The Messageñêà÷àòü êíèãó áåñïëàòíî
When the wondrous fact that succor was at hand penetrated the ecstasy of that mute appeal to death, she did not cry it aloud to Warden. Not only would she imperil both him and his two companions by distracting their attention from the cut–and–thrust combat on the stairs, but, sad to relate of a tender–hearted girl, she found a delirious satisfaction in watching the sweep of gun–barrel and adze and the wicked plunging of the Hausa bayonet. Why should not these ravening beasts be punished? What harm had she or any one in the mission done them that they should howl so frantically for their blood?
But she prayed – oh, how she prayed! – that the relieving force would hurry. She could not tell that officers and men of the white contingent were astounded by the spectacle of a slight, girlish figure, robed in muslin and seemingly in no fear of her life, standing under the bright rays of a lamp on the veranda of the beleaguered mission–house. It did not occur to her that they would see her; and, simply because she was there, they by no means expected to find a desperate fight being waged in the narrow space of the staircase. But they soon woke up to the facts when the foremost man came near enough to discover the black figures wedged in both gangways.
“Come on!” he yelled. “This is what we’re looking for!”
“No shooting, boys!” roared a jubilant naval lieutenant. “Bayonets only! Dig ‘em out!”
And dug out they were, in a manner not prescribed by the drill book, until the passages were clear, and the newcomers were marveling at the way in which the mission–house was held, and Warden was free to lay aside that useful gun–barrel and stoop to lift the dead Hausa off Fairholme’s almost breathless body.
The officer, who was first up the stairs, looked round for some one in authority. He saw an Arab and a girl supporting a white man between them. To his profound amazement, he heard the Arab say:
“He is all right, dear. Those cuts are superficial, just like my own. But he is thoroughly spent. I am almost at the end of my own tether, though I was hard as nails till that wretched fever bowled me over in Oku.”
“But, Arthur darling,” he was even more astounded at hearing from the girl’s lips, “where have the troops come from? What special decree of Providence brought them to our rescue?”
“Here is some one who can tell us?” said Warden, looking at the lieutenant, while he placed Fairholme on a chair in the living–room.
“May I ask who you are?” demanded the sailor, finding his tongue but slowly.
“My name is Warden, Captain Arthur Warden, of the Southern Nigeria Protectorate – and yours?”
“Warden! Are you in earnest?”
“Never more so. Won’t you follow my example?”
“Oh, I’m Bellairs, of the Valiant.”
“Did Captain Mortimer send you?” cried Evelyn, who was mightily afraid that the moment she spoke she would burst into tears.
“Well – yes. You are Miss Dane, I suppose? And this is Lord Fairholme.
Is poor Colville gone?”
“Not very far,” said a weak voice from an inner room. “My collar–bone is broken and I’ve lost chips off several sections, but I’ll be able to shove along with my arm in a sling.”
“Has anybody got any liquor?” murmured another weak voice from a chair. “I don’t care what it is – even water. I’ve got a thirst I wouldn’t sell for a pony.”
Hume, who had fallen on his knees when he heard the strange voices, and looked out to find that the battle was ended, rose and went to a cupboard.
“I have here two quarts of champagne which I meant to keep for cases of serious illness,” he said. “I don’t think any of us will ever be so near death again until the scythe–bearer comes and will not be denied, so if any of you gentlemen are expert at opening these bottles – “
Fairholme recovered instantly.
“Hand one here,” he gasped. “I’m a double blue at drawin’ corks and emptyin’ a bottle of bubbly.”
Hume, who had lighted a second lamp, produced some glasses. Then he glanced at a clock.
“Can it be possible that all this dreadful business has lasted only four minutes?” he asked.
“Four minutes!” cried the sailor. “Why, we heard firing in this direction nearly twenty minutes ago!”
“That was the first round, when the blacks tried to frighten us into submission,” said Warden. “But, now that I come to think of it, the scrap itself cannot have occupied many seconds more than your estimate, Hume.”
“Do you mean to tell me that you five accounted for that heap of – ”
He stopped and looked at Evelyn and Mrs. Hume. The latter was striving to dry her eyes while she sipped some of the wine. Poor lady! She was not cast in the heroic mold, nor had she ever pretended to be.
“There were more than five of us,” explained Warden sadly. “Eleven of Colville’s Hausas are down.”
“Some of them can only be wounded,” said Evelyn. “Let us go and attend to them.”
“Better not, Miss Dane,” interposed the sailor hastily. He had seen things in the compound which rendered it advisable for the women to remain indoors until the river crocodiles had claimed their tribute. “I will tell some of my men to look after them,” he explained, “and our surgeon will soon be here. Just now he is busy on board the launches.”
“What? Have you been engaged, too?” asked Warden.
“By Jove, we dropped in for the biggest surprise I ever heard of. Just fancy being blazed at with Nordenfeldts by niggers! Luckily for us, we came on them unawares, and two of the canoes were headed up–stream. The row that was going on here stopped them from hearing the engines, or I must candidly confess that if they had been ready for us they might have sunk the flotilla before we came within striking distance. As it was, they got in a few rounds that raked a couple of boats fore and aft, before we got busy with a Gatling. I suppose you didn’t catch the racket on account of the dust up here.”
“But why in the name of wonder, are you here at all?” demanded Warden.
“Well, my ship reported that a yacht called the Sans Souci had landed a lot of arms and ammunition in a creek in neighboring territories. That made the authorities think a bit. But one of your fellows who accompanied us told me that the real scare came when a Mrs. Laing – she knows you, Warden, and she had been living some weeks at Lokoja – was seized with blackwater fever. She was pretty bad, so she sent for the Commissioner to put her affairs in order. Among other things, she warned him that some Portuguese scoundrel was undoubtedly planning a rising at Oku, and indeed all along the line of the Benu? and right through Southern Nigeria. There had been some rather curious ju–ju performances recently in a few of the seaboard districts, so it was decided to send a strong column up the Benu? to investigate matters. We dropped detachments of Hausas at every station we passed, and had intended halting some miles below here to–night, when we heard the drums going in the bush. Your Hausa man – Hudson his name is – urged us to push on this far. Jolly good job we did.”
“Has Mrs. Laing recovered?” asked Evelyn fearfully. The sailor hesitated a moment. He seemed to leave something unsaid.
“Oh, no. She went under in a day. Sad thing. I have never met her. An awfully nice woman, Hudson says.”
“I am sorry,” sobbed Evelyn. “She was too young to die, and she has not had much happiness in her life.”
“Let there be no more talk of death – I am weary of it,” said Warden cheerily, and he broke off into Arabic.
“What sayest thou, Beni Kalli? Hast seen enough of the black camel since we left Lektawa together?”
“Verily, Seyyid,” grinned the native. “I thought you and I should mount him in company to–night.”
“Can you do me the exceeding favor of lending me a suit of clothes?” said Warden, seeing that Bellairs was about his own height.
“Certainly. Come down to my launch. We ought to hold a council of war, I think. By the way, I suppose the ladies will not stir out of this room till your return.”
“No,” said Evelyn promptly. “We shall prepare supper, but if you keep Captain Warden more than half an hour I shall come for him.”
“You must remain here, sweetheart,” said the grim–looking Arab. “There is a lot to be done outside. Be sure I shall join you without delay. Come along, Bellairs, and rummage your kit – there’s a good chap.”
As they crossed the compound together, the sailor appeared to make up his mind to discharge a disagreeable duty.
“By the way,” he said, “I hope I am not mixing matters absurdly, but are you the Warden that Mrs. Laing was once engaged to?”
“Yes – more than ten years ago. What of it?”
“Well, she has left you everything she possessed – a regular pile, somebody told me.”
“On condition that I do not marry Evelyn Dane, I suppose?” said Warden, who treated the sailor’s astonishing announcement as though the receipt of a thumping legacy were an every–day affair.
“I haven’t heard anything of a fly in the amber,” said Bellairs. “Hudson knows all about it – he will be able to tell you.”
But Warden had no word to say to Hudson concerning Rosamund Laing or her bequest. His mind was too full of the greater wonder that Evelyn and he should meet on the Benu?; that it had fallen to him to snatch her from the clutches of the men of Oku.
When Warden found that the expedition consisted of a hundred sailors and over three hundred Hausas, he was anxious that an advance should be made on Oku at once. The town lay in a bush clearing on high land overlooking the Benu?, not many miles distant from the mission station. He argued that he and Beni Kalli could guide the troops by the bush paths, and that an attack carried out at dawn would demoralize an enemy already shaken by an unforeseen repulse at Kadana.
Every one admitted that he was right from the military point of view; but Hudson, the political officer accompanying the column, shirked the responsibility of taking a step that implied the existence of a tribal war. He argued that while they were fully justified in driving off the assailants of the mission and in demanding the punishment of those engaged in it, together with the fullest compensation for loss of life and property, yet they had no proof that the King of Oku sanctioned the raid.
“When he refuses our terms,” he said, “we shall destroy his town and depose him if he escapes with his life. Under the circumstances, I cannot sanction a forward movement until negotiations have failed.”
Bellairs, of course, had to take his orders from the administration, and Warden had no power to over–ride the man whom the Government had deputed to visit Oku. He knew that Loanda, second only in importance to M’Wanga, was among the slain. He had seen M’Wanga himself exercising his savage warriors day after day and taking care that they were taught how to handle the modern weapons to which they were unaccustomed. He was aware of the exact date named for the rising, and was prevented only by several weeks’ delirium of fever from stealing off down stream in good time to warn the authorities. But he was not in his own territory, for the Benu? runs through Northern Nigeria while he was attached to the Southern Protectorate, and, above all, he was a soldier, to whom obedience was the first duty. So he refrained from weakening Hudson’s position by demonstrating how mistaken was the decision arrived at. He even hoped that, in some mysterious way, matters might be adjusted without further slaughter.
The proper course to adopt was to strike hard and promptly. Failing that, he trusted to the strange workings of the native mind to bring about a peaceful settlement. Though strong in spirit he was broken in body. He had done in five months that which a few men had taken years to accomplish, while the majority of those who essayed the task had failed, and paid the penalty of failure by dying.
When the officers of the expedition gathered in the mission that night and listened to his story, their minds went back to the days of Mungo Park, and Clapperton, and Lander, and Barth, and the rest of the famous band of explorers who had traversed the wilds of the West African hinterland during the close of the eighteenth and the early years of the nineteenth centuries.
Nothing to equal Warden’s journey had been done of recent years. It stood alone, a record of almost unexampled fortitude and endurance.
He would never have reached the upper waters of the Niger were it not for the blue cotton wrap taken from the Prophet of El Hamra when that unamiable person was left bound and gagged at Lektawa. So deeply had the Blue Man’s repute penetrated into the desert that among Mohammedan tribes the mere sight of his robe was more powerful than an armed escort. In a hasty search through the Prophet’s apartment, Warden found his own revolver, two Remington repeating rifles with a supply of cartridges, and a stock of gold dust in quills, the most portable form of desert currency. The blue rag supplied moral, the arms and gold material aid, but the tremendous journey still remained an undertaking fraught with every possible danger. Not until the small party reached Timbuktu could they regard themselves as possessing even a moderate chance of ultimate success. In that city Beni Kalli left his daughter with relatives. No consideration would part him from the Seyyid. Here was a master worth serving, one who never thought only of himself, but who was ready at any moment to risk life or limb in aid of those who were faithful to his interests. Moreover, he showed rare sport, and Beni Kalli was a born adventurer.
So the pair came down the Niger, and, when Warden learned that matters were quiet at Oku, he formed the daring plan of preserving his incognito even from the British officials at towns in the more settled regions. He fancied that by maintaining his pose as an Arab fire–brand he might venture to enter Oku itself. He had spoken nothing but Arabic during so many months that he was now far more glib in the language than many genuine Arabs who could not boast his experience of diverse tribes and varying dialects. He deemed it best to let none know of his scheme. The slightest hint that he had crossed the Sahara would quickly find its way to Oku, and it was his safeguard throughout that the Mahdi of the Atlas had sent him to carry the fiery torch of Islam to the remotest strongholds of the faith. Oku was frankly pagan, its people cannibals when occasion served, but between them and far–off Morocco lay the strong link of hatred of the white man’s rule.
Evelyn listened in silence while her lover discoursed. Her eyes shone and her lips were parted. More than once, when some deft hint conveyed to her that his thoughts dwelt ever with her, a tender little smile told him that she understood.
Colville, who insisted on joining them when the surgeon had dressed his injuries – for a ricochetting bullet had torn a jagged wound in his shoulder as well as broken his collar–bone – had heard from Lagos something of the gourd. He asked Warden what had become of it.
“It is among my belongings at Lagos,” he said. “At least, I hope so. The skipper of the Water Witch was a decent sort of fellow – ”
“It is here,” said Evelyn quietly.
Half a dozen voices cried in concert, but she was looking at Warden.
“You gave it to me at Cowes?” she went on.
“Yes, I did, but – ”
“But I refused it. Well, when they told me at Lagos that you were surely lost in the desert, I asked for it. I – I – almost believed it would bring us together again.”
“Let’s have a look at it,” chimed in Fairholme.
She was strangely reluctant at first, and her unwillingness to produce that sinister carving was not to be wondered at, for she had seen sufficient of the men of Oku during the past few hours to disturb her dreams for many a year. But Warden joined in the chorus of persuasion, and she brought the canvas bag from her room.
“Please open it,” she said to her lover. “I dare not. Though I confess to an uncanny confidence in its power, I am still afraid of it.”
He drew forth the calabash with a sudden movement, hoping to startle some of the onlookers by the extraordinary vitality of Domenico Garcia’s masterpiece, but Evelyn alone was affected, and she uttered a cry of dismay.
“It is ruined!” she exclaimed. “The moist heat has destroyed the lacquer! Even the eyes have gone. Oh, Arthur, please do throw it away this time. The thing is dead!”
In her excitement she had used exactly the right phrase. The man of Oku was dead, in fact decomposed. His face had melted away, his mosaic eyes had fallen out, the mocking smile worthy of a triumphant demon had faded from his thick lips. In truth, the mask on the gourd was a mere travesty of its former self.
Warden was quite as bewildered as the girl.
“Well,” he cried, “that is really the most amazing coincidence I have ever known. It knocks any of my adventures into a cocked hat. Just think of it – this thing lived, I tell you. It was a superb creature of genius. It must have been found two hundred years ago when some Portuguese or Spaniards looted Benin. It was brought to England only to be lost in a sailing ship that foundered on the east side of the Isle of Wight. After passing a couple of centuries under the sea, it bobbed up serenely one day last August, disturbed from its resting–place when the Emperor’s yacht struck the sunken wreck. I firmly believe it was made within a few miles of this very place, yet it survived through the ages until the hour when the Oku power is broken for ever, and now it is destroyed. Did you ever hear anything like it? Surely this is a thing not dreamed of in our philosophy.”
None but Evelyn among those present could share his opinion. It was impossible for any one who had not seen the calabash on the deck of the Nancy to picture the malign fascination of that graven face.
But Warden was convinced of his theory. To please his lady, he bade Beni Kalli take the gourd and throw it on the smoldering embers of the mission huts. And so ended the pilgrimage of the grim contrivance fashioned by Domenico Garcia to carry his story to the world that had forgotten him. It perished in the ashes of the old Kadana, on the site where a new enterprise would soon mark the practical inception of Hume’s day–dream.
Nor was the hour far distant when all in that room remembered Warden’s emphatic words. Next day came messengers from the King of Oku. His majesty deplored the excesses caused by the evil counsels of certain professors of ju–ju. These men, difficult to control, were aided and abetted by a notorious Portuguese half–caste, one Miguel Figuero to wit, who had helped the Oku rebels by importing arms from foreign territory and generally disturbing the peace of the kingdom.
“I have now dealt with Figuero and the others,” said M’Wanga through his envoys. “They will trouble the land no further.”
He meant that he had nailed them to trees as a guarantee of good faith, when, in the small hours of the morning, he grew fully assured that his guns were useless, his river flotilla captured, and his army broken up. Unfortunately for the success of his sudden conversion to British notions of law and order, that which was only a minor disturbance in a native state assumed the gravest political significance when a number of troops of a foreign power crossed the border at various points with the avowed object of restoring peace to a province in which the armed might of Britain was set at nought.
The strongest party of these unlooked–for allies marched on Oku. Its commandant, Count von Rippenbach, seemed to be intensely surprised when he found the city in the grip of a British column, and its king a prisoner awaiting trial by court–martial. He was not only surprised, but intensely chagrined, and was so unwilling to return to his own territory that there were “alarums and excursions“ in various centers of diplomacy before he swallowed his wrath, invited the British officers to a farewell dinner, and marched back to the Cameroons. M’Wanga was found guilty of murder and high treason, and was duly hanged in front of his own residence. Pana, the third of the negro visitors to Cowes, was banished to St. Vincent, and the clearance among the witch–doctors which Lord Fairholme so ably initiated was carried a good deal further.
Among the effects of the arch–plotter Figuero were found documents of such highly inflammable nature that they were promptly interned in the deepest dungeons of the Record Office. But some of his belongings had a more direct interest than state papers for the two people with whose fortunes he was so curiously bound up. Warden came across another copy of the very page of the newspaper he bought at Cowes wherein was described the accident to the imperial yacht. In the same packet were an extract from Evelyn’s stolen letter, in Rosamund Laing’s handwriting, several complete letters written to him by the girl herself after leaving Lochmerig, and his own long letter delivered to her in Las Palmas by Peter Evans.
It amused him afterwards to enclose these pi?ces de conviction and the scrap of tattooed skin with the full report he was asked to send to the Colonial Office, and there is reason to believe that an Under Secretary for Foreign Affairs borrowed the said report for perusal, and took it with him to wile away the tedious hours of a week–end at the seaside ordered by his doctor.ñêà÷àòü êíèãó áåñïëàòíî
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