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Non sibi sed omnibus
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THE stories Fred Oakes can tell of his adventures in all corners of the world are, Heaven knows, numberless. I have known people to doubt that so much could ever happen to one man. But I have known him too long and intimately ever to doubt one word he says, and to my mind the thing to be amazed at is his length of memory. His own explanation is worth recording:
"There's nothing remarkable about it. We get what we look for. Take a parson, for instance: doesn't he dodge devils every day? Is there anything to comment on if a lawyer fights two cases or more a week? Or if a soldier goes to war pretty often? I tell you, a hunter hunts, a fisherman fishes, a ship's captain masters the elements. A true adventurer adventures, not specializing so much as embracing all occupations in the one. Very early in life I decided to adventure; and I qualified to be a prospector with that one end in view.
"So you see, I've been soldier, lawyer, hunter, fisherman—you'd be surprised how often a fisherman!—ship's captain on occasion—everlastingly at war with the elements and chance—and I've buried too many good and true men not to have a slice of parson in my make-up.
"But it's as prospector for minerals that an alert adventurer finds his widest field; and as free-lance writer that he can best keep in touch with opportunity, or feather an empty nest. Those are my two chosen standbys. So, if things hadn't happened to me thick and fast, that would be astonishing. That they did happen is only natural. To me, adventure is life, and life is a succession of adventures. Monotony is death, and the only death. I adventured into the world by being born in a dungeon in the Tower of London—I refuse to say how long ago—and I pray God I may adventure out again when the proper time comes!"
"In a dungeon in the Tower?" I asked. "How can that be?"
"I will tell you some day. Monty could have told you better, for his father and mine were intimate. Good Lord, how the time goes! Think of it—'Didums' went over the border eleven years ago this afternoon!"
We grew silent, he thinking no doubt of a hundred adventures he had shared with the bravest gentleman either of us ever knew, and I of the many I had shared with both of them, playing always a minor part yet generously accorded a greater portion of the credit than was due me. They were strong men in the prime of life when I was a stripling out of college. By their kindness to me they gained a hero-worshiper—which is sometimes not such a useless asset, if you are tolerant—and by my effort to live up to their standard of manliness I gained two friends such as seldom fall to the lot of man.
Thought's processes are swift. Probably Oakes, in the chair that faced me on the club veranda, tugging at his grizzled, upturned mustache, reviewed a lifetime. Having less than he to remember, it was naturally I who finished first, and broke the silence.
"Speaking of death and of Didums," I said, "you have never told me why you didn't kill him that time in the Libomba foothills."
Fred Oakes sat up, and his eyes blazed for an instant, as I have seen them do very often when the sight of oppression angered him, or the odds against himself and friends were ten or more to one. Then he laughed at himself, and leaned back.
"I've never told any man," he answered.
"Tell me now."
But he sat silent after that for thirty minutes, and I supposed him unwilling to lay his heart bare.
As for me, who also had loved Monty, those memories were the reverse of terrible—chiefly, I suppose, because they included my own return from nether hell to something more resembling heaven. I hold no brief against college life, but I do maintain that it unfits a man for life before the mast on sailing ships.
I consider it less to my discredit than a proof of gentle raising, that after a voyage that had led—at the dictates of a nearly crazy skipper—along the arc of a composite grand circle into Antarctic blizzards—after battling for months with wet cotton sails, and ice, and adverse winds, manning the clumsy pumps often for days and nights on end, and eating worse than crow to help line the aforesaid skipper's pocket, I left my wages on board a three-masted British bark at the first chance, and deserted.
At the time it did not look much like the act of God that the port was Lourenšo Marques—unless you consider God, as the Vikings did, a very present spell for causing trouble.
It is easy to say at this late day that I had no business in the fo'castle of any such ship, or of any ship at all, and that the experience served me right. But unless, and until you have yourself left college penniless, have seen all your hopes for a career go up in smoke, and have trudged the streets of London city in search of honorable hire, you are not qualified to pass judgment. I had muscle and a good opinion of my pluck. I used them both; and if that particular experience was ugly, it led to my meeting Oakes and Lord Montdidier—an outcome worth the payment, in advance, of any price.
But to get back to the bark: we had not put in, for that would have cost our skipper harbor dues, but lay wallowing in the outer bay while a south wind kept three cables taut ahead of us, and the old blunt-nosed anachronism—named by some one with a gift for irony the Heatherbell—scooped up the muddy waves and tossed them over herself like a must elephant heaving hay.
However, a Greek boatman will dare anything less than eternity for the sake of unrighteous profit, and it happened that I was made night watchman—deck, not anchor watch. The skipper and mate had a bottle of peach brandy between them in the cabin; and the second mate, who had been snubbed for suggesting we would ride more comfortably higher up the bay, made himself snug in the break of the poop and went to sleep.
Nobody could tell that I had a shore-suit under my oilskins, and in my pocket the last of a too-lean patrimony in the shape of English gold. I had another suit and some odds and ends in a small bag carefully hidden, and a heart full of rebellion that was much less easy to conceal.
Only one Greek dared the elements that night. He worked his open boat up under our plunging stern, lowered his little sail, and threw me a line very handily, little expecting such swift returns. But I had no choice.
I bent a life-line to the handle of my bag and sent it down to him between waves. Then, before he guessed what was happening I came down the life-line hand over hand, bringing his own line with me. I let go the instant my feet touched the boat bottom, and we were away from under the Heatherbell's stern, beam on to a whale of a sea, and in dire need of action, not argument, before the Greek could remonstrate.
When the south winds blow there is no shelter in all that roadstead except the little concrete pier where passengers land and the customs officers take toll. I have seen twenty ships drag anchor there of an afternoon and all go banging and plunging together to the confluence of the Tembe and Umbuluzi rivers.
Until we reached that pier the Greek and I worked like Trojans. Then, in the rain and the dark, each with a hand on the pierwork to keep the little boat from being ground to splinters, we argued out our business problem, while a Portuguese sentry up above the steps regarded us with Sphinx-like disapproval.
The Greek—for his is a garrulous race—wasted the first few plunging moments in explaining that to land anywhere else that night would be stark impossible. I could judge that well enough, without his wet breath in my ear. Then he explained that the sentry was posted there expressly to prevent unauthorized landings—that the immigration officers were very strict—and that only he, Georgos Aleutherios, had cunning and popularity enough to pass me by. He offered to spiflicate his conscience, take chances, and perhaps even ruin his good standing with the authorities forever, all for the trifling sum of fifty pounds.
We came to terms at last for five pounds, he to pay the sentry; and I learned afterward that I might have bought a lieutenant's services, with half a company of infantry thrown in, for that sum. But rain and wind and darkness—the plunging of a small boat in the lee of a pier—armed sentries— immigration laws—and treaties that call for the surrender to their ships of all deserting seamen, spur youth's eagerness without sharpening youth's wit. A young man afraid and five gold sovereigns are very easily parted, and the Greek could have had the double of it if he had only known.
At any rate, there I stood presently on the rain-soaked sand of Portuguese East Africa, with two good suits of clothes to my name, and ten remaining pounds between me and the fort jail. I had yet to learn to fear that jail, or to know of its existence; but I began with such gratitude to feel steady earth underfoot that no forebodings troubled me.
The first night was spent—what was left of it—trudging the streets; for there were no hotels open, and I did not care to risk being followed into some dry corner by an armed policeman and asked questions in a tongue I did not know. It was a miserable, very hungry, dirty, weary night, but it came to an end, and dawn found me still an optimist.
As soon as doors began opening, and Hindus and Chinese came out to rinse their teeth and hawk, and clean themselves over the gutter, I entered the best hotel in sight, and for the first time since I went to sea had the advantage over a sailor to the manner born; for having removed my oilskins I bore no resemblance whatever to a deserter.
The keeper of that hotel was an Afrikander, not in love with Portuguese, and glad of the chance to unburden himself to ears uncalloused by the constancy of such refrains.
"An Englishman's one chance," he said, "if he goes broke in this place, is to appeal to his consul. He can never do anything for you at the time: there are too many broken Englishmen for the consulate funds to cover a tenth of the cases. But if a ship should put in short of hands he'll get you out of jail and have you sent aboard to work a passage to somewhere else. So, if you go broke, mind you tell him before the Portuguese arrest you as a vagrant."
He little guessed what vinegar he was pouring into open wounds! I was minded to try that jail rather than the fo'castle of the Heatherbell again.
"Why talk of going broke?" I asked with the bravest air I could summon. He and I were eating breakfast at the same table, and I was trying to disguise my craving for Christian ham and eggs.
"Because none but a Portugee, or a man on contract, or a merchant with more money than morals can hope to get a living here! I could tell you tales that would make you sick! They'll skin you of your last coin—what they can't steal they'll take in taxes—and then arrest you as a vagrant and throw you in the jail to starve."
"And the cost of living here is—?"
"At this hotel? A pound a day."
I made a swift calculation: Ten pounds=ten days= jail!
"No jobs to be had?" I asked.
He jeered at the notion.
"Black boys—natives—do the menial work. Chinese run the laundries, chickens, eggs, and odds and ends. Indians monopolize money-changing and the larger shops. Bank clerks and business managers are all contract men from home. Greeks do the fishing and run restaurants. Portuguese hold all the official jobs. Where's your chance?"
It looked to me as if my chance of jail was pretty obvious. He had no means of guessing the amount of my resources, but my facial expression must have hinted that his pessimism was sinking into me.
"Get away from here before you're stranded!" he urged. "Book your passage to British East!"
How should he know that I had not enough to take me up to British East!
"I'll look around first," I said, screwing up courage again.
"Don't say I didn't warn you!" he answered. "Shall you stay here?"
"Let you know later," I told him; and I paid him for the breakfast and went out.
The first thing I did was to walk all over the town. They were laying the trolley-lines in those days, and the street corners were ablock with construction material and gear. While I watched one party at work the English foreman came and tried to sell me an enormous drum of copper wire.
"Yours?" I asked him.
"Of course not! The company's."
"What's it worth?"
"Lord knows! Gimme ten pounds and it's yours to take away!"
By noon, with an unmixed notion of the place's charms I returned to one of the restaurants on the main street that the Afrikander had told me Greeks kept. It was a cheaper place than the hotel. There was nowhere to sit after lunch but in the bar, and the Greek proprietor grew insolent unless one kept a glass at work; but by dint of taking small sips, and pretending to fall asleep at intervals on the shabby plush-covered divan in a corner, it was possible to keep sober, and expenses down to a minimum.
There was nothing for it but to spend some money, for I was tired, and curious besides, to watch and listen, believing I could, perhaps, get a line on opportunity. It was in that way that I met Charles du Maurier, and saw revealed the despicableness of that colonial Government.
I was more actually drowsy than pretending—having had no sleep at all the night before—when I noticed a sudden stir in the street outside, and at the door, and in the cafÚ. The men at the bar made room for a newcomer before he appeared on the scene, and three Portuguese officers at a little table on the far side of the door from me ceased talking and looked uncomfortable.
I heard a sharp, disagreeable voice outside, speaking English—nobody except the Portuguese officers spoke any other language in that restaurant—and a moment later a man of middle height strode in, with a hunting-rifle balanced in the crook of his right arm, and a cartridge-bag slung over his shoulder.
"Hello, du Maurier!" said every one at once—except the Portuguese officers. "Glad to see you, du Maurier! Come and have a drink, du Maurier!"
It was obvious that everyone desired to have the man's goodwill; yet I did not get the impression that he was popular. He was of stoutish build, but looked active as a cat; rather good-looking in a fat-lipped brunette sort of way; and he had cold blue eyes that rested appraisingly on every face in the room in turn. In the course of their casual inspection they fell presently on me.
"Good afternoon!" he sneered, leaning back against the bar and reaching with his free hand for the whisky bottle that the Greek produced without instructions. "How do, stranger? What's your name?"
I did not inform him.
"Ceremonious, eh? Very well—I'll make the introductions. You want to know who I am first, eh? That's natural. But everybody in Lourenšo Marques knows me. Still—I'll tell! I'm Charlie du Maurier! Charles du Maurier and I are one and the same individual, and now you know! Now everybody knows, and we're all agreeable!"
He filled his glass with neat whisky, and swallowed half the dose at a gulp. Then his eyes traveled past me to the three officers in uniform, whose conversation had so suddenly damped off. One guessed, without knowing details, that they were hesitating between retreat and dignity.
"Aha!" said the du Maurier person, finishing the whisky at a gulp. He was not in the least drunk. "Here are three gentlemen who know me well! Three Portuguese officers, by ——, swords and all! Why don't you up and arrest me, gentlemen? If it's true there's a warrant out for Charles du Maurier, here he is! You've only to come and take him! I'm Charles du Maurier—afraid of no man, and least of all afraid of the Portuguese Government! Come and take me if you dare! Turn out your garrison and take me!"
The three officers rose and went out, omitting to sign vouchers or pay cash, and the Greek set up a great wail. There was a roar of laughter in which du Maurier joined noisily.
"I'll pay for their vino tinto!" he volunteered. "Then they can say they've been drinking with Charles du Maurier. They can go to their commandant and brag to him about it! Ha-ha-ha! That's a good joke! Portuguese officers bragging to their commandant, by ——, that they've had a drink with Charles du Maurier! Oh, Lord, that's a good one!"
In not coming forward, and not joining in the rounds of drinks that his arrival was the excuse for, he paid me no more attention except that every once in a while his cold eye fell on me and I knew I was not out of his mind. He stood at the bar, and drank, or refused to drink, with whom he chose, all that afternoon, continuing as sober as a shark but bragging more and louder as his audience grew drunker and its mood less critical. His bragging was mostly of shooting men.
"I don't encourage the devils myself by paying them money," I heard him say more than once. "But the price, if you'll pay in advance, for killing a white man is ten pounds gold, and do the job yourself. A native costs half. That's thirty miles back from the coast, of course. They say there's a zone near here where the tariff's higher!"
The strange part was that nobody appeared to doubt him. Several men nodded acquiescence. Only one or two shook their heads, and I divined that their objection was to his giving such publicity to the facts, rather than to the facts themselves.
"What are you doing for a living now?" somebody asked him at about supper-time; and he laughed with a hard, dry cackle that made my blood run cold.
The brutality aboard ship had been unalloyed and shameless, but it had been born, one might say, of necessity and took no joy in itself; but this man du Maurier loved cruelty for its own sake, and the very lack of mercy was the essence of a joke to him.
"I'll tell you," he sneered. "Don't say I didn't tell you, now! You've heard of the Premier Diamond Mine? You've all heard of that, haven't you? The big new pipe that's made de Beers look like a four-flush—you've heard of that? Well—they haven't even got it paddocked off with barbed wire yet. There are guards here and there, but there's a lot of clay dug and lying in the open to be weathered. The diamonds are sticking out of it like dew in the morning, and there are nearly as many thieves as stones!
"The plan is to get a bag of diamonds, seal 'em up, and trust 'em to a native. He runs with 'em overland to this place, where an Indian buys 'em for the Bombay market, sending a check back through the mail. The game is to lie up in the bush and watch for natives. If you happen to shoot the right one, you get a fine bag o' diamonds, and the Indian 'ud just as soon buy from you as from anybody else! Ha-ha-ha-ha! Good game, what?"
A man who sat beside me—a nondescript individual—recovering from East Coast fever, and probably on board allowance from the concern that hired him—for he had no money to spend, yet was not destitute—leaned and whispered in my ear.
"If that was really his game, he'd not be telling it," he argued. "But if he hadn't done it he wouldn't trouble to pretend he had—he's that proud and original! It 'ud be like him, the cold-hearted swine, to skin all there was in the game and then set others on to trying it! That 'ud be like him, that would!"
I went to supper, and to bed above the restaurant; and having slept so many months in the Heatherbell's abominable fo'castle, it needed more than the babel of that bar room to keep me awake. The clean sheets and the open window were paradise by comparison; and although the morals of the Heatherbell seemed, looking back, like those of a Sabbath-school compared to what Lourenšo Marques boasted, I reminded myself that corruption came from within and not without a man, and was not troubled much on that score.
My dreams that night were brilliant, and I awoke a little after dawn feeling under my skin the tingle of unborn happenings. Anyone who has chanced his arm must know that tingling. It comes as a rule when hope has no excuse, and invariably presages good fortune. I have known men to own to the tingling, and yet go down, but that was because their courage failed them, not because inspiration lied.
But, although board and bed at that Greek place cost less than half the hotel price, it was obvious enough that yet more economical quarters must be found at once, if I hoped to keep vagrancy and the jail in the offing while I hunted a job of sorts. Life and the talk at sea gives a man strange notions, and after breakfast, and some thinking, no amount of argument could have persuaded me that it was impossible, or even unwise, to camp out on the outskirts of the town.
I saw the man du Maurier at the other end of the long table in the dining-room, and flattered myself that he did not notice me. I managed to slip out without having word with him, and—careless of direction, provided I left the town behind—set out for what are known as Kilos One and Two. Those are fills alongside the harbor, of which the Portuguese are quite inordinately proud—an acre or two of level land where swamps once were, held at enormous prices for factory and dock sites, in the belief that Delagoa Bay was destined to be the greatest, richest, busiest harbor in all Africa. A strange delusion! But all the real estate in that part of the world is held for a fabulous rise on fabulous excuses, and the Governments are as sanguine as the down-and-outs.
It looked a good enough place to camp on, and I spied an old abandoned wagon with broken wheels, whose top was mostly watertight. A little sailor lore, a little luck in finding jetsam—perhaps an old sail, and doubtless some timber along the foreshore—an hour or two's work, and I would have that abandoned wagon fit to live in.
I sat down on its broken tail-board to think out how best to tackle the task and was growing more and more pleased with the treasure-trove when, to my sudden disgust, I saw the man du Maurier, gun on his arm as usual, sauntering along toward me. There was no use in trying to avoid him. He was coming straight in my direction.
I did not doubt he had followed me from the Greek's place.
"Considering things?" he asked as soon as he came within talking distance.
I nodded, and he came and sat beside me on the wagon, chewing tobacco and spitting at remarkably regular intervals.
"See that snake?" he said presently.
I followed the direction of his eyes, and after staring through the glare for a minute I could just distinguish a little dark snake upreared above some twigs a hundred yards away.
"Ever see their heads cut off with a bullet?" he asked, and he brought the rather heavy-bored rifle to his shoulder.
He did not aim long, nor did he fire twice. The snake disappeared.
"Go and look at it," he said; and principally because I was glad of the excuse to leave his side I got up and walked to where the snake had been.
Sure enough, its head was severed cleanly and the body lay squirming in the sun.
"Did I hit it?" he called, and I turned to nod to him, only to discover that he was reloading his rifle and had it pointed at me.
There was no cover. Whichever direction I might take he would have a clear view of me against an open background at short range. He had not raised the rifle, but his eye was on me, and the sensation was as mortifying as if he had deliberately taken aim. I decided on the instant to choose the lesser of two evils and call his hand, preferring, if I must be shot, to take it in the face.
So I walked toward him, as casually as I could contrive. I could see his finger on the trigger, and his cold eye never left me for an instant, but he did not shoot, and presently I stood within six feet of him.
Then he grinned, rather approvingly, I thought.
"You are a man of nerve!" he said, with his objectionable nasal snarl. "Most men would have made for town as fast as their legs 'ud carry them, beginning slowly for the sake of dignity, but running as soon as the range was in their favor. I wouldn't have shot you! What should I shoot you for? I've nothing against you. I don't want your money!"
It was on the tip of my tongue to tell him I hadn't any money, but some trick of fortune determined me instead to hold my tongue and find out what his game might be. Surely he had not followed me so far for nothing.
"But you're a young fool!" he added. "I've known more than one man to lose his life by turning his back that way on a rifle. Let me tell you something: when one gentleman has a loaded rifle, another gentleman should walk behind him! When two gentlemen have rifles they walk side by side, or else each sees the other unload! That's bush law. What were you doing out here?"
"As you suggested, considering things," I answered.
"There's mighty little here that's worth considering!" he sneered. "This is no place for a greenhorn. More men without money come ashore here and end up in the jail than in any other port in Africa! Oh, you can't fool me! You've an English university accent, and your kind don't put up at Greek hotels while you've money left!
"You're hoping to find a job. You won't find one, because there ain't any! You can't get away, either, and I'll tell you how I know. Your kind no more like the looks o' this place than a parson likes the breath of hell. If you'd had any money, you'd have gone away again on the same boat. Which boat did you come by?"
To have answered truthfully would have been to put myself entirely in the blackguard's power. He could either have had me arrested then as a deserting seaman or have held the threat over me. Yet I resented the notion of having to lie to the brute, so I answered nothing.
"None o' my business, eh? All right, you can't offend me. I'm good-natured, I am, and everybody knows it. Charlie du Maurier's not the man to take offense because a gentleman won't answer questions. Let me tell you something, though. You've got no money. Mighty soon the Portuguese'll find that out. Next thing, they'll arrest you. Next, you're in jail! Know what happens after that?"
I was not sure whether or not he was playing with me on the cat-and-mouse plan. He seemed to be amusing himself at my expense, and I did not question that the mere chance of being cruel would be sufficient excuse in his eyes. But there was a suggestion of ulterior motive, and I rather suspected he was probing in his own way for information.
"There are worse towns than this one," I answered, because that was the most colorless statement I could think of.
"Perhaps," he retorted, "and perhaps not." There was a cold gleam in his eye. "But there are no worse jails than this one! It's lousy, and they starve you, and it's dark, and it stinks! And when you've been in there a while so that every one has forgotten you, d'you know what they do?"
"Can't imagine," I said, interested against my will.
"They sneak you out in irons at night onto one of their lousy little coastwise steamers and nobody ever hears of you again."
"Drown you at sea?" I suggested, for he waited for me to hazard some kind of guess.
"Drown you at sea!" He laughed like a hyena. "Not they; they're a practical gang. They ship you to the West Coast—the Portuguese West Coast—and put you to work with the coco slave gangs, bossing up natives. Refuse to drive natives and they shoot you!"
I thought I saw through the weakness of that proposition, and was swift to point it out, being yet inexperienced in the practical wisdom of keeping such thoughts to myself.
"Nobody could make a decent fellow do a dirty act by threatening to shoot him. He'd let them shoot and be ——!"
Du Maurier threw his head back and cackled like a champion egg-laying hen.
"You think they're —— fools, don't you? Why you—you chicken! They keep a man everlastingly hoping to escape! They keep him believing each trip with a new gang is his last one! He has to drive the natives to save the natives' lives. And he hopes to get away in order to expose conditions! They work on a bad man's badness, and on a good man's goodness—get you both going and coming. Ha-ha-ha-ha!"
"If this is such an awful place—such a bad Government," I answered, "why do you stay here? Why don't you go to British territory, where law is law, and the king's writ runs, as they call it?"
At that his face darkened as if I had deliberately insulted him, and the steely glint in his cold eyes reminded me—although I can't imagine why—of butchers' shops.
"I guess you don't know I had a little difference with the British?" he said, patting his rifle, and eying me like a chisel.
"I don't know anything about you," I answered frankly.
He judged I was telling truth, and nodded. The storm died as swiftly as it came, and he was all smiles once more—hard, merciless smiles, finding humor in the stones where none was.
"There are tales, and all kinds of tales about me," he said. "Believe 'em or not, as you like. I'll tell you this, though: the Portuguese let me alone! They arrested me once, up in Chai Chai."
"Where is Chai Chai?" I asked him.
"Capital of Gazaland—up the Limpopo a day from here by steamer, or rather a night and part of a day. There's the steamer—look at her!"
He pointed out a small seagoing tug—that lay alongside the nearest quay, busily filling her shallow hold with barrels.
"They wanted me for murder, or so they said. I guess they just wanted me, and the heaviest charge was the best excuse. At any rate, they came and took me by surprise in my tent at dawn, and locked me up in Chai Chai fort. But I had my best natives along, and one of them gave the Portuguese the slip.
"They'd reckoned without my eleven brothers, all living, and five cousins within call. The morning after, all my brothers and cousins rode in from the Libomba Hills—sixteen men. They disarmed the soldiers, burned the fort—loosed me—and tied the fort commandant hand and foot. Then they hitched him to a tree with a rope about his neck, and hauled on the rope until he stood on tiptoe. I was for flogging him, but my brothers said that would bring about counter reprisals; so we left him in that position and rode away.
"Since then the Portuguese treat me with respect. They no more dare take me again than they dare invade British territory with their tin-pot army! I'm King of Gazaland, I am, from the edge of the Lourenšo Marques swamps to Pearson's Place, and I'd like to meet the Portugee who dare deny it!"
"Tell me about Chai Chai," I said, since he seemed disinclined to go away.
"It's a rotten hole. Sharks, crocodiles, and hippos—-drunken natives, mosquitoes, flies, malaria, mangrove swamps, pineapples, and the worst officials in the country! But it's on the way to my place, if you care to take the longest route. And it's on the way to Inambane and other places. A man can walk from Chai Chai to Inambane in three weeks; and if he hasn't any money or baggage the blacks and Portuguese won't rob him!"
"Anything doing at Inambane?" I asked, and he laughed as if I had made a good joke.
"Less than here, unless you want death and corruption. There's more of those!"
"Does the steamer go there today?" I asked, and he laughed again.
"Sure enough. Today's the day. Say—listen!" He patted his rifle again. "You're broke—I can tell that with half an eye. You're minded to look at Chai Chai—a blind man could see you are. Well—when you get there you'll see I told the truth. From there to my place in the Libomba Hills is roughly a hundred miles. All the natives know my place. Ask them for Charlie du Maurier and they'll point you the way. It's a mean way. It runs 'round the edge of the swamps; and there are lions, and snakes—mosquitoes—flies—all the fun of the fair.
"But if you're a genuine white man you can make it! The natives'll let you sleep in their huts, and they'll feed you locusts and wild honey same as John the Baptist ate—there's a famine all through Gazaland and mealies are scarce, but there's plenty at my place. If you dare, and win through—you've got guts! If you've got guts, I can use you! If you reach my place in the Libomba Hills I'll put you in the way of making a good living!"
"I'll remember," I answered, turning to go, and he swung along beside me, whistling and nodding in time to the tune as if his thoughts were of Springtime and merry-making. Nor could I shake his company.
He walked with me to the Greek's place, and thence to the steamer office, where he roundly abused the Portuguese clerk until that unhappy individual sold me a one-way ticket to Chai Chai at half price. Then he went with me to the little steamer, making one of his own native servants carry my belongings and he bullied the Goanese steward until I had one of the minute cabins to myself.
"Mind you!" he said again, as they poled the old tug away from the quay. "It's a hundred miles to my place! If you should ever reach there, I'm your friend! I'll give you a week's start, and go the short way up the Tembe River. Bet I'll beat you!" And he stood watching me until he seemed only a speck on a wall in the distance.
It was a weird sensation, being appraised and, so to speak, appropriated by that cold-blooded brute. I had no idea of ever seeing him again, and would have walked a thousand miles in the wrong direction rather than deliberately cross his trail. My secret plan was to walk to Inambane, in hope of meeting luck either there or on the way, calculating that the eight pounds odd that I had remaining would in any case take me on from Inambane to Beira, where there would be a different consul, and other ships in the offing than the decrepit Heatherbell. But I felt creepy at the thought of having accepted even information from du Maurier, and before we reached the river mouth I had checked up every detail of it by talking with the other passengers.
And that was a weird voyage—a wonderful voyage if only the dread of destitution had not so overhung the venture. We steamed close inshore by mangrove swamps to the shallow Limpopo mouth, and lay for a night there on the thundering bar with the noises of a neolithic age about us. Once a lion roared on the high bluff over the far bank; and from among the mangroves there came crashing, and wild screams, plunging and tearing, ripping and thrashing, and—at intervals—a silence so complete and unexpected that it hurt the ear-drums.
The cockroaches drove me out of the cabin and the mosquitoes sought to drive me in again. Of the two evils I chose the deck and the beauty of moonlight and cool air, and watched until dawn sucked up the mists and showed a military hospital, white and lonely, hugging the shore by the bar. Who chose that site for such a place, and why, is a mystery I never solved.
We dropped a dozen barrels of the stuff they call red wine, and passed on up-river. Great sharks followed us for miles—one followed all the way to Chai Chai, where the hippos thought the water fresh enough and wallowed down to meet him. There were crocodiles in hundreds sunning themselves on rocks and logs, and birds of every color and size and cry perching on mangrove poles, or wheeling to scream abuse at us.
But the chief interest was the atmosphere of mystery. It was up this river that King Solomon's adventurers most likely came to make the old diggings in the distant hills, and the sensation was of being present at the dawn of history. Barring the mangrove stakes set at uncertain intervals to mark the drift of sand, there was no trace of man's handiwork—not a native in sight—not a boat—not a beast.
The other passengers were three hundred Kafirs crowded on the lower deck, on their way back from the Transvaal gold-mines; four Goanese Government clerks, nearly bursting with the pride of having "first-class" cabin berths; and a Portuguese tax-gatherer, with his black wife and a swarm of their half-breed children.
He assured me he was married to the lady, and introduced me to her with punctilious ceremony; but he treated the Goanese as if they were dogs without licenses, and objected loudly to being obliged to eat in the same saloon with them.
He asked me my business, and I wasted an hour in an effort to deceive him without telling out-and-out lies. I might as well have tried to deceive myself as to what the breakfast hash was made of—I, who with my own eyes had seen the poor goat killed.
"I, Eduardo Lopez," he assured me at last, "can tell you more about Gazaland than any other man. There are three authorized occupations for a European who is not an official. Prospector you are not, for you have no license. It is I who sign the licenses. I know. Hunter you are obviously not, for you have no guns, no tent, no servants, and—again, no license! It is also I who sign the hunters' licenses! Trader in mealies you are also evidently not, and for two reasons—it is not the season; there are no mealies. And again, you would require a license, and I—whose business that would be—have issued none! Here is my book of licenses—here is another. Here are yet others. Your name is in none of them!"
"Surely," I said, "a man needs no license to travel and look about him?"
"In Gazaland," he answered smugly, "it is always well to have a permit of one sort or another. It confers a sort of semi-official standing. It ranks one above the native, and the Indian, and the Goanese. It entitles one to respect, and to a certain measure of confidence. It is presumptive evidence of bona fides.
"Let me issue one to you. My services will cost you nothing, and a trader's permit, let us say, would be only twenty-five pounds—a bagatelle—good for six months. Taxes are payable in Portuguese money, but you may pay me in English gold and I will make the exchange when I return to Lourenšo Marques."
I thanked him for the advice, and promised to think it over.
"If you were wise, you would jump at the opportunity!" he answered, with rather a sneer under his black mustache and a mean look in his eye. "That man du Maurier I saw you with is a low person of very bad reputation. You would better bolster yourself up with semi-official standing! Englishmen who have no permits are not welcome in Gazaland!"
"I'll think it over!" I assured him, and he sneered again and left me, to go and talk in undertones with the Portuguese captain, who was drunk and steered atrociously. Every time we missed a corner of the winding river by a margin of six inches the Kafirs on the lower deck all laughed, and to the birds we must have seemed a picnic party bent on self-immolation for their benefit.
They followed and screamed at us, as if in haste to get the disaster over, and our bones picked before dark. But the captain, and his half-breed crew, and the tax-collector with his coal-black se˝ora, talked on, and passed a bottle 'round, as if the treacherous river were an open road, and they on metal rails.
Chai Chai came into view beyond a bend at noon; and its excuse for being greeted the nostrils instantly. There is neither mistaking nor forgetting the vile, acrid stench of the barreled stuff the Portuguese callvino tinto that they sell to the natives of that miserable land. Its only resemblance to wine is its murky-red color, which may or may not be aniline.
But international law lays down that spirits shall not be sold to natives between certain parallels, and there is more in a name than Shakespeare hinted at. A barrel of the beastly stuff will keep a dozen natives drunk for half a month, and they will work for the sake of it. So three thousand barrels of it went to Chai Chai every thirty days; our tug did a roaring business; and Chai Chai, except for the "fort," was three or four barns of concrete and corrugated iron, all devoted to one purpose.
There were mealie plantations in sight; and two of the planters' houses graced the hillside looking down on the muddy river—cool, they looked, and prosperous; but the locusts had eaten every green thing on either river bank, and the few lean goats and cows licked up and ate the living insects.
The one exception was the pineapples. Fields and roads were all marked out with the prickly plants, and for some reason the locusts scorned those, so that the land was a wilderness of reddish brown, marked with irregular lines of green, and punctuated by the skeletons of leafless trees.
The fort was a mud-walled rectangle down near the river bank, enclosing fifty round, thatched huts and an iron storehouse at one end. In one or two places the ditch had been allowed to fill from neglect. Three or four Portuguese soldiers in ragged uniforms lounged in the shade of a tree, and there was a general air of hungry shabbiness. But the Portuguese flag fluttered bravely from a crooked pole, and the one officer in sight strutted in a uniform whose whiteness was simply dazzling.
For the rest, there were half a dozen Indian stores facing a sandy road—corrugated-iron affairs with open fronts, where matches, thin cotton blankets, and enameled pots were displayed to catch the native eye. And there was a jail—an undoubtable, unspeakable jail, with iron bars, an armed sentry and a smell.
The sun beat down on all this in a splendid effort to melt the iron roofs, and there was only one redeeming spot in sight. The planters' houses, that might otherwise have graced the unlovely scene, only added to the desolation by the insolence of their contrast to all that misery. They were built on the profits of native labor paid for with vino tinto, and unexplainably they smirked, and looked, the part.
But—and my eye fell on these with the instinct that impels a drowning man to grasp at flotsam—beyond the fort, on a little rise by the river bank were two white tents. They were clean, dazzling, well-constructed tents, with an air about them of self-respect. I reasoned that if they were Portuguese they would almost certainly belong to the Government, and in that case a Portuguese flag would have been in evidence.
But there was no Portuguese flag. Whichever way I looked there was no other pleasant thing in sight, and those tents drew me like a magnet. I walked down the crazy gang-plank and wandered toward them—they were half a mile away—with the sensation of having been reprieved. They were big tents, with awnings out in front, and presently I could see chairs under the awnings, and in one chair a man who, from his dress and attitude, could only have been English.
As I approached within clear view I heard him call to some one in the other tent.
"Monty! Hey, Monty! Didums, d'you hear? Come out, you lazy rascal! I say, Monty—here's an Englishman!"
I walked up to the tent, and he rose to meet me—not so gray then as now, but iron-gray, nevertheless, with the same upturned mustaches, and the same way of standing as if there were a rapier in his right hand. I told him my name, and he told me his was Oakes—Frederick Joliett Oakes.
"Perhaps you've heard of me from the Portuguese?"
But I had not.
"This is Lord Montdidier," he said, as another tall man came from the other tent, as clean-limbed and as cleanly clothed as he, but darker—a gray-eyed man, with a rather heavy, dark mustache, and a neck and shoulders that suggested polo instantly.
He wore a white silk shirt, partly open, showing skin burned to a nut-brown. The rolled-up sleeves showed forearms as lithe and clean as those of the sculptured Hermes. He was a younger man than Oakes, with a rather gentler smile and the air about him of the English upper class, that knows it is immortal and is far too tactful to be self-assertive.
They ordered a native to bring another chair, and made me sit down facing them.
"You're rather an astonishing apparition!" said Oakes. "You arrive like the god out of a box in the old Greek plays. We weren't exactly praying, and we had given up hope, but we would rather see an Englishman just at this minute than any other unexpected thing we can think of."
"You'll stay to lunch, of course?" said Lord Montdidier.
"I wonder what you're doing here?" said Oakes.
"None of our business, of course," said Lord Montdidier.
"We're prospectors," said Oakes.
"May I order you a drink?" said Lord Montdidier.
"Doing?" I said. "I'm looking for work!"
"Rare!" said Montdidier, shaking his head with a peculiarly gentle smile. "Very rare in these parts!"
"The chance to work seems rare," said I.
"The rarest thing," said Oakes, "is a man who's fit to do what we want done—a reasonably honest man. If there is such a thing in Gazaland, we haven't met him!"
"Shall I shout for the lunch?" said Lord Montdidier.
"How would you like to tell us all about yourself?" said Oakes.
"After lunch," added Lord Montdidier.
"I'd as soon tell you now," said I, but Montdidier shook his head and Oakes yielded the point without demur.
It was easy to see that Oakes was the fiery enthusiast, and Lord Montdidier the more methodical, more patient, rather more formal of the two. Yet they were both men of swift judgment and tremendously strong confidence in their own decisions, as I was destined in the course of years to learn in a thousand ways.
We made a compromise, and I told of myself at the luncheon-table—all spread with snowy linen and white chinaware. The meal was cooked by a Goanese, and served by a Zulu. It could not have been better cooked or served in London town, and as we ate the taint of the Heatherbell's fo'castle fell from me, so that I told them of my adventures like a free man to free men, without shame, concealment, or apology.
Then they asked me questions—leisurely questions, seemingly at random, but nevertheless devised to check me up—courteous, shrewd questions that no upright man could take exception to, and no pretender could have answered.
"He's the gift of God!" said Oakes at last, slapping a resonant thigh.
"Suppose we take his own opinion on that point," Montdidier suggested; and forthwith Oakes did the talking while Lord Montdidier sat back and watched us both.
It seemed they had claims staked out in the Libomba Hills—very valuable claims Oakes called them. But in those days the Libomba Hills were a sort of no-man's land, where no Portuguese governor dared show his face, and the iniquitous Charles du Maurier maintained a sort of medieval baron's government from an aerie, that gave him a view of all approaches.
They had licenses to prospect, but their claims must be registered according to law, and they had returned to Chai Chai only to discover that there was no authority in that miserable fort sufficiently exalted to give them papers. It might be necessary to go even as far as Mozambique—possibly to Lisbon, Portugal.
"So I'm going back to hold the claims, while Monty works the oracle," said Oakes.
"And the whole point is," said Lord Montdidier, "that I won't agree to his returning alone. The man du Maurier, who lives in that nest in the hills, has the natives all terrorized and I should imagine would stoop to anything and stop at nothing. How would you like to make the trip with Mr. Oakes? We would pay you a fair thing."
"I'm in no position to refuse any honest job!" I answered. "I'm at your service, and glad to be."
"Can you shoot straight?" Oakes asked me.
"What does that matter?" said Montdidier. "He can learn. A more important point is, will he obey orders?"
"Why ask a seaman that?" laughed Oakes. "I'll tell you my view of it. He can't refuse a job, and we can't refuse him! We've neither of us an alternative! Let's sign him on for a forty a month and found."
"Agreed," said Montdidier.
"Forty what?" said I.
"Pounds," Oakes answered.
"Done!" said I. "I would have come for half—for a quarter of it! But I accept your offer!"
They both laughed, without seeming in the least upset by having missed a bargain. They were unusual men. Later I learned that they would have taken me on their own terms, at their own appraisal, or not at all. Bargains in human flesh and bone were not in their range of vision.
But Montdidier drew a very careful contract with me on a sheet of foolscap paper, and Oakes read it over three times before we all three signed it. By its terms I was limited to my wages, clothing, transportation, food and tent. I was to have no share in the profits of the trip, whatever those might be, or from whatever source. They were business men, as well as generous employers.
From the moment that paper was signed I was treated as a member of the party—apportioned a rifle and a tent, provided with thorn-proof clothes out of their spare kit, given a native servant, and a mule to ride, and in every way magnificently treated.
I told them the man du Maurier had turned up in Lourenšo Marques, and that made Montdidier all the more eager to be moving. Next morning with a final charge to me to guard Oakes from harm more carefully than if he were my sweetheart, he ducked the boot Oakes threw at him and boarded the same little steamer that had brought me. We watched him out of sight, and then Oakes went to the fort to take out a license for me, "as if you were my dog," as he remarked; for that colonial Government omitted no means of imposition, and the more degrading the tax the better.
We struck camp then with the speed of a clipper ship making sail, crossed the Limpopo on a raft—well watched by crocodiles in case the raft would overturn, or a mule or a man fall off—and started on a trip that will linger in memory until memory fails. Being my first experience of low veld, or of any veld at all, it was all good going to me. I felt like a boy on a holiday.
Thorns were amusing—even the wait-a-bit thorn that drags the hide from a mule's legs, and strips a man's clothes off him. Lions, roaring around the camp at night, were as fascinating as the low-hung stars and crackling thorn camp-fires. Natives, passed by the way—kraals entered to buy food for our own black following—buck on the short horizon, were all new sources of wonderment to me, and each day's march was crowded full of interest.
I was as happy as the days and nights were long. My ever-rising spirits kept the sun's rays and malaria at bay, and because all natives of Africa are happier when the white man laughs, our boys marched willingly and gave no trouble.
So Oakes was pleased with me. But his own good temper wore thin as march succeeded march. The fever began to threaten him—the low fever of that stricken land, that saps a man's hope and makes his saliva taste in his mouth like aloes. On board ship I had watched the robust good humor of a mate succumb by little notches at a time to the overbearing meanness of a skipper, until the mate himself was the more heartless tyrant of the two.
To some extent I understood how climate, conditions, food and trouble will wear a man's very soul away; but to watch that low-veld loneliness rot into the heart of Oakes was a revelation. Day after day I could see the difference in him, and although he was everlastingly courteous to me I could judge the effort that it cost him now and then. He reached a point where every incident grated on his nerves—every proposal was a lame one—every day's march too long or too short—every night an ordeal to be stoically lived through.
So when we pitched our camp at last under the great cliff in the Libomba foothills, where he and Lord Montdidier had pegged their claims, he was an ailing man, unable to throw off the lassitude of low malaria, yet able enough to torment himself with useless activity. His irritation, manfully though he strove with it, was constantly gaining the upper hand, and at those times our native followers suffered.
One form that his low spirits took more constantly than any other was a sort of morbid interest in the man du Maurier, whose high-perched aerie of a place could just be seen from the opening of his tent.
"That ruffian is as likely as not to thwart us," he prophesied. "He knows well enough there's gold here, and emeralds. He daren't try to work or market it, that's all. He couldn't get even this Government to register a claim in his name, but if he could persuade a more or less reputable citizen to come here and stake, and register, he would try to do business—provided he could first get some sure hold on his partner.
"I suspect he would try to trap his man in some way—plant some disreputable evidence and get grounds for blackmail. When we showed up, he rode down here on his mule with three black wives on foot along behind him. He was civil enough in his blackguardly way, but he got no hospitality. He told us we could have title to these claims from himself as King of the Libombas. He cited the old Portuguese law, that having taken to wife the daughter of a chief gives him legal title now to all the land hereabouts since the chief died. He offered us the claims for a thousand pounds, but we didn't trade.
"But he amused Montdidier. Didums was civil to him! 'Pon my soul, if I hadn't been here Didums would have struck a bargain with the brute just for sake of the experience! Strange fellow, Monty—stranger than any man I know! A great reader of character, but a great ass when so inclined! He keeps his hands clean—cleaner than mine are—but he's so interested in freaks of character that he'll go almost any length to get acquainted with a new one! He'll burn his fingers some day—mark my words!"
I began to wonder whether I had been marked down by du Maurier as a possible partner in his claims. At least that would have been a plausible reason for persuading me to wander in search of his dwelling in the hills. But my thoughts were soon diverted from that or any other drift by trouble with our followers.
Oakes was growing bad-tempered and finding too much fault with them. They began deserting one by one; and Oakes, whose malaria increased, found a new vein of ill-humor, grumbling because Montdidier was so long about sending word of his doings.
"We ought to have heard two days ago," he complained to me one morning. "He was to send us word by runner. Where's his runner?"
"I've heard tales of native runners being shot," said I, and I told him what I had heard du Maurier boast of in the bar in Lourenšo Marques.
After that Oakes took his favorite rifle from its case and, for all his fever, did such amazing shooting at a dozen different targets that I wondered what his marksmanship could be like with a clear eye and steady hand. Yet his temper grew worse as the days wore on and no news reached us.
At last, I think it was ten days after our arrival on the scene, the spell of that monotony was broken. There was a long shout a little after dawn, and I spied the man du Maurier, with the inevitable rifle over his right arm, riding a mule down the steep path that led from his aerie. There were, however, no black wives behind him and, as far as I could judge, he came alone.
I warned Oakes, and he got dressed in a hurry, in a clean shirt and white sun-helmet, believing no more than Lord Montdidier in appearing ill-clothed before strangers. I took a leaf from his book and snatched a clean shirt from the bagful of reserves.
Du Maurier rode down to our tents and did not offer to dismount, but sat grinning, plainly surprised to see me. Suddenly I remembered Montdidier's warning to guard Oakes carefully. What else was I there for? Yet I sat in a camp-chair like a fool, with no weapon in my lap. I dived into my tent, loaded a rifle, and brought it out.
Du Maurier laughed at me as I resumed my seat in the chair with the rifle across my knees. But I noticed that Oakes had picked up a rifle, too, and that he did not laugh, but glanced approvingly at me. Oakes was in a worse temper than usual, and I think du Maurier suspected it.
"If you had manners you'd get off your mule!" Oakes told him at last.
And without a word du Maurier dismounted; two of our natives ran out and led the mule away, and du Maurier took a seat on a rock that faced our tents. He had a paper in his hand that I think he wanted us to notice and be perplexed about, for he folded and unfolded it and turned it over.
I am not good at psychology. In fact, Oakes maintains that a Mexican rebel in a good suit could make me believe him honest. But the thought occurred to me that du Maurier's surprise at seeing me was all assumed. I imagined the natives had told him there were two white men in camp, not one; and there were not so many Englishmen in Gazaland that he could not have put two and two together, once he knew—and supposing he did know—that Montdidier had gone to Lourenšo Marques by way of Chai Chai.
I suspected the air of surprise was assumed to cover an entirely different attitude. Probably it was designed to throw Oakes off his guard, fever and worry having reduced him to a condition perfectly familiar to men acquainted with that country.
"Two of you!" he said at last, letting his rifle fall into the crook of his arm, and pulling out his pipe. "Why didn't you come up to my place on the hill, and treat me as I'd have treated you? Why stand off, as if you and I weren't friends?"
"We're comfortable where we are, thank you," Oakes answered. "I preferred to stay here and keep an eye on our pegs."
"That young man," said du Maurier, pointing a thumb at me, "has a direct invitation to come and stay in my house. He's my guest by rights! He and I had a talk in Lourenšo Marques. He and I are friends! He and I have a plan we were to work together. I own all this land hereabouts, you see, and I've been looking for a partner who would register my gold-field. Having a little difference of opinion with the Portuguese, I'm not in position to register claims myself, but that young man and I could work the trade between us."
"Ask him if he wants to go in partnership with you!" said Oakes.
"I ask questions as and when suits me!" du Maurier answered. "I'll ask you one first. What would you do, supposing that young man and I should go in partnership to own these claims you've pegged?"
"I'd shoot him!" said Oakes promptly, and the answer surprised me as much as it did du Maurier.
"Pity to spoil such a nice young gentleman so early!" du Maurier grinned. "What if there's two of us to one of you, though?"
"How d'you mean?" said I.
"I mean," said du Maurier, "that I've a writing here that says—look, it's all done with a typewriter so's nobody can say I wrote it out myself over Lord Montdidier's signature—I've a writing here that says Montdidier is sick in Lourenšo Marques, and sick of prospecting, and sick of Gazaland."
He was about to say more, but stopped to watch our faces. He may have read astonishment in mine. In Oakes he saw exasperation fed by the fever in his veins.
"What would you say," he went on, "if I was to prove to you that Mister Lord Montdidier had registered these claims in Lourenšo Marques, and in consideration of a thousand pounds, paid and received in presence of two witnesses, had made over the papers in blank to me, for me to fill in the name of any man I choose?"
Oakes glowered, and did not answer.
"Supposing I showed you the papers, what would you say?"
"You couldn't show them! I wouldn't look at them!" growled Oakes.
"And supposing I showed you here—in writing—all typewritten out and signed—an order by Lord Montdidier to me to take his belongings, and pack and forward them to a certain address he gave me?"
"I wouldn't believe it," said Oakes, in a level voice that was much more impressive than if he had roared.
"Yet here is the order!" announced du Maurier, waving a sheet of foolscap paper on which were several lines of typewriting, and a large seal.
"Touch a thing in this camp if you dare!" said Oakes simply.
"Wait a while!" said du Maurier. "I'm not through yet. There's more explanations due! You don't think your bosom friend Mister Lord Montdidier would do such a thing, but you see, I've played a trick on you. You think you're two to one and could outshoot me, but that young man is already wavering in his mind!" He pointed at me with his thumb again. "He isn't half sure he'd draw a trigger on me to oblige you, seeing he knew me first! And the trick I played on you was a smart one. Mister Lord Montdidier doesn't believe you're his friend any more!"
He lit his pipe nonchalantly, affecting to take his eyes off us, but I was watching him like a hawk and was quite sure that was only a ruse to draw our fire in case we should think of shooting. He was probably confident of being able to outmaneuver the two of us, even at that range and conceding us the drop.
"And as for shooting," he said, throwing away the match and resuming his stare at us with increased insolence "if you did shoot me—if you could shoot me—I suppose you're not forgetting that the natives hereabouts are mine, and that they'd burn you alive for any harm done me? You shouldn't forget that, for that's a strong point! I've married into nine tribes hereabouts! I've nine wives up the hill there! Their relations consider me the big asset, and they'd surely be resentful of any harm done me. You shouldn't think of shooting me. It wouldn't pay! There'd be no profit in it!"
So far there had been nothing said that in my judgment would make for real trouble. His remarks about me were a joke, due to ignorance. If he chose to suppose me a scoundrel like himself, so much the greater surprise in store for him, I was quite sure Oakes would take no stock in his remarks.
But he had not played his trump card yet.
"You see," he said, "I'm a downy bird, I am. When you came here and pegged, I was willing to make a trade with you, but you refused. Whoever refuses to trade with me on my terms makes his own bed, and lies on it, that's all! I knew one of you 'ud have to go to the coast to try and register; so I went there ahead of you, and waited. Then along comes Mister Lord Montdidier, looking pretty sick. I gave him several days to register the claims, for the Portuguese are slow, and then I called on him. He doesn't think much of you any more, Montdidier doesn't!"
Now I saw the length and breadth of his position, and really began to tremble for the consequences. How should I know, who had known Montdidier only a few hours, that the swift low fever of the lands had not made a mental wreck of him, as it had nearly made one of Oakes? True, I was sure I would stand by Oakes until whatever the end might be; but how could I know whether Oakes in his heart did not doubt my loyalty. Oakes had not known me long. I was a stranger in a land where neither law nor mercy kept the right-of-way. Unless Oakes, fever or no, should prove adamant, it began to look to me as if du Maurier held a winning hand.
"Maybe you recollect," said du Maurier, "that the day after you got here you sent a runner to the coast with a letter for Mister Lord Montdidier. Well—he didn't go far, that boy didn't, before he fell into my hands, letter and all! Two of my men brought him to Lourenšo Marques. He and I had a conference. We arranged between us that I should hold his wife—I had her already in my kraal up there—and he should say what I told him to in case he hoped to get his wife back in condition to be any use to him.
"We came to an agreement pretty soon, and that boy stayed with me in Lourenšo Marques—finally coming with me to see Montdidier. Montdidier recognized him, of course, and the boy was word perfect. Between us we told a tale that disgusted Mister Lord Montdidier to the point of saying he'd shoot you at the first sight! I'll tell you what I said, and what that boy confirmed."
Oakes had been pale with the fever, but I noticed now that a dull flush of rage had colored his face, and his eyes would have scared me if I had had to face them. But du Maurier seemed to me to be regarding him as he might a trapped animal, amused at the spectacle of ferocity that could not reach him.
How he was so confident that we two would not shoot was beyond me, until it occurred that he might have a score of blacks in ambush among the rocks behind him, and I began to search for a glimpse of black skin or a spear head, although without avail. I have come to the conclusion since that he was depending entirely on his knowledge of the reluctance of an Englishman to shoot without first giving warning.
"We explained to Mister Lord Montdidier, that boy and I did, that you'd gone! We said you were sick—not very sick in health, but sick of the whole business, and that you'd decided to trek through to Swaziland and leave him to do as he pleased. We said you'd sent that boy to say that Mister Montdidier's things were lying where you'd left 'em on the veld; and I added that I held myself responsible that none of the blacks hereabouts would touch a thing. I promised him that, and that if they did touch anything I'd see he got it back.
"Well—I've seen angry men, but he was the angriest! He didn't believe a word at first, but the native's tale convinced him. I'd drilled that boy until he was word perfect. And finally I bribed a Goanese Government clerk to go to him and say word had come in from the natives that his tent and belongings were left lying on the veld, and what was to be done!
"Oh, we had him convinced all right! And his anger was the terriblest thing I've seen. He swore he will shoot you, and this gentleman here along with you, at the first glimpse he gets; and he's off to Swaziland, by rail to the British border, to look for you!"
He lit his pipe again, that had gone out during that triumphant recital, and watched for a minute to judge the effect produced.
"What are you going to do about it?" he asked with a leer. "Are you going to get out and leave this gentleman," once more he pointed at me with the appropriative thumb, "and me to strike a bargain between ourselves? My advice to you is to get out of the country, by Inambane or somewhere, before Mister Lord Montdidier gets wind of you and hunts you down! What'll you do?"
"I'll make no terms with you, anyhow!" growled Oakes. "Get out of my sight!"
Du Maurier laughed.
"I'll give you until tomorrow dawn to think it over!" he announced. "Then I'm coming down with my men to take possession of Mister Lord Montdidier's belongings and to pack them, and deal with them as directed! No, I won't take a drink, thanks!" he added sarcastically. "No, thanks, I won't stay to lunch! And if you're man enough to shoot me in the back as I ride away, let's see you do it! I'll have my mule, if your boys are through with admiring it!"
Our natives, at a shout from Oakes, brought him the mule and he rode away. I sat in silence, for there was very little I could say that would have helped.
"Have you paper and a pencil?" Oakes asked after a few minutes, and I hunted until I had found them. He wrote out a few words, and handed the paper to me.
"Read!" he said. I read:
IF YOU WANT YOUR THINGS COME AND GET THEM. FRED OAKES.
"That's a telegram. Take it to Chai Chai," he ordered, "as fast as you can travel. See it dispatched, and make sure it gets there. Then come back!"
It was addressed to Lord Montdidier at the only big hotel.
"I was to guard you," I objected—and then checked myself, remembering that those instructions had been received from Lord Montdidier.
"I suppose I needn't remind you that you receive a salary for obeying orders?" he asked. Then he relented, judging, I suppose, that my objection had been solely on his own account. "You see that rising ground among the rocks?" he asked, and I looked toward a sort of island a half mile from the nearest hill, perhaps fifty feet higher than the level land surrounding it.
Judging by the splurge of green below it there was a spring of water, and there was no place within rifle range from which an enemy could snipe. "I shall move camp this morning, and pitch up there. You'll find me there when you return. Don't waste any more time."
I was not afraid of the climate. It takes time for the pestilential low veld to sap a man's strength. I was young, and strong, and scarcely rid of the sea air in my lungs. So I took a mule and one native—to make sure I should not lose myself—and was in the saddle and away within fifteen minutes of receiving orders.
The pace I set was exactly as fast as the native could possibly manage and the mule endure, and I overdid the thing rather than waste time. So that when night shut down on us I had a spent mule and an utterly weary servant, and we were all three utterly grateful for the shelter of a big kraal that lay a little to the right hand of the track. I had turned into it, and the natives were about dragging the brush obstruction across the entrance behind me, when I noticed there was another party of travelers encamped there.
None too pleased—for I thought it might be a Portuguese official party, and that could only mean many questions and delay—I took the mule's saddle off, watered him from a woman's crock, and fed him from the bag I had slung from the saddle. That done, I walked forward to find the head man and get supper for the native and myself. I saw a white man come striding to meet me through the gloom, and stood still, dumb. But as he came on I was compelled to believe my eyes, and when he spoke at last, cheerily, there was no denying him—Lord Montdidier!
Without a word I passed him the telegram. It was growing pitch-dark, so he struck a match and read it.
"Oakes wrote this?" he asked.
"On your way to Chai Chai to send it?"
I thought for a second he was going to ask me for an explanation, but I wronged him.
"My spare mule!" he shouted, and I saw his boys come running out of a hut to do his bidding.
He must have bought new mules at Lourenšo Marques and have brought them with him on the tug:
"You're not going tonight?" I asked.
"Going now," he answered.
"But—lions!" I objected.
"Please bring my outfit along tomorrow," he answered. "You'll find cloth and beads—or money if he'd rather—in my bag to pay the head man. Start early, and make it in one day if you can. Good-by!"
And he mounted the mule, ordered the obstruction taken from the kraal gate, and was gone—with one faithful native boy trotting with a lantern at his mule's heels.
It took me two days, however, to return, for I had his boys and new purchases to bring along. About three in the afternoon I came in sight of the new camp, and not long after that I made out him and Oakes in two chairs side by side, talking and laughing together as if they had never parted. When I reached them, they were kind to me, but did not refer to what had happened by word or hint; and in those days I was not intimate enough with either man to care to ask personal questions.
It never did occur to me to ask what happened when they met, until Oakes and I sat together on the club veranda in New York that afternoon and we discussed old times.
"When he showed up, why didn't you shoot him?" I asked, and he sat up with a start, and laughed.
"Because," he said, "I believe in respecting my adversary! I wouldn't stick a pig with a dirty knife, and du Maurier was dirty! I'd made up my mind to ignore every word du Maurier said, and to let Monty pick a fight with me on any ground he chose."
"But Monty was a proud man," I said. "How did he come to forgive your distrust of him?"
"Yes, he was a proud man," Oakes answered. "But there's a Providence looks after fools, and Monty never found me out! Just think of that brute du Maurier inventing all those lies! He never even saw Monty in Lourenšo Marques! As soon as Monty showed up, he skunked out, covering his trail! Those documents he had were Lord knows what—some old ones!"
"How did you explain that telegram away?" I asked.
"I didn't. Monty explained it for me. He took it to mean that there was trouble—danger. 'If you want your things, come and get them!' He understood he might not find them if he came too late!"
"All the same," said I, and checked myself.
"All the same, what?" demanded Oakes.
"Nothing," I answered. "I was merely thinking."
I was thinking what would be the use of suggesting to Oakes at that late day that Monty divined well enough that Oakes mistrusted him, but was too splendid a gentleman ever to let the knowledge of the secret out.
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