The Shooting Accident
On the evening of the nineteenth of December, I walked out of my house before going to bed, to see if there was any rain coming. Many farmers in the highlands were, I believe, doing the same thing at that hour. Sometimes, in a lucky year, we would get a few heavy showers just round Christmas, and it was a great thing for the young coffee, which has set on the trees after the flowering in the short rains of October. This night there was no sign of rain. The sky was serene and silently triumphant, resplendent with stars.
The Stellar Heaven of the Equator is richer than that of the North, and you see it more because you are out more at night. In Northern Europe, winter nights are too cold to allow one much pleasure in the contemplation of the stars, and in summer one hardly distinguishes them within the clear night sky, that is as pale as a dog-violet.
The tropical night has the companionability of a Roman Catholic Cathedral compared to the Protestant Churches of the North, which let you in on business only. Here in the great room everybody comes and goes, this is the place where things are going on. To Arabia and Africa, where the sun of the midday kills you, night is the time for travelling and enterprise. The stars have been named here, they have been guides to human beings for many centuries, drawing them in long lines across the desert-sands and the Sea, one towards the East, and another to the West, or the North and South. Cars run well at night, and it is pleasant to motor under the stars, you get into the habit of fixing visits to friends up-country by the time of the next full moon. You start Safaris by the new moon, to have the benefit of the whole row of moonlight nights. It is then strange, when back on a visit to Europe, to find your friends of the towns living out of touch with the moves of the moon and almost in ignorance of them. The young moon was the sign of action to Khadija’s camel man, whose Caravan was to start off when she appeared in the sky. With his face towards her he was one of the “Philosophers who spin out of moonlight systems of the Universe.” He must have looked at her much, that he made her his sign in which to conquer.
I had got a name amongst the Natives, because a number of times I had happened to be, on the farm, the first to see the new moon, like a thin silver bow in the sunset; particularly because, two or three years running, I had been the first to catch sight of the new moon of the month of Ramadan, the Mohammedan’s holy Month.
The farmer slowly turns his eyes all round the Horizon. First to the East, for from the East, if it comes, comes the rain, and there stands clear Spica in the Virgin. Then South, to greet the Southern Cross, doorkeeper of the great world, faithful to travellers and beloved by them, and higher up, under the luminous streak of the Milky Way, Alpha and Beta in the Centaur. To the South West sparkles Sirius, great in heaven, and the thoughtful Canopus, and to the West above the faint outline of the Ngong Hills, now nearly unbroken, the radiant diamond ornament, Rigel, Betelgeuze and Bellatrix. He turns to the North last, for to the North we go back in the end, and there he runs upon the Great Bear himself, only he is now calmly standing on his head on account of the heavenly perspective, and that has all the air of a bearish joke, that cheers the heart of the Nordic emigrant. People who dream when they sleep at night know of a special kind of happiness which the world of the day holds not, a placid ecstasy, and ease of heart, that are like honey on the tongue. They also know that the real glory of dreams lies in their atmosphere of unlimited freedom. It is not the freedom of the dictator, who enforces his own will on the world, but the freedom of the artist, who has no will, who is free of will. The pleasure of the true dreamer does not lie in the substance of the dream, but in this: that there things happen without any interference from his side, and altogether outside his control. Great landscapes create themselves, long splendid views, rich and delicate colours, roads, houses, which he has never seen or heard of. Strangers appear and are friends or enemies, although the person who dreams has never done anything about them. The ideas of flight and pursuit are recurrent in dreams and are equally enrapturing. Excellent witty things are said by everybody. It is true that if remembered in the daytime they will fade and lose their sense, because they belong to a different plane, but as soon as the one eams lies down at night, the current is again closed and he remembers their excellency. All the time the feeling of immense freedom is surrounding him and running through him like air and light, an unearthly bliss. He is a privileged person, the one who has got nothing to do, but for whose enrichment and pleasure all things are brought together; the Kings of Tarshish shall bring gifts. He takes part in a great battle or ball, and wonders the while that he should be, in the midst of those events, so far privileged as to be lying down. It is when one begins to lose the consciousness of freedom, and when the idea of necessity enters the world at all, when there is any hurry or strain anywhere, a letter to be written or a train to catch, when you have got to work, to make the horses of the dream gallop, or to make the rifles go off, that the dream is declining, and turning into the nightmare, which belongs to the poorest and most vulgar class of dreams.
The thing which in the waking world comes nearest to a dream is night in a big town, where nobody knows one, or the African night. There too is infinite freedom: it is there that things are going on, destinies are made round you, there is activity to all sides, and it is none of your concern.
Here now, as soon as the sun was down the air was full of bats, cruising as noiselessly as cars upon asphalt, the nighthawk swept past too: the bird that sits on the road and in the eyes of which the lights of your car gleam red a moment before he flutters up vertically in front of your wheels. The little spring-hares were out on the roads, moving in their own way, sitting down suddenly and jumping along to a rhythm, like miniature Kangaroos. The Cicada sing an endless song in the long grass, smells run along the earth and falling stars run over the sky, like tears over a cheek. You are the privileged person to whom everything is taken. The Kings of Tarshish shall bring gifts.
A few miles out, in the Masai Reserve, the Zebra are now changing their pasture, the flocks wander over the grey plain like lighter stripes upon it, the Buffalo are out grazing on the long slopes of the Hills. My young men of the farm would come by, two or three together, walking one after the other like narrow dark shadows on the lawn, they were afoot and aiming straight at their own object, they were not working for me, and it was none of my concern. They themselves accentuated the position by just slackening their pace as they caught sight of my burning cigarette-end outside the house, and saluting without stopping.
“Jambo Morani ”—young warriors,—“where are you going?”
“We are going to Kathegu’s manyatta. Kathegu has a big Ngoma on tonight. Good-bye Msabu.”
If they walk together in bigger parties they will bring their own drum to the dance, and you hear it a long way away, like the throbbing of a small pulse in the finger of the night. And suddenly, to the ear that has not been listening for it, comes what is not so much a sound as a deep vibration of the air, the distant short roar of the lion. He is afoot, he is hunting, things are going on, out there where he is. It is not repeated, but it has widened the horizon; the long dungas and the waterhole are brought to you.
As I was standing before my house a shot fell, not far off. One shot. Then again the stillness of the night closed on all sides. After a while, as if they had been pausing to listen and were now taking it up once more, I heard the Cicada chiming their monotonous little song in the grass.
There is something strangely determinate and fatal about a single shot in the night. It is as if someone had cried a message to you in one word, and would not repeat it. I stood for some time wondering what it had meant. Nobody could aim at anything at this hour, and, to scare away something, a person would fire two shots or more.
It might have been my old Indian carpenter Pooran Singh down at the mill, firing at a couple of Hyena that had slunk into the millyard and were eating the straps of oxhide hung up there, with stones as weights to them, to be made into reins for our waggons. Pooran Singh was no hero, but he might have put the door of his hut ajar for the sake of his reins and blown off his old shotgun. Still he would have let off both barrels, and would probably have loaded and shot again, once he had tasted the sweetness of heroism. But one shot,—and then silence?
I waited for some time for the second shot; nothing came, and as I looked again at the sky there was no rain coming either. So I went to bed, taking a book with me, and leaving the lamp to burn. In Africa, when you pick up a book worth reading, out of the deadly consignments which good ships are being made to carry out all the way from Europe, you read it as an author would like his book to be read, praying to God that he may have it in him to go on as beautifully as he has begun. Your mind runs, transported, upon a fresh deep green track.
Two minutes later a motorcycle rounded the drive at a terrific speed and stopped in front of the house, and someone knocked hard upon the long window of my sitting-room. I put on a skirt and a coat and a pair of shoes, took the lamp and went out. Outside was my mill-manager, wild-eyed and sweating in the lamplight. His name was Belknap, he was an American and an exceptionally capable, inspired mechanic, but of an uneven mind. With him things were either nearing the Millennium, or dark without a glimpse of hope. When he first came into my employ he had upset me by his varying views of life, and of prospects and conditions of the farm, as if he had had me up in an enormous mental swing; later I had got used to them. These ups and downs were no more than a kind of emotional daily gymnastics to a lively temperament, much in need of exercise, and to which too little was happening; it is a common phenomenon with energetic young white men in Africa, particularly with those who have spent their early life in towns. But here he came out of the hands of a tragedy, and was as yet undecided as to whether he should satiate his hungry soul by making the most of it, or
escape from its grimness by making as little of it as possible, and in this dilemma he looked like a very young boy running for his life to announce a catastrophe; he stuttered as he spoke. In the end he made very little of it, for it held no part in it for him to play, and fate had let him down once more.
By this time, Farah had come from his house, and listened to his narrative with me.
Belknap told me how peacefully and pleasantly the tragedy had started. His Cook had had a day off, and in his absence a party had been given in the kitchen by the seven years old kitchen Toto, Kabero, a son of my old Squatter and nearest neighbour on the farm, the old fox Kaninu. As, late in the evening, the company became very gay, Kabero had brought in his master’s gun and, to his wild friends of the plains and shambas, had acted the part of a white man. Belknap was a keen poultry farmer, he made capons and poulardes and bought up pure-bred chicken at the Nairobi sales, and he kept a shotgun on his verandah to frighten away hawks and cerval-cats. When later we talked the case over, Belknap held that the gun had not been loaded, but that the children had looked up the cartridges and loaded it themselves, but here I think that his memory failed him, they could hardly have done it if they had wanted to, and it was more likely that the gun had for once been left loaded on the verandah. However it got there, the cartridge was in the barrel when Kabero, in the greatness of youth and popularity, aimed straight in amongst his guests and pulled the trigger. The shot had boomed through the house. Three of the children had been slightly wounded, and had fled from the kitchen in terror. Two were there now, badly hurt or dead. Belknap finished his tale by a long anathema of the continent of Africa and of the things that happen there.
While he talked, my houseboys had come out, very silent; they went in again, and brought out a hurricane-lamp. We got out dressing and disinfectant. It would be a waste of time to try to start the car, and we ran as quick as we could through the forest down to Belknap’s house. The swinging hurricane-lamp threw our shadows from the one side of the narrow road to the other. As we ran on, we were met by a succession of short raw cracked shrieks,—death squeals of a child.
The kitchen door was flung back, as if Death, after having rushed in, had rushed out again, and left the place in dire devastation, a chicken-house that the badger has been in. There was a kitchen lamp burning on the table and smoking sky-high, and in the small room the smell of gunpowder still hung. The gun was on the table beside the lamp. There was blood all over the kitchen, I slipped in it on the floor. Hurricane-lamps are difficult to direct on to any particular spot, but they give a very striking illumination of a whole room or situation; I remember the things I have seen by the light of a hurricane-lamp better than others.
I knew the children who had been shot, from the plains of the farm, where they had herded their fathers’ sheep. Wamai, Jogona’s son, a lively little boy who had for some time been a pupil at the school, was lying on the floor between the door and the table. He was not dead, but not far from death, and unconscious even, though he groaned a little. We lifted him aside, to be able to move. The child that shrieked was Wanyangerri, who had been the youngest of the party in the kitchen. He was sitting up, leaning forwards, towards the lamp; the blood spouted, like water from a pump, from his face,—if one could still say that, for he must have stood straight in front of the barrel when it was fired and it had taken his lower jaw clean off. He held his arms out from his sides and moved them up and down like pump-spears, as the wings of a chicken go, after it has had its head cut off.
When you are brought suddenly within the presence of such disaster, there seems to be but one advice, it is the remedy of the shooting-field and the farmyard: that you should kill quickly and at any cost. And yet you know that you cannot kill, and your brain turns with fear. I put my hands to the child’s head and pressed it in my despair, and, as if I had really killed him, he at the same moment stopped screaming, and sat erect with his arms hanging down, as if he was made of wood. So now I know what it feels like to heal by imposition of hands.
It is a difficult thing to bandage a patient whose face is half shot off, in your endeavour to stop the bleeding you may choke him. I had to lift the little boy on to Farah’s knee, and made Farah hold his head in position for me, for if it fell forward I could not get the dressing fastened, and if it fell back the blood ran down and filled his throat. In the end, while he sat so still, I got the bandages placed.
We lifted Wamai on to the table and held the lamp up to look at him. He had received the full charge of the gun into his throat and chest, he did not bleed much, only a thin trail of blood ran down from the corner of his mouth. It was surprising to see this Native child, who had been as full of life as a fawn, so quiet now. While we looked at him his own face changed and took on an expression of deep surprise. I sent Farah to the house to fetch the car, for we had no time to waste in bringing the children into hospital.
While we waited I inquired after Kabero, the boy who had fired the gun and shed all this blood. Belknap then told me a queer story about him. A couple of days earlier Kabero had bought an old pair of shorts from his master, and was to pay him with a rupee from his wages. When the shot fell, and Belknap ran out to the kitchen, Kabero was standing in the middle of the room with the smoking gun in his hand. He stared at Belknap for a second, and then dived into the pocket of the very shorts that he had so newly bought and had put on for the party, drew up a rupee and laid it on the table with his left hand, while with his right he threw the gun also on the table. And in that final settlement with the world he was gone; he actually, although we did not know of it at the moment, in this great gesture, disappeared from the face of the earth. It was an unusual behaviour in a Native, for they generally manage to keep a debt, and in particular a debt to a white man, within the outskirts of their mind. Perhaps the moment to Kabero had looked so much like the day of judgment, that he felt he had got to play up to it; perhaps he was trying, in the hour of need, to secure a friend. Or the shock, the boom, and the death of his friends round him, had knocked in the whole of the boy’s small sphere of ideas, so that bits of the periphery had been flung into the very centre of his consciousness.
At that time I had an old Overland car. I shall never write anything against her, for she served me well through many years. But it was rare that she could be induced to run on more than two cylinders. Her lights were out of order too, so that I used to drive in to dances at the Muthaiga Club with a hurricane-lamp swaddled in a red silk handkerchief, for a back light. She had to be pushed into starting, and upon this night it took a long time.
Visitors to my house had been complaining of the state of my road, and during the death-drive of that night I realized that they had been right. I first let Farah drive, but I thought that he was deliberately going into all the deep holes and waggon-tracks of the road, and I took the steering-wheel myself. For this I had to get off by the pond to wash my hands in the dark water. The distance to Nairobi seemed infinitely long, I thought that I might have driven home to Denmark in the time that it took us.
The Native Hospital of Nairobi lies on the hill just before you drive down into the cup of the town. It was dark now, and seemed peaceful. We had much trouble to wake it up; in the end we got hold of an old Goan doctor or doctor’s assistant, who appeared in a queer sort of negligee. He was a big fat man of a very placid manner, and had a strange way of making the same gesture first with one hand and then with the other. As I helped to lift Wamai out of the car I thought that he stirred and stretched himself a little, but when we brought him into the brightly lighted room in the hospital, he was dead. The old Goan kept waving his hand at him, saying: “He is dead.” And then again at Wanyangerri, saying: “He is alive.” I never saw this old man again, for I never came back to the hospital at night, which was probably his hour there. At the time, I thought his manner very annoying, but afterwards I felt as if Fate itself in a number of big white cloaks, the one on the top of the other, had met us at the threshold of the house, dealing out Life and Death impartially.
Wanyangerri woke up from his trance when we took him into the Hospital, and at once got into a terrible panic; he would not be left but clung to me and to anybody near him and cried and wept in the greatest anguish. The old Goan in the end calmed him by some injection, looked at me over his spectacles and said: “He is alive.” I left the children there, the dead and the live, upon two stretchers, for their different fates.
Belknap, who had come in with us on his motor-bicycle, mostly so as to help us to push the car into starting, should she stop on the road, now thought that we ought to report the accident to the Police. So we drove down into town to the River Road Police Station, and thereby ran straight into the night-life of Nairobi. There was no white Police Officer present when we came, and while they sent for him we waited outside in the car. The street had an avenue of tall Eucalyptus trees, the tree of all pioneer-towns of the highlands; at night their very long narrow leaves give out a queer pleasant smell, and look strange in the light of the street-lamps. A big buxom young Swaheli woman was carried into the Police Station by a group of Native Policemen, she resisted with all her might, scratched their faces, and screamed like a pig. A party of brawlers were brought in, still eager, upon the steps of the Station, to go for one another; and a thief, I believe, who had just been caught, came down the street with a whole tail of night-revellers after him, who were taking his part, or the part of the Police, and were loudly debating the case. In the end a young Police Officer arrived, straight, I believe, from a gay party. He was a disappointment to Belknap, for he began to take down his report with the keenest interest and at a terrific speed, but then fell into deep thoughts, dragged his pencil slowly over the page and finally gave up writing and put his pencil back into his pocket. I was cold in the night air. At last we could drive home.
While I was still in bed the next morning, I felt, by the concentrated stillness outside the house, that there were many people about it. I knew who they were: the old men of the farm, squatting upon the stones, munching, sniffing their tobacco, spitting, and whispering. I also knew what they wanted: they had come to inform me that they wished to set a Kyama on the case of the shot of last night, and of the death of the children.
A Kyama is an assembly of the Elders of a farm, which is authorized by the Government to settle the local differences amongst the Squatters. The members of the Kyama gather round a crime, or an accident, and will sit over it for many weeks, battening upon mutton, talk, and disaster. I knew that now the old men would want to talk the whole matter over with me, and also that they would, if they could, in the end make me come into their court to give the final judgment in the case. I did not want to take up an endless discussion of the tragedy of the night, at this moment, and sent for my horse to get out and away from them.
As I came out from the house I found, as I expected, the whole circle of the Ancients to the left of it, near the boys’ huts. For the sake of their own dignity as an assembly they pretended not to see me, until they realized that I was going away. They then stumbled on to their old legs in great haste, and began to flap their arms at me. I waved my hand to them in return, and rode off.