The Priest's Tale - Pere Etienne
by Robert Keable
THE PRIEST'S TALEPÈRE ETIENNE
From The New DecameronVolume III.
By Robert Keable
PÈRE ETIENNE came aboard at Dares-Salaam and did not at once make
friends. It was our own fault, however. He neither obtruded nor effaced
himself, but rather went quietly on his own way with that recollection
which the clerical system of the Catholic Church encourages. We few
first-class passengers had already settled down into the usual
regularities of shipboard life, from the morning constitutional in
pyjamas on the boat deck, to the Bridge four after dinner in the
smoke-room, and, besides, it was plain that Père Etienne was not likely
to have much in common with any of us. So we were polite at a distance,
like Englishmen everywhere. Even I, who, by virtue of my cloth, might
have been supposed to make advances, was shy of beginning. I was young
in those days, and for one thing spelt Rome always with a big capital.
But from the first there was something which attracted me to the
priest, the more so as it was hard to define. In his appearance there
was nothing to suggest interest. His age was round about fifty; his
hair brown, though in his beard a white hair or two was to be observed.
In his short black coat and trousers he looked neither mediaeval nor a
traveller, and his luggage was neither romantically minute nor
interestingly large. He was booked from Dar-es-Salaam to Bombay, and
the purser professed neither to know whence he came nor whither he went
beyond those two fixed points.
Yet I was attracted. I have no wish to bore you, so that I shall not
dwell upon the point, but in my opinion it was interesting. There are
some people who carry an atmosphere with them as they go their own
individual way about the world, and there are others who can instantly
perceive it. I am not speaking of clairvoyance; I dislike that jargon;
but I do know that I was conscious of Père Etienne if he did but pass
the smoke-room door when I was about to play a doubled four in No
Well, our old British India tramp lay about for a week in
Dar-es-Salaam harbour, rolled up to Tanga, and finally crossed over to
Zanzibar, without further developments. There we passengers went
sweltering about the narrow streets, visited duly the coconut and clove
plantations, and conceived ourselves to be exploring by hiring a car,
crossing the island to Chuaka, and spending a day up the creek. Père
Etienne went at once to the Catholic Mission and remained there. Thus
it was not until the evening on which we sailed that we saw him again.
It was half an hour or so before sunset, and a serene beauty lay
over land and sea. There was the gentlest breeze, and at our moorings
it was almost cool. We were clustering on the landward side of the
ship, smoking and watching the town and harbour. Close up under the
tall white houses the blue sea broke in tiny creamy ripples on the sand
or the low coral rocks, and, with its green woods to right and left,
the city seemed to dream in the sun. One could see, however, that it
was preparing to wake. A flutter of orange or scarlet on the flat roofs
here and there told that the women were already coming up to enjoy the
cooler hours; and between the thin cassuarinas in the square that
opened to the sea before the Sultan's Palace, a white-robed crowd was
gathering for the faint excitement of the sunset gun. Between ship and
shore, the brown-timbered rough-hewn native boats came and went on
their long oars, and in smarter skiffs the silk and curio merchants
were taking a lingering leave of us. From the south a dozen peaceful
lateen-sailed dhows beat up for the native anchorage behind which, from
our view-point, the twin spires of the Catholic cathedral stood out
against an opal sky. Despite travellers' tales, there is only one
mosque with a minaret in Zanzibar, and that so small and hidden that it
is scarcely visible from the sea.
Watching the dhows and sighting the cathedral, suggested, I suppose,
Père Etienne. Someone asked if his reverence had come aboard, but no
one knew. Lazily turning the question and answer over in my mind, I
became aware that I was sure he had. The persistent intuition grew on
me. Without speaking of it, I determined, out of sheer curiosity, to go
and see. I detached myself from the group unobtrusively, and strolled
off round the deck.
Sure enough on the seaward side I saw him. He was sitting in a
deck-chair and looking out across the water. At first I thought he was
gazing intently at nothing, but as I too looked, I made out, across the
strait, the dim outline of the Sham-balla Mountains on the mainland
that are sometimes visible for a little at sunset and dawn. The
priest's chair was drawn close to the bulwark, and almost before I knew
what I was doing, I was leaning against it in an attitude which allowed
me, too, to see those distant peaks and at the same time to converse
easily, if it should be permitted.
Hullo, father, I said; we were wondering if you had come aboard.
He looked at me, smiling. I believe I was one of the first, he
replied, in his excellent English.
Saying good-bye to Africa? I queried, half jocularly.
Yes, I expect so.
The tone of his voice suggested far more than the words themselves
expressed. It aroused my curiosity. For long? I asked.
Well, I don't suppose I shall see those peaks again. I saw them
first twenty-seven years ago, a young priest on his first mission, and
I have not seen them from the sea since. Now I have been ordered to
India to my second mission, and it is not very likely that I shall be
moved again. It is still less likely that I shall return. After so long
an acquaintance, it is natural that I should want to say good-bye.
I think I was slightly incredulous. Do you mean you have been over
twenty-seven years up there without leave? I questioned.
Twenty-seven next month, there and beyond.
I have told you that I was young in those days, and I did not then
know of the heroic sacrifices of Catholic missionaries. Moreover, I too
was taking a first leaveafter two years' service, according to our
plan. And I was eagerly looking forward to a visit to my married sister
in India, and a journey home after that. Stupidly enough, it took me a
few seconds to swallow those twenty-seven years; but for all that my
mind worked quickly. Twenty-seven years of tinned food, mosquitoes,
heat, natives, and packing-case furniture! That was how I read it.
Well, I said at last, I should think you were glad to go anywhere
after all that time.
Eh? Oh, I don't know. No, that's wrong; I do know. I'm sorry,
that's the truth.
You like Africa?
The Frenchman showed himself in the half-humorous shrug of the
shoulders, but the missionary spoke. It has become my home, and its
people my people, he said.
I turned the saying over in my mind before I spoke again. Then
interest and attraction overcame my hesitation, and I abandoned all
pretence of making a chance conversation. Father, I said, I expect
you have travelled a good deal up there and seen many things. Tell me a
little about it all. I've seen enough to be very interested in your
experiences. May I pull up a chair and may we talk?
His brown eyes twinkled, Certainly, he said, especially if you
will give me a fill of that English tobacco you're smoking. Years ago I
learned to smoke English tobacco, but it hasn't too often come my way.
I threw him my pouch with a laugh and went to find a chair. That was
the beginning of many conversations, but none of his stories interested
me more than the one he told me that night. He had half hinted of
strange happenings away back there in remote districts, as well as of
more commonplace although sufficiently interesting journeys and
adventures, and it was to the less usual that I was drawn that evening.
There was that about Père Etienne which made one feel that the
commonplace world was of secondary importance, and that he, like the
poet at Charing Cross, might find Jacob's ladder reaching heavenward in
any place. Thus, while the light died swiftly out of the sky and the
stars shone out over that far-off range which runs up to the Para
Mountains and giant Kilimanjaro and that far-flung plain which lies
embraced beyond, between them and the great lakes, I put my question
and he answered it. Tell me the queerest of all the queer things you
have seen, father, I said.
Yes, said I. Unusual, I mean. Not necessarily supernatural, and
not horrible. But the thing, perhaps, that more than all else draws
your mind back to Africa.
You ask a big thing, he said, smiling friendlily.
And I believe you can answer it, said I, impulsively.
He nodded more gravely. I believe I can, he said.
I shall tell you a little story that seems to me singularly
arresting and tender. True, I believe that it may arrest me because it
occurred in a villageor perhaps I should say a townwhich I have
visited but once though I have often tried to get back to it again. Now
I shall never go. Very likely it is for that reason, then, that it
lingers in my memory as a place of great beauty, though in my opinion
there are other causes. However, let me begin by describing it to you.
From the slopes of Kilimanjaro you can look westwards to Mweru, a
still active volcano little known and rarely visited, and from Mweru a
chain of heights runs west once more till they end abruptly almost in a
precipice that descends to the plain. At its foot rises a small river,
bubbling up from half a dozen springs in a slight depression, and
flowing swiftly off, very clear and cool, towards the great lake which
is visible on the horizon from the mountain behind. Just below the pool
of the source, on the right bank, shaded with trees, ringed with giant
aloes and set in fields of millet and maize, stands a somewhat
remarkable native town. There is stone in the hills, and the natives
have drawn and worked it for their hutsnot a usual thing in tropical
Africa. They may, of course, have learned the lore themselves, or some
wandering Arab traders may have taught them; but I have another idea,
as you shall hear. Be that as it may, there the neat houses standgrey
walls, brown thatch, small swept yards of trodden earth before them
within the rings of neat reed fencing. Great willows grow along the
bank and trail their hanging tendrils in the water, and the brown
kiddies swing from them and go splashing into the stream with shouts of
delight. The place is remote, and in a corner out of the path of
marauding tribes. Not too easy to find, its folk are peaceable, and I
can see it again as I saw it on my first visit when, from the height of
the precipice behind, I could make out the thin spires of smoke rising
on the evening air and just perceive the brown herds of cattle drifting
slowly homewards to the protecting kraals.
The tribe is a branch of the Bonde, iron workers and a settled
folk. How they came to be there, so far north and west of the main
stock of their people, I do not know, but of course one comes across
that kind of thing fairly commonly and the explanation is nearly always
the same. Fear of some kind drove out a family who wandered, like Abram
from Charron, until they found a promised land. These folk knew that
they came from the south and east a long long time ago; more they
neither knew nor cared to know. They were not many in number, and
although Arab safaris had passed by, they were not enough to
tempt a permanent trader to cross the barren lands north and south, or
dare the mountain way from Mweru. The chief's oldest councillor spoke
to me of a slave-raid that had been defeated when he was a young man,
but since then they had dwelt in peace. No European had been there
within living memory.
Such was, and may be still, the town of Mtakatifuni, as I shall
call it. Do you know Ki-Swahili?
I shook my head.
Then the name will do, and not spoil my tale. Let me but tell you
how I came to be there and I will make haste about it. I was exploring.
Ah, but once in all the years have I been able to explore! Usually we
missionaries hurry from place to place on an unending round till the
circle is as big as we can possibly manage. Then a new centre must be
made, and it was because my Order had determined on a new centre that
my opportunity came. The Vicar Apostolic was doubtful as to the
direction in which we should expand. He sent me, therefore, west beyond
Mweru to see what could be seen, and another farther south on the same
errand. The folk were few about Mweru, but I heard a rumour of
Mtakatifuni, much exaggerated, and set out to find it. Foolishly I went
west until supplies were so low that it would have been fatal to turn
back over the bare mountains by which we had come, and our only hope
lay in pushing on. And so I reached my hidden town, stayed a while, and
returned another way, to find that the other explorer had a report to
make of more peopled and easier lands which found greater favour with
his lordship. And rightly. When labourers are so few and the field is
so big, it is necessary to settle where the work offers most prospect
of large returns. So was I permitted to see, but not to enter in.
He leant forward to knock out his pipe, blew down it, refused more
tobacco, and re-settled himself. Ah, well, he said philosophically,
le Bon Dieu knows best. I do not believe He has forgotten Mtakatifuni.
Where was I? Oh yes, I remember. We saw the place then, in the
evening, and next morning journeyed early towards it. You must
understand that we were spent. I cannot recall better water than that
at the source of that little river, and the roasted mealies they gave
us, and sour milk, how good it all was! The chief had sent word that we
were to be fed and given an empty house, and after I had eaten I went
to see and thank him. I put on my cassock and with it my beads about my
waist, and I carried my breviary in my hand, for I thought he might
keep me waiting in the native fashion and that I could say my office in
But he received me at once. The ground rose a little and was built
up too before his group of huts, terraced roughly and faced with stone,
with steps at one end. A big block of stone stood near the edge of it,
so that standing behind one looked east over the town to the mountains,
and it was there, after a little, that I offered the Holy Sacrifice
each remaining day of my stay. There was little linen in the place, and
he stood to greet me at the top of the steps, clad in prepared skins, a
youngish man and a fine figure of a savage king. He gave me later the
twisted iron spear of state that he carried that day. It hangs in our
church of the Holy Cross now, behind the altar of the Sacred Heart.
Surely the Good God will not forget Mtakatifuni.
Well, he greeted me courteously, with reserve, but with a
suggestion of curious eagerness. I marked it at once. Not, however,
till the usual questions as to my journeys and so on were over, did I
get a clue to the cause of it. But then, when we were seated on stools
by the great stone I have mentioned, big clay beakers of thin,
delicious light beer beside us, he put a question. 'Why have you been
so long a time coming, my father?' he asked. 'A little later and you
would have been too late.'
I was slightly puzzled, but I supposed he referred to the length of
my journey. 'The way was long and rough, chief,' said I.
'But why were you so long in setting out?' he persisted. 'Mwezi has
been expecting you for many years.' He turned to an old councillor.
'How many years has Mwezi been expecting the father?'
'Since the days of the Great One, the father of the King,' said the
old man. 'Mwezi came first among us when I was a boy.'
Now most of this was Greek to me, but the speaker was fifty if he
was a day, whatever allowance was to be made for the early ageing of
Africans, and you may imagine that I understood enough to be surprised.
'How could that be, chief?' I asked. 'When this old man was a boy, I
had not crossed the black water to come to this land, and possibly I
had not been born. Truly of this Mwezi I knew nothing, but how could he
expect me whom even my mother had not seen?'
The chief looked worried, and stared at me for awhile in silence.
Then he nodded thoughtfully. 'It is true,' he said. 'The father is
doubtless wise and has seen years, but his beard is not white and the
thing is strange. Nevertheless he wears the black robe and the dried
beans, and he carries the book in his hand, even as Mwezi has said.
Still, I have sent for Mwezi, and doubtless he will explain the matter.
See, he comes; slowly, for he is very old. Does the father not remember
him at all?'
He pointed down the path that led up to us from the town, into
which had come a small crowd of natives who were eagerly following
three or four figures, jostling each other to get a better view. It
soon became plain that a young man led the way, and that after him came
three of whom I guessed the central person to be Mwezi. I think he was
the oldest native I have ever seen, bent, shrivelled, and
stiff-jointed, but with keen dark eyes which, a little later, fixed
themselves inquiringly on my face and then clouded with acute
disappointment. On either side his sons helped him with a hand beneath
his arm-pits, and he himself walked by means of a great stick. The
crowd of hangers-on stopped respectfully below, but these four climbed
up to the dais. A stool was brought for the old man, but at first he
would not sit. He stood there, staring at me and shaking his head. 'It
is not he,' he said, 'it is not he. Yet he is like, very like. But it
is not he.'
I was still perplexed at all this, but by this time a little
amused. Nevertheless I hid that, for the old fellow was so plainly
'Come, father,' I said. 'I am very sorry, but will you not explain?
Perhaps it is a brother of mine whom you have seen. Seat yourself and
tell me about it.'
He did not seem at once to comprehend, but when his sons had
persuaded him to sit, he made a peremptory motion with his stick
towards the old councillor who had spoken before. This individual
glanced at the chief for permission, and having received it, told me
this story at considerable length.
He said that, very many years before, in the time of the late king,
the village had been one day thrown into a state of great excitement by
the advent of a stranger. This had been Mwezi, at the time a man of
middle age. He had come from the south and westfrom Central Africa,
that isand he had said that he was seeking a white man whom it had
been shown him he should find in that village. Pressed for details, he
announced that he had come from a town far away by a wide river where
there were great falls over whose rocks the water thundered night and
day in a perpetual cloud of spray. One night he had awakened in his
hut, and had seen a white man standing before him dressed in a black
robe, a string of beads, and carrying a book. Behind the white man he
could see, as it were, the vision of a town, a river, a precipicein
short, what he now saw to have been Mtakatifuni. The figure had
beckoned him solemnly, and he had sat up in his bed in fear. It had
beckoned again, and had then pointed north and east, and at that the
vision had died away before the startled sleeper's eyes. But Mwezi
understood. In his mind there had been no question as to what he must
do. In the dawn he had risen, said good-bye to his wife and family, and
set out. For two years he had journeyed, wandering from place to place,
scarcely knowing whither he went save that it was always north and
east. The very wild beasts had respected him, and men, seeing the
vision in his eyes, had withheld their hands from him. At length, then,
he had reached Mtakatifuni. There, as always, he had inquired for his
white man, and, hearing that no white man had ever been there but
convinced that it was the place of his dream, he sat down to wait. He
had grown old waiting; had married, and had begotten sons and
daughters. Now he was too old to move; all but too old to live; but
still he waited. Still he believed he would see his white man again
before he died; indeed, he could not die until he had seen. My coming
had seemed to the whole place the fulfilment of his vision, but I was
not the man. Mwezi was sure of that and no one doubted him. And maybe,
now, added the councillor, he would never see him. That was all.
Now I had been long enough in Africa to set little store by native
dreams as a rule. The affair, then, seemed to me pathetic rather than
My eyes kept straying to the old fellow while the story was being
told me, and I marvelled to think of the simplicity of his faith, the
weariness of his journey into the unknown, and the tenacity with which
he had clung to his obsession. That this man should have given his
whole life to such a quest, and should now be so bitterly disappointed
when a remote chance had brought it nearer realisation than had been in
the least degree likely, was indeed certainly cruel. I therefore turned
to him to make what amends I could.
'But, old Mwezi,' I said as kindly as possible, 'doubtless you are
mistaken. It was but once that you saw the figure in your dream, and
that years ago. You dreamt of a white man dressed as I. Well, I belong
to a regiment of white men who dress alike, and for many lives it has
been the custom of that regiment to dress so. Doubtless as a boy you
had seen one of my brethren, or perchance a picture of one, and your
spirit saw him again in a dream. If I am right, and your home is on
that great river which we white men call the Zambesi, then it is not
unlikely that such a thing happened. Perhaps you have forgotten. Now in
me you see him whom you seek.'
The old fellow's keen eyes flashed angrily. 'The white stranger
mocks me,' he said.
I protested. 'No, father, I do not mean to mock you. Why should I
do so? But come now, can you describe the face of the man you saw?'
'I can, and easily. His beard was white and not as thine. Moreover,
he was bald-headed, and beneath his right eye was there a little scar
such as he had perhaps received in the hunt from some beast or the
other. His face was long and thin, and his nose bigger. Am I a child
that I should not know one man from another? Thou art not he.'
It was foolish of me, but I was surprised out of all caution. 'How
could you see so much in the dark of your hut?' I exclaimed.
Mwezi rose to his feet and made a pathetic effort to hold his head
erect. With true native dignity, he ignored me and turned to the chief.
'With the leave of the chief, I go,' he said. 'I am old and would rest
in my place. Fare thee well, father of thy people. The Heavens guard
thee. Be in peace.'
I realised that I had blundered, but at the moment there was
nothing to do. We watched the procession move away again almost in
silence, and I noticed curiously that the crowd were even more
interested in Mwezi than in myself, a white stranger. When he was out
of sight, I apologised to the chief, who, however, would not hear that
I had done any wrong. He himself showed me back to the house set apart
for us and invited me to feast with him in the evening. He gave me
leave to speak to his people, and I remember that I was so dog-tired
that I lay down at once and slept for the rest of the day.
In the morning, however, I remembered Mwezi, and told the chief
that I would like to go and call on him. I determined to do what I
could for the old fellow's peace of mind, and, with a guide and one of
my own boys, we set out.
The way led through the native huts and without them. It was
downhill going, as the village, in African fashion, was built on the
side of a rise which culminated in the chief's hut, while Mwezi lived,
very close to the source of the river I have mentioned. We emerged
through trees into a grassy open space of perhaps thirty paces wide,
and I saw at once the old fellow sitting at the door of his hut beneath
the shade of a wild vine which grew luxuriantly over the porch and
roof. I was too much occupied in greeting him to take note at once of
the building, but when we were seated, and he had been thawed out of
his first coolness, I looked more closely at it. It interested me. It
was long in shape, much longer than the usual native hut, and with
three windows narrow and pointed, one of them now roughly blocked with
sods. I examined the stones of the walls, getting up to do so. They
struck me as being old and much more carefully laid than is usual in
'Did you build this house yourself, old man?' I asked. 'It is well
'I did not build it,' he said. 'I found it here. When I came to
Mtakatifuni, it was empty and had been empty for long. There was no
roof to it in those days, and few came near the place. But that suited
me. My mind was full of him whom I had seen, and my spirit told me that
I should await him here. The father of the chief then gave it me, no
councillor knowing aught about it.'
'And you planted this vine and cleared this space, perhaps?'
'I did not. I did but train the vine which had blocked the door,
and cut down for the wood of the roof the young trees that had grown
here. But some other had cleared the ground before me.'
'Would you mind if I looked within, Mwezi?' I questioned, for to
tell you the truth my curiosity was thoroughly aroused.
The old fellow got up courteously. 'Enter, white man,' said he. 'My
sons shall bring the stools and fetch us beer. I am old and poor, but
you are welcome. You are at least of the people of him I saw, and shall
I, in my sorrow, forbid you to come in?'
We entered. The place was divided into two by a sod partition,
plainly recent in construction, and I looked disappointedly at what I
could see. There were the usual scant furnishings of a native huta
kitanda, some pots, a stool or two, a few spears in a corner. But
when I passed round the partition, my interest increased tenfold. I
even cried out in my astonishment.
I saw what I had not been able to see from the fact of my approach
from the west of the clearing. The eastern end of the hut was not built
squarely as the other, but roughly rounded in what elsewhere I should
unhesitatingly have called an apse, and since on either side there were
still visible a couple of those narrow pointed windows, while the floor
space was practically empty, the suggestion of a chapel was complete. I
ought, perhaps, to have guessed it before, but the thought burst on me
suddenly. The situation, near the stream rather than up on the hill,
the orientation, the unusual length, the vine, the clearingeverything
pointed in the same direction. And then the old man's story. I was
I turned and saw him standing in the doorway, his hand on the mud
wall for support, his eyes peering at me from his bowed head. If I had
been momentarily suspicious of a knowledge hitherto kept from me, all
fled at the sight of him. He was transparently honest and eager. 'What
is it, white man?' he quavered.
'Mwezi,' said I, 'here is a strange thing and a wonder. You tell me
that you saw in your vision a white man, and I know from what you say
that he was a priest. You travelled far, and your spirit sent you here.
Well, I do not doubt that this house of yours was once a place of
worship, and I think it was built by white priests. Think now, have you
heard of no such thing?'
He swayed a little as he stood, and did not answer at once. Then he
slowly shook his head. 'I have heard nothing, nothing,' he said. 'If it
be so, none know of these things, white man. Art thou sure? Thou
wouldst not mock me again.'
'Mwezi,' I cried eagerly, 'I do not mock you. Why should I do any
such thing? I cannot yet tell certainly, but this place is such as we
build for prayers, and we may yet make sure. May I search more
'Do what thou wilt, my son,' said he, 'and if my hands cannot, my
spirit will help thee.'
There and then I began a close scrutiny. I went outside, measured,
tapped, sought, but I found nothing more. If there had ever been a
stoup, a cross, a rude piscina, they had long since gone. But the more
I searched, the more sure grew my conviction that the place had been a
chapel. At last I sat down to rest, and while resting, I had an idea.
'Mwezi,' I said, 'have you ever dug up the floor?'
He shook his head. 'Why should I dig it up?' he asked.
'Would you allow me to do so?' I queried.
He looked doubtful. 'But why?' he asked again, suspiciously. 'And
would you dig even now?'
I laughed. 'Well, not at once,' I said. 'We must find a new house
for you first. But if I am right, it may be that things are buried
here, or that there are stones which will tell me a tale. See, the
floor is higher now than it was. There was a step here at the door, and
the mud has nearly covered it.'
'It is but the smearing,' he said, half contemptuously.
That roused me. Of course I know the native habit of cleaning a
house by putting down a fresh layer of mud mixed with a little dung,
which in time raises the floor considerably. But I was not to be put
off by that. Below the smearing of the old man's time might be a layer
of earth thrown in to hide something. I glanced round. 'May I borrow a
spear?' I asked.
He nodded, and I selected one from the corner with a long thin
blade. Then I went into the inner room, and he came and stood again to
watch me with his peering old eyes. Under his scrutiny, I began in the
apse and thrust downward as far as I could. The blade sank to its hilt
fairly easily, and that was all.
Thus I stabbed until I came to the string of the apse, and then,
almost at once, I made a discovery. The point of the blade struck a
stone. A foot to the left, it touched again, and a foot more. In a few
minutes I was all but certain that a stone slab was buried there. You
may imagine my excitement.
Mwezi called his sons and sent one for a native hoe. When he
returned, we all gathered about the place while he slowly dug up the
trampled mud. In a few minutes a stone slab was being exposed to view,
and with my spear I got to work scraping off the earth while he dug
free the other end. Suddenly, as I scraped, I made out a cross, and to
cut the story short, we laid bare at length what had undoubtedly been
an altar-stone. Every one of the five crosses were plainly visible, and
left no room for question.
We stopped out of breath, and I explained something of its use. At
that Mwezi spoke suddenly, calling our attention to him. 'Lift it, lift
it,' he cried. 'Lift it at once.'
The old man was a striking spectacle. His withered face was simply
alive with emotion. He was kneeling on hands and knees, and his thin
fingers worked at the edge of the slab. Something in his voice
compelled us, and we got at once to work. After all it was an easy
task, for it was soon apparent that the stone was fitted into brick,
with which the whole place was paved, and with spade and spear we
levered it up a little. Then two of Mwezi's sons got their fingers
under it, and without any great effort raised it completely. They
staggered aside with it and the rest of us peered within. For a second
we looked, and then Mwezi gave a great cry.
'My father, my father! Lo, I have come to thee, as thou didst bid.
These many years have I waited, for my spirit spoke true, bidding me
rest above thee. Now will I pass on whither thou art passed, and as
thou hadst understanding, so it shall befall. Lo, I come to thee,
His voice hesitated, and failed, and he fell forward very gently
and slowly till his head rested on his hands on the edge of the tomb.
None of us dared to move for a few seconds, for Mwezi's voice rang so
truly and convincingly. Great awe fell on us all, for he had spoken as
one who certainly saw. Then I stretched out my hand and touched him,
but he had gone, as he said. And on his face was peace.
That is all there is to tell in a way. For inside the grave, if
grave it were, there was nothing at all that it was given to our eyes
to seenot a bone, not a shred of a habit, nor book nor beads. If ever
a body or treasures of any sort had been there, the receptacle had been
rifled long before, and entirely forgotten. So there is literally no
more to tell. Of course the affair made great excitement. The chief and
all his people came to see, and came once again the day after when I
lowered Mwezi into the grave and replaced the altar stone. After that
the door and the windows were blocked up at my request, against the day
of the coming of the Faith once more to Mtaka-tifuni. For that, the
space about the sanctuary is to be kept clear of undergrowth, by order
of the chief. For that old Mwezi waits beneath the altar, and maybe he
whom he saw waits also.
The dinner bugle had sounded a few moments before Père Etienne had
finished, and now we rose to go. We stood a second, and I gazed over
the side at the star-shine on the water, for the night was fine. When I
looked up, Père Etienne was staring out into the darkness, a far-away
look on his face, but he must have felt my eyes on him, for he turned
quickly and smiled. Possibly he read a question I rather wanted to ask,
but did not dare. Anyway, he smiled, as I say, and shook his head. I
have lived too long in Africa to have theories, my friend, he said,
but to me the memory of Mwezi and his chapel is a very precious thing.
We are all of us souls on pilgrimage, and we rarely understand why or
how, or remember that we have a Guide. But I like to think in the end,
the Good God willing, we shall find a hidden sanctuary and that we have
been led to a place prepared.