C. S. (Cecil Scott) Forester.

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him and he took no note of what he was saying. He spoke as
one equal to another, not with the complex construction of
a superior to an inferior. The physical fact of being chained
to one end of a pole while Nessi was chained to the other
seemed to make this method of speech inevitable. Nessi be-

[ 80 ]


gan to pick her way towards the Httle crowd, Loa plunging
along after her. Because of the rocky irregularities of the
beach they jarred each other's necks as they went along;
they passed many other people, all similarly confined in
forked poles, all of them as naked as Loa and Nessi. Some
were wandering aimlessly, some were squatting or lying on
the ground, the individuals in each pair rigidly five feet
apart from each other. Among the crowd the situation was
more complicated, for the people and their poles were liable
to entangle themselves by aimless movements. The focus of
the crowd was a wooden trough, beside which stood a cou-
ple of white-clothed Arabs and two spearmen. Most of the
people were standing dumbly eyeing the trough, not speak-
ing, merely looking. Nessi wound her way through the
crowd; the pole behind her bumped against people as she did
so; Loa was too weary and numb to make more than a slight
attempt to keep it clear. Arriving at the edge of the cleared
space round the trough Nessi hesitated, but one of the
Arabs singled her out immediately as one who had not al-
ready had her ration and beckoned her forward. She ap-
proached the trough with Loa behind her.

"Fill your hands," said the Arab, making the gesture of
getting a double handful.

At the bottom of the trough there was a thin layer of
cooked tapioca, and Nessi filled her hands with it. As she
did so she realized that she was hungry, and she bent her
head to eat, while Loa behind her fumed with sudden hun-
ger — it was twenty-four hours since he had last eaten, and
he had fought a battle and made a long march during that

[ 8i ]


time. His restless movements reminded Nessi of his existence
at the other end of the pole, and she wheeled aside to allow
him to come up to the trough. He scraped himself a double
handful of the glutinous starch. The second Arab standing
by, a man of more aquiline features, noticed his iron collar
and bracelets.

**Here," he called to Loa, beckoning with a gesture of au-

Loa stared at him stupidly, but the Arab was not a man
to tolerate a moment's hesitation in obedience to an order.
With a malignant snarl on his face he repeated words and
gesture, and Loa went up to him, dragging Nessi behind
him. The Arab reached out and struck him on the mouth
with his fist; Loa staggered, dropping most of his tapioca.
He winced as the Arab reached out his hand again, but this
time all that happened was that his head was roughly jerked
back so that his collar could be examined. A mere glance
was suflScient to reveal it as base metal, and half a glance
sufficed for the bracelets. The Arab turned his back and
gave Loa no more notice, and almost instinctively Loa
turned to refill his hands at the trough. There were some
other late-comers already being fed there, and a warning
cry from the guardian of the trough checked Loa in his
stride. That Arab had a whip in his hand, and Loa knew
whips. But he was hungry. There was a little tapioca still in
his hands and he licked at it; two swallows and it was gone.
He edged forward again, but the whip whistled in the air
and he drew back. Another late arrival was scraping up the
very last of the tapioca from the trough. Then the Arab

[ 82 ]


guard swung his whip again in a wide gesture, driving the
lingering couples away; before his whip they withdrew re-
luctantly, bumping each other with their poles.

Here came a whole group of the Arab raiders, white-
clothed, muskets in their hands, striding down towards the
river. They took their places at the water's edge, and spread
mats before themselves. They made strange sounds, and
strange gestures, dipping their hands in the running water,
prostrating themselves with their backs turned to the hid-
den sun now far behind the trees across the river. Night
was beginning to fall; the eastern sky towards which the
Arabs were kneeling was already dark.

*T am weary," said Nessi, sitting down; she had had ex-
perience enough now with pole and chain to do so cau-
tiously, and with due regard to Loa — a tug at his throat
meant a tug at her own.

"I too," said Loa, squatting down as well.

Five feet apart they sat in the gathering darkness. And
then Nessi began to weep. She wept out of weariness, she
wept for her dead child, for her lost liberty, out of terror
for the future and regret for the past. Her wailing rose thin
on the heavy evening air, and her example was infectious.
Another woman near began to wail, and then another and
another so that the sound spread down the riverbank. Some
man shouted his sorrows in a raucous dialect, the hard,
clipped words punctuating the wailing. Another man ech-
oed the cry in a cruder rhythm. Now the whole encamp-
ment throbbed with the misery of Africa. Loa could tell,
by the dragging of the pole in the darkness, that Nessi as she

[ 83 ]


sat was swaying her body backwards and forwards in time
with her weeping; she was dissolving in an ecstasy of un-
happiness, and so were the others, and their misery was dis-
sipating itself in hysteria.

Loa might have been carried away in the flood; he might
have joined the shouting wailing chorus, to sob until he fell
asleep like a drunken man, had not his own unhappiness
been beyond hysteria. But he had lost more than anyone else
there, unless, as was possible, some other local god had also
been enslaved. In the darkness Loa's face bore an expression
of puzzled thought. So hard was he trying to think that he
remained uninfected by the rhythm around him. For until
today Loa had been a god ever since he could remember.
When he was seven years old — eighteen years ago — a
strange sickness, a mysterious magic, had descended upon
the town. Almost everyone had suffered from it, and nearly
everyone who suffered from it had died. Nasa, Loa's father,
had died. Pustules had formed to cover his body, and he had
shouted words that had no meaning, and then he had died,
quickly. His brothers had died, his wives and his children
had died. In every house more people had died than lived,
and in some houses everyone died. Loa himself had sickened;
he bore on his forehead and on other parts of his body the
hollow marks, grayish in the chocolate-brown skin, of
the pustules which had formed there. But Loa had lived
through it, lived to find himself the sole survivor of the
house of Nasa, a god unquestioned. Upon him had devolved
the duty of seeing that Nasa and Nasa's fathers before him
were supplied with attendants consonant with their dignity.

[ 84 ]


It was he who had to recall the errant moon from the arms
of the river, it was he who had to ascertain, by virtue of his
divine powers, who were the miscreants of the town, and it
was he who, by his mere existence, had to ensure the pros-
perity and happiness of his people. The few surviving old
people — Indeharu, whose skull had been beaten in that
morning by a knobbed club, was the last of them — had
been able to tell Loa about all this when he was a child. And
the younger women had borne children, and the immature
had reached maturity and become fathers and mothers. The
young men who had taken wives lately had been born after
the sickness, and their wives long after, and they had never
known any other god than Loa; they knew of the dread
majesty of Nasa, whose name none but Loa might pro-
nounce, and they saw people sent to serve him and his ma-
jestic predecessors, and the knowledge increased their awe.
They knew that Loa was brother to the sky and the forest,
that the moon was his sister and the sun his brother.

Loa had never had reason to doubt any of this himself.
What he wanted was his; he owned the whole world, which
meant his town. The forest round it, with its little people
and its vague hints of other peoples, was merely a setting for
the town, a chaos in which his world hung suspended, and
a chaos, moreover, which was his own brother. He knew of
the effectiveness of his powers of divination as positively
as he knew that hair grew on the top of his head. There had
never been in his mind the least doubt about his divinity,
and of course there had never been the least threat to it. He
had never been aware of any limitations encompassing him-

[ 85 ]


self because he had never sought any. A world of a continu-
ous sufficiency of food, of an almost complete absence of
danger, a world of no ambitions and no disappointments,
was not a world favorable to metaphysical speculation. A
red ant could bite him, although he was a god; this was a
world in which red ants could bite gods, and it was not a
world in which one inquired into the relative natures of red
ants and gods.

This was true only up to this morning, and now every-
thing was different. Loa sat with his fellow captives wailing
round him, trying to fit his new self into this new world,
while his mind, utterly unused to logic, was weighted down
in addition by the grave handicap of a clumsy language.
His clubbings of the morning had kept him somewhat
dazed until now, but their effect was wearing off at the same
time as hunger was stimulating his thoughts. Although he
did not join in the rhythmic wailings about him, he yet
heard them, and they worked upon him.

His genuine sorrow at the destruction of the town moved
him inexpressibly, and he knew now that hunger could
gnaw at his divinity, and that knobkerries could smite it
and hippopotamus-hide whips could cut into it. Yet it was
not easy for the habits of thought of a lifetime to be dis-
carded. Having almost come to grips with reality Loa
turned a little lightheaded, thanks largely to hunger and the
beat of the rhythmic wailing on his brain. It was his brother
the sky who had betrayed him; he had always distrusted the
sky, and now his distrust was justified and his perspicacity
demonstrated. The sky had extended help to his enemies; it

[ 86 ]


was by the aid of the sky, encamped as they were under its
protection, that they had been able to enslave him. A little
deliriously Loa vowed vengeance on his treacherous brother.
He would degrade the sky, he would kill the sky, he would
pay back these sufferings of his tenfold. In the midst of
these wild thoughts came the memory of his glimpse of
Lanu in the forest. Lanu would avenge him if he did not
avenge himself. Lanu would continue the line of his divin-
ity. Although Loa kept silent, he was soon as ecstatic and
delirious with emotion as Nessi or any other slave about
him. When the fit passed he was both drained and weary,
like the others, and like the others he sank into an ex-
hausted sleep, lying motionless under the dark sky with a
thousand fellow unfortunates. The mosquitoes and the ants
— the myriad insects of Africa — could not break into his
comatose slumber, nor could the rocky earth beneath him.
He lay like a corpse, and so did Nessi, so that neither of
them disturbed the other with tugs at the stick that held
them together.

That was a strange bond between them, uniting them and
yet keeping them apart. They could never be nearer than
five feet to each other, and yet never farther, never out of
sight, and yet never within reach. When Loa woke in the
dark dawn, he inevitably awoke Nessi. She gave a sharp cry.

"Ura," she said, "where are you?"

Ura jvas the name of her husband, one of the best of the
young hunters. Nessi put her hand up to her neck and the
touch of the fork and chain recalled to her the events of
yesterday which she had thought momentarily a dream.

[ 87 ]


"Oh," she wailed. "Ah — ee — ai — "

Then she remembered who it was who lay beside her, and
she looked round in the gathering light.

"Lord," she said, "is it indeed you?"

"It is indeed I," said Loa.

He was using again the language of a god, and Nessi was
addressing him in the language of a remote inferior.

"Lord, what will they do with me?"

"You will bear burdens for them," said Loa, hesitatingly.

It was not an easy question to answer in any event. The
conception of slavery had quite died out in Loa's little com-
munity. And Loa found it hard to imagine the existence
of other communities, or of distances greater than a day's
march. But with a prodigious effort of his imagination he
was just able to picture the possibility that the slavers, cov-
eting the ivory tusks, had come a long way for them, and
needed bearers to carry them back to their town in a far
part of the forest. To mere mortals, he knew, wives were
desirable property, something to be coveted, but if any
slaver intended to take Nessi as a wife he had shown small
disposition to do so as yet.

"Will it be far. Lord?" asked Nessi.

"Very far."

"How far. Lord?" persisted Nessi, with a child's need for

"Many nights, many days," said Loa, his imagination
making a fantastic leap to such a wild idea.

"But you. Lord, you?" said Nessi.

She was only a mortal and such things might happen to

[ 88 ]


her within the limits of insane possibiHty, but now she re-
membered again that Loa was chained in the other fork of
her pole, and of course nothing like that could happen to

"Doubtless I shall come too."

The equatorial dawn had fully broken by now, and the
overcast sky was shining its light down upon them. Nessi
looked at Loa, thinking hard. He was as naked as she was,
as naked as all the other slaves about her. He had no leopard-
skin cloak, and the only reminder of his former greatness
was his iron collar and bracelets. And they were talking
familiarly together, Nessi with him, and he had just ad-
mitted the possibility of being driven like a goat across the
country with the others. Her world was a mad place. And
people were no longer putting their faces into the dirt for
him, and yet were suffering no apparent harm. Ah, that was
the point. No apparent harm; but without doubt Loa would
summon his secret powers and rend these slave raiders apart
when he decided to do so. At the moment he was actuated
by motives for delay incomprehensible to mere mortals —
a conclusion that satisfied her vague wonderings. Except
that she had a lingering wish that Loa's whim for being in
temporary subjection had not involved the killing of her
baby yesterday.

"Look, Lord," said Nessi. "There is food."

A full wooden trough had been carried down, and al-
ready a mob of slaves were milling round it.

"Let us go there," said Loa, suddenly remembering that
he was desperately hungry.

[ 89 ]


A double handful of tapioca; that was what he got for
himself at the trough, and this time he saw to it that he
dropped none. He was careful that the pole moving from
side to side under his nose in response to Nessi's movements
did not interfere with his feeding. Pushing round them to
get to the trough were many people from his town, mingled
with many more whom he had never seen before. It was sig-
nificant that already the one sort paid him scarcely more
attention than the other. They frequently failed to recog-
nize him, chained as he was to Nessi, and when they did it
was sometimes with a startled cry and sometimes with noth-
ing more than recognition, so that Loa knew they knew
who he was. Chains and nakedness and misery were leveling
them all. And Loa's own personal reaction was not too con-
sistent. Sometimes he was sunk in despair, but sometimes his
natural curiosity and interest in the world would break
through his depression and his bewilderment. Some kind of
selection had gone into his breeding. Some ancestor of his
must have been markedly different from his fellows to be
accepted as king and god, and the qualities had not been
bred out in ensuing generations, for from a mass of peo-
ple of the royal blood only one received deification, and
each god in turn had his choice of the women as a vehicle
to continue the royal line. So that even on that first day
of captivity by the river, Loa's wits were coming back to
normal and beginning to exercise themselves on what he

It was clear that the river and the sky had betrayed him;
the raiders had a fleet of canoes with which they could cover

[ 90 ]


great distances and strike without warning. The night be-
fore they attacked the town they had undoubtedly made
use of canoes to drop down the river, presumably as far as
the rocks from which he was accustomed to summon his
sister the moon. He saw a flotilla come back with a few
slaves, but with the canoes crammed to the gunwales with
food, the result of some raid on another town, he supposed.
It was obvious that the problem of supplying the large mass
of people encamped by the river was a serious one, and could
only be solved by ceaseless raids upon the surrounding coun-
try. Moreover, this source of supply would exhaust itself in
time; and when that time came, the only resource would be
for the party to move on, either into some fresh area, or
homewards. That was a brilliant piece of deduction on the
part of Loa, uneducated as he was; but in one respect Loa
was well equipped — between childhood and the present
day he had had some thorough administrative experience,
for in his town when all was said and done he had been ulti-
mately responsible for the economic working of the life of
the place, down to the smallest detail. The duties had not
been onerous, in the absence of any difficulties regarding
food or population, but they had opened up channels of
thought in his brain which were available for the passage
of these new notions.

"Let us go up there," said Loa, to Nessi, pointing up the
steep slope to the village. He did not make use of the greatly
superior form of address, but that used by one lofty equal
to another — the way Indeharu would have spoken to Vira
in the old days; the old days two days ago.

[ 91 ]


"Let us go," said Nessi obediently and almost deferen-

She rose to her feet and they began to plod up the slope,
picking their way through the yoked pairs dotted about.
This bare rocky slope was a continuation and expansion of
the main street of the village above, whose houses they could
see. Like the houses with which Loa had always been famil-
iar, they were built of thick planks split from tree trunks,
but they were unfamiliar to Loa in the details of their de-

*'Those men are different," said Nessi, pointing — they
were walking at this moment with the pole diagonally
across their course, with Nessi on Loa's left front. By this
arrangement it was more convenient to talk, and the pole
was not such a nuisance as it was if they walked side by side.

"They are indeed different," agreed Loa.

Nessi had pointed to two armed men lounging by the
entrance to the village; they were dark brown rather than
the deep black of the spearmen, and they carried shields of
plaited reeds, and short stout bows with a few arrows whose
heads were wrapped in leaves — poisoned arrows, therefore
— altogether, in color and weapons, resembling the men of
Loa's town rather than the strange barbarians who had cap-
tured them. But they were just as hostile.

"Go away!" shouted one of them as they approached,
and, when Nessi and Loa still advanced, he put an arrow
on his bowstring menacingly.

"Go away!" he repeated, leveling the arrow with every
intention of drawing and loosing.

[ 92 ]


""We must turn aside," said Loa.

From where they stood they could just look up the street.
Naked black women were moving about it on domestic
duties, carrying wooden jars of water and so on, and they
caught a glimpse of a white-robed Arab. Then Loa led Nessi
along the top of the slope, high above the river. On their
left hand were the old village clearings, the usual wild tangle
of stumps and creepers, so dense that even a single agile man
would have difficulty in picking his way through; a yoked
couple could never do it. Strangulation or a broken neck
would be the fate of one or both of them before they had
penetrated ten yards — there was no escape in this direc-
tion. At the far end of the clearing the rocky slope had nar-
rowed down to a few yards, and there the forest began,
with the path by which they had come. Here lounged two
more men with shields and bows. There was no word in
Loa's limited vocabulary for "sentries." He had to think of
them by the elaborate circumlocution of "men who wait to
stop other people passing," but at least that exactly de-
scribed them.

"Turn back," said one of them as Loa and Nessi drew

He was as ready to shoot as had been his colleague at the
other end of the clearing, and the whole width of the gap,
from where the clearing ended to the water's edge, was no
more than fifty yards. Moreover, the spaces between the
trees, Loa saw, were closed by a double row of pointed
stakes, leaving only the path free. There was no way of es-
cape this way, either. They were on the water's edge here,

[ 93 ]


where the river ran, golden-brown, its otherwise smooth
surface disturbed here and there by the ripples and eddies of
its progress. Far out, a huge tree was being carried rapidly
down, now and again turning over and round, raising fresh
branches and roots towards the sky as it went. Loa saw the
gaunt limbs raised in silent and unavailing appeal to the
sky, and he was shaken by fresh emotion. He was as helpless
as that tree-trunk.

**May you die!" he suddenly shouted at the sentries.

He shook his fist at them in rage. "May the bowels of
your children rot! May — "

"Oh, let us run away," said Nessi, for one of the sentries
was coming towards them menacingly. "Come!"

Nessi tried to run, and when the pull of the chain choked
her she put her hands up to it to hold it clear of her wind-
pipe and plunged forward, dragging Loa with her.

"Oh, quickly!" said Nessi.

Her panic infected Loa, and they ran back to lose them-
selves among the crowded couples along the water's edge,
the chains of the yoke dragging at their necks when the
irregularities of the ground made them diverge or converge
a little.

[ 94 ]



It was a strange bond between them, was that yoke. It
held Loa and Nessi together and yet it kept them apart.
They could not even touch each other with outstretched
fingertips, and yet neither of them could move a yard with-
out not merely the consent but the co-operation of the
other. They could never be out of each other's sight or hear-
ing; there was nothing the one could do without the other
being aware of it. If one should fall, the other suffered
equally. It compelled each to walk with due attention to the
other's well-being. When they lay down to sleep on the un-
level ground it was necessary for each to see that the other
was comfortable; if one should roll over or slip a little down
the slope the other had perforce to conform. They had to be
brave together, or timorous together. One could not be rest-
less or try to explore if the other were torpid, nor could the
torpid one remain torpid — each had to sink or rise to the
other's level of activity. Because of the yoke Loa and Nessi
experienced all the disadvantages of intimacy and enjoyed
none of the advantages. They could easily make each other
uncomfortable and unhappy, but it was almost impossible
to make each other comfortable or to console each other.
They could not even speak to each other privately — at

[ 95 ]


that distance apart they must needs talk loudly enough for
others to hear. All their secrets they must share with each
other, and yet they could have no secrets unshared with the

For husband and wife, for two people who had long been
intimate, the yoke would have caused difficulties enough;
but Loa and Nessi had hardly known each other. Loa had
been the god, immense and unapproachable, before whom
Nessi had to prostrate herself; Nessi had been a pretty
wench that chance had never before thrown his way. He
knew much more about her now — he knew just how her
head was set on her shoulders and how her arms swung as
she walked. Looking round the pole he learned all about her

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Online LibraryC. S. (Cecil Scott) ForesterThe sky and the forest → online text (page 6 of 20)