Esa, who was taken away from me during the war, after the armistice came back and lived on the farm peacefully. He had a wife by the name of Mariammo, a thin, black, hard-working woman, who carried firewood to the house. Esa was the gentlest servant I ever had, and quarrelled with nobody.
But something had happened to Esa in his exile, and he had come back changed. Sometimes I was afraid that he might imperceptibly die on me, like a plant that has had its roots cut through.
Esa was my Cook, but he did not like to cook, he wanted to be a gardener. Plants were the only things for which he had preserved a real live interest. But while I had another gardener I had no other Cook, and so held back Esa in the kitchen. I had promised him that he should go back to his garden-work, but I kept him off from month to month. Esa on his own had dammed in a bit of ground by the river, and planted it as a surprise to me. But as he had been alone at it, and was not a strong man, the dam was not solid enough, and in the long rains it went away altogether.
The first disturbance of his quiet non-existence came upon Esa when his brother died in the Kikuyu Reserve and left him a black cow. By then it became evident how much Esa had been sucked out by life, he could no longer stand up to any strong manifestation of it. In particular, I believe, he could not quite stand happiness. He asked me for three days’ leave to go and fetch the cow, and, on his return I saw that he had been stirred and harassed, like the hands and feet of people who have been benumbed by cold, and brought into a warm room.
All Natives are gamblers, and under the illusion, created by the black cow, that from now fortune was going to smile on him, Esa began to develop a terrible confidence in things, he had great dreams. He felt that life was before him still; he decided to take a new wife. When he told me of his plan, he was already negotiating with his future father-in-law, who lived on the Nairobi road, and had a Swaheli wife. I tried to make him change his mind. “You have got a very good wife,” I said to him, “and your head is already grey, you cannot be needing another. Stay with us now and live in peace.” Esa took no offence at my arguments, the little gentle Kikuyu stood up erect before me, and in his vague way stuck to his decision. Shortly after, he brought his new wife, Fatoma, to the farm.
That Esa should ever hope for any good to come from his new marriage, showed that he had lost his judgment. The bride was very young, hard, and sulky, dressed in the Swaheli fashion, with the lasciviousness of her mother’s nation, but with no gracefulness or gaiety in her. But Esa’s face was radiant with triumph, and great plans; he was behaving, in his innocence, like a man on the verge of General Paralysis. Mariammo, the patient slave, kept in the background, and seemed unconcerned.
It is possible that Esa had now a short time of greatness and rejoicement, but it did not last, and his peaceful existence on the farm went to pieces through his new wife. A month after the wedding she ran away from him, to live with the Native soldiers in the barracks of Nairobi. For a long time Esa used to ask for a day’s leave to go into town and fetch her back, and in the evening returned with the dark, reluctant girl. The first time he went confidently and very decided, he would get her,—what about it, was she not his lawful wife? Later he walked off in a bewildered, sad research of his dreams and the smile of fortune.
“What do you want her back for, Esa?” I said to him. “Let her go. She does not want to come back to you, and no good will come from this.”
But Esa had not got it in him to let her go. Towards the end he came down in his expectations of life, and it was simply the monetary value of his woman that he sought to retain. The other boys laughed at him, when he trudged off, and told me that the soldiers laughed at him, too. But Esa had never paid much attention to what other people thought of him, and in any case he was past it now. He went in persistently and faithfully to recover his lost property, as a man will go in search of a runaway cow.
One morning Fatoma informed my houseboys that Esa was sick, and could not cook that day, but he would be up next day, she said. But late in the afternoon the boys came in and told me that Fatoma had disappeared, and that Esa had been poisoned and was dying. When I came out, they had carried him, on his bed, out in the square between the boys’ huts. It was obvious that he had not got long to live. He had been given some sort of Native poison, similar to strychnine, and must have suffered terribly in his hut, under the eyes of the murderous young wife, until she felt that she had safely finished him, and had made off. He still had a few spasms that contracted his body, but he was all rigid and cold, like a dead man. His face was much changed, and froth, mixed with blood, ran out from the corners of his pale-blue mouth. Farah had gone to Nairobi in the car, so that I could not get Esa in to the hospital, but I do not think that I should have done that in any case; there was no help for him.
Before he died Esa looked at me for a long time, but I do not know if he recognized me. With the consciousness in his dark, animal-like eyes now went the remembrance of the country such as I had always wished to have known it, when it had been like a Noah’s Ark, with the game all round the little Native boy herding his father’s goats on the plain. I held his hand, a human hand, a strong ingenious tool, which had held weapons, planted vegetables and flowers, caressed; which I had taught to make omelettes. Would Esa himself hold his life to have been a success or a failure? It would have been difficult to tell. He had gone along his own little, slow, twined paths and had been through many things, always a peaceful man.
When Farah came home he took much trouble to have Esa buried with the full orthodox ceremonial, for he had been a pious Mohammedan. The Priest, whom we called out from Nairobi, could not come till next evening, so that Esa’s funeral took place at night, with the Milky way on the sky, and lamps in the funeral procession. His grave was walled up, in the Mohammedan way, under a big tree in the forest. Mariammo now came forward and took her place amongst the mourners, and bewailed Esa loudly in the night air.
Farah and I held a council as to what we ought to do about Fatoma, and we decided to do nothing. It evidently went against Farah to take steps to have a woman punished by the law. I gathered from him that the Mohammedan law does not hold a woman to account. Her husband is responsible for what she does, and must pay the fine for what misfortunes she causes, as he must pay the fine for what damage his horse may do. But if the horse throws the owner and kills him? Well yes, Farah agrees, that is a sad accident. After all, Fatoma herself had had reason to complain about her fate, now she would be left to fulfil it as she chose to, in the barracks of Nairobi.