Chapter I: An African Night

Public Domain

From the juju house the witch doctor emerged, bedaubed with colored earths and bright ashes. The drums renewed their frantic, resounding thunder. The torchbearers capered more actively, and yelled more excitedly. The drumming had gone on all day and its hypnotic effect had culminated in a species of ecstasy in which the blacks yelled and capered, and capered and yelled, without any clear notion of why or what they yelled.

With great solemnity, the witch doctor led forward a young native girl, her face bedaubed with high juju signs. She was in the last stage of panic. If she did not flee, it was because she believed a worse fate awaited her flight than if she submitted to whatever was in store for her now.

Two men stepped forward and threw necklaces of magic import about her neck. Two other men who upon occasion acted as the assistants of the chief witch doctor seized the girl’s hands. The shouting mass of blacks formed themselves into a sort of column.

At the front were the drums, those incredible native drums hollowed out of a single log, and which come from the yet unknown fastnesses of the darkest interior, far back of Lake Tchad. Behind them came the torchbearers, yelling a rhythmic chant and capering in almost unbelievable attitudes as they passed along. Next came the witch doctor, important and mysterious. Behind him came more torchbearers, yelling hysterically at the surrounding darkness. Then came the two assistants, dragging the young girl who was almost paralyzed with terror. And the entire population of the village followed in their wake, carrying flaming lights and yelling, yelling, yelling at the eternally unamazed African forest.

The tall, dank tree trunks loomed mysteriously above the band of vociferous natives, with their thumping, rumbling, booming drums sounding hollowly from the front of the procession. The lights wound into the forest, deep into the unknown and unknowable bush. The yelling became fainter, but the drums continued to boom out monotonously through the throbbing silence of the African night. Boom, boom, boom, boom! Never a variation from the steady beat, though the sound was muted by the distance it had to travel before reaching us.

I glanced across to where Evan Graham sat smoking. We were on the veranda of the casa on his plantation, four weeks’ march from the city of Ticao, in the province of Ticao, Portuguese West Africa. From the veranda we could see through the cleared way to the village, a half mile away, and the whole scene of the juju procession had been spread before our eyes like a play.

It puzzled me. I knew Evan made no faintest attempt to Christianize his slaves--and the villagers were surely his slaves--and yet, white men do not often allow witch doctors to flourish in their slave quarters. And the girl who had been led away--I had no idea what might become of her. Voodoo still puts out its head in strange forms in strange places. It might well be that some hellish ceremony would take place far back in the bush that night.

Whatever was to happen had been planned long before, because I had arrived some four hours previously from a trip up beyond the Hungry Country, and the drums were beating then. I looked curiously at Evan to see what he thought of the open practice of juju by his slaves under their master’s eyes. His expression was inscrutable. I knew better than to ask questions, but I could not help wondering what it all meant. Evan was a queer sort, at best, but to allow his natives to practice black magic--as was evidently the case here--before his very nose was queerer than anything he had done before.

He was not taken by surprise, I know. I had heard the drums that afternoon, long before I entered the village. They were beating with the rhythmic monotony that is so typical of the African when he is disturbed in spirit and wants to be comforted, or when he is comfortable and wants excitement. Either way will do.

My “boys,” wandering along in a more or less listless fashion with the conventional forty-five pounds on their backs, had heard the drumming and became more interested. My caravan did not close up, however. It was spread out over anywhere from a mile to a mile and a half of the old slave trail that goes down to Venghela, and those in the rear hastened by precisely the same degree as those in front.

According to instructions, the foremost pair halted while still half a mile away from the village and waited for the rest of us to come up. For three months I had been back inland, a part of the time back even of the Hungry Country, where the grass is bitter to the taste, and all the world is half mad for salt. For three months I had been moving quickly and constantly.

Having quit the country--I fervently hope for good--it will do no harm to admit that my constant moving was due less to the demands of business than to a desire to be elsewhere when the Belgian officials arrived. The Belgian Kongo is just north of the province of Ticao, and I had been skimming its edges, buying ivory and rubber from the natives across the line. The colonial government does not encourage independent traders, and it would not have been pleasant for me had I been caught. In Ticao, of course, I was not molested. A small honorarium to the governor of the province made him my friend, and my conscience did not bother me. I paid ten times the prices the natives usually got and I imposed no fines or contributions on the villages. If you know anything about the Kongo, you will regard me as I regarded myself--as more or less of a benefactor.

After three months of that, though, and two or three close shaves from a choice of fighting or capture, I was glad to get back to civilization, even such civilization as Evan Graham’s casa. Away from Ticao, Evan Graham would have been shunned for the sort of man he was. In Ticao, one is not particular. There are few enough Anglo-Saxon white men of any sort--the two consuls, half a dozen missionaries, and about three men like myself, who take chances in the interior. The rest of the population is either Portuguese or black, preponderatingly black, with a blending layer of half- and quarter-breeds.

Evan was a cad and several different kinds of an animal, but he was a white man, he talked English such as one hears at home, and he had a pool table and civilized drinks all of four weeks’ march from the city of Ticao. I always stopped overnight with him on my way back from the interior. I knew that he had bribed the governor to overlook the law which prescribes that no white man shall settle more than forty kilometers from a fort, because he wanted to have a free hand with his natives. I knew, too, that he had no shred of title to the land he tilled, or to the services of the natives he forced to work in his fields. He had come out there with four or five of the dingy-brown half-castes that are overseers for half the rocas in Ticao, had frightened or coerced the inhabitants of three villages into signing the silly little contracts that bind them to work for a white man for so many years at ridiculous wage, and now had a plantation that was tremendously profitable.

I never had understood just how he made the blacks serve him so well. He seemed to have them frightened nearly to death. Most plantations have the slave quarters--the blacks are officially “contrahidos,” or contract laborers, but in practice they are slaves--most plantations have the slave quarters surrounded by a barbed-wire fence, and let savage dogs loose outside the fence at night, but Graham allowed his natives to live in the villages they had occupied before his coming and seemed to take no precautions against their running away.

This open practice of juju before his eyes and apparently with his consent was of a piece with the rest of his queerness. My own boys always seemed to be glad to get away from the neighborhood of his plantation. I had heard a word or two passed among them that seemed to hint at a juju house in some secret clearing near the village. I had thought it possible that it was by means of some mummery in that temple that he kept his natives in hand, but juju is a dangerous thing for a white man to meddle with.

In any event it was none of my business. I was sitting on his porch, one of his drinks at my elbow, smoking one of his cigarettes especially imported from London, and it behooved me to display no curiosity unless he should choose to speak. He looked over at me and smiled quizzically.

“I wonder what those poor devils think they get by all that juju palaver,” he said ruminatively.

“I don’t know,” I admitted. “My own boys are constantly at it, of course. There’s a witch doctor just outside of Venghela who’ll be rich when my caravan gets there, for his services in bringing my bearers back without falling into the tender hands of our neighbors.”

My carriers were free men, whom I hired and paid. It would have been cheaper to adopt the servaçal system and buy contract slaves for carriers, but being free men they served my purpose better. For one thing, they gave the Kongo natives more confidence in me, and for another, they traveled faster when there was danger of pursuit. A slave would merely have changed masters if I had been caught, but these men had something to lose.

“I’m going to stop this juju sooner or later,” said Graham lazily. “My brother Arthur has come out and is up after a gorilla in the Kongo--probably around where you’ve been--and he’s been asking me to hold on to a real juju doctor for him to interview. When he’s through, I think I’ll stop all that. Queer old duck of a witch doctor here.”

He clapped his hands and one of the house servants came out with a siphon and bottle of gin. The man was trembling as he stood beside his master’s chair. Graham snapped two or three words in the local dialect and the man’s knees threatened to give way. He fled precipitately into the house and came out again--trembling more violently--with limes.

“Never can train blacks properly,” Graham grumbled, as he sliced a lime in half and squeezed it into his tumbler. “Now, a Japanese servant is perfect.”

He poured his gin and the seltzer fizzed into the glass. He lifted it to his lips and drained it.

“Japan?” I asked. “I’ve never been there.”

“I have,” said Graham morosely. “Been everywhere. England, America, Japan, India. All rotten places.”

“No rottener than this,” I said disgustedly. “I had three weeks of fever up in the Kongo, with a Belgian Kongo Company agent after me the whole time. I’m still shaky from it. When I can go back to white man’s country again----”

I stopped. Graham was lighting a cigarette, and I noticed that the flame wavered as he held the match. There are some men who are cold sober up to a certain point, and then what they have drunk takes hold of them all at once. Graham was such a person. When he spoke again his words were slurred and sluggish.

“White man’s country,” he repeated uncertainly, and then made an effort to speak clearly. “I’m goin’ back some day. Got dear old home, family servants, broad lawn--everything. Not mine though. Younger son. Had to win hearth an’ saddle of m’own. Arthur’s got it all, damn him. Always was lucky beggar. Got all family estates, all income, I got nothing. Then I liked girl. Second cousin. Arthur got her, or goin’ to. Engaged. Damn lucky beggar. Always was lucky chap. Steady and dependable. Damn stodgy, I think. Told him so. Called him a -------- an’ he kicked me out. All because I got into trouble and signed his name to somethin’, to get out.”

“Easy there, Graham,” I warned. “I don’t want to hear anything, you know.”

“You better not,” he said suddenly, in a clear voice. He turned beastlike eyes on me. “If anybody tries to pry into my affairs, they don’t get far.”

I blew a cloud of smoke over the railing of the veranda and said nothing. Through the moonlit night the throbbing of the drums came clearly to us sitting there. They beat on steadily, monotonously, hypnotically. There was something strangely menacing in the rhythmic, pulsing rumble. The cries of night birds and insects, and occasionally an animal sound, seemed natural and normal, but the muttering of those drums with that indescribable hollow tone they possess, seemed to portend a strange event.

“Juju,” said Graham abruptly, “is the key to the African mind. I don’t give a damn for the natives. All I care about is what I can get out of this country, but I say that juju is the key to the African mind.”

I smoked on a moment in silence. “I’d rather not meddle with it,” I remarked. “Sooner or later it means ground glass in your coffee of a morning. Just before I left Ticao, Da Cunha found some in his. He shot his cook and then found it was another boy entirely.”

“I’d have whipped him to death with a chiboka,” said Graham viciously.

“That’s what Da Cunha did,” I informed him mildly. “But the governor’s made him leave Ticao for six months. He’s over in Mozambique.”

“My boys’ll never dare try to poison me,” declared Graham. He leaned toward me in drunken confidence. “They believe that if they did----”

“The procession has started again,” I said, interrupting him. “I hear the yelling.”

It was so. The drums still beat monotonously and rhythmically, but beneath their deep bass muttering, a faint, high, continuous sound could be heard. The procession seemed to be making its way back to the village.

“I’m goin’ to bed,” announced Graham sharply. “You go t’ bed too. Don’t sit out here an’ smoke. Go to bed.”

He stood up and waited for me to enter the house. Puzzled, and rather annoyed, I went inside. I heard Graham walk heavily and uncertainly through to the rear and heard him speak to several of the servants. The contrast between his rasping, harsh tones and the frightened voices of his servants was complete. They were very evidently in deadly fear of him.

The sound of the procession grew louder and louder. Something about it perplexed me for a moment, but then I realized that it was not making direct for the village. It was coming toward the house. I frowned a moment, and looked to make sure that my automatic was handy and in proper working order.

The procession was very near. I looked out of the window and saw the twinkling lights of the torches through the bush. The drums were thunderous now, but the beat was not the war beat. It was purely ceremonial. The yelling was high-pitched and continuous.

The head of the procession emerged from the bush and advanced across the clearing about the house. It swung and headed for the rear of the house, and the long line of capering, torch-bearing humanity followed it.

The witch doctor came into view, and the girl. Her panic had reached its pitch now. I have never seen such ultimate fear as was expressed on that girl’s face, outlined by the flickering light of the torches. The procession moved until the end had passed beyond the rear corner of the casa, then turned, and evidently turned again.

I saw it moving back toward the village. A pregnant fact impressed me. The native girl was missing. She had evidently been left behind somewhere about the rear of the house. The yelling mass of black humanity capered and shrilled its way down the cleared way to the village and gathered in front of the juju house.

Then some dance or ceremony seemed to begin. What it was, I do not know. I was very tired and presently I went to sleep. But the drums beat steadily, all night long. They entered the fabric of my dreams and made my rest uneasy. It could not have been long before morning when I awoke with a start and found myself sitting up with every nerve tense. There was no sound, but I had a feeling as if I had been awakened by a scream, somewhere about the house.

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