The Jam God by H. M. Egbert

A Tale of Nigeria

Lieutenant Peters, of the Royal Nigerian Service, was lying upon the ground face downward, under a prickly tree. The sun was nearly vertical, and the little round shadow in which he reclined was interlaced with streaks of hot light. As the sun moved, Peters rolled into the shade automatically. His eyes were shut, and he was in that hot borderland which is the nearest approach to sleep at noontide in Nigeria.

The flies were pestering him, and he was thirsty—not with that thirst of the mouth which may be quenched with a long draught, but with the thirst of the throat that sands and sears. He felt thirsty all over. He had been thirsty, like this, ever since he struck the bend of the Niger. What made it worse, every night he dreamed of fruits that were snatched away, like the food of Tantalus, as he approached to grasp them. Two nights before he had been wandering knee-deep in English strawberry beds; the night before he had been shaking down limes and oranges from groves of trees set with green leaves and studded with golden fruit. Once he had dreamed of a new fruit, a cross between a pear and a watermelon; but when he cut into it he found nothing but hard, small seeds, with a pineapple flavor, which he detested.

Peters was dreaming now, for he twined his fingers in the long grass and tossed uneasily.

"I'll pick them all," he muttered sleepily. "All mixed together, with ten or twelve pounds of damp, brown sugar, and boiled into jam."

He woke and felt his teeth for the hundredth time, to note whether any untoward looseness betokened the advent of the dreaded scurvy. Reassured, he stretched his limbs and rolled over into the shade of the tree.

"When I get back to a white man's country," he murmured—"when I get home to England what is it I am going to do? Why, I shall go into a restaurant and order some rich brown soup. Then I shall have pate de foie gras sandwiches. Then scrambled eggs, chocolate, and muffins buttered with whipped cream. Then half a dozen cans of jam. I shall either begin with strawberry and conclude with apricot, or else I shall begin with apricot and wind up with raspberry. It doesn't matter much; any kind of jam will do except pineapple."

He opened his eyes, brushed away the flies that swarmed noisily round him, took out his hard-tack, and opened a small can of dried beef. He munched for a while, sipping occasionally from the tepid water in his canteen. When he had finished he put the can-opener back in the pocket of his tunic and rose, his face overspread with a look of resolution.

"I believe," he cried, "I believe that I could eat even a can of pineapple!"

He rose, the light of his illusion still in his eyes, and began staggering weakly under the blazing sun in the direction of his camp. He was weaker than he had thought, and when he reached the shelter of his tent he sank down exhausted upon the bed. Through the open flap he could see, five hundred yards away, the round, beehive-shaped huts of the native village and, in their centre, the square palace of King Mtetanyanga, built of sticks and Niger mud, surrounded by its stockade, the royal flag, a Turkish bath-towel stained yellow and blue, floating proudly above.

Lieutenant Peters had been sent by the Nigerian Government along the upper Niger to conclude treaties with the different kings and sweep them within the British sphere of interest. The French were out upon a similar errand, for in this region the two nations possessed only a vague and very indeterminate boundary line. Peters had been successful until he came to the village of King Mtetanyanga, who had balked at affixing his cross to the piece of mysterious parchment on the ground that it was unlawful to do so during the festival of the great Ju-Ju, whose worshipers could be heard wailing and beating tom-toms nightly in some unknown part of the jungle. What this Ju-Ju fetish was nobody could tell; it had come into the village recently, from the coast, men whispered; it possessed awful and mysterious potency; was guarded zealously by some score of priests, who veiled its awful vision; and it was the greatest Ju-Ju for hundreds of miles along the Niger, tribes from distant regions frequently arriving to sacrifice pigs to it.

However, Lieutenant Raguet, the French commissioner, had been equally unsuccessful in inducing the dusky monarch to affix his signature to the French treaty, and the ambassadors of the rival nations were both encamped near the village, waiting for the Ju-Ju festivities to reach their plethoric conclusion before the king sobered up and attended to business.

Raguet, strolling into his rival's camp that evening, found Peters in his tent, flushed, and breathing heavily.

"Tcht! tcht! you are seeck," said the Frenchman sympathetically. "That ees too bad. Have you quinine?"

"Quinine be hanged," cried Peters huskily. "I've taken the stuff until I've floated in it. There's only one thing can cure me, Raguet. I've been living on crackers and canned beef for over a month, and I'm pining for jam. Have you got any jam?"

"Dsham, dsham?" repeated Raguet with a puzzled expression.

"Yes, les preserves—le fruit et le sugar, bouilli—you know what I mean."

"Ah, ze preserve!" said the Frenchman, with an expression of enlightenment. "Ze preserve, I have him not."

"I tell you what, Raguet," said Peters irritably, "I've got to get some jam somewhere or I shall kick the bucket. I'm craving for it, man. If I had one can of the stuff it would put me upon my feet instantly, I can feel it. Now it's ten to one I'll be too sick to see the king after the ceremonies are over, and he'll sign your treaty instead of mine. And I've given him three opera hats, a phonograph, and a gallon of rum, curse the luck! What did you give him, Raguet?"

"Me? I give him a umbrella with ze gold embroider," the Frenchman answered.

"My government won't let me give the little kings umbrellas," said Peters in vexation. "It makes the big chiefs jealous. I say, Raguet," he rambled on, sitting up dizzily, "what is this Ju-Ju idol of theirs?"

"I know not," said the French lieutenant. "Only ze king and ze priests have seen him. If zey tell, zey die—ze idol keel zem."

"I suppose they'll be keeping up these infernal tom-toms for another week," grumbled the sick man, lying back and half closing his eyes from weariness. "Well, I'll have to try to get well in time."

The Frenchman resisted the impulse to leap back in surprise, but his eyes narrowed till they were slits in his face. So! This Englishman did not know that this had been the last day of the sacrifices, that at midnight a hecatomb of pigs was to be killed and eaten in the bush in honor of the Ju-Ju. Nor that the king, when he had broached and drunk the cask of rum, would be in a mood to discuss the treaty. Peters evidently was unaware how much his majesty had been affronted by his failure to present him with an umbrella. La! la! Fortune was evidently upon his side. All this flashed through the Frenchman's mind in an instant. A solitary chuckle escaped him, but he turned it into an exclamation of grief, sighed deeply, seated himself upon the bed, and kissed Peters affectionately on either cheek.

"My Peters, my poor friend," he began, "you must not theenk of leaving your tent for ze next two, t'ree days. Ze fever, he is very bad onless you receive him in bed. I shall take care of you."

"You're a good fellow, Raguet," said Peters, wiping his face surreptitiously with the backs of his hands. When his visitor had left he turned over and sank into a half-delirious doze that lasted until the sun sank with appalling suddenness, and night rushed over the land. Tossing upon his bed, all through the velvet darkness he was dimly conscious, through his delirious dreams, of tom-toms beaten in the bush. His throat was parched, and in his dreams he drank greedily from his canteen; but each time that he awoke he saw it hanging empty from the tent flap. Presently a large, bright, yellow object rose up in front of him. Greedily he set his teeth into it; and even as he did so it disappeared, and he awoke, gasping and choking under the broiling blackness.

"I'll have to take that canteen down to the stream and fill it," he muttered, rising unsteadily and proceeding toward the bank. To his surprise he found that rain had fallen. He was treading in ooze, which rose higher and higher until it clogged his footsteps. He struggled, but now it held him fast, and he was sinking slowly, but persistently, now to the waist, now to the shoulders. Frantically he thrust his hands downward to free himself, and withdrew them sticky with—jam! He scooped up great handsful greedily; and even as he raised it to his mouth it vanished, and he awoke once more in his tent.

He flung himself out of bed with an oath, took down his canteen, and started toward the river. The noise of the tom-toms was louder than ever, proceeding, apparently, from some point in the bush a little to the left of the king's palace. Scrambling and struggling through the thorn thickets, he reached the sandy bed of the stream, filled his water-bottle at a pool, and drank greedily.

It was that still hour of night when the many-voiced clamor of the bush grows hushed, because the lions are coming down to drink at the waters. The rising moon threw a pale light over the land. The tom-toms were still resounding in the bush, but to Peters's distorted mind they took on the sound of ripe mangoes falling to the ground and bursting open as they struck the soil. He counted, "one, two, three," and waited. He counted again. There must be thousands of them. Peters began to edge his way through the reeds in the direction of the sound. After a while he came to a wall of rocks perpendicular and almost insurmountable. He paused and considered, licking his lips greedily as the thud, thud continued, now, apparently, directly in front of him. All at once his eyes, curiously sensitive to external impressions, discovered a little, secret trail between two boulders. He followed it; a great stone revolved at his touch, and he found himself inside the sacred groves. He went on, gulping greedily in anticipation of the feast which awaited him.

Suddenly he stopped short. He had seen something that brought back to him with a rush the realization of his whereabouts. Seated in the shelter of a cactus tree, not fifty yards away, was King Mtetanyanga, wearing his three opera hats, one upon another, in the form of a triple crown, and drinking his own rum with Raguet, under the shade of Raguet's umbrella. Prone at their feet crouched Tom, the interpreter.

"His Majesty say, 'How you fix him Ju-Ju?'" translated Tom.

"Tell His Majesty, my Ju-Ju stronger than the Englishman's Ju-Ju," answered the Frenchman. "My Ju-Ju eat up his Ju-Ju. He very sick. If I choose, he die."

"Ugh!" grunted the king, when this explanation was vouchsafed, apparently impressed.

"Tell His Majesty my Ju-Ju stronger than his own Ju-Ju. If he no sign treaty, eat up his Ju-Ju," Raguet went on.

A flow of language came from the king's lips.

"His Majesty say, he bring his Ju-Ju, see whose greater," said the interpreter.

Vaguely aware that treachery was impending, but crazed now by the falling mangoes, Peters left them palavering and followed the trail. All at once he emerged into a tiny clearing and stood blinking at a fire, round which a group of men—priests, as he knew, from their buffalo horns and crane feathers—were reclining, hammering upon tom-toms and shouting in various stages of intoxication. The firelight blinded their eyes. Peters stood still uncertainly. Then his eyes fell upon a sawed-off tree-trunk, in the hollow of which lay something wrapped in a white cloth, surrounded with snake-skins. He had come by this secret road into the actual presence of the great Ju-Ju.

Curiously he inserted his hand, lifted the object out, and examined it. Inside was something of a strange, yet familiar shape, oval, and flattened at the ends. He lifted it out of its wrappings, and there, in his hand, he saw a can, bearing the legend:

GREENAWAY'S BEST JAM.

He looked at it in solemn and holy meditation; then, sitting down, he drew the can-opener from his tunic and wiped it clean upon his sleeve.

After awhile a babel of sound broke in upon his ears. Men had come running up, brandishing spears, stopped, flung themselves upon the ground prostrate in front of him. The priests were there, frantically abasing themselves; Mtetanyanga, his opera hats rolling, unheeded, on the ground. Their cries ceased; they veiled their eyes. Then from the dust came the feeble tones of the interpreter.

"His Majesty say, you eat him Ju-Ju—yours greatest Ju-Ju, he want to sign treaty."

But Peters, waving the empty can over his head, shouted:

"I've eaten jam, I've eaten jam! It's pineapple—and I don't care!"