The Tomtom Clue
- Editor C.
I had just settled down for a comfortable
evening over the fire in a saddle-bag chair drawn
up as close to the hearth as the fender would
allow, with a plentiful supply of literature and
whisky, and pipe and tobacco, when the telephone
bell rang loudly and insistently. With a
sigh I rose and took up the receiver.
"That you?" said a voice I recognised as
that of Jack Bridges. "Can I come round and
see you at once? It's most important. No,
I can't tell you now. I'll be with you in a few
I hung the receiver up again, wondering
what business could fetch Jack Bridges round
at that time of the evening to see me. We
had been the greatest of pals at school and at
the 'Varsity, and had kept the friendship up
ever since, despite my intermittent wanderings
over the face of the globe. But during the
last few days or so Jack had become engaged
to Miss Glanville, the daughter of old Glanville,
of South African fame, and as a love-sick swain I
naturally expected to see very little of him,
until after the wedding at any rate.
At this time of the evening, according to my
ideas of engaged couples, he should be sitting
in the stalls at some theatre, and not running
round to see bachelor friends with cynical views
I had not arrived at a satisfactory solution
when the door opened and Jack walked in.
One glance at his face told me that he was in
trouble, and without a word I pushed him into
my chair and handed him a drink. Then I
sat down on the opposite side of the fire and
waited for him to begin, for a man in need of
sympathy does not want to be worried by
He gulped down half his whisky and sat for
a moment gazing into the fire.
"Jim, old man," he said at length, "I've had
"Not connected with Miss Glanville?" I
"In a way, yes. It's broken off, but there's
worse than that—far worse. I can hardly
realise it; I feel numbed at present; it's too
horrible. You remember that when you and
I were at Winchester together my father was
killed during the Matabele War?"
"Well," continued Jack, "I heard to-day
that he was not killed by the Matabele, but was
hanged in Bulawayo for murder. In other
words, I am the son of a murderer."
"Hanged for murder!" I exclaimed in horror.
"Surely there's some mistake?"
"No," groaned Jack, "it's true enough. I've
seen the newspaper cutting of the time, and I'm
the son of a murderer, who was also a forger,
a thief, and a card-sharper. Old Glanville
told me this evening. It was then that our
engagement was broken off."
"Your mother?" I asked. "Have you seen
"Poor little woman!" he groaned. "She
has known all along, and her one aim and
object in life has been to keep the awful truth
from me. That was why I was told he died
an honourable death during the war. I've
often wondered why the little mother was always
so sad, and so weighed down by trouble. Now
I know. Good God, what her life must have
He rose from his chair and paced up and
down the room for a minute; then he stopped
and stood in front of me, his face working with
"But I don't believe it, Jim," he said, and
there was a ring in his voice. "I don't believe
it, and neither does the little mother. It's
impossible to reconcile the big, bluff man with
the heart of a child, that I remember as my
father, with murder, forgery, or any other crime.
And yet, according to Glanville and the old
newspapers he showed me, Richard Bridges
was one of the most unscrupulous ruffians in
South Africa. In my heart of hearts I know he
didn't do it, and though on the face of it there's
no doubt, I'm going to try and clear his name.
I am sailing for South Africa on Friday."
"Sailing for South Africa!" I exclaimed.
"What about your work?"
"My work can go hang!" replied Jack heatedly.
"I want to wipe away the stain from my father's
name, and I mean to do it somehow. That's
why I've run round to see you, old pal, for I
want you to come with me. Knowing Rhodesia
as you do, you're just the man to help me.
Say you'll come?" he pleaded.
It seemed quite the forlornest hope I had
ever heard of, but Jack's distress was so acute
that I hadn't the heart to refuse.
"All right, Jack," I said, "I'm with you.
But don't foster any vain hopes. Remember,
it's twenty years ago. It will be a pretty tough
job to prove anything after all these years."
During the voyage out we had ample time
to go through the small amount of information
about the long-forgotten case that Jack had
been able to collect from the family solicitors.
In the year 1893, Richard Bridges, who was
a mining engineer of some standing, had made
a trip to Rhodesia with a view to gold and
diamond prospecting. He had been accompanied
by a friend, Thomas Symes, who, so far
as we could ascertain, was an ex-naval officer;
and the two, after a short stay at Bulawayo,
had gone northward across the Guai river into
what was in those days a practically unknown
land. In a little over a year's time Bridges
had returned alone—his companion having been,
so he stated, killed by the Matabele, and for
six months or so he led a dissolute life in Bulawayo
and the district, which ended ultimately in
his execution for murder. There was no doubt
whatever about the murder, or the various
thefts and forgeries that he was accused of,
as he had made a confession at his trial, and we
seemed to be on a wild-goose chase of the worst
variety so far as I could see; but Jack, confident
of his father's innocence, would not hear
"It's impossible to make surmises at this
stage," he said. "On the face of it there appears
to be little room for doubt, but no one who
knew my father could possibly connect him
with any sort of crime. Somehow or other,
Jim, I've got to clear his name."
My memory went back to a tall, sunburnt
man with a kindly manner who had come down
to the school one day and put up a glorious feed
at the tuck shop to Jack and his friends. Afterwards,
at his son's urgent request, he had bared
his chest to show us his tattooing of which
Jack had, boy-like, often boasted to us. I
recalled how we had gazed admiringly at the
skilfully worked picture of Nelson with his
empty sleeve and closed eye and the inscription
underneath: "England expects that every man
this day will do his duty." Jack had explained
with considerable pride that this did not constitute
all, as on his father's back was a wonderful
representation of the Victory, and on other parts
of his body a lion, a snake, and other fauna,
but Richard Bridges had protested laughingly
and refused to undress further for our delectation.
We reached Bulawayo, but no one in the
city appeared to recall the case at all; indeed,
Bulawayo had grown out of all recognition
since Richard Bridges had passed through it
on his prospecting trip. It was difficult to know
where to start. Even the police could not help,
and had no knowledge of where the murderer
had been buried. No one but an old saloon-keeper
and a couple of miners could recollect
the execution even, and they, so far as they
could remember, had never met Richard Bridges
in the flesh, though his unsavoury reputation
was well known to them.
In despair, Jack suggested a trek up country
towards Barotseland, which was the district
that Bridges and Symes had proposed to prospect,
though, according to all accounts, Symes had
been murdered by the Matabele before they
reached the Guai river.
For the next month we trekked steadily
northwards, having very fair sport; but, as
I expected, extracting no information whatever
from the natives about the two prospectors
who had passed that way years before. At
length, Jack became more or less reconciled to
failure, and realising the futility of further
search suggested a return to Bulawayo. As
our donkey caravan was beginning to suffer
severely from the fly, I concurred, and we started
to travel slowly back to Bulawayo, shooting
by the way.
One night after a particularly hard trek we
inspanned at an old kraal, the painted walls
of which told that at one time it had served as
a royal residence, and as I had shot an eland
cow that afternoon, which provided far more
meat than we could consume, we invited the
induna and his tribe to the feast. Not to be
outdone in hospitality, the old chief produced
the kaffir beer of the country, a liquid which
has nothing to recommend it beyond the fact
that it intoxicates rapidly.
A meat feast and a beer drink is a great event
in the average kaffir's life, and as the evening
wore on a general jollification started to the
thump of tomtoms and the squeak of kaffir
fiddles. There was one very drunk old Barotse,
who sat close to me, and, accompanying himself
with thumps on his tomtom, sang in one droning
key a song about a man who kept snakes and
lions inside him, and from whose chest the
evil eye looked out. At least, so far as I could
gather that was roughly the gist of the song;
but as his tomtom was particularly large and
most obnoxious I politely took it away from him,
and Jack and I used it as a table for our gourds
of kaffir beer, which we were pretending to consume
in large quantities.
A gourd, however, is a top-heavy sort of drinking
vessel, and in a very short time I had succeeded
in spilling half a pint or so of my drink on the
parchment of the drum. Not wishing to spoil
the old gentleman's plaything, which he evidently
valued above all things, I mopped up the beer
with my handkerchief, and in doing so removed
from the parchment a portion of the accumulated
filth of ages.
"Hullo!" said Jack, taking the instrument
from me and holding it up to the firelight.
"There's a picture of some sort here. It looks
like a man in a cocked hat."
He rubbed it hard with his pocket handkerchief,
and the polishing brought more of the
picture to light, till, plain enough in places
and faded in others, there stood out, the portrait
of a man in an old-fashioned naval uniform
with stars on his breast, and underneath some
letters in the form of a scroll.
"That's not native work," I exclaimed.
"These are English letters," for I could distinctly
make out the word "man" followed
by a "t" and an "h." "Rub it hard, Jack."
The grease on the parchment refused to give
way to further polishing, however, and remembering
a bottle of ammonia I kept for insect bites,
I mixed some with kaffir beer and poured it
on the head of the tomtom. One touch of the
handkerchief was sufficient once the strong
alkali got to work, and out came the grand old
face of Nelson and underneath his motto:
"England expects that every man this day
will do his duty."
Jack dropped the drum as if it had bitten him.
"What does it mean?" he gasped. "My
father had this on his chest. I remember it
I was, however, too busy with the reverse
end of the drum to heed him. On the other
side the ammonia brought out a picture of the
Victory, with the head of a roaring lion below it.
"Good God!" exclaimed Jack. "My father
had that on his back. Quick, Jim, rub hard!
There should be the family crest to the right—an
eagle with a snake in its talons and R. B.
I rubbed in the spot indicated, and out came
the crest and initials exactly as Jack had described
them. There was something horribly uncanny
and gruesome in finding the tattoo marks of
the dead man on the parchment of a Barotse
tomtom two hundred miles north of the Zambesi,
and for a moment I was too overcome with astonishment
to grasp exactly what it meant. Then
it came to my mind in a flash that the parchment
was nothing else than human skin, and Richard
Bridges' skin at that. I put it down with sudden
reverence, and, beckoning to its owner, demanded
its full history. At first he showed signs of
fear, but promising him a waist length of cloth
if he told the truth, he squatted on his hams
before us and began.
"Many, many moons ago, before the white
men came to trade across the Big Water as they
do now, two white baases came into this country
to look for white stones and gold. One baas
was bigger than the other, and on his chest and
on his body were pictures of birds, and beasts,
and strange things. On his chest was a great
inkoos with one eye covered, and on his back
a hut with trees growing straight up into the air
from it. On his loins was a lion of great fierceness,
and coiled round his waist was a hissing
mamba (snake). We were sore afraid, for the
white baas told us he was bewitched, and that if
harm came to either he would uncover the closed
eye of the great inkoos upon his chest, which was
the Evil Eye, and command him to blast the
Barotse and their land for ever.
"So the white men were suffered to come and
go in peace, for we dreaded the Evil Eye of the
great inkoos. They toiled, these white baases,
digging in the hillside and searching the riverbed;
and then one day it came to pass that they
quarrelled and fought, and the baas with the
pictures was slain. We knew then that his
medicine was bad medicine, otherwise the white
baas without the pictures could not have killed
him. So we were wroth and made to slay the
other baas, but he shot us down with a fire stick
and returned to his own country in haste. Then
did I take the skin from the dead baas, for I
loved him for his pictures, and I made them
into a tomtom. I have spoken."
"Good heavens!" exclaimed Jack when I
had translated the story. "Then my father
was killed here in Barotseland, and it was Symes,
his murderer, who went back to Bulawayo. It
was that fiend Symes, also, who took my father's
name, probably to draw any money that might
have been left behind, and who, as Richard
Bridges, was hanged for murder. Poor old
dad," he added brokenly, "murdered, and his
body mutilated by savages! But how glad I
am to know that he died an honest man!"
With the evidence at hand it was easy to prove
the identity of the murderer of twenty years
ago, and, having settled the matter satisfactorily
and cleared the dead man's name, Jack and I
returned to England, where a few weeks later
I had to purchase wedding garments in order
that I might play the part of best man at Jack's