were worn out with starting afresh each time, as
was the place we started from. Always the same place, the same
jumping-off point. The ground was beaten flat the shambles and the
many entrances to the interior. The seventh entrance led to the most
profound wilderness. It was from the seventh entrance that we heard the
rumor that De Groot, the elephant poacher, had been killed by the wild
We should shut the door and lock it, said
Quigley. White men have no business there.
An emissary arrived with a request from the Minister
of the Interior. The Ministry wanted De Groot more precisely De
Groots reputation brought out.
He had gone to the Congo to get ivory. We had heard
the agents up and down the railroad talk of it its quantity,
prodigious, and quality, the highest. They also whispered of indiscretions.
The missionaries had sent a formal protest.
He exceeded his authority, the emissary said
cautiously. We wish to rehabilitate him for the good of the
nation and the trade.
His reputation had recently jumped the ocean, thanks
to an article in the Sunday supplement where the poacher had been
represented in the most glowing terms as a benefactor of the native
Five columns and a woodcut, said the emissary,
looking around for a place to sit. Finding none, he continued:
Should the truth come to light, it will do us harm.
De Groot was, in fact, a scoundrel. He had robbed the
natives, paying them a pennys-worth of worsted for ivory he sold for
a fortune. He had not hesitated to mete out the most terrible
punishments on those who were slow in putting ivory his way. His
destruction of the elephants had been ruthless and extravagant.
For piano keys! thundered Quigley, who was the
most morally advanced of our party. For dominoes and pretty little
inlaid boxes to keep a womans hairpins in!
He was in favor of letting De Groot and his reputation
Carlson and Blunt rallied. Both were preeminent
elephant hunters. They respected De Groot as one of their fraternity
and, whatever his outrages, were prepared to rescue his reputation from
the darkness in which it had lately sunk.
We must take care of our own, they said.
The emissary handed us our commission in an envelope
sealed in red wax which, in the heat of mid-day, was becoming a mere
We will make it worth your while, he said.
Then he winked and was gone.
I do not countenance robbery and murder (though I
admit their fascination); but my specialty is transport, and I was
interested in how a reputation could best be transported. So I went with
them, leaving Quigley to supervise the skinners in their undressing of
As guides, we had two Ndorobo. To them the vast and
intricate forest was an open book. Despite their wide experience,
Carlson and Blunt could read only a little in it. To me it was
illegible, like a half-erased inscription on an ancient stone.
We passed through shambas and by the doors of thatched
huts, and then on to nameless regions more categories than actual
places on any map. There was no map, but the Ndorobo moved
unerringly, stopping here and there to examine the dung.
We were hunting elephants!
Why? I asked.
To find De Groots remains. His reputation will
be with them.
The topography changed. The trees were of a strange
kind, and the only paths were those made by the elephants. I recalled an
afternoon outside Utrecht. The fog had been so thick, so impervious that
the house in which I was staying disappeared while I was out walking by
the canal. I felt around inside it for a while, but in the end gave up
my few things as lost.
Unseen by us, the forest people traveled the edges,
calling to each other from time to time in savage syllables. The
frightened porters fled, taking with them the empty vessel in which I
had planned to send De Groots reputation back to the world to be
cleaned and pressed and folded away in the national memory.
He must have been mad to come here! I thought. Mad to
think he could penetrate this wilderness, drenched in savagery.
Inevitably it had penetrated him, liable as he was to slip his moorings
at the slightest prod of the invisible. His belief, like ours, was in
phenomena: in sign posts in elephants as elephants, not as the
representation of titanic forces. But in the wilderness whose only signs
are dung, we are soon lost.
As evening fell, we pitched camp at the bottom of a
ravine and dined ravenously on bread and mutton. We slept badly. We woke
and continued our cautious progress. Blunt and the Ndorobo consulted
again and again, scanning every track with minute attention. At one
point we tried to force our way through the thicket to get the wind more
favorable, but in the end we returned to the paths the elephants had
I shivered with the excitement of stalking them.
Dont deceive yourself, warned Carlson. They
are leading us.
The Ndorobo vanished.
They were unreal, said Blunt, visibly shaken.
Figments of our imagination. It was an admission of defeat.
In the clearing we found De Groots badly decomposed
body. His reputation was equally unstable. Marie Curie might save it; I
could not. All around us we heard the mournful trumpeting of the
elephants and their heavy tread. The cries of the forest people
indicated that they, too, were close by though we could not see them
either. Our rifles were useless; they had become the white canes of the
blind in our hands.
We carried a warrant of faith in the highly wrought
manifestations of bureaucracy, its embossed and engraved documents
all mystery contained in an envelope closed with an official seal of red
wax. But neither the elephants nor the wild forest people could be
counted on to recognize them. De Groot had exceeded his authority, and
they punished his presumption.
And would ours.
We entered the invisible. I had no hypothesis that
would explain it.
The elephants trumpeted their joy.
©1999 Norman Lock.