Read CHAPTER VII - THE STRANGER WHO WALKED BY NIGHT of Bones Being Further Adventures in Mr. Commissioner Sanders' Country , free online book, by Edgar Wallace, on ReadCentral.com.

Since the day when Lieutenant Francis Augustus Tibbetts rescued from the sacrificial trees the small brown baby whom he afterwards christened Henry Hamilton Bones, the interests of that young officer were to a very large extent extremely concentrated upon that absorbing problem which a famous journal once popularized, “What shall we do with our boys?”

As to the exact nature of the communications which Bones made to England upon the subject, what hairbreadth escapes and desperate adventure he detailed with that facile pen of his, who shall say?

It is unfortunate that Hamilton’s sister ­that innocent purveyor of home news ­had no glimpse of the correspondence, and that other recipients of his confidence are not in touch with the writer of these chronicles.  Whatever he wrote, with what fervour he described his wanderings in the forest no one knows, but certainly he wrote to some purpose.

“What the dickens are all these parcels that have come for you for?” demanded his superior officer, eyeing with disfavour a mountain of brown paper packages be-sealed, be-stringed, and be-stamped.

Bones, smoking his pipe, turned them over.

“I don’t know for certain,” he said, carefully; “but I shouldn’t be surprised if they aren’t clothes, dear old officer.”

“Clothes?”

“For Henry,” explained Bones, and cutting the string of one and tearing away its covering revealed a little mountain of snowy garments.  Bones turned them over one by one.

“For Henry,” he repeated; “could you tell me, sir, what these things are for?”

He held up a garment white and small and frilly.

“No, sir, I can’t,” said Hamilton stiffly, “unless like the ass that you are you have forgotten to mention to your friends that Henry is a gentleman child.”

Bones looked up at the blue sky and scratched his chin.

“I may have called him ‘her,’” he confessed.

There were, to be exact, sixteen parcels and each contained at least one such garment, and in addition a very warm shawl, “which,” said Hamilton, “will be immensely useful when it snows.”

With the aid of his orderly, Bones sorted out the wardrobe and the playthings (including many volumes of the Oh-look-at-the-rat-on-the-mat-where-is-the-cat? variety), and these he carried to his hut with such dignity as he could summon.

That evening, Hamilton paid his subordinate a visit.  Henry, pleasingly arrayed in a pair of the misdirected garments with a large bonnet on his head, and seated on the floor of the quarters contentedly chewing Bones’ watch, whilst Bones, accompanying himself with his banjo, was singing a song which was chiefly remarkable for the fact that he was ignorant of the tune and somewhat hazy concerning the words.

     “Did you ever take a tum-ty up the Nile,
     Did you ever dumpty dupty in a camp,
     Or dumpty dumpty on m ­m ­
     Or play it in a dumpty dumpty swamp.”

He rose, and saluted his senior, as Hamilton came in.

“Exactly what is going to happen when Sanders comes back?” asked Hamilton, and the face of Bones fell.

“Happen, sir?  I don’t take you, sir ­what could happen ­to whom, sir?”

“To Henry,” said Hamilton.

Henry looked up at that moment with a seraphic smile.

“Isn’t he wonderful, sir?” asked Bones in hushed ecstasy; “you won’t believe what I’m going to tell you, sir ­you’re such a jolly old sceptic, sir ­but Henry knows me ­positively recognizes me!  And when you remember that he’s only four months old ­why, it’s unbelievable.”

“But what will you do when Sanders comes ­really, Bones, I don’t know whether I ought to allow this as it is.”

“If exception is taken to Henry, sir,” said Bones firmly, “I resign my commission; if a gentleman is allowed to keep a dog, sir, he is surely allowed to keep a baby.  Between Henry and me, sir, there is a bond stronger than steel.  I may be an ass, sir, I may even be a goop, but come between me an’ my child an’ all my motherly instincts ­if you’ll pardon the paradox ­all my paternal ­that’s the word ­instincts are aroused, and I will fight like a tiger, sir ­”

“What a devil you are for jaw,” said Hamilton; “anyway, I’ve warned you.  Sanders is due in a month.”

“Henry will be five,” murmured Bones.

“Oh, blow Henry!” said Hamilton.

Bones rose and pointed to the door.

“May I ask you, sir,” he said, “not to use that language before the child?  I hate to speak to you like this, sir, but I have a responsible ­”

He dodged out of the open door and the loaf of bread which Hamilton had thrown struck the lintel and rolled back to Henry’s eager hands.

The two men walked up and down the parade ground whilst Fa’ma, the wife of Ahmet, carried the child to her quarters where he slept.

“I’m afraid I’ve got to separate you from your child,” said Hamilton; “there is some curious business going on in the Lombobo, and a stranger who walks by night, of which Ahmet the Spy writes somewhat confusingly.”

Bones glanced round in some apprehension.

“Oblige me, old friend,” he entreated, “by never speakin’ of such things before Henry ­I wouldn’t have him scared for the world.”

II

Bosambo of the Ochori was a light sleeper, the lighter because of certain stories which had reached him of a stranger who walks by night, and in the middle of the night he suddenly became wide awake, conscious that there was a man in his hut of whose coming the sentry without was ignorant.

Bosambo’s hand went out stealthily for his short spear, but before he could reach it, his wrist was caught in a grip of steel, strong fingers gripped his throat, and the intruder whispered fiercely, using certain words which left the chief helpless with wonder.

“I am M’gani of the Night,” said the voice with authoritative hauteur, “of me you have heard, for I am known only to chiefs; and am so high that chiefs obey and even devils go quickly from my path.”

“O, M’gani, I hear you,” whispered Bosambo, “how may I serve you?”

“Get me food,” said the imperious stranger, “after, you shall make a bed for me in your inner room, and sit before this house that none may disturb me, for it is to my high purpose that no word shall go to M’ilitani that I stay in your territory.”

“M’gani, I am your dog,” said Bosambo, and stole forth from the hut like a thief to obey.

All that day he sat before his hut and even sent away the wife of his heart and the child M’sambo, that the rest of M’gani of the N’gombi should not be disturbed.

That night when darkness had come and the glowing red of hut fires grew dimmer, M’gani came from the hut.

Bosambo had sent away the guard and accompanied his guest to the end of the village.

M’gani, with only a cloak of leopard skin about him, twirling two long spears as he walked, was silent till he came to the edge of the city where he was to take farewell of his host.

“Tell me this, Bosambo, where are Sandi’s spies that I may avoid them?”

And Bosambo, without hesitation, told him.

“M’gani,” said he, at parting, “where do you go now? tell me that I may send cunning men to guard you, for there is a bad spirit in this land, especially amongst the people of Lombobo, because I have offended B’limi Saka, the chief.”

“No soldiers do I need, O Bosambo,” said the other.  “Yet I tell you this that I go to quiet places to learn that which will be best for my people.”

He turned to go.

“M’gani,” said Bosambo, “in the day when you shall see our lord Sandi, speak to him for me saying that I am faithful, for it seems to me, so high a man are you that he will listen to your word when he will listen to none other.”

“I hear,” said M’gani gravely, and slipped into the shadows of the forest.

Bosambo stood for a long time staring in the direction which M’gani had taken, then walked slowly back to his hut.

In the morning came the chief of his councillors for a hut palaver.

“Bosambo,” said he, in a tone of mystery, “the Walker-of-the-Night has been with us.”

“Who says this?” asked Bosambo.

“Fibini, the fisherman,” said the councillor, “for this he says, that having toothache, he sat in the shadow of his hut near the warm fire and saw the Walker pass through the village and with him, lord, one who was like a devil, being big and very ugly.”

“Go to Fibini,” said a justly annoyed Bosambo, “and beat him on the feet till he cries ­for he is a liar and a spreader of alarm.”

Yet Fibini had done his worst before the bastinado (an innovation of Bosambo’s) had performed its silencing mission, and Ochori mothers shepherded their little flocks with greater care when the sun went down that night, for this new terror which had come to the land, this black ghost with the wildfire fame was reputed especially devilish.  In a week he had become famous ­so swift does news carry in the territories.

Men had seen him passing through forest paths, or speeding with incredible swiftness along the silent river.  Some said that he had no boat and walked the waters, others that he flew like a bat with millions of bats behind him.  One had met him face to face and had sunk to the ground before eyes “that were very hot and red and thrusting out little lightnings.”

He had been seen in many places in the Ochori, in the N’gombi city, in the villages of the Akasava, but mainly his hunting ground was the narrow strip of territory which is called Lombobo.

B’limi Saka, the chief of the land, himself a believer in devils, was especially perturbed lest the Silent Walker should be a spy of Government, for he had been guilty of practices which were particularly obnoxious to the white men who were so swift to punish.

“Yet,” said he to his daughter and (to the disgust of his people, who despised women) his chief councillor, “none know my heart save you, Lamalana.”

Lamalana, with her man shoulders and her flat face, peered at her grizzled father sideways.

“Devils hear hearts,” she said huskily, “and when they talk of killings and sacrifices are not all devils pleased?  Now I tell you this, my father, that I wait for sacrifices which you swore by death you would show me.”

B’limi Saka looked round fearfully.  Though the ferocity of this chief was afterwards revealed, though secret places in the forest held his horrible secret killing-houses, yet he was a timid man with a certain affection of his eyes which made him dependent upon the childless widow who had been his strength for two years.

The Lombobo were the cruellest of Sanders’ people; their chiefs the most treacherous.  Neither akin to the N’gombi, the Isisi, the Akasava nor the Ochori, they took on the worst attributes of each race.

Seldom in open warfare did they challenge the Administration, but there was a long tale of slain and mutilated enemies who floated face downwards in the stream; of disappearance of faithful servants of Government, and of acts of cannibalism which went unidentified and unpunished.

For though all the tribes, save the Ochori, had been cannibals, yet by fire and rope, tempered with wisdom, had the Administration brought about a newer era to the upper river.

But reformation came not to the Lombobo.  A word from Sanders, a carelessly expressed view, and the Lombobo people would have been swept from existence ­wiped ruthlessly from the list of nations, but that was not the way of Government, which is patient and patient and patient again till in the end, by sheer heavy weight of patience, it crushes opposition to its wishes.

They called Lamalana the barren woman, the Drinker of Life, but she had at least drunken without ostentation, and if she murdered with her own large hands, or staked men and women from a sheer lust of cruelty, there were none alive to speak against her.

Outside the town of Lombobo was a patch of beaten ground where no grass grew, and this place was called “wa boma,” the killing ground.

Here, before the white men came, sacrifices were made openly, and it was perhaps for this association and because it was, from its very openness, free from the danger of the eavesdropper, that Lamalana and her father would sit by the hour, whilst he told her the story of ancient horrors ­never too horrible for the woman who swayed to and fro as she listened as one who was hypnotized.

“Lord,” said she, “the Walker of the Night comes not alone to the Lombobo; all people up and down the river have seen him, and to my mind he is a sign of great fortune showing that ghosts are with us.  Now, if you are very brave, we will have a killing greater than any.  Is there no hole in the hill which Bosambo dug for your shame?  And, lord, do not the people of the Ochori say that this child M’sambo is the light of his father’s life?  O ko!  Bosambo shall be sorry.”

Later they walked in the forest speaking, for they had no fear of the spirits which the last slanting rays of the dying sun unlocked from the trees.  And they talked and walked, and Lombobo huntsmen, returning through the wood, gave them a wide berth, for Lamalana was possessed of an eye which was notoriously evil.

“Let us go back to the city,” said Lamalana, “for now I see that you are very brave and not a blind old man.”

“There will be a great palaver and who knows but M’ilitani will come with his soldiers?”

She laughed loudly and hoarsely, making the silent forest ring with harsh noise.

“O ko!” she said, then laughed no more.

In the centre of the path was a man; in the half light she saw the leopard skin and the strange belt of metal about his waist.

“O Lamalana,” he said softly, “laugh gently, for I have quick ears and I smell blood.”

He pointed to the darkening forest path down which they had come.

“Many have been sacrificed and none heard them,” he said, “this I know now.  Let there be an end to killing, for I am M’gani, the Walker of the Night, and very terrible.”

“Wa!” screamed Lamalana, and leapt at him with clawing hands and her white teeth agrin.  Then something soft and damp struck her face ­full in the mouth like a spray of water, and she fell over struggling for her breath, and rose gasping to her feet to find the Walker had gone.

III

Before Bosambo’s hut Bones sat in a long and earnest conversation, and the subject of his discourse was children.  For, alarmed by the ominous suggestion which Bones had put forward, that his superior should be responsible for the well-being of Henry in the absence of his foster-parent, Hamilton had yielded to the request that Henry should accompany Bones on his visit to the north.

And now, on a large rug before Bosambo and his lord, there sat two small children eyeing one another with mutual distrust.

“Lord,” said Bosambo, “it is true that your lordship’s child is wonderful, but I think that M’sambo is also wonderful.  If your lordship will look with kind eyes he will see a certain cunning way which is strange in so young a one.  Also he speaks clearly so that I understand him.”

“Yet,” contested Bones, “as it seems to me, Bosambo, mine is very wise, for see how he looks to me when I speak, raising his thumb.”

Bones made a clucking noise with his mouth, and Henry turned frowningly, regarded his protector with cool indifference, and returned to his scrutiny of the other strange brown animal confronting him.

“Now,” said Bones that night, “what of the Walker?”

“Lord, I know of him,” said Bosambo, “yet I cannot speak for we are blood brothers by certain magic rites and speeches; this I know, that he is a good man as I shall testify to Sandi when he comes back to his own people.”

“You sit here for Government,” said Bones, “and if you don’t play the game you’re a jolly old rotter, Bosambo!”

“I know ’um, I no speak ’um, sah,” said Bosambo, “I be good fellah, sah, no Yadasi fellah, sah ­I be Peter feller, cut ’em ear some like, sah!”

“You’re a naughty old humbug,” said Bones, and went to bed on the Zaïre leaving Henry with the chief’s wife....

In the dark hours before the dawn he led his Houssas across the beach, revolver in hand, but came a little too late.  The surprise party had been well planned.  A speared sentry lay twisting before the chief’s hut, and Bosambo’s face was smothered in blood.  Bones took in the situation.

“Fire on the men who fly to the forest,” he said, but Bosambo laid a shaking hand upon his arm.

“Lord,” he said, “hold your fire, for they have taken the children, and I fear the woman my wife is stricken.”

He went into the hut, Bones following.

The chief’s wife had a larger hut than Bosambo’s own, communicating with her lord’s through a passage of wicker and clay, and the raiders had clubbed her to silence, but Bones knew enough of surgery to see that she was in no danger.

In ten minutes the fighting regiments of the Ochori were sweeping through the forest, trackers going ahead to pick up the trail.

“Let all gods hear me,” sobbed Bosambo, as he ran, “and send M’gani swiftly to M’sambo my son.”

IV

“Now this is very wonderful,” said Lamalana, “and it seems, O my father, no matter for a small killing, but for a sacrifice such as all men may see.”

It was the hour following the dawn when the world was at its sweetest, when the chattering weaver birds went in and out of their hanging nests gossiping loudly, and faint perfumes from little morning flowers gave the air an unusual delicacy.

All the Lombobo people, the warriors and the hunters, the wives and the maidens, and even the children of tender years, lined the steep slopes of the Cup of Sacrifice.  For Lamalana, deaf and blind to reason, knew that her hour was short, and that with the sun would come a man terrible in his anger ... and the soldiers who eat up opposition with fire.

“O people!” she cried.

She was stripped to the waist, stood behind the Stone of Death as though it were a counter, and the two squirming infants under her hands were so much saleable stock:  “Here we bring terror to all who hate us, for one of these is the heart of Bosambo and the other is more than the heart of the-man-who-stands-for-Sandi ­”

“O woman!”

The intruder had passed unnoticed, almost it seemed by magic, through the throng, and now he stood in the clear space of sacrifice.  And there was not one in the throng who had not heard of him with his leopard skin and his belt of brass.

He was as black as the strange Ethiopians who came sometimes to the land with the Arabi traders, his muscular arms and legs were dull in their blackness.

There was a whisper of terror ­“The Walker of the Night! ­” and the people fell back ... a woman screamed and fell into a fit.

“O woman,” said M’gani, “deliver to me these little children who have done no evil.”

Open-mouthed the half-demented daughter of B’limi Saka stared at him.

He walked forward, lifted the children in his two arms and went slowly through the people, who parted in terror at his coming.

He turned at the top of the basin to speak.

“Do no wickedness,” said he; then he gently stooped to put the children on the ground, for mouthing and bellowing senseless sounds Lamalana came furiously after him, her long, crooked knife in her hand.  He thrust his hand into the leopard skin as for a weapon, but before he could withdraw it, a man of Lombobo, half in terror, fell upon and threw his arms about M’gani.

“Bo’ma!” boomed the woman, and drew back her knife for the stroke....

Bones, from the edge of the clearing, jerked up the rifle he carried and fired.

“What man is this?” asked Bones.

Bosambo looked at the stranger.

“This is M’gani,” he said, “he who walks in the night.”

“The dooce it is!” said Bones, and fixing his monocle glared at the stranger.

“From whence do you come?” he asked.

“Lord, I come from the Coast,” said the man, “by many strange ways, desiring to arrive at this land secretly that I might learn the heart of these people and understand.”  Then, in perfect English, “I don’t think we’ve ever met before, Mr. Tibbetts ­my name is Sanders.”