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The Tomtom Clue - Editor C. Arthur Pearson

 

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 minutes."

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 on matrimony.

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 questions.

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 awful news."

"Not connected with Miss Glanville?" I asked.

"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?"

I nodded.

"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 her?"

Jack nodded.

"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 been!"

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 emotion.

"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 of failure.

"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 well!"

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. underneath."

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 wedding.