BY and by the two men would be making Empire. Later on, with any luck, that unknown portion of Africa would be added to the map and duly painted red. Then, perhaps, in the fulness of time, Stanning and Ridsdale would be largely in the newspapers, with C.B.'s after their names, and possibly fat commissionerships in the not remote future. It is a fascinating game, and has been played with brilliant success ever since the days of Drake and Frobisher and Hawkins. If the thing is successful, then these adventurers are patriots and explorers; if the thing fails, then they are no better than pirates, and are treated accordingly. And nobody understood the rules of the game better than Stanning and Ridsdale. They had gone into it with their eyes wide open; they had tired of the ordinary amusements of an effete civilisation, and, besides, they were both getting on in life. There were wrinkles under their eyes and grey patches on their temples, and a peculiar, nervous jerk of their hands which told its own story.
There were about two hundred and fifty of them altogether. As to the natives, they didn't count at all. They had been more or less pressed into the service; they were so many black cattle in a country where it was impossible to obtain mules. The Europeans were a mere handful, and of them the less said the better. For the most part, they would have preferred it that way. They were all in possession of antecedents, of course, but on this head they displayed a unanimous and striking modesty. Probably most of them had been in jail, and they all deserved to be, but they were just the sort of men that Ridsdale and Stanning wanted, for they knew no fear, and adventure was as the breath of their nostrils. It looked like being a big thing, too.
In the first place, no white man had ever been here before. The country was rich in produce; there was ivory to be had for the asking, and if the stories told by the natives were true, there was indiarubber back yonder behind the place where the chief of the tribes lived. Of course, there was the awful climate—the hot, steamy days and the heavy nights, when the fog fell like a blanket, and perspiring humanity shivered under its cold touch. There were fever and dysentery and all the rest of it, and no man knew what to-morrow would bring forth. But it was beautiful in its way, too. There were orchids here hanging from the trees, which collectors away in England would have given an ear to call their own. Provided the little force was not wiped out prematurely, then Stanning and Ridsdale began to see the outline of great possibilities. Probably, later on, they would reap their reward for all this; there were no newspaper correspondents present, so that they might carry out the campaign in the usual way. It is an axiom in the making of geography that dead men tell no tales.
And yet, somehow, things were not going quite so smoothly as they might, for here was a tribe that refused to come in. The men of it were not to be moved by blandishments or glass beads or biscuit-tins, and Winchester rifles appeared to have no terrors for them. More than one brush had ended in an undecided fashion, and progress was getting slow, until it began to dawn upon the leaders of the expedition that they were in a tight place. Their sentries were picked off at nights, and though they had every intention of moving in one direction, it gradually began to dawn upon Stanning and Ridsdale that they were being shepherded into quite another place. It was all very well to try and believe that their movements were made for strategic reasons, and because of the force of the foe who kept at respectful distance. But these two leaders had been in South Africa, and they recognised that there was method behind all this. There was something almost murderously civilised about it. The lesson had come right home that afternoon, when an advance party had been fallen upon and cut off to a man in a little ravine leading out into the plain. And when the advance party came to be buried, Stanning stood there whistling softly and scratching his head with a ruminative fore-finger. He was the more observant of the two, and he was seeing things now which were lost upon Ridsdale. When the two sat down gloomily to smoke, it was Stanning who pointed out certain things of moment.
"This is a serious business," Ridsdale said.
"My boy, it's more serious than you think," Stanning replied. "Now, just look at this. I picked it up this afternoon—in fact, I picked up a couple of dozen of them. If those chaps of ours find any of them, they won't move another yard."
"What is it?" Ridsdale asked languidly. He lay there half suffocated by the moist heat; his face seemed to be bathed in a kind of yellow varnish. "What have you got there?"
Stanning passed over a little, shining, brass cylinder for his companion's inspection.
"No reason to ask you if you know what this is," he said. "You've been through the Boer war, and you've seen the thing for yourself. It's the shell of a Mauser cartridge, my boy, and I've got a score more in my pocket. And every one of those poor devils we buried just now was shot with a No. 2 Mauser rifle of the very latest pattern. Why, it hasn't been out more than six months. Lord knows how it was that those chaps didn't notice. I suppose they thought that our little lot was picked off by a lot of old gas-pipes just in the usual way. I tell you, I don't like it, Ridsdale. I could have sworn that we were the first white men here, and yet that's impossible. Fancy coming across niggers in the middle of Africa armed with Mausers! And that's not the worst of it. Here's another shell. I picked it up quite by accident. You won't want to run your eye over it more than once to see that it's a Maxim cartridge. Fancy a nigger chief right off the map here with a force behind him armed up to date in this way! No wonder he refused to come into treaty with us. And the beggar's clever, too. He's running this little scrap quite on European lines. He's a kind of Cronje in the bud. And instead of us being marching on to Maryland and all that sort of thing, we are in a devilish tight place. I only began to realise it yesterday, and that confounded nigger knows it, too. If something out of the common doesn't happen, your mother and mine will never see their blue-eyed boys again."
"So you've spotted it, too?" Ridsdale asked. "I didn't like to say anything about it till I was certain. And so far as I can see, there is only one thing left to be done."
"'The good old rule, the simple plan,'" Stanning quoted—"the great game of bluff which has built up the British Empire and made it what it is. We shall have to wave the flag, my boy. We shall have to pose as a British force, and offer this mahogany Napoleon here the protection of the Union Jack. It may come off all right; on the other hand, it mayn't. If it does, then we shall get our little reward later on, and if it doesn't, then Portland prison may be our portion for some little time to come. We will send our friend an ultimatum. We will send something neat and not too gaudy in the way of a mission, asking the chief to come and see us. You write it—you are better at that sort of thing than I am—and make it flowery, old chap, whatever you do. Throw in a lot about the Empire on which the sun never sets."
Ridsdale dragged himself wearily in the direction of his tent. He sat down, and at the end of half an hour had evolved something satisfactory. It was finely decorated with some imposing looking pictures taken from packets of cigarettes. It was just the sort of thing to fill the heart of a simple savage with wonder and delight.
"I think that will do the trick," he said. "Those regimental colours from the cigarette packets come in fine. It looks like the work of a boy in a Council school. And now, I suppose, the best thing we can do is to send it off. With any luck, we ought to get some sort of a reply before sunset."
It was not a particularly easy matter to procure volunteers for the proud position of bearing the proclamation. But the thing was accomplished at length by a judicious admixture of threats and bullying, together with a couple of bottles of something peculiarly atrocious in the way of whisky. The deputation started presently under the guidance of a big ex-convict, who had, amongst other talents, the gift of tongues. He swayed slightly in his walk; he was filled contemporaneously with the importance of his mission and the lion's share of the aggressive whisky. The little company departed presently, and Ridsdale and Stanning sat down to await events. Even their spirits were damped by the outlook. The heat beat down upon them furiously; they lay there groaning and sweating, anxious to be up and doing something, and yet held in the grip of that enervating moisture. Presently it became too hot to smoke; they could only lounge there half torpid and almost too listless to fight the flies which hung round them in black, humming clouds. It was nearly sunset before a solitary native came in sight, the only one of the deputation, apparently.
"Where are the rest of them?" Stanning demanded.
The native made a motion by drawing his hand across his throat. He was absolutely livid under his black skin, his yellow eyeballs rolled in a fine frenzy of fear.
"All gone, master," he said—"all done for. I saw it. First one, then the other, and the lord of the black beard last of all. Me they spared, me they sent with a letter."
This was the gist of the story he had to tell, told in his own words. It was adorned with wild gesticulations and a certain fluency of description from which the listeners picked out the prominent features. Apparently, without waiting for any explanation, the native chief had had the deputation promptly murdered, with the exception of the fortunate individual saved from the holocaust to bring back a reply to Ridsdale's work of art.
"Did it seem to annoy him?" Ridsdale asked.
"He read," the native said. "He put up the one glass to his eye, same as my lord here--"
"What?" Stanning cried. "Here, steady on! Do you mean to tell me that this nigger wears an eyeglass like mine? Oh, the man's mad—frightened to death!"
But the native stuck stoutly to his story. He had gone alone into the presence of the mysterious great chief, all dressed in his feathers and his paint, and the great gold ring through his nose, and the great chief had read that illuminated address, and he had laughed and laughed till the tears ran down his face. Then he had summoned a woman, who came muffled to the eyes, and she had read and laughed, too, in tones like those of the bell-bird when he is calling to his mate. And after that the big chief had written something with a pen on a sheet of paper, and he had tossed it to the messenger, bidding him contemptuously to be gone and take it to the white men who had dared to send him there.
"Oh, tho man's raving!" Ridsdale said. "He's either that or he's a born journalist without knowing it. I suppose you could find novelists in this part of the world even. If this chap were only educated, he would knock some of those writing chaps at home silly. Still, it's clever. He's a humorist. Just think of a nigger with a ring through his nose and an eyeglass! And that touch about the fair female with a voice like a set of silver bells!"
"And the pen and paper," Stanning said. "Now, my son, produce the love-letter. Let's have the cream-laid note and the violet ink. Hand it over—the letter, you fool, the letter!"
The anguished native promptly dived his hand into his loin-cloth and produced a note. Surely enough it looked just the sort of letter to come from any civilised being with a nice taste in notepaper and a firm, neat handwriting. The letter was addressed to the commander of the British force, and inside was a short and pithy message couched in ironical phrase in an absolutely perfect grammar. Stanning gasped as he read it.
"The gist of it," he said faintly, "is: 'Don't you wish you might get it!' And it's written in French, of all languages in the world! Oh, we've gone mad, old chap! This infernal climate has been too much for us, and, for the time being, Reason totters on her throne. The dusky warrior who murders the envoy in cold blood is all right enough, for we've met him before, but the savage chief who has an eyeglass and writes letters upon notepaper with the Army and Navy Stores' imprint on the flap of the envelope must be a creature of imagination. He couldn't exist; the whole thing is impossible."
"Well, there it is, anyway," Ridsdale said. "I suppose we don't happen to have blundered on a tribe of white men who have been lost sight of for a few generations? No, that's quite impossible. I don't think a white man would have an embassy chopped up in that cold-blooded way. Still, the thing's pretty weird, old man. It gives me a queer sensation down my spine. I'd give something to get out of this!"
Stanning was emphatically of the same opinion. There was nothing for it now but to await the course of events. The darkness fell presently, and with it the night became sensibly cooler. It was possible to stand up now and to think and to act energetically. For an hour or more the two friends debated the matter, at the end of which time they decided that it would be better to fall back the way they had come. A long night march might take them outside the zone of danger. But here they were mistaken. A murderous fire broke out presently from both sides of the ravine, and the small advance guard fell back in confusion. Evidently it was too late to do anything now, and the only thing left was to concentrate forces and await the onslaught, which Ridsdale and Stanning knew now would come before morning.
They could only hope for the best. They could only clench their teeth with the determination to fight it out to the bitter end. It was a couple of hours before the dawn when the attack broke upon them from all sides with startling suddenness. A great searchlight flared amongst the trees; the wood seemed to be alive with black figures, some of which were armed with a Mauser rifle. Their fire was concentrated and murderous; they closed in more fiercely, till at length Ridsdale and Stanning and a couple of natives alone remained. A gigantic black figure came bounding through the undergrowth, and pointed a revolver at Ridsdale, but at that very moment another huge figure appeared from out the gloom, and snatched the weapon from the big fellow's hand. In the same instant a hoarse command rang out from somewhere, and the firing ceased and the searchlight died away. It was impossible to see a yard ahead in the intense darkness.
It was no time to wait and argue what this policy meant. Stanning clutched his companion by the arm, and together they staggered on through the night. They fought their way steadily with a grim courage and despair, knowing little where they went and what lay before them. But presently it seemed to them that the noise was dying away, and that for the time being, at any rate, they had reached a haven of safety. The first glimpse of the dawn was coming up now as they threw themselves down, spent and exhausted, upon the thick herbage.
"We've done it now!" Stanning gasped. "I should say that we were the only two left. So far we are lucky to be together. But where's it going to end? How are we going to find our way back again? Why, we haven't got so much as a revolver and a cartridge between us!"
Ridsdale had no suggestion to make; he was too utterly tired and worn out. Stanning's eyes were closing, too, and they lay there in a deep sleep of utter exhaustion hour after hour, until, when they woke again, the sun was beginning to slope behind the dim outline of the distant hills. So far as they could judge, according to English time, it must have been about six o'clock. And then came the knowledge simultaneously to both of them that they were ravenously hungry. Still, they had to get on, and that speedily. They were far enough away from their own camp, even if they had known the direction in which it lay. But by this time, no doubt, the camp had been wiped off the face of the forest, and little trace of it would remain. They had nothing beyond what they stood up in, no arms, and no provision to make a fire, even if they possessed the food to cook.
"We shall have to manage it somehow or other," Stanning said. "We can't sit quietly here and starve. What do you say to prospecting around till we can find a village? We can't be so very far away from a human habitation."
"Come along," Ridsdale said. "Anything's better than this."
It was a difficult and a hazardous matter, but they managed it at length. They found a village presently, lying on a high plateau of land, and in the background an imposing group of buildings—quite a small palace in its way—which evidently was the residence of the chief of the tribe. So far everything had gone well, and there was nothing for it now but to possess their souls in patience until such time as the village slept, and it would be possible to steal into one of the huts and procure food. It might be possible also to assimilate a rifle or two and a box of cartridges.
The darkness fell presently, and dim lights began to twinkle out in the village. Then the open windows of the imposing palace in the background burst into scores of points of gleaming flame. Ridsdale clutched his companion's arm.
"It's a land of magic," he whispered. "Electric lights, as I'm a living soul! Oh, there's no doubt of it! Look and see for yourself. Why, you can see the clusters on the ceiling! What on earth does it mean?"
"Come and see for yourself," a quiet voice came out of the darkness. "Now, don't move, gentlemen; I've got you covered with my revolver. I've been watching you for some time."
Ridsdale and his companion resigned themselves to the inevitable. They were too dazed and bewildered to make any resistance; besides, this was emphatically a case where discretion was the better part of valour. They walked circumspectly and discreetly, for on that point their guide was emphatic. They came presently to the outer gate of the palace, which was immediately closed behind them. Once inside, they gazed round them with a feeble mixture of admiration and surprise. Here was a large, wide hall furnished in luxurious fashion, perhaps a little reminiscent of Tottenham Court Road, but with an absolute eye to comfort for all that. The electric lights gleamed everywhere behind the yellow silk shades; there were pictures on the walls, and oriental vases and bowls filled with masses of white and gold and purple orchids. The feet of the weary adventurers sank luxuriously into thick carpet; their tired eyes turned wearily from the splendour and the luxury of it all. Ridsdale turned recklessly to his guide. The man was a European like himself, with the suggestion of a Frenchman about him.
"What's the name of this hotel?" Ridsdale asked. "I say, you might show us where the bathroom is. And if you can give us a pick-me-up before dinner, we should be obliged."
"A little patience," the guide said calmly. "Perhaps you would like to see the bathroom first. This way, please."
They followed, still marvelling, across a wide passage with many rooms leading out of it. The adventurers could see that there was a well-filled library as they passed, and further on a billiard-room, and again a music-room.
They were alone together presently in a large apartment lined with white tubs and fitted with two baths with silver appliances. They stood and grinned at one another.
"The Arabian Nights, by Jove!" Ridsdale cried. "Where's the one-eyed Calendar with the scented soap and the hot towel? Upon my word, if they give us a good dinner and show us the nigger with the eyeglass afterwards, I shall be quite prepared to die happy. Pity we didn't bring our dress-clothes with us, wasn't it?"
Stanning responded in a reckless mood. He was feeling now as if he cared little what happened; after this, life could possess no further surprises for him. They fairly revelled in the luxury of a bath. They came out presently, to find razors and shaving tackle awaiting them. Then their guide reappeared and conducted them down to a drawing-room which would have been worthy of Belgravia. And here, awaiting them, was a tall, graceful woman in evening-dress. She was dark and handsome enough in a way— she might have been some five-and-forty years of age—and she had a fascinating smile which rendered her face extremely youthful.
"I am very glad to see you," she said. "Which is Mr. Ridsdale and which is Mr. Stanning?... Oh, yes, it is quite delightful to see a white face again! It is thirteen years now since I spoke in English or French to anyone but my husband. I see you are wondering who my husband is. He was a little late in going to his dressing-room this evening, but he will be here presently to explain things for himself. He is the chief of the tribe, you know. I fancy one of you gentlemen owes his life to the prompt intervention of my husband last night--"
Stanning started and stammered something. Usually he was cool and collected enough, but he looked flushed and uncomfortable now.
"I—I don't understand," he blurted out.
The dazzling vision smiled sweetly.
"Oh, there are lots of things you don't understand," she said. "But you will get over your surprise in time. Of course, if you will come here, you will have to put up with the consequences. If you had both perished last night, you would have had nobody to blame but yourselves. Why can't you English leave people alone? Surely, if one likes to come all this way from civilisation, one has a right to a little peace and quietness. Oh, I don't blame you, but I know exactly what you were after. In a short time you find some excuse to quarrel with the natives, then you run up the British flag and build a light railway, and then you go home and write a book, and your Government gives you a knighthood and perhaps makes you a governor of some important island. I never pick up one of the English society papers without reading some charming little biography of this kind. It is only when you fail that you are called a thief and an adventurer. Still, I bear you no grudge, especially as you are going to make no geography out of this little affair. And it really was good of you to come all this way and give us a little variety in our monotonous lives. Now, I haven't the slightest intention of telling you who we are, and what strange freak of fortune brought us here, but there was a time when I knew the Park and Ascot and Cowes quite as well as you do. And I should be frightfully interested after dinner to hear all about my old friends. But here is my husband."
There came into the drawing-room at that moment the striking figure of a man in evening-dress. He was splendidly proportioned, a veritable mass of sinews. His face was burnt almost black, his blunt, short nose and somewhat sensual lips had a suggestion of the negro about them. Dyed and stained and dressed in the appropriate feathers, he would have passed even in the searching daylight for the very model of a negro chief. Looking at him carefully, Stanning could see where the nose had been pierced, and where on occasions this amazing specimen of humanity wore the heavy gold ring which the native envoy had spoken of. But there were no signs of it now, for the strange host carried his glass in his right eye as if to the manner born. Just for the moment a flicker of malicious amusement fell on his face, and his eyes grew hard and merciless. Beyond a doubt, this man had been reared in civilisation, but, all the same, he was a tiger. And at that moment Stanning could read clearly enough what was likely to happen. They had been brought here to amuse this savage and his wife, but that they were likely to return to civilisation to tell their story was a contingency so remote that it was not worthy of thought.
"I am exceedingly glad to meet you, gentlemen," the chief said in a harsh, grating voice. "I managed to save you last night at some little risk to myself. To a certain extent I am like the man in the Scriptures who spared Agag and the best of the spoil. Still, it was worth taking the risk. I knew it would amuse my wife and afford her a pleasant change. But, really, I owe you a grudge for coming here like this, because for many reasons strict privacy is essential to us. We won't talk about that; let us go in to dinner. We can play at society, at any rate, for the time being."
It was an excellent dinner; indeed, it seemed to Stanning and his companion that they had never sat down to a better. Here were the same luxuries which they would have found at the Carlton or the Savoy, here was the finest of champagne, the most curious thing in the way of liqueurs, and cigarettes which had been expressly manufactured for Royalty itself. And the table left nothing to be desired. There were three or four well-trained servants who did their work excellently.
"Ex-convicts," the strange host explained, when the coffee and cigars had circulated. "They are French, for the most part. And three out of the four have escaped from Toulon. But they serve our purpose excellently well, and for obvious reasons they are quite content to stay here. Of course, I need not tell you that the tribe which I have the honour to reign over does not dream of the way in which its chief spends his evenings. No nigger of the lot of them has ever been in here. But that only adds to the mystery and gives me greater hold upon them. Now, what do you gentlemen say to a game of billiards? We can talk and play at the same time, and I can give you any information you need. Not that it is likely to be of any service to you, but, still, out of courtesy to my guests--"
The smile was pleasant enough, but the tone none the less menacing. And, on the whole, it was a pleasant evening. The dramatic, unexpected suddenness of it alone gave it piquancy and charm in the eyes of the guests. It was only later on, in the seclusion of the bedroom, that the grimness of it appealed to them.
"Where's this going to end?" Ridsdale asked gloomily.
"It will end," Stanning said grimly, "when that tiger and his mate have had enough of it. It will end on the knot of a rope or at the impact of a bullet. You don't suppose that chap's going to let us get back to civilisation, do you? Not a bit of it, my boy. Do you know who he is? Because if you don't, I can tell you. He's George Templemore. I found that out last night. Of course, I should never have guessed if we hadn't got that letter which our envoy brought us. And when I saw the little exploit last night, it flashed upon me like a shot. You remember Templemore, don't you? He used to live in Paris years ago. One of the most awful blackguards I think I ever came across. But you seem to have forgotten the scandal."
"By Jove!" Ridsdale exclaimed. "Do you mean to say--"
"I do, my boy. And the charming lady who has been entertaining us to-night used to be known in the world of fashion as Marie Chesterton. Templemore robbed Chesterton of all he had, and then finally murdered the man who had been such a friend to him. And to make the thing all the more horrible, that fiend of a woman fled with her husband's murderer. They took any amount of loot with them. And they vanished in the most extraordinary manner. At any rate, although the police of Europe were looking for them everywhere, they were never found. And this is just the sort of wild, mad, plucky sort of thing that Templemore would do. Why, that chap would have walked into a den of lions if he had been dared to do it.; After seeing him, you can quite understand how he managed to get his influence over this tribe. You see, they didn't know anything about Mauser rifles when he came here first. And, mind you, he was perfectly safe here so long as the gangs of pirates like ourselves, masquerading as the forces of civilisation, did not come too far. In any case, we're not safe here, and the sooner we get out of it the better. I don't suppose our friend will get tired of us before the week's out, but I managed to find out where the arms were kept, and I know where the stables are, too. There are rifles and cartridges in the little room off the billiard-room and some really good horses in the stable. Now, is it good enough to stay here on the off-chance of that blackguard changing his mind at any moment, or would you like to make a move in the direction of England, home, and beauty without delay? It's very nice to sit down to a good dinner and to enjoy a good bath—and though we are pirates, we know it—but it isn't quite good enough to sit down again with a cold-blooded murderer."
"Soon as you like," Ridsdale whispered.
It was an hour or so before the dawn that they crept cautiously through the house, after helping themselves liberally to the chief's weapons. Then presently they led two horses out of the stables, making a detour of the village, after which they rode on hour after hour, till the sun was high in the heavens and all chance of pursuit was at an end.
"I think we can stop now," Stanning suggested, "and perhaps we are safe, after all. There's one thing in Templemore's favour. When we get home and tell this story, nobody will believe us. I know I shouldn't if anybody told it to me."