come here," he said.

He worked with the rapidity of long practice, fastening
the captives in pairs, indifferent to their sexes, and stripping
them all naked. He came to Indeharu, took one glance at
his white hair, and rejected him, making him stand aside,
to be joined by other old men and women in a separate
group. Loa, when his turn came, found himself bound to
Nessi, Ura's wife. Nessi was weeping bitterly, hugging her
baby to her breast; they struck her to make her raise her
head. When they had chained Loa into the fork they freed
him from the ropes which bound him; he was helpless now
to make any move without dragging Nessi with him, and
the chain was close about his throat, threatening to strangle
him if he made any move uncoordinated with hers.

The young children able to walk with their mothers they
left free, and many of the women, like Nessi, had infants in
their arms; Loa, slowly emerging from his stupefaction,

[ 72 ]



had a momentary gleam of pleasure at the realization that
neither Musini nor Lanu were among the prisoners. They
might still be free — unless they had been killed. Soon all
the prisoners were fastened, save for the children and the
group of older people.

"Kill those," said the headman with a wave of his arm
towards the older people, and the spearmen closed in on the

They beat in their skulls with their knobbed clubs, and
thrust their spears through them. The old people died amid
a diminishing chorus of screams. Indeharu broke away and
tried to run on his old legs, but a flung spear stuck in his
thigh, and a black demon, leaping after him, shattered his
skull with a single blow that made a horrible sound of
breaking bones. Indeharu was the last to die; the others had
already fallen in a tangled heap, although in the heap an
arm or a leg still moved feebly. The headman snatched the
child from Nessi's arms and flung it to the ground, and
someone else thrust a spear into it. Nessi screamed and
plunged forward, cutting the scream short as the chain
tightened about her throat, for Loa naturally did not
plunge with her. Fallen to her knees, Nessi tried to crawl
to where her dead child lay just out of reach, but Loa stood
rooted to the earth, and Nessi could not reach it. The chain
dragged against Loa's neck.

All the little children, the babies in arms and those who
could only just walk, were killed, so that their mothers would
be freed of the burden of carrying and attending them. The
children who could run beside their mothers were spared;

[ 73 ]


those among the boys who should survive both the long
march across Africa, and the crude surgery to which they
would then be submitted, would fetch high prices in the
slave markets of Mecca, higher even than the girl children
of undoubted virginity. But the little babies were a liability
and in no way an asset; long experience had taught the
raiders that to allow a woman to keep her baby was almost
certainly to lose them both, and that meant the loss of a

The slaughter was soon over, and the raiders began appor-
tioning loads among their slaves. The biggest tusk in the
town's collection was allotted to Loa and Nessi. It was not
one of a pair; maybe the other one had not developed in the
elephant's jaw, or anyway its fate had long been forgotten.
This one was dark brown with age — an Arab scraped the
tip of it with his knife and showed his teeth with pleasure
at sight of the pleasant fresh material within. The tusk was
five feet long, and of such a weight that a man had to put
forth his strength to lift it. They slung it on the stick that
connected Nessi with Loa, thereby illustrating a further ad-
vantage about this method of securing captives; the stick
was of great use for supporting loads of a shape or weight
unsuitable for carrying on the top of the head.

Now that everything was ready a party of spearmen
started ahead down the path across the marshy stream. Be-
hind them, in single file, two by two, the raiders set the
slaves on the march. It soon became the turn of Nessi and
Loa. As was only natural, the act of moving from the spot
unbalanced Nessi again. She uttered a wail, reaching out for

[ 74 ]


her dead baby, tearing at her cheeks with her finger nails.
But a slashing cut from the kurbash brought her promptly
out of her hysteria, and her wailing terminated abruptly in
a startled cry of pain; she began to stumble after the others,
with Loa walking behind her. While Nessi had wept Loa
had looked back at the town; at the flaming houses, at the
piled corpses. It was not the same town to him, not the same
world. One world had come to an end for him, and he was
in another, new and raw and unspeakably harsh. He might
still be Loa the god and king, but he was a king without a
kingdom, a god without worshipers, and he had met a power
stronger than his own — the whip. He had learned the les-
son of the whip even in this short time, even in his dazed
and stupid condition.

Nessi stumbled ahead of him down the path. When she
checked at an obstruction, Loa caught his throat against the
fork; when she took a longer step, the chain jerked against
the back of his neck. The tusk in its slings of vine swung be-
tween them to their motion. Sometimes the butt end hit him
in the stomach, just below his ribs, and sometimes the point
prodded Nessi in the small of the back. The weight of it
dragged the fork down against Loa's shoulders and the
chain against his neck, and the friction resulting from his
motion made the rough wood chafe his shoulders. Loa soon
found himself hunching forward, and then leaning to one
side, to relieve the chafed places. In the neighborhood of the
stream the soil was even marshier than usual in the forest^
and at each step Loa sank to his ankles, so that the labor of
plodding along with his burden was severe. In the stifling

[ 75 ]


atmosphere of the forest the sweat ran down him in streams,
and soon his breath was coming jerkily, and his throat was

The bogginess of the soil gave way to actual surface
water, a sluggish little rivulet creeping among the trees.
Loa stooped with his burden to scoop himself a handful of
water to drink, but Nessi ahead of him was staggering along
blindly and unthinkingly. The tug of the chain at his neck
overbalanced him, and he fell, bringing Nessi down with
him, wallowing in the mud below the few inches of water.
They scrambled to their feet; the ivory tusk had slipped in
its slings and was hanging precariously. Loa grabbed for it,
still not allowing for the rigidity of the pole between him
and Nessi. He choked himself against the fork, threw Nessi
forward off her balance again, and then he saw, as they
floundered, the tusk slip from its slings and fall with a
splash into the water.

Sudden agony in his shoulder; an Arab had come up to
the ford and was slashing with his whip. Nessi screamed,
roused from her brutish misery, as the kurbash bit into her.

"Pick up the tusk and bring it here," snarled the Arab.
His pronunciation and use of words were as strange as
Delli's had been, but they could understand him.

Loa groveled down into the thick brown water, found
the tusk, and with an effort heaved it up in his arms.

"Here!" said the Arab.

The rest of the column was halted behind them, and long
experience with many columns had taught this Arab the
necessity of keeping them well closed up and on the move.

[ 76 ]


As Nessi and Loa came to the place indicated beside the
stream he impatiently motioned the waiting column to go
on, and they splashed down across the ford, two by two,
naked and sweating and burdened, their eyes cast down, all
of them gasping with the heat and the effort.

"Hang up the tusk again," said the Arab.

Loa struggled with the huge mud-daubed thing clasped
in his arms.

"Help me, Nessi," he said. "Turn round."

"Hurry yourselves," snapped the Arab.

Within the triangle of fork and chain Nessi's neck was
free to revolve, and she turned herself cautiously, so as to
face Loa. Between them they were able with difficulty to
replace the tusk in its slings of vine, and Nessi turned herself
about again. The column had all gone by; two spearmen
from the rear guard were waiting, at the Arab's orders, to
herd them forward in the track of the column.

"Hurry! Hurry!" said the Arab.

The whip bit like fire in their flanks as they started for-
ward again and re-entered the ford; at the first sign of their
pace slackening the whip hissed in the air.

They plunged on blindly through the sultry twilight of
the forest. Soon they had proof enough that they were fol-
lowing the path of the column. A corpse sprawled beside the
path, the head £.Ye feet away from the neck: a middle-aged
woman's corpse, the breasts flaccid and empty. The tattoo-
ing on it was not that of anyone in Loa's town; one foot was
bent strangely outwards and supplied the explanation of
why the corpse lay there. When that ankle was broken

[ 77 ]


there was no chance of keeping the woman on the march,
and the quickest way of getting her out of the fork was to
take off her head. The body already swarmed with ants. One
of the spearmen walking behind them laughed and made
some unintelligible remark, which probably did not refer to
the dead woman. Loa knew already that dead bodies were
far too common to excite a jest.

And then, farther along the path, Loa caught sight of
something else. So blurred was his vision with sweat and ex-
haustion that at first he did not believe that what he saw
had a concrete existence. It might have been something real
but with no place in this world, like what he used to see
among the bones in that other life. A tree had fallen near
the path, bringing down with it a tangle of vines, amid
which glowed gaudy flowers, and at this point a shaft of
sunshine reached down from the outer sky nearly to ground
level. There was light and shadow and a screen of greenery.
And from the edge of the screen a face looked momentarily
out at Loa. It was Lanu, little Lanu, son of Loa and grand-
son of Nasa, once a god and a god to be. It was impossible
that Lanu should be out here in the forest. Of course; now
the face was gone. Loa had not really seen it. And then it
came again, among the light and shade, indisputably Lanu,
indisputably. The face split into a grin, with a flash of white
teeth, and then it disappeared again. It was Lanu looking
out at him from the cover of the vines. Loa was too miser-
able and too weary to think of all that implied. He had seen
Lanu, and he was faintly cheered, but he had to go on plod-
ding through the forest under the burden of the fork.

[ 78 ]



Before sunset they emerged from the forest onto the
bank of the big river. The Hght was still glaringly bright
even though the sun was dipping towards the treetops on
the other bank, and Loa, utterly worn out though he was,
felt the old sensation of shrinking a little in the presence of
the sky, the usual slight vertigo on looking out on those
immense distances. The sky was his enemy as well as his
brother, and he had always known it. It must be the sky
that had dealt him this fatal blow, through the agency of
the raiders. Here was the proof of it, this vast encampment
surrounded by terrifying distances.

They had reached the temporary base of the slave raiders,
a central point where they had established themselves so as
to be able to strike out in all directions and sweep up every
community within thirty or forty miles. Here a long wide
rocky beach ran down to the water's edge covered with only
sparse vegetation. A town of many houses stood above it;
the townspeople were now either slaves or dead and the
raiders lived in their houses. On the rocky beach was gath-
ered all the accumulated plunder — the captives and the
ivory. More than a thousand human beings were there,
moving about with a certain amount of freedom; what

[ 79 ]


freedom there was, when they were chained two by two,
neck and neck, in the forked sticks. Loa looked with dull
amazement at this immense number of people; drawn up on
the beach was a row of canoes, vast things, and he stared
with fearful interest at yet another just coming in to the
landing place propelled by a dozen glittering paddles.

**This way," said the Arab.

This was the central dump of the ivory captures. More
than a hundred tusks lay together on the ground here, un-
guarded, for in Central Africa ivory had no more than a
sentimental value — that mass represented a fortune only
when borne on men's shoulders a thousand miles to Zanzi-
bar or twice that distance to Cairo.

*Tut it down here," said the Arab.

Loa allowed the tusk to slide out of the slings to the
ground. The relief of being free of the weight of it was un-

*'Go over there and get your food."

The Arab turned away without evincing any more in-
terest in them. His final gesture had indicated a thicker
nucleus in the mass of people on the beach.

"Let us go there," said Loa to Nessi.

The grammatical construction he used was unusual to
him; self-analysis of course was something quite foreign to

1 2 3 5 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20

Online LibraryC. S. (Cecil Scott) ForesterThe sky and the forest → online text (page 5 of 20)