The Dark Road - Harold Bindloss - ebook

The Dark Road ebook

Harold Bindloss

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Once Welland wanted to be rich, but it so happened that life linked him to an officer’s position. Now he has become an avid adventurer. Welland realized that his main occupation was hunting Canadian elk and sailing on a yacht in the Great Lakes. This life seemed boring to him and he wanted to change something on his way.

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Liczba stron: 357

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Contents

I. Welland Looks Back

II. Carthew Pushes Off

III. The Viking Strain

IV. Youth Follows Its Bent

V. Siesta

VI. Carthew's Obstinacy

VII. The Guide

VIII. The Pottery Merchant

IX. Welland Uses Magic

X. The Frog

XI. The Snake

XII. >Welland's Watch

XIII. The Survivor

XIV. Fever

XV. Speed

XVI. Nilson Sees Red

XVII. Huysler Owns Defeat

XVIII. The Morning Hymn

XIX. The Blocked Creek

XX. Nilson's Passport

XXI. Freedom

XXII. The Landing Party

XXIII. Don Manuel's Guests

XXIV. Mariquita

XXV. The Demonstration

XXVI. The Ebb-Tide

XXVII. Adela's Trustee

XXVIII. Requisitions

XXIX. Nilson Keeps the Balcony

XXX. President Vallon's Apology

XXXI. Daybreak

I

welland looks back

The sea sparkled in the moonlight; the land was hidden by a long smear of mist. Thin luminous vapor trailed from the Shenandoah’s funnel, but her powerful engines’ stroke was slow. Her bows swung leisurely from the glittering swell, and the Caribbean rolled with a languid splash along her smooth white side. At sunset flags came down, but the yacht’s lines and deck gear were typically American.

On a platform outside her bridge a seaman swung the lead, and when, at measured intervals, the plummet splashed, his cry was hoarsely musical. In the dark pilot-house, the captain marked the depth and, studying the luminous compass, felt his way past the shoals that border the Central American coast. Grant was a good seaman, but he did not like his job. The reefs were numerous and he doubted his pilot. He ought to haul off and wait for morning, but his orders were to make the Santa Catalina lagoon as soon as possible.

The night was hot and the saloon skylights were lifted as far as the brass rods allowed. Somebody played the piano, and Welland, in a cane chair under the awning, knew Jack Huysler’s touch. He supposed the tune was a Charleston, but Welland was recently from Africa, where white men did not dance. In fact, until he joined the Shenandoah at New York, he knew little about the habits and amusements of fashionable society.

For long, enduring fever and sometimes risking poison, he had walked in the shadow, and his life, for the most part, was as ascetic as a monk’s. Welland did not claim to be a Puritan, but in the malaria swamps the indulgent die sooner than the rest, and at the beginning he had concentrated, rawly, on getting rich.

The music stopped, and Welland heard glasses rattle, liquor splash, and the tinkle of ice. A girl laughed, and pleasant, cultivated voices floated up from the saloon. Welland liked his hosts, and he liked the men who would presently land with him, but two did not know all the exploring party might be forced to front. The other certainly knew something; Welland, however, wondered how far Carthew’s knowledge went.

Although Alan Welland had but a few hours since seen for the first time the Central American coast, in the gulfs of Mexico and Guinea the climate is the same. Moreover, he imagined he knew as much about fever, snakes, and insects as a white man may know and live. Well, his pay, at all events, was safe, and if Jack Huysler made good, he might get a permanent job.

Alan smiled, a rather dreary smile. Not long since he was an important merchant at a large native town far up a West African river. He knew three or four bush languages and some Arabic; black–and brown-skinned traders brought him goods, and for a time he had a useful sum at the Lagos B.W.A. bank. Well, he had paid for all he got; but he looked farther back.

He saw himself ten years since, a raw, ambitious lad starting hopefully for Africa. His skin was smooth and rosy, his muscles were firm; he was something of an athlete and fastidious about his clothes. His pay was small, but the company stated that on the West Coast promotion was rapid, and Welland admitted the statement true.

Sitting under the Shenandoah’s awning, he pictured the dreary factory, built on piles, round which the mist from the foul river curled at night. By day the house was like a furnace, but all inside was damp, and mildew rotted one’s white clothes. For long Welland did not know when the agent was sober; the fellow’s skin was like yellow parchment strained across his bones, and he feared the dark. Sometimes Alan wondered whether the fear was not justified. The jaundiced clerk was sick, and the Krooboys presently carried him, in a flintlock gun box, to a hole in the swamp.

Before a fresh clerk arrived some time passed, and Welland knew the agent’s vitality, supported alone by alcohol, fast burned out; burned was perhaps the proper word. The factory was old and rotten; the sick man rambled strangely in his talk, and died. But for the Krooboys, Welland was alone, and he slept with a gun across his bed. The agent’s strange talk haunted him, but the factory did not close.

By and by the company sent him upriver to a healthier spot. Sometimes he was sick, but his nerves got firm and he trusted his luck. Since indulgence killed, he was ascetic, and he concentrated on his ambitious plans. Although white men cleared plantations near the coast, the greater part of the produce they shipped was yet carried downriver by native merchants and the important markets were in the hinterland. Alan resolved he would some day follow the river and tap the stream of commerce at its source, and at length he went.

For a time he prospered, although he ran some daunting risks. The African’s trading rules are intricate and, to a white man, strange. Moreover, the dark-skinned merchants are powerful, and business goes with politics and Ju-Ju ceremonies. One bribes the bush magicians, and the ghost leopards carry off an obstinate competitor. Welland had grounds to think some tried to poison him, but none knew he was afraid. Although palm-oil is the standard of commerce along the coast, he got precious gums, gold in quills, kola-nuts, and ivory, and pushed his traffic back to the walled cities in the Sudan.

So far, he was the company’s servant; but at length, risking all he had got, he broke the tie. His luck turned. Valuable goods had gone by another route to a foreign colony, and when Welland began to divert the stream the traders on the coast resolved his meddling must be stopped. Alan imagined their frontier officers helped, and his suppression cost a useful sum, but the colored merchants with whom he dealt were alarmed and agents provocateur got to work. He had risked his skin before, and, going warily, he kept his life. The trouble was, his money melted, and when, after half an hour’s sickness, his best customer died he knew he was broke.

Well, it was some time since, and he had got a post nobody was keen to take at a particularly hot and unhealthy spot on the mangrove coast. Then his employers closed the factory, and Welland, having frankly had enough, sailed for Liverpool, and was offered a sort of managing clerk’s post by a new African house. The offer yet stood, but the pay was small, and Alan had agreed for three or four months to join the party an American manufacturer sent out to search the forests on the caliente coast for a valuable varnish gum.

In point of years, he was not yet old, but his face was lined, and his white clothes hung slackly about his tall, thin figure. He knew men, for he had used, and been used by, white and black and brown, and as a rule he trusted where he was forced to trust. Women he did not know, but he had nothing to do with them. Alan imagined his illusions and the passions that embarrass flesh and blood had melted in Africa. Yet he thought he had kept his nerve, and his judgment was cool and sound.

He turned his head. Steps echoed in the deck-house and a girl laughed. Alan liked Miss Whitney’s laugh: one sensed her joyous confidence and sincerity. She stepped across the door-ledge and balanced on the slanted planks, her light, smoothly lined figure black against the glittering sea. Then she touched a young man who followed her and they vanished behind the house. Another girl, an older woman and two or three men came out. One saw Welland and advanced with a seaman’s step.

Carthew, the expedition’s leader, was not young, but he carried himself well, and although he did not use his title, Welland understood he was, at one time, a British navy officer. His voice was cultivated, and one noticed his easy, rather humorous politeness. Sitting down by Welland, he lighted a cigarette.

“You did not join our celebrations,” he remarked.

“I’m rather a dull dog,” said Welland. “Then I think I’d sooner wait until we have finished our job.”

“The rule is a good rule. Yellow Jack, however, is not all he was, and we know something about anopheles, who carries the malaria germs.”

“Do you know much about snakes?” Welland inquired.

“I’m a sailor, but I have met fer-de-lance. Well, to know the obstacles is something, and I do not expect our companions will be very much daunted when they begin to find out. They are good, raw stuff. You and I, by contrast, so to speak, are salted professionals.”

Welland pondered. On the whole, he liked Carthew, and he felt as if the older man asked for his support. That perhaps was all; he did not think Carthew wanted a confederate.

“Yes,” he said, “I joined because for a fixed time I get first-class pay. I, however, expect, and am willing, to earn the sum.”

The smoke tossed about the yacht’s funnel, and angry white ripples splashed along the moon’s track. In the distance, the mist rolled back, and a vague dark smear cut the shining sea. The hot land breeze grew fresh, and one smelt spices, steaming soil, and fermenting mud. Welland knew the smell, and thought it perhaps accounted for Carthew’s next remark.

“Oh, well, my engagement is for twelve months, and I stipulated for an all-risk insurance policy. Then, so long as I am occupied by the company’s business, the president’s family gives my daughter a home–”

He stopped, as if he had not thought to be as frank, but Welland did not know. He imagined Carthew’s carelessness sometimes was calculated. He perhaps meant to indicate that he and the other were not, like their companions, gentlemen adventurers.

“I expect to satisfy old man Huysler was not an easy job,” Welland remarked.

“In a way, Huysler was willing to be persuaded. I think he began to be bothered about his son and did not approve the boy’s ambition to be a fashionable sport. Then Miss Whitney helped. For all her charm, she’s something of a Puritan, and she thought Jack ought to go. Her lover must not loaf. A good American’s business is to work, and the boy must show all who are interested that he is proper stuff.”

“And that was all?” said Welland, rather dryly.

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