The Messageñêà÷àòü êíèãó áåñïëàòíî
“The Emperor!” she almost gasped. “Do you mean – ”
“Sh–s–s–h! No names. If walls have ears, we are surrounded by listeners. But I am not mistaken. I saw him clearly. I heard Baumgartner’s humble greeting. And the really remarkable fact is that Peter and you and I share a very important state secret.”
“I – I don’t understand,” she said, bewildered.
“Of course you don’t. Not many people could guess why the most powerful monarch on the Continent of Europe should wish to confer with four of the ripest scoundrels that the West African hinterland can produce. Nevertheless, it is true.”
“Then that is why Mrs. Baumgartner kept me closeted in her state–room nearly two hours?”
“Yes. By the way, has she engaged you?”
“Yes. She was exceedingly kind. The terms and conditions are most generous. I rejoin the yacht and meet her daughter at Milford next Wednesday. Then we go to Scotland for some shooting, and the Sans Souci returns to Portsmouth to be refitted for a cruise to Madeira and the Canaries during the winter months. Altogether, she sketched a very agreeable programme. But you have excited my curiosity almost beyond bounds by your description of the goings–on last night. My share of the important state secret you spoke of is very slight. It consists in being wholly ignorant of it. Can you enlighten me?”
“There is no reason why I should not. It will invest the Baumgartners with a romantic nimbus which, judging solely from observations, might otherwise be lacking.”
The girl laughed.
“They are pleasant people, but rather commonplace,” she said.
“Well, we can talk freely in the train.”
“You are not leaving Cowes this morning on my account?”
Perhaps her voice showed a degree of restraint. Though she was beginning to like Captain Arthur Warden more than she cared to admit even to herself, he must not be allowed to believe that their friendship could go to extremes.
“If you don’t mind enduring my company as far as Portsmouth, I propose to inflict it on you,” he explained good–humoredly. “Circumstances compel me to visit London to–day. Chris is now waiting at the station with my bag. I would have left the island by the first train had I not been lucky enough to see you earlier and interpret your signal correctly.”
“I only intended to tell you – ”
“The time you would come ashore. Exactly. Why are you vexed because we are fellow–travelers till midday?”
“I am not vexed. I am delighted.”
“You expressed your delight with the warmth of an iceberg.”
“Now you are angry with me.”
“Furious. But please give me your well–balanced opinion. If peaches are good in the afternoon should they not be better in the morning?”
“I could eat a peach,” she admitted.
Figuero, who did not fail to pick up the newspaper thrown aside by Warden, followed them without any difficulty. When they stopped at a shop in the main street he took the opportunity to buy a copy of the torn newspaper.
Mingling with a crowd at the station, he saw them enter a first–class carriage. His acquaintance with the English language was practically confined to the trader’s tongue spoken all along the West African coast, and he had little knowledge of English ways. But he was shrewd and tactful, and his keen wits were at their utmost tension. Hence, he was not at a loss how to act when he found that a ticket examiner was visiting each compartment. Seizing a chance that presented itself, he asked the man if he could inform him where the pretty girl in blue and the tall gentleman in the yachtsman’s clothes were going, and a tip of five shillings unlocked the official lips.
“The lady has a return ticket to Langton, in Oxfordshire, and the gentleman a single to London,” said the man.
Figuero did not trust his memory. He asked the name of the first–named town again, and how to spell it. Then he wrote something in a note–book and hurried back to the harbor. It was essential that he should find out what vessels these two people came from, for the presence of a Southern Nigeria Deputy Commissioner in Cowes was not a coincidence to be treated lightly.
Seated in a tiny boat in the harbor was a rotund, jolly–looking personage of seafaring aspect. He and the boat were there when the larger craft which brought the girl ashore came to the quay, but Figuero had taken no notice of Evelyn then, because he had not the least notion that Warden was awaiting her. Possibly the sailor–like individual in the small boat could slake his thirst for knowledge.
So he hailed him.
“You lib for know Capt’n Varden?” he asked, with an ingratiating smile and a hand suggestively feeling for a florin.
“I wot?” said the stout man, poking out a wooden leg as he swung round to face his questioner.
“You savvy – you know Capt’n Varden, a mister who walk here one–time – just now – for long minutes.”
“There’s no one of that name in these parts,” replied Peter, who thought he identified this swarthy–faced inquirer.
“Den p’raps you tell name of young lady – very beautiful young lady – who lib for here in ship–boat not much time past? She wear blue dress an’ brown hat an’ brown boots.”
“Oh, everybody knows her,” grinned Peter. “She’s Miss Polly Perkins, of Paddington Green.”
“You write ‘im name, an’ I dash you two shillin’,” said Figuero eagerly.
Peter was about to reply that if any dashing was to be done he could take a hand in the game himself, but he thought better of it. Taking the proffered note–book and pencil, he wrote the words laboriously, and pocketed his reward with an easy conscience.
“When Chris heaves in sight I’ll send him back for two pounds of steak,” he communed. “It was honestly earned, an’ I figure on the Captain bein’ arf tickled to death when I tell ‘im how the Portygee played me for a sucker.”
Figuero hastened to the hotel, saw that his sable friends were well supplied with gin and cigarettes, bade them lie perdu till he came back, and made his way to the quay again. Peter was still there, apparently without occupation.
“You lib for take me to yacht Sans Souci an’ I dash you five shillin’?” he said.
“Right–o, jump in,” cried Peter, but he added under his breath, “Sink me if he don’t use a queer lingo, but money talks.”
He used all his artifices to get Figuero to discuss his business in Cowes, but he met a man who could turn aside such conversational arrows without effort. At any rate, Peter was now sure he was not mistaken in believing that his fare was the “Portuguese slave–trader and gin–runner” spoken of by Warden, and he had not failed to notice the hotel which Figuero had visited so hurriedly.
There was a check at the yacht. Mr. Baumgartner had gone ashore, but would return for luncheon. So Peter demanded an extra half crown for the return journey, and met a wondering Chris with a broad smile.
“You’re goin’ shoppin’, sonny,” he exclaimed. “I’ve been earnin’ good money to–day. Sheer off for ‘arf an hour, an’ I’ll tie up the dinghy. I’ve got a notion that a pint would be a treat.”
Thus it came to pass that while Se?or Miguel Figuero was puzzling, even alarming the millionaire yacht–owner with his broken talk of Captain Varden, Dep’ty Commissioner and leader of bush expeditions – alarming him so thoroughly that he never dreamed of associating Miss Evelyn Dane with the Polly Perkins of Peter’s juvenile memories – Arthur Warden himself was driving in a hansom from Waterloo to the Foreign Office, and wondering what new phase of existence would open up before him when his news became known to the men who control the destinies of Outer Britain.
A MAN AND A STORY – BOTH UNEMOTIONAL
Warden, running the gauntlet of doorkeepers and other human watch–dogs, was finally ushered into the presence of an Under Secretary. To him he detailed his business, and, lacking neither the perception nor the modesty that often characterize men of action, he had barely begun to speak ere he fancied that his recital did not command a tenth part of the interest it warranted. Few talkers can withstand the apparent boredom of a hearer, and Warden happened not to be one of the few. Condensing his account of the proceedings on board the Sans Souci to the barest summary, he stopped abruptly.
The Under Secretary, leaning back in his chair, rested his elbows on its comfortable arms, and pressed together the tips of his outspread fingers. He scrutinized his nails, and seemingly was much troubled because he had not called in at the manicurist’s after lunch. Nevertheless, being an Under Secretary, he owned suave manners, and the significance of Warden’s docket–like sentences did not escape him.
“Is that all?” he asked, turning his hands and examining their backs intently.
There was silence for a while. A clock ticked softly as if to emphasize the peace that reigned on the park side of Whitehall.
“But you make certain deductions, I take it?” murmured the official.
“I could hardly fail to do that, knowing West Africa as I do,” was the curt answer. Warden was really annoyed with the man. Without wishing him any positive evil, he wondered how far the Foreign Office cult would carry such an exquisite through a Bush campaign, with its wasting fever, its appalling monotony, its pathless wanderings midst foul swamp and rain–soaked forest – perhaps a month’s floundering through quagmire and jungle with a speedy end under a shower of scrap iron fired from some bell–mouthed cannon.
“Will you be good enough to favor me with them?” purred the other, now absorbed in his palms.
“If I had a map – ” began Warden, almost contemptuously.
The Under Secretary rose with a certain languid elegance. He was really tired, having worked at the Macedonian gendarmerie regulations until three o’clock that morning. High on the wall, behind Warden’s chair, were several long, narrow, mahogany cases, each fitted with a pendent cord. The Under Secretary pulled one, and a large map of Africa fell from its cover.
“I am fairly well acquainted with the Protectorate, but now you can talk to scale,” he said, going back to his seat and resuming his nonchalant attitude.
Warden, still smarting under a sense of the evident insignificance of Britain beyond the seas in the eyes of its home–dwelling custodians, spoke brusquely enough.
“On the Benu? river, a tributary of the Niger, four hundred miles from the coast,” he said, “you will find the town of Gir? in the Yola District. You see it is just within the sphere of British influence. Germany claims the opposite bank. Well, Oku is near Gir?. Oku is not on the map – ”
“I put it there myself yesterday,” broke in the Under Secretary.
Warden was gifted with keen sight. He swung round and gave the huge sheet on the wall a closer scrutiny. A great many corrections had been made on it with pen and ink. They were carried out so neatly that they resembled the engraved lettering.
For an instant his eyes met those of the Under Secretary; thenceforth a better understanding reigned.
“I beg your pardon,” he said. “Since you gave attention to the position of Oku so recently, I am half inclined to believe that not only my information but my opinions are forestalled.”
“We have been at cross purposes,” murmured the tired voice. “You are Captain Arthur Warden, who commanded the Oku punitive expedition thirteen months ago. Since early yesterday morning the Colonial Office, at my request, has been trying to discover your whereabouts – trying in vain, I gather – or you would have mentioned the fact. I really wished to consult you with reference to this very topic. It is all the more gratifying that chance should have led you to be a witness of events which were surmises on our part, and that your sense of duty should bring you here at the earliest possible moment.”
Warden positively blushed. It was a relief that the Under Secretary was obviously inclined to visit his manicurist that afternoon rather than wait till the morrow. Such preoccupation gave him time to recover. But he devoted no more time to silent theories anent the disgraceful apathy of the home authorities with reference to West African affairs.
“I cannot insist too strongly on the efforts that are being made by our neighbors to undermine British influence in that quarter,” he said. “Their traders pander to native excesses and humor their prejudices. Their pioneers are constantly pushing northward toward the shores of Lake Tchad. Arms and ammunition are being smuggled across the boundary at many points. Preparations are quietly in progress for a transfer of power if ever British authority shows signs of weakening. Therefore, I draw the worst auguries from the presence in Cowes of a clever and unscrupulous filibuster like Figuero, especially when he acts as bear–leader to three disaffected chiefs. Oku, as you know, is an insignificant place, but it has one supreme attribute that gives it among the negroes the importance of Mecca in the Mohammedan world. It is the center of African witchcraft. Its ju–ju men are the most noted in the whole continent. Their fetish is deadly and irresistible. They can compass the ruin of tribal leaders who are immeasurably more wealthy and powerful than any of their own men. I do not pretend to explain the reason – I can only state the fact – but there can be no gainsaying the simple truth that if men of Oku place their ban on any tribe or individual, that tribe or that man is doomed.”
“Can you give instances?”
“Yes. As far away as the river Akini, in the Yoruba District” – and this time Warden did not point to the map, though his words bridged six hundred miles miles – “there was a quarrel between the up–country traders and the shippers at Lagos. The merchants in the interior tried to close the trade routes, but the local chiefs refused to help them. By some means the traders secured the Oku ban on their side. The Yoruba natives resisted it.
“By Jove! both they and the factors at Lagos were glad enough to come to heel when every ounce of stuff was diverted into French Dahomey. There was no overt act or threat. Oku methods are too clever for that. The authorities were powerless. Hunger coerced the natives, and financial loss brought the people on the coast to terms. And this took place where we were paramount! Heaven only knows what excesses the Oku fetish has caused in inter–tribal wars. Why, when I attacked them, I had to break with my own hands every ju–ju token on the road. Not even our Hausa troops would pass them otherwise.”
“They had no ill effect on you, then?” said the other, smiling a little.
“None – at present.”
Warden himself was surprised when his lips framed the qualification. For no assignable cause his mind traveled to the lowering face on the gourd, then reposing in his portmanteau at Waterloo Station, and he remembered the curled scrap of tattooed skin in his pocket. He had not mentioned the calabash to the official. Though it bore curiously on the visit of the men of Oku to the Isle of Wight, he believed that such a far–fetched incident would weaken his statements. Since he was inclined at first to err so greatly in his estimate of the Under Secretary’s knowledge of West African politics, he was now more resolved than ever not to bring an extravagant toy into a serious discussion. Any reference to it would be ludicrously out of place. He was beginning to entertain a deep and abiding respect for the Foreign Office and its denizens.
The Under Secretary asked a few additional questions before he rose to fold up the map. Warden took the hint, and was about to depart when he received an unlooked–for piece of news.
“By the way, it is almost a certainty that Count von Rippenbach accompanied the Emperor in the visit paid to the Sans Souci?” said the official.
“I assume his identity solely from paragraphs in the newspapers.”
“It will interest you to learn that the Count has just returned from an exploring and hunting trip in the Tuburi region.”
Now, Tuburi lies in the no–man’s land that separates Lake Tchad from German West Africa, and Warden met the Under Secretary’s bored glance a second time with quick comprehension.
“I think,” went on the quiet voice, “I think it would be well if you kept the Colonial Office posted as to your movements during the remainder of your furlough. Personally, I expect no immediate developments. The Emperor is a busy man. He can only devote half an hour each year to affairs that affect the Niger. But, keep in touch. You may be wanted. I am exceedingly obliged to you. One learns so much from the men who have passed their active lives in lands which one has never seen except in dreams. I dream here sometimes, in front of that map – and its companions. Oh, I had almost forgotten. Do you know Mr. Baumgartner?”
“Only by sight.”
“That is useful. It might help if you were to meet him in some unexpected locality. And his yacht, the Sans Souci, you have noted her main features, such as the exact number of windows in her deck houses, or the cabin ports fore and aft of the bridge?”
“I watched her closely many hours last night, but I fear I missed those precise details,” laughed Warden. “I shall correct the lapse at the earliest opportunity.”
“That sort of definite fact assists one’s judgment. Paint and rig can be altered, but structural features remain. I recall the case of the Sylph, a foreign cargo–steamer loaded to the funnel with dynamite, and about to pass Port Said at a time when it was peculiarly important to the British fleet that the canal should remain open. She resembled a hundred other disreputable–looking craft of her class, but a lieutenant on the Cossack had seen her a year earlier at Bombay, and noticed a dent in the plates on the port bow. His haphazard memory settled a delicate and complicated discussion in Pekin. Good morning! Don’t forget to send your address.”
Standing in Downing Street to light a cigar, Warden glanced up at the stately building he had just quitted. His views on “red–tape” officialdom had undergone a rapid change during the past hour. It was borne in on him that generations of men like himself had come from the ends of the earth to that storehouse of secrets, and each was convinced that he alone could reveal the solemn tidings which might be the forerunner of modern Europe’s Battle of Armageddon. And the Under Secretary was called on to hear every prophet! From such a standpoint the presence in England of a half–caste Portuguese and three full–blooded negroes dwindled to insignificance. True, the Under Secretary had listened, and Warden almost shivered when he realized how narrow was his escape from committing the grave error of discounting his hearer’s sympathy and measure of comprehension.
It was not his business to ask questions, but he gathered that others than himself were alive to the dangers that might spring from a conference between semi–rebellious subjects of Britain in West Africa and the ruler of a mighty nation pent within cramped confines for want of colonies. Oddly enough, the bent plates of the dynamite–laden Sylph suggested a strange connection between the carved gourd and the strained position of affairs in the Cameroons. He had no manner of doubt that when the royal yacht crashed into a sunken wreck the previous day it liberated the calabash, which forthwith drifted into the Solent, and escaped notice until discovered by Evelyn Dane. Suppose she had not seen it? All their subsequent actions would have been affected. He might never have known of the strange gathering on board the yacht.
“Queer train of circumstances!” he thought. “If only I could use a pen, what a romance I might contrive with that as a beginning – and this,” he added, when, in searching for a box of matches, his fingers closed on the crisp roll of skin, “this as the frontispiece.”
He hailed a cab. He wanted to open the bag left at the railway terminus and deposit the gourd with the rest of his belongings in a small flat hired months ago as a pied–a–terre. His stock of cigars needed replenishing, and the weird document that had just made its presence felt reminded him that a Portuguese dictionary was lacking. A glance at his watch showed that he could not reach Cowes until a late hour, so he resolved to pass the night in town, go to a theatre, and return to the Nancy next morning.
From Waterloo, therefore, he telegraphed to Peter:
“Remaining here until to–morrow. Keep your weather eye open.”
He was sure that his friendly factotum would grasp the full meaning of the second sentence, but he would have been the most surprised man in London could he have known that Peter at that moment was plying the three men of Oku with gin.
An accident brought about a slight variation of his plans. It happened that no other passenger claimed the attention of the luggage–room clerk at Waterloo when the portmanteau was unlocked. Warden deposited the gourd on the zinc counter and groped among his belongings for something to cover it.
The attendant, who was watching him, uttered a gasping exclamation.
“Good Lord! sir,” he cried, “what sort of horrible thing is that?”
It was then that a hitherto undiscovered property in the gourd brought itself in evidence. No sooner was it placed on a smooth surface than it promptly wobbled into a half upright position, with the negro’s face on the upper part. Chance could hardly accomplish this movement. It was the designer’s intent, brought about by concealed weights, and Warden instantly remembered that the calabash floated much deeper in the water than would have been the case otherwise. A shaft of sunlight came through a broken pane in the glass roof, and fell directly on the scowling apparition.ñêà÷àòü êíèãó áåñïëàòíî