SOBAH was a born trader, in this respect exemplifying one of the strongest propensities of his tribe. He had frequently made trading trips "up country," and had sometimes taken a boat-load of produce even to the markets of Freetown. To-day the spirit of commerce possessed him again. Securing a crew of six to man his boat, he passed the day in collecting his stores and stowing them away on board. Hampers of rice, palm-oil, pepper, kola-nuts, country cloths, rubber and ivory, the latter secured in barter from an "up country" chief, comprised the cargo. A white fowl was placed in the bow of the boat, in the belief that its presence would ensure a prosperous voyage.
Late in the afternoon, as the full tide was about to ebb, the boat pushed out into the current, and the six sturdy boatmen settled themselves for an all-night row to the mouth of the river. Soon their oars were swinging in perfect time, and the weird melody of the native boating-song seemed to bind boat, tide, swaying bodies and plying oars into one inseparable harmony of sound and motion.
If the souls of these children of Nature had been as responsive to sights of beauty and loveliness as they were to rhythmical motion and sound, they would have thrilled with admiration and delight at the panorama brought to view by a sudden turn in the river. Great mangrove trees, leaning over to whisper to their neighbors on the other shore, intertwined their huge branches in a lofty archway over the stream. Thickets of shrubbery filled all the intervening spaces, and tumbled over the river bank. Tropical vines, wild, entangled, luxuriant, trailed over all and hung in graceful festoons of green from the branches of the trees. Banked along the water's edge were masses of calla-like lilies, interspersed with ferns. Out of the mass of verdure on the river bank, peeped the bright crimson leaves that, crowning the ends of the branches, served as flowers on a shrub whose other foliage was of the deepest green. Near by another shrub displayed a whorl of leaves like unto the foliage in shape and form, but creamy white, arranged around the tiniest suggestion of a flower. Birds of bright plumage flitted here and there among the trees, monkeys chattered and scolded in the leafy depths, and snakes suspended their sinuous bodies from tall canes, or were coiled upon beds of moss. Alligators lay basking lazily in the evening sun.
Looking down the river from the bend, the stream seemed to be one continuous avenue of green, with occasional touches of color. Save for the sinister suggestion from the presence of the snakes and the alligators, the spot might have been a bit of fairy-land so quiet and so isolated that it seemed no human being had ever invaded its sanctity. It was a place to cause the cultured heart to go out in reverence to meet the spirit of the Infinite.
But our scantily clad boatmen had no eye for all this beauty, no soul to vibrate in unison with the sacred scene. On the other hand, their hearts were filled with dread and superstitious fears. To their beclouded minds the place seemed haunted by unseen spirits of evil. An alligator slipped with a little splash into the water and disappeared from sight. The sun now sinking in the west, cast ominous shadows amid the thickening foliage. The hearts of the boatmen were filled with a nameless dread, their song died entirely away, and, dropping a piece of silver into the water to propitiate the spirit of the river, they raised their oars lest the sound of rowing should disturb the genius of the place, and floated with the tide in almost breathless silence until the boat reached the broader waters beyond. Then breathing more freely, they began to row again, gently at first, but with gradually increased speed until the oars were in full swing to the echo of the boating-song.
The first streaks of day found them at the bar-mouth, but a strong gale from the sea made it impossible to proceed, and they were compelled to anchor for an indefinite period. Tired out with the night's rowing, the men doubled up in positions of varying discomfort, and slept soundly for many hours. Aroused at last, they kindled a fire in the box of gravel in the bow of the boat, cooked a bountiful supply of rice and fish, and, gathering around the great rice-pot, they proceeded to stow away the food in such quantities as only a black man's stomach can contain.
All through the remainder of the day the gale continued with but slight abatement. It was plain that the night also must be spent at anchor before the voyage could be resumed. The evening meal was a repetition of that of the morning, quantity not excepted, and after it was over they entertained themselves in their own peculiar way. Full stomachs brought on an amiable frame of mind, and the gathering shades of evening developed a feeling of sociability and loosened the tongues of the men. The hour was auspicious for story-telling. The physical man was at ease, there was time and to spare, and the gathering night drove the mind in upon itself. Under such circumstances stories were inevitable, and needed only some suggestion to set them going. Dogbah's capacity for rice, shown a little before at their evening meal, was the occasion of a rather coarse jest, at which all the men, including the victim, laughed heartily.
That reminded Sobah of the same propensity in Mr. Spider, the impersonation of most of the black man's virtues, and many of his vices. With a merry twinkle in his eye, and a suggestive shrug of his shoulders, Sobah shifted to a more commanding position, preparatory to beginning his story.
The men, accustomed to receive half their communications through signs more or less occult, understood at once what was coming, and put themselves into listening attitudes. The story was full of life and movement, and was entered into with much spirit by both narrator and listeners.