A Master of Fortune
Part 2 out of 5
Indeed, it was for this purpose that Kettle had originally put in at the
village where Commandant Balliot had his headquarters; and, as other
events happened there which he had not calculated upon, he had steamed
out into the broad river again without a chance of taking any logs on
board, and, in fact, with his stock of fuel down very near to the
On this account, therefore, after the fatal shot into the boiler, and
the subsequent disablement and drifting on to the sandbank, all
repairing work had to be done under full exposure to the fire of the
mutineers. The Central African negro is a fairly stolid person, and as
the sight of a little slaughter does not in the least upset his nerves,
he can stand bullet hail for a good long time without emotion,
especially if there is no noise and bustle attached to it. But once let
a scare get rubbed home into his stupid brain, and let him get started
off on the run, and he is an awkward person to stop.
But Kettle did not start to hustle his black laborers back to work at
once. He knew that there would be heavy mortality amongst them once they
were exposed to fire, and he wanted to lose as few of them as possible.
He had got use for them afterward. So for long enough he worked alone,
and the bullets spattered around him gayly. He hammered out a lead
templet to cover the wound in the boiler, which, of course, as bad luck
would have it, was situated at a place where three plates met; and then
whilst Balliot's armorer with fire and hammer beat out a plate of iron
the exact counterpart of this, he rigged a ratchet drill and bored holes
through the boiler's skin to carry the necessary bolts.
Clay volunteered assistance once, but as he was told he would be asked
for help when it was needed, he squatted down under the sheltered side
of the boiler again, and smoked, and played more music-hall ditties on
the banjo. Commandant Balliot held to a sullen silence. He was growing
to have a poisonous hatred for this contemptuous little Englishman who
by sheer superiority had made him give up his treasured dictatorship,
and he formed schemes for the Englishman's discomfiture in the
But for the present he hoped very much that the man would not be killed;
he recognized, with fresh spasms of anger every time he thought about
it, that without Captain Kettle there would be no future--at any rate on
this earth--for any of them.
And meanwhile Captain Owen Kettle, stripped to shoes and trousers,
sweated over his work in the baking heat. Twice had a bullet grazed him,
once on the neck, and once on the round of a shoulder, and red stains
grew over the white satin of his skin. The work was strange to him
certainly, but he set about it with more than an amateur's skill. All
sailors have been handy with their fingers from time immemorial, but the
modern steamer-sailor, during his apprenticeship as mate, has to turn
his hand to a vast variety of trades. He is painter, carpenter,
stevedore, crew-driver, all in one day; and on the next he is doctor,
navigator, clerk, tailor, and engineer. And especially he is engineer.
He must be able to drive winch, windlass, or crane, like an artist; he
must have a good aptitude for using hand tools; and if he can work
machine tools also, it is so much the better for him.
Yes, Captain Kettle put the patch on that boiler like a workman. He
fitted his bolts, and made his joints; then luted the manhole and bolted
that back in place; and then stepped down while a couple of negroes
sluiced him with water from gourds, and rubbed him clean and dry with
handfuls of wild cotton waste. So far, although the incessant hail of
bullets had pitted the boiler's skin in a hundred places, no second shot
had found a spot sufficiently soft to make a puncture. The range of the
bombardment was long, perhaps, and though a bullet at seven hundred
yards may, with convenience, kill a man, it will not pierce
seven-eighths boiler plate. And so, theoretically, the boiler was safe
for the time being.
But practically it was otherwise. The boiler was by no means new. It was
corroded with years, and incapacity, and neglect, as is the custom with
all parts of boats and machinery on the Haut Congo. But it had been
brought up to that waterway by carriers at vast expense from Matadi, the
highest steamer port on the Lower Congo, probably costing three months
and a dozen lives in transit, so that it was debited in the books of the
Free State as being worth its weight in silver, and destined to be used
on without replacement till it saw fit to burst.
So Kettle knew that in places it would be not much thicker than stout
brown paper, and was quite aware that if any of the pattering bullets
investigated one of these patches, he would have to do his work over
again. He had a strong--and, I think, natural--disinclination for this.
He had come through terrific risks during the last four hours, and could
not expect to do so a second time with equal immunity; his two wounds
smarted; and (although it sounds ludicrous that such a thing should have
weight) the dirt inseparable from such employment jarred against his
neat and cleanly habits, and filled him with unutterable disgust.
The moment, he conceived, was one for hurry. He told off four of the
negroes as trimmers and stokers, and set Commandant Balliot over them to
see that they pressed on with their work; he sent Clay with a huge gang
of helpers overboard on the lee side to risk the crocodiles, and dig
away the sand; and he himself, with a dozen paddlers, got into the
dug-out canoe, which was his only boat, and set to carrying out a kedge
and line astern. All of these occupations took time, and when at last
steam had mounted to a working pressure in the battered gauge, and they
got on board again, two of his canoe-men had been shot, and one of
Clay's party had been dragged away into deep water by a prowling
As no one else was competent, Kettle himself took charge of the engines,
and roared his commands with one hand on the throttle, and the other on
the reversing gear; Clay, for the moment, was quartermaster, and stood
to the wheel on the upper deck; and Balliot, under the tuition of curses
and revilings, drove the winch, which heaved and slacked on the line
made fast to the kedge.
The little steamer rolled and squeaked and coughed, and the paddle-wheel
at her stern kicked up a compost of sand and mud and yellow water that
almost choked them with its crushed marigold scent. The helm swung over
alternately from hard-a-starboard to hard-a-port; the stern-wheel ground
savagely into the sand, first one way and then the other; and the
gutter, which she had delved for herself in the bank, grew gradually
wider and more deep. Then slowly she began to make real progress astern.
"Now, heave on that kedge," Kettle yelled, and the winch bucked and
clattered under a greater head of steam, and the warp sung to the
strain; and presently the little vessel slid off the bank, picked up her
anchor, and was free to go where she pleased.
"Hurrah," cried Balliot, "we are saved. You are a brave man, Captain."
"I didn't ask you to speak," retorted Kettle. "We aren't out of the wood
by a long chalk yet."
"But we are out of their fire now. We shall be disturbed no further."
"No, my lad, but we've got a precious heap of disturbing to do on our
own account before we've squared up for this tea party. I'm going to
drop down stream to somewhere quiet where we can fill up with wood, and
then I'm coming back again to give your late Tommies bad fits."
"But I don't authorize this. I didn't foresee--"
"Very likely not. But a fat lot I care for that. Fact remains that I'm
skipper here, and I'm going to do as I think best. I've got it in mind
that my two engineers and a lot of good niggers have been shot by those
disgusting savages over yonder, and I don't permit that sort of thing
without making somebody pay a pretty steep bill for the amusement. So
I'm going down stream to wood up, and then we'll come back and make them
pay for the tea party."
"You are exceeding your powers. I warn you."
"If any of my inferiors on board ship don't keep their heads shut when
they aren't spoken to," said Kettle unpleasantly, "I always disarrange
their front teeth. If I have any more palaver from you, you'll get to
know what it feels like." He shouted up the companion way--"On top
"Hullo?" said Clay.
"Keep her down river to M'barri-m'barri. That's a twelve-mile run from
here. There are two big cotton woods in a line which will bring you to
the landing. You know the channel?"
"I ought to. I've been up and down it times enough. But I guess I
don't--at least, not now."
"Fuddled again, are you? Then I'll con you from here. You see three
trees growing on that island bang ahead? Keep her on those." He turned
to a couple of stalwart niggers at his side--"Say, you boys, you lib for
top, one-time. You take dem Doctor's gin-bottle, and you throw him
overboard, one-time. If dem Doctor he make palaver, you throw him
overboard too. Away with you now. By James! we got to get discipline in
this ship somehow, and I'm a man that can teach it. Here, you black
swine at that furnace, go slow with those logs, or we won't be able to
steam her half-way."
He bustled about the little vessel, turning every soul on board to some
employment or other; and those of the newcomers who did not know his
wishes, and were not quick enough for his taste, received instruction in
a manner which is understood by men all the world over, be their skins
black, or white, or yellow.
The process might not be very pleasant for those who came in contact
with it, but it was very effective for the purpose aimed at. In sea
parlance Kettle had to "break up" some half-dozen of them before all
hands acquiesced to his dictatorship; but they were quick to see there
was a Man over them this time, and involuntarily they admired his
virility even while they rubbed ruefully at their bumps; and during the
times of stress that came afterward, none of these Africans were so
smart to obey as those on whom their taskmaster's hand had originally
The period of instruction was short. It began when the little
stern-wheeler slipped off the bank and got under weigh. It was completed
satisfactorily during the twelve miles run down the river. The boat was
steered into M'barri-m'barri creek, made hastily fast to trees on the
bank, and exuded her people in an armed rush. They had possession of the
place almost before the villagers knew of their arrival, and proceeded
to the object of their call. There was no especial show of violence.
The women and the children were imprisoned in the huts; the men were
given axes, and sent off into the forest to cut and gather fuel; and,
meanwhile, the landing party set themselves to eat what they fancied and
to carry off any store of ivory and rubber that they might chance upon.
There was nothing remarkable in the manoeuvre. It is the authorized
course of proceedings when a Free State launch goes into the bank for
wood and supplies.
The villagers brought down the logs smartly enough, and waxed quite
friendly on finding that none of the hostage women and children had been
killed or maltreated during their absence. They duly gave up the German
axes which had been loaned to them, and carried the wood aboard. Kettle
arranged its disposition. He had solid defences built up all round the
vulnerable boiler and engines. He had a stout breastwork built all round
inside the rail of the lower deck, quite stout enough to absorb a bullet
even if fired at point-blank range. And he had another breastwork built
on the third deck, above the cabins, so that he turned the flimsy little
steamer into a very staunch, if somewhat ungainly, floating fort.
He got on board the rubber and ivory he had collected, and had it
struck down below--the dividends of the State have to be remembered
first, even at moments of trouble like these--and then he gave orders,
and the vessel set off again up stream. On the lower deck he stayed
himself during the journey back, and gave instructions to Commander
Balliot in the art of engine-driving.
Balliot was sullen at first, and showed little inclination to acquire so
warm and grimy a craft, and fenced himself behind his dignity. But
Kettle put forth his persuasive powers; he did not hit the man, he
merely talked; and under the merciless lash of that vinegary little
tongue, Balliot repented him of his stubbornness, and set himself to
acquire the elementary knack of engine nursing and feeding and driving.
"And now," said Kettle, cheerfully, when the pupil had mastered the
vague outlines of his business, "you see what can be done by kindness. I
haven't hit you once, and you know enough already not to blow her up if
only you're careful. Don't you even sham stupid again; and, see here,
don't you grit your teeth at me when you think I'm not looking, or I'll
beat you into butcher's meat when I've hammered these rebels, and have a
bit of spare time. You want to learn a lot of manners yet, Mr.
Commandant Balliot, and where I come from we teach these to foreigners
free of charge. Just you remember that I'm your better, my man, and give
me proper respect, or I'll lead you a life a nigger's yellow dog
Now the revolted troops, when they saw the launch wriggle off the bank
where she was stuck, and steam away down stream, were filled with
exasperation, because they had confidently anticipated making a
barbecue out of Commandant Balliot in return for many cruelties
received, and doing the same by any other Europeans whom they might
catch on the steamer, because, being white, they would be presumably
relatives of Balliot. It never occurred to their simple minds that the
launch would return, much less that she would offer them battle; so when
indeed she did appear again, they were in the midst of a big
consultation about their future movements.
However, the African who owns a gun, be he revolted soldier or mere
peaceful farmer, never lets that weapon go far away from his hand, for
fear that his neighbor should send him away into the land of shadows in
order to possess it. And so a fusillade was soon commenced. But the
launch, armed with her fine rampart of logs, bore it unflinchingly, and
steamed up within a hundred yards of the thick of them, and just held
there in her place, with her wheel gently flapping against the stream,
and opened a vicious fire from fifty muzzles.
Of modern rifles Kettle had only twenty on board, but he had an
abundance of those beautiful instruments known as "trade guns," and at
shot-range a man can be killed just as definitely by a dose of pot-leg
out of a gas-pipe barrel as he can by a dum-dum bullet sent through
scientific rifling. Indeed, for close-quarter righting pot-leg is far
more comprehensive, and far less likely to miss than the lonely modern
bullet. Moroever, his crew had quite as much dread for him as they had
for the enemy, and as a consequence they fought with a briskness which
made even their grim little chief approve.
The crowd of mutineers did not, however, offer themselves to be browned
like a pack of helpless sheep for long. They were Africans who had been
born in an atmosphere of scuffle and skirmish, and death had no especial
terrors for them. Moreover, they had learnt certain elements of the
modern art of war from white officers; and now, in the moment of trial,
their dull brains worked, and the crafty knowledge came back to them.
They were a thousand strong; they had friends all round--cannibal
friends--who would come to help in the fight and share in the loot; and,
moreover, they had canoes. Other well-manned canoes also were fast
coming to their help down stream.
In the canoes then they put off, and Kettle smiled grimly as he saw the
move. He had thought of this before, but it was greater luck than he had
dared hope for. But now the enemy had given himself over into his hand.
The one strong position of the stern-wheel launch was her forward part.
The Congo is full of snags and floating logs which cannot always be
avoided, and so all steamers are strengthened to stand contact with
them; and he could give them the stem now without risk to himself.
He pretended flight when the canoes first came out, standing across
toward the further bank of the river, which was some dozen miles away.
The rebels fell into the lure, and paddled frantically after him. Canoe
after canoe put out, as fast as they could be manned. The white men on
the steamer were running away; they were frightened; there was spoil and
revenge to be got for the taking. And from unseen villages on the
islands and on the bank other canoes shot out to get their share.
In the mean while Kettle consolidated his defences. Frantically he
worked, and like Trojans Clay and the negroes labored under him. All
that drunken doctor's limp _laissez faire_ was gone now. The blood of
some fighting ancestor had warmed up inside him. He might be physically
weak and unhandy, but the lust of battle filled him up like new drink,
and he forgot his disgraceful past, and lived only for the thrill of the
The log barricades had to be lashed and strutted so that no collision
could unship them, and all hands sweated and strained in that tropical
heat, till the job could not be bettered. And at the after part of the
lower deck, Commandant Balliot, driven on also by the strong-willed man
whom nobody on board could resist, tended the engines with all his brain
and nerve, and did his best to make the fighting machine perfect.
"Now," said Kettle at last, "as we have got those fool Tommies nicely
tailed out about the river, we'll quit this running-away game, and get
to business. Mr. Chief Engineer, open that throttle all it'll go, and
let her rip, and mind you're standing by for my next order. Doc, you
keep your musketry class well in hand. Don't waste shots. But when you
see me going to run down a canoe, stand by to give them eternal ginger
when they're ten yards from the stern. I'll whistle when you're
Captain Kettle went on to the upper deck and took over the wheel, and
screwed it over hard-a-port. The little top-heavy steamer swung round in
a quick circle, lurching over dangerously to the outside edge. She ran
for half a mile up stream, and then turned again and came back at the
top of her gait. She was aiming at one particular canoe, which for a
while came on pluckily enough to meet her.
But African nerve has its limits, and the sight of this strange uncouth
steamer, which followed so unflinchingly their every movement, was too
much for the sweating paddlers. They turned their ponderous dug-out's
head, and tried to escape.
Kettle watched them like a cat. He had the whistle string in his teeth,
so as to leave him both hands free for the steering wheel, and when the
moment came he threw back his head, and drew the string. The scream of
the steam whistle was swamped instantly in the roar of a blasting
volley. Not many of the shots hit--for the African is not a
marksman--but the right effect was gained. The blacks in the canoe
ducked and flinched; they were for the moment quite demoralized; and
before they could man their paddles again, the stern-wheeler's stem had
crushed into their vessel, had cut a great gash from one side, had
rolled it over, and then mounted the wreck, and drove down stream across
the top of it.
A few more angry shots snapped out at the black bodies swimming in the
yellow water. "Hold up, there," Kettle ordered, "and let them swim if
they can, and chance the crocodiles. They've got their gruel. Load up
now, and get ready for the next."
He turned the launch again, and stood across the stream down the
strung-out line of canoes, occasionally making feints at them, but
ramming no more for the present. They all fired at him as he passed
them; indeed, a wild, scattered fire was general from all the fleet; but
his log armor protected him from this, and he steamed grimly on, without
returning a shot.
At the furthermost end of the line he turned sharply again, and ran down
the last canoe, just as he had run down the other; and then he
deliberately started to drive the whole fleet together into one solid
flock. He had the speed of them, and with rifle fire they could not
damage him, but for all that it was not easy work. They expected the
worst, and made desperate efforts to scatter and escape; finally, he
drove them altogether in one hopeless huddle--cowed, scared, and tired
out; and then he brought the stern-wheeler to a sudden stop just above
them, and made Clay shout out terms in the native tongue.
They were to throw all their weapons overboard into the river. They did
it without question.
They were to throw their paddles overboard. They did that also.
They were to tie all their canoes together into one big raft. They
obeyed him there, too, with frenzied quickness.
He took the raft in tow and steamed off down river to the headquarters
Free State post of the Upper River. He was feeling almost complacent at
the time. He had shown Commandant Balliot what he was pleased to term a
quick way with rebels.
But Commandant Balliot, whose life had been saved, and army disarmed and
brought back from rebellion in spite of himself, was not the man to let
any vague feeling of gratitude overweigh his own deep sense of injury.
He was incompetent, and he knew it, but Kettle had been tactless enough
to tell him so; and, moreover, Kettle had thrown out the national gibe
about Waterloo, which no Belgian can ever forgive. Commandant Balliot
gritted his teeth, and rubbed at his scrubby beard, and melodramatically
He said nothing about it then; he even sat at meat with the two
Englishmen, and shared the ship duties with them without so much as a
murmur. He could not but notice, too, that Kettle said nothing more now
about being supreme chief, and had, in fact, tacitly dropped back to his
old position as skipper of the launch. But Balliot brooded over the
injuries he had received at the hands of this truculent little sailor,
and they grew none the smaller from being held in memory.
Kettle's own method of reporting his doings, too, was not calculated to
endear him to the authorities. He steamed down to headquarters at
Leopoldville, went ashore, and swung into the Commandant's house with
easy contempt and assurance. He gave an arid account of the launch's
voyage up the great river to the centre of Africa and back, and then in
ten words described Balliot's disaster, his rescue, and its cost. "And
so," he wound up, "as the contract was outside Mr. Balliot's size, I
took it in my own hands and carried it through. I've brought back your
blooming army down here. It's quite tame now."
The Commandant at Leopoldville nodded stiffly, and said he would confer
with Captain Kettle's senior officer, Commandant Balliot, after which
Kettle would probably hear something further.
"All right," said the little man. "I should tell you, too, that Mr.
Balliot's not without his uses. With a bit of teaching I got him to
handle my engines quite decent for an amateur." He turned to go, but
stopped again in the glare of the doorway. "Oh, there's one other thing.
I want to recommend to you Doctor Clay. He's a good man, Clay. He stood
by me well in the trouble we had, after he got roused up. I'd like to
recommend him for promotion."
"I will see if Commandant Balliot--as senior officer--adds his
recommendation to yours," said the other drily. "Good-morning to you for
Captain Kettle went down to the beach, and stepped along the gangway on
to the stern-wheel launch. The working negroes on the lower deck stopped
their chatter for the moment as he passed, and looked up at him with a
queer mixture of awe and admiration. From above came the tinkle of a
banjo and the roar of an English song. The doctor was free, and was
amusing himself according to his fashion.
Kettle got his accordion and went up on the hurricane deck and joined
him, and till near on sundown the pair of them sat there giving forth
music alternately. There was a fine contrast between them. The
disreputable doctor deliberately forgot everything of the past, and
lived only for the reckless present; the shipmaster had got his wife and
children always filling half his memory, and was in a constant agony
lest he should fail to properly provide for them. And as a consequence
Clay's music was always of the lighter sort, and was often more than
impolite; while Kettle's was, for the most part, devotional, and all of
it sober, staid, and thoughtful. They were a strong contrast, these two,
but they pulled together with one another wonderfully. Kettle used
sometimes to wonder why it was, and came to the conclusion that it was
the tie of music which did it. But Clay never worried about the matter
at all. He was not the man to fill his head with useless problems.
But on this afternoon their concert was cut short before its finish.
Commandant Balliot came back to the launch with satisfaction on his
streaming face, and two armed black soldiers plodding at his heels.
"Well," said Kettle, "have they made you a colonel yet, or are they
only going to give you the Congo medal?"
"You sacred pig," said Balliot, "you talked to M. le Commandant here of
rebels. What are you but a rebel? I have told him all, and he has sent
me to arrest you."
"Good old Waterloo," said Kettle cheerfully. "I bet you lied, and
because you are both Belgians, I suppose he believed you."
The fat man gritted his teeth. "You talked of having a short way with
rebels yourself. You will find that we have a short way here, too. You
are under arrest."
"So you've said."
Balliot said a couple of words in the native to one of his followers,
and the man produced a pair of rusty handcuffs and held them out
Kettle's pale cheeks flushed darkly. "No," he said, "by James! No,
that's not the way for a thing like you to set about it." He jumped to
his feet, and thrust his savage little face close to the black soldier's
eyes. "Give me dem handcuffs." The man surrendered them limply, and
Kettle flung them overboard. Balliot was trying to get a revolver from
the leather holster at his waist, but Kettle, who had his weapon in a
hip pocket, was ready first, and covered him.
"Throw up your hands!"
Commandant Balliot did so. He knew enough about Captain Kettle to
understand that he meant business.
"Tell your soldiers to drop their guns, or I'll spread their brains on
Balliot obeyed that order also.
"Now, Doc," said Kettle in a different tone, "pack your traps and go
"What for?" asked Clay.
"Because I'm going to take this steamer for a cruise up river. I don't
mind getting the sack; I'd reckoned on that. But, by James! I'm not
going to be arrested by these Belgian brutes, and that's final."
"Well, I suppose they would string you up, or shoot you, to soothe their
precious dignity, from what His Whiskers here says."
"They're not going to get the chance," snapped Kettle. "Handcuffs, by
James! Here, clear out, Doc, and let me get the ship under way."
"No," said Clay. "I fancy I've had about enough of the Congo Free State
service, too. I'll come, too."
"Don't be an idiot."
Dr. Clay gave a whimsical laugh. "Have I ever been anything else all my
life?"--He went across and took the revolver out of Balliot's
holster--there, I've burnt my boats. I've disarmed His Whiskers here,
and defied authority, and that gives them a _casus belli_ against me.
You'll have to take me along now out of sheer pity."
"Very well," said Kettle; "help me to shove the three of them into one
of the empty rooms below, and then mount guard on them to see they don't
make a row. We mustn't have them giving the alarm of this new game till
we've got a start on us. You're a good soul, Doc. I'll never forget
this of you."
And so Captain Owen Kettle finally severed his connection with the Congo
Free State service, and set off at once again as his own master. He had
no trouble with the black crew of the launch. The men half adored, half
dreaded him; and, anyway, were prepared to take his orders before any
others. They got the little vessel under weigh again, and just before
the gang-plank was pulled in, Commandant Balliot and his disarmed escort
were driven on to the beach.
The Belgian was half wild with mortification and anger. "You have won
now," he screamed. "But you will be fetched back, and I myself will see
that you are disgracefully hanged."
"If you come after me and worry me," said Kettle, coolly, "I'll give you
my men to chop. Just you remember that, Mr. Waterloo. I think you know
already that I am a fellow that never lies."
THE NEW REPUBLIC
The fighting ended, and promptly both the invaders and the invaded
settled down to the new course of things without further exultation or
regret. An hour after it had happened, the capture of the village was
already regarded as ancient history, and the two white men had got a
long way on in their discussion on its ultimate fate.
"No," Captain Kettle was saying, "no being king for me, Doctor, thank
you. I've been offered a king's ticket once, and that sickened me of the
job for good and always. The world's evidently been going on too long to
start a new kingdom nowadays, and I'm too much of a conservative to try
and break the rule. No, a republic's the thing, and, as you say, I'm the
stronger man of the two of us. Doc, you may sign me on as President."
Dr. Clay turned away his face, and relieved his feelings with a grin.
But he very carefully concealed his merriment. He liked Kettle, liked
him vastly; but at the same time he was more than a little scared of
him, and he had a very accurate notion that the man who failed to take
him seriously about this new scheme, would come in contact with trouble.
The scheme was a big one; it purposed setting up a new state in the
heart of the Etat du Congo, on territory filched from that power; but
the little sailor was in deadly earnest over the project, and already
he had met with extraordinary luck in the initial stages. Central Africa
is a country where determined _coups de main_ can sometimes yield
The recent history of these two vagabond white men cannot be given in
this place with any web of detail. They had gone through their
apprenticeship amongst these African inlands as officers of the Congo
Free State; they had been divorced from that service with something of
suddenness; and a purist might have held that the severance of their
ties was complicated with something very near akin to piracy. I know
that they had been abominably oppressed; I know that Kettle chose
running away with his steamer to the alternative of handcuffs and
disgrace, and a possible hanging to follow; but there was no getting
over the fact that the stern-wheeler was Free State property, and that
these two had alienated it to their own uses.
The black crew of the launch and the black soldiers on board, some
seventy head all told, they had little trouble in dragooning into
obedience. The Central African native never troubles himself much about
niceties of loyalty, and as the sway of the Congo Free State (or "Buli
Matdi," as it is named by the woolly aboriginal), had been brutally
tyrannous, the change of allegiance had worried them little. Besides,
they had been in contact with Captain Kettle before, and knew him to be
that admirable thing, a Man, and worthy of being served; while Clay,
whom they also knew, amused them with his banjo, and held powerful
_ju-ju_ in the shape of drugs; and so they went blithely enough where
they were led or driven, and described themselves as soldiers or slaves,
whichever word happened to come handiest. The African of the interior
never worries his head about the terms of his service. So long as he has
plenty of food, and a master to do all the thinking for him, he is quite
content to work, or steal, or fight, or be killed, as that master sees
fit to direct.
The progress of the little stern-wheel steamer on her return journey up
the Haut Congo might also give rise to misapprehension here at home, if
it were described exactly as it happened. There are no ship's chandlers
in Central Africa, and it is the custom there, when you lack stores, to
go to a village on the bank and requisition anything that is available.
The Arab slave-traders who once held the country did this; the
prehistoric people before them founded the custom; and the Free State
authorities, their lineal descendants, have not seen fit to change the
policy. At least, they may have done so in theory at Brussels, but out
there, in practice, they have left this matter _in statu quo_.
There is a massive conservatism about the heart of Africa with which it
is dangerous to tamper. If you rob a man in that region, he merely
respects your superior power. If you offer him payments, he promptly
suspects you of weakness, and sets his clumsy mind at work to find the
method by which you may be robbed of whatever you have not voluntarily
"Of course," said Kettle, taking up the thread of his tale again, "it's
understood that we run this country for our own advantage first."
"What other object should white men have up-country in Africa?" said
Clay. "We don't come here merely for our health."
"But I've got a great notion of treating the people well besides. When
we have made a sufficient pile--and, mark you, it must be all in ivory,
as there's nothing else of value that can be easy enough handled--we
shall clear out for the Coast, one-time. And then we must realize on the
ivory, and then we can go home and live as Christians again." He stared
through the doorway of the hut at the aching sunshine beyond. "Oh, Lord!
Think of it, Doc--Home! England! Decent clothes! Regular attendance in
chapel on Sundays, and your soul well cared for and put into safe going
"Oh, my soul doesn't bother me. But England! that's fine to think about,
old man, isn't it? England!" he repeated dreamily. "Yes, I suppose I
should have to change my name if I did go back. I don't know, though.
It'd have blown over by now, perhaps; things do blow over, and if I went
to a new part of the country I expect I could still stick to the old
name, and not be known from Adam. Yes, things do blow over with time,
and if you don't make too much stir when you go back. I should have to
keep pretty quiet; but I bet I'd have a good time for all that. Fancy
the luxury of having good Glenlivet in a cask again, with a tap half-way
up, after the beastly stuff one got on the coast, or, worse still, what
one gets up here--and that's no whiskey at all!"
"Well, you needn't worry about choosing your home drinks just now," said
Kettle. "'Palaver no set' here by a very long chalk yet, and till it is
you'll have to go sober, my lad, and keep a very clear head."
Clay came to earth again. "Sorry, Skipper," he said, "but you set me
off. 'Tisn't often I look across at either to-morrow or yesterday. As
you say, it's a very dry shop this, and so the sooner we get what we
want and quit, the sooner we shall hit on a good time again. And the
sooner we clear out, too, the less chance we have of those beastly
Belgians coming in here to meddle. You know we've had luck so far, and
they haven't interfered with us. But we can't expect that for always.
The Congo Free State's a trading corporation, with dividends to make for
the firm of Leopold and Co., in Brussels, and they don't like trade
rivals. What stealing can be done in the country, they prefer to do
"When the time comes," said the little sailor grimly, "we shall be ready
for them, and if they interfere with me, I shall make the Congo Free
State people sit up. But in the mean while they are not here, and I
don't see that they need be expected. They can trace us up the Congo
from Leopoldville, if you like, by the villages we stopped at--one,
we'll say, every two hundred miles--but then we find this new river, and
where are we? The river's not charted; it's not known to any of the Free
State people, or I, being in their steamboat service, would have been
told of it; and the entrance is so well masked at its Congo end by
islands, that no one would guess it was there. The Congo's twenty miles
wide where our river comes in, and very shallow, and the
steamer-channel's right at the further bank. If they'd another
Englishman in their service up here, I'd not say; but don't you tell me
that the half-baked Dutchmen and Dagos who skipper their launches would
risk hunting out a new channel, and blunder on it that way."
"No," said Clay, "I'm with you there. But word travels amongst the
natives. You can't get over that."
"That's where the risk comes in. But I've done my best to make it
travel slow. I've got hold of that beast of a witch-doctor, who deserves
hanging anyway for all the poor wretches he's killed, and I've told him
that as soon as word slips out downriver of our being here, he'll get
shot, one-time. He's a man of influence, that witch-doctor, and I
shouldn't wonder but what he makes the natives keep their heads shut for
quite a long time."
"It may be professional prejudice, but I rather hope that local
practitioner gets his gruel somehow before we clear out." Clay shivered.
"He's a cruel devil. Remember the remains of those two poor sacrificed
wretches we found when we got here?"
Kettle shrugged his shoulders. "I know. But what could one do? Niggers
always are like that when they're left to play about alone--as these
here have been, I suppose, since Creation Day. We couldn't pin the
sacrifices on to the witch-doctor, or else, of course, we'd have strung
him up. We could only just give him an order for these customs to stop
one-time, and stand by to see it carried out. But we start the thing
from now, on fresh, sensible lines. We're going to have no foolery about
the nigger being as good as a white man. He isn't, and no man that ever
saw him where he grows ever thought so."
"Speaking scientifically," said Clay, "it has always struck me that a
nigger is an animal placed by the scheme of creation somewhere between a
monkey and a white man. You might bracket him, say, with a Portugee."
"About that," said Kettle; "and if you treat him as more, you make him
into a bad failure, whereas if he's left alone, he's a bit nasty and
cruel. Now I think, Doc, there's a middle course, and that's what I'm
going to try here whilst we're making our pile. We've grabbed four tidy
villages already, and that makes a good beginning for this new republic;
and when we've got things organized a bit more, and have a trifle of
time, we can grab some others. And, by James! Doc, there's a name for
you--the New Republic!"
"I seem to think it's been used in a book somewhere."
"The New Republic!" Kettle repeated relishingly. "It goes well. It's
certain to have been used before, but it's good enough to be used again.
Some day, perhaps, it'll have railways, and public-houses, and a postal
service, and some day it may even issue stamps of its own."
"With your mug in the middle!"
Captain Kettle reddened. "I don't see why not," he said stiffly. "I
started the show, and by James! whilst I'm running it, the New
Republic's got to hum; and when I'm gone, I shall be remembered as some
one out of the common. I'm a man, Doctor Clay, that's got a high sense
of duty. I should think it wrong to stay here sweating ivory out of
these people, if I didn't put something into them in return."
"Well, you do seem to have got a hold over them, and that's a fact, and
I guess you will be able to make them--" he broke off, and burst into a
cackle of laughter. "Oh, my Christian aunt, look there!"
A mob of natives were reverently approaching the hut, two of them
carrying skinny chickens. The witch-doctor led the advance. Kettle
guessed what was intended, and got up from his seat to interfere.
"Oh, look here, Skipper," Clay pleaded, "don't spoil the show. Let's do
the traveller for once, and observe the 'interesting native customs.'
You needn't be afraid; they're going to sacrifice the bigger hen to you,
Captain Kettle allowed himself to be persuaded, and sat back again. The
mob of negroes came up to the doorway of the hut, and the witch-doctor,
with many prostrations to the little sailor, made a long speech. Then
the larger of the two fowls entered into the ceremony, and was slain
with a sword, and the witch-doctor, squatting on the ground, read
Kettle accepted the homage with glum silence, evidently restraining
himself, but when Clay's turn came, and the smaller and scraggier of the
chickens yielded up life in his honor, he hitched up his feet, and
squatted cross-legged on the chair, and held up his hand palm outward,
after the manner of some grotesque Chinese idol. A sense of the absurd
was one of the many things which had hampered this disreputable doctor
all through his unlucky career.
The negroes, however, took it all in good part, and in time they
departed, well satisfied. But Kettle wore a gloomy face.
"Funny, wasn't it?" said Clay.
"I call it beastly," Kettle snapped. "This sort of thing's got to stop.
I'm not going to have my new Republic dirtied by shows like that."
"Well," said Clay flippantly, "if you will set up as a little tin god on
wheels, you must expect them to say their prayers to you."
"I didn't do anything of the kind. I merely stepped in and conquered
"Put it as you please, old man. But there's no getting over it that
that's what they take you for."
"Then, by James! it comes to this: they shall be taught the real thing!"
"What, you'll import a missionary?"
"I shall wade in and teach them myself."
"Phew!" whistled Clay. "If you're going to start the New Jerusalem game
on the top of the New Republic, I should say you'll have your
"Probably," said Kettle grimly; "but I am equal to that."
"And you'll not have much time left to see after ivory palaver."
"I shall go on collecting the ivory just the same. I shall combine
business with duty. And"--here he flushed somewhat--"I'm going to take
the bits of souls these niggers have got, and turn them into the
Clay rubbed his bald head. "If you're set on it," said he, "you'll do
it; I quite agree with you there. But I should have thought you'd seen
enough of the nigger to know what a disastrous animal he is after some
of these missionaries have handled him."
"Yes," said Kettle; "but those were the wrong sort of missionary--wrong
sort of man to begin with; wrong sort of religion also."
And then, to Dr. Clay's amazement, his companion broke out into a
violent exposition of his own particular belief. It was the first time
he had ever heard Kettle open his lips on the subject of religion, and
the man's vehemence almost scared him. Throughout the time they had been
acquainted, he had taken him to be like all other lay white men on the
Congo, quite careless on the subject, and an abhorrer of missions and
all their output; and, lo! here was an enthusiast, with a violent creed
of his very own, and with ranting thunders to heave at all who differed
from him by so much as a hairs-breadth. Here was a devotee who suddenly,
across a great ocean of absence, remembered the small chapel in South
Shields, where during shore days he worshipped beside his wife and
children. Here was a prophet, jerked by circumstances into being,
trumpeting the tenets of an obscure sect with something very near to
He preached and preached on till the tropical day burned itself out, and
the velvety night came down, and with it the mists from the river. The
negroes of the village, with their heads wrapped up to keep off the
ghosts, shivered as they listened to "dem small whiteman make ju-ju"
across the clearing. Clay listened because he could not get away. He
knew the man well, yes, intimately; he was constantly dealing him out
unpalatable flippancies; but in this new, this exalted mood, he did not
care to do less than give attention.
The man seemed to have changed; his eyes were bright and feverish; his
face was drawn; his voice had lost its shipmaster's brusqueness, and had
acquired the drone of the seaman's shore conventicle. There was no doubt
about his earnestness; in Clay's mind, there was no doubt about the
complications which would ensue from it.
When Dr. Clay lay down on his bed that night, his mind was big with
foreboding. Ever since that entanglement with the woman occurred, which
ruined forever his chance of practicing in England, he had gone his way
with a fine recklessness as to consequences. He had lived for the day,
and the day only; he had got to the lowest peg on the medical scale;
and any change would be an improvement. He carried with him an
incomplete case of instruments, a wire-strung banjo, and a fine taste in
liquor and merriment as stock-in-trade, and if any of the many shapes
which Death assumes in the Congo region came his way, why there he was
ready to journey on.
But during these last weeks a chance had appeared of returning to
England with a decent competency, and he jumped at it with an eagerness
which only those who have at one time or other "gone under" themselves
can appreciate. In effect he had entered into a partnership with Captain
Owen Kettle over a filibustering expedition--although they gave the
thing different names--and from the first their ivory raiding had been
extraordinarily successful. If only they could collect on undisturbed
for another six months at the same rate, and then get their spoils down
to the coast and shipped, the pair of them stepped into a snug
competence at once. But this latest vagary of his partner's seemed to
promise disruption of the whole enterprise. He did not see how Kettle
could possibly carry out this evangelizing scheme, on which he had so
suddenly gone crazed, without quite neglecting his other
However, in the course of the next day or so, as he witnessed Captain
Kettle's method of spreading his faith, Clay's forebodings began to pass
away. There was nothing of the hypocrite about this preaching sailor;
but, at the same time, there was nothing of the dreamer. He exhorted
vast audiences daily to enter into the narrow path (as defined by the
Tyneside chapel), but, at the same time, he impressed on them that the
privilege of treading this thorny way in no manner exempted them from
the business of gathering ivory, by one means or another, for himself
Kettle had his own notions as to how this proselytizing should be
carried on, and he set about it with a callous disregard for modern
precedent. He expounded his creed--the creed of the obscure Tyneside
chapel--partly in Coast-English, partly in the native, partly through
the medium of an interpreter, and he commanded his audience to accept
it, much as he would have ordered men under him to have carried out the
business of shipboard. If any one had doubts, he explained
further--once. But he did not allow too many doubts. One or two who
inquired too much felt the weight of his hand, and forthwith the
percentage of sceptics decreased marvellously.
Clay watched on, non-interferent, hugging himself with amusement, but
not daring to let a trace of it be seen. "And I thought," he kept
telling himself with fresh spasms of suppressed laughter, "that that
man's sole ambition was to set up here as a sort of robber baron, and
here he's wanting to be Mahomet as well. The crescent or the sword;
Kettleism or kicks; it's a pity he hasn't got some sense of humor,
because as it is I've got all the fun to myself. He'd eat me if I told
him how it looked to an outsider."
Once, with the malicious hope of drawing him, he did venture to suggest
that Kettle's method of manufacturing converts was somewhat sudden and
arbitrary, and the little sailor took him seriously at once.
"Of course it is," said he. "And if you please, why shouldn't it be? My
intelligence is far superior to theirs at the lowest estimate; and
therefore I must know what's best for them. I order them to become
members of my chapel, and they do it."
"They do it like birds," Clay admitted. "You've got a fine grip over
"I think they respect me."
"Oh, they think you no end of a fine man. In fact they consider you, as
I've said before, quite a little tin--"
"Now stop it, Doc. I know you're one of those fellows that don't mean
half they say, but I won't have that thrown against me, even in jest."
"Well," said Clay, slily, "there's no getting over the fact that some
person or persons unknown sacrificed a hen up against the door of this
hut under cover of last night, and I guess they're not likely to waste
the fowl on me."
"One can't cure them of their old ways all at once," said Kettle, with a
"And some genius," Clay went on, "has carved a little wooden image in
trousers and coat, nicely whitewashed, and stuck up on that old _ju-ju_
tree down there by the swamp. I saw it when I was down there this
morning. Of course, it mayn't be intended to be a likeness of you,
skipper, but it's got a pith helmet on, which the up-country nigger
doesn't generally add to portraits of himself; and moreover, it's
wearing a neat torpedo beard on the end of its chin, delicately colored
"Well?" said Kettle sourly.
"Oh, that had got a hen sacrificed in front of it, too, that's all. I
recognize the bird; he was a game old rooster that used to crow at me
every time I passed him."
"Beastly pagans," Kettle growled. "There's no holding some of them yet.
They suck up the glad tidings like mother's milk at first, and they're
back at their old ways again before you've taught them the tune of a
hymn. I just want to catch one or two of these backsliders. By James!
I'll give them fits in a way they won't forget."
But if Captain Kettle was keen on the conversion of the heathen to the
tenets of the Tyneside chapel, he was by no means forgetful of his
commercial duties. He had always got Mrs. Kettle, the family, and the
beauties of a home life in an agricultural district at the back of his
mind, and to provide the funds necessary for a permanent enjoyment of
all these items close at hand, he worked both Clay and himself
Ivory does not grow on hedgerows even in Africa, and the necessary store
could by no means be picked up even in a day, or even in a matter of
weeks. Ivory has been looked upon by the African savage, from time
immemorial, not as an article of use, but as currency, and as such it is
vaguely revered. He does not often of his own free will put it into
circulation; in fact, his life may well pass without his once seeing it
used as a purchasing medium; but custom sits strong on him, and he likes
to have it by him. An African chief of any position always has his store
of ivory, usually hidden, sometimes in the bush, sometimes buried--for
choice, under the bed of a stream. It is foolish of him, this custom,
because it is usually the one thing that attracts the white man to his
neighborhood, and the white man's visits are frequently fraught with
disaster; but it is a custom, and therefore he sticks to it. He is not
a highly reasoning animal, this Central African savage.
The African, moreover, is used to oppression--that is, he either
oppresses or is oppressed--and he is dully callous to death. So the
villages were not much surprised at Kettle's descents upon them, and
usually surrendered to him passively on the mere prestige of his name.
They were pleasantly disappointed that he omitted the usual massacre,
and in gratitude were eager to accept what they were pleased to term his
_ju-ju_, but which he described as the creed of the Tyneside chapel.
They reduced him to frenzy about every second day by surreptitiously
sacrificing poultry in his honor; but he did not dare to make any very
violent stand against this overstepping of the rubric, lest (as was
hinted to him) they should misinterpret his motive, and substitute a
plump nigger baby for the more harmless spring chicken. It is by no
means easy to follow the workings of the black man's brain in
But all the time he went on gathering ivory--precious ivory, worth as
much as a thousand pounds a ton if he could but get it home. Some of it
had been buried for centuries, and was black-brown with age and the
earth; some was new, and still bloody-ended and odorous; but he figured
it all out into silk dresses for Mrs. Kettle, and other luxuries for
those he loved, and gloated even over the little _escribellos_ which lay
about on the village refuse heaps as not being worthy to hide with the
And, between-whiles, he preached to the newly conquered, ordered them to
adopt the faith of the South Shields chapel, and finally sang them
hymns, which he composed himself especially to suit their needs, to the
tunes of "Hold the Fort," and "From Greenland's Icy Mountains," which he
played very sweetly on the accordion. Captain Kettle might be very keen
after business, but at the same time it could never be laid to his
charge that he was ever forgetful of the duty he owed to the souls of
these heathen who came under his masterful thumb.
Dr. Clay, however, watched all the proceedings now with a jubilant mind.
As a political division, the much-talked-of New Republic might be said
to lack cohesion, but as a conquered tract of country it was very
pleasantly in awe of Captain Kettle. A very comfortable store of ivory
was stored in the principal hut of each village they came to, which
Clay, who commanded the rear guard, always took care to "put _ju-ju_ on"
after his senior officer at the head of the force had marched out of the
village _en route_ for the next, that being the most satisfactory
fashion of warding off pilferers. And last but not least, they had
agreed upon their route of exit to a sea-coast, and (in theory at any
rate) considered it eminently practicable.
The Congo, of course, _via_ Leopoldville, Matadi, and Banana was barred
to them, on account of their trouble with the Free State authorities.
Their original idea had been to cross the great continent eastward by
way of the Great Lakes, and take shipping somewhere by Mozambique or
Zanzibar. But the barbarous difficulties of that route daunted even
Kettle, when they began to consider it in detail, and the advantages of
the French Congo territory showed up brightly in comparison.
They still had the little stern-wheel steamer that was filched--I beg
their pardon, captured from the Free State, and in her, with the loot on
board, they must creep down the Congo again, almost to Stanley Pool,
steaming by night only, hiding at the back of islands during the days,
always avoiding observation. And then they must strike across country
due west, till they made the head-waters of the Ogowe, and so down to
the sea, fighting a way through whatever tribes tried to impede them.
The French Customs would take their toll of the ivory, of course, but
that could not be helped; but after that, a decent steamer again, and
the sea, and home. It was an appetizing prospect.
But castles in the clouds have been built before, and often it is the
unexpected that sets them trundling; and in this case such an ordinary
occurrence as a tornado stepped into the reckoning and split this
sighed-for edifice of success and prosperity with all completeness.
There had been no tornado to clear the atmosphere for nine whole days,
and the country was unendurable accordingly. The air was stagnant with
heat, and reeked with the lees of stale vegetation. The sky overhead was
full of lurid haze, which darkened the afternoon almost to a twilight,
and in the texture of this haze, indicated rather than definitely seen,
was a constant nicker of lightning. It was the ordinary heat-lightning
of the tropics, which is noiseless, but it somehow seemed to send out
little throbs into the baking air, till, at times, to be alive was for a
white man almost intolerable.
[Illustration: THE LITTLE ARMY COULD ONLY MARCH IN SINGLE FILE.]
Under this discomfort, a predatory column was marching on from one
captured village to another, whose possible store of ivory had so far
not been gleaned. The road was the ordinary African bush-path, intensely
winding and only foot-sole wide; the little army, with Kettle at its
head, could only march in single file, and Clay, who brought up the
straggling rear, sweated and panted quite half a mile behind his leader.
Every one knew the tornado was approaching, and both the worn and
haggard white men and the sweating, malodorous blacks hoped for it with
equal intensity. For be it known that the tropical tornado passes
through the stale baked air at intervals, like some gigantic sieve,
dredging out its surplus heat and impurities. The which is a necessity
of Nature; else even the black man could not endure in those regions.
And in due time, though it lingered most cruelly in its approach, the
tornado burst upon them, coming with an insane volley of rain and wind
and sound, that filled the forests with crashings, and sent the parched
earth flying in vicious mud-spirts. In a Northern country such a furious
outburst would have filled people with alarm; but here, in the tropic
wilderness, custom had robbed the tornado of its dignity; and no one was
awed. Indeed the blacks fairly basked in its violence, turning their
glistening bodies luxuriously under the great ropes of rain.
The march stopped at the first outbreak of the squall. Kettle bolted to
a rock ahead of him, and squatted down in a dry lee, sucking up great
draughts of the new cool air. There are times when a drop of five
degrees of temperature can bring earthly bliss of a quality almost
unimaginable. And there he stayed, philosophically waiting till the
tornado should choose to blow itself out.
The wind had started with a roar and a sudden squall, reaching the full
climax of its strength in a matter of thirty seconds, and then with
equal hurry it ended, leaving the country it had scoured full of a
fresh, cool, glistening calm. Kettle rose to his feet, shook his clothes
into shape, and gave the order to start.
The black soldiers stepped out in his wake, and for half a mile he
strode at their head through the new-made mud of the path. But then he
was suddenly brought up all standing. Word had been tediously handed
down the long straggling line of men that there had been an accident in
the rear; that a great tree had fallen to the blast; and finally that
"dem dokitar, he lib for die."
Swiftly Kettle turned, and worked his way back down the narrow lane of
the path. The negroes he hustled against watched him with stupid stares,
but he gave them little notice. Leaving out the facts that Clay was his
only white companion and assistant, he had grown strangely to like the
man, and the vague report of the accident filled him with more
He had over a mile to go before he came upon the scene, and when he did
get there he found that the first report had exaggerated. Clay was not
dead, but he lay unconscious on the ground, pinned there by a great
cotton-wood which had crashed down before the fury of the wind, and
which had fallen across his right leg. To move the tree was an
impossibility; but with a sailor's resourcefulness Kettle set his men to
dig beneath it, so that the imprisoned leg might be released that way;
and himself gave them a lead.
Clay, fortunately for himself, remained the whole time in a state of
blank unconsciousness, and at last he was released, but with his leg
horribly mangled. A hammock had meanwhile been rigged, and in this he
was carried back to the village from which they had set out. Kettle led
the retreat in front of the hammock bearers. He left his force of
soldiers and carriers to follow, or straggle, or desert, as they
pleased. The occupation of ivory raiding had completely passed from his
mind; he had forgotten his schemes of wholesale conversion; he had
nothing but Clay's welfare left at his heart.
He got the wounded man under cover of one of the village huts, and
there, with the help of stimulants, poor Clay's senses came back to him,
He was lividly pale with pain and the shock, but he was game to the
backbone, and made no especial complaint. Indeed, he was rather disposed
to treat the whole thing humorously.
"All the result of having a musical ear," he explained. "I made the boy
who carried it put my banjo in a hollow of that tree out of the wet, and
when I saw the old stick was going to crash down, I made a grab for the
'jo, and got it right enough. Well, I wasn't sufficiently nippy in
jumping out of the way, it seems, and as the old banjo's busted for
good, I shall have to trouble you for a funeral march on the
"Funeral be hanged!" said Kettle. "You're worth a whole cemetery full of
dead men yet."
"Speaking as a doctor," said Clay cheerfully, "I may tell you that your
unprofessional opinion is rot. Now, if I'd a brother sawbones here to
perform amputation, I might have a chance--say, one in a thousand."
"Your leg ought to be cut off?"
"Just there, above the knee. That'll mortify in twenty hours from now.
Thank the Lord I never wasted much morphia on the niggers. There's
plenty in stock. So it won't worry me much."
"Look here," said Kettle, "I will cut that leg off for you."
"You! My good Skipper, you're a handy man, I know, but what the blazes
do you know about amputation?"
"You've got to teach me. You can show me the tools to use, and draw
diagrams of where the arteries come."
"By the powers, I've a great mind to. There's something pretty rich in
giving an amputation lecture with one's own femorals as a subject."
"You'd better," said Kettle grimly, "or I shall cut it off without being
taught. I like you a lot too well, my man, to let you die for want of a
bit of help."
And so, principally because the grotesqueness of the situation appealed
to his whimsical sense of humor, Clay forthwith proceeded to pose as an
anatomy demonstrator addressing a class, and expounded the whole art of
amputation, handling the utensils of the surgeon's craft with the gusto
of an expert, and never by shudder or sigh showing a trace of the white
feather. He carried the whole thing through with a genial gayety,
pointing his sentences now with a quip, now with some roguish sparkle of
profanity, and finally he announced that the lecture was complete and
over, and then he nodded familiarly at his wounded limb.
"By-bye, old hoof!" he said. "You've helped carry the rest of me into
some queer scrapes, one time and another. But we've had good times
together, as well as bad, you and I, and anyway, I'm sorry to lose you.
And now, skipper," said he, "get off your coat and wade in. I've put on
the Esmarch's bandage for you. Don't be niggardly with the
chloroform--I've got a good heart. And remember to do what I told you
about that femoral artery, and don't make a mistake there, or else
there'll be a mess on the floor. Shake hands, old man, and good luck to
your surgery; and anyway, thank you for your trouble."
I fancy that I have made it clear before that Captain Kettle was a man
possessed not only of an iron nerve, but also of all a sailor's
handiness with his fingers; but here was a piece of work that required
all his coolness and dexterity. At home, on an operating table, with
everything at hand that antiseptic surgery could provide, with highly
trained surgeons and highly trained nurses in goodly numbers, it would
have been a formidable undertaking; but there, among those savage
surroundings, in that awful loneliness which a white man feels so far
away from all his kin, it was a very different matter.
It makes me shiver when I think how that little sailor must have
realized his risks and his responsibility. It was a situation that would
have fairly paralyzed most men. But from what can be gathered from the
last letter that the patient ever wrote, it is clear that Kettle carried
out the operation with indomitable firmness and decision; and if indeed
some of his movements were crude, he had grasped all the main points of
his hurried teaching, and he made no single mistake of any but pedantic
Clay woke up from the anaesthetic, sick, shaken, but still courageous as
ever. "Well," he gasped, "you've made a fine dot-and-go-one of me,
Skipper, and that's a fact. When you chuck the sea, and get back to
England, and set up in a snug country practice as general practitioner,
you'll be able to look back on your first operation with pride."
Kettle, shaken and white, regarded him from a native stool in the middle
of the hut. "I can't think," he said, "how any men can be doctors whilst
there's still a crossing to sweep."
"Oh," said Clay, "you're new at it now, and a bit jolted up. But the
trade has its points. I'll argue it out with you some day. But just at
present I'm going to try and sleep. I'm a bit jolted up, too."
Now, it is a melancholy fact to record that Dr. Clay did not pull round
again after his accident and the subsequent operation. To any one who
knows the climate, the reason will be easily understood. In that heated
air of Central Equatorial Africa, tainted with all manner of harmful
germs, a scratch will take a month to heal, and any considerable flesh
wound may well prove a death warrant. Captain Kettle nursed his patient
with a woman's tenderness, and Clay himself struggled gamely against his
fate; but the ills of the place were too strong for him, and the
inevitable had to be.
But the struggle was no quick thing of a day, or even of a week. The man
lingered wirily on, and in the mean while Kettle saw the marvellous
political structure, which with so much labor and daring he had built
up, crumbling to pieces, as it were, before his very eyes. A company of
Arab slave-traders had entered the district, and were recapturing his
subject villages one by one.
At the first attack runners came to him imploring help. It was useless
to send his half-baked soldiers without going himself. They knew no
other leader; there was not a negro among them fit to take a command;
and he himself was tied. He said nothing to Clay, but just sent a
refusal, and remained at his post.
Again and again came clamorous appeals for help against these new
invaders, and again and again he had to give the same stubborn refusal.
His vaunted New Republic was being split up again into its primitive
elements; the creed of the South Shields chapel was being submerged
under a wave of red-hot Mohammedanism; and the ivory, that hard-earned
ivory, with all its delicious potentialities, was once more being lifted
by alien raiders, and this time forever beyond his reach.
Clay got some inkling of what was going on, and repeatedly urged him to
be off at once and put things straight in person. "Don't you worry about
me, Skipper," he'd say. "I'll get along here fine by myself. Nobody'll
come to worry me. And if they did, they'd let me alone. I'm far too
unwholesome-looking to chop just now."
But Kettle always stolidly refused to leave him. Indeed, with difficulty
(for he was at all times a painfully truthful man) he used to lie to his
patient and say that there was no need for him to go at all; that
everything was going on quite as they could wish; and that he was vastly
enjoying the relaxation of a holiday.
But in sober fact things were going very much awry. And every day they
got worse. Even his original bevy of troops, those he had brought up
with him into the country on the stern-wheel launch, seemed to grasp
the fact that his star was in the descendant. There was no open mutiny,
for they still feared him too much personally to dare that; but in the
black unwatched nights they stole away from the village, and every day
their numbers thinned, and the villagers followed their lead; and when
the end came, the two lonely white men had the village to themselves.
Clay's last words were typical of him. Kettle, with devotional intent,
had been singing some hymn to him, which he had composed as being
suitable for the occasion. But the dying man's ears were dulled, and he
mistook both air and words. "You're a good fellow to sing me that," he
whispered. "I know you don't like striking up that sort of music. By
Jove! I heard that song last at the Pav. Good old Piccadilly Circus."
And then a little later: "I say, Skipper. I'm close on the peg-out.
There's a girl in Winchester--but hang her, anyway. No, you've been my
best pal. You're to have all my share of the loot--the ivory, I mean.
You savvy, I leave it to you in my last will and testament, fairly and
squarely. And Skipper, I'm sorry I ragged you about your mug on those
New Republic stamps. If ever a man deserved what he wanted in that line,
The voice failed. "Yes?" said Kettle, and stooped nearer.
Clay feebly winked. "You're him," he whispered. "So long, old cock."
Captain Kettle buried his friend in the first gold of the next dawn
under a magnolia tree, which was hung with sweet-scented blossoms, in
the middle of the village. During the heat of the day he composed a copy
of verses to his memory, and when the sun had dropped somewhat, he went
out with his knife to carve them on the tree above the grave.
It appeared that the village was not so completely deserted as seemed to
the eye, or, at any rate, that he had been watched. On the newly turned
earth was a chicken, which had been sacrificed in the orthodox fashion;
and for once he beheld the sight without resentment.
He raised his hat to the dead, and "Doc," he said, "this hen-killing is
bang against my principles, but I won't say anything now. I guess it's
some nigger's way of showing respect to you, and, by James! you're a
fellow that ought to be admired. If only it hadn't been for that tree
falling down, there'd have been two men round here that would have left
their mark on Africa, and you're one of them. Well, old man, you're
gone, and I hope you're looking down this moment--or up, as the case may
be--to read this bit of poetry I'm going to stick above your head. It's
worth attention. It's about the best sample of rhyme I ever
THE LOOTING OF THE "INDIAN SHERIFF."
Captain Kettle dived two fingers into the bowl of odorous,
orange-colored palm-oil chop, and fished out a joint suspiciously like a
nigger baby's arm. He knew it was a monkey's; or at least he was nearly
certain it was a monkey's; but he ate no more from that particular bowl.
The tribe he was with were not above suspicion of cannibalism, and
though their hospitality was lavish, it was by no means guaranteed as
The head-man noticed his action, and put a smiling question: "You no
like dem climb-climb chop? Tooth him plenty sore?"
"No," said Kettle, "my teeth are all in good working order, daddy,
thanks. But now you mention it, the monkey is a bit tough. Not been
stewed long enough, perhaps."
The head-man gave an order, and presently a woman at the cooking fire
outside brought another calabash into the hut, and set it at the little
sailor's feet. The head-man examined and explained: "Dem's dug chop,
too-plenty-much fine. You fit?"
"I fit," said Kettle; "that'll suit me down to the ground, daddy. Stewed
duck is just the thing I like, and palm-oil sauce isn't half bad when
you're used to it. I'll recommend your pub to my friends, old one-eye,
when I get home."
He dipped his digits into the stew, and drew forth a doubtful limb. He
regarded it with a twitching nose and critical eye.
"Thundering heavy-boned duck this, of yours, daddy."
"Me no savvy?" said his host questioningly.
"I say dem dug he got big bone. He no fit for fly. He no say
"Oh, I savvy plenty," said the one-eyed man, smiling. "Dem not
quack-quack dug, dem bow-wow dug. You see him bow-wow dis morning. You
hit him with foot, so."
"Ugh," said Kettle, "dog stew, is it? Yes, I know the animal, if you say
he's the one I kicked. I had watched the brute eating garbage about the
village for half an hour, and then when he wanted to chew my leg, I hit
him. Ugh, daddy, don't you bring on these delicacies quite so sudden, or
I shall forget my table manners. African scavenger dog! And I saw him
make his morning meal. Here, Missis, for Heaven's sake take this
The glistening black woman stepped forward, but the head-man stopped
her. There was some mistake here. He had killed the best dog in the
village for Captain Kettle's meal, and his guest for some fastidious
reason refused to eat. He pointed angrily to the figured bowl. "Dug
chop," said he. "Too-much-good. You chop him." This rejection of
excellent food was a distinct slur on his menage, and he was working
himself up into passion. "You chop dem dug chop one-time," he repeated.
The situation was growing strained, and might well culminate in
fisticuffs. But Captain Kettle, during his recent many months' sojourn
as a lone white man in savage Africa, had acquired one thing which had
never burdened him much before, and that was tact. He did not openly
resent the imperative tone of his host, which any one who had known him
previously would have guessed to be his first impulse. But neither at
the same time did he permit himself to be forced into eating the noxious
meal. He temporized. With that queer polyglot called Coast English, and
with shreds from a score of native dialects, he made up a tattered
fabric of speech which beguiled the head-man back again into good humor;
and presently that one-eyed savage squatted amicably down on his heels,
and gave an order to one of his wives in attendance.
The lady brought Kettle's accordion, and the little sailor propped his
back against the wattle wall of the hut, and made music, and lifted up
his voice in song. The tune carried among the lanes and dwellings of the
village, and naked feet _pad-padded_ quickly up over dust and the grass;
the audience distributed itself within and without the head-man's hut,
and listened enrapt; and the head-man felt the glow of satisfaction that
a London hostess feels when she has hired for money the most popular
drawing-room entertainer of the day, and her guests condescend to enjoy,
and not merely to exhibit themselves as _blases_.
But Captain Kettle, it must be confessed, felt none of the artist's
pride in finding his art appreciated. He had always the South Shields
chapel at the back of his mind, with its austere code and creed, and he
felt keenly the degradation of lowering himself to the level of the
play-actor; even though he was earning his bare existence--and had been
doing all through the heart of barbarous Africa--by mumming and
carolling to tribes whose trade was murder and cannibalism.
He felt an infinite pity for himself when he reflected that many a time
nothing but a breakdown, or a loudly bawled hymn, or a series of twisted
faces, had been the only thing which stood between him and the cooking
fires. But there was no help for it. He was a fighting man, but he could
not do battle with a continent; and so he had either to take the only
course which remained, and lower himself (as he considered it) to the
level of the music-hall pariah, and mouth and mow to amuse the mob, or
else accept the alternative which even the bravest of men might well
shrink from in dismay.
His travel through the black heart of this black continent may have been
paralleled by that of other obscure heroes who voyaged from grim
necessity and not for advertisement, but the history of it, as it was
told me in his simple log-book style, far surpasses the wonder of any of
those travels which find a place in published volumes. He had started, a
completely destitute man, from a spot far up on the Haut Congo, amidst
treacherous hostile population. He had not a friend in Africa, black or
white. He had no resources save his tongue, his thews, an empty
revolver, and his mother wit, and yet he had won a slow way down to the
western seaboard through a hundred hostile tribes, where an army would
have been eaten up, and a Marco Polo might well have failed.
It would suit my pleasure finely to write of this terrific journey, with
its dangers, its finesses, and its infinite escapes; it would gratify me
to the quick if I might belaud to the full of my appreciation the
endurance, and the grand resourcefulness, of this little sailor cast so
desperately out of his more native element; but the account of the
travel is reserved for the pen of Captain Kettle himself, and so the
more professional scribe may not poach upon his territory.
I had it from his own lips that the perils of the way made him see the
poetry of it all, and he said to himself that here was the theme for
that great epic, which would be the _chef d'oeuvre_ of his literary
life. It is to be written in blank verse, with the hymns and secular
songs he sang at each stop given in an appendix, and he confidently
hopes that it will stand out as something conspicuous and distinct
against the sombre background of prosaic travel books.
His arrival at the coast was an achievement that made him almost faint
with joy. Xenophon and his ten thousand Greeks hailed the sea, we are
told, with a mighty shout. But to them Thalassa was merely a way-mark, a
sign that they were nearing home. To Kettle it was more, far more,
although he could not define the relationship. He had dwelt upon the sea
the greater part of his days; he had got his meagre living from her; and
although at all times she had been infinitely hard and cruel to him, and
he had cursed her day in and day out with all a seaman's point and
fluency, she had wrapped herself into his being in a way he little
guessed, till separation showed him the truth.
He had seen the glint of her through the trees as he entered this last
village of his march, but the air was too dull with heat for him to
catch so much as a whiff of her refreshing saltness, and for the present
he could not go down to greet her. He was still the lonely troubadour,
dressed in a native cloth around the loins, with a turban of rags upon
his head, and a battered accordion slung from his back, come in from
afar to sing and pull faces for a dinner.
The meal, for reasons which have been stated, was not a success, but
payment had to be rendered all the same. He sang with noise, and made
antics such as experience had taught him would be acceptable; and the
audience, to whom a concert of this kind was a rarity, howled to him to
go on. There was no escape. He had to sing till he could sing no more.
It was far on into the night when a couple of native _tom-tom_ players
rescued him. The musical appetites of the village had been whetted
rather than appeased, and as no more could be got out of this wandering
minstrel, why then they were quite ready to listen to local instruments
Dancing commenced, and the heat and the noise grew, and presently Kettle
managed to slip away and walk out through the yam and manioc gardens,
and the banana groves, to the uproarious beach beyond. He threw himself
wearily down on the warm white sand, and when the great rollers swept in
and crashed into noisy bellowing surf, the spindrift from it drove on
him, and refreshed him luxuriously. It was almost worth going through
all he had suffered to enjoy the pleasures of that greeting.
For long-enough he filled his eye on the creaming fringes of the surf,
and then he glanced over it at the purple plain of ocean which lay level
and unruffled beyond. A great African moon glowed above it in the night,
and the lonely vastness of it all gratified him like the presence of a
friend. "You are a decent old puddle," he murmured to himself, "though I
say it that's got precious little from you beyond mud and slashing.
It's good to be back in reach of the stink of you again."
He lay on where he was deep into the night, revelling in the
companionship of the sea, till the many-colored land-crabs began to
regard him as mere jetsam. He was not consciously thinking. He was
letting his mind rest in an easy torpor; but from time to time he let
his eyes range through the purple dark with a seaman's mechanical
watchfulness. The noise of the _tom-toms_ and the dancing from the
village behind him had died away, and nothing but the sounds from the
bush, and the din of the surf, remained to show that the world was
alive. The moon, too, had been smothered by a cloud bank, and night lay
huddled close round him, with a texture like black velvet.
Then, with a jump he was on his feet, and trembling violently. Another
old friend was in his neighborhood--a steamer. Her masthead light had
just twinkled into view. He got up and began walking nervously toward
her along the hard, white sands. He saw her first in the northwest,
coming from some port in the Bight of Biafra probably, and the odds were
she was heading south along the Coast.
Presently he picked up her red port light. Yes, he admitted to himself
with a sigh, she was making for one of the ports to southward, for Sette
Camma perhaps, or Loango, or Landana, or Kabenda, and he calmed himself
down with the discovery. Had she been heading north, he had it in him to
have swum out to her through the surf and the sharks, and chanced being
picked up. He was sick of this savage Africa which lay behind him. The
sight of those two lights, the bright white, and the duller red, let him
know how ravenous was his hunger to see once more a white man and a
white man's ship, and to feel the sway of a deck, and to smell the
smells of oil, and paint, and Christian cookery, from which he had been
for such a weary tale of days divorced.
The steamer drew on till she came a-beam, and the red port light was
eclipsed, and "carrying no stern light," was Captain Kettle's comment.
There was a small glow from her deck and two or three of her ports were
lit, but for the most part she crept along as a mysterious black ship
voyaging into a region of blackness. It was too dark to make out more
than her bare existence, but Kettle took a squint at the Southern Cross,
which hung low in the sky like an ill-made kite, to get her bearings,
and so made note of her course, and from that tried to deduce her
From the way she was steering he reckoned she came from Batanga or
Cameroons, which are in German territory, and so set her down as sailing
originally from Marseilles or Hamburg, and anyway decided that she was
not one of the Liverpool boats which carry all the West Coast trade to
England. But as he watched, she seemed to slew out of her course. She
lengthened out before him across the night, as her bows sheered in
toward the land, till he saw her broadside on, and then she hung
motionless as a black blot against the greater blackness beyond.
Captain Kettle summed the situation: "Rounded up and come to an anchor.
There'll be a factory somewhere on the beach there. But I don't know,
though. That one-eyed head-man said nothing about a factory, and if
there was one, why doesn't she whistle to raise 'em up so's they'd be
ready to bring off their bit o' trade in the surf-boats when
A cloud slid away in the sky, and the moon shone out like the suddenly
opened bulb of a dark lantern. The oily surface of the sea flashed up
into sight, and on it sat the steamer--a picture in black and silver.
She lay there motionless as the trees on the beach, and the reason for
her state was clear. Her forefoot soared stiffly aloft till it was
almost clear of the water; her stern was depressed; her decks listed to
port till it was an acrobatic feat to make passageway along them.
Captain Kettle whistled to himself long and dismally. "Piled her up," he
muttered, "that's what her old man has done. Hit a half-ebb reef, and
fairly taken root there. He's not shoved on his engines astern either,
and that means she's ripped away half her bottom, and he thinks she'll
founder in deep water if he backs her off the ground." A tiny spit of
flame, pale against the moonlight, jerked out from under the awnings of
the steamer's upper bridge. The noise of the shot came some time
afterward, no louder than the cracking of a knuckle. "By James!
somebody's getting his gun into use pretty quick. Well, it's some one
else's trouble, and not mine, and I guess I'm going to stay on the
beach, and watch, and not meddle." He frowned angrily as though some one
had made a suggestion to him. "No, by James! I'm not one of those that
seeks trouble unnecessarily."
But all the same he walked off briskly along the sand, keeping his eyes
fixed on the stranded steamer. That some sort of a scuffle was going on
aboard of her was clear from the shouts and the occasional pistol shots,
which became louder as he drew more near; and Captain Kettle,
connoisseur as he was of differences of this sort on the high seas,
became instinctively more and more interested. And at last when he came
to a small canoe drawn up on the beach above high-water mark, he paused
beside it with a mind loaded with temptation as deep as it would carry.
The canoe was a dug-out, a thing of light cotton-wood, with washboards
forward to carry it through a surf. A couple of paddles and a calabash
formed its furniture, and its owner probably lived in the village where
he had sung for his dinner over-night. Of course, to borrow her--merely
to borrow her, of course--without permission was--
Another splatter of pistol shots came from the steamer, and a yelping of
negro voices. Captain Kettle hesitated no longer. He laid hands on the
canoe's gunwale, and ran her down into the edge of the surf. He had
barely patience to wait for a smooth, but, after three rollers had
roared themselves into yeast and quietude, he ran his little craft out
till the water was arm-pit deep, and then scrambled on board and paddled
But it is not given to the European to equal the skill of the black on
African surf beaches, and, as might be expected, the next roller that
swooped in overended the canoe, and sent it spinning like a toy through
the broken water. But Captain Kettle had gained some way; and if he
could not paddle the little craft to sea, he could at least swim her
out; and this he proceeded to do. He was as handy as an otter in the
water, and besides, there was something here which was dragging him to
seaward very strongly. His soul lusted for touch with a steamer again
with a fierceness which he did not own even to himself. Even a wrecked
steamer was a thing of kinship to him then.
He swam the dug-out through the last drench and backtow of the surf,
rocked her clear from part of her watery load, and then, with a feeling
of relief, clambered gingerly on board and baled the rest over the
gunwale with his hands. It is not good to stay over-long in these seas
which fringe the West African beaches, by reason of the ground shark
which makes them his hunting-ground. And then he manned the paddle,
knelt in the stern, and went the shortest way to the steamer which
perched on the rock.
The moon was still riding in the sky, but burnt with a pale light now,
as dawn had jumped up from behind the shore forests. All things were
shown clearly. Among other matters, Kettle noted from trifles in her
garnishing, which read clear as print to a seaman's eye, that the
steamer was not French or German as he had guessed before, but hailed
from his own native islands. Moreover, her funnel told him that she was
not one of the two regular lines from Liverpool, which do all the
commerce of the coast. But he had no time for fresh speculations just
then as to her business. The scuffling on board had been growing more
and more serious, and it was clear that the blacks of her complement
were giving the whites more than they cared about.
Kettle knew enough of the custom of the Coast to be able to sum the
situation. "Her Krooboys have broken out of hand," he commented. "That's
what's the trouble. You come down here from England with just enough
white men to handle your vessel to Sierra Leone, and then you ship
Krooboys to work cargo and surf-boats, and do everything except steer,
and as long as nothing happens, your Krooboy is a first-class hand. Two
cupfuls of rice and a bit offish is all the grub he wants; he'll work
sixteen hours a day without a grunt; and he'll handle a winch or a steam
crane with any Geordie donkey-man that has been grounded in the shops.
But just put your steamboat on the ground where he thinks she can't get
off, and there's a different tune to play. He's got a notion that the
ship's his, and the cargo's his, to loot as he likes, and if he doesn't
get 'em both, he's equal to making trouble. Seems to me he's making bad
By this time it was plain that the black men had got entire possession
of the lower parts of the ship. The small handful of whites were on the
top of the fiddley, and while most were fighting to keep the Africans
back, a couple were frenziedly working to get a pair of davits swung
outboard, and a lifeboat which hung from them lowered into the water. It
was clear they had given up all hope of standing by the ship; and
presently they got the boat afloat, and slid down to her in hurried
clusters by the davit falls, and then unhooked and rowed away from the
steamer's side in a skelter of haste. Coals and any other missile that
came handy were showered upon them by the Krooboys who manned the rail,
to which they replied with a few vicious revolver shots; and then the
boat drew out of range.
Captain Kettle, in his clumsy canoe, paddled up close to her and nodded,
and gave the boat's people a "good-morning." The greeting was quaintly
enough out of place, but nobody seemed to notice that. Each party was
too occupied in staring at the other. Those in the lifeboat saw a little
lean European, naked to the waist, clad only in a turban and native
cloth, and evidently (from the color of his skin) long inured to that
state. Kettle saw a huddle of fugitives, all of them scared, and many of
them bloody with wounds.
The man who was steering the white boat, the steamer's mate he was,
according to the gold lace on his cuff, spoke first.
"Well," he said, "you're a funny enough looking beachcomber. What do you
Captain Kettle felt himself to redden all over under the tan of his
skin. Neatness in clothes was always a strong point with him, and he
resented the barbarism of his present get-up acutely. "If I wanted a job
at teaching manners, I could find one in your boat, that's certain," was
his prompt retort. "And when I'd finished with that, I could give some
of you a lesson in pluck without much harm being done. I wonder if you
call yourselves white men to let a crowd of niggers clear you out of
your ship like that?"
"Now, look here, Robinson Crusoe," said the man at the steering oar,
"our tempers are all filed up on the raw edge just now, and if you give
much lip, this boat will be rowed over the top of your Noah's ark before
you know what's hit it. You paddle back to your squaw and piccaninnies
on the beach, Robinson, and don't you come out here to mock your betters
when they're down on their luck. We've nothing to give you except ugly
words, and you'll get them cheap."
"Well, Mr. Mate," said Kettle, "I haven't heard white man's English for
a year, but if you can teach me anything new, I'm here to learn. I've
come across most kinds of failure in my time, but a white man who lets
himself be kicked off his ship by a parcel of Krooboys, and who
disgraces Great Britain by being a blooming Englishman, is a specimen
that's new to me. But perhaps I'm making a mistake? Perhaps you're a
Dutchman or a Dago that's learnt the language? Or perhaps, to judge from
that cauliflower nose of yours, you're something that's escaped out of a
freak museum? You haven't a photo about you by any chance? I'd like to
send one home to South Shields. My Missis is a great hand at collecting
curiosities which you only see in foreign parts."
The mate bent on the steering gear with sudden violence, turned the
lifeboat's head with a swirl, and began sculling her toward the canoe.
But a tall, thin man sitting beside him in the stern-sheets said
something to him in an undertone, and the Mate reluctantly let the oar
drag limp in the water, and sat himself down, and ostentatiously made
ready to roll a cigarette.
"Now, look here," said the tall man, "I don't suppose you want to
"I've been in quarrels before for the sheer fun of the thing," said
Kettle, who was determined that at any rate no apology should come
from his side.
"So have I," said the tall man, "but I've no time for empty amusement
just now. I'm down here on business. I'm trying to start a new steamer
line to work this Coast and get away the monopoly from the other
companies. That boat stuck yonder--the _Indian Sheriff_ she's called--is
my venture, and she represents about all I've got, and she isn't
underwritten for a sixpence. I've been going nap or nothing on this
scheme, and at present it looks uncommon like nothing. What I'm anxious
about now, is to see if I can't make some arrangement for salvage."
"I can understand it would be useful to you."
"It might be useful to others besides me. Now, there's you, for
instance. I dare say you've got a nice little establishment ashore, and
some simple comforts, and a bit of influence in your village. But you
spoke about your wife at home in South Shields just now, and I make no
doubt that if you'd got a tidy sum of money in your pocket you'd be as
pleased as not to get home to her again?"
Captain Kettle was on the point of breaking out into explanations and
disavowals, but a thought came to him, and he refrained.
"Well," he said, "I'm waiting to hear your offer."
"Here it is, then. You go ashore now, raise your village, bring off
every nigger you can scare up, swamp the Krooboys on that steamboat and
keep her from being looted, and I solemnly promise you 25 per cent. of
her value and the value of what she has in her."
"Yes," said Kettle thoughtfully. "That's a square enough offer, and it's
made before witnesses, and I believe the courts would make you stick
"Ho!" grunted the Mate, "Robinson's a sea lawyer, is he? Courts, he
Kettle ignored the suggestion. "Should I know your name, sir?" he asked
of the tall man.
"I'm Nicholson Sheriff. If you know Liverpool, you'll have heard of me."
"You were with Kevendales?"
"That's me. I left there two years ago, to start on my own."
"H'm," said the little sailor in the canoe. "I was master of one of
Kevendale's ships once. It was me that had misfortune with the
"By gum! are you Captain Kettle that piled up the old _Atrocity_ on
that iceberg? I'm sorry to see you come down to this, Captain."
"Captain Kettle," said the sulky Mate, "that was in the Congo Pilot
"Yes," said Kettle.
"Then, Captain," said the Mate, "I take back what I said about you being
Robinson Crusoe. You may have met with misfortune, but, by the Lord,
you're a man all the way through. You've made the ports down there on
the Congo just ring with the way you kept your end up with those beastly
Belgians. And now when any Englishman goes ashore at Boma or Matadi or
any place on the river, they're fit to eat him."
The compliment had its doubtful side, but Kettle bowed with pleasure.
"Mr. Mate," he said, "I should have been more polite to you. I forgot
you were a man who had just come through an anxious time."
"Anxious time! My holy grandmother! You should have just seen. It was my
watch below when she took the ground, and I give you my word for it,
there's deep water marked in the chart where she struck. Third mate had
the bridge, and he rang for engines hard astern. Nothing happened. From
the first moment she hit, the Krooboys got the notion she was their ship
by all the rules of the Coast, and they played up to that tune like men.
They bashed in the heads of the two engineers who tried to handle the
reversing gear, and fairly took the ship below; and when the old man
came out in his pyjamas and started his fancy shooting on deck, they
just ran in on him and pulled him into kybobs.
"The second mate pegged out a week ago with black-water fever. So there
was only me and Mr. Sheriff here, and the third left that were worth
counting." He wagged a stubby finger contemptuously at the rest of his
boat's crew. "Half this crowd don't know enough English to take a wheel,
and the rest of them come from happy Dutchland, where they don't make
soldiers, bless their silly eyes. I can tell you I'm not feeling sweet
about it myself. I left a bran new suit of clothes and an Accra
finger-ring on that blame' ship."
"Well, never mind the rest of the tale now," said Sheriff. "Here we are
kicked overboard, and glad enough to save our bare skins, I'll own. We
won't go into the question of manning British ships with foreigners just
now. What's interesting me is the fact that those Krooboys have got
hatches off already, and are standing by the cranes and winches. I've
seen them work cargo before all up and down the coast, and know the pace
they can put into it, and if we don't move quick they'll scoff that ship
clear down to the ceilings of her holds." A winch chain rattled, and a
sling load of cloth bales swung up to one of her derrick sheaves. "My
faith, look at that! They've begun to broach cargo by now, and there are
some of the beggars setting to lower the surf-boats to ferry it on to
The Mate rapped out sulphurous wishes for the Krooboys' future state.
"Yes, yes," said Sheriff, "but we're wasting time. Come now, Captain,
you heard my offer, and you seemed to like it. I'm waiting for you to
fill your part of the bargain. Away with you ashore, and bring off your
army and take possession."
"I'm afraid, sir," said Kettle honestly, "you've been taking a little
too much for granted. I've got no establishment ashore. I'm just what
you see--a common tramp, or worse, seeing that I've been play-acting for
my dinners of late. And as for any help those niggers ashore could give,
why, I shouldn't recommend it. The one-eyed old son of a dog who's
head-man, has served on ships according to his own telling, and he'll
have the same notions about loot as your own Krooboys. The Coast nigger
hereabouts has got a fancy that any ship on the beach is cumshaw for
himself, and you'll not knock it out of him without some hard teaching.
No, Mr. Sheriff, to call in that one-eyed head-man and his friends--who
it makes me hot to think I had to sing and dance to not six hours
back--would only pile up the work ahead of us. Much best tackle the ship
as she is."
"What!" said Sheriff. "Do you mean to say we can retake her? You don't
know what those boys are like. I tell you they were fair demons when we
left, and they'll be worse now, because they are certain to have got
liquor inside them by this. It's not a bit of use your counting on these
deckhands and stokers in the boat. They're not a penn'oth of use, the
whole lot of them."
"Well," said Kettle diffidently, "I'd got my eye on that packet of
cartridge beside you on the thwart. If they were four-fiftys--"
"They are--let's look--four--five--nought. Yes, well?"
Captain Kettle pulled a well-cleaned revolver out of his waist-cloth.
"I've carried this empty for a whole year now, sir, but I don't think
I've forgot my shooting."
"I can speak here," said the Mate. "I've heard of his usefulness that
way on the Congo. When Captain Kettle lets off his gun, Mr. Sheriff,
it's a funeral. By gum, if he's a way of getting the ship again, I'm on
for helping. Look! There's that steward's boy, Tins, going into my room
this minute. I've a suit of clothes there that have never been put on,
and he'll have them for a cert if we don't look quick."
"Now then, Captain," said Sheriff, "if there's anything going to be
done, get a move on you."
Kettle paddled the dug-out alongside, and stepped into the lifeboat. His
eye glittered as he tore open the wrapping of the cartridges and
reloaded his revolver. It was long since he had known the complacent
feel of the armed man.
"Now," he said, "there's one more thing. I'm not in uniform, but I hold
a master's ticket, and I've got to be skipper."
"You can take the berth for me," said the Mate. "I'll say outright it's
a lot above my weight."
"And I've offered it to you already," said Sheriff. "Go on, man, and
give your orders."
Captain Kettle's first desire was to get back to the steamer whence the
boat had come, and this the mixed crew of foreigners at the oars had
scruples about carrying out. But Kettle and the Mate got furiously at
work on them with their hands, and in less than a minute the men were
doing as they were bidden, except, that is, a trio who were too badly
wounded to sit up, and who were allowed to wallow on the floor gratings.
The Mate straddled in the stern and steered her with an oar, and the
white painted boat pulled heavily toward the stranded vessel. The
Krooboys in possession were quick to see her coming. A mob of them
gathered on the bridge deck, gibbering and shouting, and threatening
with their hands; and even before the boat drew within range, they
commenced a vigorous fusilade of coal lumps. Kettle had all a cleanly
man's dislike for these dirty missiles, and he halted the boat just
beyond the limit of their fire, and stood up himself, and sighted the
revolver over the crook of his left elbow.
He dropped one man, and the others raged at him. He dropped a second,
and still with an impotent courage they stood their ground. He brought a
third shrieking to the deck, and then, and not before, did the others
turn to run, and he shot a fourth to hurry their going. Then he turned
to the rowers in the lifeboat. "Give way, you thieves," he shouted at
them; "set me aboard whilst the coast is clear.--Mr. Mate, round her up
under those davit tackles."
Again the Krooboys tried to prevent the boarding, but again the fire of
that terrible revolver drove them yelping to shelter, and the boat drew
up with a bump and a swirl under the dangling ropes. Kettle clambered
forward along the thwarts, and swarmed up one fall with a monkey's
quickness, and the Mate, a man of wooden courage, raced him up the
other. Sheriff could not climb; they had to haul him up the ship's side
by brute force in a bowline; and providentially they were allowed to do
this uninterrupted. The foreign crew of the lifeboat, limp with scare,
would have been mere slaughter-pigs on board even if they could have
been lured there, which was improbable, and so they were bidden to haul
off out of shot, and wait till they were needed.
Now there was no question here of risking a hand-to-hand encounter. The
Krooboys on board mustered quite fifty head, and most of them were men
of enormous physical strength. So the three invaders went into the
chart-house, from the ports of which they could command the bridge deck
and the main fore deck, and shot the door-bolts by way of making
themselves secure. The walls were of iron, and the roof was of iron; the
place was a perfect stronghold in its way; and as there was no chance of
its being stormed without due notice, they tacitly called a halt to
"Here," said Sheriff, "is the poor old skipper's whisky. I guess a
second mate's nip all round will do us no harm."
"Here," said Kettle, "are the old man's Canary cigars, nice and black
and flavory, and I guess one of them's more in my line, sir, thanking
you all the same. I haven't come across a Christian smoke for more
dreary months than I care to think about."
The Mate was peering through one of the forward ports. "There's the door
of my room wide open," he grunted. "I bet those new clothes of mine are
gone. They're just the thing to take a nigger's eye--good thick blue
Captain Kettle wiped the perspiration from his forehead with a bare,
sinewy arm. "Now," he said, "enough time's been wasted. We must keep
those toughs on the move, or they'll find leisure to think, and be
starting some fresh wickedness."
"If we go out of this chart-house," said Sheriff doubtfully, "they'll
swamp us by sheer weight. You must remember we've only got two pistols,
yours and mine. The poor old skipper's is lost."
"I'm going to try what a little quiet talking-to will do first, sir. I
used to be a bit useful with my tongue, if I haven't lost the trick. But
before that, I'm going to borrow this white drill coat and pants of
your late old man's, if you don't mind. You'd hardly think it, sir, if
you knew the trials I've gone through in that beastly Africa, but I
believe it's the want of a decent pair of trousers that's hurt me more
Captain Kettle dressed himself with care, and put on a white-covered
uniform cap; and then, happening to see a pair of scissors, he took them
up and trimmed his beard before the glass. Sheriff looked on at these
preparations with fidgeting impatience, and from without there was a
clamor of negro voices taking counsel. But the little sailor was not to
be hurried. He went through his toilet with solemn deliberation, and
then he opened the chart-house door and went out beneath the baking
sunshine of the bridge-deck beyond.
A cluster of Krooboys stood at the further end of it, cackling with
talk, and at sight of him they called their friends on the main deck
below, who began to come up as fast as they could get foot on the
ladders. They showed inclinations for a rush, but Kettle held up his
left hand for them to keep back, and they obeyed the order. They saw
that vicious revolver gripped in his right fingers, and they respected
He addressed them with a fine fluency of language. He had a good command
of sailor's English, and also of Coast English, both of which are
specially designed for forcible comment; and he knew, moreover, scraps
from a score of native dialects, which, having Arabic for a groundwork,
are especially rich in those parts of speech-which have the highest
vituperative value. The black man is proverbially tough, and a whip,
moral or physical, which will cut the most hardened of whites to
ribbons, will leave him unmoved. An artist in words may rail at him for
an hour without making him flicker an eyelash, or a Yankee mate might
hammer him with a packing-case lid (always supposing there was no nail
in it) for a like period without jolting from him so much as a cry or a
groan. And so I think it speaks highly for Captain Kettle's powers when,
at the end of three minutes' talk, he caused many of those Krooboys to
You cannot touch a Krooboy's feelings by referring insultingly to his
mother, because he has probably very dim recollections of the lady; you
can not rile him by gibing comments on his personal appearance; but
still there are ways of getting home to him, and Kettle knew the secret.
"You make fight-palaver," he said, "you steal, you take ship, you drink
cargo gin, and you think your _ju-ju_ fine _ju-ju._ But my _ju-ju_
too-plenty-much better, and I fit for show it you again if dis
steal-palaver no stop one-time."
They began to move threateningly toward him. "Very well," he said, "then
I tell you straight; you no fit to be called black boys. You bushmen.
Bah! you be bushmen."
The maddened Krooboys ran in, and the wicked revolver spoke out, and
then Kettle nipped into the deck-house and slammed the door to on his
heels. The black ape-like faces jabbered and mowed at the window ports,
and brawny arms were thrust in, grappling viciously, but the Mate drew
out camp-stools from a locker, and with these the three white men
stabbed and hit at every face or arm which showed itself. There was no
more shooting, and there was no need for it. By sheer weight of blows
the whites kept the enemy from climbing through the windows, and so long
as the windows were not stormed, the iron house was safe to them. And
presently one of the head-men blew his boatswain's whistle, and the
attack drew off.
Promptly Kettle reloaded his revolver and stepped out into the open.
"Now," he said, "you seen my _ju-ju?_ You savvy him too-big _ju-ju_? You
want any more of it? No. Then get away aft with you. You hear? You lib
for bottom deck back there, one-time." He rushed at them, one slight,
slim, white-clad white man against all that reeking, shining mob, and
they struggled away before him in grotesque tumblings and jostlings,
like a flock of sheep.
But at the break of the deck he paused and looked below him, and the
fight all dropped away from his face. No. 3 hatch lay open before him,
with the covers thrown here and there. From it was creeping up a thin
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