Copyright
C. S. (Cecil Scott) Forester.

The sky and the forest online

. (page 8 of 20)
Online LibraryC. S. (Cecil Scott) ForesterThe sky and the forest → online text (page 8 of 20)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


edge gleamed in the twilight of the forest. Musini*s eyes met
Loa's. She momentarily clapped her hand to her forehead in
salutation, but she allowed no ceremonial to delay her in the
course of action she had planned. She hacked with her ax at
the creepers which suspended the load from the pole; they
were tough and did not part easily, but Musini slashed away
with all the considerable strength of her skinny arms until

[ III ]



THE SKY AND THE FOREST

the elephant's tusk fell to the ground, relieving Loa and
Nessi of its considerable weight. No word had yet been
spoken. Musini now turned the edge of the ax against the
pole which connected the two prisoners. Twice she hacked
at it, but it was of a tough elastic wood with a hard sur-
face; it bent under her blows and the ax rebounded from
it having made hardly a dent.

"Enough, Mother!" squealed Lanu. He was standing with
his arrow half drawn, looking sharply to left and to right
beside the dying Arab. "We must not wait."

"Come, Lord, come, you," said Musini.

As Nessi still stood bewildered Musini reached out her
hand and took Nessi's, and turned to run through the for-
est, with Loa lumbering after her. Some of the other slaves
made a move to follow them, but Lanu checked them.

"Back!" he shouted in his high voice, threatening them
with his arrow. "Back!"

He drew away from the surging knot of slaves and then
turned and ran at top speed after the others; Loa running
over the spongy unequal ground with the yoke pounding on
his shoulders, looked down to find Lanu running beside
him. Lanu extended a hand to him, as Musini had done to
Nessi, as if to drag his big bulk along after him. Somebody
— either Nessi or Loa — tripped and stumbled, and the
pair of them fell crashing to the ground, the yokes and
chains lacerating their necks, the breath driven from their
bodies.

"Come on, come on," shrieked Lanu, dancing beside
them.

[ "2 ]



THE SKY AND THE FOREST

They scrambled to their feet and Musini seized the be-
wildered Nessi's hand again and dragged her forward. They
heard a shout far behind them — muffled as it reached their
ears through the trees — and knew that pursuit had com-
menced.

"Run, oh, run!" pleaded Musini.

And so they ran through the forest, through the twilight,
between the great friendly trunks of the trees. They came
to a little brook flowing between wide marshy banks; the
mud was halfway up their thighs as they made their way
through. It slowed them, but it did not stop them, and,
once across, they resumed their heartbreaking pace and kept
it up until Nessi began to wail, little short sounds which
were all her breathless condition allowed. Her pace slack-
ened until they were obliged to stop and allow her to fall
gasping on the ground. Loa fell too, his breath coming
heavily, and his legs aching. Musini was content to squat be-
side him, while Lanu was still sufficiently fresh to make his
way back, bow and arrow in hand, to peer through the trees
so as to be able to give warning in case of pursuit.

After a few seconds Loa was able to raise his head, and his
eyes met those of Musini beside him.

"Is it well with you. Lord?" she asked. She used the hon-
orific mode of address — which she had not used in the days
when Loa was god and king — and her wrinkled face bore
a fond smile. She put out a hand and caressed Loa's sweating
shoulder.

"It is well with me," said Loa.

To Loa's credit Musini's affection took him by surprise.

[ "3 ]



THE SKY AND THE FOREST

His fall from divinity had left him with little belief in him-
self. People had served him when he was a god presumably
because that was what he was. Now that he was a naked
worthless slave he was surprised and touched that anyone,
even skinny wrinkled Musini, should serve him and love
him for himself alone.

"My face is bright at seeing you again, Lord," said Mu-
sini, and there was some literal truth in the trite metaphor,
as a glance at her showed.

A faint cry from the end of the glade forestalled Loa's
reply; Lanu was running back to them and his gestures
warned them of pursuit.

"We must run," said Musini, getting to her feet. "Rise
up, you."

The last words were addressed to the gasping Nessi, and
when the latter made no further response than a groan
Musini kicked her in the ribs with her tough bare foot.

"Stand up!" shrieked Musini, and took Nessi by the hair
to drag her to her feet. The ax swung in Musini's other
hand, and she shot a glance at Loa. "Shall I cut oflF her head?
Then we would not have to take her with us, Lord."

"No, she bears one end of the pole," said Loa — a per-
fectly sound argument, although it is just possible that Loa
was actuated by other motives than immediate expediency.

Lanu had reached them by now.

"Come on!" he squeaked.

Nessi had risen to her feet, perhaps as a result of Musini's
grim suggestion, and Lanu took one of her hands, and
Musini the other, and they began to run again, with weary

[ X14 ]



THE SKY AND THE FOREST

legs moving stiffly at first, running and running, with a
weariness that grew until it seemed impossible even once
again to put one foot in front of the other, and when they
could not run they walked, with steps that grew slower and
shorter as the day went on, as the twilight of the forest
deepened with the coming of night.

"Now we can rest at last," said Musini in the end, when
it was growing too dark to see even the ground under their
feet.

They stopped, and Nessi settled what Loa was going to
do by dropping flat to the ground where she stood, so that
Loa was dragged down too. With the coming of darkness,
there was no chance of the Arabs continuing their pursuit.
He was safe and he was free.

"Tomorrow, with the first light, we shall release you from
this chain and yoke. Lord," said Musini.

She put out her hands in the darkness and felt for Loa's
chafed neck. The touch was marvelously soothing; Loa
found himself stroking Musini's skinny arms.

"I am hungry," said Nessi, suddenly. "Oh, I am very
hungry. I wish I could eat."

"Shut that howling mouth," said Musini. She was utterly
scandalized, as her tone showed, by the familiarity of Nessi's
manner of address.

"But I am hungry," protested Nessi.

"Hungry you are and hungry you will remain," was all
the sympathy Musini had to offer. "There is nothing to eat
now. There have been many days when Lanu and I have
eaten nothing."

[ "5 ]



THE SKY AND THE FOREST

"There is nothing to eat?" asked Loa. With this turn of
the conversation he was now sleepily conscious of the hun-
ger that possessed him.

"For you, Lord, there is this," said Musini.

She fumbled in the darkness, presumably in the little bag
which hung from her neck between her breasts, and then
she found Loa's hand and pressed something into it.

"What is this?" he asked.

"White ants, Lord, all we have. I gathered them this
morning."

White ants lived in little tunnels in dead trees, harmless
creatures enough, quite unlike their ferocious red and black
brothers. Their bodies were succulent, and could be eaten
by hungry people; but these ants had been long dead,
crushed into a paste by Musini's fingers and carried all day
in her little bag. There was only a couple of mouthfuls of
them anyway; Loa chewed the bitter unsatisfying stuff and
swallowed it down with a fleeting regret for the double
handful of tapioca which had been served out to him that
morning.

"It is hard to gather food in the forest," said Lanu.

"That is so," agreed Musini. "Yet has Lanu been clever.
He has been like a man. Lord. It was Lanu who made the
bow and the arrows. Lanu is our worthy son."

"It was I who killed the gray-faced man," said Lanu.
"Did you see him fall? My arrow was in his throat, where I
had aimed it. It was I who made the poison. I used the
creeper juice. I made it as I had seen Tiri the son of Minu
make it."

[ "6 ]



THE SKY AND THE FOREST

"It was well done, son," said Loa. "And how was it you
came to escape when first the Arabs came to the town?"

They told him between them, Musini and Lanu, of their
adventures on the day of the raid and since then. They had
fled into the clearing at the first alarm, together, for Lanu
had been sleeping in his mother's house. Lanu had snatched
up and borne with him his little ceremonial ax, his latest
present from his father, and it had stood them in good stead.
Without it they would have been nearly helpless in the
forest, but with it they had the power that edged steel con-
veys. Lanu had shaped and trimmed the bow; Musini had
braided the bowstring from the flexible creeper fibers. They
had followed the slave caravan from camp to camp, living
on what they could gather in the forest. With vigilance and
precaution they had escaped the snares of the little people,
although twice arrows aimed at them had narrowly missed
one or other of them. Every day at some time or other they
had seen Loa, far more often than he had seen them, and by
continual watching they had made themselves familiar with
the Arabs' methods, so that eventually they had planned the
rescue and carried it out successfully.

"That was well done indeed, my son," said Loa.

There were the strangest feelings inside him at that mo-
ment, the oddest misgivings. Lanu was a clever little boy,
but it could not have been Lanu who was responsible for
all this. Lanu could not have displayed the singleness of pur-
pose, the resolution and the ingenuity which had resulted in
his rescue. Lanu might have loved his father, but — Loa's
newfound humility asserted itself — it was incredible that

[ "7 ]



THE SKY AND THE FOREST

he would have gone through all that risk and labor to rescue
him except at the instance of his mother. It must have been
Musini who did the planning and who showed the resolu-
tion. It must have been Musini's devotion which had kept
them to the task. An odd state of affairs indeed, when
women should thus display initiative and determination;
there was something unnatural and disturbing in the
thought of it.

And it was disturbing in a different way to think of
Musini's devotion. In the time of his divinity, Loa would
have thought nothing of someone running risks to help him
or even to contribute slightly to his comfort; but since that
time Loa had been in contact with a new reality. It was
not a god whom Musini had rescued — Loa faced the fact
squarely — but a slave, a slave in bonds, a worthless chat-
tel. It could not have been from religious conviction that
Musini had exerted herself thus. It was Loa the man and
not Loa the god whom she had rescued. There must be a per-
sonal tie. All this was terribly difficult to work out in Loa's
untrained brain and with his limited vocabulary Loa, the
man with forty wives, knew almost nothing of love until
now. He was facing something nearly as new as what he
faced when he first felt doubts about being a god. It called
for a fresh orientation of himself. Thanks to his recent ex-
periences, Loa found difficulty in swallowing the undoubted
fact that Musini must love him for himself alone. He could
not take it sublimely for granted. His exhausted brain grap-
pled feebly with all these astonishing developments, with
the new phenomenon of love, with the concept of women

[ "8 ]



THE SKY AND THE FOREST

being capable of decisive action, and then it shrank back
exhausted from the encounter.

"I am thirsty as well as hungry," said Nessi.

She was voicing everyone's sentiments, but that did not
help her.

"Did I not say shut that mouth?" snapped Musini. "Let
us sleep, for we are weary."

The blackest possible night was round them, the darkness
of night in the forest, when the hand could not be seen be-
fore the face. Beneath them the leaf mold was soggy and
damp; around them the stifling hot moist air was not stirred
by the slightest breeze. Nessi had petulantly flung herself
prone at Musini's rebuke, with a jerk at the pole which had
forced Loa to change his position. He tried to settle himself
again; Musini's arms found him and pillowed his head upon
her shoulder regardless of the discomfort the yoke and chain
brought her. They slept in a huddled group, bitten by in-
sects, with the sweat running irritatingly over their naked
skins until the chill of dawn crept through the trees, mo-
mentarily bringing a coolness that was pleasant until it
broke through their sleep to set them shivering and hud-
dling even closer together.



[ "9 ]



CHAPTER



I X



In the gray twilight it was Musini who proposed the
first move of the day.

"Now let us take off this yoke from your neck, Lord," she
said. *'Lanu, come and see what must be done."

The yoke was of tough elastic wood; the few links of
chain were stoutly attached by staples driven deep into the
ends. Lanu tugged at them, as Loa had often done, and
equally unavailingly.

"You must cut through the wood, son," suggested Loa.

It was not so easy to do with an ax, although with a knife
it would have been comparatively simple. Loa could be of
no help; all he could do was to sit as still as he could on the
ground while Lanu chipped away at the end of the yoke,
with Musini holding it steady in desperate anxiety that ex-
pressed itself in fierce curses at Nessi at the other end of the
yoke lest she should move. Lanu removed chip after chip;
the edge of the ax found a crack in the end of the pole and
enabled him to lever oflf a larger chip still. Eventually both
limbs of one of the staples were exposed over most of their
length.

"Try to pull that out now," said Lanu, speaking as one
man speaks to another.

[ 120 ]



THE SKY AND THE FOREST

Loa put one hand to the chain and one to the yoke, tug-
ging with all the strength the awkward position allowed.
The veins stood out on his forehead; he tugged and he
tugged, and suddenly the staple flew out. Loa dropped chain
and yoke, and stepped out, free of his bonds. It was a
strange sensation. He could look at Nessi, still held at her
end; he could look at her from different angles, and at dif-
ferent distances, and he could step hither and thither with-
out any thought for her. The feel of his free neck and
shoulders was almost unnatural. He danced in his sense of
freedom and Lanu danced with him. A great wave of pater-
nal affection surged up in Loa. Lanu was no little boy now;
recent events had made a man of him, child though he was,
but Loa loved him. Nessi was watching them, waiting her
turn to be set free.

"Now we can go," said Musini.

She must have forgotten the fact that Nessi was still fas-
tened in her end of the pole; it was only a momentary in-
cident, but it seemed as if Musini intended that she and Loa
and Lanu should strike oflf now through the forest, leaving
Nessi to trail the yoke after her until overtaken by inevi-
table death from starvation or at the hands of the little
people. But Loa and Lanu had turned and addressed them-
selves to the task of freeing Nessi at the moment Musini
spoke, so that the implications of the words passed un-
noticed. They chipped away at the yoke until a long pull
by Loa tore out the staple, and yoke and chain fell to the
ground.

"It is gone!*' said Nessi, breathing relief.

[ 121 ]



THE SKY AND THE FOREST

She knelt and embraced Loa's knees in thankfulness; it
was an immediate change in her demeanor. Yesterday they
were fellow slaves, sharing the utter equality of the yoke.
Today the memories of Loa's divinity came flooding back,
and Nessi groveled before him as different as could be im-
agined from the peevish wench whom he had to placate in
the slavers' camp.

"That is well," said Musini grimly. She had picked up the
little ax and was swinging it idly in her hand. *'And now?"

They all four looked at each other.

**And now?" said Musini again.

Four human beings — setting aside for the moment Loa's
fictitious divinity — in the immensity of the twilit forest;
naked, their sole possessions the little ax and the bow which
it had helped to shape. Their world of security with its solid
past of tradition and seemingly changeless future had been
destroyed, and this was the moment of their rebirth into a
new world, as if they were babies without parents. Rain in
thick heavy drops was falling about them from the dense
screen of foliage overhead, monotonous and depressing.
They were community dwellers, accustomed all their lives
to living in the bustle of a town surrounded by their fel-
lows; bred, moreover, for a hundred generations as com-
munity dwellers. The little people wandered in the forest
migrating eternally in little groups each no larger than a
family, but Loa and the others were not little people. In
each person's mind, even in little Lanu's, there was the long-
ing for a permanent settlement, for houses, and plantain
groves. Their minds went back miserably to the past and re-

[ 122 ]



THE SKY AND THE FOREST

turned empty and longing. All waited for someone else to
speak, but Lanu and Musini and Nessi turned their eyes
upon Loa. It was not inspiration that came upon him. He
was voicing his own sentiments and those of everyone else
when he spoke, the words torn from him by his inward
yearnings.

"Let us go home," he said.

"Home!" echoed Nessi in a fervent sigh.

"Home!" said Lanu with a skip of joy.

For a moment it seemed as if the twilight of the forest
had lifted, as if the raindrops had ceased to fall about them.
The futility of their existence had ended with the sugges-
tion of a purpose, with a plan for the future. As they
thought of home they thought of the sunlight blazing into
the town's street, the cries of the children and the smoke of
the cooking fires; that vision died out when they remem-
bered what had happened to the town, and yet something
remained to which their minds could cling. There would at
least be the site of the clearing, overgrown by forest. The
banana groves would not yet be overgrown. It was a place
they knew, the place where they had spent their whole
lives. More than that; the suggestion of going home pro-
vided them with an objective. Mere futile wandering in the
forest had no appeal for them; home was a goal towards
which they could struggle.

"So we will go home," said Musini, nodding her head sig-
nificantly, chewing the cud of internal calculations.

She did not have to say more to bring them all back to
reality. They were lost in the forest; and they all knew what

[ 123 ]



THE SKY AND THE FOREST

that meant. To go a mile into the forest — in certain cir-
cumstances, to go a mere hundred yards — without pains-
taking precautions meant being utterly lost, so that one
direction seemed as good as any other. And they were sepa-
rated from home by a march of many days' duration. In
the forest they had no means of knowing north or south or
east or west, and if they had, they still did not know whether
home lay to north or to south or to east or to west of them.
It was deep in the tradition of the town dweller never on
any account to go into the forest beyond the well-known
landmarks. And to all of them the forest was the world;
they had no conception of any limits to it. Their minds
could not conceive of any area that was not twilit by the
shadow of vast trees, steamy hot, and dripped upon by tor-
rential downpours of rain. So that not one of them had the
faintest maddest hope — or fear — of ever breaking out of
the forest by traveling long enough in the same direction.
The world to them was made up of illimitable unknown
forest with concealed in the midst of it a tiny patch of
known, and therefore friendly and desirable, forest encir-
cling their home.

A rush of feeling surged up in Loa's breast. Courage, it
may have been; obstinacy, perhaps; desperation, possibly.
He could think of nothing beyond the two alternatives, on
the one hand of determining to make his way home, and on
the other of wandering in futile fashion here in the forest
to the end of his days. The first might be mad, unattain-
able, but at least it was preferable to the second.

"Yes, we will go home," he said. "Home! We will find
our way there."

[ 124 ]



THE SKY AND THE FOREST

He abandoned himself to the utterly absurd: a fanatic
preaching, an impossible crusade, sweeping his audience off
their feet. He brandished clenched fists at the lowering for-
est above them and around them.

"Home!" he yelled again.

"Home!" yelled Lanu, waving his bow.

"Home!" said Nessi.

Musini turned upon her.

"And so before we start for home perhaps you will find
us food?"

There is food to be found in the forest, enough to support
life if one is content to live like a bird, not from day to day
but from hour to hour, with almost every waking moment
devoted to the search. Funguses grow in the leafmold and
on the trunks of decaying trees — from the true mushroom,
clean and delicious but rare, to the watery toadstools, foul-
smelling but brilliantly colored, a mouthful of which means
death. Intermediate between them come other species of
varying degrees of nutritive value and toxicity, all to be
noted by a sharp eye when wandering in the forest. There
are white ants, not formidable like their black and red
cousins, but harmless, with pulpy bodies that offer a good
deal of nutriment when eaten alive, but it takes many,
many white ants to make a meal, and it is usually a matter
of pure good fortune to open up one of the tunneled chan-
nels along which white ants circulate. If a great number can
be caught they can be crushed into a paste which will en-
dure for a couple of days without rotting, making a ration
that can be saved for an emergency, but at the price of some
of the nutritive qualities being lost with the pressed-out

[ 125 ]



THE SKY AND THE FOREST

juices. There are snakes and frogs; on rare occasions a good
archer can bring down a bird or even, more rarely, a mon-
key. To secure a forest antelope the forest wanderer must
cease for a time to be a wanderer. He must dig a pitfall in
a game-track and plant a poisoned stake in it and wait
maybe for days before an antelope falls into it — it will
never happen at all if he does his work clumsily so that the
antelope's instincts are aroused and he leaps aside from the
too obvious danger. In the same way, if the wanderer has
time to spare he can — as the pygmies do — plant poisoned
skewers in the track, or a concealed bent bow in the under-
growth with an arrow on the string and a trigger device
that can be tripped by a strand of creeper across the path;
the same device can actuate a deadfall — a log arnied with
a poisoned stake hung up precariously in the branches
above.

The fruits of the forest are doled out by nature with a
sparing hand; they are infinite in their variety but sparse
in their occurrence; the vast trees which fight their way
through to light and air and life leave small chance for
fruit-bearing trees to live. Yet some of the vines bear fruit,
and it is possible to drag the flexible stems down, tearing
them from their hold on the trunks, until the fruit is in
reach. The amoma bears a watery fruit with a bitter kernel
— either is of some use to fill an empty belly. A giant spe-
cies of acacia bears pods of beans with indigestible skins yet
which nevertheless can be bruised and pounded and cooked
into food. There are wild plums — tart, leathery things —
which can be found where soil conditions do not allow the

[ 126 ]



THE SKY AND THE FOREST

trees to grow so tall; wild mangoes, woody and untempting;
phrynia; even some of the bamboos which grow in the
marshy spots bear berries which can be eaten and will sup-
port life.

With all these things Loa and the others had some sort of
acquaintance, largely acquired when young; wandering as
infants on the edge of the clearing the ceaseless appetite of
childhood had been gratified between meals by the gleanings
of the forest. Loa knew less about them than any of the
others, for he had had a pampered childhood as a god almost
from birth. One thing he did know, and that was that it
was not by standing still that food was to be found in the
forest.

"Food?" he said to Musini in reply to her remark to Nessi.
"We shall find it as we go along."

He took the little ax from her hand and picked up the
pole which had so recently joined him to Nessi. A few blows
and a jerk parted one fork from the stem. The links of chain
dangled from the other fork and made a clumsy, flail-like
weapon, but a weapon, nevertheless. He brandished it with
a feeling of satisfaction and gave back the ax to Musini.

"Let us go," he said.

"Which way. Lord?" asked Musini instantly, and Loa


1 2 3 4 5 6 8 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20

Online LibraryC. S. (Cecil Scott) ForesterThe sky and the forest → online text (page 8 of 20)