Harold Bindloss.

For Jacinta



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In the meanwhile they were moving forward between patches of bananas, and under a few glossy limes, while groups of dusky men kept pace with them behind, until they reached a broad strip of sand with a big cottonwood tree in the midst of it. There was a hut of rammed soil that appeared more pretentious than the rest in front of them, and a man stood waiting in the door of it. Jefferson stopped in the shadow when he saw him.

"I'm going to sit down where it's cool," he said. "Any way, if that is their headman, I'd sooner he came out to us."

He sat down, with his back to the tree, while the rest clustered round him, a lean, dominant figure, in spite of his haggard face and the state of his attire, and it seemed to Austin that there was a suggestion of arrogant forcefulness in his attitude. The headman stood quietly in his doorway, looking at him, while the negroes drew in a little closer. They now seemed uncertain what to make of these audacious strangers, and waited, glancing towards their leader, though there were, Austin fancied, forty or fifty of them.

"Is there anybody here, who speaks English?" asked Jefferson.

It appeared that there was, for all along that coast there is a constant demand for labour in the white men's factories, and a man who wore a piece of cloth hung from his shoulder instead of the waist-rag, stood forward at a sign from the headman. The latter had little cunning eyes set in a heavy, fleshy face, and he, too, wore a piece of cloth, a sheet of white cotton, which flowed about his tub-like body in graceful lines. Negroes, like other people, fatten when they seize authority and live in idleness upon the result of others' toil, for even the swamp belt heathen who asks very little from life must now and then work or starve. There are no charitable institutions to fall back upon in that country, where the indigent is apt to be belaboured by his neighbours' paddles.

Then the headman, who did not leave his hut, conferred with the interpreter, until the latter turned to Jefferson, whom he had, it seemed, already pitched upon as leader.

"Them headman he done say – what the debbil you lib for here for?" he announced.

"We have come for Funnel-paint," said Jefferson.

It was evident that the negro did not understand whom he meant, but when Jefferson, assisted by the donkey-man, supplied him with a very unflattering description of the delinquent, comprehension seemed to dawn on him, and he once more conferred with his master.

"Him no one of we boy," he said. "Him dam bad 'teamboat bushman, sah. Lib for here two three day. Now lib for go away."

Austin, who understood that the term bushman was not used in a complimentary sense in those swamps, smiled as he noticed that seafaring men were evidently also regarded there with no great favour, and glanced at Jefferson inquiringly.

"He's probably lying," said the latter. "I've trailed Funnel-paint here, and there's nowhere else he could live.

I've been round to see. Any way, he had a crowd of this rascal's boys with him when he came down to worry me. We'll let him have that to figure on."

It cost him some trouble to make his meaning clear to the negro, while when the latter in turn explained it to the headman, Austin noticed a retrograde movement among several of those about them. They seemed desirous of getting a little further away from the domineering white man.

"I want those boys," said Jefferson, indicating the negroes who had edged away. "Then I want some gum or ivory, or anything of that kind your headman has, as a token he'll send me down Funnel-paint as soon as he can catch him. He hasn't caught on to half of it. Help me out, Austin."

Austin did what he could, and at last it became evident that the interpreter grasped their meaning. This time there was, however, a change in the attitude of the negro, which had hitherto appeared to be a trifle conciliatory.

"None of my boys have been near your steamer. Go away before we drive you out," was, at least, the gist of what he said.

Jefferson made a little contemptuous gesture, and pointed to one of the negroes. "Tell him I want those boys, and it would be wise of him to turn them up before the shadow crawls up to where that man is. If he doesn't, I'll let a Duppy, Ju-Ju, or whatever he calls his fetish devils, loose on him. He has about fifteen minutes to think the thing over in."

Even with the help of the donkey-man they were some time in making this comprehensible, and Austin glanced at his comrade when the headman's answer came. It was a curt and uncompromising non possumus, and Jefferson sighed.

"Of course," he said, "I saw it would come to this from the beginning, and in one way I'm not sorry. I don't know what I'd have done with Funnel-paint or his friends if I had got them, except that somehow I'd 'most have scared them out of their lives. Still, it seemed only decent to give the headman a chance for himself. Now it will suit us considerably better to scare him and the others all together. I'll wipe that house of his out of existence inside twenty minutes."

Austin glanced at the house. It was larger than the others, and comparatively well built, and, he fancied, probably of as much value to its owner as a white man's mansion would be to him. This was clearly not a time to be supersensitive, but he felt a trace of compunction.

"I don't know that I'd go quite so far myself," he said. "After all, we're not sure that the headman is responsible."

"Then," said Jefferson, drily, "we'll make him, and you listen to me. We may have to do quite a few things that aren't pretty, and we have no use for sentimentality. We're just a handful of white men, with everything to grapple with, and we'll be left alone to do it while these devils are afraid of us, and not a moment longer. The fever may wipe half of us out at any time, and we have got to make our protest now."

"It's the giant-powder I'm sticking at. No doubt it's a little absurd of me – but I don't like it."

Jefferson laughed a trifle scornfully. "There's a good deal of what we call buncome in most of you. You don't like things that don't – look – pretty, pistols among them. Well, am I to be trampled on whenever it happens that the other man is bigger than I?"

"The law is supposed to obviate that difficulty in a civilised community."

"The man who gets the verdict is usually the one with the biggest political pull or the most money, in the one I belong to, but that's not quite the point just now. If you have a notion that the game's all in our hands, look at them yonder."

Austin did so, and decided that, after all, Jefferson might be right. The negroes had clustered together, and there were more of them now, while all of them had spears or big canoe paddles. It was tolerably evident that any sign of vacillation would bring them down upon the handful of white men whose prestige alone had hitherto secured them from molestation. If they failed to maintain it, and had to depend upon their physical prowess, the result appeared as certain as it would be unpleasant. The affair had resolved itself into a case of what Jefferson termed bluff, a test of coolness and nerve, and Austin glanced a trifle anxiously at the Spaniards. They were, he fancied, a little uneasy, but it was clear that they had confidence in their leader, and they sat still, though he could see one or two of them fingering the wicked Canary knives. Their courage was, however, not of the kind that stands the tension of uncertainty well, and he commenced to long that the shadow would reach the trampled spot where the man Jefferson pointed to had stood.

In the meanwhile it was creeping slowly across the hot white sand, and he felt his heart beat as he watched it and the negroes, who commenced to murmur and move uneasily. The white man's immobility had its effect on them, and it seemed that Jefferson had done wisely in confiding in the latter's ability to bear the longer strain. Still, Austin was not sure that the impatience of the Spaniards might not spoil everything after all. As regarded himself, he began to feel a curious and almost dispassionate interest in the affair which almost prevented him considering his personal part in it. He also noticed the intensity of the sunlight, and the blueness of the shadows among the trees, as well as the mirror-like flashing of the creek. It was, he fancied, the artistic temperament asserting itself. Then he felt a little quiver run through him when Jefferson stood up.

"We have to get it done," he said. "Keep those Canarios close behind me."

They moved forward in a little phalanx, carrying staves and iron bars, though Austin knew that a word would bring out the twinkling steel; and, somewhat to his astonishment, the negroes fell back before them, and as they approached it the headman scuttled out of his house. Jefferson stopped outside it and taking a stick of yellow substance from his pocket, inserted it in a cranny he raked out in the wall. Then he lighted the strip of fuse and touched Austin's shoulder.

"Get those fellows back to the creek, but they're not to run," he said. "The action of one stick of giant-powder is usually tolerably local, but I don't want any of the niggers hoisted, either. Where's that interpreter? Steady, we'll bring them down on us like a swarm of bees if they see us lighting out before they understand the thing."

There was, Austin fancied, not much time to waste; but he managed to impress the fact upon the Canarios that their haste must not be too evident, and to make the negro understand that it was perilous to approach the house. Then he overtook the Spaniards, and they moved back in a body towards the launch, and stopped close by the beach. The negroes also stood still, and all alike watched the little sputtering trail of smoke creep up the side of the house. It showed blue in the sunlight, though there was a pale sparkling in the midst of it.

Then a streak of light sprang out suddenly, and expanded into a blaze of radiance. After it came the detonation, and a rolling cloud of thin vapour, out of which there hurtled powdered soil and blocks of hard-rammed mud. The vapour thinned and melted, and Austin saw that there was no longer any front to the headman's house, while, as he watched it, most of the rest fell in. He looked round to see what effect it had on the negroes, but could not make out one of them. They had, it seemed, gone silently and in haste. Then he heard Jefferson sigh as with relief.

"Well," he said, "that's one thing done, and I'm glad we have come out of it with a whole skin. We'll light out before somebody shows them that we're only human, and spoils the thing."

They went on board the launch, but Austin felt curiously limp as she clanked away down stream. The strain of the last half hour had told on him, though he had not felt it to the full at the time. It was two hours' steaming before they swept past the Cumbria, and a man on her forecastle waved an arm to indicate that all was right on board her; but Austin would not have had the time any shorter. He felt it was just as well that village lay some distance from them. They went on to the strip of sand where Jefferson had stored the coal and oil, and when they reached it he stood up suddenly with an imprecation.

"Four puncheons gone! Funnel-paint has come out ahead of me, after all," he said. "Well, there's no use in worrying now, when he has got away with them; but I'm going to stop down here to-night in case he comes back again."

Then he swung the launch round with backed propeller, and in another few minutes they were steaming back up stream towards the Cumbria. A tent of some kind must be extemporised, for it is not wise of a white man to spend the night unprotected in the fever swamps.

CHAPTER XV
STARTING THE PUMP

The bush was dim with steamy shade when Austin and Jefferson plodded along a little path behind the beach where the oil was stored. It was with difficulty they made their way, for the soil was firmer there, and a dense undergrowth sprang up among the big cottonwoods which replaced the mangroves. They were draped with creepers, and here and there an orchid flung its fantastic blossoms about a rotting limb, while the path twisted in and out among them and through tangled thickets. It was then the hottest part of the afternoon, and save for the soft fall of the men's footsteps everything was still. The atmosphere was very like that of a Turkish bath, and as Austin stumbled along the perspiration dripped from him.

He had toiled strenuously from early dawn until darkness closed down, of late, and though he had, as yet, escaped the fever, every joint in his body ached, and he was limp and dejected with the heat and weariness. His only respite from labour had been the few hours spent on watch beside the landed oil when his turn came, and he had now come down with two of the Spaniards to relieve Jefferson, who was going back to the Cumbria. The latter glanced towards a ray of brightness that beat into the dim green shadow, and here and there flung a patch of brilliancy athwart the great columnar trunks.

"I've been wondering where this trail goes, and it seems to me there's an opening close in front of us," he said. "We'll rest when we get there, and I don't know that I'll be sorry. You have to choose between stewing and roasting in this country, and, when it lets my skin stay on me, I almost think the latter's easier."

Austin felt inclined to agree with him, for they had blundered through the shadowy bush for half an hour, and its hot, saturated atmosphere made exertion almost impossible. Still, he said nothing, and in a few more minutes they came out upon a glaring strip of sand beside another creek. Jefferson stopped a moment, with a little gesture of astonishment, in the shadow of a palm.

"What in the name of wonder have they been turning that sand over for?" he said.

Austin walked out of the shadow, blinking in the dazzling brightness the creek flung back, and saw that the sand had certainly been disturbed every here and there. It seemed to him that somebody had been digging holes in it and then had carefully filled them up.

"There isn't a nigger village nearer than the one where Funnel-paint lives, or I could have fancied they'd had an epidemic and been burying their friends," he said.

Jefferson shook his head. "They wouldn't worry to bring them here," he said. "Still, somebody has been digging since the last wet season, for it seems to me that when the rain comes the creek flows over here."

It occurred to Austin that one or two, at least, of the excavations had been filled in not long ago, but his comrade made no comment when he suggested it, and they went back together to the shadow of the palm, where Jefferson, sitting down thoughtfully, filled a blackened pipe.

It was several minutes before he broke the silence.

"There is," he said, at length, "a good deal I can't get the hang of about the whole affair; but if I knew just how they came to start the plates that let the water in, I'd have something to figure on. You can't very well knock holes in an iron steamer's bottom on soft, slimy mud, and I don't know where they could have found a rock here if they wanted to."

"Ah!" said Austin. "Then you think they might have wanted to find one?"

Jefferson again sat silent for almost a minute, and then slowly shook his head. "I don't know – I've nothing to go upon," he said. "She's not even an old, played-out boat. Still, it seems to me that a heavily freighted steamer, hung up by her nose on the bank, might easily have started some of her plates when the waters of the creek subsided. Then she'd settle deeper – it's nice soft mud."

"But that would be – after – she went ashore."

"Yes," said Jefferson dryly. "That's the point of it."

Austin looked thoughtful. It had also occurred to him that there was a good deal it was difficult to understand about the stranding of the Cumbria, though that, after all, did not appear to concern them greatly just then.

"What puzzles me is why the salvage men let go," he said. "You see, they're accustomed to this kind of thing, and have money behind them."

Jefferson looked at him with a little smile, and Austin saw that he guessed his thoughts. Jefferson was as gaunt as ever, a fever-worn skeleton of a man, dressed, for the most part, in oil-stained rags, while Austin was quite aware that, so far as outward appearances went, there was very little that was prepossessing about himself. His big felt hat hung over his forehead, sodden with grease, and shapeless; his hands were hard and scarred, his nails were broken, and the rent singlet hung open almost to his waist. All this seemed to emphasise their feebleness, and the fact that there was no money behind them, at least.

"Well," said Jefferson, "that's quite easy. Those salvage men are specialists, and expect a good deal for the time they put in. Now they took some oil out of her, but there is reason for believing they were not sure they'd get the Cumbria off at all, and it would cost a good deal to charter a light-draught steamer to come up here. They tried towing it down to a schooner, and lost a good deal of it on the shoals. Then they towed the schooner in, and had to wait for a smooth surf before they could get her out, with no more than sixty tons at that. The game wasn't worth while, and the men were going down with fever."

"But the gum?"

"There wasn't a great deal down in the cargo sheets, and, any way, until they'd hove the oil out they couldn't come at it."

"You are still sure about the gum yourself?"

Jefferson laughed softly. "I think I am. I don't quite know where it is, but the skipper got it – a good deal of it."

"Still, the steamer would be worth a persistent effort. There was no doubt about her being there."

"No," said Jefferson, with a little gesture of comprehension. "Now I know just what you mean. You're wondering, since those men couldn't heave her off, what's the use of us trying. Well, specialists make their mistakes now and then, just like other men, and they took it for granted that things were normal when they were there. From what I've seen of the sand strips and the marks on the mangrove trunks, I don't think they were. You see, there's a good deal we don't know about the tides yet, and the Guinea stream doesn't always run quite the same along this coast; while, when there's less than usual of the southwest winds that help it along, it's quite likely to mean two or three feet less water in these creeks. Then you can have a wet season that's a little drier than the other ones, and it's fresh water here – the tide just backs it up."

"Then you're counting on the present season being a normal one?"

"Yes," said Jefferson quietly. "I've staked all I have on it – and a good deal more than that. If it isn't, I might as well have pitched my forty thousand dollars into the sea."

He stopped a moment, and then laid a little grey object in Austin's palm. "What d'you make of that?"

Austin started as he looked at it. "A pistol bullet!"

"Exactly," said Jefferson. "It has been through the barrel, too; you can see the score of the rifling. I picked it up along the trail, but I don't know how long it lay there, or who fired it. Still, the niggers don't carry pistols. Well, it's about time I was getting back on board if we're to start the pump to-night."

Austin glanced at him sharply, and noticed that there was a suggestion of tension in his voice, though his face was quiet. It was evident that a good deal would depend upon the result of the first few hours' pumping, for unless it lowered the water there would be little probability of their floating the steamer. Neither of them, however, said anything further, and when they went back to the beach where the oil was, Jefferson steamed away in the launch, and Austin, who was left with two Canarios, lay down in the shadow of a strip of tarpaulin. The Spaniards, tired with their morning's labour, went to sleep; and Austin, who filled his pipe several times, found the hours pass very slowly. There was nothing to hold his attention – only glaring sand, dingy, dim green mangroves, and tiers of puncheons with patches of whitewash clinging to them. It flung back an intolerable brightness that hurt his aching eyes, and he became sensible of a feverish impatience as he lay watching the shadows lengthen.

His thoughts were with Jefferson, who was, no doubt, now getting steam on the locomotive boiler and coupling up the big pump. Unless the latter did what they expected of it, the toil they had undergone, and Jefferson's eight thousand pounds, would have been thrown away. That was very evident, but Austin wondered a little at himself as his impatience grew upon him, until it was only by an effort he held himself still.

It was not the quarter share Jefferson offered him which had brought him there, for he realised that even with five thousand pounds he would still be, to all intents and purposes, a poor man, and his life on board the Estremedura had, in most respects, been one that suited him. He had, in fact, not greatly cared whether the Cumbria could be floated or not, when he came out, but since then Jefferson's optimism, or something that was born of the toil they had undertaken, had laid hold of him, and now he was almost as anxious as his comrade that their efforts should result in success. In fact, he was feverishly anxious, and felt that if it would gain them anything he would willingly stake his life on the venture. Then he smiled as he remembered that he had, without quite realising it, done so already.



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