The effect on the clerk was phenomenal. He grew livid, and backed away from the counter.
“Well, that’s the limit,” he muttered. “If I’d ha’ known old Hoof an’ Horns was so near to me since I kem on duty I’d ‘ave gone sick.”
Warden laughed, stuffed the gourd into the portmanteau, and hurried to the waiting cab. So preoccupied was he with other matters, he had not realized earlier that under the new conditions he would be in need of some portion of the bag’s contents.
It was no easy task to find a Portuguese–English dictionary. He tried half a dozen booksellers in vain, but ultimately unearthed a serviceable volume at a second–hand shop in Charing Cross Road. By the time he reached his flat, five o’clock, he was desperately hungry, having eaten nothing since breakfast.
His rooms looked dismal, and an apologetic hall–porter explained that if the gentleman ‘ad on’y sent a wire he’d ha’ tidied the place up a bit. Warden went to a restaurant, dined well, and returned at half–past six. There was still an hour or more of daylight, so he began to decipher the unsolved section of the strange manuscript. It was a longer job than he anticipated. Arabic characters, being largely phonetic, do not give a literal rendering of European words. Many pages of the dictionary were searched ere he hit upon the exact rendering of the blurred phrases. But the quest fascinated him. Before it was ended he found it necessary to consult an atlas and an encyclopedia.
At last, allowing for a margin of error in his guesses at tenses and other variants of root words, he completed a translation, and this is what he had written:
“I, Domenico Garcia, artist and musician in the city of Lisbon, am justly punished for my sins. Being desperate and needy, I joined in an attack on the Santo Espirito, homeward–bound from the Indies, and helped in the slaying of all the ship’s company. We attacked her when she left Lisbon on the voyage to Oporto, but a great gale from the northeast drove us far out to sea, and then the wind veered to the northwest, and cast us miserably ashore on the African desert. We abode there many days, and saw no means of succor, so we buried most of our ill–gotten gains in that unknown place and turned our faces to the north, thinking to find a Portuguese settlement in the land of the Moors. We died one by one, some from hunger, some from fever, some from the ravages of wild beasts. Six out of fifty–four men reached the town of Rabat in the train of a Moorish merchant. There we were sold as slaves. Three were dead within a month. We who were left, Tommaso Rodriguez, Manoel of Serpa and myself, were sent as presents over the caravan road to that cruel tyrant the black king of Benin. Rodriguez went mad, and was flayed alive for refusing to worship a heathen god. This message is written on his skin. Manoel of Serpa was drowned in the river which these monsters term ‘Mother of Waters,’ while I, though my life is preserved by reason of my skill in carving, am utterly bereft of hope in this world while filled with fear of God’s justice in the next.
The violet–tinted gloom that marks the close of a fine summer’s day in London was filling the room with its shadows when Warden had written the last words of a fair copy. He lit a cigar, placed an easy chair so that he might sit with his back to the window, and was about to analyze the queer document which had fallen into his hands in such an extraordinary manner when he noticed that the face on the gourd, though tilted on the table exactly in the same fashion as on the counter of the luggage–room at Waterloo, appeared to be watching him. Now, no man of strong nervous power likes to feel startled, and that the stealthy menace in those evil eyes was startling he did not attempt to deny. He had not noticed previously that – no matter what the angle – so long as the eyes were visible they seemed to look fixedly at the beholder. Thinking that the waning light was deceptive, he sprang up and built some books into a V–shaped support that enabled him to set the scowling face in many positions. The varying tests all had the same result. The snake–like glance followed him everywhere. The very orbs appeared to turn in the head. In the deepening twilight they seemed to gleam with a dull fire, and Warden was absolutely forced to reason himself out of the expectation that soon those brutal lips would open and overwhelm him with threats.
“Confound you!” he muttered, scarce knowing whether to laugh or fly into a rage at the foolish fancy that led him to address a carven mask, “if you looked that way at poor Domenico Garcia it is not surprising that he should use his comrade’s skin as vellum. You black beauty! Are there any of your breed left in Nigeria, I wonder?”
It demanded almost an effort to sink into the chair and disregard the sinister object glaring at him from the table. He picked up the sheet of note–paper containing the translation and set his mind to its proper understanding. While intent on the intricacies of cases and genders – difficulties intensified by the use of archaic phrases and the Arabic script – he had given but passing thought to the general drift of the words. True, the reference to a river named “Mother of Waters” was amazing, because that was the native name for the Benu?, while a search through the encyclopedia showed that the seaport town of Rabat, in Morocco, was famous for its ruined monuments. But now, pondering each sentence, he became alive to their tremendous significance. Their very simplicity was the best witness to the underlying tragedy. A man who dismissed the massacre on board the Santo Espirito with the curt statement that he “helped in the slaying of all the ship’s company,” was not likely to use unnecessary adjectives. “Six out of fifty–four” was also a summary magnificent in its brevity. Garcia reached the sheer apex of the direct narrative style when he said that he and Rodriguez, and Manoel of Serpa, were sent as presents to the King of Benin “over the caravan route.” Those four words covered a journey of 2500 miles across mountains, deserts, and jungle–covered swamps, where road there was none, and towns, even the most wretched communities of savages, were hundreds of miles apart. The track probably led through Bel Abbas, Taudeni, and Timbuctu, traversing the very heart of the Sahara, a region so forbidding and inhospitable that even to–day it remains one of the secret places of the world.
And again, there was a grim humor discoverable in a man who, concentrating his life’s story into so few words, could yet indulge his mordant wit by writing: “I am many marches from Rabat but few from death,” and even poke a bitter jest at M’Wanga for his fantastic notion of a specific against backwater fever!
It was a forceful picture that Warden conceived when in his mind’s eye he saw the “artist and musician,” and ex–pirate, too, sitting in the shade of a giant tree near the king’s hut, and pricking out with needle and dyes, on parchment torn from the back of his dead comrade, the record of those terrible years. He could limn the hollow cheeks, the wasted frame, the fever–light in the dark eyes, and the melancholy smile that must have lifted the cloud of suffering for a little while when the concluding lines were written. Warden knew the scene so intimately that if he put pencil to paper, and Garcia’s long–forgotten shade were permitted to testify to the accuracy of the sketch, there could be no reasonable doubt that imagination must have come very near the truth.
Though the Portuguese did not say as much, it was not hard to guess that the “cunning receptacle” he had devised for his last manuscript was the graven image of M’Wanga himself. His artist’s eye had caught the possibilities of the curiously–shaped gourd, and, as he said in his own way, he had used his “skill in carving” as a means of preservation – perhaps of securing a certain measure of good treatment. No doubt the King of Benin, sitting on the state stool in front of his palace of mats and wattle, was greatly flattered by the portrait. He would appreciate its realism while missing its subtle irony. In the circle of subordinate chiefs and witch–doctors surrounding him there must have been many who hated the white man because he won the royal favor even for a moment. But they would be wary, and join loudly in the chorus of praise, for there was a grove near by in which the latest victims of M’Wanga’s wrath fouled the air with their dead bodies.
Garcia’s description of the black ruler as “King of Benin” puzzled Warden at first. Modern Benin was far enough removed from Oku and the upper reaches of the Benu? to render the title vague and seemingly mistaken.
Yet Garcia’s sparse record already promised an astounding truthfulness. Warden was quite sure he would discover some contemporary proof of the loss of the Santo Espirito. He believed that any one who visited the tomb of Hassan beyond the walls of Rabat would find the ruby placed there nearly one hundred and eighty years ago. Why, then, should the chronicler err in his allusion to M’Wanga’s rank?
M’Wanga’s counterfeit answered the unspoken question. Warden happened to look at the calabash, now hardly visible in the ever–increasing darkness. But the cruel eyes still glinted at him, and he could almost discover a sardonic grin on the thick lips.
“By Jove!” he muttered, “When that fellow reigned in Benin his empire spread as far as his reputation. I have no manner of doubt but he lived in the interior, where it is healthier than on the coast. Yes, you man–devil!” he added, leaping excitedly to his feet as a new and discomforting thought possessed him. “You did mischief enough during your evil life, and now you have resurrected yourself just in time to take a silent part in more of the wild doings in which you would have gloried.”
For he was spurred to this sudden outburst by the knowledge that not only did political trouble loom across the West African sky, but that he, and he only, was the Christian and friend to whom Domenico Garcia made his dying appeal. There was a ruby of great price to be won, and masses to be said in the Cathedral of the Patriarch at Lisbon. Could he refuse to fulfil the terms of that pathetic bequest? He had nearly six months of unexpired furlough at disposal, and the Under Secretary did not appear to have any dread of immediate developments in Nigeria, such as would demand the recall of officers to their duties. What argument would convince his own mind that he might justly decline an almost intolerable legacy?
Well, he would go into the pros and cons of a doubtful problem later. He was not a rich man, and the journey to Rabat and back would probably be very expensive. Certainly that ruby would look very well on the white throat of Evelyn Dane, though people might well wonder how the wife of a poorly–paid official could afford to wear a “gem of great price.”
The conceit so tickled him that he laughed, laughed all the louder, perhaps, because he was conscious that the black king of Benin was scoffing at him maliciously from the table. But the glee died in his throat when a thunderous double rat–tat shook the outer door of the flat, and Warden was prepared, for one thrilling instant, to fight a legion of ghosts and demons if need be. Then his scattered wits told him that His Majesty’s post demanded his appearance. He struck a match, lighted the gas, and went to the door, where a small boy, who seemed to be physically incapable of using a knocker with such vehemence, handed him a telegram.
It was brief and to the point:
“Sans Souci sailed 3 p. m. Niggers and friend left for London 6.30. Thought you would like to know. Peter.”
Warden’s theatre–going that evening resolved itself into a stroll in the park and an early return to his chambers. Before going out, he had thrown a towel over the calabash, and told the porter not to touch anything in the sitting–room. The plan was effective; the man of Oku created no disturbance.
Oddly enough, the young officer was now beginning to understand the mesmeric influence which Evelyn Dane and Peter Evans acknowledged instantly – and with this admission came the consciousness that the negro’s mask lost its power unless actually in evidence. Hence, none of the vapors and misty fancies of the preceding hours interfered with his rest. He slept soundly, rose betimes, and ate a good breakfast – unfailing signs these of a sound mind in a sound body.
Yet he might have been puzzled if called on to explain why he deliberately placed the gourd in a sponge–bag, and put it in his portmanteau before returning to the Isle of Wight. His action was, perhaps, governed by some sense of the fitness of things. If it were ordained that the presentment of the dead and gone M’Wanga should scowl again at the world during a period when the fortunes of his country were at stake, it was not for Warden to disobey the silent edict. He was not swayed solely by idle impulse. In bringing the head to London he meant to please the only people who knew of its existence; he ignored their wishes now because he felt a tugging at his heart–strings when his thoughts reverted to the wretched history of Domenico Garcia. The instant he arrived at this decision it ceased to trouble his mind further.
Before going to the station he made a few purchases, and, being near Pall Mall, thought he would secure any letters that might happen to be at his club. Among others, he found a pressing invitation from Lady Hilbury asking him to call when in London. Now, he was, in a degree, a prot?g? of her ladyship. Her husband was a former governor of Nigeria, and her friendly assistance had helped, in the first instance, to lift Warden out of the ruck of youngsters who yearly replete the ranks of officialdom in West Africa. It was more than probable that Sir Charles and Lady Hilbury would be out of town, and a note written at their residence would show that he visited them at the earliest opportunity.
To his surprise, Lady Hilbury was at home, and insisted that he should stay for luncheon.
Behold, then, Warden installed in a cozy morning–room, exchanging gossip with his hostess, and his parcels and portmanteau given over to the butler’s care.
He was irrevocably committed to an afternoon train when Lady Hilbury electrified him with a morsel of news that was as unexpected as any other shock that had befallen him of late.
“By the way, an old friend of yours is staying with me,” she said – “Mrs. Laing – you knew her better as Rosamund Miller, I fancy?”
Warden schooled his features into a passable imitation of a smile. Mrs. Laing – the pretty, irresponsible Rosamund Miller – was the last person he wished to encounter, but he was quick to see the twinkle in Lady Hilbury’s eyes, and he accepted the inevitable.
“I shall be glad to renew the acquaintance,” he said. “It was broken off rather abruptly – at Government House if I remember aright.”
“Poor Rosamund! That was her mother’s contriving. She never really liked Laing, but he was what people term ‘a good match,’ and he has at least justified that estimate of his worth by dying suddenly and leaving his widow nearly two hundred thousand pounds.”
“A most considerate man,” murmured Warden.
“Then you have not forgiven her?”
“Forgive! What a harsh word from your lips. Pray consider. On your own estimate she owes me two hundred thousand thanks.”
“Arthur, I don’t like you as a cynic. I am old enough to be your mother. Indeed, it was my love for your mother that first led me to take an interest in your welfare, and I should be doing wrong if I hid from you the fact that it nearly broke Rosamund’s heart to throw you over.”
“I trust the lapse of years has healed the fracture,” he said.
Lady Hilbury looked at him in silence for a moment. She remembered the white–faced subaltern who heard, at her hospitable table, that Rosamund Miller had married a wealthy planter at Madeira – married him suddenly, within a month after her departure from the coast.
“Is there another woman?” she asked quietly.
“Not single spies but whole battalions. How I have managed to escape their combined charms all these years is a marvel. Seriously, Lady Hilbury, you would not have me take a wife to my special swamp, and I would not care to leave her in England drawing half my pay. All my little luxuries would vanish at one fell swoop.”
“I would like to see you happy, Arthur, and there is always the possibility of marrying some one who would demand no sacrifices.”
“Is Mrs. Laing out?” he inquired.
“Yes. Of course you want to meet her again?”
“I think not. I don’t mean to be unkind, but the tender recollections I cherish are too dear to be replaced by a fresh set.”
“That sounds theatrical – a sarcastic line out of some comedy of manners. If so, you shall have a wider stage than my boudoir. We lunch at one o’clock. It is 12.45 now, and Rosamund is always punctual.”
Warden, though raging at the dilemma, made the best of it.
“How long has Mrs. Laing been a widow?” he said.
“Nearly a year. Evidently your bush campaign shut out the usual sources of intelligence.”
He glanced at his watch.
“I really must catch the three o’clock train to Cowes,” he explained. “I am on Government service, and I suppose it would be quite impossible to arrange everything in a couple of hours. I am unacquainted with the formalities, but even a special license demands – “
“How unkind! Arthur, what has happened to you? How you are changed!”
“Never changed where you are concerned, Lady Hilbury!” he cried, sentiment for once gaining the upper hand – “you, to whom I owe so much! That, indeed, would be the wintry wind of ingratitude. Now, let me make amends. My behavior shall be discreet – my decorous sympathy worthy of a High Church curate. I was staggered for a few seconds, I admit, but the effects of the blow have passed, and my best excuse is that other things are perplexing me. I have no secrets from you, you know, so let me tell you why I am here.”
Sure of an interested listener in the wife of an ex–ruler of the great Niger territory, Warden plunged into an account of recent events. It was not necessary to mention Evelyn Dane in order to hold her attention. The first reference to Figuero and the Oku chiefs attained that end. No mean diplomatist herself, Lady Hilbury understood much that would perforce be hidden from all save those acquainted with West Africa.
“You will permit me to tell Charles?” came the eager question when he had finished.
“Of course. Why not?”
“There are those in the administration who are jealous of his record,” she said. “Not every one has his tact in dealing with natives. It is no secret that our relations with the emirs of the interior have been strained almost to breaking point of late – ”
A motor stopped outside the house and a bell rang. Lady Hilbury bent forward. Her voice sank to a new note of intense conviction.
“You have been given a great opportunity, Arthur. It may come sooner than you think. Grasp it firmly. Let no man supplant you, and it will carry you far.”
Her ladyship’s manner no less than her earnest words told Warden that there were forces in motion of which he was yet in complete ignorance. It was sufficiently puzzling to find an Under Secretary so well informed as to the identity of certain visitors to Cowes, but when a woman in the position of his hostess – with her wide experience of the seldom–seen workings of the political machine – went out of her way to congratulate him on a “great opportunity,” he was thrilled with a sudden elation.
Thus, when his hand closed on that of Rosamund Laing, there was a flush on his bronzed face, a glint of power and confidence in his eyes, that might well be misinterpreted by a woman startled almost to the verge of incoherence.
When she asked where Lady Hilbury was, and if she were alone, the footman merely announced the fact that a gentleman had called and would make one of the luncheon party. Rosamund entered the boudoir with an air of charming impulsiveness practised so sedulously that it had long ceased to be artificial. For once in her life it abandoned her. Warden’s friendly greeting was such a bolt from the blue that she faltered, paled and blushed alternately, and actually stammered a few broken words with the shy diffidence of a schoolgirl.