BIGGLES IN AFRICA
by Captain W. E. Johns
XIV. ORDEAL BY FIRE (Pages 211 – 224)
“Any hope they entertained in that direction, however, was squashed with such speed and violence as to leave them breathless and flabbergasted”. They are seized and their hands tied and dragged to a hut and flung inside. “I had an idea that the natives of Africa had all been tamed by now, but I must be wrong,” observed Algy. Two natives enter the hut, “the first, who was evidently the chief of the tribe, was a man of great stature, but he was fat to the point of bestiality. He was jet black, with short curly hair and a broad face on which a tiny snub nose with gaping nostrils looked ridiculously inadequate”. “The other was a little wizened old man whose wrinkled face – or what they could see of it – bespoke a tremendous age”. “They knew enough of Africa to be aware that he was a witch-doctor”. “There’s getting a King Solomon’s Mines touch about this business,” observed Algy, with a courageous attempt at humour. (This is a reference to the famous book by Henry Rider Haggard (1856 – 1925), published in 1885 and considered to be the first English language adventure novel set in Africa). Biggles asks “Do either of you speak English?” The witch-doctor replies but “the noise was not unlike the chattering of an angry monkey”. “Apparently they don’t,” said Biggles quietly. “I’m afraid it’s going to be a bit difficult if we can’t discuss the matter with them”. A warrior is set to watch over them so they can’t even attempt to undo their tied wrists. Nearing sunset, they are visited by another warrior whom they recognise as the leader of the party of warriors who had accosted them while they were repairing the Puss Moth. “You no talk so big now,” he said boastfully, pricking Biggles’s leg viciously with the point of his spear. “Where’s your master?” asked Biggles, ignoring the thrust, thinking that if the white man was about, even if he were an enemy, he could not have so far lost caste as to leave fellow white men to their fate at the hands of savages”. “He no come here,” grinned the native. “You no more shoot at black mans; crocodiles see you finish”. With an ironic smile the man went out. Biggles tries to gnaw through Algy’s bonds with his teeth. “He knew it was hopeless from the start, for his teeth could make no impression on the tough hide which, quite apart from anything else, tasted foul, and the smell of it nearly made him sick”. Biggles apologies to his friends for getting them into this jam but he says “while there’s life there’s hope is an old saying”. “Why pretend?” says Algy. “Let us face our end with the cold, calm philosophy of our race, as they say in books,” he added sarcastically. “Frankly, if they take us to that crocodile pool I shall scream my head off. I – ” “Oh, shut up,” snapped Biggles. “Here comes the procession, anyway”. The three comrades are dragged outside and their hands are retied behind posts. “Judging from the audience, I should say that this is what in film circles in called a premiere,” observed Algy. “Here comes Father Christmas to do his stuff,” muttered Biggles as the witch-doctor arrived “clad presumably in his full robes of office”. He is dressed as a ghastly effigy of a crocodile. He does not walk straight towards them, but makes short zig-zag rushes to and fro, the end of the rush bringing it a little nearer. (The witch-doctor’s last rush had carried him to within a few yards of Ginger - is the illustration on page 221). The witch-doctor produces a short, ivory handled assegai and raises it towards Ginger when the ceremony is interrupted by the timely arrival of a company of Askaris from the Seventeenth African Rifles. These African soldiers are led by a white officer called Collison. Establishing who Bigglesworth is, Collison then arrests him “for the wilful murder of Luke Sarda, at Insula, on or about the twelfth of the present month”. Biggles laughs. “It seems to strike you as funny,” said Collison icily. “Funny!” Biggles laughed again. “I think that’s just about the best joke I ever heard in my life,” he said simply. “By the way, if you’ve got any water handy we could do with a drink”.