The Messageñêà÷àòü êíèãó áåñïëàòíî
“My godfather!” he roared, “’e ‘ad to jump for it. But don’t you worry, miss – ’e can swim like a herrin’.”
Nevertheless, the girl did worry, as her white face and straining eyes well showed. Peter swung the dinghy about so nimbly that she lost all sense of direction. It seemed as if the laughing Solent had swallowed Warden, and she gazed affrightedly on every side but the right one.
“Oh, how could he do it?” she wailed. “I shall never forgive myself – “
Then she heard a deep breath from the water behind her, and she turned to see Warden, with blood streaming from a gash across his forehead, swimming easily with one hand. She whisked round and knelt on the seat.
“Quick!” she cried. “Come close. I can hold you.”
“Please do not be alarmed on my account,” he said coolly. “I fear I look rather ghastly, but the injury is nothing, a mere glancing blow from an oar.”
Even in her unnerved condition she could not fail to realize that he was in no desperate plight. But she was very frightened, and grasped his wrist tenaciously when his fingers rested on the stern rail. Yet, even under such trying circumstances, she was helpful. Though half sobbing, and utterly distressed, she dipped her handkerchief in the water and stooped until she could wash the wound sufficiently to reveal its extent. He was right. The skin was broken, but the cut had no depth.
“Why did you behave so madly?” she asked with quivering lips.
“It was method, not madness, fair maid,” he said, smiling up at her. “Our opponents had four oars and a light skiff against Peter’s two and a dinghy that is broad as it is long. To equalize the handicap I had to jump, else you would have lost your trophy. By the way, here it is!”
With his disengaged hand he gave her a smooth, highly polished oval object which proved to be a good deal larger than it looked when afloat. The girl threw it into the bottom of the boat without paying the least heed to it. She was greatly flurried, and, womanlike, wanted to box Warden’s ears for his absurd action.
“You have terrified me out of my wits,” she gasped. “Can you manage to climb on board?”
“That would be difficult – perhaps dangerous. Peter, pull up to the nearest ship’s ladder. Then I can regain my perch forrard.”
But Peter was gazing with an extraordinary expression of awe, almost of fear, at the unusual cause of so much commotion.
“Well, sink me!” he muttered, “if that ain’t Ole Nick’s own himmidge, it’s his head stoker’s. I’ve never seen anything like it, no, not in all my born days. My aunt! It’s ugly enough to cause a riot.”
HOW THE MESSAGE WAS DELIVERED
Owing to the return of the rival boat, Peter’s agitation passed unnoticed. A superior person was apologizing for the accident, though inclined to tax Warden with foolhardiness.
“You have only yourself to blame for that knock on the head, which might have been far more serious than it is,” he said.
“Will you kindly go to – Jericho?” said the man in the water.
The superior person’s tone grew more civil when he found that he was talking to one whom he condescended to regard as an equal.
“Don’t you want any assistance?” he inquired.
“No, thanks, unless you will allow me to use your gangway in order to climb aboard the dinghy.”
“By all means.
I am sorry the oar caught you. But you annexed the prize, so I suppose you are satisfied. What was it?”
“A calabash, I fancy. You will see it lying in the boat.”
Peter, who was really fascinated by the carved face which drew the girl’s attention in the first instance, suddenly kicked it and turned it upside down with his wooden leg. The men in the second boat saw only the glazed yellow rind of an oval gourd, some twelve inches long and eight or nine in diameter.
“The pot was hardly worth the scurry,” laughed one of them.
“If Greeks once strove for a crown of wild olive, why not Englishmen for a calabash?” said Warden.
There was an element of the ludicrous in the unexpected comment from a man in his predicament. Every true–born Briton resents any remark that he does not quite understand, and some among the strangers grinned. The girl, still holding Warden’s wrist as though she feared he would vanish in the depths if she let go, darted a scornful look at them.
“The truth is that these gentlemen competed because they thought they were sure to win,” she cried.
“It was a fair race, madam,” expostulated the leader of the yacht’s boat.
“Y–yes,” she admitted. “My presence equalized matters.”
As the men were four to two she scored distinctly.
“Give way, Peter,” said Warden. “If I laugh I shall swallow more salt water than is good for me.”
He was soon seated astride the bows of the dinghy, which Peter’s strong arms brought quickly alongside the Sans Souci. By that time, the girl’s composure was somewhat restored. Warden obviously made so light of his ducking that she did not allude to it again. As for the gourd, it rested at her feet, but she seemed to have lost all interest in it. In truth, she was annoyed with herself for having championed her new friend’s cause, and thus, in a sense, condoned his folly.
It did not occur to her that the Sans Souci’s deck was singularly untenanted, until a gruff voice hailed the occupants of the dinghy from the top of the gangway.
“Below there,” came the cry. “Wotcher want here?”
The girl looked up with a flash of surprise in her expressive face. But she answered instantly:
“I am Miss Evelyn Dane, and I wish to see Mrs. Baumgartner.”
“She’s ashore,” was the reply.
“Well, I must wait until she returns.”
“You can’t wait here.”
“But that is nonsense. I have come from Oxfordshire at her request.”
“It don’t matter tuppence where you’ve come from. No one is allowed aboard. Them’s my orders.”
Miss Dane turned bewildered eyes on Warden.
“How can one reason with a surly person like this?” she asked.
“He is incapable of reason – he wants a hiding,” said Warden.
A bewhiskered visage of the freak variety glared down at him.
“Does he, you swob,” roared the apparition, “an’ oo’s goin’ to give it ‘im?”
“I am. Take this lady to the saloon, and come with me to the cutter yonder. My man will bring you to your bunk in five minutes, or even less.”
“For goodness’ sake, Mr. Warden, do not make my ridiculous position worse,” cried the girl, reddening with annoyance. “Mrs. Baumgartner wrote and urged me to see her without any delay on board this yacht. I telegraphed her early this morning saying I would be here soon after midday. What am I to do?”
“If I were you, I would go back to Oxfordshire,” he said.
“But I cannot – at least, not until I have spoken to her. I am – poor. I am practically engaged as companion – another name for governess, I suspect – to Mrs. Baumgartner’s daughter, and I dare not throw away the chance of obtaining a good situation.”
Warden, who was dabbing his forehead with a handkerchief, did not reply at once, and Evelyn Dane, in her distress, little guessed the irrational conceit that danced in his brain just then. But the presence of Peter, and the torrent of sarcastic objurgation that flowed from the guardian of the Sans Souci, imposed restraint. It was on the tip of his tongue to suggest that, under the conditions, it would be a capital notion if they got married, and took a honeymoon cruise in the Nancy! – Long afterward he wondered what would have been the outcome of any such fantastic proposal. Would she have listened? At any rate, it amused him at the time to think that there was little difference between a lover and a lunatic.
But he contented himself with saying:
“I fear I am rather light–headed to–day, Miss Dane. Let us appeal to Peter the solid, and draw upon his wide experience. Tell us then, O pilot, what course shall we shape?”
Peter, rapidly restored to the normal by the familiar language coming from the rail of the yacht, glanced up.
“If I was you, sir, I’d ax monkey–face there wot time ‘is missis was due aboard. Mebbe the young leddy would find her bearin’s then, so to speak.”
“Excellent. Do you hear, Cerberus? When does Mrs. Baumgartner return?”
The watchman, taking thought, decided to suspend his taunts.
“Why didn’t you ax me that at fust?” he growled. “I’m on’y obeyin’ orders. Seven o’clock, they said. An’ it didn’t matter ‘oo kem here, if it was the Pope o’ Rome hisself, it’s as much as my place is worth to let him aboard.”
“That is final, Miss Dane,” said Warden. “There are two alternatives before you. I can either gag and bind the person who has just spoken, thus securing by force your admission to the yacht, or I can entertain you on the Nancy until seven o’clock.”
“But I ought to go ashore.”
“It is not to be dreamed of, I assure you. Cowes is overrun with excursionists. You will be much happier with Peter and me, and we are no mean cooks when put on our mettle.”
She yielded disconsolately. Dislike of the Sans Souci and every one connected with that palatial vessel was already germinating in her mind. If it were not for the considerations outlined in her brief statement to Warden she would have caught the next ferry to Portsmouth and allowed Mrs. Baumgartner to make other provision for her daughter’s companionship, or tuition.
“Give me a call when you are let off the chain,” said Warden pleasantly to the watchman, as the dinghy curved apart from the yacht’s side.
The girl colored even more deeply. Such behavior was not only outrageous, but it supplied a safety valve for her own ruffled feelings.
“I wish you would not say such stupid things,” she cried vehemently. “What would happen if that wretched man took you at your word? You would be mixed up in some horrible brawl, and wholly on my account.”
“He will not come, Miss Dane,” he said sadly. “Let me explain, however, that I prodded his thick hide with set purpose. He is alone on the Sans Souci; he blustered because he was afraid we meant to go aboard, aye or nay. Is it not extraordinary that such a vessel should be absolutely denuded of owner, guests, servants, and crew? That man is not a sailor. Unless I am greatly mistaken, he does not belong to the yacht in any capacity. What does it mean? You may take it from me that it is unusual, I might almost say phenomenal, for a valuable steam–yacht in commission to be deserted in that manner.”
“But he admitted that ‘they,’ meaning Mr. and Mrs. Baumgartner, I suppose, would return early this evening?”
“I am sure he is right in that. But where are the twenty odd domestics and members of the crew? When Peter and I went ashore at ten o’clock to–day the Sans Souci was alive with people.”
“I only know that Mrs. Baumgartner seems to have been thoughtless where I am concerned,” said the girl, absorbed in her own troubles.
Nevertheless, she brightened considerably when Warden assisted her to reach the spotless deck of the Nancy. By dint of much scrubbing and polishing, that taut little cutter had no reason to shirk the vivid sunlight. At the beginning of the cruise she had been fitted with a new suit of sails and fresh cordage. For the rest, Peter, and Peter’s fourteen–year–old son “Chris,” roused now from sound sleep in the cabin by his father’s loud summons, kept brass fittings and woodwork in a spick–and–span condition that would bear comparison with the best–found yacht in the roadstead.
Miss Dane was accommodated with a camp chair aft, while Warden dived into the cabin to change his clothes. The boy, after a wide–eyed stare at his employer, was about to busy himself with tying up the dinghy, when Peter bade him be off and see to the stove if he wished to escape a rope–ending. Chris was hurt. He had not expected such a greeting from his revered parent; but he disappeared instantly, and Peter imagined that his offspring was thus prevented from investigating the mystery of the gourd, which he took good care to leave in the bottom of the boat.
As for the girl, her mind was occupied to the exclusion of all else by the strange combination of events that brought her a guest on board the Nancy. She was not so much perturbed by the absence of Mrs. Baumgartner as by Warden’s manifest disapproval of the lady. A railway return ticket, sufficient money in her purse to pay for a room in a hotel, and the existence of a friend of her mother’s in Portsmouth, a friend whose good offices might be invoked if necessary, made her independent. But she did not want to go back defeated to Oxfordshire. Her father’s carelessness had left her practically at the mercy of a stepmother, who enjoyed the revenue of a fair estate until death. The settlement was not to the liking of either woman, and Evelyn was goaded into an endeavor to escape from it by the knowledge that she was regarded as an interloper in a house that would ultimately come into her possession if she survived the second Mrs. Dane.
The well–paid appointment offered by the Baumgartners was apparently an opening sent by the gods. She had been strongly recommended for the post by a friend, and there seemed to be no reason whatever why it should not prove an ideal arrangement for both parties. Yet Warden, unmistakably a gentleman, if rather eccentric in his ways, evidently did not view the mining magnate’s family with favor. That was a displeasing fact. Though she had no personal experience of the section of society which dubs itself the “smart set,” she gathered that the Baumgartners belonged to it, and it was a risky undertaking for a young woman to constitute herself part and parcel of the household of one of its leading members.
Her somewhat serious reverie was interrupted by the grateful scent of cooking that came from a hidden region forward. Warden reappeared in dry clothing. The cut on his forehead was covered with a strip of sticking plaster. He was bare–headed, and a slight powdering of gray in his thick black hair made him look more than his age.
“Our glass and china are of the pilot pattern,” he explained, placing a laden tray on the deck, “but we balance deficiencies in these respects by a high tone in our cuisine. To–day’s luncheon consists of grilled chicken and bacon, followed by meringues and figs, while the claret was laid down last week in Plymouth.”
“I am so hungry that I can almost dispense with the glass and china,” she admitted. “But won’t you let me help? I am quite domesticated.”
“What? Would you rob the cook of his glory? You must eat and admire, and thank the kindly gales that wafted Peter to the Indian Ocean when he was putting in his sea service, because he learned there how to use charcoal in the galley instead of an abominable oil lamp.”
“I was born in India,” she said with delightful irrelevance.
“Ah, were your people in the army?”
“No. My father was in the Indian Marine. But he retired when I was two years old – soon after my mother’s death. I lost him eight years later, and, having lived thirteen years with a stepmother, I thought it high time to begin to earn my own living.”
She fancied that this brief biography might encourage him to speak of the Baumgartners, but Warden’s conversation did not run on conventional lines.
“I find your career most interesting,” he said. “Now that we know each other so well I want to hear more of you. Promise that you will write every month until early December, and report progress in your new surroundings. Here is my card. A letter to the Universities Club will always reach me.”
She read: – “Captain Arthur Warden, Deputy Commissioner, Nigeria Protectorate.”
“Why must I stop in December?” she asked, with a smile and a quick glance under her long eyelashes.
“Because I return to Nigeria about that date, and I shall then supply a new address.”
“Dear me! Are we arranging a regular correspondence?”
“Your effusions can be absolutely curt. Just the date and locality, and the one word ‘Happy’ or Miserable,’ as the case may be.”
The arrival of Chris with a grilled chicken created a diversion. Peter had to be summoned from the galley. He explained sheepishly that he thought the meal was of a ceremonious character. They feasted regally, and all went well until the unhappy Chris asked his father if the vegetable marrow was to be boiled for dinner.
“Wot marrer?” demanded Peter unguardedly.
“The big one in the dinghy.”
“By Jove, we have never given a thought to the calabash that created all the rumpus,” cried Warden. “What about that black face you saw on it, Miss Dane? I didn’t notice it afterwards. Did you?”
“No. I was too excited and frightened. Your son might bring it to us now, Mr. Evans.”
“Beggin’ your pardon, miss, we’ll leave it till you’ve finished lunch,” said Peter, regarding Chris with an eye that boded unutterable things.
“But why, most worthy mariner?” demanded Warden.
“’Cos it’s the ugliest phiz that ever grew on a nigger,” was the astonishing answer. “It gev’ me a fair turn, it did, an’ I’m a pretty tough subjec’. It’s enough to stop a clock. If the young leddy takes my advice she’ll bid me heave it overboard and let it go to the – well, to where it rightly belongs.”
“It’s only an old gourd,” exclaimed Evelyn, looking from one to the other in amused surprise.
“Peter,” said Warden, laughing, “you have whetted our curiosity with rare skill. Come, now. What is the joke?”
“I’m in reel earnest, sir – sink me if I ain’t. It’s – a terror, that’s wot it is.”
“Bless my soul, produce it, and let us examine this calabash of parts.”
“Not me!” growled Peter, hauling himself upright with amazing rapidity. “Believe me, sir, I ‘ope you won’t ‘ave the thing aboard the Nancy. Get forrard, you,” he went on, glaring at the open–mouthed Chris. “Start washin’ them plates, an’ keep yer silly mouth closed, or you’ll catch somethin’ you can’t eat.”
There could be no doubt that the usually placid and genial–spoken Peter was greatly perturbed. To avoid further questioning, he stumped off to his quarters in the fore part of the cutter, and swung himself out of sight, while the girl endeavored vainly to estimate how he could squeeze his huge bulk through so small a hatchway.
Warden also stood up.
“After that there is but one course open to us,” he said, and drew in the dinghy’s painter until he was able to secure the gourd.
He was on his knees when he lifted it in both hands and turned it round to ascertain what it was that had so upset his stout friend. In reviewing his first impressions subsequently, he arrived at the conclusion that close familiarity with the features of the West African negro must have blunted his mind to the true significance of the hideous face that scowled at him from the rounded surface of the calabash. He paid heed only to the excellence of the artist – none to the message of undying hatred of every good impulse in mankind that was conveyed by the frowning brows, the cruel mouth, the beady, snake–like eyes peeping through narrow slits cut in the outer rind. Were not the lineaments those of a pure negro, he would have imagined that some long–forgotten doyen of the Satsuma school had amused himself by concentrating in a human face all that is grotesque and horrible in the Japanese notion of a demon. But there was no doubting the identity of the racial type depicted. Warden could even name the very tribe that supplied the model. A curious crinkled ring that had formed round the gourd near the upper part of its egg–shaped circumference suggested the quoit–shaped ivory ornament worn by the men of Oku. Oku used to be a plague spot in West Africa. It is little better to–day, but its virus is dissipated by British rule.
Warden’s kindling glance soon detected other important details. The raised ring, and certain rough protuberances that might have borne a crude likeness to a man’s face when the gourd was in its natural state, were utilized with almost uncanny ingenuity to lend high relief to the carving. Indeed, the surface had been but slightly scored with the artist’s knife. Half–lowered eyelids, a suggestion of parted lips and broad nostrils, some deep creases across the brutish forehead, and a sinister droop to each corner of the mouth – these deft touches revealed at once the sculptor’s restraint and power. The black skin was simulated by a smooth and shining lacquer, the ivory ring by a scraping of the rind that laid bare the yellow pith. No characteristic was over–accentuated. The work offered a rare instance of the art that conceals art.
And Warden felt that none but an artist worthy to rank with the elect could have conceived and carried out this study of some fierce negro despot. That it was a genuine portrait he did not doubt for a moment. It seemed to him that in its creation hate and fear had gone hand in hand with marvelous craftsmanship. The man who exercised such cunning on the inferior material provided by a rough–coated calabash was not only inspired by the pride of conscious power but meant to leave an imperishable record of a savage tyrant in his worst aspect. A great Italian painter, limning his idea of the Last Judgment, gratified his spite by placing all his enemies among the legion of the lost. This unknown master had taken a more subtle revenge. It was possible that the black chief, had he seen it, would have admired his counterfeit presentment. It demanded a more cultured intelligence than Oku society conferred to enable him to appreciate how plainly an evil soul leered from out a dreadful mask.ñêà÷àòü êíèãó áåñïëàòíî