AS Manning fell headlong into the room, full of one single, determined purpose, he was conscious of the amazing contrast between the conditions inside and out. He was half aware of what he saw, like one who dreams uneasily and illogically. For there, all was peace and refinement and the little odds and ends of luxury that go to make up the thing we call home.
To begin with, Edith Carson was sitting at the piano, playing some soft, elusive music to herself. There was just the suggestion of a smile on her face. The light from the subdued lamps reflected on the white blur of her dress and the diamonds in her dusky hair. Then she caught sight of Manning, and her expression changed to a sort of haughty amazement.
"Mr. Manning," she said, "what does this mean?"
Manning strode across the room and laid a heavy hand upon the girl's shoulder.
"Come along!" he said. "There is not a moment to be lost! Come without a word!"
Edith Carson rose to her feet.
"Really!" she protested. "Really!"
"Oh, there's not time for anything of that sort," Manning said bitterly. "I am not welcome, I know, but that's not the point. I will explain as we go along."
"You'll explain now," the girl said coldly.
"Very well then," Manning said between his teeth. "Those blackguards have risen at last. There's not a man on the estate who is loyal to Adair. I told you what they were—I warned you not to come here, in the disturbed state of the country. This isn't Europe; it's a little pocket-handkerchief State in No Man's Land. You ought to have stayed in the town. And now, to put it mildly, your life is in danger."
Still the girl failed to comprehend. She elevated her eyebrows daintily and scornfully. "I stay here till the Adairs come back," she said.
Manning lost no time in further argument. He slipped his arm round the girl's waist and fairly lifted her off her feet as he carried her on to the balcony. Then he switched off the electric lights.
"Look," he said, " and listen!"
It was all soft, velvety darkness outside, a tranquil summer night, fair as the stars powdering the sky overhead. But here and there lights glowed against the sky, and ever and again flashes of flame stabbed the darkness. And then there came in quick succession the sound of shots.
"There are over five hundred of the devils there," Manning said hoarsely, "looting and burning—yes, and murdering! They call it a strike. And they are coming here! Now you are beginning to understand?"
Edith Carson drew a deep breath. It was coming home to her now, right enough. But even then, in that moment of peril, she was conscious of the feeling of resentment in her heart against the man by her side. For he had warned her of this—warned her of the danger of coming so far from the town at a time of labour unrest—and he had been right. He had always been right in his simple, dogged way, even from the moment, two years ago, when he had asked her to marry him, and she had laughed him to scorn. And now here they were, side by side, face to face with a terror all the more alarming because neither of them knew in what form it had come.
"Where are the Adairs?" Edith asked.
"In Adigo by this time," Manning said. "I managed to warn them as they came along in the car, and they turned back. They could do nothing by coming on, and I promised to look after you. Even then we had to fight for it. But the car is outside, and I am waiting. If yoa have the slightest regard for your safety, come with me at once."
Still the girl sat there hesitating.
"Where is Señor del Sartes?" she asked. "He would be able to stop all this, I am sure."
Manning smiled grimly under cover of the darkness. It was not for him to say just then that del Sartes lay out there in the garden with a bullet through that black heart of his, and that the hand that fired the shot was still half clasped about the waist of her who asked the question.
"I cannot tell you," Manning said simply. "except that he is dead. But I can tell you this—Miguel del Sartes was no friend of yours. Oh, I know what you think. You think I was jealous of him, and perhaps I was. And I know that he had fascinated you with those beautiful manners of his, to say nothing of his handsome face. If he had been here half an hour before me, we should never have met again!"
"Señor del Sartes was a gentleman," Edith said.
"He wasn't," Manning said doggedly. "He was a black-hearted scoundrel. I couldn't tell you this before, because I was not sure, and I don't think, you would have believed me, anyway. But this I can tell you—he had a wife up there in the mountains, in that lonely hacienda of his, a poor creature who had lost her reason because of his treatment of her. And now do you begin to understand? Now perhaps you will believe me when I tell you that this uprising was engineered by him—well, because he has a wife, and because he had dared to raise his eyes to you."
No words came from Edith Carson's lips, though she tried to smile, but she knew very well, deep down in her heart, that this was a true thing. And she knew that Manning had come all this way, taking his life in his hands, for her sake. Another shot or two rang out, and somewhere in the garden the two standing on the balcony could hear the patter of stealthy feet. Manning waited for no more. He lifted the girl in his arms and staggered out into the night. He blundered down the path through the garden, and out into the road, where the car was waiting. He placed his burden inside and started the engine, after which he switched on the light. Then for a quarter of an hour or more the little car raced down the mountain road unmolested, save that every now and then a little flash of light from a rifle struck into the darkness. But they were through at length, and presently the car pulled up by the side of a deep ravine.
"We are fairly safe now," Manning said; "at least, we shall be till morning; and, after that, it largely depends upon your coolness and courage. We can't go back— any attempt to reach Adigo would be madness. The whole country will be in a state of chaos for days, and any Englishman or woman caught by those madmen would—well, you ought to know by this time."
They sat there, talking more or less fitfully, till the night began to fade, and then suddenly the sun shot up over the mountain peaks in a blaze of golden glory. It was wonderfully still and quiet there, with the snow-capped mountains behind them, and the deep river, cutting its way through the rocky gorge, lay at their feet. It was only a narrow gorge, not more than sixty or seventy feet at the outside, and the stream ran between with a steep precipice on either side. On the further bank the virgin forest began, a glorious tangle of tree and undergrowth, stretching back for a mile or two till the plains were reached, and it was for these plains that Manning was making.
"Perhaps I had better tell you what I am trying to do," he said. "We can't go back, because that is impossible. We should never get through to Adigo. And if we cross the river, we may reach that little station where Addison and his assistants have established themselves. You have met Addison?"
Edith nodded. She had met the distinguished naturalist more than once at the Adairs' hacienda, and, indeed, she rather liked the somewhat eccentric individual who had come all those miles from home in the interests of science.
"We shall be all right there," Manning said, "if we can only reach the place. There are half a dozen good men with Addison, and I know they have got at least one machine-gun there. But we haven't done with the danger yet. We have got to get through two miles of virgin forest, unless we go down the river's bank on the far side, and that might take at least a week. I have crossed that belt of forest only once before, and, if I lose my way, we can just sit down and starve."
"Oh, I am ready, if you are," Edith said. "And I am truly sorry, Tom. I have behaved very badly to you, and I want to tell you so. I suppose I was angry because you were right."
"Oh, we can go into all that presently," Manning said almost roughly. "We have got something else to think about now besides apologies. Those people are sure to follow us, even if it is only for the sake of getting hold of the car. What we have got to do now is to get across the river and cut off our retreat."
Across that rocky gorge, from one side to the other, with the river running two hundred feet below, was a slender steel rope, a kind of endless band running over wheels at either end. Suspended by this was a sort of basket arrangement by means of which the natives of those parts crossed the ravine. Edith looked at it and shuddered. She was plucky enough, as a rule, but the idea of crossing in that basket filled her with dismay.
"Is that the only way?" she faltered.
"Absolutely," Manning said. "It's quite safe. Now, I am going to put you in the basket, and I shall stand over you with my feet on either side. Now, then, screw your courage up. Think what would happen if any of those people were following us, and it's any money some of them are doing so. I think I had better blindfold you."
"No, no!" Edith cried. "that would be horrible. How brave you are, Tom!"
Manning grunted. He was in no smiling mood. He loved the girl by his side, but he could not altogether smother a certain resentment against her because she had quite wilfully placed herself in this position. He lifted her without ceremony in his arms and dumped her down in the bottom of the basket. He stood with his feet on either side, swaying perilously, and then began to work the steel rope over the wheel. It was a long and arduous task with the double weight, and Manning's muscles felt as if they were on fire by the time he had reached the other side and placed the girl safely on the cliff.
"You just sit there," he said, "and wait till I come back. Oh, yes, I must go. You are all right here. You see, I have got my rifle and cartridges to fetch, and I managed to get hold of a certain amount of food last night, which is in the car. I planned all this out as I came along. I knew, if I got to the hacienda before del Sartes, that we should have a good sporting chance. And, thank Heaven, I was not too late!"
Manning came back presently with the basket loaded to the top, and then slowly and patiently proceeded to saw through the steel hawser with a file. It was tedious work, but presently the last strand snapped, and the wire rope disappeared in the bed of the river. With the snapping of the last strand something seemed to give way in Manning, too, for he wiped the heavy drops from his hot face, and for the first time since they started his features relaxed into a smile.
"I think we are all right now," he said. "The wretches can't follow us—at least, not for a day or two, anyhow, and by that time we ought to reach our friends."
"A day or two!" Edith exclaimed. "I thought it was only two or three miles. Surely we shan't be all that time getting through the forest?"
"Well, we may or we may not," Manning said cheerfully. "If we take the wrong turning, it may be a week."
He spoke easily enough, and with a certain indifference that he was far from feeling. He knew only too well, sportsman and wanderer as he was, what it meant to get off the track even in four or five square miles of that dense forest. He had heard of natives, men accustomed to the woodland life, who had lain down there and died of starvation within half a mile of their own huts. It was the time of the year, too, when the vegetation grew with almost savage luxuriance, so that Manning could see almost at a first glance how all trace of track and path had disappeared. They were only a mile or two from safety, but then he had heard and seen enough of that wild country on the other side of the ravine to know the danger in which they stood.
But of this he said nothing. There would be time enough for that when the dread catastrophe stared them in the face. He had no guide or compass, nothing but his own instinct and the memory of one journey through that dense forest. Here and there was a patch of clear ground, and in one of these they camped presently and partook of a meal. It was late in the afternoon before Manning made his first attempt at progress, only to find himself driven back presently on to the clearing, with a cold sensation at his heart and the knowledge that he and his companion were in deadly peril. For there was no sign of a track to be seen anywhere, and though there were openings here and there, they were breast-high in a sea of grass and luxuriant foliage. To go back was impossible, to go forward something like madness. And as the day went on and night came, followed by another dawn, Edith Carson began to see that Manning was keeping something from her. Up to now she had undergone no hardship particularly, for the nights were mild enough, and her thin evening dress, together with Manning's coat, had been sufficient to protect her.
She turned to him suddenly.
"You are afraid?" she challenged.
"Not for myself," Manning replied. "At a pinch I could do the few miles down-stream and swim the ravine. I have matches and some cartridges, and I am used to this sort of life, as you know. But—yes, I might just as well tell you, we're in terrible danger, and I am to blame."
"You are not!" the girl cried. "We may be in terrible danger, but nothing like the peril I should have had to face if you had not come to my assistance."
"I am glad you understand that," Manning said curtly.
"Oh, I do! Del Sartes stirred up that strike. There would have been no trouble but for him. And he did it because— because—oh, I cannot say it!"
"Because he wanted to get hold of you," Manning interrupted. "His idea was that no one on the estate should survive last night's work. And if I had not heard of this and hastened to the spot, he would have succeeded. At any rate, he has paid the price. I saw to that."
"You killed him?" Edith cried.
"I shot him, certainly. On my side, at any rate, it was a fair fight. But what does it matter? Why go into all that? It is the future we have to think of."
Edith Carson bent her head in shame. She remembered now the warnings that Manning had given her, and how she had flouted them. The spoilt child of a rich American father, she had travelled the world us she pleased, making friends here and there, and living her own self-centred life until Manning had drifted across her horizon. Perhaps, if his admiration had been a little less manifest, if he had not wooed her quite so humbly, she might have given him her heart long ago. And because he had followed her half across the world, it had been her mood to treat him with a certain good-humoured contempt. But that was not her feeling now.
She turned to him suddenly, with a look in her eyes that a little while before would have filled him with gladness.
"I am responsible for all this," she said. "How foolish I have been, how blind! And yet I meant nothing. Now tell me the truth—tell me, are we standing here face to face with death? I am not without courage, Tom. I shall dread things a lot less if I really know."
"Well, then, we are," Manning said. "We can't go back, and I don't know the way forward. It's only a mile or two, if I knew the right direction, but it might be a continent as far as we are concerned. And I am afraid to leave this clearing. There are all sorts of dangers round us—snakes and wild beasts, and all that kind of thing. We have enough food for a few days, with care, and I have my gun. Good Heavens, how helpless a man is at times like this!"
They made more than one attempt to find an avenue of safety down those tangled green lanes, but each evening, before dusk fell, they were forced back again into the opening, where they sat, sharing the rapidly-decreasing stock of provisions, augmented from time to time by Manning with his gun. They kept up a good fire, there in the heart of the forest; and long after Edith had fallen asleep, to dream fitful dreams. Manning sat moodily looking into the gloom beyond the ring of the firelight, and catching the amber glow in more than one pair of restless, savage eyes. And so it went on, until there was barely enough food left for another day or so, and Manning was down to his last handful of cartridges. His clothes hung about him in rags, his face was grimy, and his chin black with a four days' growth of beard. And, in sooth, Edith Carson was in little better case. Manning had saved her as much as possible, but that filmy evening dress of hers was all in shreds, the diamonds—which she still wore in her dusky hair—looked grotesquely out of place. And so the fourth evening came, with Edith sleeping a few yards away, and Manning hunched up by the side of the fire, his empty pipe in his mouth and a look on his face that was not good to see. He was tired and worn out, and very near the breaking-point with fatigue and anxiety. Presently he began to nod, and was drifting off subconsciously into the realm of dreams, when a voice struck on his ear.
It was a strange, hoarse voice, hardly human, a croaking, mocking sort of voice from somewhere overhead, so that Manning opened his eyes with a sudden feeling that he was either dreaming or that he was on the verge of madness. He took a pull at himself and wiped the cold moisture from his forehead.
"I am going dotty!" he murmured. "I mustn't do that—I mustn't do that!"
Then the voice came again, clearly enough this time, and Manning knew beyond question that he was listening to it, cold and trembling, but with all his senses about him.
"Have a drink! Have a drink!" the voice said from somewhere overhead. "Have a whisky and soda!"
Manning laughed. A queer, hysterical feeling gripped him by the throat. Edith Carson sat up suddenly.
"Did you hear that?" she whispered. "Was it real?"
"It must be real if we both heard it," Manning said.
"I heard it last night," Edith went on. "Just the same words, only I thought I was dreaming, and didn't like to say anything about it."
The voice came no more, and daylight failed to afford any trace of a human footstep. And then, next day, towards evening, just as it was getting dark, the mysterious voice was heard once more in the dense mass of foliage overhead. At the repetition of the familiar suggestion Manning broke into a peal of unsteady laughter. He pointed upwards.
"Do you know what it is?" he asked. "It's a parrot—a parrot evidently escaped from somewhere close by, and beyond question belonging to some Englishman. Now, I wonder if that bird belongs to Addison? He's got any amount of birds there—in fact, birds are his particular hobby. He can do anything he likes with them. It's any money this parrot belongs to him."
"It must," Edith said. "But I don't see how this is going to help us."
Manning sat there furiously thinking. He moved presently a little further into the open, then beckoned Edith to his side. Silently he pointed upwards. And there, on a branch a few feet above their heads, was a great grey parrot eyeing them with a sort of solemn friendliness, and a peculiar twinkle in that beady little black orb of his.
"Whisky and soda!" he said. "Come and have a whisky and soda! Help yourself, my boy!"
"If we could only get hold of him!" Edith whispered.
"Ah, if we only could!" Manning said, with a deep breath. "Look at him! There isn't a feather out of place. He's too sleek and well fed to have escaped of his own accord. He's one of Addison's pets, and is probably allowed to fly about the forest as he likes. If we can only get hold of him, we are saved."
"Are we?" Edith asked eagerly. "How?"
"Well, the rest would be easy. We could write a little note to Addison and tie it round the bird's claw, telling our friend exactly where we are, and the rest is easy. Addison knows every inch of this ground, and he could reach us without the slightest trouble. It's any odds that bird goes back home some time or other, once a day, to be fed, certainly. Here, Polly! Pretty bird!"
As the familiar tongue struck upon the bird's ear, he burst into a laugh and hopped down two or three branches till he was almost within grasp.
"Addison's bird for a million!" Manning cried. "That's his laugh to a note. Come along, Polly!"
But the parrot refused to come any closer. It was only when Manning produced a small portion of his precious food that the grey bird showed further signs of friendliness. It was maddening to have him just one yard out of reach, when the absolute salvation of two human lives lay, so to speak, across those glossy grey wings. Manning and his companion stood there silent and motionless and hardly breathing in the tension of the moment. Then the parrot fluttered to the ground, croaking and snapping his beak at the tempting food. Manning dropped on his hands and knees, and crawled cautiously forward, knowing that two lives depended upon the next moment. Then he took his coat from his back and, reaching forward, dropped it quietly over the shining mass of grey feathers. There was a little struggle, and a volley of oaths in the Spanish tongue, and then the bird was safe in Manning's grasp.
"Take my pocket-book out of my pocket," he said, with the sweat pouring down his face. "Just write a few lines to Addison, explaining where we are. It's our only chance."
The note was written, shakily enough, and then wound round one of the bird's claws and carefully tied with some strands of silk taken from Edith Carson's dress. After that Manning pitched the parrot into the air, and he sailed away high over the tree-tops, screaming and chattering vehemently at the treatment to which he had been subjected.
"I hope to Heaven he is going straight home," Manning said. "If so, we are saved, though I expect we shall have to wait till morning."
They sat round the fire now, talking freely enough, for their hearts were full of hope, and, moreover, before they settled down to sleep, they had come to a perfect understanding. The sun was climbing high before Manning opened his eyes, and when he did so he saw the kindly face of his naturalist friend looking down upon him from behind his gold-rimmed spectacles. There were other men besides the famous naturalist gazing eagerly at the strange scene before them.
"You can tell me all about it presently, old man," Addison said. "Meanwhile, come along and bring the lady with you, and get a bath and a change of clothing. You have had a close call, evidently. If it hadn't been for the parrot—"
"Whisky and soda! Whisky and soda!" croaked a voice overhead. "Help yourself!"
"Oh, I could do with one, Polly!" Manning laughed unsteadily. "You are a wise bird."