It was towards the middle of a sweltering afternoon when Commandant Dom Erminio roused himself to wakefulness as he lay in his Madeira chair on the veranda of Fort San Roque, which stands beside a muddy river of Western Africa. As a rule Dom Erminio slept all the afternoon, which was not astonishing, since there was very little else for him to do, and if there had been he would conscientiously have refrained from doing it as long as possible. It is also very probable that any other intelligent white man similarly circumstanced would have been glad to spend part, at least, of the weary day in merciful oblivion. San Roque is one of the hottest places in Africa, which is saying a good deal, and at night a sour white steam, heavy with the exhalations of putrefaction, rises from the muddy river. They usually bring the white man who breathes them fever of one or several kinds, while even if he endures them scatheless the steamy heat melts the vigor out of him, and the black dejection born of it and the monotony crushes his courage down. San Roque is scorched with pitiless sunshine during part of the year, but it is walled in by never-lifting shadow, for all round the dark forest creeps close up to it.
On the afternoon in question the Commandant's rest was prematurely broken, because his dusky major-domo had not had the basket chair placed where it would remain in shadow, and a slanting shaft of sunlight struck hotly upon the sleeper's face. A dull throbbing sound also crept softly out of the heavy stillness, and it was a sound which usually promised at least an hour or two's distraction. Dom Erminio recognized it as the thud of canoe paddles, and sat upright in his chair looking about him drowsily, a little, haggard, yellow-faced man in white uniform, with claw-like hands whose fingers-ends were stained by tobacco. He lived remote from even such civilization as may be met with on the coast of Western Africa, with a handful of black soldiers and one white companion, distinctly on sufferance, since the fever and certain tribesmen who showed signs of resenting the white men's encroachments might at any time snuff him out. He was, however, of Iberian extraction, and it was characteristic of him that he did not concern himself greatly about the possibility of such a catastrophe or consider it worth while to take any steps to avert it which he might perhaps have done.
As he glanced round he saw the straggling line of stockade which was falling down in places, for, being what he was, it had not occurred to him to mend it; the black soldiers' thatched quarters; and the ramshackle residency, which was built in part of wood and in part of well rammed mud. Beyond them rose the forest, black and mysterious, cleft by the river's dazzling pathway, and a faint look of anticipation crept into Dom Erminio's eyes as the thud of paddles grew louder. The river was one stage of the road to civilization, and he could not quite give up the hope that certain political friends in his own country would remember him some day. Then his look of interest died away, for it became evident from the beat of paddles that the occupants of the approaching canoe were traveling faster than any one in the Government service usually thought it worth while to do. Besides that, the Government's messengers were not addicted to traveling at all in the heat of the afternoon.
"Ah," he said, with a wave of his unlighted cigarette which was vaguely expressive of resignation, "it is the Englishman Ormsgill or the American missionary. Perhaps, by a special misfortune, it may be both of them."
His companion, who leaned upon the balustrade, nodded, for Englishmen and Americans are not held in great esteem in that country, nor are missionaries of any kind. They see too much, and some of them report it afterwards, which, when now and then the outer world pricks up its ears in transient interest or indignation, is apt to make trouble for everybody. Still, the Lieutenant Luiz was a lethargic man and a philosopher in his way, so he said nothing, though he waved the comely brown-skinned girl who had been sitting near him back into the house. There was, at least, no occasion to provide a weapon for the enemy, and Marietta had made several attempts to run away lately.
Commandant Erminio smiled approvingly. "What one suspects does not count," he said. "In this land of the shadow one suspects everything and everybody. There are even envious and avaricious men on the coast down yonder who fling aspersions at me."
If Lieutenant Luiz had been an Englishman he would probably have grinned, but he was too dignified a gentleman to do anything of that kind, though there was a faint twinkle in his languid dark eyes. Then a canoe swung into sight round a bend, and slid on towards the landing with wet paddles flashing dazzlingly. Four almost naked negroes swung them, but another man, who wore white duck and a wide gray hat also plied a dripping blade just clear of the awning astern, which was a very unusual thing in that region.
"It is certainly the Englishman Ormsgill," said Dom Erminio. "That is a man the fever cannot kill, which is, perhaps, a pity." Then he waved his cigarette again. "Still, it is possible that Headman Domingo will settle with him some day."
The canoe slid up to the pile-bound bank, and the two white men who got out strode towards the residency, which was characteristic, since on a day of that kind an Iberian would certainly have sauntered. The first of them was tall, and thinner even than most white men are who have had the flesh melted from them in tropical Africa. His face was hollow, though he was apparently only some thirty years of age, but it was the face of a strong-willed man, and there was a certain suggestion of optimism in it and his eyes, which was singularly unusual in the case of a man who had spent several years in that country. Even nature is malignant there, and man is steeped in lust and avarice and cruelty, but in spite of this Watson Nares was an optimist as well as an American medical missionary.
He returned the Commandant's greeting, which was punctiliously courteous, and sitting down in the chair a negro brought for him, waited until his companion, who had turned to give an order to the canoe boys, came up. The latter was of average height, a strongly built man of about the missionary's age, with a brick red face, fair hair thinned by fever, and wrinkles about his gray eyes. They were steady, observant eyes, though a half-cynical, half-whimsical twinkle crept into them now and then, as it did when he glanced towards the Commandant. The latter would have clapped his shoulder, but he avoided the effusive greeting with a certain quiet tactfulness which was usual with him.
"The padre and I are going back to the concession," he said in Portuguese. "If you have any hammock boys we would like to borrow them."
The Commandant said that this was unfortunately not the case. Two of his carriers had dysentery, and another a guinea worm in his leg; and there was only the little twinkle in Ormsgill's eyes to show that he did not believe him.
"Besides," said Lieutenant Luiz, "the country is not safe. There is a rumor that the Abbatava men are watching the lower road."
Ormsgill laughed, though he fancied that Dom Erminio had flashed a quick glance at his subordinate before the latter spoke.
"Still, I scarcely think the Abbatava people will trouble me, and in any case some of them would be sorry if they did," he said. "Well, since you have no carriers we will get on again. It is a long way to the concession, and Lamartine is very ill. I brought up the padre to see if he could do anything for him."
Dom Erminio shrugged his shoulders. "It is a wasted effort, which is a thing to be regretted in this land, where an effort is difficult to make. Lamartine has been ill too often, and if he is ill again he will certainly die. As you have heard, the bushmen are in an unsettled state, and there are several sick men here. It is, perhaps, convenient that the Señor Nares should stay at San Roque."
He made a little suggestive gesture which seemed to indicate that the road was unsafe, turning towards his subordinate as though for confirmation, but once more Ormsgill fancied there was a warning in his glance.
"Of a surety!" said the Lieutenant Luiz. "Lamartine is probably not alive by now. Still, if the Señor Nares insists on going it is well that he should take the higher road."
In the meantime the canoe boys had unrolled a canvas hammock and lashed it to its pole. Nares stood up as they approached the veranda stairway with the pole upon their wooly crowns.
"I will come back and look at your sick," he said. "We have only the one hammock, Ormsgill."
Ormsgill smiled. "There is nothing very wrong with my feet, and I haven't had a dose of fever for some time. It isn't your fault that you have one now."
He made the two officers a little inclination as he took off his hat, and Nares, who shook hands with them, crawled into his hammock. He, at least, had the fever every two or three months or so. Then the boys struck up a marching song as they swung away with their burden into the steamy shadow, and the Commandant leaned on the balustrade listening with a little dry smile until the crackle of trampled undergrowth and sighing refrain died away.
"When one desires to encourage such men it is generally wise to point out the difficulties," he said. "One would fancy that they were fond of them, especially the Señor Ormsgill, who is of the kind the customs of this world make rebels of."
"And the other?" asked Lieutenant Luiz, who had, not without reason, a respect for the wisdom of his superior. He had found that it was, in some ways at least, warranted.
The Commandant lighted his cigarette, and watched the first smoke wreath float straight up into the stagnant air. "He would be a martyr. It is a desire that is incomprehensible to you and me, but there are others besides him who seem to cherish it – and in this land of the devil opportunities of satisfying it are generally offered them."
He looked at Lieutenant Luiz, and once more the latter's face relaxed into the nearest approach to a grin his sense of dignity allowed. One could have fancied there was an understanding of some kind between the men.
In the meanwhile Nares' bearers were plodding down a two-foot trail walled in by thorny underbrush and festoons of as thorny creepers that flowed down in tangled luxuriance between the towering cottonwood trunks. There was dim shade all about them, and the atmosphere was like that of a Turkish bath, steamy and almost insufferably hot, only that there was in it something which checked instead of accelerated the cooling perspiration. Now and then the bearers gasped, and Ormsgill's face was flushed as he walked beside the hammock.
"We should get through by to-morrow night if we take the lower road," he said. "I believe that would be advisable, though I'm not quite sure of it. At least, it's the nearer one, and Lamartine was going down hill very fast when I left him. In fact, he sent two of the boys to the Mission for Father Tiebout. In one way, the thing's a trifle invidious, but, you see, Lamartine is of his persuasion."
Nares smiled. "I'm to have the care of his body, and Father Tiebout of his soul. Well, we have fought as allies on those terms before, and I guess I don't mind."
"You're quite sure? After all, in one way, the soul of Lamartine would be something of a trophy."
The American looked up at him with a faint kindling in his eyes. "Tiebout has so many to his credit – and he could afford to spare me this one. Still, at least, I can heal the body, if I am called in in time."
"Which is a good deal. Especially in a land where it is singularly difficult to believe that men have souls at all."
Nares shook his head. "If I didn't feel quite so played out I'd take your challenge up," he said. "Guess we'll join issue on that point another time. You mentioned once or twice that Lamartine was very sick?"
"There's about one chance in twenty we get there before he's dead. It's one of the reasons I'm taking the lower road. It's the nearest."
It was characteristic that Ormsgill did not state that it was also one of the reasons he had traveled for four days and most of four nights under an enervating heat. Lamartine was an alien of dubious character, and in some respects distinctly uncongenial habits, but Ormsgill had not spared himself to give his comrade that one chance for his life.
"Didn't Lieutenant Luiz' recommendation count?" asked Nares.
"No," said Ormsgill, reflectively. "I don't think it did. At least, not as he meant it to, though I've been trying to worry out what he did mean exactly. One thing's certain. He wasn't prompted by any solicitude for our safety. You see, he might have been counting on my distrust of him, or my usual obstinacy, and wanted me to take the higher road after all. Or he may have been playing another game. I don't know. That's why we'll take the nearest way and not worry. When you're in doubt, it's generally wisest to do the obvious thing."
Nares made a little drowsy gesture of concurrence. "Straight to the mark – and you get there now and then. At least, it can't be the wrong path – and if one doesn't finish the journey it's only a falling out by the way. A good many of us have done that in this country."
Ormsgill said nothing. He had somewhere buried deep in him a vague, unformulated faith which, however, seldom found expression of any kind in words, and was tinged with a bitterness against all conventional creeds, which was not altogether astonishing in the case of a man who had lived as he had done in the dark land. Still, he had traveled four days and nights to bring his sick comrade the assistance he felt would arrive too late and now, when he dragged himself along dead weary through the steamy shade, he had reasons for surmising that there was peril somewhere down the winding trail.
Nares was asleep when they passed the forking and held on by the lower road, and Ormsgill did not tell the boys that he had seen a huddled black figure lying a few yards back among the undergrowth. He did not even stop to look at it. Labor is in demand in that country, and when it is supplied by a dusky contractor who collects the raw material in the bush the unfortunate who sickens on the long march from the interior usually dies. Transport on the human head makes provisions costly in a devastated country, and it is not economy to feed a man who will bring one nothing in. A white man, as everybody knows, may not own or sell a slave in any part of Africa under European control, but he must have labor, and there are in practice ways of getting over the obvious difficulty. They are not ways which are discussed openly, and, so far as one can ascertain, are by no means satisfactory to the negro for whose benefit they are sometimes said to be devised. In this, and a few other matters, the negro's opinion is not, however, deferred to. It is his particular business to gather rubber for the white man and grow his cocoa, and the fact that he is not as a rule content to recognize this obligation is very seldom taken into consideration.
It had been dark two hours, and the bearers could go no further without a rest, when Ormsgill camped on a ridge beneath tall tufted palms at least a hundred yards from the trail. There was a reason for this, and also for the fact that he allowed no fires to be made, though of all things the negro loves a cheerful blaze. The powers of evil are very real to him, which is by no means astonishing considering the land he lives in. The boys sat huddled about the empty hammock among the palms, while the two white men lay upon a waterproof ground sheet some fifty yards apart from them and nearer the trail. Ormsgill had had very little sleep during the last four nights, but he was very wide awake then, and a good magazine rifle, which had been smuggled through San Roque without the Commandant's notice, lay across his knees.
He was listening intently, but could hear nothing except an occasional rustling among the creepers and the heavy splash of moisture on the leaves. Nor could he see very much, for though here and there a star shown down between the towering trunks, a sour white steam hung almost a man's height about the dripping undergrowth. Save for the splash of moisture it was so still that Nares, with imagination quickened by the tension the fever had laid upon his nerves, could almost fancy he could hear things growing. The growth, at least was characteristic of the country in that it was untrammeled, luxuriant, and destructive rather than beneficent. Orchids and parasites sucked the life blood from the trees, and throve upon their ruin; creepers strangled them and tore them down half-rotten. It was a mad, cruel struggle for existence, and Ormsgill, whose hot hands were clenched upon the rifle, clearly recognized that man must take his part in it. As a matter of fact, he was not averse to doing so. There was a vein of combativeness in him, and circumstances had hitherto usually forced him well to the front when there was trouble anywhere in his vicinity.
What he and Nares talked about was of no particular consequence. They were men whose inner thoughts only became apparent now and then, and their conversation largely concerned the merits of certain Congolese cigars. By and by, however, Nares stopped abruptly, as a hand that evidently did not belong to his companion touched his arm, but it was characteristic of him that he did not start. He looked round instead, and saw an indistinct and shadowy figure rise out of the undergrowth. It pointed up the trail, and Ormsgill, who seemed to listen for a moment or two, nodded.
"I really think Lieutenant Luiz meant us to take the other road," he said. "That must be Domingo bringing down another drove, and as it is evidently a big one it is just as well we didn't meet him on the trail. Domingo doesn't like either of us, and he has been getting truculent lately."
Nares said nothing, and a faint patter of naked feet that grew steadily louder crept out of the silence. It was dragging and listless, the shuffle of weary and hopeless men; and it was evident that the hammock boy who sank down again into the undergrowth close beside Ormsgill was badly afraid. Five minutes later a shadowy figure appeared among the trees below them where the mist was thinner, grew a trifle plainer as it slipped across an opening and vanished again, but there were others behind, and for several minutes a row of half-seen men flitted by. Here and there one of them draped in white cotton carried a flintlock gun, but the rest were half-naked, and last of all a few plodded behind a lurching hammock. They went by without a sound but the confused patter of weary feet upon the quaggy trail, and left an impressive silence behind them when they plunged into the gloom again.
Then Ormsgill smiled grimly as he tapped the breech of his rifle.
"If homicide is ever justifiable it would have been to-night," he said. "One could hardly have missed that bulge in Domingo's hammock, and the longing to drive a bullet through it was almost too much for me."
Nares made no attempt to rebuke him. "That man," he said, "is permitted to be – one must suppose as part of a great purpose. The mills of the gods grind slowly, but they do their work thoroughly."
"It seems so," and Ormsgill laughed a little bitter laugh. "Anyway, the stones are wet with blood, and a good many of us have passed between them. One wonders now and then how long the downtrodden will endure that terrible grinding."
"It is for a time only. Day and night the cry goes up in many tongues."
"And the gods of the heathen cannot hear; and those of the white men may, it seems, be propitiated by masses in the cathedral and stained windows bought with cocoa and rubber dividends. Well, one must try to believe that Domingo's laborers enlisted for the purpose of being taught agriculture by the white men of their own free will. At least, that is the comfortable assurance usually furnished the civilized powers, and as they have their own little problems to grapple with they complacently shut one eye. I only wonder how many played-out niggers' throats Domingo has cut on the way. In the meanwhile, Lamartine is dying, and we may as well get on again."
He called to the hammock boys, who still seemed afraid, and in another five minutes the little party was once more floundering onwards through the silence of the steamy bush.
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