THE world to-day is watching with wonder and almost breathless interest, the amazing rapidity of the progress that is being made towards that "conquest of the air" which, but a few years ago even, seemed only the vainest of vain dreams.
And while we look on, many of us are, consciously or unconsciously, drawing mental pictures of what life on our globe will be like when success shall have been finally achieved.
Among such speculations, the assistance that will be afforded to the exploration of hitherto unknown, or little-known regions, is one which appeals so strongly to the imagination, and holds out such fascinating possibilities that apology is scarcely needed for drawing attention to it under the guise of fiction.
The day is not vary distant when the "dirigible" and the aeroplane, self-contained as to renewal of gas, petrol, electricity, or whatever the motive force may be, relatively safe, and free from frequent, irritating breakdowns, will be able to float above the impenetrable forest, the steaming, malarial swamp, or the densest jungle; and to sail serenely over mountains which have previously defied the efforts of the most daring mountaineers to scale them. In that day, the work of the explorer and the geographer will be made comparatively easy; and the naturalist, and the big game hunter, will be able to seek for specimens and trophies in places to which access is at present denied to them. No corner of the earth will then remain unvisited; and Nature will be made to yield up many secrets which have as yet been successfully hidden from us.
But whatever our gains in this direction, they will be small compared with the benefits likely to be reaped by humanity generally in other ways. Not only will the dark places of our globe be laid open to our view, but the yet darker deeds by which they are now befouled will, we may be permitted to hope, be put an end to for ever.
To-day, the slave hunter still carries on his infamous traffic in many parts of "Darkest Africa," as free from interference as in the days when Sir Samuel Baker wrote "Ismalia." His ferocious raids, with their accompaniments of butcheries, torturings, and all kinds of unspeakable horrors, continue practically unchecked. And they will so continue, for many and many a year yet, if we have to wait for the slow opening up of the vast interior of the continent by means of the construction of roads and railways.
In the following pages an attempt has been made to illustrate what the advent of "chariots of the air" may do to bring about the final extinction of these slaver gangs.
The picture may or may not be deemed a fanciful one. Yet I do not think I am venturing upon any extravagant prediction if I say I believe that many of my youthful readers will live to see it justified by actual events.
I may venture yet farther, and say that quite possibly some of them may themselves one day take part in somewhat similar adventures. And amongst these there may even be one or two embryo Cambrays, who may be stimulated by what they read here to emulate the worthy doctor's efforts in the cause of humanity. If this should indeed ever be the case, then my present story will have done something more then merely serve to while away an idle hour.
"HOW the lions are roaring round us to-night, Dan! There must be more of them than usual about."
"Yes, sir; ye see it be a extra dark, bad night, an' that makes 'em bolder. It sounds to me as if theer be a party on. Our reg'lar lion friends, what comes other nights, 'as sent out invertation cards, belike, to a lions' supper party."
"H'm! Well, we don't want them to make their suppers off us—or off the professor's oxen, either. Better tell the boys to see to the fires."
"Ay, ay, sir! I'll make 'em stir their selves. Ginger! What a clatter!"
It was something more than a "clatter" that was going on just then around the lonely camp in the African wilderness. There had come an outburst of booming, reverberating roars which fairly seemed to shake the earth.
Of the two who had been speaking, the first one was a good-looking, muscular young fellow, Roland Woodham by name, a ward of Professor Kelmar, the leader of the party. The other was an old hunter, a grizzled, weather-beaten veteran of the forest and plain, called Dan Beach.
They were seated near the middle of a circle of considerable extent formed by a ring of fires, which again were placed inside a skilfully-constructed fence of thornbush. Within the enclosure thus guarded were tents, wagons, and other items of a traveller's outfit. In and out amongst these could be seen a promiscuous assortment of native "boys," hunters, headmen, and carriers, some standing or sitting about in groups, chattering and laughing, some sprawling on the ground as though courting sleep.
Near at hand were oxen, many of them tugging desperately at the stakes to which they were tethered, and adding to the din by bellowing with fright; while others of the poor creatures, too frightened to move or utter a sound, simply stood still and trembled in a cold sweat.
The largest tent of all had a "porch" or awning in front of it, where, seated beside a table with a lamp, was a tall, bearded man with a tanned complexion and strong, wiry-looking figure, dressed in a hunter's white costume and helmet. This was Professor Kelmar, an experienced explorer and naturalist. He was reading a book, and was studying it so deeply as to appear utterly indifferent to the uproar around him.
As to the locality of the encampment, the professor himself would have been puzzled to say positively, more than that he was not very far from the boundary line of the British-African state of Uganda. He was conducting an exploration into unknown territory, in the somewhat vague hope of discovering what had become of a friend of his, another explorer—one of world-wide repute—named Dr. Cambray.
Dr. Brinton Cambray had led a large and well-equipped party some years before into the unexplored interior of Africa, and then, so far as the civilised world was concerned, seemed to have completely disappeared.
What had become of him none could say. Rumours had floated down to the coast, but they were so many and so various, so hopelessly contradictory one of another—and some, at least, were of so wild and extraordinary a character—that nothing could be made out of them.
So at last the professor had determined to go himself in search of his friend, taking with him only a small party, consisting of his ward, Roland Woodham, his faithful henchman, Beach—who had accompanied him in more than one previous trip of the kind—and a few natives on whose fidelity he knew he could implicitly rely.
Roland and Beach had been seated beside the fire which had cooked their evening meal, and were now engaged in cleaning their rifles by the light of the flames.
"I shouldn't care to be a lonely traveller out on the plain on a night like this," said Roland with a slight shudder, as there came a short interval of comparative silence. "I wonder if there's any belated native abroad to-night?"
"No fear, sir; or if there be, he's passing the night up a tree," Beach declared. "Nobody in his senses goes about alone in the dark here. They keeps to their villages—an' they beant too safe even theer; or else, if so be there's a party of 'em, they camps fur the night, and makes up plenty o' fires same as we be doin'."
The hunter had laid his rifle carefully aside and risen to his feet, and having delivered himself of this last observation, was turning to cross over to the natives' quarters, when he suddenly stopped and stared about him.
"Did ye hear that, sir?" he exclaimed.
"Hear what, Dan?"
"Why—I doan't rightly know, Mr. Roland," Beach answered hesitatingly. "But I thought, somehow, as I 'eard voices overhead like."
This amused Roland, who laughed; and as though the lions thought he was laughing at them, his reply was drowned in a fresh outburst of roars from outside the camp.
It was in the midst of this deep-toned chorus that something came hurtling through the air—something which fell just between Dan and the young fellow still seated beside the fire—something which flashed white as it came into the light of the lamp in the tent on the one side and the firelight on the other.
"Great Scott!" cried Dan. "What be that?"
He had again started off to speak to the native "boys," and he once more turned back, in order to see what it was that had fallen. But Roland, leaning over and crawling a foot or two, reached it first.
In an instant he had jumped to his feet, and was holding the something up in his hand, and examining it by the aid of the flickering firelight.
"Jupiter! Why—it's a letter!" he gasped.
"A what, sir?" asked Dan, amazed.
"A letter—and it's addressed to the professor!"
Beach stared helplessly up into the sky. Nothing to be seen there save inky blackness. Then he stared again at Roland.
"A letter!" he muttered to himself. "Great Scott! He says it's a letter!"
The roars had died down into hoarse, muttering growls and grunts; and it so happened that just then Professor Kelmar looked up from the book he was reading, and saw his ward coming towards him with something white in his hand.
"What have you there?" he asked.
"A letter, sir—just arrived," was the surprising answer.
"A letter? What do you mean, Roland?" The professor frowned. He did not like silly, boyish jokes such as this seemed to be.
"It's true, sir," Roland declared. "Look at it!"
He held out a pebble some few inches in length, and weighing perhaps four or five ounces. To it a letter was securely tied by a piece of native fibre in place of string.
Professor Kelmar took it and looked at it curiously. Then he slipped the fastening off, and turned the missive over and over. It was a thick envelope, carefully sealed with wax, and bearing his name.
So astonished did he feel that he continued to stare at the envelope for what seemed quite a long time. Finally he broke the seal, opened it, and took out and read the enclosure.
The contents seemed only to add to his mystification.
"Roland!" he cried. "How did this come here?"
"That's more than I can say, Mr. Kelmar," the youngster returned. "I'm trying to think the puzzle out. It seemed to drop from the clouds, just now."
"Do you mean that some messenger has arrived with it on a night like this?"
Roland shook his head.
"No, sir; no messenger has come into camp. It dropped almost at my feet."
"Do you mean, then, that someone flung it from the outside over the hedge and the fires?"
"That's what I'm trying to think out, sir. It fell just when that last little tune-up of our four-footed camp-followers was at its loudest. But I can scarcely think it was one of them who—"
"Don't talk rubbish!" interrupted the professor angrily.
"Indeed, sir, I don't mean it that way. But I can hardly think that any person could be outside and threw it in. So where on earth it came from I can't imagine."
The professor meantime was reading the epistle itself, and as he read the expression of his face altered and became excited and eager.
"Extraordinary!" he exclaimed. "However it came, it's a wonderful letter—short as it is, it's a marvellous letter, Roland! What it says is as astonishing as the way it came. It tells me most welcome news—that Dr. Cambray is alive, and he wants me—but, Roland we must find that messenger! He must be a brave fellow and a faithful one—to venture here on such a night. If he is still outside we must have him in. Dan, go and find him, and bring him here to us! We can't leave him out there!"
Dan had drawn near, and had listened to the talk between his leader and Roland.
"Of course not—of course not," said the hunter, in a dazed sort of way. "Only, sir, if I bring him in I'll have t' bring in the hull menagerie as is outside, I'm thinking. If he were ever theer, he's bin eat up long ago."
"What do you mean by that?"
"I means as there weren't no messenger. Couldn't a bin. Nobody could a come through them roaring 'ungry creetures wi'out bein' eat up! Ye knows that yesself, sir. No; he can't be outside the hedge—even if he could have thrown that theer stone as fur—which, beggin' yer pardin, sir, I takes the liberty to misdoubt. 'Sides, it didn't come from the outside like."
"That's just it," Roland put in. "I agree with Dan. I doubt if anyone could have thrown the stone from outside—especially the way this was thrown."
"How else could it have come, then?" Professor Kelmar demanded.
Roland was silent. It was a question he could not answer. But Beach had quite made up his mind.
"It's witchcraft, sir; that's what it be," he said.
The professor turned away impatiently, and, bidding the two attend him, went off to the native side. There he ordered the boys to get torches and follow, and, in spite of the danger attending his proceedings, he made the circuit of the whole camp, close to the hedge, calling loudly to anyone who might be waiting on the other side, and bidding him reveal his whereabouts.
Bit it was all in vain. There was an ominous absence of anything like a human reply to their calls. Only the lions roared again, in defiant answer to what they thought was a sort of challenge meant for them.
"He must have rushed up to the hedge, thrown the letter over and rushed away again," the professor finally decided.
"If he did he's lion's meat by this time—that's sartin," growled Dan to himself. "But theer warn't no one theer. It be witchcraft!"
The professor returned thoughtfully to his tent, where, spreading the paper out on his table, he read it out aloud for the benefit of his two white companions. And this is all there was to read.
"Meet me at the Lion Rock three days from now, S. by E. ½ S.—Brinton Cambray."
"The Lion Rock!" repeated the professor. "Meet me at the Lion Rock! What an extraordinary message! And—more extraordinary still—he evidently knows exactly where we are, though we have heard no rumour of his being in the neighbourhood."
"And he says nothing as to where he is?" Roland asked.
"Nothing. It's a most mysterious, puzzling affair. And why meet at the Lion Rock? Why not come here? Or why can't we go direct to him, wherever he is? And finally, where on earth—or where in Africa—is the Lion Rock? Dan, tell Madali and his boys that I want to speak to them."
Madali, one of the headmen, a native chief, and his boys were called and questioned, but they could give no information.
"It's such a remarkable message," pondered the professor, after he had dismissed them in despair, "that if we had been anywhere else than in this wilderness I should have declared it to be a hoax."
"But—I suppose you know whether it's the doctor's writing, Mr. Kelmar?" said Roland. "Do you think it is really his?"
"Yes, my lad, I do, though it's a bit shaky."
He became silent and thoughtful as he recalled some of the wild rumours which had come down to the coast. And with them there came into his mind a haunting doubt. What if his friend were not in his right mind? It would not be the first time that the African sun had turned a white man's brain.
"Well," he decided at last, "there is nothing for it but to follow his directions, for I suppose these letters S. by E., ½ S., mean that we are to travel in that direction in order to find the place. So to-morrow we will break up our camp and start upon a fresh search—a search for this Lion Rock!"
AT dawn next morning a search was made round the outside of the camp; but nothing was discovered which explained how the mysterious message of the previous night had been delivered.
There were no tracks visible save those made by the lions, who had by that time drawn off. No traces were there of any stranger having been near the place; no signs of any struggle, such as might have been expected if a messenger had fallen a victim to the hungry marauders.
The professor gave up the problem in despair. Then he inspanned and set out upon his march, following as well as he could the directions contained in the message.
Towards afternoon the travellers reached a native village, where inquiries were made, but with unsatisfactory results. The villagers were friendly, and at first readily answered all questions put to them by the professor's headman, Madali, who understood their language. But no sooner was the Lion Rock mentioned than they became silent and stolid. It waa clear that they knew something about the rock—something, however, which they declined to talk about.
Overtures were made to induce of them to act as guides to the place; but this they obstinately refused to do at any price. Neither coaxing, persuasion, nor bribes would tempt a single villager to accompany the white men and show them the way to the mysterious Lion Rock.
In the end the travellers had to resume their journey without a guide; and they started again, following as well as they could the line of country that had been marked out.
The region they had now to traverse was a vast undulating plain. It consisted for the most part of alternations of dense forest and grassy veldt; but in many places there were muddy streams and swamps, and in others ridges and stretches of almost bare rock.
In the far distance could be seen the blue summits of a chain of lofty mountains which appeared to rise almost to the clouds.
To these the travellers often longingly turned their gaze as they plodded onwards, in the burning rays of the tropical sun, through the steaming swamps or over the sun-baked rock. Their soaring summits suggested delicious, cooling, mountain breezes; whereas the plain they were in was little better than a scorching wilderness.
The natural obstacles which they continually met with, too, forced them to make many tedious detours. Their actual progress, therefore, was slow; and it was difficult to know whether they were really following the right course.
There was not even the excitement of a hunt for game to vary the monotony; for nothing in that way was seen during the whole day.
At sundown they halted for the night upon a rocky eminence; and here another strange thing befell.
They had cut their thorn fence and placed it in position, built and lighted their ring of fires, and were making preparations for the evening meal. The night was again extremely dark, no stars even peeped down through the cloud overhead.
The lions—their usual nocturnal attendants—had not yet put in an appearance. A distant sound, however that was like a deep, long-drawn, hoarse moaning, rather than a roar, indicated that the creatures were astir and were already setting out upon their nightly prowl.
"What is there for supper to-night, Dan?" asked Roland of the hunter.
"Precious little, sir; nuthin' as you'll care about," grunted Beach. "We've only got the bully-beef an' the dried deer's meat. The luck wur against us t' day. No game t' be seen—and even them village chaps had little to sell 'cept some goats' milk."
"Ay, I know; and I'm tired of that dried-up meat. Why, it's three or four days now since we had any fresh meat."
"Happen we'll get some to-morrer," said Dan hopefully. "We'd better turn out early an' see what's about. I wur goin' this mornin', only the perfessor kep' us so long a-huntin' round fur the chap as he thought 'ad brought that letter. But I knew it 'ud be no good—'cause why? 'Twur witchcraft."
Ronald smiled indulgently.
"Still harping on that, Dan?" he commented. "Well, I'll go out with you as early as you please in the morning, and we'll see if we can't get a bird or two by way of a change for breakfast, anyway."
And then it was that the second strange thing happened. There was again a swishing sound, as of something hurtling through the air; but this time it was followed by a dull, heavy thud. Looking round, the two saw a big, dark lump lying on the ground a short distance away.
There was a white patch on it which showed up conspicuously in the firelight.
"Zooks! Another letter?" exclaimed Roland, staring about to see where it could have come from.
"Somethin' bigger'n a letter to-night," Dan declared. "Must a come by parcel post this time, I'm thinkin'!"
The hunter stepped forward and picked the thing up. It was a large joint of fresh meat.
"Ginger! Here's the supper ye was a-wishin' fur! As fine a haunch o' venison as ever I seed. Well, if this don't beat everything! More witchcraft!"
Roland wonderingly looked at this welcome arrival, touched it, smelt it, and found that it was, truly enough, what Dan had pronounced it to be. Then he cut free the piece of paper attached to it. On it were written a few words only:
"For Professor Kelmar. With Dr. Cambray's compliments."
The young fellow stared at the paper in amazement.
"Jupiter! I must tell Mr. Kelmar of this!" he cried; and ran off to where his leader was inspecting some of the arrangements for the night.
A minute or so later the professor was staring first at the slip of paper and then at the unexpected gift.
"It is extraordinary—certainly most extraordinary!" he commented. "Now, Roland—Dan—how did this come here?"
But, of course, neither could explain. The three gazed this way and that, but no solution of the problem offered itself.
"This couldn't have been thrown in by someone from the outside, at any rate!" Roland remarked.
"N-no. That, at least, seems certain," his leader admitted. "But then, it couldn't have come from the sky, you know."
As to Dan, he stuck to his original opinion:
"It be witchcraft," he pronounced once more.
"Well, the fresh meat is acceptable, sir, anyway," said Roland. "Only just now I was wishing we had some."
"There's that to be said, certainly. Dan, you'd better take it in hand and cook it for supper."
Dan set to work and prepared what proved to be a tasty dish, and the travellers had quite an enjoyable meal; all the more pleasing, perhaps, for being seasoned with so much wondering speculation.
Nothing further of note occurred that night, and at dawn the march was resumed. In the course of the day they passed two more villages, with much the same experience as that which they had met with the previous day. Directly the Lion Rock was mentioned the natives became silent and refused to talk about it. Here, indeed, even more than before, there was noticeable in their demeanour an air of mystery which seemed to be founded on fear. To the keen observer it was obvious that they knew the place and held it in awe—in such awe that they were afraid to so much as speak about it.
"Anyone would think there's something uncanny about the place," commented the professor. "I wonder what it all means? They have the air of people under the influence of some superstitious terror."
"An' small wonder, sir," quoth honest Dan. "Seein' as they seems t' live in a country wheer things most onexpected do come droppin' down from the sky. If that sort o' thing's bin a-goin' on heer for long, I wonder it ain't turned their hair white—an' their skins, too, fur that matter. I tell ye, Mr. Roland, theer must be witches a-flyin' about 'ere nights."
"Of the real, old-fashioned kind, d'you think, Dan—on broomsticks?" laughed Roland.
At their next camping-place that night there came yet another missive—only a slip this time, tied to a stone, with the laconic message:
"Too far to the E. Travel to-morrow S.W. by W."
"No witch would watch over us like this, Dan," said Roland to the wondering hunter. "These people, whoever they are, are acting more like guardian angels than witches."
THE following morning the travellers were astir before dawn. This was the beginning of the third day—the day on which all doubts were to be resolved, and the promised meeting was to take place with their mysterious—or eccentric—correspondent.
In accordance with the latest instructions, so oddly given the night before, the route followed was more to the west. This alteration presently brought them in sight of a gap or pass in a high rocky ridge which crossed their line of march, and obscured their view of the country on the other side.
"H'm!" observed the leader to Roland. "The directions which were 'thrown' at us last night were not sent without cause. But for them we should not have seen yonder pass, and should have been compelled to make a most toilsome journey right over the top of that ridge. I can see that this will be a much easier route."
"Which," returned Roland, as he wiped his perspiring face with his handkerchief, "is something to be thankful for on a baking morning like this."
The pass was a narrow defile between precipitous rocks. At first the track mounted upwards, but very soon it began to descend. Presently it opened out, offering to the tired travellers a magnificent view of the plain beyond.
And then, at last, they saw the Lion Rock.
There was no mistaking it when it came in sight. They needed no guide-book or finger-post to confirm their first impression. There was no room for doubt or hesitation. They knew that they must be looking at the Lion Rock, and no other.
There it stood, the most striking object in the midst of a vast plain extending to the foot of the mountains, of which, during the previous days, they had only seen the peaks. Dreamy, inviting-looking peaks they had been, suggesting, as has already been said, cool, soft, refreshing zephyrs. Now, glistening, silver threads could be distinguished here and there, which further suggested the existence of limpid mountain-streams and foaming waterfalls.
But the great rock for which they were bound claimed their first attention.
It stood out clearly, placed on an eminence, which raised it high above the surrounding country, while it was of itself far larger than any other rocky outcrop save the distant mountains.
It formed, therefore, a conspicuous and striking landmark.
Its likeness to a colossal statue of a lion couchant was obvious at the very first view of its general outline. This resemblance was heightened by the fact that the highest part, forming what may be termed the head and neck, was covered with dark foliage, which, when viewed by the naked eye from a distance, was not unlike a dense, shaggy, black mane.
Looked at through the travellers' glasses, however, this mane resolved itself into a plantation of cedars of Lebanon of immense size, their sombre foliage showing up in striking contrast to the marble-like whiteness of the sides of the rock itself.
Bold, rugged, and massive stood this Lion Rock, suggesting in its outlines a sense of stubborn solidity and unfathomable strength.
Nor was this without reason. As Professor Kelmar decided, after a careful scrutiny, it must have stood thus for hundreds—more probably for thousands—of years, defying all the powers of Nature that had been brought to bear against it—the lightnings of the tropical thunderstorms, the beatings of the wild whirlwinds, the shock of the tornadoes.
It must have endured, too, the daily scorching of the sun's rays, and the even fiercer breath of the forest fires which had doubtless from time to time raged round its base. But evidently, the professor decided, these could never have reached its tree-covered heights—at any rate, during the last thousand years. The immense size of the cedars themselves told him that much.
From a contemplation of this rock, the hot, dusty, toil-worn adventurers turned their gaze again to the distant rampart of mountains. And then a feeling of disappointment and dismay swept over them. High up in the air, literally amongst the clouds, was a seductive-looking tableland; but it appeared to be unapproachable, absolutely inaccessible! The mountains rose from the plain in one stupendous unbroken precipice, the upper part of which no one might hope to reach except by the aid of balloons.
An involuntary sigh escaped from Roland.
"See, Mr. Kelmar!" he exclaimed, as he gazed fixedly through his glasses. "It looks like a veritable fairyland up there! It is just as though there was a fairy town amongst the clouds. I fancy I can almost make out buildings and white tents!"
"I can see something of the kind," the professor agreed. "But I expect, Roland, that is an illusion—perhaps some kind of mirage! However, it will not do to linger here. Our immediate business is to get to yonder great rock. I can see we have yet some miles of difficult travelling to get through before we reach it."
"And what shall we find—who shall we find—when we get there?" Roland queried. "Will Dr. Cambray be there? Is he there now? Will he see us before we get there, and come to meet us?"
These were questions no one could answer. All they could do, seemingly, would be to trudge on through the increasing heat—the sun was getting high overhead—with such patience and hopefulness as they could muster up.
"However," decided the leader, "I see no use in dragging our oxen and heavy baggage further till we know what is going to happen. I shall leave them here with some of the boys in charge. Then, if we find we wish to stay at the rock, we can send for them; or, if we decide to return, we can pick them up on our way back."
Near at hand there happened to be a small thicket with a muddy pool; and here, in the shade, the wagons were halted, and a few natives left to look after them. The remainder of the party descended into the plain and continued their tedious journey, making their way at one time through patches of dense forest, at others over arid wastes of open stony ground or dried-up grass.
At last they found themselves close to the object of their journey. Emerging from some thick wood they saw it towering up before them in the midst of a clearing, and were able to see that it was easy of ascent by reason of the fact that its sides were formed of a series of ledges. The hill on which it stood was higher than they had supposed. Even where they now were, outside the wood, they could see across the plain to the distant mountains.
For a while they paused and looked about and listened, hoping to detect some sign of the presence of friends. But the whole place was grimly silent. As it was now about noon, even the animals and birds were quiet; and from the woods around no sound came save the droning of insects on the wing. It was the hour of Nature's siesta, and even the monkeys in the tree branches seemed too drowsy to resent the presence of the intruders.
The grand old cedars on the rock above were arranged—it could now be seen—in orderly rows, as though planted by hand. They reminded the professor irresistibly of the "sacred groves" he had seen further north in Palestine and Egypt.
Suddenly the weird, impressive silence was broken by an indescribable clamour—shrieks, yells, moans, curses, hoarse shouts of threats and warning, came from somewhere in the wood around. Then succeeded the sound of rifle and pistol shots, which, again, was followed by an even louder outcry.
Quickly Professor Kelmar and those with him who were armed unslung their rifles and, stepping back into the shadow of the edge of the forest, waited in watchful expectancy for what was to come next.
Then, from the other side, a number of dark, flying figures rushed into the clearing as though running for the rock. Instead, however, they halted half-way, and falling on their knees, lifted up their hands—in many cases bound together with leather thongs—as though in supplication. And to the professor's wondering ears came the sound of wild, frantic prayers for deliverance, offered up to "the Good Spirits of the Lion Rock!"
Then the white man understood. These poor creatures had been ruthlessly taken from their homes in far-away African villages by some party of cruel slave-raiders, and had broken loose here on the journey down to the coast.
Why they should have attempted to escape at that particular spot, or why they should be praying to "the Good Spirits of the Lion Rock," he could not guess—nor did he pause to speculate. It was sufficient for him that these helpless fellow-mortals were in momentary dread of being re-taken; and he felt it was his duty, as a humane Englishman, to at least make an attempt to save them.
"Quick, boys!" he cried to Madali and his men. "We must rescue these people! Cut their bonds, and hurry them up the rock till you get them under the trees! We will come after and keep the slavers at bay!"
Now some of Kelmar's blacks had themselves been rescued by white men from slave-raiding gangs, and they needed no urging when told to assist in similarly saving others.
It was not an easy task, however. The poor creatures themselves made it more difficult by their extravagant demonstrations of gratitude.
As the three white men, in their white dresses and helmets, made their appearance, the fugitives seemed to think they were the actual "Good Spirits" of the rock come down to deliver them in answer to their prayers; and some threw themselves on the ground in the most abject expressions of gratitude. Others, in their joy, jumped and danced about so delightedly that they would not remain still enough to enable their deliverers to cut their bonds.
Had the slaver gang—exasperated as they no doubt were at what had occurred—come on the scene just then, the lives of the would-be rescuers would in all probability have been forfeited for what they were trying to do. As it was, the retreat to the top of the "back," as it may be called, of the "lion," was effected before the rascally slave-raiders themselves made their appearance.
Even then the situation of the rescuers was anything but an enviable one. Standing on the ridge, just outside the great cedars which formed the beginning of the "mane," they looked down upon a crowd of desperadoes three times as many as themselves, and for the most part better—because more experienced—fighters.
They were all sorts—Arabs, half-breeds, "bad" blacks; desperadoes and cut-throats every one of them; all now infuriated to the last degree at the thought of their prey escaping them.
They did not wait to "reason why," or to waste time in a parley, but began at once to scatter round the base of the rock in order to swarm up to the attack on three sides at once.
Kelmar glanced towards what may be termed the "neck" and "head" of the rock, which rose behind him. Nothing to be seen there but the dark, frowning mass towering above.
Then, as shots began to whistle about his ears, his gaze involuntarily wandered to the distant mountains.
And now he started, and uttered an exclamation as something there caught his eye.
Roland and Dan both looked—and so did their assailants—and, all suddenly, the shouting and cursing and shooting died down, and there came a significant interval of silence.
The white men's companions began to stare towards the mountains, too; then all the natives, rescued and rescuers alike, fell on their knees in affright.
For there, in the distance, coming, as it seemed, from that mountain tableland which had looked so inviting yet so unattainable, an awful apparition—a gigantic flying monster—could be seen high in the air, winging its way across the plain towards them!
IT would be difficult to describe the astonishment with which Professor Kelmar and his two white companions gazed at this formidable-looking monster winging its aerial flight across the plain. There was not much wind, but what there was, was against it.
It was certainly a wonderful and impressive sight—a sight not only unexpected, but unlike anything they had ever seen before in their whole lives. It did not take the professor long to decide that it was an airship of some kind. In that respect he had the advantage over the superstitious natives around him. The fact relieved him of all immediate anxiety as to his critical situation; for where there was an airship there must be white men; and where there were white men, he surely had no cause for fear.
But these things did not assist him to solve the tantalising questions that followed: How on earth came the airship to be there in the midst of Africa? Who could the adventurous people be who had brought it there? And, finally, how, in the name of all that was wonderful, had they managed to do it?
For a space of some minutes—it really seemed much longer—there was deep silence, an interval during which no one spoke, no one moved. It was a dead, tense, awed silence, not of human beings only, but almost, as it seemed, of Nature itself. It was easy to imagine that all the wild creatures of the surrounding country—the birds and monkeys in the trees, the animals upon the ground—were crouching, and hiding, and watching this apparition in deadly fear.
Then upon the hushed air was heard a most awful uproar—a series, a chorus, of yells that rose into one long, wild, hoarse, wailing screech. It came from the native spectators. It signified that their load of terrible fear had become too great to be borne any longer, and they had been compelled to give vent to it at last.
Then silence again; and the white men, looking round, found that they were alone—absolutely alone. Every soul but themselves—their own people, the rescued slaves, the slavers and their mob of followers—had vanished. They had bolted into the depths of the surrounding woods, there to hide, like the birds and animals, in fear and trembling, leaving no trace behind to show which way they had gone.
Kelmar noted the stampede with an amused smile, and calmly resumed his scrutiny of the cause, which interested him far more than its effects upon the native mind.
The great aerocraft [sic] was shaped like a gigantic fish; but it was far larger even than any whale that ever lashed the sea into foam. A fish-like tail, and something that might have been either wings or fins, completed the resemblance.
As it drew nearer a low humming could be heard; and now there came a fresh surprise.
"Ginger!" cried Beach, in a low tone, "theer's two on 'em! There be a little 'un buzzin' round the big 'un like a frisky calf round an old cow."
"Dan, you're right!" came from Roland. "Do you see it, Mr. Kelmar?"
"Yes; I caught sight of it a few moments ago. It seems to be an aeroplane, while the big affair must be what they call a dirigible."
The humming grew louder, and soon it could be heard that it was, so to speak, in two keys—a deep-toned hum from the big airship, and a high-pitched, busy, insistent whir from the small one.
As the flying wonders came nearer the excitement of the three spectators grew in proportion. The professor himself made no attempt to conceal the eagerness he felt for a solution of the question of identity. Could it be possible, he kept asking himself, that it was his friend, Dr. Cambray, who was coming towards him on this marvellous structure? Was it possible that he had somehow had these machines made, and brought them to that place?
At this point the professor's mental queries came to a dead stop. He felt he could not follow them out any further. His brain almost reeled. It all seemed too wonderful for belief. Yet a few minutes more must settle his doubts one way or the other, unless—unless—well, unless the whole affair were a waking hallucination!
But by this time the two aerocraft had come so near that they began to slow down. Then the large one stopped altogether, and floated, silent and listless, in the slight breeze. The aeroplane circled round, and ran alongside the deck which was suspended below the great gas-bag. And from this deck Kelmar, through his glasses, saw a man climb down the rope ladder onto the smaller craft.
"By all that is wonderful, it is Cambray—Dr. Cambray!" exclaimed the professor.
"Dr. Cambray!" echoed Roland, and "Dr. Cambray!" was repeated by Dan in a deep, bass growl.
"He's come, then, at last!" breathed Roland, in a simmering state between admiration and amazement. "And this is the way of his coming!"
"Which it may account fur the things fallin' onexpected from t' sky belike," muttered the hunter wisely.
"I expect you're right, Dan. So you see it couldn't have been witchcraft."
There was no time for more words. The aeroplane had come circling down from above, and was now quite close to them. A few moments later it landed lightly and easily on the ridge on which they were standing, and but a few yards away.
From seats upon a platform two persons rose up and stepped off on to the rock. One was a man and the other a youth.
The former was a rather short, dapper-looking individual, a little inclined to stoutness. His hair was black, his face clean-shaven, his eyes roving and restless, yet sharp and instinct with intelligence. In manner he was quick, almost nervous, and he spoke in sharp, jerky accents.
"Ah, Kelmar!" he said, as naturally as though they had seen each other but a few days ago. "I'm sorry I'm late! The bothersome motor went wrong—had a job to get here this morning at all. Glad to see you're looking well!"
"Why, yes, Cambray, I'm pretty well—a little tired and dusty with our long jaunt," returned the professor, a bit stiffly. He felt somewhat embarrassed at the ether's off-hand way of welcoming him, and glanced it him keenly, as though seeking for some explanation. Then suddenly an idea occurred to him. His friend had played—was playing now—a somewhat elaborate practical joke on him—so the professor now began to suspect. He therefore would humour the joke, and pretend not to be in any way surprised.
"I think, you know, Cambray," he said, with a matter-of-fact air, "you might have come for us in your—ah!—chariot of the air, instead of leaving us to trudge the three days' journey."
"Couldn't, my dear old chap—couldn't," returned the doctor tersely. "I told you why."
"Told me why?" cried Kelmar, opening his eyes. "Why—when? How?"
"Surely you got my message? But of course you did, or you wouldn't be here."
"Your manage? A line asking me to meet you here—-at the Lion Rock—in three days. It told me which way to travel, certainly; but that was all. No explanation, no particulars, no—"
"Eh? Oho!" cried the doctor. "I think I begin to understand! I scent Master Leslie's genius for mischief in this! Leslie, you young rascal, come forward! Come here and tell the truth!"
The youth accompanying him, who had been standing in the background observant of all that went on, stepped forward.
Roland looked at him with much interest. He seemed to be about his own age, but very fair—Roland was inclined to be dark—and with blue eyes—eyes that had a roguish twinkle in them, and something more. The most mischievous-looking eyes, Roland thought, that had ever looked into his.
"Kelmar, this is Leslie Hadley, of whom—for my sins, I suppose—I happen just now to be in charge in this wilderness. If there were any way in which I could get rid of him—other than by giving him to the lions—I mean, any way by which I could send him back to his home, I don't care how—whether by post—letter post, parcel post, pigeon post—or by telegraphy wireless or otherwise, or telephone, or by river, stream, tide, or wind—by any side-wind, in fact—I'd have packed him off long ago. He fairly bothers my life out. I'm not a betting man—as you know—otherwise I'd bet you a porcupine to an elephant that this is his doing. However, I'll soon find out: Leslie!"
"Yes, doctor," answered the youngster, quite unabashed.
"Own up now! No nonsense! What games have you been playing? Did you deliver my message?"
"I did, sir."
"I couldn't get near the camp, except overhead. Lions this side, lions that side, lions to the right of us, lions to the left of us, lions all round. So I tied your note to a pebble I took out of one of the ballasting-baskets, and threw it down. I also called out to them, and said you were sorry you hadn't been able to come yourself. But"—the youngster added, his eyes twinkling more than ever—"I don't think they heard me, the lions were roaring so just then."
"Yes, I heerd ye call out somethin'," grunted Dan, who was standing by. "I said so at the time."
"You young monkey! You said nothing of this to me!" exclaimed Dr. Cambray.
"You didn't ask me, doctor," returned the youth demurely. "You only asked me if I had delivered your message, and, if you remember, sir, I said 'Yes.'"
"You did say 'Yes,' and that was all. I'll pay you out for this, sir. I'll keep you on bread and meat tor a week, without the meat. Now, Professor, tell me What really occurred?"
Thus requested, Kelmar related just what had happened—how every night something—once it was a haunch of venison—had fallen into their camp, each time with a message attached.
"I see—I see! Oh, the young deceiver!" groaned the doctor. "Leslie, you sha'n't even have the bread. Kelmar, I sent that young vagabond in the aeroplane to you with a note and a verbal explanation. He was to give you my compliments, and tell you how that we had had an accident with our airship, else I would have come to fetch you. I reckoned it would take three days to put it right, and if, meantime, you could get on to the Lion Rock, I would meet you there. Now I see what he's been doing. I wondered each time why he had been so long gone and returned so late. Instead of coming straight to you by daylight he waited till it was dark, and then played his pranks, dropping messages from the aeroplane as he passed over your camp just to mystify you. Leslie, just you wait till I get back to camp to-night. I'll give you a curtain lecture, you beauty! Now get out of our way. I want to talk to Professor Kelmar alone."
In no wise discomposed, the unrepentant Leslie strolled over to Roland, and, putting an arm through his as familiarly as if they had been old school chums, said: "Come along, and I'll tell you all about how I did it, and show you my aeroplane."
"Yours?" repeated Roland, in surprise.
"W-well, I call it mine," said the other carelessly, "because it's what I generally go about in."
"Is it?" Roland exclaimed, full of interest at once. "Why, that must be jolly fun, I should think."
"So it is, especially when you sail over people's camp at night in the dark, and frighten 'em half out of their wits "—and he looked slily at his companion.
"Oh, you didn't frighten us!" Roland hastened to assure him. "But, of course, we were a good deal puzzled. I can quite understand, though, that you thought it good fun. I—er—rather fancy I should have thought it so, too, if I had been with you."
"Of course you would," said Leslie, with hearty conviction. "Tell you what, I'll take you for a spin round, if you like."
"Of course I should like," Roland answered, but hesitatingly. "That is, if you're quite sure Dr. Cambray wouldn't object."
"We'll see presently, when there's an opportunity," was the somewhat obscure reply.
"I'M glad you've come out here, Kelmar," said Dr. Cambray, when the two were out of earshot of the others. "I have a great enterprise in view, a wonderful thing, and I wanted someone to join me in it."
"It must be marvellous indeed if it is more wonderful than the manner of your arrival here to-day," returned his friend. "You have not yet explained."
"No, not yet, I will later. It will keep. But I want to know if you will join me in an expedition I am about to undertake. I wanted to keep it a strict secret from the rest of the world, but I know I can trust you Directly I knew you were out here—"
"Ah! That's one of the strangest parts of the business. How did you know?"
"There isn't much goes on within what I call my territory that I don't know" returned the doctor enigmatically. Then, breaking off into a different tone, he exclaimed: "By the by, I had almost forgotten! Did I not see through my glasses that you had a lot people gathered here on this rock? It seemed to me a though some firing was going on. And where are all your followers? Von did not come here to-day alone, I suppose?"
The professor told him all that had happened that morning.
As he talked the doctor's brow darkened.
"So!" he muttered, as though to himself. "They've had the audacity to try to run a party across my ground, have they? This must be Xavier and Drucker's doing. And one would think they had somehow got to know that my airship had broken down, and that I was likely to have been kept at home." Then, in louder tones, he continued: "I think you know, Kelmar, that I have devoted years of my life to trying to put a stop to the infamous slave traffic?"
"Yes, at any rate, up to the time I last heard of you."
"And ever since. When the British Government took over the protectorate of Uganda they stopped the wicked business within their borders; but here, outside their boundaries, it still went on unchecked. I was determined I would hunt down the slave-raiders even here. I came across a man—a clever inventor—and together we worked at flying machines till we perfected what we wanted.
"We had to import all the necessary fittings from Europe and bring them up-country, and it cost me all my money—practically beggared me, in fact—but I accomplished my purpose. I could not hunt down these men in the ordinary way by following them on foot through jungle and swamp, and fighting them in their own fashion. But here we are lords of the air. We can go where we please, and spy out the land, and for a long time no slave-raider has dared to show his ugly face in the territory we patrol."
"I see. But—pardon me—why keep it a secret?"
"For one thing, because that very fact gives me my power. So long as my airships are a mystery to the natives and the rest, I have complete control; but if white men came here and explained it, all others would understand, and my power would be gone. Do you see?"
"H'm! Yes, I think I take your meaning," Kelmar answered, a little dubiously; "but I should like to know more."
"So you shall, so you shall—presently. All in good time. Now, while in pursuit of this—er—hobby of mine—if you choose to call it so—I came upon the track of the other mystery I have hinted at."
"And that is—?"
"Before I go into that, I must tell you something else. The resemblance of this rock to a colossal lion is not accidental. It is intentional. Centuries ago—four or five thousand years perhaps—there was here only a rocky mountain, which, by what must have been the patient work of thousands of hands, directed by some designer with grand ideas, was sculptured into the form of a gigantic lion. Then, during the years that have elapsed since, the sculptured work has been almost effaced again, leaving only the general resemblance."
"That sounds a very remarkable account of the place. How do you know?"
"I will tell you later. I will only now add that the inside is hollow, and was once a great temple."
"Are you sure?" he exclaimed.
"Quite. I will take you into it. But there is something more. There I discovered some wonderful ancient records, and, after much trouble and patience, managed to decipher them. They go back thousands of years, and they have told me many strange and curious things. But the most curious revelation of all is the secret I want yon to share. They have revealed to me the way to the lost Land of Ophir,"
Professor Kelmar stared at his friend with eyes that had in them doubt and some distrust, as well as amazement.
Dr. Cambray read his thoughts:
"Ah!" he said, "I know what is in your mind. You think I'm a bit mad. That the African sun has touched my brain, as it has that of many another traveller in these wilds, but I am not mad, my friend. I may be a little eccentric. Perhaps I am, according to some people's ideas, but I know what. I am talking about here."
"I am not presuming to doubt either your word or your sanity, Cambray," said Kelmar mildly, "only, you know, this idea of yours about the lost Land of Ophir sounds a little, so to speak—"
"Oh, yes! I know what you would say. It sounds like the ravings of a cracked brain. But you seem unaware that other men with the reputation of sober scientists are seeking for that same land. Have you not heard, then, that Dr. Peters, the German savant, has set out—or has announced his intention of setting out—expressly to hunt for this same Land of Ophir? No one suggests that he is mad for doing so."
"I have read something about it in the papers before I left England."
"But he is going in the wrong direction, Kelmar. I alone hold the true secret, and if my information is correct we shall find it still what it must have been in the past—a land of gold and precious stones. I am not avaricious. I should like, as an antiquarian, to find and explore this mysterious country for its own sake. Still, if we should come across gold to be had for the picking up, I shall not refuse to avail myself of it.
"I have spent my whole fortune in doing what I have out here. Between you and me, that is one reason why I cannot go back to civilization, for I should go back a beggar. Here I can live rent free and food free, and it seems to me that here I shall have to leave my bones, unless this quest turns out what I am hoping for."
"Well, my friend, I hope, then, for your sake that it will. So far as I can see, there is no reason why I should not join you. What is the first step?"
"The first step just now is to collect your followers together, and let me have a look at the poor beggars you rescued. I want to see what they are like and where they come from. I will then go off on the aeroplane in pursuit of the slavers to see if they have any more wretched captives. And if they have I will rescue them, too. Also, I shall mete out punishment to their captors, as I always do when I catch them."
They went back to where they had left the aeroplane, but it was nowhere to be seen, while the great airship had drifted with the wind till it seemed to have gone almost back to where it started from.
"Why," exclaimed Dr. Cambray, in astonishment, "what has become of the aeroplane?"
"The two young gents be gone off wi' it, sir," said Dan Beach. "I 'eard your young gent ask Mr. Roland if he'd like to go fur a spin, an' they started together. That wur whiles you wur out o' sight round yonder with the perfessor."
"Leslie asked the other to go for a spin, and took him, did he? It's like his audacity!" cried the doctor wrathfully. "Now where are they? Which way did they go? Can you see them anywhere about?"
But it was all in vain that the two stared in this direction and that. All in vain that the angry scientist swept the distant horizon with his glasses. The aeroplane had disappeared with the two truants, and not a sign of it was now to be seen.
WHEN the stranger youth, Leslie, had made friends with Roland, and offered to take him for "a spin" on the aeroplane, the latter had no idea that it was intended to make a start then and there.
Nor, perhaps, had Leslie himself. It may be that he had uttered the words in jest, with no actual purpose of acting upon them. And it may have been merely that when, a little later, the opportunity presented itself, the temptation had proved too much for his rather small stock of discretion.
However that may be, it is certain that Roland, on his side, had no more thought of going off suddenly than of starting on a journey to the moon.
What had really happened had come about in this wise: Roland had gone close to the aeroplane to inspect it. There were three seats on the platform, of which one was still occupied by the doctor's man, who had kept his place, and was patiently awaiting orders, like a chauffeur in a motor-car. At Leslie's invitation Roland had placed himself in the doctor's seat "to see how it felt," while his new friend had seated himself on the other.
"This is how we usually travel when there are three of us," Leslie explained. "But when Tim "—indicating the "pilot"—"and I are alone—as when we came to visit your-camp—we arrange the seats differently, you know."
"Ay, ay," he said. "I can understand that—you have to adjust the weight."
"Exactly so. Then," Leslie went on, "all you have to do is to set the motor going—thus." Here he moved a lever, and the little engine started working. "And off she goes—no fuss, no trouble, no running along the ground, or any old-fashioned nonsense of that sort."
And sure enough, as he spoke, the machine rose freely and easily into the air, and darted off like a bird that had escaped from its cage.
Roland cast one startled glance in the direction of the doctor and Professor Kelmar, and had just time to note that they had strolled out of sight. The next he knew was that the Lion Rock had been left behind, and they were speeding across the plain.
It was his first experience of flying, and the novelty of the sensations it called forth made him forget, for the time being, everything else. He felt too fascinated even to ask questions. He could only revel in the exhilaration and wonderful sense of freedom the swift motion through the air inspired.
Afterwards he remembered, with surprise, that at that time no thought of danger entered his mind. The motion was so easy, there was such a delicious, gliding swing as the aeroplane dipped and rose, dipped and rose—such an entire absence of jar or jolting, that any Idea of danger seemed to be out of the question.
"You're going in the direction of the gap, I see," he presently said, after a glance ahead. "That's where we left our oxen and wagons."
"Oh, you left them there, did you?" Leslie rejoined. "I was wondering at not seeing more people with you. Of course, that explains it, Well, we may as well go on there, now we've got so far, and see that they're all right, eh?"
"I—suppose—so," Roland assented, a little doubtfully. "But, I say—will the doctor like it? Hadn't we better turn back?"
"Oh, that's all right! It's best we should look after the chaps you left there, now we are out. It'll give them a bit of a fright, I expect."
"Then we'd better not go! They might run off in a panic and leave the wagons."
"We'll have to hunt them back again if they do," laughed the vivacious young aviator. "It wouldn't be the first time we've had some fun in this machine with the niggers—would it, Tim?"
This question, addressed to the man who was with them, drew Roland's attention particularly to him for the first time.
Glancing round, Roland saw that he was a tall, thin man of perhaps forty or so, with an expression of feature which would of itself have proclaimed him an Irishman, even if the few words he had spoken had not done so.
"This is our good friend and assistant, Timothy Donald Ryan," said Leslie, by way of introduction, as he noted Roland's glance. "He's a bhoy who's throubled with a sort of double nationality, if ye can understand it. Sometimes he thinks he's Oirish, till he suddenly remimbers that his mither was Scotch; and thin he doesn't know what to call himself at all, at all. And that bothers him badly—as ye'll find out if ye get to know him long enough."
"Well, an' isn't it enough t' throuble a man, sorr?" Tim asked, appealing to Roland. "Me father were Oirish, an' all his ancistors; an' me mither were Scotch, an' all her ancistors. So which am I—Oirish or Scotch?"
"Can't exactly say. I think I should halve it," returned Roland.
"That's just what Tim does," Leslie put in. "One time he reflects upon all the past glories of the ancient Irish kings, and for a while, be jabers! he feels he's a broth ov an Oirish bhoy entoirely. Then there comes to him the recollection of the glorious deeds of Rob Roy, and Wallace, and Bruce, and the rest of the Scottish heroes, an' then—eh, mon, ye ken he's mair of a Scottie than the chiels theirsels."
Tim grinned complacently.
"It's only natural an' pathriotic, ye see," he murmured.
"But where are we going to?" cried Roland, as he looked ahead and saw that they had swerved from the direct line to the gap. "I say, turn back! I'm sure we shall get into the doctor's bad graces."
"Perhaps you're right," said Leslie, who, audacious as he himself might be, had no desire to get his new friend into trouble. "Tim, port your helm, lad, and go back upon your tracks. Or, to put it shortly—turn round."
But, alas! this was just what Tim could not do. He worked away at a lever—at first mildly and persuasively, then impatiently, and at last fiercely and desperately—till it became clear that something was wrong.
"Shure, Misther Leslie, the tail rudder's jammed!" he declared finally.
"Mon, dinna ye say that!" said Leslie. "It's the obstinate Scotch blood in the chiel that won't let her turn back."
"No, no, Misther Leslie," the man protested, "I can't turn her." Leslie whistled.
"That's a pretty go!" he exclaimed. "We shall have to look out for a place where we can land and see what's the matter. But first let's try if we can get round in some sort of a circle."
He leaned over and tried to help Tim move the lever, but without result. The aeroplane had swerved—seemingly of its own accord—from the line it had been following, and was now heading for one of the highest parts of the ridge over which the pass led. And nothing they could do would now turn it from its new course, either to right or to left.
"Zooks! We've got to top that ridge!" muttered Leslie, now beginning to grow alarmed. "Higher, Tim! Higher yet, or, as sure as Moses, we shall bang against the rocks!"
Tim moved another lever, which worked the fore rudder—the horizontal plane or rudder used for elevating or depressing the flight, and this, fortunately, gave no trouble. They shot up high into the air, and in another moment or two the rocky top of the ridge seemed to make a rush at them, and then dart past a few feet beneath.
"Whew! That was a close shave!" Leslie muttered. "Now the thing is to look out for a landing-place."
Roland glanced back at the cliff they had so narrowly escaped. They had already sunk below it, shutting out all view of the Lion Rock.
"They'll wonder what's become of us," he reminded Leslie. "And I noticed that your big airship had drifted back the other way, so that our people and the doctor will be stranded for a while. And there are those villainous slaver chaps about."
"Eh? What's that? Slavers about there?" exclaimed Leslie. "What slaver chaps?" This was the first he had heard of what had happened.
Roland briefly explained all that had taken place, and the statement drew another whistle from his companion.
"Whew! That's an awkward business! We must get back at once! Tim lad, I can see, right in front, a long stretch of grass that ought to suit us just 'down to the ground.' See if you can land her on that?"
"Better get the fender ready, then, t' steady her," said Tim.
"All right—I'll see to that. Now, wait till you get past these trees, then drop right down, and I'll be ready with the fender."
They were passing over thick forest at the time that Leslie spoke; but just ahead the wood ended, and there was an uninterrupted, undulating, grassy plain, which extended, seemingly, for miles.
They reached the end of the wood, and Tim had slowed down, and was just dropping cautiously towards the ground, and Leslie had slipped what he called the fender—a sort of buffer with a weight inside it—over the side to aid the landing, when there was a terrific squeal from the trees they had just passed over.
Leslie half turned his head and caught sight of a large, dark body which had rushed out of the wood and was pursuing them. He saw that if they landed now it would crush into them. It was an immense wild elephant—in all probability, judging from its fiendish squeal, a "rogue."
"Send her up again! Quick, Tim lad! Send her up! We mustn't land!" Leslie shouted.
Tim obeyed as well as ha could, but the machine had lost way, and answered but slowly. As it rose higher the charging elephant passed beneath it, reaching out its trunk towards it, and trumpeting with rage at finding that it had risen beyond its reach.
THE elephant, disappointed in its charge and unable to stop quickly, rushed madly on for some distance.
Then it faced about, and stood gazing at the object of its fury, as though puzzled as to what sort of foe this could be which had avoided its attack by rising into the air.
Meantime, the aeroplane had gained way, and was now heading towards the elephant. Truth to tell, this was not due to any settled plan on the part of those in charge of her, but was forced upon them by the fact that, as they could not use the rudder, they could not move in any other direction.
As it turned out, however, it was probably the best thing they could have done just then. The effect upon their formidable foe was as satisfactory and amusing as it was unexpected. As the aeroplane put on speed, the humming of its motor seemed to rise to a loud, vicious whir, and when the elephant heard this, and saw the queer-looking machine coming towards it, as might some gigantic new kind of flying creature, it was seized with sudden panic.
With another loud scream—this time evidently one of deadly fear—it wheeled round and bolted off as if for dear life. And as it ran, with uplifted trunk, it kept up such a succession of screams as set the three behind it laughing heartily, so much did it resemble a magnified, squealing pig scampering off from something that has alarmed it.
"Ha, ha!" cried Leslie gleefully. "We've turned the tables, have we? Why, the brute's now as much frightened of us as we were just now of him! Keep on after him, Tim lad! We'll follow the beast up for a while, at any rate, and give him a good old wholesome fright, I'm sure it's a 'rogue' elephant, and it will teach him a useful lesson—not to be so ready to charge at everything and everybody. Don't go fast enough to overtake him, though. Keep behind, so that he will think we are chasing him." Tim gave one of his grins.
"Shore an' it's yerself, Misther Leslie, as do have some iligant ideas at toimes!" he declared. "Can't we sind a bullet or two afther him, jist be way av helping him along loike?"
"I don't think he looks as if he needs any spurring," laughed Leslie. "He's doing his level best—ye can see that, We shouldn't be likely to kill him, and there's no sense in merely wounding the brute."
"Be jaber, you're roight about him not whantin' any spurrin', Mr. Leslie. Iv the baste was sprintin' fur an elephants' gold-cup race he couldn't do it betther."
"But where are we going?" Roland asked. He took up his glasses and surveyed the ground in front of them. They were passing over a high-lying, undulating, grassy tableland, beyond which the ground evidently fell away sharply. "It's all right as long an we're up here over this grass," he went on, "but it isn't likely to go much further. Then there'll be trees or rocks, I suppose, eh?"
Leslie took a peep through his own glasses.
"By Jove! Yes, I expect you're right, Roland. I can see the plain out there in the distance, but one can't tell what may lie between, Tim lad, ye'd better pull up, and let the beast race on after his gold cup by himself, if he will be so obliging. Slow down, and let us see whether he keeps on; but be ready to go up again if he should turn and come back at us."
Tim slackened speed, and the elephant forged ahead. The animal showed no signs, however, of stopping in its flight. The only difference was that, finding it was no longer closely pursued, it ceased its cries. Soon it was nearly out of sight, and Tim thereupon brought the aeroplane to rest on the grass.
By the time the two lads had got down and begun to stretch their legs the elephant had disappeared over a low ridge.
"That's all right," said Leslie. "Thank goodness we seem to be rid of the beast. Now, Tim—"
At that moment there came back to them a terrible, trumpeting scream—a sound so different even to anything they had yet heard that it startled the two, and caused them to jump up into their seats, ready to start again if necessary.
They stared, first ahead, and then at one another, and waited expectantly, thinking that the elephant must have recovered from its fright and was coming back in a greater rage than ever. But the seconds went by, and still there was no sign of its return.
"Now what did that mean?" Leslie presently asked. "One would think that something must have happened to give the beggar a fresh fright, or else it has met with a new foe to vent its spite upon."
"H'm, yes. Something unusual, I should think," Roland muttered, "judging by the sound. Of course, it came from a good way off, yet, allowing for that, it seemed to me a far louder cry than any it gave when we were nearer to it."
"It's funny," said Leslie thoughtfully. "Do you know, I've heard elephants make all sorts of noises—trumpet, scream, squeal, etcetera—lots of times, but I never heard one make exactly that sort of sound before. The doctor is rather fond of watching the wild animals we come across; he often spends hours at it, for he's a most enthusiastic naturalist. Of course, you can understand that an airship gives you a capital chance to do that sort of thing."
"Doesn't it frighten them when they see such a big affair up in the sky?" Roland asked.
"Well, sometimes yes, but not always. It depends upon how you approach 'em, and so on. Sometimes, as we hover in the air and look through our field-glasses and telescopes, we see strange sights down below—lions hunting their prey, or fighting among themselves, and all that sort of thing."
"By Jove, that must be pretty interesting. I should like to see all that."
"Well so you will—plenty of it—-later on, if you stay with us. However, as I was going to say, we've often 'hovered' over a herd of elephants, and seen them feeding in the woods r drinking, or taking a bath in a river or lake. And they make a good many different noises when they're splashing about and enjoying themselves, or when they're angry, or when they're frightened and run off, as was the case with this one, you know, But I never heard any of 'em utter such a peculiar cry as that last."
"H'm! Well, suppose we were to go after it a bit further, cautiously and quietly, so as to find out, if we can, what has really happened?"
"All right, I'm game. Tim lad, we'll go on to the next station. All aboard? Off ye start!"
The aeroplane rose up quietly and obediently, and went slowly forward in the direction the elephant had taken. But they had not quite reached the point at which it had disappeared from sight before Leslie told Tim to stop again.
"This won't do!" he exclaimed, alarm in his tones. "Why, there must be a tremendous precipice in front of us! It will never do to tackle that until we've got the rudder right."
"Just what was in my mind," observed Roland. "I could see, quite far back, that the ground must fall away pretty steeply. But where's the elephant, then?"
"Tumbled over in its hurry, I should say. Must have done. He went this way. Let's go and look over."
They both sprang down, and walking briskly a few hundred yards, found themselves, sure enough, on the very verge of a precipice, which went sheer down many hundreds of feet.
"Whew!" whistled Leslie, suddenly pointing to some low shrubs and grass which, it could be seen, were crushed and torn on the very brink. "That's where the elephant's gone! He went over there, and I guess he's as dead as a doornail by now. I expect that it was his death-shriek we heard."
Roland stared at him, a little awed.
"Oh, it's a good thing he's killed himself," Leslie assured him. "I'm certain it was a 'rogue,' and a rogue elephant is as dangerous as a man-eating lion. Now, the thing is, can we find a way to climb down, while Tim's putting the machine right, to see if we can discover exactly where it lies? If we can, it will save us trouble later on."
"Why? What for?"
"H'm! Didn't you see that the brute had two splendid tusks on him?"
"Yes, of course I noticed that."
"Tusks, my friend, are worth money. I guess those two are worth a hundred pounds if they're worth a penny! You see," Leslie explained, with a mischievous laugh, "the doctor won't be likely to be so angry when we get back if we bring two such trophies with us."
"I begin to understand," said Roland. "I never thought of that. By the way, what do you call your aeroplane? Has it got a name?"
"Oh dear yes. It's called the Bat. But I generally call it the 'Buzzer,' because it makes a noise like a great blue-bottle. The other one—"
"What other? The airship?"
"No," returned Leslie. "The airship is called the Champion, after the doctor, who is known all round this country as the champion of the poor slaves. We've got another aeroplane, usually kept packed away, as a reserve, in case anything happened to this one. It's really a better one than this—an improvement on it, because it is almost silent—-and it can 'hover' over a place, which you can't do with the Bat. For that reason we call it the Hawk, which is a bird that can 'hover,' you know. That was the one I used when I visited your camp at night and puzzled you all so," he added, with another laugh.
Then he swept the country around and below them through his glasses.
The cliff they were standing on was a sort of bluff which looked out over the plain beyond.
"I think," he observed, pointing to the left, "we could get down yonder slope if we started from that thicket at the top."
Roland just then was gazing steadily through his glasses at something that had caught his attention in another direction.
"I can see," he said, "over to the right, the track we toiled along this morning on our way to the Lion Rock. There is the route we followed leading up to the gap, where we left our oxen and wagons. Ah! And there's something—er, some people—coming along the same track! Only they're coming the other way—from the gap. They seem in a tearing hurry, tool They've just come out of the wood there."
"I can see them!" Leslie joined in, peering through his own glasses. "They've got some ox-wagons, too—like you have, I suppose—and, as you say, they seem to be in a mighty hurry."
Roland almost gave a jump.
"Why," he exclaimed, "it's our own people! And I declare they're going off—bolting with the professor's oxen and wagons and all our heavy baggage! This is a pretty business! What can it mean?"
"Whatever it means we must stop 'em!" cried Leslie.
"Will you help me?".
"Rather! Just give Tim and me time to get our rifles. Then we'll scramble down the cliff somehow, and we'll jolly soon find out what's o'clock!"
AS the two lads approached the aeroplane they were received by Tim with a grin of satisfaction.
"Shure it's all roight, it is," he declared.
"What? You've got the rudder free?" asked Leslie.
"It's all as roight as rain, sorr; an' ye can sthart as soon as iver it plazes yez."
"Why, then," said Leslie, turning to Roland, "of course that settles it. We sha'n't need to climb down, we can 'plane' down. That will be ever so much better and easier."
"Easier; but I'm not sure about it's being better, unless we are certain of finding a good landing place. We've got to stop those jokers from running away, you know."
"Leave it to us; we've had to do the same sort of thing before," returned Leslie. "You will find that the mere sight of us in the air over their heads will frighten them so they will be ready to do anything you tell them."
"Perhaps you're right. I did not think of it in that way," Roland returned thoughtfully. "You've had experience of this kind of thing before, I expect."
"I should think we have," laughed Leslie. "We haven't been flying about the country here for the time we have without learning how to deal with obstreperous niggers. Now then! All aboard! Off you go, Tim!"
The engine commenced its curious whirring sound, and the machine answered at once and rose gracefully in the air, Then Tim startled his new passenger, and caused him a momentary thrill of horror, by sailing coolly forward, straight over the precipice!
This, however, was but the natural sequence to the course it had been decided to take. All the same, it almost took Roland's breath away. And as he looked down at the great depth suddenly revealed below them, he felt sick and dizzy, and was fain to clutch hard at the sides of his seat.
He had scarcely expected that his new friends would have taken such a very direct route to the plain below. He had vaguely anticipated a sort of "preliminary canter" over the high ground they had been on, before venturing on the descent.
However, this feeling affected him only for the first few moments; after that he felt more at home. As when they had first set out from the Lion Rock, the motion was so easy, and seemed so safe, that he quickly got over his first sensations.
And he was assisted in this by the behaviour of his two companions, who were evidently as much at their ease, as they went straight over the edge of that giddy height, as though they were merely stepping down from one ledge to another.
"Only shows," thought Roland to himself, "what a lot of practice they must have had!"
And while these speculations swept swiftly through his mind, they had flown almost as swiftly downwards, at first in a direction opposite to the way they wished to go. Then, swinging round in one long, magnificent curve, they faced about, and proceeded in a straight line towards the gap.
As they turned, they saw the natives with the ox-wagons hurrying along the track towards them.
Almost at the same moment the "boys," on their side, perceived the aeroplane. They stood for a few seconds as though transfixed, then, as Leslie had expected would be the case, they fell on their knees, holding out their hands in terrified supplication.
The aeroplane was brought to ground a short distance away, and Roland got out and went forward to question them, Leslie going with him to lend his assistance.
A short talk ensued, in which Leslie took part in a manner which showed that he not only understood the language of the natives, but how to deal with them.
He quickly drew from them the real cause of their apparent desertion. It was not, it seemed, that they were unfaithful, but they declared they "had been attacked by a rogue elephant," and expecting that the brute would return, they were seeking safety in flight.
"Ah! what did I say?" exclaimed Leslie, turning to Roland. "I was right, then, as to that beast that charged at us and then ran away from us. You see it was a rogue. It's a good thing it has come to grief."
"So it is," Roland agreed. Then, as he looked about, and saw many evidences of the damage that had been done to the baggage and some of the wagons, he added gravely: "The professor will be awfully annoyed about this. However, I suppose the best thing to be done is to set to work to get the whole lot back to where they started from. Only Mr. Kelmar will be wondering where we have got to, and why we don't come back to him. And the doctor will be angry with you, too, if we stay away any longer, won't he?"
"It seems to me a jolly good job we came here," said Leslie, "and they ought both to be very glad. What would have become of all your belongings?"
Just then they heard a sharp whistle, and, glancing round, saw Tim making urgent signs to them to come to him. They had landed on a slight eminence, and from it he had a better view than they had where they then were.
"Some people comin' down the track, Misther Roland," he said, as they ran up to him. "We'd bether go up and get a clearer view av 'em. I don't like their looks at all, at all."
"Jump on, then," said Leslie to Roland. "Up you go!" he added to Tim, as they stepped on board; and a moment later up they went.
As they rose they obtained again a clear view of the track along which the wagons had come, and sure enough there was another party now upon it, marching in their direction. It was a numerous party, too; and Roland, who had put up his glasses, had no difficulty in deciding who they were.
"Jupiter! It's the slavers—the beggars we had the row with!" he exclaimed. "This is a new complication! What's to be done now? If they're not stopped they'll come plump upon our wagons and baggage, and capture the whole show!"
"We must sthop thim thin, sorr," said Tim.
"Quite right, Tim. Certainly," Leslie agreed.
"But how are you going to do it?" Roland asked, rather impatiently. "They're a desperate lot of cut-throats—"
"So they may be," returned Leslie coolly; "but they won't dare to interfere with your property if I tell 'em not to."
Roland turned and stared at the speaker, rather surprised at what seemed like a bit of foolish boasting. But neither Leslie nor Tim looked like boasters just then. They each took a rifle from the rack in which they had been secured, and Roland noticed that the one Tim chose was a very heavy affair.
"That's the doctor's elephant rifle," said Leslie, as he noted Roland's look. "It fires a small shell, and carries a very long way."
"Yes; an' it's the spalpeens yonder as knows that same," muttered Tim grimly.
"But what is your plan then?" asked Roland. He had already imitated their example and unslung his own rifle. "Surely you're not going to fight with them in this affair?"
"There'll be no need to fight, you'll see," Leslie declared. "It's not likely to come to that. Only it's as well to be prepared. You never can trust 'em unless they see you mean business."
"What a cool, self-possessed young party it is!" thought Roland to himself, looking admiringly at this new friend. "He's picked up some experience out here—that's certain!"
The fact was, however, as Roland was presently to learn, that Leslie was the son of a Colonial, and had been used all his life to the natives and their ways. Roland, on the other hand, was almost fresh out from England; and though he had also "picked up some experience" under the able tuition of Professor Kelmar and Dan Beach, he was naturally still but a "tenderfoot" beside the young Colonial.
They were now heading straight for the slavers, and Roland looked at them, wondering what was going to happen. After the experience of his own party, earlier in the day, with these same people, he did not think they were the sort to give in at once without a fight.
Nor did it appear more likely as they drew nearer to the men-stealers. A large proportion of their mob of followers, it is true, rushed off at once pell-mell and hid themselves in an adjoining wood; but the leaders and a dozen others stood their ground, and awaited the aeroplane's approach with a brooding, threatening demeanour.
They handled their guns, too, in a manner which had a rather ugly look; but they did not actually begin shooting, as had been the case before.
The two aviators seated beside Roland, however, showed no sort of fear, but, sweeping round, landed on the top of a knoll a hundred yards away. Then Leslie got out, and, walking a few feet, beckoned to the leader, who thereupon came slowly forward.
"What does the young white chief require of Salondah?" he asked in a surly tone, when he was within speaking distance.
"I want to tell you," said Leslie, "that further on you will come upon a party of natives with wagons and other white men's goods. They belong to a friend of the Great White Chief, so you must not interfere with them. Keep a sharp eye on your people. If they steal anything, then he will surely come after you before you can get away."
The man remained silent for a while, and seemed to be hesitating, and Roland had time to take a good look at him. He was a fine figure, six feet high, swarthy as to visage, and was probably an Arab, judging by his face. His eyes were dark, cunning, and fierce-looking, and his whole expression sinister and cruel.
"Do these things," he next asked, "belong to the people who interfered with us to-day and forcibly took away my slaves?"
"What if it is so? You know very well that the White Chief does not allow you or anyone else to lead your slaves across his territory."
Again the man hesitated. He looked at his young questioner with a lowering brow, and his scowl grew blacker as his glance travelled to Roland, whom he evidently recognised. For a moment or two it almost seemed as though he were gathering himself together for a spring. Then he drew himself up haughtily.
"Salondah is no low, common thief," he declared. "There is nothing I want of the white man except my slaves. What else I want I have gold of my own to buy it with—more, probably, than the white men themselves," he added, with a sneer. "If we do as you desire, will the Great White Chief let us go on our way in peace?"
It was Leslie's turn to hesitate now. He knew that he had no authority from Dr. Cambray to make terms with these people in a general way. But he reflected that the doctor would be sure to wish him to save his friend's equipment; and something had to be decided at once.
"Have you any more, slaves?" he asked.
Another flash of rage shot across the man's uninviting countenance; but he repressed it, and answered surlily:
"None; they deprived me of them all."
"Well, that is only what the White Chief would have done, so it is all the same to you. I think I can promise he will overlook what has happened if you go away at once out of his country, and respect his friend's property."
"Be it so," said the fellow, with a disdainful wave of his arm, "I want no man's goods; they shall not be touched." And with that he went back to his followers.
"Do you think he will keep to it?" Roland asked in a low tone.
"Yes, he is not likely to break his promise. We will, of course, stay here and watch them go off, but we're not likely to have to interfere again."
"It's wonderful!" Roland commented, and his tone had something of awe in it. "Dr. Cambray must be a remarkable man to make such a crowd of desperadoes obey him."
"Ah, they know by this time that it is of no use to defy him! There is no proper established law here outside the Uganda State, or wasn't till Dr. Cambray came here. These villainous gangs used to have things all their own way. But Dr. Cambray has made them respect him and obey him in certain matters. They know that they are free to come and go as long as they are peaceable and bring no poor, wretched slaves with them. The doctor won't have that."
"I wish we'd known it this morning," remarked Roland, "before they sent their bullets singing about our ears. It would have saved a lot of bother."
For a while they cruised up and down in the aeroplane, keeping a watch on the slavers till they had passed the wagons and were nearly out of sight. Next they went to search for the missing elephant, and after hawking about, so to speak, up and down, over the rocks and tree-tops like a swallow on the wing, they spied its dead body lying in a hollow at the foot of the cliff from which it had fallen.
Then they divided the professor's followers into two parties, sending one forward with the wagons, with instructions to make their way to the Lion Rock; while the other remained behind to get the dead elephant's tusks.
Having secured these, and seen the remainder of the party well on their way after the rest, the three at last felt free to return in the Bat.
Mounting up again above the cliff, they were soon careering along over the scene of their late adventure with the elephant. Then, soaring yet higher, they topped the highest part of the ridge, and swept at full speed, like an eagle to its eyrie, across the plain towards the Lion Rock,
"SO, young gentlemen, you have returned at last?" said Dr. Cambray, as the aeroplane grounded on the rock, coming to rest almost in the same place it had started from.
The doctor looked in anything but an amiable humour as the two truants stepped off the platform and advanced towards him. Save for those few words he eyed Leslie in grim and ominous silence; while Professor Kelmar, on his side, glanced askance at his ward.
"We've had trouble, sir—" Leslie began. But the doctor stopped him.
"Trouble, sir!" he snapped. "How dare you go off at all without my permission?"
For a time, in fact, the doctor refused to hear any explanation, and it was only by degrees—and thanks then very much to the professor's good-natured interference—that he gradually became calm enough to listen while the two gave an account of their adventures.
By degrees, however, his indignation died down, and in the end the escapade was condoned, chiefly again at the instance of the professor.
"It seems to me that they saved my fit-out, Cambray," Kelmar observed, "and that means a lot in such a wilderness as this. If this man, whoever he is, had gone off with my baggage, as I suppose he would—"
"Then I should have gone after him and made him restore it," Cambray replied. "It seems it was a man named Salondah—not Xavier. He is the more dangerous of the two; but I would have made him restore your goods."
"Yes; thank you all the same. But it would have meant a troublesome business; so it is better as it is."
"Well, we will leave it at that, Kelmar, since I see you wish it so," grumbled his friend. "And now let us look at these tusks you've been talking about."
With Tim's help the two lads brought them from the aeroplane and proudly laid them at their leader's feet.
"There," cried Leslie, with one of his mischievous smiles, "what do you think of those, professor? Aren't they grand? My word, but we had some trouble in getting them!"
"I should rather think we did!" Roland joined in. "It was no joke cutting them out. I thought we should never get them off the brute."
The doctor laughed approval, and the professor joined in.
"Not a bad afternoon's work for a couple of lads, eh?" said Kelmar.
"I think they deserve to have them," the doctor admitted. "'The spoil to the victor,' you know. One for each."
"What a pity there aren't three," said Roland, "then Tim could have one. He deserves it, too."
"Elephants with three tusks," remarked Dr. Cambray drily, "are somewhat rare about these parts—at present. One can't say what the animals may develop in the future, I am afraid Tim must wait for his share till another rogue elephant commits suicide, as this one seems to have done."
And so the question of ownership was settled, and both the lads felt half a head taller from that moment.
Certainly the tusks were trophies any young hunters—or old ones either, for the matter of that—might well feel proud of.
Later on, Dan Beach, who had been sent out to meet the boys with the ox-wagons, returned with them, and the leaders made their preparations for camping for the night. Then the professor called Roland and Beach to him.
"Doctor Cambray wishes me to go across to his settlement yonder," he said, pointing to the distant hills. "To-morrow you are to go there, too; but for to-night I wish you to remain here in charge. The doctor assures me that there is no likelihood of your being molested—even the lions, he tells me, seem to give this rock a wide berth."
"Ay, ay, sir!" said Dan. "We shall be all right, never fear. Theer's enough on us fur comp'ny," he added, looking round. "What about these fresh chaps?"—pointing to where the slaves they had rescued were grouped together.
"They must stay the night here with you," said the doctor. "It is partly to arrange about them that I must go away. To-morrow we will decide what to do with them."
"Let me stay, too, Doctor?" Leslie pleaded.
The doctor regarded him doubtfully. Then he looked inquiringly at the professor, who smiled, saying:
"Oh, by all means let him stay if he wishes!"
"Well, if he gets into mischief, don't blame me!" said Dr. Cambray, shaking his head. "And now, Kelmar, if you are ready, we'll be off in what I call the captain's gig."
"The captain's gig" meant the aeroplane, which acted towards the great airship the part a boat fills which goes to and fro between a ship lying off at sea and the shore.
A few minutes later the two took their places beside Tim, and went whirring off to meet the airship, which had been cruising slowly up and down waiting for orders.
Roland watched them go, saw them reach the big aerostat, and sail away towards the mountains.
"A splendid affair!" exclaimed he to Leslie. "I suppose you are now quite used to all this, but to me it seems very wonderful, you know. Take it altogether, I suppose it's been the most wonderful and exciting day I ever had in my life."
"Well, now for a quiet night, then. I declare I feel drowsy already," rejoined Leslie, with a very sleepy yawn.
* * * * *
That night Roland woke, after some hours of troubled sleep, and suddenly became strangely wakeful. For a while he lay still, and then, feeling too hot and restless to remain in the tent, got quietly up and went outside, leaving Leslie—who was sharing the professor's tent with him—fast asleep.
He looked about outside without noticing anything that would account for this unusually wakeful state. The whole camp seemed wrapped in slumber, everything was just as he had last seen it before turning in. At first he felt inclined to go back and make another effort to get to sleep; but the vague, restless feeling induced him to walk quietly across to the edge of the rock, where he hoped he might find a little more air. On his way he passed under some bushes, and rested beneath their shadow on the other side. There he could look out over the plain and breathe what breeze there was coming from the distant mountains.
How long he remained thus he could not afterwards tell, but at last he decided that it was time to turn in again, and started to retrace his steps. Walking as quietly as before through the bushes—not wishing to disturb the sleepers—he had covered but a few yards when something moving caught his eye, and he paused. Peering out cautiously from his shelter, he saw three shadows steal out from the deep blackness beneath the cedars. They crept slowly, silently, across the middle of the camp, picking their way among the sleepers, in the direction of the tent Roland had recently left, and in which Leslie was now sleeping alone.
At one place, as they passed, a fitful gleam from one of the fires fell on the face of the foremost, and upon something he carried in his hand.
And Roland almost gave a jump as he recognised Salondah, the villainous leader of the slaver gang, and saw that he bore in his hand the shining blade of a naked knife!
FOR a few seconds Roland gazed in startled surprise. Then, leaping forward out of the shadow, he called out boldly:
"What are you doing there?"
It was a plucky thing to do, for he must have known that his challenge would bring the strangers' undesirable attentions upon himself. And as he was unarmed—he had left both rifle and revolver in the tent—he would be unable to defend himself.
This, indeed, was what happened. With a low snarl like that of a savage beast, the leader of the three—the one Roland had recognised as the slaver, Salondah—turned and darted at him.
But even as the ruffian made his rush another figure rose up in his path, out, as it almost seemed, of the very ground, and closed with him.
Roland's cry roused the sleeping camp. Dark forms sprang up on all sides, and threw themselves upon the other two intruders.
There was a short struggle, or, rather, a series of struggles. Salondah broke away and disappeared into the surrounding darkness. One of his companions managed to follow his example, but the third was secured. He had the bad fortune to run against Dan Beach, and that worthy laid a grip upon him which he found it impossible to shake off.
"What be the trouble, Mr. Roland?" asked the hunter, after he had finished binding his prisoner.
Dan was a little out of breath, but otherwise none the worse for his scrap. He found Roland kneeling by the side of someone lying on the ground. A second look showed him that it was one of the captives they had rescued from the slaver gang.
"He saved me, Dan," said Roland, with emotion. "He tackled that murderous scoundrel just as the ruffian was rushing at me with his knife in his hand. He was struck down instead of me, and he is badly hurt, I fear—perhaps killed."
"Let's have a look inter things," muttered Dan, as he stooped over the figure. "It be one o' them chaps we set free, bean't it?"
"Yes; a fine, handsome-looking fellow he was, Dan. I noticed him particularly. There were two of them, and I think they must have been friends, you know, before they were captured. Ah, here is the other one! He's come to see what's happened to his friend."
Another of the rescued captives had come hastily to the spot, and now threw himself beside the fallen figure with a loud outcry in some tongue neither of the white men understood.
"Well, I doan't think he be much hurt, Mr. Roland," Beach declared, after a brief examination. "He's had a nasty cut on the head an' he's stunned."
"But it's bleeding, Dan!"
"Ay, ay; but it doan't go deep. I'll bathe it an' bind it up, an' he'll come to d'reckly, I reckon. How did he come to be over 'ere?"
"Just what I was wondering, so far as I've had time for thinking," said Roland. "I believe he must have seen the villains stealing towards the tent, and, suspecting who they were, crept after them. He would have no cause to love the slave-dealer, you know, if he recognised him."
Dan gave a whistle.
"Phew! is that who the chap were?"
"Yes. I saw his face distinctly. It is one they call Salondah—a well-known slave-raider, it seems."
"It's a thousand pities he were let go, then," growled Dan. "I wish I'd had the 'andlin' of the beauty! This yer poor beggar has got no strength, like. He's bin nigh starved. Ye can see that."
"You're right, Dan. I can see it! It's a wicked shame! But it makes it all the braver, his throwing himself between Salondah and me, quite unarmed as he was, too. Ah, I believe you were right. Thank Heaven, he's moving!"
As a matter of fact, the injured man was able, in the course of a few minutes, to mutter some indistinct words. Then Roland had him removed to his own tent.
"He got hurt through saving me," he declared, "and I will look after him myself."
By this time Leslie had been roused and had come to inquire what all the noise was about.
"The treacherous villain!" he exclaimed. "His idea was to be revenged on your leader, Professor Kelmar. He must have stolen back when we were out of sight, and waited about till he thought everybody was asleep. No doubt he expected he would find Mr. Kelmar in his tent."
"Ay, and he would have found you there instead. I'm jolly glad he didn't though," observed Roland simply. He did not say anything about the part he himself had taken in preventing the intending murderer from reaching the tent.
When the morning came, and the early meal had been disposed of, the great airship once more made its appearance, and in due time the Bat came to ground on the rock, bringing the two leaders. They were soon put in possession of what had occurred.
Professor Kelmar looked very grave.
"You were somewhat too confident, Cambray," he said, addressing the doctor, "in assuming that our friends would be quite safe here. I feel I ought to have stayed with them."
The doctor avowed himself to be as puzzled as he was angry.
"I can't understand it!" he declared. "Salondah has never dared to defy me before. After this, it is, of course, war to the knife between us."
He had the prisoner who had been caught by Beach brought before him, and tried to question him, but the fellow proved surly, and absolutely refused to answer. So he was put aside to be dealt with later on.
They next went to Roland's tent to look at the injured man, and found him sitting up, with his friend in close attendance upon him.
"I'm taking care of him myself, sir," said Roland. "That's why I had him brought to my own tent."
The doctor nodded.
"That is all right, then. I leave it to you to see that the poor chap gets proper attention. And now, Kelmar, if you will come with me, I will show you what is inside this great rock. The youngsters can come, too, if they like. While we're gone my people will begin packing up your stores, ready for removal to my place over the way."
They left the camp, and entering the wood of great cedars, began to ascend the rock by a winding path. Breaking off presently from this, the doctor led the way to a spot where further progress was barred by a wall of rock.
Here he turned sharp to the left, pushed his way through some bushes, and pointed to a low cave which could be seen in the cliff.
"That is the entrance to the temple—or, at least one of the entrances, for doubtless there were several," he observed. "Where the main entrance was I have not been able to discover. I am almost inclined to think it was walled up with great stone blocks, perhaps on the occasion of invasion of the country by enemies. If so, the work must have been very cleverly carried out, for not a trace of it have I been able to find."
"And that is the reason the place has remained undiscovered ever since, I suppose," Kelmar commented.
"Exactly. So far as I can make out, no one, not even the wandering tribes who at one time and another have made this rock a resting or camping place, have ever had, during hundreds of years, any suspicion that there was an ancient temple inside."
While talking, the speaker had produced a large lamp and entered the cave, throwing the light from it in advance to show the way.
His three companions carried pocket glow-lamps, and they now made use of them. They followed their guide through various galleries and passages, up and down sundry steps, and across two or three large caverns, halting at last in a great hall so spacious that their lights failed to show either its sides or its roof.
"There," said Dr. Cambray, throwing the rays from his powerful lamp high in the air. "Now you can understand the sort of place we have wandered into."
There, before them, peering down on them out of the gloom above, was a huge face of such transcendent ugliness, and yet, at first sight, so lifelike, that the doctor's companions were not a little startled. After a few moments they made out that it belonged to a gigantic figure which was sitting bolt upright, with arms stretched out in a threatening manner towards them.
"WHAT a strange, fantastic figure!" murmured the professor, as he gazed critically at the hideous idol. "I've never seen anything at all like it before."
"Nor I," Dr. Cambray agreed. "But the most curious thing about it is that it stands in the middle of a circle, with lines which mark exactly east, west, north, and south. At one place is a hand pointing in a certain direction, as to which I have made very careful calculations. I believe it points to the place I told you I intend to seek for."
Throwing the rays of his lamp upon the ground, he walked slowly round, and the others, following him, were able to distinguish certain grooves which had been cut in the rocky floor of the cavern. They started from the spot on which the idol stood as a centre, like the rays from a star.
Suddenly the doctor uttered an exclamation. They had walked round to the opposite side, and his light falling upon the back of the figure, revealed the backs of the two great legs and feet. At the base of one of these—that is to say, in the right heel—was a cavity.
"Why," gasped the doctor, in astonishment, "there is a hole there! I never saw it before—never suspected! Someone's been here!"
He plunged his hand into the hollow, and after groping about, drew forth one or two scraps which had the appearance of the remains of mouldered parchment. With them were some pieces of fibre tied in knots.
"It seems as though there must have been some written documents here!" he cried excitedly. "They were tied together. Here is the stuff they were tied with; and these are some remains that have rotted away. As to the rest, someone must have been here, found out their hiding-place, and carried them off!"
He stood up and stared at Kelmar in mingled wrath and dismay.
"It's very strange," his friend commented. "Do you suppose the—ah—documents—were of any value?"
"Why, of course," returned the doctor fretfully. "Else why should they have been hidden in such an odd place?"
He stood for a while, reflecting deeply.
"I can only think of one explanation," he continued, after a pause. "This must be Salondah's doing. He has had some other purpose in coming near this rock besides his infamous slave traffic. While we were busy over yonder repairing the airship, he has had the place to himself for the last three days. I am afraid he must somehow have seen our tracks leading to the cave, and so found his way inside."
"But then, what started him on the idea of searching about in the way he must have done to discover this curious hiding-place?" Kelmar asked.
"That's what's puzzling me most of all," the doctor rejoined, with a dubious shake of his head.
Leslie thought of the talk he had had with the slaver the previous day, and recalled the man's boast that he had plenty of gold—"More than the white man "—and now reminded the doctor of it.
"I heard him, and it struck me at the time that it was a funny thing to say," Roland put in. "Just as though he had suddenly discovered a hidden hoard or happened on a gold mine."
Doctor Cambray glanced sharply at the youth, and then at Kelmar. As Roland knew nothing of the doctor's secret hopes respecting the lost gold mines of Ophir, the lad's remark was somewhat surprising. It suggested all sorts of possibilities.
"Can it be, by any strange chance, that this fellow is on the same track as myself?" queried the scientist, half to himself, half to his friend. "If so, it will not do to stay idling here. We must hurry on our preparations and make a start, or he may get there before us, after all. He may have found something here which may give clearer directions for finding the place than anything I have happened on, with all the time and trouble I have expended."
"We'd better make sure there is nothing else to be discovered here first," the professor advised, "while we are on the spot. Let us examine the left foot, for instance."
To this his friend agreed, and so far as their lamps would allow, they made a very strict examination, but lighted on nothing further. The figure seemed to be of solid stone. The right heel—and that only, so far as they could ascertain—had been hollowed out and then artfully closed up again. When they replaced the piece which had been removed, it fitted so perfectly, the join had been made so cleverly to seem a part of the natural lines of the carving, that it became more than ever a mystery how the unknown searcher could have discovered it.
"He had so little time, comparatively speaking," mused the doctor, "he must have known something which had given him a hint where to search. Yet how could that be?"
It was a very perplexing problem, and the two leaders talked it over as they made their way back to the camp. Many were the guesses and speculations they indulged in, but none of them seemed satisfactory.
As to the two lads, not knowing the doctor's secret, they troubled themselves very little about the mystery. They thought that the matter the doctor referred to was something of merely dry, scientific interest. Roland in particular, was far more interested in the coming removal of the camp to the settlement up in the mountains he could now again see in the distance. The novel experience was awaiting him of a trip in the great airship which was to convey them there.
The professor had already made the trip, but in the hurry of more important matters Roland had had no opportunity of asking any questions. He now began, as they walked behind the leaders, to make inquiries of Leslie, but that young gentleman was not very explicit.
Roland asked him what the land beyond the mountains was like, and what sort of people lived there.
"Shure, it's a foine place entoirely," Leslie answered banteringly, and imitating Tim's brogue. "Ye'll foind some brave little bodies there, too."
"Brave—little bodies?" Roland repeated wonderingly. "What does that mean?"
"Pigmies!" was the laconic answer.
"Pigmies!" exclaimed Roland, opening his eyes. "Are there Pigmies, then, anywhere near there?"
"Yes, not so far away. You see, we are just on the borders of what you may call Pigmy land, and the doctor's been over into their country and made friends with them."
Just then they came in sight of the camp, and Roland uttered an exclamation.
"See!" he cried. "They've brought your big airship alongside!"
There lay the great dirigible beside a level platform of rock, like a big ship moored to a quay. Like a ship, too, she was heaving and straining at the mooring lines as though impatient to be off. The immense gas-bag was swaying, and the sustaining ropes and pulleys creaking, giving it somewhat the appearance of some new kind of huge sail.
Looking round the camp, Roland noticed the presence of a number of new hands, all natives, but evidently of many different nationalities. These were, Leslie informed him, some of the doctor's people from his settlement in the mountains which, he further stated, was known as "Cambray Town."
All of them had been rescued from slave-gangs at one time or another. They looked happy enough now, however, well-fed and willing, and were running about, as busy as bees, at the order of a tall, bronzed, good-looking young fellow in white dress and helmet.
"That's Mr. Weston, the doctor's engineer friend, the inventor who helped to plan and build our airships," Leslie whispered to Roland, as they drew near. "Come along and I'll introduce you."
The stranger advanced to meet the four. "You're just in time for our first trip," he said. "We've got the most important part of your stores on board, Professor—as much as we can carry at one time—and are ready to start."
He shook hands with Roland, and welcomed him with a kindly smile on his swarthy features.
"Is there time for me to go to my tent for a moment?" Roland asked. "I have a patient there I want to look after."
"We've taken him on board," Weston returned. "He's all right, and quite comfortable."
Just then there was an outcry from another part of the camp, where some of the tents were still standing. Beach came hurriedly forward with the head-man and a group of boys.
"The pris'ner's got away, sir!" he cried to Professor Kelmar. "He's not wheer I left 'im."
"You've let him escape?" exclaimed Dr. Cambray sternly.
"I'm very sorry, sir—I could knock my own head off, I feel that mad; but I can only think as he managed t' slope off while we was busy a-carryin' the things aboard."
"You had better make a search at once, eh, Kelmar?" said the doctor, turning to the professor. "Let them hunt the woods for his tracks. And, meantime, we will make a start and cruise up and down for a while. It may be that the gang are still hanging round, and the fellow has gone off to join them. If so, we may be able to catch sight of them from above."
His friend agreed, and Beach promptly set off at the head of a little party of trackers. The white man meantime hurried to the rocky ledge where the airship lay tugging at the ropes that held her.
They gained her deck by means of a frail, rickety gangway, which rocked and swayed in a manner that to the new-comers was somewhat disconcerting. It was pulled on board after them, the mooring cables were loosed, the motors began their deep-toned humming, and the Champion rose slowly and majestically in the air.
At the last moment they saw Tim, the doctor's man left in charge of the aeroplane, rushing frantically onto the landing-place, shouting something they could not clearly hear.
"He seems to be asking me if I've brought away my heavy rifle," said the doctor testily. "Has that disappeared, then—'sloped,' as your man calls it—like the prisoner who has escaped? What does it mean?"
The explanation was to come sooner than they had any idea of, and in a very startling and terrible way.
While they had been trying to distinguish what Tim's excited words had meant, the airship had risen nearly to a level with the summit of the great Lion Rock, and was circling round it in order to get a view of the country on the other side.
Suddenly one of the lads uttered a loud exclamation. There were two figures to be seen in an open space amongst the cedar trees, on the very top of the rock. One of them was kneeling on one knee, and levelling a large heavy-looking rifle.
"Why, there's the very man himself—the chap who escaped!" cried Leslie. "And Salondah, too! And they're aiming at us!"
The doctor turned his glasses on the two.
"Great heavens!" he cried. "You're right, lad—but it's worse than that! It's my elephant rifle they've got. The scoundrel must have stolen it while Tim was busy helping with the packing. That was what Tim was trying to make us understand. And it's the gas-bag the murderous hound is going to fire at—not at us!"
"The gas-bag!" Kelmar repeated wonderingly.
"Ay, ay! Don't you see? They know my rifle fires a small shell!"
A dead silence followed. Only the humming of the motors was heard amid the fearful suspense; further speech seemed idle, useless.
For, too well now, the aeronauts understood the deadly, diabolical intention of the man who held the rifle. Too well they realised what must happen if one of the missiles struck the gas-bag and exploded inside it. And only too well they knew that at that short range, with such a large target to aim at, the poorest marksman in the world could hardly miss!
HAD the man who held the rifle fired at once, the fate of the Champion airship and of the hardy adventurers she carried must have been sealed.
But for some reason the fellow—it was the escaped prisoner—hesitated. He lowered the weapon as though to examine the lock; perhaps he did not understand the mechanism, and it had failed to go off as he had expected.
Salondah, who had been stooping behind him, as if aiding in directing his aim, snatched at it impatiently, with the result that the weapon fell to the ground and went off, the missile flying wide of its intended mark.
Ere either could pick it up, cries and shots were heard, bullets came singing about their ears, and a crowd of dusky pursuers, with Dan Beach at their head, rushed into the clearing.
In an instant the two men, without waiting to pick up the heavy rifle, dived into the wood in the opposite direction, and disappeared as quickly as any rabbits could have done.
With loud shouts the pursuers swept after them, Dan pausing but a second or two to possess himself of the rifle. He held it aloft triumphantly, so that those on board the airship could see that he had recovered it, and then disappeared after the others.
The aeronauts gave utterance to gasps of relief.
"Heaven be thanked!" breathed Kelmar devoutly. "That was a narrow escape for us!"
"It is a merciful deliverance from an awful peril," the doctor declared. "If that villain had fired when I thought he was going to our destruction would have been certain. I wonder what stopped him?"
"It was Providence," the professor affirmed solemnly.
"It was a diabolically cunning idea," muttered Weston, who had just come up. He had been busy watching the motors at the time the danger had revealed itself. "It seems to me, doctor, that we have cleverer enemies to deal with than we have had any idea of. We've been underestimating their abilities."
"I'm beginning to think so, too. Indeed, I had reason to do so before this little incident occurred. I fancy that fellow Salondah knows a thing or two that we little suspected."
Meantime, the airship was sailing slowly up and down, or, as sailors would express it, "standing off and on"; and Roland began to look about him in curiosity y mingled with astonishment.
The views of the airship which he had hitherto been able to obtain front a distance had conveyed but a very imperfect idea of the wonders he now saw on every side. It was like standing on the deck of a big ocean liner worked by all sorts of novel and puzzling contrivances, with some new kind of colossal sail bellying out overhead.
The points that surprised him most of all, perhaps, were the steadiness with which the great machine travelled, its general buoyancy, and the ease with which it was handled. There was a long, pendulous, swinging motion, and a slight vibration from the engines, and that was all. The principal feeling was a delightful sense of spacious freedom as the huge structure moved steadily through the air..
His wonder grew as he noted how large and roomy the "deck" was, and that there were quite a number of people of the crew. They were all dark-skinned save one. This was a young white named Grover, to whom Leslie now made him known. He was Weston's assistant, and had charge of the aerostat when he was absent.
Grover explained the uses of the various machinery, showed Roland the powerful searchlights, and the apparatus they carried with them for manufacturing their own hydrogen gas from time to time, as fresh supplies were required to make up for their daily loss. Finally, Roland found, there were two cabins on board with sleeping accommodation.
Just as the assistant engineer had finished explaining all these wonders he was called away.
"The Bat has been signalled," he said. "I must go and get the gangway ready for her to come alongside."
The two lads looked over the side, and saw the aeroplane coming towards them from the direction of the Lion Rock.
"There's your chap Dan sitting by Tim's side!" Leslie cried. "This is his first trip in the air. I wonder how he likes it."
"He doesn't seem to like it at all, if I'm any judge of Dan's face—and I know it pretty well," laughed Roland.
Certainly Dan did not look happy. It seemed as though Tim had not adjusted his ballast very skilfully, for the aeroplane had a decided "list to starboard," which was the side Beach happened to be sitting. The hunter must have been afraid he would slide off, for he was evidently clinging to his seat as though for dear life.
However, he was brought safely aboard, and proceeded to make his report, which proved to be as short as it was disappointing. After recovering the stolen rifle—which he now carefully delivered to the doctor with his own hands—they had hunted and searched, Dan said, in vain for the two men.
"I doan't understand, it, sir," said Dan, scratching his head. "The two murderin' vagabonds vanished like witchcraft. Wheer they went, or how they went, I's no more idea than the man in the moon. They did us brown—theer bean't no other word fur it," he added ruefully.
Dan was closely questioned and cross-questioned, but nothing clearer or more satisfactory could be extracted from him. Finally, the leaders strolled off to discuss the affair between themselves, leaving the hunter with the two lads.
Then Roland asked the question he had been bursting to put while the talk had been going on.
"How did you like your first trip in the air, Dan?"
"How did I like it, Mr. Roland?" was the answer. "Why, it's awful, sir—pufeckly awful! First, the thing sagged t'one side, and that gie me a sinkin' sort o' sensation 'ere!—" Dan put his hand over his belt. "Then we whizzed up'ards, and it made me feel dizzy 'ere "—he put the other hand to his head—"an' I thought I wor goin' t' fall off behindt. Then she swings round, suddint-like, an' I grabs at Tim, an' he rounded on me somethin' dreadful, 'cos he said I wur chokin' him. I s'pose I'd gripped his neckercher, though I didn't know it. Nex' thing she started off and rushed us through the air like as we wus tied to a sky-rocket—it took away all the breath I had left, an' there warn't too much on it by that time, ye may be sure—and that made me feel bad 'ere "—Dan removed his hand from his head and placed it on his breast—"like as I'd got the hastma. Ah, Mr. Roland, I'd rather go back by land, if I'd got to tramp a hundred miles, than risk me neck agen in that blue-bottle contraption!"
But there was nothing for it but to return the same way, and that poor Dan presently had to do.
"It's evident he doesn't approve of our way of getting about," laughed Leslie, as they watched his departure. "The old style is good enough for the likes of him, he's thinking."
"I'm more inclined than ever to believe that Salondah knows more than I had any idea of," was the doctor's final comment. "He must know of some other secret way into the underground temple, and he and his companion made use of it to escape. Well, we can do no more at present. We will continue on our way, and land your stores."
"Do—do you think," asked the professor doubtfully, "that my people, and so on, will be quite safe?"
"Yes, professor," Weston replied at once. "My men are well armed, and are stout fighters if they should be attacked. I'll answer for it that Salondah won't interfere with them while we're away. Besides, I sha'n't be absent long. I'm going back to see to the final packing, and to start them on the road with your wagons. Then we shall watch them as they come across the plain, you know."
Thus reassured, the professor raised no further objection, and the airship's head was turned away from the rock.
At the same time she rose higher in the air, and the new-comers had magnificent views over the vast plain, over the mountains towards which they were travelling, and of other mountains again beyond them.
"There, in the far distance, you see the peaks of the famous Mountains of the Moon," said the doctor to Roland, "which, for many hundreds and hundreds of years—from the days of the Grecian geographer Ptolemy—were supposed to exist only in fable and in the brains of imaginative travellers. Stanley was the first modern traveller to discover and identify them."
"The Mountains of the Moon!" repeated Roland in wonder.
"Ay, lad, You need not mind looking surprised, for even the professor was a bit taken aback when I pointed them out to him last evening."
"Indeed, I confess you took me by surprise," Kelmar admitted, "Though I ought to have know by calculation that we must be getting somewhere within seeing distance of the range."
"We will go higher yet, and you will be able to see still more," said the doctor.
Upwards soared the Champion, and as she rose the view extended farther and farther on every side, till at last the sun's rays could be seen glinting on a vast sheet of water in the far distance,
"That," the doctor explained, "is the Albert Nyanza—a great fresh-water lake as large as one of the biggest English counties. And those mighty mountain peaks you see rising yonder, above all the others, are called Mount Kilimanjaro, Mount Kenia, and Mount Ruwenzori. It is on the slopes of Ruwenzori that I have placed my home."
Roland opened his eyes at this, and they lighted up with eager pleasure and curiosity.
"I have read of these mountains in books of travel," he unclaimed. "And I've wondered often and often what they were really like, little thinking I should ever actually see them—much less go to live there!"
More wonderful, more glorious, became the outlook as they drew nearer to the mountain chain. Here everything was so different to the sweltering swamps, arid plains, and gloomy forests through which they had toiled so many hundreds of weary miles. The country was beautifully green and park-like; glistening silver threads here and there betokened the presence of innumerable mountain streams and foaming torrents; the air was fresh, healthy, and exhilarating.
Then a number of dwellings came into view. Some were small huts, but many were good-sized, comfortable-looking, log-built houses.
At last the aerostat drew up alongside a spacious landing-place, where a large crowd of people were gathered to meet her with joyous shouts and the beating of innumerable drums and tom-toms.
"Welcome, my friends!" said the doctor. "Welcome to Cambray Town! This will be your home as long as you care to stay!"
THE next two or three days were full of busy preparations for the expedition the leaders had in view; so much so that the new-comers had but scant opportunities for looking about them.
The ox-wagons and the rest of Professor Kelmar's stores, as well as his native followers, were brought across the plain, up the mountain slope by a steep, winding track, and safely housed at Cambray Town.
As to the latter, the doctor's visitors were amazed to find what a flourishing place he had made of it. It was, as the professor expressed it, more like a well-kept estate in England than anything one would expect to meet with in the heart of Africa. And as it lay so high, the climate, too, was like that of an English summer.
Cambray Lodge, the doctor's house, was a substantial building in the middle of a small park of its own, through which ran a broad, clear stream, which fell, in a foaming cascade, from some heights beyond.
There were other houses nearly as large, one of which was occupied by a white man named Railton, who acted as overseer to the estate. All the hands—who were, as has been noted, rescued slaves—worked on the farms, and looked contented and happy.
Roland, indeed, found the place so much to his liking that he had no Wish to leave it—just yet awhile, at any rate:
"Why should the professor want to be off on another jaunt when we've got such a stunning place here to stay at?" he asked of Leslie, with a very discontented air. "And why so much preparation? Where are we going? Do you? Because I don't."
"That's what I can't make out myself, sonny," Leslie confessed; and he, too, looked a bit puzzled. "Generally the doctor tells me his plans; but over this he's been as close as wax. Not that I have any particular objection," he added philosophically; "I've been here some time, you know; and I sha'n't mind a bit of a change!"
"Yes, I can understand that; but we've only just arrived," Roland grumbled. "And we've really hardly had time to get our breath and look round."
Roland was rather disappointed, too, to find that he was not being invited to any more aerial trips just then. He had been looking forward to a round of such excursions. But now, though both the airship and the aeroplane went to and fro between Cambray Town and the Lion Rock, their trips were supposed to be "strictly on business," and neither he nor Leslie was asked to go.
What surprised him still more, however, was that on two such occasions the doctor and the professor took with them two of the strangers who had been rescued from Salondah—the one, that is to say, whom the slaver had struck down, and his swarthy friend. The former—"his patient," as Roland called him—had quite recovered, and had shown the lad in many ways his gratitude for the care and kindness that had been shown him. But as no one understood his language there was no opportunity for anything further.
All that seemed certain was that the name of the one who had been hurt was Akolah, while that of his companion was Dolah. And Akolah must have been a person of importance in his own country, judging from the great respect with which the other always treated him. The doctor was evidently very much interested in the pair, and was trying hard to discover where they had come from, and what language they spoke, that he might be able to communicate with them; but so far without any apparent success.
"That's all very well," said Roland, with reference to this last; "but why take them over to the rock, and not us? Have these two chaps anything to do with the place we are going to?"
Now, as it happened, that was the very question that was exercising Dr. Cambray's mind. "Was it possible," he asked himself, "that these two unfortunates had actually come from the place he was setting out to discover?"
Wonderful and unlikely as it seemed, there were two things which had led the scientist to seriously consider what had at first seemed a wildly impossible idea.
One was that the two often repeated a word which sounded like "Fura," accompanied by signs in a manner that seemed intended to convey "We come from Fura. Fura is our country."
"Now, you must understand," Cambray explained to Kelmar, "that 'Fura,' or 'Afura,' is the name of a supposed mountain which some ancient Portuguese travellers declared was identical with Ophir—'Fura' being, in their view, a corruption of 'Ophir.' You see the connection? Afur, or Afura—Fura. In other words, if you can find Mount Fura, you will, according to these old-time explorers, find the land of Ophir. But where, then, is Mount Fura? That is what no one can tell nowadays. One traveller has supposed it to be in one place: while another, who poses as an authority, inclines to the belief that it lies in quite a different direction. Hence it is that the whereabouts of Mount Fura, if there ever was such a mountain, has become involved in as much mystery and uncertainty as that of Ophir itself."
The second thing that influenced the scientist was that he had—following out a sudden idea—taken the two strangers back to the Lion Rock and into the secret temple. There they had behaved in such a curious manner as to lead the doctor to infer that either they had been there before, or else they knew of a similar temple with a similar great stone idol—probably at the place which they had come from—and which they called "Fura."
"It seems a very wonderful suggestion—many, I know, would laugh it to scorn," the doctor summed up—"but it seems to me not impossible, Kelmar, that these two poor wanderers, who have come so strangely across our path, may be actually connected, in some way, with the very purpose we have in view, and may help us to accomplish it. I have little doubt myself, from the writings I have discovered and deciphered, that if we ever find Ophir, we shall find there a temple with a great stone idol in it, which will be a counterpart, in fact, of what we have found here. And these two strangers, by their behaviour, seem to have seen something of the sort. What do you think of my reasoning?"
"It seems quite sound and very convincing," mused the professor. "It's rather tantalising to think that these two might be able to solve the whole mystery at once if we could only understand their language."
"At any rate, I think we ought to take them with us," Cambray decided.
By the third day all arrangements had been completed; and at dawn on the morning of the fourth day, amid much beating of tom-toms, the Champion started on her momentous adventure.
High over the Mountains of the Moon she sailed—over towering peaks, deep, rugged ravines, and smiling valleys.
Travelling onwards, now more slowly and nearer still to the ground, the travellers could presently see, through their glasses, a number of little dwarf-like creatures scurrying and racing along.
"This," said the doctor, "is Pigmy Land." Presently they halted over an extensive clearing, and the aeroplane was brought into use, taking down first the two leaders, then Weston and the hunter, and finally the two younger members of the party.
These last, when they reached the ground, found themselves in the midst of a marvellous scene, The doctor was surrounded by a crowd of little people, the funniest, merriest, drollest manikins it is possible to imagine.
"THEY be a rum lot, this crowd. The rummiest, queerest lot o' nippers as ever I set eyes on!"
It was in these words that Dan Beach summed up his first impressions of the Pigmies to Roland and Leslie as the two stood beside him.
"I've travelled a bit, Mr. Roland, as ye knows, an' see a thing or two in my time—but this do beat it all!"
"Pooh, you'll soon get used to 'em, Dan!" laughed Leslie. "You'll feel quite at home directly. Treat 'em as I do, and you'll find you'll get on ripping. If you only treat 'em the right way they'll do anything for from drawing your portrait to cooking you an elephant steak served up on toast."
"Ye'eve bin 'ere before, Mr. Leslie; but, ye see, I ain't!"
Evidently Leslie had been there before. It was easy to see that he was known to many of the little people who came crowding round him almost as cordially as round the doctor. A little later he was engaged in a game of romps with them, much-as though they had been a lot of mirthful children just let out of school.
"Shure, it's a pack o' little drolls they are!" said Tim, "They're loike the little folks as me grandmither used t' say she'd seen o' noights amongst the hills av auld Oirland. It's full o' fun they are, as ye can see; but there's no harm in thim, no mischief."
"Tim!" the doctor suddenly shouted. "What are you doing there? Look after what you're in charge of, or there'll be trouble!"
Tim, startled, glanced round at the aeroplane, which he had ventured to leave for a minute while he came over to speak to the hunter.
"Oh, be jabers, yes! It's roight ye are, docther!" he cried, as he made a rush for the machine.
He was only just in time. Though he had turned his back for scarcely a moment or so, some of the little people had swooped onto the aeroplane like a swarm of ants, prying inquisitively into everything, and one of them had actually, somehow, moved the lever which started the motor. Another moment and they would all have risen in the air and been flying around; and then there would, as the doctor said, have been "trouble" indeed.
A funny, frolicsome crew they were, in good sooth. A famous traveller, Mr. W.E. Geil, who lived for some time among the Pigmies, says of them:
"Full of fun, and frolic are these odd little denizens of the forest. They may at times be lazy, and play vagabond, and roam idly in the forest, but they are too fond of jolly pranks to be very lazy. They are the wags of the woodland, full of droll mimicry. They can imitate and take off their neighbours, and even the white man, so as to make the spectator roar with laughter. Pigmy Land is the land of laughter." *
* From Mr. Geil's book, A Yankee in Pigmy Land.
Dr. Cambray knew enough of the Pigmy language to be able to communicate with them, and presently he called the hunter and the two lads to him.
He introduced them formally to one of the jostling throng around him.
"This is Njombi," he said, "a person of some importance, I can tell you—so mind you treat him properly. I want him to take a message from me to his king or chief, and I wish you to go with him to take charge of some little presents I am sending by way of propitiating his majesty. I'm afraid, if I entrust Njombi with them—well, I don't wish to suggest anything against his honesty, but, you see, he might lose them by the way. He will deliver the message; you will hand over the presents. Then, if, as is not unlikely, his majesty sends me any presents in return, kindly take charge of them and bring them to me."
While speaking the doctor had taken a small paper package from his pocket.
"Don't open it till you get there," he directed, "or possibly you also might lose them on the way."
Njombi evidently understood the mission he was entrusted with and was very proud of it. He strutted pompously about for a while, gabbling something to the others. He was informing them—to put it into English—hew he had been honoured by their father, the great King Cambrari—so they called the doctor—who had descended from the skies, to bear a message of state to their own king, and conduct to him three great white dignitaries—ambassadors from the very high and mighty Cambrari aforesaid—who were the bearers of wonderful presents, as proof of the great esteem in which he held his majesty and all his people.
"Let us lee the presents! Let us see the presents!" shrilled the little people, and they began to dance round the three in such a manner as practically to prevent their stirring.
At this juncture the doctor drew a lot of loose beads from another pocket, and handed some to the professor and Weston, asking them to assist him in their general distribution. In this way the attention of the crowd was diverted, and the three high ambassadors and their guide were left free to start upon their errand.
Leaving the clearing, they struck into the forest, where there was no sign of path or track of any kind. Their guide, however, never hesitated for a second, but strode on with lordly mien and most dignified bearing, pattering along with steps that were very short and quick compared with those of his three companions.
Roland was intensely interested in watching him, while as to Dan, he seemed as though he could not take his eyes off him.
"Well, I'm sugared!"
"Did ye ever see the like!"
"A Punch an' Judy show ain't in it!"
These were some of the comments jerked out from time to time by the worthy hunter. And these remarks, uttered in a sort of frightened whisper, added to the comical antics of the little man himself, sent the two lads into constant fits of subdued laughter.
But Njombi heeded not. With an air which was meant to be impressive, but which was often irresistibly ludicrous, he held on his way, his head carried so high that he was constantly tripping against the roots of trees and other impediments. When this occurred the usual effect was to roll him over. But he had such a little way to fall that it did him no harm, and he got up again as blithely as though he rather liked it.
For a while, after one of these falls, he would keep a sharper look-out, and at such times he would exhibit a skill in dodging obstacles which was even more diverting. It was amusing to see him take running jumps in order to leap over things which his bigger companions stepped over, or kicked unconcernedly out of their way.
When he jumped he would bound up like an india-rubber ball, and when he fell he sometimes converted himself into a kind of human hoop, and rolled onwards some distance before straightening himself out again.
Prematurely old and wizened his face looked, but his eyes had in them, generally, the merry twinkle usual among the race. It was only because he was entrusted with such a very high and honourable mission that he was now trying his hardest to appear serious.
Yet this diminutive creature, for all his innocent, childish disposition and drollery, carried death in his hand.
This was literally the fact. In one hand he carried a small bow, in the other a large leaf wrapped round something, as might be a piece of brown paper. The "something" consisted of three tiny arrows—so small that, save that they were iron-tipped, they seemed no more than a child's plaything,
But they had been dipped in poison, and even a scratch with one of them meant death.
It it no more than the actual fact to say that if he had been seized with sudden madness, or deadly passion, he could have killed his three big companions—or one or two of them—before they would have had time to think of defending themselves.
A Pigmy never stirs far without his bow and arrows. With them these people, small as they are, can kill not only such animals as wild pigs and antelopes, but even the mighty elephant itself.
After a while the four arrived at another large clearing, where there were numbers of little huts looking scarcely larger than dog kennels. They were all built of branches and lined with leaves.
One, much larger than the rest, was high enough for an ordinary man to get into, provided he stooped low enough, or crept in on all fours. Its corners, too, were ornamental poles which towered up quite five or six feet high. It was easy to guess that this was the residence of the king—in fact, his palace.
In front of this lofty structure—such it was by comparison with the others—on some little stools, sat Batah, the Pigmy king, with his consort, surrounded by a group of his courtiers.
AS may be supposed, the sudden appearance of three white men caused a flutter of excitement in the royal circle. So much so, indeed, that the king, in springing up suddenly, knocked over the royal stool which did duty for a throne.
Njombi advanced first and explained. Then the three followed him, and—not knowing what else to do—bowed respectfully.
Leslie, by mutual consent, acted the part of spokesman—if that term can be applied to one whose knowledge of the language was restricted to about two dozen words.
Having made his opening speech, which consisted of "How do? Great white chief Cambrari here. Sent presents," Leslie produced the packet entrusted to him by the doctor and opened it.
He revealed to view sundry strings of beads—very elegant beads, be it understood—which shone and sparkled in many beautiful and seductive colours and divers patterns. Gold and silver, pearl, diamond, and ruby were there—so far as appearances went—and some of glass, with curious devices inside them. All of them much superior to those the doctor had distributed among the general crowd.
Leslie handed those treasures, one by one, to the king and his consort. They, on their part, tried their best at first to restrain their feelings, laid them solemnly on the ground before them, and looked first at them and then at him, as if hesitating as to what was the proper tiling to do next.
Seeing this, Leslie replaced the upturned stool and invited his majesty by signs to stand on it that all might see. To save time, he finally lifted him on to it, and proceeded to hang what he considered the handsomest string of beads about the royal neck, tying two smaller strings round the royal wrists, which previously had only been decorated with two quite plain iron bracelets.
Then the king seemed to understand. He took a long look at what he could see of the beads round his neck, another and longer one at those now adorning his wrists, his face lighted up, and gradually wreathed itself into smiles of joy.
So delighted was he that he threw dignity to the winds, and, suddenly making a spring—which again upset the throne he was standing on—he flung his arms round the ambassador's neck, and hung there in ecstasies of affectionate embrace. This acted as a sort of signal. His courtiers, taking their cue from his majesty, made a rush and grabbed at the rest of the munificent presents, the while that Leslie struggled, as best he could, to release himself from the too-affectionate embrace of the wildly grateful king.
"Help me, you fellows!" he gasped. "The little beggar's choking me, and I can't get rid of him!"
But his appeal for help was useless just then. The courtiers had thought it their duty to do their best to imitate their ruler, and both Roland and Dan had as much as they could do to look after themselves. It was some minutes ere the three ambassadors succeeded in disentangling themselves.
Then followed a scene of merry rejoicing, in which it was noticeable that there was no sign of either greediness or envy on the part of those who had failed to snatch a share in the good things that were going. They seemed just as pleased as their more fortunate neighbours, and joined just as heartily in showing their delight.
But the visitors had come about more serious business, and it became necessary to inform King Batah of the fact. After some trouble he was reminded of the messages they had brought, whereupon he decided that he would go himself to the doctor to pay him a visit in person.
So the court was adjourned, and the ambassadors returned accompanied by the whole party, all now, like those they had left, as merry and frolicsome as a lot of children starting out for a treat.
There was a very cordial meeting between the doctor and the king, and then the former made known the request he had come there to make.
He wanted a party of the little people to accompany him on his expedition. He had purposely come short-handed, having decided, before starting, that it would suit his purpose better to add some of the dwarfs to his party rather than bring more of his own people. They would weigh far less—a very important matter, of course, on board an airship—while they were so skilled in matters of woodcraft, that they would answer his purpose quite as well as people who would weigh more and take up more room.
The king raised no objection, and the doctor made his selection from among the volunteers who offered, of whom Njombi was one.
The aeroplane went back to the airship, taking his majesty and a few of his principal subjects on a visit of inspection, and returned again with them, bringing also, from the doctor's stores, the materials for a great feast.
As night was now approaching, the little folk began racing about collecting wood for fires, which were soon alight and blazing merrily.
The feast was followed by a grand entertainment. The night was fine and moonlight, with a refreshing breeze. The aeroplane made several more trips, and brought down a gramophone and other wonders to amuse the little people. The latter, in their turn, gave an exhibition of their grotesque dances, and the whole affair wound up with an exhibition of fireworks. Then the travellers went up to the airship to pass the night.
Next morning there was t further distribution of welcome little presents, and then the adventurers started once more upon their travels.
For many hours they sailed over vast forests, varied, as before, by intervals of open ground. In some of these native villages might occasionally be seen. They were not, however, the habitations of Pigmies, but evidently of much bigger people.
"In fact," the doctor told his fellow-voyagers, "the natives here may be said to be almost a race of giants, for they are the Kaffirs, the tallest race in Africa. It is a curious fact that the smallest and the tallest races on the African continent—the Pigmies and the Kaffirs—live, as it were, next door to each other."
Towards afternoon they passed over a region where the character of the country again altered. The forest became denser than ever, some sombre and gloomy, and the open spaces fewer and smaller.
"You will see very little big game here," said Dr. Cambray. "There are no herds of deer or antelope, no giraffes, and only a few small buffalo. And, as a consequence, lions and other beasts of prey are equally scarce. But there is, in these woods, another great animal which is quite as formidable in its way as the lion itself, and is as much dreaded by the natives who dwell near it, and that is the gorilla."
"The gorilla!" exclaimed the two lads, in a breath.
"Ay. The country below us may fairly be called gorilla land."
"Shall we see any?" asked Roland.
"I sincerely hope not, unless it be from a safe distance—through our glasses. They are not pleasant creatures to have to do with at close quarters."
"I've never seen one alive," observed the professor, "and I confess I am not anxious to do so. The stuffed specimens I saw in England were sufficient to give me an idea what they must be like when alive."
"And yet," Dr. Cambray declared, "those to be seen in the English museums are not by any means the largest that have been met with. One has been shot and brought to Europe which stood eight feet high."
Professor Kelmar almost started.
"I have heard something about that," he said, "but I scarcely thought it could be true. My idea was that it was either a traveller's tale, or that the dimensions were wrongly given."
"Not at all; it is true enough. I first saw an account of it in August, 1905, in La Nature, a French scientific journal. That paper not only gave a full account, but published two photos of the creature. It was shot by M. Eugène Breusseau and a party of sportsmen, who were after big game on the banks of the Sanga River, in the French Cameroons, and it took eight or nine bullets to kill it. The measurements were fully set out. The height, I remember, was eight feet, and the width across the shoulders four feet six inches. The right hand alone weighed five pounds, and the weight of the whole carcase was more than seven hundred pounds—over fifty stone. It took many men to carry it into camp. I have since heard that the skin was set up and stuffed, and is now in the Berlin Museum of Natural History. Think what sort of a monster that was! I wonder how many men it must have been equal to in the matter of mere brute strength?"
"Awful to think of," murmured the professor.
"Have you seen one, sir?" asked Roland, of the doctor.
"Ay, ay, lad! I once had an adventure with one—I will tell you about it another time—and I have no particular desire to meet with another. There is something in their very appearance which may well unnerve any man, even though his nerves were of steel.
"Du Chaillu, the traveller who first discovered them and made their existence known, declared that he would rather at any time face two raging lions than one savage gorilla—and I quite agree with him. There is something so unnaturally ferocious, so baleful, so demon-like in the glare of their eyes, and in their whole appearance, that—well, I never want to look another in the face."
Just then Weston came up and interrupted the talk.
"We've run short of water," he said tersely.
"Eh? Run short of water?" cried the doctor. "How can that be?"
"Oh, some of those manikins have been up to their tricks! They were thirsty, and got to the tap when no one was looking, left the water running, and it's gone! We must stop at the first likely place and get some more. We can't go on without it."
The doctor was extremely annoyed. Laying in a fresh supply was not a thing that could be done in a few minutes; it had to be gathered in buckets, and hauled up by ropes to the airship while she hovered overhead, or carried up in the aeroplane.
However, there was no choice in the matter, and a little later in the afternoon a halt was called over a clearing where there was a stream of water running into a small lake. Then the Champion was brought as near to the ground as was considered safe, and a rope-ladder was thrown out, down which a party scrambled, carrying buckets. The two lads and Dan went down in the same fashion, while the leaders made the descent in the usual way from the aeroplane.
After the water-party had started operations, Leslie and Roland strolled off along the borders of the lake in the hope of being able to shoot some wild fowl for supper. They took with them two of the Pigmies—Njombi and another named Noueti—and the two little men ran about, quartering the ground, scanning the trees, and almost, as it seemed, every blade of grass, reading in them signs which had no meaning for their white companions.
Suddenly, as they were nearing the end of a clearing beside the lake, they halted, and held up their hands as a signal for silence and caution. Then they turned, and began stealthily and noiselessly to retrace their steps, making signs for their companions to do the same. As they crept back, quietly as gliding shadows, their manner evinced extreme fear and dread. Their little faces worked convulsively, and they kept casting hurried, frightened glances back over their shoulders.
The white lads were at a loss to understand this. Greatly wondering, but too much impressed by their behaviour to hesitate, the two did their best to imitate their noiseless movements. In this, unluckily, they were not successful. A twig snapped underfoot, giving out a sharp crack, and it was followed, almost on the instant, by a terrible, hoarse, bellowing roar.
Then were heard sounds as of some great animal forcing its way, with resistless strength, through the forest.
The undergrowth was pushed aside, and into the clearing there crashed a horrible shape.
It needed no second glance to tell the terrified lads that they were face to face with a gorilla—the creature which Du Chaillu, its discoverer, declared to be "the real King of the African Forest!"
LESLIE and Roland stood and stared as though spellbound at the terrifying apparition that had so suddenly sprung from the bushes. And, indeed, it is only fair to them to say that grown men, who were old and experienced hunters, have found themselves no better off in similar circumstances.
The gorilla stood glaring from under its bushy brows with a look of ferocity such as no mere words can do justice to. Now and again it beat one huge, hairy paw on its breast in savage rage, with a sound like a deep bass drum. Its deep-set eyes rolled red and lurid, and seemed almost to shoot forth rage and hate.
On its head a sort of crest of coarse bristles kept rising and falling. It uttered another of its hoarse roars, opening its mouth and showing the great fangs on each side. Though standing upright, or nearly so, on its feet, one tremendous arm rested with bent paw on the ground.
From head to foot it was covered more or less with long, shaggy hair; and so great was its width of chest that it seemed to be almost as broad as it was high.
Leslie was the first to recover his presence of mind. Instinctively, however, he still remained motionless. He felt rather than knew that Roland was not yet master of himself, and that any movement on his own part alone would only have the effect of bringing this great, appalling monster upon them with a rush. It was just possible that if the two had turned and run off at full speed they might have escaped. But he could not depend on his companion, and no thought of running away and leaving him to his fate entered Leslie's head.
He ventured to move his eyes to right and to left, and concluded that the Pigmies had fled, for they were not to be seen.
He had the sense to know that it would be madness to risk a shot with his rifle except in the last resort. It would be far more likely to merely wound the creature and irritate it the more—if that indeed were possible—than to kill it; and he had heard such stories of the behaviour of wounded gorillas as made him shiver to recall.
The gorilla turned its head, glaring first one way and then the other, and seemed to listen. Its quick ears had detected some sounds which Leslie did not hear. Perhaps the creature, huge as it was, was more afraid of the little men it had caught sight of, who had now vanished, than of the two before him. Perhaps it had some inborn dread of their tiny but deadly arrows, and was anxious to be sure they were actually gone before it made its rush.
As a matter of fact they had not fled far. They were at that moment creeping back through the underbrush to get within shot of their small bows; and it may be that it heard them and felt doubtful.
At any rate, the animal moved forward but a step, gave another roar, and then again paused and listened.
And now Leslie listened too—listened with both his ears—and he heard a sound that he recognised. It was a curious, insistent whirring, one he had often heard—but never had it sounded so welcome as at that critical moment.
It was the humming of the aeroplane; and the fact that it was momentarily growing louder told him that it was coming their way.
The gorilla now heard it plainly, too, and was growing uneasy, because the sound was something it did not understand. It was different to any of the forest noises it was used to; and anything that was new, or that it did not understand, made the beast suspicious.
Just then Roland moved slightly. He had recovered his benumbed faculties, and was ready to make a bolt of it. Leslie breathed in his ear, "Don't move"; but, low as the whisper was, the gorilla heard it, and turned its head towards them. It seemed to be hunching itself as though for a spring, when something came into view which had as paralysing an effect upon it as its own appearance had upon the two lads before him. Something was coming buzzing towards him at a great rate over the water of the lake; something that might have been a gigantic bird, and yet was like no bird that the gorilla had ever seen.
The hideous brute stood and stared for a few seconds more. The strange, big, flying creature came nearer and nearer, its shrill note grew louder and louder, until the gorilla could bear the uncertainty of the thing no longer. It uttered one more roar, and then turned and dashed into the bushes.
The two lads heard it crashing its way through the forest, and then, just as they made a move to look round, two little forms glided into the bushes in its wake. The two Pigmies were not going to give up the fight because their monstrous foe had—so they considered it—turned tail.
The aeroplane was now quite close, and as it swept up the two leaders were seen sitting each with a rifle in his hand. They landed at a little distance from their young charges, and came towards them.
"Thank Heaven the brute is gone!" exclaimed the professor. "It's better so than for us to have risked firing—especially while we were travelling at such a rate through the air."
"You saw it then, sir?" cried Roland. "What a fearful-looking monster!"
His face was white, and the professor, as he laid a hand on his shoulder, felt him tremble.
"I can see, my lad, that you've had a trying ordeal," he said kindly. "Tell us what happened."
Roland seemed scarcely to remember.
"The fact is," he confessed, "the creature looked so horribly ugly I could not take my eyes off it. I hardly know what went on around me, or how long we stood here."
Leslie was more explicit; and he finally told how that, in spite of all, the two Pigmies had gone off in the track of their enemy.
"Shall we go after them and see what has happened to them?" queried the professor.
The doctor shook his head.
"There is no need," he said. "They're quite able to take care of themselves. Leave 'em alone; they'll find their way back all right, I've no doubt."
Tim and the aeroplane were sent back alone to where the airship lay, while the leaders walked towards it with the lads.
"How was it you came to us just at the right time, Mr. Kelmar?" Roland asked.
"On, that's simple enough. We were starting on the aeroplane for a look over the country when we heard a deep, hoarse roar, which the doctor recognised at once. 'That's a gorilla!' he said. 'I know the sound well, and it comes from where those lads have gone.' So we turned and hurried in that direction. We knew pretty well that you would probably keep near the lake, as you were after water-fowl. Did you see any, by the way?"
"Never a bird, sir," Leslie put in. "Not a sign of one. Seemed as if they must all have been frightened away"
"Humph! It's a pity you didn't take the hint and turn back," grumbled the doctor. "I wonder what's the next scrape you are going to rush into? You'll be sailing off in the Champion and leaving us stranded, if I happen to take my eyes off you for five minutes, one of these days. Just see what a terrible danger you've led Roland into—to say nothing of yourself."
"It was as much my fault as Leslie's, doctor," cried Roland stoutly. "Please don't put the blame on Leslie. I'm awfully sorry."
"Oh, you are? Well, that's more than he is! Of all the handfuls—"
"Come, come, Cambray," said the professor good-humouredly, "don't be too hard on the lad! He's had a fright, and I've no doubt it will make him—both of them—more cautious in future."
Just then there came again the sound of the gorilla's deep roar. They stood still and listened. It sounded a long way off, but there was no mistaking it. It ceased for a minute, and then began again, and was repeated, with shorter and shorter intervals between; and each time the sounds seemed to increase, as though the creature uttering them was becoming worked up into fiercer and yet fiercer rage.
"Crikey! What a racket!" cried Leslie. "Sounds as if the gentle creature's having a tooth pulled, and doesn't like it."
"Something's going on, that's certain," murmured Roland.
"Perhaps he and Njombi are having an argument, and the monkey's getting the worst of it and is losing his temper," Leslie suggested.
"Ah, you can laugh and joke now, you young jackanapes!" muttered the doctor. "I don't suppose you felt like that when you were standing looking at him."
"Hark! Those sounds are changing," exclaimed Kelmar. "It almost seems to me—"
He broke off to listen again, for the deep bellow, hoarse and broken as with ungovernable ferocity, was gradually altering its tone and becoming fainter. It seemed now rather like a succession of hollow moans than the roar they had first heard. Finally, it died away altogether.
"That brute's dead!" commented the doctor shortly. "How ever it may have come about, there's no mistaking those sounds. Eh, Kelmar?"
"That's my opinion, too. I began to think something of the kind when I was speaking just now. But—how could it be?"
"As you know, I never bet; but if I did, I would wager that it is Njombi and Noueti's work."
"Not possible, surely?" exclaimed Kelmar.
"What? Those two little manikins?" cried Roland. "Do you really think it possible, sir, that they—all by themselves, too—have actually killed that great, powerful, terrible brute?"
"I do; and I expect you will find before long that—Ah, here they are!"
And, in fact, at that moment the two Pigmies came into view, racing and bounding along, hurrying towards their friends,
The professor and Roland looked at them in amaze, for as they drew nearer it could be seen that they not only showed no sign of any conflict, but they were in such a state of delight their very eyes were dancing with joy.
"Him dead!" grunted Njombi. "Him big monkey man dead! Him no frighten white man any more."
"THE most awful craythur as iver I set eyes upon. Enough, bedad, to freeze the very marrow in yez bones!" was Tim's description, when he returned with the aeroplane, of the gorilla he had seen.
"What?" exclaimed Dan Beach. "Ye've left 'em theer to fight the galoot by themselves?"
"No, Dan darlint. I was ordered back, afther seein' the grisly gintleman safe off the primeses. They'll be comin' in d'reckly. Is it afther finishin' the watherin' business, ye are?"
"Ay, it's nearly done."
"The saints be thanked for that same, for thin we can clear out av this counthry, where it's monkeys they have as big as you an' me, an' with the faces av ragin' fiends."
"Set t' work wi' a bucket, then, an' help us finish up afore they comes," said the hunter. "Then, if the ragin' party ye mentions alters his mind, an' comes back, ye'll be ready t' cool him down wi' a dose o' cold water."
Weston, who had remained to superintend the work in hand, looked very grave as he listened to Tim's excited account of what he had witnessed. He was considerably relieved when the doctor and his companions presently appeared, safe and sound; still more when he heard that the gorilla was dead, and that a party was required to go and bring in the skin.
It cannot be said, however, that any there responded with alacrity to the leader's call on this particular occasion. Tim had given such a lurid and thrilling account of this "Wild Man of the Woods" as to disincline most of those who had heard it from hurrying to see the creature for themselves, alive or dead.
"We must have the skin," said the doctor. "We can't afford to lose such a trophy." And he returned himself, with the professor and Beach, and a party of "boys," with the two valiant Pigmies to guide them to the spot.
Very gruesome and terrible the fearful creature looked, even when dead. On measurement, it was found to be nearly six feet in height.
"Its strength must have been prodigious—something scarcely conceivable," exclaimed the professor. "I can't even now understand how these two little people prevailed against such a foe."
"It is due, of course," remarked the doctor, "to the poison with which their arrows are tipped. As to the arrows themselves, they would have no more effect on such an animal than sticking in a pin here and there. But the poison works very quickly. They followed him up, they have explained to me, and attacked him from opposite sides, so that he could not make a rush at one without exposing himself to the other."
"Yes, yes. But how was it he failed to catch one of them?"
"Being so small, they could dive into places where he could not possibly follow them."
"Humph! Well, I should say they had to be uncommonly careful where they hid, all the same," commented the professor. "He had a pretty long arm to reach with—just look at it—more than twice the length of yours and mine!"
"Njombi declares that this is a regular feeding ground for the creatures," continued the doctor. "He can read the signs, and he prophesies that if we remain here much longer we may have a whole troop of them to contend with. No doubt they look upon this as a sort of private garden of their own, and would regard us as trespassers, to be promptly evicted. I've no wish to stay to argue the matter with them, so the sooner we get on board the Champion, and leave this part of the country, the better."
With this view the others cordially agreed, and in less than an hour all were on board the airship again, and were sailing quietly away from the spot.
"A much better way of seeing gorilla land," remarked Roland, "than travelling through those gloomy forests."
They passed the night in the air, contenting themselves with a cold supper—for no cooking was allowed on board the airship—and by the next morning had left the sombre forest far behind them. They then reached a country where open, prairie-like tracts spread out to the view as far as the eye could reach. Here they descended to earth for what Leslie described as "a good square meal."
"Now," said Dr. Cambray to his friend, as they resumed their journey, "we are entering an unknown land. So far as I am aware, no modern European has explored it. It will be interesting to see what it is like. Henceforth, I shall be steering partly by guess and partly by the directions given in the ancient records I found at the Lion Rock—so far, that is, as I can understand them."
They had not gone very far before they began to meet with very strong proof of the literal truth of the scientist's words.
Vast plains were there, varied with patches of wood, and occasional streams or small lakes. And they were almost, in some parts, covered with endless numbers of grazing wild animals.
Herds of antelope, deer, buffaloes, giraffes, zebras passed beneath them as they travelled steadily onwards. Here and there they would see a rhinoceros or two, perhaps with young ones. In or near the streams the hippopotamus disported itself, and in the wood thickets at times they saw a few elephants. More than one troop of lions were descried wandering in the open in broad daylight. Every species of "big game" seemed to be there, many of them looking as tame and unconscious of danger as herds of cows or flocks of sheep in an English park.
"Ah," exclaimed the professor, "it is easy to see that no white hunters with rifles have yet made their appearance here! This is a wonderful sight indeed. It reminds me of the descriptions given by Gordon Cumming, and others of our early explorers, of the country as it used to be in South Africa, not so far from what is now Cape Town."
"It also goes to show," added his friend, "that those reports were not exaggerated, as many nowadays are disposed to think,"
The airship was allowed to drift slowly, in order to afford an opportunity of gazing upon the marvellous scene, and witnessing the many secrets of wild nature there revealed.
As to Roland and Leslie, they were wholly fascinated. It was, as they said, like looking on at the biggest and most wonderful "Zoo" that imagination could conceive.
The animals took but little notice of the airship, and seldom showed fear of her. This, no doubt, would be because animals are not in the habit of looking up into the sky after possible foes.
It was different with the birds seen—or, rather, not seen—for it was noticeable that most of the feathered creatures did their best to hide from view whenever they saw the airship. For it is their custom to keep looking up, as a precaution against birds of prey. At the sight of anything so large as the airship, therefore, their first idea would be that it was some new and gigantic eagle or hawk; and they would hide at once, without waiting to investigate.
Nor were the Lilliputian members of the party less interested in these sights than their bigger companions. They rolled their little eyes, and danced with excitement. Never, they declared, had they seen such numbers of beautiful game fit for the pot. How they would have liked to be let loose amongst them! Leslie and Roland actually grew alarmed, and began to watch over them with almost paternal solicitude, afraid that in their excitement and longing they might throw themselves out of the airship.
There were two on board who could enter into none of the talk and discussions which these things gave rise to, for the reason that they were unable to communicate with their fellow-travellers.
They were Akolah and Dolah, the two rescued strangers, who had been brought by the doctor in the vague hope that they might somehow be of service to him in the enterprise he had in hand. The time was now approaching when that hope must either be realised, or given up for good. Consequently he now began to watch them with much attention, with the idea of seeing whether they showed any signs of recognising the country they passed over.
The Champion sailed on over similar scenes all that day and the next. There were halts, when the travellers landed and went hunting for fresh meat—needless to say, a very easy matter there. They met with some adventures, and witnessed many strange things, which there is not room here to record.
On the fifth day of the voyage they reached, towards afternoon, another range of mountains—one entirely unknown to the scientists, and not marked on any map. Gaining the other side of the range, they found that the country beyond was quite hidden in a thick mist. Dr. Cambray therefore decided to pass the night where he was, and as a precaution against possible danger from sudden mountain tempests, he descended in a deep, gloomy gorge, where high rocks and precipices on all sides offered shelter, and a certain amount of protection.
Stores were landed and unpacked, and arrangements made for a camp.
That evening, after it had fallen dark, a scout who had been left on one of the heights above to keep watch, came down with news that the mist was lifting.
Thereupon the leaders went up to look for themselves, taking with them, besides Leslie and Roland, the two unknowns, on the off-chance that they might recognise the country.
The mist had quite gone, and a silvery moon was shining down, lighting up the whole landscape.
The cause of the mist itself was now apparent, for the moon's rays played on innumerable stretches of water, with only broken tracts of land between. Evidently the whole country for miles was one vast swamp.
But beyond this again a great mass rose up against the sky. The spectators could see steep cliffs that towered aloft from out the marshes, like the sides of a colossal fortification; while above, hung a sort of subdued light, like the dim, luminous haze above a large city.
Then the two unknowns uttered each a loud cry—a gladsome, joyous cry, that had also in it something pathetic and solemn.
And the one called Akolah, drawing himself up, and raising his hands high in the air, as though to invoke a blessing, uttered in deep, thankful tones, the words, "Fura! Fura!"
"DID you hear that, Kelmar?" exclaimed Dr. Cambray in an undertone. "He said 'Fura, Fura!'"
"Yes, yes; certainly I heard it, Cambray," returned the professor. Both spoke in some excitement, yet in low accents, as though afraid of interrupting the two unknowns. "What do you make of it?"
"Make of it? Why, that over the swamp and the marsh yonder lies the object of our search, Mount Fura! Those must be its heights you can see in the distance; and I can make out a light in the sky above, which tells me that the place must be inhabited. Not only that, but there must be a city there, to throw such a reflection into the clouds."
"True, true," Kelmar agreed. "And yet, you know, if this be Fura, that does not necessarily mean that Fura is Ophir."
"Not necessarily—but I feel convinced that it happens to be so, my friend. Somehow, I have felt all along that we were on the right track. And as to these two—was it not a good idea to bring them with us?"
"It would seem so, indeed. I must say it has all turned out wonderfully, so far. They ought to be of considerable assistance, if it is really the case that we have brought them back to their own homes."
"It certainly begins to look as though we have. But what puzzles me—and it seems more puzzling than ever now—is, how in the world did they come to leave them?"
"Just so. That, as you say, is a puzzle."
"And, further, if we have here, as seems to be the considerable town, that of course is another puzzle. How can it have remained for so long unknown, undiscovered?"
But to this, as to the other queries, neither could give any answer. They were riddles which could not be solved just then.
Leslie and Roland, meanwhile, were standing apart, making their own comments. It should be said that they were both now aware of what had, at first, been kept from them. Dr. Cambray had taken them into his secret the day before, and they were not less impressed thin he was by what they had now heard.
"I say!" said Leslie, "you heard what Akolah said about that place over there being 'Fura'—which, perhaps, if the land of Ophir? D'you think it can be true, or is it a bit of hanky-panky?"
"What do you mean? Why should it be?"
"Oh, I don't know; they might be trying it on, you know, just to hoodwink the doctor. He's so awfully set on this idea of his—you can see that for yourself—that they might be deceiving him,"
"Can't see why they should try. Besides, how can they know? They don't understand our lingo."
"No, that's true. Then, if they're right, it's all very much O.K. Crikey! Think what a lot it may mean!"
"Of course it will. It will be a ripping fine thing, if it comes off—as it certainly now seems likely to. The doctor and Mr. Kelmar will become famous."
"That they will. And so shall we! They'll be invited to lecture at the Royal Geographical Society, before all the swells; and we shall be able to go with them."
"Oh, they wouldn't let us go."
"Wouldn't they? I'd get there somehow, you bet. You and I could pretend to be attendants, and hand them the maps and things, and the glass of water, you know, to drink while they are lecturing."
"A good idea," he agreed. "And then they'll go to Court, and be received by the King."
"H'm! I'm afraid we couldn't slip in with them there," said Leslie, shaking his head. "They'd be too sharp at Buckingham Palace. They know a thing or two there. Hallo! What are those johnnies up to now?"
The last exclamation referred to Dolah, who was standing before Akolah making some curious signs.
A very fine, handsome figure of a man was Akolah, as Roland had said of him at first sight. Dark, swarthy as to skin, but not by any means of the negro type. Rather did he seem to be of Arabic, or even Semitic lineage; and, indeed, both in his face and in his whole bearing there was that which was more than merely pleasing—something that was noble. In spite of the helpless position in which he found himself—spite of the ill-fitting garments he was dressed in—provided for him by the professor from his scanty reserve stock—he carried himself with a grace and dignity which impressed even the least observant.
Of Dolah much the same description may be given, in a lesser degree, as it were. Akolah was—or had been—evidently the master; Dolah, the servant. If Akolah had been, as Roland stoutly maintained, a king or chief in his own country, then Dolah had no doubt been a sub-chief, or—to quote Roland again—"one of his nobles."
"What are the johnnies up to now?" said Leslie again.
Dolah had, as stated, been bowing and gesticulating in a most respectful manner before Akolah. It was not the first time he had behaved in this way. On previous occasions he had gone through some pantomime of the kind, seemingly ever anxious to impress upon the others that Akolah was a very great personage. Now, however, he went farther. He took hold of the professor by the hand, led him forward, and made as though to present him to Akolah; and the latter made motions about the white man's head and shoulders.
"I know what he means!" cried Roland suddenly. "Akolah is the king, and Dolah is introducing him; and Akolah is bestowing some mark of his favour—an order, or—"
"A string of beads," suggested Leslie. "Like I did with King Batah."
"Oh, shut up! A chain of gold."
Leslie laughed irreverently.
"If Mr. Kelmar has to wait for a gold chain till Akolah gives him one, I'm afraid he'll wait a long time."
"I know nothing as to that," returned Roland. "I'm only talking of what it looks like. See! The doctor's going to have one now."
And that, in fact, was what happened next; Dr. Cambray was treated in the same way. Then, the ceremony being over, the two strangers gazed again fixedly for a minute or two at the distant heights, and turned and walked slowly back towards the camp, the others following.
As to the two leaders, it can only be said that they had acquiesced in the dumb show out of pure good humour and a feeling of pity for the two helpless exiles.
Suddenly the "johnnies" in question stopped abruptly, and stood again staring out over the country below. They had just then reached a corner where there was a view which extended farther to the left than they had before been able to see. They waited for the white men to come level, and then pointed excitedly, muttering some words which, of course, were unintelhgible.
The leaders could, however, see what it was to which they wished to direct attention. At a distance of perhaps a mile or so, there was a fire—or, rather, fires—and judging by appearance they belonged to a somewhat large encampment.
The doctor put up his field-glasses.
"H'm! Evidently a numerous party," he commented. "Probably a caravan putting up for the night. Now what sort of people, I wonder, would be likely to be travelling in this direction?"
As though he guessed the doctor's question, Akolah began to make a series of signs to him. And so well did he convey his meaning that Cambray exclaimed:
"Why, of course! Slavers again! Who else should it be?" And Akolah nodded his head vigorously. He had, at any rate, by this time picked up the meaning of the word "slaver."
"Yes, he knows. He evidently knows," the professor declared. "Ah, he has only too good cause to know, poor fellow!"
"I think I begin to understand a little," muttered Cambray thoughtfully. "Kelmar, we must go and investigate. Will you come with me?"
"Of course I will."
"Good! Then we will get out the aeroplane."
HALF an hour later the two leaders were sailing down from the heights, towards the low-lying plain below, bent upon a voyage of discovery.
The aeroplane on this occasion made but little sound, thanks to a special "silencer" which the doctor and Weston had invented between them. As, however, it interfered a little with the working of the motor, it was, as a rule, only brought into use on special occasions, such as the present, when it was particularly needful that the flight should be noiseless.
As they drew near to the fires which they had descried from above, they heard sounds of laughter and a rough kind of music. Presently they could distinguish a number of people engaged in a barbaric dance, and evidently enjoying themselves.
So busy were the revellers, and so much noise did they make, that the slight sound made by the Bat was quite drowned; and the aeronauts were able to circle round them and observe carefully what was going on without much fear of attracting attention.
They saw enough to confirm what they had suspected.
This was a party of slavers, the leaders being Arabs, with the usual gang of half-breeds, "bad" natives, and general desperadoes. There, too, were the "slaves" they had secured, sitting forlornly apart, tied together in rows.
The doctor uttered one or two half-smothered exclamations, and then signed to his man Tim to take them in the direction of the swamp.
"It wouldn't do to remain there any longer," he said, when they had left the place well behind. "It would only put them on their guard. I have made two or three discoveries, Kelmar, one of them a most surprising one."
"What may they be?" asked his friend.
"One is that among the leaders are two men I know, and whose names I have already mentioned to you. They are Pedro Xavier, a Portuguese half-breed, and a man named Drucker, a low-class German. Now these men have been associated for years with Salondah in all sorts of infamous and abominable crimes—slave-raids, men-stealing, pillage, and murder, and so on—among the wretched natives. The fact that we find these men here—in the place our two unknowns came from—forms another link, you observe, connecting Salondah himself with the place."
"Of course it does."
"I wish," continued the doctor, as though communing with himself, "I could, somehow, set those poor wretches they have there free. For some years now I have never allowed these men to succeed in carrying off their slaves once I have spotted them. But here, of course, it would be very difficult, for I am not on my own ground, and have very few people with me, while they are in pretty strong force. However, we shall see."
"I quite agree with you, and am ready to back you up in anything you think proper to do in such a cause," Kelmar declared. "And the other discovery—what may that be?"
"That I would rather explain when we are back in camp, if you do not mind waiting till then. Meantime, what do you say, now we are out here, to exploring a little farther? I am very curious to know what lies beyond those rocky barriers yonder."
"With all my heart, Cambray. I confess I am getting curious, too."
"Good! We'll try to solve that riddle to-night, at any rate. First of all, though, you are, of course, observing the special features we are passing over?"
"Certainly. I notice that it is simply one vast morass—one apparently quite impassable on foot."
"Just so; and equally impassable, I should say, by water. So far as I can make out in the moonlight it seems to be choked up with weed and tangled vegetation resembling what one sees in the streams and rivers of Uganda. I dare say you saw plenty of it as you came along."
"Oh, yes! I noticed that the surface of the streams was covered in places with a sort of triangular weed packed so close that no canoe or boat could possibly force its way through it."
"Precisely. That at present is the great trouble in Uganda. Until that weed is cleared away scarcely any of the rivers there can be used for navigation. And it is the same thing here, if I am not mistaken. Now, supposing that this state of things extends all round Mount Fura, you have a sufficient answer to problem number one which puzzled you—as to how a town could exist here and yet remain unknown. Intercourse between the people and the outer world may have been cut off in this way, perhaps, for ages."
"Yes. I quite see that. But, then, how did Akolah and his companion come away from the place—and why?"
"Ah! That, of course, is another problem. But there are two or three plausible explanations. One is that the people who live there may just recently have succeeded in opening a way of communication. Or they may always have had such a way, which is known to them, but not to outsiders, and they may have preferred to keep it to themselves. Lately, for some reason that has cropped up, they may have decided to depart to some extent from their position of isolation."
"Such, for instance," suggested Kelmar slowly, "as that they wished deliberately to sell some of their number as slaves—to send them into bondage in the outer world?"
"Ah!" exclaimed the doctor, as though a sudden light had dawned upon him. "I think you've hit it, Kelmar! Only, not to sell them, that would imply that they are poor and want maney, and if so, down tumbles our theory about the gold-mines of Ophir, you know. Suppose, that instead of selling these wretched captives, they were actually willing to pay money to have them taken away into slavery? That would fit in with my theory and also account for Salondah's boasts about the gold he has lately gained."
The professor chuckled.
"A very ingenious theory that, Cambray!" he answered admiringly. "It fits in with everything—except, perhaps, as to why they should wish to deliver up some of their people to such a fate. It seems to me we should be doing a public good here if, in that case, we interfered and put a stop to such cruelties."
"So we will, if it turns out to be so," muttered the doctor, setting his teeth. "I have long suspected that these fellows—Salondah, Drucker, & Co.—had tapped some new and highly-lucrative branch of their abominable traffic. If I find that it originates here, I will find out a way of putting an end to it by cutting it off at the very source—or my name is not Brinton Cambray!"
Both were silent for some minutes, reflecting upon the many surprising side-issues which this theory suggested.
"Well," said Cambray, after a long pause, "the first thing to do in order to put our supposition to the test, is to try to sail round the mountain. If we find that this 'dismal swamp' extends right round it, I shall consider the first part of the theory proved. The next thing will be to take a peep over the top and see what lies on the other side."
A "dismal swamp" in very truth the whole tract turned out to be. The country for miles out from the rugged heights of the mountain was all of the same impassable nature. They made the circuit, and ascertained that it stood quite alone, and was not connected in any way with any other mountains or chain of mountains.
Mount Fura was, in itself, however, almost equal to a small range, so great was its extent; and it took them a long time to complete the circle, rapid as was the rate at which the Bat travelled. But the outlook was everywhere the same. There were no signs of any inhabitants; scarcely, indeed, of any living thing except crocodiles, of which they saw some huge specimens.
"Just as I surmised," muttered the doctor. "No one living here; the whole tract given up to the crocodiles, and—I expect—big snakes, and hideous reptiles. So far as appears, the morass is impassable—certainly no stranger could ever hope to find a way across it. There may, of course, be some intricate path, some clue to the labyrinth, known only to those in the secret."
"Ugh! It's a forbidding, horrible tract!" the professor declared, with a shiver. "The home of deadly miasma and fever—or I'm a Dutchman. Let us get back to our camp."
"We will; we'll return at once," Cambray agreed.
Now while the two leaders had been thus engaged, there had been some rather curious proceedings going on at their camp.
Before setting out on their investigation they had given strict instructions that no one was to stir out of camp during their absence, and that all, except those on watch duty, were to turn in at the usual time.
These orders were duly obeyed—so far, that is, as the "turning in" was concerned. But even the most stringent orders of the leaders cannot compel those under them to slumber if they are restless, and sleep refuses to come to them.
Thus it was here. Neither Roland nor Leslie could sleep. They had lain down almost fully dressed, expecting to be roused when the doctor and his friend returned, and no doubt that had something to do with keeping them awake.
Roland, after a time, got up, and said he should go out and keep Beach—who was then on watch—company.
"I be glad ye be come; sir," said the hunter, in a low whisper, when he saw Roland. "I wur jes' thinkin' o' comin' t' speak t' ye. Them two stranger chaps has jes' crept off out o' camp, an' some o' the little men's gone wi' em."
It was a curious fact that Akolah and Dolah had, somehow, managed to become very friendly with the pigmies. Though neither could speak the others' language, the unknowns seemed able to make themselves understood better by the dwarfs than, perhaps, by the rest of the party.
"We must go after them, Dan," Roland decided, "and see what they're up to. They may get into some mischief." He thought for a moment, and then added, as though answering an unspoken question: "No; I won't tell Leslie. He'd better stay here, or the doctor will be sure to blame him if any trouble comes out of it."
He went off at once in the direction which Dan had indicated, the hunter promising to follow as soon as he had awakened another of the sleeping party to take his place,
Just afterwards Leslie, going to the door of his tent to get some air, caught sight of Beach stealing out of the camp in very stealthy fashion; and his curiosity being aroused, he resolved to follow him, if possible, without being seen.
"I won't call Roland," he said to himself. "It would only get him into a bother with the doctor if any trouble should come of it. As for me, my back's broad enough, and it won't matter."
So he stole silently after Beach, who was hurrying after Roland, who was following up the two unknowns and their little companions.
LESLIE, as has been told, had acquired a considerable knowledge of hunting and woodcraft, and in particular he rather prided himself on his skill in scouting and tracking. When, therefore, he started off after Dan, he thought it would be a good opportunity for a display of his skill.
There was no particular reason why he should not have caught up with the hunter and offered to accompany him. But it would be, Leslie thought, better fun to follow without the other knowing of it.
"It will be a capital joke," he said to himself. "I can chaff Dan finely afterwards about his carelessness in allowing himself to be followed, and knowing nothing about it."
Having thus decided, he crept stealthily after the hunter, gliding silently as a shadow among the rocks and trees, darting noiselessly forward here, pausing and listening there, all according to the best-known rules which he had learned, with several original ideas of his own thrown in.
The track—for there certainly seemed to be a track of some sort—twisted about a good deal, passing between high rocks, through thickets, and winding round great boulders. It was not a dark night, though cloudy, for there was a moon somewhere behind the clouds, and he had no difficulty at first in keeping Dan in view. Presently, however the chase took him into a wood of tall trees, where it was so dark that he had to proceed with extra caution and vigilance, lest he should run against a trunk or projecting branch, or catch his foot in a root.
And then, all suddenly, he halted, and was both surprised and nettled as it began to dawn upon him that he was at fault, He peered this way and that through the gloom; he strained his ears to listen for a footfall, the sound of a rustling leaf or snapping twig, but nothing could he hear.
"Strange," he thought to himself, "very strange! Strikes me I must have made a mistake somewhere,"
It was certainly very provoking. He had undoubtedly lost Dan, The man had vanished as completely as if the earth had swallowed him up. That was bad enough; but what was worse—very decidedly worse, a hundred times worse, in fact—was that when he reluctantly made up his mind that there was nothing for it but to confess failure and retrace his steps ignominiously to the camp, he discovered he could not even do that. He had not the least idea which way he had come, or in which direction the camp lay.
"This is I nice kettle of fish!" he muttered disgustedly. "The doctor may return at any moment and go to my tent to make sure I'm all right; then there'll be trouble. He'll be sending someone out to look for me. Perhaps Dan himself will have got back by then, and be sent to find me, and instead of my tracking him, he may end by tracking me. Och! As Tim would say, it's meself as wishes I'd stayed and had a talk with Roland, instead of coming out like this on a wild goose chase in a strange place!"
Leslie was evidently becoming worried—very much worried, Otherwise he would scarcely have spoken his thoughts aloud. It was a very indiscreet thing to do in the circumstances, since it might obviously betray his presence there to an enemy should one be about.
Then he started. In the stillness around he had certainly heard a sound—a very odd kind of sound, it seemed to him. It might have been the sighing of the wind through the trees, for there was a slight breeze; yet it did not seem exactly that.
He started again as he distinctly heard what now sounded like suppressed breathing close at hand. Rather alarmed, he strained his ears, and heard something else, which puzzled him still more, for it was like nothing so much as a half-suppressed chuckle! It was as though someone quite close at hand was struggling to smother an irresistible burst of merriment.
It grew louder, as though the unseen person was unable to keep it down any longer, and at last it took the form of an unmistakable giggle. Then the doughty scout recovered both his courage and his presence of mind, for he had recognised it.
"Come out of that and show yourself, Roland!" he cried airily. "You're trying to frighten me; and I confess I'd no idea you had come out after me, but I know now you're hiding here somewhere."
"Yes, and Dan, too!" replied Roland's voice. "You're a pretty tracker! You've passed both Dan and myself! If we'd been Red Indians we might have scalped you a dozen times in the last few minutes!"
"I must give you best this time!" laughed Leslie. "I must congratulate you on your improvement at this kind of thing since you came with us."
"I owe it more to Dan than myself this time," returned Roland honestly. "He caught me up, and told me he had seen you following him, so I suggested we should turn aside and lead you on a little, and then let you catch us up without knowing it."
"Which you did very neatly, Mr. Leslie," said Dan's voice. "Howsomever, I 'spects as you'd a-bin a bit more careful if ye hadn't known as 'twas me ye were after."
"Let us hope so, Dan," returned Leslie, a little crestfallen. "But what are you two doing out here, anyway?"
Roland proceeded to explain:
"The fact is we've come to look after some one else, and find out what they arc doing out here." And he related what Dan had seen.
"Why didn't you call me to come with you?" Leslie asked reproachfully.
"I didn't want to get you into hot-water again," Roland said simply. "If Dr. Cambray should return and object, he might—"
"Might have said it was all my fault. Yes, I know. He probably will now, in any case; but we'll have to chance that," answered Leslie cheerfully. "We must, as you say, find out what those little beggars are up to. They might get into mischief, you know," he added, with another laugh. "And it will never do to allow that. But how shall we discover which way they've gone?"
"I've took care o' that," Dan put in. "I see 'em goin' in the d'rection o' the camp fire we sighted. I think as them two queer bodies, Akolah and Dolah, as they calls theirselves, 'ave got some game o' their own on. I 'eard the doctor say as he did think they used t' live somewhere's 'ereabouts."
"That's what I think, Leslie, too," said Roland. "And they somehow induced the two Pigmies to join them. The question is, what can their object be? At first I thought perhaps they'd only gone out on a little hunting trip together by night. But if they're really making for the strangers' camp, it must be something more serious than that."
"There be a lot o' people in that camp," Dan declared. "And if these galoots plays the fool, maybe it'll end in the strangers comin' over to our camp an' attackin' us suddin-like in the night, d'ye see? So it's best we sh'd keep an eye on 'em."
"You're right, Dan," Leslie agreed. "And I don't see how the doctor can blame us for looking after 'em. Now then, which way did they go?"
While talking, the three had been walking on, and had emerged from the wood, and arrived at a rocky terrace overlooking the valley. And there, some half mile or so away, they could see the strangers' camp lying just beyond a distant wood. Their fires were evidently dying down, from which it seemed likely that the party had turned in for the night.
Dan pointed to a series of ledges on a steep, rocky slope below them, which were to be seen pretty clearly in the half-light.
"They was a-creepin' down theer," he said.
"The question is," Roland suggested, "shall we go after them, or would it be better to stay here and just keep a look-out to see what goes on?"
He had scarcely spoken when, they heard a cry from the direction of the camp. Then there was a shot, which must have roused the sleepers, for it was followed by quite a chorus of shouts. Someone stirred up the dull fires, and by their light the watchers could see a number of figures leave the camp and hurry into the wood.
"Ginger! Jes' what I was afeered of!" growled Dan. "Them varmints 'as bin up t' some mischief an roused a hornets' nest. An' it won't be long afore we has 'em a-buzzin' about our ears."
"But where are they, then—Akolah and the Pigmies?" queried Roland.
"A-runnin' back this way, I'll bet, through that there wood," was Dan's opinion, "wi' the whole yellin' pack at their heels."
DAN'S shrewd guess proved a correct one, for a few minutes later the two Pigmies appeared from the wood in the valley, and could be seen running like tiny ants across a stretch of open ground towards the foot of the rocky slope. Then they began to climb vigorously upwards towards the spot where the watchers stood.
To a man of ordinary size the rocky ledges presented no difficulty. They were, in fact, only like somewhat steep steps. But with these little people the case was very different, and it seemed marvellous that they should have been able to scale them at all, let alone in such nimble fashion as they now displayed.
As Dan, who was watching their progress with great interest and growing wonder, expressed it, they seemed to "stick t' the rocks like flies to a wall."
The three had unslung their rifles, and were ready to cover the retreat of their friends if the pursuers should follow them up too closely. But as yet they could see only the Pigmies.
"Where are the other two—Akolah and Dolah?" Roland asked wonderingly.
"P'r'aps they 'a bin caught," muttered Dan, shaking his head. "Why couldn't the silly galoots a' kept t' the camp, wheer they was safe?"
"No, Dan," exclaimed Leslie excitedly. "You're wrong this time; I think I can see them—"
"Ah! I can see them too," said Roland in perplexed tones. "Only there are several more with them. What can it mean?"
Quite a little party had come into view from the wood, and were following in the track of the Pigmies. The two the watchers had been looking for were there, certainly, but they had, as Roland had descried, some strangers with them. When these strangers reached the slope they began the ascent with evident difficulty, and Akolah and Dolah seemed to be fully occupied in assisting them and urging them on.
"By George, I have it!" exclaimed Leslie. "Jupiter! Those chaps camping yonder are slavers, and these beggars have been down and cut a lot of their slaves loose while the rascals were asleep. I say, that was a plucky thing to do, wasn't it? We'll have to help 'em out with it, even if we are let in for fighting the whole gang!"
"My stars! Whatever put it into their heads to attempt that?" Roland wondered. "Anyhow, as you say, we must back 'em up,"
Dan shook his head wisely.
"It'll be a stiff fight then, fur I could see a whole bilin' ov 'em rushin' out o' the camp into the wood. We'll have our hands full in a minute or two, or I'm a Hottentot!"
Dan was right: and, indeed, when the pursuers came in sight they were in even greater numbers than he had feared.
"Ginger!" muttered the hunter, as he saw group after group of running figures emerge from the wood. "This be wuss nor I was a-thinkin' on. Ye lads had better scutter back t' the camp and warn Mr. Weston, whiles I keeps these gentry in check like, t' gie ye time t' be ready t' receive 'em."
But this the two lads refused to do. They perceived that Dan's object was to send them out of danger on the pretext of giving the alarm at the camp, while he remained and faced all the danger himself.
"Can't be done, Dan—not at any price," said Leslie firmly. "I'm not going, any way!"
"Nor I," Roland chimed in. "These chaps"—indicating Akolah and those with him—"will go on to the camp and rouse them. It's a pity Mr. Kelmar and the doctor are away, though."
"Ye're a couple o' foolish young jackanapes!" Dan burst out, in sudden wrath. "Ye doan't know what ye're letting' yerselves in for. Mr. Roland, doan't ye listen t' Mr. Leslie! If the perfessor was here—"
"There, there, Dan! Don't be grumpy!" Leslie interrupted good-humouredly. "We quite understand what you're thinking of, but we're going to stay, all the same; both of us."
Meantime, the Pigmies had reached the top of the slope, and Leslie made them understand that he wanted them to go on to the camp and inform Mr. Weston. Then the rescued men drew near, Akolah and Dolah being last of all. They had bravely stayed to aid some of those they had rescued who were hampered by bonds which there had been no time to cut through. Indeed, they had almost carried two of them up the last part.
When the pursuers saw that the fugitives had been met by friends they halted; and some of those in front conferred together. They waited till more of their party overtook them, and when they began to advance again they came on more quietly and cautiously, but with evident determination.
"Get behind that rock theer, all on ye," growled Dan, "ef ye doan't want t' be made targets of!"
The two lads obeyed, and signed to Akolah and his companions to do the same. And the wisdom of the advice was proved a moment or two later by the sound of shots below, and the whistling of bullets overhead.
"Here!" said a strange voice, "lend me a gun if you've got one to spare! I'm reckoned a fair shot; and there are one or two down there that I owe a debt to!"
Dan and the lads looked round in astonishment, which was increased as they saw it was one of the rescued "slaves" who had spoken—and in English!
"Jupiter!" cried Leslie, staring at him. "Who are you, and how in the world did you come to be here?"
"Never mind that now; there's something else to do than answer questions. Our friend there, who helped us to escape, has only just cut me loose; and now I want to do something to help him and you. Will you lend me a rifle?"
"Take mine," said Roland. "I dare say you'll make better use of it than I should; besides, I've got a revolver."
"Good!" returned the stranger; and he moved to the side of the hunter, who was kneeling behind a boulder which made a sort of parapet.
"Now, then," he said, with a business-like air, "what's your name?"
"Dan," returned the hunter tersely.
"Very well then, Dan. If you and I don't do something to stop these scoundrels they'll be up the slope, and will make mincemeat of the whole lot of us. D'you understand?"
"O' course I do," growled Dan. "What else d'ye think I be kneelin' 'ere for?"
"Well, you haven't fired yet."
"I be bidin' me time, sir. I wants t' make sure o' that long chap as is leadin' 'em. I can see as he be the one t' go for—"
"Ah! You're wiser than I thought, Dan! You're quite right, only he happens to be the one I owe a debt to; and so—Ah, there's my chance!"
The stranger's rifle went to his shoulder, and was lowered again so quickly, that if the others had not heard the report they would not have believed it possible he could have taken aim and fired.
"And so," continued the stranger, coolly finishing his remark, "'as I was about to say, I'd rather you left him to me."
"Ye've left him t' yeself," said the hunter admiringly. "Ye've wounded the galoot, anyways. They be holdin' him up an' helpin' him t' get out o' sight behind them trees."
"Yes, so I see. H'm! That was almost a miss, and the worst of it is they're crowding round him so I can't put in another. I'll have to wait a bit."
"It's stopped 'em for a whiles, anyhow," said Dan. "I wonder if they'll hear the firin' at our camp, and come out t' help us?"
"Oh, you've got a camp near, have you? Well, that's good news. Let's hope they'll hear, and come soon; for if not I wouldn't give much for our chances here against yonder crowd when they make up their minds to attack in earnest. I know what they're like. They're hesitating because they don't know how many armed men they've got to deal with. When they find out that we've only two or three guns they'll come tearing up here like a pack of wolves. Have you many men in your camp?"
"Why, no," Dan answered. "Precious few as is any good in a case like this. An' the two bosses be out about somewheres by theirselves."
"Snakes, man! Is that the position? Then the sooner we clear out of this and get to your camp the better. There are forty men or more yonder, all well armed, and every one of 'em fierce, reckless desperadoes. My advice is, give 'em the slip now, while they're hesitating. In another five or ten minutes you'll find it will be too late!"
"Wall," said Dan, "that were jes' me own idea, but I thought these chaps wi' you would 'a gone on fust. What on earth be they waitin' about fur? Make 'em unnerstan', sir, an' send 'em packin'."
At that moment Roland stepped alongside the two, and explained how the delay had arisen. Two of the poor fellows, he said, had been so ill-treated that they were unable to go any further. Bravely aided by Akolah and Dolah, they had managed to struggle along with the others, and even mount the slope; but there their strength had failed them, and they had collapsed. They were now lying on the ground, in a state of semi-consciousness.
"Then we be in a tighter corner nor I thought fur, that's all I can say!" exclaimed Dan desperately, through his shut teeth. "Look here, sir," to the stranger, "I can keep 'em back fur a while, and I wish ye'd do me a bit of a favour like!"
"What is it, Dan?" the other asked.
"Jes' take them two young gints b' the scruff o' their necks an' march 'em off t' our camp. They'll show ye the way. Theer ye'll find one o' our people, Mr. Weston. Tell him how things be, an' he'll do the best he can. It'll be a great load off my mind ef ye'll take these two away, an' doan't let 'em gie ye the slip on the way. 'Twar my fault as they come 'ere, an' I sha'n't die easy ef ye doan't get 'em out of the way."
Half amused at Dan's anxious talk, but evidently impressed by it, the stranger turned round to see what the "two young gints" might have to say to this proposition. And then he uttered an exclamation of surprise:
Roland and Leslie had disappeared!
NOT only had the two lads disappeared, but the two who were the cause of the present position of affairs—Akolah and Dolah—had gone, too, They had left those they had been tending to the care of their fellows, and had gone off seemingly on their own account.
"They be all gone back to the camp t' fetch help, I 'spects," was Dan's hopeful comment, when the stranger told him that the four were missing. "I be glad o' that; it be the very wisest thing they could do. Now the two young gints be safely out o' the way, me mind's easy."
"Well, I'll stick to you, anyway," the stranger declared. "We'll do our best to hold out till your people come to us from your camp—as I suppose they're pretty sure to do before long."
There was not much time for talk. The slavers were firing freely in their direction, while the hunter and his companion were firing in return as hard as they could, with the idea of leading their foes to suppose that they had more defenders to deal with than was really the case.
Suddenly the stranger uttered an exclamation, and pointed to some high cliffs on their left.
"Look!" he cried. "I do believe that they've only been pretending down yonder—firing anyhow, just to keep our attention engaged—while their real attack is coming from another direction. I can see a lot of 'em scrambling round yonder cliff. Yes, there come some more! The cunning ruffians know their ground, and know we can't do much to stop 'em by that road!"
It was as the stranger said: the firing that had been going on from below had been of a desultory character, and now the reason was apparent. A party had been sent round to make a simultaneous attack by another route altogether. They were advancing along a narrow road—a mere ledge—which had been cut half-way up a high precipice. As this road was higher than the place which the hunter and his companion were defending, the latter were now placed at an obvious disadvantage.
They, of course, had known nothing of the existence of this high-lying mountain path. Their idea had been that their foes must climb the slope in front, and would thus be compelled to expose themselves so much that, even with only two rifles, the defenders might have been able to keep them at bay for a little while. Now the outlook was more hopeless than ever.
"This is a horse of another colour!" exclaimed the stranger, as he sent a bullet whizzing in the new direction; only, however, to hear it strike harmlessly on the rock. "You can't even get a fair glimpse of 'em—only see two or three heads popping along now and then. But there's no doubt what their object is. By means of that path they'll be able to reach the wood here on our left, and in a few minutes they'll be swarming around us like a pack of hounds round a fox. Now, what's to be the game? Are you going to stop here and be treated like the fox aforesaid, or make a bolt of it while there's time?"
"I woan't leave these poor slave chaps," Dan declared stoutly; "I must take me chance wi' them. After all, sir, a man can only die once; an' better die doin' yer duty than live by runnin' away from it! Them's my sentiments, as they say. Ye can do as ye pleases."
"Well said, Dan! I see you've got the true British pluck! We'll take our chance together, then. You got into this scrape through us, and I'm going to stick to you!"
It was clear that they would not have long to wait, for they now saw several groups of heads—sometimes heads and shoulders—passing along, showing for a moment or two at times, here and there, where the rocky path happened to be a little narrower, or a little more exposed, than in other parts.
Moreover, those of their foes who had been left in the valley below, now commenced an advance in real earnest towards the foot of the slope, taking advantage of every bit of cover, and making short rushes from tree to tree or rock to rock, showing themselves as little as possible, and giving the defenders—good shots though they were—few chances for effective shooting.
Meantime, where were the four who had seemingly deserted their friends?
To answer this question, it is necessary to enable the reader to take a peep at the crest of the cliff, above the ledge-like path. Here four persons could be seen working—toiling with perspiring vigour, pulling, tugging, pushing at certain big stones and rocky boulders which were strewn about upon the top.
Two of the four were Leslie and Roland, and the others were the "unknowns," Akolah and Dolah, at whose urgent solicitations—made only by means of signs, but none the less intelligible—they had accompanied them to the brow of the cliff, and commenced the work of shifting the loose stones.
Now and again Akolah crawled to the edge of the rock and looked over; only, however, to shake his head, and make signs to hurry on with their work, at which he himself assisted with marvellous energy and determination.
Now he crawled again to the edge, and, looking over, uttered a low, guttural exclamation; and the others crept forward and looked over, too.
Below them was the ledge-like road which the stranger had pointed out to Dan, and along it those above now saw a string of men creeping cautiously, bending low, so as to avoid as far as possible being seen by the hunter.
"Jupiter! Akolah knew what he was doing in bringing us here!" muttered Leslie to Roland. "He must know his way about these parts jolly well. We shouldn't have had much chance against the beggars stealing upon us by this path!"
"Ha, I'm glad we trusted him! I felt sure he had a good reason for urging us to come with him," was Roland's comment.
Dan and his companion, meantime, were still doing their best to check the attack in front of them. They knew that it was a hopeless task, seeing that in any case they must, in a very few minutes at the outside, be overwhelmed by the new flank attack.
And then it was—just when they were wondering how long, or how short, a time it would be before it was all over—that the unexpected happened.
From the cliff round which they knew the enemy were making their way, came, all suddenly, a series of resounding crashes and roars. From the top there shot out an avalanche of flying stones and rocks. Down the face of the almost perpendicular cliff they rolled, falling upon the narrow roadway with reports like the booming of cannon, and flying into a thousand splinters, like exploding shells.
Shouts of dismay and execration, curses, yells, cries, howls, were heard amid the sound of the falling avalanches; and a moment or two later the hunter and his companion saw the men who had passed along the mountain path rushing back again, helter-skelter, in full retreat, and evidently in a state of panic.
Nor did it end there. Some of the rocks, after striking the side of the cliff, bounded far out and came hurtling across the slope, there turning and bowling down in the faces of those who were just beginning to climb it. This was something they evidently had not looked for, and, with cries of astonishment and rage, they flew to the best cover they could find; and for the time there was a pause in the attack on that side also.
But there was yet another surprise in store for them. Bullets began to rain upon them seemingly from out of the very sky itself. At the same time a curious low, whirring sound was heard overhead; and when they glanced upwards, there, right above them, they saw a strange shape which, in the half-light, looked to their eyes like some hideous, gigantic bird of prey about to swoop down upon them. Yet it could be no bird, for from it there came stabs and darts of flame, the reports of heavy rifles, and the whistle of flying bullets.
Under the combined influence of these unexpected happenings it is not surprising that these attackers also turned tail; and a few moments later they, too, were to be seen racing back by the way they had come, in headlong flight.
Great, however, as was their surprise at the turn things had taken, it is likely enough that it was scarcely greater than that experienced by the stranger standing beside Dan. He confessed that he felt like one in a wild, fantastic dream.
"A few minutes ago," he said, "we had, as far as I could see, certain death staring us in the face, unless, indeed, your friends had arrived in time and in sufficient force to beat off these ruffians—which you yourself evidently did not think very likely.
"Now a miracle—several miracles—seem to have happened. On one side, rocks come tumbling down from the mountains, falling on one lot of our foes, and driving them back in confusion; while here in front of us some wonderful phenomenon suddenly appears in the air itself, and completes the rout by sending down a hail of bullets out of the very clouds. What on earth does it mean?"
"This 'ere means, mister," replied Dan simply, "as our bosses, as I told ye was away, 'ave come back, jest in the nick o' time, in their airyplane."
"Aeroplane? Phew!" The stranger uttered a long whistle. "Aeroplane, eh? D'you seriously mean to tell me that your people are out here—in the heart of Africa—with an aeroplane?"
"Jest that, mister. But as to t' other bus'ness—the fallin' rocks—I knows no more'n yeself about it. It may be a earthquake come, like the bosses, mighty convenient for us—in the nick o' time for all I can tell ye."
AS the last of the enemy below disappeared into the wood from which they had issued to the attack, the Bat came to ground upon a knoll not far from where the hunter was standing. From it there stepped Dr. Cambray and his friend Professor Kelmar.
"What's all this?" cried the doctor, surveying the group of rescued slaves gathered together behind the shelter of the rock.
"I knows very little about it, sir," Dan declared. "Ye must ask t'other chaps—Akolah as ye calls him—an' his mate. 'Twar they brought it all about."
"Where are they, then?" the doctor went on, staring round. "And how about the lads? Did they come here with you, or are they in camp?"
"They came 'ere with me, doctor," Dan answered truthfully, "But I doan't zactly know where they be now. I believes they went back to camp. Leastways—"
"No, we didn't," said Leslie's voice. "Here we are," he added cheerfully, as he came into view, followed by and the two "unknowns." "We have been on the top of that cliff yonder."
The faces of all were flushed, and they were still panting from their recent exertions, and from their hurried climb down from the height.
"Oh," said Dr. Cambray. "You've been to the top of the cliff! And what, may I ask, were you doing there?"
"Only throwing stones, sir," was the answer, given with a half-smothered laugh. "My word! what a game we had, didn't we, Roland?"
The doctor turned to the professor, lifting his hands helplessly.
"Some more of his pranks, Kelmar," he complained. "What can we do with him? You see I can't trust him for five minutes! We left him in camp with orders not to stir out—"
"He came after me, sir," Roland put in. "At least, I came first."
"I don't see that makes it any better, sir," snapped the wrathful doctor. "I left you both in camp, I say, with strict orders not to stir out of it. I come back and find Dan here, attacked by some marauding gang, and you two seemingly missing. He distinctly said he did not know where you were. And now all the explanation Leslie condescends to give is that he has been up a cliff throwing stones. Am I to understand that all four of you have been amusing yourselves, on a night like this, in that childish fashion?"
Roland hesitated, somewhat abashed at the leader's outburst.
"Well, you see, sir," he began; but the stranger stepped forward and intervened. A light had suddenly burst upon him; he understood now how the well-timed avalanche of stones and rocks had come about.
"I think I understand this, sir," he said, addressing the doctor. "If I am right, we owe the failure of the attack—and probably our lives—to what that young gentleman facetiously termed their stone-throwing. It was you, I gather," turning to Leslie, "who sent those rocks crashing down from the cliff-top, and so stopped the villainous crowd from swarming on to us from that side?"
"That's the ticket," rejoined Leslie composedly. "Our two friends here, Akolah and his chum, made us understand, in a way of their own, that they knew what to do, but required some help. So we followed them to the top of the cliff, and there got all the loose stones we could and rolled 'em over the top. Jupiter! It was fine fun! When they fell on the rocks below they broke up like bombshells, and made as much row. And you should have seen how they made those beggars run!"
"That was what drew us to the place," the professor here observed. "Otherwise we should have gone straight to the camp, for we heard the sound of the firing, and thought it must corns from there. So we were hurrying back when the noise made by the falling rocks caused us to turn aside. They must have been something more than stones, though," he added, with a smile.
"They were—some of them—jolly big rocks," Roland said, "But they happened to be on a steep bit of slope on the top, and once yon managed to set them going they slid down by themselves and then rolled over. Of course, we shouldn't have gone of our own accord. Akolah seems to know his way about here jolly well, else he couldn't have known that there were a lot of stones lying there handy, just overlooking the very path along which those beggars were marching."
"Well, but how did it all come about?" queried the perplexed doctor. "And you, sir," addressing the stranger, "may I ask who you are, and how you came here?"
"In the first place, I have to thank our friends there for my being here at all," was the answer, as the stranger indicated the two unknowns. "I had been captured by yonder gang of ruffians and was held prisoner. They had some others, too—those you see over there."
"Yes, yes," said the doctor impatiently. "I see them."
"Why, then, you, I suppose, were the prisoners we saw sitting apart in a row, as we passed over the slavers' camp earlier in the evening," Kelmar put in.
"Passed over the camp?" the other repeated. The professor nodded.
"Yes; we sailed right over your heads, and my friend here, Dr. Cambray, recognised the leaders of the band."
"Xaxier and Drucker?"
"Yes, and he was saying how he wished he could set you free. But there were too many in the gang; especially as we are in a country strange to us, and have not many people with us."
"I can't think how you came to be here at all," the stranger confessed. "It's a great puzzle to me. I thought this was an unknown land so far as Europeans are concerned. However, to go on; after the gang had gone to sleep for the night, two little chaps—Pigmies, as I guess—wriggled somehow into the camp past the dozing sentries and cleverly cut us free—so far as they could, for some were shackled, as you can see they still are, with irons. Then they made signs to us to creep after them, and we managed to get outside without waking the sentries. There we found those two"—pointing again to Akolah and Dolah—"who, as I judge, are fellow-countrymen of those who were prisoners with me."
"Eh? What's that?" exclaimed the doctor. "Fellow-countrymen, did you say? How can that be? How do you know?"
"I know nothing, my dear sir; I only guessed it to be so. Look at them yourself—it appears to me to be so. Besides, they knew one another, and talked the same language."
"Oho! Knew one another! Talked the same language!" repeated the doctor astonished. "Kelmar! Do you hear that! This is news indeed."
"Truly this seems to be an eventful night," the professor observed. "But to my mind it is even more surprising how this gentleman came to be among them. He has not told us that yet."
"That's a longer story," was the reply, "but I am just as anxious to tell it you as you are to hear it—even more so, for I wish to entreat your help——"
"Our help? What for?" the doctor asked.
"For my friends—the party I was with. I left them far out on a waterless desert, where we were stranded by the loss of our horses, and were all in danger of perishing for want of water. I started onwards alone, in the desperate hope of meeting some native tribe who would aid us, but, instead, got captured myself, and carried off, by this gang of fiends—for that's what they really are—fiends in human form!"
"Dear me, dear me! When was this—I mean when did you leave your party?"
"Two days ago. Think of it! They were in desperate straits then—what must their plight be now? Even if you are generous enough to go to their aid, it must take another two or three days."
"No, no!" cried the doctor. "If you can show us the way, it will take us perhaps but a few hours."
"It's a terribly hard road to travel—too well I know," said the stranger, sadly shaking his head. "It took these villains two days to bring me here, and they travelled faster than I expect you can with—"
"You don't understand, my friend," returned Cambray kindly. "We have an airship here—I'm not speaking now of the little aeroplane you see lying over there—but a large dirigible balloon. We came here in it, travelling over forest and plain, and even over the Mountains of the Moon. So it won't take us long to reach your friends, if only, you can direct us."
"Why, as to that, I think I can—at least, I hope so—for their lives may be depending on it. What you say sounds to me very wonderful—over the Mountains of the Moon, too! But, sir, I will not waste time in asking questions now. I beg you, for the love of Heaven, to hasten your departure, if indeed you will be generous enough to go to the help of my friends."
"That we certainly will, my friend; make your mind easy on that score," returned the doctor heartily. "Come with us to our camp, and you can give us further particulars on the way."
They set out for the camp on foot, and had not gone far when they met Weston with a party. He had heard enough from the two Pigmies—though their account had been far from clear—to understand that Dan wanted help and had started off at once. The doctor requested him to assist in bringing the other rescued men to the camp, and then continued on his way there himself, in company with the professor and the stranger.
The latter, on the road, entered into further details. His name, he said, was Nat Graham. He had been on his way with some companions to meet a large party coming from the coast who were after big game. He was himself from Cape Town—a colonial born and bred—and had been engaged to take charge of the oxen and baggage, and manage things generally for the travellers.
He appeared to be about thirty years of age, not exactly tall, but well-built, with a tanned face and honest-looking eyes. Both the doctor and Kelmar took to him at once.
"Why did those scoundrels treat you like this?" the doctor asked. "I never before heard of their seizing a white man and making a captive of him. This is something quite new."
The stranger hesitated, and seemed to be considering before replying. Then he said slowly:
"As you are trusting me, and are so ready to help me, it is only fair that I should trust you in return. The fact is that I happened, by accident, to learn a certain secret of these men—one which they are so anxious to keep to themselves that they would have killed me rather than let me go. I went into a cave for a rest, and was so dead beat that I fell asleep for a little while. When I woke up those two men were sitting just within the entrance talking, and I overheard what they said. They had not teen me, but they discovered me afterwards, and knew that I must have learned their secret. And even now I believe they will try to recapture me. Indeed, I am so convinced of it, that unless you have a much stronger party with yon than seems to me to be the case, I would urge you, on your own account—apart altogether from myself and my friends—to leave their neighbourhood as quickly as ever you can."
Just then Leslie and Roland came up at a run.
"Dan has sent us on," Leslie said breathlessly, "to tell you that the slavers are coming back, and he says he believes they've got a reinforcement from somewhere, and that they are likely to follow us up and attack the camp!"
"IF that is the case, we have not a moment to lose," said the doctor, "We must hurry on to the camp and get our stores on board again before our foes arrive. We may just be able to manage it, but it will be a close thing.
"What about my two fellow-prisoners who are unable to walk?" asked Graham.
"I left word for them to come on in the aeroplane," was the answer. "They should reach the camp before we do."
"Here they come!" cried Leslie. "Tim managed to settle them both on board before we left; but he had to tie them to their seats."
And, in fact, as he spoke, the Bat passed over their heads, carrying Tim and his two helpless passengers, one on either side of him.
"I wonder what they think of it all?" said Roland. "They're having some queer experiences to-night. A couple of hours ago they were in the slavers' camp, bound and shackled, treated like dogs, not knowing what dreadful fate was in store for them. When they were rescued they had to be dragged off more dead than alive. Now they find themselves sailing about in the air. They must think they're dreaming an Arabian Nights' sort of dream."
"Why, as to that," observed Graham, laughing, "I feel as though I were in a dream myself. I can scarcely believe that it is all real."
"You'll soon get used to it," Leslie assured him in an encouraging tone. "My friend Roland, here, joined us quite recently. The very first day he came I took him out with me for a spin."
"You did'—without permission!" snapped the doctor. "Don't let us have a repetition of it to-night. We've something more serious to think about."
Leslie looked hurt; he did not like being snubbed in that way, before a stranger, too! However, he thought it best to make no reply just then. But a little later he sidled up to Roland, and said in an undertone: "See how I get sat upon! It only shows what a sweet temper I must have to put up with it as I do!
"The doctor was afraid you were thinking of taking Mr. Graham 'for a spin,' as you did me, and he thought it best to warn you that it's not altogether a convenient time," returned Roland, stifling a laugh.
"I can't make it out," Leslie went on still in an injured tone. "Everything I do seems to be wrong. When I told the doctor that we had been throwing stones, he pounced down on me for that; yet when you talked about it, Mr. Kelmar smiled and looked pleased and Mr. Graham said very likely we had saved Dan's life, and his. And then again, when I took you for that first spin, didn't it result in our saving your wagons and camp outfit?"
"It just did. You're right there."
"And yet the doctor reminded me of it just now as though what I did had been something too wicked for words. What must a stranger like this Mr. Graham think of me when he hear—Hallo! Here we are at the camp. There's a lot of work to get through. Think of it! All the things we unpacked a few hours ago have to be bundled back somehow in double-quick time. How's it going to be done?"
"Well, here's Dan, and Mr. Weston, and all the others coming," said Roland, as the hunter and the rest of the party came up at the double. "Let's set to work and do our share; it will help to cheer you up a bit."
"Oh, I'm cheerful!" exclaimed Leslie, and to do him justice, it must be said that he usually was. He now took his part in the work with the others, and in a minute or two was whistling away as though he had not a care in the world.
Meantime, his leader, Dr. Cambray, was very full of care; and the professor understood and shared his anxiety. The newly-rescued men—there were seven altogether, including Graham—made a very serious and perplexing addition to the party. The mere extra weight alone was a matter of serious importance.
"I wish now that I had chosen a more open situation to come to ground," said the doctor, as he stood watching the hurried preparations. "When I selected this spot I had no idea there was any likelihood of hostilities. The country we had come across seemed too utterly deserted for such a thing to be possible; and I was only anxious to find a place that should be sheltered against sudden storms."
"Ay, ay, I understand," the professor responded. "This place is certainly not a suitable one in which to defend the airship from attack."
"The last place—the very last place I should have chosen if I had deemed such a thing probable," the doctor declared. "And the addition of seven more passengers to the dead weight places us at a still greater disadvantage. I ought, by rights, to start at once, and not trouble about the stores lying there. But it goes against the grain to have to abandon them as booty to the slavers and their villainous gang."
"Could not something be done to check their advance until the loading-up is complete? What about the aeroplanes? There is the Bat, and you have a spare one lying ready for use, have you not? Weston was showing it to me, and I remember his saying that he was getting it ready in case it was wanted for exploring work. It was better fitted for it in some ways, he said, than the one you generally use."
"Yes, because it can hover in the air like birds of the hawk tribe—that's why we named it the Hawk—which the Bat cannot do."
"Why not send them both out?"
The doctor shook his head.
"For one thing, it is difficult to shoot accurately from them, as, indeed, I suppose you could see for yourself a little while ago. For another thing, I really don't know whom I could send out in them. If I send Tim in one, and Weston in the other, they could not manage the machines and do the shooting, too."
"Well, let me go with Mr. Weston in one and take my man Dan, and let our new friend Mr. Graham try his hand in the other with Tim."
"You will find it requires practice before you can shoot from them."
"For my part, I don't think much shooting will be necessary; I think we might trust almost to the moral effect alone. I feel assured we should be able so far to delay their attack as to give you time to save all your stores."
"Very well, so be it," the doctor agreed. "I suppose I'll have to send that young feather-head Leslie with the stranger. He'll want someone with him who's used to riding on the aeroplane besides Tim."
A few minutes later, Roland, staggering along bravely under the weight of a basket filled with loose tins of preserved beef, heard a whistle, and, looking round, saw Leslie making signs to him. That young gentleman was standing near the Bat, which was evidently preparing to mount in the air. Tim had already taken up his position, and beside him was the stranger, Graham, who held one of the doctor's heavy rifles in his hands, while a lighter one lay across his knees. Roland set his burden down on the ground while he stepped across to the group.
"What is it?" he asked. "What are you doing there?"
"Only going to take Mr. Graham for a spin," Leslie replied, in his airiest manner. "Thought you'd like to say good-bye before we went. Or"—a sudden thought seemed to strike him—"Roland!"
"Well? I say, you'll get into trouble again! The doctor—".
"That's just it," returned Leslie coolly. "The doctor was afraid I wasn't heavy enough to make a good balance. Thinks I'm too feather-headed, you know. Perhaps he's right. So I was just casting about to see what I could commandeer, when my eyes fell upon you and the load you were carrying. And now I'm thinking out which would answer best, you or your load? Now, Tim, me honey, ye're a foine bhoy for advice—phwat wud ye be afther advoising me to do?"
"Bring Misther Roland," Tim advised. "Shure, they say a live donkey's betther than a dead lion, an' a live young gint must be betther than a dead donkey."
"It's not supposed to be tinned donkey he was carrying, Tim, but tinned beef. But let that pass. I see your point, though it might have been more gracefully put. What do you say, Mr. Graham?"
"All I say is, let us get started," said the stranger laughing. "You are wasting valuable time. If you and your young friend together are not too heavy, and there's room, bring him by all means."
"That settles it, then. Step on board, Roland; we'll find room for two on the seat somehow. Besides, I heard the professor say we are to trust more to moral effect than to actual shooting. I'm sure he'll agree that you and I together will have far more moral effect on the beggars than I should alone, anyway."
"Is it ready ye are?" Tim asked. "Shure, there's the perfessor an' Misther Weston an' Beach off before us," he added, as they saw the Hawk rising in the air.
"True for you, sonny," Leslie returned. "But that's part of our programme, you see. They've farther to go than we have. However, we're ready now, so let her go, Tim."
The Bat started, but evidently not with her usual ease.
"It's very slow and heavy she seems to be," muttered Tim.
"No wonder; it's tired she must be, Tim," said Leslie. "Consider what a round you've been in her to-night already."
By the time they had risen well up, the Hawk, bearing the professor and his henchman, had already melted into the shadowy distance.
"They've gone off much more quickly than we are going," remarked Graham. "Is that a faster machine than this?"
"Not at all, at all," growled Tim, who had been exploring the little platform beneath his seat with one hand, while managing his levers with the other. "Phwat's all this down here? Whoy, it's loaded up, we are, wi' a lot o' stones an' stuff! Bedad, it's no whonder she flies heavy! We'll have to go back an' get rid av this rubbish."
"No, no; it's all right, Tim!" Leslie put in. "Keep her going, me bhoy. We'll relieve ye of it soon enough another way."
"Phwat? Did ye know 'twas theer, Misther Leslie? Did ye put it theer?"
"I did, Tim. Now, I want you to run her quietly. You've got the 'silencer' on, so you needn't make a noise."
"I see you have some idea in your mind, friend Leslie," observed Graham. "May I share it?"
"Certainly, Mr. Graham; I was just going to ask your opinion. You heard what Mr. Kelmar said, that he was going to trust more to moral effect than to actual shooting? S'pose, therefore, we don't shoot at all—at any rate, at first—but just try the effect of dropping some stones on 'em? I've got a lot of nice-sized pebbles and bits of rock here that we usually take when we want extra ballast. They're just the very thing for it. We can go in for shooting later on, when the stones come to an end, if required."
Graham reflected for a few seconds, then said:
"I see your idea, and rather like it. Something mysterious going on, such as stones dropping from the clouds—they don't know how or why—may, you think, frighten them more than shots from something they see and understand, eh?"
"That's the ticket. The moon's gone, and it has turned pretty dark, and if we keep quiet they won't see us, and won't be able to guess what it all means."
"But what about Mr. Kelmar and Dan?-" Roland queried. "They'll be shooting."
"No, not near us," Graham explained. "They have gone right away to the other camp, and are going to assail it—or pretend to—from above. The plan they will follow will be to fire away and make as much noise as they can in order to give the slavers who are marching against us the idea that their camp is being attacked in force in their rear, and so perhaps induce them to rush back to look after things at home."
"That sounds a good idea," Roland commented.
"It's Mr. Graham's," Leslie declared. "I heard him suggest it to the doctor."
"Well, this stone dodge is yours, Leslie," laughed Graham. "We shall see which turns out the best. Let's hope they'll both prove to be good, and end in gaming time. That's all we're really out after."
THE Bat was now nearing the place at which Dan and the stranger had made their stand. As the aeronauts came in sight of the rocky slope they saw a number of lights. These were lanterns and torches carried by some of the enemy, who, trusting to their increased numbers, no longer troubled to conceal their movements.
The Hawk had evidently gone on its way to their camp without attracting attention, and the Bat, in its turn, now came up so quietly and flying so high that no sound reached the ears of those below. As it passed over their heads, however, the aeronauts began flinging out their stones, and the effects were apparent at once.
There were cries from men who had been struck. Here or there a torch or lantern was dashed from the hand that held it. The leading groups halted in perplexed wonder, and there arose a sound of confused gabbling. They seemed to be arguing and disputing amongst themselves as to the meaning of this strange shower of missiles from the clouds. They looked up, but nothing could be seen. All above was dark, for the aeroplane was high enough in the air to be quite invisible.
A superstitious dread began to assail some of the less reckless spirits. Already, but an hour or so before, some of them, while climbing that same slope, had been assailed by bullets fired seemingly from rifles in the clouds. At that time they had seen—or fancied they had seen—a strange flying form darting about in the air. Now, however, there was nothing to be seen, nor was there anything to be heard which might account for this new and strange form of attack, only showers of missiles, coming from they knew not where, flung at them by enemies they could neither see nor hear.
Small wonder was it that disorder and dissension arose in their ranks, and that the advance was for the time again stayed, while the Bat went to and fro, sending down the curious shower, and gradually increasing the confusion and panic.
Then suddenly there broke out a sound of heavy firing behind them. The professor and Dan were firing their repeating rifles as fast as they could let them off, and those left to guard the slavers' camp were adding to the noise by blazing away in return in sudden panic, and with very little idea as to by whom or how many they were being attacked.
This decided the waverers on the slope. Crying out that their camp was in danger, and that they must return to defend it, they turned, and for the second time that night beat a retreat.
For tome hours the two aeroplanes cruised up and down by turns, one keeping watch just within sight of the slavers, while the other returned to camp to report to the doctor, or to ascertain how the preparation! for departure were going on.
The slavers, however, made no further move. They had had enough of mysterious adventures for one night, and preferred to wait for daylight, when they would be able to see what sort of foes they had really to deal with.
As soon at the dawn came they once more sallied forth from their camp, and followed the route which had provided them with such disagreeable experiences the previous night. Now they found their advance entirely unopposed, and marched triumphantly along the well-marked tracks left by their mysterious adversaries, In this way they reached the spot where the travellers had encamped, and there found all the usual signs of the place having been recently occupied by a numerous party.
But when they looked about, expecting to see tracks which they could follow further, their astonishment may be imagined at finding no sign whatever as to which way they had gone. In vain they spent weary hours hunting up and down in the scorching sun. In vain they searched the whole country round.
Their adversaries of the previous night—who had carried off the slavers' prisoners, but of whom, it must be remembered, the slavers themselves had never caught so much as a fair glimpse—had disappeared as completely as if the earth had swallowed them up.
Meantime, those they sought were far away, flying high and swiftly upon their errand of mercy—the rescue of the stranger Graham's friends.
They passed again over those fertile plains teeming with wild life, and Graham's astonishment and delight were great as he gazed down upon the wondrous scene.
"This is the region the people I am engaged by are making for," he exclaimed. "So far it is unknown to the European, and almost so to the natives elsewhere. Only vague rumours have reached us—rumours such as often lead some men upon wild goose chases, and of which, therefore, other men are shy. But I can now see for a fact that they are true."
"Yes," said the professor, "we saw it all as we passed it before. For both the naturalist and the big game hunter it is a veritable zoological paradise."
"I wonder you could make up your minds to pass it!" cried Graham enthusiastically. "Why, it's a perfect wonderland f Ah, by George!"
He drew a long breath as of amazement, and put up a pair of field-glasses the doctor had lent him.
"Yes! By all that's wonderful, it is! Do you see them?"
"What?" asked the professor, putting up his own glasses.
"You don't see? Look at that group of animals grazing yonder, near that small thicket."
"I see. Yes, you're right!" exclaimed Kelmar; and in his tone there was not less excitement than had been noticeable in Graham's. "Of course, they must be okapi!"
"Right, sir! That's what they are. Perhaps the first ever seen by white men—at any rate, roaming freely about as we see them. Ah! What would not some men I know give to be here now, looking down upon inch a scene!"
The animals which had so excited the stranger's enthusiasm are quite new to science, for it is only within the past few years that their existence has been established beyond all doubt. The okapi may be described as a creature half antelope and half giraffe, for it bears a most remarkable resemblance to both.
For many years the natives in some parts of Africa have asserted that such animals existed, but the statements were regarded by naturalists with strong doubt. And even when, a few years ago, some enterprising explorers succeeded in obtaining a skin or two from the natives, the real haunt of the animals themselves remained still unknown. More skins, however, have recently been forthcoming; and some have been set up in the Natural History Museum at South Kensington, where they may now be seen by all visitors.
They gazed at these rare and curious animals while they remained in view. But for the fact that the errand they were on could not wait, they would have dearly liked to descend and try to obtain a specimen. Other and more anxious duties, however, lay before them, and they sailed onwards,
"Wildebeest and hartebeest, too—not to mention zebra, and—yes, there are some sable antelope," said Graham, with something like a sigh, "I must come here again when I have found my friends."
After a time the character of the country once more changed. It became arid and sterile, and presented all the well-known features of a waterless region. Then it was that the travellers began to cast anxious glances on all sides, searching in every direction for signs of the castaways.
"This is the country. I know that we have come right," Graham declared. "But they seem to have wandered off, and it is impossible to say which way they have gone."
The two aeroplanes were got out, and went off, one to the right and the other to the left of the airship, with instructions to "quarter" the ground, and make search over as large a space as possible without actually losing sight of the Champion.
The Bat went off to the right, carrying the same passengers as on the previous night—viz., Graham and the two lads.
Swiftly up and down, to and fro, they went, searching with their glasses every thicket, every hollow, every rocky boulder, but for a long-time in vain. It was Roland whose quick ears first caught a faint sound in the distance, which made them at once turn in the direction from which it had come.
"A shot!" he cried. "I am sure I heard a shot! Ah! There goes another!"
"And I can see something, too!" exclaimed Graham. "I can see a dark crowd round a rock, and—yes, I saw a flash, then! Looks as though my chums are on that rock defending themselves against a swarm of villainous blacks! Hurry, Tim, lad! Hurry all you can! Every moment's precious! An extra second may mean a man's life!"
Tim promptly obeyed. The whir of the propeller rose to a higher and yet higher pitch, and the wind whistled past their ears as the aeroplane made a sudden leap, and then swept onwards with the swiftness of a bird of prey!
UPON a flat-topped rock, standing up in the midst of the sun-baked, waterless plain, a small group of men, half-famished, half-dead with thirst, were defending themselves with stubborn pluck and resolution against a crowd of dark-skinned savages.
There were but a score, all told, on the rock, and of these only five were white men. The others were chiefly native porters and carriers, of little use in fighting save as gun-bearers and loaders; and of the white men, two were lying wounded on one side, under such shade as could be obtained from the bushes around the edge of the rock,
The place on which the defenders had taken refuge was a sort of rocky table or platform some twenty feet or so across, and elevated eight or ten feet above its surroundings. The shrubs and stunted growth which fringed its sides constituted all the shelter the defenders had against the searching glare of the sun on the one hand, and the missiles of their besiegers on the other. Such as it was, however, they had made the most of it, and held the position with grim though hopeless courage all through the preceding day and night. During the night there had been a shower of rain, a rare occurrence in that region, known amongst the natives as the Great Thirst land, and they had caught sufficient of the precious drops to revive a little both their energies and their hopes.
But the effects of that heaven-sent shower had well-nigh passed away, as well as all signs of further rainfall. The clouds had cleared off at dawn, and the sun had come out hotter, more pitiless than ever; and now, towards noon, the position of the beleaguered men had become desperate indeed, for their ammunition was running short.
There was a pause in the hostilities. Even their enemies were unable, seemingly, to endure the sun's glare, for they had retired to some distance, where a patch of scrubby bush afforded a little shade. There they had thrown themselves down, content for the time to keep a watchful eye on their intended prey.
"Humph!" said one of the white men, a big, bearded fellow with a deep voice, as he rose from the bush behind which he had been lying, rifle in hand. "They know they're safe enough in leaving us alone awhile. The sun'll do their low-down work for them quite as fast as their bullets and arrows."
He stretched out his arms, stiff from the confined position he had been occupying, and glanced around with a hard-set face.
"Caffan, old man," he went on, "our time's come at last. We've been in many a tight corner together, you an' me, but I reckon this here's the tightest, an' the last. There's no way out. Nothin' but a miracle can save us, and miracles don't come sailin' along nowadays."
"I don't know as to that, Raskar," answered the one addressed as Caffan, a younger man in appearance and build, evidently, like the other, a Colonial. "Heaven can work miracles nowadays just as well as in former times, and does, still, now and again. At least, that's my faith—ay, an' my experience, too. I've known things that have been so unlikely, so downright unexpected, as to be just the same thing as miracles; but when they do arrive we're too apt not to look on 'em as miracles, an' so the people they benefit don't show up as grateful as they ought. What about the shower o' rain that came down last night just when we were at our last gasp? P'r'aps if we all showed more appreciation and gratitude, miracles'd happen oftener still."
"Maybe—maybe, Sam," returned Raskar wearily. "I'd like t' be able t' look at things the way you do, Sam; but I ain't got—never had—the faith in Providence you've got. How goes it with the wounded ones?"
"As well as one can hope for," Sam Caffan answered, with a sigh. "I wonder what has become of Graham?"
"Dead, poor chap!" Raskar declared, in a tone of solemn conviction. "Like we shall soon be. What chance was there for him? If a party of us couldn't struggle on, what chance had one man alone? None at all. It was madness t' try it, an' I told him so, as ye know. Not as it'll make any difference, though, in the end," the speaker added, with a shake of the head. "I guess he worried along till he fell in the sun, an' the wild beasts had him. As for us, we're goin' t' be the prey o' the human wolves that go up an' down this awful desert on the prowl. If anything, they're the worst kind o' the two. Nothin' would 'a' kep' Nat away from us all this time if he'd worried through and reached any place, where he c'd 'a' got help, at any cost."
"That's so," assented the other sadly. "Poor Nat! True as steel he was. No man ever had a more staunch chum. I'm afraid it must be as you say, and we shall never see him again."
A silence fell between the two, and the younger man stepped over to one of his wounded comrades. The man was tossing about restlessly, moaning, and only half-conscious, or perhaps delirious.
"Water! Water!" was the burden of his cry. "For the love of Heaven, spare me but one drop of water!"
Caffan pulled out his flask and peered into it. There were still two or three spoonfuls left, the treasured remnant from the night before.
"I can't stand this!" he muttered, as the wounded man's plaintive wail rose again on the air. "Here you are, Wirgman! Here's the drop you're crying for. It's the very last, old chap, so make the most of it."
He knelt and poured the precious liquid into the parched lips; and, with a satisfied sigh, the stricken man swallowed it, and turning over, sank into a quiet sleep.
Raskar, who had watched what had taken place, turned away with another shake of the head.
"It's the last he'll ever have," he muttered;
Just then another white man rose up and approached Raskar. Though as yet unwounded, the expression of his face showed that he was in other respects in a bad way. His eyes were wild-looking, and bloodshot, and there was an eager, feverish light in them, more eloquent than even the tightly compressed lips and hoarse speech. There was, moreover, a recklessness in tone and manner quite foreign to the man's ordinary nature. His words, however, surprised his companions even more than his looks.
"It's good t' see the day," he burst forth. "These heathen'll rue it! 'Twas their turn yesterday, 'tis ours to-day. Heaven be praised, for it has sent us the rain in the night, so's we'd be able to last out!"
Raskar shrugged his shoulders and turned away. This man, Orris by name, was a somewhat eccentric character, and was often a bit of a puzzle to his companions. Usually he was slow of speech, but was known to be sharp of sight and hearing, and sometimes showed such quick intuition that it almost seemed as though he had a gift of what is known as second sight.
"What's he saying?" asked Caffan, coming to Raskar's side.
"The poor chap's going daft; Ye can see that," was the reply, given in a very low tone. "I don't like to look at him. It gives me the creeps. If I were t' speak what's in me mind, I'd say the man's fey."
But low as had been the tone in which these words were spoken, the one they referred to heard them.
He stepped up to the two:
"Nayther daft nor fey, Mister Raskar," he said, with a strange laugh. "What will ye bet agen me now if I tell ye there's something going t' happen—someone or somethin' on the way t' us? What'll ye bet as I'm wrong?"
"I don't want to bet, Orris," replied Raskar soothingly. "I didn't mean—"
"I heard what ye said," persisted Orris, "an' I tell ye ye're wrong. Where are yer eyes, ye two, as ye ain't noted the signs? Somethin's comin'! They dogs yonder can see it now. Look at 'em! Ah! Can ye see that? Ay, an' I can hear somethin', too; but"—here the speaker's face put on a very perplexed air—"chivvy me if I can make out what it be! It's like nothin' I ever heard before!"
Raskar and Caffan had both started at the old hunter's words. They glanced over at their enemies and then at one another. Sure enough their foes must have seen or heard something unexpected, for they were now on the alert. They had risen up, and were talking hurriedly together, casting glances first at the rock and then at the far-distant horizon.
"Look out, mates—look out!" sang out the old veteran suddenly. "They know what I told ye's true. Somethin's comin', an' they're going t' try t' pop us off afore the somethin' comes up!"
"Sam, he's right!" exclaimed Raskar. "He's right, lad! Down ye go! We'll have t' fire our last cartridges! I don't know what can be comin', or who can be comin', but Orris says he sees signs, an' hears 'em, an', as he says, ye can see as they do, too—so it must be true. But where, or how—"
He broke off as he threw himself down, brought his rifle to his shoulder, and fired. Orris had already stooped and fired, and Caffan's rifle now joined in. They were just in time to check a nasty rush on the part of their foes.
"What did I tell ye?" commented Orris, when there came a pause. "If I hadn't warned ye they'd a-bin on to us that time, for sure."
"So they would, Orris, old man," said Raskar heartily.
"But even now," Caffan put in, "I don't understand—"
"Saints above us, what be that?" exclaimed Orris, pointing to something in the distance. "That ain't no bird—yet it's something flying, an' it's comin' this way fast as the wind. D'ye hear it? That's what I heard before, mates—only I couldn't rightly say what it meant. An' I can't now, neither," he added frankly.
And small wonder, for it was the Bat he had heard and now saw—the aeroplane in which their friend Graham was hastening to their rescue. It was the humming of its motor that the quick ears of the forest veteran had heard, and which had so puzzled him—though how he had caught the sound as he had, even before the aeroplane had risen above the horizon, seemed a marvel both then and afterwards when they came to compare notes.
True, the motor was running without the "silencer," and the sound therefore was much louder and would travel considerably farther; but even so the old hunter's ears must have been extraordinarily acute.
A few minutes later and a change had indeed come over the scene.
From the Bat came the sound of three rifle-shots, fired in a certain way; and soon the great form of the airship came into view, followed, a little later, by the other aeroplane. Those on board had heard the agreed-on signal, which told them that the castaways had been sighted; and they were now hastening to join the Bat.
If the sky had suddenly become full of rushing airships, the sight could hardly have had a greater effect than the appearance of these three. The blacks darted off with screams of terror, and in a few seconds had disappeared; vanishing so completely that it was hard to say what had become of them. As to the white men on the rock, they were too much astonished to notice even which way their enemies went. All their attention was taken up in staring at these flying wonders.
Their amazement may be imagined when the Bat came to the ground close by, and they saw their lost comrade, Graham, spring from it and come running towards them.
"Thank Heaven we have found you!" he cried, as he drew near. "Say, are we in time? What of the others?"
He grasped the hands of his astonished friends, and then, after a quick exchange of question and answer, and a sharp glance round, rushed back to the aeroplane.
The next minute he was again running to the rock, this time with Roland and Leslie at his heels, all bearing vessels filled with water.
There followed, a little later, such a scene as is difficult indeed to describe. Handshakes, congratulations, expressions of thankful relief, were heard on all sides, as the doctor, and the professor, and the rest, crowded round the men they had rescued when they had been almost literally "at their last gasp."
Perhaps the feelings of the latter may be best indicated by the words of Raskar, who, later on, put his hand on Sam Caffan's shoulder, and said, in his deep voice, which now had in it an expression of devout reverence:
"I believe now what ye said, Sam. It's true that the days o' miracles ain't past yet!"
WHEN an examination was made of the besiegers' camping-ground, it was found that the frightened blacks had been in such a panic that they had left all their belongings behind them, including their stores of water, which they had brought with them in skins. And not their own belongings only were left, but those of others whom they had attacked and plundered.
"Ah!" commented Orris. "What did I say? Ye laughed at me when I told ye it was goin' t' be a bad day for them. For where are they now? Driven out t' perish in the Great Thirst Land! Yes; they'll rue the day they set upon us! They can't live in this desert without water any more'n we can*—an' they've left all their store behind them."
"Well, they must take their chance," said Graham. "We can't go and look for 'em, that's certain. We've something else to do."
"But how are we to go on?" asked Raskar. "Our pack animals are all dead, and—"
"That's what we've got to arrange for you, my friend," Dr. Cambray put in. "You and your companions had better come on board the airship and have a good square meal—I'm sure you want one—and then we can talk these matters over."
So the rescued men were taken up to the Champion, and there treated to the best that the good-hearted doctor could lay before them; after which there was a council of ways and means.
Graham now spoke of his own position and plans at greater length than he had yet had time to do. As he had already mentioned, a party of travellers were awaiting him upon the farther side of the great waterless desert, and by this time (he said) they must be wondering what had become of him. The leaders of the party were Sir George Stanfield, celebrated as a big game hunter, and his friend Mr. Hartley, a well-known naturalist.
"They are out here, really," Graham explained, "with the object, not so much of merely hunting game, as securing rare specimens, both of plants and animals, for certain museums and collections."
"Such, for instance, as those rare animals we saw coming along—okapi?" Professor Kelmar observed.
"Why, as to that, I scarcely think they ever expected to be so fortunate as to see one, much less secure a specimen; but I need not tell you that the mere chance of such a thing would delight them beyond almost anything else."
"We could aid them there, and in other ways, no doubt, very considerably," remarked Dr. Cambray thoughtfully.
"Of course you could, sir," exclaimed Graham eagerly, "if you only would. With the aid of your airship and aeroplanes you could make their expedition a great success. You could help them to cross this waterless tract, which I can now see is likely to give us a lot more trouble to get over than I thought. Your aeroplanes could afterwards scour the country, make notes as to creatures it contains, and point out the easiest way to secure them.
"In this and other directions you could render assistance that would be invaluable. To you it would be easy to sail over the thickest forest, the most tangled jungle, or the most impenetrable swamp, and mark down the beasts that are hiding there. Why, it is an ideal method of hunting! Think of it! The crouching lion or skulking buffalo, hiding amongst the long grass or the dense marsh reeds, watching the hunters and preparing to charge upon them, while you, overhead, could see all that was going on. How easily you could warn and direct the hunters! What a lot of work—ay, and risk, too—you could save them and their beaters!"
"Yes; I've been thinking of all those points and many others," said the doctor slowly. "But, you see—"
"I assure you, Dr. Cambray," Graham broke in, "I feel certain I can promise you that if it is a question of money, of expense, Sir George would be only too pleased—"
"No, young man, it is not a question of that nature," the doctor answered, shaking his head. "What I have been thinking is this—I had a certain object in view in going to the place where you and I met; an object which I now see I cannot attain with my present resources. As you know, the men I have with me on whom I can really depend are a mere handful, while I can see there are considerable obstacles in my path; there are enemies to be reckoned with who are many, and, to me, as at present situated, formidable. Now, you say your friends have a numerous and well-equipped party, and—"
"I see your meaning, sir," cried Graham, "and I am certain I can answer for Sir George. He will be only too pleased to enter into a mutual arrangement. If you, on your side, will agree to help him with your airship and aeroplanes to attain what he wants expeditiously, he, on his part, will, I feel convinced, undertake to assist you with his whole resources."
"Ay, ay; that is something like my idea. However, we must not assume his consent too hastily. I will first take you all back out of this desert, and form a temporary camp, in a place where there is plenty of game and water to be had. There I will leave most of my party while I carry you across the desert to meet your friend. If Sir George takes the same view that you think he will, we can then aid him and his whole party to cross the desert in his turn, in very different fashion, and much speedier time, than he has any idea of at present."
"That's the idea! That's grand!" exclaimed Graham enthusiastically. "And now, Dr. Cambray, that we have time to speak of other matters, I have something to tell you that will, I expect, surprise you as much as it did me. You already know that I was captured by those scoundrels Xavier and Drucker, the rascally slave-dealers from whose hands you rescued me."
"No, no; it was not I, my friend. It was—"
"Well, it was your Furians!"
"Eh? My Furians?"
"Yes, sir; Akolah and Dolah come from Mount Fura, as did the other prisoners they set free with me. As you are aware, they had got to know that the slavers held some of their countrymen prisoners, and were determined to try to rescue them. I already knew from what the slavers said that their prisoners were called Furians, and that they belonged to some people living on the other side of that seemingly impassable tract of swamp. Your Furians boldly planned to rescue their fellow-countrymen, and, incidentally, they set me free, too; but I should have been recaptured to a certainty if it had not been for you."
"Never mind that," the doctor interrupted good-naturedly. "Never mind about that. I am very glad it happened so, especially as it has also led to our saving your friends here to-day. Let us leave it at that. What is the next point?"
"The next point is," Graham went on slowly, "that while I was in the company of those poor beggars—Akolah's friends, you understand—one of them happened to hear me muttering to myself, and immediately he uttered a little laugh, and repeated a few of the words—in English."
Dr. Cambray started, and stared at the speaker in incredulous amazement.
"Spoke—to—you—in—English?" he cried, snapping the words out with a pause between each.
"Spoke to me a few words of English," repeated Graham, with scarcely less emphasis. "I thought that would surprise you."
"I can scarcely believe my ears," Dr. Cambray declared. "How can such a thing possibly have come about?"
"I have been thinking about it, and I can guess at but one explanation which seems to me to be reasonable, which is that there may be Englishmen—possibly only one, but perhaps more—who are being held as prisoners by the Furians. Now this is one reason the more why I feel persuaded that I may promise you the aid of Sir George and his whole resources. If he knew, or had reason to suspect, that there are Englishmen being held there in bondage, he would never rest till he had set them free."
"Nor would I!" exclaimed the doctor, and he brought his list down with a bang on a little table beside him. "You say that these men—these Furians—whom I have now with me, or, at any rate, one of them—can speak a few words of English! Why, then, that puts a different complexion upon the whole matter. Come with me. I want you to point out the man, and we will set to work to question him at once!"
THE process of questioning the Furian who had spoken the "few words of English" turned out to be a more tedious and difficult matter than the doctor had hoped for. The English words that he had somehow picked up were very few indeed, and the information to be gathered from him was vague and unsatisfactory. It only made the mystery of how he could have picked up any English words deeper than ever.
The white men were puzzled, and after some half-hour spent in attempts to unravel the mystery, they were compelled to give it up for the time being, and postpone further efforts to a more convenient opportunity.
"Never mind," said the doctor hopefully, "we have now something to go upon. These few words which the man has picked up will form the key, as it were, to learning something of their language. With time and a little perseverance, I have no doubt we shall be able to get at what we want to find out. Now we must make a move out of this undesirable neighbourhood and find a likely place to serve as a base for further operations. But we can't go all at once, that's certain. My party is getting more numerous than I had bargained for."
"It is likely to grow still larger," laughed the professor, "if you continue to go about, like a modern knight-errant, rescuing all and sundry out of the troubles they may drift into."
"Why, yes," the doctor agreed, with a look of droll perplexity. "My airship won't carry 'em all, and, apart, from that, I'm afraid we're getting too many mouths to feed."
It was certainly becoming a somewhat embarrassing question how food was to be obtained for the good doctor's increasing following, especially as so large a proportion consisted of people who were useless, so far as handling firearms was concerned.
"We'll have to fit 'em out with spears, and bows and arrows, or something of that sort, and turn 'em loose to bring in what they can for themselves," observed the professor, with an amused smile. "However, the first thing, as you say, is to establish a camp as a base, and even to do that you will have to make two or three journeys."
In pursuance of this plan the party was divided into two groups, and the Champion sailed off with one portion, the others, as Leslie put it, being "left till called for."
When the waterless tract had been re-crossed it did not take long to discover a suitable ground for an encampment in the fertile plain which lay between it and the Fura mountain range. Then the airship returned for the rest of the party, and before night fill they had been safely brought in. All then set to work to gather the materials for fires, and a strong thorn hedge to keep off savage beasts, and the other various preparations necessary for passing the night.
The spot selected was an outlying thicket of high trees, affording a welcome shade by day, and situated beside a waterfall, formed by a small stream which ran down from the adjacent hills.
After the evening meal the two leaders, sitting outside their tent, discussed their future plans with Graham, and questioned him further as to his experiences while in the hands of the slavers.
He had much to add to the particulars he had hurriedly given during the exciting times they had passed through, and what he now told was both important and surprising to his listeners.
"It was well," he said to the doctor, "that you got away when you did, for if the slavers and their Furian allies had attacked you they had a sufficient force to have destroyed your airship and captured your whole party."
"What do you mean by 'their Furian allies?'" the doctor asked.
"I mean that the slavers Xavier and Drucker were aided by a number of Furians who came from the Fura Mountain, and more would have come to help them if they had been required. They appear to be a warlike race, and are well armed, so far as ancient weapons of war go. Of course, they have no firearms; but the slavers themselves and their own followers have plenty. Altogether, they are enemies far too strong for you to cope with, unless you could bring a much stronger force against them than is possible out here in this part of Africa."
"But I don't understand," the doctor observed. "How do the Furians come to and fro from their mountain across the swamp? We sailed all round their stronghold and could see no road or other means of communication. The swamp extended everywhere, and appeared to be quite impassable. How then could they come across to aid the slavers against us?"
"That's what I myself was unable to make out," Graham returned. "You must remember that I was a prisoner, bound, and compelled to remain wherever they chose to set me down. I could only listen to their talk, and much of that I did not understand, as it was conducted in the Furian tongue."
"Oh-o! Then Xavier and Drucker understand the Furian language?"
"That would go to show," the professor put in, "that this intercourse between the slavers and the people of the Fura Mountain is not exactly a new thing. It must have been going on for some time."
"It looks like it. Anyhow, they seemed to understand one another fairly well. I am no great scholar, and am not learned in ancient tongues, but I happen to know a little of Hebrew, and it struck me that their talk resembled that language more than any other I have ever heard. Of one thing I am certain; it was not in the least like the various African languages I have heard; nor was it Arabic."
"Ah!" muttered the doctor thoughtfully. "And how many of these Furians did you see altogether?"
"That is difficult to say. They seemed to come and go, and I cannot tell you whether they were always the same individuals. What is certain is that the Furian leaders brought a considerable following with them; and I gathered the idea that there were plenty more within call, so to speak. It struck me that they did not altogether trust the slavers—who, of course, with their firearms, were much better armed—and were careful not to give them a chance to take them at a disadvantage."
"H'm I It's all very curious, and decidedly mysterious. Why should the Furian leaders you saw bring over some of their own countrymen and hand them to the slavers as captives?"
"That's a question I cannot answer. It occurred to me, however, that there may be two parties in their country who are at war with each other; in short, I fancy there's a sort of civil war going on over there, and these captives are prisoners captured by one side from the other. For some reason of their own their captors prefer handing them over to the slavers to putting them to death, or keeping them as prisoners themselves. Of course, that's only a guess."
"But it sounds a likely one," said the professor. "I may tell you, indeed, that the doctor and myself had already formed a somewhat similar opinion about it."
"The conclusion I come to," Graham went on, "is that if you are bent on getting inside Fura you will never be able to do it by force—that is, by means of any force you can possibly get together out here. But with your airship and your aeroplane it might be possible to pay flying visits to the place if you happened to know a safe spot in which you could descend, and from which you could get away again without risk of being captured."
"Yes; and those two—Akolah and Dolah—ought to be able to guide us to such a spot," said the doctor, "if we could only talk with them and explain ourselves. That's where the trouble comes in of not being able to communicate our ideas to them. It means that we must postpone any active measures till I have managed to get over that difficulty.
"You have not referred again," Dr. Cambray continued, "to that secret which you had learned, and which was the cause of the men taking the unusual course of making a prisoner of you."
"I am quite willing to let you share the secret, Dr. Cambray, on conditions," was Graham's answer to this. "You must understand that I am a young fellow without means or resources, and I have taken to an adventurous life in the hope of doing some good for myself in the future. In other words, I have come out here to 'make my fortune,' as they say, if I can. Now the secret you refer to is—or should be, in such able hands as yours—a valuable one. Properly handled, it may make the fortune, not of one, but of all of us. I am quite ready and willing to tell you, on condition that if it turns out what I have hinted at, I am to have a fair share."
"Has it anything to do with the ancient gold-mines of Ophir, the land from which we are told, in Holy Writ, King Solomon obtained so much of his gold?" the doctor asked.
Graham started. He stared at his questioner, and it was obvious that the query had both surprised and disconcerted him.
"How do you know?" he exclaimed. "At least, that is, I should say—"
"You are giving yourself away, my friend," said the doctor, with a smile. "I see that I have divined your secret correctly. However, do not upset yourself. I am not one to take advantage of any man. The fact is that in coming out here I am following out that very idea. I admit that it was a very vague idea; somewhat nebulous, if I may so express it. What you tell me, therefore, is of considerable importance, because it confirms what was before only a deduction, and one resting on a rather speculative foundation. If you care to lend us your assistance, and anything comes out of It, such as you have in your mind, I will see to it that you have a reasonable share."
"I shall be content with that promise, sir," said Graham heartily. "I am not a greedy, grasping adventurer, bent only on making money. I do not wish, for instance, to join in anything that savours of a filibustering expedition."
"Nor would I suggest such a thing, my friend," the doctor declared emphatically. "You may rest assured of that. If by any chance I gain any riches as the result of my present quest, I should devote them—as I have my own private fortune, such as it was, already—to the one chief aim of my life, the same aim that inspired the great Dr. Living stone. I desire to aid in putting an end to the slave trade, and the other dark things that are still going on in some of the little-known quarters of this great continent."
"Ah! A noble ambition! Truly a worthy aim," murmured Graham. "And how well you seem to have begun! What a splendid notion—to fit out airships which enable you to travel anywhere you please—over all sorts of hitherto inaccessible places—"
"Yes; and to peer into all the dark corners where savage oppression and wickedness still flourish," Dr. Cambray finished. "That, my young friend, is my ambition. I wish to be a pioneer, to show the way to others. I hope to see my ideas carried out on a larger and better scale than I can hope to manage myself. I hope to live to see, not one Champion, but many—dozens—hundreds—sailing to and fro over Africa, putting down these slavers, ending violence and oppression, carrying, as I have said, the light of civilisation into the darkened corners. No need to wait, then, for the slow and fitful laying out of roads and railways. We shall sail to and fro, free from the necessity of troubling about any such slow developments. Ah, my friend, when that time comes to pass there will be a new world indeed for millions of poor creatures now living in misery in 'Darkest Africa!'"
The young Colonial, who had listened with looks of wonder and admiration to the worthy doctor's enthusiastic picture of the future as he hoped to see it, eagerly accepted the opportunity offered of joining in the speaker's plans.
When, later, they all turned in, he dreamed of a time to come when he would be himself a leader of exploring parties, furnished with airships able to sail freely over forest and jungle, instead of plodding wearily through them as at present.
And Roland and Leslie, as they lay listening to the roaring of the lions, which had already found out the camp, and were prowling around it, wondered sleepily how long it would be, after the general advent of aerial craft, before lions and all big game were improved off the face of the earth, and what, in those days, zoological societies would do for animals wherewith to stock their gardens.
THE next morning the camp was early astir, and the leader assembled the principal members of his party in order to impart to them the plan upon which he had decided.
"It is necessary," he said, addressing Graham, "before I can assist your friend Sir George Stanfield to cross the waterless desert, that I should replenish my stores of petrol, and of the materials from which we make our gas, and so on. For this purpose, therefore, I am going back first to my headquarters. I shall be away a few days, during which I shall be glad if you will assist the people I leave behind to obtain the necessary supplies of fresh meat. I will leave you one of my aeroplanes—the Hawk, I think, will be found the more useful of the two for such a purpose—to aid you in that direction. I will return here direct, and we will then set out together across the desert. And now I shall be glad of your assistance in unloading such stores as I do not want to take away with me, as quickly as possible. The weather-glass is falling fast, and I am afraid we are likely to have a storm."
During the night there had been a change in the weather conditions, and the morning had opened gloomy and lowering. The heat was stifling, the air still and oppressive, and there were other signs of the approach of one of those violent storms such as are only known in the tropics.
The doctor was disturbed and uneasy. When he had arrived at the new camp the previous day for the second time, bringing in the remainder of the party, it had been so late that he had been obliged to defer the unloading till daylight. And now that the morning had come, the outlook was so doubtful that he had grave fears as to whether it was wise to risk keeping the airship moored near enough to the ground to render unloading possible.
However, after some hesitation, he had now decided to hurry it on with all speed, in the hope of getting it over before the threatened storm arrived.
All the white men save two were set to work on the airship, shifting stores, and lowering them to the natives beneath, who, under the direction of Dan Beach, carried them to the camp near at hand, and there stowed them away.
Tim had been ordered to find out a sheltered spot amongst the trees in which to place the Hawk aeroplane, and make it fast, as a precaution against its getting damaged by the expected tempest.
Roland was with Tim, lending such assistance as he could, when Leslie came running to him:
"I say, Roley," he cried, "here's news! I am to stay here with you while the doctor's away, in order to be with Tim when he goes out with the hunting chaps."
"How do you know?" asked Roland doubtfully.
"The doctor has just told me. He says the hunters must have someone who's used to the aeroplane besides Tim, so he must leave me behind. I was afraid, you know, that he was going to take me back with him to Cambray Town. And," added Leslie, with a solemn shake of the head, "for all I could tell, you see, he might have left me there."
"Oh, no, Leslie; he wouldn't have done that!" Roland declared.
"I don't know; I'm not so sure. He might have said I was less likely to get into trouble there. As it is, he's made me listen to another lecture, and he warned me to be very careful while he's away. As if I wanted any warning. Now isn't it the fact that I'm always careful?
"That ye are, Misther Leslie" Tim put in. "It's yer carefulness as lades ye into throuble very ofthen. Oi've noticed that. It's the same with meself. Whinever Oi says to meself, 'Tim lad, it's extra careful ye're goin't' be this day,' that very day Oi'm sure t' drift into throuble."
Leslie regarded Tim admiringly.
"That's a jolly neat way of accounting for it, Tim," said he. "I wish you'd come and explain the working of it to the doctor. Perhaps then he'd understand me better in future." But Tim shook his head.
"It's willin' I be to oblige ye, Misther Leslie, darlint," he answered, "but I doubt the doctor's too busy to listen."
"Yes, he's rather busy just now, so am I, really—or was—till I popped away to bring the news. I guess I'd better get back, or the doctor will miss me, and then—well, he'll think something's wrong, I suppose. What are you two doing here?"
"It's hobblin' the machine we are, so's it can't stray away on its own iv there's a bit av a breeze," Tim explained. "The doctor's skeert the breeze will be a stiff one."
"Yes, he says he fears we're in for a buster. But it may pass off, you know. In fact, I think it's going to, or we should have felt something of it before this. Well, I must be off back there before I'm missed. I'll come to you again, Roland, as soon as the unloading is finished." And with that the speaker skipped off to where the airship was moored, and, climbing nimbly up the rope-ladder, managed to get on board before the doctor had noticed his absence.
For a while all went well, and the doctor was congratulating himself on the fact, and expressing to the professor a hope that the work would be finished before the storm came, when suddenly he started.
Through the trees there came a sound which at first seemed no more than a gentle sigh, A little later it had become a sort of subdued whistle; and this in turn altered to a low, hollow moaning.
The doctor knew these sounds, and recognised their sinister meaning. At once he gave a number of quick, sharp orders to those below with the mooring-ropes to cast them loose.
Leslie, hearing these orders, and knowing they meant that the airship was to be cast free, suddenly decided that he would rather join Roland in the camp than remain on board and go for a cruise which he knew must be of uncertain duration.
But the rope-ladder, as he could see, had been already drawn up; so acting upon the impulse of the moment, he cast himself upon one of the mooring-ropes, and, putting his legs round it, began sliding down.
Suddenly a muffled, booming note rose on the air. It seemed to be coming nearer with inconceivable swiftness. Another moment or two, and, with a loud roar, the tempest was upon them.
The Champion, caught in the blast, heeled over, and for a few seconds it seemed as though she would be beaten to the ground and completely wrecked. Then the mooring-ropes snapped like twine, the great aerostat rose with a bound, and was whirled away, literally upon the wings of the wind.
And there, dangling below her, Roland and Tim, looking up, saw to their horror, Leslie, entangled in one of the broken ropes!
IT would be difficult to describe in words the state of mind in which Roland gazed at the fast receding airship. He had realised at the first glance the terrible peril in which his luckless chum was placed. It was not merely that Leslie was hanging in mid-air beneath the airship. That was bad enough; the worst part of it was that his position was not known to those on board.
Roland had seen this plainly. Leslie was suspended beneath the platform in such a way that he could not be seen from above by any of the aeronauts, even if they had looked over. And, of course, at such a time of difficulty and danger, and having no suspicion of what had happened, their attention was entirely taken up in other ways.
It was not even likely that his voice would be heard, however much he might shout; nor could Roland perceive how they would be able to get at him even if they heard him.
Then, again, it was uncertain whether the rope which had gripped him was holding him securely, or whether he was holding on by his hands. If the latter, then his plight was critical indeed. It could only be a question of time before he fell.
"What are we to do?" exclaimed Roland, in a frenzy of horror and fear. "Oh, Tim, we must go after him!"
"Go after him?" Tim repeated helplessly. "How can—"
"Yes, yes! Don't you understand? Can't you see that nothing else can save him, because they don't know he's there! He couldn't even try to climb up, for the rope's not hanging from one side. There's only one way of saving him. If we start after the airship we might be able to catch her up in time."
"Catch her up—in this wind?" said Tim. "Sure, the doctor's orders was—"
"Doctor's orders be bothered," cried Roland impatiently. "Quick, man! I tell you there is no other way. Help me to get her loose. If you're afraid I shall go by myself."
That was enough for Tim. If he held back it was not that he lacked courage; it was only that the audacity of the idea had for the moment been too much for him to grasp in the confused state of his wits.
"Begorrah, it's meself as was niver afraid yit!" he burst out. "I see yer idea, Misther Roland—but I must go by meself. Ye mustn't—"
"Don't talk rot!" snapped Roland, half angrily. "What good can you do by yourself? You've got to manage the motor while I try to get hold of him. You can't do both. Now, then, lend a hand."
All the time he had been talking he had been feverishly untying the ropes they had so carefully fastened, and shifting the ballast on the little platform, so as to adjust the weight. Well was it just then that he had taken an intelligent interest in the working and management of the aeroplanes! He had not been content merely with the fun of sailing about with Leslie; he had tried, as far as he had had the opportunity, to learn how it was all done; and the knowledge he had picked up now stood them both in good stead.
As for Tim, once he had made up his mind, he lost no time in making the necessary preparations. That it was a dangerous venture—a foolhardy one, perhaps—and that he knew he was risking his neck, mattered nothing. He now saw that it offered the one slender chance of saving Leslie's life, and that was enough.
In a wonderfully short space of time the aeroplane was run out, the two plucky adventurers took their places, and the machine rose in the air, just as Dan came hurrying up to see what was going on. His amazement may be imagined when he saw them start. Had he been in time he might have tried to stop Roland from going by main force. But he was too late; the Hawk had risen beyond his reach, and he could only stand and stare after it.
Fortunately, the aeroplane had been lying on the lee side of the thicket, and the partial shelter thus afforded enable the daring travellers to get a fair start. Then the wind seized upon it and whirled it about dangerously. But Tim had been in high winds before—though never in one as bad as this. He managed the craft skilfully, and away they flew, at a tremendous speed, in pursuit of the airship.
As to the latter, it had already got almost out of sight, and Roland's heart fell as he saw the distance it had gained. He also knew, however, that it was only swiftly driving along with the wind.
The doctor would not be likely to keep his motors going more than would be sufficient to steer it. The aeroplane, on the other hand, was travelling well ahead of the wind, and, as was soon evident, quickly began to lessen the distance between them.
"They'll soon see us from the deck," thought Roland, "and they'll know that something must be wrong. If it were not such a hurricane the doctor would turn and come back to meet us; but as things are I'm afraid he wouldn't dare try to."
It was Graham who first caught sight of the aeroplane, and he drew the attention of the leaders to it. Dr. Cambray was aghast. He looked round and missed Leslie; and his first thought was that it was he who was coming after them.
"This must be some mad prank of that hairbrained young charge of mine," he groaned, as he seized his field-glass and peered through it. "Now what in the world—But no—he's not there! I can see only Tim and Roland. Then something is wrong with a vengeance! Something must have happened for those two to act in this way!"
Naturally, Professor Kelmar was as much astonished as the doctor; and as he, too, looked through his glass, and saw those on the aeroplane, he was filled with alarm for his ward's safety.
"It must be as you say, Cambray," he murmured. "Only something imperative would have led Roland to do such a thing. Can't you turn round to meet them, or hang back, or something—"
But the doctor shook his head.
"Too dangerous. It would only be risking the lives of all here as well as theirs. Besides, when they come up it will give them a better chance to come near if we are merely drifting."
"A better chance of what?" said Kelmar. "Of coming on board? Surely they won't attempt to do that?"
"Heaven only knows what they want to do," was the anxious answer. "We must wait. Hal Look! Roland has seen that we are looking at him, and he's pointing at something below us. What can it mean? Is the airship on fire below? There's no smoke!"
"Yes, I see! It is as you say!" cried the professor. "He's pointing down there—or is it to something ahead?"
"No," the doctor decided. "Something's wrong underneath us. They must have seen it, and have resorted to this perilous means of warning us. Now what, then, can it be? Someone must get overboard to see!"
This was, indeed, what Weston was just then doing. He had drawn his own conclusions, and was already climbing over the side with a rope which he had made fast.
The engineer descended hand over hand, the rope swaying dangerously in spite of the efforts of Graham, who stood over it, to steady it. For a space he disappeared from view; then he climbed back, looking very pale, and evidently in a state of great excitement.
"It's Leslie!" he gasped, as he almost tumbled on to the deck. "We must get a rope to him somehow from both sides. I want a hand. Who'll offer?"
"I will," cried Graham. "I can climb a rope like a monkey. Only tell me what to do."
Others crowded round offering themselves.
"Leslie?" exclaimed the doctor in amaze. "Great Scott! What do you mean, man? How can Leslie be there?"
"Got caught somehow, I s'pose, when we started," said Weston, who, all the time he was talking, was getting out another coil of rope, and directing Graham by motions of his head and hands.
"He's hanging underneath the centre, and we can only reach him by getting a rope right across—if it can be done. I spoke to him, and he said he thought he could hold on till I came back. But it will be touch-and-go, I fear. He looked about half dead." Then to his assistants: "More to the right, there—shake it out—now belay there. Take it further forrard."
All this had been jerked out breathlessly, while his hands were busy and his brain working on the problem before him. For it was no easy matter to get a "loop" beneath the great hull, and work it backward to the required place.
But those who had taken the thing in hand were not the kind of men to be beaten even by such difficulties as now faced them. They were men of resource, of iron nerve, and muscles of steel, every one. Men of adventurous lives, ever ready to face danger at a moment's notice, at the call of duty or of a fellow-creature in distress.
And all the while the airship was being whirled along over hill and plain faster than any express train—for, as the doctor afterwards computed, it was a wind of something near ninety miles an hour. And behind it, not very far astern, was the aeroplane, no longer hurrying to catch up, but only doing its best to hold its own with the wind—no easy matter in such a storm—until its occupants should be relieved of their anxiety by seeing Leslie drawn up in safety.
And this—to describe the result in a few words—was what they presently had the satisfaction and delight of witnessing. Weston and Graham between them managed to reach Leslie with a sling-seat, and get him into it; then, with much effort and care, he was hauled up, and finally set down on the deck, where, for a few moments, his senses seemed to leave him.
He held out bravely up to that point, and only gave way when safety had been assured and the great strain was relaxed.
It appeared, from the account he afterwards gave, that he had been entangled in two ropes, the one he had been sliding down and another one, which, in snapping, had recoiled and curled itself round his legs. This, in a sense, helped to support him, so long, that is, as he was able to hold on with his hands; But if he had let go with his hands, he would either have fallen altogether, or, f the coiled rope had still held, must have hung head downward.
Roland heaved a great sigh of relief when he had seen his friend disappear over the side of the platform. And it was echoed by the worthy Irishman beside him, who just then seemed to be suffering from a tickling in the throat.
"An' what will we be afther doin' now, Misther Roland darlint?" he got out.
"We must try to land, Tim, if you think we can manage it; so look out for a likely place. We want to find one where the aeroplane, will be a bit sheltered, you know. Then I suppose we'd better wait there till the storm blows itself out."
"Thrue for you, sorr. It's not blowin' quite so bad now, I belaves. We'll come to a place prisintly, an' then I'll land her."
A suitable spot in Tim's eyes presently appeared in the distance, an inviting-looking piece of soft grass beside a large pool, and lying at the foot of an upstanding rock which promised the desired shelter. The first fury of the hurricane seemed to have abated, and though it was still blowing hard, Tim managed to effect a safe landing.
Roland stepped off on to the ground and took a look at the airship, which was now sailing fast away. Someone was waving a handkerchief from it by way of salute, and he guessed it must be Leslie; and waved his own by way of reply. Then he was startled by a sound close at hand, and looking round saw a troop of large animals galloping off. They had evidently been lying up there, and had been roused by the arrival of the aeroplane. And looking again, Roland saw that they were okapi.
ROLAND watched the strange animals, as they raced out into the plain and disappeared into the distance, with feelings of mingled surprise and disappointment.
"If we'd only had a rifle!" he exclaimed. "You saw them, Tim? You know what they are?"
"Sure, it's quare-looking bastes they are," said Tim, and he scratched his head as he tried to remember if he had ever in his life seen anything like them, even in pictures. "No, Misther Roland, I never see anythin' loike thim," was his final verdict.
"Well, they were okapi; and you and I, Tim, are probably the first white men who ever stood so close to one of them. Think of that!"
"Oi'll remimbor that same," Tim returned. "Oi won't be afther forgittin' it—since ye seems to wish it. But phwat good will it do?"
"Precious little, I'm afraid," Roland confessed, with a laugh. "It would have been different if we could have secured a specimen. Then we should have been famous."
"Well, prr'aps we moight foind thim hero agen if we came back on the quiet, wan day," Tim suggested, with a knowing look. "An' we'll take keer t' bring the guns next time."
"Right you are; that's a good thought. Maybe this is a haunt of the animals. And now let's look round and see if we can find a better shelter. The storm's getting worse again."
As a matter of fact, it had become clear that there had only been a lull in the tempest. A booming peal of distant thunder warned them that there was likely to be worse before it was over. Heavy, swirling clouds had gathered overhead, and the wind came eddying down from the rock above with a wild, whistling sound.
"Whoy, there's the very place for us, Misther Roland!" Tim exclaimed. "Look! that's where thim critters wi' the strange name was hidin'!"
Roland looked, and saw in the face of the rock, only a short distance away, the entrance to a cave—a sort of large grotto. He perceived at once that, as Tim had said, it was the very place for them; for the opening was large enough to run the aeroplane bodily into it.
This they proceeded to do, and in a few moments had dragged it safely under cover. Then they ran out again to get a last look at the airship.
The whole sky had grown darker, and the clouds were lower; and there in the distance was the Champion, almost enveloped in a dark, cloudy mass. And as they gazed at the vessel a blinding blaze of light darted out of the cloud, followed by a deafening crash.
Dazzled by the flash, it was some seconds ere they could see again properly; and then no trace of the airship was to be seen. The cloud seemed to have closed round it and swallowed it up, and to be now whirling along with it somewhere in its sombre depths. Roland looked at Tim, doubt and alarm in his eyes.
"What has become of the airship?" he breathed, in a low, awed tone. "I could not see."
But Tim could only shake his head dubiously. He had not been able to see any better, and the doubt that was in their minds rendered them both very silent and thoughtful as they once more sought the shelter of the cave from the increasing fury of the storm.
And a terrible storm it turned out to be, of a kind such as one only meets with in tropical countries. For a long time the rain fell in sheets, while the lightning and thunder were incessant, and almost continuous, instead of coming in crashes, with intervals between, as it does in temperate climates.
Roland had never before seen anything like it; and he shrank back into the cave, trying to get away from the glare of the constant flashes. And all the time the haunting thought rose in his mind: "How will the airship fare? Is it possible that it can weather such a storm?"
How thankful he felt that Leslie had been rescued during the first lull, before the hurricane had broken in its full violence! And how he wished that he knew, for a certainty, that all on board were still safe!
Fortunately such tempests, though terrible while they last, are seldom of any great duration; and in due time—though not till after some hours of weary waiting—the downpour gradually grew less heavy, and at last ceased, and the booming peals of thunder died away into sullen, distant mutterings. Finally, the clouds parted, and the sun burst out in a blaze of glory, its rays reflected from the dripping leaves, grass, and other objects around.
Then the two dragged the aeroplane out, and, once more taking their seats in it, headed for the camp.
Or, rather, that was what they intended to do. But when they had continued their flight steadily for some time, in a straight line, and found that they could see no sign of a camp, it began to dawn upon them that they must somehow have taken the wrong course.
"Sure, we're wrong—we're wrong ontoirely," said Tim, after a while "Else it's safe an' snug we'd be in camp by this time, atin' our dinners."
Tim was getting hungry; so, for the matter of that, was Roland; for it was now afternoon, and they had had nothing to eat since the dawn.
"We'd better alter our course, Tim," said Roland. "Now, I have an idea that we ought to have gone over that way." And he pointed to his left.
"Begorrah, but ye're wrong, sorr—ye're wrong!" Tim affirmed, with conviction. "It's meself was just goin' t' say it's come t' me as the camp's out there." And he pointed to the right.
"I don't think so," persisted Roland, in tones equally positive. "I feel sure that it's more to the left. No doubt the wind shifted during out flight, and that has misled us. Look at those hills yonder. They must be the ones we could see from the camp!"
But Tim stuck to his opinion, and so the two came to a deadlock. Roland hesitated to trust to his own idea entirely. Tim, though he felt certain that the direction he had pointed to was the true one, was politely anxious not to hurt Roland's feelings.
"Arrah now," quoth he. "If Oi'm roight, thin ye must be wrong, an' Oi don't like t' say that same. P'r'aps," he added, as a bright idea struck him—"p'r'aps it's both roight an' wrong we are, the two av us."
"I'm afraid that way of looking at it won't help us much, Tim," said Roland, laughing. "I see a stream just ahead of us, and I'm getting thirsty as well as hungry. Let us call a halt and have a drink, and perhaps we can find something we can pick that's good to eat."
A few minutes later they had come to ground beside a stream, and there they treated themselves to draughts of clear, refreshing water. But though they looked carefully about, they could see nothing eatable amongst the bushes around.
"Oh, why didn't we bring the rifles?" cried Roland. "We've seen plenty of game. We could have had a good dinner by this time."
"Even a fishin'-line would have been useful," sighed Tim, as he stood looking into the stream. "It's plenty av fish there is in the wather here, iv we only had somethin' t' catch 'em with."
Not far away some tall palms soared up high into the air, and Roland looked longingly at an old monkey feeding her little ones on coconuts.
"I wouldn't mind if it was only a coconut or two, like those monkeys are tucking into up there," he murmured. Then he went on suddenly, "Tim!"
"Ay, ay, sorr! It's meself be a listhenin'. Is it an idea ye have for gettin' us some dinner?"
"Why, of course. What duffers we are! I forgot we've got the Hawk and not the Bat. Can't we take her to the top of one of those palms, and make her hover while I pick some coconuts?"
"It's a foine idea—a foine idea, entoirely," returned Tim approvingly. "But I doubt if ye'll be able t' rache 'em."
"Then we must knock some off somehow," Roland declared. "I'm not going to stay here starving, and watch a lot of low-class monkeys gobbling coconuts, without having a try to get some myself. Surely we can knock some off, and then go down and pick 'em up."
"Git some sticks, or big stones, ah' have a shy at 'em, same as they do at the fairs," Tim suggested. "I'll get above 'em, an' ye can shy down on 'em."
It was certainly a novel way of gathering coconuts but it seemed likely to answer fairly well. Tim made the aeroplane hover over the palms, while Roland sent some big stones he had carried up crashing down amongst the nuts, to the dismay and indignation of the monkeys in the palmtops.
But there were other monkeys in the trees below, and these, though at first greatly alarmed, recovered their presence of mind when the nuts fell amongst them, and they saw that they were broken by the fall. This was a golden opportunity, indeed, of securing a supply without the trouble of even cracking them. So they promptly possessed themselves of the shower of good things, and nimbly disappeared again with them into the foliage around.
Thus it came about that when the two aeronauts returned to the ground to reap the reward of their efforts, there was not so much as a piece of a nut left. The monkeys had cleared the ground.
"We'd better go on and try to find the camp, and get a good square meal there," said Roland disgustedly. "We shall do no good in the eating line here, that's certain."
Somewhat depressed at this failure—for it seemed an inglorious thing to have the food they had provided stolen from them in this impudent fashion by mere monkeys—they set off once more on their travels.
But failure still followed their efforts. Up and down, to and fro, over the plain they cruised; but no sign could they see on any hand of their new camping-ground. So hurried had their departure necessarily been that they had started off, riot only without any firearms—save the revolver Roland usually carried—but without noticing, in their anxiety, which way the chase of the airship had led them. Then, as Roland had said, the wind had shifted about, thus still further confusing their ideas.
And now, as night was falling, they had the unpleasant fact brought home to them that, even on an aeroplane—which is supposedly independent of all roads and paths—it may be just as easy to completely lose one's way, as when wandering on foot in the mazes of some vast, trackless forest.
"SURE, it's lost we are, an' it's no use goin' on," said Jim. "We'll be usin' up our petrol fur nothin' at all, an' have none left for ter-morrer."
That summed up the situation; and there was nothing for it but to fix upon some place in which to pass the night. It was not a nice position to be placed in. In addition, the pangs of hunger were making themselves felt more than ever.
"Where shall we sleep?" Roland asked doubtfully. "The lions pretty soon found out our camp last night, and I expect they will find us out to-night if we stay down in the plain."
After some discussion, it was decided to move on nearer to the hills, where they would be more likely to find a spot safe from wild beasts. This would save them the necessity of gathering a lot of wood for a protective hedge. There was also the hope that from the high ground they might, after dark, see the fires of their camp in the distance.
They accordingly left the plain, and flew on quietly till they came to the foot-hills, where they chose pinnacle of rock with a flat top and precipitous sides which seemed likely to be fairly safe from undesirable visitors.
They first landed at the foot of the rock, and while Roland set to work to gather wood for a fire to cook a supper—if they could find one—Tim went out on foraging expedition of his own. He had marked down some large birds which looked like wild turkeys going to roost in a thicket, and, borrowing Roland's revolver, he set off to try his luck at stalking them.
Ere long he returned in triumph, the proud bearer of a brace of fine, big birds, one of which he set to work to pluck; and by the time it was ready Roland had got his fire into good condition for roasting. Then the hungry wanderers had the satisfaction of a making substantial meal before they sought the top of the rock and lay down for their much needed rest.
First, however, they spent some time in anxious watching for the light of a distant fire, and only desisted when they felt too sleepy and tired to sit up any longer. Nothing happened to disturb them during the night, and at dawn they rose, refreshed, and full of renewed hopes of better fortune than the previous day had brought them.
Having made another meal off the remains of the first of Tim's birds, they stored the other one away in small cave, which the Irishman fixed upon as a convenient "larder." Then they held a council as to what their programme for the day was to be.
"It's a funny thing that we couldn't even see any fires last night," said Roland thoughtfully. "The air was beautifully clear after the storm, and we should surely have seen them if the camp had been anywhere out in this part of the plain. That seems to show that we've come altogether in the wrong direction."
"We'd betther wait wheer we are till the docther gits back an' comes out to look for us," was Tim's sage advice. "It's onaisy he'll be whin he foinds we're not at home, an' ye may be sure he'll set out at wance. Then we'll see the airship a-sailin' about, an' we can go to her."
Now Roland felt that this was probably the wisest and safest plan, but it was a plan which condemned them to inaction; and in his impatience to be up and doing something his spirit inwardly chafed against it. Besides, as he reminded Tim, there was no saying when the airship might return.
"We don't know what's become of it," he said gloomily. "It may be that we'll have to go out to look for it, instead of its coming to hunt for us."
"Arrah, no! She'll be safe enough," Tim maintained, his faith strong in the doctor's ability to deal with whatever dangers had assailed him. "It's wait wheer we are, we'd betther. We'll only use up our petrol fur nothin'. Thin wheer should we be?"
Roland found it difficult to answer this line of reasoning, and in the end reluctantly agreed to Tim's suggestion, much as it went against the grain. He only stipulated for a short flight as a trial.
"Let us," he suggested, "go up as high as we can, and have one good look round. Perhaps, as we didn't get back last night, Dan will be out looking for us. We might catch sight of his party, or see them making signals of some kind. They will probably be firing guns to attract our attention, and we might see the puffs of smoke, you know."
Tim agreeing to this, they took their places on the aeroplane, and a little later were soaring high in the air, mounting up in a series of graceful circles.
Now, while Roland was scanning through his field-glasses the great landscape spread out before them, he caught sight of several large birds performing what appeared to be some extraordinary evolutions. Presently he exclaimed:
"Why, they're eagles! A small crowd of 'em. And—yes, they're attacking something. It's a deer they're after, and they're darting at it and pecking it as it runs. Let's go down there."
"Betther not, Misther Roland, darlint," counselled Tim, who was in no mood for adventures; "It's fierce craythers they are, an' p'r'aps they'll go fur us."
"Pooh! They can't hurt us, Tim, They wouldn't dare attack a big affair like this. Besides, perhaps, we can drive them off and secure the deer for our own larder. I can see the poor thing's wounded, and it would be a mercy to shoot it and put it out of its misery. Better that than being pecked to death as it is now."
This double-barrelled argument, as it may be termed, overcame Tim's hesitation, and they accordingly began to descend. When low enough, Tim steered the machine straight for the scene of combat, and sped towards it with a swift, downward swoop such as the eagles themselves might have envied.
The aeroplane passed at lightning speed right through the midst of the great birds, catching one fairly on the wing, and sending it fluttering to the ground. Then, swerving round in a half-circle, Tim turned it and flew back again.
But if the adventurous pair thought that they were going to frighten their flying rivals away thus easily they quickly found they had reckoned, so to speak, without their hosts.
The birds were evidently not disposed to surrender their prey without a fight for it. After the first pause of astonishment at the sudden appearance on their hunting ground of what they no doubt thought was some new kind of gigantic bird, they resolved to give battle to the flying monster.
As a number of small birds will often turn on a hawk and try to drive it off by "mobbing" it, so the eagles now commenced an attack on the aeroplane. With hoarse screams of rage and defiance they closed round, pecking viciously at it, beating at it with their wings, and trying to get at the two aviators upon it.
Roland found himself compelled to use his revolver, which he had no wish to do, since it meant wasting their limited supply of cartridges.
Two of the enraged creatures managed to come to close quarters, and actually got home with some savage pecks, which tore away portions of the aeronauts' clothing, before succumbing to the bullets which were fired at them.
Tim, realising that their position was becoming perilous, decided upon an inglorious retreat, rather than risk a disaster. He therefore put on top speed, and steered straight ahead, and so quickly left the scene of action far behind; and he had the satisfaction of finding that their formidable foes did not keep up the pursuit.
Content with having driven off the intruders, the eagles continued their interrupted fight with the hapless deer, while the aeroplane returned to the place from which it had started.
"Saints above us!" murmured Tim, as they grounded at the foot of their rocky pinnacle. "Pwhat a pack of demons! Oi tould ye, Misther Roland, not to go near 'em."
"So you did, Tim," said Roland ruefully. "I had no idea the brutes would set on to us like that. A little more and they'd have swept me clean overboard. I see they've left a mark on you, too. Are you much hurt?"
"It's a nasty scratch—that's all," returned Tim, as he looked at the wounds on his hand and wrist, which were bleeding. "Be jabers, I thought it was blinded I'd be, fur the spalpeen wint fur me eyes!"
"And mine, too; and they've carried off some of my coat by way of trophy," Roland complained dolefully, as he showed his torn sleeve. "It was lucky I had the revolver. I don't like to think what would have happened to us without it."
"An' we've lost the deer," Tim added, "inter the bargain. It's makin' a good male off it they'll be by this toime."
The mention of a "male" reminded Tim of the bird he had stowed away in his "larder," and he thought he might as well pass the time in preparing to cook it as in any other way. He proceeded, therefore, to gather some wood in readiness for a fire when it should be required; and presently brought a load and set it down in the place where they had had their fire that morning.
As he laid it down, something in the appearance of the place struck him as different from the state in which they had left it. There were the ashes, but they seemed to have been raked over; and on looking further he missed the bones and other remains of the feast which he had thrown on one side.
Filled with a sudden direful suspicion, he marched off with an unusually grave and solemn manner, to the "larder" itself to inspect it.
A minute or two later Roland, who was engaged in a survey of the distant plain through his field-glass, heard a loud exclamation, and turning, saw his companion coming towards him with a very blank face.
"Begorrah, Misther Roland," he called out, in accents full of anger and disgust, "if some low, thavin' baste ain't bin here while we was away an' carried off our dinner!"
Roland could scarcely keep back a laugh as he saw the Irishman's face and heard his indignant words. At the same time, the loss of the provender they had so carefully stored away was, in their present plight, by no means a laughing matter. He went off to investigate at once.
"It's theer Oi set it down, d'ye see," Tim explained, as they stood together inside the little cave, "an' it's cover it over Oi did, wi' thim stones. An' ye sees as the thafe's moved thim an' thrown thim aside, bad luck to him! Theer they be; ye can see 'em."
"Yes, I see them, Tim," returned Roland, as he carefully inspected the place. "Good, heavy stones they were, too," he added thoughtfully. "It must have been a large animal to have moved them—and one would have expected to see some marks of scratching. Why, goodness! What's this?"
A little stream of water ran through the cave and found its way out through the entrance. Tim had noted this, and purposely placed his bird near it, as likely to be the coolest part. In one place the water had spread abroad into a pool, and then partially receded, leaving a wide margin of damp sand.
And there, distinctly to be seen in the sand, were two footmarks—the prints of two naked human feet!
"Be jabers, this do beat everything!" exclaimed Tim, as he stared down at these marks.
"A man's feet," breathed Roland, in a startled voice. "Some man's been here! What man? What do you make of them, Tim? Somehow—you know, of course, I've not had much experience at tracking, and all that—but somehow, they don't look to me like a native's feet."
"Ye're right, Misther Roland!" exclaimed Tim. "Thim marks was made by a white man."
"That's what I thought," Roland agreed. "But why, then, was he going about barefooted?"
This query suggested a riddle which neither of the two could answer.
DAN BEACH, unexpectedly left in charge of the newly-formed camp, found himself in an awkward position when, first the day and then the night passed without the return of either the airship or the aeroplane,
As has been mentioned, Dr. Cambray had assembled all the white people save Dan, Tim, and Roland on board the Champion, in order to assist him in unloading his stores. Many of these were precious in his eyes, and he preferred not to trust the handling of them to the natives if it could be avoided.
As a consequence, when he had sailed off so suddenly and unexpectedly, he had taken the whites with him, and left all the natives behind. Thus it was that, as Tim and Roland had gone off too, Dan was the only white in the camp.
He had several separate parties of natives to look after and keep under control, and the larger part of them were more or less strangers to him. Firstly, there were Dr. Cambray's own people; secondly, the professor's "boys"; thirdly, the Pigmies; fourthly, Graham's natives; and, lastly, Akolah, and the rest of the rescued slaves.
Of all these, only the second-named were really known to him; and he had an uneasy feeling that in case of trouble they were the only ones on whom he could really place any sort of reliance.
Yet they had all somehow to be fed and looked after. Food had to be obtained from somewhere. Hunting parties must be sent out—and how could he possibly keep an eye on them and on those left in camp as well?
True, the absence of the leaders might not be a long one—they might return at any moment. On the other hand, Dan knew it was only too possible that some accident had happened to the airship, one that might keep the leaders away for an indefinite time. And if that should be the case he knew there would be trouble.
Trouble there was, brewing already. He felt it rather than knew it—instinctively—on the morning after the storm. There was a something in the looks, the talk, the demeanour, of some of the natives which, though vague and intangible as yet, warned him to be on the alert.
He "felt" that the more unruly spirits in the camp believed that the worst had happened; that the airship had been blown away and wrecked in the storm, and was not likely to return. Therefore, they would argue, what was the use of their staying on there and starving—as they probably would?
It would be better to help themselves to some of the good and wonderful things the white men were possessed of and go their way. As to the one white man left in charge, who was he that he should stand in their way, or that they should obey him? He was not a great chief, a "bass"; the good things did not even belong to him. And if he tried to stop them—well, he was but one man—and what could one man, even a white man, do against so many?
Dan knew in his own mind that the "bad" natives—there are always a few to be found among every crowd—were insidiously spreading a discontented and mutinous feeling. The worst of it was he had no proof of it, nothing he could seize upon. If he had, if he could have picked out the mutinous ones with certainty, he had both the sense and the courage to seize them at once, and teach them a lesson, and so nip the trouble in the bud.
But he had no such proof; there was no one he could pick out with certainty. He only felt, instinctively, that things were going wrong—divined it from the crafty, cunning looks he now and then saw cast at him by some, and the altered behaviour of others.
At the same time, he did not expect that the trouble would come to a head immediately. The mutinous ones would probably wait another day to see if the leaders really returned. So Dan considered that he had a day's grace in which to take his precautions. How he hoped and prayed that the airship would reappear during that day!
And meantime, over and above this looming shadow, there was the problem, How were all these people to be fed? Men must be sent out to hunt for game, and he could not accompany them, since he must stay and guard the camp. Yet to allow them to go out alone would be to give them just the opportunity they desired, of talking and plotting among themselves away from his supervision.
Such were the difficulties and perplexities with which honest Dan Beach found himself surrounded, after a sleepless night, spent in vain watching for the return of the airship.
The supply of food had already run so short that there was scarcely enough to go round for the first meal of the day. Hence, when two or three of the headmen came and asked leave to go out to look for game, Dan had no real excuse for refusing permission. Moreover, it was clear, from the way they spoke, that they would have gone without his consent had he not given it.
Presently Madali, Professor Kelmar's headman, came up, making a similar request, couched, however, in very different terms.
"Me go hunting and try find things very quick," he said. "Then come back quick," he added significantly.
Dan understood his meaning, and was grateful for it. It was as much to say, "I will not leave you alone amongst these others longer than I can help."
After a little talk between the two, another deputation appeared. This time it was Akolah and Dolah, accompanied by the Pigmies, with whom, as has been already noted, they were on specially friendly terms.
Here signs had, for the most part, to take the place of words; and when the interview was over, and they had left the camp and gone their way, the hunter had but a very hazy idea either of where they were going or what their special object might be. That they would try to find some game was, of course, pretty obvious; but certain signs made by Akolah seemed to Beach to convey the idea that they meant to try to track the airship—or perhaps the aeroplane.
This idea made him laugh—the first laugh he had indulged in since he had seen his leaders swept away and lost to view amid the swirling clouds of the previous day's tempest.
"If they be goin' t' try t' track the airship," said Dan to himself, "I wishes 'em joy of their job. Though," he added philosophically, "I dunno as it makes any difference. They may just as well amuse theirselves that way as any other. But still, I guess I didn't onderstand 'em. They'd not be likely t' start on such a wild goose chase."
Nevertheless, that was exactly what Akolah and his party set out to do. Hopeless—even absurd—as the idea seemed to Dan, it did not appear so to them. They had seen the start, and knew, from the way the airship had been carried off, that it was simply being carried along by the wind; and they had, of course, marked the way the wind had been blowing at that time. Thus they set out with the simple idea that if the airship had been wrecked, they would be sure to come upon it if they only went far enough; and if it were not wrecked, then they would probably meet it coming back.
And, as a matter of fact, proceeding in a direction they settled upon, and spreading out over the country like a lot of well-trained dogs, they did actually come upon the cavern in which Roland and Tim had taken refuge.
Here the keen-eyed trackers noted that the aeroplane had been dragged into the grotto-like cave. They judged from this that the travellers had remained there till the storm was over, and had then left.
So they now knew that the aeroplane had not been wrecked in the storm. But where, then, had it gone? And why had it not returned to camp?
To this question no answer could be found; but what they had discovered encouraged the intelligent little men and their Furian allies to further search.
Meantime, at the camp, the day dragged wearily by—at least, it seemed so to Dan; and when evening once more arrived, and there had been no return of either airship or aeroplane, he felt depressed indeed. Moreover, during the day he had made a very disconcerting discovery. Certain rifles were missing from the place where he had left them.
Most of the firearms were still on board the airship, not having been brought down when it had been carried away. But what there were about—those in ordinary use, Roland's and Tim's amongst them—Dan had himself collected, and concealed in what he had considered a safe and secret place. And now someone must have discovered them and carried them off.
This was a sinister and disturbing incident; and the more Dan thought about it the less he liked the look of it. But though he made stern inquiries among the natives left in camp, all denied any knowledge of the theft.
Night fell, and the hunting parties came straggling in, the bearers, for the most part, of fairly good bags; and for a time the camp resounded with chanting songs, laughter, and the other usual forms of rejoicing on the part of the successful hunters.
Then the sounds died down, and the whole camp seemed to become hushed in sleep.
Even Dan nodded as he kept his watch. He had had no sleep whatever the previous night, and had been on the move all through the day.
No, wonder, then, that, in spite of the best intentions, he now and then dropped off into a doze.
It was from one of these lapses that he woke suddenly with a start, and found a difficulty in moving his arms and legs. At the same moment peals of mocking laughter fell upon his ears.
He tried again to move, and discovered this time that he was fast bound. Looking round, he saw a circle of grinning black faces.
He realised then that his fears had proved only too well founded, and that he was now a prisoner in the hands of the mutinous natives.
THE hunter was carried to a tent, cast upon the ground, and there left; one of the natives taking up his post at the entrance as a guard.
Then his captors proceeded to loot the camp, and to possess themselves of whatever happened to take their fancy.
It was fortunate that, as already stated, there had not been time to land many of the doctor's stores before the airship had been blown from its moorings. There were, however, a number of things that the blacks coveted; to say nothing of a package containing brandy, which the doctor carried as a reserve in case of illness or other emergency, and this they found and broke open.
A little later Dan heard quarrelling going on, probably as the result of differences of opinion as to the division of the spoils; and two or three shots were fired. But the trouble seemed to be patched up for the time being; and the mutineers proceeded to give themselves up to merriment and enjoyment. There was much singing and dancing, ending in a general orgy, which was continued well into the night.
It was not till towards morning that the tumult began to die down, as first one lot, and then another, dropped off into what was no doubt a drunken slumber.
Dan, who had been lying brooding upon it all, full of self-reproach at having been caught napping, guessed that he was probably now the only one in the camp who was sober and wakeful. His guard, after resisting for some time the temptation to join the others, had finally gone off, and did not seem likely to return.
The hunter had made many efforts to work himself out of his bonds, but found they had been too cunningly secured for him to succeed. The more he struggled the tighter they seemed to become; and his wrists and ankles were sore and raw as a consequence of his attempts to get free.
"The miserable hounds!" he muttered to himself. "They was knowing enough to truss me up tight; an' it's a good thing fur the skins o' some o' them as they did. If I could only get free I'd shoot a few of 'em wi' their own guns, an' teach 'em a lesson, as they wouldn't forgit agen, treatin' their betters in this fashion!"
Then, convinced of the futility of his efforts, he lay, for a time, seemingly quiet, though inwardly chafing against the enforced inaction.
He wondered what had become of Akolah and the Pigmies, and of Madali and his natives. Had they returned to camp? And if not, why not? Had they gone off on their own, or had they returned and thrown in their lot with this mutinous, thieving crew? Or, again, had they themselves been made prisoners as he had?
It was scarcely possible to think that people who nearly all owed the white men a debt of gratitude for delivering them from the horrors of slavery could be so ungrateful as to join their enemies. But, on the other hand, it was difficult to imagine the wary, wide-awake little Pigmies, with their poisoned arrows, allowing themselves to be caught and made prisoners. Yet, if they were not prisoners, and had not joined the others, where were they now, and what were they doing?
Thus ran Dan's cogitations, as, for a space, he lay still and brooded.
Presently, tired of thinking of it all over and over again, and sore as his wrists and legs were from his former struggles, he began a fresh series of painful contortions in a hopeless attempt to free himself.
"They're all asleep—the varmints," he muttered, through his set teeth. "Now's the time! Oh, if I could only wriggle out o' these 'ere—"
And then he stopped abruptly, as, through the darkness, he heard a cautious "Sh!" and listened, with wondering ears, to a low whisper:
"Keep quiet! Don't make a sound! We'll get you free directly!"
A hand—two hands—were feeling for his bonds, and fumbling with, the knots.
Dan listened in wonder, which was increased to astonishment, when a small beam of light from an electric pocket lamp fell on the fastenings, and by its gleam he made out the head and shoulders of some person bending over him.
He only remembered the warning to keep quiet just in time to choke down a startled exclamation that rose to his lips. And well might he feel surprise; for the form he saw was undoubtedly that of Akolah. But how could Akolah whisper to him thus?
While he lay wondering, a sharp knife was working its way through the tough thongs of raw hide with which he had been bound. A little later he was able to turn on one side; and then came a further trial of his caution, for he saw, by the dim light, several forms around him, amongst them, first, two or three Pigmies, and then, finally—Roland himself!
The first use Dan made of one arm that had been set free was to pinch himself to make sure he had not fallen asleep again and dreamed what he saw.
Roland dropped on his knees beside him, and breathed into his ear:
"It'll be all right, Dan. Akolah found us and guided us back, and he had hidden our rifles outside the camp; so we've got them now."
"And the others—the airship—?" Dan whispered back.
"I don't know where they are—we must hope for the best. But now we're here—with the Hawk—and the rifles—we'll be a match for those other beggars."
"I guess we will, Mr. Roland," breathed the hunter. "Heaven be thanked ye've turned up in time. There's no knowin' what might a' happened in the morning."
By this time Dan was free, and, getting on his feet, he began silently working his stiffened arms and legs about to get back the circulation.
"I be all right now," he whispered, "an' ready."
They stole out of the tent, and there, by the light of some lanterns standing on the ground, Dan saw quite a small crowd of shadowy figures. All the Pigmies were there—each armed with his tiny but deadly bow and arrow—and Madali, and others of the leader's own particular following.
"We must be silent—and quick now," whispered Roland, pointing to the distant horizon, where the first glimmerings of the coming dawn were becoming visible. "It will be light in a few minutes."
Then he went on to whisper the plan which had been sketched out. Madali and their other native allies would steal upon the mutineers while still asleep, take away their arms, and bind as many of them as possible. The three white men, meanwhile, were to hover aloft in the aeroplane with loaded rifles to overawe resistance, if any should be offered.
This plan was duly carried out; and when, a little later, daylight came almost suddenly—as is the case in those regions—and the drowsy sleepers awoke, it was to find that their weapons had been spirited away, and that half their number were lying bound. Finally, overhead, was the hovering aeroplane, from which there looked down upon them the gleaming barrels of the white men's rifles.
Needless to say, under such circumstances, very little resistance was attempted. Only half a dozen of the bolder and more reckless spirits—or, it may be, those who were still under the influence of the previous night's excesses, and scarcely in their right minds—showed fight. These were overpowered, after a brief struggle, without the necessity of firing a shot.
Then the aeroplane came to the ground, and the three stepped out.
"So far so good!" exclaimed Roland, rubbing his hands. "We've saved the camp, and prevented 'em going off with our stores."
"Humph!" said Dan, looking round ruefully, "but the varmints 'a done a lot o' mischief. What will Mr. Kelmar an' the doctor say?"
"It's bad—but it might have been worse, Dan," Roland answered. "They might have killed you, for instance."
"Very like they would afore they'd gone off. I wur quite expectin' it, Mr. Roland," Dan returned, with a sober shake of the head. "But what are we t' do wi' sich a crowd o' pris'ners?"
That was certainly an embarrassing problem. They had to be looked after, and fed, somehow.
"I'm sure I don't know," Roland frankly confessed, "unless the airship comes back to help us. But we'd better set to work to see what harm has been done and try to put things a bit straight. Perhaps by that time," he added hopefully, "the doctor and the rest will have returned."
This was, indeed, all that could be done just then; so they turned their attention to the tents and to collecting the stolen goods, and putting them back, as far as they could, in the places from which they had been taken. And while thus engaged Roland and Tim related their adventures, and told how they had lost their way, and had been eventually discovered by Akolah and the Pigmies.
It had come about in this wise. It has already been told how that the "Unknowns" and their Pigmy companions had come upon the cavern, or grotto, in which Roland and Tim had taken refuge from the tempest. An examination of the marks had led them to conclude that the aeroplane had been there all through the storm, and had gone off again uninjured. But as it had not returned to the camp, it was obvious that it must have gone in a different direction. Whether the astute trackers actually guessed that the missing ones had lost their way, and had unintentionally taken a wrong course, was not so clear; but it is likely enough that the idea occurred to them.
At any rate, they patiently set out to search the country in a direction quite away from the camp, especially scanning the distant hills and watching for signs of smoke. And their patience and perseverance were rewarded, for their keen vision at last detected a column of smoke miles away on one of the foot-hills. They proceeded towards the spot, with the result that they came upon those they sought just as they were disconsolately eating their second evening meal.
Needless to say, both Roland and Tim received them with delight, and made their thanks known as well as the language of signs would allow. They were, however, both surprised and alarmed at the behaviour of the others in return. Instead of the usual expressions of joy and satisfaction, there were glum looks, grave nods, and portentous shakes of the head.
"There is something wrong!" Roland had at last exclaimed. "Perhaps they know of some terrible accident that has happened to the airship? And yet, somehow, they do not give me that impression. Yet what else can it be? At any rate, we had better get back to the camp as quickly as possible."
With this Tim had agreed, and they had even left their meal unfinished in order to set out at once. But when they started, their progress had been slow and tedious. The night had already fallen, and they could only travel just so fast as the tracking party themselves, and no faster. It would have been of no use to sail on ahead, for though they now knew the general direction in which the camp lay, they would probably only have once more lost themselves in the darkness.
Roland had tried to induce one or other of their guides to take a seat on the aeroplane and direct them, but they only shook their heads. So there was nothing for it but to exercise patience, and proceed at the same pace as those on foot.
Now, when at last they drew near the camp, whom should they come upon but Madali and a party of natives, who had remained faithful to the white men, and refused to join in the mutiny. Their arms had been taken from them, and they had been driven forth to do the best they could for themselves, and take their chance of starving or being devoured by the lions. They were passing the night alone in the darkness, a forlorn, helpless, hungry group, with neither food nor drink, nor weapons of any kind, and but a single fire to keep off the wild beasts.
Here, Madali told Roland, they had been sitting for many hours, listening to the various noises going on in the camp, and vainly hoping that even now, in the night, the good doctor would arrive in his great airship to succour them. He told, too, that he knew Dan Beach had been attacked and captured, and was lying a prisoner in one of the tents.
The camp was by that time quiet, and Roland and Tim waited while Madali and Akolah, with a couple of Pigmies, went forward to reconnoitre. When they returned, Akolah brought the rifles which, it appeared, he had that morning discovered, and carried off to hide in a place of his own. As to his reason for doing so, it could only be conjectured that he had had some instinctive fear of coming trouble; and when he had come upon the firearms thus concealed, he had thought they had been stolen and hidden with some bad purpose, so had taken possession of them, and hidden them again elsewhere on his own account.
Madali reported to Roland and Tim that all in camp appeared to be asleep, and that he could lead them to where Dan was lying. They had, therefore, armed themselves and crept into the camp—with what result has been already told.
IT was not until the morning of the following day—that is, a good twenty-four hours after the rescue of the hunter—that the glad cry was heard in the camp that the Champion was in sight.
When first sighted she was yet far away, and she came on slowly and labouriously against what would have seemed at ordinary times but a light wind, thus showing at once that something was still amiss.
But to see her at all was a welcome sight, and an immense relief to those in charge of the camp. Even more satisfactory was it to see—as Roland presently perceived through his field-glass—that someone was signalling with a flag the message:
"We're pretty well, thank you. How are you all?"
Guessing that the signaller must be Leslie, Roland darted into a tent, fetched out a flag, and signalled, in return:
"Uncommonly glad to see you again, and to know all's well. Things here are a bit tangled."
Immediately after this message had been sent the Bat was seen leaving the airship. The aeroplane came on swiftly in advance, and through his glass Roland saw that it was bringing the doctor and the professor, with Weston as pilot. A few minutes later it landed near where he was standing, and the two leaders stepped off.
"What's wrong?" asked Dr. Cambray.
His glance travelled keenly over the group awaiting him, and noted with a gleam of relief that his principal followers were all there.
It took but little time to relate briefly what had happened, and then the doctor walked away with Weston and some of his people to go round the camp and inspect the prisoners.
"I'm jolly glad you've come back, sir, and that you're safe and sound!" said Roland to his guardian. "We're in a bit of a pickle here, and I don't know what we should have done if you had stayed away much longer. We've had to make half the people in camp prisoners; but we've nothing to feed 'em on, and we daren't send the other half out hunting, for fear the beggars might break out again."
"Yes, I can see you must have had a rough time, and that you had got into an awkward fix, Roland," said the professor kindly. "It has been a disagreeable experience for you, and I feel very sorry about it all."
"What is it that has kept you so long, sir?" Roland asked.
"Propellers—and a few other things—smashed by the high wind. We've been all this time making repairs. Even now things have not been put quite straight. We've been ever since yesterday morning, travelling all through the night, making our way back here against this breeze. However, I am more pleased than I can tell you, my boy, to find that you and your faithful companions are safe and well, and that matters are no worse. Now I want to have a look round and see what damage has been done to our little stock of goods and chattels."
While they were thus occupied the airship arrived, and in due time was safely moored, and the rest of her passengers landed. Then Leslie and Roland met once more, and were soon comparing notes.
"I think you've had the best of it, after all," was Leslie's comment towards the end of their talk. "I've had a rotten time, cooped up on board the airship, with nothing to do but wait, wait, wait; kicking my heels about, expecting all the time that, in an hour or two, we should be able to start back. But every time we tried a start something gave way, or buckled up, or broke down, or busted; and then, of course, we were in for a fresh wait. And so it went on, day and night. While, as to you, it seems to me you've had a sort of holiday picnic and some ripping fine adventures."
"I didn't see it exactly in that light at the time, I can tell you!" said Roland soberly. "However, all's well that ends well. Now I've something to tell you that's jolly interesting. I haven't told the gov'nors about it yet, there were so many other things to jabber about."
"What is it, Ro?" queried Leslie, his face lighting up with expectant interest.
"There's a sort of wild man haunting the hills where Tim and I had our little picnic, as you call it."
"A wild man?" exclaimed Leslie, opening his eyes pretty wide. "What sort of wild man; d'you mean a big monkey—some kind of ape—another gorilla?"
"N-no; not a big ape—at least, I don't think so, though he's got long hair, and looks shaggy enough to be one, so far as the brief glimpse we had of him gave us a chance to form an opinion. He came and stole our victuals while our backs were turned, and we saw his tracks. So, to pass the time while we were waiting about hoping to see the airship, we tried to trace him."
"You couldn't catch him, I suppose? But, at any rate, you say you saw him?"
"Yes; as I said, we got a glimpse of him. But we were in the air, on the aeroplane, and he bolted off into cover, and we lost sight of him again. We hunted up and down, high and low, but never saw him any more."
"What was he like? Long hair, shaggy, you said? H'm! Anything like—anything like me?" Leslie asked, pushing his fingers up through his own hair. "My hair wants cutting pretty badly; I was thinking so only this morning. Was he?"
"Oh, do be serious!" exclaimed Roland, laughing. "It's a serious matter, ii it should be as we think. Tim and I have a notion that it's some poor chap who's been lost in the wilds for a long time—so long that he has lost his senses and become wild himself. And we think he must be a white man."
Then Roland told his chum further details about their little brush with the eagles, and the discovery of the footprints in Tim's "larder."
"The poor beggar must have been pretty hungry," he added, "seeing that he seemed so afraid of us, to wait about and watch us in order to steal our grub while we were away."
"I say, we ought to go and look for him," said Leslie, after a little reflection. "Perhaps he's gone off his onion, and doesn't know who he is, and has no idea we would be kind to him if we caught him?"
"Just my notion," Roland agreed; "and when things have settled down a bit, and we can get the chance, I want to go over there and look for him again. You'd like to go, wouldn't you?"
Needless to say that Leslie jumped at the suggestion, and the two continued for a while eagerly discussing this new mystery, and laying plans of their own for solving it.
Their opportunity came much sooner than they expected. The doctor, having made the round of the camp, and ascertained the extent of the damage that had been done, set to work with characteristic promptitude to put matters on a satisfactory basis.
The first necessity being a supply of fresh meat, he chose two groups of hunters and sent them out foraging for game; and, adopting the suggestion which Graham had made, he arranged for the aeroplanes to accompany them.
Madali, with some of his natives, and Akolah, Dolah, and the Pigmies, made up one of these parties; and the Hawk was selected to assist them. Leslie heard the orders given out, and came running to Roland with the news:
"You and I are to go with Tim in the Hawk!" he cried. "And the doctor says we can go which way we please, so long as we bring back some game, and don't get into mischief. As if," he added reflectively, "you and I ever do get into mischief! I rather wonder at his saying that!"
"Perhaps he was thinking of someone else and forgot for the moment," Roland suggested.
"Ah, yes; you've hit it I It must have been so. Well, I was going to say here's an opportunity to go in search of your wild man.'"
"But it's a long way," said Roland dubiously, rather taken aback at the sudden proposal. "Perhaps the doctor might not like—"
"Pooh! Why not go in that direction, as well as any other?" Leslie urged. "The chaps we're going with now know their way there, and we're more likely to find him now, while we know he's in that neighbourhood, than if we leave it to another time."
There was certainly something to be said for this view of the matter; and Roland agreed without further hesitation.
Half an hour later he and his chum were on their way hack with Tim to the place where they had caught their fleeting glimpse of the mysterious "wild man."
LEAVING the rest of the party to follow on foot, the three on the aeroplane sailed swiftly on ahead. They were now pretty sure of their bearings, and knew that they would have no difficulty in finding their way.
As, however, they would have some time to fill in before their allies could come up, they decided to go round by way of the large cavern in which Roland and Tim had sheltered from the fury of the hurricane.
Roland wanted to see if his surmise had been correct concerning those strange animals the okapi, which they had seen there.
"If we see them there again to-day we shall know where to look for them another time," he argued.
Sure enough, as they approached the place, they made out, through their field-glasses, a small group of the creatures placidly feeding.
"It will be best not to do anything to frighten them away," Roland suggested. "We can come again another time now we know their haunt."
"Well, let's have a good look at 'em, anyway," said Leslie. "If we steal up quietly perhaps they'll take no notice."
In accordance with this idea they reduced their speed, and, when they were overhead, hovered above the animals, and watched them with eager curiosity.
"Shure," said Tim, speaking in a low tone, so as not to startle them, "it's the rummiest craythers they are! Oi've seen lots o' antelopes, an' Oi've seen a good many giraffes, but it's puzzled Oi am t' say which av the two thim be at all, at all."
"It's loike yeself they are, Timothy, Donald, Ryan—a sort of compound crayther," said Leslie, in allusion to Tim's well-known boast that he was half Irish and half Scotch. "But," he went on critically, "they've got far better coats and look sleeker than you."
Tim grinned, and glanced down at his own clothes and then at those of his companions, which all showed signs of hard wear.
"Ye're full av fun, Misther Leslie darlint," he returned. "But it's more in the fashion Oi am than iv Oi was loike thim craythers. It's some toime since me ancistors left off wearin' skins."
"True for you," laughed Leslie. "You had me there. Trust an Irishman for giving a chap his answer."
They remained for some little time watching the rare animals, whose very name is as; yet scarcely known beyond the circle of learned naturalists. Then they travelled onwards towards the distant foot-hills.
Arrived at the spot where Roland and Tim had passed their time "picknicking," as Leslie had called it, they alighted beside the remains of the fire they had made.
"We went away in such haste that we left our supper unfinished, and you see it's all been cleared off," Roland pointed out.
"Wild animals may have finished it for you," Leslie reminded him. "So that that doesn't prove he's been back here."
"That's true enough," Roland agreed. "Now we will have a look at the cave—Tim's 'larder,' as we named it. We killed a small antelope and put part of it in there, and I forgot all about it when we left in such a hurry."
They sought out the "larder" and looked into it. It was empty of antelope meat.
"Nothing here," Roland muttered. "So he has been here again. There are his foot-prints, those I told you we saw, though I don't see any fresh ones."
"They're not the footprints of an ape or a gorilla, that's certain," Leslie declared. "They're a man's."
"Yes; and we think a white man's, not a native's."
With this view Leslie also agreed.
"Well, then," he reasoned, "if that's the case, and the chap was hungry, surely he could have come straight to you and asked for some food? He needn't have watched you go off, and then steal it when you were gone."
"Just so; and that seems to show the poor fellow can't be in his right mind."
"I say, perhaps he's a chap who's escaped from the slaver gang, and wandered about, half-starved, till, as we said before, he'd gone daft," said Leslie. "The poor beggar might be afraid to trust any strangers for fear they might be more slaver scoundrels who would make him prisoner again. And he'd have good reason for his fear, too, for they're the only people one would expect to meet, you know, in these parts."
"Yes; I think you must have hit it, Les. If that's the case we shall have some trouble to catch him. And yet that's all the more reason why we ought to try our utmost, for his own sake, poor chap! I'm sure Mr. Kelmar and the doctor wouldn't like to leave him here to starve or be eaten by wild beasts."
"It's a wonder he wasn't killed and eaten long ago," said Leslie. "The fact that he hasn't been confirms the idea that he must have got pretty wild, as wild and cute as the animals themselves. Shouldn't wonder if he turned into a sort of monkey himself if he lived here long enough. Let's have a look round and see if we can track him."
"Better wait till the natives come up," was Roland's advice. "If he thinks we are after him he may be off and hide in some place where he knows we can't track him."
It was agreed, after some discussion, that this would be the safer plan; so they took no further steps, but waited as patiently as they could for the arrival of their allies.
This took place in due course, and the matter in hand being explained to them, they set to work after their own fashion, taking up the trail from the footprints in the cave, and then spreading out like a pack of well-trained hounds hunting around for the scent.
The aeroplane, meantime, mounted aloft, and Roland and Leslie watched the proceedings from above, peering through their field-glasses into every open space amongst the trees, and down into all the ravines and valleys, in the hope of detecting the fugitive.
But they met with no success, and as the hours sped on it was evident that they would either have to defer the quest until another time, or give up any idea of securing the game they had been sent out for.
"It's no use. We must give it up," said Leslie at last. "It will never do for us to return empty-handed. We must call our chaps off and set to work to get what they want at the camp."
"Yes, that's raisonable, Misther Leslie," Tim put in. "If we don't, the docther 'll be afther sayin' we don't desarve anythin' to ate, an' he'll be sendin' us t' bed without our suppers, Oi'm thinkin'."
"You're right, Tim, and that won't suit me any better than it would you," rejoined Roland, laughing. "But, I say, couldn't we secure one of those funny animals—an okapi—to take back? That would be a fine trophy to go home with."
Here, however, Leslie unexpectedly disagreed with his chum, and poured cold water, so to speak, upon the project.
"I—I don't think it would be a—a—well, a very nice thing to do, you know," he said hesitatingly.
"Why not?" Roland asked in surprise.
"Because, you see, I know that both the doctor and Mr. Kelmar are awfully keen on being the first white men to secure one of these rare creatures. If we got one first we should deprive them of that pleasure, and—well, I don't think it would be quite the thing. We know where to find some now, and can tell them and guide them to the place; and I don't think we ought to take it upon ourselves to get one first."
"By Jove! But I think you're right—yes, I'm sure you're right," said Roland heartily. "I did not think of it that way at the moment. Yes; we ought to give them the first chance. So now let's get back to the plain and see what we can find—the nearer to the camp the better, because then our fellows won't have so far to carry the bag."
In accordance with this decision, the hunters retraced their steps, and presently, well on their road back, the aviators, sailing aloft on the aeroplane, sighted a herd of those large animals known as wildebeest in the distance.
They sailed towards and over them, and then, by a little manoeuvring, drove the animals back upon the hunters behind. In this manner, and by repeating the same tactics later on with some hartebeest, they secured, in a remarkably short space of time, as much meat as they could possibly carry to camp.
"Jiminy!" cried Leslie, rubbing his hands. "That's the way to do it! We've got more game in two or three hours than the natives would have got in a whole day by themselves! Even if they had been mounted on horses they couldn't have done it in the time. Graham was right in what he said about the use that our aeroplanes ought to be in hunting work."
So they returned to camp almost in triumph, and had the satisfaction of finding that they brought in a larger bag even than the second party, who had gone out with the Bat. As this party had consisted of Graham and some of his own hunters, including such experienced hands as Raskar and Caffan, with Dan Beach and the professor on the aeroplane, their success was certainly a feather in their cap—"several feathers," as Leslie laughingly expressed it.
"But then, you know," he added modestly, "the Hawk can hover, which makes a lot of difference. Then, too, we had the Pigmies, which made a lot more difference; for they're ripping beggars to go after game."
"All the same, you've done remarkably well," Graham declared admiringly; and the doctor afterwards confirmed the opinion.
Both the leaders, too, were pleased when they heard about the okapi. Tim told privately how the "young gints" had purposely refrained from snatching at the chance of being the first to bring in such a prize.
"I do believe Leslie's learning to ballast that feather-head of his with a little more thought and discretion," murmured Dr. Cambray. "It will help us very much if we can really trust him to go out with the hunting parties and keep the camp supplied while I am away."
So Leslie felt himself promoted, and rejoiced exceedingly in the fact; and he confided to Roland that he was making all sorts of good resolutions having for their object the keeping up of his new reputation in the future.
UNDER the vigilant management of Dr. Cambray, matters soon settled down at Fall Camp. This was the name given to his new headquarters from the fact that they were placed, as has been mentioned, beside a waterfall.
As to the mutineers, he dealt out punishment upon them with a certain sternness, mingled, however, with mercy. He recognised that, fortunately, no great harm had been done; and he therefore let off the rank and file pretty lightly. But upon the ringleaders—half a dozen in number—he passed what was, to them, perhaps, the severest sentence he could have inflicted; and this was that they should be expelled from the camp and sent to their own countries, wherever they might be.
A day or two later he sailed away on his visit to "Cambray Town," to replenish his stores, leaving Professor Kelmar in charge.
There followed an interval, during which life at the camp may be said to have been very regular and peaceful. Yet it was, all the same, a very enjoyable time to the two younger members, for every day brought some little adventure of its own.
Each day a hunting party started out after the game required to provide fresh meat for the numerous party gathered there; and they were now always accompanied by the Hawk, with Tim in charge, and Leslie and Roland as assistants.
And it may truly be said that every day added to the good opinions the two chums had won upon their first trip with the hunters. With practice they developed new ideas, which turned out so well that the work of the hunters themselves was rendered far less tedious and arduous; thus resulting in savings also of both time and temper.
Sailing on ahead, the two would sweep across the wide-spreading plain as far, perhaps, as the distant horizon; and then, speeding back, report what they had seen.
If no game was about in that direction, this saved the hunters a long, useless journey. Or, if different kinds were seen, there would be a consultation as to which should be followed up. Then the aeroplane would fly off again, either to inspect fresh ground, or drive back the game seen, as the case might be.
Many and wondrous were the sights they witnessed in this way, amongst the wild creatures of the plain, and of the woods which lay here and there upon it. Many the fights and contests they watched amongst the animals themselves. For the latter, as a rule, took scarcely any notice of the aeroplane—unless the aviators purposely obtruded themselves—and followed their ordinary habits just as though there were no curious spectators "taking notes."
They were witnesses, at times, of furious combats of all sorts of creatures, both large and small, from the elephant, rhinoceros, and hippopotamus, or the lion or leopard, to the monkeys in the tops of the forest-trees on which they looked down.
They saw huge serpents and big crocodiles, and one day they had another brush with eagles; this time driving them off from their intended prey and capturing it themselves.
Once or twice they revisited the neighbourhood where Roland had seen the "wild man," and went over it carefully, without, however, finding any further trace of his presence. They had mentioned his existence to their leaders, and gained permission to search for the poor castaway, as the professor judged he must be. For some time there seemed very little chance of anything coming of it ii they did. He appeared to have left that part of the country, and it was impossible to guess which way he had gone.
One day, however, while going over the same ground, they once more saw his footprints beside a stream, and this reawakened their interest. It was then resolved to devote the following day to one more attempt at capturing him.
By way of a beginning they made a fire, as Roland had done, and in the same spot; cooked a meal there, and then left some of it behind them. They also, as he had done, left some game in the "larder."
The next day, at dawn, they started off again for the place, and discovered, to their satisfaction, that the meat they had left behind had all disappeared, including what they had hidden in the cave.
"Well, now we know that he is about here again, we ought to catch him at last," said Leslie. "We'll wait till Madali and the Pigmies come up, and then start them on his track. I shouldn't think they will have much difficulty in finding him with the trail so fresh."
In due time, therefore, the natives once more took up the hunt, and judging by the grunts of satisfaction uttered by some of the Pigmies—which might be likened to the "whimpering" of hounds when they first catch the scent—they found no difficulty in following the trail.
From the aeroplane above the two chums again watched the operations below, sailing, meantime, to and fro, on the off-chance of catching sight of the "quarry" stealing off ahead of the trackers.
And this, indeed, was exactly what happened. Leslie was scanning the neighbourhood on all sides through his field-glass, when he exclaimed excitedly:
"There he is! I saw him! He has just crept into that thicket yonder!"
The thicket in question was an isolated wood of dark foliage, of some considerable extent, situated on the top of a perpendicular cliff which rose from a valley below
At the foot of the precipice rushed a noisy mountain stream in a rocky bed. All around the wood above the ground was clear and open, so that it seemed unlikely the man would be able to steal out of it without being seen.
"We've got him now, right enough!" cried Leslie. "We must call up the whole lot of 'em, and station some on guard outside the wood, while the others go in after him. Where are the nets? We'd better have 'em ready, in case he comes out with a rush."
This referred to some nets which they had taken the precaution to bring with them in case the wild man should prove difficult to deal with.
"Poor chap!" said Roland. "It seems a shame to hunt him down in this way. It will make him think more than ever that we are a bad lot, and have some sinister design against him."
"But it's for his own good, the silly duffer," Leslie argued. "Why didn't he stop and ask who we are and what we want? Then we could have explained, and if he's got any sense at all left, he ought to go into transports of delight at finding kind friends, instead of rushing away from us."
"It's an awkward business—more awkward than I had any idea it would be," said Roland thoughtfully. "I wish now we had asked Mr. Kelmar to come with us. Suppose, seeing all these people after him, the poor beggar should do something desperate—jump off that cliff, or something—I, for one, should never forgive myself."
"Jiminy! I never thought of that! Why, it would seem almost like murder!" exclaimed Leslie, looking very serious. "Of course, as you say, all this array may frighten the poor johnny so much that—I say, suppose we go after him ourselves, instead of sending our crowd in? He couldn't very well be afraid of you and me, and we can speak kindly to him and all that, you know, eh?"
They asked Tim's opinion; but his ideas on the matter were a bit hazy.
"It all depinded," he said, "upon phwat koind of craythur it was they had to dale with." Like many Irishmen, he was a bit superstitious, and had heard many wild tales and legends about strange creatures said to haunt lonely places in the mountains of "Ould Oirland." "Now," said he, "iv it wor a warlock, or a—"
"Oh, rubbish!" cried Leslie impatiently. "It's sorphrised I am at ye, Tim, talkin' sich nonsense! Ye're not helpin' us a bit. We'll just have to manage our own way."
After a short discussion Leslie's suggestion was adopted, the crowd of blacks and Pigmies were called off, and told to wait and watch outside. The two lads then left the aeroplane, entered the wood together, and proceeded to search about cautiously for a sight of the fugitive.
They did not go quite alone, however, for Madali and the two Furians followed them at a short distance. All the same, it was certainly a very plucky thing for the two to do. It was decidedly doubtful what sort of reception they were likely to meet with if they came across the unknown; and equally dubious whether their plan of "speaking kindly" to him would meet with the success they hoped.
They found many open spaces in the wood, mostly strewn with boulders, and there were two or three small caves, which, however, they did not venture into. Leslie, as they came to them, stood at the entrance, and, in accordance with his plan, called out softly, saying all the "kindest" things he could think of as being appropriate to the occasion. It was very much as though he were calling to a dog of whose temper he was uncertain, and which he was anxious to coax to come out into the open.
But the plan did not produce any result; so they moved on to explore in other directions before searching the caves themselves.
But they saw nothing to reward their patience. If the Pigmies or the black trackers had been beside them, doubtless they would have seen plenty of tracks which the two missed; but they themselves saw nothing which told them the fugitive had gone this way or that.
By degrees they tired of the seemingly useless quest, and their vigilance relaxed. Instead of keeping together, they separated, and took different routes, meeting here and there, and going off again in different directions.
Thus it came about that Leslie, wandering on alone, found himself looking through some bushes into a clearing near the edge of the precipice on which the wood was situated. And there he saw his chum standing, gazing dreamily over the landscape spread out before his eyes—the rushing, roaring river just below, and the endless ravines and ridges and hills beyond.
Suddenly there was a cry—something between a screech of a vicious cat and the snarl of a savage wolf. A figure darted into the clearing, and seizing Roland in a grasp that seemed to him like the grip of a vice, began to drag him towards the edge of the cliff, with the evident intention of throwing him over the precipice on to the rocks below.
Leslie, horror-struck, saw that it was the fugitive they had been seeking—the madman they had spent so much time and trouble to find. For mad he undoubtedly was, as Leslie now perceived in the brief glimpse he caught of the man's eyes. From them madness undoubtedly glared out, mingled with the ungovernable rage of a creature of the wilds which feels it is being hunted for its life, and at last turns to bay.
This raving, irresponsible madman, finding Roland alone, had determined to vent upon him all the rage and fury which possessed him against those who had hunted him.
FOR a moment or two Leslie stood like one transfixed. Then, gathering his wits together, he broke through the bushes, and, rifle in hand, rushed into the clearing.
"Let go of him; let go!" he shouted, pointing his rifle at Roland's assailant. "Let go, or I'll fire!"
"Don't fire, Les, don't fire!" cried Roland, as he struggled desperately in the iron grip that held him. "The poor beggar's not in his right mind. Help me to get free."
Leslie, though strangely tempted to pull the trigger, hesitated, not knowing what it would be right to do,
Roland's words, uttered at a moment when his life was in such extreme peril, spoke volumes both for his pluck and his kindly feeling. But all the time the man was forcing him nearer and nearer to the edge of the rock.
Then Roland tried an appeal to the man himself: "Let me go!" he pleaded. "We don't want to hurt you. We are your friends—come to help you!"
Whether it was that the meaning of these words reached the man's befogged brain, or whether the tone in which they were uttered touched his better nature, certain it is that they produced an immediate effect. He relaxed his grip, and stared into Roland's face from beneath his shaggy brows with a puzzled, inquiring expression.
Leslie, meantime, had thrown down his rifle, and, darting to the man's side, was doing his utmost to pull him back from the precipice.
But this seemed to rouse his anger again, and he recommenced the struggle.
"Leave him alone, Les!" panted Roland. "He doesn't mean to hurt me. He knows now that we are his friends."
Again, at the sound of Roland's voice, the attacker loosened his hold; and this time he stepped back and leaned, breathing heavily, against the trunk of a tree.
"Who are you?" he asked hoarsely. He spoke with seeming difficulty, and passed one bony hand across his eyes as though half-dazed. "Who are you? Speak again! Tell me—"
"What does it matter who we are?" cried Leslie indignantly. "You should have asked that before you began to try to murder him. We're friends. We mean you no harm."
"Friends?" repeated the man in the same dazed manner. "Then what was I doing? Heaven forgive me—I—I—But you're no friend of mine! I don't know you!" he burst out, with a quick change to his former fierceness. "You're no friend—you want to—"
"There, there! Don't be afraid of us," Roland said soothingly, as though he were speaking to a frightened child. "We are really friends, and want to help you."
And once more the man's manner changed, and he gazed long and earnestly into Roland's face.
"It's strange!" he muttered, after a few seconds of this scrutiny. "I don't know you—and yet—and yet—and yet—What did he say? That I was going to murder you?"
"I should just think—" Leslie burst out; but stopped abruptly as the man turned on him another savage glare.
Roland was quick to notice that while his own voice seemed to soothe this strange being, Leslie's appeared to irritate him. He therefore signed to his chum to be silent, and to move to one side; and then approached the man himself and laid a hand lightly on him.
"Come," he said kindly. "You need have no fear; we are your friends, and I'll give you some food if you'll come with me."
Leslie obeyed his chum's signs; but he went and picked up his rifle, and warily placed himself between the man and the precipice. "If he comes any treacherous games with Roland," he said to himself, "I'll shoot him, this time, like a dog."
But the man had already turned his back on him, and was allowing Roland to lead him away, like an obedient child.
"Well—I'm sugared!" murmured Leslie, as he followed the two, after picking up Roland's rifle, which had dropped to the ground during the struggle. "If this johnny isn't a puzzler, my name isn't Leslie Hadley!"
Greatly mystified, but on the alert, all the same, in case of any fresh outbreak or treacherous act on the part of the stranger, he walked quietly behind them.
A little further they encountered Madali and some of his "boys," and at the sight of them the man hung back and seemed on the point of running off. But Roland called out to the natives to keep away, and, by dint of coaxing and patience, led his strange companion to the place where they had left the aeroplane.
There he treated the man to some biscuits and tinned meat, which were devoured eagerly and with evident relish, the while that Leslie and Tim sat apart, and watched the proceedings with wondering curiosity.
"Shure, it's the Lord Mayor's banquet the puir crayther thinks he's atin'," quoth Tim. "It's a foine appetite he's brought wid him. Oi don't whonder now at the things disappearin' so quick out av me 'larder' whin me back was turned."
Certainly the stranger could hardly have shown more appreciation of the food offered if it had been, as Tim said, "a Lord Mayor's banquet." To one situated as he had been, even biscuits and tinned meat seemed dainties.
Leslie watched the man's behaviour with a curiosity which increased rather than diminished as time went on. He wondered what was to be the upshot of it all. They had taken a lot of trouble, and expended much time and thought in order to capture this demented creature. And now that they had got him, the question arose: "What were they going to do with him?"
Every time Leslie or anyone else—Roland excepted—went near him, he showed instant suspicion, and signs of a return of his former ferocity. Yet, seated beside Roland, he seemed quiet and harmless enough, and exhibited a sort of dog-like attachment and gratitude for whatever was done for him.
All the same, the situation became, after a while, a little embarrassing. All attempts to engage the man in anything like conversation were disappointing. The poor fellow mumbled and chattered to himself, but it was impossible to understand what he said. Nor did he seem able to comprehend what was said to him, except as regards a few very simple things.
For the most part he was like a child learning to talk; yet, now and then he would wake up, as it were, a flash of intelligence would come into his face, and he would speak sensibly. Or rather, it seemed, from the first few words, as though he were about to speak sensibly. But the vacant look would come back, and the sentence he had begun would be provokingly left unfinished.
By degrees—but only after one or two relapses, and much coaxing on the part of Roland—Leslie was admitted to his confidence so far as to be allowed to join his chum in caring for him.
"We'd best get back to camp and hand him over to the care of the professor," Leslie muttered at last, in an aside to Roland. "Perhaps he will know what it is best to do with him."
"I shall have to walk all the way to camp with him," said Roland. "It's no use to think of taking him on the aeroplane. It wouldn't be safe. He might jump off. And it's just as useless to try to get him to go in charge of Madali and the natives. He'd run away from them. So I shall have to walk back with him."
"Then I shall walk back with you."
"No need to do that, old chap. Go on ahead with Tim and prepare Mr. Kelmar for our arrival."
"I'm going to walk back with you, I tell you," Leslie declared, stoutly. "Tim can go on alone and prepare the professor; if you think he needs to be prepared. Certainly, it may give him something of a shock if he sees us arrive, suddenly and unexpectedly, arm-in-arm with such a scarecrow. Especially if this—um—this wild and playful child of Nature should take it into his head to seize hold of Mr. Kelmar, by way of friendly greeting, as he did of you!" Leslie laughed a little grimly as he said this.
"He was out of his mind, and didn't know what he was doing," said Roland. "Anyone can see that. See how quiet and docile he is now."
"I wouldn't be too trustful if I were you," returned Leslie, shaking his head. "He may be subject to fits, and the tantrums may come back suddenly. Anyway, I'm coming with you; I'm not going to leave you to take him to camp alone."
Leslie's misgivings were to some extent justified, for on their way their charge more than once showed symptoms of returning fits of violence. This was particularly the case if any of the natives approached him too closely; but he made an exception in favour of the Pigmies, whom he regarded with friendly interest rather than anger or fear.
On the other hand, with the Furians he seemed puzzled and doubtful. Akolah and Dolah were evidently, for some reason of their own, greatly interested in him. Judging by their manner, they would have liked to cultivate a closer acquaintance with him; but Roland, afraid that they would only irritate him, signed to them to keep away; and they, of course, obeyed.
After a long and tedious march, they reached the camp a little before night fell; and then the two chums ushered their "capture" into the presence of Professor Kelmar, and told their story,
A very curious, and, in some respects, pitiable figure the man presented, as he stood before the professor, darting quick, inquiring glances from his deep-set eyes, first at him, and then at the others standing around. Of covering, he had but the merest shreds. His hair was very long, and matted, and his beard reached down on to his chest, so that Roland's first description of him as "shaggy" seemed not inapt. His finger-nails had grown almost into talons; he was barefooted, tall, gaunt, and bony; and his whole appearance told of a time of hardship and privation such as excited the compassion of all the white men.
Graham and his hunters—Raskar, Caffan, and Orris—each in turn looked at him to see if they could recognise him, or assist in solving the puzzle of who he could be. But none of them could do more than make random guesses.
"We know," said Professor Kelmar at last, "from what you tell me he said to you, that he speaks English. We know, therefore, that if his memory or his senses, or whatever it may be, should come back, he will be able to tell us his story himself. Till that time comes we must be patient, and treat him kindly."
Since those first few words spoken in the wood at the moment when he relaxed his hold on Roland, the man had said nothing intelligible, and he now seemed to have fallen into a state of apathy. So they gave up trying to question him, and he was handed over to the care of the two chums, in whom he now seemed to have implicit confidence.
The next day Dr. Cambray returned in the airship, bringing with him a quantity of fresh supplies. These took some time to land and store away to his satisfaction; and then preparations were at once begun for a visit to Graham's people, who were waiting his arrival on the other side of the waterless desert.
The doctor was no less interested than his friend in the "wild man," who was now one of his numerous company of rescued derelicts. But after some time and care expended in studying him, the conclusion reached was the same as the professor's.
"I agree with you, Kelmar. Time, or some accidental occurrence, may restore his memory," was the doctor's verdict. "Till that happens—if it ever does—there is nothing to be done."
There was one thing noticeable, however. The man gradually got over his first distrust of those around him, and began to wander freely about the camp by himself. This relieved the chums of the somewhat onerous duty of constantly looking after him.
ONE morning, at dawn, the Champion, carrying the leaders, and Graham and his little party of white men, sailed off across the waterless desert to find Sir George Stanfield.
This dreary, desolate tract, which presented so many difficulties, and meant such serious dangers to ordinary travellers, occupying many days to traverse under even the most favourable conditions, offered no obstacles to those on the airship.
They passed over it in a straight line—for Graham knew the bearings of the place he wished to reach—at the speed of a railway tram; and before evening were within view of the other side. There, upon its borders, they sighted an extensive encampment, and made direct for it.
The arrival of the airships with its two aeroplanes, one on each side, created, as may be imagined, a great sensation. The whole camp turned out in amazement at the sight; and then it was the turn of the doctor and his people to be surprised. They could now see that Sir George Stanfield's followers were far more numerous than they had had any idea of.
The baronet had what seemed quite a small army, considering the region they were in and all the circumstances. He had, in fact, something over a thousand people with him, of whom four or five hundred were men of a warlike race, the Masai, tall, stalwart warriors every one—well-armed and well-trained. And this force required, of course, a company of porters and other attendants in proportion.
The meeting between the leaders of the two expeditions when the airship came to rest, was a hearty one. Sir George—a fine, handsome man, of kindly and courteous bearing—welcomed the strangers with delight; and his colleague, Mr. Hartley, a dapper little man in blue spectacles, was no whit less cordial.
The best that the resources of their camp could offer was placed before the new arrivals; and then they discussed their future movements.
As Graham had predicted, the baronet entered readily into the doctor's plans, and promised his co-operation in carrying them out.
"There is only one alteration I would like to suggest in your proposals," said he, "and that is that you should take the Fura part in hand first. If there are really good reasons for supposing that the people there are holding white men in bondage, then we ought not to delay in making some attempt to rescue them. I have heard of you, Dr. Cambray, how that you have devoted your time and fortune to doing what you can towards stamping out the abominable traffic in slaves which still goes on in the interior of Africa. And if you have done so much to aid the helpless blacks in this way against the scoundrelly slave-dealer, you will agree with me that it is still more our duty to act with promptitude in a similar case where white men are concerned."
"Certainly—certainly, Sir George," the doctor replied "Just my own thoughts—my own wishes. Only I was afraid you would not care to interrupt the business on which you came here—"
"Oh, my business, such as it is, can wait," laughed the baronet. "I am in no hurry."
"But with such a large following in your pay, delay will mean a heavy extra expense to you, and—"
"Expense is no object, doctor," Sir George assured him. "I have not come out here to make money. I wish to get together a really first-class collection of the rarer kinds of animals before they become extinct, as they are likely to do in the near future. And what I do not require for my own collection I shall present to various museums, so that the world in general will benefit by them."
"A very praiseworthy thing to do," murmured Dr. Cambray.
"Not so praiseworthy—not so unselfish, I fear—as what you yourself have been doing, my friend. So please understand that I place myself and my following at your disposal, to aid you in any way you think best."
"That is good news," the doctor declared warmly. "With such a force to protect my camp while I am away, I shall be able to proceed at once with my airship in order to find out what the place they call Fura is like, and what is really going on there. And once I get there, I will not come away, unless I can bring with me every white man they may be keeping in bondage."
"Amen to that!" returned Sir George solemnly. "I am with you heart and soul."
Thus was the compact made and sealed, so to speak; and once it was settled, the new allies lost no time in the arrangements necessary for carrying it out.
Then ensued a busy week, during which the airship and the aeroplanes were kept at work almost day and night, assisting in the transport across the waterless tract of the baronet's numerous force, and his large accumulation of stores. Thanks to their assistance in carrying to and fro supplies of water and fresh meat, the crossing was effected in an unusually short space of time, and without the loss of either men or animals.
In the work of assisting the transport of the expedition, the two chums took a by no means unimportant part. They entered into it with such zest, and became so expert, that the doctor even allowed them to take the Hawk out alone, which set Tim free to "pilot" the Bat when Weston was unable to leave the airship.
Thus the two chums passed the greater part of their time flitting backwards and forwards, in and out amongst the train of people and baggage animals which were toiling on foot with the wagons across the desert. Sometimes they would be seen sailing swiftly over the travellers' heads, with a wave of the hands and a cheery shout. At others they would come buzzing down, "settling" down amongst the people like big, bustling "busy bees," bringing, not indeed honey, but something even more precious and acceptable in the Great Thirst Land—cans of water.
They made great friends with the Masai warriors, whom they found to be an attractive lot of men, very much superior to the ordinary native "boy." They had good—in many cases handsome—features, wore their hair curiously plaited, and were good-tempered and amusing.
They always went about fully armed, carrying an immense spear, with a big, viciously sharp-looking head to it, a sword hanging from a belt at the side, and generally a gun or rifle slung at the back.
Being brave fellows themselves, full of pluck and daring, they could appreciate pluck in others; and they evinced a great admiration for the two young aviators, so that the latter became not only well known among them, but very popular.
As the chums sailed the Hawk over a detachment of these fine warriors, they would see, perhaps, a sudden dazzling glint from a hundred shining spear-heads, as they were raised in the air with military precision, by way of salute, and hear the deep voices of the bearers sending up a resounding shout of recognition and admiration.
And similarly, when they descended amongst them, they were always sure of an enthusiastic reception. Then it was quite a sight to see the way the tall, big fellows, with their proud, fearless bearing, and swinging their heavy spears, would crowd round the slight figures of the two lads, offering them a cordial but respectful welcome. Often they would begin singing some kind of chanting song, expressive of the powers and accomplishments of the two as "Princes of the Air," as they, in their picturesque way of speaking, styled them..
It would take up too much space to describe in detail the doings and the various little adventures of the two during this busy time. It is necessary to pass over much that might be told in order to come to the more exciting events which followed. Reference must be once more made, however, to the "Wild Man," the poor, demented creature whom the two lads had captured and taken to the camp. It was not long before it became known that he was in all probability one of those very captives whom Dr. Cambray and Sir George Stanfield had determined to set free. That is to say, there appeared to be good grounds for the belief that he had escaped from Fura; though, of course, it was a guess which could not be put to the proof.
The mere fact, however, that such a thing should appear probable or possible, made it, naturally, the more tantalising that the man was unable to talk sensibly.
"What a difference it might make to us if he could only recover his memory and get back the proper use of his tongue," the doctor said more than once. "What strange things he might have to tell us, and how he might be able to help us in the project we have in hand—always supposing, that is, of course, that our surmise is correct."
Now, one day, when the doctor and Sir George had been out of camp together, they were met, as they were returning, about noon, by Mr. Kelmar. The professor's manner told them, before he actually spoke, that he had some news of more than usual importance to communicate.
"I am glad you have come in," he said, "for I have something to tell you which will be a surprise, and a somewhat startling one. Something has happened to the unhappy castaway whom Roland and Leslie brought into camp. There has been a bit of an accident; and it has turned out just as we thought might be the case. He has suddenly recovered his proper senses and his powers of speech, and has been telling me such extraordinary things that I have come out to try to find you, and beg you to come at once and see him."
"I SAY, Ro," cried Leslie, coming hastily to the bank of the stream near the "Fall Camp," where Roland and Dan Beach were busy with some natives getting water, "there's something going on about our 'Wild Man'!"
"So Dan has been telling me," returned Roland. "I hope the poor chap isn't badly hurt."
"Hurt?" Leslie repeated. "I didn't know he was hurt. All I know is that he is in Mr. Kelmar's tent, and the professor went out to find the doctor. He met him and Sir George coming back to the camp, and now they've sent for Akolah and Dolah, and the other Furian johnnies. How was he hurt?"
"'Twere a sort o' accident, Mr. Leslie," explained Dan. "Theer wur a bit o' play a-goin' on 'tween him an' one o' them Masai men. He got excited like, an' the Masai man didn't unnerstan' him like we do, an' there was a tussle; an' somehow the poor chap got a whack on the head wi' t'other chap's big spear. He went down like he wur shot, an' I helped t' carry him t' the perfessor's tent, The Masai man wur main sorry about it—I could see that—an' said it wur a' accident. He didn't mean t' hurt him."
"Well, it must be something serious for Mr. Kelmar to go out to fetch the doctor," observed Leslie.
"I am very sorry to hear it," said Roland. "But what's it got to do with Akolah and his friends? They were not mixed up in it, were they, Dan?"
"Nowheer near, sir. I ain't seen 'em all the mornin'."
"Seems pretty mysterious," Leslie commented. "We've had a notion, you know, for some time that the poor beggar hailed from Fura. Looks more like it than ever now."
The reason for the idea—which has been already mentioned—that the wild man had escaped from Fura, arose partly from the circumstance that Akolah and his friends had, from the very first, shown a special interest in him; and still more from the undoubted fact that when he heard them talking he had sometimes mumbled some words which seemed to be uttered in their language. Then they would talk to him with the evident intention of drawing him out. But it did not appear they had met with any more success than the white men had when trying to get him to talk sensibly in English.
"Well, we shall hear all about it presently, I suppose," Leslie finally decided.
But in this expectation he was disappointed. When, later on, the mysterious conference broke up, the leaders made no announcement beyond the brief statement that the man was much better, and would probably be all right in a few days. Meantime he required rest. As may be supposed, the two chums had been on the tiptoe of curiosity, and this refusal to gratify it caused them no little surprise. Leslie in particular seemed quite disgusted:
"There can't be any such wonderful secret in it as all that!" he argued. "And, even if there is, surely they know we can be trusted with it?"
But their disappointment did not end there. As the day went on it became evident that both their curiosity and their patience were likely to be tried more severely still.
They soon became aware that whatever it was that had happened, it must be something which had caused a sudden change in their leaders' plans, or, at least, had decided them to hasten their execution.
Certain it was that energetic preparations were at once made for moving on to another destination. Orders were issued to stop all work in hand, and pack up everything in readiness for removal.
The whole of the baronet's numerous following and belongings had by that time been brought across the waterless desert, and a re-arrangement of the camp had been in progress, as though it had been intended to make, at any rate, a short stay there.
Now all this was altered. Stores just unpacked were hurriedly packed up again, and the whole camp became a scene of bustle and excitement, though no one save the leaders seemed to have any idea what the excitement was all about.
Leslie and Roland endeavoured to extract information, both together and separately. And when direct questions met with point-blank refusals, they, each in his own way, tried to elicit something by a side wind, as it were, in the shape of artfully-planned, yet innocent-sounding queries and observations—again, all in vain.
One thing there was which was noticeable, however. The leaders, in their answers, made a distinction between the two. The doctor was blunt, as usual, and the professor was no whit less firm; but in the case of Roland there seemed to be a difference in the tone and manner. Vague and slight it may have been, but beneath the decided negatives there was a suggestion of special kindliness and consideration, in replying to Roland, which struck Leslie as unusual.
"Anyone would almost think," he said afterwards to his chum, when the two were confidentially comparing notes, "that this sudden change in their plans has something specially to do with either you or me, but especially you. Did you notice the way Mr. Kelmar spoke? And not only the professor, but Dr. Cambray. Did you notice the way he eyed you, and altered his tone? Very different from the way he snubbed poor me! Am I somehow in their bad books again? Have I put my foot into it again without knowing it?"
"I—I hardly know what to say," returned Roland hesitatingly. "I certainly had a sort of idea of the kind myself, though I did not know it had struck you that way, too. Yet how, or why, should such a thing be?"
"I've been asking myself that question, but can't find the answer," Leslie continued. "Funny we should both think alike, isn't it? I, at any rate, feel pretty sure of it. I believe, too, that, whatever it is that's in the wind, it has something specially to do with you. Now," Leslie went on, in a semi-comic vein of regretful complaint, "that's where my education seems to have been neglected, or my fairy godmother failed in her duty towards me, for nothing mysterious or romantic ever seems to come my way."
"What about the wild man?"
"Good gracious! Why, wasn't that your tea-party in the first place? I merely came in to help—to play second fiddle. That's just what I'm thinking about. You go out and lose yourself, and have a ripping good time, and discover a wild man of the woods into the bargain. Now, if it had been me, no more would have come of it than if I had lost myself on Hampstead Heath on a bank holiday, and discovered, perhaps, the wandering child of some neglectful parent in the shape of a holiday-making chimney-sweep."
Roland laughed at his friend's whimsical way of looking at the matter, but remained very thoughtful. Later on, he had other reasons for thinking that there might be something in Leslie's idea. More than once he noticed Mr. Kelmar staring at him with a curious, abstracted air; and in Dr. Cambray's glance, too, there was sometimes an expression he had certainly never noticed there before. And, last of all, there was the baronet.
Sir George had quite taken to the two young fellows, and showed them many marks of his favour. But now Roland often caught even this new friend regarding him with an odd, reflective look; and his manner towards him was certainly different from his behaviour to Leslie.
However, the speculations which these undefined ideas raised in his mind were soon driven out, for the time, by his part in the work which lay before them.
At dawn next day the whole expedition moved off, bag and baggage, across the plain in the direction of Mount Fura, and during that and the following days the chums were kept busy with their aeroplane, going to and fro, as before. Sometimes they were the bearers of messages from the leaders to their henchmen ahead or behind, as the long train of carriers and fighting men toiled on its way. Sometimes, again, they were required to go out to mark down game for the hunters; or they might be sent on ahead to reconnoitre and report as to the route which seemed the most free from obstacles, and the easiest for those on foot to follow.
In due time they arrived in the vicinity of Mount Fura; and there the leaders looked about for a likely place for a large encampment well out of sight of the mountain. Having found one to their liking, they proceeded to entrench it, and throw up earthworks, under the direction of Sir George, who, it now appeared, had at one time been an officer in His Majesty's Army, and had seen active service.
"It's almost as though we were going to 'sit down' before Fura, and lay formal siege to it," said Roland, with a light laugh. "I'm afraid, though, there's not much chance of our being able to starve 'em out."
"We'd be starved out ourselves long before that came about, because we should run out of ammunition," Leslie sagely decided. Then he gave a slight start. "Hallo!" he exclaimed. "Who's this johnny Mr. Kelmar's got with him? Eh? What? Surely it can't be! My stars, but it is! It's our 'wild man,' clothed and in his right mind!"
The professor had appeared, coming in their direction, in company with an individual who certainly at first sight seemed to be a stranger.
Yet a second and more careful scrutiny had convinced Leslie that it was in very truth their erstwhile "wild man." But how different did he now look, with his hair cut, his face shaven, and his body attired in a suit which Sir George had provided him with!
If his mere appearance was surprising, his manner and speech were no less so.
During the journey from their last camp neither of the chums had set eyes on him. They heard indirectly that he had been carried part of the way in a litter. His recovery had now, however, seemingly been complete, and in more ways than as regarded mere bodily health.
"I'm glad we've found you two," said Mr. Kelmar, with a smile. "I want to make better known to you a friend with whom you have so far been but imperfectly acquainted. He has, as you know, recently been the victim of an accident, and previous to that he has been a victim in other ways. He was, he now tells us—as we had already suspected might be the case—a captive in Fura for some years; and what he went through there, and after his escape from the place, were, I am sure, from his account, enough to send any man out of his senses. But now, I am glad to say, he has quite recovered, and I am sure you two will like to congratulate him and join with me in expressing the hope that his troubles are at last over."
FROM the way in which Roland and Leslie stared at Mr. Kelmar's companion it seemed as though their surprise had for the moment deprived them of speech. Before they quite recovered their self-possession, the stranger advanced with outstretched hands:
"I am told that I owe my rescue from a terrible fate to you two," he said pleasantly, "and I want to thank you both. But I've also been told that in my madness I tried to throw one of you over a cliff. Now, young gentlemen, I've only a very confused recollection of that terrible time. It all seems to me like a horrible nightmare, from which I have but lately woke up. If I really tried to kill one of you, I want to tell that one how sorry I am, and ask his pardon."
The man's accent was colonial; but in other respects he spoke like an educated person.
"That is the one you tried to throw over the cliff," said the professor, indicating Roland. "His name is Roland, and this is his friend, Leslie Hadley, who tried to prevent you." Then to the two: "This, my lads, is Mr. Goodall, who came out with an exploring-party a good many years ago and disappeared. We now know why."
The man who owed his restoration to civilisation to the two lads, shook them warmly by the hand, singling out Roland especially.
"I owe you apologies, as well as thanks, you know," he said. "Roland—Woodham, I think you said?"—turning to Mr. Kelmar.
"Yes; I mentioned his name to you before—Roland Woodham." And the professor smiled again blandly.
"I—I—I'm very pleased to see you are better—all right again, Mr. Goodall," said Roland, a little embarrassed at the keen gaze with which the other was regarding him. And his embarrassment was increased as he saw him start slightly, and then turn and glance quickly at his guardian.
However, the first feelings of restraint quickly passed off, and in a few minutes the four were chatting away freely.
"We now know all about Akolah," Mr. Kelmar presently said. "And who do you think he turns out to be?"
"A king, I should say," returned Roland promptly.
"That's a very good guess," said the professor, smiling at Goodall's look of surprise.
"How did you know that?" the latter asked.
"I always said he looked like a king. Didn't I, Leslie?"
"True for you, sonny. I can back ye up in that, though I thought at the time it was rather a far-fetched idea."
"But," said Goodall, "how could you know?"
"I didn't know, sir, of course. It was only an idea—a sort of instinct, I suppose. But he always gave me that impression. I felt sure that, at least, he had been someone of importance in his own country."
"Well, you made a wonderfully shrewd guess, my lad. He really is the rightful king of the country; but his place was usurped by a crafty cousin of his, Malava by name. Malava murdered Akolah's father, treacherously made the son a prisoner, and then handed him over to the slave-dealers to be taken away and pass his life as a slave."
"He must be a nice sort of gentleman, Mr. Malava," Leslie commented. "Quite one of the olden time, I should say."
"He's a monster!" Goodall declared. And as he spoke his face hardened, and some of the old fierceness returned to it. "But Garonto—that was Akolah's father—was not much better. He was a bad lot, and he does not deserve anybody's pity. He kept me and others in the most cruel bondage, and I owe to him most of the suffering I endured.
"At his death we all had hopes of being set free, for we knew that his son Akolah was a person of a very different disposition. But when Malava seized him, and made himself ruler of the place, our hopes were dashed to the ground, and our lot made harder than ever. That, young gentlemen, is the brief history of what has happened, though it gives you some sort of idea of the misery that I and my unfortunate fellow-prisoners have endured at the hands of these people.
"At last, most unexpectedly, a chance of escape offered itself. I seized it, and managed to get clear away. But I had no arms of any kind, and you can imagine the kind of life I led, wandering about in these solitudes, three-parts starved, and in constant fear, day and night, of being recaptured, or being killed and eaten by wild beasts. How I managed to survive as long as I did I cannot now explain even to myself. It seems almost a miracle. In the end, however, I suppose the constant terror of the thing must have driven me mad."
"It is a terrible story," said the professor, "and I feel devoutly thankful—I am sure we all do—that we have been the means, through an over-ruling Providence, of rescuing you before it was too late."
"But there are others still there," said Goodall, shaking his head, "and I fear that my escape has made things even harder for them than before. Sometimes I have blamed myself for seeming to desert them."
"Nay, you have no cause for that," Mr. Kelmar put in kindly. "Those others we are going to rescue, too, if Providence will further aid us. Then you will have the satisfaction of knowing that your escape has led to their being set free; for without your aid I fear it would have been an almost impossible task."
"Yes, I have now that hope, and it is a greater consolation to me than I can put into words. All I can say is, may Heaven bless you all for what you have done, and for what I know you are now trying to do for those others!"
"Well," said Mr. Kelmar to the two lads, "we came out to find you and tell you that you are wanted in our tent. Dr. Cambray and Sir George are waiting to see you, so we must get back."
With that he turned and walked away with Goodall and the young fellows followed.
Leslie was brimful of talk inspired by this latest development, and rattled on for a while without noticing that Roland said nothing, but walked along with a downcast air. Stopping suddenly in the midst of a sentence, Leslie asked what ailed him. He was surprised, and a little alarmed, when Roland at last looked up, to see that there were tears in his eyes.
"Why," he exclaimed, "what's the matter?"
"Can't you understand?" Roland returned, speaking in a low tone, and with evident difficulty. "I have told you before how that my father came out to Africa with an exploring party and disappeared, just as this man did."
"Ah, yes, of course! I am sorry, old man, for not thinking of it," Leslie answered feelingly. "Of course, this has reminded you of it."
"My father," Roland repeated, in the same subdued voice, "disappeared, and those with him, just as this man seems to have done. But my father has not survived to tell the tale, nor one of his companions, as this man has. It seems hard," he went on bitterly, "that this man—who, I suppose, has no son waiting to welcome him back to the world—should at last escape, while mine—mine—"
He could not finish the sentence, but turned away; and for a space a strained silence fell between the two.
Leslie had heard the story more than once from his chum's lips; but Roland had been so painfully affected each time it had been spoken of, that Leslie never referred to it of his own accord.
This was no doubt also the reason why Mr. Kelmar never touched upon it. But Dr. Cambray had known that one of the professor's special objects in coming out there—besides seeking for himself—was to try to obtain authentic news of the fate of Roland's father. And the good-hearted doctor had, indeed, promised that after the Fura quest had been ended he would assist in the search.
Little more was now said on the subject between the two chums. Leslie knew by previous experience how difficult it was to cheer Roland up when these memories were accidentally stirred up in his thoughts; and he accordingly only pressed his hand, and walked on beside him in silence.
Arrived in the leaders' tent, they found the doctor and the baronet awaiting them, with Akolah and Dolah standing expectantly, yet patiently, on one side.
"Well, here they are," said the professor briefly. "We've told them all about it, and what's in the wind."
"We are going," Dr. Cambray began, addressing the youngsters, "to try and enter Fura, to-morrow night, secretly, by means of our airship and aeroplanes. After a long discussion with these two gentlemen "—indicating the two Furians—"with Mr. Goodall acting as interpreter, we have worked out a plan which we hope will, if successful, result in placing Prince Akolah—that is his proper title—in the position which rightfully belongs to him. He has solemnly promised that if we do so, he will hand over to us every person, black or white, who is being detained there against his will. Now the question is as to you two—whether we shall leave you in the camp with those we place in charge here, or take you with us."
At this both the young fellows burst out into appeals to be allowed to join the leaders.
"I have a special reason, sir, for asking," Roland reminded the doctor. "Akolah did me a good turn, as you know, that night when we had just arrived at the Lion Rock. I should be only too glad to be able to do something to aid him in this, to try to repay him a little. And over and above that, I should like to be allowed to help in rescuing those other poor people that Mr. Goodall has been telling us about."
"And I wish to, as well," Leslie declared. "I've always liked those two johnnies, and I'm sure that Akolah will make a jolly good king—a much better one than I ever should," he added, in an aside to Roland. And he nodded and smiled in a friendly way at Akolah, by way of encouraging him.
"We quite expected to hear that you would both wish to," Dr. Cambray answered. "But we thought it right to leave you free to make your own choice in the matter, as there is likely to be more danger in going with us than in remaining in the camp. To-morrow night, then, all being well, we shall at last start upon the venture I have so long had in view. Meantime, keep a silent tongue; for we do not wish our plans talked about."
During the remainder of that day, and the next, the preparations were continued; and as a part of the leaders' plan the site of their last camp opposite Fura—where they had been attacked by the slavers and their Furian allies—was re-occupied, and a small force placed there to defend it. Meantime the leaders so managed matters that neither the airship nor aeroplanes, nor any of their people, appeared in sight of Fura itself during daylight.
Then, on the second night, the Champion, with the aeroplanes in attendance, rose from the new camp, and, with Goodall and Akolah to guide them, made straight through the darkness for the mountain.
Less than an hour later they had passed over the intervening hills, and the encircling swamp, and were gazing down on to Fura itself, and looking about for a safe landing-place.
THE adventurers were fortunate in having chosen a night which happened to be well suited to their particular purpose.
There was no moon, and overhead was a layer of dark clouds which was sufficient to hide the stars, thus rendering the airship invisible to anyone who might be about.
Below the clouds, however, all was calm and clear; and as they passed over the city of Fura they could just see rows of small dwellings, with larger and higher buildings towering up amongst them. Finally, a line of ramparts, with towers and gates placed at regular intervals, told them that they were passing over a walled town.
From the towers lights shone out, proclaiming the fact that some in them kept watch and guard whilst the inhabitants generally were wrapped in slumber.
Soon these were all left behind, and the voyagers sailed onwards over a dark plain, where little could be made out save soaring crags and peaks dimly outlined against the distant sky-line.
Somewhere amid this shadowy background the leaders hoped to come upon signs of some of Akolah's adherents, who, as he had stated through Goodall, were still holding out against Malava, the usurper.
In this hope they were not disappointed; for presently, there were seen, far up amongst the mountains, tiny points of light, which Akolah joyfully declared must be the watch-fires of some of his friends.
The Champion kept quietly on her way, passing onward like a great floating shadow, till she reached the fire which stood farthest from the plain and on the highest ground. There she remained stationary, and signalled, by means of tiny little flashes, to the two aeroplanes.
The latter, with only the pilots in them—Tim in one and Grover, Weston's assistant, in the other—then came alongside, and, taking off Dr. Cambray, Mr. Kelmar, Goodall, and Akolah, descended, and landed them on a high-lying terrace a few hundred yards from the fire.
Roland and Leslie remained on the airship with the remainder of the small party the doctor had brought with him, which included only a few of his own people and the Furians who had been rescued from the hands of the slavers.
After landing the leaders, the aeroplanes returned for Dolah and more of the Furians; who were landed in like manner, in silence and darkness, on the terrace.
Quiet and cautious, however, as their movements had been, the watchers had evidently heard enough to rouse their suspicions and put them on the alert. A dozen forms rose hastily from beside the fire, and stood listening and gazing intently into the surrounding darkness. And as they stood thus the flickering firelight fell upon burnished breastplates and helmets, and was flashed back from glittering spearheads and drawn swords.
Then through the waiting silence rang out a hoarse challenge.
It was Akolah himself who sent back a reply, and it took the form of a peculiar sound such as might have been the cry of some night-bird.
Then came a pause. Those standing in the darkness saw some of the group by the fire suddenly start and look at one another in surprise and doubt. Others stared more keenly then ever into the shadows, as though they mistrusted their own hearing.
There was some hurried whisperings, after which an answering call came floating on the silent air, to which Akolah replied again by a weird, strange cry, altogether different from the other two calls, yet one which sounded also as though uttered by some creature of the night.
Again there was evident perplexity amongst the watchers, and more whispering went on. Finally, one of them strode forward and uttered some words in the Furian tongue.
"Why," muttered Goodall, in a low tone to the doctor, "that is Rekla, a man I used to know well. I will go forward first alone, and prepare him for the surprise in store."
He said a few words to Akolah, and marched boldly up to the fire.
Dr. Cambray and the professor, waiting quietly in the background, saw him, a minute later, surrounded by the strangers, who showed by their gestures great astonishment, but not, seemingly, much cordiality.
"They evidently know him," remarked the professor quietly. "But they don't seem as if they are particularly pleased to see him. I suppose that is because they only look upon him as a sort of slave."
"I expect you've hit it, Kelmar. They have never known him, you see, as anything else."
However, though their welcome was by no means a warm one at first, their listless manner changed as Goodall unfolded his story, and told them some of the news he brought with him.
Then, indeed, their apathy disappeared as if by magic, and they scarcely seemed like the same men. Wonder and incredulity had at first been written on their faces or indicated in their manner and gestures. These were now succeeded by eager excitement and delighted expectancy as their eyes turned again to the darkness beyond the circle of firelight.
Goodall left them, and came running back to those awaiting him:
"We have arrived in good time," he cried—"in the very nick of time! They have been driven to their last ditch, as we should say, and are all half starved. They are now waiting impatiently for Prince Akolah to show himself. They hardly know whether to believe me or not till they have actually set eyes upon him."
Akolah evidently guessed the import of Goodall's words, for he and Dolah were already walking with dignified mien towards the fire. The three white men strolled slowly after them, and halted at a little distance to witness the meeting.
And certainly it was a scene worth looking upon. After one long gasp of amazement, the men seemed literally to throw themselves upon their young prince. Some fell upon their knees beside him, while others prostrated themselves at his feet, struggling one with the other in their efforts to seize one of his hands.
Only by slow degrees did their excitement subside. After a while, however, they recovered their feet, and stood respectfully round while Akolah addressed them. He was telling them, no doubt, of his adventures, of the white men friends to whom he owed his freedom, the wonderful means by which he had returned to his own country, and the help the white men had promised to give to enable him to regain the position which belonged to him.
Then they once more broke out into bursts of enthusiasm; and when, at a sign from the prince, those waiting in the background drew near, they were received, white men and all, with a welcome almost as hearty as that accorded to Akolah himself.
This time Goodall came in for his full share. Akolah explained about him to his followers in a manner which quickly changed their ideas concerning the formerly despised "slave." And thereafter he had no cause to complain of want of cordiality or friendliness on their part.
Then the Furians led the way to the stronghold where their leaders were at that time asleep. It proved to be a great cavern, or rather series of caverns, situated within the very summit of Mount Fura.
Here they found the rest of the dwindling band of faithful adherents who had been carrying on an obstinate guerilla warfare, which, as time had gone by, had become more and more desperate and hopeless.
The leader, one Appalto by name, was quickly roused, and received them as warmly as the others had done. Then he conducted them into the cavern, where all now was bustle and excitement.
Dr. Cambray and Mr. Kelmar looked about with wonder and a certain amount of pitying admiration. They saw around them a number of what had doubtless once been fine, stalwart warriors, now reduced by want and privation to a lot of gaunt, woe-begone vagabonds.
Their faces were pinched, and their figures bony and bent; yet in their dark, flashing eyes there still dwelt the sombre fire of an indomitable will, telling, more plainly than any words could have done, that they were bent on fighting to the death rather than surrender.
Apart from their pitiable condition, the white men could see enough to tell them that these people were very different from any race they had before met with. As in the case of Akolah, Dolah, and the other Furians they had already seen, there was no likeness to the negro type, but rather to that of the Arab and the Hebrew. Many of them were decidedly handsome as regarded their features, or would have been but for the hardships they had undergone.
Appalto himself was almost a giant in stature, and bore himself with a dignity which very favourably impressed the strangers. Like most of his followers, he was dressed in armour, which, though still bright and serviceable, bore upon it the marks of many a fierce fight.
"You come to us," he said, in a little speech which Goodall interpreted, "at a critical moment. Malava has laid waste the plain below, and driven us to this fastness, where we are slowly dying, of hunger. We could not, indeed, have held out more than a few days longer. Then we had made up our minds to give up the struggle, and go down to meet our foes in one last battle, that we might die fighting rather than fall into their hands, to be handed over to a life of slavery."
"If that is so," said the doctor heartily, "you must have some food before we discuss our plans. If I had but known, I would have brought more; but what we have with us you shall have at once; and to-morrow night we will bring you a larger supply."
He returned to where the aeroplanes were waiting, and ordered them to return to the airship and bring back Such supplies as were on board. Soon they came down again, this time in charge of the two lads, each with a load.
"I thought Roland and I had better come, sir," Leslie explained to Dr. Cambray, "because, you see, being light-weights, we could carry all the more grub. Besides, Mr. Grover and Tim are wanted to help unpack some of the stores."
The doctor nodded his head approvingly.
"Hurry up all you can, and don't play any pranks or get into mischief," was all he said.
Leslie opened his eyes and glanced at his chum in a surprised sort of way, but said nothing; and in a few minutes the two were on their way back to the airship for another load.
A little while later there was quite a feast going on in the cavern—a feast such as the hard-pressed fighting men had not enjoyed for many a day. Then some were told off to take a supply of the good things to their comrades at the outlying watch-fires, while their leaders discussed with the white men plans for the future.
The latter had already learned from Goodall the secret of the means of communication between the mountain and the surrounding country. There was, it seemed, a subterranean tunnel cut through the solid rock which lay beneath the belt of morass and swamp. The entrances at each end were defended by great double gates of bronze, beside which strong guards were always on duty day and night.
One of these entrances was in the midst of the town of Fura; while the other was in a large cave not very far from the place where the slavers Xavier and Drucker had had their camp.
Dr. Cambray now asked for further information with respect to this underground passage and its defences.
"The difficulty," he mused, "from our point of view, lies in there being two entrances, each strongly defended. If there were only one, we might be strong enough to seize it. But as things are, that would only give them notice at the other end that something was wrong."
"Yes," said Appalto, when this had been translated to him—"and they would at once flood the tunnel with water. There are special arrangements for filling it with water in times of danger, It can be done in a few minutes—long before you could get through to seize the other end—and you would all be drowned."
"Then that plan does not seem to be very promising. We must think of something else," Dr. Cambray returned. "I will consult with my friends, and talk it over with you further when I come to see you again to-morrow night."
Then, as the night was wearing on, and they had particular reasons for not wishing to be seen by any of the inhabitants of Fura, the white men took leave of their new friends, and went back to the airship, leaving Prince Akolah and the other Furians with their followers.
This tune the airship did not sail over the town of Fura, but followed a more northerly course, which took it over the place where the slavers had encamped. There was now, however, no sign of them to be seen.
"That's rather a pity," muttered the doctor thought-fully.
"Why so?" Mr. Kelmar asked.
"Well, the fact is I had an idea—just the glimmerings, so to speak, of a plan—that might have been worth—But there," he-broke off, "they're not here; so it is not of much use to say anything further about it."
FOR several nights in succession Dr. Cambray made trips to Mount Fura to visit Prince Akolah and his friends, taking with him fresh meat and such other supplies as they were most in need of.
Sometimes the doctor was accompanied by the professor, whilst Sir George took charge of the camp, sometimes it was the other way about.
There was a further interchange of notes and suggestions at these visits. They served to cement the friendly relations between the two parties, and to increase their mutual confidence. But it cannot be said that they appeared to bring any nearer the ends which both sides had in view.
The travellers added, it is true, somewhat to their stock of information. They learned more about the country and its inhabitants, about their history—so far as Akolah and his friends could tell them—and other; matters of interest.
And in particular they gained confirmation of the doctor's deductions. According to the Furian traditions, the country was undoubtedly the ancient "Land of Ophir," whence King Solomon drew so much of his gold.
Now, however, the mines appeared to be nearly exhausted. For many hundreds of years very little gold, comparatively speaking, had been obtained from them. Indeed, this was one of the reasons that white men were at that time held as prisoners in the place. Those in charge of the mines had, in some way, come to know that white men were, as a rule, more learned in the sciences than the black races around. Hence they had bargained with the slavers with whom they had intercourse to bring them white slaves for their mines. They were in hopes that such men might be able to get for them more gold than their own people had been able of late to obtain.
"I'm afraid, doctor," said Sir George laughingly, "you will have to make up your mind to a disappointment so far as any visions of great treasures are concerned. Gold these people have, of course; that there seems to be no doubt about. But it is the gold saved up from old times—not what they are still mining."
"So it seems," returned the doctor. "If that be so, we must e'en make the best of it. But that is all the more reason why they should not be allowed to keep white men in an abominable bondage simply in the greedy hope that they may be able to think of some way of increasing the supply."
"Certainly! certainly!" the baronet agreed. "But we are still faced by the question, how are we to accomplish what we desire?"
"It's a hard nut to crack, and that is a fact which it is no use disguising from ourselves," said Dr. Cambray, with a sigh. "At present, I confess I can see no way of gaining our ends without becoming involved in a sort of little war. That would mean the loss of many lives in order to save a few; so it is not to be thought of."
This talk took place one night in camp. For the first night since their arrival there was to be no visit to the mountain. All had been said that could be said. Every sort of plan or suggestion which seemed in the least feasible had been put forward, considered, and discussed, only however, to be dismissed one after the other as impracticable.
No wonder that the leaders were feeling worried, or that Akolah and his friends were growing dispirited.
"I suppose," Professor Kelmar suggested, "it would be useless to open negotiations with them, and offer a price as a ransom for their white prisoners?"
Sir George shook his head.
"I myself would willingly find the money," he declared. "That is, if it were anything within my power; but I fear that, though they may not be the possessors of fabulous riches, they are too well off to be tempted by any offer we could make."
"I am afraid so, too," said the doctor. "Besides, that would not help us to keep faith with Akolah and his friends. We couldn't go away and leave them to their fate now, even if the white captives were set free. Of course, we could throw a lot of men into the place by means of my airship, all well armed with rifles and guns, and perhaps after a stiff fight we might get the best of it. But it would not be a light business. There is a walled town to be captured, and—well as I said just now, it means a little war, and the sacrifice of an unknown number of lives."
"No, no; you're right, my friend. That would never do," the baronet declared. "I am afraid it is, as you say, a very hard nut to crack."
Just then voices were heard outside the tent, and a moment or two later Leslie burst in, closely followed by Roland. They looked flushed and eager, and it was evident that they brought some news.
"We've, just found out something!" cried Leslie. "We've been for a spin round in the Hawk, and—"
"Who gave you permission, sir?" the doctor interrupted. "You heard me say that no one would go out to-night?"
"Yes, sir," Leslie explained equably. "I knew you were not going to Fura; but I did not think you meant that we were not to take the aeroplane out. We saw—"
"The question is, did anyone see you?" snapped the doctor. "You know that I particularly wish our presence here not to be made known."
"No one has seen us, but we have seen someone," Leslie replied.
"Well, who?" the doctor asked irritably.
"Salondah?" repeated Dr. Cambray, starting. "Say you so? Are you sure?"
"Quite sure. We saw him, and all his usual crowd—Xavier, Drucker, and Co."
"And they did not see you, or the aeroplane?"
"No, sir, we were very careful about that, You can see them yourself, if you like. They've built a lot of fires, and have made a pretty large camp at the old place."
"Then," exclaimed the doctor, getting up, "this may put a new face on things. Kelmar, you remember my saying I had a plan, but it depended upon those scoundrels being here?"
"Well, I've thought it out since, and matured it, in case this very thing might happen. Now at last I think I can see my way to pull this thing off. Here, you two, jut skip off for a bit while we talk this matter over; but don't go far away, for I may want you."
In obedience to this hint the two chums slipped away, leaving their leaders to discuss the doctor's plans by themselves.
It was an hour before they heard anything more. Then they were sought out by Goodall and Graham.
"I hope you feel pretty fit, young gentlemen?" said the latter. "There'll be no turning in for you tonight, I fancy. You are to take us across to Fura to see Prince Akolah."
"I am ready!" cried Leslie.
"So am I," Roland chimed in.
"Then we will start as quickly as you like. The sooner we are off the better the boss will be pleased. Two of my men are coming with us. That will just take up the six seats."
He vanished for a minute or two, and then returned with Wirgman and Orris.
"It's lucky you two can drive," he said, as he aided his men to take their places. "Tim and the others are all wanted. None of 'em can be spared. There's a lot to be done to-night."
"What's it all mean?" Leslie asked inquisitively, "I know that we two set it going somehow. Through seeing Salondah, apparently. But why that should suddenly lead to all this bobbery I can't for the life of me make out."
"Aha!" laughed Graham.-"You must learn to control your curiosity, my young friend. There is a saying to the effect that those will see who live long enough."
And with that Leslie had to be content. A few minutes later they were in the air, and the two aeroplanes were once more winging their way, side by side, through the darkness towards the heights of Mount Fura.
IN scarcely more than half an hour the travellers reached their destination, which was the stronghold of Prince Akolah and his friends, almost at the summit of Mount Fura.
Here Goodall and Graham left the rest of their party and remained away for some time. When they returned, they were accompanied by Akolah himself and his friend Dolah.
Very different did these two men look from the wretched, ill-used, half-starved creatures they had appeared when Professor Kelmar had rescued them from the hands of the slavers at the Lion Rock.
Now they were arrayed in armour. It is true that it was armour which had seen much service, but it became them well, all the same.
Roland, as we know, had said long ago to Leslie that Akolah looked like a king. Now, with his shining helmet and breastplate, and his sword by his side, he not only bore himself with princely dignity, but looked every inch a soldier as well.
Ever since the events of that first day and night at the Lion Rock there had been a strong feeling of sympathy and friendly feeling between Roland and this unfortunate young prince. No words had ever passed between them, because neither could speak the other's language, but the bond between them had not been felt the less strongly on that account. When Roland and Tim had been lost with the aeroplane, it was Akolah, it will be remembered, who, taking the Pigmies with him, had gone out to seek him, had found him, and guided him back to camp, just in time to release Beach and nip the mutiny in the bud.
And now, since Roland had seen him amongst his own people, the lad's friendly feelings had grown into sympathetic admiration.
Akolah greeted both the chums with his accustomed dignified friendliness, and smilingly pointed first at the aeroplanes and then at himself.
"Does he want to ride with us?" Roland asked of Goodall. "If so, where are we going—back to camp?"
"Not yet awhile; we have first to go over to the town of Fura."
Leslie stared a little at this.
"But they haven't gone to bed yet in Fura," he said; "I could see that from a distance as we came along. And you know the doctor's wishes as to our being seen?"
"True; but our business to-night is so urgent that we must take the risk. Still, as there is no moon, and the night is fairly dark, I don't think we shall attract attention, if we go quietly. It will be better, for that reason, to take only one machine. Can you manage to carry the prince and myself on the Hawk, and yourselves as well?"
Leslie thought he might "make shift to try a spin" that way; so weights were adjusted, and they wore soon once more in the air, leaving their companions to take charge of the other aeroplane and await their return.
They crossed the dark intervening plain, and presently found themselves sailing over the city of Fura.
This was the first time that the two lads had seen the town lighted up. The doctor and his friends had made several such trips with Akolah and others, but had said little as to their object in making them, or what they had seen there.
Now the chums looked down in wonder. The glow of light revealed many things which, when they had passed over it before, had been hidden by the darkness, and the existence of which they had never suspected.
The city wall, for instance, which they had then just been able to trace in the shadow, now showed itself as almost Titanic in size.
Half-ruined it certainly was; yet it had originally been of such stupendous proportions that even now it impressed the beholder with a sense of awe and astonishment. And so with the large buildings; some of them were mere shells, and all had a more or less ruined appearance. But they had been constructed with a massiveness which seemed to defy the hand of time, and many still reared themselves high in air, lofty, towering monuments of an unknown past.
But the travellers' attention was soon drawn off from these things by something even more surprising. On one side there rose up a great dark mass, which at first looked like a small mountain. As they drew nearer, however, it took the shape of an immense crouching animal, resembling, indeed, a colossal sphinx, carved out of the solid rock.
The two chums stared in astonishment at the mighty piece of workmanship, conscious of something about it which was in some way familiar. It was Leslie who first gave expression to their puzzled thoughts:
"Why," he exclaimed under his breath, "if it isn't another Lion Rock!"
And that, indeed, is what it turned out to be; it was a reproduction on a smaller scale of the great outstanding mass which they had known as the Lion Rock. The resemblance, in fact, it may here be said, went farther than mere outward shape; for later on they found that the interior had been hollowed out to form a temple, which, again, was an exact duplicate of the temple which the doctor had discovered inside the larger rock opposite to Cambray Town!
In mystified surprise—so far, at least, as the two lads were concerned—they approached the top of the rock, and there came to rest upon a high-lying terrace. Prince Akolah landed, and, going to an iron door which could be seen not far away, knocked softly and in a peculiar manner. In return, there came the sound of knocking from within, and, after a brief interchange of signals in this way, the door opened, and Akolah disappeared through the opening.
He did not reappear for some considerable time, and during the interval the three with the aeroplane watched in silence the town below, and saw the lights gradually die down till the whole place was once more almost in darkness. So high was the top of the rock above everything immediately around it, that they were practically invisible from below, and none suspected the presence of such strange visitors.
After a while Akolah returned with a companion, and, beckoning Goodall aside, the three talked for some time in whispers. Then the stranger re-entered the doorway, which was closed behind him, and a minute or two later the aeroplane was on its way back to the prince's stronghold.
Here there were further conferences, which tantalised the two chums—Leslie especially—by raising their curiosity to the very utmost. But it was left unsatisfied; for when, finally, the two aeroplanes returned to camp bearing Goodall only, he said not a word to explain the meaning of their mysterious trip.
And there was more mystery to come. Presently they set out again, this time with some more of Graham's men, all, the chums noticed, well armed and carrying numbers of spare cartridges. Then some of the baronet's followers were taken across, till at last, towards morning, the aeroplanes returned once more with Goodall only, after which the tired travellers turned in for a few hours' rest.
Both Roland and Leslie slept well and soundly, nor did they wake till quite late in the morning. The latter, who was first astir, opened his eyes to find Tim sitting quietly on a camp-stool cleaning a rifle.
"Great Scott!" Leslie exclaimed, when he had looked at his watch. "Why, how's this?"
"The top av the mornin' to ye, Misther Leslie," said Tim suavely. "Shure, it's a noice long slape ye've had."
"Tim, you deceiver, it's not morning; it's almost afternoon, and you know it! Why did you let me sleep on like this?"
"Doctor's orders," returned Tim composedly. "Somethin's goin't' happen t'-night, an' so he wanted ye to have all the slape ye could in the day, d'ye see?"
"An' phwat is it that's going to happen, Tim darlint?" Leslie asked, in a coaxing tone, But the Irishman shook his head. "Shure, it's meself as don't know at all, at, all," he declared. "But they say the pigs can see the wind. It's no pig Oi am, but it didn't take me long t' see as there's somethin' in the wind!"
As Leslie failed to draw anything more explicit from Tim, he woke up Roland, and they sallied forth together in search of breakfast and information. The former they soon obtained, but the latter proved more difficult to acquire, though there was everywhere an air of quiet preparation. Tim was not the only one who was furbishing up his arms; nearly everybody the chums met seemed to be doing the same. But when asked the why and the wherefore, they only shook their heads as Tim had done.
Another thing they noticed was that the men were all kept strictly to camp—or, rather, to both camps, for it has already been told that there were two. One—a small one'—was upon the old site from which the doctor had sailed away in such haste to escape the attentions of the slavers; the other, a much larger one, containing the greater part of Sir George's people, was some distance away, quite out of sight of the other.
But the men, as a whole, were what soldiers would call "confined to barracks"; a few trusted scouts only were out, watching Salondah's movements. And these went to and fro during the day, bringing to the leaders reports of everything that took place in the slavers' camp.
Thus the white men ascertained that the Furians had come out to meet their slaver friends, and that Malava himself had visited their camp, bringing with him some more captives. These, doubtless, were men recently captured in skirmishes between his men and Appalto's followers.
When darkness fell that evening, the three leaders assembled in Dr. Cambray's tent discussing the situation and their final arrangements.
"All goes well," said the doctor, nodding his head. "So far as can be judged, Salondah has no suspicion of our presence here. He has no idea that his disagreeable friends of Cambray Town and the Lion Rock have found out all about his lucrative traffic with these people, and are on the spot, watching him."
"Don't you think," Mr. Kelmar suggested, "that his lieutenants, Drucker and Xavier, may have suspected something of the truth from what happened to them here?"
"I—scarcely—think—so," the doctor returned slowly. "You see, we never really showed the aeroplanes—and the slavers certainly never saw the airship—we had cleared off before daylight. And I'm sure that we left nothing behind to tell them we had been here. I took good care of that. I have another reason for my opinion in the fact that they have come here again with such a small following. If they had had any idea that I was in this part of the world they would have acted differently. They would have sent spies forward first to make sure, and they would have brought more people with them. No; I think we may congratulate ourselves on the fact that they have no sort of notion that I am anywhere about. That makes it all the more hopeful that my plan will succeed."
The hours crept on, and those who watched the slavers' camp saw them sitting over their evening meal. Then there were songs, games, and other amusements, in which, this time, it was noticed, some of their Furian friends, who had stayed in their camp, took part.
In due time the various sounds died away and the camp became quiet, save for the slow march of sundry watchmen, who could be seen moving to and fro within the circle of light from their fires.
Then, whilst Salondah and his ruffianly crew slept in fancied security, Dr. Cambray proceeded boldly to carry out his plan. It was a scheme on which much depended, and which affected many people. It threatened the final overthrow of Salondah's detestable but profitable traffic. It aimed at the defeat of Malava, and the restoration of Akolah to the position which belonged to him; and finally, in regard to Roland, it included certain possibilities, which, had he but guessed at them, would have sent him into agonies of feverish anxiety and suspense.
DR. CAMBRAY'S first step was to send off a party in the two aeroplanes with messages and instructions to Prince Akolah. Of this party Mr. Kelmar took charge, and he had with him Roland, Leslie, Dan Beach, and Tim. They also carried, the chums noticed, besides firearms and reserve ammunition, a bundle of rockets.
Then, from the doctor's camp, a little group of Pigmies, and a few picked native scouts, sallied forth; with a band of white men from Sir George's company to protect their retreat at the proper time.
So completely unsuspicious were the slavers of the presence of any foes in the neighbourhood, that they had relaxed their usual caution. Sentries had, it is true, been duly posted; but, after making a show of vigilance for a while, they first nodded, and finally dropped off to sleep.
Thus, as it turned out, the Pigmies and their companions experienced no difficulty in creeping into the slumbering camp. They first set the half-dozen prisoners whom they found there free, and then led them out to the white men awaiting them, possessing themselves, on the way, of a number of rifles and other "unconsidered trifles" which they happened to find lying about.
Having seen all these well on their way to the doctor's camp, the white men themselves raised an alarm and awoke the slavers.
These, on discovering what had happened, naturally turned out in pursuit of their enemies, and followed them in the direction of their camp.
Arrived outside, they proceeded to cautiously reconnoitre before attacking. No hindrance to this was offered by the doctor. They were allowed to creep up near enough to overlook the whole camp and watch what was going on; and this is what they saw:
They saw a small crowd of white men, all strangers to them, with a number of native followers, busily engaged in the work of packing up their belongings. Tents were being pulled down, cases of goodly-looking rifles, and other articles, which were coveted treasures in such a place, were lying about awaiting the packers. Cases of ammunition, and of all kinds of stores, too, were there in prodigal profusion—and there, in the midst of them all, were the freshly-released prisoners.
There was but one drawback to all this from the slavers' point of view—these strangers were too many in number, and evidently too well armed, to be attacked with any hope of success.
Salondah, who, with his lieutenant, Xavier, a Portuguese halt-breed, was peeping from behind a convenient rock some distance away, bit his lips with mortification even while his mouth watered at the sight of so much desirable spoil.
"'Tis no use," he whispered. "They are too many for us, as we are now. We must get help."
Xavier nodded. He, too, bit his lips, and there was a vindictive gleam in his dark eyes as they met those of his chief.
"These must be the same people who attacked us before and carried off the prisoners we had with us," he growled. "They've played the same game again to-night; but this time, I fancy, they will find they've played it once too often. We must be quick, though, or they will give us the slip and get clean away as they did then. We have no time to lose."
"That is true," Salondah agreed. "Let us get back at once and send off a message to Malava."
Ten minutes later the doctor's scouts, who had been watching the watchers, in order to give timely notice in case they should have the temerity to try a sudden rush, came into Dr. Cambray's tent, and informed him that the slavers had all returned to their own camp.
Then the doctor, who had carefully kept out of sight while Salondah's sharp eyes had been about, emerged from his tent with his friend Sir George, to superintend the work of packing and removal.
"The ruse seems to have worked well. They will fall into my trap," he said, with a grim, satisfied laugh.
"You think it will pan out all right?" the baronet asked, a little anxiously.
"Looks like it. Salondah has gone back to try to get the aid of his Furian friends. That you may be sure of. Otherwise he would have attacked us at once, strong as are the odds against him. I know the man, and he is not one to allow anyone to pull his beard and laugh at him as we have done without an effort to get his own back. He thinks that he has us safe here in a trap, while he goes to beat up reinforcements. I think he will find that instead of entrapping us, it is he who will fall into the trap I have set."
The men, both whites and natives, whom Salondah had seen, all belonged to Sir George's party, and were, therefore, as has been stated, unknown to the slavers. But for that the wary freebooter might have hesitated.
So far as could be seen, however, here was a party of travellers who had the impudence to interfere with him and carry off what he considered his property. There were sixty or seventy of them in all, mostly well armed; while Salondah's company happened to be this time a small one, numbering less than twenty. But what if he could obtain from his Furian friends the aid of say a hundred or two of their men? Then, with his own men, all used to firearms, it ought to be easy enough to overwhelm these presumptuous strangers, and seize their belongings as plunder, and themselves as slaves.
The thing seemed good in Salondah's eyes, and almost absurdly easy. The only difficulty he could see lay in the fact that the strangers were preparing to leave. Would they be able to get away before Salondah's allies arrived? Well, if they did, he would follow and overtake them.
So Salondah hurried back to his camp, and thence hastened to the big cave where were situated the gates which guarded the outer end of the subterranean tunnel.
There he had a short talk with the officer in charge of the Furian guard, and a few minutes later messengers were speeding on their way through the tunnel to Fura City.
Malava, the royal usurper, was roused from sleep, and the message delivered to him. It told of what had happened; how that the prisoners delivered over but just before had been taken away by some strangers. How that the strangers were too many for Salondah to deal with alone, and he wanted help.
It was artfully pointed out that if these people were allowed to get away they would carry the secret of the existence of Fura with them, and doubtless return with a big following of filibusters. And, finally, it was hinted that they had with them much desirable plunder, which Salondah would divide with his Furian friends, in return for their help.
These arguments prevailed with Malava. He sent a message back that he would come at once himself, and bring as many men as he could get together at short notice. Then his officers went to and fro, and roused their men, and within a comparatively short time Malava was on his way through the tunnel at the head of a hundred and fifty of his best warriors, while with him went most of his chief officers and nobles.
Meantime, Dr. Cambray had completed his preparations. The newly-released prisoners had already been sent on to Sir George's large camp, together with the tents and other baggage. Of all that Salondah had looked upon with such covetous eyes nothing of importance now remained. Only the fighting men were left, with the two leaders. These, however, seemed in no hurry to get away, for they still tarried. They were awaiting the reports of their scouts that the slavers were returning with reinforcements.
The night was nearly spent ere the news arrived. But at last, not long before dawn, word came that Malava had come out of the underground way with a hundred and fifty fighting men, that they had joined the slavers, and that they were now all on their way to the attack.
Then the doctor and Sir George, with their little force, began to retreat towards the camp of the baronet, which they reached with their enemies close at their heels. They made no show of resistance, or of intention to fight, till they had all passed inside the trenches and earthworks by which it was defended.
Salondah and his allies followed them up with gleeful anticipation. They entertained no sort of doubt about the result of the coming fight. The slavers were exasperated at all that had happened, and talked boastfully of the punishment they intended to mete out to these strangers.
Salondah and Xavier, indulging in these triumphant anticipations, were suddenly taken aback by seeing a rocket shoot up into the air ahead of them.
This was a strange and unexpected thing—for what could it mean? People as a rule only sent up rockets as signals to others some distance away. Could it be possible that the small force they had been pursuing had a larger force of friends waiting for their signal?
Then came a fresh shock. As they gazed around, vaguely wondering whether any answering signal would follow, they saw something which filled them alike with amazement and alarm.
The answering signal appeared, and in the very last direction they had thought possible. There, far away, but plainly visible against the sky now touched with the coming dawn, two rockets soared up into the air, over the town of Fura itself!
FOR a space Salondah remained as though he had been thunderstruck. Then, recovering himself, he put on an air of bravado, intended to encourage his own men and reassure his allies.
"Pshaw!" he muttered. "Those last two rockets could not have been anywhere near Fura. It must have been some trick due to the bad light."
"Where, then, could they be?" asked Drucker, his second lieutenant. "There must certainly be another party about somewhere, and they are signalling to each other."
"So much the more reason why we should attack this one, and crush them before the others can come to their aid," growled Salondah wrathfully. "What are we standing waiting here for, like so many stuffed animals? Order the charge to be sounded! The cowardly dogs seem to have halted yonder in order to summon their friends. We must rush them at once!"
The Furians, who knew nothing about rockets, and understood not the significance of what had occurred, required no urging, and the slavers were not in the mood to hang back. The signal was therefore given, and the whole force rushed forward, amid a deafening din of shouts, yells, much clanking of steel on the part of the Furians, and some wild shooting on that of the slavers.
They had seen the people they had been pursuing pass through a somewhat narrow space, lying between two high, rocky ridges, which came down from higher cliffs on each side.
It was indeed a natural gap or pass, and Sir George had made his camp on the further side, so that it was quite screened from the view of those following him.
No sooner had the assailants fired their random shots than an answer came back in a form they little expected. From trenches across the gap, from behind boulders, earthworks, and other shelters on the ridges, flashes of fire burst forth, and the roar of musketry in well-ordered volleys echoed amongst the rocks and hills around.
The charge was checked at once, and the rank and file stood irresolute, though their leaders did their best to urge them onwards.
In the meantime the dawn had crept upwards in the eastern sky, and by its dim light something large and strange could be seen by the astonished assailants looming up in front of them.
Silently and majestically it rose clear of the ground, clear of the ridges, rose through the still air—for there was no wind—till on a sudden it seemed to become illuminated, and shone out, a startling, lurid, glowing red, almost as though it were on fire.
It was the Champion, which had ascended from the midst of the white men's camp, and had now caught the first red rays of the rising sun.
Salondah, and a few of his people, of course, recognised it, and now knew who it was they had to deal with.
But the Furians knew it not. To them it was an object of awe and terror. And when this awful-looking monster of the skies began to move, slowly, deliberately, towards them, over then heads, threatening—as they thought—to fall on them and crush them into the dust, or, it might be, devour them bodily, they one and all turned and fled.
Vainly did Salondah and his lieutenants try to stay the rout. Believing still that they had only Dr. Cambray's usual small force to deal with, they thought they might yet be able to make a good fight of it. But even this last hope was quickly dissipated.
Sir George gave the word, and let loose his fighting-men. Through the gap, down from the rocky ledges, came a swarm of hundreds of Masai warriors, with white men leading and directing them.
They drove their enemies before them like sheep. Only the slavers made any show of resistance. These fought stubbornly, and endeavoured, with a certain dogged courage, to cover the disorderly retreat of their allies.
But it was all in vain. Back by the route by which they had advanced so vaingloriously they were driven steadily, though not recklessly.
The leaders of the victors—Dr. Cambray himself, Sir George and his white hunting-men, not forgetting the sturdy little naturalist, Mr. Hartley—were there on foot leading their men and keeping them in hand. It was well they did so, or there would have been a massacre; for the Masai men's blood was up, and they would, if left to themselves, have shown their assailants small mercy.
But the white men had no desire for any useless slaughter. They held their men in check, only pressing their foes closely enough to prevent their recovering, from their first terror and making a stand. The great airship, in like manner, sailed on overhead just fast enough to aid in overawing the fugitives, without catching them up.
Thus there was a running fight all the way back to the slavers' camp, and past that, to the cave, wherein was the entrance to the underground tunnel.
Into this the Furians dived in headlong flight, Malava, their king, his officers and nobles, and all his men. And Salondah and his gang, faced with the alternatives of either taking refuge with their allies, or being captured, or driven out into the wilds without their baggage and stores, decided upon the former, and sullenly followed them into the tunnel.
The white men gave them no time to attempt to hold the cave, but rushed it at once, seized the gates, and placed a strong guard over them.
Then the leaders emerged again into the open, and signalled to the airship, which came down low enough to throw out mooring ropes. These were grasped and held by numbers of men, the rope-ladder was lowered, and Dr. Cambray and the baronet boarded her, leaving Mr. Hartley in charge of their forces.
"Now for Fura!" cried the doctor. "Weston, my friend, full speed ahead; and let her go for all she's worth! We mustn't shout till we know how things have gone with our friends over there. But, so far, my plan has worked like clockwork; and I think we've got them all—Malava, Salondah, and company—nicely bottled up!"
SWIFTLY on towards Fura flew the great airship. Over the belt of sweltering morass and swamp, but well above its foetid breath, through the sweet, fresh morning air on high, she glided onwards at her greatest speed.
Over the low hills beyond the swamp, and finally over the city walls she sped, till the town lay beneath the travellers' feet, spread out in the daylight like a large raised map.
Here they could see people running about in frightened fashion as might a colony of ants whose nest has been disturbed. From them rose upwards a medley of sounds, shouts, and cries, the blare of trumpets, the shrill screech of whistles, and the deeper clang of gongs.
Then were seen the two aeroplanes coming to meet the airship. One was driven by Tim, who had Goodall beside him; while the other had only the two lads.
"Here comes Leslie the Lightheaded. Of course he must needs try, even at a time like this, to outrace Tim!" said the doctor.
"Is it good news or ill which is said to travel the faster?" said Sir George, with a laugh. "If he is bringing us good tidings we must forgive his anxiety to be the first to deliver them."
It certainly looked as though Leslie, who was driving the Hawk, was trying to outstrip the other aeroplane. Whether that was really the case or not, he managed to get well ahead of her, and to reach the airship first.
As he passed at full speed close beside her, he and Roland took off their caps and waved them in the air, while Leslie shouted out "All right, sir!"
There was no time for more; for in another second he had swept astern, and was circling round in a half circle to return and catch up again.
"A pretty way to deliver a message," snapped the doctor—"if you can call it a message. It tells us precious little."
"Well, here come the others," said the baronet, who was laughing heartily. "Leslie told us what we most wanted to hear; and we shall soon know the rest."
By this time the airship had slowed down, and Tim circled round in such a manner as to be heading in the same direction when he came alongside.
"Everything right so far, Dr. Cambray," Goodall reported, as he stepped on board. "They're waiting for you on the top of the temple—which we captured after Malava's departure."
The doctor nodded.
"Ay, ay! We saw your rockets in answer to ours. They told us that you had succeeded in seizing the gates at this end. And you've held them since?"
"Yes. The people made two or three attacks, but we drove them off. And now—especially since they caught sight of the airship coming this way—they seem thoroughly cowed. I don't think they've got any more fight left in them. Prince Akolah has only to show himself at the right moment. We've sent two or three out who are spreading the news that their rightful king is returning to them, and will come down from the skies. Of course the people won't believe it till they see it, but when they do see it I think the affair will be ended. How did you manage on your side?"
"Capitally!" Sir George answered. "Dr. Cambray's plan worked out splendidly. We've got them 'bottled up,' as he calls it, in their own tunnel, which they, no doubt, thought so much of. And now they'll have to agree to our terms, or we don't let them out!"
The above words are sufficient to describe the situation as it then stood; but a short retrospect is here necessary to explain how it had come about.
When Akolah had first returned to his faithful but despairing adherents, their leader, Appalto, had told him, amongst other things, that he still had some sympathisers amongst the populace in the town. In particular, he counted a few friends among those in charge of the great Temple of the Lion Rock, which guarded the gates at the city end of the subterranean tunnel.
"If," Appalto said, "we could only communicate with these friendly sympathisers they might render us useful assistance. They might, for instance, put about a rumour that you were returning to claim your own. Such a rumour would prepare the populace generally for your reappearance, and might turn the scale at a critical moment, if we ever felt ourselves strong enough to boldly try conclusions with Malava."
This being translated to Dr. Cambray and his friend, Mr. Kelmar, they resolved to act upon the hint and put it to the test. They took the young prince and Appalto on their aeroplanes to the top of the temple by night; and there he managed to make his return known to his sympathisers without the fact being suspected by Malava or his myrmidons. Thus was the way prepared for action when the time came.
Dr. Cambray's daring plan for entrapping the prince's enemies and their slaver allies at one and the same time will be understood from what has already been related. It is only necessary to add the part played by Professor Kelmar and the aeroplanes that night after they had left the doctor's camp and sailed across to, Mount Fura.
They had there travelled to and fro in the dark between Prince Akolah's stronghold and the City of Fura until they had deposited a numerous and well-armed party on the top Of the great temple, to which Leslie had given the name of "Lion Rock No. 2."
Graham and his white hunters, several of Sir George's most reliable men, all armed with rifles and revolvers and plenty of spare ammunition, were amongst this little force. In addition, there were Prince Akolah, Dolah, Appalto, and as many of their followers as there was room for. These had all remained quietly on the top of the rock awaiting the appointed time. They had seen the lights die down and the people go to their rest.
Presently they had seen Malava's officers going about rousing their men and forming them up in readiness for the night march through the tunnel. They allowed sufficient time to elapse for them to pass through and get well away from the other end, and then had descended into the temple. This they found almost deserted, for most of those left in charge, having no suspicion of any possible danger, had gone off to finish their night's rest.
The adventurers thus had no great difficulty in making themselves masters of the place itself and of the gates of the tunnel. And though, when the alarm was given, a number of Malava's soldiers, aided by some of the populace, endeavoured to retake it, their attacks were easily repulsed. Bereft of their leaders, bewildered by the events of the night, and, above all, frightened by the sudden appearance of strange flying shapes in the darkness above them, it can be readily understood they made but a half-hearted fight of it, and were now, as Goodall had said, just in the frame of mind to submit to their own lawful king when he appeared.
When, therefore, half an hour later, Akolah, dressed in rich robes of purple and gold, that gleamed and glistened in the sunlight, came down from the skies, as it were, on his white friend's aeroplane, he was hailed as king, with the consent of practically the whole population.
Then the new king held a court at the palace, at which he chose his officers and state officials. Dolah, Appalto, and Rekla were, as might be expected, appointed by him to the chief posts of honour; and this and other duties having been attended to, he ordered preparation to be made for a great feast at which his white friends were to be the chief guests.
Presently, in the midst of the general rejoicing and congratulations, Goodall, who had disappeared from the scene, suddenly returned, evidently in a state of excitement. He whispered a few words hurriedly to King Akolah, who, in turn, beckoned to the doctor and Mr. Kelmar.
Goodall explained on behalf of the king: "I have been on your aeroplane," he said "to the mines, to do the king's bidding. There I sought out the taskmasters, and delivered the royal mandate; and in obedience to it all the poor creatures detained there as slaves have been set free, and are now on their way here. All are coming, that is, save one, whom I brought with me; and you can guess who that one is. Heaven be thanked and praised I found my friend alive, though he has changed sadly for the worse even since I saw him. My instinct was not at fault. He told me to-day that his name is Woodham—and he is Roland's father. I have told him my story and prepared him, and he is now waiting impatiently, close by, in an ante-chamber, to welcome and thank you, and embrace his son."
"Where is he?" asked the professor eagerly. "Take us to him at once—"
"You forget, Kelmar," the doctor put in, "that you have not yet prepared Roland for what will seem such wonderful news. I wish now we had told him."
"I don't know; I think, perhaps, the professor's way was the best," said Goodall gravely. "I confess I should like to have told him myself, before this, what was in my mind. More than once I have had difficulty in keeping back the words. But, then, consider how it would have been if we had found, when we finally arrived here, that I was mistaken, or that his unfortunate father had died since I last saw him. What a cruel, terrible disappointment that would have been for the poor lad! No; I agree with Mr. Kelmar's view. I think we have acted wisely."
"Well, well! I dare say you are right; and, in any case, I know that what you did was intended for the best," said the doctor heartily. "There is one thing—I do not believe that unexpected good news ever killed anybody yet. But someone must prepare him."
"I will see to that. Leave it to me," said the professor. And he went out in search of the two lads.
AN hour later Roland, looking very radiant and happy, came into King Akolah's presence, half-leading, half-supporting an elderly man, evidently once of handsome face and fine physique, but now bearing the marks of long years of privation and ill-usage.
Poorly dressed as he was, almost in rags, King Akolah bade him be seated beside him. Then he ordered his officers to bring him a dress of honour and chains of gold, and insisted on investing the recipient himself.
"You have been ill-used and treated with contumely amongst us," Akolah said. "I would now that, so long as you shall remain with us, all my people should pay you honour, and try to make some amends for what you have suffered. I, too, have been treated as a slave, therefore I can feel all the more for you. And because your son was good to me in the time of my trouble, and I saw, in his eyes, though he spoke not my language, the kindly light of sympathy and friendliness, I wish, now that I am king, to show my gratitude to him by honouring his father."
And that is how, after many years, and when he had long given up all hope, Roland found his father; and how the rescued "slave" was honoured by the grateful young king publicly before all his people.
"AND so you tried to throw my son over a cliff! My poor friend! you must indeed have suffered cruelly ere you were driven so far out of your mind, as to try to kill one who had come to rescue you—and that but a lad, too!"
It was Mr. Woodham who spoke; and he was addressing his friend Goodall.
Three days had elapsed since the events recorded in the last chapter. Mr. Woodham was fast recovering, both in health and in spirits; and was beginning to take more interest than he had at first done, in what went on around him.
The "alarums and excursions" had all ceased, and peace and quiet had settled down upon the land of Fura. Malava, and Salondah, and all their men, had surrendered at discretion. Knowing the peculiar arrangements connected with the underground passage, in which they were cooped up, they were tormented with an overpowering dread of being drowned by its being flooded. Hence they had jumped at the first terms offered, even though they condemned them to the same fate as that to which they had condemned so many others. Those terms were that they should be sent to work in the mines; and there they had now all gone—all, that is, of the principals. A few of the lesser offenders were let off more lightly.
Dr. Cambray and the baronet were thus able to use the tunnel as a means of communication with their large encampment outside. This gave the airship and aeroplanes a rest; and the white men had now the opportunity of examining their surroundings at their leisure, and indulging their curiosity concerning the present-day condition of the long-lost Land of Ophir.
King Akolah had assigned apartments in his palace for the use of the leaders and their henchmen, one suite being specially set apart for Mr. Woodham and his son. And here, one morning, his white friends had assembled to discuss their future plans. Professor Kelmar was there, and the doctor, and so were Sir George and Mr. Goodall; and, needless perhaps to say, Leslie was there with Roland.
"Ay," Goodall replied to Mr. Woodham's words, and he sighed and shook his head very gravely. "Those were dark days for me; I was out of my mind indeed! Some of it comes back to me at times, but not clearly. I can only recall it dimly and indistinctly, as one recalls a horrible, fevered dream. It seemed to me—as in a dream—that I was struggling with someone who was trying to capture me in order to drag me back to Fura, when, all of a sudden, I heard your voice—"
"My voice!" exclaimed Mr. Woodham.
"Ay; your voice; so at least I thought at the time. I seemed to hear you say, 'We don't want to hurt you! We are your friends—come to help you!'"
"Those were the words," said Leslie, "that Roland used while you held him. Then you let go; if you hadn't, I truly believe I should have pulled the trigger of the rifle I was pointing at you."
"No one could have blamed you, my lad, if you had," Goodall declared. "But under the mercy of Heaven those words recalled me for the moment to myself. They acted on my brain like a charm. I seemed to hear the voice of my friend calling upon me not to do something I was about to do, and I desisted. Afterwards I went off my head again; but each time the lad spoke it recalled you, Woodham, and soothed me. Therefore, when I came to my senses in earnest, after the knock on the head that Masai fellow gave me, I told our good friend here, Professor Kelmar, that I was sure Roland must be the son of one who had been a fellow-prisoner with me in Fura, and with whom I had become very friendly. I had, by that time, seen traces of likeness in many other ways besides that of the voice—even in the lad's face and manner. But as I had only known you by the name they had given you here—for somehow you had never told me your real name—Mr. Kelmar thought it wiser and kinder not to say anything to Roland until my guess was proved to be correct."
"Yes; I am responsible for that," the professor here put in. "Our friends, Dr. Cambray and Sir George, only followed my advice in that respect. I thought it would be cruel, if Mr. Goodall's guess—it seemed really no more—should turn out to be unfounded, to have raised hopes in Roland's mind only for them to be dashed to the ground again. We did this much, however; we allowed him to take a more prominent part in the work of rescuing you and your fellow prisoners than would otherwise have been the case, I said; 'If it should happily turn out as Mr. Goodall believes, it will be afterwards gratifying to both that the son should have borne his share in the labours and the danger of rescuing his father.' And I am sure Roland has that satisfaction to-day. He has shown high courage, and keen devotion to duty."
"Leslie too," murmured Roland. "He tried quite as hard as I did."
"Ay, ay; so I've heard," said Mr. Woodham. "I've been told that you have been good, plucky lads, both of you. I am proud of what I've heard about you, Roland; and thankful to think you've had such good friends to stand by you. And not less grateful am I for what they have done for me and my fellow sufferers.
"Well, now, friends," the speaker continued, with a firmer tone in his voice, and the flash of a new light in his eyes, "I have something else for which I feel thankful to Heaven, and that is that I shall be able to do something to show my appreciation of all this kindness. In one sense I know it can never be repaid; but so far as what we call 'filthy lucre' goes, I hold in my hands a secret which will, I trust, be the means of bringing you at least some little reward.
"My friends, the callous, cunning taskmasters who have kept me here in the hope that, with the white man's superior knowledge, I might find out something which they had failed to discover, were not altogether wrong in their ideas. To blurt out my secret briefly, I have discovered one of the lost gold mines of the ancient Land of Ophir!"
"Great Scott!" exclaimed Dr. Cambray. "What—how—eh? How do you mean?"
"I mean that what the Furians here have been working for many years have been merely the first mines which the ancients found, and which they practically worked out ages and ages ago. Looking at the locality with the eye of a mineralogist, I saw certain signs which I followed up by stealth, with the result that I came upon an old passage, the existence of which is unknown to, and unsuspected by, anyone here. I have been into it and seen it, and I can take you to it. I can tell you that it is one of the richest gold mines I have ever seen; and that not so much as the half of its riches has as yet been touched!"
Exclamations of astonishment and wonder were heard around; and question followed upon question.
Mr. Woodham answered them in turn, and explained that he had made the discovery only a few months before.
"Why, then, Doctor," said Sir George, with a good-natured laugh, "you will not go away empty-handed after all! Your dreams of treasure, and of the good use you were going to make of it, are likely to turn out something more than dreams!"
"I hope they will; indeed they shall," Mr. Woodham declared with energy. "This is a real gold mine of ancient Ophir," he repeated. "It contains, I feel convinced, enough treasure to make every one of us rich beyond our dreams. I had some thought of using my knowledge to bargain for my liberty; but," shaking his head, "I knew Malava too well. He could not be trusted to keep any promise he might have been induced to make.
"So now, my friends, I have decided what I will do; to me, here, situated as I was, the secret was a worthless one. It is you who have made it of value; and into your hands I give it. I will lead you to the place, and you shall make such use of the knowledge as you may deem fair and just, towards King Akolah, towards yourselves, and towards me and my son, not forgetting something for my fellow sufferers—those others who have been slaves here with me."
"If the find should turn out as valuable as you think," said Sir George, "we had better form ourselves into a Trust to receive such portion as King Akolah may apportion to us, and divide it out fairly amongst all of us and our followers. And to my thinking, the largest share ought to go to you as the finder."
"Certainly," said the doctor; and the others cried, "Certainly," and "Yes, yes," in chorus.
"No, no," Mr. Woodham insisted. "If any one is to have a larger share than another it should be Dr. Cambray. Without him and his airship Prince Akolah would never have returned; 'Malava the Cruel' would still be reigning here; and we prisoners would have dragged out a miserable existence and died here. Roland has told me he has heard that Dr. Cambray has almost used up his own private fortune in order to provide the money for the wonderful aerial craft which have been the means of accomplishing this great work—not to speak of other work elsewhere, the rescuing of slaves, and breaking up of slaver gangs. It is but fair, therefore, that the expense he has incurred should be made good to him before we others take anything to divide amongst ourselves."
There was again a chorus of assent; but Dr. Cambray broke in upon it almost angrily:
"Stuff and nonsense, stuff and nonsense!" he exclaimed; in his short, abrupt manner, "Just give me a share like the rest—if there is really anything to share."
"Quite so," Sir George put in laughingly. "After all, this new gold mine that Mr. Woodham has discovered belongs to King Akolah and his people. How do we know they will consider that we are entitled to any of it? We had better settle with him before we talk of cutting it up into shares. Though I do not think we need fear he will look at the matter in any illiberal spirit."
Nor did he; for when, a little later on, the matter was explained to him, he offered terms which Sir George, acting on behalf of himself and friends, gladly accepted.
The next step was to visit the place, and see for themselves what the gold mine was really like. And here a fresh surprise awaited them.
Under the guidance of Mr. Woodham, they entered the underground gallery of which he had spoken, and there found every evidence of the existence of large quantities of gold-bearing quartz. Dr. Cambray and Professor Kelmar, after careful examination, were able, as scientists, to confirm the finder's estimate of its value. But while engaged in their investigation they came upon a place where there had been a fall of rock, which revealed an opening to what had evidently been a secret chamber.
It was, indeed, much more than that, for it was an underground treasure-house. There the searchers found, stored away partly in the form of rough ingots, partly in the form of dust, large quantities of gold, which had evidently been taken from the mine itself and placed in this secret vault as a reserve for use when required.
"And you had no idea of the existence of this treasure-house?" said Sir George to King Akolah, through Mr. Goodall,
Akolah shook his head; and some talk ensued between him and the interpreter. Then the latter explained:
"It seems," he said, "that there is a tradition, or legend which has come down from ancient days, according which some great king, once upon a time, stored away a lot of treasure as a precaution because the country was threatened with invasion. Then, the said king and his confidants were killed in battle, and so all trace of the hiding-place was lost. King Akolah thinks that this must be the explanation of the existence of the treasure. He is, of course, very pleased at our discovery; the more so that it will make it easier for him to hand over your shares for what you have done for him."
"Yes; that is true," returned Sir George thoughtfully. "It should get over a difficulty which had already occurred to me. If we were going to be sharers in the wealth of this mine we should have had to wait for such shares while the gold was being got out of it—which might have been a matter of years. Now, our friend the king can, as you say, hand us over what he thinks fair, and we can go our ways and leave him and his people to themselves—if, as I believe to be the case, that is what they wish."
"It is what they wish, Sir George," Goodall answered, speaking in a sort of aside. "It is not King Akolah's wish—he would like you all to stay as long as you please, and to come and visit him again. But his people have their own ideas about it. They have been brought up, educated, in what is a sort of religious belief that some great harm will come to them if they open communication with the outside world. They wish to remain isolated. And, indeed, so set upon it are they, that Akolah believes they would even break out into rebellion, rather than submit to any intercourse with strangers. For his sake, therefore, as well as for our own, it may be wiser to act upon his hint, which is to take the share he offers of this treasure now, while they are in good humour, and—to put it briefly—clear out with it as quickly as we can!"
"GOOD-BYE to Fura! Our last trip to the camp before we fly away for good! Think of it! Like the peri at the gates of paradise, we may sing, 'Our task is done!' Tim, darlint, whoy don't ye sing?"
It was Leslie who spoke, and he was evidently in very high spirits even for him. He and Roland were ready to set out in the Hawk, while the Champion was straining at her moorings some distance away in the midst of a great crowd of the Furian populace, with King Akolah and his nobles at their head, waiting to see the white men start.
The Hawk should indeed have started before, and ought to have been already on her way, with Tim and the two young aviators on board. All good-byes had been said, and the last handshakes given, so far as they were concerned, when something was found to be wrong with the machinery.
As a consequence, Tim was just then crawling about underneath the aeroplane, saying things to himself; but whatever it might be he was saying, it certainly did not sound exactly like a song of joy and thanksgiving.
"It's a mighty foine timper ye're working yeself into down there, Tim," continued the irrepressible Leslie. "Faith! It's reportin' ye to the doctor Oi'll have to be, Oi'm thinkin', for setting a bad example to our Furian friends by using bad language."
"Well, Oi've finished now, anyway, Misther Leslie," said Tim with a grin, as he crawled out.
"That's good news, Tim, in a double sinse; an' as the chaps around didn't ondersthand ye, Oi'll forgive ye this toime. Now, Roland darlint, get aboard; an' moind ye behave discretely. It's our last thrip, remimber, as Oi mintioned before. Then it will be, oh! for merrie England, home, and beauty, so far as you are concerned; and, oh! for Cambray Town, for the doctor and meself."
"Arrah, now, Misther Leslie," said Tim, "it's yeself as must be careful. It's high spirits ye're in this mornin', an' the doctor said—"
"Oh, niver moind phwat the doctor said!" exclaimed Leslie. "Oi can guess the rest. Roland, mavourneen, ye're wearin' a worried look this evintful morning. What ails ye?"
"I was thinking what a strange, wonderful business it has all been," returned Roland thoughtfully, "and how curiously it began with our rescuing Akolah and Dolah from Salondah & Co. at the Lion Rock. Little did we then think how much was to come of it! How that we were to discover the lost Land of Ophir; to re-place Akolah in his true place as king; to return laden with riches; and last, but most of all to me—worth more than all the treasure in the world—how that I was to find my father, whom we have mourned as dead for so many years!" There was a choke in Roland's voice as he finished, and his eyes were growing suspiciously moist; so Leslie hastened to turn the subject:
"I wonder what they'll think and say about us when we're gone?" he queried.
His question had the desired effect. It raised up a new line of thought; and Roland smiled slightly at the ideas it suggested.
"I suppose, in the years to come, our memory will become a sort of legend in the land," he said. "These people will make up all sorts of tales and stories of the wondrous white men who came down from the skies to restore their lost king. They'll make up songs about us perhaps, and sing them to their children."
"Then we shall be neither 'unhonoured nor unsung,'" laughed Leslie. "I wonder what sort of characters they'll make you and me out to be in those legends you're thinking of?"
Unhonoured, the travellers certainly were not. Indeed during the stay they had made—which had now lasted over a month—Akolah and his particular friends had done everything possible to make their visit agreeable, and to show how they appreciated what the white men had done for them. Both Roland and Leslie were at that moment wearing round their necks gold chains with curious, jewelled pendants, of exquisite, ancient workmanship, hung there by the grateful young king himself. Everyone who had shown Akolah any kindness in those dark days when he had been known only as a rescued slave, had received some special and costly mark of his favour; from the doctor himself, down to Dan and Tim, and not forgetting even the Pigmies.
These presents were altogether apart from the share of the newly-discovered treasure which he had made over to the white leaders, and which the latter had removed to their camp secretly, in order not to arouse the susceptibilities of King Akolah's subjects, and give them an excuse for crying out that he was favouring the strangers unduly.
During their stay the scientists had found much to interest them in exploring the country, and examining the extensive ruins and other evidences of a wonderful bygone age. Some of these were on so colossal a scale as to excite alike their wonder and their admiration.
In particular, Dr. Cambray had been gratified, yet perplexed, to find that his guesses about the "Lion Rock" opposite Cambray Town had turned out to be correct. There was here, in Fura, as has been told, another "Lion Rock," with a temple inside it; and now he had found that there was also in this temple a gigantic figure of an idol, and other details, showing the two "Lion Rocks" to be almost identical in every respect except size; that opposite Cambray Town being the larger.
"Which, then, was the original one?" was the question which puzzled and worried the scientist. In any case, the fact that one was a replica of the other went to show that there must be some mysterious connection between the two, notwithstanding that they lay so far apart. What that connection had been, however, was a problem that was never likely to be solved.
Outside Fura the white men had made some very successful hunting trips, and had secured, among other trophies, specimens of the rare and much-prized okapi. Sir George's collection was complete to overflowing—thanks mainly to the assistance given to the hunters by the aeroplanes; and he was now ready to retrace his steps to the coast.
Just as Leslie and Roland, on the Hawk, were once more on the point of starting, Dr. Cambray strolled up, accompanied by some of his white friends;
The doctor had noticed that Leslie was in extra high spirits that morning, and he thought it as well to give him a special word of caution:
"Now be careful, feather-head," said he. "Remember what you are in charge of; and don't go and make some glaring muddle, just because this trip happens to be the last! Remember, too, that we shall not be far behind in the airship, and I shall keep an eye on you!"
Leslie looked greatly surprised. "Glaring muddle, sir!" he repeated. "Why, of course, I wouldn't do such a thing! I'm going to be ever so extra careful!"
"Mind you are, sir; mind you are!" snapped the doctor; and he went off again with his companions towards the Champion.
"I think they've managed very well," laughed the baronet, referring to the two lads. "No one beyond those we have let into the secret has any idea how much treasure of ancient Ophir we shall carry away with us when we go."
"No; and I am glad for King Akolah's sake that it is so," Goodall put in. "Knowing these people as I do, and having had the opportunity of talking with them further while we've been staying here, I assure you I am certain they would raise strong objections if they had any idea of the actual facts. I hope nothing will transpire to give our friend Akolah trouble after we've gone. Malava has still some partisans among the populace, you know; and they would seize with alacrity upon a thing like that as a means of stirring up disaffection,"
"H'm!" remarked Mr. Woodham, with a sort of grim emphasis. "I don't think we need fear for Akolah. He may be a bit good-natured; but he's no fool, With the stock of firearms and ammunition we are leaving him, and the drilling and instruction we have given him and his friends in their use, they'll be more than a match for Malava's partisans if they should venture to try conclusions. All the same, I agree that it is wise not to give such people any pretext for stirring up strife if we can avoid doing so."
Shortly afterwards the aeroplane started, amid a great outburst of cheering, and the beating of tom-toms and gongs; and soon the three in charge of it were speeding on their way over the belt of swamp, followed at some distance by the big airship.
"Yonder's the place," said Leslie, looking at the land ahead of them, "where Akolah first saw his native place again. Do you remember how he acted in pantomime towards the doctor and Mr. Kelmar?"
"Yes; and I said he was investing them, in fancy, with a gold chain apiece! That was a good guess of mine, wasn't it?"
"It was, sonny. He seems to have a perfect mania for that sort of thing! I wonder how many gold chains he's given away amongst our crowd altogether?"
"It is evidently the fashion in Fura in the case of everybody the king desires to honour," returned Roland. "Even Tim hasn't been forgotten."
"That's so; and I hope he's properly grateful. Say, Tim, are ye grateful? What's your opinion of King Akolah now?"
"Shure, Oi think he's the foinest bhoy for a haythin as Oi iver set oiyes on," was Tim's verdict. "Long loife to him; an' may he niver want for breath as long as he lives!"
The others laughed, and turned their attention once more to the route ahead. There they sighted a number of people marching from the camp towards the underground passage. They consisted of a party of Furians who had been paying a last visit to the camp, and were now on their way home, accompanied by a detachment of Masai warriors, who were escorting them as far as the entrance to the tunnel.
The latter, as they saw the aeroplane coming overhead, raised their spears in salute, as was their wont, and sent up a hoarse chorus of "Hail! to the Lords of the Air!"
The Furians, too, waved a salute; and Leslie, in the excitement of the moment, stood up in order to be the better seen as he returned it.
This sudden and unexpected movement on his part upset the balance of the machine, and caused it to give a dangerous lurch.
"Look out! Look out, Leslie!" cried Roland. "You'll have us all overboard in a minute! We're not on terra firma, you know!"
"Sit ye down, Misther Leslie, sit ye down," exclaimed Tim in alarm.
"Oh, Jehoshaphat!" came from Roland. "Now you've done it!"
"Mother of Moses!" groaned Tim. "Now the fat'll be in the fire! Phwativer will the doctor say?"
Well might they cry out! Leslie, in his impetuous movements, had kicked over one of the baskets of "ballast" placed just under his seat. Luckily it did not fall overboard; but it turned on its side, and a goodly portion of its contents went flying out in the wind, sparkling and shining, in the sunlight, like a falling rainbow.
There were cries of amazement from the spectators below; more gasps of horror from those on the aeroplane.
And small wonder, for the basket was filled with gold dust; and at least a half of it was now sailing downwards, in a shimmering shower, on the heads and bodies of the astonished natives!
Such was Leslie's last little escapade ere the white men left Fura. In order to keep the removal of the treasure a secret, as has been explained, it had been carried as ballast on the aeroplanes; and this had been the last load!
Dr. Cambray and his friends, travelling behind on the great airship, had been anxiously watching the Hawk through their glasses, and witnessed what happened.
As a consequence, there was, later on, an interview between the doctor and the repentant Leslie, over which however, it may be better perhaps, as they say, to draw a veil!
SUCH was the end of Dr. Cambray's search for the long-lost Land of Ophir. The next day the whole party moved off over the plain, and made their way once more across the waterless desert.
There, when they had safely reached the other side, the two parties separated. Sir George Stanfield and his people went on to the coast, accompanied by Professor Kelmar, Mr. Woodham and Roland, en route for England; while the airship made its way to Pigmy land to restore the Pigmy travellers to their own people.
Then the doctor, with Leslie and the remainder of his followers, returned to Cambray Town, there to perfect his plans for further philanthropic work in certain parts of "Darkest Africa," for which, thanks to the Ophir treasure, he had now ample funds,
Leslie, however, is living in the hope that before he and the doctor start again upon their travels, Roland will return from England to join them.
Thus it may be that the two friends may have other adventures in store for them not less strange, perhaps, than those they encountered in the course of their journey "By Airship to Ophir."