He was nearing the yacht when the red and green eyes of a launch gleamed at him as he glanced over his shoulder to take measure of his direction. There was no other vessel exactly in line with the Sans Souci, and the thought struck him that this might be the messenger of the gods in so far as they busied themselves with Miss Dane’s affairs. There was no harm in waiting a few minutes, so he altered the dinghy’s course in such wise that the launch, if it were actually bound for the yacht, must pass quite closely, though he, to all outward seeming, was in no way concerned with its destination. His guess was justified. While the tiny steamer was still fifty yards distant, the quick pulsation of her engines slackened. She drew near, and the figure of a sailor with a boat–hook in his hands was silhouetted against the last bright strip of sky in the northwest. She passed, and it demanded all Arthur Warden’s cool nerve to maintain a steady pull at the oars and smoke the cigar of British complacency when he saw Miguel Figuero and three men of the tribe of Oku seated in the cushioned space aft.
He could not be mistaken. He knew the West African hinterland so well that he could distinguish the inhabitants of different districts by facial characteristics slight in themselves but as clearly visible to the eye of experience as the varying race–marks of a Frenchman and a Norwegian. Coming thus strangely on the heels of the discovery of that amazing calabash, the incident was almost stupefying. The presence of Figuero alone in Cowes was perplexing – the appearance of three Oku blacks was a real marvel – that all four should be visitors to the Sans Souci savored of necromancy. But Warden did not hesitate. He made certain that the strange quartette were being conveyed to the yacht; he took care to note that their arrival was expected, seeing that Baumgartner himself came down the gangway with a lantern to light the way on board; and then he pulled back to the Nancy. Ere he reached her, the launch had gone shoreward again.
“You’ve changed your mind, sir,” was Peter’s greeting.
“You were keeping a lookout, then?” said Warden.
“’Ave nothin’ else to do, so to speak, sir.”
“Well, jump in and take the oars. I shall be with you in a moment.”
Warden dived into the small cabin, rummaged in a box, and produced two revolvers. He examined both weapons carefully under the cutter’s light, and ascertained that they were properly loaded, whereupon one went into each of the outer pockets of his coat.
“Now take me to the Sans Souci, Peter,” he said. “When I reach the gangway, pull off a couple of lengths, and stand by.”
“What’s doin’?” asked Peter, who was by no means unobservant.
“Nothing, I hope. I may have to talk big, and twelve ounces of lead lend weight to an argument. But I am puzzled, Peter, and I hate that condition. You remember our nigger friend on the gourd?”
“Well, three live members of his tribe, and the worst Portuguese slave–trader and gin–runner now known in West Africa, have just boarded the Sans Souci. I don’t consider them fit company for Miss Dane. What do you say?”
Peter hung on the oars.
“W’y not let Chris come an’ look after the dinghy?” he said. “You may need a friendly hand w’en the band plays.”
“We are in England, Peter,” he replied; but the words had a far less convincing sound in his ears now than when he protested against Evelyn Dane’s unreasoning detestation of the carved gourd. One of the weapons in his pockets was actually resting on the crackling skin of a man who had been flayed alive – and most probably so flayed by ancestors of the negroes who were on board the Sans Souci at that instant. The thought strengthened his determination to see and speak to the girl that night. At all costs he would persevere until she herself assured him that she had no wish to go ashore. He even made up his mind to persuade her to return to Portsmouth for the night, and it seemed to him that no consideration could move him from his purpose.
Whereat Lachesis, she who spins the thread of life, must have smiled. Short as was the distance to be traversed by the dinghy under the impetus of Peter Evans’s strong arms, the cruel goddess who pays no regard to human desires had already contrived the warp and weft of circumstances that would deter even a bolder man than Warden from thrusting himself unbidden into the queer company gathered on the yacht.
The pilot was pulling straight to the gangway when a large steam launch whistled an angry warning that he was crossing her bows. He twisted the dinghy broadside on, and both Warden and he saw two officers in the uniform of a foreign navy step on to the Sans Souci gangway, where Baumgartner, bare–headed and obsequious of manner, was standing to receive them.
The Nancy’s boat was so near that her occupants could hear the millionaire’s words distinctly as he greeted the first of his two latest visitors. He spoke in German, and Peter was none the wiser, but Warden understood, and his errant fears for Evelyn Dane’s welfare were promptly merged in a very ocean of bewilderment.
“The Nancy for us, Peter,” he murmured. “As they say in the States, I have bitten off more than I can chew. Do you know who that is?”
“Which? – the little one?”
“Mebbe he’s the skipper of the Dutchman yonder. That’s her launch.”
“He is skipper of many Dutchmen. Mr. Baumgartner addressed him as ‘emperor.’ Give way, Peter. We must watch and eke pray, but there are affairs afoot – or shall I say afloat – that it behooves not a simple official in the Nigeria Protectorate to meddle with. God wot! I have earned a captaincy and a year’s leave by serving my country in a humble capacity. Let me not lose both by an act of l?se majest?, and it would be none else were I to break in on the remarkable conclave now assembled on board the Sans Souci!”
“You don’t mean to say – ” gasped Peter.
“I do. And the less notice we attract during the next five minutes the better I shall be pleased. Bear away to the nearest yacht, and let me apologize for being late.”
So, if there were eyes on board the Sans Souci that paid heed to aught save the coming of an august visitor, they would have seen nothing more remarkable than a small boat visiting at least two vessels in seemingly unsuccessful quest of one among the hundreds of yachts in the roadstead.
Following a devious route, the dinghy reached the cutter from the port side. Warden secured a pair of night binoculars, seated himself on the hatch, and mounted guard over the Sans Souci. The cruiser’s launch was still alongside, and the time passed slowly until the two officers descended the gangway and were borne swiftly in the direction of the Royal Yacht Club landing–slip. They had been on board three–quarters of an hour.
There was now so little movement afloat that the pulsation of the screw could be heard until it was quite near the private pier. Finally it was dominated by the strains of the Castle band beginning the evening programme with the “Boulanger March,” and Warden smiled as he thought how singularly inappropriate the lively tune must sound in the ears of the potentate hurrying shoreward.
The band broke off abruptly; after a brief pause it struck up again.
“The King, Gord bless ‘im!” said Peter loyally.
“No. That is not for the King. They are playing Heil dir im Sieger Krantz” said Warden, still peering at the Sans Souci.
“Well, it’s the fust time I’ve ever heerd ‘Gord save the King’ called that,” expostulated the pilot.
“Same tune, different words.”
Peter sniffed in his scorn.
“They’ll be sayin’ the Old Hundredth is a Dutch hornpipe next,” he growled.
The Prussian National hymn might have acted as a tocsin to Mr. Baumgartner, for a light was hoisted forthwith over the poop of the Sans Souci, and Warden discerned the tall forms of the three West African natives standing near the tubby man who manipulated rope and pulley. Figuero was not visible at first. Warden began to be annoyed. Could it be possible that such a social outcast could be left in Evelyn Dane’s company? Developments soon relieved the tension. A launch puffed up and took away the visitors, Figuero being the last to step on board. The noisy little vessel was succeeded by two boats filled with sailors and servants. Within a few minutes the yacht’s officers arrived, the deck saloons were brilliantly illuminated, and the Sans Souci became a jeweled palace like unto the host of her congeners in the Solent.
By this time Peter was as interested as his employer in the comings and goings of their neighbors.
“There’s more in that than meets the eye, Mr. Warden,” he said, rolling some tobacco between his palms preparatory to filling his pipe.
“Yet a good deal has met our eyes to–night,” was the quiet answer.
Peter worked his great hands methodically. He was not a man of many words; and when he expressed an opinion it was the outcome of calm deliberation.
“Tell me who them niggers an’ the other party wos, an’ I’ll do some fair guessin’,” he said. “Rum thing, too, that such a gazebo as that murderous–lookin’ swab on the calabash should cross our course just when it did. Were did it come from – that’s wot I want to know. Has there bin an earthquake? If looks count for anythink, it might have risen straight up from – ”
“Peter,” broke in Warden, “I hope Chris is in bed?”
The pilot laughed.
“Time we wos, too, sir. May I ax w’ere his black nibs is stowed?”
“Among my traps. Forget it. I shall send it to London in the morning.”
“An’ a good job to be rid of it. I’ve seen some queer fish in the sea, from bottle–nosed whales an’ sharks to dead pigs who ‘ad cut their own throats with their fore feet by swimmin’ from a wrecked ship, but never before ‘ave I clapped my peepers on a fizzy–mahog like that.”
Twice had an unusually long speech betrayed his irate sentiment. He was deeply stirred. Warden, smoking and listening in silence, but never relaxing his vigilant scrutiny of the Sans Souci, felt that, in very truth, there must be some malign influence in the carved head on the gourd ere it would arouse the intense repugnance of two such different natures as those of the bluff, good–tempered sailor and the dainty, well–bred girl who had come so suddenly into his life.
He did not pursue the conversation. Though Evans was quite trustworthy, there was no need to make him a confidant in matters which might have the gravest bearing on an already troubled position in West Africa. The pilot’s carefully charged pipe was nearly empty when Warden surprised him with an abrupt question.
“What time does the first train leave for London in the morning?”
“Round about seven o’clock,” he said.
“You ain’t thinkin’ of chuckin’ the cruise, I hope, sir,” he went on, and the dejection in his voice showed that he was prepared for the worst.
“For a few hours, perhaps a night – that is all.”
“So you b’lieve they mean mischief?” growled Peter, jerking a thumb toward the yacht.
This direct and forcible reasoning was unexpected. Yet any level–headed man might have reached practically the same conclusions from the night’s happenings. They were clear enough to one versed in most of the intricacies and pitfalls of West African politics, nor did Warden endeavor to evade the point.
“I believe that there are people in London who should know what you and I know,” he said slowly. “Anyhow, let us turn in. Miss Evelyn Dane evidently sleeps on board. Perhaps the morning’s light may dispel some of the vapors that cloud our brains to–night.”
The early train from Cowes did not, however, carry Arthur Warden among the London–bound passengers.
A glimpse of Evelyn on the deck of the Sans Souci altered that portion of his plans. She waved a pleasant greeting, held up both hands with the fingers spread widely apart, and nodded her head in the direction of the town. He took the gesture to mean that she was going ashore at ten o’clock, and he signaled back the information that he would precede her at nine. Not until he found himself dawdling on the quay, killing time as lazily as possible, did the thought obtrude that he was extraordinarily anxious to meet her again. Of course, it irritated him. A smart soldier, with small means beyond his pay – with a foot just planted on the first rung of the administrator’s ladder in a land where life itself is too often the price asked for higher climbing – he had no business to show any undue desire to cultivate the acquaintance of young ladies so peculiarly eligible as Evelyn Dane. He knew this so well that he scoffed at the notion, put two knuckles between his lips, and emitted a peculiarly shrill and compelling whistle.
For its special purpose – the summoning of a boy selling newspapers – it was a sure means toward an end. It drew the boy’s attention, even evoked his envy. But it chanced also to be a krooboy call on the Upper Niger, and in that capacity it brought a lean, swarthy face to the window of a bedroom in a quiet hotel overlooking the quay.
Se?or Miguel Figuero looked annoyed at first. His dark, prominent eyes searched the open space for one of the negroes whom he expected to find there, but his wrathful expression changed to blank incredulity when he saw Warden. The phase of sheer unbelief did not last long. He darted out of the room, and rapped sharply on a neighboring door.
“O Loanda, M’Wanga! you fit for get up one–time,” he shouted.
Crossing the corridor, he roused another dusky gentleman, Pana by name, with the same imperative command. Soon the four were gathered at a window and gazing at Warden.
“Dep’ty Commissioner Brass River lib,” whispered the Portuguese eagerly. “You savvy – him dat was in Oku bush las’ year. Him captain Hausa men. You lib for see him.”
“O Figuero,” said one of the negroes, seemingly their leader, “I plenty much savvy. I see him palaver in village.”
“S’pose we fit for catch ‘im?” suggested another.
“That fool talk here,” growled Figuero. “You lib for see him to–day – then we catch him bush one–time. I hear him give boat–boy whistle. Stick your eyes on him, you pagans, an’ don’t you lib for forget – savvy?”
They grunted agreement. The West African bushman has to depend almost exclusively on his five senses for continued existence, and there was little doubt that Arthur Warden would be recognized by each man at any future date within reason, no matter what uniform he wore, or how greatly his features might be altered by hardship or fever.
“Why he lib for dis place?” asked Loanda, the chief, who remembered Warden’s part in the suppression of a slave–raid and the punishment subsequently inflicted on those who aided and abetted it.
“No savvy – yet. I lib for watch – then I savvy,” said the Portuguese.
“O Figuero, I fit for chop,” murmured Pana, who found little amusement in gazing idly at an Englishman through a window when there were good things to eat in the hotel.
“All right. Go an’ chop, but remain in room till I come. Then I dash you one quart gin.”
“I chop one–time,” he said, and, indeed, the three looked as though they could tackle a roasted sheep comfortably.
Meanwhile, Warden opened his paper and took more interest than usual in the news. He learned that the emperor dined on board the imperial yacht and subsequently visited the Castle, being accompanied by Count von Rippenbach as aide–de–camp.
Warden did not pretend to have more than a passing knowledge of foreign politics, but he noted the name, the Count having undoubtedly been a party to the conference on the Sans Souci.
Another paragraph was of more immediate import, inasmuch as it tended to solve the mystery of the calabash. It ran:
“The emperor’s yacht, after watching the British fleet at gun practice off Selsey Bill yesterday, returned to the island and followed the racers during several hours. An alarming incident occurred when rounding the Foreland. Though a course was laid close in–shore, both charts and lead showed ten fathoms of water. Suddenly the cruiser struck. At first it was believed that she had run into some unknown sandbank formed by a recent gale, but examination revealed that she had collided with a sunken wreck, invisible even at low–water spring tide. No damage whatever was done to the stately vessel, which continued the cruise after a delay of a few minutes.
“A Sandown gentleman, passing the same spot later in his launch, found some floating wreckage. The pieces he brought ashore are believed to be parts of a ship dating back at least a couple of centuries, as there is no record within modern times of any wooden ship foundering in the locality. The gentleman in question decided to mark the exact spot with a buoy, and a diver’s services will be requisitioned when tide and weather are suitable, so there is some possibility that a number of antiques, together with a quantity of very old timber, will be recovered.”
Warden read the item twice. He found that the emperor was not on board his own yacht at the time. The remainder of the newspaper was dull. He threw away all but the page referring to Cowes, which he stuffed in a pocket, and, although he held his nerves under good control, he almost swore aloud when his fingers touched the roll of skin, whose very existence he had forgotten for the hour.
The minutes passed slowly until a gig from the Sans Souci deposited Miss Dane on the wharf.
Not wishing to become known to any of the yacht’s people if he could possibly avoid it, Warden strolled away a little distance as soon as the boat appeared in the Medina. Figuero, whose eyes had never left him for an instant since he emitted the telltale whistle, hurried to the door of the hotel and narrowly escaped being discovered when Warden turned on his heel.
The Portuguese, an expert tracker in the bush, was out of his element in Cowes, but he managed to slip out of sight in good time. He was safer than he imagined. Warden was looking at Evelyn Dane, and she made a pretty enough picture on this fine summer’s day to keep any man’s glance from wandering.
It gave him a subtle sense of joy to note the unfeigned pleasure of her greeting. Her face mantled with a slight color as she held out her hand.
“I am on my way home,” she cried, “but my train does not leave for half an hour. It is so good of you to wait here. I was dreading that you might row across to the yacht – not because I did not want to see you again, but Mr. Baumgartner made such a point of excluding me from any knowledge of his visitors last night that he would be positively ill if he guessed I had friends on board the Nancy.”
“And Mrs. Baumgartner – ”
“She is a dear creature, but much in awe where her husband’s business affairs are concerned. She and I passed the evening together. She would not hear of my departure, but she warned me not to say a word about my afternoon’s adventures. Mr. Baumgartner is of a nervous disposition. I suppose he thinks all the world is watching him because he is a rich man.”
“There is method in his madness this time,” laughed Warden. “Let me tell you quite candidly that if some one told him my name and occupation and added the information that I kept a close eye on the Sans Souci between the hours of 5.30 and 9 p. m. last night, he, being of plethoric habit, would be in danger of apoplexy.”
They were walking to the station. Evelyn, unable to decide whether or not to take his words seriously, gave him a shy look.
“You knew I was safe on board,” she said.
For some reason, the assumption that he was thinking only of her caused the blood to tingle in Warden’s veins.
“That is the nicest thing you could have said,” he agreed, and she in turn felt her heart racing.
“Of course you are very well aware that I did not imagine you might not be differently occupied,” she protested.
“Let us not quarrel about meanings. You were delightfully right. It is the simple fact that before you were many minutes in the Sans Souci’s cabin – by the way, where were you?”
“In Mrs. Baumgartner’s state–room.”
“Ah. Well – to continue – I was nearly coming to take you away, vi et armis.”
“You have no idea whom Mr. Baumgartner was entertaining?”
“The first person to reach the Sans Souci after yourself was the Portuguese land–pirate I mentioned to you yesterday. He was accompanied by three chiefs of the men of Oku. Do you recollect my description of the mask on the gourd?”
She uttered a startled little cry.
“Are you in earnest?” was all she could find to say.
“I was in deadly earnest about eight o’clock last evening, I assure you. Had it not been for a most amazing intervention you would certainly have heard me demanding your instant appearance on deck.”
“Then what happened?”
“I must begin by admitting that I was worried about you. I got into the dinghy, intending to see you on some pretext. A launch containing this precious gang crossed my bows, and I returned to the Nancy to – to secure Peter’s assistance. We were near the Sans Souci on the second trip when another launch arrived, and there stepped on board the yacht a gentleman whose presence assured me that you, at least, were safe enough. You will credit that element in a strained situation when I tell you that the latest arrival was the emperor.”