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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 forest people.

“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 Groot’s 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 people.

“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 penny’s-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 woman’s hairpins in!”

He was in favor of letting De Groot and his reputation rot.

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 indistinguishable lump.

“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 the bones.

*

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 Groot’s 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 Groot’s 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 beaten.

I shivered with the excitement of stalking them.

“Don’t 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 Groot’s 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.

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