Magic by A. E. W. Mason
MR. COLIN SAUNDRY, C.M.G., started out as usual upon his
circuit through the Barotse country at the end of the rainy season. He went
with his usual pleasure in a few months' freedom from routine. But his
pleasure was not shared by everyone in that forest-covered province. There
were others besides malefactors who sighed with regret when they saw the
first of his caravan and relief when they saw the last of it. Tall, lean,
loose-limbed, with an odd, ugly monkey face and a voice which creaked like a
rusty machine, he had a way of setting a lonely settlement rocketing with
excitement. He was Commemoration Week, Eton and Harrow, Ascot, and a Court
Ball all in one. To the wives he was romance and adventure and a whisper from
old days. To the men he was an interference and a blatancy. He was too
obviously The Great Big Noise, and too arrogantly explicit that nothing but
his career must stand in the way of his pleasures.
On this occasion, however, he brought two guests along with him, a Major
George Hardacre and Hardacre's wife, Carmel. He had found them two days out
from his Headquarters sitting disconsolately at a fruit farm which had never
begun to be anything but a failure.
"We hadn't enough capital or enough knowledge," Hardacre had said, pulling
moodily at his moustache. He was a retired cavalry officer of thirty-six
years, heavy, vacuous, and just as unfitted for the work of a pioneer as a
man could well be.
"And we hadn't the resources in ourselves which might perhaps have made up
for the want of other things," Carmel added, gently enough; but there was a
gleam in her eyes which Colin Saundry was quick to notice. Also, she was tall
and slim and no more than twenty-eight years old, dark of hair and eyes,
full-lipped and rather beautiful. To Colin Saundry a challenge. So he made
"You both ought to get away from here at once. You can't see things in
their proper proportion with the litter of a failure about you. If you come
along with me, you'll have the leisure to make your plans, and I shall be
very glad of your company."
They locked their door and came along. Colin Saundry was in no hurry. He
was quite content to let the contrast between his easy efficiency and
Hardacre's moody helplessness loom up into something very large and
important. He went about the work of administering his district, and for a
week saw little of his companions until the day was done. In the end a night
came when Hardacre maundered with more than his usual monotony.
"I can't really forgive myself, you know. I didn't play fair with Carmel.
You can see that for yourself, Saundry. I got her to put her little bit of
money into that farm with mine. It seemed the right sort of thing to do after
the War. Try the new lands, eh? But I wasn't the man for it."
And suddenly Carmel rose up with a look of exasperation upon her face.
"Oh, what's the use?" she cried.
They had been sitting in their camp-chairs about a big log-fire built in
the open. Behind them were their sleeping-huts. A little way off, Saundry's
police and his servants were chattering about a fire of their own. Carmel
took a few steps away from the fire and spoke again with her back towards
"Don't let's talk of it! We'll only spoil this lovely night."
Saundry got up quickly and joined her.
"I'll show you something," he said; and he led her across the grass and
between the bushes to the foot of a little hill. As they climbed it a
thunderous, muffled noise as of enormous engines revolving beneath the earth
reached their ears and grew louder. On the top they halted, and Carmel drew
in a deep breath, throwing her head back. Forest and open glade and scattered
bush were spread out before them under a silver moon.
"It's magical," she said. "Listen!"
Far away in a stretch of forest a baboon mumbled and barked.
"It's the country of magic," Saundry returned. "Look!"
A long way off in the south-east above a hollow a white mist hung and
swirled and changed its shape like a great canopy in a wind; and every now
and then some corner of it flashed brightly as though the canopy disclosed an
edge of glistening embroidery.
"The spray of the Victoria Falls," he said.
For a little while they watched, held by the enchantment of the scene.
Then suddenly Carmel cried:
"If he'd only turn on me once and tell me I was no more use to him than a
wet rag, I'd love it. I don't believe I'd mind if he smacked my face. But
he's on his knees—always. Oh!"
And he was on her nerves, Colin Saundry could have added. The devout,
remorseful lover! Could there be in the world a person more exasperating to a
young and beautiful woman in the ruin of her fortunes? What she wanted was
courage, resolution, a definite plan to set things right. Instead she got a
"How did it happen?" Colin Saundry asked.
"Our marriage?" said Carmel. She looked at her companion thoughtfully. She
had no wish to belittle herself in his eyes by imitating her husband's whine.
On the other hand, she did not want him to think her an empty-headed fool who
had been caught by the ancient glamour of a uniform. As they turned and
walked back towards the camp she replied, choosing her words and watching her
"You must go back to the War, no doubt, to understand it," she said. "I
was eighteen. We were all easily carried away. The same sort of spirit
brought us out here to Africa. A new Britain! A new world!"
She laughed half in scorn, half in regret, remembering those vanished
enthusiasms, and then suddenly caught Saundry by the arm. They were half-way
down the hill.
"I have been looking for some while," Saundry answered in an odd
"At George there by the fire?"
"At George before he went to the fire?"
Hardacre, his pipe in his mouth, was leaning forward in his camp-chair
fiddling with the lighted boughs of the camp-fire, pushing one into the heart
of the blaze, shifting another to one side, and all with such method that the
little pyramid of flame and smoke might have been to him the most important
thing in existence.
"Oh, can't you do something, Colin?" she cried passionately, and looked at
him. Saundry was standing very still at her side with his eyes upon her; and
she was suddenly alarmed. She drew back, conscious of a shock. She repeated,
rather to break the silence than to compel an answer:
"Can't you do something?"—and this time she omitted the Colin.
"Yes," he replied. "I can. This, as I told you, is the country of
And now she was almost sorry that she had put the question. As they
returned to the fire, Hardacre took his pipe from his mouth.
"I say—you two! I've been thinking."
"You have? Yes?"
There was a lively eagerness in Carmel's voice. After all, then, he had
been working out some plan whilst fiddling with the branches of the fire.
"I've been thinkin' that since we've got to get a move on pretty early in
the mornin', it's about time we did a little shut-eye, what?"
Carmel turned abruptly away, so that the look upon her face was hidden.
Colin Saundry answered:
"There's no hurry. We shan't, after all, be starting until the afternoon.
A little thing has happened to-day. I meant to have told you about it at
dinner. But I forgot."
He went at once across the clearing, and spoke to the head man of his
police. It seemed that he too had not been warned of this change of plan.
Carmel wondered, with a small stab of fear, whether Colin Saundry could have
told them at dinner of the little thing which had happened; and whether it
hadn't happened within the last hour. She watched Saundry anxiously as he
returned to the camp-fire.
"To-morrow," he said to her, "I'll present to you the most remarkable
woman, except yourself, north of the Zambesi River."
The three of them rode half a mile the next morning, and dismounted at the
gate of a palisade which surrounded a native village of some thirty huts. In
front of the most important of these huts, a plump young woman, black and
sleek as a new silk hat, sat on a mat in her best beads and awaited her
visitors with dignity.
Colin Saundry strode up to her and bowed twice.
"N'Gamba, great chief," he said in the only sort of English she could
understand. "Dis judge," and he tapped himself upon the breast, "he catch
Away went N'Gamba's dignity. She clapped her hands delightedly, her round
face creasing and crumpling like a baby's. She was N'Gamba, of course. She
ruled thirty povery-stricken Barotse families by the mere lift of her
eyebrows. But here was the great magistrate, with the voice like a rusty
chain, pretending to appeal for her protection. Could anything be more
entrancing? She took him up in his own style. She shot one wicked little
glance at the tall, slim white woman with the wedding-ring and replied
"N'Gamba make mammy palaver one time."
Before she could utter another word, Colin Saundry interrupted
"Hold your tongue, N'Gamba."
N'Gamba giggled, whilst Saundry mopped his face with his handkerchief.
"The little devil!" he said. "She's too quick by a lot."
Mammy palavers dealt with divorce and compensation, and the questions
asked of the parties were as a rule primitive and impolite.
"Mammy palaver finish," he said sharply, and now some of the fun died out
of her face. "Money palaver begin," he continued slowly, and now all the fun
had gone. N'Gamba sat very still, her face wiped clean of expression, her
eyes lowered, waiting.
Carmel Hardacre waited too, oddly disturbed, so swift and complete a
change had clouded that interview. There was something serious to be
proposed, and perhaps to be refused—something unknown but alarming.
"For three days, N'Gamba, I camp by your village, and go about my
"One, two, t'ree days," said N'Gamba, with a nod.
"During those days eighty-five pounds of my Government's money are stolen.
I want that money back."
Again N'Gamba did not reply. But she raised her eyes and kept them fixed
and unwavering upon Colin Saundry's face. There was neither appeal in them
nor fear. She watched him—sounded him, seeking—or was it not
rather already knowing?—the depths and the shallows of his nature. At
the first, Carmel was conscious of a sense of outrage. The little naked black
girl, mistress of thirty miserable Barotse families lost in a forest, was
actually sitting in judgment over the white magistrate who had the high
justice and the low in all these parts! By some strange mutation the proper
authority of the one had passed into the possession of the other. Or so it
seemed to Carmel—until she looked at Colin Saundry, and was
He stood at his ease, now slightly contemptuous, his left hand in his
riding-breeches pocket, his right hand holding his switch hanging motionless
at his side. If those two wills were fighting it was the man's which won. For
it was N'Gamba who spoke now, not he.
"My people tief half a bit, yes, but big t'ings, no," and now her face was
all appeal that he should be content and let his accusation fall.
But Saundry shook his head.
"It won't do, N'Gamba. I can't lose eighty-five sovereigns of my
Government's money. For if I lose, I must pay."
In the quiet which followed, Carmel suffered a new discomfort. She became
aware that though N'Gamba's eyes never wavered from Colin Saundry's, and her
face with all its prayer and appeal was turned to him, the prayer and appeal
were now being diverted to her and with an overmastering force. It was no
affair of hers, she tried to argue, but with a sting of indignation she felt
that she was being drawn into it—enlisted to plead by the side of
N'Gamba that the inquiry should cease here and now. Against her will, indeed,
she took a little step towards Colin, but before she could speak he turned to
her, and the mere arrogant look of him broke the spell which had been laid
upon her. He turned back to N'Gamba.
"Listen to me! I go from here to-morrow upon my work. In seven days I
return. When I return you find for me the money and the thief. It is an
It seemed that as he had released Carmel Hardacre from the compulsion put
upon her, so he had broken down N'Gamba's opposition. As the fun had once
died out of her face, so now did the appeal and the prayer. But it was not
submission which took their place. On the contrary, Carmel had the illusion
that though no physical change took place, the little black plump girl grew
into a creature formidable, potent. Carmel said to herself, wonderingly: "I
thought her a little figure of fun." She saw her now as the immemorial wise
woman of all the ages and all the races—the woman with all the secrets
of the future locked away behind her eyes. It was no longer the theft of
eighty-five sovereigns which was in question, but something of vast moment at
which she could not guess.
N'Gamba stretched out her hand, and said in a curiously toneless and
"Baas, I do what you say. But I catch some prayer."
"That I leave it all alone?" Saundry asked.
N'Gamba nodded her head.
"Baas—some t'ings—you meet 'um so. I t'ink Goddy go do
Colin Saundry received the message with a harsh burst of laughter.
"Isn't that just what a child cries," he exclaimed, "who's asked to
explain how the apples have vanished?"
"But it wasn't a child who cried it," Carmel objected.
"It's a child, at any rate, now," George Hardacre added, with a grin. It
was his only contribution to the dispute, and certainly he seemed to be
right. For as they turned away to the gate in the palisade, scream upon
scream followed them; and there was N'Gamba rocking her body from side to
side upon her mat, beating the ground with the palms of her hands and sobbing
like an infant in a paroxysm of passion. Colin Saundry smiled as he looked
"But she'll find the thief and the money," he said, with the completest
confidence; "they're all frightened to death of her."
"Why?" Carmel asked.
"She's the greatest Rainmaker in these parts, and for people who live on
mealies, rain at the right time in the proper moderation is a very important
thing. The natives travel miles to give her presents and ensure her goodwill.
As you saw, she's getting a little too fat and prosperous."
"How in the world can she make rain?" said Carmel, and Colin Saundry
shrugged his shoulders.
"That's her secret and her father's before her. I can't tell you how it's
done or whether it's done. All I know is that she flew into a rage once and
told her Barotses that they shouldn't have any rain. And they didn't. Then
when they argued with her that they were starving, she flew into a greater
rage still and told them she'd bring down so much rain upon them that she'd
wash their mealies out of the ground for them. And she did."
Hardacre laughed loudly.
"Oh, I say, I say, old fellow. A bit of a fairy story, what?"
"South Kensington would call it a fairy story, no doubt," Saundry replied
dryly. "But these things happened here in Africa."
Carmel felt again the little stab of fear. She, at all events, had not
lived north of the Zambesi without knowing of mysteries not to be solved by
the rules of logic.
"This is the country of magic," he had said, and she looked at him, the
magistrate, and wondered whether it had not taken him to itself and taught
him some of its dark secrets.
They were to break camp after an early luncheon. Carmel finished her
packing quickly and crossed to the hut which they used as a mess-room. There
she found Saundry alone, and put a question to him at once.
"What did that girl mean when she spoke of a mammy palaver?"
Colin Saundry chuckled.
"She was a bit too quick, wasn't she?"
"Why? What did she mean?"
"She meant—how many oxen I ought to pay your husband."
"I see." She lowered her eyes from Saundry's face, and added, "None, of
Colin nodded his head ruefully.
It seemed that he had upon the tip of his tongue the word "yet" to add to
his "none"; and Carmel drew back a step as though he had uttered it. She had
not yielded to him—yet, but she was not sure that she wasn't going to.
The vividness of the man almost swept her off her feet, lifted her on to her
toes, at all events. There were comparisons forced upon her each hour of the
day. Even now she must glance back through the doorway to the hut in which
her husband was packing. It wanted just some small extra thing to push her
one way or the other. But she was conscious of a queer enmity towards Colin
Saundry. She disliked where she almost loved.
It was her enmity which spoke now.
"That money. You are quite sure you've been robbed of it?"
Colin Saundry's face flamed.
"Of course," he said, and there was certainly nothing but indignation in
his voice. "I'm not likely to make a mistake in a matter like that. There
were hundreds of opportunities. You and Hardacre were out shooting. I was on
my circuit with my police. The camp has been practically deserted all day
whilst we've been here."
"That's true," she said. "Here's George."
"And here's luncheon," added Colin Saundry.
On the evening of the seventh day the party returned to the same camp. The
theft had been avoided as a topic during the week by some sort of tacit
agreement between Carmel and Colin Saundry, whilst Hardacre had become more
and more silent and morose. But Carmel had not forgotten it, and now that
they were back in the camp again the odd conviction seized upon her that they
were all concerned in some alarming way with a matter of much deeper
importance than the recovery of the money. An uneasy excitement made her
restless, and touched Colin Saundry too. He sent a messenger into the village
to announce his arrival to N'Gamba, and a little time afterwards lifted his
head for silence.
From a distance came the tapping of a solitary drum.
"Well, we've heard that a good many times and in a good many places during
the last weeks," said Hardacre, with a shrug of the shoulders.
"I know," answered Colin Saundry.
But he still listened anxiously. They went out into the open after dinner.
Above the trees half a mile away the loom of the village fires reddened the
sky. From that quarter came the beating of the drum. It was louder now and
they could all distinguish changes in its rhythm as though it sent a message
in a code. For now it was spaced and monotonous, now it hurried, the taps
following one upon another like sparks from an anvil; now the taps merged in
one prolonged roll like a summons or an alarm. Colin Saundry listened with
his head on one side and a frown upon his face.
"How far would the sound reach?" Carmel asked in a low voice.
"For miles. It fills the night." Then he tried to laugh. "I was wondering
for a moment whether N'Gamba had taken it into her head to make some trouble
for me to-morrow. But she wouldn't dare. No, I am sure. She wouldn't
Trouble of the kind which Colin Saundry feared, N'Gamba certainly did not
make. For no more quiet and orderly assemblage could be imagined than that
which the village presented to the magistrate and his friends the next
morning. It was, in fact, too quiet and orderly. For it was
Carmel could not make head or tail of the spectacle. It seemed to her that
a sort of performance was being given which held the tribe spellbound, and
she was sure that it was entirely displeasing to Colin Saundry. For she heard
him curse N'Gamba under his breath, and add: "Well, it's got to go on
The tribe was seated on the ground in a semicircle, with N'Gamba at the
central point of the arc; and it watched a hideous old man who was mumming in
the open space—watched him as though death waited at every turn of his
feet. He was clothed in a leopard skin; dirty rags decorated his arms and
ankles, and a string of shark's teeth hung about his neck. His hair was
twisted up on the top of his head and bunched there with ivory skewers, and
he held a calabash in his hands half-filled with old screws and bits of
broken iron, and rattled it as he slowly twisted and stamped.
"Who's that comedian?" Hardacre asked, and suddenly Carmel knew. The three
of them were standing at one end of the semicircle and she had a clear view.
The terror stamped upon the faces of all those savages squatting upon the
ground told her, and explained too the anger of the official at her side.
N'Gamba had called in a witch-doctor to find his money for him.
The old man, bent and decrepit and thin as a baboon, ceased his dance and
sat cross-legged on the ground. From his calabash he fetched out four bones,
tossed them in the air, caught them like a juggler, and then set them in the
shape of a diamond in front of him, altering them from time to time so that
now the point of the diamond was directed to one man, now to another. And
whilst he juggled with his bones, he whined rather than crooned some
monotonous old chant which held in it the melancholy and the despair of all
"Curiouser and curiouser," Hardacre quoted.
From Colin Saundry there came a sharp hiss.
He knew his people and Hardacre did not. These Barotses, to a man, were
bound in a spell by stark fright. What if the spell broke? And a little thing
might break it. What if frenzy followed upon fright? A massacre might come of
it. Even now a man half-rose to his feet with a whimpering cry and squatted
down again, as though he dared neither flee nor stay.
The witch-doctor unslung from his shoulders a buffalo-horn. He took from
his basket a rusty spoon, and—of all incongruous paraphernalia for a
magician—a dirty old jar which had once held Keiller's marmalade. Comic
enough, no doubt, elsewhere than in a forest of Africa amongst a tribe of
panic-tortured savages. Here every commonplace, familiar little implement
gave an added touch of the macabre to the whole ghoulish exhibition. Carmel
knew from a sharp movement at her side that the climax of the grotesque rite
was at hand. As terror chained that black sweeping curve of men, so suspense
held her—or all of her but her throbbing heart.
The old pantaloon scooped from the jar a pitch-like grease, so rank that
the evil smell of it tainted the air even where Carmel stood. He filled each
end of the buffalo-horn with it.
"That's his magic," said Saundry in a low voice, and the witch-doctor rose
to his feet. Balancing the horn in his hands he scuttled suddenly with a
quite horrible quick run to the point of the semi-circle opposite to Carmel.
Before the first man he halted, and she witnessed a ritual which shocked her
as an unexpected blow might do and drained her cheeks of all their colour.
The old man extended the horn, and the other, his teeth chattering, his body
trembling, took it with a humble reverence like one upon his knees. For a
little while he held it upon the palms of his upturned hands, whilst standing
over him the wizard muttered and whined. Carmel had, for a moment or two, a
horrible illusion that she was present at, and condoning by her presence, a
filthy parody of the sublime mystery of her faith. But the ceremony was too
real to all these participants for such an error to persist. Because it was
terrifying and real to them, it became real to her, real and compelling. The
centuries fell away behind her. She was assisting at some ordeal which had
been repeated and repeated in this still, sunlit glade in the forest long
before even the men from Babylon passed southwards to quarry their diamonds
and their gold. And it could not fail! She was sure of it. She watched the
old and hideous magician pass his buffalo-horn from man to man, stooping,
muttering. At some moment a man would rise, unable to endure his torment for
one more second, and flinging up his arms avow his guilt. She was sure of it.
She waited for it with clenched hands and parted lips.
If only that had happened!
Right round the semicircle the witch-doctor practised his sorcery in vain.
He came to the last of the tribe and failed with him. He stood, a noisome
creature to be imagined in a nightmare, his small eyes glinting, his wizened
body an offence.
"Let me look at that horn," cried a voice by Carmel's side—and a
strange voice it seemed—a voice which spoke under compulsion. Carmel
turned towards her husband. It was he who had spoken, and he had the
appearance of a man in a trance. Carmel looked suddenly at N'Gamba. N'Gamba
was squatting on the ground, her head lowered upon her bosom, her eyes
veiled. She was motionless as a statue. The recollection of the power which
that little black girl had exercised over Carmel on this very spot flashed
back into Carmel's mind. She would have yielded to it but for Saundry's
interruption. He would interrupt again—yes—yes! Carmel looked at
Saundry hopefully, but the man was rattled; he was angry; he was alarmed. For
one fatal hour his easy assurance failed him. In the contest between these
two, the wise woman with the lore of Africa and the white man from the West,
the white man lost. Carmel saw her husband reach out his hands. She tried to
cry out; her dry throat refused a sound. And the odious horrible catastrophe
happened in a second. As Hardacre grasped the horn, it leapt and twisted in
his hands. Before even Colin Saundry could have seized and held him, he was
out there in the open space, wrestling like a madman with a buffalo-horn
which no one held. There could never have been such ignominy. He was dragged
about like a doll. Carmel was hardly aware that all the black men were on
their feet, leaping, screaming, laughing in their reprieve from fear, or that
N'Gamba sat like an idol of stone, her head lowered, her arms crossed upon
her breast. But she heard Colin Saundry's voice raised in a loud anger, she
saw him cross to N'Gamba and fling at her some passionate words; and when she
came to herself she was outside the palisade and one of Saundry's police was
holding the stirrup of her horse.
They rode back to the camp without a word. But when they reached it,
"My hut must be searched."
Colin Saundry waved the suggestion aside.
"It was a trick...No doubt they have some queer powers, these witch-men.
Powers we don't understand. N'Gamba set him to it. By God, she shall pay." He
slipped his arm through Hardacre's. "You mustn't mind, Hardacre. We shall be
away from here to-morrow."
Hardacre drew his arm away.
His pallor under the sunburn gave him the look of a man sick to death.
Colin Saundry dropped his arms to his side.
"I wouldn't have had a ridiculous thing like this happen for ten times
eighty-five pounds. You shall have your way, of course."
And that night as they sat silently smoking about the camp-fire, Saundry's
head man came forward to them carrying a bag of sovereigns which he had just
dug out of Hardacre's hut.
For a while no one uttered a word. A silence weighed about that fire such
as might follow a dread verdict in a court of justice. A turtle-dove,
startlingly near, called suddenly from a bough of a tree and far away a
baboon mumbled, and then by the fire Saundry shook the bag so that the
sovereigns in it rattled. If he had been seeking for the one extra jolt which
should thrust Carmel into a more definite position between the two men, he
could have found nothing more decisive. He had got his money back, yes, but
Carmel hated him.
"Of course, it was a plant," he said. "N'Gamba must have found the thief,
and then buried the money, knowing that we should return. I'll get it cleared
up on my next circuit. Meanwhile here's the money and no harm done. There's
absolutely no motive, of course..."
He spoke with generosity knowing—it must have been so—that
there was all the motive in the world. But he was not allowed to expand his
argument. Hardacre stood up and pulled at his moustache. Even at that moment
he could not be impressive. He alarmed neither of his companions. He did not
even look at them. He just said in a dull voice:
"I've had about enough of this."
Then he pulled a pistol out of his pocket, blew out his brains and pitched
forward into the fire. Fortunately Carmel Hardacre fainted.
The affair, of course, could not end there. Slowly the facts were put
together. Finally N'Gamba spoke. Saundry had sent her a message summoning her
to meet him in the forest two days before he returned to his camp by her
village. He came to the appointed place riding in great haste and alone. He
bade her accuse Hardacre of the theft. No blame should fall on her, for the
money would certainly be found in Hardacre's hut. N'Gamba wept, pleaded,
yielded. But she chose her own way. She called in her witch-doctor. She used
her own dark gifts. You may give them what name you will, magic, witchcraft,
mass hypnotism. It is wiser perhaps to accept the experience of Colin Saundry
and say that the fairy story in Kensington happens in Africa. But from first
to last N'Gamba never wavered from this assertion. She could have done
nothing whatever had Hardacre been innocent.
Colin Saundry, however, got no profit from his scheme. He lost Carmel at
the moment when he chinked the bag. He lost his position when N'Gamba told of
their meeting in the forest, and thereafter he fell upon difficult days.
Some years afterwards, when rather drunk at a shabby party in his lodgings
behind the Bayswater Road, he was asked for his explanation of the story.
He said, "Hardacre, of course, stole the money all right. I saw him going
from my hut to his when I came down a hill towards the camp-fire one night.
The next morning I missed the money. Oh, yes, Hardacre stole the money all
right." Then he laughed foolishly and bibulously, and added:
"Some t'ings—you meet 'um so. I t'ink Goddy go do um."