Mystery of the Talking Idols by Achmed Abdullah
"Thrice did I hear the gods call me by name," said the Arab. "A
lie!" shrieked the medicine man. "Kill him! Kill--"
AFRICA was about them: a black, fetid hand giving riotously of
gold and treasure, maiming and squeezing even while it gave.
They loathed and feared it. Yet they loved it with that love which
is stronger than the love of woman, more grimly compelling than the
love of gold. They loved it as the opium-smoker loves the sticky
poppy-juice which soothes him--and kills him.
For it was Africa.
And also in this was it Africa that it had thrown these two men
together: strange bedfellows; Gerald Donachie, whose dour Scots blood
had been but imperfectly tempered by the fact that he had been born
and bred in Chicago, and Mahmoud Ali Daud, the grave, dark Arab from
Arab he was in everything. For he was greedy, and yet generous;
well-mannered, and yet overbearing; sincere, and yet sneering;
sympathetic, and yet coldly cruel; austere, and yet passionate;
simple, and yet complex.
"Donachie & Daud"--the firm was well known from the Cape to
the Congo, and up through the brooding hinterland, the length of the
great, sluggish river, even as far as the black tents of the
Touaregs. It had made history in African commerce. It was respected
in Paris and London, feared in Brussels, envied in Berlin.
They traded in ivory and ostrich feathers, in rubber and gold, in
beads, calico, gum-copral, orchilla roots, quinine, and--if the truth
be told--in grinning West Coast idols made in Birmingham, cases of
cheap Liverpool gin, and rifles guaranteed to explode at the third
All the way up the river their factories and wharves, their
stations and warehouses proclaimed their insolent wealth. They ran
their own line of paddle-steamers as far as the Falls; twice a year
they chartered fast, expensive turbine boats to carry precious
cargoes to Bremen and Liverpool. They had their fingers in every pie,
to the South as far as Matabele-land, to the North as far as the
newest French-Moroccan concessions.
They could have sold out at practically their own figure to the
big Continental Chartered company which they had fought for ten
years, and which they had beaten in the end to a not inglorious
standstill. They could have returned with bloated bank accounts:
Donachie to a brick-and-stone realization of the Chicago palace about
which his imagination wove nostalgic dreams when the river was high
and the fever higher; and Mahmoud Ali Daud to his pleasant Damascan
villa and the flaunting garden with the ten varieties of date trees,
of which he talked so much.
"All the date trees of Arabistan are in that garden," he used to
say to his partner, and make a smacking noise with his tongue.
"Al-Shelebi dates, yellow and small-stoned and aromatic; Ajwah dates,
especially blessed by the Prophet--on whom be Peace; also the date
Al-Birni, of which it is said: 'It causeth sickness to depart from
it, and there is no sickness in it'."
And they spoke of selling out, of going home.
They spoke of it in the hot season when the great, silent sun was
brooding down like a hateful, implacable force and when all the
wealth of Africa was but an accurst inheritance, to be gained at a
cost of pain and anguish more than man could bear; and during the
"wet," when from morning till night a steaming, drenching, thudding
rain flooded the land as far as the foothills, when the fields were
rotting into mud, when the water of the lake thickened into evil
brown slime, and when the great river smelled like the carcass of
some impossible, obscene animal.
They spoke of it with longing in their voices. They quarreled,
they cursed each other--year after year. And they remained--year
For it was Africa. The sweet poison of it had entered their souls,
and they could not do without it.
Donachie sighed. He looked at his partner.
"Look here, Mahmoud," he said querulously. "Granger is the third
who's disappeared up there in the last four months. The third, damn
it all! And we can't afford to give up the station. Why, man, it's
the best station in the whole confounded upland! The company would
jump at it. They've been trying to get a foothold there for the
longest time. We get as much ivory from there as from half the other
river stations put together--fossil ivory, I grant you, but what
difference does that make, once it reaches the market? Ivory is
The Arab had been counting the carved wooden beads of his huge
rosary. Now he looked up.
"We can send Watkins. Watkins is a good man. He did well at the
coast station. He speaks the language. Or we can send Palmier--a
shrewd Belgian. He knows the Congo."
Donachie hit the gangrened, heat-cracked table with his hairy
"It would be murder, Mahmoud, rank murder! They'll
disappear--they'll disappear like the others."
The Arab inclined his head.
"Fate is bound about our necks. Perhaps the bush will eat them
Donachie interrupted savagely.
"The bush? The bush? You mean the--"
The other raised a thin brown hand.
"Hush, my friend. There is no proof. Also is it bad luck to give a
name to the thing which is not." And he snapped his fingers rapidly
to ward off misfortune.
Donachie's voice came loud and angry.
"There's the proof that the three agents have disappeared, one
after the other."
The Arab smiled.
"What is that to you and to me, my friend? We pay? We pay well. If
fools make a bargain for their souls with the devil, then fools may
make a bargain with us for their bodies. They know the evil name
which the station bears. Yet it appears that they are willing to go.
Many of them." He pointed at a heap of letters on the table. "Did you
read what they write? They want to go. Let them go. There are even
company men among the applicants. We can pick and choose. We can send
whom we please."
Donachie glared at his partner.
"We'd be murderers none the less."
"How do you know the others have been murdered?"
"Good Lord! How do I know? Why, man, people don't walk into the
bush and disappear without sound or word or trace just to amuse
themselves, do they?"
The other smiled.
"Allah kureem!" he said piously. Then he counted his beads again
and was silent.
DONACHIE rose. He moved his chair. But the sun found its way
through the holes and cracks of the attle-and-daub house, and there
was not a spot in the big, square room which was not barred and
splashed by narrow strips of sunlight.
It was just like a dazzling sheet of light piercing the tin roof
with a yellowness that pained the eye, puckered the face, and wearied
and maddened the brain.
There was beauty in the landscape beyond the fly-specked windows.
For under the tropical sun the sloping roofs of the warehouses, the
steeple of the mission church, and the beehive huts of the natives
burned like the plumage of a gigantic peacock in every mysterious
blend of purple and green and blue. The sky was like an enameled cup,
spotless but for a few clouds which were gnarled, fantastic, like
arabesques written in vivid cerise ink on some page of forgotten
And in the distance, beyond the glitter and glimmer of the river,
the forest stood forth in a somber black line.
But Gerald Donachie did not see the beauty of it. He only felt the
squeezing, merciless hand which was Africa. He only smelled the fetid
odor which was Africa.
And then, of course, his thoughts returned to the bush station at
Grand L'Popo Basin, three hundred miles up the river.
It was by far the most important upland station of "Double-Dee,"
as the firm was familiarly called up and down the coast. Some fifty
miles below the falls, snug at the head of a little river bay where
the water was deep and the anchorage safe; fairly healthy all the
year round, it had become the main center of the upland trade.
To the north of it were thick, black-green forests, and the truest
ivory country in Africa. An incessant stream of the precious white
stuff reached the post and was sent to the coast, and thence to
Liverpool and Bremen. The natives, unconverted, unspoiled, were
friendly. There had never been the slightest trouble with them.
Hendrick DuPlessis, a big hairy Natal Boer, had been the agent up
there for a number of years, and had put the station on a splendidly
paying basis. Once a year, as regular as clockwork, he had come down
the river to the coast town, where for three weeks he rioted and
debauched on a pompous, magnificent scale.
And on his last spree, a little over four months ago, an overdose
of dop and brandy had killed him.
Then, one after the other, three agents had been sent up the
river. They were Foote, Benzinger and Granger; all Afrikanders born
and bred, familiar with the country and the languages, and all
trusted employees of Double-Dee, who had made good at other important
stations before they had been sent to Grand L'Popo Basin.
And within the last four months, one after the other, the three
had disappeared. It was as if Africa had swallowed them. They left no
message. No trace of their bodies had been found.
They had simply vanished into nothingness.
They had not taken to the bush out of their own free will. There
had been no reason for it: their books and accounts were in perfect
order. Nor had they gone out hunting; for they were middle-aged men,
surfeited with the killing of animals. They had no personal enemies,
and they had had no trouble with the natives, who were friendly and
They had disappeared.
Runners and native trackers had been sent out in every direction.
Finally, after the third agent, Granger, had vanished, a first-class
bush detective had been sent from the coast. But the detective, a
clever Portuguese mulatto, had discovered nothing.
Then Gerald Donachie himself had gone up the river. He had
investigated. He had offered bribes and rewards. He had searched the
forest for miles around. He had gone into the kraals of the natives,
and had threatened and accused and bullied.
But it was evident that the blacks had nothing to do with the
disappearance of the three agents. He had not found a single
This very morning, fever-worn, cross, he had returned with the
tale of his failure. And failure was a hard thing to bear.
Again he hit the table with his fist.
"What are we going to do, Daud? Tell me that."
"There is one thing we can always do. We can sell out to the
Donachie laughed, a cracked, mirthless laugh.
"Sell out now? Under fire, as it were? With that mystery unsolved?
. . . Not if I know it. I'm not going to let that cursed beast of a
land get the best of me."
The other walked to the corner and poured himself out a glass of
"In the name of Allah the Compassionate, the Merciful," he said
piously, ceremoniously, before he tossed down the drink. Then he
turned to his partner.
"You are like all the other Christians," he said. "Forever
fighting battles with your own obstinacy. What is the good of it?
What profit is there in it? And if not profit, then what glory? Why
battle against Fate? Fate has decided that the man of great head
becomes a Bey, honored and rich; while he of great feet becomes a
shepherd. We have great herds, you and I. We are rich. Let's sell out
to the company. Let us return; I to my country, and you to
But Donachie did not reply. He sat there, brooding, unhappy,
staring into space.
OR the last hour, from the broad veranda which surrounded the
house, had come the incessant, uncouth babble of native voices,
high-pitched, half-articulate; the house boys talking to each other,
and every once in a while breaking into shrill, meaningless
Donachie had hardly heard them. He had listened to that same noise
for the last twenty years. It was part of his life to him, part of
the day, part of Africa. He had accepted it as he had accepted the
fever, the heat, the flying and crawling horrors, and the wooden
drums which thumped at night, sending messages from village to
But suddenly he looked up, sharp-eyed, alert.
A native voice had pronounced the name of the station up the
river--"Grand L'Popo Basin." And again, in a sort of awed whisper,
"Grand L'Popo Basin!"
He addressed his partner.
"Yes," the Arab chimed in, completing both thought and sentence
for him, "they also speak of the three men who have disappeared. The
tale is all over this land. The drums have carried the message of it
to all the villages. And yet," he laughed, and pointed at the heap of
letters on the table, "and yet there are many men anxious to go."
Suddenly the babbling outside ceased. There was a sharply-defined
pause. Then a single voice spoke, in the native dialect as the
others, but with a different accent; intense, throbbing with a
peculiar, significant meaning, but so low that the two men inside the
house could not make out the words.
Again there was silence. The flies buzzed in a great peace.
Then the same voice spoke once more, low, intense.
"Can you hear, Mahmoud?" Donachie asked. "What's that cursed black
The Arab rose. He motioned to his friend to be quiet. He walked to
the door on noiseless, slippered feet, and listened.
Again the voice on the outside boomed forth, dramatic, low; and
this time one word stood out above the others: "Umlino," and again,
The Arab listened intently for a few minutes. Then he came up
close to his partner.
"They are speaking of a new umlino, a new great medicine man--"
then, as an afterthought, "cursed be all unbelievers!"
"That new boy--that flat-faced descendant of unmentionable
pigs--Makupo, he calls himself."
"Oh, yes, the fellow from the bush who sports the brick-red
blanket and the blue beads."
"What's he got to do with a medicine man? And what the blazes has
the umlino got to do with the disappearance of my three agents?"
Donachie burst suddenly into a great, throaty rage. "I'll teach
that coon to put bees into my house boys' bonnets! Call him in,
Mahmoud." He picked up the short, vicious rhinoceros-hide whip which
lay on the table. "I'll teach that miserable black to babble
Daud pressed him back into his chair. He addressed his partner
with an air of calm assurance, superb self-satisfaction hooded under
his sharply curved eyelids.
"I shall go north and solve the mystery. Be quiet, friend of my
heart. Remember the saying that money is on the lips of the liar, and
passion on the lips of the lost. Be quiet!"
Donachie looked up.
"But Mahmoud," he said wearily, "I've just come back from up
The Arab sat down near him.
"Yes," he replied. "But before you left there was not talk amongst
our blacks of medicine men in the north, of great umlinos performing
many miracles. I heard them talk," he pointed at the veranda, "out
there--cursed be all unbelievers!"
Donachie laughed. "I honor and respect your orthodox Mohammedan
prejudices, old man. But you know well enough that there's alwayssome
brand-new medicine man, some brand-new ju-ju popping up amongst these
"I know," the other agreed. "But I also know Africa. I know that
these house boys of ours are of the Waranga tribe, eh? Tell me, my
friend, what have they, being of the Waranga, to do with an umlino
from the up-river tribes? Do totems mix with totems in this
heathenish land? Also, what have our Warangas to do with a flat-faced
pig from the north who wears a red blanket and blue beads? Can you
answer these questions? And can you tell me finally what bond there
can exist between blacks of one tribe and blacks of another who have
been enemies for centuries?"
"There's only one bond, Mahmoud. A common enemy."
"There is no enemy. The land is peaceful and prosperous . . . But
there is still another bond between tribe and tribe. That is a
miracle, and he who performs the miracle is always an umlino, a great
medicine man. I have heard tell that an umlino is often an ambitious
man, dreaming dreams of conquest and blood and empire, like Khama,
who called out the southern tribes; like Lobengula, of whom the Boers
talk; like Chakka, who sacked the farms of the Colonial English
before I was born."
Donachie was nervous, intent.
"A conspiracy, you think? A revolt?"
"No. Only the brewing of the miracle, and the telling of it--so
far," he added with peculiar emphasis.
He continued after a short pause: "I shall go to Grand L'Popo
Basin. I shall look into the disappearance of the three agents. I
shall watch the brewing of the miracle. And, with the help of Allah,
I shall succeed." He smiled.
Donachie knew the smile of old. In the past it had heralded many
things: profit, adventure--often death. But always it had meant
success. Thus it seemed suddenly to Donachie as if a cool rush of air
had come to him after a long, leaden, unlifting day.
"When are you off?" he asked.
Donachie gasped with surprise.
"Impossible! The steamer can't leave here before Saturday morning
at the very earliest."
"I shall take the overland trail."
"But why--for heaven's sake, Why?"
The Arab smiled.
"Because there is talk on our veranda between the Warangas and a
flat-faced pig from the north. Because drum is speaking to drum.
Because there is brewing a miracle--up the river. Do not ask
questions, my friend. Time presses. I shall take Makupo with me."
Donachie looked at him incredulously.
"Makupo? The fellow from the north, of all men? But, good God, you
don't trust him!"
"That's why." The Arab rose. "I have no time to explain. I must
prepare for the journey. One thing you must do for me."
"Name it, Mahmoud."
"Let the house boys have talk with nobody of my going north. Let
them not speak of my taking Makupo along. Let them send no message of
There was an impatient note in Donachie's answering voice.
"How the deuce can I do that? How can I keep these chattering
magpies from talking?"
"The best way would be to kill them. But you are a Christian, an
American." Mahmoud Daud laughed. "You shun sane, efficient methods.
Therefore you must go to Latrobe, the commissioner of police. You
must have these blacks arrested--tonight, within the hour, before I
go. Tell the commissioner as much as you please, as much as you think
right. But make sure that they are silent until I return. For I want
no sending of messages while I am gone. I want no thumping of wooden
drums from village to village."
The Arab made a great gesture. It was more than a gesture. It
seemed an incident which cut through the still air like a dramatic
"Because I know Africa--and because I want to stop the brewing of
He left the room with a stately, swinging step, singing softly to
Donachie looked after him. He watched him move through the group
of squatting Warangas on the veranda, and pick his way daintily
through the refuse which littered the yard.
For a long time he could hear the words and the high-pitched
melody of his song; it was a riotous Damascus bazaar couplet which he
was in the habit of singing in moments of excitement and stress:
"I married two wives by excess of my folly.
What now will happen to thee, oh husband of two?
I have said: I will be among them a lamb,
Enjoying blessings between two ewes.
But now . . ."
The voice died in the distance. Donachie rose, left the house, and
walked over to the house of the commissioner of police.
And so, within the hour, the Waranga boys of Double-Dee's
living-bungalow found themselves in prison, strictly contrary to the
law, to habeas corpus, trial by jury, and half-a-dozen similar
assorted fetishes of the temperate zone; while Mahmoud Ali Daud,
preceded by the chattering and frightened Makupo, was off on a
threehundred--mile tramp into the interior.
IT WOULD have surprised even Donachie, who knew Africa, who knew
the Arabs, and who especially knew his partner, to see how,
half-adozen rods into the jungle, the latter's thin veneer of Western
civilization and Western sentimentalism took a sudden atavistic
backward-jump of several centuries.
For, all at once, without provocation or apparent reason of any
sort, the Arab brought his short, thick sjambok down on the head of
the negro with the full strength of his lean, muscular arms.
Makupo dropped and howled, while Mahmoud Daud addressed him in a
passionless, even voice:
"Dog, and son of many dogs! Woolly one! Calamity! Shame! Evil and
odorous thing without name, or morals, or pedigree! Art thou
The negro did not answer. A pitiful gurgle came from his throat.
The whites of his eyes rolled upward, and he kissed the Arab's
But the other paid no attention to the silent entreaty for mercy.
Again, with full strength, scientifically, he brought the sjambok
down on the writhing black body at his feet.
Then he spoke once more, in the same passionless voice.
"Art thou listening, O disreputable descendant of unbelieving and
This time the answer came prompt, articulate.
"Aywah! Aywah!" ejaculated the Arab. Then he sat down comfortably
on a fallen tree, gathering the folds of his brown traveling
burnoose, and resting his feet on the body of the black. "Aywah! It
is good. Thou hast come from the north, from up the river, flat-nosed
and objectionable, and wearing a red blanket; and thou hast spoken
poison-words of evil to the boys of my kraal."
"Thou didst leave thy home in the north, a cock, and thou didst
expect to return a peacock, strutting and colorful. Wah! Listen
again, he-goat bereft of sense and modesty! Thou wilt return north
indeed. But thou wilt not return as a peacock. Thou wilt return as a
dog, nosing the ground for me, thy master. Thou wilt sniff well, and
thou wilt show me the place of the umlino who sent thee to the coast
to speak words of treason, the place where the medicine man makes
mysteries. Is that understood?"
The Arab kicked the prostrate African three times, in the same
place, with calm, deliberate aim.
"If thou shouldst turn traitor, if thou shouldst try to send
messages as we pass through the villages on our way up to Grand
L'Popo Basin, I shall kill thee. I shall kill thee very slowly. I
shall make long cuts into thy unclean skin, and shall afterwards pour
boiling oil into the wounds. Also other things; considerably more
painful. I shall think them out as the days go by . . . then, later
on, while there is still breath left in thy lungs and blood in thy
heart, I shall bury thee . . . in a shallow grave . . . where the
hyenas and the many little ants will find thee.
"Is it understood?"
Makupo looked up from the ground. He knew that the Arab was giving
him true talk.
"Yes, master," he replied.
Mahmoud Daud arose. Once more he kicked the other.
"It is good. It is a compact between thee and me. Get up. Pick up
thy pack, and lead the way."
Without another word the African did as he was bid.
Thus the two went on their long overland tramp. Daud's sharp eyes
and an occasional thwack of his sjambok saw to it that Makupo stuck
to the onesided compact. There was no sneaking aside, no whispering
and talking to other natives when they passed through an occasional
village demanding food and drink, and, once in a while, a guide. And
at night the Arab was careful to gag him securely and to tie him hand
and foot, so that there could be no sending of bush messages.
It was a long, heartbreaking tramp; through a crazy network of
jungle paths spreading over the land; through long grass and short
grass; through grass burned to the roots, and through grass green and
juicy, waiting for the stamping, long-horned cattle of the river
They left the river far to the south, walking in a sweeping,
half-circular direction so as to avoid the miasmic, fever-breeding
steam of the lowlands. They tramped through thickets where
elephantthorns and "wait-a-bits" lacerated their skins, and through
somber black forests, where evil, bat-like things flopped lazily
overhead, and where slimy, spineless things crawled and squirmed
underfoot. They tramped up and down chilly ravines, up and down stony
hillsides ablaze with white heat.
They reached the higher table land. Everywhere about them
stretched a level country which looked curiously like the sea; for
the thick, blade-shaped grass, bleached to silvery whiteness and as
high as a man's waist, swayed perpetually like choppy, pale waves.
The heat was intense; and the Arab swung along silently, his head
swathed in the heavy folds of his brown burnoose, while Makupo walked
ahead, arms flopping loosely after the manner of his kind, and
crooning to himself in a plaintive, half-articulate way which was
like the piping of a lizard.
They struck the Equator on the twentieth day. The sky was
cloudless, blazing with a terrible, vindictive heat, and steeped in
primitive colors, red, blue and orange, like a futurist painting. So
they rested during daytime and walked in the late afternoons and at
nights, when it was a little cooler, when the merciless flare had
died in the skies, when the far-off hills had turned a faint, pink
color, and when the grimness of the bush which stood out in the
distance was blurred as in a veil of purple chiffon.
Finally, late one evening, they reached the river again.
"Grand L'Popo Basin!" he said, and pointed straight ahead.
Daud grunted a short, affirmative reply.
They walked down a steep hillside into the steaming valley. From
behind the black curtain of trees which lined the banks of the river
a great sheaf of yellow lights shot upwards; the campfires of the
outer kraals. Then there was a glimpse of rush walls, of peaked grass
It was late at night when they came within sight of the station
itself. But they could still make out the contours of the agency
house, the bulk of the warehouses, the sweep of the jetty, the squat
huts of the natives.
The Arab stopped.
"Listen, dog," he said. "Thou wilt now tell me the place of the
umlino, the great medicine man who brews the many mysteries, and who
sends flatnosed pigs with red blankets to the Coast to whisper
poisonous words to my Warangas. Where is this umlino? I want speech
with him. Is he north, east, south, or west? Answer, son of a burned
Makupo shivered with fear, but he did not reply. The Arab raised
the sjambok significantly.
"Answer," he repeated, low-voiced.
The native fell down before him.
"Thus far have I brought thee, master. Have pity! I cannot tell
more. The umlino can hear across distances. He can make the clay-gods
He doubled up as if in physical pain, embracing his knees with his
hands, swaying from side to side like a chained elephant. He stared
at the Arab in a horribly appealing, intolerable manner. Mahmoud Daud
"Remember our compact, Calamity! Remember the wounds, the boiling
oil! Also the hyenas . . . and the little brown ants which find their
way through a shallow grave to a man who is still alive. Do not
forget the ants."
Suddenly Makupo rose. He tried to speak---could not. He pointed a
shaking hand at a low, flat hut which was plainly visible next to the
livingbungalow of the agency.
"There . . . there . . ." his words came thick, strangled. "There
lives the umlino . . . there are the red clay-gods who talk,
Mahmoud Daud whistled through his teeth.
"Eh . . . in the station . . . in the station itself?" Then in a
lower key, as if speaking to himself. "Merciful Allah! In the station
itself . . . and next to the agency house. Wah!"
Suddenly he smiled, a thin, cruel smile.
"Thou hast well kept the compact, Makupo," he said. "Cometh now
There was the flash of a dagger; a quick downward thrust; and
Makupo rolled over, without a sound, lifeless. Mahmoud Daud wiped the
dagger on a handful of grass and sheathed it again.
Then he walked up to the station.
He was deep in thought. The spark of suspicion which had flared up
in his shrewd, grinding brain weeks ago, when he had heard Makupo and
the Warangas whispering on the veranda about the umlino and the
disappearance of the three agents, had been kindled into flame by the
dead man's words.
But what was that tale about red clay-gods who talk? It puzzled
him. Some cursed, heathen superstition, he said to himself. He would
find out presently.
He smiled. So far he had done well. For he was confident that no
bush messages had been sent up the river, warning the blacks of his
coming; and thus the medicine man, whatever his name, whatever his
savage ambitions, whatever his connection with the disappearance of
the three agents, would be unprepared.
Also he had eliminated the chance of treachery on the part of
Makupo by killing him as soon as he had served his ends; for, in
Mahmoud Daud's own words, "A dead man does not talk of love, and a
dead horse does not eat grass."
So he was pleased with himself; and, deeply religious, he droned a
low-voiced prayer to Allah, the King of Men, as he swung noiselessly
through the rush-fence of the station.
HE fence clearly showed that the place was abandoned to the tender
mercies of the blacks and that the directing mind of the White Man
was missing; for it was ill-kept, and with the speed of the tropics
the few months since the death of the last agent had sufficed to
change it into a great mass of vegetation; an entangled, exuberant
mingling of leaves, creepers, and odorous flowers; a rolling wave of
The Arab paused for a moment and looked around. There were no
sentinels at the fence gate, no watchmen near the jetty and the
warehouses. It was more evident than ever that no bush messages had
been sent, that his coming was unexpected, and that the black
employees of Double-Dee, in the absence of a master, were devoting
themselves to a lengthy and truly African siesta. One of the
warehouses was gaping wide open.
The Arab frowned. A great rage rose in his throat. For, true son
of Shem, he was a greedy man; a hard businessman who hated waste
worse than he hated Shaitan himself.
He crossed the yard silently, noiselessly, and stopped in front of
the agency bungalow.
A little shudder ran through him. Beyond the fence he could see
the forest standing out spectrally in the dazzling moonlight, and
through the stir of the leaves and the refuse, blown about by some
vagabond wind of the night, was the mystery, the mad, amazing
stillness of the Dark Continent, touching his heart with clay-cold
Next to the bungalow the medicine-house loomed up, large, flat,
The Arab measured the distance between the two houses with his
eye. Just a few yards . . . enough to carry a dead body across and
inside. But what then? The bush-detective had investigated the place.
He was a first-class man--he would have found some sort of trace if
murder had been committed in that hut. And, after all, there were
always medicine men in the north, he thought; there were always
medicine-houses in the tradingstations.
Yet there was some sort of connection between this umlino and the
murder--the disappearance--of the three agents. Of that he was
positive. For there was that dead pig with the red blanket who had
come down the river to whisper evil words to the peaceful Warangas.
There was the memory of things he knew--of former risings, of
massacres, revolts, of fire and flame sweeping through the land . . .
and always preceded by the brewing of miracles, the heathenish craft
of some ochresmeared umlino.
He stared at the medicine-hut. A faint light shone through its
tightly-woven rush walls.
"O Allah, Lord of Daytime, protect me against the darkness of the
night when it overtaketh me!" he whispered. Then, as was his wont, he
snapped his fingers rapidly to ward against unspoken evil, and
touched reverently the little blue necklace, protection against
unclean spirits, which was strung around his neck.
But still the atmosphere oppressed him horribly--a commingling of
hatred and contempt for these unbelieving savages, but also of
despair and red terror. He had been a fool to come up here alone, he
said to himself.
Then he got a hold on his nerves.
He walked up to the medicine-hut with firm steps, and pushed open
the door unceremoniously.
With a swing of the door, a heavy rush of air poured from the
interior of the building and hit him square in the chest, with almost
physical force. Momentarily he felt sick, dazed. For the column of
air which came from the building was thick, smoky, fetid--a mixture
of oiled, perspiring bodies and burning torches.
He steadied himself and looked.
The interior of the medicine-hut, seen dimly through a reddish
fuliginous haze which swirled up to the low ceiling with opalescent
tongues, was a sea of naked bodies, black, shiny, supple. Hundreds of
natives knelt there, close together, with curved backs, foreheads and
outstretched hands touching the ground.
They had neither seen nor heard his entry.
They were swaying rhythmically from side to side with all the
hysterical frenzy of the African in moments of supreme religious
exaltation; mumbling an amazing, staccato hymn of guttural, clicking
words which resembled no human language; with now and then a
sharply-defined pause, followed by a deep, heaving murmur, like the
response of some satanic litany.
At the farther end of the hut were five man-size idols, roughly
shaped to resemble human figures, and covered with red clay: the
usual ju-jus of the river tribes.
All this Mahmoud Daud perceived in the flash of a moment; and in
the flash of the same moment something touched him. It touched none
of his five senses; neither hearing, nor smell, nor vision, nor
taste, nor touch itself; it touched a sixth sense, as it were, with a
faint flavor of unspeakable death, an aroma of torture and agony.
But he had his wits about him. And when, the very next moment,
from behind one of the ju-jus, the umlino appeared with a sharp
jingle and flash of barbarous ornaments, the Arab was his old, suave
"Greetings, medicine man of the river tribes!" he said in a loud,
IS words seemed to galvanize the worshipers. They jumped up,
turned, saw the intruder. There were savage, throaty shouts; an
ominous rattling of spears and brandishing of broad-bladed daggers.
Momentarily they surged forward, a solid black phalanx, with
unthinking, elemental force.
Then they stopped. They hesitated. They turned and looked at the
umlino, as if asking silently for advice.
And skillfully Mahmoud Daud used the short interval. He took a
step forward, a smile on his grave, dark face.
"Greetings, my people!" he said, extending both his hands in a
Then, with slow, stately step, he walked up to them. They gave way
Here and there he recognized a man in the crowd, and addressed him
"Ho, Lakaga! Ho, L'wana! Ho, son of Asafi!"
The men gave greetings in return.
A few seconds later he found himself face to face with the
medicine man, half-a-dozen feet from the clay-covered ju-jus.
"Greetings, umlino!" he said once more.
The umlino looked at him. A savage glint was in his rolling eyes.
But at once it gave way to an expression of deep cunning.
"Greetings, master!" he replied courteously, and bowed.
Mahmoud Daud looked at him. Fanatic, contemptuous of pagan faith,
he had never paid much attention to the medicine men who lived near
the kraals and sponged on the people of Double--Dee. But even so, he
was positive that this was a new medicine man.
At once, with the sharp, quick perception of a photographic
shutter, his mind received and registered the fact that this man did
not belong to any of the tribes who had their kraals near the station
of Grand L'Popo Basin. He came doubtless from farther inland. He
looked different from the others.
His hair had been carefully trained in the shape of a helmet, and
was ornamented with antelope horns, which stood out on both sides. He
wore many-coiled brass-wire anklets which reached from his feet to
his knees, and broad brass bracelets on both his forearms. His body
was smeared with ochre, while his face was plastered with white and
striped with crimson.
Innumerable necklaces of beads were strung around his massive
throat, and from his girdle hung a large collection of witch-charms,
which flittered and rattled with every gesture and movement. There
was something ominous, something savagely superb in the poise of his
huge, muscular body.
Mahmoud Daud said to himself that this medicine man was not the
ordinary variety of sponger, feeding on the superstitions and fears
of the blacks. This was a rich man, as wealth goes in Africa, wearing
about his person the value of several elephant tusks.
In his right hand he carried an ebony staff, tipped with gold,
from which swung a round something which looked at first like a dried
gourd, and which Daud recognized with a little shiver as a human
head, scientifically preserved and shriveled.
No, no; . . . this was not an ordinary medicine man who could be
bullied or bribed. This was a man after the pattern of Chakka and
Lobengula; a man of cunning and craft, to be met with cunning and
WHEN Mahmoud Daud spoke, it was with hearty sincerity.
"I have heard tell of thy great craft, umlino," he said, squatting
down on his haunches with negligent grace and inviting the other to
do likewise. "The fame of--"
Suddenly he stopped; it seemed to him that somewhere, quite near,
a muffled voice was whispering his name--half-articulate, thick,
strangled. At once he dismissed the idea as chimerical. The
impression, his sudden silence had only lasted the merest fraction of
a second, and so he continued practically in the same breath.
"The fame of thy wisdom has reached the coast. Behold: I have come
The medicine man replied with the same hearty sincerity, parrying
"Thy words are as the sweet winds of night moving gently through
the dreadful hours. Thanks! Yet have I heard tell that thou art a
Moslem, a follower of the One-God faith, despising the craft of our
lodges, and proselytizing among the kraals."
The Arab smiled. For a moment he felt nonplused. He did not know
how to reply. The other's thrust had gone home. For, true Arab, he
was renowned no less for his business acumen as for his missionary
zeal--which, if the truth be told, he helped along with fluent abuse
and generous applications of the sjambok.
So he was silent for a few seconds, and looked into the room.
The negroes were massing around close. They were torn between
their fear of Mahmoud Ali Daud and the superstitious awe they felt
for the medicine man. Somehow, in the back-cells of their savage,
atrophied brains, they realized that a decision would be demanded of
them presently. Subconsciously they feared it.
So they spoke among themselves, with a confused utterance which
came in bursts of uneven strength, with unexpected pauses and throaty
yells; a short interval of palpable silence, then again shrill voices
leaping into tumultuous shouts.
The Arab knew that he was on the brink of a catastrophe. One wrong
word, one wrong gesture, and the avalanche of black bodies would be
about him, killing, crushing. So he sat absolutely still, watching
beneath lowered eyelids without betraying that he was doing so by the
slightest nervous twitching.
Then, very suddenly, he seemed to hear again his name being
whispered somewhere close by--by the same thick, strangled voice.
At the same moment he felt that some definite intelligence was
focused upon him, an intelligence which held both an entreaty and a
demand. It did not come from the brain of the medicine man, nor from
any one of the blacks in the crowd. It was some superior intelligence
which was trying to communicate with him. It made him nervous,
uneasy. He endeavored to force the belief on himself that it was a
chimera of his imagination.
But still the impression remained.
The medicine man was talking to him. But he hardly heard the
words. Obeying the prompting of the bodiless intelligence, he shifted
the least little bit on his supple haunches, so that he was directly
face-to-face with the clay covered ju-jus.
Immediately the sensation gained in strength and positiveness. He
became aware of one who watched him, one who wanted to talk to
He looked narrowly at the ju-jus from underneath his lowered
eyelids. They stood in a row. The farthest two were quite crude. Then
he noticed, with a little shudder of revulsion, that the other three
were startlingly lifelike. Their bodies and arms and legs, beneath
the thick covering of red clay, were sculptured and fashioned with
extreme skill. Never before had he seen such ju-jus, and he knew
Africa from Coast to Coast.
Suddenly the fantastic words of the dead Makupo came back to his
memory . . . "clay-gods who talk, talk." . . . Merciful Allah! was
there then really such a thing as witchcraft in this stinking,
He was about to dismiss the thought with a snapping of the
fingers, a mumbled prayer to his favorite Moslem saint, when again he
heard his name whispered . . . faint, muffled, eerie, uncanny. This
time there was no doubt of it, and it brought him up rigid, tense,
with fists clenched, with eyes glaring. But he controlled himself
almost immediately, before the medicine man, who was narrowly
watching him, could have noticed it.
He smiled at the umlino. He spoke with a calm, even voice, while
at the same time his brain was rapidly working in a different
"Thou hast given true talk, umlino," he said. "My faith is indeed
the One-God faith, a tree, whose root is firm, whose branches are
spreading, whose shade is perpetual. A Syyed am I, and a Moslem, a
follower of the True Prophet, taking refuge with Allah from Shaitan
the Stoned, the Father of Lies. Subhan' Allah! A learned man did I
think myself when I studied Hadis and Tafsir in the university of
Al-Azhar, observing closely the written precepts of the great
teachers of the Abu Hanifah sect. Wah! The father and mother of
learning and wisdom did I consider myself. Proudly did I enlarge my
turban. Ay wa'llahi!"
The medicine man smiled thinly, arrogantly.
"Then, why come here, to the lodge of darkness?"
Again Mahmoud Daud's reply was suave and soft, while his brain was
working feverishly. He stared intently at the clay-covered ju-ju
which was directly in front of him.
"Because my mind has mirrored a faint glimmering of a new truth .
. . a faint glimmering of the real truth," he repeated with peculiar
emphasis, still staring beyond the squatting medicine man at the
ju-ju, and imperceptibly nodding his head.
Even as he spoke he knew that he had solved the problem which had
brought him here. Gradually his voice gathered volume and
"Because my groping feet have led me to the edge of mysteries,
because, no longer blinded by the veil of my intolerance, I have come
to thy feet, O umlino, humbly, as a searcher, a disciple."
He rose. Now or never, he said to himself. Once more he stared
raptly at the foremost ju-ju; then he turned and addressed the
"Listen to me, men of the river tribes! For years have I been your
master, averting calamity with the hand of kindness and generosity;
giving fair prices for rubber and ivory; giving with open hands when
your crops were parched; giving yet again when your broad-horned
cattle died of the black fever. Who can deny this?"
"Yes," a clicking, high-pitched voice; gave answer. "It is true
"True--true--" The black, swaying mass of humanity took up the
words, like a Greek chorus.
The Arab continued:
"I have spoken to you of my faith, the faith of Islam, when I
believed that it was the true path to salvation. Then," he lowered
his voice with dramatic intent, "then rumor came to me from the
distance of the new mysteries. At first I doubted. I ridiculed. I did
not believe. But the rumor grew. It echoed in the ears of my
soul--stark, portentous, immutable. It spoke to me at night, sighing
on the wings of the wind which came from the upland. It drew me, drew
me! Thus I came here--to see--ay, to hear!"
He paused for a breathless moment. Then he shot out the next
"I, also, am a searcher in the lodges. I came here to do worship
before the gods--the red gods who talk, talk!"
The crowd moaned and shivered. Again the medicine man jumped
forward. He lifted his ebony stick with a threatening gesture. But
the Arab continued without a tremor.
"Thrice tonight, as I was sitting here exchanging courteous
greetings with the umlino, did I hear the gods talk--faintly,
faintly--and they called me by name!"
"A lie! A lie!" shrieked the medicine man. "A blasphemous lie!
Kill him! Kill--kill--"
There was an uneasy movement in the crowd. They surged forward in
a solid body, with an ominous rattling of spears. But the Arab lifted
his hands above his head and spoke rapidly.
"Not a lie, but the truth! Ask the gods--ask them!"
Sudden, brown silence fell over the temple. Then, very faint,
half-articulate, strangled, a voice came from the first ju-ju.
"Mahmoud Ali Daud!" and again with a peculiar low sob.
The crowd surged back, toward the door. Men were knocked down in
the wild flight. They pushed each other. They trampled on each other.
There were yells of entreaty and despair, and once a sharper yell as
an assegai struck home.
But again the Arab spoke to them.
"Fear not, my people. The gods will not harm you. For I, also, am
a searcher. The truth has been revealed to me. Listen, listen!"
Once more the crowd stopped and turned. Mahmoud Daud continued in
a lower key.
"Do you remember the disappearance of my three servants, my three
white servants, one after the other, within four months?"
"Yes--yes--" came the shivering chorus.
"Good! Leave the hut, and return in an hour. For the gods, being
kind gods, have decided to send them back to life, to work once more
for me, to rule once more in my name over the river tribes. Now go,
There was a stampede toward the door, and a few seconds later the
medicine man and the Arab stood facing each other. Daud smiled.
"Thou knowest, and I know, oh dog! Thou didst kidnap the three
white men. Thou didst gag them and cover their bodies with clay, and
once in a while give them a little food. And, when they moaned with
the great pain, thou didst tell these blacks that the gods talked,
The medicine man smiled in his turn.
"True, my master. And how didst thou discover the truth?"
"Because I have seen ju-jus a plenty--but never before have I seen
a ju-ju with human eyes!"
There was a short silence. The Arab continued:
"Thou wilt help me to release these men from their clay prisons.
Also wilt thou tell the people of Grand L'Popo Basin that in the
future it is I, Mahmoud Ali Daud, who is the beloved of the gods, the
maker of many miracles." Then, half to himself: "It should be worth
the value of much rubber, of many ivory tusks."
The medicine man smiled craftily.
"To listen is to obey, master! But my life--is it safe?"
"It is for thee to choose, dog and son of dogs! Either--this--"
and he slipped his broad Arab dagger from the voluminous folds of his
burnoose, "or thou wilt continue to make medicine. But thou wilt make
it in the uplands, in the kraals of the hinterland." He smiled. "And
thou wilt make it as a hired servant, a paid servant, of my firm of
Donachie & Daud, of Double-Dee! . . . Hast thou chosen?"
"Yes, master," the medicine man replied. "I shall work for thee
and thy partner."
The Arab slipped the dagger back into the folds of his
"Mashallah!" he said. "Thou wilt make a shrewd servant."
And he walked up to the clay-covered ju-jus.