Read CHAPTER III - THE LOST N’BOSINI of Bones Being Further Adventures in Mr. Commissioner Sanders' Country , free online book, by Edgar Wallace, on ReadCentral.com.

“M’ilitani, there is a bad palaver in the N’bosini country,” said the gossip-chief of the Lesser Isisi, and wagged his head impressively.

Hamilton of the Houssas rose up from his camp chair and stretched himself to his full six feet.  His laughing eyes ­terribly blue they looked in the mahogany setting of his lean face ­quizzed the chief, and his clean-shaven lips twitched ever so slightly.

Chief Idigi looked at him curiously.  Idigi was squat and fat, but wise.  None the less he gossiped, for, as they say on the river, “Even the wise oochiri is a chatterer.”

“O, laughing Lord,” said Idigi, almost humble in his awe ­for blue eyes in a brown face are a great sign of devilry, “this is no smiling palaver, for they say ­”

“Idigi,” interrupted Hamilton, “I smile when you speak of the N’bosini, because there is no such land.  Even Sandi, who has wisdom greater than ju-ju, he says that there is no N’bosini, but that it is the foolish talk of men who cannot see whence come their troubles and must find a land and a people and a king out of their mad heads.  Go back to your village, Idigi, telling all men that I sit here for a spell in the place of my lord Sandi, and if there be, not one king of N’bosini, but a score, and if he lead, not one army, but three and three and three, I will meet him with my soldiers and he shall go the way of the bad king.”

Idigi, unconvinced, shaking his head, said a doubtful “Wa!” and would continue upon his agreeable subject ­for he was a lover of ghosts.

“Now,” said he, impressively, “it is said that on the night before the moon came, there was seen, on the edge of the lake-forest, ten warriors of the N’bosini, with spears of fire and arrows tipped with stars, also ­”

“Go to the devil!” said Hamilton, cheerfully.  “The palaver is finished.”

Later, he watched Idigi ­so humble a man that he never travelled with more than four paddlers ­winding his slow way up stream ­and Hamilton was not laughing.

He went back to his canvas chair before the Residency, and sat for half an hour, alternately pinching and rubbing his bare arms ­he was in his shirt sleeves ­in a reverie which was not pleasant.

Here Lieutenant Augustus Tibbetts, returning from an afternoon’s fishing, with a couple of weird-looking fish as his sole catch, found him and would have gone on with a little salute.

“Bones!” called Hamilton, softly.

Bones swung round.  “Sir!” he said stiffly.

“Come off your horse, Bones,” coaxed Hamilton.

“Not me,” replied Bones; “I’ve finished with you, dear old fellow; as an officer an’ a gentleman you’ve treated me rottenly ­you have, indeed.  Give me an order ­I’ll obey it.  Tell me to lead a forlorn hope or go to bed at ten ­I’ll carry out instructions accordin’ to military law, but outside of duty you’re a jolly old rotter.  I’m hurt, Ham, doocidly hurt.  I think ­”

“Oh shut up and sit down!” interrupted his chief, irritably.  “You jaw and jaw till my head aches.”

Reluctantly Lieutenant Tibbetts walked back, depositing his catch with the greatest care on the ground.

“What on earth have you got there?” asked Hamilton, curiously.

“I don’t know whether it’s cod or turbot,” said the cautious Bones, “but I’ll have ’em cooked and find out.”

Hamilton grinned.  “To be exact, they’re catfish, and poisonous,” he said, and whistled his orderly.  “Oh, Ahmet,” he said in Arabic, “take these fish and throw them away.”

Bones fixed his monocle, and his eyes followed his catch till they were out of sight.

“Of course, sir,” he said with resignation, “if you like to commandeer my fish it’s not for me to question you.”

“I’m a little worried, Bones,” began Hamilton.

“A conscience, sir,” said Bones, smugly, “is a pretty rotten thing for a feller to have.  I remember years ago ­”

“There’s a little unrest up there” ­Hamilton waved his hand towards the dark green forest, sombre in the shadows of the evening ­“a palaver I don’t quite get the hang of.  If I could only trust you, Bones!”

Lieutenant Tibbetts rose.  He readjusted his monocle and stiffened himself to attention ­a heroic pose which invariably accompanied his protests.  But Hamilton gave him no opportunity.

“Anyway, I have to trust you, Bones,” he said, “whether I like it or not.  You get ready to clear out.  Take twenty men and patrol the river between the Isisi and the Akasava.”

In as few words as possible he explained the legend of the N’bosini.  “Of course, there is no such place,” he said; “it is a mythical land like the lost Atlantis ­the home of the mysterious and marvellous tribes, populated by giants and filled with all the beautiful products of the world.”

“I know, sir,” said Bones, nodding his head.  “It is like one of those building estate advertisements you read in the American papers:  Young-man-go-west-an’-buy-Dudville Corner Blocks ­”

“You have a horrible mind,” said Hamilton.  “However, get ready.  I will have steam in the Zaïre against your departure.”

“There is one thing I should like to ask you about,” said Bones, standing hesitatingly first on one leg and then on the other.  “I think I have told you before that I have tickets in a Continental sweepstake.  I should be awfully obliged ­”

“Go away!” snarled Hamilton.

Bones went cheerfully enough.

He loved the life on the Zaïre, the comfort of Sanders’ cabin, the electric reading lamp and the fine sense of authority.  He would stand upon the bridge for hours, with folded arms and impassive face, staring ahead as the oily waters moved slowly under the bow of the stern-wheeler.  Now and again he would turn to give a fierce order to the steersman or to the patient Yoka, the squat black Krooman who knew every inch of the river, and who stood all the time, his hand upon the lever of the telegraph ready to “slow” at the first sign of a new sand-bank.

For, in parts, the river was less than two or three feet deep and the bed was constantly changing.  The sounding boys, who stood on the bow of the steamer, whirling their long canes and singing the depth monotonously, would shout a warning cry, but long before their lips had framed a caution, Yoka would have pulled the telegraph over to “stop.”  His eyes would have detected the tiny ripple on the waters ahead which denoted a new “bank.”

To Bones, the river was a deep, clear stream.  He had no idea as to the depth and never troubled to inquire.  These short, stern orders of his that he barked to left and right from time to time, nobody took the slightest notice of, and Bones would have been considerably embarrassed if they had.  Observing that the steamer was tacking from shore to shore, a proceeding which, to Bones’ orderly mind, seemed inconsistent with the dignity of the Government boat, he asked the reason.

“Lord,” said the steersman, one Ebibi, “there are many banks hereabout, large sands, which silt up in a night, therefore we must make a passage for the puc-a-puc, by going from shore to shore.”

“You’re a silly ass,” said Bones, “and let it go at that.”

Yet, for all his irresponsibility, for all his wild and unknowledgeable conspectus of the land and its people, there was instilled in the heart of Lieutenant Tibbetts something of the spirit of dark romance and adventure-loving, which association with the Coast alone can bring.

In the big house at Dorking where he had spent his childhood, the ten-acre estate, where his father had lorded (himself a one-time Commissioner), he had watered the seed of desire which heredity had irradicably sown in his bosom; a desire not to be shaped by words, or confirmed in phrase, but best described as the discovery-lust, which send men into dark, unknown places of the world to joyously sacrifice life and health that their names might be associated with some scrap of sure fact for the better guidance of unborn generations.

Bones was a dreamer of dreams.

On the bridge of the Zaïre he was a Nelson taking the Victory into action, a Stanley, a Columbus, a Sir Garnet Wolseley forcing the passages of the Nile.

Small wonder that he turned from time to time to the steersman with a sharp “Put her to starboard,” or “Port your helm a little.”

Less wonder that the wholly uncomprehending steersman went on with his work as though Bones had no separate or tangible existence.

On the fourth evening after leaving headquarters, Bones summoned to his cabin Mahomet Ali, the sergeant in charge of his soldiers.

“O, Mahomet,” said he, “tell me of this N’bosini of which men speak, and in which all native people believe, for my lord M’ilitani has said that there is no such place and that it is the dream of mad people.”

“Master, that I also believe,” said Mahomet Ali; “these people of the river are barbarians, having no God and being foredoomed for all time to hell, and it is my belief that his idea of N’bosini is no more than the Paradise of the faithful, of which the barbarians have heard and converted in their wild way.”

“Tell me, who talks of N’bosini,” said Bones, crossing his legs and leaning back in his chair, his hands behind his head; “for, remember that I am a stranger amongst you, Mahomet Ali, coming from a far land and having seen such marvels as ­”

He paused, seeking the Arabic for “gramaphone” and “motor-’bus,” then he went on wisely:  “Such marvels as you cannot imagine.”

“This I know of N’bosini,” said the sergeant, “that all men along this river believe in it; all save Bosambo of the Ochori who, as is well known, believes in nothing, since he is a follower of the Prophet and the one God.”

Mahomet Ali salaamed devoutly.

“And men say that this land lies at the back of the N’gombi country; and others that it lies near the territories of the old King; and some others who say that it is a far journey beyond the French’s territory, farther than man can walk, that its people have wings upon their shoulders and can fly, and that their eyes are so fierce that trees burn when they look upon them.  This only we know, lord, we, of your soldiers, who have followed Sandi through all his high adventures, that when men talk of N’bosini, there is trouble, for they are seeking something to excuse their own wickedness.”

All night long, as Bones turned from side to side in his hot cabin, listening to the ineffectual buzzings of the flies that sought, unsuccessfully, to reach the interior of the cabin through a fine meshed screen, the problem of N’bosini revolved in his mind.

Was it likely, thought Bones, cunningly, that men should invent a country, even erring men, seeking an excuse?  Did not all previous experience go to the support of the theory that N’bosini had some existence?  In other words that, planted in the secret heart of some forest in the territory, barred from communication with the world by swift rivers of the high tangle of forests, there was, in being, a secret tribe of which only rumours had been heard ­a tribe of white men, perhaps!

Bones had read of such things in books; he knew his “Solomon’s Mines” and was well acquainted with his “Allan Quatermain.”  Who knows but that through the forest was a secret path held, perchance, by armoured warriors, which led to the mountains at the edge of the Old King’s territory, where in the folds of the inaccessible hills, there might be a city of stone, peopled and governed by stern white-bearded men, and streets filled with beautiful maidens garbed in the style of ancient Greece!

“It is all dam’ nonsense of course,” said Bones to himself, though feebly; “but, after all there may be something in this.  There’s no smoke without fire.”

The idea took hold of him and gripped him most powerfully.  He took Sanders’ priceless maps and carefully triangulated them, consulting every other written authority on the ship.  He stopped at villages and held palavers on this question of N’bosini and acquired a whole mass of conflicting information.

If you smile at Bones, you smile at the glorious spirit of enterprise which has created Empire.  Out of such dreams as ran criss-cross through the mind of Lieutenant Tibbetts there have arisen nationalities undreamt of and Empires Cæsar never knew.

Now one thing is certain, that Bones, in pursuing his inquiries about N’bosini, was really doing a most useful piece of work.

The palavers he called had a deeper significance to the men who attended them than purely geographical inquiries.  Thus, the folk of the Isisi planning a little raid upon certain Akasava fishermen, who had established themselves unlawfully upon the Isisi river-line, put away their spears and folded their hands when N’bosini was mentioned, because Bones was unconsciously probing their excuse before they advanced it.

Idigi, himself, who, in his caution, had prepared Hamilton for some slight difference of opinion between his own tribe and the N’gombi of the interior, read into the earnest inquiries of Lieutenant Tibbetts, something more than a patient spirit of research.

All that Hamilton had set his subordinate to accomplish Bones was doing, though none was more in ignorance of the fact than himself, and, since all men owed a grudge to the Ochori, palavers, which had as their object an investigation into the origin of the N’bosini legend, invariably ended in the suggestion rather than the statement that the only authority upon this mysterious land, and the still more mysterious tribe who inhabited it, was Bosambo of the Ochori.  Thus, subtly, was Bosambo saddled with all responsibility in the matter.

Hamilton’s parting injunction to Bones had been: 

“Be immensely civil to Bosambo, because he is rather sore with you and he is a very useful man.”

Regarding him, as he did, as the final authority upon the N’bosini, Bones made elaborate preparations to carry out his chief’s commands.  He came round the river bend to the Ochori city, with flags fluttering at his white mast, with his soldiers drawn up on deck, with his buglers tootling, and his siren sounding, and Bosambo, ever ready to jump to the conclusion that he was being honoured for his own sake, found that this time, at least, he had made no mistake and rose to the occasion.

In an emerald-green robe with twelve sox suspenders strapped about his legs and dangling tags a-glitter ­he had bought these on his visit to the Coast ­with an umbrella of state and six men carrying a canopy over his august person, he came down to the beach to greet the representatives of the Government.

“Lord,” said Bosambo humbly, “it gives me great pride that your lordship should bring his beautiful presence to my country.  All this month I have sat in my hut, wondering why you came not to the Ochori, and I have not eaten food for many days because of my sorrow and my fear that you would not come to us.”

Bones walked under the canopy to the chief’s hut.  A superior palaver occupied the afternoon on the question of taxation.  Here Bones was on safe ground.  Having no power to remit taxes, but having most explicit instructions from his chief, which admitted of no compromise, it was an easy matter for Bones to shake his head and say in English: 

“Nothin’ doing”; a phrase which, afterwards, passed into the vocabulary of the Ochori as the equivalent of denial of privilege.

It was on the second day that Bones broached the question of the N’bosini.  Bosambo had it on the tip of his tongue to deny all knowledge of this tribe, was even preparing to call down destruction upon the heads of the barbarians who gave credence to the story.  Then he asked curiously: 

“Lord, why do you speak of the land or desire knowledge upon it?”

“Because,” said Bones, firmly, “it is in mind, Bosambo, that somewhere in this country, dwell such a people, and since all men agree that you are wise, I have come to you to seek it.”

O ko,” said Bosambo, under his breath.

He fixed his eyes upon Bones, licked his lips a little, twiddled his fingers a great deal, and began: 

“Lord, it is written in a certain Suru that wisdom comest from the East, and that knowledge from the West, that courage comes from the North, and sin from the South.”

“Steady the Buffs, Bosambo!” murmured Bones, reprovingly, “I come from the South.”

He spoke in English, and Bosambo, resisting the temptation to retort in an alien tongue, and realizing perhaps that he would need all the strength of his more extensive vocabulary to convince his hearer, continued in Bomongo: 

“Now I tell you,” he went on solemnly, “if Sandi had come, Sandi, who loves me better than his brother, and who knew my father and lived with him for many years, and if Sandi spoke to me, saying ’Tell me, O Bosambo, where is N’bosini?’ I answer ’Lord, there are things which are written and which I know cannot be told, not even to you whom I love so dearly.’” He paused.

Bones was impressed.  He stared, wide-eyed, at the chief, tilted his helmet back a little from his damp brow, folded his hands on his knees and opened his mouth a little.

“But it is you, O my lord,” said Bosambo, extravagantly, “who asks this question.  You, who have suddenly come amongst us and who are brighter to us than the moon and dearer to us than the land which grows corn; therefore must I speak to you that which is in my heart.  If I lie, strike me down at your feet, for I am ready to die.”

He paused again, throwing out his arms invitingly, but Bones said nothing.

“Now this I tell you,” Bosambo shook his finger impressively, “that the N’bosini lives.”

“Where?” asked Bones, quickly.

Already he saw himself lecturing before a crowded audience at the Royal Geographical Society, his name in the papers, perhaps a Tibbett River or a Francis Augustus Mountain added to the sum of geographical knowledge.

“It is in a certain place,” said Bosambo, solemnly, “which only I know, and I have sworn a solemn oath by many sacred things which I dare not break, by letting of blood and by rubbing in of salt, that I will not divulge the secret.”

“O, tell me, Bosambo,” demanded Bones, leaning forward and speaking rapidly, “what manner of people are they who live in the city of N’bosini?”

“They are men and women,” said Bosambo after a pause.

“White or black?” asked Bones, eagerly.

Bosambo thought a little.

“White,” he said soberly, and was immensely pleased at the impression he created.

“I thought so,” said Bones, excitedly, and jumped up, his eyes wider than ever, his hands trembling as he pulled his note-book from his breast pocket.

“I will make a book of this, Bosambo,” he said, almost incoherently.  “You shall speak slowly, telling me all things, for I must write in English.”

He produced his pencil, squatted again, open book upon his knee, and looked up at Bosambo to commence.

“Lord, I cannot do this,” said Bosambo, his face heavy with gloom, “for have I not told your lordship that I have sworn such oath?  Moreover,” he said carelessly, “we who know the secret, have each hidden a large bag of silver in the ground, all in one place, and we have sworn that he who tells the secret shall lose his share.  Now, by the Prophet, ‘Eye-of-the-Moon’ (this was one of the names which Bones had earned, for which his monocle was responsible), I cannot do this thing.”

“How large was this bag, Bosambo?” asked Bones, nibbling the end of his pencil.

“Lord, it was so large,” said Bosambo.

He moved his hands outward slowly, keeping his eyes fixed upon Lieutenant Tibbetts till he read in them a hint of pain and dismay.  Then he stopped.

“So large,” he said, choosing the dimensions his hands had indicated before Bones showed signs of alarm.  “Lord, in the bag was silver worth a hundred English pounds.”

Bones, continuing his meal of cedar-wood, thought the matter out.

It was worth it.

“Is it a large city?” he asked suddenly.

“Larger than the whole of the Ochori,” answered Bosambo impressively.

“And tell me this, Bosambo, what manner of houses are these which stand in the city of the N’bosini?”

“Larger than kings’ huts,” said Bosambo.

“Of stone?”

“Lord, of rock, so that they are like mountains,” replied Bosambo.

Bones shut his book and got up.

“This day I go back to M’ilitani, carrying word of the N’bosini,” said he, and Bosambo’s jaw dropped, though Bones did not notice the fact.

“Presently I will return, bringing with me silver of the value of a hundred English pounds, and you shall lead us to this strange city.”

“Lord, it is a far way,” faltered Bosambo, “across many swamps and over high mountains; also there is much sickness and death, wild beasts in the forests and snakes in the trees and terrible storms of rain.”

“Nevertheless, I will go,” said Bones, in high spirits, “I, and you also.”

“Master,” said the agitated Bosambo, “say no word of this to M’ilitani; if you do, be sure that my enemies will discover it and I shall be killed.”

Bones hesitated and Bosambo pushed his advantage.

“Rather, lord,” said he, “give me all the silver you have and let me go alone, carrying a message to the mighty chief of the N’bosini.  Presently I will return, bringing with me strange news, such as no white lord, not even Sandi, has received or heard, and cunning weapons which only N’bosini use and strange magics.  Also will I bring you stories of their river, but I will go alone, though I die, for what am I that I should deny myself from the service of your lordship?”

It happened that Bones had some twenty pounds on the Zaïre, and Bosambo condescended to come aboard to accept, with outstretched hands, this earnest of his master’s faith.

“Lord,” said he, solemnly, as he took a farewell of his benefactor, “though I lose a great bag of silver because I have betrayed certain men, yet I know that, upon a day to come, you will pay me all that I desire.  Go in peace.”

It was a hilarious, joyous, industrious Bones who went down the river to headquarters, occupying his time in writing diligently upon large sheets of foolscap in his no less large unformed handwriting, setting forth all that Bosambo had told him, and all the conclusions he might infer from the confidence of the Ochori king.

He was bursting with his news.  At first, he had to satisfy his chief that he had carried out his orders.

Fortunately, Hamilton needed little convincing; his own spies had told him of the quietening down of certain truculent sections of his unruly community and he was prepared to give his subordinate all the credit that was due to him.

It was after dinner and the inevitable rice pudding had been removed and the pipes were puffing bluely in the big room of the Residency, when Bones unburdened himself.

“Sir,” he began, “you think I am an ass.”

“I was not thinking so at this particular moment,” said Hamilton; “but, as a general consensus of my opinion concerning you, I have no fault to find with it.”

“You think poor old Bones is a goop,” said Lieutenant Tibbetts with a pitying smile, “and yet the name of poor old Bones is going down to posterity, sir.”

“That is posterity’s look-out,” said Hamilton, offensively; but Bones ignored the rudeness.

“You also imagine that there is no such land as the N’bosini, I think?”

Bones put the question with a certain insolent assurance which was very irritating.

“I not only think, but I know,” replied Hamilton.

Bones laughed, a sardonic, knowing laugh.

“We shall see,” he said, mysteriously; “I hope, in the course of a few weeks, to place a document in your possession that will not only surprise, but which, I believe, knowing that beneath a somewhat uncouth manner lies a kindly heart, will also please you.”

“Are you chucking up the army?” asked Hamilton with interest.

“I have no more to say, sir,” said Bones.

He got up, took his helmet from a peg on the wall, saluted and walked stiffly from the Residency and was swallowed up in the darkness of the parade ground.

A quarter of an hour later, there came a tap upon his door and Mahomet Ali, his sergeant, entered.

“Ah, Mah’met,” said Hamilton, looking up with a smile, “all things were quiet on the river my lord Tibbetts tells me.”

“Lord, everything was proper,” said the sergeant, “and all people came to palaver humbly.”

“What seek you now?” asked Hamilton.

“Lord,” said Mahomet, “Bosambo of the Ochori is, as you know, of my faith, and by certain oaths we are as blood brothers.  This happened after a battle in the year of Drought when Bosambo saved my life.”

“All this I know,” said Hamilton.

“Now, lord,” said Mahomet Ali, “I bring you this.”

He took from the inside of his uniform jacket a little canvas bag, opened it slowly and emptied its golden contents upon the table.  There was a small shining heap of sovereigns and a twisted note; this latter he placed in Hamilton’s hand and the Houssa captain unfolded it.  It was a letter in Arabic in Bosambo’s characteristic and angular handwriting.

     “From Bosambo, the servant of the Prophet, of the upper river in
     the city of the Ochori, to M’ilitani, his master.  Peace on your
     house.

“In the name of God I send you this news.  My lord with the moon-eye, making inquiries about the N’bosini, came to the Ochori and I told him much that he wrote down in a book.  Now, I tell you, M’ilitani, that I am not to blame, because my lord with the moon-eye wrote down these things.  Also he gave me twenty English pounds because I told him certain stories and this I send to you, that you shall put it in with my other treasures, making a mark in your book that this twenty pounds is the money of Bosambo of the Ochori, and that you will send me a book, saying that this money has come to you and is safely in your hands.  Peace and felicity upon your house.

     “Written in my city of Ochori and given to my brother, Mahomet Ali,
     who shall carry it to M’ilitani at the mouth of the river.”

“Poor old Bones!” said Hamilton, as he slowly counted the money.  “Poor old Bones!” he repeated.

He took an account book from his desk and opened it at a page marked “Bosambo.”  His entry was significant.

To a long list of credits which ran: 

     Received L30. (Sale of Rubber.)

     Received L25. (Sale of Gum.)

     Received L130. (Sale of Ivory.)

he added: 

     Received L20. (Author’s Fees.)