THE hideous nightmare was beginning to recede into a nebulous mist of sea and land and sky, all mixed up in a spelter of returning consciousness, and Denholm was just faintly aware that M'Bisi was speaking to him. He had been dreaming of cool rippling water and the gurgle of a brown trout stream, and the sudden jolt into life seemed to shock him with a physical pain.
"The trail," M'Bisi whispered, "the trail, master!"
Denholm roused himself at last. He opened his bloodshot eyes and saw that the gloom of the trackless forest was no longer there. They had emerged into a sort of clearing, thick enough under foot, but from which the trees had been removed, and from somewhere in the distance came the unmistakable sound of running water. Denholm could not see it—indeed, he was almost past seeing anything—but M'Bisi, the faithful Wamba chief, had been smelling this fresh water for the last hour past, and that was what had kept him going. Those big limbs of his bent beneath him now, and the deep wide chest was labouring painfully, for M'Bisi had been carrying his master on his back for two strenuous, sweating miles.
They had come this way on the advice of M'Bisi, who knew the country like an open book, for he had been born here, and there had been a time when he had been a Wamba chief, commanding five hundred spears. But that was before the War came, and the Germans in the colony had led all his best young men into captivity, and had turned them into soldiers, to their great hurt and the glory of the Fatherland. But M'Bisi was wise in his generation; he knew the British and trusted them, and he was ever on their side. He had been on their side for more years than he could count. He knew their ways, and the slang of the British Tommy, so that his speech was a quaint mixture of dignified vernacular and English idiom picked up amongst the lads in khaki.
But all that is by the way for the moment. The War was over, and the colony was at peace. And, once this had happened, Denholm got himself demobilised and went up country in search of Professor Sparling and his daughter Maud.
It is, perhaps, necessary to explain at this point how the learned Professor and his only child found themselves, at the beginning of hostilities, behind the German lines; but the Professor, who was an enthusiast in his way, had gone up country as far as Aganda, where he had established Maud and himself at the French mission house. When the bolt had fallen from the blue, it was too late to get back across the border, and, incidentally, the Professor was too useful a man for the German command to part with. He was a master in the art of applied mechanics, and, as such, the foe kept him busy. News had come of the Professor and his daughter from time to time, from which it appeared that they were not at all badly treated, and that sooner or later they hoped to reach Cape Colony. And so things went on for the best part of two years.
More than once Denholm had information through the medium of M'Bisi, one of the finest scouts in the employ of the South African Army. He had penetrated on two occasions three hundred miles through the scrub, and had brought back once, at any rate, a precious letter in Maud's handwriting. She had come out to Cape Town from an English school, just before the outbreak of war, a pretty, attractive girl of nineteen, and Denholm had fallen in love with her on the spot. There had been nothing said on his side, but there was a perfect understanding between the young people, and when Maud went up country for a holiday with her father, she wore round her neck a thin gold chain that Denholm had given her as a keepsake. He would see the Professor, he told himself, after the latter's holiday was over, and till then—
Ah, well, much water had run under the bridges since then. The War had broken out, and for the next two years or more Denholm had plenty to occupy his attention. He hoped ever for the best, and, now that the conflict was over, another great adventure lay before him. For nothing had been heard of the Professor and Maud in the meantime. They seemed to have utterly vanished off the face of the earth, just before an almost decisive battle had been fought, somewhere near the French mission house at Aganda, and after that the German forces had fallen back over three hundred miles. They had fallen back so far that it was hardly worth while pursuing them.
But had they taken the Professor and his daughter with them? Denholm asked himself. Certainly nothing had been heard of either of them since then. If they had gone along, something must have been heard of them by this time; but, on the other hand, they might have hung back, hoping to be picked up by the advance guard of the British colonists. And so the months went on, till Denholm made up his mind to set out and see for himself. It had been a hard time for both himself and the faithful M'Bisi, and more than once they had lost the trail. The coming of the War had made all the difference in the world to those forest paths, for there were no longer traders and tribesmen coming and going, and the tropical vegetation grows fast. Before they finally emerged within gunshot of the ruined French mission house, they had spent almost their last cartridge, and they had been reduced more than once to the killing of pigeons and the drinking of blood to slake their thirst. But now here they were, within sight of water, fresh and cool from a mountain stream, spent and exhausted to the last breath, and with yet another danger almost within grasp of their hand.
"What are we going to do, M'Bisi?" Denholm asked. "What about that precious cousin of yours—Lomboso? You know who I mean—the chap who claims sovereignty over all you people."
M'Bisi spat with a gesture of contempt.
"A low-down nigger that," he said. "We come to him presently. He fight first on one side, and then on the other, and so save his black skin, but he tell us things. Bet you dollar he know all about Professor and the white lady."
"Well, let's go and hunt him up," Denholm suggested. "No, stop, I must think this over. For the love of Mike, go and get me a drink. I shall go mad if I don't have something to drink, and I can hear it sort of mocking me, old son."
M'Bisi came back in a moment with a rusty pan he had picked up, and Denholm buried his head in the cool, delicious water. It made a new man of him; it brought the sparkle to his eye, and the eager look to his face, and, better than that, it brought back that Irish humour of his that was one of his saving glories.
"Ah, that's better!" he gasped. "Say, where did you get that swell tin from?"
M'Bisi proceeded to explain that they were on the scene of the decisive battlefield, and that the thick, luxurious undergrowth was full of the spoils of war. And, indeed, every turn of M'Bisi's foot brought up something, a cap, a broken rifle, an empty meat tin, everything that reeked of war.
"It's like a sort of comic nightmare," Denholm went on. "But look here, M'Bisi, if we are to interview that swell cousin of yours, we must brush up a bit. Get out my safety razor and the soap, and I'll make myself fit to approach the throne. And hadn't we better wash and patch up these ragged old ducks of mine a bit? And what are you going to say to your relative when you meet?"
"He thunderin' bad lot," M'Bisi said in that queer vernacular of his. "He not alone, either. Twenty spears, perhaps, follow him. He stay here, hoping to make Wamba a big people again, and if he catch us like this, he'll cut off our heads sure."
"That's not on our programme," Denholm said drily. "But I see what you mean. What we've got to do is to put up a big bluff. Swank in on them, with a rifle on our shoulders and our bandoliers full of any old thing that looks like ammunition. I don't suppose, after all this long time, that Lomboso has a bean in the way of a cartridge. What do you think?"
"That is so, master," M'Bisi said. "For last night, when you slept, I made my way to the kraal, and, behold, there is not a rifle there that has been fired for months. I have them in my hand, and I know."
"That's the game," said Denholm enthusiastically. "We swank in and offer your rotter of a cousin a few hundred rounds of cartridges for the information he can give us. Now, then, where is the palace of this potentate?"
M'Bisi waved his hand comprehensively.
"It is there," he said, " that Lomboso makes his camp. Behold the smoke above the trees, and it is there that the mission house stood where I last saw the white Professor and the lady who gave me that letter for you, many moons ago, quite twice as many moons as I have fingers on my hand. And Lomboso, who was friends with the Germans, so long as they give him money, he can tell us, perhaps, where the white Professor is to-day."
"That's the game!" Denholm cried. "Now let's have a wash and brush up, and then we'll go and pay our respects to the mighty man who rules over Wamba."
It was something of a job to get Denholm's rags patched and washed, and a somewhat painful process to cleanse his face by means of the butt-end of a stick of shaving soap and a safety razor that had grown grey in the service. But it was all finished at length, and, with a bold front and a certain fear at their hearts, Denholm and his companion marched up to the big kraal where they knew that Lomboso was in residence. There was something more than fear in their hearts—there was deadly exhaustion from want of food—but there was nothing of this to be seen as they faced Lomboso, who grinned unpleasantly at his relative, and at the same time flourished a rifle with some display of ostentation. Then followed a few words in the language of the tribe, that Denholm could not quite follow. It was M'Bisi who came presently to the subject that was nearest to Denholm's heart.
"Behold, my brother," M'Bisi said, "we come here looking for that which is lost, and you shall help us, Lomboso, and we will reward you, for we have many things in the bush, and food for the guns-that-never-stop to last you through the hunting season, for we know that you have no food for the fire-sticks."
This was more or less a bow drawn at a venture, but the shaft went home, as M'Bisi could see from the uneasy glitter in the eyes of Lomboso.
"We come to look for the great white Professor and his daughter," he went on. "You will tell us where they are, because you know. Now, you give us food and a kraal wherein to sleep, and many presents we shall bring you."
Lomboso grinned again, the grin of the wolf when he appeared to Red Riding Hood. He stood there, a huge, glittering ebony figure in the sunlight, naked as the day that he was born, save for a loin-cloth constructed from a suit of pyjamas looted from somewhere, his only ornament a thin gold chain from which dangled a glittering gold coin that Denholm's eyes recognised as an English sovereign. With a sudden idea in the back of his mind, he approached Lomboso almost timidly and touched the gold disc with his forefinger.
"A great fetish?" he asked. "Where did you get him from, Lomboso?"
Lomboso smiled with a suggestion of his superiority.
"Behold, it comes to me from the hand of a white magician," he grinned. "With it I can make fire, and the water in the river to run up hill. Many moons ago, before the great War, and the squareheads took our men into captivity, the magician gave um to me It is the greatest magic in the world." "You are right there," Denholm said drily, as he regarded the sovereign. "It it the biggest magic in the world, if you have got enough of it."
"And there is more in the great box," Lomboso went on—"the great box that the magician took out of the fireship. And he put in it all the Juju, and he took the firestick that runs red and turns to water when the flame touches it. And this he placed in certain holes in the box, and put on them the sign of his Juju, saying that he who touches the red sign of Juju dies."
All this with a melancholy air and a longing look in Lomboso 's eyes. He was evidently quite sincere in what he said, and he was telling Denholm a great deal more than he intended. For the latter had almost forgotten the deadly peril in which he and M'Bisi stood in the illumination of that moment. He allowed the desultory talk to proceed on the subject of food and lodging, and the suggestion that, in return, Lomboso should be supplied with the ammunition that he so sorely lacked. So they parted presently, amiably enough outwardly, whilst Denholm and M'Bisi proceeded in the direction of the kraal which had been allotted to them, and where they fed almost ravenously on a bowl of seething kid's flesh. It was not till they had finished and their pipes were lighted that Denholm spoke again.
"That's a good bluff," he said. "And it came of all right, too. Your relative is a pretty picturesque liar, M'Bisi. I suppose you happened to see what he had round his neck?"
"Yes, master, a quid," M'Bisi said promptly.
"That's right, my son," Denholm smiled. "And you heard what he said about it. Now, look here, M'Bisi, that coin was made the year war broke out, because there is a sign on it that tells me so. Now, why did he lie about the time he had had it?"
"Because he no want you to know, master, and because he steal him from the white Professor."
"Yes, that's a pretty shrewd guess. But tell me, did you notice the chain as well?"
"Seen him before," M'Bisi grinned. "See him that time, long since, when I came and saw the white Professor and the beautiful lady. Then she was wearing it round her neck."
"Correct, as usual," Denholm said. "You are quite right. That chain was stolen from Miss Sparling, and I have no doubt that the sovereign was stolen, too. But what's all this talk about a box? You heard what that rascally relative of yours said—a black box that the Professor sealed with sealing wax and stamped with his signet ring. Of course it was the Professor; it couldn't have been anybody else. And you might enlighten me as to what the dickens Lomboso meant by talking about a fireship. What fireship? You don't mean to say there is anything in that legend to the effect that the Germans got a Zeppelin here early in 1917? I thought nobody believed in that silly story."
"It is a true tale, master," M'Bisi said solemnly, "because I saw him. He came down close here, the time when I came up to find the Professor for you, and, because there was a great storm, they could not float the fireship again. The big storm, he was swept by lightning, and I will show him to you presently."
"Oh, the dickens you will," Denholm exclaimed.
"Yes, even I," M'Bisi said, striking his mighty chest dramatically. "We will go there when the moon rises, and I will show you the body of the great fireship, like a whale that is stranded on a beach. And I will show you the black box that Lomboso spoke of, with the seals on him; but you not touch, because what Lomboso says is a true thing. I know, because it has come to me, down in the forest, and it is just what Lomboso say, Because Shini, who is one of Lomboso's boys, he try to get into the magic box, and lightnings come out, and, behold, he is no more than a cinder."
"Amazing!" Denholm cried. "Amazing! And yet I don't know. Upon my word, it doesn't seem so complicated, after all. It's another bluff, M'Bisi, a bluff like this. The Professor is here, almost within our grasp, and when we find him, as we must, I am sure he will bear me out. Now, according to your story, soon after the fireship came, a big decisive battle was fought here, and the Germans were scattered. That was practically the end of the campaign. Lomboso and his boys guessed that, so they hung back here, and the Professor hung back, too. It was he who gave Lomboso the sovereign and placed the rest of his money in that ammunition box. It must be an ammunition box, because it sounds just like it. You see, the Professor is a pretty shrewd man, and he never lacked pluck. When he found himself left alone here with Lomboso, he recognised the fact that his life was in danger, so he put up a bluff. He locked the money away in that box and sealed it. Just sealing wax, but it was enough to impress Lomboso. Can't you see what's happening? Here is Lomboso just aching to get hold of the rest of those sovereigns that he calls Juju, and no doubt making the Professor all sorts of promises if he will take the spell off the box. And Professor Sparling knows perfectly well that, if he does anything so foolish, his life won't be worth an hour's purchase. Lomboso would have no mercy on him; but, so long as the magic works, then Lomboso is prepared to play a game of patience. It's a game of patience on both sides."
"It is a true speech that you make, master," M'Bisi said. "And we have come just in time."
"Yes, that's all very well," said Denholm impatiently. "But there are only two of us, and we haven't got a cartridge between us. Now, unless I am greatly mistaken, that magic box is just bursting with them. What we've got to do is to break it open, because, if those boys of Lomboso's find out the truth, then we are done. And I should hate to fail at the very last moment, and when I come to think of the Professor and his daughter—"
Denholm broke off hastily. M'Bisi smiled.
"You think those boys follow Lomboso?" he asked. "Yes, perhaps so long as they are afraid of him and the magic of the Juju. But if we break that, and I say the word, will they follow him long, long way to Tipperary? You put your shirt on it that they don't. They follow me, their natural chief."
"Oh, it's like that, is it?" Denholm asked. "Well, I'm in your hands, M'Bisi, but I hold the key, all the same."
It was getting late, and the moon was rising over the woods when Denholm and his companion crept out of their kraal and across the opening till they came to a bare space in the trees where a mountain stream flowed into the lake. Here, beyond all doubt, a big fight had been fought, for the ground was littered with broken weapons, and machine-gun belts, to say nothing of articles of clothing. Almost at Denholm 's feet was a battered bugle, which he picked up and looked at longingly.
"I wonder if I could play it," he muttered. "I used to be rather a dab on the bugle when I was at Charterhouse."
"Better not, master," M'Bisi suggested. "They are in the woods now; I can hear them moving about. Behold!"
As he spoke, M'Bisi pointed to the wreck of a gigantic Zeppelin, the bare ribs of which were marked against the great moon like the timbers of some derelict ship. It was a most amazing and impressive sight, and Denholm regarded it with thrilling interest.
"Then it was true, after all," he murmured. "We never believed it at headquarters. It's a thundering fine sight, M'Bisi. But never mind that. What I am really interested in is the black box. Now, how did you find it?"
"It was last night, when you were asleep, master," M'Bisi explained. "I crept from our hiding-place, because I had heard the story, and I wanted to know. This way."
A few yards off M'Bisi parted the bushes, and there, sure enough, lay a black steel-banded ammunition box, turned over on its side, and in the broad light of the moon Denholm could see a big splash of scarlet on the hasp of the lock, and one on each side where the hinges fell. It was light enough to see that the initials "J.S." were imprinted on the red wax. M'Bisi would have touched it with his hand, had not Denholm drawn him hastily back.
"You are a dead man if you handle that!" he whispered hoarsely. "Listen! Can't you hear Juju calling?"
There was a faint purring from a little way off, just like the noise that a lion makes over his food. It went on steadily enough for some moments, and M'Bisi started back. With all his proud boast that the effete superstitions of his tribe were nothing to one who knew the ways of the white man, he was frightened. But not for long, for almost from under his feet there rose the dark form of Lomboso, with anger in his eyes and a spear in his hand.
"What you do here?" he cried. "What you want with the magic of the white man? You no fear his anger? You no hear his voice? He will come presently and kill you!"
With that, the infuriated Wamba drew back his arm, and Denholm could see that he had a spear in his grasp. It was no moment to hesitate, because a second later that spear would have been through M'Bisi's heart. Like a flash Denholm darted forward and brought his right arm round with a hook to the big man's jaw. The blow landed fairly and squarely, so that the spear fell from Lomboso's hand and he staggered back. A twisted root caught him by the heels, so that he fell right across the black box, with his cruel, contorted face turned upwards.
It was only for an instant, and then the miracle happened. With a piercing scream that woke the echoes in the wood, Lomboso collapsed and fell from the box on to the ground, nothing more than a mere handful of incinerated flesh and bone. There was a sickening "nauseous odour in the air, and then a silence that was unbroken by Denholm and his companion. M'Bisi was frankly frightened out of his life. He had never seen the effect of electrocution before, and even Denholm turned away with a sense of physical nausea.
But it was only for a moment before he pulled himself together and realised what had happened. He was prepared for it, too, because from the first instant that that purring noise had smote upon his ear he had recognised it as the sound of a dynamo. And therefore someone was in the immediate neighbourhood, someone who was hiding there, and who must have had a practical acquaintance with applied mechanics, and who else could it possibly be but Professor Sparling?
A certain thrill of exultation and delight, in the knowledge of this discovery, impelled Denholm to raise the bugle to his lips and essay a call upon it. He had not forgotten his old skill apparently, because the echo of "The Last Post" floated back pleasantly to his ears, and, almost before he had finished, a figure came climbing down the water-course that led to the lake—a figure apparently in a German uniform, that stood there regarding the intruders steadily. Denholm could see a grey beard flowing over the grey tunic.
"One moment!" he cried. "Turn off that dynamo."
"It's already done," a cool and collected voice replied. "Is that you, Denholm? Thank Heaven!"
"Yes, yes, that's all right," Denholm said. "But how about Maud—Miss Sparling? Is she safe?"
"Quite safe, Jim," another voice came out of the darkness. "I always knew you'd come. I told father so all along. I told him, if you weren't killed, you would be certain to search for us."
She emerged and stood beside her father, two queer figures, dressed in the field-grey uniform of German infantry. Denholm turned hastily to M'Bisi.
"Now, get busy, my lad," he said. "Burst that box open and fill up the bandoliers. We may have those chaps round upon us at any moment. I've got something else to do."
M'Bisi needed no second bidding. With the aid of Lomboso's spear he forced open the top of the case, and plunged his arms into the cartridges which had been stored there. Meanwhile Denholm was shaking hands warmly with the Professor, before he turned and looked into the eyes of the girl who had awaited him with such splendid confidence.
"It's been a near thing, Maud," he said— "a precious near thing. When we blundered through last night, we were on the verge of starvation, and we hadn't a shot left; but we managed to bluff that ruffian Lomboso and his boys, and here we are. We shall be all right now, thanks to my friend M'Bisi. But I'll introduce you to him presently. I should never have got through without him, and what would have happened then, Heaven only knows."
"Well, it's been a weary time," the Professor said, "and a matter of patience on both sides. You see, I managed to get hold of all the small ammunition the Germans left behind, and sealed it up in that box. The intact engines of the Zeppelin were a godsend to me. I managed to wire the box. But I see you know all about that. I suppose you guessed it when you heard the engines going. I'd like to have a few words with M'Bisi. Don't forget that he is quite an old friend of ours."
With that the Professor crossed to where M'Bisi was filling up the bandoliers, and Denholm was left alone with Maud.
"It must have been a dreadful time for you," he said tenderly.
"No, I didn't mind much," she said. "Only I wasn't quite sure whether you were alive or dead, and that was dreadful, Jim."
Denholm smiled as he took her in his arms and kissed her.
"Oh, well," he said, "so long as I'm still Jim to you, nothing much matters."