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"I don't know," and Austin, who had been rolling a damp cigar in his fingers, flung it down. "If that pump stopped I should probably make an exhibition of myself. The hum and thump it makes has a soothing effect on me. It's suggestive. Even here man has something to say. I don't know whether you understand me."
Jefferson looked at him curiously. "I guess I do. I'd mix myself a good strong pick-me-up if I were you. You have had something on your mind the last day or two."
"I have," said Austin. "I'm afraid of that infernal Funnel-paint, I think. I can't help a fancy that we haven't done with him yet; and, though the connection isn't very apparent, the fact that the first thing we came across after landing when I came out was a dead nigger, insists on obtruding itself on my recollection. Bill told me he was singularly unpleasant to look at."
Jefferson contrived to laugh. "You take that pick-me-up, and in the meanwhile let up on your reminiscences. Things of that kind aren't cheerful – and I'm worried by one or two of them myself."
Austin, who stooped and picked up the cigar, settled himself afresh on the settee after lighting it, and half an hour dragged by. Neither of them felt the least sign of drowsiness yet, and the jingle of the odds and ends in the rack, and tremble of the stout teak house, was, as he had said, vaguely reassuring. The big pump was pounding on in spite of the climate, and neither heat nor fever had any effect on steam. Then he looked up sharply, and Jefferson straightened himself, for a faint sound of footsteps came out of the darkness. They were slow and dragging, as though somebody was groping his way warily towards the light.
"On deck!" said the American. "What d'you want? Are you there, Wall-eye? Que hay?"
There was no answer, but the shuffling steps drew nearer, slowly and falteringly, as though whatever made them was but indifferently capable of motion. There was also something unpleasantly suggestive about them, and Austin now sat very straight, while he saw that Jefferson's lips were pressed together. There was no apparent reason why they should shrink from what was coming, but Austin, at least, felt his nerves tingling. He was overwrought, and white men are apt to become fanciful when they work too hard in the fever swamps. It is a land where one realises the presence of influences beyond the definition of human reason, and he afterwards admitted that he was afraid.
"Mil diablos!" said Jefferson. "Ven aca! What are you after, outside there?"
There was still no answer, though a clatter of booted feet now rose from the iron deck. It drowned the other footfalls, and Austin found that clang of nailed shoes curiously reassuring. Then a figure that swayed from side to side emerged from the blackness and stood mowing in the stream of light.
"Good Lord!" said Jefferson, with horror in his voice. "Slam that door to. Keep it out!"
Austin rose with a sense of sudden sickness, but the figure had moved again, and now stood with one foot inside the room and a horrible hand on the door-jamb, leering at them.It had the shape of a man, but the resemblance ended there, for there was no sign of human intelligence in the awful face. The thing had no eyebrows, the hair had almost gone, and nose and cheeks were formless with corruption, while naked chest and arms were smeared with festering scars. Austin stood still, shivering, with one hand clenched hard on the table, until Jefferson snatched a glinting object from his bunk.
"Good Lord!" he said again. "It's coming in!"
The figure seemed to brace itself for another move forwards, and Austin saw Jefferson straighten himself slowly with a big pistol in his hand. He did not remember what his comrade said, but the negro seemed to recoil instinctively before his fierce ejaculation, and, lurching backwards, faded into a formless shadow in the gloom again. Then Jefferson's hand fell upon Austin's shoulder.
"Shake yourself! There's something to be done," he said. "They have a light forward, and we can't have – that thing – groping among them in the forecastle."
They went out, and as they did so a sudden glare of light sprang up. Tom, the donkey-man, had lighted the air-blast lamp he used when anything had to be done to pump or boiler at night, and its smoky radiance showed that Jefferson's shouts had roused the Spaniards. They were clustered, half dressed, about the head of the ladder which led to the bridge deck, with consternation in their shadowy faces, glancing at one another as though afraid to move a step further. Tom leaned against the rail, holding up the lamp, and the thing that had the shape of a man sat gibbering on a coil of hawser in the midst of the bridge deck. The eyes of all who stood there were fixed upon it, but nobody seemed anxious to come any nearer.
Jefferson, standing very straight, opened the breech of his pistol, ran a finger across the back of the chamber, and then closed it with a little snap which, though the pump was humming, sounded startlingly distinct. His lips were tightly set, and his face was very grim. The loathsome figure on the rope mowed and grinned at him.
"I suppose the thing was human – once," he said. "Still, we can't have it here. These complaints are contagious, one understands, but I wish it hadn't happened. He's too like a man."
He dropped the pistol to his side, as though his nerve had momentarily failed him, and Austin, who suddenly grasped his purpose, sprang forward as he raised it again.
"Hold on!" he said. "Do you realise what it is you propose to do?"
Jefferson turned to him slowly, and there was a curious stillness among those who watched them. Austin was glad of the hum of the big pump and the pounding of the engine, for he felt that silence would have made the tension unendurable. Then Jefferson smiled, a little wry smile.
"I know," he said, a trifle hoarsely, "it isn't nice to think of, but it's no more than happens to a superfluous kitten – and it's necessary. Heaven knows what the poor devil suffered before he came to this, and we don't want to. He's animate carrion without reason or sensibility now. It was only the light brought him here when Funnel-paint somehow sent him within sight of us."
Austin saw that this was true. There was no glimmer of human intelligence in the creature's wandering gaze, but he still bore the shape of a man, and that counted for a good deal, after all.
"Jefferson," he said, "it can't be done!"
His comrade looked at him with half-closed eyes. "Would you wish to live if you looked like that, or do you want the rest of us to find out what he went through? I'm responsible for those men yonder – and it's only antedating the thing a month or two. The life is almost rotted out of him. Stand clear! We must get it over!"
It was evident that the Spaniards understood what he meant to do, and a murmur of concurrence rose from them, for they knew a little about the more loathsome forms of skin diseases. Men who might have escaped from the sepulchre walk abroad in the hot Southern countries, where restraint is unknown and salt fish is a staple food, but, though they have often themselves to blame, the innocent also suffer in Western Africa, and none of those who stood by, tense and strung up, had ever seen a man who looked quite as this one did.
Then, as Jefferson raised his pistol, Austin seized him by the shoulder and shook him in a sudden outbreak of fury.
"You're right," he said, "but you shall not do it! You hear me? Put the – thing down!"
Then there was a sudden clamour, and as the Canarios ran forward Jefferson struggled vainly. Austin never knew where his strength came from, but in another moment the pistol slipped from his comrade's hand, and, reeling backwards, he struck the deck-house. Austin stood in front of him, with hands clenched, and the veins swollen high on his forehead, panting hard.
"It has come to this," he said. "If you move a step, I'll heave you over the rail! I've strength enough to break your back to-night!"
Jefferson straightened himself slowly, and waved back the others who were clustering round. Then he smiled, and made a little gesture of resignation.
"I believe you have, but that's not quite the point," he said. "It's the only thing you have ever asked me, and, if nothing else will satisfy you, you shall have him. You don't suppose it isn't a relief to me? The question is, what you're going to do with him? You see, he can't stay here."
That, at least, was evident, and for a moment or two Austin gazed about him stupidly as he grappled with the difficulty. The stricken man still squatted, unconcerned, upon the hawser, mowing and grimacing, while he clawed at the hemp in a fashion that suggested the antics of a pleased animal, with swollen hands. The rest stood still, well apart from him, with expectancy overcoming the repulsion they felt. Then Tom, the donkey-man, who was nearest the rail, held up his flaring lamp.
"There's the canoe he come in still alongside aft," he said.
Austin gasped with relief. "Heave down a bunch of the red bananas we got up the creek," he said. "He'll know they are good to eat."
It was done, and Jefferson smiled again grimly.
"That," he said, "is easy. Still, have you figured how he is to be gotten into the canoe? You are hardly going to make him understand what he is to do."
"There's only one way. He must be put into it. Under the circumstances, it's only fitting that I should undertake the thing."
"No!" and Jefferson's voice rang sharply. "Not you! Offer any of the rest of them fifty dollars!"
Austin smiled. "To take a risk I'm responsible for? I think not. I went sufficiently far when I brought some of them here. Besides, it's comforting to remember you mayn't be right about the thing being contagious, after all."
Jefferson looked at him hard a moment, with the fingers of one hand closed, and then made a little sign.
"Well," he said, "if you feel it that way, there's probably nothing to be gained by protesting. There are disadvantages in being leader."
Austin turned and touched the negro with his foot, while he pointed to the ladder.
"Get up! You lib for canoe one time!" he said.
The negro mowed and gibbered meaninglessly, and Austin, stooping, grasped his shoulder, which was clean. With an effort he dragged him to his feet, and, while the rest fell back from them, drove the man towards the head of the ladder. Then one of them slipped, and there was a cry of horror from the rest as the negro clutched the white man, and they rolled down the ladder into the darkness below together. Tom ran towards the rail with his lamp, and as Jefferson leaned out from them he saw Austin shake off the negro's engirdling grasp.
"Get up!" he said hoarsely, and stirred him with his foot again.
The man rose half upright, stumbled, and, straightening himself, moved towards the open gangway with a lurch. Then he vanished suddenly and there was a crash below. Austin leaned out through the opening, and his voice rose harsh and strained:
"Come down, one of you, and cut this warp! The devil's hanging on!" he said.
Wall-eye, the Canario, sprang down with his knife, and when Austin climbed back to the bridge deck the men clustering along the rails saw a canoe with a shadowy object lying in the stern of her slide through the blaze of radiance cast by the blast-lamp and vanish into the blackness outside it. Then Tom put out the light, and a hoarse murmur of relief rose out of the darkness.
A minute or two later Austin stood, a trifle grey in face, in the doorway of the skipper's room, and stepped back suddenly when Jefferson approached him.
"Keep off!" he said. "Give me the permanganate out of the side drawer. I left it there. Miguel, bring me the clothes you washed out of my room in the poop, and fill me a bucket."
The last was in Castilian, and one of the Canarios went scrambling down the ladder, while when he came back with an armful of duck clothing Jefferson held out a jar to his comrade.
"No!" said Austin sharply. "Put it down!"
Jefferson did as he was bidden, and Austin, who stripped the thin garments from him and flung them over the rail, shook the permanganate into the bucket, and then, standing stark naked, when it had dissolved, sluiced himself all over with the pink solution. It was ten minutes later when he stepped into the room, dripping, with a wet rag about his waist, and shook his head when Jefferson handed him a towel.
"I think not," he said. "If there's any efficacy in the thing, I may as well let it dry in. After all, it's consoling to remember that it mayn't be necessary."
Jefferson's fingers quivered as he leaned upon the table. "No. Of course not!" he said, and added, inconsequently: "I don't think I'm unduly sensitive, but a very little thing would turn me deadly sick."
Austin struggled into his duck trousers, and Jefferson, whose face was also a little more pallid than usual, glanced at him again.
"You have a beautiful skin," he said. "It's most like a woman's. There's good clean blood in you."
"It's one of my few good points," and Austin's smile suggested comprehension. "I haven't been particularly indulgent in any direction, considering my opportunities, and I'm rather glad of it now. One could fancy that the man who seldom let one slip would be unusually apt to get the promised wages in this country."
He dragged his singlet over his arms, and a little twinkle slowly crept into Jefferson's eyes.
"Well," he said, "you carry your character with you. How long has the restraining influence been at work on you?"
"You are a little outside the mark," and a faint flush showed in Austin's hollow cheeks. "I am, as you know, not a believer in the unnecessary mortification of the flesh, but there's a trace of the artistic temperament, if that's the right name for it, in me, and it's rather apt to make one finickingly dainty."
Jefferson smiled drily. "That doesn't go quite far enough. I've seen men of your kind wallow harder than the rest. Still, whatever kept you from it, you can be thankful now."
Austin went on with his dressing, and then took a little medical treatise out of a drawer. He spent some time turning over it before he looked up.
"There's nothing that quite fits the thing here, and from what the West-coast mailboat men told me, craw-craw must be different," he said. "In the meanwhile, it wouldn't do any harm to soak myself in black coffee."
He was about to go out when Jefferson stopped him. "This is a thing that is better buried, but there's something to be said. From my point of view, and it's that of the average sensible man, I was right; but yours goes higher, and in one way I am glad of it. I just want to tell you I'm satisfied with my partner!"
Austin smiled at him. "We'll both be guilty of some sentimental nonsense we may be sorry for afterwards if we continue in that strain, my friend. Still, there's one thing to consider. Although I couldn't help it, what I did was, of course, absurd, if you look at it practically, and things of that kind have their results occasionally."
Jefferson seemed to shiver, and then clenched a hard, scarred fist.
"We won't think of it. Your blood's clean," he said. "But if, after all, trouble comes – I'll get even with that damned Funnel-paint if I spend my life in Africa trailing him, and have to kill him with my naked hands!"