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Patricia Hamilton, an observant young lady, had not failed to notice that every day, at a certain hour, Bones disappeared from view. It was not for a long time that she sought an explanation.
"Where is Bones?" she asked one morning, when the absence of her cavalier was unusually protracted.
"With his baby," said her brother.
"Please don't be comic, dear. Where is Bones? I thought I saw him with the ship's doctor."
The mail had come in that morning, and the captain and surgeon of the s.s. Boma Queen had been their guests at breakfast.
Hamilton looked up from his book and removed his pipe.
"Do you mean to tell me that Bones has kept his guilty secret all this time?" he asked anxiously.
She sat down by his side.
"Please tell me the joke. This isn't the first time you have ragged Bones about 'the baby'; even Mr. Sanders has done it."
She looked across at the Commissioner with a reproving shake of her pretty head.
"Have I ragged Bones?" asked Sanders, in surprise. "I never thought I was capable of ragging anybody."
"The truth is, Pat," said her brother, "there isn't any rag about the matter. Bones adopted a piccanin."
"A baby about a month old. Its mother died, and some old bird of a witch-doctor was 'chopping' it when Bones appeared on the scene."
Patricia gave a little gurgle of delight and clapped her hands. "Oh, please tell me everything about it."
"It was Sanders who told her of Henry Hamilton Bones, his dire peril and his rescue; it was Hamilton who embellished the story of how Bones had given his adopted son his first bath.
"Just dropped him into a tub and stirred him round with a mop."
Soon after this Bones came blithely up from the beach and across the parade-ground, his large pipe in his mouth, his cane awhirl.
Hamilton watched him from the verandah of the Residency, and called over his shoulder to Patricia.
It had been an anxious morning for Bones, and even Hamilton was compelled to confess to himself that he had felt the strain, though he had not mentioned the fact to his sister.
Outside in the roadstead the intermediate Elder Dempster boat was waiting the return of the doctor. Bones had been to see him off. An important day, indeed, for Henry Hamilton Bones had been vaccinated.
"I think it 'took,'" said Bones gravely, answering the other's question. "I must say Henry behaved like a gentleman."
"What did Fitz say?"
(Fitzgerald, the doctor, had come in accordance with his promise to perform the operation.)
"Fitz?" said Bones, and his voice trembled. "Fitz is a cad!"
"He said that babies didn't feel pain, and there was Henry howling his young head off. It was horrible!"
Bones wiped his streaming brow with a large and violent bandana, and looked round cautiously.
"Not a word, Ham, to her!" he said, in a loud whisper.
"Sorry!" said Hamilton, picking up his pipe. "Her knows."
"Good gad!" said Bones, in despair, and turned to meet the girl.
"Oh, Bones!" she said reproachfully, "you never told me!"
Bones shrugged his shoulders, opened his mouth, dropped his pipe, blinked, spread out his hands in deprecation, and picked up his pipe.
From which it may be gathered that he was agitated.
"Dear old Miss Hamilton," he said tremulously, "I should be a horrid bounder if I denied Henry Hamilton Bones--poor little chap. If I never mentioned him, dear old sister, it is because----Ah, well, you will never understand."
He hunched his shoulders dejectedly.
"Don't be an ass, Bones. Why the dickens are you making a mystery of the thing?" asked Hamilton. "I'll certify you're a jolly good father to the brat."
"Not 'brat,' dear old sir," begged Bones. "Henry is a human being with a human heart. That boy"--he wagged his finger solemnly--"knows me the moment I go into the hut. To see him sit up an' say 'Da!' dear old sister Hamilton," he went on incoherently, "to see him open his mouth with a smile, one tooth through, an' one you can feel with your little finger--why, it's--it's wonderful, jolly old Miss Hamilton! Damn it, it's wonderful!"
"Bones!" cried the shocked girl.
"I can't help it, madame," said Bones miserably. "Fitz cut his poor little, fat little arm. Oh, Fitz is a low cad! Cut it, my dear old Patricia, mercilessly--yes, mercilessly, brutally, an' the precious little blighter didn't so much as call for the police. Good gad, it was terrible!"
His eyes were moist, and he blew his nose with great vigour.
"I'm sure it was awful," she soothed him. "May I come and see him?"
Bones raised a warning hand, and, though the habitat of the wonderful child could not have been less than half a mile away, lowered his voice.
"He's asleep--fitfully, but asleep. I've told them to call me if he has a turn for the worse, an' I'm goin' down with a gramophone after dinner, in case the old fellow wants buckin' up. But now he's asleep, thankin' you for your great kindness an' sympathy, dear old miss, in the moment of singular trial."
He took her hand and shook it heartily, tried to say something, and swallowed hard, then, turning, walked from the verandah in the direction of his hut.
The girl was smiling, but there were tears in her eyes.
"What a boy!" she said, half to herself.
"Bones is very nice," he said, and she looked at him curiously.
"That is almost eloquent," she said quietly.
"I thought it was rather bald," he replied. "You see, few people really understand Bones. I thought, the first time I saw him, that he was a fool. I was wrong. Then I thought he was effeminate. I was wrong again, for he has played the man whenever he was called upon to do so. Bones is one of those rare creatures--a man with all the moral equipment of a good woman."
Her eyes were fixed on his, and for a moment they held. Then hers dropped quickly, and she flushed ever so slightly.
"I think you have defined the perfect man," she said, turning the leaves of her book.
The next morning she was admitted to an audience with that paragon of paragons, Henry Hamilton Bones.
He lived in the largest of the Houssa huts at the far end of the lines, and had for attendants two native women, for whom Bones had framed the most stringent and regimental of orders.
The girl paused in the porch of the hut to read the typewritten regulations which were fastened by drawing-pins to a green baize board.
They were bi-lingual, being in English and in coast Arabic, in which dialect Bones was something of a master. The girl wondered why they should be in English.
"Absolutely necessary, dear old lady friend," explained Bones firmly. "You've no idea what a lot of anxiety I have had. Your dear old brother--God bless him!--is a topping old sport, but with children you can't be too careful, and Ham is awfully thoughtless. There, I've said it!"
The English part of the regulations was brief, and she read it through.
HENRY HAMILTON BONES (Care of).
1. Visitors are requested to make as little noise as possible. How would you like to be awakened from refreshing sleep! Be unselfish, and put yourself in his place.
2. It is absolutely forbidden to feed the child except with articles a list of which may be obtained on application. Nuts and chocolates are strictly forbidden.
3. The undersigned will not be responsible for articles broken by the child, such as watches. If watches are used to amuse child, they should be held by child's ear, when an interested expression will be observed on child's face. On no account should child be allowed--knowing no better--to bite watch, owing to danger from glass, minute hand, etc.
4. In lifting child, grasp above waist under arms and raise slowly, taking care that head does not fall back. Bring child close to holder's body, passing left arm under child and right arm over. Child should not be encouraged to sit up--though quite able to, being very forward for eight months--owing to strain on back. On no account should child be thrown up in the air and caught.
5. Any further information can be obtained at Hut 7.
AUGUSTUS TIBBETTS, Lieutenant.
"All based upon my personal observation and experience," said Bones triumphantly--"not a single tip from anybody."
"I think you are really marvellous, Bones," said the girl, and meant it.
Henry Hamilton Bones sat upright in a wooden cot. A fat-faced atom of brown humanity, bald-headed and big-eyed, he sucked his thumb and stared at the visitor, and from the visitor to Bones.
Bones he regarded with an intelligent interest which dissolved into a fat chuckle of sheer delight.
"Isn't it--isn't it simply extraordinary?" demanded Bones ecstatically. "In all your long an' painful experience, dear old friend an' co-worker, have you ever seen anything like it? When you remember that babies don't open their eyes until three weeks after they're born----"
"Da!" said Henry Hamilton Bones.
"Da yourself, Henry!" squawked his foster-father.
"Do da!" said Henry.
The smile vanished from Bones's face, and he bit his lip thoughtfully.
"Do da!" he repeated. "Let me see, what is 'do da'?"
"Do da!" roared Henry.
"Dear old Miss Hamilton," he said gently, "I don't know whether Henry wants a drink or whether he has a pain in his stomach, but I think that we had better leave him in more experienced hands."
He nodded fiercely to the native woman nurse and made his exit.
Outside they heard Henry's lusty yell, and Bones put his hand to his ear and listened with a strained expression on his face.
Presently the tension passed.
"It was a drink," said Bones. "Excuse me whilst I make a note." He pulled out his pocket-book and wrote: "'Do da' means 'child wants drink.'"
He walked back to the Residency with her, giving her a remarkable insight into Henry's vocabulary. It appeared that babies have a language of their own, which Bones boasted that he had almost mastered.
She lay awake for a very long time that night, thinking of Bones, his simplicity and his lovableness. She thought, too, of Sanders, grave, aloof, and a little shy, and wondered....
She woke with a start, to hear the voice of Bones outside the window. She felt sure that something had happened to Henry. Then she heard Sanders and her brother speaking, and realized that it was not Henry they were discussing.
She looked at her watch--it was three o'clock.
"I was foolish to trust that fellow," Sanders was saying, "and I know that Bosambo is not to blame, because he has always given a very wide berth to the Kulumbini people, though they live on his border."
She heard him speak in a strange tongue to some unknown fourth, and guessed that a spy of the Government had come in during the night.
"We'll get away as quickly as we can, Bones," Sanders said. "We can take our chance with the lower river in the dark; it will be daylight before we reach the bad shoals. You need not come, Hamilton."
"Do you think Bones will be able to do all you want?" Hamilton's tone was dubious.
"Pull yourself together, dear old officer," said Bones, raising his voice to an insubordinate pitch.
She heard the men move from the verandah, and fell asleep again, wondering who was the man they spoke of and what mischief he had been brewing.
* * * * * * *
On a little tributary stream, which is hidden by the island of bats, was the village of Kulumbini. High elephant grass hid the poor huts even from they who navigate a cautious way along the centre of the narrow stream. On the shelving beach one battered old canoe of ironwood, with its sides broken and rusted, the indolence of its proprietor made plain by the badly spliced panels, was all that told the stranger that the habitations of man were nigh.
Kulumbini was a term of reproach along the great river and amongst the people of the Akasava, the Isisi, and the N'gombi, no less than among that most tolerant of tribes the Ochori. They were savage people, immensely brave, terrible in battle, but more terrible after.
Kulumbini, the village and city of the tribe, was no more than an outlier of a fairly important tribe which occupied forest land stretching back to the Ochori boundary. Their territory knew no frontier save the frontiers of caprice and desire. They had neither nationality nor national ambition, and would sell their spears for a bunch of fish, as the saying goes. Their one consuming passion and one great wish was that they should not be overlooked, and, so long as the tribes respected this eccentricity, the Kulumbini distressed no man.
How this desire for isolation arose, none know. It is certain that once upon a time they possessed a king who so shared their views that he never came amongst them, but lived in a forest place which is called to this day S'furi-S'foosi, "The trees (or glade) of the distant king." They had demurred at Government inspection, and Sanders, coming up the little river on the first of his visits, was greeted by a shower of arrows, and his landing opposed by locked shields.
There are many ways of disposing of opposition, not the least important of which is to be found in two big brass-barrelled guns which have their abiding place at each end of the Zaire's bridge. There is also a method known as peaceful suasion. Sanders had compromised by going ashore for a peace palaver with a revolver in each hand.
He had a whole fund of Bomongo stories, most of which are unfit for printing, but which, nevertheless, find favour amongst the primitive humorists of the Great River. By parable and story, by nonsense tale and romance, by drawing upon his imagination to supply himself with facts, by invoking ju-jus, ghosts, devils, and all the armoury of native superstition, he had, in those far-off times, prevailed upon the people of Kulumbini not only to allow him a peaceful entrance to their country, but--wonder of wonders!--to contribute, when the moon and tide were in certain relative positions, which in English means once every six months, a certain tithe or tax, which might consist of rubber, ivory, fish, or manioc, according to the circumstances of the people.
More than this, he stamped a solemn treaty--he wrote it in a tattered laundry-book which had come into the chief's possession by some mysterious means--and he hung about the neck of Gulabala, the titular lord of these strange people, the medal and chain of chieftainship.
Not to be outdone in courtesy, the chief offered him the choice of all the maidens of Kulumbini, and Sanders, to whom such offers were by no means novel, had got out of a delicate situation in his usual manner, having resort to witchcraft for the purpose. For he said, with due solemnity and hushed breath, that it had been predicted by a celebrated witch-doctor of the lower river that the next wife he should take to himself would die of the sickness-mongo, and said Sanders--
"My heart is too tender for your people, O Chief, to lead one of your beautiful daughters to death."
"O Sandi," replied Gulabala hopefully, "I have many daughters, and I should not miss one. And would it not be good service for a woman of my house to die in your hut?"
"We see things differently, you and I," said Sanders, "for, according to my religion, if any woman dies from witchcraft, her ghost sits for ever at the foot of my bed, making terrifying faces."
Thus Sanders had made his escape, and had received at odd intervals the tribute of these remote people.
For years they had dwelt without interference, for they were an unlucky people to quarrel with, and, save for one or two trespasses on the part of Gulabala, there was no complaint made concerning them. It is not natural, however, for native people to prosper, as these folks did, without there growing up a desire to kill somebody. For does not the river saying run: "The last measure of a full granary is a measure of blood"?
In the dead of a night Gulabala took three hundred spears across the frontier to the Ochori village of Netcka, and returned at dawned with the spears all streaky. And he brought back with him some twenty women, who would have sung the death-song of their men but for the fact that Gulabala and his warriors beat them.
Gulabala slept all the day, he and his spears, and woke to a grisly vision of consequence.
He called his people together and spoke in this wise--
"Soon Sandi and his headmen will come, and, if we are here, there will be many folk hanged, for Sandi is a cruel man. Therefore let us go to a far place in the forest, carrying our treasure, and when Sandi has forgiven us, we will come back."
A good plan but for the sad fact that Bosambo of the Ochori was less than fifty miles away at the dawn of that fatal day, and was marching swiftly to avenge his losses, for not only had Gulabala taken women, but he had taken sixty goats, and that was unpardonable.
The scouts which Gulabala had sent out came back with the news that the way to sanctuary was barred by Bosambo.
Now, of all the men that the Kulumbini hated, they hated none more than the Chief of the Ochori. For he alone never scrupled to overlook them, and to dare their anger by flogging such of them as raided his territory in search of game.
"Ko," said Gulabala, deeply concerned, "this Bosambo is Sandi's dog. Let us go back to our village and say we have been hunting, for Bosambo will not cross into our lands for fear of Sandi's anger."
They reached the village, and were preparing to remove the last evidence of their crime--one goat looks very much like another, but women can speak--when Sanders came striding down the village street, and Gulabala, with his curved execution knife in his hand, stood up by the side of the woman he had slain.
"O Gulabala," said Sanders softly, "this is an evil thing."
The chief looked left and right helplessly.
"Lord," he said huskily, "Bosambo and his people put me to shame, for they spied on me and overlooked me. And we are proud people, who must not be overlooked--thus it has been for all time."
Sanders pursed his lips and stared at the man.
"I see here a fine high tree," he said, "so high that he who hangs from its top branch may say that no man overlooks him. There you shall hang, Gulabala, for your proud men to see, before they also go to work for my King, with chains upon their legs as long as they live."
"Lord," said Gulabala philosophically, "I have lived."
Ten minutes later he went the swift way which bad chiefs go, and his people were unresentful spectators.
"This is the tenth time I have had to find a new chief in this belt," said Sanders, pacing the deck of the Zaire, "and who on earth I am to put in his place I do not know."
The lokalis of the Kulumbini were already calling headmen to grand palaver. In the shade of the reed-thatched lokali house, before the hollow length of tree-trunk, the player worked his flat drumsticks of ironwood with amazing rapidity. The call trilled and rumbled, rising and falling, now a patter of light musical sound, now a low grumble.
Bosambo came--by the river route--as Sanders was leaving the Zaire to attend the momentous council.
"How say you, Bosambo--what man of the Kulumbini folk will hold these people in check?"
Bosambo squatted at his lord's feet and set his spear a-spinning.
"Lord," he confessed, "I know of none, for they are a strange and hateful people. Whatever king you set above them they will despise. Also they worship no gods or ghosts, nor have they ju-ju or fetish. And, if a man does not believe, how may you believe him? Lord, this I say to you--set me above the Kulumbini, and I will change their hearts."
But Sanders shook his head.
"That may not be, Bosambo," he said.
The palaver was a long and weary one. There were twelve good claimants for the vacant stool of office, and behind the twelve there were kinsmen and spears.
From sunset to nigh on sunrise they debated the matter, and Sanders sat patiently through it all, awake and alert. Whether this might be said of Bones is questionable. Bones swears that he did not sleep, and spent the night, chin in hand, turning over the problem in his mind.
It is certain he was awake when Sanders gave his summing up.
"People of this land," said Sanders, "four fires have been burnt since we met, and I have listened to all your words. Now, you know how good it is that there should be one you call chief. Yet, if I take you, M'loomo"--he turned to one sullen claimant--"there will be war. And if I take B'songi, there will be killing. And I have come to this mind--that I will appoint a king over you who shall not dwell with you nor overlook you."
Two hundred pairs of eyes watched the Commissioner's face. He saw the gleam of satisfaction which came at this concession to the traditional characteristic of the tribe, and went on, almost completely sure of his ground.
"He shall dwell far away, and you, the twelve kinsmen of Gulabala, shall reign in his place--one at every noon shall sit in the chief's chair and keep the land for your king, who shall dwell with me."
One of the prospective regents rose.
"Lord, that is good talk, for so did Sakalaba, the great king of our race, live apart from us at S'furi-S'foosi, and were we not prosperous in those days? Now tell us what man you will set over us."
For one moment Sanders was nonplussed. He was rapidly reviewing the qualifications of all the little chiefs, the headmen, and the fisher leaders who sat under him, and none fulfilled his requirements.
In that moment of silence an agitated voice whispered in his ear, and Bones's lean hand clutched his sleeve.
"Sir an' Excellency," breathed Bones, all of a twitter, "don't think I'm takin' advantage of my position, but it's the chance I've been lookin' for, sir. You'd do me an awful favour--you see, sir, I've got his career to consider----"
"What on earth----" began Sanders.
"Henry Hamilton Bones, sir," said Bones tremulously. "You'd set him up for life, sir. I must think of the child, hang it all! I know I'm a jolly old rotter to put my spoke in----"
Sanders gently released the frenzied grip of his lieutenant, and faced the wondering palaver.
"Know all people that this day I give to you as king one whom you shall call M'songuri, which means in your tongue 'The Young and the Wise,' and who is called in my tongue N'risu M'ilitani Tibbetti, and this one is a child and well beloved by my lord Tibbetti, being to him as a son, and by M'ilitani and by me, Sandi."
He raised his hand in challenge.
"Wa! Whose men are you?" he cried.
The answer came in a deep-throated growl, and the assembly leapt to its feet.
"Wa! Who rules this land?"
They locked arms and stamped first with the right foot and then with the left, in token of their acceptance.
"Take your king," said Sanders, "and build him a beautiful hut, and his spirit shall dwell with you. This palaver is finished."
Bones was speechless all the way down river. At irregular intervals he would grip Sanders's hand, but he was too full for speech.
Hamilton and his sister met the law-givers on the quay.
"You're back sooner than I expected you, sir," said Hamilton. "Did Bones behave?"
"Like a little gentleman," said Sanders.
"Oh, Bones," Patricia broke in eagerly, "Henry has cut another tooth."
Bones's nod was grave and even distant.
"I will go and see His Majesty," he said. "I presume he is in the palace?"
Hamilton stared after him.
"Surely," he asked irritably, "Bones isn't sickening for measles again?"
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