The Message (Louis Tracy)/Chapter 12

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search

On a moonlit night in January, Evelyn Dane was sitting in the veranda of the big English–looking hotel which has brought more than a hint of Brighton to the sea front of Las Palmas, Gran Canaria. A dance was in progress within, and the jingle of a polka mixed curiously with the continuous roar of a heavy surf. But Evelyn was in no mood for dancing. While she was dressing for dinner that evening the boom of a gun from the harbor announced the arrival of a foreign warship. Soon afterward she learned the ship’s name, and from that moment she was on the tip–toe of expectation, for the captain of H. M. second–class cruiser Valiant supplied the one remaining link between her present embittered life and the rose–colored romance of a day at Plymouth.

Two months earlier, Captain Mortimer came to her in Funchal, Madeira, with a message that thrilled her with hope. The Foreign Office had requested him, he said, to forward any information she could give which might help to explain why Captain Warden should vanish so mysteriously at Rabat.

The inquiry was a private one. She must mention it to none, but it was deemed so important by the authorities in Whitehall that the Valiant was sent specially to Madeira to make it. There was not much that she could tell him. Her sole knowledge of Rabat was gleaned from Domenico Garcia’s message. She remembered the text with sufficient accuracy—but what a queer jumble of fact and fable it sounded! Even she herself, though she had actually seen the carved gourd bobbing about in the Solent, fancied now that the tattooed parchment supplied a far–fetched excuse for Warden’s disappearance.

Nevertheless, the sailor’s words had driven some of the hardness out of her heart. She was beginning to think that Mrs. Laing’s story was true—that Warden was really her rival’s promised husband—that he had not dared even to write again when he knew that Rosamund was at Lockmerig. But when this courtly officer assured her that Captain Warden had undoubtedly sailed for West Africa two days after the Sans Souci quitted the lock, she realized that, in some respects, her doubts were unwarranted. It was amazing that her lover had not announced his departure, but the ways of Governments are strange, and his fall from grace was by no means so great as she had been forced to believe. And then her tiny bit of blue sky was darkened by a new cloud. Although the captain of the Valiant, out of sheer kindliness, concealed the sinister outcome of Warden’s visit to the Morocco town, his very reticence induced anxiety. He was greatly interested in Garcia’s allusion to Hassan’s Tower, listened carefully to Evelyn’s story of the gourd, and, before departing, asked her to let him know at Lagos if she left Madeira. That was all. She had been eight weeks in Las Palmas without ever a word of her lover. The gloom in her soul deepened ever, until the clamor of the cruiser’s salute awoke the echoes.

Hence, Evelyn was one of the few people in the capital city of the Canary Islands who could supply a reason for the presence of the Valiant other than the need of fresh supplies of a vessel on the West African station. Nor was she wrong in the assumption that Captain Mortimer might call on her without delay. She had been seated not many minutes in the veranda, and had successfully held at bay only two of the half–dozen Spanish officers who wished to dance with her, when the sailor himself approached, and lifted his cap with a pleasant smile.

“You remember me, Miss Dane?” he began.

“Yes. I knew the Valiant had arrived, and I felt so sure you would look me up that I have refused all invitations to the ballroom.”

An expression of surprise flitted across the man’s frank face. Evidently, he had placed Evelyn in another and higher category than the flippant young ladies who dominate the winter society of Madeira and Gran Canaria. To his thinking, when last he interviewed her, Warden, the man to whom she was engaged, was undoubtedly dead. By this time, even a heedless girl might have suspected the truth, and he was not prepared to find Warden’s sweetheart so obviously indifferent to his fate as to plunge into all the gaiety of the Las Palmas season.

He knew nothing of the agony of suspense, the poison of doubt, the self–humiliation and passionate despair of those dreary weeks, nor did he appreciate her position in the Baumgartner household. But he was hurt, and his manner proved it. Men who are called on at times to face death in their country’s service like to believe that their women–folk are eager for news of them. So Mortimer was disappointed in Evelyn.

“I fear I shall be regarded as an intruder by some of the young gentlemen I see pirouetting inside,” he said. “But I shall not detain you long. I promised to let you know if any further news was forthcoming as to Captain Warden’s whereabouts. When we met at Funchal I feared the worst. Now I have good reason to believe he is alive.”

She leaped to her feet. Her cheeks blanched, but those blue eyes of hers blazed with sudden fire.

“You have heard of him? You know where he is?” she gasped, all a–quiver with excitement.

The sailor was mystified. Nevertheless, her manifest interest almost brought back the sympathetic note to his voice—almost, but not quite, and she was aware of the altered tone.

“You are asking too much,” he said with a little laugh. “Africa does not yield her secrets so readily, I assure you. Still, I have a rather complicated yarn for you. Shall we sit here, or would you care for a stroll in the garden? I take it we are less likely to be disturbed there.”

Now it was Evelyn’s turn to be puzzled.

It was no disloyalty to the memory of one who once had been her lover, but the absolute necessity of chaperoning Beryl Baumgartner during her mother’s indisposition that made dancing a possibility that night.

“The garden by all means,” she agreed, trying hard to restrain her agitation. So they walked among the dusty palms and oleanders, and Captain Mortimer told her something of the strange doings of the Blue Man of El Hamra.

When the Valiant paid her second visit to Rabat, the Bey was inclined to be communicative. As a matter of fact, the news of the Nila Moullah’s disastrous fight with the Evil One spread so rapidly that it reached the seaboard within a fortnight, whereas the prophet’s journey in the reverse direction took three weeks. Other items filtered through the Atlas passes, and finally there came a man who was actually in Lektawa at the time of the dread combat. He it was who first gave definite assurance that Warden lived. When the new ruler of that disturbed city had slain every individual overtly opposed to him, and the remaining inhabitants were meditating on the divine right of kings, it occurred to someone that the Nazarene and Beni Kalli were missing. A caravan from Bel Abbas reported that a European in Arab clothing, accompanied by a Hausa soldier and a negress, had ridden in there from the north, and was recruiting a kafila to go on to Taudeni and Timbuktu. The Frank had plenty of gold–dust in quills, both he and the Hausa were well armed, he spoke Arabic like a native, and claimed to be the special protégé of the Blue Man of El Hamra, who had carried benevolence to the point of giving him his own particular wrap of blue cotton, which was exhibited to the faithful, not so much for worship, but as a guarantee of good faith.

It was noticed, too, that the knife used by Satan in destroying the Nila Moullah resembled one that was wont to hang at the girdle of his successor, so the deduction was reasonable, provided the deducer were sufficiently far away from Lektawa, that the flight of the Christian and his accomplices had something in common with the moullah’s death and the establishment of the new régime.

This, and more, the Bey of Rabat discreetly told to the captain of the warship. It was clear enough, in some senses, but it left Evelyn greatly bewildered.

“These names of people and places are so much Greek to me,” she cried. “What is the outcome of it all? Is Captain Warden marching across Africa?”

Mortimer was prepared for that question. He unfolded a map, and they pored over it together. Small as the type was in which many of the towns were shown, the bright moonlight would have permitted the names to be read. But that was unnecessary. The sailor knew exactly where to point while he explained matters.

“Here is Rabat,” he said, “and here, beyond the mountain chain, Lektawa. Now, there appears to be little doubt that Captain Warden was the European encountered at Bel Abbas, and I am inclined to believe the north–bound caravan’s account of his proceedings there. A long way south, at the very verge of a tremendous stretch of desert, we come to Timbuktu. The obvious inference is that he adopted the Sahara route as safer than the journey across Morocco, and headed that way in order to reach Nigeria, the place where his duty lies.”

“Can he do it? Dare I even hope that he will pass unharmed through thousands of miles of wild country inhabited only by savages?”

Her voice broke, and the sailor saw that her eyes were filled with tears. More perplexed than ever, he tried to dispel her foreboding, though none knew better than he the perils Warden would have to encounter.

“Steady, Miss Dane,” he said cheerily. “He jumped the worst fence when he got away from Lektawa with money and supplies. The fact that he made Bel Abbas vouches for his ability to take the rest of the trip, and he will be on the Niger River long before he reaches the thousand–mile limit. Once there, he is practically in British territory. To put it plainly, two months ago I didn’t think his chance of being alive amounted to a row of beans, whereas to–day I am confident he will pull through.”

“So you did not tell me everything at Funchal? Are you keeping back the less pleasing facts now?”

“No. On my honor, I have given you the whole budget.”

“When will it be known whether or not—he has—arrived in Nigeria?”

“Ah, that depends on so many circumstances. It is six hundred miles from Bel Abbas to the Niger, and—there may be difficulties. May I ask you a personal question, Miss Dane? Are you Captain Warden’s fiancée?”

“I—I thought so,” sobbed Evelyn.

“You thought so? Didn’t you know?”

There was a moment of tense silence. Then Evelyn swept the tears from her eyes with a splendid confidence. The moonbeams spread a silvery riband across the dark Atlantic toward the horizon. Beyond that magic path lay Africa, and her heart had bridged the void ere she answered.

“Yes,” she said proudly. “I know! Never again shall doubt find room in my mind. Oh, Captain Mortimer, if only I might tell you what I have suffered during these horrible months, when never a word came from him, and another woman lost no opportunity of taunting me with the lie that she was his promised wife!”

“You are speaking of Mrs. Laing, I suppose?”

For an instant Evelyn did not appreciate the significance of that marvelously accurate guess. Then she turned and looked at him in wonderment.

“Why do you mention her?” she cried, almost hysterically.

The sailor smiled, though his face showed some degree of confusion.

“I have done it now, so I may as well make a clean breast of it. But, mind you, I am revealing official secrets, so please forget what I am telling you. Mrs. Laing went to the Foreign Office, and claimed to be engaged to Warden. For some reason—perhaps some one there had seen you—she was not believed, and that is why I was sent to you at Funchal. At any rate, they seem to know all about you in Whitehall.”

“But only yesterday Mrs. Laing pretended that Arthur—that Captain Warden had written to her, saying he was engaged on a secret mission for the Government.”

“You can take it from me he did nothing of the sort. Outside the department, no one knew where he had gone or what he was doing. He even passed under an alias on board the Water Witch. There—I didn’t mean to tell you that. I am but a poor diplomatist, I fear. And that reminds me: I must hark back to my errand. Why has Mrs. Laing come here?”

Evelyn lifted her head defiantly. Mortimer had blundered into the worst possible line of inquiry.

“She has told me repeatedly that she is in Las Palmas in order to meet Captain Warden when he returns from the Oku territory.”

The man glanced around to be sure they were not overheard.

“That, at least, is untrue, because he is not there. Owing to his absence, another deputy commissioner is appointed. I expect Mrs. Laing’s talkativeness does not extend to her relations with Miguel Figuero?”

“Ah, how I loathe that man! He—pestered me with his attentions at Hamburg, and Trouville, and Arcachon, and Biarritz. He was either on board the yacht or visited us at each port of call. But it is only fair to admit,” she added, “that he seemed rather to avoid Mrs. Laing.”

“I have reason to believe that they are acting in collusion,” said Mortimer dryly. “How long do you remain on the island, Miss Dane?”

“There was some talk the other day of our return.”

“What, all of you?”

“Yes. Mrs. Baumgartner wishes to pass the spring in the Riviera, and her husband says he has important business at Frankfort in February, so he will leave us at Nice while he attends to it.”

“Do you go in the yacht?”

“I suppose so. She is there—in the harbor.”

“Yes. The Sans Souci does not travel far without my knowledge. You changed your crew at Hamburg, I believe?”

“Yes, all our Englishmen were sent home. Mr. Baumgartner said that Germans were cheaper and more obedient.”

“What was your opinion of the new crew?”

“I didn’t like them at first, as I had to bother my wits in talking German if I wished to speak to any of them, but they are a very superior set of men.”

“You carry a good many hands for a small vessel?”

“Well, yes. Even I thought that.”

“Did you ship a large quantity of heavy stores at Hamburg?”

“I don’t know. We were in a hotel there five or six days, and never visited the yacht during that time.”

“Of course, Miss Dane, if you should be asked why I called, we are old friends, eh? I hope I may claim that privilege apart from other considerations?”

“You have been most kind, Captain Mortimer. I cannot tell you what a load of care you have taken from me. Now, I must go to the ballroom and see that none of those romantic Spaniards has run off with my charge.”

“Who is that?” he inquired.

“Beryl Baumgartner. I am her companion, you know. Though I am only three years older than Beryl, I am credited with so much more gravity that her mother trusts her to me absolutely.”

“Is Mrs. Laing there?”

“She was dancing with the Commandante when I came out.”

He laughed.

“I shall probably see you again to–morrow evening,” he said. “Some of my officers will be ashore, and I may be dining here.”

He took his leave with a cordiality that was in marked contrast to his earlier frigid manner, but Evelyn had long since forgotten her surprise at his momentary curtness.

The extraordinary tidings of Warden’s adventures in Morocco absorbed her mind to the exclusion of all else. She wanted to study a map, to follow his wanderings in spirit, to weave fantasies about his track across the desert with all the ardor of reawakened love. How could she ever have doubted him? She was brave enough to flout Rosamund Laing’s first attempt to undermine her trust—why had she yielded to the strain during these later days of weary waiting? She was sure it was not so with her lover. Some time, quite soon, there would be a letter or a cablegram announcing his safe arrival at some weirdly named British station in Northern Nigeria. She must learn the map of West Africa by heart. Perhaps her friend, Captain Mortimer, might tell her from what town she might expect to receive the earliest news.

But Evelyn’s humble light–heartedness was destined not to survive the next ten minutes. Looking in at the ballroom, she saw Beryl waltzing with a Canario fruit–grower, a youthful Spaniard of immense wealth who owned a large part of the island. While crossing the hall with intent to find the manager, and get the loan of an atlas, she almost ran into the arms of Lord Fairholme, who was standing there, talking to Mrs. Laing.

“By gad, Miss Dane, it’s just like bein’ in Lochmerig,” he cried. “Here we are again, you know—the same old circus. Couldn’t stand the British climate, so I fled here, per Spanish packet, as the Post Office says.”

“I am delighted to see you again,” she began, but Mrs. Laing broke in breathlessly.

“They’ve just finished that waltz, Lord Fairholme. Shall we make up a set for the Lancers?”

“Well—er—no,” he said lamely. “You see, I’m not dancing just now.”

Rosamund flushed with annoyance. Her rudeness to Evelyn had caused her to forget Fairholme’s bereavement.

“Pray forgive me,” she cried. “How thoughtless I was! Who was the man you were conversing with so deeply in the garden, Miss Dane?”

“A friend, an officer on board one of the ships in the harbor. Are you making a long stay in Las Palmas, Lord Fairholme?”

The good–natured little peer was conscious that the two women were at daggers drawn, and the younger one could evidently match her senior in contemptuous indifference.

“Dunno yet,” he grinned. “It depends on how Mrs. Laing and you treat me. Judgin’ by the giddy throng in the ballroom, I’m afraid I shall figure again in the ‘also ran’ class.”

“Miss Dane is free. I can vouch for that,” laughed Rosamund.

But Evelyn’s answering smile was more genuine.

“Mrs. Laing’s statements are invariably inaccurate where I am concerned,” she said. “If your matrimonial choice rests between her and me, Lord Fairholme, it is only fair that I should tell you I have promised to marry Captain Arthur Warden, of the Nigeria Protectorate, when next he returns to England.”

“Captain Arthur Warden!” gasped the earl, who, despite his habitual air of buffoonery, could remember some things exceedingly well.

“Yes. Do you know him?”

“Er—not exactly. I’ve heard his name.”

Rosamund, scarcely prepared for this turning of the tables, instantly recalled the unpleasant fact that Billy Thring was by her side in the hall at Lochmerig when she purloined Evelyn’s letter. He looked at her now fixedly, as the color in her face rose and fell with telltale confusion. For once, she was unable to force a retort. She almost feared that Fairholme would blurt forth some reference to the letter.

“I was under a different impression,” she managed to say. “But I am sure our private affairs are not of vital interest to Lord Fairholme.”

“Where is old I. D. B.?” put in the man, anxious to restore harmony. “Shootin’ wild duck by moonlight, eh, what?”

Evelyn resumed her quest of the manager. She had not failed to notice Rosamund Laing’s unaccountable embarrassment, but she attributed it to their personal feud, and imagined that her rival was furiously annoyed by her outspokenness. It was fortunate, in some respects, that the incident was fresh in her mind. She was soon to be enlightened.

She borrowed an atlas, and was studying the ominously vague details of the interior of Northwest Africa, when a maid–servant came to her room. With some difficulty, for Evelyn knew very little Spanish, the girl made her understand that un muchado Ingles wished to see her. An English boy! Who could it be at that hour? The few English children visiting the island were in bed long since, or ought to be, if they were not. Closing the atlas, she followed the criada downstairs. In the doorway, trying to make out the English of a gigantic hall–porter, was a sturdy youth dressed in sailor fashion. She recognized him at the first glance, but some instinct warned her not to cry aloud her astonishment.

Hurrying forward, she caught him by the arm.

“Chris!” she whispered, “is it really you?”

His chubby face creased with joy at the sight of her.

“Yes, miss, it’s me right enough,” he said. “Can you come with me to father? He’s orfly anxious ter see yer, miss.”

“Where is he?”

“Out there in the road, miss, standin’ orf an’ on till I heave in sight. He wouldn’t show up at the hotel, miss, 'cause 'is wooden leg sort o’ makes folk stare at 'im, an’ he don’t want too many people ter know ‘e kem ‘ere to find you.”

“Came to find me—all the way from England? Who sent him?”

They were in the roadway now, and walking fast in the direction of the alameda, or public gardens, where a military band plays each evening for the inhabitants of Las Palmas.

“Bless yer 'eart, miss, we’ve done a lot more’n come from England,” said Chris. “We’ve followed yer to Scotland, an’ Germany, an’ France, an’ Madeira. But father’ll tell you all about it. My eye, wasn’t’ 'e pleased w’en our steamer rounded the mole an’ 'e sighted the San Sowsy. ‘Lord love a duck, Chris,’ sez ‘e, ‘there she is at last. Oo’ll say now that Peter Evans ‘asn’t done as he was tole’!”

Evelyn, in her excitement, still held the boy’s arm. He felt that she was trembling, though her voice was calm.

“Chris,” she repeated, “who sent you?”

“Cap’n Warden, miss. But there! It’s dad’s yarn. You must ‘ave it from ‘im, from chapter one to finis.”

Though on the brink of tears—for she was overwrought—the girl could not help smiling.

“You are becoming quite literary,” she said.

“That’s the way I read a book if it’s any good, miss,—a book like ‘The Scalp Hunters’ or ‘Nick of the Woods’—every word, from beginnin’ to end. There ‘e is—that’s father—on the seat under the tree. I s’pose ‘e’s tired. It was a long tramp through the dust from the quay.”

Peter received her joyously.

“Sink me!” he cried, “but it’s a cure for sore eyes ter see you at last, miss. It is you, isn’t it?”

He was not content until he had looked her full in the face in the moonlight.

“You’re a bit thinner,” he commented. “People can say wot they like, but Ole England’s hard to beat for fresh air an’ sound vittals. Chris an’ me would ha’ starved on that tub of a mail–boat if we ‘adn’t palled in with the Scotch engineer, who med ‘em cook some plain food. Hello! You’re bin cryin’? Now, wot the——”

“Peter,” said Evelyn brokenly, “for Heaven’s sake, if you have news of Captain Warden tell me what it is.”

The ex–pilot produced a frayed and soiled parcel from a pocket.

“There you are, miss,” he cried triumphantly. “I’ve done it! ‘Find Miss Dane, no matter wot it costs’—them’s my sailin’ orders from the cap’n. ‘Deliver this letter into Miss Dane’s own 'ands.’ Right again!—as per code! Now, miss, if I was you, I’d just open that there envelope an’ see wot 'e sez. Then, mebbe, I can fill in a bit. I tole 'im I’d find you within a month, but I couldn’t! Nobody could unless he was a bird, an’ a jolly good flier at that. W’y, I’ve follered you pretty well round the compass. An’ my godfather!—’aven’t you covered up yer tracks!”

The first thing Evelyn’s trembling fingers withdrew from the package was the jeweler’s case containing the ring. When the diamonds flashed in the moonlight she uttered a choking cry and her lips trembled pitifully. So this was Arthur Warden’s answer to Rosamund Laing’s jibes! Without hesitation, without waiting to read a word of the many pages of manuscript that accompanied it, she slipped it on to the engagement finger of her left hand. It did not fit. It was far too large. But what did that matter? Its glories might await her scrutiny another time. Just then she wanted to assure herself that she had gone back to her allegiance before she was vouchsafed a syllable of explanation. It was humility, not pride, that governed her action.

Peter, however, did not regard the glittering ring with such self–effacement. His prominent eyes bulged with surprise, and he gripped his son’s shoulder emphatically.

“Tell you wot, Chris,” he whispered hoarsely. “If we’d ha’ known wot was in that billy–doo we’d not ha’ slep’ so sound o’ nights!”

“Not while we was in furrin parts, father.”

“Not in any parts, me lad. Them sort o’ sparks’ll get you a knife under your ribs anywhere. Now, if I was Miss Dane, I’d turn it into money, quick. But she won’t, mark my words. She’ll just twiddle it round, an’ shove in a hairpin w’en there’s a chandelier handy, an’ lean on 'er elbow w’en the light shines on the port bow—all to make the other wimmen green with envy.”

Though Evelyn was deep in her letter—though her brows were knitted and her little hands clenched as the full measure of Rosamund’s perfidy was revealed to her, she could not help overhearing Peter’s stage aside. For a second her eyes were raised from the stupefying record, and they blazed with a light that surpassed the fire in the diamonds.

“You are right, Peter,” she cried, and her voice sounded shrilly in her own ears. “One woman, at least, shall see my ring, even though envy were to kill her.”