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Another entry in Edgar Wallace’s eminently popular Sanders of the River series, The Keepers of the King’s Peace is an unlikely but ultimately engaging combination of a classic action-adventure tale and broad slapstick comedy. An elite crew of officers is charged with getting to the bottom of a female shaman’s seemingly miraculous powers, but bumbling new addition Bones keeps getting in the way. Will they be able to stave off a mass rebellion before it’s too late?
To Isongo, which stands upon the tributary of that name, came a woman of the Isisi who had lost her husband through a providential tree falling upon him. I say “providential,” for it was notorious that he was an evil man, a drinker of beer and a favourite of many bad persons. Also he made magic in the forest, and was reputedly the familiar of Bashunbi the devil brother of M’shimba-M’shamba. He beat his wives, and once had set fire to his house from sheer wickedness. So that when he was borne back to the village on a grass bier and the women of his house decked themselves with green leaves and arm in arm staggered and stamped through the village street in their death dance, there was a suspicion of hilarity in their song, and a more cheery step in their dance than the occasion called for.
An old man named D’wiri, who knew every step of every dance, saw this and said in his stern way that it was shameless. But he was old and was, moreover, in fear for the decorum of his own obsequies if these outrageous departures from custom were approved or allowed to pass without reprimand.
When M’lama, the wife of G’mami, had seen her lord depart in the canoe for burial in the middle island and had wailed her conventional grief, she washed the dust from her body at the river’s edge and went back to her hut. And all that was grief for the dead man was washed away with the dust of mourning.
Many moons came out of the sky, were wasted and died before the woman M’lama showed signs of her gifts. It is said that they appeared one night after a great storm wherein lightning played such strange tricks upon the river that even the old man D’wiri could not remember parallel instances.
In the night the wife of a hunter named E’sani-Osoni brought a dying child into the hut of the widow. He had been choked by a fish-bone and was in extremis when M’lama put her hand upon his head and straightway the bone flew from his mouth, “and there was a cry terrible to hear–such a cry as a leopard makes when he is pursued by ghosts.”
A week later a baby girl fell into a terrible fit and M’lama had laid her hand upon it and behold! it slept from that moment.
Ahmet, chief of the Government spies, heard of these happenings and came a three days’ journey by river to Isongo.
“What are these stories of miracles?” he asked.
“Capita,” said the chief, using the term of regard which is employed in the Belgian Congo, “this woman M’lama is a true witch and has great gifts, for she raises the dead by the touch of her hand. This I have seen. Also it is said that when U’gomi, the woodcutter, made a fault, cutting his foot in two, this woman healed him marvellously.”
“I will see this M’lama,” said Ahmet importantly.
He found her in her hut tossing four bones idly. These were the shanks of goats, and each time they fell differently.
“O Ahmet,” she said, when he entered, “you have a wife who is sick, also a first-born boy who does not speak though he is more than six seasons old.”
Ahmet squatted down by her side.
“Woman,” said he, “tell me something that is not the talk of river and I will believe your magic.”
“To-morrow your master, the lord Sandi, will send you a book which will give you happiness,” she said.
“Every day my lord sends me a book,” retorted the sceptical Ahmet, “and each brings me happiness. Also it is common talk that at this time there come messengers carrying bags of silver and salt to pay men according to their services.”
Undismayed she tried her last shot.
“You have a crooked finger which none can straighten–behold!”
She took his hand in hers and pressed the injured phlange. A sharp pain shot up his arm and he winced, pulling back his hand–but the year-old dislocation which had defied the effort of the coast doctor was straightened out, and though the movement was exquisitely painful he could bend it.
“I see you are a true witch,” he said, greatly impressed, for a native has a horror of deformity of any kind, and he sent back word of the phenomenon to Sanders.
Sanders at the same time was in receipt of other news which alternately pleased him and filled him with panic. The mail had come in by fast launch and had brought Captain Hamilton of the Houssas a very bulky letter written in a feminine hand. He had broken the glad news to Commissioner Sanders, but that gentleman was not certain in his mind whether the startling intelligence conveyed by the letter was good or bad.
“I’m sure the country will suit her,” he said, “this part of the country at any rate–but what will Bones say?”
“Bones!” repeated Captain Hamilton scornfully. “What the dickens does it matter what Bones says?”
Nevertheless, he went to the sea-end of the verandah, and his roar rivalled the thunder of the surf.
There was no answer and for an excellent reason.