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John Ames Native Commissioner: A Romance of the Matabele Rising

Bertram Mitford

  Produced by Nick Hodson of London, England

  John Ames, Native Commissioner, by Bertram Mitford.


  ________________________________________________________________________JOHN AMES, NATIVE COMMISSIONER, BY BERTRAM MITFORD.



  Madula's kraal, in the Sikumbutana, was in a state of quite unusualexcitement.

  The kraal, a large one, surrounded by an oval ring-fence of thorn,contained some seventy or eighty huts. Three or four smaller kraalswere dotted around within a mile of it, and the whole lay in a wide,open basin sparsely grown with mimosa and low scrub, shut in byround-topped acacia-grown hills bearing up against the sky-line at nogreat distance.

  The time was towards evening, usually the busy time of the day, for thenit was that the cattle were driven in for milking. But now, althoughthe sun was within an hour of the western horizon, no lowing herds couldbe descried, threading, in dappled streams, the surrounding bush,converging upon the kraal. The denizens of the calf-pens might low fortheir mothers, and might low in vain; and this was primarily at the rootof the prevailing excitement.

  In the neighbourhood of the chief's hut squatted six or eighthead-ringed men, sullen and resentful, conversing not much, and in lowmurmurs. At a respectful distance the young men of the kraal clusteredin dark groups; less reserved, judging from the fierce hubbub of angryvoices, which their elders made no effort to restrain. Few women werevisible, and such as were, kept well within the shelter of the huts atthe back of those of the chief, peering forth anxiously, or darting outto retrieve some fat runaway toddler, which seemed to be straying in thedirection of all sorts of imaginary danger. And, in the centre of allthis brewing commotion, quite unconcerned, although clearly the objectof it, stood ten men, or to be more accurate, eleven. These were of thesame colour and build, of the same cast of features, as those aroundthem, but whereas the excited inhabitants of the kraal wore nothing butthe _mutya_, these were clad in neat uniform, consisting of blue sergetunic, red-braided khaki knee-breeches, and fez caps; and while theothers showed no weapons--as yet--save knobsticks, these were armed withMartini rifles and well-filled bandoliers. They consisted, in fact, ofa sergeant and ten men of the Chartered Company's Matabele Police, andto their presence and errand there at that time was due the brooding,not to say dangerous, excitement prevailing. The nature of that errandstood revealed in the _indaba_ then being held between the two opposingparties.

  "Who talks of time?" said the police sergeant, swelling himself out inhis uniform, with the swagger of a native of no class who finds himselfin a position of authority, and by virtue of it qualified to domineerover and flout those of his own race to whom formerly he looked up withdeference. "Who talks of time? You have had time, Madula--more thanenough time--yet the cattle have not been sent in. Now we have come totake them. It is the `word' of the Government."

  A click, expressive of contemptuous disgust, broke from the groups ofbystanders, and with it deep-toned murmurs of savage wrath. But itsonly effect was further to develop the arrogant swagger of the nativesergeant.

  "Keep your dogs quiet, Madula," he said insolently, with a sneeringglance at the murmurers. "_Hau_! A man cannot talk amid such a barkingof curs."

  "A man! _Hau_! A man! A dog rather. A dog--who cringes to those whothrow stones at him and his father's house," they shouted, undeterred bythe presence of their elders and chief; for the familiar, and thereforeimpudent manner in which this uniformed "dog of the Government" haddared to address their chief by name, stung them beyond control. "Whois the `dog'? Nanzicele, the bastard. Not his father's son, for Izwewas a brave man and a true, and could never have been the father of sucha whelp as Nanzicele. _Au_! Go home, Nanzicele. Go home!" theyshouted, shaking their sticks with roars of jeering laughter, in whichthere was no note of real mirth.

  At these insults Nanzicele's broad countenance grew set with fury andhis eyes glared, for beneath the uniform seeming to tell of disciplineand self-restraint, the heart of a savage beat hard--the heart of asavage as fierce and ruthless as that which beat in the dusky breast ofany of those around. A Matabele of pure blood, he had fought in theranks of Lo Bengula during the war of occupation, and that he and othersshould have taken service under their conquerors was an offence theconquered were not likely to forgive. As to his courage though, therewas no question, and for all his insolence and swagger, no qualm ofmisgiving was in his mind as he faced the jeering, infuriated crowd witha savage contempt not less than their own. They represented a couple ofhundred at least, and he and his ten men, for all their rifles andcartridges, would be a mere mouthful to them in the event of a suddenrush.

  "Dogs? Nay, nay. It is ye who are the dogs--all dogs--dogs of theGovernment which has made me a chief," was his fierce retort, as hestood swelling out his chest in the pride of his newly acquiredimportance. "You have no chiefs now; all are dogs--dogs of theGovernment. I--_I_ am a chief."

  "_Hau_! A dog-chief. _Nkose_! We hail thee, Nanzicele, chief of thedogs!" roared some; while others, more infuriated than the rest, beganto crowd in upon the little knot of police. Before the latter couldeven bring their rifles to the present, Madula rose, with both handsoutspread. Like magic the tumult was stayed at the gesture, thoughdeep-toned mutterings still rolled through the crowd like thethreatening of distant thunder.

  The chief, Madula, was an elderly man, tall and powerfully built. Likethe police sergeant he was of the "Abezantzi," the "people from below"--i.e. those from lower down the country, who came up with Umzilikazi, andwho constituted the aristocratic order of the Matabele nation, being ofpure Zulu parentage; whereas many of his tribal followers were not;hence the haughty contempt with which the police sergeant treated themenacing attitude of the crowd. Standing there; his shaven head--crowned with the shiny ring--thrown back in the easy unconscious dignityof command; his tall erect frame destitute of clothing save the _mutya_round the loins--of adornment save for a string of symbolical woodenbeads, the savage chieftain showed to immeasurable advantage ascontrasted with the cheap swagger of the drilled and uniformed convertto the new civilisation who confronted him. Now he spoke.

  "Hearken, Nanzicele. Here we have none of the King's cattle. All wehave is our own. When we sent in such of the King's cattle as wereamong us, we were told to send in more. We asked for time to search andsee if there were a few more that had been overlooked, and we weregranted time. Now we have searched and there are no more. If there areno more we can send no more. Can anything be clearer than that?"

  A full-throated shout of assent went up from the young men. Their chiefhad spoken, therefore there was an end of the matter. Nanzicele and hispolice could now go home, and go empty handed. But Nanzicele had nointention of doing anything of the sort.

  "Then that is your `word,' Madula," he said. "You will send no cattle?"

  "Have I not spoken?" returned the chief. "_Whau_! The Government mustemploy queer messengers if it sends men who cannot understand plainwords. If there are no King's cattle for me to send, how can I sendany? Is not that `word' plain enough, Nanzicele?" And again a shout ofuproarious delight went up from the young men.

  "There is a plainer `word,'" retorted the police sergeant, "and that isthe `word' of the Government. All the cattle in the country are King'scattle, therefore the cattle of Madula are King's cattle, and as Madulawill not send them in I am here to take them. Fare ye well, children ofMadula. You have resisted the arm of the Government, and yo
u haveinsulted its mouth. Fare ye well;" and there was a volume ofthreatening significance in the tone.

  No movement was made to hinder them as the handful of police marched outbetween the serried ranks of dusky forms, the glare of savage animositydarting forth from hostile eyes. But as they gained the outside of thekraal a great roar of derision went up, coupled with allusions whichcaused Nanzicele to scowl darkly. For the incident to which theyreferred was the curt refusal of a follower of Madula to give him one ofhis daughters to wife, at less than the current market value; in whichthe obdurate parent received the full support of his chief, who was innowise disposed to befriend the Government policeman. The man had sincemarried his daughter to somebody else, but Nanzicele had neitherforgotten nor forgiven. And now the young men of the kraal followed himjeering, and improvising songs asking whether Nanzicele had found a wifeyet.

  But soon such good humour as underlay their mirth was turned todownright hate. They had followed the retreating police as far as thebrow of an eminence some little distance from the kraal, and now a sightmet their view which turned every heart black with pent up hostility.Away over the plain a dust cloud was moving, and behind it themulticoloured hides of a considerable herd of cattle. These weretravelling at a swift pace, propelled by the shouts of a number ofrunning figures. The bulk, if not the whole, of Madula's cattle werebeing swept away by the Government emissaries.

  No further time had Madula's people to devote to this handful of police,whom hitherto they had busied themselves with annoying. With long-drawnwhoops of wrath and rally, they surged forward, intent only on retakingtheir cherished, and, in fact, their only possessions. Assegai bladesflashed suddenly aloft, drawn forth from their places of concealment,and the plain was alive with the dark forms of bounding savages. Therewould be a collision and bloodshed, and the country was in no state forthe heaping of fuel upon a smouldering fire.

  But Nanzicele's native astuteness had not been caught napping. He hadbeen prepared for some such move, for his quick glance had not been slowto note that many of those who had followed him from the kraal werearrayed in skin karosses or other nondescript articles of attire,whereas, only just before, except for their _mutyas_, they had beennaked. This could mean nothing but concealed weapons, and when suchwere produced he was ready for the contingency. With hurried, mutteredcommands to his men to hold their rifles in readiness, he pressed themforward at the double, and arrived on the scene of turmoil not muchlater than Madula's excited tribesmen.

  These, for their part, had rushed the situation on all sides, and thingswere already tolerably lively. The scared and maddened cattle, frenziedby the dark forms surging around them front and rear, halted, bunched,"milled" around for a moment in blind unreasoning fear, then broke upand streamed forth over the plain in a dozen different directions,bellowing wildly, and pursued by the whooping, bounding figures in theirrear and on their flanks; and in a few moments, save for long lines oflingering dust-clouds, not one remained in sight. Nanzicele's plan hadmiscarried entirely. In a fury the latter turned upon his corporal.

  "Fool--dog--jackal!" he snarled. "Is this how my orders are obeyed?Instead of carrying them out promptly, were ye all asleep or drinkingbeer with the women? Yonder cattle should have been halfway to Jonemi'sby this time, and lo now, Madula and his herd of Amaholi are laughing atus. Thou, Singisa--I will have thee flogged out of the ranks withraw-hide whips. Was I to keep Madula talking for a moon instead of avery small piece of a day, to give thee time to rest thy lazy carcaseand go to sleep? Ye shall all suffer for this, and dearly."

  But the corporal was not much perturbed by this threat. He merelyshrugged his shoulders.

  "I know not," he said. "But this I know, Nanzicele. Seven men cannotmove quicker than two hundred, and as many were yonder"--pointing in thedirection of the retreating dust-clouds. "And we were under no ordersto fire upon Madula's people, nor indeed do I think we were under ordersto take his cattle at all."

  "Thou art a fool, Singisa," retorted Nanzicele, with a savage scowl.

  But whether Singisa was a fool or not, the fact remained with them thatNanzicele's plan had miscarried. All he had effected by his attempted_coup de main_ was to render the name of the Matabele police a triflemore putrescent in the nostrils of the Matabele than it already was, andin the mean time Madula's cattle were still in Madula's possession.And, after all, that possession is nine points of the law--meaningpresumably nine-tenths--still remains a good old English axiom.