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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Keepers Of The King's Peace - Chapter 9. The Mercenaries
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The Keepers Of The King's Peace - Chapter 9. The Mercenaries Post by :marketing Category :Long Stories Author :Edgar Wallace Date :May 2012 Read :3091

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The Keepers Of The King's Peace - Chapter 9. The Mercenaries

CHAPTER IX. THE MERCENARIES

There was a large brown desk in Sanders's study, a desk the edges of which had been worn yellow with constant rubbing. It was a very tidy desk, with two rows of books neatly grouped on the left and on the right, and held in place by brass rails. There were three tiers of wire baskets, a great white blotting-pad, a silver inkstand and four clean-looking pens.

Lately, there had appeared a glass vase filled with flowers which were daily renewed. Except on certain solemn occasions, none intruded into this holy of holies. It is true that a change had been brought about by the arrival of Patricia Hamilton, for she had been accorded permission to use the study as she wished, and she it was who had introduced the floral decorations.

Yet, such was the tradition of sanctuary which enveloped the study, that neither Captain Hamilton, her brother, nor Bones, her slave, had ever ventured to intrude thither in search of her, and if by chance they came to the door to speak to her, they unaccountably lowered their voices.

On a certain summer morning, Hamilton sat at the desk, a stern and sober figure, and Bones, perspiring and rattled, sat on the edge of a chair facing him.

The occasion was a solemn one, for Bones was undergoing his examination in subjects "X" and "Y" for promotion to the rank of Captain. The particular subject under discussion was "Map Reading and Field Sketching," and the inquisition was an oral one.

"Lieutenant Tibbetts," said Hamilton gravely, "you will please define a Base Line."

Bones pushed back the hair straggling over his forehead, and blinked rapidly in an effort of memory.

"A base line, dear old officer?" he repeated. "A base line, dear old Ham----"

"Restrain your endearing terms," said Hamilton, "you won't get any extra marks for 'em."

"A base line?" mused Bones; then, "Whoop! I've got it! God bless your jolly old soul! I thought I'd foozled it. A base line," he said loudly, "is the difference of level between two adjacent contours. How's that, umpire?"

"Wrong," said Hamilton; "you're describing a Vertical Interval."

Bones glared at him.

"Are you sure, dear old chap?" he demanded truculently. "Have a look at the book, jolly old friend, your poor old eyes ain't what they used to be----"

"Lieutenant Tibbetts," said Hamilton in ponderous reproof, "you are behaving very strangely."

"Look here, dear old Ham," wheedled Bones "can't you pretend you asked me what a Vertical Interval was?"

Hamilton reached round to find something to throw, but this was Sanders's study.

"You have a criminal mind, Bones," he said helplessly. "Now get on with it. What are 'Hachures'?"

"Hachures?" said Bones, shutting his eye. "Hachures? Now I know what Hachures are. A lot of people would think they were chickens, but I know ... they're a sort of line ... when you're drawing a hill ... wiggly-waggly lines ... you know the funny things ... a sort of...." Bones made mysterious and erratic gestures in the air, "shading ... water, dear old friend."

"Are you feeling faint?" asked Hamilton, jumping up in alarm.

"No, silly ass ... shadings ... direction of water--am I right, sir?"

"Not being a thought-reader I can't visualize your disordered mind," said Hamilton, "but Hachures are the conventional method of representing hill features by shading in short vertical lines to indicate the slope and the water flow. I gather that you have a hazy idea of what the answer should be."

"I thank you, dear old sir, for that generous tribute to my grasp of military science," said Bones. "An' now proceed to the next torture--which will you have, sir, rack or thumbscrew?--oh, thank you, Horace, I'll have a glass of boiling oil."

"Shut up talking to yourself," growled Hamilton, "and tell me what is meant by 'Orienting a Map'?"

"Turning it to the east," said Bones promptly. "Next, sir."

"What is meant by 'Orienting a Map'?" asked Hamilton patiently.

"I've told you once," said Bones defiantly.

"Orienting a Map," said Hamilton, "as I have explained to you a thousand times, means setting your map or plane-table so that the north line lies north."

"In that case, sir," said Bones firmly, "the east line would be east, and I claim to have answered the question to your entire satisfaction."

"Continue to claim," snarled Hamilton. "I shall mark you zero for that answer."

"Make it one," pleaded Bones. "Be a sport, dear old Ham--I've found a new fishin' pool."

Hamilton hesitated.

"There never are any fish in the pools you find," he said dubiously. "Anyway, I'll reserve my decision until I've made a cast or two."

They adjourned for tiffin soon after.

"How did you do, Bones?" asked Patricia Hamilton.

"Fine," said Bones enthusiastically; "I simply bowled over every question that your dear old brother asked. In fact, Ham admitted that I knew much more about some things than he did."

"What I said," corrected Hamilton, "was that your information on certain subjects was so novel that I doubted whether even the staff college shared it."

"It's the same thing," said Bones.

"You should try him on military history," suggested Sanders dryly. "I've just been hearing from Bosambo----"

Bones coughed and blushed.

"The fact is, sir an' Excellency," he confessed, "I was practisin' on Bosambo. You mightn't be aware of the fact, but I like to hear myself speak----"

"No!" gasped Hamilton in amazement, "you're wronging yourself, Bones!"

"What I mean, sir," Bones went on with dignity, "is that if I lecture somebody on a subject I remember what I've said."

"Always providing that you understand what you're saying," suggested Hamilton.

"Anyway," said Sanders, with his quiet smile, "Bones has filled Bosambo with a passionate desire to emulate Napoleon, and Bosambo has been making tentative inquiries as to whether he can raise an Old Guard or enlist a mercenary army."

"I flatter myself----" began Bones.

"Why not?" said Hamilton, rising. "It's the only chance you'll have of hearing something complimentary about yourself."

"_I believe in you, Bones," said a smiling Patricia. "I think you're really wonderful, and that Ham is a brute."

"I'll never, never contradict you, dear Miss Patricia," said Bones; "an' after the jolly old Commissioner has gone----"

"You're not going away again, are you?" she asked, turning to Sanders. "Why, you have only just come back from the interior."

There was genuine disappointment in her eyes, and Sanders experienced a strange thrill the like of which he had never known before.

"Yes," he said with a nod. "There is a palaver of sorts in the Morjaba country--the most curious palaver I have ever been called upon to hold."

And indeed he spoke the truth.

Beyond the frontiers of the Akasava, and separated from all the other Territories by a curious bush belt which ran almost in a straight line for seventy miles, were the people of Morjaba. They were a folk isolated from territorial life, and Sanders saw them once every year and no more frequently, for they were difficult to come by, regular payers of taxes and law-abiding, having quarrels with none. The bush (reputedly the abode of ghosts) was, save at one point, impenetrable. Nature had plaited a natural wall on one side, and had given the tribe the protection of high mountains to the north and a broad swamp to the west.

The fierce storms of passion and hate which burst upon the river at intervals and sent thousands of spears to a blooding, were scarcely echoed in this sanctuary-land. The marauders of the Great King's country to the north never fetched across the smooth moraine of the mountains, and the evil people of The-Land-beyond-the-Swamp were held back by the treacherous bogland wherein, _cala-cala_, a whole army had been swallowed up.

Thus protected, the Morjabian folk grew fat and rich. The land was a veritable treasure of Nature, and it is a fact that in the dialect they speak, there is no word which means "hunger."(5)

(Footnote 5: It is as curious a fact that amongst the majority of cannibal people there is no equivalent for "thank you."--E. W.)

Yet the people of the Morjaba were not without their crises.

S'kobi, the stout chief, held a great court which was attended by ten thousand people, for at that court was to be concluded for ever the feud between the M'gimi and the M'joro--a feud which went back for the greater part of fifty years.

The M'gimi were the traditional warrior tribe, the bearers of arms, and, as their name ("The High Lookers") implied, the proudest and most exclusive of the people. For every man was the descendant of a chief, and it was "easier for fish to walk," as the saying goes, than for a man of the M'joro ("The Diggers") to secure admission to the caste. Three lateral cuts on either cheek was the mark of the M'gimi--wounds made, upon the warrior's initiation to the order, with the razor-edged blade of a killing-spear. They lived apart in three camps to the number of six thousand men, and for five years from the hour of their initiation they neither married nor courted. The M'gimi turned their backs to women, and did not suffer their presence in their camps. And if any man departed from this austere rule he was taken to the Breaking Tree, his four limbs were fractured, and he was hoisted to the lower branches, between which a litter was swung, and his regiment sat beneath the tree neither eating, drinking nor sleeping until he died. Sometimes this was a matter of days. As for the woman who had tempted his eye and his tongue, she was a witness.

Thus the M'gimi preserved their traditions of austerity. They were famous walkers and jumpers. They threw heavy spears and fought great sham-fights, and they did every violent exercise save till the ground.

This was the sum and substance of the complaint which had at last come to a head.

S'gono, the spokesman of The Diggers, was a headman of the inner lands, and spoke with bitter prejudice, since his own son had been rejected by the M'gimi captains as being unworthy.

"Shall we men dig and sow for such as these?" he asked. "Now give a judgment, King! Every moon we must take the best of our fruit and the finest of our fish. Also so many goats and so much salt, and it is swallowed up."

"Yet if I send them away," said the king, "how shall I protect this land against the warriors of the Akasava and the evil men of the swamp? Also of the Ochori, who are four days' march across good ground?"

"Lord King," said S'gono, "are there no M'gimi amongst us who have passed from the camp and have their women and their children? May not these take the spear again? And are not we M'joro folk men? By my life! I will raise as many spears from The Diggers and captain them with M'joro men--this I could do between the moons and none would say that you were not protected. For we are men as bold as they."

The king saw that the M'gimi party was in the minority. Moreover, he had little sympathy with the warrior caste, for his beginnings were basely rooted in the soil, and two of his sons had no more than scraped into the M'gimi.

"This thing shall be done," said the king, and the roar of approval which swept up the little hillock on which he sat was his reward.

Sanders, learning something of these doings, had come in haste, moving across the Lower Akasava by a short cut, risking the chagrin of certain chiefs and friends who would be shocked and mortified by his apparent lack of courtesy in missing the ceremonious call which was their due.

But his business was very urgent, otherwise he would not have travelled by Nobolama--The-River-that-comes-and-goes.

He was fortunate in that he found deep water for the _Wiggle as far as the edge of this pleasant land. A two days' trek through the forest brought him to the great city of Morjaba. In all the Territories there was no such city as this, for it stretched for miles on either hand, and indeed was one of the most densely populated towns within a radius of five hundred miles.

S'kobi came waddling to meet his governor with maize, plucked in haste from the gardens he passed, and salt, grabbed at the first news of Sanders's arrival, in his big hands. These he extended as he puffed to where Sanders sat at the edge of the city.

"Lord," he wheezed, "none came with news of this great honour, or my young men would have met you, and my maidens would have danced the road flat with their feet. Take!"

Sanders extended both palms and received the tribute of salt and corn, and solemnly handed the crushed mess to his orderly.

"O S'kobi," he said, "I came swiftly to make a secret palaver with you, and my time is short."

"Lord, I am your man," said S'kobi, and signalled his councillors and elder men to a distance.

Sanders was in some difficulty to find a beginning.

"You know, S'kobi, that I love your people as my children," he said, "for they are good folk who are faithful to government and do ill to none."

"Wa!" said S'kobi.

"Also you know that spearmen and warriors I do not love, for spears are war and warriors are great lovers of fighting."

"Lord, you speak the truth," said the other, nodding, "therefore in this land I will have made a law that there shall be no spears, save those which sleep in the shadow of my hut. Now well I know why you have come to make this palaver, for you have heard with your beautiful long ears that I have sent away my fighting regiments."

Sanders nodded.

"You speak truly, my friend," he said, and S'kobi beamed.

"Six times a thousand spears I had--and, lord, spears grow no corn. Rather are they terrible eaters. And now I have sent them to their villages, and at the next moon they should have burnt their fine war-knives, but for a certain happening. We folk of Morjaba have no enemies, and we do good to all. Moreover, lord, as you know, we have amongst us many folk of the Isisi, of the Akasava and the N'gombi, also men from the Great King's land beyond the High Rocks, and the little folk from The-Land-beyond-the-Swamp. Therefore, who shall attack us since we have kinsmen of all amongst us?"

Sanders regarded the jovial king with a sad little smile.

"Have I done well by all men?" he asked quietly. "Have I not governed the land so that punishment comes swiftly to those who break the law? Yet, S'kobi, do not the Akasava and the Isisi, the N'gombi and the Lower River folk take their spears against me? Now I tell you this which I have discovered. In all beasts great and little there are mothers who have young ones and fathers who fight that none shall harass the mother."

"Lord, this is the way of life," said S'kobi.

"It is the way of the Bigger Life," said Sanders, "and greatly the way of man-life. For the women bring children to the land and the men sit with their spears ready to fight all who would injure their women. And so long as life lasts, S'kobi, the women will bear and the men will guard; it is the way of Nature, and you shall not take from men the desire for slaughter until you have dried from the hearts of women the yearning for children."

"Lord," said S'kobi, a fat man and easily puzzled, "what shall be the answer to this strange riddle you set me?"

"Only this," said Sanders rising, "I wish peace in this land, but there can be no peace between the leopard who has teeth and claws and the rabbit who has neither tooth nor claw. Does the leopard fight the lion or the lion the leopard? They live in peace, for each is terrible in his way, and each fears the other. I tell you this, that you live in love with your neighbours not because of your kindness, but because of your spears. Call them back to your city, S'kobi."

The chief's large face wrinkled in a frown.

"Lord," he said, "that cannot be, for these men have marched away from my country to find a people who will feed them, for they are too proud to dig the ground."

"Oh, damn!" said Sanders in despair, and went back the way he came, feeling singularly helpless.

The Odyssey of the discarded army of the Morjaba has yet to be written. Paradoxically enough, its primary mission was a peaceful one, and when it found first the frontiers of the Akasava and then the river borders of the Isis closed against it, it turned to the north in an endeavour to find service under the Great King, beyond the mountains. Here it was repulsed and its pacific intentions doubted. The M'gimi formed a camp a day's march from the Ochori border, and were on the thin line which separates unemployment from anarchy when Bosambo, Chief of the Ochori, who had learnt of their presence, came upon the scene.

Bosambo was a born politician. He had the sense of opportunity and that strange haze of hopeful but indefinite purpose which is the foundation of the successful poet and statesman, but which, when unsuccessfully developed, is described as "temperament."

Bones, paying a business call upon the Ochori, found a new township grown up on the forest side of the city. He also discovered evidence of discontent in Bosambo's harassed people, who had been called upon to provide fish and meal for the greater part of six thousand men who were too proud to work.

"Master," said Bosambo, "I have often desired such an army as this, for my Ochori fighters are few. Now, lord, with these men I can hold the Upper River for your King, and Sandi and none dare speak against him. Thus would N'poloyani, who is your good friend, have done."

"But who shall feed these men, Bosambo?" demanded Bones hastily.

"All things are with God," replied Bosambo piously.

Bones collected all the available information upon the matter and took it back to headquarters.

"H'm," said Sanders when he had concluded his recital, "if it were any other man but Bosambo ... you would require another battalion, Hamilton."

"But what has Bosambo done?" asked Patricia Hamilton, admitted to the council.

"He is being Napoleonic," said Sanders, with a glance at the youthful authority on military history, and Bones squirmed and made strange noises. "We will see how it works out. How on earth is he going to feed them, Bones?"

"Exactly the question I asked, sir an' Excellency," said Bones in triumph. "'Why, you silly old ass----'"

"I beg your pardon!" exclaimed the startled Sanders.

"That is what I said to Bosambo, sir," explained Bones hastily. "'Why, you silly old ass,' I said, 'how are you going to grub 'em?' 'Lord Bones,' said Bosambo, 'that's the jolly old problem that I'm workin' out.'"

How Bosambo worked out his problem may be gathered.

"There is some talk of an Akasava rising," said Sanders at breakfast one morning. "I don't know why this should be, for my information is that the Akasava folk are fairly placid."

"Where does the news come from, sir?" asked Hamilton.

"From the Isisi king--he's in a devil of a funk, and has begged Bosambo to send him help."

That help was forthcoming in the shape of Bosambo's new army, which arrived on the outskirts of the Isisi city and sat in idleness for a month, at the end of which time the people of the Isisi represented to their king that they would, on the whole, prefer war to a peace which put them on half rations in order that six thousand proud warriors might live on the fat of the land.

The M'gimi warriors marched back to the Ochori, each man carrying a month's supply of maize and salt, wrung from the resentful peasants of the Isisi.

Three weeks after, Bosambo sent an envoy to the King of the Akasava.

"Let no man know this, Gubara, lest it come to the ears of Sandi, and you, who are very innocent, be wrongly blamed," said the envoy solemnly. "Thus says Bosambo: It has come to my ears that the N'gombi are secretly arming and will very soon send a forest of spears against the Akasava. Say this to Gubara, that because my stomach is filled with sorrow I will help him. Because I am very powerful, because of my friendship with Bonesi and his cousin, N'poloyani, who is also married to Bonesi's aunt, I have a great army which I will send to the Akasava, and when the N'gombi hear of this they will send away their spears and there will be peace."

The Akasava chief, a nervous man with the memory of all the discomforts which follow tribal wars, eagerly assented. For two months Bosambo's army sat down like a cloud of locusts and ate the Akasava to a condition bordering upon famine.

At the end of that time they marched to the N'gombi country, news having been brought by Bosambo's messengers that the Great King was crossing the western mountains with a terrible army to seize the N'gombi forests. How long this novel method of provisioning his army might have continued may only be guessed, for in the midst of Bosambo's plans for maintaining an army at the expense of his neighbours there was a great happening in the Morjaba country.

S'kobi, the fat chief, had watched the departure of his warriors with something like relief. He was gratified, moreover (native-like), by the fact that he had confounded Sanders. But when the Commissioner had gone and S'kobi remembered all that he had said, a great doubt settled like a pall upon his mind. For three days he sat, a dejected figure, on the high carved stool of state before his house, and at the end of that time he summoned S'gono, the M'joro.

"S'gono," said he, "I am troubled in my stomach because of certain things which our lord Sandi has said."

Thereupon he told the plebeian councillor much of what Sanders had said.

"And now my M'gimi are with Bosambo of the Ochori, and he sells them to this people and that for so much treasure and food."

"Lord," said S'gono, "is my word nothing? Did I not say that I would raise spears more wonderful than the M'gimi? Give me leave, King, and you shall find an army that shall grow in a night. I, S'gono, son of Mocharlabili Yoka, say this!"

So messengers went forth to all the villages of the Morjaba calling the young men to the king's hut, and on the third week there stood on a plateau beneath the king's palaver house a most wonderful host.

"Let them march across the plain and make the Dance of Killing," said the satisfied king, and S'gono hesitated.

"Lord King," he pleaded, "these are new soldiers, and they are not yet wise in the ways of warriors. Also they will not take the chiefs I gave them, but have chosen their own, so that each company have two leaders who say evil things of one another."

S'kobi opened his round eyes.

"The M'gimi did not do this," he said dubiously, "for when their captains spoke they leapt first with one leg and then with the other, which was beautiful to see and very terrifying to our enemies."

"Lord," begged the agitated S'gono, "give me the space of a moon and they shall leap with both legs and dance in a most curious manner."

A spy retailed this promise to a certain giant chief of the Great King who was sitting on the Morjaba slopes of the mountains with four thousand spears, awaiting a favourable moment to ford the river which separated him from the rich lands of the northern Morjaba.

This giant heard the tidings with interest.

"Soon they shall leap without heads," he said, "for without the M'gimi they are little children. For twenty seasons we have waited, and now comes our fine night. Go you, B'furo, to the Chief of The-Folk-beyond-the-Swamp and tell him that when he sees three fires on this mountain he shall attack across the swamp by the road which he knows."

It was a well-planned campaign which the Great King's generals and the Chief of The-People-beyond-the-Marsh had organized. With the passing of the warrior caste the enemies of the Morjaba had moved swiftly. The path across the swamp had been known for years, but the M'gimi had had one of their camps so situated that no enemy could debouch across, and had so ordered their dispositions that the northern river boundary was automatically safeguarded.

Now S'gono was a man of the fields, a grower and seller of maize and a breeder of goats. And he had planned his new army as he would plan a new garden, on the basis that the nearer the army was to the capital, the easier it was to maintain. In consequence the river-ford was unguarded, and there were two thousand spears across the marshes before a scared minister of war apprehended any danger.

He flung his new troops against the Great King's chief captain in a desperate attempt to hold back the principal invader. At the same time, more by luck than good generalship, he pushed the evil people of the marsh back to their native element.

For two days the Morjaba fought desperately if unskilfully against the seasoned troops of the Great King, while messengers hurried east and south, seeking help.

Bosambo's intelligence department may have shown remarkable prescience in unearthing the plot against the peace and security of the Morjaba, or it may have been (and this is Sanders's theory) that Bosambo was on his way to the Morjaba with a cock and bull story of imminent danger. He was on the frontier when the king's messenger came, and Bosambo returned with the courier to treat in person.

"Five thousand loads of corn I will give you, Bosambo," said the king, "also a hundred bags of salt. Also two hundred women who shall be slaves in your house."

There was some bargaining, for Bosambo had no need of slaves, but urgently wanted goats. In the end he brought up his hirelings, and the people of the Morjaba city literally fell on the necks of the returned M'gimi.

The enemy had forced the northern defences and were half-way to the city when the M'gimi fell upon their flank.

The giant chief of the Great King's army saw the ordered ranks of the old army driving in his flank, and sent for his own captain.

"Go swiftly to our lord, the King, and say that I am a dead man."

He spoke no more than the truth, for he fell at the hand of Bosambo, who made a mental resolve to increase his demand on the herds of S'kobi in consequence.

For the greater part of a month Bosambo was a welcome visitor, and at the end of that time he made his preparations to depart.

Carriers and herdsmen drove or portered his reward back to the Ochori country, marching one day ahead of the main body.

The M'gimi were summoned for the march at dawn, but at dawn Bosambo found himself alone on the plateau, save for the few Ochori headmen who had accompanied him on his journey.

"Lord," said S'kobi, "my fine soldiers do not go with you, for I have seen how wise is Sandi who is my father and my mother."

Bosambo choked, and as was usual in moments of intense emotion, found refuge in English.

"Dam' nigger!" he said wrathfully, "I bring um army, I feed um, I keep um proper--you pinch um! Black t'ief! Pig! You bad feller! I speak you bad for N'poloyani--him fine feller."

"Lord," said the uncomprehending king, "I see that you are like Sandi for you speak his tongue. He also said 'Dam' very loudly. I think it is the word white folk say when they are happy."

Bosambo met Bones hurrying to the scene of the fighting, and told his tale.

"Lord," said he in conclusion, "what was I to do, for you told nothing of the ways of N'poloyani when his army was stolen from him. Tell me now, Tibbetti, what this man would have done."

But Bones shook his head severely.

"This I cannot tell you, Bosambo," he said, "for if I do you will tell others, and my lord N'poloyani will never forgive me."

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