By Robert Keable
Pere 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 Pere 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 Pere Etienne
if he did but pass the smoke-room door when I was
about to play a doubled four in No Trumps.
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.
Pere 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, Pere 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,
“Yes, I expect so.”
The tone of his voice suggested far
more than the words themselves expressed. It
aroused my curiosity. “For long?”
“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 leave after 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 Pere 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,”
“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
“And I believe you can answer it,” said
He nodded more gravely. “I believe I can,”
“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 village or perhaps I should say a town which
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 huts not 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 stand grey 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,
“lé 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 the meantime.
“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
“‘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 disappointed.
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
“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
“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 west from Central Africa,
that is and 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 precipice in
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 interesting.
“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?’
“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 native work.
“‘Did you build this house
yourself, old man?’ I asked. ’It is
“‘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 hut a 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 clearing everything
pointed in the same direction. And then the old
man’s story. I was frankly amazed.
“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
“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 diligently?’
“‘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
“‘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?’
“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 is but the smearing,’ he said,
“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
“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, seeking
“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 see not 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 Pere 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, Pere 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.”