“It’s fine!” said Arthur Warden, lowering his binoculars so as to glut his eyes with the full spectacle. “In fact, it’s more than fine, it’s glorious!”He spoke aloud in his enthusiasm. A stout, elderly man who stood near—a man with “retired tradesman” writ large on face and figure—believed that the tall, spare–built yachtsman was praising the weather.
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CHAPTER I. DERELICTS
CHAPTER II. HOW THE MESSAGE WAS DELIVERED
CHAPTER III. WHEREIN A STRONG MAN YIELDS TO CIRCUMSTANCES
CHAPTER IV. FIGUERO MAKES A DISCOVERY
CHAPTER V. A MAN AND A STORY—BOTH UNEMOTIONAL
CHAPTER VI. WHEREIN WARDEN SETS A NEW COURSE
CHAPTER VII. TWO WOMEN
CHAPTER VIII. SHOWING HOW MANY ROADS LEAD THE SAME WAY
CHAPTER IX. WARDEN BEGINS HIS ODYSSEY
CHAPTER X. HASSAN’S TOWER—AND THE COLONIAL OFFICE
CHAPTER XI. THE BLUE MAN—AND A WHITE
CHAPTER XII. EVELYN HAS UNEXPECTED VISITORS
CHAPTER XIII. EVELYN ENTERS THE FRAY
CHAPTER XIV. THE DRUMS OF OKU
CHAPTER XV. WHEREIN ONE SURPRISE BEGETS MANY
CHAPTER XVI. A FIVE MINUTES’ FIGHT
CHAPTER XVII. THE SETTLEMENT
Suddenly he sprang upright
“It’s fine!” said Arthur Warden, lowering his binoculars so as to glut his eyes with the full spectacle. “In fact, it’s more than fine, it’s glorious!”
He spoke aloud in his enthusiasm. A stout, elderly man who stood near—a man with “retired tradesman” writ large on face and figure—believed that the tall, spare–built yachtsman was praising the weather.
“Yes, sir,” he chortled pompously, “this is a reel August day. I knew it. Fust thing this morning I tole my missus we was in for a scorcher.”
Warden gradually became aware that these ineptitudes were by way of comment. He turned and read the weather–prophet’s label at a glance. But life was too gracious at that moment, and he was far too well–disposed toward all men, that he should dream of inflicting a snub.
“That was rather clever of you,” he agreed genially. “Now, though the barometer stood high, I personally was dreading a fog three hours ago.”
The portly one gurgled.
“I’ve got a glass,” he announced. “Gev’ three pun’ ten for it, but there’s a barrowmeter in my bones that’s worth a dozen o’ them things. I’ll back rheumatiz an’ a side o’ bacon any day to beat the best glass ever invented.”
All unknowing, here was the touch of genius that makes men listen. Warden showed his interest.
“A side of bacon!” he repeated.
“Yes, sir. Nothing to ekal it. I was in the trade, so I know wot I’m talkin’ about. And, when you come to think of it, why not? Pig skin an’ salt—one of ‘em won’t have any truck wi’ damp—doesn’t want it an’ shows it—an’ t’other sucks it up like a calf drinkin’ milk. I’ve handled bacon in tons, every brand in the market, an’ you can’t smoke any of ‘em on a muggy day.”
“Does your theory account for the old–fashioned notion that pigs can see the wind?”
The stout man considered the point. It was new to him, and he was a Conservative.
“I’m better acquent wi’ bacon,” he said stubbornly.
“So I gather. I was only developing your very original idea, on the principle that
“You may break, you may shatter, the vase if you will, but the scent of the roses will hang round it still.”
The ex–bacon–factor rapped an emphatic stick on the pavement. Though he hoped some of his friends would see him hob–nobbing “with a swell,” he refused to be made game of.
“Wot ‘as scent got to do with it?” he demanded wrathfully.
“Everything. Believe me, pigs have been used as pointers. And consider the porcine love of flowers. Why, there once was a pig named Maud because it would come into the garden.”
Had Warden laughed he might have given the cue that was lacking. But his clean–cut, somewhat sallow face did not relax, and an angry man puffed away from him in a red temper.
He caught scraps of soliloquy.
“A pig named Maud!... Did anybody ever hear the like?... An’ becos it kem into a garden.... Might just as well ‘ave called it Maria.”
Then Warden, left at peace with the world, devoted himself again to the exquisite panorama of Cowes on a sunlit Monday of the town’s great week. In front sparkled the waters of the Solent, the Bond Street of ocean highways. A breath of air from the west rippled over a strong current sweeping eastward. It merely kissed the emerald plain into tiny facets. It was so light a breeze that any ordinary sailing craft would have failed to make headway against the tide, and the gay flags and bunting of an innumerable pleasure fleet hung sleepily from their staffs and halyards. Yet it sufficed to bring a covey of white–winged yachts flying back to Cowes after rounding the East Lepe buoy. Jackyard topsails and bowsprit spinnakers preened before it. Though almost imperceptible on shore, it awoke these gorgeous butterflies of the sea into life and motion. Huge 23–meter cutters, such as White Heather II, Brynhild and Nyria, splendid cruisers like Maoona, errymaid, Shima, Creole, and Britomart, swooped grandly into the midst of the anchored craft as though bent on self–destruction. To the unskilled eye it seemed a sheer miracle that any of them should emerge from the chaos of yachts, redwings, launches, motorboats, excursion steamers, and smaller fry that beset their path. But Cowes is nothing if not nautical. Those who understood knew that bowsprits and dinghies of moored yachts would be cleared magically, and even spinnaker booms topped to avoid lesser obstruction. Those who did not understand—who heard no syllable of the full and free language that greeted an inane row–boat essaying an adventurous crossing of the course—gazed breathlessly at these wondrous argosies, and marveled at their escape from disaster. Then the white fleet swept past the mouth of the river, and vanished behind Old Castle Point on the way to far distant buoy or light–ship that marked the beginning of the homeward run. And that was all—a brief flight of fairy ships—and Cowes forthwith settled down to decorous junketing.
Away to the northwest a gathering of gray–hulled monsters had thundered a royal salute of twenty–one guns, and the smoke–cloud still lay in a blue film on the Hampshire coast. The Dreadnought was hauling at her anchors before taking a king and an emperor to witness the prowess of her gunners. The emperor’s private yacht, a half–fledged man–o’–war, was creeping in the wake of the competing yachts. Perchance herofficers might see more of British gunnery practice than of the racing.
Close at hand a swarm of launches and ships’ boats buzzed round the landing slip of the Royal Yacht Club. The beautiful lawn and gardens were living parterres of color, for the Castle is a famous rendezvous of well–dressed women. Parties were assembling for luncheon either in the clubhouse or on board the palatial vessels in the roads. To the multitude, yachting at Cowes consists of the blare of a starting–gun, the brief vision of a cluster of yachts careening under an amazing press of canvas, and, for the rest, gossip, eating, bridge—with a picnic or a dance to eke out the afternoon and evening.
Arthur Warden soon turned his back on the social Paradise he was not privileged to enter. He was resigned to the fact that the breeze which sent the competitors in the various matches spinning merrily to Spithead would not move his hired cutter a yard against the tide. So, having nothing better to do, he sauntered along the promenade toward the main street. On the way he passed the one–time purveyor of bacon sitting beside a lady who by long association had grown to resemble him.
“Now I wonder if her name is Maria,” he mused.
Drifting with the holiday crowd, he bought some picture postcards, a box of cigarettes, and a basket of hothouse peaches. Being a dilettante in some respects, he admired and became the prospective owner of the fruit before he learned the price. There were four peaches in the basket, and they cost him ten shillings.
“Ah,” he said, as the shopkeeper threw the half sovereign carelessly into the till, “I see you have catered for Lucullus?”
“I don’t think so, sir,” said the greengrocer affably. “Where does he live?”
“He had villas at Tusculum and Neapolis.”
“There’s no such places in the Isle of Wight, sir.”
“Strange! Has not the game–dealer across the street supplied him with peacocks’ tongues?”
The man grinned.
“Somebody’s bin gettin’ at you, sir,” he cried.
“True, very true. Yet, according to Horace, I sup with Lucullus to–night.”
“Horace said that, did he?”
The greengrocer suddenly turned and peered down a stairway.
“Horace!” he yelled, “who’s this here Lucullus you’ve bin gassin’ about?”
A shock–headed boy appeared.
“Loo who?” said he.
Warden departed swiftly.
“My humor does not appeal to Cowes,” he reflected. “I have scored two failures. Having conjured Horace from a coal–cellar let me now confer with Diogenes in his tub.”
Applied to Peter Evans, and his phenomenally small dinghy, the phrase was a happy enough description of the ex–pilot who owned the Nancy. Evans and his craft had gone out of commission together. Both were famous in the annals of Channel pilotage, but an accident had deprived Peter of his left leg, so he earned a livelihood by summer cruising round the coast, and he was now awaiting his present employer at a quay in the river Medina.
But Warden’s pace slackened again, once he was clear of the fruiterer’s shop. Sailing was out of the question until the breeze freshened. It was in his mind to bid Peter meet him again at four o’clock. Meanwhile, he would go to Newport by train, and ramble in Parkhurst Forest for a couple of hours. Recalling that happy–go–lucky mood in later days of storm and stress, he tried to piece together the trivial incidents that were even then conspiring to bring about the great climax of his life. A pace to left or right, a classical quip at his extravagance in the matter of the peaches, a slight hampering of free movement because the Portsmouth ferry–boat happened to be disgorging some hundreds of sightseers into the main street of West Cowes—each of these things, so insignificant, so commonplace, helped to bring him to the one spot on earth where fate, the enchantress, had set her snare in the guise of a pretty girl.
For it was undeniably a pretty face that was lifted to his when a young lady, detaching herself from the living torrent that delayed him for a few seconds on the pavement, appealed for information.
“Will you please tell me how I can ascertain the berth of the yacht Sans Souci?” she asked.
It has been seen that he was glib enough of speech, yet now he was tongue–tied. In the very instant that the girl put forward her simple request, his eyes were fixed on the swarthy features of a Portuguese freebooter known to him as the greatest among the many scoundrels infesting the hinterland of Nigeria. There was no mistaking the man. The Panama hat, spotless linen, fashionable suit and glossy boots of a typical visitor to Cowes certainly offered strong contrast to the soiled garb of the balked slave–trader whom he had driven out of a burning and blood–bespattered African village a brief year earlier. But, on that occasion, Arthur Warden had gazed steadily at Miguel Figuero along the barrel of a revolver; under such circumstances one does not forget.
For a little space, then, the Englishman’s imagination wandered far afield. Instinctively he raised his hat as he turned to the girl and repeated her concluding words.
“The Sans Souci, did you say?”
“Yes, a steam–yacht—Mr. Baumgartner’s.”
She paused. Though Warden was listening now, his wits were still wool–gathering. His subconscious judgment was weighing Figuero’s motives in coming to England, and, of all places, to Cowes. Of the many men he had encountered during an active life this inland pirate was absolutely the last he would expect to meet during Regatta Week in the Isle of Wight.
The girl, half aware of his obsession, became confused—even a trifle resentful.
“I am sorry to trouble you,” she went on nervously. “I had no idea there would be such a crowd, and I spoke to you because—because you looked as if you might know——”
Then he recovered his self–possession, and proceeded to surprise her.
“I do know,” he broke in hurriedly. “Pray allow me to apologize. The sun was in my eyes, and he permits no competition. Against him, even you would dazzle in vain. To make amends, let me take you to the Sans Souci. She is moored quite close to my cutter, and my dinghy is not fifty yards distant.”
The girl drew back a little. This offer of service was rather too prompt, while its wording was peculiar, to say the least. She was so good–looking that young men were apt to place themselves unreservedly at her disposal without reference to sun, moon, or stars.
“I think I would prefer to hire a boat,” she said coldly. “I should explain that an officer on board the steamer told me I ought to discover the whereabouts of the yacht before starting, or the boatman would take me out of my way and overcharge.”
“Exactly. That officer’s name was Solomon. Now, I propose to take you straight there for nothing. Come with me as far as the quay. One glance at Peter will restore the confidence you have lost in me.”
Then he smiled, and a woman can interpret a man’s smile with almost uncanny prescience. The whiff of pique blew away, and she temporized.
“Is the Sans Souci a long way out?”
“Nearly a mile. And look! We can eat these while Peter toils.”
He opened the paper bag and showed her the peaches. She laughed lightly. Were she a Frenchwoman she would have said, “But, sir, you are droll.” Being English, she came to the point.
“Where is the quay you speak of?”
“Here. Close at hand.”
As they walked off together she discovered out of the corner of her eye that his glance was searching the thinning mob of her fellow passengers. She guessed that he had recognized some person unexpectedly.
“Are you sure I am not trespassing on your time?” she demanded.
“Quite sure. When I said the sun was in my eyes I used poetic license. I meant the West African sun. A man who arrived on your steamer reminded me of Nigeria—where we—er—became acquainted.”
“There! You want to speak to him, of course,” and she halted suddenly.
He smiled again, and held out the bag.
“He is a Portuguese gin–trader—and worse. And he is gone. Would you have me run after him and offer peaches that were meant for you?”
“But that is ridiculous.”
“I don’t mean that. How could you possibly have provided peaches for me?”
“I don’t know. Ask the fairies who arrange these things. Ten minutes ago I had no more notion of buying fruit than of buying an aeroplane. Ten minutes ago you and I had never met. Yet here we are, you and I and the luscious four. And there is Peter, sailing master, cook, and general factotem of the Nancy cutter. Don’t you think Peter’s wooden leg induces trust? He calls it a prop, which suggests both moral and physical support. By the way, have you ever noticed that wooden–legged men are invariably fat? And Cæsar vouched for the integrity of fat men.”
Though the girl began to find his chatter agreeable, she was secretly dismayed when she compared the gigantic Peter with the diminutive dinghy. She had never before seen so broad a man or so small a boat. But she had grit, and was unwilling to voice her doubt.
“Will it hold us?” she inquired with apparent unconcern.
“Oh, yes. When Peter was a pilot that little craft carried him and his two mates through many a heavy sea. Don’t be afraid. We will put you safely on board the Sans Souci. Now, you sit there and hold the bag. I’ll take my two at once, please, as I find room forrard.”
“Not much of a breeze for cruisin’, Mr. Warden,” grinned Peter, casting an appreciative eye over the latest addition to the Nancy’s muster–roll.
“We’re not bound for a cruise, Peter, worse luck,” said Warden. “The young lady wishes to reach that big yacht moored abreast of the cutter. So give way, O heart of oak! Thou wert christened stone, yet a good name is rather to be chosen than great riches.”
Peter winked solemnly at the fair unknown.
“He do go on, don’t he, miss?” he said.
The girl nodded, for ripe peach is an engrossing fruit. She was enjoying her little adventure. It savored of romance. Already her slight feeling of nervousness had vanished. In her heart of hearts she hoped that Mr. Warden might prove to be a friend of the Baumgartners.
Under Peter’s powerful strokes the dinghy sped rapidly into the open waters of the Solent. At that hour there was but slight stir in the roadstead. Everybody afloat seemed to be eating. Each launch and yacht they passed held a luncheon party beneath awnings or in a deck saloon. Through the golden stillness came the pleasant notes of a band playing in the grounds of the clubhouse. A bugle sounded faint and shrill from the deck of a distant warship. Sitting in this cockleshell of a craft, so near the glistening water that one might trail both hands in it, was vastly agreeable after a long journey by rail and steamer. From sea level the girl obtained an entirely different picture of Cowes and the Solent from that glimpsed from the throbbing ferry–boat. The sea appeared to have risen, the wooded hills and clusters of houses to have sunk bodily. Already the shore was curiously remote. A sense of brooding peace fell on her like a mantle. She sighed, and wondered why she was so content.
Peter’s airy summary of his master’s habits seemed to have cast a spell on their tongues. For fully five minutes no one spoke. The wondrous silence was broken only by the rhythmical clank of the oars, the light plash of the boat’s movement, the strains of a waltz from the Castle lawn, and the musical laughter of women from the yachts.
Owing to the shortness of the dinghy, and the fact that the girl faced Warden, with Peter intervening, the two younger people were compelled to look at each other occasionally. The man saw a sweetly pretty face dowered with a rare conjunction of myosotis blue eyes and purple eyelashes, and crowned with a mass of dark brown hair. Accent, manner, and attire bespoke good breeding. She was dressed well, though simply, in blue canvas. Being somewhat of an artist, he did not fail to note that her hat, blouse, gloves and boots, though probably inexpensive, harmonized in brown tints. She was young, perhaps twenty–two. Guessing at random, he imagined her the daughter of some country rector, and, from recent observation of the Baumgartners, eked out by their public repute, he admitted a certain sentiment of surprise that such blatant parvenus should be on her visiting list.
For her part, the girl had long since discovered that her self–appointed guide was an army man. West Africa gave a hint of foreign service that was borne out by a paleness beneath the tan of the yachtsman. A regimental mess, too, is a university in itself, conferring a well–defined tone, a subtle distinctiveness. Each line of his sinewy frame told of drill, and his rather stern face was eloquent of one accustomed to command.
These professional hall–marks were not lost on her. She had mixed in circles where they were recognized. And she was prepared to like him. In her woman’s phrase, she thought it was “nice of him” not to question her. She was quite sure that if they met again ashore that afternoon he would leave her the option of renewing or dropping their acquaintance as she thought fit. Yet, for one so ready of speech after the first awkward moment outside the steamer pier, it was surprising that he should now be so taciturn.
When he did address her, he kept strictly to the purpose of their expedition.
“That is the San Souci,” he said, pointing to a large white yacht in the distance. “A splendid vessel. Built on the Clyde, I believe?”
“Ay, three hunnerd tons, an’ good for ten knots in any or’nary sea,” put in Peter.
“You know her, of course?” went on Warden.
“No. I have never before set eyes on her.”
“Well, you will enjoy your visit all the more, perhaps. From last night’s indications, you should have plenty of amusement on board.”
“Are there many people there, then?”
“I am not sure. The owners gave a big dinner party yesterday. The launch was coming and going at all hours.”
“What is that?” she asked inconsequently, indicating with a glance a small round object bobbing merrily westward some few yards away.
“It is difficult to say. Looks like a float broken loose from a fishing net,” said Warden.
“No, sir, it ain’t that,” pronounced Peter. “Nets have corks an’ buoys, an’ that ain’t neether.”
“You may think it absurd,” cried the girl, “yet I fancied just now that I caught a resemblance to a face, a distorted black face; but it has turned round.”
The boatman lay on his oars, and they all looked at the dancing yellow ball hurrying to the open sea.
“At first sight it suggests a piratical pumpkin,” said Warden.
“But I have been watching it quite a long time, and I am certain it is black on the other side. There! Surely I am not mistaken. And the people on that yacht have seen it, too.”
The girl’s face flushed with excitement. The thing had really startled her, and the two men were ready to agree that it now presented a mask–like visage, more than half submerged, as it swirled about in a chance eddy. That some loungers on a yacht close at hand had also noticed it was made evident by their haste to run down a gangway into a boat fastened alongside.
“After it, Peter!” cried Warden. “It is the lady’s trover by the law of the high seas. Bend your back for the honor of the Nancy. Port a bit—port. Steady all. Keep her there.”
In her eagerness, the girl tried to rise to her feet.
“Sit still, miss,” growled Peter, laboring mightily. “Judging by the position of that other craft, an’ from wot I know of Mr. Warden, there’ll be a devil of a bump in ‘arf a tick.”
“Starboard a point,” cooed Warden, on his knees in the bows. “Steady as she goes.”
Suddenly he sprang upright.
“Hard a–starboard!” he shouted, and leaped overboard.
A yell from the opposing boat, a scream from the girl, a sharp crack as an oar–blade snapped against the sturdy ribs of the dinghy, and the two boats shot past each other, Peter’s prompt obedience to orders having averted a collision.
“My godfather!” he roared, “’e ‘ad to jump for it. But don’t you worry, miss—’e can swim like a herrin’.”
Nevertheless, the girl did worry, as her white face and straining eyes well showed. Peter swung the dinghy about so nimbly that she lost all sense of direction. It seemed as if the laughing Solent had swallowed Warden, and she gazed affrightedly on every side but the right one.
“Oh, how could he do it?” she wailed. “I shall never forgive myself—“
Then she heard a deep breath from the water behind her, and she turned to see Warden, with blood streaming from a gash across his forehead, swimming easily with one hand. She whisked round and knelt on the seat.
“Quick!” she cried. “Come close. I can hold you.”
“Please do not be alarmed on my account,” he said coolly. “I fear I look rather ghastly, but the injury is nothing, a mere glancing blow from an oar.”
Even in her unnerved condition she could not fail to realize that he was in no desperate plight. But she was very frightened, and grasped his wrist tenaciously when his fingers rested on the stern rail. Yet, even under such trying circumstances, she was helpful. Though half sobbing, and utterly distressed, she dipped her handkerchief in the water and stooped until she could wash the wound sufficiently to reveal its extent. He was right. The skin was broken, but the cut had no depth.
“Why did you behave so madly?” she asked with quivering lips.
“It was method, not madness, fair maid,” he said, smiling up at her. “Our opponents had four oars and a light skiff against Peter’s two and a dinghy that is broad as it is long. To equalize the handicap I had to jump, else you would have lost your trophy. By the way, here it is!”
With his disengaged hand he gave her a smooth, highly polished oval object which proved to be a good deal larger than it looked when afloat. The girl threw it into the bottom of the boat without paying the least heed to it. She was greatly flurried, and, womanlike, wanted to box Warden’s ears for his absurd action.
“You have terrified me out of my wits,” she gasped. “Can you manage to climb on board?”
“That would be difficult—perhaps dangerous. Peter, pull up to the nearest ship’s ladder. Then I can regain my perch forrard.”
But Peter was gazing with an extraordinary expression of awe, almost of fear, at the unusual cause of so much commotion.
“Well, sink me!” he muttered, “if that ain’t Ole Nick’s own himmidge, it’s his head stoker’s. I’ve never seen anything like it, no, not in all my born days. My aunt! It’s ugly enough to cause a riot.”
Owing to the return of the rival boat, Peter’s agitation passed unnoticed. A superior person was apologizing for the accident, though inclined to tax Warden with foolhardiness.
“You have only yourself to blame for that knock on the head, which might have been far more serious than it is,” he said.
“Will you kindly go to—Jericho?” said the man in the water.
The superior person’s tone grew more civil when he found that he was talking to one whom he condescended to regard as an equal.
“Don’t you want any assistance?” he inquired.
“No, thanks, unless you will allow me to use your gangway in order to climb aboard the dinghy.”
“By all means. I am sorry the oar caught you. But you annexed the prize, so I suppose you are satisfied. What was it?”
“A calabash, I fancy. You will see it lying in the boat.”
Peter, who was really fascinated by the carved face which drew the girl’s attention in the first instance, suddenly kicked it and turned it upside down with his wooden leg. The men in the second boat saw only the glazed yellow rind of an oval gourd, some twelve inches long and eight or nine in diameter.
“The pot was hardly worth the scurry,” laughed one of them.
“If Greeks once strove for a crown of wild olive, why not Englishmen for a calabash?” said Warden.
There was an element of the ludicrous in the unexpected comment from a man in his predicament. Every true–born Briton resents any remark that he does not quite understand, and some among the strangers grinned. The girl, still holding Warden’s wrist as though she feared he would vanish in the depths if she let go, darted a scornful look at them.
“The truth is that these gentlemen competed because they thought they were sure to win,” she cried.
“It was a fair race, madam,” expostulated the leader of the yacht’s boat.
“Y–yes,” she admitted. “My presence equalized matters.”
As the men were four to two she scored distinctly.
“Give way, Peter,” said Warden. “If I laugh I shall swallow more salt water than is good for me.”
He was soon seated astride the bows of the dinghy, which Peter’s strong arms brought quickly alongside the Sans Souci. By that time, the girl’s composure was somewhat restored. Warden obviously made so light of his ducking that she did not allude to it again. As for the gourd, it rested at her feet, but she seemed to have lost all interest in it. In truth, she was annoyed with herself for having championed her new friend’s cause, and thus, in a sense, condoned his folly.
It did not occur to her that the Sans Souci’s deck was singularly untenanted, until a gruff voice hailed the occupants of the dinghy from the top of the gangway.
“Below there,” came the cry. “Wotcher want here?”
The girl looked up with a flash of surprise in her expressive face. But she answered instantly:
“I am Miss Evelyn Dane, and I wish to see Mrs. Baumgartner.”
“She’s ashore,” was the reply.
“Well, I must wait until she returns.”
“You can’t wait here.”
“But that is nonsense. I have come from Oxfordshire at her request.”
“It don’t matter tuppence where you’ve come from. No one is allowed aboard. Them’s my orders.”
Miss Dane turned bewildered eyes on Warden.
“How can one reason with a surly person like this?” she asked.
“He is incapable of reason—he wants a hiding,” said Warden.
A bewhiskered visage of the freak variety glared down at him.
“Does he, you swob,” roared the apparition, “an’ oo’s goin’ to give it ‘im?”
“I am. Take this lady to the saloon, and come with me to the cutter yonder. My man will bring you to your bunk in five minutes, or even less.”
“For goodness’ sake, Mr. Warden, do not make my ridiculous position worse,” cried the girl, reddening with annoyance. “Mrs. Baumgartner wrote and urged me to see her without any delay on board this yacht. I telegraphed her early this morning saying I would be here soon after midday. What am I to do?”
“If I were you, I would go back to Oxfordshire,” he said.
“But I cannot—at least, not until I have spoken to her. I am—poor. I am practically engaged as companion—another name for governess, I suspect—to Mrs. Baumgartner’s daughter, and I dare not throw away the chance of obtaining a good situation.”
Warden, who was dabbing his forehead with a handkerchief, did not reply at once, and Evelyn Dane, in her distress, little guessed the irrational conceit that danced in his brain just then. But the presence of Peter, and the torrent of sarcastic objurgation that flowed from the guardian of the Sans Souci, imposed restraint. It was on the tip of his tongue to suggest that, under the conditions, it would be a capital notion if they got married, and took a honeymoon cruise in the Nancy!—Long afterward he wondered what would have been the outcome of any such fantastic proposal. Would she have listened? At any rate, it amused him at the time to think that there was little difference between a lover and a lunatic.
But he contented himself with saying:
“I fear I am rather light–headed to–day, Miss Dane. Let us appeal to Peter the solid, and draw upon his wide experience. Tell us then, O pilot, what course shall we shape?”
Peter, rapidly restored to the normal by the familiar language coming from the rail of the yacht, glanced up.
“If I was you, sir, I’d ax monkey–face there wot time ‘is missis was due aboard. Mebbe the young leddy would find her bearin’s then, so to speak.”
“Excellent. Do you hear, Cerberus? When does Mrs. Baumgartner return?”
The watchman, taking thought, decided to suspend his taunts.
“Why didn’t you ax me that at fust?” he growled. “I’m on’y obeyin’ orders. Seven o’clock, they said. An’ it didn’t matter ‘oo kem here, if it was the Pope o’ Rome hisself, it’s as much as my place is worth to let him aboard.”
“That is final, Miss Dane,” said Warden. “There are two alternatives before you. I can either gag and bind the person who has just spoken, thus securing by force your admission to the yacht, or I can entertain you on the Nancy until seven o’clock.”
“But I ought to go ashore.”
“It is not to be dreamed of, I assure you. Cowes is overrun with excursionists. You will be much happier with Peter and me, and we are no mean cooks when put on our mettle.”
She yielded disconsolately. Dislike of the Sans Souci and every one connected with that palatial vessel was already germinating in her mind. If it were not for the considerations outlined in her brief statement to Warden she would have caught the next ferry to Portsmouth and allowed Mrs. Baumgartner to make other provision for her daughter’s companionship, or tuition.
“Give me a call when you are let off the chain,” said Warden pleasantly to the watchman, as the dinghy curved apart from the yacht’s side.
The girl colored even more deeply. Such behavior was not only outrageous, but it supplied a safety valve for her own ruffled feelings.
“I wish you would not say such stupid things,” she cried vehemently. “What would happen if that wretched man took you at your word? You would be mixed up in some horrible brawl, and wholly on my account.”
“He will not come, Miss Dane,” he said sadly. “Let me explain, however, that I prodded his thick hide with set purpose. He is alone on the Sans Souci; he blustered because he was afraid we meant to go aboard, aye or nay. Is it not extraordinary that such a vessel should be absolutely denuded of owner, guests, servants, and crew? That man is not a sailor. Unless I am greatly mistaken, he does not belong to the yacht in any capacity. What does it mean? You may take it from me that it is unusual, I might almost say phenomenal, for a valuable steam–yacht in commission to be deserted in that manner.”
“But he admitted that ‘they,’ meaning Mr. and Mrs. Baumgartner, I suppose, would return early this evening?”
“I am sure he is right in that. But where are the twenty odd domestics and members of the crew? When Peter and I went ashore at ten o’clock to–day the Sans Souci was alive with people.”
“I only know that Mrs. Baumgartner seems to have been thoughtless where I am concerned,” said the girl, absorbed in her own troubles.
Nevertheless, she brightened considerably when Warden assisted her to reach the spotless deck of the Nancy. By dint of much scrubbing and polishing, that taut little cutter had no reason to shirk the vivid sunlight. At the beginning of the cruise she had been fitted with a new suit of sails and fresh cordage. For the rest, Peter, and Peter’s fourteen–year–old son “Chris,” roused now from sound sleep in the cabin by his father’s loud summons, kept brass fittings and woodwork in a spick–and–span condition that would bear comparison with the best–found yacht in the roadstead.
Miss Dane was accommodated with a camp chair aft, while Warden dived into the cabin to change his clothes. The boy, after a wide–eyed stare at his employer, was about to busy himself with tying up the dinghy, when Peter bade him be off and see to the stove if he wished to escape a rope–ending. Chris was hurt. He had not expected such a greeting from his revered parent; but he disappeared instantly, and Peter imagined that his offspring was thus prevented from investigating the mystery of the gourd, which he took good care to leave in the bottom of the boat.
As for the girl, her mind was occupied to the exclusion of all else by the strange combination of events that brought her a guest on board the Nancy. She was not so much perturbed by the absence of Mrs. Baumgartner as by Warden’s manifest disapproval of the lady. A railway return ticket, sufficient money in her purse to pay for a room in a hotel, and the existence of a friend of her mother’s in Portsmouth, a friend whose good offices might be invoked if necessary, made her independent. But she did not want to go back defeated to Oxfordshire. Her father’s carelessness had left her practically at the mercy of a stepmother, who enjoyed the revenue of a fair estate until death. The settlement was not to the liking of either woman, and Evelyn was goaded into an endeavor to escape from it by the knowledge that she was regarded as an interloper in a house that would ultimately come into her possession if she survived the second Mrs. Dane.
The well–paid appointment offered by the Baumgartners was apparently an opening sent by the gods. She had been strongly recommended for the post by a friend, and there seemed to be no reason whatever why it should not prove an ideal arrangement for both parties. Yet Warden, unmistakably a gentleman, if rather eccentric in his ways, evidently did not view the mining magnate’s family with favor. That was a displeasing fact. Though she had no personal experience of the section of society which dubs itself the “smart set,” she gathered that the Baumgartners belonged to it, and it was a risky undertaking for a young woman to constitute herself part and parcel of the household of one of its leading members.
Her somewhat serious reverie was interrupted by the grateful scent of cooking that came from a hidden region forward. Warden reappeared in dry clothing. The cut on his forehead was covered with a strip of sticking plaster. He was bare–headed, and a slight powdering of gray in his thick black hair made him look more than his age.
“Our glass and china are of the pilot pattern,” he explained, placing a laden tray on the deck, “but we balance deficiencies in these respects by a high tone in our cuisine. To–day’s luncheon consists of grilled chicken and bacon, followed by meringues and figs, while the claret was laid down last week in Plymouth.”
“I am so hungry that I can almost dispense with the glass and china,” she admitted. “But won’t you let me help? I am quite domesticated.”
“What? Would you rob the cook of his glory? You must eat and admire, and thank the kindly gales that wafted Peter to the Indian Ocean when he was putting in his sea service, because he learned there how to use charcoal in the galley instead of an abominable oil lamp.”
“I was born in India,” she said with delightful irrelevance.
“Ah, were your people in the army?”
“No. My father was in the Indian Marine. But he retired when I was two years old—soon after my mother’s death. I lost him eight years later, and, having lived thirteen years with a stepmother, I thought it high time to begin to earn my own living.”
She fancied that this brief biography might encourage him to speak of the Baumgartners, but Warden’s conversation did not run on conventional lines.
“I find your career most interesting,” he said. “Now that we know each other so well I want to hear more of you. Promise that you will write every month until early December, and report progress in your new surroundings. Here is my card. A letter to the Universities Club will always reach me.”
She read:—“Captain Arthur Warden, Deputy Commissioner, Nigeria Protectorate.”
“Why must I stop in December?” she asked, with a smile and a quick glance under her long eyelashes.
“Because I return to Nigeria about that date, and I shall then supply a new address.”
“Dear me! Are we arranging a regular correspondence?”
“Your effusions can be absolutely curt. Just the date and locality, and the one word ‘Happy’ or Miserable,’ as the case may be.”
The arrival of Chris with a grilled chicken created a diversion. Peter had to be summoned from the galley. He explained sheepishly that he thought the meal was of a ceremonious character. They feasted regally, and all went well until the unhappy Chrisasked his father if the vegetable marrow was to be boiled for dinner.
“Wot marrer?” demanded Peter unguardedly.
“The big one in the dinghy.”
“By Jove, we have never given a thought to the calabash that created all the rumpus,” cried Warden. “What about that black face you saw on it, Miss Dane? I didn’t notice it afterwards. Did you?”
“No. I was too excited and frightened. Your son might bring it to us now, Mr. Evans.”
“Beggin’ your pardon, miss, we’ll leave it till you’ve finished lunch,” said Peter, regarding Chris with an eye that boded unutterable things.
“But why, most worthy mariner?” demanded Warden.
“’Cos it’s the ugliest phiz that ever grew on a nigger,” was the astonishing answer. “It gev’ me a fair turn, it did, an’ I’m a pretty tough subjec’. It’s enough to stop a clock. If the young leddy takes my advice she’ll bid me heave it overboard and let it go to the—well, to where it rightly belongs.”
“It’s only an old gourd,” exclaimed Evelyn, looking from one to the other in amused surprise.
“Peter,” said Warden, laughing, “you have whetted our curiosity with rare skill. Come, now. What is the joke?”
“I’m in reel earnest, sir—sink me if I ain’t. It’s—a terror, that’s wot it is.”
“Bless my soul, produce it, and let us examine this calabash of parts.”
“Not me!” growled Peter, hauling himself upright with amazing rapidity. “Believe me, sir, I ‘ope you won’t ‘ave the thing aboard the Nancy. Get forrard, you,” he went on, glaring at the open–mouthed Chris. “Start washin’ them plates, an’ keep yer silly mouth closed, or you’ll catch somethin’ you can’t eat.”
There could be no doubt that the usually placid and genial–spoken Peter was greatly perturbed. To avoid further questioning, he stumped off to his quarters in the fore part of the cutter, and swung himself out of sight, while the girl endeavored vainly to estimate how he could squeeze his huge bulk through so small a hatchway.
Warden also stood up.
“After that there is but one course open to us,” he said, and drew in the dinghy’s painter until he was able to secure the gourd.
He was on his knees when he lifted it in both hands and turned it round to ascertain what it was that had so upset his stout friend. In reviewing his first impressions subsequently, he arrived at the conclusion that close familiarity with the features of the West African negro must have blunted his mind to the true significance of the hideous face that scowled at him from the rounded surface of the calabash. He paid heed only to the excellence of the artist—none to the message of undying hatred of every good impulse in mankind that was conveyed by the frowning brows, the cruel mouth, the beady, snake–like eyes peeping through narrow slits cut in the outer rind. Were not the lineaments those of a pure negro, he would have imagined that some long–forgottendoyen of the Satsuma school had amused himself by concentrating in a human face all that is grotesque and horrible in the Japanese notion of a demon. But there was no doubting the identity of the racial type depicted. Warden could even name the very tribe that supplied the model. A curious crinkled ring that had formed round the gourd near the upper part of its egg–shaped circumference suggested the quoit–shaped ivory ornament worn by the men of Oku. Oku used to be a plague spot in West Africa. It is little better to–day, but its virus is dissipated by British rule.
Warden’s kindling glance soon detected other important details. The raised ring, and certain rough protuberances that might have borne a crude likeness to a man’s face when the gourd was in its natural state, were utilized with almost uncanny ingenuity to lend high relief to the carving. Indeed, the surface had been but slightly scored with the artist’s knife. Half–lowered eyelids, a suggestion of parted lips and broad nostrils, some deep creases across the brutish forehead, and a sinister droop to each corner of the mouth—these deft touches revealed at once the sculptor’s restraint and power. The black skin was simulated by a smooth and shining lacquer, the ivory ring by a scraping of the rind that laid bare the yellow pith. No characteristic was over–accentuated. The work offered a rare instance of the art that conceals art.
And Warden felt that none but an artist worthy to rank with the elect could have conceived and carried out this study of some fierce negro despot. That it was a genuine portrait he did not doubt for a moment. It seemed to him that in its creation hate and fear had gone hand in hand with marvelous craftsmanship. The man who exercised such cunning on the inferior material provided by a rough–coated calabash was not only inspired by the pride of conscious power but meant to leave an imperishable record of a savage tyrant in his worst aspect. A great Italian painter, limning his idea of the Last Judgment, gratified his spite by placing all his enemies among the legion of the lost. This unknown master had taken a more subtle revenge. It was possible that the black chief, had he seen it, would have admired his counterfeit presentment. It demanded a more cultured intelligence than Oku society conferred to enable him to appreciate how plainly an evil soul leered from out a dreadful mask.
In no respect was the truth of the image more convincing than in the treatment of the eyes. A minute mosaic of chalcedony was used to portray white and iris and cornea. Small pieces of clear crystal formed the pupils, and the rays of light glinted from their depths with an effect that was appalling in its realism. Thus might the eyes of a cobra sparkle with vindictive fire. They exercised a diabolical mesmerism. Warden, rapt in his admiration of a genuine work of art, remained wholly unconscious of their spell till he heard a faint gasp of horror from the girl.
He turned and looked at her in quick dismay. All the roses had fled from her cheeks, leaving her wan indeed. Her own fine eyes were distended with fright. She, like Peter Evans, gave no heed to the consummate skill of the designer. She was fascinated at once by that basilisk glare. It thrilled her to the core, threatened her with immeasurable wrongs, menaced her with the spite of a demon.
“This is the most wonderful thing of its kind I have ever seen,” said Warden eagerly.
Though he was not yet awakened to the magnetic influence exercised by the vile visage he could not fail to note the girl’s consternation. He thought to reassure her by pointing out the marvelous craft displayed in its contriving.
“It is amazing in every sense,” he went on, bringing the gourd nearer for her inspection. “Although the calabash is of a variety unknown in West Africa, the face gives a perfect likeness of an Oku chief. There is a man in Oku now who might have sat to the sculptor, though he is far from possessing the power, the tremendous strength, of the original. Yet it seems to me to be very old. I cannot, for the life of me——”
A loud crash interrupted him. Chris, removing the remains of the feast, had gazed for an instant at the astounding object in Warden’s hands. The boy backed away, and tripped over a coil of rope, with disastrous result to the crockery he was carrying.
Warden’s voice, no less than the laugh with which he greeted Chris’s discomfiture, restored the poise of the girl’s wits.
“You obtained that for me, did you not?” she cried with a curious agitation.
“Yes, of course,” said he.
“Then give it to me, please.”
He was certainly surprised, but passed the gourd to her without further comment. She half averted her eyes, took it unhesitatingly, and tried to pitch it into the water. For its size, it was astonishingly light. Were it as heavy as she imagined, it must have dropped into the Solent several yards from the vessel. As it was, it flew unexpectedly high, struck a rope, and fell back on deck, whence it bounded, with the irregular bounce of a Rugby football, right into Warden’s hands again.
“That was a mad trick,” he said almost angrily.
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