Chapter XXXII. The Colours
 

The whole camp was gathered about a number of M'tela's people, who were all talking at once. The din was something prodigious. Kingozi pushed his way rather angrily to the centre of disturbance.

"Here, what is this?" he demanded to know.

But a dead, astonished silence fell upon them all. They stared at him gaping.

"What is it?" repeated Kingozi impatiently.

"But bwana!" cried Cazi Moto. "You see!"

"That is a magic," replied Kingozi curtly. "Now what is all this kalele about?"

"Bwana, these people say that messengers have come in telling of many white men and askaris marching in this direction."

"From where? But that does not matter--are they Inglishee or Duyche?"

"These shenzis do not know the difference."

"That is true. How far away are they?"

"Very near, bwana."

"Get my gun. Have Simba follow me. Here, you lead the way." They marched rapidly through the forest path and past the palace of M'tela, which Kingozi had never seen. The savage king came out, and Winkleman and his bodyguard soon followed.

"Oh, King," said Kingozi. "Now is the time to show to me that your friendship is true. As you know, other white men are coming, with warriors. I do not know yet whether these are Inglishee, who are my friends--and yours--or Duyche, who are my enemies. If they are Duyche they must be attacked and killed or captured, for we are at war."

He watched M'tela carefully while he spoke, and felt satisfaction at what he saw.

"Have no fear, papa," replied M'tela easily. "I will cause the great drums to be beaten. My warriors are as the leaves of the grass; and these are few."

"Nevertheless they will kill many of yours," said Kingozi with great earnestness; "for they have guns that kill many times and at a long distance. When your warriors hear the great noise they make, and see the dead men, they will run." "You do not know the warriors of M'tela," replied the king with dignity. "Should the half of them fall, the other half will give these to the hyenas. Yes, even if they had the thunder itself as weapon!"

"How many are there, oh, King?" asked Kingozi, greatly relieved.

"My men report thirty-one white men and many black men."

"I go now," advised Kingozi, "to look upon these men. Give me guides, and a messenger to send back with news of what I find."

M'tela issued the orders. A moment later Kingozi started on. Winkleman, who had spoken no word, waved him a friendly good-bye. Before they had reached the forest edge the great war drums began to roar.

The guides took them swiftly down the forest path and across the rolling country with the groves. Kingozi looked at it all with curiosity and delight. It seemed to him that never in all his wanderings had he seen so beautiful and variegated a prospect. His blindness had overtaken him, it must be remembered, out on the open dry veldt, between the Great and the Little Rains. It was as though he had awakened from a sleep to find himself in this watered, green, and wooded paradise.

At the top of a hill the guide stopped and pointed. Kingozi gathered that through the distant cleft he indicated the strangers must come. All sat down and waited.

An hour passed. Simba uttered an exclamation. Kingozi raised his glasses. Tiny figures on foot were debouching from the forest. They spread in all directions, advancing in fan-formation. Evidently the scouts. Then more tiny figures, figures on horseback. Kingozi counted them. There were, as M'tela had said, just thirty-one; a gallant little band, but at this distance indistinguishable. They rode out some distance. And at last the first files of the black troops appeared. Kingozi dropped his glasses to the end of its thong with a cheer. Drooping in the still air the colours were nevertheless easily recognized. The flag was of England.

"Inglishee! Inglishee!" he repeated to M'tela's messengers, and made a motion back toward the palace. The men departed at a lope. Kingozi and Simba took the other direction.

They met the newcomers halfway across the long, shallow dish between the wooded hills. On catching sight of them the mounted white men spurred forward. A confusion of greetings stormed them.

"It's Culbertson!" "Where did you rain down from?" "We've been looking for you without end! Isn't this a lark, old man!"

In the meantime, in the personal attendants of these white men, Simba had discovered acquaintances; among them the two messengers Kingozi had despatched back in quest of Doctor McCloud.

Kingozi stood in the middle of the group, his heart overflowing. It was good to see so many white faces again; it was good to see the faces of friends; it was good to know that his labours had not been in vain, and that the border was assured. And underneath it was a great exaltation. He walked on air. For she had not known! The blank astonishment of her face had proved that to him beyond a doubt. She really thought that she had destroyed the pilocarpin; she had not deliberately held from him the light of day!

His high spirits expressed themselves in an animation and volubility so unlike the taciturn Culbertson that many of his acquaintances stared.

"Seems quite bucked up," commented one to another. "Must have had a deuce of a time back here."

"What is this arm of His Majesty's Service, anyway?" Kingozi was asking in general. "I mean the mounted and disreputable portion, not the decent infantry."

"This, my son, is the Settlers' Own Irregulars; and we've come out for to hunt the shy and elusive German."

"Good heads scarce up this way," rejoined Kingozi. "I've caught one specimen myself, however."

"Specimen of what?"

"German. Ever hear of Winkleman?"

"Rather! The native fundi?[19] You don't mean to say you've got him!"

[Footnote 19: Fundi--expert.]

"I've got him. He's the only specimen in these parts. But I can show you several thousand of the best fighting men in Africa--all loyal British allies."

"Good man!" cried a grizzled old settler. "I told 'em you'd do it!"

"But the war?" demanded Kingozi eagerly. "What of the war? Tell me? I know nothing whatever."

One of the younger men dismounted and insisted on delivering his animal to Kingozi.

"Do me good to stretch my legs," said he. "And you've walked your share."

Riding in a little group of the officers Kingozi listened attentively to an account of affairs as far as they were known. The Marne, and the Retreat from Mons straightened him in his saddle. It was worth it; he had done his bit! Whatever the price, it was worth it!

The account finished, Captain Walsh began questioning in his turn.

"Excellent!" he greeted Kingozi's account. "Couldn't be better! We have reasons to believe that the water-holes on this route are mapped by the Germans."

"They are," interrupted Kingozi.

"And that the plan contemplated coming through here, gathering the tribes as they advanced, and finally cutting in on us with a big force from the rear."

"They'll run against a stone wall hereabouts," said Kingozi with satisfaction.

"Lucky for us. I've only four companies--and these settlers. We are really only a reconnaissance."

"How did you happen to follow my route?"

"Ran against the messengers you sent back to get Doctor McCloud. They guided us. By the way, what is it? Must have been serious. You're not a man to run to panics. You look fit enough now."

"Eyes," explained Kingozi. His heart sank, for the failure of his messengers to go on after McCloud took away the last small hope of saving his eyesight.

"Fancy it will be all right," said Captain Walsh vaguely. He was thinking, quite properly, of ways and means and dispositions. "About this sultan, now; what do you advise----"

They rode forward slowly through the high, aromatic grasses, discussing earnestly every angle of policy to be assumed in regard to M'tela. At its close all the white men were called together and given instructions. Even the youngest and most flippant knew natives well enough to realize the value of the structure Kingozi had built, and to listen attentively.

These alternate marches and halts had permitted the foot troops to close up. Kingozi turned in his saddle to look at them. Fine, upstanding black men they were, marching straight and soldierly, neat in their uniforms of khaki, with the dull red tarboush, the blue leggings, the bare knees and feet. They were picked troops from the Sudan, these, fighting men by birth, whose chief tradition was that in case his colonel was killed no man must come back to his woman short of wiping out the last of the enemy. In spite of a long march they walked jauntily. Two mounted white men brought up the rear.

Now they entered the cool forest trail. The sound of distant drums became audible. Men straightened in their saddles. Captain Walsh gave crisp orders. They entered the cleared space before M'tela's palace with colours flying and snare drums tapping briskly.

The full force of M'tela's power seemed to have been gathered, gorgeous in the panoply of war. The forest threw back the roar of drums, of horns, of people chanting or shouting. Straight to the middle of the square marched the Sudanese, wheeled smartly into line. At a command they raised their rifles and fired a volley, the first gunfire ever heard in this ancient forest.