The Message (Louis Tracy)/Chapter 16

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Fairholme was soon equipped with a rifle. He was crouching behind a wooden pillar close to Warden and Colville, when a Hausa who had incautiously exposed himself uttered a queer cough and pitched forward on his face, shot through the lungs. The earl took the man’s gun and bandolier, but noticed that none of the others were firing, though a number of black forms were dimly visible through the murk created by the smoke of the blazing huts.

Warden was watching him.

“You will soon get busy,” he said. “They are preparing for a rush. Pick out the leaders, the fellows wearing the gaudiest feathers, or carrying a leopard–skin slung across their shoulders.”

“You’re a funny lookin’ bird yourself,” chuckled Fairholme. “What price you for the Kingdom Come stakes when the niggers spot you? Every black son of a gun will want to add you to the bag.”

“That’s right, Warden,” put in Colville anxiously. “Chuck away that burnous, and stick on poor Toomba’s cap. Fairholme can pull it in with the clearing–rod.”

“No,” said Warden. “My Arab’s livery has served me in good stead thus far. I shall not abandon it until I can borrow the togs of civilization, if ever I need them. Hello, here they come!”

A slackening in the fusillade and a terrific outburst of yells showed that the enemy were breaking cover in force. In an instant the compound seemed to become alive with armed negroes, many of whom had already discarded their modern rifles for the more familiar matchet and spear.

Colville shouted something in the Hausa tongue, and his men, all but two, leaped to their feet. Firing with deadly accuracy at such a short range, they brought down a score of the foremost savages. Fairholme, imbued with the traditions of European warfare, naturally expected that the attack would be pressed home, so he set his teeth and resolved to enter the next world with a royal bodyguard. Remembering Warden’s instructions, he looked only for the most gorgeously decorated warriors, and found three including Loanda himself. Warden, who had secured the rifle of the second wounded Hausa, saw the earl bowl over a ju–ju man at sixty yards, no mean shooting at night in an atmosphere rapidly becoming smoke–laden.

“Well done, brother–in–law!” he cried, and in the throes of that deadly strife those two began a friendship not to be severed on this side of the great boundary. As the house was attacked simultaneously on three sides, Colville ran around it to tell each member of his tiny force to fall back on the staircase when hard pressed. The instruction was given not a second too soon. Trusting to their great numbers, the men of Oku came on boldly. They were first–rate soldiers in their own way, they anticipated an easy victory, and they were filled with the frenzied desire to use steel rather than lead. That is the bushman’s temperament; killing loses half its ferocious joy if he cannot “paint“ his weapon. This sheer lust of blood now served the little garrison in good stead. True, it exposed them to the combined onslaught of hundreds of sinewy negroes, but it saved them from the speedy extermination that must have been their lot were their assailants content to shoot them down at close quarters. In less than a minute after the stockade was passed by the enemy, Warden, Colville, Fairholme, Beni Kalli—who used an adze he stumbled across in the doorway of the store—the Hausa sergeant, and seven of the rank and file—twelve men all told—were in a half circle around the foot of the stairs, plying rifle and bayonet on a wall of black humanity. The very strength of the attacking force placed it at a disadvantage. The men in front were hindered by those who surged up in ever–increasing waves from the rear. Every shot fired by the defenders effected losses out of all proportion to the general run of wounds inflicted by musketry even in a hand–to–hand engagement. Though the wretched warriors who bore the brunt of the assault might have escaped bullet or butt or bayonet thrust, there was no dodging the withering blasts of powder which blinded and scorched them, and smote their naked limbs with strange buffets. The eerie yells of those who thought the mission had already fallen mingled with the screams of the wounded and the groans of the dying. The place reeked like a slaughter–house, and the corpses of those who were killed outright, or the maimed and writhing men who had sustained injuries which rendered them incapable of crawling out of that packed space, formed a veritable rampart around the defenders.

At this stage the loss of a skilled leader like Loanda made itself felt among his followers. He would either have set fire to the unprotected rear of the building or drawn off a part of his force and renewed the shooting from a flank. Any such diversion by a tithe of the warriors engaged would render the position immediately untenable by the three white men and the Hausas. When, at last, the flanking maneuver was attempted by half a dozen negroes who had extricated themselves unharmed from the press beneath the overhanging roof of the stairs, the disastrous effect of their strategy showed what might have been accomplished but for the smallness of their number. Colville fell, and the Hausa sergeant, and two men. A bullet plowed through Warden’s hair, and another ripped Fairholme’s coat and shirt, and grazed his breast, and these casualties resulted before the few men attempting the enfilade had fired two rounds per rifle.

Warden, alive to a danger that promised instant collapse, slung Colville across his shoulder and gave the order that the few who remained alive should fall back, still fighting steadily, until they had mounted the double stairs and gained the veranda.

There was no doubt in his mind that the end had come. His surprise had failed. He had hoped that the unexpected presence of the Hausas and a party of white people might damp the ardor of the men of Oku, who had looked forward to securing an easy prey in the mission, and who could not possibly have anticipated a stubborn resistance by troops whom they had learned to fear. In ninety–nine cases out of a hundred his belief would have been justified. That there was an exception now arose from the fact that the tribal witch–doctors had made much of the modern arms which the tribesmen possessed.

“You have the white man’s fetish,” they declared. “Hitherto our ju–ju has not prevailed against them. To–day you are invulnerable.”

Under European leaders this mistaken logic would not have caused a reversion to the method of combined attack so dear to the native warrior. Loanda and some of his lieutenants had already displayed their shrewdness by harping constantly on the necessity of depending more on the rifle and less on spear or matchet. They would never have permitted an advance in force if they were not certain of their ability to overpower the weak detachment of Hausas at the first rush. In a sense, it was Evelyn’s presence which brought about this decision. Their Portuguese ally had made such a point of her capture uninjured that they wished to gratify him, while there were other forcible reasons why they should not waste too many hours on the siege of a paltry place like the mission station.

Though the struggle thus far was short and sharp, the unhappy people within the walls were only too conscious of its developments. To their strained senses it seemed that at any moment the door must be burst open and they swept into the clutches of merciless savages. They could not tell who was living or dead. The incessant shooting and the howls and agonized cries of the negroes drowned all other sounds. Evelyn thought she heard Warden addressing some order to the Hausas, but she could not be sure. Hume, in whom the man was rapidly supplanting the missioner, wished to take a personal share in the defense, but his wife clung to him in an agony of terror, and implored him not to leave her. While trying to soothe the distracted woman he reflected that he would probably prove more of a hindrance than otherwise in the fighting line. If he used a gun at all it must be as a cudgel, for he did not even understand the mechanism of the breech–block.

Bambuk, though a Mohammedan and a Foulah, was no longer a fighting man. He had waxed fat and prosperous, and he waited now for death with the fatalism he had displayed ever since he knew for certain that the men of Oku were bent on looting Kadana.

Evelyn, leaning against the door, with every faculty on the alert for the slightest indication of Warden’s welfare, nevertheless let her mind stray in the most bewildering manner. She was devoid of fear. If given her choice, she would be out there in the thick of the struggle, using her puny strength on behalf of the man she loved. Instead, she was condemned to inaction. The intolerable darkness became oppressive, and her memory flew back through time and space to the sunlit day when she sat with Warden and Peter Evans in the little dinghy of the Nancy, and saw the grim face of the Oku chief dancing about on the blue waters of the Solent.

What a trivial incident it was in some respects—yet what a mighty upheaval it portended! No matter in what direction her whirling thoughts took her, the carved calabash seemed to be mixed up with events in a way that was hardly credible. It brought her and Warden together. That chance meeting on a summer morning gave them a bond of interest which quickly strengthened into affection and love. Then it led them into the intricacies of a political plot, sent Warden to London, caused him to encounter Mrs. Laing, with all the heartache and misery that resulted therefrom, and cast him ashore at Rabat to become a slave and a desert wanderer. She herself had been equally its sport. Her knowledge of the men of Oku alone induced Figuero and Baumgartner to conspire against her. If she had never seen the gourd it was more than probable that she would never have gazed on the Benuë River. And how persistently that weird creation of Domenico Garcia’s skill had clung to either Warden or herself. It was not to be shaken off. Even now, when they were on the very threshold of death, it was lying there in her room, shrouded in a canvas case. She could almost see its evil scowl everlastingly threatening mankind.

Though a fresh outburst of firing startled her highly strung nerves she felt somewhat of a thrill of supernatural awe at the fancy that the carved image of the by–gone King of Benin had forced its way back to the actual locality in which its human prototype had ruled millions of those very men who were now clamoring for the lives of herself and her companions.

It was a strange notion, and it dominated her for a moment to the exclusion of all else. Could it be possible that there were subtle forces at work of whose existence she was wholly unaware? Had these unhappy blacks some power at command which was denied to those who lorded it over them? Of late she had read a good deal concerning the supposed origin of Obi rites in West African fetish–worship. She had never seen a real ju–ju man until that afternoon, but his appearance and antics were sufficiently striking to create a vivid impression quite apart from the tragic sequel to his incantation. The queer belief that the calabash was in some degree responsible for the bloodshed going on within a few feet of where she stood so took hold of her that she found the continued darkness unbearable.

“Mr. Hume,” she said, forcing her parched lips to utter the words, “don’t you think the lamp might be lit now? It cannot make much difference. We are nearing the end.”

For reply Hume struck a match, and applied it to the wick. The comfortable and spacious room suddenly assumed its familiar guise. It looked quiet and home–like. The turmoil raging beneath seemed to be absurdly incongruous—a horrible dream rather than a dread reality.

Yet the lamp was hardly well alight ere Warden’s voice came from the veranda.

“Open the door, Hume!” he cried. “Colville is wounded!”

Evelyn, owing to her nearness, flung wide the door before the missionary could reach it. Warden stood there, ghastly to behold, but still apparently free from any grave injury. His left arm encircled Colville’s limp body, and in his right hand was a gun–barrel from which the stock had been broken off. In his Arab costume, travel–soiled and blood–stained, he looked the incarnation of fearsome war, while the seemingly lifeless form he carried added a note of horror to his appalling aspect.

But when he saw Evelyn he actually smiled. She caught the tender look in his eyes through the mask of blood and dirt and perspiration.

“I fear it is all up with us, sweetheart,” he said. “I don’t think Colville is dead, but it is only a matter of seconds for him and the rest of us. Have you a revolver? Give me that lamp. It may help a little. Under this low roof we cannot distinguish friend from foe.”

He spoke so gently, with such well–balanced modulation, that he might have been standing at the door of some peaceful villa overlooking the Thames, with no more serious purport in his words than to light the way for a guest. But a rush and a furious melee on the stairs showed what manner of guest might be expected, and that ominous question anent a revolver was not lost on Evelyn. Hume took Colville into his arms, and Warden, without waiting for the lamp, turned to reinforce the five men who now held the enemy at bay.

The girl, with a Berserk courage worthy of her ancestry, snatched up the lamp and ran with it to the veranda. Attached to a pillar at the head of the stairs was a bracket on which a light was placed each night in the rainy season to attract the insects that would otherwise invade the house. She put the lamp there, and stole one awestricken glance at the furious conflict raging on both sides of the lower landing. A bullet, fired from a muzzle–loader, sang past her face. She almost wished that a truer aim had found heart or brain, because then she would be spared the affrighting alternative suggested by Warden. If she did not die by her own hand, would the men of Oku kill her? She feared they would not!

For an instant the rays of the lamp enabled the defense to beat back the first surge of what must surely be the final and successful assault. A gigantic native, whom she did not know—but who was swinging an adze in fine style by Warden’s side, turned and gazed at her. It was Beni Kalli, Warden’s negro companion in the escape from Lektawa, and now his most devoted henchman. He had seldom seen a white woman, and never one in any way resembling Evelyn. To his untutored mind, she was a spirit.

“Now, may Allah be praised!” he cried joyfully, “we shall whip these dogs of pagans back to their swamp, for mine eyes have seen one of the lily maids who tend the Prophet’s flock in Paradise.”

Warden, who thought his gigantic retainer had gone fey, looked around and found that Evelyn was immediately behind him, though on a slightly higher level. She was standing in a most perilous position. There was a space of at least three feet between the lower edge of the main roof and the slight scantling that protected the staircase from the tremendous rainstorms of the tropics, and any one standing a little way back from the house could not fail to see her. He forgot the heartbroken advice he had just given her. He realized only that the woman he loved was in mortal peril.

“Go back!” he shouted. “For God’s sake, go in and bolt the door! You will be shot from the compound!”

A negro leaped round the corner of the stairs and struck at him with a matchet. Beni Kalli was just in time to parry the blow. Then the adze whirled, and buried itself in the man’s skull. Before it could be withdrawn a spear darted up viciously, but Warden’s broken rifle diverted the thrust and a Hausa got his bayonet home. Nevertheless, a dozen more negroes were forcing their way up on both sides. Fairholme, valiant little aristocrat, was borne down and fell, utterly exhausted, at Evelyn’s feet. A Hausa was shot through the head and dropped across Fairholme’s body. Three men, Warden, Beni Kalli, and a Hausa, now alone held at bay the human wolves who saw victory within their grasp.

Evelyn refused to re–enter the house. She meant to die there by her lover’s side. Why did not merciful death come quickly? It would be better if she passed before him. She breathed a prayer that God would vouchsafe this grace, for her woman’s heart revolted from the thought that she should see him killed. In a very trance of hope that her wish might be granted, she looked into the moonlit compound and stretched out her arms pitifully, for she well knew that while Warden lived no kindly spear or native sword would free her soul for that eternal meeting.

But the men of Oku were running, running for their lives and throwing away their cherished rifles, lest they should not be able to run fast enough. Through the drifting smoke of the burning huts and the haze now spreading up the bank from the river, she saw little squads of dark–clothed Hausas rushing in pursuit of the flying blacks. Greatest marvel of all, scattered among the Hausas were a number of British sailors. There was no mistaking their uniforms or the exceeding zest with which they entered into the last phase of a first–rate fight.

When the wondrous fact that succor was at hand penetrated the ecstasy of that mute appeal to death, she did not cry it aloud to Warden. Not only would she imperil both him and his two companions by distracting their attention from the cut–and–thrust combat on the stairs, but, sad to relate of a tender–hearted girl, she found a delirious satisfaction in watching the sweep of gun–barrel and adze and the wicked plunging of the Hausa bayonet. Why should not these ravening beasts be punished? What harm had she or any one in the mission done them that they should howl so frantically for their blood?

But she prayed—oh, how she prayed!—that the relieving force would hurry. She could not tell that officers and men of the white contingent were astounded by the spectacle of a slight, girlish figure, robed in muslin and seemingly in no fear of her life, standing under the bright rays of a lamp on the veranda of the beleaguered mission–house. It did not occur to her that they would see her; and, simply because she was there, they by no means expected to find a desperate fight being waged in the narrow space of the staircase. But they soon woke up to the facts when the foremost man came near enough to discover the black figures wedged in both gangways.

“Come on!” he yelled. “This is what we’re looking for!”

“No shooting, boys!” roared a jubilant naval lieutenant. “Bayonets only! Dig ‘em out!”

And dug out they were, in a manner not prescribed by the drill book, until the passages were clear, and the newcomers were marveling at the way in which the mission–house was held, and Warden was free to lay aside that useful gun–barrel and stoop to lift the dead Hausa off Fairholme’s almost breathless body.

The officer, who was first up the stairs, looked round for some one in authority. He saw an Arab and a girl supporting a white man between them. To his profound amazement, he heard the Arab say:

“He is all right, dear. Those cuts are superficial, just like my own. But he is thoroughly spent. I am almost at the end of my own tether, though I was hard as nails till that wretched fever bowled me over in Oku.”

“But, Arthur darling,” he was even more astounded at hearing from the girl’s lips, “where have the troops come from? What special decree of Providence brought them to our rescue?”

“Here is some one who can tell us?” said Warden, looking at the lieutenant, while he placed Fairholme on a chair in the living–room.

“May I ask who you are?” demanded the sailor, finding his tongue but slowly.

“My name is Warden, Captain Arthur Warden, of the Southern Nigeria Protectorate—and yours?”

“Warden! Are you in earnest?”

“Never more so. Won’t you follow my example?”

“Oh, I’m Bellairs, of the Valiant.”

“Did Captain Mortimer send you?” cried Evelyn, who was mightily afraid that the moment she spoke she would burst into tears.

“Well—yes. You are Miss Dane, I suppose? And this is Lord Fairholme. Is poor Colville gone?”

“Not very far,” said a weak voice from an inner room. “My collar–bone is broken and I’ve lost chips off several sections, but I’ll be able to shove along with my arm in a sling.”

“Has anybody got any liquor?” murmured another weak voice from a chair. “I don’t care what it is—even water. I’ve got a thirst I wouldn’t sell for a pony.”

Hume, who had fallen on his knees when he heard the strange voices, and looked out to find that the battle was ended, rose and went to a cupboard.

“I have here two quarts of champagne which I meant to keep for cases of serious illness,” he said. “I don’t think any of us will ever be so near death again until the scythe–bearer comes and will not be denied, so if any of you gentlemen are expert at opening these bottles—“

Fairholme recovered instantly.

“Hand one here,” he gasped. “I’m a double blue at drawin’ corks and emptyin’ a bottle of bubbly.”

Hume, who had lighted a second lamp, produced some glasses. Then he glanced at a clock.

“Can it be possible that all this dreadful business has lasted only four minutes?” he asked.

“Four minutes!” cried the sailor. “Why, we heard firing in this direction nearly twenty minutes ago!”

“That was the first round, when the blacks tried to frighten us into submission,” said Warden. “But, now that I come to think of it, the scrap itself cannot have occupied many seconds more than your estimate, Hume.”

“Do you mean to tell me that you five accounted for that heap of——”

He stopped and looked at Evelyn and Mrs. Hume. The latter was striving to dry her eyes while she sipped some of the wine. Poor lady! She was not cast in the heroic mold, nor had she ever pretended to be.

“There were more than five of us,” explained Warden sadly. “Eleven of Colville’s Hausas are down.”

“Some of them can only be wounded,” said Evelyn. “Let us go and attend to them.”

“Better not, Miss Dane,” interposed the sailor hastily. He had seen things in the compound which rendered it advisable for the women to remain indoors until the river crocodiles had claimed their tribute. “I will tell some of my men to look after them,” he explained, “and our surgeon will soon be here. Just now he is busy on board the launches.”

“What? Have you been engaged, too?” asked Warden.

“By Jove, we dropped in for the biggest surprise I ever heard of. Just fancy being blazed at with Nordenfeldts by niggers! Luckily for us, we came on them unawares, and two of the canoes were headed up–stream. The row that was going on here stopped them from hearing the engines, or I must candidly confess that if they had been ready for us they might have sunk the flotilla before we came within striking distance. As it was, they got in a few rounds that raked a couple of boats fore and aft, before we got busy with a Gatling. I suppose you didn’t catch the racket on account of the dust up here.”

“But why in the name of wonder, are you here at all?” demanded Warden.

“Well, my ship reported that a yacht called the Sans Souci had landed a lot of arms and ammunition in a creek in neighboring territories. That made the authorities think a bit. But one of your fellows who accompanied us told me that the real scare came when a Mrs. Laing—she knows you, Warden, and she had been living some weeks at Lokoja—was seized with blackwater fever. She was pretty bad, so she sent for the Commissioner to put her affairs in order. Among other things, she warned him that some Portuguese scoundrel was undoubtedly planning a rising at Oku, and indeed all along the line of the Benuë and right through Southern Nigeria. There had been some rather curious ju–ju performances recently in a few of the seaboard districts, so it was decided to send a strong column up the Benuë to investigate matters. We dropped detachments of Hausas at every station we passed, and had intended halting some miles below here to–night, when we heard the drums going in the bush. Your Hausa man—Hudson his name is—urged us to push on this far. Jolly good job we did.”

“Has Mrs. Laing recovered?” asked Evelyn fearfully. The sailor hesitated a moment. He seemed to leave something unsaid.

“Oh, no. She went under in a day. Sad thing. I have never met her. An awfully nice woman, Hudson says.”

“I am sorry,” sobbed Evelyn. “She was too young to die, and she has not had much happiness in her life.”

“Let there be no more talk of death—I am weary of it,” said Warden cheerily, and he broke off into Arabic.

“What sayest thou, Beni Kalli? Hast seen enough of the black camel since we left Lektawa together?”

“Verily, Seyyid,” grinned the native. “I thought you and I should mount him in company to–night.”

“Can you do me the exceeding favor of lending me a suit of clothes?” said Warden, seeing that Bellairs was about his own height.

“Certainly. Come down to my launch. We ought to hold a council of war, I think. By the way, I suppose the ladies will not stir out of this room till your return.”

“No,” said Evelyn promptly. “We shall prepare supper, but if you keep Captain Warden more than half an hour I shall come for him.”

“You must remain here, sweetheart,” said the grim–looking Arab. “There is a lot to be done outside. Be sure I shall join you without delay. Come along, Bellairs, and rummage your kit—there’s a good chap.”

As they crossed the compound together, the sailor appeared to make up his mind to discharge a disagreeable duty.

“By the way,” he said, “I hope I am not mixing matters absurdly, but are you the Warden that Mrs. Laing was once engaged to?”

“Yes—more than ten years ago. What of it?”

“Well, she has left you everything she possessed—a regular pile, somebody told me.”

“On condition that I do not marry Evelyn Dane, I suppose?” said Warden, who treated the sailor’s astonishing announcement as though the receipt of a thumping legacy were an every–day affair.

“I haven’t heard anything of a fly in the amber,” said Bellairs. “Hudson knows all about it—he will be able to tell you.”

But Warden had no word to say to Hudson concerning Rosamund Laing or her bequest. His mind was too full of the greater wonder that Evelyn and he should meet on the Benuë; that it had fallen to him to snatch her from the clutches of the men of Oku.