At the time of the war I had a Cook named Esa, an old man of much sense and a gentle disposition. One day when I was in Mackinnon’s grocery shop in Nairobi, buying tea and spices, a small lady with a sharp face came up to me and remarked that she knew Esa was in my service; I said that it was so. “But he has been with me before,” said the lady, “and I want him back.” I said that I was sorry about that, as she would not get him. “Oh, I do not know about that,” she said. “My husband is a Government Official. Will you please tell Esa when you go home, that I want him back, and that if he does not come he will be taken for the Carrier Corps? I understand,” she added, “that you have got enough servants without Esa.”
I did not tell Esa of these happenings straight away, only the next evening did I remember about them, and told him that I had met his old mistress, and of what she had said to me. To my surprise Esa was immediately beside himself with fear and despair. “Oh, why did you not tell me at once, Memsahib!” said he, “the lady will do what she has told you, and I must leave you tonight.”
“That is all nonsense,” I said. “I do not think that they can take you like that.”
“God help me,” said Esa, “I am afraid it may be too late already.”
“But what am I to do for a Cook, Esa?” I asked him.
“Well,” said Esa, “you will not have me for a Cook either when I am with the Carrier Corps, nor when I am lying dead, as I shall surely then be very soon.”
So deep was the fear of the Carrier Corps in the people in those days that Esa would not listen to anything I had to say. He asked me for the loan of a hurricane-lamp, and set off in the night to Nairobi, with what belongings he had in the world tied up in a cloth.
Esa was away from the farm for nearly a year. During that time I saw him a couple of times in Nairobi and once I passed him on the Nairobi road. He was growing old and thin, and drawn in the face, in the course of this year, his dark round head was going grey on the top. In the town he would not stop to speak to me, but when we met on the flat road and I pulled up my car, he put down the chicken-coop which he was carrying on his head, and settled down to a talk.
He had, as before, a gentle manner, but all the same he was changed, and it was now difficult to get into contact with him; he remained, all through our conversation, absent-minded, as if at a distance. He had been ill-used by fate, and deadly frightened, and had had to draw upon resources unknown to me, and through these experiences he had become chastened or clarified. It was like talking with an old acquaintance who has entered upon his novitiate in a monastery.
He asked me about things on the farm, taking it, as Native servants usually do, that his fellow-servants in his absence were behaving as badly as possible to the white master. “When will the war be over?” he asked me. I said that I had been told that now it would not last much longer. “If it lasts ten years longer,” he said, “you must know that I shall have forgotten to make the dishes you have taught me.”
The mind of the little old Kikuyu, upon the road across the plains, was running upon the same line as that of Brillat-Savarin, who said that if the Revolution had lasted five years longer, the art of making a chicken-ragout would have been lost.
It was obvious that Esa’s regrets were mainly on my behalf, and to put an end to his commiserations I asked him how he was himself. He thought my question over for a minute, there were thoughts which had to be collected from far away before he could answer. “Do you remember, Memsahib?” he said in the end, “that you said it was hard on the oxen of the Indian firewood-contractors to be inspanned every day, and never to have a whole day’s rest, as the farm oxen have got? Now, with the lady, I am like an Indian firewood-contractor’s ox.” Esa looked away when he had spoken, apologetically,—Natives have in themselves very little feeling for animals; my saying about the Indian’s oxen probably had struck him as very far-fetched. That now he should, on his own, come back to it for himself, was to him an unaccountable thing.
During the war it was to me a cause of much annoyance that all letters, which I wrote or received, were opened by a little sleepy Swedish Censor in Nairobi. He can never have found anything the least suspicious in them, but he came, I believe, within a monotonous life, to take an interest in the people on whom they turned, and to read my letters as you read a serial in a magazine. I used to add in my own letters a few threats against our Censor, to be carried out after the end of the war, for him to read. When the end of the war came he may have remembered these threats, or he may on his own have woken up and repented; in any case he sent a runner to the farm with news of the Armistice. I was alone in the house when the runner arrived; I walked out in the woods. It was very silent there, and it was strange to think that it was silent on the fronts of France and Flanders as well,—all the guns had been stilled. In this stillness Europe and Africa seemed near to one another, as if you could have walked by the forest-path on to Vimy Ridge. When I came back to the house I saw a figure standing outside. It was Esa with his bundle. He at once told me that he had come back and that he had brought me a present.
Esa’s present was a picture, framed and under glass, of a tree, very carefully penned down in ink, every one of its hundred leaves painted a clear green. Upon each leaf, in diminutive Arabic letters, a word was written in red ink. I take it that the writings came out of the Koran, but Esa was incapable of explaining what they meant, he kept on wiping off the glass with his sleeve and assuring me that it was a very good present. He told me that he had had the picture made, during his year of trial, by the old Mohammedan priest of Nairobi, it must have taken the old man hours and hours to print it down.
Esa now stayed with me till he died.