The Blond Spiders/Chapter 7
AN OATH preceded commands in German. Following on the trodden trail into the arbor, there appeared a short, thick-set man with a blond beard in a patched uniform, a Mauser pistol in his hand. Behind the officer were two rankers, cadaverous of features, and several black soldiers.
“—— ——!” growled the blond beard in German. “There are no more of the English pigs. Ach, that one has left his hat.”
Another white came up behind him and saluted.
“What shall be done with the prisoner, Excellenz? He is wounded in the leg and unconscious.”
“Good! Take him to the rest house. Is the tall one wounded or dead?”
“Dead, Excellenz. His companion seems to have killed him with his fist. He is a strong one, that. Undoubtedly they quarreled, yet neither has any diamonds.”
“Good. Perhaps Ahrenburg shot the other pigs if there were any, but he must be court martialed for letting these enter the valley. Throw this pork into the jungle. It is a pity, for he would have been perhaps a good specimen for the Herr Doktor. Go. I want my lunch.”
They stamped away in the direction of the hut.
“See?” whispered Plessons. “They haven’t tumbled that we’re here.”
“So much the better. Sawyer must have struck Bodiker mighty hard!”
“Them sparklers have driven him clean mad. I say, gov’nor, that bloke’s the Kommandant von Muhlhauser himself. Pretty foxy cove he useter be. We chaised him from hole ter hole, but we never fahnd this plaice.”
“How d’you know?”
“Lumme, I wus scaht and I useter crawl frough their lines,” returned Plessons as if that were nothing in particular.
“We’d better be getting a move on,” said Tony.
“Yus. Maike fer the hill and work along between the spiders and the forest.”
Thus they did, almost noiselessly gliding through the fringe of the jungle until they reckoned that they were far enough away to discard caution. Steep going they found among the broken, forest-covered débris at the base of the escarpment, and as hot as a boiler room of a liner in the Red Sea.
On their passage they saw no spoor of game; no sign of life of any sort except birds, lizards, snakes and insects. Mosquitoes, even before the sun set, attacked them in clouds. The Mbwa (dog) fly, which flies no higher than a big dog, chewed their wrists and ankles. The false twilight of the hidden valley had begun before they caught sight of the settlement, the lights of which they had seen the previous night.
The site was on a small plateau at the base of one of the volcanoes, the ground running up from light jungle to scrub where about a hundred feet higher glowed the spider belt, which evidently formed a band at the same altitude right around the landlocked valley. On examination through the glasses in the swiftly fading glow of a flamingo sunset, Tony was astonished to see a cluster of huts, what appeared to be a village of some size, exhibiting a good deal of activity. Clearly in the lower dusk he could distinguish a black, white and red blob at the top of a palm trunk, and as they looked a trumpet call rang out and the prewar flag came fluttering down.
Between the station and the main jungle, which ended as abruptly as a fence, was a low, open space looking like the bed of a dried-up river pocked with pits from which ran wires, gleaming like a spider’s web, up to the lip of the plateau. Unable to guess what they could be, Tony handed the Zeiss to Plessons, who after one look exclaimed:
“Sufferin’ Moses, if that ain’t the ruddy limit!”
“W’y, look, gov’nor! Them holes yer see in the grahnd’re di’mond pits! Them blokes must have half a hundred or more black fellas working for ’em. Must be blue clay or I’m a liar! Blimey! It’s a young Kimberley already, that’s what it is! ’Struth! Did yer see up there on the right?”
He switched the glasses swiftly about.
“That’s it. This here must have been a river afore them volcanoes busted out and blocked both ends of the valley.”
He stared perplexedly.
“Did yer notice that long shed up there? If that ain’t a sorting shed I’ll eat me bloomin’ boots! Yer see, they dig in the clay, shove it inter baskets and haul it up on them wire stays to the plateau, where it’s broken up and all the di’monds picked aht. See, there’s the dump jus’ ter the left. Crumbs! They must have a dozen fortunes there by the look of it; and fifty more in the grahnd. Look, there’s von Muhlhauser comin’ back—does hisself well in a machila (hammock) my oath!—and our maite.” He laughed. “Looks pretty sick if yer arsk me—ol’ slab-sides!”
“Then the whole column must have remained here instead of giving themselves up after the Armistice,” said Tony. “But it’s funny none of the British hit on this place. But say; d’you recollect that yarn that explorer in the Congo told us about an American who disappeared somewhere about here? That would be their game. Wouldn’t dare let anybody go, in case they gave ’em away!”
“Yus, that’s abaht it. The old feller what died must have broke away, but the spiders got him. Cripes! That’s why the blighters don’t bum the spider belt. That’s their barbed-wire entanglement to keep the prisoners in!”
“But the prisoners could fire the belt themselves,” suggested Tony.
“Yus; but the fire itself would give ’em away. The boches would be arter ’em and shoot ’em dahn before they had half a chance ter burn a path.”
“That’s right,” Tony had to admit. “Pretty tough proposition unless they could find the diving suits. If what you say is right, Plessons, they must have a colossal fortune here; and they’re sending it out, too, judging from that belt on that fellow.” He laughed softly. “If Sawyer gets wise to this he’ll go plumb crazy! —— the skeeters!”
“Me, too,” agreed Plessons. “Best thing ter do is ter get back there in the jungle and light a smudge fire and go fossackin’ arahnd that there camp with the moon. We’ll want food anyway since that blasted boche pinched the porter.”
IT WAS now pitch dark save for the stars. Crawling cautiously, they made their way back a few hundred yards, where in a small canon between two masses of the ancient débris they trampled another cavern in the dense undergrowth and made a tiny fire, the greenwood smoke of which served as some defense against the mosquitoes.
With the first glow of the moon they were on their way, still hugging the hillside where the growth was thinner. It took about two hours of difficult going to make the verge of the plateau, where they arrived covered in sweat and blood from pests and bushes. Fortunately the twittering hum of the night life, augmented by a frog chorus, helped to smother the crashing of branches and occasional stumbles over the uneven ground.
The whites’ quarters, which they could distinguish in the moonlight, were built in parallel lines like barracks and were commodious enough to house a few hundred men. Lights were burning in only two square huts, one standing by itself at the head of the street, and the other nearer the hillside.
A fact in the trespassers’ favor was the absence of the pariah dogs usually attached to every native village. As they approached the bank of the butte they saw strutting up and down with a tired precision a native soldier, ghostly in the light of the pallid moon. They halted to confer. Watching, they observed that at every turn—not regularly, for sometimes he stopped and leaned wearily on his rifle—the sentry wheeled about right on the edge of the bank, which at that point was fairly densely covered with scrub.
Creeping on their bellies, they succeeded in reaching the base undetected and, waiting until the man paused at the end of his patrol, rushed up and lay hidden on the lip of the plateau. After another turn he halted on the edge and stood mooning across at the forest.
Leaving their rifles, simultaneously Plessons grabbed his feet and pulled them from under him as Tony sprang. A grunt was knocked out of him by the fall, and then a sharp tap of a revolver barrel put him to sleep.
Having securely bound and gagged him, they rolled him down the bank into thicker undergrowth and sneaked across to the back of the nearest lighted hut. With Teuton thoroughness the refuse clay had been utilized to make the bricks which paved the floor of the wide veranda. The large windows were covered by stretched cheesecloth, allowing light and air to circulate. Gruff voices in conversation sounded as they stealthily approached the window at the back and from each side were able to peer within.
Evidently the hut was the officers’ mess. From the middle hung a paraffin lamp of the usual store pattern. At one end of the long table covered with colored bafta sat the thickset blond man, von Muhlhauser. He was bald.
By his side was another man cadaverous of features with prominent cheek bones and high-power spectacles; the short-cropped skull seemed almost flat on the top, suggesting an inverted soup tureen, and his ash-colored beard was twisted to one side like a tree in a trade wind, caused by his habit of nervously tugging at it with the left hand. Both these men—Mulhauser had changed—wore white uniforms which looked spotlessly clean. Three younger officers, all haggard of features, were also present wearing patched clothes.
At the far end was the sergeant who had accompanied the Kommandant and another non-commissioned officer; and between them stood Sawyer, truculent of jaw but loose-lipped, huge shoulders lopsided as he carried his bulk on one leg.
“Dunno,” Sawyer was saying sullenly in reply to some question. “They was sitting under the tree there last I seen of ’em.”
“Ach, we will them haf tomorrow. Dey gan not egscape. You, vot dat ol’ man he tell you?”
“Didn’t tell me nothing. Died before he could spill the beans—so they says.”
“Der beans?” queried the Herr Kommandant irritably.
“Before he could tell the story,” interpreted the sergeant in German.
“Ach!" interrupted the man with the crystal glasses. “Vot condition der man vas?”
“Mighty bad, doc,” returned Sawyer. “Covered with them running sores.”
“Could der man ven you him catch talk?”
“The Aussie said he couldn’t, but he’s a darned liar. I dunno.”
“You t’ink dat he talk, isn’t it?” from von Muhlhauser.
“Sure, he could talk all right. The three of ’em had a frame-up. We weren’t suckers.”
“Frame-up! Suckers? Vot is dat?”
“Trying to put one over,” growled Sawyer.
“Speak English, pig,” grunted the sergeant, roughly jerking Sawyer’s arm.
“Tried to cheat,” amended Sawyer sullenly.
“How dat you know?” demanded von Muhlahuser.
“Because that lime-juicer—Australian—knew how to find this valley, but when they saw it they got scared and waited for us.”
“We lamped—we saw your fellers coming in the moonlight, and them two lay for ’em and shot ’em under the white flag.”
“You say dat my men der vite flag haf?” growled von Muhlhauser.
“Your fellers nothing,” protested Sawyer hastily. “Him and me put up the white flag.”
“Vot dey do den?”
“Grabbed the di’monds. And I said we’d better play on the level, and then them fellers went off their nuts and wanted to start something,” asserted Sawyer. “I give them the dope to lay off of that raw stuff, but as soon as we got down in the valley the lime-juicer tried to get Bodiker.”
“Sure. Shoot him."
“Ja. We von shot hear vich tell us vere you are, isn’t it?”
“They both pulled their gats and Bodiker quit cold,” continued Sawyer, warming up to the story. “And then I wanted to go after them, but Bodiker ain’t got the guts and so I soaked him good, the stiff.”
“Speak English, pig!” commanded the sergeant and smashed his fist across Sawyer’s mouth. “You talk so der Excellenz understand.”
Sawyer growled curses as he wiped the blood which began to trickle from his mouth.
“I hit him,” he snarled.
“So? Ach, you der diamonds not vant to haf! You to der childer and der vife of der man you haf murder vish to send dem, isn’t it?” sneered von Muhlhauser.
“It was that Westlake guy shot yer officer.”
“So? Dot vot you say! Dot joost vot all der —— Engländer say! Nefer dey der money vant, der land nefer! To der beople dey to do goot vish so hard——”
“Ain’t English,” cut in Sawyer. “American.”
“Ja? And your bad friends English are, isn’t it?”
“Dat is notting, Herr Kommandant,” put in the Professor Doktor with the crystal glasses. “All der same schwein are!”
“They are worse, Herr Doktor," said the Kommandant in German. “If it hadn’t been for the —— Vilson we would have eaten the Allies! Ja. But this pig will make a good specimen for you, Herr Professor Doktor!”
"Nein," snorted the doktor, rising and going round the table. “He has the heart of a hyena and the brains of a sheep. Gentlemen, I will demonstrate.”
As he put up powerful but sensitive hands, the hands of a surgeon, Sawyer shrank. The Doktor swore at him gutturally and, half-turning his own massive head toward his compatriots, ran his fingers over his victim’s skull, standing in a professorial attitude, treating his subject as if he were a plaster cast.
“This,” he went on, still in German, with one hand on Sawyer’s bullet head, “has no trace of the Nordic. There is the rotundity of the Alpine mixed with the Celt. Only asset is a low cunning. Flat skull, low order of the brachycephalic. A poor specimen of class F 3.”
Tony nudged Plessons, and they quietly withdrew. In the moonlight Tony saw that Plessons was grinning.
“Pretty poor liar, isn’t he?” Tony whispered when they were at a safe distance. “Even couldn’t fool that boche! Now see here, Plessons, I learned a little trick back in France. Whenever the colonel—and he was a wise old bird—learned Fritz was getting busy to start something he’d hit first whether we were ready or not, and nine times out of ten we pulled it off. Maybe the trick’s as old as the Trojan horse, but it seems good to me.
“We’ve got the local All Highest and his principal pal boxed in there. Haven’t a ghost of a notion how many men or perhaps machine guns they’ve got, but I’ve a hunch that if we can jump those two we can do some talking. How about it?”
“That’s the bloomin’ ticket!” assented Plessons heartily. “If we wite till termorrer they’ll have us on the run, and——”
“What’s that?” interrupted Tony.
From somewhere in or near the camp had risen a moaning, stifled shriek with the hoarse quality of pain.
“What the—— Ugh!” exclaimed Tony. “Reminds me of a field hospital!”
“Yus,” agreed Plessons. “I’d like ter maike the hounds what slit them niggers’ tongues ’owl like that! Come on, gov’nor!”