The Jungle's Accolade
THE JUNGLE'S ACCOLADE
BY HAPSBURG LIEBE
AUGUST SLAEGER ran guns and ammunition from Chinese ports to Emilio Aguinaldo's army, made counterfeit pesos, smuggled silks and whiskies and opium, and was father and king to as fine a crowd of cheese-colored Malay cutthroats as one would care to see beheaded; and he did it all in spite of, even in defiance of, the more or less efficient secret service the Americans had organized in Manila. It was not safe to cross August Slaeger,—who, his name notwithstanding, lacked a great deal of being all German,—and it was nothing short of dangerous to know too much concerning his affairs, for those who did, had a fashion of disappearing mysteriously and completely. Slaeger balked at the shedding of blood when there was a less violent and sure alternative; for bloodshed was messy, and it was too apt to leave a trail behind it Those smart detectives, they caught men by their fingerprints!
George Leef sat up weakly in the thick blackness and tried to remember. At first his brain seemed wooden. Then he began with the moment when he had broken conference with the president of the Manila Banking Company, and shadowed himself down the Escolta and into the San Miguel. He had ordered a glass of red beer. The almond-eyed waiter had looked at him queerly as the beer was put on the small mahogany table before him. He had left the San Miguel and gone in a caromatta toward his hotel on the Calle Alix; he remembered being sleepy, very sleepy....
The thing he was sitting on, or in, lurched suddenly, and he instinctively threw out his hands. His fingers sank into a soft, damp, hairy mass that gave up a peculiar, rotting odor; this he immediately recognized as old abaca, native hemp. The strong scent of old copra was in his nostrils, too. Then he knew; he was a prisoner in the hold of a little island schooner. He quickly reasoned out the truth: he had been only too well acquainted with the works of August Slaeger, and he was being taken to join those other unfortunates whom Slaeger had so mysteriously put out of the world of men. But Leef was not very much frightened; to him it was another adventure in a land of adventures, and nothing more.
He looked around him. Not a ray of light was visible. Either it was night, or the hatch covers had been carefully and closely fastened down. He could hear nothing save the occasional slush!—ush! of the little vessel's bluff bows as they drove themselves into the foaming waters of a deep sea swell, or the occasional slatting of dirty sails. An hour passed. The schooner lurched violently and heeled over, and George Leef was thrown halfway across the bottom of the stuffy, ill-smelling hold. His hands collided with the legs of a big man, and the unknown moaned. Leef shook the legs hard.
"Get up, you!" he commanded.
The heavy figure writhed uncertainly and moaned again. Again Leef shook him and sharply ordered him to get up. For a reply there came the half coherent mouthing of one who is not quite conscious, and in it Leef caught the name of a woman whom he knew slightly.
"Get up!" repeated Leef; this time he shouted it.
The man sat up slowly and with difficulty, muttering, "Who are you?" There was a foreign twang to his speech. Leef could hear his labored breathing.
"It appears that I'm somebody that August Slaeger doesn't especially like," answered George Leef: "And I take it that you're another such person; eh?"
"August Slaeger," mumbled the other, as the truth dawned on him also, "why, yes, of course, mon ami, it must be Slaeger's work. I am Raoul de Montefort, of the Campania Maritima. The American Government, you know, offered a considerable reward for evidence that would convict Slaeger, the fox, and I had a chance to get it easily. So here I am with you, and," quietly, "we are doomed."
"I remember you now," said Leef. "I met you at the Trevanas' baile grande in May. You were monopolizing the attention of the prettiest girl in Manila."
"Ah, the Englishwoman!" De Montefort exclaimed. "Yes, Celeste is quite the prettiest girl in Manila. And you are—"
"George Leef, formerly a lieutenant in a volunteer infantry outfit, at present a member of the Manila Secret Service," supplied the American. "Tell me this," he went on, "how did they get you?"
"How did they get me?" The Frenchman collected his thoughts rapidly. "I was walking with Celeste on the Luneta, just at nightfall, when a black cloth—really, it must have been a blanket—but mon Dieu! Celeste! What became of her? Here am I but where is she?"
From the blackness to his right came a feminine voice in tones that were low and as clear as the tones of a bell of silver: "Your solicitude is rather sudden, isn't it, Monsieur de Montefort?" somewhat whimsically. "You quarreled with me during the entire afternoon!"
"Celeste!" painfully. "You too!"
"Why not?" murmured the young woman. "I recognized August Slaeger, from your description of him, among those who attacked you; you had told me all that you had found out concerning him; I knew too much, you see. If, as you say, we are doomed—"
Her voice broke pitifully, in spite of her. Neither man vestured to speak for a minute. It seemed to them that there was nothing to say. Why should they raise a hope that must soon be shattered? De Montefort now thought only of Celeste, and Leef was a hundred times more than sorry for her. She was a hothouse plant, a hyacinthine creature, ethereally beautiful, with her sky-blue eyes and golden-yellow hair. In her way, doubtless, she was strong; but it was a strength that was unused to coping with such desperate situations as this.
After two leaden hours, a ray of light, feeble at first, came down from between two warped boards in the hatch-cover directly over their heads. Day had dawned. Though they knew that they could scarcely better their condition by gaining the cutthroat-lined deck above, Leef and De Montefort searched everywhere for a possibility of escape—and failed to find it. More hours went dragging soddenly by, and the three in the hold began to suffer from thirst. Leef and the Frenchman called aloud, but there was no response. The little ship might well have been a phantom ship. There was no sound save the slatting, now and then, of the dirty sails, and, now and then, the maddening slush!—ush! of the bluff bows in the foaming brine.
Late in the afternoon, the hatch over the prisoners was opened about halfway, and a row of diabolically grinning Malay faces peered down into the semi-gloom of the hold. Among them was one great face that was unforgettable; it was darker, more cunning and more barbaric than the others, and from its thin upper lip dangled a coal-black, walrus-like mustache. In this savage seaman's veins ran the blood of the wily Chinese pirate, the fierce Moro, the South Sea Islands cannibal.
"Me Ngan Tai-Po; me skipper," he said proudly, addressing Celeste in particular, while the two big men at the young woman's side stared and wished wildly for a weapon.
Celeste's countenance was full of the spirit of entreaty. "Give us water, and something to eat," she begged.
Ngan Tai-Po went nimbly to his bare feet and faced about, and those below saw at his waistline the flash of the silver-mounted hilt of a flame-shaped Moro kris, deadliest of all daggers. He spoke in his pidgin English. Another moment, and a huge white man leaned over the edge of the hatch. He had curly black hair and pointed black mustaches; his eyes were keen and sparkling, and his jaw was that of a beast. The prisoners at once recognized him; it was August Slaeger, arch-criminal, himself.
"Give us water," pleaded Celeste, "and something to eat."
"Close the hatch," ordered Slaeger; and his men hastily obeyed him.
Another night came, and with it, lowering clouds and rain and strong winds.
When the new day was two hours old, the schooner was brought to in waters that were fairly calm. The three who knew too much were taken, one by one, to the slippery deck, and thence to a small boat that rocked restlessly beside its mother vessel. Another half hour saw them placed on the palm-lined shore of an island that was far from the steamer lanes, and there they were left—marooned! The small boat returned to the schooner, and the schooner made sail and began to merge into the drab horizon.
Celeste and the two men sought the shelter of a clump of fruitless banana plants. The woman looked first at one, then at the other, of her companions. There was a hint of reproach in the light of her blue eyes.
"We couldn't prevent it," said Leef. "If we had but raised a finger, they would have killed us."
Celeste could not doubt it. She remembered the krises, the barongs, the weapons of the Malays.
"Is this where the others who disappeared were taken, I wonder?" she asked.
"Without doubt," answered the American. "I saw a strip of cloth hanging from a bamboo a little way around the beach; it is one of their futile distress signals."
"The wind is rising, and the rain is coming again," observed De Montefort "We must find a better shelter for poor Celeste."
They went toward the interior of the island. It was a jungle of tall grasses and liana vines, banana-plants and bamboos, stunted seraya trees and stately cocoanut palms; starring it here and there were flowering hibiscus, ilang-ilang, frangipani, wild orange.
Fifteen minutes of difficult traveling, and they drew up in an open space before five huts of different sizes and shapes. These were of bamboo framework tied with' vines and thatched with grasses. At the biggest of them Leef hallooed. His call was answered immediately. From the huts came five men in tatters—men whose gaunt faces were almost hidden under varying lengths of beard. Their eyes were wide and expectant; it was plain that they hoped for rescue.
"Slaeger's colony!" exclaimed De Montefort. "Gentlemen, I regret to say we have come to join you—"
"Let's get the little lady in the dry," cut in Leef.
He caught Celeste by an arm and hurried her into the biggest of the five huts, and the others crowded in behind him. Brackish water was brought in bamboo joints and in cocoanut shells; the five bearded men also produced mangoes and plantains, smoke-dried fish, and cold iguana meat that had been soaked in sea-water for hours before being broiled on hot stones. While those who were thirsty and hungry drank and ate, the others squatted, after the fashion of the most primitive peoples and watched silently. And always their eyes strayed back to the woman.
The man who wore the longest beard, of course, had been marooned longest He was a big blonde man, serious, viking-like. To him George Leef turned with eager questions the moment his appetite was halfway satisfied. The answers came readily, intelligently:
His name was Illsworth; he was an English adventurer, and he had once captained a vessel for August Slaeger. His four companions were named Kovski, Weinberg, Sanquebel, and Bellini. They called it Hell's Island. There was plenty to eat and to drink, such as it was. Always they had fruits for the taking. With stones and clubs they killed sea-birds and iguanas. They stretched a strong bamboo and liana fence across the mouth of a little inlet at high tide and had fish when the tide went out; once they caught a monster saw-fish. Sea-water salt was their gold. Weapons? They had only small knives that they had made of steel springs taken from their shoe soles, and clubs. More and more, they were growing accustomed to the life; less and less, they longed for the world beyond the sea—
"But why," interrupted De Montefort, "didn't Slaeger kill us outright instead of—of this? I cannot understand it!"
The man of the longest beard smiled indulgently. "Slaeger," he answered, "always fears being caught and convicted. To kill a man is one thing, you know, and to maroon him for a year or so is another thing. It may be that he figures on making his release the price of our salvation, in the event they get the goods on him; who can tell?"
At that, De Montefort saw a ray of hope. "What a party this is, mes amis!" he exclaimed light-heartedly. A representative of almost every nation is here among us—how peculiar! But you English, there are two of you, while—"
He had turned smilingly toward Celeste, and something he saw in her face stopped him. She rose, slender and straight, that ethereally beautiful, hyacinthine creature, and her golden-yellow head almost touched the thatched roof.
"While the matter may be one of small importance, Raoul," she protested mildly, "I wish you wouldn't presume so. I am not an Englishwoman; though if I were, I should not be ashamed of it. You can hardly classify my nationality. I have, I think, a little of the blood of all of you, and I am proud of every drop of it. I am only—a woman."
There was something very striking in her manner of saying it. For a silent moment the deeply-set eyes of the viking-like Illsworth drank in her delicate beauty; then he bent one great, bare knee, and made a sweeping salute over the imaginary breech of an imaginary rifle.
"Hail to the Queen of Hell's Island!" he said smilingly and yet seriously. "And God save our queen!"
The others quickly took the cue. They repeated, with a worthy enthusiasm, "God save our queen!"
"This hut I give to her for her palace," continued Illsworth.
The men went to one of the other huts; there they sat in solemn council, and pledged themselves to loyalty to their liege lady as long as they lived on the island. But the pledges of men are sometimes not even so good as scraps of paper....
About noon a furious tropical storm sprang up, in which there was little or no rain. An hour before sunset, Celeste and her seven subjects went to the north beach to watch the storm die in the waves, and there came face to face with August Slaeger and his savage skipper, Ngan Tai-Po. The two were drenched with sea-water and half drowned, hatless and coatless and weaponless. A broken and splintered hatch-cover, lying where the waves had cast it up, told of the manner of their coming.
"So!" cried the Frenchman. "Your vessel was wrecked, and you are to have a taste of your own medicine! Where are the others?"
Slaeger spat wryly and said nothing. Ngan Tai-Po answered sullenly: "Him all sink in sea."
"These," said Celeste, queerly for her, "were the strongest, therefore they survived. It is the greatest of all laws, that only the strongest may survive."
"There's no escape for us now," growled Illsworth. "None but Slaeger and that one crew knew of the existence of this faraway island. Well, with a vine we hang Slaeger and that dusky there—"
"No," Celeste objected; "we hang nobody, yet. You, yourself, named me Queen of Hell's Island, and queen of Hell's Island I am. These two shall be slaves to us; they shall gather the fruits: catch the fish; kill the birds and the iguanas that we eat, and bring water for us."
At this, August Slaeger found his tongue. His heavy countenance was clouded with wrath; his big hands clenched as he took a step toward Celeste.
"I will be no slave for you, you——"
George Leef, American, struck him squarely in the face and closed his brutal mouth over a name that was not good. He reeled backward, caught his footing, and went with a roar of insensate rage toward Leef—and Leef met him halfway and knocked him down.
"Enough of that," quietly said Celeste. She bent over the supine August Slaeger. "So you refuse, now and forever, to be a slave to us?"
"Yes!" declared Slaeger. The word gurgled through blood.
Celeste straightened and turned to the big Englishman. "Mr. Illsworth," she smiled, "you may get your vine."
Only when the stiff noose was placed about Slaeger's neck did he give in. Like the coward he was at the core, he begged, pleaded, implored and whined. Celeste gave him his life, and he and Ngan Tai-Po, from that same hour, began their slavish servitude.
The next day was a beautiful one. Hell's Island had become an emerald gem set in the sunlit and shimmering tropical sea. Late in the afternoon, George Leef came upon Celeste walking alone on the west beach, half a mile from the huts. She appeared to be thoughtful, but she showed no sign of grieving over the fate that had been forced upon her, and for that Leef was very glad. He noted that a hibiscus blossom gleamed in the gold of her hair, and that she wore a spray of sweet ilang-ilang at her belt.
"It's hardly safe, is it," he said smilingly, baring his head respectfully, "for you to be so far from the protection of your more or less gallant knights? Slaeger and that cannibal man of his were not hung with a vine, you know, as they should have been."
"Not hung!" exclaimed Celeste, as though the idea shocked her. "We'll pass that up, Mr. Leef, if you please."
"All right," Leef agreed. "But—it's better to hang a man before than after. I liked the way you put that survival business yesterday, Queen Celeste. 'Survival of the strongest' seems to me a better expression than 'survival of the fittest.' And yet, the strongest are generally the fittest. I find myself wondering—who will be the survivors, the two survivors, of this, Hell's Island?"
"I wish they had called it by some other name," murmured the woman. "Eden Island for instance."
"It's appropriate," said Leef, "except that there are too many Adams and too many Satans here."
"Why," suddenly asked Celeste, "shouldn't we all survive and ultimately be rescued?"
For a moment, Leef was silent. Then he blurted: "Listen to me, and try to remember all I say—and I'm going to talk fast, for there may be an interruption at any minute.
"There are men on this island who will come to love you madly, savagely, before long. It is the inevitable. And upon your—er diplomacy, depends largely your safety and the safety of the rest of us. You must try to be as unfeminine and uninteresting as a wooden joss,—which will be hard for you; and you must be careful that you show no particular favor to any of us. Why? The thin veneer of civilization wears off quickly in places like this and under circumstances such as these, and most men are jealous and unreasoning brutes when that veneer is gone—that's why. It is not easy for me to say these things to you so bluntly, but it's better for you to know. And now please go back to your palace, Queen Celeste," with a bow and a very little smile, "and I beg you not to go so far from it when you walk out alone again."
At first she seemed on the verge of anger, but the light of appreciation soon broke over her countenance.
"I'll remember, and I'll try hard to obey," she promised; and with that she held out a very dainty hand to him.
Leef raised the hand to his lips and kissed it with a certain reverence. Already he loved her, but it was not because she was the only one of her sex in his narrow world; he would have chosen her from a million times a million women.
As she went toward the huts, he followed to guard her.
Months went by. The love of George Leef grew and grew, but he smothered it bravely. Neither by word nor by look did he give a sign of it even to Celeste; rather, he appeared to be anything but fond of her, and he feigned so well that Celeste herself was deceived and more than a little piqued, for Celeste, as she had once told her subjects, was only a woman. Each of the other men, love-mad, had begged their queen to make him King of Hell's Island by taking solemn marriage vows with him before God, and this included the slaves August Slager and Ngan Tai-Po. But the queen would not. In no way would she show an especial favor.
As the days ran endlessly on, tigerish blood sprang up between the seven men; they had received the primitive accolade of cave and jungle, and they were ready to grapple with God and Destiny in their determination to win the kingship of Celeste's heart. They walked and ate and slept with clubs in their hands. Soon they began to fight, and each fight was a little longer, and a little harder, and a little bloodier than those that had preceded it. The lust for battle was as contagious as the germs of a contagious fever; even George Leef, and the Frenchman, and Illsworth, who would have been inseparable friends elsewhere, came to blows at the slightest provocation. Leef held his own with all of them; but he had to use his teeth when he fought the big Englishman.
An afternoon came when Celeste slyly whispered to the American and asked him to meet her on the west beach. Leef knew that it would mark him as the lame wolf of the pack, if the meeting became known, but he went. He found her looking distraught.
"Something terrible seems bound to happen soon," she began. "What can I do to prevent it?"
"You mean, of course, that our 'survival of the strongest' stunt is going to be pulled off," muttered Leef. "I don't know what to advise you to do. And I'm sorry I don't But when the extremity comes, you may count on me."
Celeste straightened, there on the pure white sands, before him, and a flush ran over her hyacinthine, flower-like face. "Why is it that you dislike me," she demanded imperiously, "when all the rest are wild with love for me?"
A struggle began in the American's breast; that strange thing that made him like to sleep on the ground in the blessed dark was goring away at the remnants of civilization's thin veneer. He did not speak. Celeste went on, passionately and yet innocently:
"I am human, and I have the great weakness—or is it a great strength?—of the human race: That which I possess, I do not want; I want that which is denied me; I want your regard. George Leef, why do you dislike me?"
"Dislike you!" cried Leef. "Celeste, I love you more than any other man ever loved any other woman in the world! I hoped so strongly that you cared for me that I believed you did; and then, for your safety's sake and for my own safety's sake, I pretended—"
Half an hour later, Eugenio Sanquebel, the Spaniard, dashed from the jungle to the centre of the space that had been cleared about the huts. His dark face was working almost convulsively.
"Illsworth!" he called. "Illsworth!"
The Englishman dropped a strip of paper mulberry bark that he had been beating out for tapa and hastened to Sanquebel.
"Illsworth," fumed the Spaniard, "your cake and my cake and the cakes of these others is what you call dough, as you would say! Maria Santissima! Did I not see Celeste kiss that Americano but now, there on the beach? Twice she kissed him,—long kisses,—with her arms about his neck; no, it was a dozen times, Illsworth. And he said to her: 'Darrling!' Softly like that: 'Darrling!'"
"So that is why," mumbled white-faced Illsworth; "that is why."
While the six half-naked men were talking and swearing over that which was to them the loss of all that was worth having, George Leef appeared in the open space behind them and overheard. He gripped his seraya club, straightened proudly in his tatters, and stood waiting and staring defiantly. He knew that between them, the six of them and the one of him, there must be blood-red hatred and war unto death. And August Slaeger and Ngan Tai-Po,—they too, would be his mortal enemies when they learned. It was a fearful situation. The pack is always quick to fall upon the lame wolf.
"Do you really expect to get away with it?" said Illsworth.
To spar was as futile as a whisper in pandemonium. To attempt to reason with them was also futile. There was no mongrel strain in them; they represented the average, rather than the slush, of humanity; it was the jungle's accolade. And yet, Leef tried to reason with them.
"Is it fair for eight men to fight one?" he asked quietly. "I did not try to win Celeste's favor; you know that. If she chooses me for a husband from the nine of us, it is no fault of mine."
"True, O King," sneered the Englishman; and he added, with a contemptuous twist to his bearded lips: "thou royal imbecile!"
They stepped toward him. The American raised his club and took a step backward, and the others saw his great muscles rippling and slipping lithely, leoninely, under his bare and sunburned skin. "I'll get three of you, anyway—and you first, Illsworth," he declared.
From the jungle wall, Celeste had been watching and listening, unobserved.
Now she ran between George Leef and his enemies.
"You think you are men, you six," she panted, and her eyes flashed like the flash of fire, while the part of her clean, rangy figure that showed through her tattered clothing, had the tensity of a statue of iron, "but you are no more than paper dolls! Whoever touches this one man shall die a terrible death— and not at the hands of George Leef!"
The six dispersed, and as Kovski turned away there came from deep in his hairy throat, a rumble that was much like the growl of a dog. Each knew that to make a hostile move toward the American, in the presence of Celeste, would be to lose favor with her for all time. Therefore they chose to wait. Any night they could kill him,—any night.
But that night, by orders of the Queen of Hell's Island, the one man slept hidden in a bamboo thicket, and early in the morning he met the slave, August Slaeger, and the two fought savagely.
Several hours later, Ngan Tai-Po rushed excitedly to Illsworth's hut.
"Slaeger, my master," he mouthed, his walrus-like mustaches bobbing up and down ludicrously, "him dead! Lugu-lugu kill my master!"
"Lugu-lugu, your great-grandmother!" sneered Illsworth. Always he sneered now.
"A great serpent, eh?" came sourly from De Montefort. "There isn't a snake on this island, Tai."
However, they followed Ngan Tai-Po into the jungle. Lying under a flowering tree, face downward, they found August Slaeger. In the top of his head there was an even row of four small holes, each of which was of about the diameter of a man's third finger.
"He was unfit to survive, therefore he perished," quietly said Celeste. She continued: "Those are the marks of teeth."
And she was right: they were the marks of teeth!
Her voice, low and strong, came again: "This child of the dust, this paper doll, dared to lay his hands on George Leef. He died a terrible death, as I had threatened. And so it shall be with all who dare to lay their hands on George Leef."
The silence which followed was finally broken by Ngan Tai-Po,—by Ngan Tai-Po, the jungle-born and the godless:
"No got mucho iguana meat." With a bare brown toe shaped like an adder's head, he touched that which had been his master. "Him fat. Me cook him. Him better meat iguana meat. Segoro!"
Celeste gave him a quick, sickened glance. "Take Slaeger to the sharks," she commanded, turning toward the huts.
During the weeks that came next, Leef slept hidden in the jungle.
The original five and De Montefort very soon threw off the impression the mysterious affair had made upon their minds. The primitive life was new; they had no traditional superstitions or beliefs to uphold their remembrance of Slaeger's strange and tragic death. One day Bellini attacked Leef; and, although Leef had whipped him, Bellini met the same weird and apparently inexplainable fate that had overtaken August Slaeger. Then Weinberg went in the same way, then Illsworth, then Kovski, then Sanquebel, then De Montefort; all within half a year, and there was left on Hell's Island only Celeste and Leef and Ngan Tai-Po.
And then, one morning, the American awoke to find a queer thing, a savagely beautiful thing, lying on the ground beside him. It was a club, and such a club! It was nicely tapered to the handhold, of red seraya, and was heavy; in the bigger fourth of it were set rows of gleaming white teeth, the hard, strong teeth of a monster sawfish. Leef knew this was the lugu-lugu. Ngan Tai-Po had made.it; with it he had killed De Montefort and Slaeger and the original five.
At the sight of its red stains, dark red against pale red, the soul of George Leef came to revolt. He rose and took up the barbarous weapon, and he had no more than straightened when his ears caught the sound of a piercing scream from somewhere nearby. With the terrible club in his hand, he ran, and saw Ngan Tai-Po tearing through the jungle with Celeste in his great brown arms. Leef followed and struck down Ngan Tai-Po, the jungle-born and the godless, with the very weapon his own savage brain had devised.
The two who had survived faced each other. The man threw down the club and took the woman's slim hands in his.
"We were the strongest," she said, "you and I."
"Say, rather, that you were the strongest," smiled Leef. "You, the hyacinthine, the ethereal, the ultra-feminine. While I may have been the strongest one man, it is by your will that I live, your mate. But it is human love that is the survivor. Celeste. It was love that made you promise yourself in marriage to the cannibal man when he had killed all save me; it was love that made you steal the lugu-lugu club and then entice Ngan Tai-Po into a trap—oh, I have already guessed it all! But I do not blame you. Love had to survive, and there was no other way. This is in a great measure the history of the world, this that we have lived here.... We shall be happy now, for there is no longer a serpent in our Eden, my Eve. And if we are never rescued...."
A Visayan barote took them off a year later.