Now, Weeks was a particular friend of Duncan's. They had chummed together on Gorleston Quay some years before, perhaps because they were so dissimilar. Weeks had taught Duncan to sail a boat, and had once or twice taken him for a short trip on his smack; so that the first thing that Duncan did on his arrival at Yarmouth was to take the tram to Gorleston and to make inquiries.
A fisherman lounging against a winch replied to them—-
"If Weeks is a friend o' yours I should get used to missin' 'im, as I tell his wife."
There was at that time an ingenious system by which the skipper might buy his smack from the owner on the instalment plan—as people buy their furniture—only with a difference: for people sometimes get their furniture. The instalments had to be completed within a certain period. The skipper could do it—he could just do it; but he couldn't do it without running up one little bill here for stores, and another little bill there for sail-mending. The owner worked in with the sail-maker, and just as the skipper was putting out to earn his last instalment, he would find the bailiffs on board, his cruise would be delayed, he would be, consequently, behindhand with his instalment and back would go the smack to the owner with a present of four-fifths of its price. Weeks had to pay two hundred pounds, and had eight weeks to earn it in. But he got the straight tip that his sail-maker would stop him; and getting together any sort of crew he could, he slipped out at night with half his stores.
"Now the No'th Sea," concluded the fisherman, "in November and December ain't a bobby's job."
Duncan walked forward to the pier-head. He looked out at a grey tumbled sky shutting down on a grey tumbled sea. There were flecks of white cloud in the sky, flecks of white breakers on the sea, and it was all most dreary. He stood at the end of the jetty, and his great possibility came out of the grey to him. Weeks was shorthanded. Cribbed within a few feet of the smack's deck, there would be no chance for any man to shirk. Duncan acted on the impulse. He bought a fisherman's outfit at Gorleston, travelled up to London, got a passage the next morning on a Billingsgate fish-carrier, and that night went throbbing down the great water street of the Swim, past the green globes of the Mouse. The four flashes of the Outer Gabbard winked him good-bye away on the starboard, and at eleven o'clock the next night far out in the North Sea he saw the little city of lights swinging on the Dogger.
The Willing Mind's boat came aboard the next morning and Captain Weeks with it, who smiled grimly while Duncan explained how he had learnt that the smack was shorthanded.
"I can't put you ashore in Denmark," said Weeks knowingly. "There'll be seven weeks, it's true, for things to blow over; but I'll have to take you back to Yarmouth. And I can't afford a passenger. If you come, you come as a hand. I mean to own my smack at the end of this voyage."
Duncan climbed after him into the boat. The Willing Mind had now six for her crew, Weeks; his son Willie, a lad of sixteen; Upton, the first hand; Deakin, the decky; Rall, the baker's assistant, and Alexander Duncan. And of these six four were almost competent. Deakin, it is true, was making his second voyage; but Willie Weeks, though young, had begun early; and Upton, a man of forty, knew the banks and currents of the North Sea as well as Weeks.
"It's all right," said the skipper, "if the weather holds." And for a month the weather did hold, and the catches were good, and Duncan learned a great deal. He learnt how to keep a night-watch from midnight till eight in the morning, and then stay on deck till noon; how to put his tiller up and down when his tiller was a wheel, and how to vary the order according as his skipper stood to windward or to lee; he learnt to box a compass and to steer by it; to gauge the leeway he was making by the angle of his wake and the black line in the compass; above all, he learnt to love the boat like a live thing, as a man loves his horse, and to want every scanty inch of brass on her to shine.
But it was not for this that Duncan had come out to sea. He gazed out at night across the rippling starlit water, and the smacks nestling upon it, and asked of his God: "Is this all?" And his God answered him.
The beginning of it was the sudden looming of ships upon the horizon, very clear, till they looked like carved toys. The skipper got out his accounts and totted up his catches, and the prices they had fetched in Billingsgate Market. Then he went on deck and watched the sun set. There were no cloud-banks in the west, and he shook his head.
"It'll blow a bit from the east before morning," said he, and he tapped on the barometer. Then he returned to his accounts and added them up again. After a little he looked up, and saw the first hand watching him with comprehension.
"Two or three really good hauls would do the trick," suggested Weeks.
The first hand nodded. "If it was my boat I should chance it to-morrow before the weather blows up."
Weeks drummed his fists on the table and agreed.
On the morrow the Admiral headed north for the Great Fisher Bank, and the fleet followed, with the exception of the Willing Mind. The Willing Mind lagged along in the rear without her topsails till about half-past two in the afternoon, when Captain Weeks became suddenly alert. He bore away till he was right before the wind, hoisted every scrap of sail he could carry, rigged out a spinnaker with his balloon fore-sail, and made a clean run for the coast of Denmark. Deakin explained the manoeuvre to Duncan. "The old man's goin' poachin'. He's after soles."
"Keep a look-out, lads!" cried Weeks. "It's not the Danish gun-boat I'm afraid of; it's the fatherly English cruiser a-turning of us back."
Darkness, however, found them unmolested. They crossed the three-mile limit at eight o'clock, and crept close in under the Danish headlands without a glimmer of light showing.
"I want all hands all night," said Weeks; "and there's a couple of pounds for him as first see the bogey-man."
"Meaning the Danish gun-boat," explained Deakin.
The trawl was down before nine. The skipper stood by his lead. Upton took the wheel, and all night they trawled in the shallows, bumping on the grounds, with a sharp eye for the Danish gun-boat. They hauled in at twelve and again at three and again at six, and they had just got their last catch on deck when Duncan saw by the first grey of the morning a dun-coloured trail of smoke hanging over a projecting knoll.
"There she is!" he cried.
"Yes, that's the gun-boat," answered Weeks. "We can laugh at her with this wind."
He put his smack about, and before the gun-boat puffed round the headland, three miles away, was reaching northwards with his sails free. He rejoined the fleet that afternoon. "Fifty-two boxes of soles!" said Weeks. "And every one of them worth two-pound-ten in Billingsgate Market. This smack's mine!" and he stamped on the deck in all the pride of ownership. "We'll take a reef in," he added. "There's a no'th-easterly gale blowin' up and I don't know anything worse in the No'th Sea. The sea piles in upon you from Newfoundland, piles in till it strikes the banks. Then it breaks. You were right, Upton; we'll be lying hove-to in the morning."
They were lying hove-to before the morning. Duncan, tossing about in his canvas cot, heard the skipper stamping overhead, and in an interval of the wind caught a snatch of song bawled out in a high voice. The song was not reassuring, for the two lines which Duncan caught ran as follows—
You never can tell when your death-bells are ringing, Your never can know when you're going to die.
Duncan tumbled on to the floor, fell about the cabin as he pulled on his sea-boots and climbed up the companion. He clung to the mizzen-runners in a night of extraordinary blackness. To port and to starboard the lights of the smacks rose on the crests and sank in the troughs, with such violence they had the air of being tossed up into the sky and then extinguished in the water; while all round him there flashed little points of white which suddenly lengthened out into a horizontal line. There was one quite close to the quarter of the Willing Mind. It stretched about the height of the gaff in a line of white. The line suddenly descended towards him and became a sheet; and then a voice bawled, "Water! Jump! Down the companion! Jump!"
There was a scamper of heavy boots, and a roar of water plunging over the bulwarks, as though so many loads of wood had been dropped on the deck. Duncan jumped for the cabin. Weeks and the mate jumped the next second and the water sluiced down after them, put out the fire, and washed them, choking and wrestling, about on the cabin floor. Weeks was the first to disentangle himself, and he turned fiercely on Duncan.
"What were you doing on deck? Upton and I keep the watch to-night. You stay below, and, by God, I'll see you do it! I have fifty-two boxes of soles to put aboard the fish-cutter in the morning, and I'm not going to lose lives before I do that! This smack's mine!"
Captain Weeks was transformed into a savage animal fighting for his own. All night he and the mate stood on the deck and plunged down the open companion with a torrent of water to hurry them. All night Duncan lay in his bunk listening to the bellowing of the wind, the great thuds of solid green wave on the deck, the horrid rush and roaring of the seas as they broke loose to leeward from under the smack's keel. And he listened to something more—the whimpering of the baker's assistant in the next bunk. "Three inches of deck! What's the use of it! Lord ha' mercy on me, what's the use of it? No more than an eggshell! We'll be broken in afore morning, broken in like a man's skull under a bludgeon.... I'm no sailor, I'm not; I'm a baker. It isn't right I should die at sea!"
Duncan stopped his ears, and thought of the journey some one would have to make to the fish-cutter in the morning. There were fifty-two boxes of soles to be put aboard.
He remembered the waves and the swirl of foam upon their crests and the wind. Two men would be needed to row the boat, and the boat must make three trips. The skipper and the first hand had been on deck all night. There remained four, or rather three, for the baker's assistant had ceased to count—Willie Weeks, Deakin, and himself, not a great number to choose from. He felt that he was within an ace of a panic, and not so far, after all, from that whimperer his neighbour. Two men to row the boat—two men! His hands clutched at the iron bar of his hammock; he closed his eyes tight; but the words were thundered out at him overhead, in the whistle of the wind, and slashed at him by the water against the planks at his side. He found that his lips were framing excuses.
Duncan was on deck when the morning broke. It broke extraordinarily slowly, a niggardly filtering of grey, sad light from the under edge of the sea. The bare topmasts of the smacks showed one after the other. Duncan watched each boat as it came into view with a keen suspense. This was a ketch, and that, and that other, for there was the peak of its reefed mainsail just visible, like a bird's wing, and at last he saw it—the fish-cutter—lurching and rolling in the very middle of the fleet, whither she had crept up in the night. He stared at it; his belly was pinched with fear as a starveling's with hunger; and yet he was conscious that, in a way, he would have been disappointed if it had not been there.
"No other smack is shipping its fish," quavered a voice at his elbow. It was the voice of the baker's assistant.
"But this smack is," replied Weeks, and he set his mouth hard. "And, what's more, my Willie is taking it aboard. Now, who'll go with Willie?"
Weeks swung round on Duncan and stared at him. Then he stared out to sea. Then he stared again at Duncan.
"When I shipped as a hand on the Willing Mind, I took all a hand's risks."
"And brought the willing mind," said Weeks with a smile, "Go, then! Some one must go. Get the boat tackle ready, forward. Here, Willie, put your life-belt on. You, too, Duncan, though God knows life-belts won't be of no manner of use; but they'll save your insurance. Steady with the punt there! If it slips inboard off the rail there will be a broken back! And, Willie, don't get under the cutter's counter. She'll come atop of you and smash you like an egg. I'll drop you as close as I can to windward, and pick you up as close as I can to leeward."
The boat was dropped into the water and loaded up with fish-boxes. Duncan and Willie Weeks took their places, and the boat slid away into a furrow. Duncan sat in the boat and rowed. Willie Weeks stood in the stern, facing him, and rowed and steered.
"Water!" said Willie every now and then, and a wave curled over the bows and hit Duncan a stunning blow on the back.
"Row," said Willie, and Duncan rowed and rowed. His hands were ice, he sat in water ice-cold, and his body perspired beneath his oil-skins, but he rowed. Once, on the crest of a wave, Duncan looked out and saw below them the deck of a smack, and the crew looking upwards at them as though they were a horserace. "Row!" said Willie Weeks. Once, too, at the bottom of a slope down which they had bumped dizzily, Duncan again looked out, and saw the spar of a mainmast tossing just over the edge of a grey roller. "Row," said Weeks, and a moment later, "Ship your oar!" and a rope caught him across the chest.
They were alongside the cutter.
Duncan made fast the rope.
"Push her off!" suddenly cried Willie, and grasped an oar. But he was too late. The cutter's bulwarks swung down towards him, disappeared under water, caught the punt fairly beneath the keel and scooped it clean on to the deck, cargo and crew.
"And this is only the first trip!" said Willie.
The two following trips, however, were made without accident.
"Fifty-two boxes at two-pound-ten," said Weeks, as the boat was swung inboard. "That's a hundred and four, and ten two's are twenty, and carry two, and ten fives are fifty, and two carried, and twenties into that makes twenty-six. One hundred and thirty pounds—this smack's mine, every rope on her. I tell you what, Duncan: you've done me a good turn to-day, and I'll do you another. I'll land you at Helsund, in Denmark, and you can get clear away. All we can do now is to lie out this gale."
Before the afternoon the air was dark with a swither of foam and spray blown off the waves in the thickness of a fog. The heavy bows of the smack beat into the seas with a thud and a hiss—the thud of a steam-hammer, the hiss of molten iron plunged into water; the waves raced exultingly up to the bows from windward, and roared angrily away in a spume of foam from the ship's keel to lee; and the thrumming and screaming of the storm in the rigging exceeded all that Duncan had ever imagined. He clung to the stays appalled. This storm was surely the perfect expression of anger, too persistent for mere fury. There seemed to be a definite aim of destruction, a deliberate attempt to wear the boat down, in the steady follow of wave upon wave, and in the steady volume of the wind.
Captain Weeks, too, had lost all of a sudden all his exhilaration. He stood moodily by Duncan's side, his mind evidently labouring like his ship. He told Duncan stories which Duncan would rather not have listened to, the story of the man who slipped as he stepped from the deck into the punt, and weighted by his boots, had sunk down and down and down through the clearest, calmest water without a struggle; the story of the punt which got its painter under its keel and drowned three men; the story of the full-rigged ship which got driven across the seven-fathom part of the Dogger—the part that looks like a man's leg in the chart—and which was turned upside-down through the bank breaking. The skipper and the mate got outside and clung to her bottom, and a steam-cutter tried to get them off, but smashed them both with her iron counter instead.
"Look!" said Weeks, gloomily pointing his finger. "I don't know why that breaker didn't hit us. I don't know what we should have done if it had. I can't think why it didn't hit us! Are you saved?"
Duncan was taken aback, and answered vaguely—"I hope so."
"But you must know," said Weeks, perplexed. The wind made a theological discussion difficult. Weeks curved his hand into a trumpet, and bawled into Duncan's ear: "You are either saved or not saved! It's a thing one knows. You must know if you are saved, if you've felt the glow and illumination of it." He suddenly broke off into a shout of triumph: "But I got my fish on board the cutter. The Willing Mind's the on'y boat that did." Then he relapsed again into melancholy: "But I'm troubled about the poachin'. The temptation was great, but it wasn't right; and I'm not sure but what this storm ain't a judgment."
He was silent for a little, and then cheered up. "I tell you what. Since we're hove-to, we'll have a prayer-meeting in the cabin to-night and smooth things over."
The meeting was held after tea, by the light of a smoking paraffin-lamp with a broken chimney. The crew sat round and smoked, the companion was open, so that the swish of the water and the man on deck alike joined in the hymns. Rail, the baker's assistant, who had once been a steady attendant at Revivalist meetings, led off with a Moody and Sankey hymn, and the crew followed, bawling at the top pitch of their lungs, with now and then some suggestion of a tune. The little stuffy cabin rang with the noise. It burst upwards through the companion-way, loud and earnest and plaintive, and the winds caught it and carried it over the water, a thin and appealing cry. After the hymn Weeks prayed aloud, and extempore and most seriously. He prayed for each member of the crew by name, one by one, taking the opportunity to mention in detail each fault which he had had to complain of, and begging that the offender's chastisement might be light. Of Duncan he spoke in ambiguous terms.
"O Lord!" he prayed, "a strange gentleman, Mr. Duncan, has come amongst us. O Lord! we do not know as much about Mr. Duncan as You do, but still bless him, O Lord!" and so he came to himself.
"O Lord! this smack's mine, this little smack labouring in the North Sea is mine. Through my poachin' and your lovin' kindness it's mine; and, O Lord, see that it don't cost me dear!" And the crew solemnly and fervently said "Amen!"
But the smack was to cost him dear. For in the morning Duncan woke to find himself alone in the cabin. He thrust his head up the companion, and saw Weeks with a very grey face standing by the lashed wheel.
"Halloa!" said Duncan. "Where's the binnacle?"
"Overboard," said Weeks.
Duncan looked round the deck.
"Where's Willie and the crew?"
"Overboard," said Weeks. "All except Rail! He's below deck forward and clean daft. Listen and you'll hear 'im. He's singing hymns for those in peril on the sea."
Duncan stared in disbelief. The skipper's face drove the disbelief out of him.
"Why didn't you wake me?" he asked.
"What's the use? You want all the sleep you can get, because you an' me have got to sail my smack into Yarmouth. But I was minded to call you, lad," he said, with a sort of cry leaping from his throat. "The wave struck us at about twelve, and it's been mighty lonesome on deck since with Willie callin' out of the sea. All night he's been callin' out of the welter of the sea. Funny that I haven't heard Upton or Deakin, but on'y Willie! All night until daybreak he called, first on one side of the smack and then on t'other, I don't think I'll tell his mother that. An' I don't see how I'm to put you on shore in Denmark, after all."
What had happened Duncan put together from the curt utterances of Captain Weeks and the crazy lamentations of Rail. Weeks had roused all hands except Duncan to take the last reef in. They were forward by the mainmast at the time the wave struck them. Weeks himself was on the boom, threading the reefing-rope through the eye of the sail. He shouted "Water!" and the water came on board, carrying the three men aft. Upton was washed over the taffrail. Weeks threw one end of the rope down, and Rail and Willie caught it and were swept overboard, dragging Weeks from the boom on to the deck and jamming him against the bulwarks.
The captain held on to the rope, setting his feet against the side. The smack lifted and dropped and tossed, and each movement wrenched his arms. He could not reach a cleat. Had he moved he would have been jerked overboard.
"I can't hold you both!" he cried, and then, setting his teeth and hardening his heart, he addressed his words to his son: "Willie! I can't hold you both!" and immediately the weight upon the rope was less. With each drop of the stern the rope slackened, and Weeks gathered the slack in. He could now afford to move. He made the rope fast and hauled the one survivor on deck. He looked at him for a moment. "Thank God, it's not my son!" he had the courage to say.
"And my heart's broke!" had gasped Rail. "Fair broke." And he had gone forward and sung hymns.
They saw little more of Rall. He came aft and fetched his meals away; but he was crazed and made a sort of kennel for himself forward, and the two men left on the smack had enough upon their hands to hinder them from waiting on him. The gale showed no sign of abatement; the fleet was scattered; no glimpse of the sun was visible at any time; and the compass was somewhere at the bottom of the sea.
"We may be making a bit of headway no'th, or a bit of leeway west," said Weeks, "or we may be doing a sternboard. All that I'm sure of is that you and me are one day going to open Gorleston Harbour. This smack's cost me too dear for me to lose her now. Lucky there's the tell-tale compass in the cabin to show us the wind hasn't shifted."
All the energy of the man was concentrated upon this wrestle with the gale for the ownership of the Willing Mind; and he imparted his energy to his companion. They lived upon deck, wet and starved and perishing with the cold—the cold of December in the North Sea, when the spray cuts the face like a whip-cord. They ate by snatches when they could, which was seldom; and they slept by snatches when they could, which was even less often. And at the end of the fourth day there came a blinding fall of snow and sleet, which drifted down the companion, sheeted the ropes with ice, and hung the yards with icicles, and which made every inch of brass a searing-iron and every yard of the deck a danger to the foot.
It was when this storm began to fall that Weeks grasped Duncan fiercely by the shoulder.
"What is it you did on land?" he cried. "Confess it, man! There may be some chance for us if you go down on your knees and confess it."
Duncan turned as fiercely upon Weeks. Both men were overstrained with want of food and sleep.
"I'm not your Jonah—don't fancy it! I did nothing on land!"
"Then what did you come out for?"
"What did you? To fight and wrestle for your ship, eh? Well, I came out to fight and wrestle for my immortal soul, and let it go at that!"
Weeks turned away, and as he turned, slipped on the frozen deck. A lurch of the smack sent him sliding into the rudder-chains, where he lay. Once he tried to rise, and fell back. Duncan hauled himself along the bulwarks to him.
"Leg broke. Get me down into the cabin. Lucky there's the tell-tale. We'll get the Willing Mind berthed by the quay, see if we don't." That was still his one thought, his one belief.
Duncan hitched a rope round Weeks, underneath his arms, and lowered him as gently as he could down the companion.
"Lift me on to the table so that my head's just beneath the compass! Right! Now take a turn with the rope underneath the table, or I'll roll off. Push an oily under my head, and then go for'ard and see if you can find a fish-box. Take a look that the wheel's fast."
It seemed to Duncan that the last chance was gone. There was just one inexperienced amateur to change the sails and steer a seventy-ton ketch across the North Sea into Yarmouth Roads. He said nothing, however, of his despair to the indomitable man upon the table, and went forward in search of a fish-box. He split up the sides into rough splints and came aft with them.
"Thank 'ee, lad," said Weeks. "Just cut my boot away, and fix it up best you can."
The tossing of the smack made the operation difficult and long. Weeks, however, never uttered a groan. Only Duncan once looked up, and said—"Halloa! You've hurt your face too. There's blood on your chin!"
"That's all right!" said Weeks, with an effort. "I reckon I've just bit through my lip."
Duncan stopped his work.
"You've got a medicine-chest, skipper, with some laudanum in it—?"
"Daren't!" replied Weeks. "There's on'y you and me to work the ship. Fix up the job quick as you can, and I'll have a drink of Friar's Balsam afterwards. Seems to me the gale's blowing itself out, and if on'y the wind holds in the same quarter—" And thereupon he fainted.
Duncan bandaged up the leg, got Weeks round, gave him a drink of Friar's Balsam, set the teapot within his reach, and went on deck. The wind was going down; the air was clearer of foam. He tallowed the lead and heaved it, and brought it down to Weeks. Weeks looked at the sand stuck on the tallow and tasted it, and seemed pleased.
"This gives me my longitude," said he, "but not my latitude, worse luck. Still, we'll manage it. You'd better get our dinner now; any odd thing in the way of biscuits or a bit of cold fish will do, and then I think we'll be able to run."
After dinner Duncan said: "I'll put her about now."
"No; wear her and let her jibe," said Weeks, "then you'll on'y have to ease your sheets."
Duncan stood at the wheel, while Weeks, with the compass swinging above his head, shouted directions through the companion. They sailed the boat all that night with the wind on her quarter, and at daybreak Duncan brought her to and heaved his lead again. There was rough sand with blackish specks upon the tallow, and Weeks, when he saw it, forgot his broken leg.
"My word," he cried, "we've hit the Fisher Bank! You'd best lash the wheel, get our breakfast, and take a spell of sleep on deck. Tie a string to your finger and pass it down to me, so that I can wake you up."
Weeks waked him up at ten o'clock, and they ran southwest with a steady wind till six, when Weeks shouted—
"Take another cast with your lead."
The sand upon the tallow was white like salt.
"Yes," said Weeks; "I thought we was hereabouts. We're on the edge of the Dogger, and we'll be in Yarmouth by the morning." And all through the night the orders came thick and fast from the cabin. Weeks was on his own ground; he had no longer any need of the lead; he seemed no longer to need his eyes; he felt his way across the currents from the Dogger to the English coast; and at daybreak he shouted—
"Can you see land?"
"There's a mist."
"Lie to, then, till the sun's up."
Duncan lay the boat to for a couple of hours, till the mist was tinged with gold and the ball of the sun showed red on his starboard quarter. The mist sank, the brown sails of a smack thrust upwards through it; coastwards it shifted and thinned and thickened, as though cunningly to excite expectation as to what it hid. Again Weeks called out—
"Yes," said Duncan, in a perplexed voice. "I see something. Looks like a sort of mediaeval castle on a rock."
A shout of laughter answered him.
"That's the Gorleston Hotel. The harbour-mouth's just beneath. We've hit it fine," and while he spoke the mist swept clear, and the long, treeless esplanade of Yarmouth lay there a couple of miles from Duncan's eyes, glistening and gilded in the sun like a row of dolls' houses.
"Haul in your sheets a bit," said Weeks. "Keep no'th of the hotel, for the tide'll set you up and we'll sail her in without dawdlin' behind a tug. Get your mainsail down as best you can before you make the entrance."
Half an hour afterwards the smack sailed between the pier-heads.
"Who are you?" cried the harbour-master.
"The Willing Mind."
"The Willing Mind's reported lost with all hands."
"Well, here's the Willing Mind," said Duncan, "and here's one of the hands."
The irrepressible voice bawled up the companion to complete the sentence—
"And the owner's reposin' in his cabin." But in a lower key he added words for his own ears. "There's the old woman to meet. Lord! but the Willing Mind has cost me dear."
HOW BARRINGTON RETURNED TO JOHANNESBURG.
Norris wanted a holiday. He stood in the marketplace looking southwards to the chimney-stacks, and dilating upon the subject to three of his friends. He was sick of the Stock Exchange, the men, the women, the drinks, the dances—everything. He was as indifferent to the price of shares as to the rise and fall of the quicksilver in his barometer; he neither desired to go in on the ground floor nor to come out in the attics. He simply wanted to get clean away. Besides he foresaw a slump, and he would be actually saving money on the veld. At this point Teddy Isaacs strolled up and interrupted the oration.
"Where are you off to, then?"
"Manicaland," answered Norris.
"Oh! You had better bring Barrington back."
Teddy Isaacs was a fresh comer to the Rand, and knew no better. Barrington meant to him nothing more than the name of a man who had been lost twelve months before on the eastern borders of Mashonaland. But he saw three pairs of eyebrows lift simultaneously, and heard three simultaneous outbursts on the latest Uitlander grievance. However, Norris answered him quietly enough.
"Yes, if I come across Barrington, I'll bring him back." He nodded his head once or twice and smiled. "You may make sure of that," he added, and turned away from the group.
Isaacs gathered that there had been trouble between Barrington and Morris, and applied to his companions for information. The commencement of the trouble, he was told, dated back to the time when the two men were ostrich-farming side by side, close to Port Elizabeth in the Cape Colony. Norris owned a wife; Barrington did not. The story was sufficiently ugly as Johannesburg was accustomed to relate it, but upon this occasion Teddy Isaacs was allowed to infer the details. He was merely put in possession of the more immediate facts. Barrington had left the Cape Colony in a hurry, and coming north to the Transvaal when Johannesburg was as yet in its brief infancy, had prospered exceedingly. Meanwhile, Norris, as the ostrich industry declined, had gone from worse to worse, and finally he too drifted to Johannesburg with the rest of the flotsam of South Africa. He came to the town alone, and met Barrington one morning eye to eye on the Stock Exchange. A certain amount of natural disappointment was expressed when the pair were seen to separate without hostilities; but it was subsequently remarked that they were fighting out their duel, though not in the conventional way. They fought with shares, and Barrington won. He had the clearer head, and besides, Norris didn't need much ruining; Barrington could see to that in his spare time. It was, in fact, as though Norris stood up with a derringer to face a machine gun. His turn, however, had come after Barrington's disappearance, and he was now able to contemplate an expedition into Manicaland without reckoning up his pass-book.
He bought a buck-wagon with a tent covering over the hinder part, provisions sufficient for six months, a span of oxen, a couple of horses salted for the thickhead sickness, hired a Griqua lad as wagon-driver, and half a dozen Matabele boys who were waiting for a chance to return, and started northeastward.
From Johannesburg he travelled to Makoni's town, near the Zimbabwe ruins, and with half a dozen brass rings and an empty cartridge case hired a Ma-ongwi boy, who had been up to the Mashonaland plateau before. The lad guided him to the head waters of the Inyazuri, and there Norris fenced in his camp, in a grass country fairly wooded, and studded with gigantic blocks of granite.
The Ma-ongwi boy chose the site, fifty yards west of an ant-heap, and about a quarter of a mile from a forest of machabel. He had camped on the spot before, he said.
"When?" asked Norris.
"Twice," replied the boy. "Three years ago and last year."
"Last year?" Norris looked up with a start of surprise. "You were up here last year?"
For a moment or two Norris puffed at his pipe, then he asked slowly—
"Mr. Barrington," the boy told him, and added, "It is his wagon-track which we have been following."
Norris rose from the ground, and walked straight ahead for the distance of a hundred yards until he reached a jasmine bush, which stood in a bee-line with the opening of his camp fence. Thence he moved round in a semicircle until he came upon a wagon-track in the rear of the camp, and, after pausing there, he went forward again, and completed the circle. He returned to his wagon chuckling. Barrington, he remembered, had been lost while travelling northwards to the Zambesie; but the track stopped here. There was not a trace of it to the north or the east or the west. It was evident that the boy had chosen Barrington's last camping-ground as the site for his own, and he discovered a comforting irony in the fact. He felt that he was standing in Barrington's shoes.
That night, as he was smoking by the fire, he called out to the Ma-ongwi boy. The lad came forward from his hut behind the wagon.
"Tell me how you lost him," said Norris.
"He rode that way alone after a sable antelope." The boy pointed an arm to the southwest. "The beast was wounded, and we followed its blood-spoor. We found Mr. Barrington's horse gored by the antelope's horns. He himself had gone forward on foot. We tracked him to a little stream, but the opposite bank was trampled, and we lost all sign of him." This is what the boy said though his language is translated.
Norris remained upon this encampment for a fortnight. Blue wildebeests, koodoos, elands, and gems-bok were plentiful, and once he got a shot at a wart-hog boar. At the end of the fortnight he walked round the ant-heap early one morning, and of a sudden plumped down full length in the grass. Straight in front of him he saw a herd of buffaloes moving in his direction down a glade of the forest a quarter of a mile away. Norris cast a glance backwards; the camp was hidden from the herd by the intervening ant-heap. He looked again towards the forest; the buffaloes advanced slowly, pasturing as they moved. Norris crawled behind the ant-heap on his hands and knees, ran thence into the camp, buckled on a belt of cartridges, snatched up a 450-bore Metford rifle, and got back to his position just as the first of the herd stepped into the open. It turned to the right along the edge of the wood, and the others followed in file. Norris wriggled forward through the grass, and selecting a fat bull in the centre of the line, aimed behind its shoulder and fired. The herd stampeded into the forest, the bull fell in its tracks.
Norris sprang forward with a shout; but he had not run more than thirty yards before the bull began to kick. It kneeled upon its forelegs, rose thence on to its hind legs, and finally stood up. Norris guessed what had happened. He had hit the bull in the neck instead of behind the shoulders, and had broken no bones. He fired his second barrel as the brute streamed away in an oblique line southeastwards from the wood, and missed. Then he ran back to camp, slapped a bridle on to his swiftest horse, and without waiting to saddle it, sprang on its back and galloped in pursuit. He rode as it were along the base of a triangle, whereas the bull galloped from the apex, and since his breakfast was getting hot behind him, he wished to make that triangle an isosceles. So he jammed his heels into his horse's ribs, and was fast drawing within easy range, when the buffalo got his wind and swerved on the instant into a diagonal course due southwest.
The manoeuvre left Norris directly behind his quarry, and with a long, stern chase in prospect. However, his blood was up, and he held on to wear the beast down. He forgot his breakfast; he took no more than a casual notice of the direction he was following; he simply braced his knees in a closer grip, while the distorted shadows of himself and the horse lengthened and thinned along the ground as the sun rose over his right shoulder.
Suddenly the buffalo disappeared in a dip of the veld, and a few moments later came again into view a good hundred yards further to the south. Norris pulled his left rein, and made for the exact spot at which the bull had reappeared. He found himself on the edge of a tiny cliff which dropped twenty feet in a sheer fall to a little stream, and he was compelled to ride along the bank until he reached the incline which the buffalo had descended. He forded the stream, galloped under the opposite bank across a patch of ground which had been trampled into mud by the hoofs of beasts coming here to water, and mounted again to the open. The bull had gained a quarter of a mile's grace from his mistake, and was heading straight for a huge cone of granite.
Norris recognised the cone. It towered up from the veld, its cliffs seamed into gullies by the rain-wash of ages, and he had used it more than once as a landmark during the last fortnight, for it rose due southwest of his camp.
He watched the bull approach the cone and vanish into one of the gullies. It did not reappear, and he rode forward, keeping a close eye upon the gully. As he came opposite to it, however, he saw through the opening a vista of green trees flashing in the sunlight. He turned his horse through the passage, and reined up in a granite amphitheatre. The floor seemed about half a mile in diameter; it was broken into hillocks, and strewn with patches of a dense undergrowth, while here and there a big tree grew. The walls, which converged slightly towards an open top, were robed from summit to base with wild flowers, so that the whole circumference of the cone was one blaze of colour.
Norris hitched forward and reloaded the rifle. Then he advanced slowly between the bushes on the alert for a charge from the wounded bull; but nothing stirred. No sound came to his ears except the soft padding noise of his horse's hoofs upon the turf. There was not a crackle of the brushwood, and the trees seemed carved out of metal. He rode through absolute silence in a suspension of all movement. Once his horse trod upon a bough, and the snapping of the twigs sounded like so many cracks of a pistol. At first the silence struck Norris as merely curious, a little later as very lonesome. Once or twice he stopped his horse with a sudden jerk of the reins, and sat crouched forwards with his neck outstretched, listening. Once or twice he cast a quick, furtive glance over his shoulder to make certain that no one stood between himself and the entrance to the hollow. He forgot the buffalo; he caught himself labouring his breath, and found it necessary to elaborately explain the circumstance in his thoughts on the ground of heat.
The next moment he began to plead this heat not merely as an excuse for his uneasiness, but as a reason for returning to camp. The heat was intense, he argued. Above him the light of an African midday sun poured out of a brassy sky into a sort of inverted funnel, and lay in blinding pools upon the scattered slabs of rock. Within the hollow, every cup of the innumerable flowers which tapestried the cliffs seemed a mouth breathing heat. He became possessed with a parching thirst, and he felt his tongue heavy and fibrous like a dried fig. There was, however, one obstacle which prevented him from acting upon his impulse, and that obstacle was his sense of shame. It was not so much that he thought it cowardly to give up the chase and quietly return, but he knew that the second after he had given way, he would be galloping madly towards the entrance in no child's panic of terror. He finally compromised matters by dropping the reins upon his horse's neck in the unformulated hope that the animal would turn of its own accord; but the horse kept straight on.
As Norris drew towards the innermost wall of granite, there was a quick rustle all across its face as though the screen of shrubs and flowers had been fluttered by a draught of wind. Norris drew himself erect with a distinct appearance of relief, loosened the clench of his fingers upon his rifle, and began once more to search the bushes for the buffalo.
For a moment his attention was arrested by a queer object lying upon the ground to his left. It was in shape something like a melon, but bigger, and it seemed to be plastered over with a black mould. Norris rode by it, turned a corner, and then with a gasp reined back his horse upon its haunches. Straight in front of him a broken rifle lay across the path.
Norris stood still, and stared at it stupidly. Some vague recollection floated elusively through his brain. He tried to grasp and fix it clearly in his mind. It was a recollection of something which had happened a long while ago, in England, when he was at school. Suddenly, he remembered. It was not something which had happened, but something he had read under the great elm trees in the close. It was that passage in Robinson Crusoe which tells of the naked footprint in the sand.
Norris dismounted, and stooped to lift the rifle; but all at once he straightened himself, and swung round with his arms guarding his head. There was no one, however, behind him, and he gave a little quavering laugh, and picked up the rifle. It was a heavy lo-bore Holland, a Holland with a single barrel, and that barrel was twisted like a corkscrew. The lock had been wrenched off, and there were marks upon the stock—marks of teeth, and other queer, unintelligible marks as well.
Norris held the rifle in his hands, gazing vacantly straight ahead. He was thinking of the direction in which he had come, southwest, and of the stream which he had crossed, and of the patch of trampled mud, where track obliterated track. He dropped the rifle. It rang upon a stone, and again the screen of foliage shivered and rustled. Norris, however, paid no attention to the movement, but ran back to that object which he had passed, and took it in his hands.
It was oval in shape, being slightly broader at one end than the other. Norris drew his knife and cleaned the mould from one side of it. To the touch of the blade it seemed softer than stone, and smoother than wood. "More like bone," he said to himself. In the side which he had cleaned, there was a little round hole filled up with mould. Norris dug his knife in and scraped round the hole as one cleans a caked pipe. He drew out a little cube of mud. There was a second corresponding hole on the other side. He turned the narrower end of the thing upwards. It was hollow, he saw, but packed full of mould, and more deliberately packed, for there were finger-marks in the mould. "What an aimless trick!" he muttered vaguely.
He carried the thing back to the rifle, and, comparing them, understood those queer marks upon the stock. They were the mark of fingers, of human fingers, impressed faintly upon the wood with superhuman strength. He was holding the rifle in his hands and looking down at it; but he saw below the rifle, and he saw that his knees were shaking in a palsy.
On an instant he tossed the rifle away, and laughed to reassure himself—laughed out boldly, once, twice; and then he stopped with his eyes riveted upon the granite wall. At each laugh that he gave the shrubs and flowers rippled, and shook the sunlight from their leaves. For the first time he remarked the coincidence as something strange. He lifted up his face, but not a breath of air fanned it; he looked across the hollow, the trees and bushes stood immobile. He laughed a third time, louder than before, and all at once his laughter got hold of him; he sent it pealing out hysterically, burst after burst, until the hollow seemed brimming with the din of it. His body began to twist; he beat time to his laughter with his feet, and then he danced. He danced there alone in the African sunlight faster and faster, with a mad tossing of his limbs, and with his laughter grown to a yell. And as though to keep pace with him, each moment the shiver of the foliage increased. Up and down, crosswise and breadthwise, the flowers were tossed and flung, while their petals rained down the cliff's face in a purple storm. It appeared, indeed, to Norris that the very granite walls were moving.
In the midst of his dance he kicked something and stumbled. He stopped dead when he saw what that something was. It was the queer, mud-plastered object which he had compared with the broken rifle, and the sight of it recalled him to his wits. He tucked it hastily beneath his jacket, and looked about him for his horse. The horse was standing behind him some distance away, and nearer to the cliff. Norris snatched up his own rifle, and ran towards it. His hand was on the horse's mane, when just above its head he noticed a clean patch of granite, and across that space he saw a huge grey baboon leap, and then another, and another. He turned about, and looked across to the opposite wall, straining his eyes, and a second later to the wall on his right. Then he understood; the twisted rifle, the finger marks, this thing which he held under his coat, he understood them all. The walls of the hollow were alive with baboons, and the baboons were making along the cliffs for the entrance.
Norris sprang on to his horse, and kicked and beat it into a gallop. He had only to traverse the length of a diameter, he told himself, the baboons the circumference of a circle. He had covered three-quarters of the distance when he heard a grunt, and from a bush fifty yards ahead the buffalo sprang out and came charging down at him.
Norris gave one scream of terror, and with that his nerves steadied themselves. He knew that it was no use firing at the front of a buffalo's head when the beast was charging. He pulled a rein and swerved to the left; the bull made a corresponding turn. A moment afterwards Norris swerved back into his former course, and shot just past the bull's flanks. He made no attempt to shoot them; he held his rifle ready in his hands, and looked forwards. When he was fifty yards from the passage he saw the first baboon perched upon a shoulder of rock above the entrance. He lifted his rifle, and fired at a venture. He saw the brute's arms wave in the air, and heard a dull thud on the ground behind him as he drove through the gully and out on to the open veld.
The next morning Norris broke up his camp, and started homewards for Johannesburg. He went down to the Stock Exchange on the day of his arrival, and chanced upon Teddy Isaacs.
"What's that?" asked Isaacs, touching a bulge of his coat.
"That?" replied Norris, unfastening the buttons. "I told you I would bring back Barrington if I found him," and he trundled a scoured and polished skull across the floor of the Stock Exchange.
The story was told to us by James Walker in the cabin of a seven-ton cutter one night when we lay anchored in Helford river. It was towards the end of September; during this last week the air had grown chilly with the dusk, and the sea when it lost the sun took on a leaden and a dreary look. There was no other boat in the wooded creek and the swish of the tide against the planks had a very lonesome sound. All the circumstances I think provoked Walker to tell the story but most of all the lonely swish of the tide against the planks. For it is the story of a man's loneliness and the strange ways into which loneliness misled him. However, let the story speak for itself.
Hatteras and Walker had been schoolfellows, though never schoolmates. Hatteras indeed was the head of the school and prophecy vaguely sketched out for him a brilliant career in some service of importance. The definite law, however, that the sins of the fathers shall be visited upon the children, overbore the prophecy. Hatteras, the father, disorganised his son's future by dropping unexpectedly through one of the trap ways of speculation into the bankruptcy court beneath just two months before Hatteras, the son, was to have gone up to Oxford. The lad was therefore compelled to start life in a stony world with a stock in trade which consisted of a school boy's command of the classics, a real inborn gift of tongues and the friendship of James Walker. The last item proved of the most immediate value. For Walker, whose father was the junior partner in a firm of West African merchants, obtained for Hatteras an employment as the bookkeeper at a branch factory in the Bight of Benin.
Thus the friends parted. Hatteras went out to West Africa alone and met with a strange welcome on the day when he landed. The incident did not come to Walker's ears until some time afterwards, nor when he heard of it did he at once appreciate the effect which it had upon Hatteras. But chronologically it comes into the story at this point, and so may as well be immediately told.
There was no settlement very near to the factory. It stood by itself on the swamps of the Forcados river with the mangrove forest closing in about it. Accordingly the captain of the steamer just put Hatteras ashore in a boat and left him with his traps on the beach. Half-a-dozen Kru boys had come down from the factory to receive him, but they could speak no English, and Hatteras at this time could speak no Kru. So that although there was no lack of conversation there was not much interchange of thought. At last Hatteras pointed to his traps. The Kru boys picked them up and preceded Hatteras to the factory. They mounted the steps to the verandah on the first floor and laid their loads down. Then they proceeded to further conversation. Hatteras gathered from their excited faces and gestures that they wished to impart information, but he could make neither head nor tail of a word they said and at last he retired from the din of their chatter through the windows of a room which gave on the verandah, and sat down to wait for his superior, the agent. It was early in the morning when Hatteras landed and he waited until midday patiently. In the afternoon it occurred to him that the agent would have shown a kindly consideration if he had left a written message or an intelligible Kru boy to receive him. It is true that the blacks came in at intervals and chattered and gesticulated, but matters were not thereby appreciably improved. He did not like to go poking about the house, so he contemplated the mud-banks and the mud-river and the mangrove forest, and cursed the agent. The country was very quiet. There are few things in the world quieter than a West African forest in the daytime. It is obtrusively, emphatically quiet. It does not let you forget how singularly quiet it is. And towards sundown the quietude began to jar on Hatteras' nerves. He was besides very hungry. To while away the time he took a stroll round the verandah.
He walked along the side of the house towards the back, and as he neared the back he head a humming sound. The further he went the louder it grew. It was something like the hum of a mill, only not so metallic and not so loud; and it came from the rear of the house.
Hatteras turned the corner and what he saw was this—a shuttered window and a cloud of flies. The flies were not aimlessly swarming outside the window; they streamed in through the lattices of the shutters in a busy practical way; they came in columns from the forest and converged upon the shutters; and the hum sounded from within the room.
Hatteras looked about for a Kru boy just for the sake of company, but, at that moment there was not one to be seen. He felt the cold strike at his spine, he went back to the room in which he had been sitting. He sat again, but he sat shivering. The agent had left no work for him.... The Kru boys had been anxious to explain something. The humming of the flies about that shuttered window seemed to Hatteras to have more explicit language than the Kru boys' chatterings. He penetrated into the interior of the house, and reckoned up the doors. He opened one of them ever so slightly, and the buzzing came through like the hum of a wheel in a factory, revolving in the collar of a strap. He flung the door open and stood upon the threshold. The atmosphere of the room appalled him; he felt the sweat break cold upon his forehead and a deadly sickness in all his body. Then he nerved himself to enter.
At first he saw little because of the gloom. In a moment, however, he made out a bed stretched along the wall and a thing stretched upon the bed. The thing was more or less shapeless because it was covered with a black, furry sort of rug. Hatteras, however, had little trouble in defining it. He knew now for certain what it was that the Kru boys had been so anxious to explain to him. He approached the bed and bent over it, and as he bent over it the horrible thing occurred which left so vivid an impression on Hatteras. The black, furry rug suddenly lifted itself from the bed, beat about Hatteras' face, and dissolved into flies. The Kru boys found Hatteras in a dead swoon on the floor half-an-hour later, and next day, of course, he was down with the fever. The agent had died of it three days before.
Hatteras recovered from the fever, but not from the impression. It left him with a prevailing sense of horror and, at first, with a sense of disgust too. "It's a damned obscene country," he would say. But he stayed in it, for he had no choice. All the money which he could save went to the support of his family, and for six years the firm he served moved him from district to district, from factory to factory.
Now the second item in the stock in trade was a gift of tongues and about this time it began to bring him profit. Wherever Hatteras was posted, he managed to pick up a native dialect and with the dialect inevitably a knowledge of native customs. Dialects are numerous on the west coast, and at the end of six years, Hatteras could speak as many of them as some traders could enumerate. Languages ran in his blood; because he acquired a reputation for knowledge and was offered service under the Niger Protectorate, so that when two years later, Walker came out to Africa to open a new branch factory at a settlement on the Bonny river, he found Hatteras stationed in command there.
Hatteras, in fact, went down to Bonny river town to meet the steamer which brought his friend.
"I say, Dick, you look bad," said Walker.
"People aren't, as a rule, offensively robust about these parts."
"I know that; but your the weariest bag of bones I've ever seen."
"Well, look at yourself in a glass a year from now for my double," said Hatteras, and the pair went up river together.
"Your factory's next to the Residency," said Hatteras. "There's a compound to each running down to the river, and there's a palisade between the compounds. I've cut a little gate in the palisade as it will shorten the way from one house to the other."
The wicket gate was frequently used during the next few months—indeed, more frequently than Walker imagined. He was only aware that, when they were both at home, Hatteras would come through it of an evening and smoke on his verandah. Then he would sit for hours cursing the country, raving about the lights in Piccadilly-circus, and offering his immortal soul in exchange for a comic-opera tune played upon a barrel-organ. Walker possessed a big atlas, and one of Hatteras' chief diversions was to trace with his finger a bee-line across the African continent and the Bay of Biscay until he reached London.
More rarely Walker would stroll over to the Residency, but he soon came to notice that Hatteras had a distinct preference for the factory and for the factory verandah. The reason for the preference puzzled Walker considerably. He drew a quite erroneous conclusion that Hatteras was hiding at the Residency—well, some one whom it was prudent, especially in an official, to conceal. He abandoned the conclusion, however, when he discovered that his friend was in the habit of making solitary expeditions. At times Hatteras would be absent for a couple of days, at times for a week, and, so far as Walker could ascertain, he never so much as took a servant with him to keep him company. He would simply announce at night his intended departure, and in the morning he would be gone. Nor on his return did he ever offer to Walker any explanation of his journeys. On one occasion, however, Walker broached the subject. Hatteras had come back the night before, and he sat crouched up in a deck chair, looking intently into the darkness of the forest.
"I say," asked Walker, "isn't it rather dangerous to go slumming about West Africa alone?"
Hatteras did not reply for a moment. He seemed not to have heard the suggestion, and when he did speak it was to ask a quite irrelevant question.
"Have you ever seen the Horse Guards' Parade on a dark, rainy night?" he asked; but he never moved his head, he never took his eyes from the forest. "The wet level of ground looks just like a lagoon and the arches a Venice palace above it."
"But look here, Dick!" said Walker, keeping to his subject. "You never leave word when you are coming back. One never knows that you have come back until you show yourself the morning after."
"I think," said Hatteras slowly, "that the finest sight in the world is to be seen from the bridge in St. James's Park when there's a State ball on at Buckingham Palace and the light from the windows reddens the lake and the carriages glance about the Mall like fireflies."
"Even your servants don't know when you come back," said Walker.
"Oh," said Hatteras quietly, "so you have been asking questions of my servants?"
"I had a good reason," replied Walker, "your safety," and with that the conversation dropped.
Walker watched Hatteras. Hatteras watched the forest. A West African mangrove forest at night is full of the eeriest, queerest sounds that ever a man's ears harkened to. And the sounds come not so much from the birds, or the soughing of the branches; they seem to come from the swamp life underneath the branches, at the roots of trees. There's a ceaseless stir as of a myriad of reptiles creeping in the slime. Listen long enough and you will fancy that you hear the whirr and rush of innumerable crabs, the flapping of innumerable fish. Now and again a more distinctive sound emerges from the rest—the croaking of a bull-frog, the whining cough of a crocodile. At such sounds Hatteras would start up in his chair and cock his head like a dog in a room that hears another dog barking in the street.
"Doesn't it sound damned wicked?" he said, with a queer smile of enjoyment.
Walker did not answer. The light from a lamp in the room behind them struck obliquely upon Hatteras' face and slanted off from it in a narrowing column until it vanished in a yellow thread among the leaves of the trees. It showed that the same enjoyment which ran in Hatteras' voice was alive upon his face. His eyes, his ears, were alert, and he gently opened and shut his mouth with a little clicking of the teeth. In some horrible way he seemed to have something in common with, he appeared almost to participate in, the activity of the swamp. Thus, had Walker often seen him sit, but never with the light so clear upon his face, and the sight gave to him a quite new impression of his friend. He wondered whether all these months his judgment had been wrong. And out of that wonder a new thought sprang into his mind.
"Dick," he said, "this house of mine stands between your house and the forest. It stands on the borders of the trees, on the edge of the swamp. Is that why you always prefer it to your own?"
Hatteras turned his head quickly towards his companion, almost suspiciously. Then he looked back into the darkness, and after a little he said:—
"It's not only the things you care about, old man, which tug at you, it's the things you hate as well. I hate this country. I hate these miles and miles of mangroves, and yet I am fascinated. I can't get the forest and the undergrowth out of my mind. I dream of them at nights. I dream that I am sinking into that black oily batter of mud. Listen," and he suddenly broke off with his head stretched forwards. "Doesn't it sound wicked?"
"But all this talk about London?" cried Walker.
"Oh, don't you understand?" interrupted Hatteras roughly. Then he changed his tone and gave his reason. "One has to struggle against a fascination of that sort. It's devil's work. So for all I am worth I talk about London."
"Look here, Dick," said Walker. "You had better get leave and go back to the old country for a spell."
"A very solid piece of advice," said Hatteras, and he went home to the Residency.
The next morning he had again disappeared. But Walker discovered upon his table a couple of new volumes. He glanced at the titles. They were Burton's account of his pilgrimage to al-Madinah and Mecca.
Five nights afterwards Walker was smoking a pipe on the verandah when he fancied that he heard a rubbing, scuffling sound as if some one very cautiously was climbing over the fence of his compound. The moon was low in the sky and dipping down toward the forest; indeed the rim of it touched the tree-tops so that while a full half of the enclosure was bare to the yellow light that half which bordered on the forest was inky black in shadow; and it was from the furthest corner of this second half that the sound came. Walker bent forward listening. He heard the sound again, and a moment after another sound, which left him in no doubt. For in that dark corner he knew that a number of palisades for repairing the fence were piled and the second sound which he heard was a rattle as some one stumbled against them. Walker went inside and fetched a rifle.
When he came back he saw a negro creeping across the bright open space towards the Residency. Walker hailed to him to stop. Instead the negro ran. He ran towards the wicket gate in the palisades. Walker shouted again; the figure only ran the faster. He had covered half the distance before Walker fired. He clutched his right forearm with his left hand, but he did not stop. Walker fired again, this time at his legs, and the man dropped to the ground. Walker heard his servants stirring as he ran down the steps. He crossed quickly to the negro and the negro spoke to him, but in English, and with the voice of Hatteras.
"For God's sake keep your servants off!"
Walker ran to the house, met his servants at the foot of the steps, and ordered them back. He had shot at a monkey he said. Then he returned to Hatteras.
"Dicky, are you hurt?" he whispered.
"You hit me each time you fired, but not very badly I think."
He bandaged Hatteras' arm and thigh with strips of his shirt and waited by his side until the house was quiet. Then he lifted him and carried him across the enclosure to the steps and up the steps into his bedroom. It was a long and fatiguing process. For one thing Walker dared make no noise and must needs tread lightly with his load; for another, the steps were steep and ricketty, with a narrow balustrade on each side waist high. It seemed to Walker that the day would dawn before he reached the top. Once or twice Hatteras stirred in his arms, and he feared the man would die then and there. For all the time his blood dripped and pattered like heavy raindrops on the wooden steps.
Walker laid Hatteras on his bed and examined his wounds. One bullet had passed through the fleshy part of the forearm, the other through the fleshy part of his right thigh. But no bones were broken and no arteries cut. Walker lit a fire, baked some plaintain leaves, and applied them as a poultice. Then he went out with a pail of water and scrubbed down the steps.
Again he dared not make any noise, and it was close on daybreak before he had done. His night's work, however, was not ended. He had still to cleanse the black stain from Hatteras' skin, and the sun was up before he stretched a rug upon the ground and went to sleep with his back against the door.
"Walker," Hatteras called out in a low voice, an hour or so later.
Walker woke up and crossed over to the bed.
"Dicky, I'm frightfully sorry. I couldn't know it was you."
"That's all right, Jim. Don't you worry about that. What I wanted to say was that nobody had better know. It wouldn't do, would it, if it got about?"
"Oh, I am not so sure. People would think it rather a creditable proceeding."
Hatteras shot a puzzled look at his friend. Walker, however, did not notice it, and continued, "I saw Burton's account of his pilgrimage in your room; I might have known that journeys of the kind were just the sort of thing to appeal to you."
"Oh, yes, that's it," said Hatteras, lifting himself up in bed. He spoke eagerly—perhaps a thought too eagerly. "Yes, that's it. I have always been keen on understanding the native thoroughly. It's after all no less than one's duty if one has to rule them, and since I could speak their lingo—" he broke off and returned to the subject which had prompted him to rouse Walker. "But, all the same, it wouldn't do if the natives got to know."
"There's no difficulty about that," said Walker. "I'll give out that you have come back with the fever and that I am nursing you. Fortunately there's no doctor handy to come making inconvenient examinations."
Hatteras knew something of surgery, and under his directions Walker poulticed and bandaged him until he recovered. The bandaging, however, was amateurish, and, as a result, the muscles contracted in Hatteras' thigh and he limped—ever so slightly, still he limped—he limped to his dying day. He did not, however, on that account abandon his explorations, and more than once Walker, when his lights were out and he was smoking a pipe on the verandah, would see a black figure with a trailing walk cross his compound and pass stealthily through the wicket in the fence. Walker took occasion to expostulate with his friend.
"It's too dangerous a game for a man to play for any length of time. It is doubly dangerous now that you limp. You ought to give it up."
Hatteras made a strange reply.
"I'll try to," he said.
Walker pondered over the words for some time. He set them side by side in his thoughts with that confession which Hatteras had made to him one evening. He asked himself whether, after all, Hatteras' explanation of his conduct was sincere, whether it was really a desire to know the native thoroughly which prompted these mysterious expeditions; and then he remembered that he himself had first suggested the explanation to Hatteras. Walker began to feel uneasy—more than uneasy, actually afraid on his friend's account. Hatteras had acknowledged that the country fascinated him, and fascinated him through its hideous side. Was this masquerading as a black man a further proof of the fascination? Was it, as it were, a step downwards towards a closer association? Walker sought to laugh the notion from his mind, but it returned and returned, and here and there an incident occurred to give it strength and colour.
For instance, on one occasion after Hatteras had been three weeks absent, Walker sauntered over to the Residency towards four o'clock in the afternoon. Hatteras was trying cases in the court-house, which formed the ground floor of the Residency. Walker stepped into the room. It was packed with a naked throng of blacks, and the heat was overpowering. At the end of the hall sat Hatteras. His worn face shone out amongst the black heads about him white and waxy like a gardenia in a bouquet of black flowers. Walker invented his simile and realised its appositeness at one and the same moment. Bouquet was not an inappropriate word since there is a penetrating aroma about the native of the Niger delta when he begins to perspire.
Walker, however, thinking that the Court would rise, determined to wait for a little. But, at the last moment, a negro was put up to answer to a charge of participation in Fetish rites. The case seemed sufficiently clear from the outset, but somehow Hatteras delayed its conclusion. There was evidence and unrebutted evidence of the usual details—human sacrifice, mutilations and the like, but Hatteras pressed for more. He sat until it was dusk, and then had candles brought into the Court-house. He seemed indeed not so much to be investigating the negro's guilt as to be adding to his own knowledge of Fetish ceremonials. And Walker could not but perceive that he took more than a merely scientific pleasure in the increase of his knowledge. His face appeared to smooth out, his eyes became quick, interested, almost excited; and Walker again had the queer impression that Hatteras was in spirit participating in the loathsome ceremonies, and participating with an intense enjoyment. In the end the negro was convicted and the Court rose. But he might have been convicted a good three hours before. Walker went home shaking his head. He seemed to be watching a man deliberately divesting himself of his humanity. It seemed as though the white man were ambitious to decline into the black. Hatteras was growing into an uncanny creature. His friend began to foresee a time when he should hold him in loathing and horror. And the next morning helped to confirm him in that forecast.
For Walker had to make an early start down river for Bonny town, and as he stood on the landing-stage Hatteras came down to him from the Residency.
"You heard that negro tried yesterday?" he asked with an assumption of carelessness.
"Yes, and condemned. What of him?"
"He escaped last night. It's a bad business, isn't it?"
Walker nodded in reply and his boat pushed off. But it stuck in his mind for the greater part of that day that the prison adjoined the Court-house and so formed part of the ground floor of the Residency. Had Hatteras connived at his escape? Had the judge secretly set free the prisoner whom he had publicly condemned? The question troubled Walker considerably during his month of absence, and stood in the way of his business. He learned for the first time how much he loved his friend and how eagerly he watched for the friend's advancement. Each day added to his load of anxiety. He dreamed continually of a black-painted man slipping among the tree-boles nearer and nearer towards the red glow of a fire in some open space secure amongst the swamps, where hideous mysteries had their celebration. He cut short his business and hurried back from Bonny. He crossed at once to the Residency and found his friend in a great turmoil of affairs. Walker came back from Bonny a month later and hurried across to his friend.
"Jim," said Hatteras, starting up, "I've got a year's leave; I am going home."
"Dicky!" cried Walker, and he nearly wrung Hatteras' hand from his arm. "That's grand news."
"Yes, old man, I thought you would be glad; I sail in a fortnight." And he did.
For the first month Walker was glad. A year's leave would make a new man of Dick Hatteras, he thought, or, at all events, restore the old man, sane and sound, as he had been before he came to the West African coast. During the second month Walker began to feel lonely. In the third he bought a banjo and learnt it during the fourth and fifth. During the sixth he began to say to himself, "What a time poor Dick must have had all those six years with those cursed forests about him. I don't wonder—I don't wonder." He turned disconsolately to his banjo and played for the rest of the year; all through the wet season while the rain came down in a steady roar and only the curlews cried—until Hatteras returned. He returned at the top of his spirits and health. Of course he was hall-marked West African, but no man gets rid of that stamp. Moreover there was more than health in his expression. There was a new look of pride in his eyes and when he spoke of a bachelor it was in terms of sympathetic pity.
"Jim," said he, after five minutes of restraint, "I am engaged to be married."
Jim danced round him in delight. "What an ass I have been," he thought, "why didn't I think of that cure myself?" and he asked, "When is it to be?"
"In eight months. You'll come home and see me through."
Walker agreed and for eight months listened to praises of the lady. There were no more solitary expeditions. In fact, Hatteras seemed absorbed in the diurnal discovery of new perfections in his future wife.
"Yes, she seems a nice girl," Walker commented. He found her upon his arrival in England more human than Hatteras' conversation had led him to expect, and she proved to him that she was a nice girl. For she listened for hours to him lecturing her on the proper way to treat Dick without the slightest irritation and with only a faintly visible amusement. Besides she insisted on returning with her husband to Bonny river, which was a sufficiently courageous thing to undertake.
For a year in spite of the climate the couple were commonplace and happy. For a year Walker clucked about them like a hen after its chickens and slept the sleep of the untroubled. Then he returned to England and from that time made only occasional journeys to West Africa. Thus for awhile he almost lost sight of Hatteras and consequently still slept the sleep of the untroubled. One morning, however, he arrived unexpectedly at the settlement and at once called on Hatteras. He did not wait to be announced, but ran up the steps outside the house and into the dining-room. He found Mrs. Hatteras crying. She dried her eyes, welcomed Walker, and said that she was sorry, but her husband was away.
Walker started, looked at her eyes, and asked hesitatingly whether he could help. Mrs. Hatteras replied with an ill-assumed surprise that she did not understand. Walker suggested that there was trouble. Mrs. Hatteras denied the truth of the suggestion. Walker pressed the point and Mrs. Hatteras yielded so far as to assert that there was no trouble in which Hatteras was concerned. Walker hardly thought it the occasion for a parade of manners, and insisted on pointing out that his knowledge of her husband was intimate and dated from his schooldays. Thereupon Mrs. Hatteras gave way.
"Dick goes away alone," she said. "He stains his skin and goes away at night. He tells me that he must, that it's the only way by which he can know the natives, and that so it's a sort of duty. He says the black tells nothing of himself to the white man—ever. You must go amongst them if you are to know them. So he goes, and I never know when he will come back. I never know whether he will come back."
"But he has done that sort of thing on and off for years, and he has always come back," replied Walker.
"Yes, but one day he will not." Walker comforted her as well as he could, praised Hatteras for his conduct, though his heart was hot against him, spoke of risks that every one must run who serve the Empire. "Never a lotus closes, you know," he said, and went back to the factory with the consciousness that he had been telling lies.
It was no sense of duty that prompted Hatteras, of that he was certain, and he waited—he waited from darkness to daybreak in his compound for three successive nights. On the fourth he heard the scuffling sound at the corner of the fence. The night was black as the inside of a coffin. Half a regiment of men might steal past him and he not have seen them. Accordingly he walked cautiously to the palisade which separated the enclosure of the Residency from his own, felt along it until he reached the little gate and stationed himself in front of it. In a few moments he thought that he heard a man breathing, but whether to the right or the left he could not tell; and then a groping hand lightly touched his face and drew away again. Walker said nothing, but held his breath and did not move. The hand was stretched out again. This time it touched his breast and moved across it until it felt a button of Walker's coat. Then it was snatched away and Walker heard a gasping in-draw of the breath and afterwards a sound as of a man turning in a flurry. Walker sprang forward and caught a naked shoulder with one hand, a naked arm with the other.
"Wait a bit, Dick Hatteras," he said.
There was a low cry, and then a husky voice addressed him respectfully as "Daddy" in trade-English.
"That won't do, Dick," said Walker.
The voice babbled more trade-English.
"If you're not Dick Hatteras," continued Walker, tightening his grasp, "You've no manner of right here. I'll give you till I count ten and then I shall shoot."
Walker counted up to nine aloud and then—
"Jim," said Hatteras in his natural voice.
"That's better," said Walker. "Let's go in and talk."
He went up the step and lighted the lamp. Hatteras followed him and the two men faced one another. For a little while neither of them spoke. Walker was repeating to himself that this man with the black skin, naked except for a dirty loincloth and a few feathers on his head was a white man married to a white wife who was sleeping—Nay, more likely crying—not thirty yards away.
Hatteras began to mumble out his usual explanation of duty and the rest of it.
"That won't wash," interrupted Walker. "What is it? A woman?"
"Good Heaven, no!" cried Hatteras suddenly. It was plain that that explanation was at all events untrue. "Jim, I've a good mind to tell you all about it."
"You have got to," said Walker. He stood between Hatteras and the steps.
"I told you how this country fascinated me in spite of myself," he began.
"But I thought," interrupted Walker, "that you had got over that since. Why, man, you are married," and he came across to Hatteras and shook him by the shoulder. "Don't you understand? You have a wife!"
"I know," said Hatteras. "But there are things deeper at the heart of me than the love of woman, and one of those things is the love of horror. I tell you it bites as nothing else does in this world. It's like absinthe that turns you sick at the beginning and that you can't do without once you have got the taste of it. Do you remember my first landing? It made me sick enough at the beginning, you know. But now—" He sat down in a chair and drew it close to Walker. His voice dropped to a passionate whisper, he locked and unlocked his fingers with feverish movements, and his eyes shifted and glittered in an unnatural excitement.
"It's like going down to Hell and coming up again and wanting to go down again. Oh, you'd want to go down again. You'd find the whole earth pale. You'd count the days until you went down again. Do you remember Orpheus? I think he looked back not to see if Eurydice was coming after him but because he knew it was the last glimpse he would get of Hell." At that he broke off and began to chant in a crazy voice, wagging his head and swaying his body to the rhythm of the lines:—
"Quum subita in cantum dementia cepit amantem Ignoscenda quidem scirent si ignoscere manes; Restilit Eurydicengue suam jam luce sub ipsa Immemor heu victusque animi respexit."
"Oh, stop that!" cried Walker, and Hatteras laughed. "For God's sake, stop it!"
For the words brought back to him in a flash the vision of a class-room with its chipped desks ranged against the varnished walls, the droning sound of the form-master's voice, and the swish of lilac bushes against the lower window panes on summer afternoons. "Go on," he said. "Oh, go on, and let's have done with it."
Hatteras took up his tale again, and it seemed to Walker that the man breathed the very miasma of the swamp and infected the room with it. He spoke of leopard societies, murder clubs, human sacrifices. He had witnessed them at the beginning, he had taken his share in them at the last. He told the whole story without shame, with indeed a growing enjoyment. He spared Walker no details. He related them in their loathsome completeness until Walker felt stunned and sick. "Stop," he said, again, "Stop! That's enough."
Hatteras, however, continued. He appeared to have forgotten Walker's presence. He told the story to himself, for his own amusement, as a child will, and here and there he laughed and the mere sound of his laughter was inhuman. He only came to a stop when he saw Walker hold out to him a cocked and loaded revolver.
"Well?" he asked. "Well?"
Walker still offered him the revolver.
"There are cases, I think, which neither God's law nor man's law seems to have provided for. There's your wife you see to be considered. If you don't take it I shall shoot you myself now, here, and mark you I shall shoot you for the sake of a boy I loved at school in the old country."
Hatteras took the revolver in silence, laid it on the table, fingered it for a little.
"My wife must never know," he said.
"There's the pistol. Outside's the swamp. The swamp will tell no tales, nor shall I. Your wife need never know."
Hatteras picked up the pistol and stood up.
"Good-bye, Jim," he said, and half pushed out his hand. Walker shook his head, and Hatteras went out on to the verandah and down the steps.
Walker heard him climb over the fence; and then followed as far as the verandah. In the still night the rustle and swish of the undergrowth came quite clearly to his ears. The sound ceased, and a few minutes afterwards the muffled crack of a pistol shot broke the silence like the tap of a hammer. The swamp, as Walker prophesied, told no tales. Mrs. Hatteras gave the one explanation of her husband's disappearance that she knew and returned brokenhearted to England. There was some loud talk about the self-sacrificing energy, which makes the English a dominant race, and there you might think is the end of the story.
But some years later Walker went trudging up the Ogowe river in Congo Francais. He travelled as far as Woermann's factory in Njole Island and, having transacted his business there, pushed up stream in the hope of opening the upper reaches for trade purposes. He travelled for a hundred and fifty miles in a little stern-wheel steamer. At that point he stretched an awning over a whale-boat, embarked himself, his banjo and eight blacks from the steamer, and rowed for another fifty miles. There he ran the boat's nose into a clay cliff close to a Fan village and went ashore to negotiate with the chief.
There was a slip of forest between the village and the river bank, and while Walker was still dodging the palm creepers which tapestried it he heard a noise of lamentation. The noise came from the village and was general enough to assure him that a chief was dead. It rose in a chorus of discordant howls, low in note and long-drawn out—wordless, something like the howls of an animal in pain and yet human by reason of their infinite melancholy.
Walker pushed forward, came out upon a hillock, fronting the palisade which closed the entrance to the single street of huts, and passed down into the village. It seemed as though he had been expected. For from every hut the Fans rushed out towards him, the men dressed in their filthiest rags, the women with their faces chalked and their heads shaved. They stopped, however, on seeing a white man, and Walker knew enough of their tongue to ascertain that they looked for the coming of the witch doctor. The chief, it appeared, had died a natural death, and, since the event is of sufficiently rare occurrence in the Fan country, it had promptly been attributed to witchcraft, and the witch doctor had been sent for to discover the criminal. The village was consequently in a lively state of apprehension, since the end of those who bewitch chiefs to death is not easy. The Fans, however, politely invited Walker to inspect the corpse. It lay in a dark hut, packed with the corpse's relations, who were shouting to it at the top of their voices on the on-chance that its spirit might think better of its conduct and return to the body. They explained to Walker that they had tried all the usual varieties of persuasion. They had put red pepper into the chief's eyes while he was dying. They had propped open his mouth with a stick; they had burned fibres of the oil nut under his nose. In fact, they had made his death as uncomfortable as possible, but none the less he had died.
The witch doctor arrived on the heels of the explanation, and Walker, since he was powerless to interfere, thought it wise to retire for the time being. He went back to the hillock on the edge of the trees. Thence he looked across and over the palisade and had the whole length of the street within his view.
The witch doctor entered it from the opposite end, to the beating of many drums. The first thing Walker noticed was that he wore a square-skirted eighteenth century coat and a tattered pair of brocaded knee breeches on his bare legs; the second was that he limped—ever so slightly. Still he limped and—with the right leg. Walker felt a strong desire to see the man's face, and his heart thumped within him as he came nearer and nearer down the street. But his hair was so matted about his cheeks that Walker could not distinguish a feature. "If I was only near enough to see his eyes," he thought. But he was not near enough, nor would it have been prudent for him to have gone nearer.
The witch doctor commenced the proceedings by ringing a handbell in front of every hut. But that method of detection failed to work. The bell rang successively at every door. Walker watched the man's progress, watched his trailing limb, and began to discover familiarities in his manner. "Pure fancy," he argued with himself. "If he had not limped I should have noticed nothing."
Then the doctor took a wicker basket, covered with a rough wooden lid. The Fans gathered in front of him; he repeated their names one after the other and at each name he lifted the lid. But that plan appeared to be no improvement, for the lid never stuck. It came off readily at each name. Walker, meanwhile, calculated the distance a man would have to cover who walked across country from Bonny river to the Ogowe, and he reflected with some relief that the chances were several thousand to one that any man who made the attempt, be he black or white, would be eaten on the way.
The witch doctor turned up the big square cuffs of his sleeves, as a conjurer will do, and again repeated the names. This time, however, at each name, he rubbed the palms of his hands together. Walker was seized with a sudden longing to rush down into the village and examine the man's right forearm for a bullet mark. The longing grew on him. The witch doctor went steadily through the list. Walker rose to his feet and took a step or two down the hillock, when, of a sudden, at one particular name, the doctor's hands flew apart and waved wildly about him. A single cry from a single voice went up out of the group of Fans. The group fell back and left one man standing alone. He made no defence, no resistance. Two men came forward and bound his hands and his feet and his body with tie-tie. Then they carried him within a hut.
"That's sheer murder," thought Walker. He could not rescue the victim, he knew. But—he could get a nearer view of that witch doctor. Already the man was packing up his paraphernalia. Walker stepped back among the trees and, running with all his speed, made the circuit of the village. He reached the further end of the street just as the witch doctor walked out into the open.
Walker ran forward a yard or so until he too stood plain to see on the level ground. The witch doctor did see him and stopped. He stopped only for a moment and gazed earnestly in Walker's direction. Then he went on again towards his own hut in the forest.
Walker made no attempt to follow him. "He has seen me," he thought. "If he knows me he will come down to the river bank to-night." Consequently, he made the black rowers camp a couple of hundred yards down stream. He himself remained alone in his canoe.
The night fell moonless and black, and the enclosing forest made it yet blacker. A few stars burned in the strip of sky above his head like gold spangles on a strip of black velvet. Those stars and the glimmering of the clay bank to which the boat was moored were the only lights which Walker had. It was as dark as the night when Walker waited for Hatteras at the wicket-gate.
He placed his gun and a pouch of cartridges on one side, an unlighted lantern on the other, and then he took up his banjo and again he waited. He waited for a couple of hours, until a light crackle as of twigs snapping came to him out of the forest. Walker struck a chord on his banjo and played a hymn tune. He played "Abide with me," thinking that some picture of a home, of a Sunday evening in England's summer time, perhaps of a group of girls singing about a piano might flash into the darkened mind of the man upon the bank and draw him as with cords. The music went tinkling up and down the river, but no one spoke, no one moved upon the bank. So Walker changed the tune and played a melody of the barrel organs and Piccadilly circus. He had not played more than a dozen bars before he heard a sob from the bank and then the sound of some one sliding down the clay. The next instant a figure shone black against the clay. The boat lurched under the weight of a foot upon the gunwale, and a man plumped down in front of Walker.
"Well, what is it?" asked Walker, as he laid down his banjo and felt for a match in his pocket.
It seemed as though the words roused the man to a perception that he had made a mistake. He said as much hurriedly in trade-English, and sprang up as though he would leap from the boat. Walker caught hold of his ankle.
"No, you don't," said he, "you must have meant to visit me. This isn't Heally," and he jerked the man back into the bottom of the boat.
The man explained that he had paid a visit out of the purest friendliness.
"You're the witch doctor, I suppose," said Walker. The other replied that he was and proceeded to state that he was willing to give information about much that made white men curious. He would explain why it was of singular advantage to possess a white man's eyeball, and how very advisable it was to kill any one you caught making Itung. The danger of passing near a cotton-tree which had red earth at the roots provided a subject which no prudent man should disregard; and Tando, with his driver ants, was worth conciliating. The witch doctor was prepared to explain to Walker how to conciliate Tando. Walker replied that it was very kind of the witch doctor but Tando didn't really worry him. He was, in fact, very much more worried by an inability to understand how a native so high up the Ogowe River had learned how to speak trade-English.
The witch doctor waved the question aside and remarked that Walker must have enemies. "Pussim bad too much," he called them. "Pussim woh-woh. Berrah well! Ah send grand Krau-Krau and dem pussim die one time." Walker could not recollect for the moment any "pussim" whom he wished to die one time, whether from grand Krau-Krau or any other disease. "Wait a bit," he continued, "there is one man—Dick Hatteras!" and he struck the match suddenly. The witch doctor started forward as though to put it out. Walker, however, had the door of the lantern open. He set the match to the wick of the candle and closed the door fast. The witch doctor drew back. Walker lifted the lantern and threw the light on his face. The witch doctor buried his face in his hands and supported his elbows on his knees. Immediately Walker darted forward a hand, seized the loose sleeve of the witch doctor's coat and slipped it back along his arm to the elbow. It was the sleeve of the right arm and there on the fleshy part of the forearm was the scar of a bullet.
"Yes," said Walker. "By God, it is Dick Hatteras!"
"Well?" cried Hatteras, taking his hands from his face. "What the devil made you turn-turn 'Tommy Atkins' on the banjo? Damn you!"
"Dick, I saw you this afternoon."
"I know, I know. Why on earth didn't you kill me that night in your compound?"
"I mean to make up for that mistake to-night!"
Walker took his rifle on to his knees. Hatteras saw the movement, leaned forward quickly, snatched up the rifle, snatched up the cartridges, thrust a couple of cartridges into the breech, and handed the loaded rifle back to his old friend.
"That's right," he said. "I remember. There are some cases neither God's law nor man's law has quite made provision for." And then he stopped, with his finger on his lip. "Listen!" he said.
From the depths of the forest there came faintly, very sweetly the sound of church-bells ringing—a peal of bells ringing at midnight in the heart of West Africa. Walker was startled. The sound seemed fairy work, so faint, so sweet was it.
"It's no fancy, Jim," said Hatteras, "I hear them every night and at matins and at vespers. There was a Jesuit monastery here two hundred years ago. The bells remain and some of the clothes." He touched his coat as he spoke. "The Fans still ring the bells from habit. Just think of it! Every morning, every evening, every midnight, I hear those bells. They talk to me of little churches perched on hillsides in the old country, of hawthorn lanes, and women—English women, English girls, thousands of miles away—going along them to church. God help me! Jim, have you got an English pipe?"
"Yes; an English briarwood and some bird's-eye."
Walker handed Hatteras his briarwood and his pouch of tobacco. Hatteras filled the pipe, lit it at the lantern, and sucked at it avidly for a moment. Then he gave a sigh and drew in the tobacco more slowly, and yet more slowly.
"My wife?" he asked at last, in a low voice.
"She is in England. She thinks you dead."
"There's a jar of Scotch whiskey in the locker behind you," said Walker. Hatteras turned round, lifted out the jar and a couple of tin cups. He poured whiskey into each and handed one to Walker.
"No thanks," said Walker. "I don't think I will."
Hatteras looked at his companion for an instant. Then he emptied deliberately both cups over the side of the boat. Next he took the pipe from his lips. The tobacco was not half consumed. He poised the pipe for a little in his hand. Then he blew into the bowl and watched the dull red glow kindle into sparks of flame as he blew. Very slowly he tapped the bowl against the thwart of the boat until the burning tobacco fell with a hiss into the water. He laid the pipe gently down and stood up.
"So long, old man," he said, and sprang out on to the clay. Walker turned the lantern until the light made a disc upon the bank.
"Good bye, Jim," said Hatteras, and he climbed up the bank until he stood in the light of the lantern. Twice Walker raised the rifle to his shoulder, twice he lowered it. Then he remembered that Hatteras and he had been at school together.
"Good bye, Dicky," he cried, and fired. Hatteras tumbled down to the boat-side. The blacks down-river were roused by the shot. Walker shouted to them to stay where they were, and as soon as their camp was quiet he stepped on shore. He filled up the whiskey jar with water, tied it to Hatteras' feet, shook his hand, and pushed the body into the river. The next morning he started back to Fernan Vaz.
THE PRINCESS JOCELIANDE.
The truth concerning the downfall of the Princess Joceliande has never as yet been honestly inscribed. Doubtless there be few alive except myself that know it; for from the beginning many strange and insidious rumours were set about to account for her mishap, whereby great damage was done to the memory of the Sieur Rudel le Malaise and Solita his wife; and afterwards these rumours were so embroidered and painted by rhymesters that the truth has become, as you might say, doubly lost. For minstrels take more thought of tickling the fancies of those to whom they sing with joyous and gallant histories than of their high craft and office, and hence it is that though many and various accounts are told to this day throughout the country-side by grandsires at their winter hearths, not one of them has so much as a grain of verity. They are but rude and homely versions of the chaunts of Troubadours.
And yet the truth is sweet and pitiful enough to furnish forth a song, were our bards so minded. Howbeit, I will set it down here in simple prose; for so my duty to the Sieur Rudel bids me, and, moreover, 'twas from this event his wanderings began wherein for twenty years I bare him company.