DEVIL - BUSH
Fearful things happen in the rank eternity of green bush that is Africa
LADY DOROTHY MILLS
CONVERSATION languished on the shadowy verandah of the little wooden bungalow at Membo. Though the sun had dropped like a ball of fire into the ocean of rank green bush it was almost as hot as it had been at midday, with that damp soul-destroying heat of the West Coast that, day and night, lies on one like a smothering blanket. Outside the sing-song of mosquitoes made a rising chorus with the shrill staccato of the crickets that nothing can silence. From a couple of hundred yards away, in the neighborhood of a big cotton tree, came the monotonous sound of a tom-tom, drumming, drumming till it seemed part and parcel of of the African night itself.
Humphries, the District Officer, moved restlessly in his chair.
"Boy!” he called, clapping his hands with a sudden energy that made the other man start. "Pass drinks one time.”
From the rear flitted a black, monkey-like figure, dressed in white singlet and shorts carrying a tray loaded with bottles, glasses, ice, plates of ‘small chop’, and other impedimenta of the West African ‘Sundown.’
Silently Humphries made his mixture, a fiery and a potent one, and pushed a glass across to his companion. He raised his own.
"Well, here’s to your trip,” he said, “and to you; the last person I’d ever expected to see, and the most welcome, on this ruddy coast.”
"The same to you, and many of them,” responded the journalist. His voice was cordial but his eyes had an absent expression. Even his inexhaustible, globetrotting energy and inquisitive mind seemed for once to be at ebb, and he roused himself with a visible effort.
"And here’s to our next meeting.”
"Not on your life!” The harsh energy in Humphries’ voice made the journalist glance at him sharply.
“I’m through with Africa!
I’ve had fifteen years of
it. Did I tell you that I’d had a bit of a legacy? I sent in my resignation some time ago, and I shall push off home as soon as they can send out my successor; sooner,
if I can get a locum tenens from Freetown. I want to go before Africa—gets me.”
"Yes, Africa, damn her!” His voice was almost fierce and the journalist supposed he had unwittingly touched on some tender spot. These West Africans were a touchy lot, he reflected. Too much ‘climate’ and too much whisky! He cast about in his mind to change the conversation.
From the cotton tree the drumming of the tom-tom sounded louder, heavy and insistent, punctuated occasionally by the high shrill laugh of a woman. Its rhythm had an almost hypnotic effect; it seemed to be saying something, the journalist reflected.
“What a racket that drum’s making, to-night,” he said, involuntarily. "I’ve never heard it so loud before.”
Humphries’ frown deepened to a scowl as he poured himself another drink.
“Yes, damn it; and they’ll keep it up late, you’ll see. There’s a full moon tonight.” The journalist leaned forward, listening.
"It’s ugly, but it’s got a charm. In some way it’s symbolic.”
“Symbolic, yes, you’re right there!” Humphries laughed grimly. "Every night as I sit here I listen to it. It’s my lullaby, the last thing I hear before I go to sleep.” He paused. “It's one of the things that makes me want to leave Africa.” "Has it got on your nerves? I imagine it might. It seems for ever to be saying something that one can’t understand. As a journalist that irritates me!” "Yes, it talks. It says too much, or too little.”
“Yes, too much. A tomtom isn’t just a form of music as the tourist imagines, because it reminds him of the jazz band in his favorite night-club at home. All the time it is talking in plain words to those who know its language. I have known men who have listened too long to its voice.”
“Natives, you mean.”
"And white men, too.”
"White men?” The journalist looked inquisitive, but eventually held his tongue. “What’s it saying now? It's talking louder than usual, it seems to me.”
"Oh, to-night it’s mainly on account of the ‘DevilBush’ that is in session out there somewhere. I suppose they’re greeting the ‘Devil’ who is talking behind the
palisade there. He generally comes after market day and these beggars make it an excuse for a beano. Listen! in the pauses of the drumming you may be able to hear his voice, if you don't mind the mosquitoes and look out for a moment."
THE journalist pushed open the mosquitodoor and looked out. T he drumming of the tom-tom had ceased for the moment, and across the heavy stagnant air. shriller than the sunset hymn of the crickets, came the sound of a high, rattling voice, curiously artificial, that seemed to sing or chant to itself. Sometimes it ended in a wild outburst of tom-tom and stamping feet, but as soon as the latter dwindled the rattling voice, scarcely human, broke out anew.
'It’s rather uncanny,” said the journalist, returning to his chair. "What is he saying?”
"I haven't a notion. It's no language that we know, and if one asks any of the crowd, they say: ‘We do not understand.’ Lying, of course! As a matter of fact, now it's probably only a prosaic demand for chickens and eggs or anything the ‘Bush’ out there may require. There are probably a couple of hundred of them ’way back somewhere, whom no-one has laid eyes on for eighteen months at least, and who are dependent for the comforts of life on these and other efforts of their Devil.’ ”
“Ever since I’ve been out here I’ve been hearing of the Devil-Bush and I’ve read a bit, but not much. What is it exactly?”
Humphries shrugged his shoulders. “God —or more likely, the Devil—only knows, exactly. It’s some kind of secret society that under various forms, exists throughout all West Africa: some kind of Masonic touch whose main feature, from our point of view, is its inviolate secrecy. Its boss is called the ‘Devil’, and at certain times he and the members of the society, together with a number of initiates—generally boys about twelve or fourteen—go off to some remote bit of bush, where they remain for months, or sometimes years, going through, the Lord only knows, what rites and ceremonies. They have a death penalty for any outsider, black or white who, accidentally or deliberately,' so much as lays eyes on them, or poaches on their territories. Why, more than once, when I have been trekking it along some path or other, I have been obliged to turn aside, bag and baggage, into the bush, and hide, because news has come through that the local ‘Devil,’ or some of his familiars were traveling that way.”
“It’s curious! What’s the motive underlying it all, tio you think? Just an excuse for barbarism of some kind?”
“I couldn’t tell you. Educated blacks who know, or think they know something about it, say that on the whole it is beneficent and educational, teaching tribal law, politics, and what-not, and maybe a bit of witchcraft thrown in. I imagine it’s a bit more than that—a kind of tribal trades union as it were, a co-operative self-help concern.
“Apart from its vows of secrecy—that no one of them, drunk -or sober, had ever been known to break —membership of it exacts several duties, I gather, and occasional attendance, and they are supposed to have some means—magic or something, of summoning, or getting at and punishing absent or disobedient members. As I have 3aid, it is supposed to have much in common with white man’s Freemasonry, even to some of its rites and symbolisms. It’s possible, for Freemasonry is as old as the history of man. The Egyptains from whom it originally came to us, via the Jews, were its completest ■exponents, and traces of Egyptian influence came down much farther south than the Guinea Coast with the negro invasions.”
The journalist was wrinkling his forehead in thought. "That’s it,” he exclaimed after a pause “I knew I had a tag to that somewhere in my mind. Freemasonry . wasn’t there a yarn about a white man, an Englishman and a Mason, who was made a member of the Devil-Bush? Someone brought it up in Freetown the other day. What was his name? Something like Ara—Ar
‘ Arkwright. I knew him.”
"You did?” There was a long pause.
“I was the only man who knew what became of him —after.”
Humphries voice was as expressionless as his face, but the journalist smelt a story as a vulture smells carrion. Eike the vulture he waited his moment to swoop. He poured himself another drink and pushed across the
bottle, looking at Humphries under his eyelashes. His movements were deliberate, and in a way furtive, as if he feared to snap something
“What happened to Arkwright?” he asked, at last, in a level voice.
“Arkwright disappeared ...” The absent voice broke off and Humphries looked suddenly alert, almost fierce, as a man looks when he realizes that he had been caught off his guard. “Arkwright, well, look here, I’ve never told anyone before of his end, what I know of it. There are some things better not talked about, and one doesn’t like to admit one’s pal is—oh, well, a traitor. But you’re trustworthy even though you’re a journalist, and one goes mad out here if one doesn’t talk. Of course you won’t repeat ...” Again the voice trailed away as if the speaker’s thoughts were a thousand miles away.
“What happened to Arkwright?” The journalist’s voice was soft and insistent.
“Arkwright, well, the first time I met him was before the war on the Sierra Leone boundary, not far from where we are now. He was on his way into the Hinterland of Liberia on a trip, half shooting, half scientific, and I, as an Assistant D.O. gave him what help I could. He was a queer chap. For ten years he’d been out on the Coast with the King’s West African Rifles, then in Ashanti, and you’d have thought that when he got a bit of leave he’d have made tracks for home and beauty. Not a bit of it. He spent most of his leave poking about in odd corners of this God-forsaken country, investigating—that was his word—God knows what tribes, customs, folk-lore and so on. I believe he had an idea of making a book about it all. Anyway he knew more about our black brothers of the Guinea Coast than any white man I’ve struck. Incidentally he was as plucky as the devil, and apparently didn’t know what nerves of any kind meant. He was a splendid looking chap, strong as an ox, like one’s idea of a Viking, and on top of his mahogany brown face he had a thatch of the yellowest hair you ever saw— as yellow as that of a London chorus girl. It is his hair that . . .
“Well, he stayed up in the Liberian bush about six months, and put up with me on his way back. He told me a lot of things, and at last he told me the story that you got the tag of. He, too, was interested in the Devil-Bush Theory—by the way, did I mention that he was a Freemason? A pretty big pot among them, I imagine—and, like the foolhardy beggar he was, he set off by himself to ‘investigate’ it. He didn’t tell me many details —couldn’t, he said—but I gather that he butted right into one of their extra special brand of unholinesses, and looked like getting a pretty thin time. Of course they wanted to kill him, wanted to rather vigorously. But he was a pretty good talker, Arkwright, when he chose, and he managed to impress them mightily with his accounts of his own ‘DevilBush’.
“He made them feel that as far as DevilBush was concerned they were brothers under their skins. They compared notes, he and those naked man-eating savages—I should like to have seen that, wouldn’t you? —and he swore to me that except for inessential details, the root-stock of his Masonry and their ‘Bush’ were identical, the ‘thought form’ and all that business, and even some of their symbols and initiatory rites were as alike as they possibly could be, allowing for the differences in the respective languages. Well, to cut the story short, they decided not to kill him; in fact they made rather a god of him, and he stayed with them some time, and finally as a matter of form, they made him a member of their ‘Bush.’
“He always boggled a bit when he spoke of this latter. Knowing him one would have thought that he would have been pleased, but he wasn’t, somehow. He seemed in a hurry to get down to the coast. He wasn’t looking very fit, which wasn’t surprising, with that damned climate up there that feels like a decaying hot-water bottle—like here, only more so. I asked him to come up and stay again on his next leave. First he said yes, then he said no, and for a moment I thought he looked almost frightened, if fear were possible in a man like Arkwright. Certainly he had something on his mind.
“Well, then he went back to his regiment, and almost at once war was declared and I heard that he’d got himself transferred to a home regiment and had gone out to France. Next thing I heard of him was that he’d got a D.S.O. and a ‘Blighty’, and some time later, at the end of 1918, that he was married and had a baby daughter, and that he intended to leave the army and take up farming in Wales. And then I forgot about him.
“A year after the war finished he turned up unexpectedly, in Sierra Leone. His old regiment had been transferred up there from Ashanti, and it appeared that he’d moved Heaven and earth to get back to it. He’d chucked up the farm in Wales, and apparently had a bust-up with his wife, on account of his determination to return to West Africa. I don’t blame the poor woman! He looked fit enough in spite of his lame foot, but not happy: he was jumpy and irritable, nothing like his old gallant, imperturable self. I saw him over a week-end at Freetown, and though I'm not an imaginative chap like you, he gave me a queer sort of impression. ‘Haunted’ was the word that sprang into my mind when I first saw him. He seemed surprisingly glad to see me and yet, when we sat late that evening over our drinks, he had hardly a word to say for himself. He sat moodily, absent-mindedly fidgetting something with his feet, starting whenever a boy or anyone came into the room, leaning forward sometimes as if he were listening to something I couldn’t hear. Once, when he caught me watching him, he looked half shamefaced, and all the time he had a curious air of expectancy, as if he were waiting for something. Once I chaffed him about his sudden return to Africa.
“ T never meant to,’ he answered quickly and feverishly. T never meant to, but . . .’ Then he stopped, and though I waited he never finished that ‘but’.
“It was another three months before I saw him again. I had my first full-blown D.O.’s job then, up at Sorbli, right away up in the corner that touches Liberia and French Guinea. Things were giving pretty considerable trouble there; the natives had got the wind and their goat up about the proposed French railway, and a negro agitator from the States had passed that way, spreading sedition and arms. The French had made their usual muddle, and the general revolt had spread into my district. In the smaller places there was open lawlessness, encouraged by the boss of the local Devil-Bush. A white man was killed and several colored officials. We did our
best, but the districts were too big, and finally we had to ask Freetown for soldiers.
“In a few days a company came up under Arkwright and Sorbli was settled on as headquarters. By that time conditions were about at boiling point, and we were just waiting for things to happen at any moment.
“Hot and bothered and busy as I was, I was shocked at the change in Arkwright. In that three months he had aged ten years. If I hadn’t known him to be one of the most abstemious fellows on the coast I should have said that he’d been on the drink. His nerves were simply all to pieces, and never for two consecutive minutes was he in the same mood. But it was his eyes that worried me most. Sometimes when he didn’t know that anyone was around, they looked like the eyes of a man in torment, a man bedevilled by something beyond his control. If I hadn’t been so busy with my own concerns it would have given me the creeps. I told myself that it was some private worry, some matrimonial or financial tangle, maybe, but it wasn’t convincing. He always had been a born fighter, I knew, and I hoped the coming flare up would cheer him up.
“Among the natives there was the usual lull before the storm. They all went about quietly enough, with the air of their kind when they are waiting for a signal of some kind, some word of command. There was a good deal of palavering at street corners, a good deal of that damned tom-tom business; in fact the latter went on more or less day and night, talking, just talking . . . We’d got everything on our side more or less set, and for a day or two just sat about waiting for things to happen. And when things do happen in this country they happen suddenly and the waiting is always a little nerve wracking.
“The weather wasn’t helping us, either. It was May, just before the rains, and the world seemed saturated with the storm that did not break. You’ve only seen the West African bush in the good season, so you don’t know what it can be like. God! how one can hate forest! At times it seems alive, a tangible malignant thing that
lies all round, hemming you in, waiting till it is ready to smother and poison you, to blot you out, to rot you, body and soul. That May it was worse than I’ve ever known it, as if it were in league with those black devils who were of it. Positively it seemed to decompose under one’s very eyes. The air was rank with sickness, a green and deadly poison that made breathing an effort, the dampness of everything was nauseating, somehow obscene. The nights were the worst, soul-destroying, nerve wracking.
“One night—the night that I can’t forget—we sat on the verandah of my bungalow after dinner, as we are sitting here now, trying to breathe, trying to shake off the sickening, cloying influence of that damned green bush all round. All day Arkwright had been in one of his black moods, not surly exactly, but silent and a hundred miles away. Now, as we sat, he did not move or speak and his face was absolutely expressionless, and yet it seemed to my tired and strained imagination that it was not the silence of abstraction, but in some way of torture. Yes, torture’s the word. As we sat pretending to smoke I had a feeling as if I were watching a soul in Hell, a soul enduring an agony too great for expression, for movement even, that for some unexplained reason I could not understand, or even probe into. It was the silence, the inarticulateness of it all that made it so awful. I don’t suppose you can understand; I hardly can myself. Everything seemed silent that night. The yellow curs in the village for once weren’t yapping, the gray monkeys had deserted the jujube tree below the verandah, and even the crickets were not making their usual row. It was a silence that made one even want to stop the beating of one’s own heart.
“And then the drumming under the cotton tree began; softly at first and some times dying away, then rising again, each time a little louder till it became just a maddening monotony that seemed to beat on one’s very brain. I know the rhythm, though not the meaning, of most of the tom-tom noises; but this to-night was a new one, a disturbing one, infinitely disturbing. Never did the
beat vary, though the tone did. Sometimes it seemed to plead, sometimes it sounded angry. If ever an African drum talked, it talked that night. If I’d known w'hat it was saying . . .
“As the drumming went on I noticed that the atmosphere of the verandah seemed to change, and then I realized that it was Arkwright. I suppose my nerves were unusually sensitive that evening, though he did not move a muscle nor did the expression on his face change by an iota, I seemed to know the change in his soul. I saw, or rather felt, it lose its dumb agony, become alert, feverishly alert, taut, so to speak. Agony was there, the agony of a woman who gives birth to a child. I knew that within a couple of yards of me a struggle that was almost inhuman was going on, that a soul was at war with it self. The atmosphere seemed to be charged with electricity. Then I felt that the agony was giving place to an elation, to an exaltation, a feeling of inevitability that filled me with horrible unrest and apprehension.
“Then a flying beetle singed its wings in the hanging lamp and fell with a tiny thud on the table between us. Arkwright suddenly looked up and shifted his feet, and my prescience seemed to leave me. The atmosphere felt nearly normal again, and I noticed with some detached sense that Arkwright looked calmer than he had for several days. The tom-tom sounded louder than ever. For the last few minutes it had had a despairing sound, wailing, almost abject. Now it sounded joyous, defiantly so, as if there were triumph in the heart of the player.
“Arkwright had risen to his feet and stretched his arms wide, and I noticed that tiny beads of perspiration stood on his forehead. Certainly the heat was overwhelming, and I felt as tired and weak as a sick kitten. Arkwright smiled quietly, turned, and going over to the mosquito door, threw it wide and stood outside on the top step.
“My tiredness was overwhelming me, and I poured out two stiff pegs.-
“Have one?” I called to Arkwright. He did not answer.
Continued on page 83
Continued from page 5
“Arkwright!” I called, but again he did not reply. I got up and went to the door. Arkwright wasn’t there ...” Humphries voice died away, and he was silent so long that the journalist glanced at him.
“Well?” he asked.
“Arkwright never came back.”
“Gone! Just gone into the night. Walked down the steps and disappeared, and no one saw him go.”
“That’s all, or nearly. Of course we •searched and questioned, and all that. What was the good? He’d gone. Foul play was taken for granted; some nigger or niggers who had a grudge against him. Such things sometimes happen, and there are never any clues in Africa. She just swallows her victims.
AS THINGS were then we couldn’t do ^ much any way, for next day the pot boiled over. Scrapping broke out at five in the morning and lasted for two days. The whole district was up, fighting like devils. To use one of your journalistic phrases, the rivers ran blood. Blood! I saw enough of it in those two days to last a lifetime! One didn’t know the beggars had it in them, such organization, such forethought. The devil of the local ‘bush’ was the ringleader, a pretty big pot in his way, I believe. Certainly he was a strategist who’d missed his vocation. We had a good many casualties, and good Lord, we made some! However, it fizzled out eventually, and things settled down again, and the company went back to Freetown.
“I have said that we made a good many
casualties. Our black brothers round here have a habit of gloating over theirs! They behead them and string up their scalps over the doors of their huts, in fringes, like chenille trimming. An unpleasant habit, that we discourage—savors of barbarism and all that!
“Well, about a fortnight later, one of my native messengers let on to me that the Paramount Chief of the district, one of our few friends and allies, had a perfect galaxy of ex-casualties strung over the front of his hut. I must say the old boy had rallied round us like a tiger and he’d earned his trophies and the right to brag about them. They were the leading lights of the hostile Devil-bush he’d been collecting, it appeared, and he’d done most of it with his own fair hands. However, I couldn’t countenance that sort of thing—it would have broken the local missionary’s heart—so I went off that afternoon to investigate.
“I walked out by myself, and the chief was away when I arrived. And I was glad of that, for I had a bit of a shock. Apart from other things, as I have said, one doesn’t like to realize that one’s pal is a traitor. My messenger hadn’t exaggerated; the hut had a positive windowdisplay of heads. Several I recognized, though the skin had rotted off their faces.
“I say I recognized them, but there was only one that I really looked at. It was hung in the middle, as a piece de resistance. It seemed to smile ahead over the rank eternity of green bush, and from its blackened scalp, glistening like wheat in the sunlight, fell a thick thatch of wavy yellow hair.”