White Magic

JUNE, 1928



TSIOMBÉ is a typical Madagascar frontier post, with the inevitable clay fort and prison, two or three houses built in European style for the use of the French officers, and a number of dilapidated shacks housing Hova and Betsileo traders. Aside from the fort, the most pretentious structure is the house of an Arab merchant, a big square building that looks more like a blockhouse than a dwelling. Its owner established himself here several years before the coming of the French and is now a very rich man and a power among the local natives.

The day following my arrival was the official market day, but when I reached the square I saw few signs of life. About a dozen dispirited-looking native women crouched behind little piles of sweet potatoes or melons, but the only crowd was around the butcher’s booth, where an ox had been killed. The Antandroy did not take kindly to the market idea, which was new to them, and although the Commandant had ordered each clan to send in a certain amount of produce, or an animal to be killed, they seemed to shun the place themselves.

As I was returning to my quarters, I met the Lieutenant’s little daughter out for her morning walk. She was not more than three years old, had frightened brown eyes and skin of the opaque whiteness one often sees in persons who have a touch of dark blood, and was dressed in the French style, with a vestigial skirt that stood out from her waist like a frill. With one hand she clasped a large pink-and-white doll to her bosom, while the other firmly gripped the middle finger of her nurse, a gigantic, very black young man, nude except for an embroidered loin cloth and heavy silver bracelets. A white canvas cap with a large ‘P’ stenciled on it was set jauntily on the side of his head, sole indication that he was a prisoner. When the child saw me she hung back, and he swung her into the curve of his arm and carried her past, explaining with a laugh that she was afraid of strange white people.

The man’s face stayed with me, for his features were as regular as those of a classic bronze, but marred by a certain hard recklessness and by wild eyes that made me think of a thoroughbred stallion. That evening, when I had tea with the Lieutenant and his wife, I saw the pair again. They were sitting opposite each other across an elaborate drawing in the sand, and were so deeply engrossed that they did not even look up when I paused beside them. The drawing represented a native kraal, and they were playing family, with a long splinter of red glass for the husband and buttonlike beads of different colors for the wives. At the moment they were discussing — in Antandroy, of course — the advisability of another marriage. The child was urging it, but the man seemed to think that the three wives already provided were quite enough.

When he noticed me he nodded in a friendly fashion, but made no move to rise or salute. The Lieutenant told me that he was a chief’s son, then doing his third term for cattle stealing, and that he had been the child’s nurse, with a short break when he was discharged at the end of his second sentence, for over two years. His present term would be up in a few days, and the little girl’s mother was in despair at losing him. Of course, she said, he would be back in jail in a month or so, but she would have a hard time in the interim. The servant situation was serious, for hired ones were hard to get and quite unreliable, while prisoners were usually released about the time you got them properly trained.

The talk naturally turned on cattle stealing and the Government’s efforts to stamp it out, which had so far been quite unsuccessful. Among the Antandroy ordinary theft is regarded with horror, and the habitual thief is punished with disownment and expulsion from the clan. This penalty is worse than death, for it condemns a man to vagabondage and beggary, here and in the next world. Cattle stealing, on the other hand, is a legitimate occupation favored by young men of spirit. In the good old days, say fifteen years ago, it was customary for whole villages or even clans to engage in cattle raids. The raiders would lie hidden near a village until the herd was driven out at dawn, then swoop down upon the drowsy guards, and drive the cattle off to the accompaniment of a lively rearguard action in which much ammunition was wasted but few lives lost. Now the thief plies his trade by stealth, creeping up to the kraal under cover of darkness, quietly cutting a hole in the fence, and driving out as many cattle as he thinks he can get away with. If he succeeds in taking them to a place of safety, he is a winner by the established rules of the game, and his glory is only slightly dimmed if the Government takes them from him afterward. That he should be jailed as well is only another evidence that the mental processes of the vazaha (white man) are inexplicable. Everyone wishes him better luck next time, and even the loser will rarely appeal to the Government, for he usually knows that his own record in that line will not stand too close inspection.

The Commandant told of one occasion when he had picked up a young man who was driving eighteen head of stolen cattle, the rightful owners having given up the pursuit. The thief confessed at once. ' Do you know,’ said the Commandant, ‘when that man had served his sentence he came to me and wanted a government certificate to show he had eighteen cattle when I caught him. Said he wanted to get married when he went home, and it would give him the pick of the girls in his village. Espèce d’un cochon malade!


I remained at Tsiombé over a week, working with native informants and planning the next leg of my journey with the help of the Commandant. To the south and west of the post lay a long stretch of practically unknown country, crossed, near its western end, by the vague and once bitterly disputed march between the Antandroy and their neighbors the Mahafaly. The clans of this region were reputed excellent fighters and, although, they had nominally submitted, the Government had not tried to bring them under real control, thinking it better to let sleeping dogs lie. There was a rough map of the territory, drawn from native reports, but experience proved this to be worse than useless. After some discussion I decided to make a day’s march due south to Faux Cap, a settlement on the coast which boasted an abandoned fort, a few fishermen’s huts, and a miniature harbor safe for very small craft. From there I would go westward along a broad valley which paralleled the coast, four or five miles inland. Another day along this would bring me into the unexplored territory. It seemed unwise to try to take soldiers into this region, so I left my guard at the fort.

Trouble threatened at the very outset of the trip, for the bearers were unusually slow in coming in, and the Commandant seized the son of one chief who had failed to send in his quota and pressed him into service, insisting that I use him on my own filanzana (sedan chair). The chief threatened reprisals, and after talking it over with the boy I agreed to let him go if he would provide a good substitute. Another bearer pleaded to be released on the grounds that he was a minstrel by profession, not a borijano (laborer). He had his instrument with him to prove it — a clever imitation of a European violin, hollowed from a single block of wood and with a row of dancing figures carved along the back. The chief of the village where he was staying at the time had pressed him into service as a vagrant without visible means of support, from which I gathered that the lot of the artist is as hard in Madagascar as it is elsewhere. I could not let him go, but promised to give him an extra gift at the end of the trip if he would fiddle and sing to keep the men in good spirits.

The Commandant himself was going as far as Faux Cap on a tour of inspection, so we set out together. After two or three miles the chief’s son’s substitute appeared, and I thought he had kept, his promise to provide a good one, for the man was the largest native I had ever seen. He might have stood as a model for Hercules, complete even to the thick curling beard and oxlike expression. The young chief dived into the brush without as much as a nod of farewell, and I saw that the Commandant was not sorry to have him go. It soon developed that the substitute, although willing enough and as strong as any two of the others, was feeble-minded and had to be manœuvred somewhat as one would handle an elephant.

We passed a number of villages, and I wondered what the people found to live on, for we saw no cultivated fields and the soil was a fine white sand. At one of these we found everybody busy building a new tomb, a big platform of rough masonry at least forty feet square and five feet high. A long line of men and women came trotting out of a sort of tunnel in the brush, moving in single file and carrying big gray stones on their heads. As each reached the tomb he placed his stone and trotted on, disappearing down another tunnel. Although we halted and watched them for several minutes, the line was never broken and they paid no attention to us, going about their work as steadily as big ants busy about their nest.

A little later we came to a place where narrow pits, about two feet deep, had been dug across the road to catch young locusts. The bearers explained that though the locust swarms traveled on a wide front they were always thickest on the road, where the bare ground made travel easy. In all the villages we passed we found quantities of the insects laid out on mats to dry, and late that afternoon we caught up with the swarm itself, a seething mass of dark brown wingless hoppers about an inch long. The bearers fell upon them gleefully, scooping them up in their hats and packing them away in their lambas and rice bags, so that for the rest of the day we moved in an aroma of crushed grasshoppers. That evening my cook came sidling into my room with a grin and presented me with a bowl of dark brown fluid, crusted an inch deep with them — locust soup. It proved too highly flavored for my taste and I threatened to throw it at him, at which he fled, laughing.

As we approached the village where we had planned to halt for lunch, we heard shouting and the sound of drums and conches. A ceremony of some sort was going on, and the bearers began to grin and talk about hena (fresh meat). When we entered the clearing we saw a herd of at least two hundred cattle milling about, and farther on a mob of yelling men who surged back and forth, the sun gleaming on the heads of their spears. When they saw the Commandant the shouting stopped suddenly, and after a moment of confusion the chief came forward with a rather sheepish greeting. Theoretically his people had been disarmed, and he knew that the Government could make trouble for him if it wished. The Commandant put him at his ease, and after a few minutes’ friendly talk about the crops and the birth rate, during which the spears disappeared as if by magic, asked what was going on.

It appeared that they were trying to drive off a malevolent ghost which had frightened away a man’s soul and was consuming his body. The chief led us to the sufferer, a tall, yellow man in the last stage of some wasting disease. His skin had shrunk tight to his bones and his face was the face of death itself. He hung limply, with sagging knees, in the arms of a young woman who watched him solicitously and sprinkled him from time to time with water from a little bowl. We told them to go on with the ceremony, and the men formed in a crescent about twenty yards from the sick man, then came charging down, shouting, waving clubs, and yelling threats against the ghost. When they reached the victim they stopped short, stamping and howling, but he did not even notice them. The girl tried to lift his head, but it fell forward again the moment she took her hand away. Time after time they reformed and charged, but he gave no heed. At last the men began to straggle off to their food. The girl carried him away, his feet trailing, and laid him on a mat in the shade, seating herself beside him. Whenever I glanced in that direction I saw that she was still there, quiet as a statue except that one arm moved steadily and mechanically, fanning away the flies.

When we had eaten and were ready to go, the chief came to us hesitatingly. Their own magic had failed, but should we be willing to fire a volley from our guns to drive the ghost away? Ghosts were very much afraid of guns. ‘Certainly,’ said the Commandant, crisp and businesslike. ‘Tell your men to get their spears, and we’ll drive it away once for all. The man may not get well, for I can see that his own soul has been away for a long time,’ — at this the chief nodded,— ‘but we’ll teach that ghost to obey government orders.’ The chief shouted and the woman dragged the sick man to his feet. If it had not been for the looseness of his joints I should have thought him already dead. The warriors came running with their weapons, and the Commandant marshaled them into a ragged line, a little farther off this time, to get a better start. I passed my gun to my interpreter, drawing my pistol, and the three of us took the centre. ‘ Allons! cried the Commandant, and we charged down, feet pounding, spears waving, and all of us yelling at the top of our lungs. Within a yard of the sick man we pulled up short and fired a volley into the air. Somehow it broke through. He straightened, shook off the woman’s hands, took a single wavering step, and then began a hideous dance macabre with tight-shut eyes, and yellow teeth gleaming between his shriveled lips. Round and round he spun, his head waggling horribly and his skeleton arms and hands flopping as though they had been disjointed. Round and round, while the warriors yelled and clapped in a frenzy and something like a cold wind touched the roots of my hair. Then he crumpled suddenly, as a man falls when shot through the brain. . . . Looking back as we rode away, I saw him lying on the mat with the girl beside him, fanning away the flies. L suppose he died that night, but ghosts and men alike had been taught the power of the white man.

We had lost a good deal of time at the noon halt, but the bearers were quite willing to push on to Faux Cap that night. They had all got a share of the oxen that had been sacrificed, and were in high spirits. When the sun began to sink they struck up a song, with a fine deep-throated chorus. The Commandant played orchestra conductor, keeping time with wide flourishes of his walking stick, and the minstrel trotted up and down the line making inconsequential noises on his fiddle. A red sunset flared up and died almost as quickly as the light from some great explosion, and a flat, blue-white moon rode overhead, so bright that it pained the eyes to look at it. Its cold, fierce light struck furtive gleams from the sand underfoot and filled the brush with hard, clear blacks and an infinite variety of grays that hinted at richer tints, as though they were the ghosts of dead colors. As we went southward the brush grew thinner, the massed thorn giving place to low bushes, stunted trees that leaned all one way, and coarse dry grass that squeaked underfoot. There was a steady wind in our faces, faint at first, but growing stronger as the hours passed. Looking down from the filanzana, I could see that the whole surface of the ground was moving in little whirls and eddies, like deep, swift waters seen from a bridge. The bearers still chanted, but under and through their voices I began to catch another sound, faint but insistent as the drones of a bagpipe —the whisper of the moving sand.

A line of gleaming white appeared where the pale gray earth met the blue-gray sky. It mounted slowly, and little indentations began to notch its top. Up and up it went, until we stood at the foot of a great rampart of dunes, the land’s defenses against the sea. The bearers toiled upward, sinking to the ankle at every step, with no breath left for singing. A deep throbbing note began to mix with the dry rustling of the sand, coming in sudden puffs, then dying away again. We topped the crest, and for a moment I caught the full roar of the sea and saw a long line of spouting reefs, then we dipped down into a grove of ironwoods, planted long ago to guard the fort from the sands. We plodded through these, over ground laced with shadows as fine as spider webs, and came out on the upper platform of the fort. The guardian was on hand to welcome us, and I slept that night in one of the old casements. This was ordinarily used as a shed for drying fish, and smelled accordingly, but I was too tired to care.


I had promised the bearers a day’s rest, because of the hard trip ahead, and passed the time in strolling along the beach and bathing in a pool shallow enough to be safe from sharks. The little harbor had a natural breakwater, a long ledge of rock which rose two or three hundred yards offshore and ran parallel to the beach for nearly a mile. A single narrow break at the eastern end gave access to the quiet water inside. The wind was still blowing a gale, and the great rollers came marching in from the south in orderly procession, striking the reef with a noise like artillery and throwing up great columns of white spray. The harbor seemed to be several feet lower than the sea outside, and water was pouring over the barrier in a steady clear cascade. The beach was the color of ivory and the harbor water a clear, cool green, barred at one place with rays of light that seemed to strike upward from the bottom. As I walked, I picked up tinted shells and wave-worn fragments of giant eggs, while little gray sand crabs fled like puffs of dry seaweed driven along by the wind.

To the west of the harbor I came upon a mass of piled-up rocks jutting out into the ocean. Flying sand had carved them into shapes as fantastic as the mountains in a Chinese landscape, and I soon found a nook where I could sit sheltered from sun and wind and renew my acquaintance with the sea. Waves were breaking within a few yards of me, and I wondered again why only the Japanese have been able to see and draw them properly. I watched how each wave mounted up, curving like a drawn bow, then crashed, not into the ineffectual white fluff our artists show, but into a strange glassy foliage, thin flying sheets of water notched at the edges and pierced with holes, like gigantic lichens. I suppose that few white people ever find time really to look at the sea, but simple races who live with and by it are more fortunate. I knew a girl in Tahiti once whose name, a single short and musical word, meant: ‘The thin white line that runs quickly along the crest of a wave at the instant it begins to break.’

When the waves began to pall a little, I turned my attention to the rightful owners of the rocks, a cohort of olive-green crabs. They had all taken cover at first:, but as I sat perfectly still they concluded that I was harmless and might even prove edible, and began to come out one by one. The younger members of the community were, as usual, the more daring. I watched one little fellow crawl cautiously to the mouth of his cave and stand there poised for retreat. His black button eyes were thrust up to the very limit of their stalks, and his mouth worked furiously. After watching me for several minutes he concluded that one eye was enough for that, and while his right held me with an unmoving stare his left began to revolve slowly, sweeping the horizon for other dangers. Convinced that the coast was clear, he began to sidle toward me, with many halts, and had almost reached my foot when a sudden fit of nerves sent him scuttling back to his doorway. He recovered almost at once and began another advance.

A number of his neighbors had come to their own doors by this time, although none had ventured into the open, and I suspected that from their coigns of safety they were cheering the hero on in quite human fashion. He reached my foot and stood there, apparently straining his eyes to see the top of this enormous white object, then slowly reached out a claw and gave my toe a judicious nip. I knocked him two or three feet with a quick movement, and he landed on his back, spun around for an instant with his legs waving frantically, flopped over, and fled in such panic that he tried to enter the wrong house and received a warm welcome from the indignant owner.

The others had all ducked under cover at the movement, but were soon out again. As I did not assume the offensive, they slowly moved away from their holes, taking care to give my foot a wide berth, and began to go about their regular business, sidling jerkily over the green slime that coated the rocks just above water line. Two or three of the larger waited until full normality had returned, then came out and calmly drove their smaller relatives from the best feeding places. At last even the hero appeared, but he seemed to be suffering from shell shock, for the least commotion sent him rushing home.

A glint of red drew my eyes to a hole just below tide line, its opening almost blocked by a large bright-colored claw that opened and shut hungrily. I went to investigate, thereby throwing the green crabs into spasms, and found that this individual was a regular anchorite, walled up alive in his cell. When I presented a small stick, by way of visiting card, he nipped it cleanly in two. I soon convinced myself that I should need a cold chisel to make his closer acquaintance, and as there was none within forty or fifty miles I strolled back to the fort, chuckling at the ramifications of crab society. I should have laughed more heartily if I could have rid myself of an uneasy feeling that we probably appeared equally humorous to some large intelligence sitting quietly in the background.

The fort had been built to guard the harbor in the days of small wooden sailing ships. It had been a part of those magnificent plans which once gave France, on paper, the largest colonial empire in the world. Its usefulness had always been doubtful, and it had now been abandoned for many years. On the seaward side it towered at least fifty feet above the beach, a sheer wall of creamy-coral rock, etched and pitted by the sand. Elsewhere the dunes had encroached until they threatened to overwhelm it. There were no signs that it had ever been bombarded, but the years had reduced it to a half-ruinous shell in which only two or three rooms were habitable. The guns had long since been removed, and most of the wood and metal stolen by the natives. The only regular resident was a huge tortoise who, I was told, had lived for many years on the old gun platform facing the sea. I found him strolling along the parapet with the leisurely dignity of a general. He ignored my advances, even when I tried to stop him with my foot, and proved amazingly strong. Finally I managed partially to anchor him by sitting on him, but even then he seemed indignant rat her than frightened, conscious, no doubt, of the rigid taboo that protected all his race among the local natives.

I turned in early, but found myself unable to sleep because of the wind. It blew steadily, sweeping through the empty walls with a deep vibrant note that tightened the nerves to snapping. At last even my bed began to quiver to it, and in desperation I dressed and went out into the moonlight. Everyone else, including the tortoise, seemed to be asleep, but as I paced up and down on the gun platform a quavering voice hailed me from somewhere in the shadows. My cook wanted to know whether I really was up at such an unearthly hour or whether he was seeing my ghost, which, as everyone knows, goes its own way while the body is sleeping. I reassured him and continued my walk, reflecting that the setting deserved a ghost of some sort. It was strange that no earth-bound spirit haunted the empty casements. There must have been passions enough here once, for I could imagine the horrors of garrison duty in such a place, and the hates and intrigues that must have coiled like a nest of serpents among that handful of men cooped up between the hostile desert and the sea, and dependent even for food on ships that might come once a year. The wind began to die at last; I went in and slept fitfully until dawn.


The next morning I said farewell to the Commandant with real regret. Like most of the officers of the French Colonial Army whom I have known, he was an honest and gallant gentleman who tried to deal justly with the natives and had their best interest at heart. He had won their respect and liking, and it grieved me to think that as soon as the work of pacification was done he would be sent to some other frontier, leaving these people, who had learned to honor France in him, to the tender mercies of civilian administrators, many of whom were men of a very different stamp.

I had found it impossible to get a guide for the whole trip, the natives explaining that the people of each clan remained in their own territory, except for occasional cattle raids against their neighbors. Finally a young man volunteered to take me a day’s march west; beyond that I should have to trust to luck. However, I anticipated little difficulty in getting myself passed on from village to village, as I knew each chief would be anxious to make my stay in his territory as brief as possible. Even the guide was late in coming in, and it was nearly nine o’clock before we got under way.

The great storm which I had encountered earlier in my trip had swept across this corner of the island, bringing the desert to life here too, and I was amazed at the number and variety of the flowers. Both sides of the path were lined for miles with almost solid banks of some low shrub or bush which was studded thick with phloxlike flowers of yellow, salmon, or clear pink. The plants were so close and regular that it was hard to believe that this was not a planted border. Little blueflowered vines sprawled across the path itself, and the big cactus bushes were ablaze with yellow and orange bloom. Here and there larger trees rose above the scrub, their dark green splashed with orange clusters of long tubular flowers not unlike those of the trumpet vine.

In several places I saw colonies of large white snail shells hanging from twigs two or three feet above the ground and swaying gently in the wind. I thought at first that it might be some curious hibernation habit of the snails themselves, but found that they were all dead shells which had been taken over by spiders, and that the filaments which suspended them were spider silk. The spiders I found in them were small, although certainly adult, and I still cannot imagine how they lifted these ponderous mansions, which were forty or fifty times their own weight. As I rode on through the banked flowers I had a vague feeling that something was lacking, and realized at last that there were no butterflies and no birds. The only wild things we saw that day were two or three huge tortoises, which my men carefully avoided, and little lizards which scuttled away half erect, their front feet clear of the ground.

After four hours’ travel through a maze of cattle paths which became less and less distinct, we came to a little village, half a dozen tiny wooden huts in a small clearing. The people were friendly, but had no food they could offer the white man, not even a chicken. At last I asked whether I could get fresh milk, and a cow was driven up in haste. A small boy led up her calf and held it in front of her, where she could lick it occasionally, and a girl rubbed her under the tail while a man milked. I had wished them to use one of my pans, but there was some taboo against this and we compromised on a new gourd. I dined well enough on milk and cactus fruit, but the bearers had only a few spoonfuls of sour milk apiece and grumbled considerably. Most of their wrath was directed against the guide, who had promised to bring us to a large village and now confessed that he was completely lost. The villagers offered another in his place, and I let him go with a reprimand.

As we went westward I began to understand why the country had remained unexplored. The thorny scrub was the thickest I had seen so far and was threaded by a network of narrow twisting trails, all of which looked unused. It was almost impossible to travel by compass, and unless one had the help of the natives one might wander for days without striking a village or water hole. Our new guide picked his way unerringly and brought us, late in the afternoon, to a town of about thirty houses. The chief, an intelligent-looking young man, ordered the women to bring food for the bearers, and they were soon gorging themselves from big bowls filled with a mixture of fresh milk and curds. He also presented me with two chickens, manioc, and melons, and indignantly refused payment. ‘The vazaha,’ he said, ‘is my father and mother [a common form of courtesy]. If I feed his slaves for nothing, how can I take pay from him?’

One of the young men had an almost clean loin cloth, which at once caught my eye, and when I saw that he wore his hair cut short I concluded that he must be a newly released long-term prisoner who had not had time to acquire the usual coat of dirt. When he saw I was looking at him he went into his house and came out wearing a trench helmet and a Croix do Guerre hung around his neck on a string. Advancing to within three paces, he came to attention, brought his bare heels together with a slap, and saluted smartly. I returned the salute and gave him ‘At ease,’ then inquired his regiment. He had served in France for three years, been wounded and decorated. ‘I was a volunteer,’ he said proudly; then, as he saw my look of surprise, ‘There was no fighting here. I heard there was a great war andafy [“over the way,” everywhere outside Madagascar], so I went.’ When he found that I had also been a volunteer and that we had fought in the same battle in Champagne, he dashed back to his house and brought me three eggs, which he put into my hands. He accepted a cigarette and lit it with one of my matches, to the whispering awe of the other villagers, after which we were friends for life. By this time the chief had become restive, and it was plain that there was no love lost between himself and this seasoned man of the world. I did not dare to offer him a cigarette, for he would certainly have muffed it, but I let him fill his pipe from my pouch and lit it for him, thus reestablishing his supremacy.

The three of us strolled about the village until we came to a hut which was considerably larger than the rest and set somewhat apart. To the east of it stood a clump of heavy pointed posts about five feet high, relics of past sacrifices. This was the house of the village ombiasy (medicine man) and we found him inside, a withered, red-eyed old fellow, who crouched in the darkest corner and watched me like a trapped animal. He had heard that his trade had been forbidden by the Government, and was afraid that I had come to arrest him. At first he would onlygrunt, but I finally reassured him, and then put him at his case by proving to him that I was myself a member of his craft. I tried to question him, but he soon turned the tables on me, cross-examining me on European doctors, their methods, and particularly their fees. The soldier had brought back tales of their marvelous cures, done for nothing, and he felt, that his own business might sometime be threatened. When I told him that only soldiers were treated free and that our doctors charged other people as much as they could pay, quite as in Madagascar, he seemed relieved.

I gave him some practical advice on the treatment of wounds and a little quinine to use for fever, after which he sold me several charms at professional rates. The talk finally shifted to religion, and he asked me whether it was true that the white man’s God was satisfied if you prayed and sang to him, and did not demand sacrifices. He had heard rumors to that effect, but was much too shrewd to believe them. I finally convinced him that such was the case, and he remarked that it must be a cheap religion, but very poor picking for the priests. He then asked whether I was a priest myself, and when I denied it he nodded wisely, saying: ‘I thought not. You are too fat.’

We started on at gray dawn, while most of the village slept. Only the chief and the soldier came to see us off, but I noticed that several of the older women were up, beating the bushes over gourds to collect the heavy dew. The nearest drinkable water was four hours’ march from the village. Just as we were leaving, the soldier, speaking casually and in French, warned me to be on my guard at the next village, as there were bad people there. As I knew they belonged to another clan, probably hostile to my hosts, I thought little of this.

When we had covered two or three miles I began to hear a faint, rather high-pitched tonk, tonk, tonk, as though someone a block or two away were beating a large tin can with a stick. It was plainly a drum of some sort, but the rhythm was broken and irregular, quite unlike that of ordinary dance drums. It was impossible to tell its direction, and although it went on for nearly an hour, while we traveled steadily, its volume never seemed to vary. During an interval I thought I caught another and fainter drumming, but could not be sure. The bearers professed ignorance with such unanimity that I knew it must be something important and concluded that it was a signal drum, sending ahead word of my coming. I was rather elated at this, for ‘drum talk’ had never been reported from the island, and it was another proof that I was getting into the unknown.


The village where we halted that noon was even larger than the one where we had spent the night, and the people of very different temper. Nearly all the men carried spears rather ostentatiously, and the chief had to be sent for. There was a quarter of an hour’s delay, and when he did appear he declared insolently that there was no food in the village, although I could see several chickens walking about and manioc drying on the roofs of most of the huts. His men began to grin and a number of them collected about my baggage, making sneering remarks to my unarmed bearers. The situation called for quick action, so without further parley I drew my pistol and shot one of the chickens, ordering my cook to go and pick it up and to help himself to as much manioc as he needed. The chief started to take to his heels at the report, but came back meekly enough when I called him. I gave him a rather large price for the food, telling him to pay the owners later, and suggested that it would be better for him to stay with me during the balance of my visit, in case I needed anything else. He agreed readily, and seemed considerably impressed both by the size of my .45 and by the ease with which it came from its holster. The French usually carry diminutive popguns, strapped in.

There was no further trouble, but I cut the noon halt as short as I could without loss of dignity, and was glad when we were well away from the place. I took the chief along for the first hour or so, as a precaution against attack. The houses here were of a new type, wickerwork plastered with cow dung, on which designs had been modeled.

Fortunately, the guide whom we had gotten that morning knew his way to the next village, although it was a long march. A few minutes after we started I caught the throbbing of the drums, and knew that our late hosts were broadcasting an account of the visit. I could only hope that they were not arranging an ambush of some sort, for the country was ideal for it. The trail was so narrow that the filanzana men found it difficult to walk abreast, and twisted in and out through the impenetrable thorn scrub until I lost all sense of direction. When I finally released the chief he was somewhat the worse for wear. I had requested him to walk to the right, and a little ahead of me, and the filanzana bearers took delight in shouldering him into thorn bushes.

The sun went down with tropical suddenness, and the men were soon struggling along in almost complete darkness. The bearers began to wish loudly for a light, and I debated whether it would not be wisest to halt and wait for moonrise. Remembering that the chief had probably got home by now and might be organizing trouble of some sort, I decided against it. The men were having so much difficulty that I finally brought out a strong electric. flashlight, which I reserved for serious occasions, and threw the beam ahead. I wondered what they would make of this new proof of the white man’s magic, but the effect was disappointing. Even the wild guide took the cold light as a matter of course and danced before it, flapping his lamba and laughing at the grotesque batlike shadow he cast. All felt that it was natural for the white man to meet an emergency adequately, and would have been more surprised if I had failed them. A flare of yellow light behind us told me that, my interpreter had also proved equal to the occasion. He had taken off one of his socks, thrust a candle into the toe, and lit its wick through one of the holes. In a few minutes the whole end of the sock was grease-soaked and ablaze, making a very serviceable torch.

At about eight o’clock, distant shouts told us that we had been sighted from the village. The brush had become thinner, with open glades, and I soon made out a bobbing mass of lights which was moving toward us. This set my mind at rest, for any attack would have been made in darkness. A few minutes later we were surrounded by a crowd of natives, men and women, who waved torches, danced, and shouted. It was a wild scene, with the flickering light reflected from the glistening black skins and throwing sudden gleams when it caught on some spearhead or knife hilt, or on the silver plaques the women wore on their breasts.

One man, whom I took to be the chief, shouldered his way through the press and dropped a live chicken into my lap. He had forgotten to tie it, and although I made a quick grab it dived earthward, instantly becoming the centre of a regular football scrimmage. Finally the chief brought it back, squawking dismally and minus most of its feathers, I gave him a coin, and after much shouting and arm waving he managed to silence the crowd and to marshal them into two lines, one on either side of the path. Then he gave an order and they began to sing and clap, while three or four young women danced ahead of us toward the village. My interpreter said that they had heard the incidents of the noon halt, to the last detail, and were delighted that I had called the chief’s bluff. The two villages were hostile, hence the warmth of my reception.

The largest house in the village had been hastily cleared out for me, and after I had eaten, the chief and two or three old men paid me a visit. He began by offering me company for the night, which I politely declined, pleading fatigue, and then launched into a long and complicated speech for which I had to summon the interpreter. The gist of it was that he and his people were much pained by the insult which the chief of the last village had paid the fanzakana (Government) in my person, and if I could spare two or three days we could go back and clean that village up. He had plenty of young men, and with a vazaha to lead them there could be no doubt of the outcome. I declined, showing the proper amount of regret, and basing my refusal on imaginary orders to go through this territory as rapidly as possible, without halting for private wars. My visitors sighed, for they had hoped for a profitable cattle raid under government auspices, but they understood that orders were orders, and we parted the best of friends. Next morning the whole village assembled once more and gave us a grand send-off, accompanying us singing and dancing for two or three miles.

The bearers had been well fed and were in high spirits. They did most of the morning’s march at a dog trot, but when we came to the noon halt I found the village ready and waiting for us. The drums must have been at work again, although this time I had not heard them. The streets of the little town were swept clean, food was laid out for the bearers on mats, and the chief and medicine man were waiting outside the gate of the cactus stockade to receive me.

The chief, a dignified, middle-aged man whose hawk nose and light color proved some far-off mixture of Arab blood, carried his lamba over his arm, to show he was not concealing a weapon. He greeted me gravely, raising his right arm in the old Roman salute, and welcomed me to his village. I found it hard to give him my full attention, for the medicine man was the most amazing object I had so far encountered. He had somehow got the remains of two pairs of trousers, of very different size and material, and wore one leg of each, the balance being wrapped sash-wise around his waist. His shoulders were covered by a short cape, cut from an old green blanket and fastened in front with an enormous iron cinch buckle, and his hat was a clever imitation of a French trench helmet, woven from stiff grass and stained blue. Around his neck hung the red-lacquered can of a well-known brand of American pipe tobacco, and he leaned nonchalantly on a wooden spear and what I at first took to be a flintlock musket. Closer inspection proved this to be made of wood, sheathed in tin from old cans, but I was amazed at the cleverness of the reproduction. Even the lock was exact.

When the chief had finished, the medicine man strutted forward and began a long oration. From time to time he lifted the tobacco can and flashed the sun into my eyes with it. Although I could only understand part of what he said, I gathered that he was comparing me to the sun in terms by no means complimentary to the latter. My interpreter whispered that he was an ombiasy of great power, but a little mad, like most people who have been on too intimate terms with spirits. After perhaps ten minutes of this he opened his tobacco can, drew out a folded paper, and presented it to me with a flourish. ‘Taratasy volamena [gold paper],’ he said solemnly, and stepped back to watch the effect. It; was a single page torn from some jeweler’s colored catalogue, and showed watch chains on one side and bracelets on the other. I could imagine its effect on his countrymen, who believe gold is a supernatural being and consider all printed matter government orders.

I pretended to read it, returned it to him, and shook hands, then asked where he had gotten the can. He said it had been brought to him by his magic, and, remembering my early efforts to get American tobacco, I was inclined to believe him. Out of curiosity I asked whether he would sell it, and he offered to let me have it for two cows. The paper he would not part with on any terms, and I found that he had been exhibiting it for many years as an official permission to practise sorcery.

Formalities ended, we entered the stockade. The bearers dived for the food, but my cook kept them off until he had selected the two best melons for me and a bowl of curds and milk for himself. The last was a lengthy process, as he had to shake all the bowls, one after the other, to see which had the most curds. The moment he had taken my share, the men produced spoons and fell to. While they were eating I strolled about the village with the chief and medicine man. The women and children had taken cover in the houses and I could see them watching me from doorways and around corners, but they refused to be enticed out. The chief explained scornfully that they were afraid, having never seen a white man, and offered to order them into the open, but it seemed best not to press the point. In one corner of the enclosure we came upon the signal drum, a wooden cylinder about four feet long with a slot in the side, but when I tried to get some details of the method of signaling my guides professed complete ignorance. It was plain that they did not want to have any foreigner listening in.


At last we reached the medicine man’s house and he invited me to enter, which I did with difficulty, lying down and wriggling through the tiny door. After the glare outside I could see nothing for a time, then I made out row after row of weird figures which lined the walls from top to bottom. He had carved these, he said, to represent things the ghosts showed him in dreams. Most of them seemed to be human beings or animals, but their attitudes and combinations showed a sort of insane humor that made me think of Goldberg’s comic drawings. The effect was heightened by the outlandish colors with which they were smeared, and the light of the fire, on which he had thrown a handful of dry grass, made them waver and dance as though alive. I fancied that one glance at them must have been enough to put his clients in the proper frame of mind.

Across the rear of the house there was the usual shelf, piled high with odds and ends, but when I stretched out my hand toward it he warned me hastily that a spirit lived there and might injure me. He spoke to it, explaining who and what I was, and a faint whistling and cheeping seemed to come from high up in the shadows, probably a clever bit of ventriloquism. Then he exhibited the contents of the shelf with the true pride of a collector. His most prized specimens were a broken mousetrap, an old hatbox of sole leather, which bore the nearly obliterated name of some English firm, and a celluloid collar. When I explained the use of the latter he put it on over his cape, tying the ends together with a bit of string. He explained that, knowing the power of the white men, he had procured as many of their things as he could. I asked whether any of them had ever visited the village, and he said no, but he had seen one once, when he made a long journey to the north.

When we had emerged from the hut I felt that the circumstances called for a little magic of my own, so I filled my pipe and lit it with a burning glass. Both the chief and he carried pipes of some translucent green stone that looked almost like jade, and when they had filled them from my pouch I offered to light them in the same way. The chief hesitated, but his young men’s eyes were on him and he stepped forward manfully, although his hand shook so that I found it hard to focus on the bowl. The medicine man came next and took it nonchalantly, quoting the old native proverb: ‘If the white man could raise the dead, there would be no difference between him and God.’ The other men then pressed about me, producing their pipes, but although I gave them tobacco I refused to light for them, saying the sun fire was too sacred for common people to use.

The chief asked, with some trepidation, whether I expected to stay overnight, telling me that at another village, only three hours away, there was a new house that would be free from vermin. He would provide a guide, and we could make it before sunset. I agreed, and after lunch we started on again. When we had been traveling for about, an hour the guide told me that it would take four hours instead of three, and finally raised the estimate to six. When darkness came he confessed that he had lost his way, but was sure he could find it again in daylight. I put him under guard, in case he had deliberately tried to lead us astray, and we made a dry camp in one of the glades.

The men did little grumbling, and from their talk they evidently thought the mistake was a real one. In any case they were now too far from home to bolt. I still had a melon and two or three carefully kept cans of meat, and the men had hoarded a little dried manioc, which they now boiled in cactus juice, taking turns at my aluminum cooking pots. They built half a dozen big fires to keep off the chill, and squatted about them, chattering contentedly. The minstrel even played and sang for them. I knew it would be bitterly cold before morning and did not try to put up my bed. Instead I scooped a hole in the still-warm sand and rolled up in my blankets.

As I lay there looking at the sky I could make out the faint cone of the zodiacal light away to the westward, and wondered idly whether our earth really wore a ring like Saturn’s, and thought of the cold, silent immensity of space. Far to the north I could see Orion swinging low, but the other stars were all strangers. A wave of loneliness swept me, sudden and blind as the first terror of a trapped animal. I wanted to go over and squat with the bearers, to join in their sleepy chatter, and to hear again of little intimate things, wives and children and the gossip of village loves and hates. Then I remembered the words of the old ombiasy: ‘If the white man could raise the dead, there would be no difference between him and God.’ He had said it without a hint of jest or mockery, quietly, as one states a well-known truth. I thought of all the men of my race who had labored and died to fix this role upon me, and knew that I must play it through or prove a traitor to my own blood. Poor, toiling, lonely gods, I hoped no memories came to break their rest, no dreams, no larger vision. They had been so blissfully certain, those who thought at all, of the value and virtue of their work, that the gift of clear sight would have been the crowning irony.

The grass rustled as my interpreter came up. Two of the bearers had touches of fever and needed quinine. By the time I had attended to them the mood had passed, and I slept soundly until the dawn chill wakened me.