The Messageñêà÷àòü êíèãó áåñïëàòíî
It was spinning a coin with death for any one to descend either to right or left, yet that is what Evelyn did when Lord Fairholme’s bizarre explanation brought her back to the world which she had already quitted in imagination. Owing to the tomb–like blackness of the room, neither man was aware of her intent until the door was opened and she was speeding down the shattered stairs.
In her white dress she was a most conspicuous object. A pent–house roof shielded the stairs from sun and rain, but the moment she emerged into the moonlit compound she resembled some ethereal creature sent by the gods to still the wretched strife waged by foolish men. And, spirit–like, she passed unscathed through the hissing and biting rain of lead. She had but one thought, and it fluttered tremulously from her lips.
“Arthur!” she wailed, “Arthur! I am here!”
And again, “Arthur! Come to me! Why don’t you speak?.. It is I, Evelyn… Where are you? Oh, Arthur dear, answer me.”
Warden was lying by Colville’s side behind a main pillar at an angle of the house when he heard the girl’s rapt cry. Turning on an elbow, he saw her flitting past. He was up in an instant. Without spoken word he leaped out and clasped her in his arms.
Colville rose too.
“Oh, good Lord!” he muttered, “they will both be killed!”
But fate had chosen for Warden a strange path to a woman’s love, and the fickle goddess shielded him now when he, all a–quiver with the thrill of holding Evelyn in his arms, clasped her tightly and ran with her up the rickety stairs. Even as he hurried to place her in shelter the bushmen had seen the white–robed apparition and concentrated their fire in that direction. Bullets spat against the ground, crashed through the flimsy wooden structure, and pierced their clothing many times – but neither was injured. A few seconds after she had passed through the door Evelyn was carried back again. But it was a fitting outcome of the madness that had fallen on the quiet mission–station that she should be blithely heedless of the mortal peril which both she and her lover had escaped. Even while death was missing them by a hair’s breadth, she began to tell Warden in broken phrases how she had never faltered in her belief that he would one day be restored to her, and that she had come to Africa and the Benu? strong in the conviction that they would meet there and nowhere else in the wide world.
All of this, and more, was delightfully inaccurate, but Evelyn believed it and the man who listened believed it, and love was more potent than cold reason, so cold reason was barred out among the shrieking hail of lead that had failed to secure its victims.
Yet their idyll was soon cut short. A red glare became visible through the chinks of door and windows, and Warden knew what it meant.
“They have set fire to the native huts,” he said. “They want to see where our men are stationed before they try a rush. I must go, sweetheart.
Kiss me! If it is good–by, I shall die content, for I have passed through much tribulation ere this divine moment was vouchsafed.”
Not for all the gold in Africa would she prove herself unworthy of him in that supreme moment.
“Go, then!” she said. “Whether in life or death we shall not be separated again.”
Warden was at the door when some one sprang after him. In the growing light of the burning buildings he recognized Colville’s companion in the launch.
“I suppose I can count for one in the scrum,” said the stranger. “Evelyn promised to be my sister, old chap, an’ before we all go under I’ll d – n well down a nigger or two for the sake of the family. Can you spare a gun? I’m a good man at driven birds, an’ these black jokers are several sizes bigger than blackcock – eh, what?”
A FIVE MINUTES’ FIGHT
Fairholme was soon equipped with a rifle. He was crouching behind a wooden pillar close to Warden and Colville, when a Hausa who had incautiously exposed himself uttered a queer cough and pitched forward on his face, shot through the lungs. The earl took the man’s gun and bandolier, but noticed that none of the others were firing, though a number of black forms were dimly visible through the murk created by the smoke of the blazing huts.
Warden was watching him.
“You will soon get busy,” he said. “They are preparing for a rush. Pick out the leaders, the fellows wearing the gaudiest feathers, or carrying a leopard–skin slung across their shoulders.”
“You’re a funny lookin’ bird yourself,” chuckled Fairholme. “What price you for the Kingdom Come stakes when the niggers spot you? Every black son of a gun will want to add you to the bag.”
“That’s right, Warden,” put in Colville anxiously. “Chuck away that burnous, and stick on poor Toomba’s cap. Fairholme can pull it in with the clearing–rod.”
“No,” said Warden. “My Arab’s livery has served me in good stead thus far. I shall not abandon it until I can borrow the togs of civilization, if ever I need them. Hello, here they come!”
A slackening in the fusillade and a terrific outburst of yells showed that the enemy were breaking cover in force. In an instant the compound seemed to become alive with armed negroes, many of whom had already discarded their modern rifles for the more familiar matchet and spear.
Colville shouted something in the Hausa tongue, and his men, all but two, leaped to their feet. Firing with deadly accuracy at such a short range, they brought down a score of the foremost savages. Fairholme, imbued with the traditions of European warfare, naturally expected that the attack would be pressed home, so he set his teeth and resolved to enter the next world with a royal bodyguard. Remembering Warden’s instructions, he looked only for the most gorgeously decorated warriors, and found three including Loanda himself. Warden, who had secured the rifle of the second wounded Hausa, saw the earl bowl over a ju–ju man at sixty yards, no mean shooting at night in an atmosphere rapidly becoming smoke–laden.
“Well done, brother–in–law!” he cried, and in the throes of that deadly strife those two began a friendship not to be severed on this side of the great boundary. As the house was attacked simultaneously on three sides, Colville ran around it to tell each member of his tiny force to fall back on the staircase when hard pressed. The instruction was given not a second too soon. Trusting to their great numbers, the men of Oku came on boldly. They were first–rate soldiers in their own way, they anticipated an easy victory, and they were filled with the frenzied desire to use steel rather than lead. That is the bushman’s temperament; killing loses half its ferocious joy if he cannot “paint“ his weapon. This sheer lust of blood now served the little garrison in good stead. True, it exposed them to the combined onslaught of hundreds of sinewy negroes, but it saved them from the speedy extermination that must have been their lot were their assailants content to shoot them down at close quarters. In less than a minute after the stockade was passed by the enemy, Warden, Colville, Fairholme, Beni Kalli – who used an adze he stumbled across in the doorway of the store – the Hausa sergeant, and seven of the rank and file – twelve men all told – were in a half circle around the foot of the stairs, plying rifle and bayonet on a wall of black humanity. The very strength of the attacking force placed it at a disadvantage. The men in front were hindered by those who surged up in ever–increasing waves from the rear. Every shot fired by the defenders effected losses out of all proportion to the general run of wounds inflicted by musketry even in a hand–to–hand engagement. Though the wretched warriors who bore the brunt of the assault might have escaped bullet or butt or bayonet thrust, there was no dodging the withering blasts of powder which blinded and scorched them, and smote their naked limbs with strange buffets. The eerie yells of those who thought the mission had already fallen mingled with the screams of the wounded and the groans of the dying. The place reeked like a slaughter–house, and the corpses of those who were killed outright, or the maimed and writhing men who had sustained injuries which rendered them incapable of crawling out of that packed space, formed a veritable rampart around the defenders.
At this stage the loss of a skilled leader like Loanda made itself felt among his followers. He would either have set fire to the unprotected rear of the building or drawn off a part of his force and renewed the shooting from a flank. Any such diversion by a tithe of the warriors engaged would render the position immediately untenable by the three white men and the Hausas. When, at last, the flanking maneuver was attempted by half a dozen negroes who had extricated themselves unharmed from the press beneath the overhanging roof of the stairs, the disastrous effect of their strategy showed what might have been accomplished but for the smallness of their number. Colville fell, and the Hausa sergeant, and two men. A bullet plowed through Warden’s hair, and another ripped Fairholme’s coat and shirt, and grazed his breast, and these casualties resulted before the few men attempting the enfilade had fired two rounds per rifle.
Warden, alive to a danger that promised instant collapse, slung Colville across his shoulder and gave the order that the few who remained alive should fall back, still fighting steadily, until they had mounted the double stairs and gained the veranda.
There was no doubt in his mind that the end had come. His surprise had failed. He had hoped that the unexpected presence of the Hausas and a party of white people might damp the ardor of the men of Oku, who had looked forward to securing an easy prey in the mission, and who could not possibly have anticipated a stubborn resistance by troops whom they had learned to fear. In ninety–nine cases out of a hundred his belief would have been justified. That there was an exception now arose from the fact that the tribal witch–doctors had made much of the modern arms which the tribesmen possessed.
“You have the white man’s fetish,” they declared. “Hitherto our ju–ju has not prevailed against them. To–day you are invulnerable.”
Under European leaders this mistaken logic would not have caused a reversion to the method of combined attack so dear to the native warrior. Loanda and some of his lieutenants had already displayed their shrewdness by harping constantly on the necessity of depending more on the rifle and less on spear or matchet. They would never have permitted an advance in force if they were not certain of their ability to overpower the weak detachment of Hausas at the first rush. In a sense, it was Evelyn’s presence which brought about this decision. Their Portuguese ally had made such a point of her capture uninjured that they wished to gratify him, while there were other forcible reasons why they should not waste too many hours on the siege of a paltry place like the mission station.
Though the struggle thus far was short and sharp, the unhappy people within the walls were only too conscious of its developments. To their strained senses it seemed that at any moment the door must be burst open and they swept into the clutches of merciless savages. They could not tell who was living or dead. The incessant shooting and the howls and agonized cries of the negroes drowned all other sounds. Evelyn thought she heard Warden addressing some order to the Hausas, but she could not be sure. Hume, in whom the man was rapidly supplanting the missioner, wished to take a personal share in the defense, but his wife clung to him in an agony of terror, and implored him not to leave her. While trying to soothe the distracted woman he reflected that he would probably prove more of a hindrance than otherwise in the fighting line. If he used a gun at all it must be as a cudgel, for he did not even understand the mechanism of the breech–block.
Bambuk, though a Mohammedan and a Foulah, was no longer a fighting man. He had waxed fat and prosperous, and he waited now for death with the fatalism he had displayed ever since he knew for certain that the men of Oku were bent on looting Kadana.
Evelyn, leaning against the door, with every faculty on the alert for the slightest indication of Warden’s welfare, nevertheless let her mind stray in the most bewildering manner. She was devoid of fear. If given her choice, she would be out there in the thick of the struggle, using her puny strength on behalf of the man she loved. Instead, she was condemned to inaction. The intolerable darkness became oppressive, and her memory flew back through time and space to the sunlit day when she sat with Warden and Peter Evans in the little dinghy of the Nancy, and saw the grim face of the Oku chief dancing about on the blue waters of the Solent.
What a trivial incident it was in some respects – yet what a mighty upheaval it portended! No matter in what direction her whirling thoughts took her, the carved calabash seemed to be mixed up with events in a way that was hardly credible. It brought her and Warden together. That chance meeting on a summer morning gave them a bond of interest which quickly strengthened into affection and love. Then it led them into the intricacies of a political plot, sent Warden to London, caused him to encounter Mrs. Laing, with all the heartache and misery that resulted therefrom, and cast him ashore at Rabat to become a slave and a desert wanderer. She herself had been equally its sport. Her knowledge of the men of Oku alone induced Figuero and Baumgartner to conspire against her. If she had never seen the gourd it was more than probable that she would never have gazed on the Benu? River. And how persistently that weird creation of Domenico Garcia’s skill had clung to either Warden or herself. It was not to be shaken off. Even now, when they were on the very threshold of death, it was lying there in her room, shrouded in a canvas case. She could almost see its evil scowl everlastingly threatening mankind.
Though a fresh outburst of firing startled her highly strung nerves she felt somewhat of a thrill of supernatural awe at the fancy that the carved image of the by–gone King of Benin had forced its way back to the actual locality in which its human prototype had ruled millions of those very men who were now clamoring for the lives of herself and her companions.
It was a strange notion, and it dominated her for a moment to the exclusion of all else. Could it be possible that there were subtle forces at work of whose existence she was wholly unaware? Had these unhappy blacks some power at command which was denied to those who lorded it over them? Of late she had read a good deal concerning the supposed origin of Obi rites in West African fetish–worship. She had never seen a real ju–ju man until that afternoon, but his appearance and antics were sufficiently striking to create a vivid impression quite apart from the tragic sequel to his incantation. The queer belief that the calabash was in some degree responsible for the bloodshed going on within a few feet of where she stood so took hold of her that she found the continued darkness unbearable.
“Mr. Hume,” she said, forcing her parched lips to utter the words, “don’t you think the lamp might be lit now? It cannot make much difference. We are nearing the end.”
For reply Hume struck a match, and applied it to the wick. The comfortable and spacious room suddenly assumed its familiar guise. It looked quiet and home–like. The turmoil raging beneath seemed to be absurdly incongruous – a horrible dream rather than a dread reality.
Yet the lamp was hardly well alight ere Warden’s voice came from the veranda.
“Open the door, Hume!” he cried. “Colville is wounded!”
Evelyn, owing to her nearness, flung wide the door before the missionary could reach it. Warden stood there, ghastly to behold, but still apparently free from any grave injury. His left arm encircled Colville’s limp body, and in his right hand was a gun–barrel from which the stock had been broken off. In his Arab costume, travel–soiled and blood–stained, he looked the incarnation of fearsome war, while the seemingly lifeless form he carried added a note of horror to his appalling aspect.
But when he saw Evelyn he actually smiled. She caught the tender look in his eyes through the mask of blood and dirt and perspiration.
“I fear it is all up with us, sweetheart,” he said. “I don’t think Colville is dead, but it is only a matter of seconds for him and the rest of us. Have you a revolver? Give me that lamp. It may help a little. Under this low roof we cannot distinguish friend from foe.”
He spoke so gently, with such well–balanced modulation, that he might have been standing at the door of some peaceful villa overlooking the Thames, with no more serious purport in his words than to light the way for a guest. But a rush and a furious melee on the stairs showed what manner of guest might be expected, and that ominous question anent a revolver was not lost on Evelyn. Hume took Colville into his arms, and Warden, without waiting for the lamp, turned to reinforce the five men who now held the enemy at bay.
The girl, with a Berserk courage worthy of her ancestry, snatched up the lamp and ran with it to the veranda. Attached to a pillar at the head of the stairs was a bracket on which a light was placed each night in the rainy season to attract the insects that would otherwise invade the house. She put the lamp there, and stole one awestricken glance at the furious conflict raging on both sides of the lower landing. A bullet, fired from a muzzle–loader, sang past her face. She almost wished that a truer aim had found heart or brain, because then she would be spared the affrighting alternative suggested by Warden. If she did not die by her own hand, would the men of Oku kill her? She feared they would not!
For an instant the rays of the lamp enabled the defense to beat back the first surge of what must surely be the final and successful assault. A gigantic native, whom she did not know – but who was swinging an adze in fine style by Warden’s side, turned and gazed at her. It was Beni Kalli, Warden’s negro companion in the escape from Lektawa, and now his most devoted henchman. He had seldom seen a white woman, and never one in any way resembling Evelyn. To his untutored mind, she was a spirit.
“Now, may Allah be praised!” he cried joyfully, “we shall whip these dogs of pagans back to their swamp, for mine eyes have seen one of the lily maids who tend the Prophet’s flock in Paradise.”
Warden, who thought his gigantic retainer had gone fey, looked around and found that Evelyn was immediately behind him, though on a slightly higher level. She was standing in a most perilous position. There was a space of at least three feet between the lower edge of the main roof and the slight scantling that protected the staircase from the tremendous rainstorms of the tropics, and any one standing a little way back from the house could not fail to see her. He forgot the heartbroken advice he had just given her. He realized only that the woman he loved was in mortal peril.
“Go back!” he shouted. “For God’s sake, go in and bolt the door! You will be shot from the compound!”
A negro leaped round the corner of the stairs and struck at him with a matchet. Beni Kalli was just in time to parry the blow. Then the adze whirled, and buried itself in the man’s skull. Before it could be withdrawn a spear darted up viciously, but Warden’s broken rifle diverted the thrust and a Hausa got his bayonet home. Nevertheless, a dozen more negroes were forcing their way up on both sides. Fairholme, valiant little aristocrat, was borne down and fell, utterly exhausted, at Evelyn’s feet. A Hausa was shot through the head and dropped across Fairholme’s body. Three men, Warden, Beni Kalli, and a Hausa, now alone held at bay the human wolves who saw victory within their grasp.
Evelyn refused to re–enter the house. She meant to die there by her lover’s side. Why did not merciful death come quickly? It would be better if she passed before him. She breathed a prayer that God would vouchsafe this grace, for her woman’s heart revolted from the thought that she should see him killed. In a very trance of hope that her wish might be granted, she looked into the moonlit compound and stretched out her arms pitifully, for she well knew that while Warden lived no kindly spear or native sword would free her soul for that eternal meeting.
But the men of Oku were running, running for their lives and throwing away their cherished rifles, lest they should not be able to run fast enough. Through the drifting smoke of the burning huts and the haze now spreading up the bank from the river, she saw little squads of dark–clothed Hausas rushing in pursuit of the flying blacks. Greatest marvel of all, scattered among the Hausas were a number of British sailors. There was no mistaking their uniforms or the exceeding zest with which they entered into the last phase of a first–rate fight.ñêà÷àòü êíèãó áåñïëàòíî
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