The Message (Louis Tracy)/Chapter 15

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Colville leaped ashore. Without appearing to hurry, he was quickly by Hume’s side and asking in an undertone:

“Why has this war–drumming started? I heard it an hour ago down stream. Our engine was not running well, so the men got the paddles to work and we cracked on at top speed.”

“I do not know,” said the missionary, who was more anxious at the moment to reassure the women than to answer questions.

“But is there any bush fighting going on? Everything was reported to be all right when I left Ibi.”

“May heaven be praised that you were prompted to visit us! My wife, Miss Dane, our interpreter and myself—four out of two hundred—alone remain in the mission. Some of our people stole the canoe and made off, and every other native in the compound has gone into the bush. When we heard your paddles just now we thought that the war canoes of the King of Oku were approaching. But please come with me to the house. The mere sight of your uniform will show the ladies that our danger is at an end.”

Colville was young, but he was old in experience. He had also learned the exceeding wisdom of repressing opinions that were not called for.

“Wait a few seconds,” he said. “Here is Lord Fairholme. But for his urgent wish to visit Miss Dane, we should not have been in Kadana to–night. Hello! Who the dev—what canoe is that?”

Even while he was speaking, another craft shot out from the dense layer of mist that hid the surface of the river. Though the trees on the opposite bank were clearly visible in the ever–spreading moonlight, the Benuë itself was invisible. A Hausa sergeant challenged from the launch, and the reply came in his own tongue. A small native boat, propelled by two paddles, grated on a strip of shingle, and an Arab and a negro stepped ashore.

By this time, Fairholme had joined Colville and had been introduced to Hume. The Arab, hardly waiting an instant for a response to a curt inquiry, stalked towards them. He was a tall man, gaunt but wiry, and he carried himself with the listless air of one barely convalescent after a severe illness.

But there was no trace of listlessness in his voice. He singled out Colville immediately as the officer in charge of the party, and addressed him in the Hausa language.

“You would better bring your men ashore, run the launch as far up the bank as possible, and barricade yourself in the strongest building available,” he said. “The men of Oku are out. Three of their war canoes are stationed at the bend in the river and their occupants are armed with Mannlicher rifles. Escape that way is impossible. Your only chance is to hold this post as long as Allah permits. I shall try to pass the blockading canoes and reach Ibi, though I fear it will be too late.”

Colville hardly knew at which he was most amazed, the commanding tone of this haggard son of the desert or the astounding news he brought.

“Say, then, hadji,” he cried, half ironically, “What plague has broken out in Oku that the whole line of the Benuë should be threatened.”

“The chief plague is that of blindness among officers who fail to see the pits dug for them by crafty natives,” was the stern answer. “I speak truly, young master. You have half an hour, at best an hour, in which to make preparations.”

“But these war canoes you speak of—they are not at the bend; I have just come up stream.”

“They passed but now. You did not see them for the mist. I accompanied them.”

“Why did I not hear them?”

“They drifted down quietly lest they should arouse the mission.”

“And yet you came here? Why?”

“To warn the mission people. Hurry, I pray you, and waste no time in useless talk.”

“Oh, I say, Colville,” broke in Fairholme who understood no word of this dialogue and wondered why the English officer should permit an Arab to detain him, “can’t Mr. Hume take me to Miss Dane? If she is as sick of this rotten river as I am she’ll be jolly glad to see me.”

“Certainly,” said Colville. “I shall follow you soon. This chap seems to be able to explain matters, so I must remain here a few minutes.”

Hume, eager to get away, led Fairholme in the direction of the house. The young soldier felt a strong hand grasp his shoulder, and an English voice whispered:

“Colville, don’t you know me?”

They were standing in a cleared space where the moonbeams gave some degree of light. The Arab had pushed back his burnous, revealing a worn, handsome face, tanned brown with exposure. Though the characteristic traits of his supposed race are the heavy lip, and the hawk–like nose, this man was straight–nosed and thin–lipped. He was cadaverous enough, but no Arab.

Colville did more than gaze, he actually gaped at the other. There was no mistaking the cultured accent of an English gentleman, and yet—the thing could not be; he fancied he was bewitched.

“My dear Jimmie, have I changed so much, then, since last we played snooker together in the club?”

“Well, I’m blessed!” muttered Colville, or to be candid, he used the subaltern’s variant of the phrase.

“You soon will be if you don’t do as I tell you,” came the emphatic assurance. “But before I go, for I must give the people at Ibi a chance—though it is a thousand to one I shall be too late—who is the lady your friend inquired about?” Colville wanted to say so much that he found but few words. He could only gasp:

“My dear Warden—didn’t you hear?”

“I heard her name, of course, but it cannot be a lady of the same name in whom I was once interested. Still, it is an odd thing it should be mentioned to–night, and in this place. Who is she?”

“Oh, d——n it all!” groaned Colville, “how could any poor devil guess he was in for this sort of stew when he started from Ibi yesterday!”

“I assure you we are wasting precious time, Jimmie. Perhaps it is my fault, but the question was a natural one under the circumstances. Tell your men it is all right, or they may want to prevent my departure; they understand those drums, you know. My only hope of success in case I am stopped at the bend is to keep up the pretense that I am a special envoy from the emirs in the interior. Some day, if we win through this business, I shall have a fine yarn for you. Good–by!”

“But look here, old chap, I can’t let you slip away like that. Confound it! I don’t know what to say, but the plain truth is best, perhaps. The girl you were engaged to, Miss Evelyn Dane, is inside the mission–house now, this minute, and the man I brought from Ibi is the Earl of Fairholme. He told me all about you on the way up. He’s a decent sort, and he is wild over Miss Dane. But it is only fair to add——”

A series of blood–curdling yells and a volley of musketry that lit the bush with spurts of flame put an abrupt end to Colville’s qualifying sentence. He was so taken aback by the extraordinary coincidence that Warden should arrive at Kadana almost at the same instant as the man who had come there with the avowed intent of taking Evelyn Dane home to England as his wife, that for one bemused second he failed to grasp the imminence or extent of the native onslaught.

It was otherwise with Warden. Though his brain might well have reeled at the words he had just heard from a brother officer’s lips, the incessant watchfulness demanded by the life of the past five months had created in him a second nature. While his heart asked tumultuous questions and found no answer to any of them, his head dictated the steps that must be taken if they were to offer any sort of organized defense.

“Company! Attention!” he shouted. “Four men remain with the launch, keep steam up and shove off from the bank; all others follow to the mission. Double—March! Beni Kalli, run the canoe ashore and come!”

The loud command, proceeding apparently from their leader, though not in their leader’s voice, was promptly obeyed by the Hausas. They came running across the clearing, loading their rifles and fixing bayonets as they ran.

“Now, Colville, take hold!” said Warden coolly. “I’m afraid I startled you out of your wits, but they’re your men, not mine.”

The younger man needed no second bidding. Glad of the night that hid the scarlet in his face, he told the small squad to surround the mission–house. They would be less visible beneath the veranda than on it. Hume and Fairholme with two women in white dresses had rushed out at the first sound of firing, and they were painfully distinct in the light that came from a large lamp inside the room at the back.

“Shout to them to get inside, close the doors, and extinguish all lights,” said Warden, keeping close to Colville during the combined rush to gain the obscurity afforded by the heavy beams that supported the upper story.

Colville obeyed. He was honestly glad that a stronger man had taken control. His knowledge of the country told him that a most serious and far–spread rebellion was in progress. Rifles, not gas–pipe guns, were in the hands of a tribe famed for its fighting qualities. He had a dozen men, not counting the four in the launch, to meet the onset of as many thousands. He did not fear death, for he had faced it many times, but it was one thing to enter on a definite campaign, no matter what the odds, and quite another to find himself plunged into a seemingly hopeless fight in a time of profound peace, and at the close of an exhausting journey undertaken to oblige a sporting British peer.

He had to bellow his instructions twice before the alarmed occupants of the mission–house quitted the veranda. The sound of his own voice was helpful; it steadied him. It was in his natural tone that he growled to Warden:

“Fairholme admits that he is an ass, rather boasts of it, in fact, but I thought Hume would have more sense than to let the women stand there offering a clear target.”

“They are safe enough yet,” was the reply. “Their rooms face the river; the attack is coming from the bush.”

“Wouldn’t it be better to take to the river at once?”

“No, that means certain death. There are three canoes, and each has a Nordenfeldt mounted in its bows.”

“Good Lord, man, a Nordenfeldt!”

“Yes, and M’Wanga has a dozen 12–pounders in two batteries at Oku. Not that they will ever be of much use to him. I took care of that. But I failed utterly to get on board the canoes. They were moored in mid–stream, guarded day and night, and the guns were sheeted. Moreover, I have been out of gear nearly six weeks. This is a big business, Colville. How is it no one knew of what was going on?”

“There were rumors, but they died down. Forbes——”

“Did they send Forbes in my place?”

“Yes.”

“That explains it. He is a capital fellow in an office. To ask him to unravel an Oku plot was to set a bat catching sparrows by daylight.”

They had plenty of time to discuss matters thus coolly. No West African fighting–man would demean himself by delivering an assault on an enemy’s position without a preliminary hubbub of yells and wild shooting. It is different when he is the defender. Then he will lie close as a partridge till the precise moment that his usually antiquated guns can most effectually belch forth a destroying blast of nails, iron scraps, pebbles, and broken glass and pottery.

But the seconds passed, and the minutes, and no horde of demoniac figures poured across the open compound. The shooting was incessant, yet no bullet struck the house, though not even an indifferent native marksmen could well avoid hitting a big building in which all the living–rooms were on the same floor as the veranda. The lower part of the structure served as a store.

The Hausa soldier–policemen, picked men of the West African Regiment, were trained not to fire without orders. They were far too few in number to line the stockade, which enclosed a space fully two acres in extent. In any case, the defense it afforded was worse than useless. The gates were jammed open by a year’s growth of herbage. In some instances, a passage had been made by the simple expedient of removing a whole section. It would demand many hours of labor by a hundred men to put the palisade in a serviceable condition. Hume’s effort was to establish a mission, not a fort, in this jungle outpost.

The Hausa sergeant was puzzled in more ways than one. He heard his officer talking English to an Arab, he heard the unmistakable crackling of rifles fully equal to those with which he and the others were armed, and he was unable to account for the delay in the attack.

Enjoining on his men the necessity of keeping well within the shadow, he crept along close to the wall until he stood by Colville’s side. He was about to ask permission to make a reconnaissance, and thus force the enemy to reveal themselves, when an incident almost without precedent in bush warfare took place.

The indiscriminate firing stopped, the wild–beast noises died away into absolute silence, and a strip of white cotton suddenly became visible in one of the many gaps in the stockade. It was held stationary for a moment, then a native warrior stepped boldly forth into the moonlight. His magnificent physique was enhanced by the war trappings that decked his head, breast, and loins, and he strode forward with the lithe movements of a man in perfect training. When he entered the compound, it was seen that he carried a white flag on a lance. He meant to parley, and such a departure from the savage methods of a semi–cannibal tribe was hitherto unheard of. Usually, an unprotected party of Europeans, whether missionaries or traders, are butchered without mercy if found within the zone of tribal foray.

“By gad,” muttered Colville, “they’re going to offer terms!”

“I think I can guess what the terms will be,” said Warden. “There’s a woman in the case, Jimmie—something new in a bush campaign, eh?”

The subaltern did not understand the curious undertone of grim irony in the remark; but he was aware of it and made no reply. The black warrior had halted. His wonderfully developed sense of hearing warned him that some one not in the house was speaking, and the voices could come from no other place than the gloomy recess beneath the veranda.

“O Hume!” he cried loudly. “I fit for palaver.”

Colville half expected that Warden would answer for Hume. He was mistaken. His senior leaned back against the wall of the store, and folded his arms with the air of a man who meant to abide by a settlement in whose discussion he can take no part.

The negro, though trusting to his vague conception of a code of honor that he associated with fighting against white men, came no nearer.

“O Hume!” he cried again, “open dem door one–time, an’ hear what I fit for say.”

In the strange hush succeeding the frenzied uproar that announced the presence of a host of armed natives, the envoy’s words were clearly audible to the five people in the upper rooms. Hume came out, followed by Bambuk.

“Who are you and what do you want?” said the missionary. “Why do you come to me at night, and threaten the lives of my friends and myself in this manner?”

“I done tell you if Bambuk lib. I no fit for long palaver.”

At this, the interpreter leaned over the rail of the veranda.

“You are Loanda, I think?” he said, using the vernacular.

“Yes,” was the reply. “Tell the white man that the lives of himself and his wife will be spared, and they will be taken in safety to the frontier, if the English girl now in their house is handed over to us at once. She, too, will be well treated. One whom she knows, Miguel Figuero, awaits her at Oku. He is our friend, so she need have no fear. I, Loanda, say it, and that which I say is done.” Bambuk translated this astounding request literally. Evelyn heard every word, and she alone grasped their terrible import. She appeared in the doorway, white–faced, with eyes that terror had made almost distraught.

“Miguel Figuero!” repeated the bewildered Hume. “Isn’t that the name of the Portuguese rascal you have told us of, Miss Dane?”

“Yes,” she said, and her voice was tense with the effort to keep it from breaking. “He is in league with the men of Oku. I knew it, and Captain Warden warned the authorities at home about him, but no one here would listen. Oh, Mr. Hume, it is a dreadful thing to say, but rather than fall into that man’s power I would kill myself.”

“You surely don’t imagine that we would agree to those terms, do you?”

Hume was almost indignant, but Evelyn flung herself on her knees and lifted her clasped hands in agony to the star–studded sky.

“What else can I do?” she wailed. “My life is broken. I have nothing left to live for. If I refuse this offer of peace, it means that all your lives are forfeit—yours and your wife’s, and Lord Fairholme’s, and those of the officer and men who came here in the launch from Ibi. Tell him I agree. I will go to this man. But make the chief promise to spare you and the others. I must know first that you are safe. Then—O God, pardon me!—then—I——”

“My dear girl—which of us would purchase a few more hours of life at such a price?”

“But you do not understand,” she blazed forth. “If the death of one can save many why shouldn’t the one die? We can’t hope to resist these men; there are thousands of them. And unless I fall by my own hand, they may capture me unharmed after you have given your lives uselessly in my defense. Oh, pity me and pray for me, but do not let me be responsible for the slaughter of the few friends I possess in the world!”

She could no longer restrain her tears. The dark blue dome that typified the heaven to which she looked for mercy was blotted out of sight. She cowered as though from a blow, and wept pitifully. Then a voice rang out from the compound directly in front of where she knelt. As the opening syllables reached her ears, though she understood no word that was uttered, her surcharged brain harbored a new dread, for the man who was speaking spoke in Warden’s voice—Warden, whom she had learned to regard as dead these months past. Of course, grief and fear had driven her mad! She swept away the tears that blurred her vision, and peered through the rails of the veranda, but she saw only a cloaked Arab who had stepped forth into the moonlight, and was now addressing stern warnings to the amazed Loanda. And fantasy played her distracted senses another strange trick. The face of the native chief was plainly visible. She watched its expression change from sheer wonderment to baffled rage, and it seemed to her that it was not Loanda who glowered at the Arab who harangued him, but the scowling mask carved on the gourd by Domenico Garcia.

Oh, yes, she was truly mad. She realized it herself, but the others would never suspect it. Then the persistence of the notion brought relief to her aching heart. A kindly delirium might carry her through the ordeal that lay before her. She no longer feared insanity, rather did she welcome it, and now was her chance to act while she was brave and would not flinch from that which she conceived was her duty.

But why was that tall Arab still talking in Warden’s voice, and why did the stalwart savage seem to threaten him with furious gesture? Even while she was gazing between the wooden bars of the railing, she saw Loanda grasp his spear menacingly, whereupon the Arab laughed—how like it was to Warden’s laugh of good–natured raillery!—and a couple of Hausa soldiers appeared, with rifles held suggestively, as men hold shotguns when they expect a rabbit to scuttle out of a spinney.

Again, being still under the spell of that sudden lunacy, she heard the Arab say in English, and more amazingly than ever in Warden’s very tones:

“Now, Jimmie! Four paces to the front in open order—every man—quick!”

An English officer and several soldiers came out into the open. After one glance of sheer astonishment, the Oku chief turned and stalked away towards the bush. He did not deign to hurry, but his lithe springy gait soon carried him into the somber shadows. The dramatic silence that followed was broken by the man in an officer’s uniform.

“By gad, Warden, you did that splendidly,” he said. “I should never have thought of it. Do you think it will work?”

“For to–night, perhaps. One never knows just how the native mind will look at a thing. It gave Loanda a positive shock when he was really convinced that a British officer was not only present at most of M’Wanga’s war palavers, but had thrown out of gear every field gun in his precious battery. He would not tell me where M’Wanga is now, but I hardly think they will attack us in earnest before consulting him.”

“I am inclined to believe you have knocked the bottom out of the whole bally business,” said Colville jubilantly. “They are scared to death of you, Warden. You are the first man who had the opportunity to bust up the Oku ju–ju, and, by Jove, didn’t you take it?” But Colville was wrong. The weird hoot of an owl came from the bush, a drum tapped out a signal, and instantly the forest became alive with vivid jets of light. The negroes had begun their fusillade again, and this time they meant to kill, not to frighten. Bullets whistled past the house, imbedded themselves in the stout timbers, tore huge splinters from beams, and hurled shingles from the roof. It seemed to be a miracle that every person in or near the building was not struck instantly, but the opening volley sent the Hausas to cover beneath the veranda, where they were told to lie flat on the ground behind the protecting supports. To reply to the enemy’s fire would be merely a waste of precious ammunition, and the men carried only a small quantity in their bandoliers. The time to fire was when every shot would be effective. Rarely will untrained savages press home an attack when their foremost warriors fall. The Hausas, negroes themselves, had been taught this in many a bush skirmish, and they had absolute confidence in their white leaders, for, by this time, the rumor had gone round that the man in Arab clothing was the well–known deputy commissioner of the Brass River, under whom some of them had fought in the sister protectorate.

Hume, who was cool as any soldier, seized Evelyn’s arm the instant that the first bullet crashed into the woodwork. Fairholme, too, who had recovered from the stupefying suddenness of what was, to him, a wholly unexpected sequel to a wearisome trip up a fever–laden river, ran forward to help, and the two men half carried the girl to the protection of the house.

But she had no thought of danger. Though it was dark inside the main living–room, she held them fast when they would have released her, and tried to read their very souls by a look.

“Did you hear?” she gasped. “That man—the Arab—who is he?... The other called him Warden.... Why should he do that?... Was it not cruel of him?... And why, why, did it seem to me that I heard Arthur’s voice?”

“Calm yourself, Miss Dane,” said the missionary quietly. “Providence at times adopts means not within mortal ken. I could not follow what was said to Loanda, but Bambuk tells me that, by some astounding chance, Captain Arthur Warden has not only crossed a large part of Africa, but has lived many weeks in Oku itself, and is now taking measures which will, I trust, by God’s mercy, secure our safety.” A queer choking cry came from the girl’s parched throat.

“Then I am not mad?” she murmured. “He is really there! And he heard what I said—when—when I offered to go to Figuero?”

“Yes, of course he heard. It seemed to me it was on your account that he made himself known to the chief. But I do not yet understand exactly what happened. I only know that when first he spoke to Colville he used Arabic.”

“Yes, by gad,” put in Fairholme, finding an opening at last. “I thought he was a beastly native, an’ I cut in like a bloomin’ ass. Just my usual luck, Evelyn. The favorite got up in the last stride an’ pipped the outsider by a short head, eh, what?”

The earl’s happy–go–lucky method of expressing himself was singularly out of tune with his surroundings. Hume had closed the door, and the windows were already shuttered, so the darkness was now that of Pharaoh’s Egypt when Moses stretched forth his hand towards heaven. From without came the incessant crackling of musketry, and the maniacal howlings of negroes inspiring each other for the ultimate hand–to–hand fight; within, one heard the hysterical sobbing of Mrs. Hume, the mutterings of the Foulah servant, and the patter of small débris from walls and roof as the building shook under the sledge–hammer blows of bullets traveling at a high velocity. Luckily, as Warden had pointed out, the front of the mission–house faced the river, and there was no firing from that quarter as yet. The veranda was approached by a double staircase which mounted from each side and met at a small landing, whence half a dozen steps led to the level of the upper floor. As both sections of the stairs projected beyond the line of the building, their comparatively thin boards were being constantly ripped and split by the leaden missiles that hurtled in from both flanks. It was spinning a coin with death for any one to descend either to right or left, yet that is what Evelyn did when Lord Fairholme’s bizarre explanation brought her back to the world which she had already quitted in imagination. Owing to the tomb–like blackness of the room, neither man was aware of her intent until the door was opened and she was speeding down the shattered stairs. In her white dress she was a most conspicuous object. A pent–house roof shielded the stairs from sun and rain, but the moment she emerged into the moonlit compound she resembled some ethereal creature sent by the gods to still the wretched strife waged by foolish men. And, spirit–like, she passed unscathed through the hissing and biting rain of lead. She had but one thought, and it fluttered tremulously from her lips.

“Arthur!” she wailed, “Arthur! I am here!”

And again, “Arthur! Come to me! Why don’t you speak?... It is I, Evelyn.... Where are you? Oh, Arthur dear, answer me.”

Warden was lying by Colville’s side behind a main pillar at an angle of the house when he heard the girl’s rapt cry. Turning on an elbow, he saw her flitting past. He was up in an instant. Without spoken word he leaped out and clasped her in his arms. Colville rose too.

“Oh, good Lord!” he muttered, “they will both be killed!”

But fate had chosen for Warden a strange path to a woman’s love, and the fickle goddess shielded him now when he, all a–quiver with the thrill of holding Evelyn in his arms, clasped her tightly and ran with her up the rickety stairs. Even as he hurried to place her in shelter the bushmen had seen the white–robed apparition and concentrated their fire in that direction. Bullets spat against the ground, crashed through the flimsy wooden structure, and pierced their clothing many times—but neither was injured. A few seconds after she had passed through the door Evelyn was carried back again. But it was a fitting outcome of the madness that had fallen on the quiet mission–station that she should be blithely heedless of the mortal peril which both she and her lover had escaped. Even while death was missing them by a hair’s breadth, she began to tell Warden in broken phrases how she had never faltered in her belief that he would one day be restored to her, and that she had come to Africa and the Benuë strong in the conviction that they would meet there and nowhere else in the wide world.

All of this, and more, was delightfully inaccurate, but Evelyn believed it and the man who listened believed it, and love was more potent than cold reason, so cold reason was barred out among the shrieking hail of lead that had failed to secure its victims.

Yet their idyll was soon cut short. A red glare became visible through the chinks of door and windows, and Warden knew what it meant. “They have set fire to the native huts,” he said. “They want to see where our men are stationed before they try a rush. I must go, sweetheart. Kiss me! If it is good–by, I shall die content, for I have passed through much tribulation ere this divine moment was vouchsafed.”

Not for all the gold in Africa would she prove herself unworthy of him in that supreme moment.

“Go, then!” she said. “Whether in life or death we shall not be separated again.”

Warden was at the door when some one sprang after him. In the growing light of the burning buildings he recognized Colville’s companion in the launch.

“I suppose I can count for one in the scrum,” said the stranger. “Evelyn promised to be my sister, old chap, an’ before we all go under I’ll d——n well down a nigger or two for the sake of the family. Can you spare a gun? I’m a good man at driven birds, an’ these black jokers are several sizes bigger than blackcock—eh, what?”