The Messageñêà÷àòü êíèãó áåñïëàòíî
“But I cannot. It is the political part which proves that my letter was stolen.”
“Same thing! Change the names. Turn West Africa into Newmarket, an’ call the Emperor Lord Rosebery.”
“The Emperor,” said Evelyn, surprised at Fairholme’s chance shot.
“He’s in it, I guess. He has his finger in every pie, an’ some of ‘em have bin jolly hot. Now, go ahead. If it’s at all awkward, leave me to fill in a bit about the Ditch Mile an’ the Epsom gradients that will bamboozle Baumgartner.”
Evelyn did her best. Fairholme was delighted with Warden’s description of the baccarat and roulette incidents, but his face lengthened when he heard Rosamund’s allusions to himself. Once, Evelyn forgot his stipulation, and spoke of the “men of Oku.”
“Oku,” broke in Fairholme, “where is that?”
“It is a savage native state in West Africa. That is the one name you must not remember, Lord Fairholme.”
He did not interrupt again till she had finished reading. Then she told him how Peter Evans had brought her the ring and the letter; and, finding him sympathetic, she explained the extraordinary chance that led to Warden’s capture by a Mohammedan fanatic at Rabat.
“Funny thing!” he said, when she had made an end. “That chap Figuero joined my steamer at Lisbon.”
“He is not here?” cried Evelyn, genuinely startled, for she feared Figuero.
“Yes, he is. I fancy he’s on board the Sans Souci. I didn’t speak to him; I have a notion that he didn’t recognize me under my new name. We also picked up a number of German officers at the same port, but they left us at Funchal, where another ship took them on to the Cameroons. That is German West Africa, isn’t it?”
“I believe so. My geographical knowledge of this part of the world is of the vaguest. It dates chiefly from last night.”
“When the naval Johnny was showing you the map, I suppose?”
“But how do you know that?” she demanded, and another wave of surprise flooded her face with color.
“Mrs. Laing and I watched you for quite a time – the watchin’ was involuntary on my part, but she wouldn’t come away from the veranda, an’ now I know why. You will observe, Miss Dane, that I have bin the goat all through the proceedin’s.”
“I can hardly say that.”
“No, you wouldn’t. But it’s true. The only bit of luck I’ve had is that I am saved the painful necessity of bein’ refused as a husband by Mrs. Laing. I came here to ask her to marry me.”
“Oh, I am so sorry – ” began Evelyn, but Fairholme’s cackling laugh checked her.
“Why sorry? You’ve done me a good turn, twice over, an’ if I can do you one, just ask. In the first place, she would probably have said ‘No,’ and in the second, where should I have been if she said ‘Yes.’ In the soup, eh, what?”
Lord Fairholme seemed to pride himself on his narrow escape, and gave Evelyn the credit of rescuing him. She protested that if she had known he was really bent on marrying Mrs.
Laing she would neither have attacked the latter in his presence nor called on him to bear out her statements. But he refused to admit that she had conferred other than a favor on him, and repeated his desire to serve her if the opportunity offered. It came quickly.
That night, when Evelyn was sound asleep, her room was entered and Warden’s letter taken. It lay with the ring and some other trinkets on a dressing–table. The door was locked and bolted, but the window was wide open to admit the sea breeze, and, although the room was on the third floor, and therefore some forty feet or more above the ground level, it was impossible that the thief could have entered it except through the window. That the letter alone was the objective was shown by the fact that the exceedingly valuable ring was left untouched. There was almost a hint of malicious humor in the discrimination exercised. An ordinary criminal, though bribed to procure a document of great importance to some other person, would certainly have made away with any jewelry that was lying handy. In this instance, there seemed to be an unspoken warning to the girl that she was powerless in the toils that surrounded her.
At first, she suspected Rosamund of complicity in this new theft, but when she asked herself who had most to gain from the perusal of the letter, suspicion pointed, not to Rosamund, who could guess its contents with fair accuracy, but to Baumgartner and his associates, who were evidently more afraid of one man than of the armed might of Britain.
In the height of her distress her employer came to her.
“We have decided to return by the Portuguese mail from Madeira,” he said, “and in order to catch the next steamer we shall sail in the Sans Souci to–night. Would it be convenient for you to go aboard the yacht this afternoon?”
“But what action am I to take with regard to my stolen letter?” she demanded. “You heard what I said to Mrs. Laing. That letter is my evidence against her.”
“It may have blown out of your window. There is generally a strong breeze just before dawn. At any rate, it is better lost. Such disputes are useless.”
“But it was of the utmost importance in other ways.”
“Young ladies’ love–letters always are,” he gurgled with forced laughter. “Still, if it really has gone, you can hardly propose to remain in Las Palmas on the off chance that it may be recovered.”
She felt that she was trapped, but for what purpose it was hard to imagine. Lord Fairholme had told her already that Baumgartner was very much annoyed with him for failing to remember what Warden had written, and it was now beyond doubt that the Sans Souci’s voyage to Funchal was a blind for some ulterior object.
In her dilemma, she thought of Mortimer. When Baumgartner went away, she hurried out of the hotel and drove straight to the harbor. A boat brought her to the Valiant; the commander himself met her at the gangway, and escorted her to his cabin.
“Sorry I couldn’t call last evening Miss Dane,” he said, “but I was detained on board unexpectedly. Things are happening, I hear.”
“Yes. Figuero is here, and we leave on the yacht for Funchal to–night.”
“Is that the dodge?” he exclaimed. “Of course, I was posted in the movements of the Portuguese and his friends, but the trip to Madeira is clever. What has caused the change of programme?”
She told him, and he banged a clenched fist emphatically on a table which a steward had just arranged for tea.
“For once, I can find it in my heart to wish you were a man,” he cried. “A steamer starts for Lagos within two hours, and it would be a fine thing if the Nigeria administration heard your story from your own lips. Of course, I can write, but it is difficult to put on paper one’s guesses and surmises at the trickery that is going on.”
The words were scarcely uttered ere a wild notion leaped into Evelyn’s brain. Why should she not go to Lagos? She might be able to clear away some of the doubts and misgivings that must have gathered around Warden’s name. Above all else, if there was news of him, it would surely reach the officials there long before it became known in England.
“If I were a man,” she said tremulously, “would you pay my passage on that ship?”
“Of course. You would be traveling on Government service.”
“Then I shall go. Please arrange matters for me, and send some one to take me on board.”
“Do you mean it?” he cried.
“By Jove, Miss Dane, you astonish me more each time I see you. But how about the Baumgartners?”
“I shall simply write a note resigning my situation. It is a mere question of doing that to–day or three weeks hence. But I shall not tell them why I am leaving their service so suddenly.”
“Baumgartner will find out. Unless I am much mistaken, it will worry him. Now, you are sure you intend to take this trip?”
“Very well. I shall give myself the pleasure of calling for you at three o’clock.”
Evelyn packed her boxes as speedily as possible. Counting her money, she found she had only twenty–five pounds. But there was that new treasure, the ring. How better could she use it than in furthering the interests of the man she loved? She wondered if Lord Fairholme would lend her fifty pounds on its security? A note brought him to her room, and she explained briefly that she meant to visit Lagos, and might need more funds than she had at her command.
“Well, that beats the band,” he said. “Mrs. Laing is going there too.”
“Not on to–day’s steamer?” she protested, for it seemed that an unkind fate was conspiring against her.
“Sure thing! Heard her tellin’ Beryl an hour ago.”
Though Evelyn wished heartily that her rival had chosen any other route of the many which lead from Las Palmas, her resolution remained unaltered. But there was another thrill in store for her.
“Tell you what, Miss Dane,” said Fairholme, “I don’t think you ought to tackle an expedition of this sort single–handed. You may want some one to pull you out of a tight place – what price me as a puller–out? I’m a pretty useless sort of chap in most things, but there is no reason why I shouldn’t try to do my country a good turn once in a way. Let me go with you, and then you’ll have no need to worry about coin.”
“You are really very kind,” she faltered, “but – but – ”
“You are afraid of Mrs. Laing again,” he grinned. “Don’t worry yourself about her, dear girl. Not even Mrs. Grundy can growl at me for bein’ your fellow–passenger. I’m mixed up in this business, an’, by Jove, I mean to see it through. Look here, can’t you adopt me as a sort of elder brother, an’ make it ‘Billy’ an’ ‘Evelyn,’ an’ that sort of thing – eh, what?”
THE DRUMS OF OKU
Evelyn, ferried across the harbor by a boat’s crew from the warship, boarded the Estremadura in almost regal state. The vessel’s cabin accommodation was poor, but the English girl was given of its best. Not every day does a small West African trader receive a passenger under the escort of a peer of the realm and a Captain in the Royal Navy. It was an interesting moment when Rosamund Laing, accompanied by Figuero, came alongside. The Portuguese made off at once, but the lady, when it was too late to retreat, affected a blank indifference to Evelyn’s presence that showed how conscious she was of it. She seldom appeared on deck, ate each meal in the seclusion of her cabin, and spoke no word, even to Lord Fairholme. On arriving at Lagos she hurried from the ship, and Evelyn breathed a sigh of relief as she watched her enemy go ashore.
She did not carry her dislike of Mrs. Laing to the point of imagining her to be in active co–operation with the plotters against British supremacy in that quarter of the world. It was far more probable that a rich woman who drew some part of her revenues from factories on the coast might be combining business with the desire to obtain news of Warden at first hand. At any rate, the girl fondly hoped they might never meet again, and she trusted to the strength of her own story, supplemented by a letter from Captain Mortimer to the Governor, to place her beyond the reach of misrepresentation.
But her troubles, instead of diminishing, became even more pronounced when she called at Government House. Both she and Lord Fairholme were entirely ignorant of local conditions. Neither of them knew that Lagos, though the chief West African port, and practically the only safe harbor on the Guinea Coast, was the capital of an administration quite separate from that of North and of South Nigeria. To reach Old Calabar, the headquarters of Warden’s service, they must take a long journey down the coast and penetrate some forty miles into the Niger delta. Captain Mortimer, in all probability, thought she was aware of this vital distinction, but, at the outset, Evelyn almost felt that she had undertaken a useless task.
Her manifest distress at an unpleasing discovery won her the sympathy of the deputy Governor of Lagos, his chief having crossed from the island to the mainland only the day before. But sympathy could not altogether cloak a skepticism that was galling in the extreme. He was fully acquainted with the position of affairs in the sister protectorate, he said. He appreciated Captain Mortimer’s motives in wishing to acquaint the Government of Nigeria with certain curious circumstances which might or might not be connected with tribal uneasiness in the Benu? River districts, but the fact remained that all was quiet now in that region.
“Owing to Captain Warden’s unfortunate disappearance,” he went on, “another commissioner visited Oku. He found matters there in a fairly settled state. The people were cultivating their lands with greater assiduity than such semi–cannibals usually display, and this is a sure sign of content in a West African community. Indeed, Captain Forbes is now about to return to headquarters. A few companies of Hausa constabulary, who were moved to more convenient centers in case a strong column was required for an expedition to the Benu?, are going back to their original cantonments. The incident is ended.”
The official tone was blandly disconcerting. Evelyn was aware that the deputy Governor looked on her somewhat in the light of a runaway schoolgirl, who had no reason whatever to bother her pretty head about the business of a prosperous and thriving colony.
“You seem to imply that the Home authorities acted in a panic,” she said, wondering if it were really true that Warden and the men he had seen in London were laboring under a delusion.
“No. They misread the motives of the Nigeria administration in curtailing Captain Warden’s furlough – that is all. There undoubtedly were rumors of some border disturbances. The people in that region hinted that the Oku men were arranging what they term a Long Ju–ju. There was also a trading activity on the part of our neighbors that gave rise to unpleasant suspicions. To be forewarned is to be forearmed, and His Excellency the Governor regarded Captain Warden as the man who could best deal with and remove any causes of discontent. Within the last two months, however, all unfavorable symptoms have vanished, and Oku is now as quiet as Old Calabar, or Lagos itself.”
“I am glad of it,” she said earnestly. “It is far from my wish to figure as a messenger of strife. May I revert to a more personal matter? If Captain Warden has succeeded in crossing the Sahara, when and where may I reasonably expect to hear of him?”
The deputy Governor stroked his chin. He was a kind–hearted man, and circumstances had prepared him for that question.
“It is hard to say,” he answered, “Assuming he reaches Timbuktu in safety, he can follow that course of the Upper Niger, through what is known as the Dahomey hinterland, until he arrives at Ilo, the first town in the British sphere of influence in that direction. Thence to the sea, at this season, the river is navigable. If he makes for Lagos – having been ordered here in the first instance – he might strike overland from Jebbu to the railhead at Ibadan, but if he sticks to the river and goes to his own headquarters, by remaining here you should obtain telegraphic information of his arrival at a town called Lokoja, situated at the junction of the Niger and the Benu?.”
He paused. His brief review conveyed no hint to his hearer of the tremendous difficulties any man must overcome ere he reached the comparative civilization of the telegraph, and he flinched from the task of enlightening her.
“Is it quite certain,” he asked, “that Captain Warden went ashore at Rabat?”
The astonishment in Evelyn’s face was almost sufficient answer.
“Unless every one in some Government department in London has gone mad, it is quite certain,” she cried. “Did not an officer from Nigeria go to meet him at Cape Coast Castle, and is it not evident that he went to Hassan’s Tower to obtain the ruby I have told you of?”
The official smiled. He had effectually distracted her thoughts from the far more embarrassing topic of Warden’s chances of reaching Nigeria alive.
“One learns to distrust circumstantial evidence, Miss Dane. Have you heard that the passenger on the Water Witch was known as Mr. Alfred Williams? Yes? Well, we do not know Captain Warden. We have no means here of identifying the baggage landed by the captain of the Water Witch when he reported the Rabat incident. Could you recognize any of Captain Warden’s belongings?”
“No,” said Evelyn blankly – “that is, I fear not.”
“You mentioned a gourd. I have not seen the thing myself, but one of my assistants says that a most remarkable object of that nature was found in one of the missing man’s boxes.”
“Ah, I should know that anywhere,” and she shuddered at the recollection of the evil face whose appearance had so strangely synchronized with the stormy events of her recent life.
“Well, have you any objection to examining the gourd now? If it is the undoubted article you picked up in the Solent, it goes far to prove that Captain Warden did really take passage on the Water Witch.”
“I cannot imagine how you can think otherwise,” she declared. “Of course it was he!”
“There is no harm in making sure,” he said, having already decided to entrust to his wife the trying duty of making known to this charming girl the almost certain fact that her lover was long since dead.
The calabash was brought and taken from its canvas wrapper. Oddly enough, mildew had formed on its bright lacquer, and the sheen of the mosaic eyes was dulled. It had lost some of its artistic power, and was far from being the terrifying creation that scared her so badly when first she saw it on the deck of the Nancy.
“Yes, that is it,” she said. “You see, this crown is really a lid, and the piece of vellum, or parchment, was hidden inside. It is not there now, yet it is more than likely that Captain Warden kept them both together.”
The servant who had brought the calabash was sent back to search for the tattooed skin. He soon returned with it, and the deputy Governor examined the two curios with manifest interest.
“It is not native work,” he said. “I have never seen anything just like it, even in museums at home.”
Moved by an impulse which she could never afterwards explain, Evelyn asked if both the gourd and the parchment might be given to her.
“They are really mine,” she explained sadly. “Captain Warden asked me to accept the carved head, as it was I who discovered it. But I was afraid of it then. Now, I should be pleased to have it in my possession. It brought us together in the first instance. Perhaps it may do the same thing a second time.”
“Nigeria is the home of the ju–ju – may this fetish prove a lucky one!” said the official gravely. “Take it, by all means, Miss Dane, but let no native see it, or you will attract a notoriety that I am sure you would dislike. Meanwhile, I shall telegraph to Old Calabar asking for news, though I should certainly have heard if Warden had turned up already.”
That same afternoon the deputy Governor’s wife called on Evelyn, and invited her to come and stay at her house, urging that she would find residence in a private family vastly preferable to the hotel in which she had passed the previous night. For fully three weeks she lived with this most friendly and hospitable lady. By degrees, as they became more intimate, her new acquaintance gathered the threads of the unusual story in which the girl figured so prominently. Similarly, as Evelyn gained more knowledge of African affairs, she could not help but discover that it would be nothing less than a miracle if Warden ever reached Nigeria. The difficulties facing even a well–equipped expedition on the desert route were so great that all but the most enthusiastic explorers shrank from them. How, then, could one white man, accompanied by a solitary Hausa, hope to overcome them? The deputy Governor scouted the idea that Warden could raise a caravan at Bel Abbas. He was dubious about the incidents reported from Lektawa, but he made no secret of the utter improbability that Warden would have the means of buying camels and hiring men for the dangerous journey outlined by Captain Mortimer. And, to complete Evelyn’s dismay, the Southern Nigeria administration sent the most positive assurances that Warden had not been heard of in the upper river districts.
She learned incidentally that Mrs. Laing had gone to Lokoja in a river steamer. Her hostess believed that Rosamund had found out the latest version of Warden’s adventures, and cherished a faint hope that even yet she might forestall Evelyn. No small consideration would take her so far into the interior, especially as the journey was both risky and useless.
“But that need not trouble you at all, my dear,” said her outspoken friend. “If Captain Warden lives, you can rest assured that my husband will hear of him long before Mrs. Laing hears. I am afraid that if news comes at all, it will reach us in the form of a native rumor that a white man died of fever away up there beyond the hills. It is always fever – never a spear thrust or a quantity of powdered glass mixed with a man’s food. The natives are loyal enough to each other in that respect. Even when they know the truth, it is almost impossible to get them to tell it.”ñêà÷àòü êíèãó áåñïëàòíî
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