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The Philanderers   By: (1865-1948)

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Author of 'The Courtship of Morrice Buckler'



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... Continue reading book >>

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