The Message (Louis Tracy)/Chapter 14

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Evelyn, ferried across the harbor by a boat’s crew from the warship, boarded the Estremadura in almost regal state. The vessel’s cabin accommodation was poor, but the English girl was given of its best. Not every day does a small West African trader receive a passenger under the escort of a peer of the realm and a Captain in the Royal Navy. It was an interesting moment when Rosamund Laing, accompanied by Figuero, came alongside. The Portuguese made off at once, but the lady, when it was too late to retreat, affected a blank indifference to Evelyn’s presence that showed how conscious she was of it. She seldom appeared on deck, ate each meal in the seclusion of her cabin, and spoke no word, even to Lord Fairholme. On arriving at Lagos she hurried from the ship, and Evelyn breathed a sigh of relief as she watched her enemy go ashore.

She did not carry her dislike of Mrs. Laing to the point of imagining her to be in active co–operation with the plotters against British supremacy in that quarter of the world. It was far more probable that a rich woman who drew some part of her revenues from factories on the coast might be combining business with the desire to obtain news of Warden at first hand. At any rate, the girl fondly hoped they might never meet again, and she trusted to the strength of her own story, supplemented by a letter from Captain Mortimer to the Governor, to place her beyond the reach of misrepresentation.

But her troubles, instead of diminishing, became even more pronounced when she called at Government House. Both she and Lord Fairholme were entirely ignorant of local conditions. Neither of them knew that Lagos, though the chief West African port, and practically the only safe harbor on the Guinea Coast, was the capital of an administration quite separate from that of North and of South Nigeria. To reach Old Calabar, the headquarters of Warden’s service, they must take a long journey down the coast and penetrate some forty miles into the Niger delta. Captain Mortimer, in all probability, thought she was aware of this vital distinction, but, at the outset, Evelyn almost felt that she had undertaken a useless task.

Her manifest distress at an unpleasing discovery won her the sympathy of the deputy Governor of Lagos, his chief having crossed from the island to the mainland only the day before. But sympathy could not altogether cloak a skepticism that was galling in the extreme. He was fully acquainted with the position of affairs in the sister protectorate, he said. He appreciated Captain Mortimer’s motives in wishing to acquaint the Government of Nigeria with certain curious circumstances which might or might not be connected with tribal uneasiness in the Benuë River districts, but the fact remained that all was quiet now in that region.

“Owing to Captain Warden’s unfortunate disappearance,” he went on, “another commissioner visited Oku. He found matters there in a fairly settled state. The people were cultivating their lands with greater assiduity than such semi–cannibals usually display, and this is a sure sign of content in a West African community. Indeed, Captain Forbes is now about to return to headquarters. A few companies of Hausa constabulary, who were moved to more convenient centers in case a strong column was required for an expedition to the Benuë, are going back to their original cantonments. The incident is ended.”

The official tone was blandly disconcerting. Evelyn was aware that the deputy Governor looked on her somewhat in the light of a runaway schoolgirl, who had no reason whatever to bother her pretty head about the business of a prosperous and thriving colony. “You seem to imply that the Home authorities acted in a panic,” she said, wondering if it were really true that Warden and the men he had seen in London were laboring under a delusion.

“No. They misread the motives of the Nigeria administration in curtailing Captain Warden’s furlough—that is all. There undoubtedly were rumors of some border disturbances. The people in that region hinted that the Oku men were arranging what they term a Long Ju–ju. There was also a trading activity on the part of our neighbors that gave rise to unpleasant suspicions. To be forewarned is to be forearmed, and His Excellency the Governor regarded Captain Warden as the man who could best deal with and remove any causes of discontent. Within the last two months, however, all unfavorable symptoms have vanished, and Oku is now as quiet as Old Calabar, or Lagos itself.”

“I am glad of it,” she said earnestly. “It is far from my wish to figure as a messenger of strife. May I revert to a more personal matter? If Captain Warden has succeeded in crossing the Sahara, when and where may I reasonably expect to hear of him?”

The deputy Governor stroked his chin. He was a kind–hearted man, and circumstances had prepared him for that question.

“It is hard to say,” he answered, “Assuming he reaches Timbuktu in safety, he can follow that course of the Upper Niger, through what is known as the Dahomey hinterland, until he arrives at Ilo, the first town in the British sphere of influence in that direction. Thence to the sea, at this season, the river is navigable. If he makes for Lagos—having been ordered here in the first instance—he might strike overland from Jebbu to the railhead at Ibadan, but if he sticks to the river and goes to his own headquarters, by remaining here you should obtain telegraphic information of his arrival at a town called Lokoja, situated at the junction of the Niger and the Benuë.”

He paused. His brief review conveyed no hint to his hearer of the tremendous difficulties any man must overcome ere he reached the comparative civilization of the telegraph, and he flinched from the task of enlightening her.

“Is it quite certain,” he asked, “that Captain Warden went ashore at Rabat?”

The astonishment in Evelyn’s face was almost sufficient answer.

“Unless every one in some Government department in London has gone mad, it is quite certain,” she cried. “Did not an officer from Nigeria go to meet him at Cape Coast Castle, and is it not evident that he went to Hassan’s Tower to obtain the ruby I have told you of?”

The official smiled. He had effectually distracted her thoughts from the far more embarrassing topic of Warden’s chances of reaching Nigeria alive.

“One learns to distrust circumstantial evidence, Miss Dane. Have you heard that the passenger on the Water Witch was known as Mr. Alfred Williams? Yes? Well, we do not know Captain Warden. We have no means here of identifying the baggage landed by the captain of the Water Witch when he reported the Rabat incident. Could you recognize any of Captain Warden’s belongings?”

“No,” said Evelyn blankly—“that is, I fear not.”

“You mentioned a gourd. I have not seen the thing myself, but one of my assistants says that a most remarkable object of that nature was found in one of the missing man’s boxes.”

“Ah, I should know that anywhere,” and she shuddered at the recollection of the evil face whose appearance had so strangely synchronized with the stormy events of her recent life.

“Well, have you any objection to examining the gourd now? If it is the undoubted article you picked up in the Solent, it goes far to prove that Captain Warden did really take passage on the Water Witch.”

“I cannot imagine how you can think otherwise,” she declared. “Of course it was he!”

“There is no harm in making sure,” he said, having already decided to entrust to his wife the trying duty of making known to this charming girl the almost certain fact that her lover was long since dead.

The calabash was brought and taken from its canvas wrapper. Oddly enough, mildew had formed on its bright lacquer, and the sheen of the mosaic eyes was dulled. It had lost some of its artistic power, and was far from being the terrifying creation that scared her so badly when first she saw it on the deck of the Nancy.

“Yes, that is it,” she said. “You see, this crown is really a lid, and the piece of vellum, or parchment, was hidden inside. It is not there now, yet it is more than likely that Captain Warden kept them both together.”

The servant who had brought the calabash was sent back to search for the tattooed skin. He soon returned with it, and the deputy Governor examined the two curios with manifest interest.

“It is not native work,” he said. “I have never seen anything just like it, even in museums at home.”

Moved by an impulse which she could never afterwards explain, Evelyn asked if both the gourd and the parchment might be given to her. “They are really mine,” she explained sadly. “Captain Warden asked me to accept the carved head, as it was I who discovered it. But I was afraid of it then. Now, I should be pleased to have it in my possession. It brought us together in the first instance. Perhaps it may do the same thing a second time.”

“Nigeria is the home of the ju–ju—may this fetish prove a lucky one!” said the official gravely. “Take it, by all means, Miss Dane, but let no native see it, or you will attract a notoriety that I am sure you would dislike. Meanwhile, I shall telegraph to Old Calabar asking for news, though I should certainly have heard if Warden had turned up already.”

That same afternoon the deputy Governor’s wife called on Evelyn, and invited her to come and stay at her house, urging that she would find residence in a private family vastly preferable to the hotel in which she had passed the previous night. For fully three weeks she lived with this most friendly and hospitable lady. By degrees, as they became more intimate, her new acquaintance gathered the threads of the unusual story in which the girl figured so prominently. Similarly, as Evelyn gained more knowledge of African affairs, she could not help but discover that it would be nothing less than a miracle if Warden ever reached Nigeria. The difficulties facing even a well–equipped expedition on the desert route were so great that all but the most enthusiastic explorers shrank from them. How, then, could one white man, accompanied by a solitary Hausa, hope to overcome them? The deputy Governor scouted the idea that Warden could raise a caravan at Bel Abbas. He was dubious about the incidents reported from Lektawa, but he made no secret of the utter improbability that Warden would have the means of buying camels and hiring men for the dangerous journey outlined by Captain Mortimer. And, to complete Evelyn’s dismay, the Southern Nigeria administration sent the most positive assurances that Warden had not been heard of in the upper river districts.

She learned incidentally that Mrs. Laing had gone to Lokoja in a river steamer. Her hostess believed that Rosamund had found out the latest version of Warden’s adventures, and cherished a faint hope that even yet she might forestall Evelyn. No small consideration would take her so far into the interior, especially as the journey was both risky and useless.

“But that need not trouble you at all, my dear,” said her outspoken friend. “If Captain Warden lives, you can rest assured that my husband will hear of him long before Mrs. Laing hears. I am afraid that if news comes at all, it will reach us in the form of a native rumor that a white man died of fever away up there beyond the hills. It is always fever—never a spear thrust or a quantity of powdered glass mixed with a man’s food. The natives are loyal enough to each other in that respect. Even when they know the truth, it is almost impossible to get them to tell it.”

So now it was death, and not life, that was talked of, and Evelyn lived on in dry–eyed misery until Fairholme hinted one day that she ought to return home, as the climate was beginning to affect her health.

There were not lacking indications that the merry–souled little peer had quickly reconciled himself to the loss of Mrs. Laing. He was the most popular man in Lagos, and he hardly ever visited Evelyn when he did not assure her that he was “havin’ a giddy time with the dear girls.“ Yet she knew that he was only waiting until the last hope of Warden’s escape from the desert must be abandoned. When that hour came, and she was prepared to take ship for England, Fairholme would ask her to marry him.

The belief became an obsession. To get away from it, to cut herself wholly adrift from painful associations, she offered her help to an American Baptist missionary and his wife who were going up the Benuë. They tried to dissuade her, pointing out the hardships and positive dangers of the undertaking and the humdrum nature of the nursing, teaching, and doctoring that constituted the lot of a medical missionary in West Africa. Finally, they consented, but stipulated that she should give her new career a six months’ trial.

Fairholme protested, and stormed, and was only prevented from proposing on the spot by Evelyn’s placid statement that no matter what the future might decide, she should not be happy unless she had visited the little–known land to which her lover had given the best years of his life.

The reference to Warden effectually sealed his lips. He hastened to the club, asked a man to dine with him, drank the larger part of a bottle of champagne, and mournfully informed his friends that he had never enjoyed a moment’s real fun since he ceased to be hard up. So Evelyn said good–by to the hospitable people who entertained her at Lagos, and made the long voyage up the great river that perplexed mankind during so many centuries. Even yet its whole course has not been surveyed, and it has important tributaries that are unknown beyond their confluence with the main stream. But the river steamer followed the established trade route through Old Calabar and Asabao and Idah to Lokoja; thence a steam launch took the small party of Europeans up the Benuë to Ibi, and they completed the journey in a roofed boat of shallow draft manned by krooboys.

The girl seemed now to have left behind the cares and troubles of the outer world. Busying herself with the daily life of the mission compound—once a stockaded trading–station and noted center for the distribution of gin, but now a peaceful hive of simple tuition and industry—she soon experienced a calm sense of duty accomplished that had certainly been denied her in the Baumgartner household. At Lagos she had received one letter from Beryl, who complained bitterly of her “desertion.“ A police patrol–boat brought her a letter from home, in which her stepmother expressed the strongest disapproval of her new departure as announced by a hurried note sent from Lagos. And that was all. The links that bound her with England were completely snapped. She might almost be the kidnapped Domenico Garcia, of whom she thought occasionally when some chance aspect of a negro’s face startled her by its close resemblance to the black mask on the calabash.

Mindful of the Lagos official’s warning, she never showed the carved head to any one. Not even Mr. and Mrs. Hume, the mission couple, knew that it was in her possession.

She had been nearly two months in Kadana, as the group of houses and huts in the clearing by the side of the yellow Benuë was called, when an apparently trivial incident upset the placid routine of the mission. One evening, just before sunset, a ju–ju man, fearsomely bedaubed, and decked with an amazing headdress and skirt of scarlet feathers, came into the native section of the compound. He cut off the head of an unhappy fowl that he carried with him, sprinkled its warm blood in a circle on the ground, chanted some hoarse incantation, and vanished into the bush.

The white people saw him from a distance. They happened to be standing on the veranda of an old factory used as a schoolhouse and dwelling, and Mr. Hume was greatly annoyed by the witch–doctor’s visit.

“This will unsettle every native for a week or two,” he said, eying the man’s antics with evident disfavor. “Those fellows are a far more enduring curse to Africa than the gin traffic. Governments can legislate gin out of existence, but they cannot touch ju–ju.”

“We are doing something in that direction here,” said Evelyn, glancing over her shoulder at the rows of woolly–headed little black figures in the class–room.

“Yes, we are educating the children, but their parents will undo to–night all that we have accomplished since our return. Look at Bambuk. He has mixed with Europeans during the past ten years, yet he is white with terror.”

It was an odd phrase to use with regard to a negro, but it was quite accurate. Bambuk, interpreter, head servant, and factotum–in–chief to the mission, who was peering through the doorway at the proceedings of the ju–ju man, showed every sign of alarm when he saw the fowl–killing ceremony. His ebony face, usually shining and jovial looking, became livid and drawn. His eyes glistened like those of a frightened animal.

Turning for a second to make sure that the children were not listening, he drew near and whispered:

“Oku man make war ju–ju. Him say all black people lib for bush, or dem King of Oku nail ebery one to tree w’en he burn mission.” Bambuk could speak far better English than that. The fact that he had reverted so thoroughly to the jargon of the krooboy proved the extent of his fear.

Hume affected to make light of the witch–doctor and his threats.

“Go and tell him to stop his nonsense”, he said. “Say I have a bale of cotton here which I brought especially from Lagos as a present for King M’Wanga.”

But before Bambuk could descend the broad flight of steps leading from the veranda, the fetish performance was at an end and its chief actor had rushed off among the trees.

Evelyn felt a chill run through her body, though the air was hot and vapor–laden.

“Is M’Wagna the name of the King of Oku?” she asked.

“I believe so. I have been absent nearly eight months, as you are aware, but I haven’t heard of any change in the local dynasty.”

“Do you think it likely that he has ever visited England?”

“Most improbable,” said Hume. “He is an absolute savage. I have seen him only once, and I should be sorry to think that my life depended on his good will. But why did you imagine he might have been in England?”

“Because a native of that name came there with two others last August.”

“We have been visited by ju–ju men before, Charles,” put in Mrs. Hume.

“Yes. Generally they come begging for something they want—usually drugs—which they pretend to concoct themselves out of a snake’s liver or the gizzard of a bird. Don’t lay too much stress on Bambuk’s fright. He is a chicken–hearted fellow at the best. If there is really any likelihood of a native disturbance I shall send him with you and Miss Dane down the river——”

“I shall not go without you, dear,” said Mrs. Hume.

“Nor I—unless both of you come,” answered Evelyn.

Hume laughed constrainedly.

“You will both obey orders, I hope,” he said, but he did not urge the matter further at the moment.

They were eating their evening meal when the distant tapping of a drum caught their ears. It was not the rhythmical beating of a tom–tom by some musically–inclined bushman. It much more closely resembled the dot and dash code of the Morse alphabet, or that variant of it which Private Thomas Atkins, in a spasm of genius, christened “Umty–iddy.“ Heard in the stillness of the forest, with not a breath of air stirring the leaves of the tallest trees, and even the tawny river murmuring in so low a note that it was inaudible from the mission–house, this irregular drum–beating had a depressing, almost a sinister effect. It jarred on the nerves. It suggested the unseen and therefore the terrible. At all costs they must find out what it signified.

Bambuk was summoned. He was even more distraught than during the fetish performance of two hours earlier.

“Dem Oku drum play Custom tune,” he explained. “Dem Custom mean——”

“Do you savvy what they are saying?” broke in Hume sharply. He did not imagine that his wife had discussed the habits of native potentates with her youthful helper, and even she herself did not know the full extent of the excesses, the sheer lust of bloodshed, hidden under a harmless–sounding word.

“Savvy plenty. Dem drum made of monkey–skin—p’haps other kind of skin—an’ dem ju–ju man say: ‘Come, come! Make sharp dem knife! Come! Load dem gun! Come, den, come! Dem ribber (river) run red wid blood!’ Den dey nail some men to tree an’ make dance.” The missionary did not check his assistant’s recital. It was best that the women should at least understand the peril in which they were placed. The compound held not more than fifty able–bodied men, and the only arms they possessed were native weapons. Hume’s influence depended wholly on his skill in treating the ailments of the people and his patience in teaching their children not only the rudiments of English but the simpler forms of handicraft. His experience as an African missioner was not of long standing, but from the outset he had consistently refused to own any firearm more deadly than a shotgun. Hitherto he had regarded the Upper Benuë region as a settled and fairly prosperous one. His cherished day–dream was that before he died he might see the pioneer settlement at Kadana transmuted into a well–equipped college and training school, whence Christianity and science might spread their light throughout that part of Africa. It shocked him now to think that all his work might be submerged under a wave of fanaticism, yet he clung to the hope that the warlike preparations of the men of Oku might mean nothing more serious than a tribal quarrel. This had happened once before, and he stepped in as arbitrator. By a liberal distribution of presents, including the whole of the mission stock of wine and brandy, he sent away both parties highly gratified with both his award and his method of arriving at it. “There are war–drums beating in more than one place,” said Evelyn, who was listening in silence to the spasmodic tap–tap, tap–tap–tap, tap, that voiced the dirge translated by Bambuk.

“Ah, you have hit on my unspoken thought,” cried Hume. “Come, now, Bambuk, are you not enlarging your story somewhat? Two chiefs make war–palaver; isn’t that the explanation?”

“Dem Oku drum,” repeated the native, “all Oku drum. Dey call for Custom to–night.”

“What exactly is Custom, Charles?” said Mrs. Hume.

“Unfortunately, it means in this instance an offering of human sacrifice.”

He saw no help for it. They must know, sooner or later, and his soul turned sick at the thought of his wife and this gentle girl who had thrown in her lot with theirs falling into the clutches of the fetish–maddened bushmen. Each minute he grew more assured that some unusual movement was taking place among the surrounding tribes. Even to his untutored ear there was a marked similarity in the drumming, and he determined that the two women should go down the river in the mission canoe as soon as the moon rose. A crew of eight men could take them to the nearest constabulary post, and within twenty–four hours a steam launch would bring back an armed body of Hausas officered by an Englishman. Till then, he would trust to Providence for the safety of the people under his care. That he himself could desert the mission never entered his mind. Not only would the settlement break up in direst confusion the moment his back was turned, but the society’s houses and stores would be looted and destroyed, and the work of years swept away in a single night.

He was considering what excuse would serve to get the women on board the canoe, when the splash of paddles close at hand stirred all four to sudden excitement. It was Bambuk who read instantly the meaning of this unexpected sound. He rushed out, yelling words that proved how soon the veneer of civilization can wear off the West African negro. Soon he came back, looking sick with fear. “Dem dam pagan nigger make off in dem canoe,” he almost screamed. “Dey savvy plenty too much bushman lib. We all be killed one–time.”

Even Evelyn, new to the country and its ways, realized what this meant. The river was their only highway. There were native tracks in plenty through the dense forest, but to march along any one of them while a hostile force was lying across every path was to court immediate disaster. By running away from a peril which was only passive as yet, they made it active. On the river they might escape; in the bush they could not travel a mile except on native sufferance.

Hume tried bravely to minimize the force of this unlooked–for blow. It was true the fugitives might be expected to carry the alarm to the police post, but until the following night it was quite impossible for succor to reach Kadana. And now they must all stand or fall by the mission.

“I did not think any of our men would be such cowards,” he said with quiet sadness. “Let us go and pacify the others. When all is said and done, we have harmed no one in Oku territory, but given relief to many who were in pain. I still believe that this scare is unwarranted, and our presence among our people will tend to calm them.”

A minute later he was sorry he had not gone alone. Every hut in the compound was empty. Nearly two hundred men, women, and children had fled into the bush, preferring to obey the order of the ju–ju man rather than defy him by remaining in the mission. Bambuk had not been taken into their confidence because he was originally a Foulah Mohammedan. The colony at Kadana was precisely what Bambuk had called its members in his rage, for the Mohammedan negro looks down upon his “pagan“ brethren with supreme contempt. In a crisis such as that which now threatened to engulf the mission, these nice distinctions of class and creed are apt to spring into startling prominence.

Hume faced the situation gallantly.

“Another illusion shattered,” he sighed. “Most certainly I did not expect that all my people would desert me at the first hint of danger. But we must make the best of it. Even now I cannot believe that the king of Oku—if it really is he who has created this disturbance—can contemplate an attack on Europeans. He has many faults, but he is not a fool, and he knows quite well how swift and complete would be his punishment if he interfered with us.”

Mrs. Hume accepted her husband’s views, and tried to look at matters with the same optimism. Evelyn, curiously enough, was better informed than even their native companion as to the serious nature of the outbreak. She was convinced that Warden’s theory was correct. Some stronger influence than a mere tribal émeute lay behind those horrible drumbeats. The authorities had been completely hoodwinked. In her heart of hearts she feared that Kadana shared its deadly peril that night with many a stronger trading–post and station down the river.

Bambuk, quieting down from his earlier paroxysms of fear, seemed to await his certain doom with a dignified fatalism. Even when he heard the thud of paddles on the sluggish waters of the river he announced the fact laconically.

“Bush man lib!” he muttered.

Perhaps the white faces blanched somewhat, and hearts beat a trifle faster, but Hume alone spoke.

“Where?” he asked.

“On ribber—in dem war canoe.”

They strained their ears, and soon caught the measured plashing. Then Mrs Hume began to weep. Evelyn knelt by her side in mute sympathy. She was too dazed to find relief in tears. For the moment she seemed to be passing through a torturing dream from which she would soon awake. Hume, who had gone to the door, came to his wife.

“Don’t cry, Mary,” he said. “That does no good—and—it breaks my heart. I have not abandoned hope. God can save us even yet. Be not afraid of them that kill the body, and after that have no more that they can do.”

His voice was strong and self–reliant. Even Bambuk glanced at him with a kind of awe, and thought, it may be, that the creed he had tried dimly to understand was nobler than the mere stoicism that was the natural outcome of his own fantastic beliefs. The negro was stupid with terror, or he could not have failed to distinguish the steady hum of an engine running at half speed.

And so they waited, while the thud of the paddles came nearer, until at last the bow of a heavy craft crashed into the foliage overhanging the bank, and they were rapt into a heaven of relief by hearing an English voice.

“Hello, there!” it shouted. “Is this the Kadana Mission?”

Mrs. Hume straightway fainted, but Evelyn was there to tend her, and Hume rushed down to the landing–place. The gleam of a moon rising over some low hills was beginning to make luminous the river mist. He was able dimly to note the difference between the pith hats of two Europeans and the smart round caps of a number of Hausa policemen. And, though a man of peace, he found the glint of rifle barrels singularly comforting.

“Who are you?” he asked.

“Well,” said he who had spoken in the first instance, “I am Lieutenant Colville of the constabulary, but I have brought with me the Earl of Fairholme. Have you a lady named Dane, Miss Evelyn Dane, staying with you?”

Hume, who wanted to fall on his knees and offer thanks to Providence, managed to say that Evelyn Dane was certainly at Kadana at that moment.

“Ah, that’s the ticket!” said another voice. “I suppose you can put us up for the night? Any sort of shake–down will do, so long as we get away from this beastly river. Sleepin’ on board gives one the jim–jams, eh, what?”