A Master of Fortune
Part 1 out of 5
A MASTER ... OF FORTUNE
Being Further Adventures of Captain Kettle
Author of "Captain Kettle," "The Stronger Hand," "The Lost
ILLUSTRATED BY STANLEY L. WOOD
[Illustration: ATTIRED IN HIGH RUBBER THIGH BOOTS AND LEATHER-BOUND
BLACK OILSKINS. Frontispiece.]
THE LITTLE WOODEN GOD WITH THE EYES.
A QUICK WAY WITH REBELS.
THE NEW REPUBLIC.
THE LOOTING OF THE "INDIAN SHERIFF".
To CAPTURE AN HEIRESS.
A MATTER OF JUSTICE.
THE DEAR INSURED.
THE FIRE AND THE FARM.
LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS
Attired in high rubber thigh boots and leather-bound black oilskins
He came and stood with one foot on Kettle's breast in the attitude of a
The little army could only march in single file.
"You insolent little blackguard, you dare to speak to me like that!"
He picked up the man and sent him after the knife.
"I'm a British subject".
Out of the middle of these spectators jumped the mild, delicate
Strangers came up and wrung Kettle's unwilling hand.
TO CAPTAIN OWEN KETTLE
My dear Kettle,--
With some considerable trepidation, I venture to offer you here the
dedication of your unauthorized biography. You will read these memoirs,
I know, and it is my pious hope that you do not fit the cap on yourself
as their hero. Of course I have sent you along your cruises under the
decent disguise of a purser's name, and I trust that if you do recognize
yourself, you will appreciate this nice feeling on my part. Believe me,
it was not entirely caused by personal fear of that practical form which
I am sure your displeasure would take if you caught any one putting you
into print. Even a working novelist has his humane moments; and besides
if I made you more recognizable, there might be a more dangerous broth
stirred up, with an ugly international flavor. Would it be indiscreet to
bring one sweltering day in Bahia to your memory, where you made play
with a German (or was he a Scandinavian?) and a hundredweight drum of
good white lead? or might one hint at that little affair which made
Odessa bad for your health, and indeed compelled you to keep away from
Black Sea ports entirely for several years? I trust, then, that if you
do detect my sin in making myself without leave or license your personal
historian, you will be induced for the sake of your present
respectability to give no sign of a ruffled temper, but recognize me as
part of the cross you are appointed to bear, and incidentally remember
my forbearance in keeping so much really splendid material (from my
point of view) in snug retirement up my sleeve.
Finally, let me remind you that I made no promises not to publish, and
that you did. Not only were you going to endow the world with a book of
poems, but I was to have a free copy. This has not yet come; and if, for
an excuse, you have published no secular verse, I am quite willing to
commute for a copy of the Book of Hymns, provided it is suitably
OAK VALE, BRADFORD,
June 27, 1899.
"The pay is small enough," said Captain Kettle, staring at the blue
paper. "It's a bit hard for a man of my age and experience to come down
to a job like piloting, on eight pound a month and my grub."
"All right, Capt'n," replied the agent. "You needn't tell me what I know
already. The pay's miserable, the climate's vile, and the bosses are
beasts. And yet we have more applicants for these berths on the Congo
than there are vacancies for. And f'why is it, Capt'n? Because there's
no questions asked. The Congo people want men who can handle steamers.
Their own bloomin' Belgians aren't worth a cent for that, and so they
have to get Danes, Swedes, Norwegians, English, Eytalians, or any one
else that's capable. They prefer to give small pay, and are willing to
take the men that for various reasons can't get better jobs elsewhere.
Guess you'll know the crowd I mean?"
"Thoroughly, sir," said Kettle, with a sigh. "There are a very large
number of us. But we're not all unfortunate through our own fault."
"No, I know," said the agent. "Rascally owners, unsympathetic Board of
Trade, master's certificate suspended quite unjustly, and all that--"
The agent looked at his watch. "Well, Capt'n, now, about this berth? Are
you going to take it?"
"I've no other choice."
"Right," said the agent, and pulled a printed form on to the desk before
him, and made a couple of entries. "Let's see--er--is there a
"Married," said the little sailor; "three children."
The agent filled these details on to the form. "Just as well to put it
down," he commented as he wrote. "I'm told the Congo Free State has some
fancy new pension scheme on foot for widdys and kids, though I expect
it'll come to nothing, as usual. They're a pretty unsatisfactory lot all
round out there. Still you may as well have your chance of what plums
are going. Yer age, Capt'n?"
"And--er--previous employment? Well, I suppose we had better leave that
blank as usual. They never really expect it to be filled in, or they
wouldn't offer such wretchedly small pay and commission. You've got your
master's ticket to show, and that's about all they want."
"There's my wife's address, sir. I'd like my half-pay sent to her."
"She shall have it direct from Brussels, skipper, so long as you are
alive--I mean, so long as you remain in the Congo Service."
Captain Kettle sighed again. "Shall I have to wait long before this
appointment is confirmed?"
"Why, no," said the agent. "There's a boat sailing for the Coast
to-morrow, and I can give you an order for a passage by her. Of course
my recommendation has to go to Brussels to be ratified, but that's only
a matter of form. They never refuse anybody that offers. They call the
Government 'Leopold and Co.' down there on the Congo. You'll understand
more about it when you're on the spot.
"I'm sorry for ye, Capt'n, but after what you told me, I'm afraid it's
the only berth I can shove you into. However, don't let me frighten ye.
Take care of yourself, don't do too much work, and you may pull through
all right. Here's the order for the passage down Coast by the Liverpool
boat. And now I must ask you to excuse me. I've another client waiting."
* * * * *
In this manner, then, Captain Owen Kettle found himself, after many
years of weary knocking about the seas, enlisted into a regular
Government service; and although this Government, for various reasons,
happened to be one of the most unsatisfactory in all the wide, wide
world, he thrust this item resolutely behind him, and swore to himself
that if diligence and crew-driving could bring it about, he would rise
in that service till he became one of the most notable men in Africa.
"What I want is a competence for the missus and kids," he kept on
repeating to himself, "and the way to finger that competence is to get
power." He never owned to himself that this thirst for power was one of
the greatest curses of his life; and it did not occur to him that his
lust for authority, and his ruthless use of it when it came in his way,
were the main things which accounted for his want of success in life.
Captain Kettle's voyage down to the Congo on the British and African
S.S. _M'poso_ gave time for the groundwork of Coast language and Coast
thought (which are like unto nothing else on this planet) to soak into
his system. The steamer progressed slowly. She went up rivers protected
by dangerous bars; she anchored in roadsteads, off forts, and straggling
towns; she lay-to off solitary whitewashed factories, which only see a
steamer twice a year, and brought off little doles of cargo in her
surf-boats and put on the beaches rubbishy Manchester and Brummagem
trade goods for native consumption; and the talk in her was that queer
jargon with the polyglot vocabulary in which commerce is transacted all
the way along the sickly West African seaboard, from the Goree to St.
Paul de Loanda.
Every white man of the _M'poso's_ crew traded on his own private
account, and Kettle was initiated into the mysteries of the unofficial
retail store in the forecastle, of whose existence Captain Image, the
commander, and Mr. Balgarnie, the purser, professed a blank and
Kettle had come across many types of sea-trader in his time, but Captain
Image and Mr. Balgarnie were new to him. But then most of his
surroundings were new. Especially was the Congo Free State an
organization which was quite strange to him. When he landed at Banana,
Captain Nilssen, pilot of the Lower Congo and Captain of the Port of
Banana, gave him advice on the subject in language which was plain and
"They are a lot of swine, these Belgians," said Captain Nilssen, from
his seat in the Madeira chair under the veranda of the pilotage, "and
there's mighty little to be got out of them. Here am I, with a wife in
Kjobnhavn and another in Baltimore, and I haven't been able to get away
to see either of them for five blessed years. And mark you, I'm a man
with luck, as luck goes in this hole. I've been in the lower river pilot
service all the time, and got the best pay, and the lightest jobs.
There's not another captain in the Congo can say as much. Some day or
other they put a steamboat on the ground, and then they're kicked out
from the pilot service, and away they're off one-time to the upper river
above the falls, to run a launch, and help at the rubber palaver, and
get shot at, and collect niggers' ears, and forget what champagne and
white man's chop taste like."
"You've been luckier?"
"Some. I've libbed for Lower Congo all my time; had a home in the
pilotage here; and got a dash of a case of champagne, or an escribello,
or at least a joint of fresh meat out of the refrigerator from every
steamboat I took either up or down."
"But then you speak languages?" said Kettle.
"Seven," said Captain Nilssen; "and use just one, and that's English.
Shows what a fat lot of influence this Etat du Congo has got. Why, you
have to give orders even to your boat-boys in Coast English if you want
to be understood. French has no sort of show with the niggers."
Now white men are expensive to import to the Congo Free State, and are
apt to die with suddenness soon after their arrival, and so the State
(which is in a chronic condition of hard-up) does not fritter their
services unnecessarily. It sets them to work at once so as to get the
utmost possible value out of them whilst they remain alive and in
A steamer came in within a dozen hours of Kettle's first stepping
ashore, and signalled for a pilot to Boma. Nilssen was next in rotation
for duty, and went off in his boat to board her, and he took with him
Captain Owen Kettle to impart to him the mysteries of the great river's
The boat-boys sang a song explanatory of their notion of the new pilot's
personality as they caught at the paddles, but as the song was in Fiote,
even Nilssen could only catch up a phrase here and there, just enough to
gather the drift. He did not translate, however. He had taken his new
comrade's measure pretty accurately, and judged that he was not a man
who would accept criticism from a negro. So having an appetite for peace
himself, he allowed the custom of the country to go on undisturbed.
The steamer was outside, leaking steam at an anchorage, and sending out
dazzling heliograms every time she rolled her bleached awnings to the
sun. The pilot's boat, with her crew of savages, paddled towards her,
down channels between the mangrove-planted islands. The water spurned up
by the paddle blades was the color of beer, and the smell of it was
"Good old smell," said Nilssen, "isn't it? I see you snuffling. Trying
to guess where you met it before, eh? We all do that when we first come.
What about crushed marigolds, eh?"
"Crushed marigolds it is."
"Guess you'll get to know it better before you're through with your
service here. Well, here we are alongside."
The steamer was a Portuguese, officered by Portuguese, and manned by
Krooboys, and the smell of her drowned even the marigold scent of the
river. Her dusky skipper exuded perspiration and affability, but he was
in a great hurry to get on with his voyage. The forecastle windlass
clacked as the pilot boat drew into sight, heaving the anchor out of the
river floor; the engines were restarted so soon as ever the boat hooked
on at the foot of the Jacob's ladder; and the vessel was under a full
head of steam again by the time the two white men had stepped on to her
"When you catch a Portuguese in a hurry like this," said Nilssen to
Kettle as they made their way to the awninged bridge, "it means there's
something wrong. I don't suppose we shall be told, but keep your
However, there was no reason for prying. Captain Rabeira was quite open
about his desire for haste. "I got _baccalhao_ and passenger boys for a
cargo, an' dose don' keep," said he.
"We smelt the fish all the way from Banana," said Nilssen. "Guess you
ought to call it stinking fish, not dried fish, Captain. And we can see
your nigger passengers. They seem worried. Are you losing 'em much?"
"I done funeral palaver for eight between Loanda an' here, an' dem was a
dead loss-a. I don' only get paid for dem dat lib for beach at Boma.
Dere was a fire-bar made fast to the leg of each for sinker, an' dem was
my dead loss-a too. I don' get paid for fire-bars given to _gastados_--"
His English failed him. He shrugged his shoulders, and said "Sabbey?"
"Sabbey plenty," said Nilssen. "Just get me a leadsman to work, Captain.
If you're in a hurry, I'll skim the banks as close as I dare."
Rabeira called away a hand to heave the lead, and sent a steward for a
bottle of wine and glasses. He even offered camp stools, which,
naturally, the pilots did not use. In fact, he brimmed with affableness
From the first moment of his stepping on to the bridge, Kettle began to
learn the details of his new craft. As each sandbar showed up beneath
the yellow ripples, as each new point of the forest-clad banks opened
out, Nilssen gave him courses and cross bearings, dazing enough to the
unprofessional ear, but easily stored in a trained seaman's brain. He
discoursed in easy slang of the cut-offs, the currents, the
sludge-shallows, the floods, and the other vagaries of the great river's
course, and punctuated his discourse with draughts of Rabeira's wine,
and comments on the tangled mass of black humanity under the
"There's something wrong with those passenger boys," he kept on
repeating. And another time: "Guess those niggers yonder are half mad
with funk about something."
But Rabeira was always quick to reassure him. "Now dey lib for Congo,
dey not like the idea of soldier-palaver. Dere was nothing more the
matter with them but leetle sickness."
"Oh! it's recruits for the State Army you're bringing, is it?" asked
"If you please," said Rabeira cheerfully. "Slaves is what you English
would call dem. Laborers is what dey call demselves."
Nilssen looked anxiously at his new assistant. Would he have any foolish
English sentiment against slavery, and make a fuss? Nilssen, being a man
of peace, sincerely hoped not. But as it was, Captain Kettle preserved a
grim silence. He had met the low-caste African negro before, and knew
that it required a certain amount of coercion to extract work from him.
But he did notice that all the Portuguese on board were armed like
pirates, and were constantly on the _qui vive_, and judged that there
was a species of coercion on this vessel which would stick at
The reaches of the great beer-colored river opened out before them one
after another in endless vistas, and at rare places the white roofs of a
factory showed amongst the unwholesome tropical greenery of the banks.
Nilssen gave names to these, spoke of their inhabitants as friends, and
told of the amount of trade in palm-oil and kernels which each could be
depended on to yield up as cargo to the ever-greedy steamers. But the
attention of neither of the pilots was concentrated on piloting. The
unrest on the forecastle-head was too obvious to be overlooked.
Once, when the cackle of negro voices seemed to point to an immediate
outbreak, Rabeira gave an order, and presently a couple of cubical green
boxes were taken forward by the ship's Krooboys, broken up, and the
square bottles which they contained, distributed to greedy fingers.
"Dashing 'em gin," said Nilssen, looking serious. "Guess a Portugee's in
a bad funk before he dashes gin at four francs a dozen to common
passenger boys. I've a blame' good mind to put this vessel on the
ground--by accident--and go off in the gig for assistance, and bring
back a State launch."
"Better not risk your ticket," said Kettle. "If there's a row, I'm a bit
useful in handling that sort of cattle myself."
Nilssen eyed wistfully a swirl of the yellow water which hid a sandbar,
and, with a sigh, gave the quartermaster a course which cleared it.
"Guess I don't like ructions myself," he said. "Hullo, what's up now?
There are two of the passenger boys getting pushed off the
forecastle-head by their own friends on to the main deck."
"They look a mighty sick couple," said Kettle, "and their friends seem
very frightened. If this ship doesn't carry a doctor, it would be a good
thing if the old man were to start in and deal out some drugs."
It seemed that Rabeira was of the same opinion. He went down to the main
deck, and there, under the scorching tropical sunshine, interviewed the
two sick negroes in person, and afterwards administered to each of them
a draught from a blue glass bottle. Then he came up, smiling and
hospitable and perspiring, on to the bridge, and invited the pilots to
go below and dine. "Chop lib for cabin," said he; "palm-oil chop,
plenty-too-much-good. You lib for below and chop. I take dem ship myself
up dis next reach."
"Well, it is plain, deep water," said Nilssen, "and I guess you sabbey
how to keep in the middle as well as I do. Come along, Kettle."
The pair of them went below to the baking cabin and dined off a savory
orange-colored stew, and washed it down with fiery red wine, and dodged
the swarming, crawling cockroaches. The noise of angry negro voices came
to them between whiles through the hot air, like the distant chatter
The Dane was obviously ill at ease and frightened; the Englishman,
though feeling a contempt for his companion, was very much on the alert
himself, and prepared for emergencies. There was that mysterious
something in the atmosphere which would have bidden the dullest of
mortals prepare for danger.
Up they came on deck again, and on to the bridge. Rabeira himself was
there in charge, dark, smiling, affable as ever.
Nilssen looked sharply down at the main deck below. "Hullo," said he,
"those two niggers gone already? You haven't shifted them down below,
The Portuguese Captain shrugged his shoulders. "No," he said, "it was
bad sickness, an' dey died an' gone over the side. I lose by their
passage. I lose also the two fire-bar which I give for funeral palaver.
"Sudden kind of sickness," said Nilssen.
"Dis sickness is. It make a man lib for die in one minute, clock time.
But it don' matter to you pilot, does it? You lib for below--off
duty--dis las' half hour. You see nothing, you sabby nothing. I
don'-want no trouble at Boma with doctor palaver. I make it all right
for you after. Sabby?"
"Oh, I tumble to what you're driving at, but I was just thinking out how
it works. However, you're captain of this ship, and if you choose not to
log down a couple of deaths, I suppose it's your palaver. Anyway, I
don't want to cause no ill-will, and if you think it's worth a dash, I
don't see why I shouldn't earn it. It's little enough we pick up else in
this service, and I've got a wife at home in Liverpool who has to be
Kettle drew a deep breath. "It seems to me," he said, looking very hard
at the Portuguese, "that those men died a bit too sudden. Are you sure
they were _pukka_ dead when you put them over the side?"
"Oh, yes," said Rabeira smilingly, "an' dey made no objection. It was
best dey should go over quick. Bodies do not keep in this heat. An'
pilot, I do you square-a, same as with Nilssen. You shall have your dash
when doctor-palaver set."
"No," said Kettle, "you may keep it in your own trousers, Captain. Money
that you've fingered, is a bit too dirty for me to touch."
"All right," said Rabeira with a genial shrug, "so much cheaper for me.
But do not talk on the beach, dere's good boy, or you make
trouble-palaver for me."
"I'll shut my head if you stop at this," said Kettle, "but if you murder
any more of those poor devils, I'll see you sent to join them, if
there's enough law in this State to rig a gallows."
The Portuguese did not get angry. On the contrary, he seemed rather
pleased at getting what he wanted without having to bribe for it, and
ordered up fresh glasses and another bottle of wine for the pilots'
delectation. But this remained untouched. Kettle would not drink
himself, and Nilssen (who wished to be at peace with both sides) did not
wish to under the circumstances.
To tell the truth, the Dane was beginning to get rather scared of his
grim-visaged little companion; and so, to prevent further recurrence to
unpleasant topics, he plunged once more into the detail of professional
matters. Here was a grassy swamp that was a deep water channel the year
before last; there was a fair-way in the process of silting up; there
was a mud-bar with twenty-four feet, but steamers drawing twenty-seven
feet could scrape over, as the mud was soft. The current round that bend
raced at a good eleven knots. That bank below the palm clump was where
an Italian pilot stuck the _M'poso_ for a month, and got sent to upper
Congo (where he was eaten by some rebellious troops) as a recompense for
Almost every curve of the river was remembered by its tragedy, and had
they only known it, the steamer which carried them for their observation
had hatching within her the germs of a very worthy addition to
More trouble cackled out from the forecastle-head, and more of the green
gin cases were handed up to quell it. The angry cries gradually changed
to empty boisterous laughter, as the raw potato spirit soaked home; and
the sullen, snarling faces melted into grotesque, laughing masks; but
withal the carnival was somewhat grisly.
It was clear that more than one was writhing with the pangs of sickness.
It was clear also that none of these (having in mind the physicking and
fate of their predecessors) dared give way, but with a miserable gaiety
danced, and drank, and guffawed with the best. Two, squatting on the
deck, played _tom-tom_ on upturned tin pans; another jingled two pieces
of rusty iron as accompaniment; and all who in that crowded space could
find foot room, danced _shuff-shuff-shuffle_ with absurd and
The fort at Chingka drew in sight, with a B. and A. boat landing
concrete bags at the end of its wharf; and on beyond, the sparse roofs
of the capital of the Free State blistered and buckled under the sun.
The steamer, with hooting siren, ran up her gaudy ensign, and came to an
anchor in the stream twenty fathoms off the State wharf. A yellow-faced
Belgian, with white sun helmet and white umbrella, presently came off in
the doctor's boat, and announced himself as the health officer of the
port, and put the usual questions.
Rabeira lied pleasantly and glibly. Sickness he owned to, but when on
the word the doctor hurriedly made his boat-boys pull clear, he laughed
and assured him that the sickness was nothing more than a little fever,
such as any one might suffer from in the morning, and be out, cured, and
making merry again before nightfall.
That kind of fever is known in the Congo, and the doctor was reassured,
and bade his boat-boys pull up again. Yet because of the evil liver
within him, his temper was short, and his questioning acid. But Captain
Rabeira was stiff and unruffled and wily as ever, and handed in his
papers and answered questions, and swore to anything that was asked, as
though care and he were divorced forever.
Kettle watched the scene with a drawn, moist face. He did not know what
to do for the best. It seemed to him quite certain that this oily,
smiling scoundrel, whom he had more than half suspected of a
particularly callous and brutal double murder, would be given _pratique_
for his ship, and be able to make his profits unrestrained. The
shipmaster's _esprit de corps_ prevented him from interfering
personally, but he very much desired that the heavens would
fall--somehow or other--so that justice might be done.
A _dens ex machina_ came to fill his wishes. The barter of words and the
conning of documents had gone on; the doctor's doubts were on the point
of being lulled for good; and in a matter of another ten seconds
_pratique_ would have been given. But from the forecastle-head there
came a yell, a chatter of barbaric voices, a scuffle and a scream; a
gray-black figure mounted the rail, and poised there a moment, an
offence to the sunlight, and then, falling convulsively downwards, hit
the yellow water with a smack and a spatter of spray, and sank
A couple of seconds later the creature reappeared, swimming frenziedly,
as a dog swims, and by a swirl of the current (before anybody quite knew
what was happening) was swept down against the doctor's boat, and
gripped ten bony fingers upon the gunwhale and lifted towards her people
a face and shoulders eloquent of a horrible disorder.
Instantly there was an alarm, and a sudden panic. "_Sacre nom d'un
pipe_," rapped out the Belgian doctor; "_variole!_"
"Small-pox lib," whimpered his boat-boys, and before their master could
interfere, beat at the delirious wretch with their oars. He hung on
tenaciously, enduring a perfect avalanche of blows. But mere flesh and
bone had to wither under that onslaught, and at last, by sheer weight of
battering, he was driven from his hold, and the beer-colored river
covered him then and for always.
After that, there was no further doubt of the next move. The
yellow-faced doctor sank back exhausted in the stern sheets of the gig,
and gave out sentence in gasps. The ship was declared unclean until
further notice; she was ordered to take up a berth a mile away against
the opposite bank of the river till she was cleared of infection; she
was commanded to proceed there at once, to anchor, and then to blow off
all her steam.
The doctor's tortured liver prompted him, and he spoke with spite. He
called Rabeira every vile name which came to his mind, and wound up his
harangue by rowing off to Chingka to make sure that the guns of the fort
should back up his commands.
The Portuguese captain was daunted then; there is no doubt about that.
He had known of this outbreak of small-pox for two days, had stifled his
qualms, and had taken his own peculiar methods of keeping the disease
hidden, and securing money profit for his ship. He had even gone so far
as to carry a smile on his dark, oily face, and a jest on his tongue.
But this prospect of being shut up with the disorder till it had run its
course inside the walls of the ship, and no more victims were to be
claimed, was too much for his nerve. He fled like some frightened animal
to his room, and deliberately set about guzzling a surfeit of
Nilssen, from the bridge, fearful for his credit with the State, his
employer, roared out orders, but nobody attended to them. Mates,
quartermasters, Krooboys, had all gone aft so as to be as far as
possible from the smitten area; and in the end it was Kettle who went to
the forecastle-head, and with his own hands let steam into the windlass
and got the anchor. He stayed at his place. An engineer and fireman were
still below, and when Nilssen telegraphed down, they put her under weigh
again, and the older pilot with his own hands steered her across to the
quarantine berth. Then Kettle let go the anchor again, paid out and
stoppered the cable, and once more came aft; and from that moment the
new _regime_ of the steamer may be said to have commenced.
In primitive communities, from time immemorial, the strongest man has
become chieftain through sheer natural selection. Societies which have
been upheaved to their roots by anarchy, panic, or any of these more
perfervid emotions, revert to the primitive state. On this Portuguese
ship, authority was smashed into the smallest atoms, and every man
became a savage and was in danger at the hands of his fellow savage.
Rabeira had drunk himself into a stupor before the boilers had roared
themselves empty through the escapes. The two mates and the engineers
cowered in their rooms as though the doors were a barrier against the
small-pox germs. The Krooboys broached cargo and strewed the decks with
their half-naked bodies, drunk on gin, amid a litter of smashed
Meals ceased. The Portuguese cook and steward dropped their collective
duties from the first alarm; the Kroo cook left the rice steamer because
"steam no more lib"; and any one who felt hunger or thirst on board,
foraged for himself, or went without satisfying his wants. Nobody helped
the sick, or chided the drunken. Each man lived for himself alone--or
died, as the mood seized him.
Nilssen took up his quarters at one end of the bridge, frightened, but
apathetic. With awnings he made himself a little canvas house, airy, but
sufficient to keep off the dews of night. When he spoke, it was usually
to picture the desolation of one or other of the Mrs. Nilssens on
finding herself a widow. As he said himself, he was a man of very
domesticated notions. He had no sympathy with Kettle's constantly
repeated theory that discipline ought to be restored.
"Guess it's the captain's palaver," he would say. "If the old man likes
his ship turned into a bear garden, 'tisn't our grub they're wasting, or
our cargo they've started in to broach. Anyway, what can we do? You and
I are only on board here as pilots. I wish the ship was in somewhere
hotter than Africa, before I'd ever seen her."
"So do I," said Kettle. "But being here, it makes me ill to see the way
she's allowed to rot, and those poor beasts of niggers are left to die
just as they please. Four more of them have either jumped overboard, or
been put there by their friends. The dirt of the place is awful. They're
spreading small-pox poison all over the ship. Nothing is ever cleaned."
"There's dysentery started, too."
"Very well," said Kettle, "then that settles it. We shall have cholera
next, if we let dirt breed any more. I'm going to start in and make
things ship-shape again."
"We'll say I'm frightened of them as they are at present, if you like.
Will you chip in and bear a hand? You're frightened, too."
"Oh, I'm that, and no error about it. But you don't catch me
interfering. I'm content to sit here and take my risks as they come,
because I can't help myself. But I go no further. If you start knocking
about this ship's company they'll complain ashore, and then where'll you
be? The Congo Free State don't like pilots who do more than they're
"Very well," said Kettle, "I'll start in and take my risks, and you can
look on and umpire." He walked deliberately down off the bridge, went to
where the mate was dozing against a skylight on the quarter deck, and
stirred him into wakefulness with his foot.
"Well?" said the man.
"Turn the hands to, and clean ship."
"You hear me."
The mate inquired, with abundant verbal garnishings, by what right
Kettle gave the order.
"Because I'm a better man than you. Because I'm best man on board. Do
you want proof?"
Apparently the mate did. He whipped out a knife, but found it suddenly
knocked out of his hand, and sent skimming like a silver flying fish far
over the gleaming river. He followed up the attack with an assault from
both hands and feet, but soon discovered that he had to deal with an
artist. He gathered himself up at the end of half a minute's interview,
glared from two half-shut eyes, wiped the blood from his mouth, and
inquired what Kettle wanted.
"You heard my order. Carry it out."
The man nodded, and went away sullenly muttering that his time would
"If you borrow another knife," said Kettle cheerfully, "and try any more
of your games, I'll shoot you like a crow, and thank you for the chance.
You'll go forrard and clean the forecastle-head and the fore main deck.
Be gentle with those sick! Second Mate?"
"Get a crew together and clean her up aft here. Do you want any rousing
Apparently the second mate did not. He had seen enough of Captain
Kettle's method already to quite appreciate its efficacy. The Krooboys,
with the custom of servitude strong on them, soon fell-to when once they
were started. The thump of holy-stones went up into the baking air, and
grimy water began to dribble from the scuppers.
With the chief engineer Kettle had another scuffle. But he, too, was
eased of the knife at the back of his belt, thumped into submissiveness,
and sent with firemen and trimmers to wash paint in the stewy
engine-room below, and clean up the rusted iron work. And then those of
the passenger boys who were not sick, were turned-to also.
With Captain Rabeira, Kettle did not interfere. The man stayed in his
own room for the present, undisturbed and undisturbing. But the rest of
the ship's complement were kept steadily to their employment.
They did not like it, but they thought it best to submit. Away back from
time unnumbered, the African peoples have known only fear as the
governing power, and, from long acclimatization, the Portuguese might
almost count as African. This man of a superior race came and set
himself up in authority over them, in defiance of all precedent, law,
everything; and they submitted with dull indifference. The sweets of
freedom are not always appreciated by those who have known the easy
luxury of being slaves.
The plague was visibly stayed from almost the very first day that Kettle
took over charge. The sick recovered or died; the sound sickened no
more; it seemed as though the disease microbes on board the ship
A mile away, at the other side of the beer-colored river, the rare
houses of Boma sprawled amongst the low burnt-up hills, and every day
the doctor with his bad liver came across in his boat under the blinding
sunshine to within shouting distance, and put a few weary questions.
The formalities were slack enough. Nilssen usually made the necessary
replies (as he liked to keep himself in the doctor's good books), and
then the boat would row away.
Nilssen still remained gently non-interferent. He was paid to be a pilot
by the Etat Independant du Congo--so he said--and he was not going to
risk a chance of trouble, and no possibility of profit, by meddling with
matters beyond his own sphere. Especially did he decline to be co-sharer
in Kettle's scheme for dealing out justice to Captain Rabeira.
"It is not your palaver," he said, "or mine. If you want to stir up
trouble, tell the State authorities when you get ashore. That won't do
much good either. They don't value niggers at much out here."
"Nor do I," said Kettle. "There's nothing foolish with me about niggers.
But there's a limit to everything, and this snuff-colored Dago goes too
far. He's got to be squared with, and I'm going to do it."
"Guess it's your palaver. I've told you what the risks are."
"And I'm going to take them," said Kettle grimly. "You may watch me
handle the risks now with your own eyes, if you wish."
He went down off the bridge, walked along the clean decks, and came to
where a poor wretch lay in the last stage of small-pox collapse. He
examined the man carefully. "My friend," he said at last, "you've not
got long for this world, anyway, and I want to borrow your last moments.
I suppose you won't like to shift, but it's in a good cause, and anyway
you can't object."
He stooped and lifted the loathsome bundle in his arms, and then, in
spite of a cry of expostulation from Nilssen, walked off with his burden
to Rabeira's room.
The Portuguese captain was in his bunk, trying to sleep. He was sober
for the first time for many days, and, in consequence, feeling not a
Kettle deposited his charge with carefulness on the littered settee, and
Rabeira started up with a wild scream of fright and a babble of oaths.
Kettle shut and locked the door.
"Now look here," he said, "you've earned more than you'll ever get paid
in this life, and there's a tolerably heavy bill against you for the
next. It looks to me as if it would be a good thing if you went off
there to settle up the account right now. But I'm not going to take upon
myself to be your hangman. I'm just going to give you a chance of
pegging out, and I sincerely hope you'll take it. I've brought our
friend here to be your room mate for the evening. It's just about
nightfall now, and you've got to stay with him till daybreak."
"You coward!" hissed the man. "You coward! You coward!" he screamed.
"Think so?" said Kettle gravely. "Then if that's your idea, I'll stay
here in the room, too, and take my risks. God's seen the game, and I'll
guess He'll hand over the beans fairly."
Perspiration stood in beads on all their faces. The room, the one
unclean room of the ship, was full of breathless heat, and stale with
the lees of drink. Kettle, in his spruce-white drill clothes, stood out
against the squalor and the disorder, as a mirror might upon a
The Portuguese captain, with nerves smashed by his spell of debauch,
played a score of parts. First he was aggressive, asserting his rights
as a man and the ship's master, and demanding the key of the door. Then
he was warlike, till his frenzied attack earned him such a hiding that
he was glad enough to crawl back on to the mattress of his bunk. Then he
was beseeching. And then he began to be troubled with zoological
hauntings, which occupied him till the baking air cooled with the
approach of the dawn.
The smitten negro on the settee gave now and then a moan, but for the
most part did his dying with quietness. Had Kettle deliberately worked
for that purpose, he could not have done anything more calculated to
make the poor wretch's last moments happy.
"Oh, Massa!" he kept on whispering, "too-much-fine room. You plenty-much
good for let me lib for die heah." And then he would relapse into
barbaric chatterings more native to his taste, and fitting to his
Captain Kettle played his parts as nurse and warder with grave
attention. He sat perspiring in his shirt sleeves, writing at the table
whenever for a moment or two he had a spell of rest; and his screed grew
rapidly. He was making verse, and it was under the stress of severe
circumstances like these that his Muse served him best.
The fetid air of the room throbbed with heat; the glow from the candle
lamp was a mere yellow flicker; and the Portuguese, who cowered with
twitching fingers in the bunk, was quite ready to murder him at the
slightest opening: it was not a combination of circumstances which would
have inspired many men.
Morning came, with a shiver and a chill, and with the first flicker of
dawn, the last spark of the negro's life went out. Kettle nodded to the
ghastly face as though it had been an old friend. "You seemed to like
being made use of," he said. "Well, daddy, I hope you have served your
turn. If your skipper hasn't got the plague in his system now, I shall
think God's forgotten this bit of Africa entirely."
He stood up, gathered his papers, slung the spruce white drill coat over
his arm, and unlocked the door. "Captain Rabeira," he said, "you have my
full permission to resume your occupation of going to the deuce your own
way." With which parting salutation, he went below to the steamer's
bathroom and took his morning tub.
Half an hour passed before he came to the deck again, and Nilssen met
him at the head of the companion-way with a queer look on his face.
"Well," he said, "you've done it."
"Scared Rabeira over the side."
"He came scampering on deck just now, yelling blue murder, and trying to
catch crawly things that weren't there. Guess he'd got jim-jams bad.
Then he took it into his head that a swim would be useful, and before
any one could stop him, he was over the side."
"He's over the side still," said the Dane drily. "He didn't come to the
surface. Guess a crocodile chopped him."
"There are plenty round."
"Naturally. We've been ground baiting pretty liberally these last few
weeks. Well, I guess we are about through with the business now. Not
nervous about yourself, eh?"
"No," said Kettle, and touched his cap. "God's been looking on at this
gamble, as I told Rabeira last night, and He dealt over the beans the
way they were earned."
"That's all right," said Nilssen cheerfully. "When a man keeps his
courage he don't get small-pox, you bet."
"Well," said Kettle, "I suppose we'll be fumigated and get a clean bill
in about ten days from now, and I'm sure I don't mind the bit of extra
rest. I've got a lot of stuff I want to write up. It's come in my head
lately, and I've had no time to get it down on paper. I shouldn't wonder
but what it makes a real stir some day when it's printed; it's real good
stuff. I wonder if that yellow-faced Belgian doctor will live to give us
"I never saw a man with such a liver on him."
"D'you know," said Kettle, "I'd like that doctor to hang on just for
another ten days and sign our bill. He's a surly brute, but I've got to
have quite a liking for him. He seems to have grown to be part of the
show, just like the crows, and the sun, and the marigold smell, and the
"Oh," said Nilssen, "you're a blooming poet. Come, have a cocktail
before we chop."
THE LITTLE WOODEN GOD WITH THE EYES.
The colored Mrs. Nilssen, of Banana, gave the pink gin cocktails a final
brisk up with the swizzle-stick, poured them out with accurate division,
and handed the tray to Captain Kettle and her husband. The men drank off
the appetizer and put down the glasses. Kettle nodded a word of praise
for the mixture and thanks to its concoctor, and Mrs. Nilssen gave a
flash of white teeth, and then shuffled away off the veranda, and
vanished within the bamboo walls of the pilotage.
Nilssen sank back into his long-sleeved Madeira chair, a perfect wreck
of a man, and Kettle sat up and looked at him with a serious face. "Look
here," he said, "you should go home, or at any rate run North for a
spell in Grand Canary. If you fool with this health-palaver any longer,
you'll peg out."
The Dane stared wistfully out across the blue South Atlantic waters,
which twinkled beyond the littered garden and the sand beach. "Yes," he
said, "I'd like well enough to go back to my old woman in Boston again,
and eat pork and beans, and hear her talk of culture, and the use of
missionaries, and all that good old homey rot; but I guess I can't do
that yet. I've got to shake this sickness off me right here, first."
"And I tell you you'll never be a sound man again so long as you lib
for Congo. Take a trip home, Captain, and let the salt air blow the
diseases out of you."
"If I go to sea," said the pilot wearily, "I shall be stitched up within
the week, and dropped over to make a hole in the water. I don't know
whether I'm going to get well anywhere, but if I do, it's right here.
Now just hear me. You're the only living soul in this blasted Congo Free
State that I can trust worth a cent, and I believe you've got grit
enough to get me cured if only you'll take the trouble to do it. I'm too
weak to take on the job myself; and, even if I was sound, I reckon it
would be beyond my weight. I tell you it's a mighty big contract. But
then, as I've seen for myself, you're a man that likes a scuffle."
"You're speaking above my head. Pull yourself together, Captain, and
then, perhaps, I'll understand what you want."
Nilssen drew the quinine bottle toward him, tapped out a little hill of
feathery white powder into a cigarette paper, rolled it up, and
swallowed the dose. "I'm not raving," he said, "or anywhere near it; but
if you want the cold-drawn truth, listen here: I'm poisoned. I've got
fever on me, too, I'll grant, but that's nothing more than a fellow has
every week or so in the ordinary way of business. I guess with quinine,
whiskey, and pills, I can smile at any fever in Africa, and have done
this last eight years. But it's this poison that gets me."
"Bosh," said Kettle. "If it was me that talked about getting poisoned,
there'd be some sense in it. I know I'm not popular here. But you're a
man that's liked. You hit it off with these Belgian brutes, and you
make the niggers laugh. Who wants to poison you?"
"All right," said Nilssen; "you've been piloting on the Congo some six
months now, and so of course you know all about it. But let me know a
bit better. I've watched the tricks of the niggers here-away for a good
many years now, and I've got a big respect for their powers when they
"Have you been getting their backs up, then?"
"Yes. You've seen that big ju-ju in my room?"
"That foul-looking wooden god with the looking-glass eyes?"
"Just that. I don't know where the preciousness comes in, but it's a
thing of great value."
"How did you get hold of it?"
"Well, I suppose if you want to be told flatly, I scoffed it. You see,
it was in charge of a passenger boy, who brought it aboard the _M'poso_
at Matadi. He landed across by canoe from Vivi, and wanted steamer
passage down to Boma by the _M'poso_. I was piloting her, and I got my
eye on that ju-ju from the very first. Captain Image and that thief
of a purser Balgarnie were after it, too, but as it was a bit of a race
between us as to who should get it first, one couldn't wait to be too
[Footnote 1: A ju-ju in West African parlance may be a large
carved idol, or merely a piece of rag, or skin, or anything
else that the native is pleased to set up as a charm. Ju-ju
also means witchcraft. If you poison a man, you put ju-ju on
him. If you see anything you do not understand, you promptly
set it down as ju-ju. Similarly chop is food, and also the
act of feeding. "One-time" is immediately.]
"What did you want it for? Did you know it was valuable then?"
"Oh, no! I thought it was merely a whitewashed carved wood god, and I
wanted it just to dash to some steamer skipper who had dashed me a case
of fizz or something. You know?"
"Yes, I see. Go on. How did you get hold of it?"
"Why, just went and tackled the passenger-boy and dashed him a case of
gin; and when he sobered up again, where was the ju-ju? I got it ashore
right enough to the pilotage here in Banana, and for the next two weeks
thought it was my ju-ju without further palaver.
"Then up comes a nigger to explain. The passenger-boy who had guzzled
the gin was no end of a big duke--witch-doctor, and all that, with a
record of about three hundred murders to his tally--and he had the cheek
to send a blooming ambassador to say things, and threaten, to try and
get the ju-ju back. Of course, if the original sportsman had come
himself to make his ugly remarks, I'd soon have stopped his fun. That's
the best of the Congo Free State. If a nigger down here is awkward, you
can always get him shipped off as a slave--soldier, that is--to the
upper river, and take darned good care he never comes back again. And,
as a point of fact, I did tip a word to the commandant here and get that
particular ambassador packed off out of harm's way. But that did no
special good. Before a week was through up came another chap to tackle
me. He spoke flatly about pains and penalties if I didn't give the thing
up; and he offered money--or rather ivory, two fine tusks of it, worth a
matter of twenty pounds, as a ransom--and then I began to open my eyes."
"Twenty pounds for that ju-ju! Why, I've picked up many a one better
carved for a shilling."
"Well, this bally thing has value; there's no doubt about that. But
where the value comes in, I can't make out. I've overhauled it times and
again, but can't see it's anything beyond the ordinary. However, if a
nigger of his own free will offered two big tusks to get the thing back,
it stands to reason it's worth a precious sight more than that. So when
the second ambassador came, I put the price down at a quarter of a ton
of ivory, and waited to get it."
Kettle whistled. "You know how to put on the value," he said. "That's
getting on for L400 with ivory at its present rates."
"I was badly in want of money when I set the figure. My poor little wife
in Bradford had sent me a letter by the last Antwerp mail saying how
hard-up she was, and the way she wrote regularly touched me."
"I don't like it," Kettle snapped.
"What, my being keen about the money?"
"No; your having such a deuce of a lot of wives."
"But I am so very domesticated," said Nilssen. "You don't appreciate how
domesticated I am. I can't live as a bachelor anywhere. I always like to
have a dear little wife and a nice little home to go to in whatever town
I may be quartered. But it's a great expense to keep them all provided
for. And besides, the law of most countries is so narrow-minded. One has
to be so careful."
Kettle wished to state his views on bigamy with clearness and point, but
when he cast his eyes over the frail wreck of a man in the Madeira
chair, he forebore. It would not take very much of a jar to send Captain
Nilssen away from this world to the Place of Reckoning which lay beyond.
And so with a gulp he said instead: "You're sure it's deliberate
"Quite. The nigger who came here last about the business promised to set
ju-ju on me, and I told him to do it and be hanged to him. He was as
good as his word. I began to be bad the very next day."
"How's it managed?"
"Don't know. They have ways of doing these things in Africa which we
white men can't follow."
"Suspect any one?"
"No. And if you're hinting at Mrs. Nilssen in the pilotage there, she's
as staunch as you are, bless her dusky skin. Besides, what little chop
I've managed to swallow since I've been bad, I've always got out of
fresh unopened tins myself."
"Ah," said Kettle; "I fancied some one had been mixing up finely
powdered glass in your chop. It's an old trick, and you don't twig it
till the doctors cut you up after you're dead."
"As if I wasn't up to a kid's game like that!" said the sick man with
feeble contempt. "No, this is regular ju-ju work, and it's beyond the
Belgian doctor here, and it's beyond all other white men. There's only
one cure, and that's to be got at the place where the poisoning palaver
was worked from."
"And where's that?"
Captain Nilssen nodded down the narrow slip of sand, and mangroves, and
nut palms, on which the settlement of Banana is built, and gazed with
his sunken eyes at the smooth, green slopes of Africa beyond. "Dem
village he lib for bush," he said.
"Up country village, eh? They're a nice lot in at the back there,
according to accounts. But can't you arrange it by your friend the
"He's not the kind of fool to come back. He's man enough to know he'd
get pretty well dropped on if I could get him in my reach again."
"Then tell the authorities here, and get some troops sent up."
"What'd be the good of that? They might go, or they mightn't. If they
did, they'd do a lot of shooting, collect a lot of niggers' ears, steal
what there was to pick up, and then come back. But would they get what I
want out of the witch-doctor? Not much. They'd never so much as see the
beggar. He'd take far too big care of his mangy hide. He wouldn't stop
for fighting-palaver. He'd be off for bush, one-time. No, Kettle, if I'm
to get well, some white man will have to go up by his lonesome for me,
and square that witch-doctor by some trick of the tongue."
"Which is another way of saying you want me to risk my skin to get you
"But, my lad, I won't ask you to go for nothing. I don't suppose you are
out here on the Congo just for your health. You've said you've got a
wife at home, and I make no doubt you're as fond of her and as eager to
provide for her as I am for any of mine. Well and good. Here's an offer.
Get me cured, and I'll dash you the ju-ju to make what you can out
Kettle stretched out his fingers. "Right," he said. "We'll trade on
that." And the pair of them shook hands over the bargain.
It was obvious, if the thing was to be done at all, it must be set about
quickly. Nilssen was an utter wreck. Prolonged residence in this
pestilential Congo had sapped his constitution; the poison was
constantly eating at him; and he must either get relief in a very short
time, or give up the fight and die. So that same afternoon saw Kettle
journeying in a dug-out canoe over the beer-colored waters of the river,
up stream, toward the witch-doctor's village.
Two savages (one of them suffering from a bad attack of yaws) propelled
the craft from her forward part in erratic zig-zags; amidships sat
Captain Kettle in a Madeira chair under a green-lined white umbrella;
and behind him squatted his personal attendant, a Krooboy, bearing the
fine old Coast name of Brass Pan. The crushed marigold smell from the
river closed them in, and the banks crept by in slow procession.
The main channels of the Congo Kettle knew with a pilot's knowledge; but
the canoe-men soon left these, and crept off into winding backwaters,
with wire-rooted mangroves sprawling over the mud on their banks, and
strange whispering beast-noises coming from behind the thickets of
tropical greenery. The sun had slanted slow; ceibas and silk-cotton
woods threw a shade dark almost as twilight; but the air was full of
breathless heat, and Kettle's white drill clothes hung upon him clammy
and damp. Behind him, in the stern of the canoe, Brass Pan scratched
Dark fell and the dug-out was made fast to a mangrove root. The Africans
covered their heads to ward off ghosts, and snored on the damp floor of
the canoe. Kettle took quinine and dozed in the Madeira chair. Mists
closed round them, white with damp, earthy-smelling with malaria. Then
gleams of morning stole over the trees and made the mists visible, and
Kettle woke with a seaman's promptitude. He roused Brass Pan, and Brass
Pan roused the canoe-men, and the voyage proceeded.
Through more silent waterways the clumsy dug-out made her passage, where
alligators basked on the mudbanks and sometimes swam up from below and
nuzzled the sides of the boat, and where velvety black butterflies
fluttered in dancing swarms across the shafts of sunlight; and at last
her nose was driven on to a bed of slime, and Kettle was invited to "lib
Brass Pan stepped dutifully over the mud, and Captain Kettle mounted his
back and rode to dry ground without as much as splashing the pipeclay on
his dainty canvas shoes. A bush path opened out ahead of them, winding,
narrow, uneven, and the man with the yaws went ahead and gave a lead.
As a result of exposure to the night mists of the river, Captain Kettle
had an attack of fever on him which made him shake with cold and burn
with heat alternately. His head was splitting, and his skin felt as
though it had been made originally to suit a small boy, and had been
stretched to near bursting-point to serve its present wearer.
In the forest, the path was a mere tunnel amongst solid blocks of wood
and greenery; in the open beyond, it was a slim alley between
grass-blades eight feet high; and the only air which nourished them as
they marched was hot enough to scorch the lungs as it was inhaled. And
if in addition to all this, it be remembered that the savages he was
going to visit were practising cannibals, were notoriously treacherous,
were violently hostile to all whites (on account of many cruelties
bestowed by Belgians), and were especially exasperated against the
stealer of their idol, it will be seen that from an ordinary point of
view Captain Kettle's mission was far from appetizing.
The little sailor, however, carried himself as jauntily as though he
were stepping out along a mere pleasure parade, and hummed an air as he
marched. In ordinary moments I think his nature might be described as
almost melancholy; it took times of stress like these to thoroughly
The path wound, as all native paths do wind, like some erratic snake
amongst the grasses, reaching its point with a vast disregard for
distance expended on the way. It led, with a scramble, down the sides of
ravines; it drew its followers up steep rock-faces that were baked
almost to cooking heat by the sun; and finally, it broke up into
fan-shape amongst decrepit banana groves, and presently ended amongst a
squalid collection of grass and wattle huts which formed the village.
Dogs announced the arrival to the natives, and from out of the houses
bolted men, women, and children, who dived out of sight in the
surrounding patches of bush.
The man with the yaws explained: "Dem Belgians make war-palaver often.
People plenty much frightened. People think we lib for here on
"Silly idiots!" said Captain Kettle. "Hullo, by James! here's a white
man coming out of that chimbeque!"
"He God-man. Lib for here on gin-palaver."
"Trading missionary, is he? Bad breed that. And the worst of it is, if
there's trouble, he'll hold up his cloth, and I can't hit him." He
advanced toward the white man, and touched his helmet. "_Bon jour,
"Howdy?" said the missionary. "I'm as English as yourself--or rather
Amurrican. Know you quite well by sight, Captain. Seen you on the
steamers when I was stationed at our headquarters in Boma. What might
you be up here for?"
"I've a bit of a job on hand for Captain Nilssen of Banana."
"Old Cappie Nilssen? Know him quite well. Married him to that Bengala
wife of his, the silly old fool. Well, captain, come right into my
chimbeque, and chop."
"I'll have some quinine with you, and a cocktail. Chop doesn't tempt me
just now. I've a dose of fever on hand."
"Got to expect that here, anyway," said the missionary. "I haven't had
fever for three days now, but I'm due for another dose to-morrow
afternoon. Fever's quite regular with me. It's a good thing that,
because I can fit in my business accordingly."
"I suppose the people at home think you carry the Glad Tidings only?"
"The people at home are impracticable fools, and I guess when I was 'way
back in Boston I was no small piece of a fool too. I was sent out here
'long with a lot more tenderfeet to plant beans for our own support, and
to spread the gospel for the glory of America. Well, the other
tenderfeet are planted, and I'm the only one that's got any kick left.
The beans wouldn't grow, and there was no sort of living to be got out
of spreading a gospel which nobody seemed to want. So I had to start in
and hoe a new row for myself."
"Set up as a trader, that is?"
"You bet. It's mostly grist that comes to me: palm-oil, rubber,
kernels, and ivory. Timber I haven't got the capital to tackle, and I
must say the ivory's more to figure about than finger. But I've got the
best connection of any trader in gin and guns and cloth in this section,
and in another year I'll have made enough of a pile to go home, and I
guess there are congregations in Boston that'll just jump at having a
returned Congo missionary as their minister."
"I should draw the line at that, myself," said Kettle stiffly.
"Dare say. You're a Britisher, and therefore you're a bit narrow-minded.
We're a vury adaptable nation, we Amurricans. Say, though, you haven't
told me what you're up here for yet? I guess you haven't come just in
search of health?"
Captain Kettle reflected. His gorge rose at this man, but the fellow
seemed to have some sort of authority in the village, and probably he
could settle the question of Nilssen's ailment with a dozen words. So he
swallowed his personal resentment, and, as civilly as he could, told the
complete tale as Nilssen had given it to him.
The trader missionary's face grew crafty as he listened. "Look here, you
want that old sinner Nilssen cured?"
"That's what I came here for."
"Well, then, give me the ju-ju, and I'll fix it up for you."
"The ju-ju's to be my fee," said Kettle. "I suppose you know something
about it? You're not the kind of man to go in for collecting valueless
"Nop. I'm here on the make, and I guess you're about the same. But I
wouldn't be in your shoes if the people in the village get to know that
you've a finger in looting their idol."
"Oh, you'll die rather painfully, that's all. Better give the thing up,
Captain, and let me take over the contract for you. It's a bit above
Kettle's face grew grim. "Is it?" he said. "Think I'm going to back down
for a tribe of nasty, stinking, man-eating niggers? Not much."
"Well," said the missionary, "don't get ruffled. I've got no use for
quarrelling. Go your way, and if things turn out ugly don't say I didn't
give you the straight cinch, as one white man to another in a savage
country. And now, it's about my usual time for siesta."
"Right," said Kettle. "I'll siesta too. My fever's gone now, and I'm
feeling pretty rocky and mean. Sleep's a grand pick-me-up."
They took off their coats, and lay down then under filmy mosquito bars,
and presently sleep came to them. Indeed, to Kettle came so dead an
unconsciousness that he afterward had a suspicion (though it was beyond
proof) that some drug had been mixed with his drink. He was a man who at
all times was extraordinarily watchful and alert. Often and often during
his professional life his bare existence had depended on the faculty for
scenting danger from behind the curtain of sleep; and his senses in this
direction were so abnormally developed as to verge at times on the
uncanny. Cat-like is a poor-word to describe his powers of vigilance.
But there is no doubt that in this case his alertness was dulled. The
fatigue of the march, his dose of fever, his previous night of
wakefulness in the canoe, all combined to undermine his guard; and,
moreover, the attack of the savages was stealthy in the extreme. Like
ghosts, they must have crept back from the bush to reconnoitre their
village; like daylight ghosts, they must have surrounded the trader
missionary's hut and peered at the sleeping man between the bamboos of
the wall, and then made their entrance; and it must have been with the
quickness of wild beasts that they made their spring.
Kettle woke on the instant that he was touched, and started to struggle
for his life, as indeed he had struggled many a time before. But the
numbers of the blacks put effective resistance out of the question. Four
of them pressed down each arm on to the bed, four each leg, three
pressed on his head. Their animal faces champed and gibbered at him; the
animal smell of them made him splutter and cough.
Captain Kettle was not a man who often sought help from others; he was
used to playing a lone-handed fight against a mob; but the suddenness of
the attack, the loneliness of his surroundings, and the dejection due to
his recent dose of fever, for the first instant almost unnerved him, and
on the first alarm he sang out lustily for the missionary's help. There
was no answer. With a jerk he turned his head, and saw that the other
bed was empty. The man had left the hut.
For a time the captive did not actively resist further. In a climate
like that of the Congo one's store of physical strength is limited, and
he did not wish to earn unnecessarily severe bonds by wasting it. As it
was, he was tied up cruelly enough with grass rope, and then taken from
the hut and flung down under the blazing sunshine outside.
Presently a fantastic form danced up from behind one of the huts,
daubed with colored clays, figged out with a thousand tawdry charms, and
cinctured round the middle by a girdle of half-picked bones. He wafted
an evil odor before him as he advanced, and he came up and stood with
one foot on Kettle's breast in the attitude of a conqueror.
This was the witch-doctor, a creature who held power of life and death
over all the village, whom the villagers suffered to test them with
poison, to put them to unnamable tortures, to rob them as he
pleased,--to be, in fact, a kind of insane autocrat working any whim
that seized him freely in their midst. The witch-doctor's power of late
had suffered. The white man Nilssen had "put bigger ju-ju" on him, and
under its influence had despoiled him of valuable property. Now was his
moment of counter triumph. The witch-doctor stated that he brought this
other white man to the village by the power of his spells; and the
villagers believed him. There was the white man lying on the ground
before them to prove it.
Remained next to see what the witch-doctor would do with his captive.
The man himself was evidently at a loss, and talked, and danced, and
screamed, and foamed, merely to gain time. He spoke nothing but Fiote,
and of that tongue Kettle knew barely a single word. But presently the
canoe-man with the yaws was dragged up, and, in his own phrase, was
bidden to act as "linguister."
"He say," translated the man with the yaws, "if dem big ju-ju lib back
for here, he let you go."
"And if not?"
[Illustration: HE CAME AND STOOD WITH ONE FOOT ON KETTLE'S BREAST IN THE
ATTITUDE OF A CONQUEROR.]
The interpreter put a question, and the witch-doctor screamed out a long
reply, and then stooped and felt the captive over with his fingers,
as men feel cattle at a fair.
"Well?" said Kettle impatiently; "if he doesn't get back the wooden god,
let's hear what the game is next?"
"Me no sabbey. He say you too small and thin for chop."
Captain Kettle's pale cheeks flushed. Curiously enough it never occurred
to him to be grateful for this escape from a cannibal dinner-table. But
his smallness was a constant sore to him, and he bitterly resented any
allusion to it.
"Tell that stinking scarecrow I'll wring his neck for him before I'm
quit of this village."
"Me no fit," said the linguister candidly. "He kill me now if I say
that, same's he kill you soon."
"Oh, he's going to kill me, is he?"
The interpreter nodded emphatically. "Or get dem big ju-ju," he added.
"Ask him how Cappie Nilssen can be cured."
The man with the yaws put the question timidly enough, and the
witch-doctor burst into a great guffaw of laughter. Then after a
preliminary dance, he took off a little packet of leopard skin, which
hung amongst his other charms, and stuffed it deep inside
The interpreter explained: "Him say he put ju-ju on Cappie Nilssen, and
can take it off all-e-same easy. Him say you give Cappie Nilssen dis new
ju-ju for chop, an' he live for well one-time."
"He doesn't make much trouble about giving it me, anyway," Kettle
commented. "Looks as if he felt pretty sure he'd get that idol, or else
take the change out of my skin." But, all the same, when the question
was put to him again as to whether he would surrender the image, he
flatly refused. There was a certain pride about Kettle which forbade him
to make concessionary treaties with an inferior race.
So forthwith, having got this final refusal, the blacks took him up
again, and under the witch-doctor's lead carried him well beyond the
outskirts of the village. There was a cleared space here, and on the
bare, baked earth they laid him down under the full glare of the
tropical sunshine. For a minute or so they busied themselves with
driving four stout stakes into the ground, and then again they took him
up, and made him fast by wrists and ankles, spread-eagle fashion, to
At first he was free to turn his head, and with a chill of horror he saw
he was not the first to be stretched out in that clearing. There were
three other sets of stakes, and framed in each was a human skeleton,
picked clean. With a shiver he remembered travellers' tales on the
steamers of how these things were done. But then the blacks put down
other stakes so as to confine his head in one position, and were
proceeding to prop open his mouth with a piece of wood, when suddenly
there seemed to be a hitch in the proceedings.
The witch-doctor asked for honey--Kettle recognized the native word--and
none was forthcoming. Without honey they could not go on, and the
captive knew why. One man was going off to fetch it, but then news was
brought that the Krooboy Brass Pan had been caught, and the whole gang
of them went off helter-skelter toward the village--and again Kettle
knew the reason for their haste.
So there he was left alone for the time being with his thoughts, lashed
up beyond all chance of escape, scorched by an intolerable sun, bitten
and gnawed by countless swarms of insects, without chance of sweeping
them away. But this was ease compared with what was to follow. He knew
the fate for which he was apportioned, a common fate amongst the Congo
cannibals. His jaws would be propped open, a train of honey would be led
from his mouth to a hill of driver ants close by, and the savage insects
would come up and eat him piecemeal while he still lived.
He had seen driver ants attack a house before, swamp fires lit in their
path by sheer weight of numbers, put the inhabitants to flight, and eat
everything that remained. And here, in this clearing, if he wanted
further proof of their power, were the three picked skeletons lying
stretched out to their stakes.
There are not many men who could have preserved their reason under
monstrous circumstances such as these, and I take it that there is no
man living who dare up and say that he would not be abominably
frightened were he to find himself in such a plight. In these papers I
have endeavored to show Captain Owen Kettle as a brave man, indeed the
bravest I ever knew; but I do not think even he would blame me if I said
he was badly scared then.
He heard noises from the village which he could not see beyond the
grass. He heard poor Brass Pan's death-shriek; he heard all the noises
that followed, and knew their meaning, and knew that he was earning a
respite thereby; he even heard from over the low hills the hoot of a
steamer's siren as she did her business on the yellow waters of the
Congo, in crow flight perhaps not a good rifle-shot from where he lay
It seemed like a fantastic dream to be assured in this way that there
were white men, civilized white men, men who could read books and enjoy
poetry, sitting about swearing and drinking cocktails under a decent
steamer's awnings close by this barbaric scene of savagery. And yet it
was no dream. The flies that crept into his nose and his mouth and his
eye-sockets, and bit him through his clothing, and the hateful sounds
from the village assured him of all its reality.
The blazing day burnt itself to a close, and night came hard upon its
heels, still baking and breathless. The insects bit worse than ever, and
once or twice Kettle fancied he felt the jaws of a driver ant in his
flesh, and wondered if news would be carried to the horde in the
ant-hill, which would bring them out to devour their prey without the
train of honey being laid to lure them. Moreover, fever had come on him
again, and with one thing and another it was only by a constant effort
of will that he prevented himself from giving way and raving aloud
It was under these circumstances, then, that the missionary came to him
again, and once more put in a bid for the ju-ju which lay at the
pilotage. Kettle roundly accused the man of having betrayed him, and the
fellow did not deny it with any hope of being believed. He had got to
get his pile somehow, so he said: the ju-ju had value, and if he could
not get hold of it one way, he had to work it another. And finally,
would Kettle surrender it then, or did he want any more discomfort.
Now I think it is not to the little sailor's discredit to confess that
he surrendered without terms forthwith. "The thing's yours for when you
like to fetch it," he snapped out ungraciously enough, and the
missionary at once stooped and cut the grass ropes, and set to chafing
his wrists and ankles. "And now," he said, "clear out for your canoe at
the river-side for all you're worth, Captain. There's a big full moon,
and you can't miss the way."
"Wait a bit," said Kettle. "I'm remembering that I had an errand here.
Can you give me the right physic to pull Captain Nilssen round?"
"You have it in that leopard-skin parcel inside your shirt. I saw the
witch-doctor give it you."
"Oh! you were looking on, were you?"
"By James! I've a big mind to leave my marks on you, you swine!"
The trader missionary whipped out a revolver. "Guess I'm heeled, sonny.
You'd better go slow. You'd--"
There was a rush, a dodge, a scuffle, a bullet whistling harmlessly up
into the purple night, and that revolver was Captain Kettle's.
"The cartridges you have in your pocket."
"I've only three. Here they are, confound you! Now, what are you going
to do next? You've waked the village. You'll have them down on you in
another moment. Run, you fool, or they'll have you yet."
"Will they?" said Kettle. "Well, if you want to know, I've got poor old
Brass Pan to square up for yet. I liked that boy." And with that, he set
off running down a path between the walls of grasses.
A negro met him in the narrow cut, yelled with surprise, and turned. He
dropped a spear as he turned, and Kettle picked it up and drove the
blade between his shoulder-blades as he ran. Then on through the
village he raged like a man demented. With what weapons he fought he
never afterward remembered. He slew with whatever came to his hand. The
villagers, wakened up from their torpid sleep, rushed from the grass and
wattle houses on every hand. Kettle in his Berserk rage charged them
whenever they made a stand, till at last all fled from him as though he
were more than human.
Bodies lay upon the ground staring up at the moon; but there were no
living creatures left, though the little sailor, with bared teeth and
panting breath, stood there waiting for them. No; he had cleared the
place, and only one other piece of retribution lay in his power. The
embers of a great fire smouldered in the middle of the clearing, and
with a shudder (as he remembered its purpose) he shovelled up great
handfuls of the glowing charcoal and sowed it broadcast on the dry grass
roofs of the chimbeques. The little crackling flames leaped up at once;
they spread with the quickness of a gunpowder train; and in less than a
minute a great cataract of fire was roaring high into the night.
Then, and not till then, did Captain Kettle think of his own retreat. He
put the three remaining cartridges into the empty chambers of his
revolver, and set off at a jog-trot down the winding path by which he
had come up from the river.
His head was throbbing then, and the stars and the grasses swam before
his eyes. The excitement of the fight had died away--the ills of the
place gripped every fibre of his body. Had the natives ambushed him
along the path, I do not think he could possibly have avoided them. But
those natives had had their lesson, and they did not care to tamper
with Kettle's _ju-ju_ again. And so he was allowed to go on undisturbed,
and somehow or other he got down to the river-bank and the canoe.
He did not do the land journey at any astonishing pace. Indeed, it is a
wonder he ever got over it at all. More than once he sank down half
unconscious in the path, and up all the steeper slopes he had to crawl
animal fashion on all-fours. But by daybreak he got to the canoe, and
pushed her off, and by a marvellous streak of luck lost his way in the
inner channels, and wandered out on to the broad Congo beyond.
I say this was a streak of luck, because by this time consciousness had
entirely left him, and on the inner channels he would merely have died,
and been eaten by alligators, whereas, as it was, he got picked up by a
State launch, and taken down to the pilotage at Banana.
It was Mrs. Nilssen who tediously nursed him back to health. Kettle had
always been courteous to Mrs. Nilssen, even though she was as black and
polished as a patent leather boot; and Mrs. Nilssen appreciated Captain
Owen Kettle accordingly.
With Captain Nilssen, pilot of the lower Congo, Kettle had one
especially interesting talk during his convalescence. "You may as well
take that troublesome wooden god for yourself now," said Nilssen. "But,
if I were you, I'd ship it home out of harm's way by the next steamer."
"Hasn't that missionary brute sent for it yet?"
Captain Nilssen evaded the question. "I'll never forget what you've done
for me, my lad. When you were brought in here after they picked you up,
you looked fit to peg out one-time, but the only sane thing you could
do was to waggle out a little leopard-skin parcel, and bid me swallow
the stuff that was inside. You'd started out to get me that physic, and,
by gum, you weren't happy till I got it down my neck."
"Well, you look fit enough now."
"But about the missionary brute?"
"Well, my lad, I suppose you're well enough to be told now. He's got his
trading cut short for good. That nigger with the yaws who paddled you up
brought down the news. The beggars up there chopped him, and I'm sure I
hope he didn't give them indigestion."
"My holy James!"
"Solid. His missionary friends here have written home a letter to Boston
which would have done you good to see. According to them, the man's a
blessed martyr, nothing more or less. The gin and the guns are left
clean out of the tale; and will Boston please send out some more
subscriptions, one-time? You'll see they'll stick up a stained-glass
window to that joker in Boston, and he'll stand up there with a halo
round his head as big as a frying-pan. And, oh! won't his friends out
here be resigned to his loss when the subscriptions begin to hop in from
over the water."
"Well, there's been a lot of trouble over a trumpery wooden idol. I
fancy we'd better burn it out of harm's way."
"Not much," said Nilssen with a sigh. "I've found out where the value
comes in, and as you've earned them fairly and squarely, the dividends
are yours to stick to. One of those looking-glass eyes was loose, and I
picked it out. There was a bit of green glass behind. I picked out the
other eye, and there was a bit of green glass at the back of that too."
"Oh, the niggers'll use anything for ju-ju."
"Wait a bit. I'd got my notions as to what that green glass was, and so
I toted them in my pocket up and down the river and asked every man who
was likely to know a jewel what he thought. They aren't green glass at
all. They're emeralds. They're come from the Lord knows where, but that
doesn't matter. They're worth fifty pounds apiece at the very lowest,
and they're yours, my lad, to do what you like with."
Captain Kettle lay back on his pillow and smiled complacently. "That
money'll just set up my Missis nicely in a lodging-house. Now I can go
on with my work here, and know that whatever happens she and the kids
are provided for."
"Eh, well," said Nilssen with a sigh, "she'll be nicely fixed up now. I
wish I could make provision like that for my old women."
A QUICK WAY WITH REBELS.
Another bullet came silently up out of the distance, and the nigger
second engineer of the launch gave a queer little whimper and fell down
_flop_, and lay with his flat nose nuzzling the still warm boiler. A
hole, which showed up red and angry against the black wool just
underneath his grass cap, made the diagnosis of his injury an
The noise of the shot came to them quite a long time afterward, when the
little puff of smoke which had spirted up from the distant sandbank had
already begun to thin under the sunshine; but it was that gun-crack, and
not the sight of the dead engineer, which gave the working negroes their
final scare. With loud children's cries, and queer dodgings of fear,
they pitched down their working tools, and fled to where the other black
soldiers and passengers were lying on the iron floor-plates of the
launch, in security below her water-line.
The Belgian Commandant, from his shelter at the other side of the
boiler, swore volubly, and Clay, the English doctor, laughed and twanged
out a music-hall tune on his banjo. Kettle, intent on getting his vessel
once more under command, was for driving the negro crew back to their
work by the simple methods peculiar to the British merchant officer. But
this Commandant Balliot forbade, and, as he was Kettle's superior in
the Congo Free State service, that small mariner had (very much against
his grain) to obey.
"We shall have these fellows rebelling next," said the Commandant, "if
you push them too hard; and if they join the rest, where shall we be?"
"There are a thousand of your troops in the mutiny already, according to
your tally," said Kettle stiffly, "and I don't see that if this hundred
joined them it would make much difference to us, one way or the other.
Besides," he added, almost persuasively, "if I had the handling of them
they would not join the others. They would stay here and do as they
"Captain Kettle," snapped the Commandant, "you have heard my orders. If
I have any more of this hectoring spirit from you, I shall report your
conduct when we get back to Stanley Pool."
"You may report till you're black in the face," said Kettle truculently;
"but if you don't put a bit more backbone into things, you'll do it as a
ghost and not as a live man. Look at your record up to date. You come up
here at the head of a fine expedition; you set your soldiers to squeeze
the tribes for rubber and ivory; they don't bring in enough niggers'
ears to show that they've used their cartridges successfully, and so you
shoot them down in batches; and then you aren't man enough to keep your
grip on them, but when they've had enough of your treatment, they just
start in and rebel."
"One man can't fight a thousand."
"You can't, anyway. If the Doc and I had turned up with this launch half
an hour later, your excellent troops would have knocked you on the head
and chopped you afterward. But I'd like to remind you that we ran
in-shore and took you away in spite of their teeth."
"You are very brave," sneered the Commandant, "you and Monsieur le
"Well, you see," said Kettle with cheerful insult, "our grandfathers
didn't run away at Waterloo, and that gives us something to go upon."
"I put you under arrest," screamed the Belgian. "I will have
satisfaction for this later. I----"
"Steady on," said Clay, with a yawn. He put down his banjo, stretched,
and stood up. Behind him the bullets pattered merrily against the iron
plating. "Why on earth do you two keep on nagging? Look at me--I'm half
drunk as usual, and I'm as happy as a lord. Take a peg, each of you, and
sweeten your tempers."
They glared at him from each side.
"Now it's not the least use either of you two trying to quarrel with me.
We might as well all be friends together for the little time we've got.
We've a good deal in common: we're all bad eggs, and we're none of us
fit for our billets. Monsieur le Commandant, you were a sous-officier in
Belgium who made Brussels too hot to hold you; you come out here, and
you're sent to govern a district the size of Russia, which is a lot
beyond your weight.
"Friend Kettle, you put a steamer on the ground in the lower Congo; you
probably had a bad record elsewhere, or you'd never have drifted to the
Congo service at all; and now you're up here on the Haut Congo
skippering a rubbishy fourpenny stern-wheel launch, which of course is a
lot beneath your precious dignity.
"And I--well, I once had a practice at home; and got into a row over a
woman; and when the row was through, well, where was the practice? I
came out here because no one will look at me in any other quarter of the
globe. I get wretched pay, and I do as little as I possibly can for it.
I'm half-seas over every day of the week, and I'm liked because I can
play the banjo."
"I don't see what good you're getting by abuse like this," said Kettle.
"I'm trying to make you both forget your silly naggling. We may just as
well be cheerful for the bit of time we've got."
"Bit of time!"
"Well, it won't be much anyway. Here's the launch with a hole shot in
her boiler, and no steam, drifted hard and fast on to a sandbank. On
another bank, eight hundred yards away, are half a regiment of rebel
troops with plenty of good rifles and plenty of cartridges, browning us
for all they're worth. Their friends are off up stream to collect canoes
from those villages which have been raided, and canoes they'll
get--likewise help from the recently raided. When dark comes, away
they'll attack us, and personally, I mean to see it out fighting, and
they'll probably chop me afterward, and the odds are I give some of them
bad dyspepsia. About that I don't care two pins. But I don't intend to
be caught alive. That means torture, and no error about it." He
shivered. "I've seen their subjects after they've played their torture
games on them. My aunt, but they were a beastly sight."
The Commandant shivered also. He, too, knew what torture from the hands
of those savage Central African blacks meant.
"I should blow up the launch with every soul on board of her," he said,
"if I thought there was any chance of their boarding with canoes."
"Well, you can bet your life they'll try it," said Kettle, "if we stay
"But how can we move? We can't make steam. And if we do push off this
bank, we shall drift on to the next bank down stream."
"That's your idea," said Kettle. "Haven't you got a better?"
"You must not speak to me like that," said Balliot, with another little
snap of dignity and passion. "I'm your senior officer."
"At the present rate you'll continue to be that till about nightfall,"
said Kettle unpleasantly, "after which time we shall be killed, one way
or another, and our ranks sorted out afresh."
"Now, you two," said Clay, "don't start wrangling again." He took a
bottle out of a square green case, and passed it. "Here, have some gin."
"For God's sake, Doc, dry up," said Kettle, "and pull yourself together,
and remember you're a blooming Englishman."
Clay's thin yellow cheeks flushed. "What's the use?" he said with a
forced laugh. "'Tisn't as if anybody wanted to see any of us
"I'm wanted," said Kettle, sharply, "by my wife and kids. I've got them
to provide for, and I'm not going to shirk doing it. Let me have my own
way, and I can get out of this mess; yes, and out of a dozen worse
messes on beyond it. The thing's nothing if only it's tackled the
"How shall you set about it," asked the Commandant.
"By giving orders, and taking mighty big care that everybody on this
ship carries them out."
Commandant Balliot rubbed at his close, scrubby beard, and bared his
teeth viciously. Behind him, from the distant sandbank, the rebel
bullets rapped unceasingly at the launch's iron plating. "But I am the
senior in rank," he repeated again. "Officially I could not resign the
command in your favor."
"Yes, I know. But here's the situation packed small: if you climb up,
and do the large, and perch on your blessed rank, we shall probably see
this day out, but we certainly sha'n't see another in. You're at the end
of your string, and you can't deny it."
"But if you've a suggestion to make which will save us, make it, and I
"No," snapped Kettle. "I'll either be boss and carry out my schemes my
own way; or else, if we stay on as we are, I hold my tongue, and you can
go on and arrange the funeral."
"If you can get us out of this mess--"
"I've said I can."
"Then I will let you take the command."
"Well and good. In the first place--"
"Wait a minute. I resign to you temporarily; but, understand, even if I
wished to, I could not do this officially. When we get down to
Leopoldville--when we get down to the next post even--"
"Oh, you can collar the blooming credit," said Kettle contemptuously,
"when we do get clear away to any of your own headquarters. I'm not
looking for gratitude either from a Belgian or from the Congo Free
State. They don't like Englishmen."
"You are not a lovable nation," said Commandant Balliot spitefully.
"Now," said Kettle, thrusting his fierce little face close up to the
other, "understand once and for all that I will not have England abused,
neither do I take any more of your lip for myself. I'm Captain of the
whole of this show now, by your making, and I intend to be respected as
such, and hold a full captain's ticket. You'll call me 'sir' when you
speak, and you'll take orders civilly and carry them out quick, or, by
James! you'll find your teeth rammed down your throat in two twinkles of
a handspike. Savvy that?"
The man of the weaker nation subsided. There was no law and order here
to fall back upon. There was nothing but unnerving savagery and
vastness. The sandbar where their wrecked launch lay was out in the
middle of the Congo, perhaps eight miles from the park-like lands which
stretched indefinitely beyond either bank. The great river astern of her
glared like a mirror under the intolerable sunshine; came up and swirled
around her flanks in yellow, marigold-smelling waves; and then joined up
into mirror shape again till the eye ached in regarding it. The baking
sky above was desolate even of clouds; there was no help anywhere; and
on another distant sandbank, where here and there little bushes of
powder smoke sprouted up like a gauzy foliage, a horde of barbarous
blacks lusted to tear out his life.
In Commandant Balliot's own heart hope was dead. But it seemed that this
detestable Englishman had schemes in his head by which their lives might
yet be saved.
He had been given a sample of the Englishmen's brazen daring already.
After his troops mutinied, and pandemonium reigned in the village where
he was quartered, the Englishman had steamed up with his paltry
stem-wheel launch, and by sheer dash and recklessness had carried him
and his last parcel of faithful men away in spite of the
It was an insane thing to do, and when he had (as senior officer)
complimented Kettle on the achievement, the little sailor had coldly
replied that he was only carrying out his duty and earning his pay. And
he had further mentioned that it was lucky for Commandant Balliot that
he was a common, low-down Britisher, and not a fancy Belgian, or he
would have thought of his own skin first, and steamed on comfortably
down river and just contented himself with making a report. The white
engineer of the launch--a drunken Scot--had, it seemed, been killed in
the sortie, which, of course, was regretable; but Balliot (who disliked
the Scot personally) had omitted to make the proper condolences; and it
was at this that Kettle had taken umbrage and turned the nasty edge of
his tongue outward.
"Now," said Captain Kettle, "enough time's been wasted. We will start
business at once, please. That boiler's got to be mended, first."
"But," said Balliot, "it's under fire all the time."
"I can see that for myself," said the little sailor, "without being
reminded by a subordinate who wasn't asked to speak. We take things as
we find them, and so it's got to be mended under fire. Moreover, as the
chief engineer of this vessel was killed ashore, and the second engineer
was shot overboard, there's others that will have to take rating as
engine-room officers. Commandant Balliot, have you any mechanics amongst
"I have one man who acted as armorer-sergeant. He is very inefficient."
"He must do his best. Can you handle a drill or a monkey wrench,
"Then I shall find you a laborer's job. Doc, are you handy with tools?"
"Only with those of my own trade," said Clay. "I'm pretty inefficient
all round," he added, with a shrug, "or else I shouldn't be here."
"Very well," said Kettle, "then I'll rate myself chief engineer." He got
up, and walked round to where the black second engineer, the last man
shot, still nuzzled the boiler plates exactly in the same position where
he had first fallen. He lifted one of the man's arms, and let it go. It
jerked back again like a spring.
"Well, Daddy," he said, "you didn't take long to get stiff. They shot
you nice and clean, anyway. I guess we'll let the river and the
crocodiles bury you." With a sharp heave, he jerked the rigid body on to
the rail, and even for the short second it poised there the poor dead
clay managed to stop another of those bullets which flew up in such
deadly silence from that distant sandbank.
"Good-by," said Kettle, as he toppled the corpse over, and it fell with
a splash, stiff-limbed into the yellow water. He watched the body as it
bobbed up again to the surface, and floated with the stream out into the
silvery sunshine. "Good-by, cocky," said he. "You've been a good nigger,
and, as you were shot doing your duty, they'll set you on at the place
where you've gone to, one of the lightest jobs they've got suitable for
a black pagan. That's a theological fact. You'll probable turn to and
stoke; I'll be sending you down presently another batch of heathen to
shovel on the fire. I've got a biggish bill against those beggars on
that sandbank yonder for the mischief they've done."
But it was no place there to waste much time on sentiment. The woodwork
of the shabby little steamer was riddled with splintered holes; the
rusted iron plating was starred with gray lead-splashes; and every
minute more bullets ploughed furrows in the yellow waters of the river,
or whisped through the air overhead, or hit the vessel herself with
peremptory knocks. It is all very well to affect a contempt for a
straggling ill-aimed fire such as this; but, given a long enough
exposure to it, one is bound to be hit; and so, if the work was to be
attempted, the quicker it was set about the more chance there was of
getting it finished.
They use wood fuel on these small, ungainly steamers which do their
business up in the savage heart of Africa on the waters of the Haut
Congo, and because every man with a gun for many reasons feels himself
to be an enemy of the Free State, the steamers carry their firing logs
stacked in ramparts round their boilers and other vital parts. But wood,
as compared with coal, is bulky stuff to carry, and as the stowage
capacity of these stern-wheelers is small, they have to make frequent
calls to rebunker.
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