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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 his suggestion.

"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 them.

"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 whine.

"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 companion's face.

"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.

"Look!"

"I have been looking for some while," Saundry answered in an odd voice.

"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 magic."

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."

II

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 complaint."

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 sedately.

"N'Gamba make mammy palaver one time."

Before she could utter another word, Colin Saundry interrupted sharply.

"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 business."

"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 reassured.

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 order."

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 gentle voice:

"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 'um."

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 back.

"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 course."

Colin nodded his head ruefully.

"No, none."

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."

Carmel agreed.

"That's true," she said. "Here's George."

"And here's luncheon," added Colin Saundry.

III

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.

"Listen!"

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 dare."

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 panic-stricken.

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 now."

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 the ages.

"Curiouser and curiouser," Hardacre quoted.

From Colin Saundry there came a sharp hiss.

"Keep still!"

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, Hardacre said:

"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.

"I insist."

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."

 
 
 

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