The Message (Louis Tracy)/Chapter 17

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When Warden found that the expedition consisted of a hundred sailors and over three hundred Hausas, he was anxious that an advance should be made on Oku at once. The town lay in a bush clearing on high land overlooking the Benuë, not many miles distant from the mission station. He argued that he and Beni Kalli could guide the troops by the bush paths, and that an attack carried out at dawn would demoralize an enemy already shaken by an unforeseen repulse at Kadana.

Every one admitted that he was right from the military point of view; but Hudson, the political officer accompanying the column, shirked the responsibility of taking a step that implied the existence of a tribal war. He argued that while they were fully justified in driving off the assailants of the mission and in demanding the punishment of those engaged in it, together with the fullest compensation for loss of life and property, yet they had no proof that the King of Oku sanctioned the raid.

“When he refuses our terms,” he said, “we shall destroy his town and depose him if he escapes with his life. Under the circumstances, I cannot sanction a forward movement until negotiations have failed.”

Bellairs, of course, had to take his orders from the administration, and Warden had no power to over–ride the man whom the Government had deputed to visit Oku. He knew that Loanda, second only in importance to M’Wanga, was among the slain. He had seen M’Wanga himself exercising his savage warriors day after day and taking care that they were taught how to handle the modern weapons to which they were unaccustomed. He was aware of the exact date named for the rising, and was prevented only by several weeks’ delirium of fever from stealing off down stream in good time to warn the authorities. But he was not in his own territory, for the Benuë runs through Northern Nigeria while he was attached to the Southern Protectorate, and, above all, he was a soldier, to whom obedience was the first duty. So he refrained from weakening Hudson’s position by demonstrating how mistaken was the decision arrived at. He even hoped that, in some mysterious way, matters might be adjusted without further slaughter.

The proper course to adopt was to strike hard and promptly. Failing that, he trusted to the strange workings of the native mind to bring about a peaceful settlement. Though strong in spirit he was broken in body. He had done in five months that which a few men had taken years to accomplish, while the majority of those who essayed the task had failed, and paid the penalty of failure by dying.

When the officers of the expedition gathered in the mission that night and listened to his story, their minds went back to the days of Mungo Park, and Clapperton, and Lander, and Barth, and the rest of the famous band of explorers who had traversed the wilds of the West African hinterland during the close of the eighteenth and the early years of the nineteenth centuries.

Nothing to equal Warden’s journey had been done of recent years. It stood alone, a record of almost unexampled fortitude and endurance.

He would never have reached the upper waters of the Niger were it not for the blue cotton wrap taken from the Prophet of El Hamra when that unamiable person was left bound and gagged at Lektawa. So deeply had the Blue Man’s repute penetrated into the desert that among Mohammedan tribes the mere sight of his robe was more powerful than an armed escort. In a hasty search through the Prophet’s apartment, Warden found his own revolver, two Remington repeating rifles with a supply of cartridges, and a stock of gold dust in quills, the most portable form of desert currency. The blue rag supplied moral, the arms and gold material aid, but the tremendous journey still remained an undertaking fraught with every possible danger. Not until the small party reached Timbuktu could they regard themselves as possessing even a moderate chance of ultimate success. In that city Beni Kalli left his daughter with relatives. No consideration would part him from the Seyyid. Here was a master worth serving, one who never thought only of himself, but who was ready at any moment to risk life or limb in aid of those who were faithful to his interests. Moreover, he showed rare sport, and Beni Kalli was a born adventurer.

So the pair came down the Niger, and, when Warden learned that matters were quiet at Oku, he formed the daring plan of preserving his incognito even from the British officials at towns in the more settled regions. He fancied that by maintaining his pose as an Arab fire–brand he might venture to enter Oku itself. He had spoken nothing but Arabic during so many months that he was now far more glib in the language than many genuine Arabs who could not boast his experience of diverse tribes and varying dialects. He deemed it best to let none know of his scheme. The slightest hint that he had crossed the Sahara would quickly find its way to Oku, and it was his safeguard throughout that the Mahdi of the Atlas had sent him to carry the fiery torch of Islam to the remotest strongholds of the faith. Oku was frankly pagan, its people cannibals when occasion served, but between them and far–off Morocco lay the strong link of hatred of the white man’s rule.

Evelyn listened in silence while her lover discoursed. Her eyes shone and her lips were parted. More than once, when some deft hint conveyed to her that his thoughts dwelt ever with her, a tender little smile told him that she understood.

Colville, who insisted on joining them when the surgeon had dressed his injuries—for a ricochetting bullet had torn a jagged wound in his shoulder as well as broken his collar–bone—had heard from Lagos something of the gourd. He asked Warden what had become of it.

“It is among my belongings at Lagos,” he said. “At least, I hope so. The skipper of the Water Witch was a decent sort of fellow——”

“It is here,” said Evelyn quietly.

“Here!”

Half a dozen voices cried in concert, but she was looking at Warden.

“You gave it to me at Cowes?” she went on.

“Yes, I did, but——”

“But I refused it. Well, when they told me at Lagos that you were surely lost in the desert, I asked for it. I—I—almost believed it would bring us together again.”

“Let’s have a look at it,” chimed in Fairholme.

She was strangely reluctant at first, and her unwillingness to produce that sinister carving was not to be wondered at, for she had seen sufficient of the men of Oku during the past few hours to disturb her dreams for many a year. But Warden joined in the chorus of persuasion, and she brought the canvas bag from her room.

“Please open it,” she said to her lover. “I dare not. Though I confess to an uncanny confidence in its power, I am still afraid of it.”

He drew forth the calabash with a sudden movement, hoping to startle some of the onlookers by the extraordinary vitality of Domenico Garcia’s masterpiece, but Evelyn alone was affected, and she uttered a cry of dismay.

“It is ruined!” she exclaimed. “The moist heat has destroyed the lacquer! Even the eyes have gone. Oh, Arthur, please do throw it away this time. The thing is dead!”

In her excitement she had used exactly the right phrase. The man of Oku was dead, in fact decomposed. His face had melted away, his mosaic eyes had fallen out, the mocking smile worthy of a triumphant demon had faded from his thick lips. In truth, the mask on the gourd was a mere travesty of its former self.

Warden was quite as bewildered as the girl.

“Well,” he cried, “that is really the most amazing coincidence I have ever known. It knocks any of my adventures into a cocked hat. Just think of it—this thing lived, I tell you. It was a superb creature of genius. It must have been found two hundred years ago when some Portuguese or Spaniards looted Benin. It was brought to England only to be lost in a sailing ship that foundered on the east side of the Isle of Wight. After passing a couple of centuries under the sea, it bobbed up serenely one day last August, disturbed from its resting–place when the Emperor’s yacht struck the sunken wreck. I firmly believe it was made within a few miles of this very place, yet it survived through the ages until the hour when the Oku power is broken for ever, and now it is destroyed. Did you ever hear anything like it? Surely this is a thing not dreamed of in our philosophy.”

None but Evelyn among those present could share his opinion. It was impossible for any one who had not seen the calabash on the deck of the Nancy to picture the malign fascination of that graven face.

But Warden was convinced of his theory. To please his lady, he bade Beni Kalli take the gourd and throw it on the smoldering embers of the mission huts. And so ended the pilgrimage of the grim contrivance fashioned by Domenico Garcia to carry his story to the world that had forgotten him. It perished in the ashes of the old Kadana, on the site where a new enterprise would soon mark the practical inception of Hume’s day–dream.

Nor was the hour far distant when all in that room remembered Warden’s emphatic words. Next day came messengers from the King of Oku. His majesty deplored the excesses caused by the evil counsels of certain professors of ju–ju. These men, difficult to control, were aided and abetted by a notorious Portuguese half–caste, one Miguel Figuero to wit, who had helped the Oku rebels by importing arms from foreign territory and generally disturbing the peace of the kingdom.

“I have now dealt with Figuero and the others,” said M’Wanga through his envoys. “They will trouble the land no further.”

He meant that he had nailed them to trees as a guarantee of good faith, when, in the small hours of the morning, he grew fully assured that his guns were useless, his river flotilla captured, and his army broken up. Unfortunately for the success of his sudden conversion to British notions of law and order, that which was only a minor disturbance in a native state assumed the gravest political significance when a number of troops of a foreign power crossed the border at various points with the avowed object of restoring peace to a province in which the armed might of Britain was set at nought.

The strongest party of these unlooked–for allies marched on Oku. Its commandant, Count von Rippenbach, seemed to be intensely surprised when he found the city in the grip of a British column, and its king a prisoner awaiting trial by court–martial. He was not only surprised, but intensely chagrined, and was so unwilling to return to his own territory that there were “alarums and excursions“ in various centers of diplomacy before he swallowed his wrath, invited the British officers to a farewell dinner, and marched back to the Cameroons. M’Wanga was found guilty of murder and high treason, and was duly hanged in front of his own residence. Pana, the third of the negro visitors to Cowes, was banished to St. Vincent, and the clearance among the witch–doctors which Lord Fairholme so ably initiated was carried a good deal further.

Among the effects of the arch–plotter Figuero were found documents of such highly inflammable nature that they were promptly interned in the deepest dungeons of the Record Office. But some of his belongings had a more direct interest than state papers for the two people with whose fortunes he was so curiously bound up. Warden came across another copy of the very page of the newspaper he bought at Cowes wherein was described the accident to the imperial yacht. In the same packet were an extract from Evelyn’s stolen letter, in Rosamund Laing’s handwriting, several complete letters written to him by the girl herself after leaving Lochmerig, and his own long letter delivered to her in Las Palmas by Peter Evans.

It amused him afterwards to enclose these pièces de conviction and the scrap of tattooed skin with the full report he was asked to send to the Colonial Office, and there is reason to believe that an Under Secretary for Foreign Affairs borrowed the said report for perusal, and took it with him to wile away the tedious hours of a week–end at the seaside ordered by his doctor.

Warden and Evelyn were married at Old Calabar, with Colville as best man and the Earl of Fairholme in loco parentis. The bride’s dress was merely a confection of white muslin, but she wore a ruby brooch, roughly contrived by a native jeweler, that would have evoked the envy of many a royal dame. The finest wedding present to the happy pair was the bequest of Rosamund Laing’s estate. Poor woman! she had fenced in her gift with no restrictions. Indeed, in her will she hinted at remorse, for she expressed the hope that Arthur Warden would be happy with the woman of his choice.

No one—least of all those acquainted with West Africa—will be surprised to learn that Warden resigned his commission when the affairs of Oku were settled. His first care was to visit Lisbon, and insure that the name of Domenico Garcia should never again be forgotten in the memorial services for the dead, while every year, in August, a special mass is sung in the Cathedral of the Patriarch for the “repose of the soul“ of the ill–fated artist. Two years later, Evelyn and he were on board the Nancy, running into Falmouth before a lively breeze, when Peter Evans pointed to a steam yacht.

“There’s the old San Sowsy,” he said.

Evelyn instantly turned her binoculars that way.

“You are mistaken, Peter,” she cried. “The Baumgartners sold her before they went to South America. She is like the Sans Souci, but that vessel’s name is Rover.”

“Beggin’ your pardon, mum, but us pilots never troubles about a craft’s name. W’y, I’ve known ‘em to be re–christened w’en they was on’y fit for the extry insurance of a castaway. That’s the San Sowsy right enough. Chris, there’s a picter postcard of ‘er in my locker. Fetch it, an’ we’ll run close alongside.”

“By Jove, you went to a yacht’s agent to get that card for me when I forgot to note the Sans Souci’s exact lines, although I was asked by the Under Secretary to observe them carefully,” said Warden.

“That’s it, sir. It’s an old sayin’ an’ a true one—Keep a thing ten years an’ it’ll come in useful at larst.”

“Fancy you forgetting anything, Arthur!” cried his wife. “You are the one man in the world whom I should never have suspected of missing an item like that—it might have been so important.”

“Some places have a phenomenal effect on the memory, my dear. I went to Plymouth with the special object of jotting down all the Sans Souci’s features, but I took a stroll on the Hoe, and my mind at once became utterly obtuse to every consideration save one.”

“Oh, don’t be silly! How could I guess you would bring Peter’s postcard in evidence against me?”

But she blushed most delightfully, so the recollection of that evening at Plymouth must have been very pleasant, and present happiness is apt to shed its golden light on the days that are past.

THE END