The Philanderers


A.E.W. Mason

FIVE ENGLISHMEN were watching a camp fire in the centre of a forest clearing in mid-Africa. They did not speak, but sat propped against logs, smoking. One of the five knocked out the ashes of his pipe upon the ground; a second, roused by the movement, picked up a fresh billet of wood with a shiver and threw it on to the fire, and the light for a moment flung a steady glow upon faces which were set with anxiety. The man who had picked up the billet looked from one to the other of the faces, then he turned and gazed behind him into the darkness. The floor of the clearing was dotted with the embers of dying fires, but now and again he would hear the crackle of a branch and see a little flame spirt up and shine upon the barrels of rifles and the black bodies of the sleeping troops. Round the edge of the clearing the trees rose massed and dark like a cliff’s face. He turned his head upwards.

‘Look, Drake!’ he cried suddenly, and pointed an arm eastwards. The man opposite to him took his pipe from his mouth and looked in that direction. The purple was fading out of the sky, leaving it livid.

‘I see,’ said Drake shortly, and, replacing his pipe, he rose to his feet. His four companions looked quickly at each other and the eldest of them spoke.

‘Look here, Drake,’ said he, ‘I have been thinking about this business all night, and the more I think of it the less I like it. Of course, we only did what we were bound to do. We couldn’t get behind that evidence; there was no choice for us; but you’re the captain, and there is a choice for you.’

‘No,’ replied Drake quietly. ‘I too have been thinking about it all night, and there is no choice for me.’

‘But you can delay the execution until we get back.’

‘I can’t even do that. A week ago there was a village here.’

‘It’s not the man I am thinking of. I haven’t lived my years in Africa to have any feeling left for scum like that. But also I haven’t lived my years in Africa without coming to know there’s one thing above all others necessary for the white man to do, and that’s to keep up the prestige of the white man. String Gorley up if you like, but not here—not before these blacks.’

‘But that’s just what I am going to do,’ answered Drake, ‘and just for your reason, too—the prestige of the white man. Every day something is stolen by these fellows, a rifle, a bayonet, rations—something. When I find the theft out I have to punish it, haven’t I? Well, how can I punish the black when he thieves, and let the white man off when he thieves and murders? If I did—well, I don’t think I could strike a harder blow at the white man’s prestige.’

‘I don’t ask you to let him off. Only take him back to the coast. Let him be hanged there privately.’

‘And how many of these blacks would believe that he had been hanged?’ Drake turned away from the group and walked towards a hut which stood some fifty yards from the camp fire. Three sentries were guarding the door. Drake pushed the door open, entered, and closed it behind him. The hut was pitch dark since a board had been nailed across the only opening.

‘Gorley!’ he said.

There was a rustling of boughs against the opposite wall, and a voice answered from close to the ground.

‘Damn you, what do you want?’

‘Have you anything you wish to say?’

‘That depends,’ replied Gorley after a short pause, and his voice changed to an accent of cunning.

‘There’s no bargain to be made.’

The words were spoken with a sharp precision, and again there was a rustling of leaves as though Gorley had fallen back upon his bed of branches.

‘But you can undo some of the harm,’ continued Drake, and at that Gorley laughed. Drake stopped on the instant, and for a while there was silence between the pair. A gray beam of light shot through a chink between the logs, and then another and another until the darkness of the hut changed to a vaporous twilight. Then of a sudden the notes of a bugle sounded the reveille. Gorley raised himself upon his elbows and thrust forward his head. Outside he heard the rattle of arms, the chatter of voices, all the hum of a camp astir.

‘Drake,’ he whispered across to the figure standing against the door, ‘there’s enough gold dust to make two men rich, but you shall have it all if you let me go. You can—easily enough. It wouldn’t be difficult for a man to slip away into the forest on the march back if you gave the nod to the sentries guarding him. All I ask for is a rifle and a belt of cartridges. I’d shift for myself then.’

He ended abruptly and crouched, listening to the orders shouted to the troops outside. The men were being ranged in their companies. Then the companies in succession were marched, halted, wheeled, and halted again. Gorley traced a plan of their evolutions with his fingers upon the floor of the hut. The companies were formed into a square.

‘Drake,’ he began again, and he crawled a little way across the hut; ‘Drake, do you hear what I’m saying? There’s a fortune for you, mind you, all of it; and I am the only one who can tell you where it is. I didn’t trust those black fellows—no, no,’ and he wagged his head with an attempt at an insinuating laugh. ‘I had it all gathered together, and I buried it myself at night. You gave me a chance before with nothing to gain. Give me another; you have everything to gain this time. Drake, why don’t you speak?’

‘Because there’s no bargain to be made between you and me,’ replied Drake. ‘If you tell me where the gold dust’s hid, it will be given back to the people it belonged to, or rather to those of them you left alive. You can do some good that way by telling me, but you won’t save your life.’

Steps were heard to approach the hut; there was a rap on the door.

‘Well?’ asked Drake.

Gorley raised himself from the floor.

‘I am not making you rich and letting you kill me too,’ he said; and then, ‘Who cares? I’m ready.’

Drake opened the door and stepped out. Gorley swaggered after him. He stood for a moment on the threshold. Here and there a wisp of fog ringed a tree-trunk or smoked upon the ground. But for the rest, the clearing, littered with the charred debris of a native village, lay bare and desolate in a cold morning light.

‘It looks a bit untidy,’ said Gorley, with a laugh. Two of the troopers approached and laid their hands upon his shoulders. At first he made a movement to shake them off. Then he checked the impulse and stood quietly while they pinioned him. After they had finished he spat on the ground, cast a glance at the square and the rope dangling from a branch above it, and walked easily towards it. The square opened to receive him and closed up again.

On the march back two of the Englishmen sickened of ague and died. Six months later a third was killed in a punitive expedition. The fourth was drowned off Walfisch Bay before another year had elapsed.

The Philanderers - Contents    |     Chapter I

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