THE WHITE MAN'S DEVIL-HOUSE.

A FRAGMENT.

BY F. HARRISON RANKIN.

"There is a magic in the craft."

Exoterics surmise it to consist in "winks and nods," proverbially of equal inspiration to steeds labouring under the dispensation of gutta serena. Mesmer's Animal Magnetism was nothing to the invisible "tractors." Ticklings of the palm have been surmised; talismanic numbers have been hinted at; sounds inaudible have been suggested; together with certain "melodious twangs," awakening pineal sympathy. Mrs. Veal's ghost, from De Foe's autopsy of the apparition, evidently held no less a grade in the scale of shadowy society than that of Master Mason.

John Locke, the philosopher, subsequently one of the fraternity, opined that the art embraced sorcery, alchemy, the transmutation of essences and of metals, together with similar common-place desiderata.

Whatever the nature of the spell, its sway is wide. Affinity of feeling generated by it runs round the world. It may be found in the land of the Chinese, of the Arab, the Red Indian, and the wild Tartar; in the frozen circle, habitat of all seals excepting Solomon's, and in the burning desert,

"Terra domibus negata."

Our story relates to the last pleasant locality.

Upon the windward coast of Africa, in a situation calculated to warm the coolest temperament, stands a European settlement,—a pimple of civilization upon the fiery face of a barbarous continent.

"Once upon a time" a lodge had existed there. Its members had ceased to melt, having gradually melted away; for the constant flux and reflux of white residents, the brief sojourn of many, and the death of an appropriate portion, rapidly vary the population of the little colony. After a lapse of years, however, it was not long since determined that the lodge should be re-opened.

The house formerly used had become ineligible; and, in the true spirit of a mason-soldier, a gallant captain offered to receive his brothers in his own wing of the barracks.

This building was advantageously situated. It crowned the summit of a high conical hill; so that, although the deluges of the rainy season were fast approaching, it could with much facility be closely and effectually tiled. But here, art was still in her swaddling bands; and although, in our accomplished country, bricklayers and plasterers are as "plenty as blackberries," in her colony no tiler could be found.

The name of Solyma,—that prince of architects, and prototype of modern Wrens and Barrys,—his glory, and his power over things seen and unseen, were familiar, especially to the black Mahometan population, to the sojourning Foulah, and the travelled Mandingo; but they possessed neither his skill nor his secret, being as mournfully ignorant of his workmanlike perfections as they are of the name of the mother of Moses. A tiler, however, was indispensable; and here arose a difficulty. What black man, Mahometan or pagan, could be induced to receive instruction; and, regardless of the prophet Mahmoud on the one hand, and, on the other, of Satan,—the principal object of fervid worship amongst the infidels of those hot parts,—to hazard his well-being in this world, and his sombre soul in the next, by tiling the edifice?

Various were the negro gentlemen invited; but few possessed "hearts big enough." No wonder that in the gold-dust country they should prove deficient in the "æs triplex!" One refused upon the very admissible ground that the masons had been accustomed to attend service in the colonial church once annually; and that, claiming to himself the same liberty of conscience which he allowed to others,—being by birth, and subsequently by conviction, of that extensive religious "persuasion" called Pagans, and of the particular sect of the said popular church which worships the devil and reverences dead men's teeth,—he must decline compromising his religious principles, and sanctioning by his presence the heterodox tenets of the English colonial chaplain.

A second, however, had forsaken the Heathen modes of his ancestors, and had waxed into a fervent proselyte, under missionary auspices, in all respects save a tough hereditary prejudice in favour of a genteel establishment of eight or ten wives

"To grind his corn,"

as Mungo Park poetically saith, but

"To pound his rice,"

as it doubtless ran in the original and vernacular glote, whether Fantee, Mandingo, Cosso, Bullum, or Soosoo. This strange conjugal whim, be it remarked, generally is as unalienable, tenaciously tenable, and adhesive to the negro taste, as "roast pig" was to the palate of the mortal Charles Lamb and the immortal "Elia."

This reclaimed pagan, however, professed that he would rather dine on fried soles, that unclean piscatorial; masticate dog's flesh before it had become putrid; disbelieve in witchcraft; or put away a spouse, however freckled, than adjoin himself unto a society whose nominal master indeed might be the Honourable Colonial Secretary, but whose real spiritual president, he well knew, could be no other than Beelzebub the Bugaboog, whose ways he had renounced.

The remaining mass of the negro "ton" declined their services on reasons no less satisfactory. They appealed to the yet living reputation of the deceased lodge, which they characterized as prononcée to a degree; for the spirit of the building, once redolent of mysteries and fraternity, prolongs a posthumous existence in their imaginings, awful and evitabund. It is desolate, for none will enter it; it is crumbling, for none will repair it; it is shunned as the favourite triclinium of Sathana, Beelzeboub, and Ashtaroth; it is known as

"The White Man's Devil-House."

As incredulous a negress as ever succumbed to Obeah asserted that, from its vague interior, bells were heard to toll, and chains to clank, at the lone hour of midnight, twelve,—when the "sun lived in the bush;" and that many a rash eye had been scared away by goblin apparitions and rank sights. With her own orbs, whilst stealthily prying through a window, had she beheld no less a potentate than Satan himself, sucking the blood of a white cock, and feeding a dead man with palaver sauce.

The idea of secret and mysterious associations is not new to the negroes; they have not borrowed it from the white man. A short reference to the nature of such as are familiar to them will throw light upon the awe with which they regarded the old Devil-House of the white man, and declined the privilege of entrée at the new one.

Their own hidden fraternities existed in gigantic organisation, and with withering power, long before the diseased and "craw-craw" complexion of European discoverers was known to the natural inheritors of Warren's jet blacking. Evil rites attend them; and bodily mutilation, and the chance of slavery, are united to supernatural horrors. Well aware of this, they naturally imagine similar diabolic mysteries to constitute the "working" of white man's freemasonry: nay, more; recognising the superiority, the mastery of the whites in all things that come under their observation, they take for granted that the same exists in matters which they do not witness, and, if their own orgies are terrific, they suppose that those of the white man must be intensely more so.

Of all men they are most horribly superstitious, and, in consequence, are victims also to superstitious horrors of the first magnitude. The forest, or bush, the air, the streams, the ground, swarm with a surplus population of Satan's imps and witches. Each moment and each step expose the wayfarer to the gripe of some malicious fiend. To evade the unwholesome clutch, the limbs are ornamented with charms and talismans, with dead men's hair and leopards' teeth. To deprecate and conciliate these animavorous specimens of African zoology no pains are spared, and temples named "Devil-Houses" witness the placatory sacrifices to the spirit of evil.

But this will not suffice. It is not enough simply to protect the person. Associations are formed which recognise the necessity of watching over Satan's interests, by visiting with direful vengeance such members of the tribe at large as may have treated his majesty with less respect than his station entitles him to expect. There are liberalists and spiritual republicans even in Africa.

Some writers, in noticing these associations as similar to freemasonry, have fallen into the same error with the black colonists aforesaid, who refused their aid to tile the lodge because they confounded it with their own tremendous and execrable fraternities.

The secret sisterhoods of Africa have their own peculiar charms and peculiar annoyances. The initiated maidens enjoy much respect, and a singular liability to be sold to the slave-factory; and many inducements are held out to the grand-mistress of the order to dispose of her gentle sisters in this manner, since a well-built maiden, warranted of clever action, of unblemished points, and sound lungs, will find bidders at a hundred hard dollars at any respectable bazaar between Senegal and Guinea. "Inshallah!" (God be praised!) as the Mahometan slave-merchant thankfully observed.

The honour, however, compensates for the danger, and they love to entwine the privileged emblem of their order, the ivory circlets, in the hair; an ornament that glads the heart of the simple ebony maid, as feathers and brilliants rejoice that of the blonde or the nut-brown.

The initiations, alas! are attended with ungentle mutilation of the person; and the trembling and weeping girl is blindfolded, that she may never know the woman who lacerated her. Gashes, however, on the face, arms, breast, and back, are favourite ornaments; they are the unpretending substitutes for rouge and cosmetics. The society is in a flourishing state, and the worshipful mistress derives a considerable revenue by the sale of refractory maidens. The guilt generally arises in the practice of witchcraft and sorcery;—accomplishments assiduously cultivated by the young ladies of Nigritia.

But, to return to our story. Enough has been said to explain how it happened that ideas of awe rested amongst the black colonists upon "The White Man's Devil-House."

The night was of that deep-toned glory unimagined save by those who have watched the firmament of a tropical sky. No moon was up; but the moon-like planets threw upon the sultry ground shadows of man and horse as they slowly wound round the long mountain path that led from the sea-washed capital at its foot, to the summit of the Barrack Hill. As a higher elevation was gained, the suffocating breath of the low grounds became tempered by the land breeze, that floated down by the channel of the wide river, and flung itself rudely upon the hill side. Yet the still, close atmosphere, and the distant flickering of purple and golden lightning far away to the east over the lands of savage nations, warned against loitering for the chance of a tornado. By ones and twos the little straggling brotherhood alighted at the barrack gates; and there, thousands of miles from Old England and the fire-side of home, men unconnected by birth, by interests, or by office, met, and cordially felt that they were related. Just before entering the chamber whose secrets are bound as by adamant, the eye fell upon a figure sitting in the verandah in the very dignity of overmastering terror. His aspect told that he was following the poet's advice,

"Nimium ne crede colori!"

He was a black man awaiting the ceremony of initiation with much the same intensity of interest that enlivens the criminal at execution. He appeared the living representative of that fear-stricken island tree whose trembling leaves distil a sympathetic dew. He was an old serjeant of the Royal African Corps. Years of discipline had taught him reverence for the tastes of his superiors; and when invited by his officer to tile the lodge, overcome on the one hand by the condescension of the captain, and overwhelmed on the other by misgivings of latent Satanic cajolery, he had plunged into the Rubicon. If his commander had deemed it expedient to form an alliance with so powerful a prince as the prince of darkness, what business had he to do with it? He had fought at Waterloo, and would fight at any time against the devil himself if ordered to the charge; but he had never expected to serve in the same company. However, he sturdily denied flinching from the approaching trial of his courage.

The negro's burnished face smartened up when all was over. Rumour, whose numerous tongues, if well pickled, would pair off with all the boiled turkeys cooked in Christendom on a Christmas-day, and leave plenty to spare, told the tale of wonder in "quarter less no time," how Serjeant B. had become a member of white man's purrah; how he had sat down to supper with Captain —— on one side, the devil on the other, and the chief judge opposite; how the serjeant thought he recognised the "old gentleman" as a comrade in the Peninsula; and how the "old gentleman" politely acknowledged similar remembrances, and took wine with him; and how they had parted, with mutual hopes and promises of meeting again at some future day, in the hot season, not in "the rains."

The more the woolly-headed men and maidens of his inquisitive acquaintance interrogated the serjeant himself concerning his adventure on that fearful night, the more he would not tell them a word about the matter; and, to this moment, no mysteries are more mysterious, no secrets more arcane, than those which trouble the black population of the little colony respecting "The White Man's Devil-House."