The River of Stars - Edgar Wallace - ebook

The River of Stars ebook

Edgar Wallace

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Opis

During 1907 Edgar Wallace (1875-1932) travelled to the Congo Free State, to report on atrocities committed against the Congolese under King Leopold II of Belgium and the Belgian rubber companies, in which up to 15 million Congolese were killed. Isabel Thorne of the Weekly Tale-Teller penny magazine, invited Wallace to serialize stories inspired by his experiences. These were published as his first collection „Sanders of the River” (1911), a best seller. This volume, grouped with the Sanders Africa books of Wallace does not contain the usual Sanders-short stories, but is a novel, Sanders is only a minor character on the edge of the proceedings. Small-time crooks go to Africa to find a diamond river, but before and after this journey, they constantly get in their own way, with sometimes fatal consequences...

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Contents

THE PROLOGUE

I. AMBER

II. AT THE WHISTLERS

III. INTRODUCES PETER, THE ROMANCIST

IV. LAMBAIRE NEEDS A CHART

V. AMBER ADMITS HIS GUILT

VI. IN FLAIR COURT

VII. AMBER GOES TO SCOTLAND YARD

VIII. FRANCIS SUTTON ASKS A QUESTION

IX. AMBER SEES THE MAP

X. THE MAN IN CONVICT'S CLOTHES

XI. INTRODUCES CAPTAIN AMBROSE GREY

XII. AMBER SAILS

XIII. IN THE FOREST

XIV. A HANDFUL O' PEBBLE

XV. IN THE BED OF THE RIVER

XVI. AMBER ON PROSPECTUSES

XVII. WHITEY HAS A PLAN

XVIII. WHITEY'S WAY

XIX. AMBER RUNS AWAY

XX. CHAPTER THE LAST

THE PROLOGUE

THE road from Alebi is a bush road. It is a track scarcely discernible, that winds through forest and swamp, across stretches of jungle land, over thickly vegetated hills.

No tributary of the great river runs to the Alebi country, where, so people say, wild and unknown tribes dwell; where strange magic is practiced, and curious rites observed.

Here, too, is the River of Stars.

Once there went up into these bad lands an expedition under a white man. He brought with him carriers, and heavy loads of provisions and landed from a coast steamer one morning in October. There were four white men, one being in supreme authority; a pleasant man of middle age, tall, broad, and smiling.

There was one who made no secret of the fact that he did not intend accompanying the expedition.

He also was a tall man, heavier of build, plump of face, and he spent the days of waiting, whilst the caravan was being got ready, in smoking long cigars and cursing the climate.

A few days before the expedition marched he took the leader aside.

“Now, Sutton,” he said, “this affair has cost me a lot of money, and I don’t want to lose it through any folly of yours–I am a straight-speaking man, so don’t lose your temper. If you locate this mine, you’re to bring back samples, but most of all are you to take the exact bearings of the place. Exactly where the River is, I don’t know. You’ve got the pencil plan that the Portuguese gave us–”

The other man interrupted him with a nervous little laugh.

“It is not in Portuguese territory, of course,” he said.

“For Heaven sake, Sutton,” implored the big man in a tone of exasperation, “get that Portuguese maggot out o’ your brain–I’ve told you twenty times there is no question of Portuguese territory. The River runs through British soil–”

“Only, you know, that the Colonial Office–”

“I know all about the Colonial Office,” interrupted the man roughly, “it’s forbidden, I know, and it’s a bad place to get to, anyhow–here “– he drew from his pocket a flat round case, and opened it–” use this compass the moment you strike the first range of hills–have you got any other compasses?”

“I have got two,” said the other wonderingly.

“Let me have ‘em.”

“But–”

“Get ‘em, my dear chap,” said the stout man testily; and the leader, with a good-humoured shrug of his shoulders, left him, to return in a few minutes with the two instruments. He took in exchange the one the man held and opened it.

It was a beautiful instrument. There was no needle, the whole dial revolving as he turned it about. Something he saw surprised him, for he frowned.

“That’s curious,” he said wonderingly; “are you sure this compass is true? The north should lie exactly over that flag-staff on the Commissioner’s house–I tested it yesterday from this very–”

“Stuff!” interrupted the other loudly. “Rubbish; this compass has been verified; do you think I want to lead you astray–after the money I’ve sunk–”

On the morning before the expedition left, when the carriers were shouldering their loads, there came a brown-faced little man with a big white helmet over the back of his head and a fly whisk in his hand.

“Sanders, Commissioner,” he introduced himself laconically,” I’ve just come down from the interior; sorry I did not arrive before: you are going into the bush?”

“Yes.”

“Diamonds, I understand?”

Sutton nodded.

“You’ll find a devil of a lot of primitive opposition to your march. The Alebi people will fight you, and the Otaki folk will chop you, sure.” He stood thinking, and swishing his whisk from side to side.

“Avoid trouble,” he said, “I do not want war in my territories–and keep away from the Portuguese border.”

Sutton smiled.

“We shall give that precious border a wide berth –the Colonial Office has seen the route, and approves.”

The Commissioner nodded again and eyed Sutton gravely. “Good luck,” he said.

The next day the expedition marched with the dawn, and disappeared into the wood beyond the Isisi River.

A week later the stout man sailed for England.

Months passed and none returned, nor did any news come of the expedition either by messenger, or by Lokali. A year went by, and another, and still no sign came.

Beyond the seas, people stirred uneasily, cablegram and letter, and official dispatch came to the Commissioner, urging him to seek for the lost expedition of the white men who had gone to find the River of Stars. Sanders of Bofabi shook his head.

What search could be made? Elsewhere, a swift little steamer following the courses of a dozen rivers, might penetrate–the fat water-jacket of a maxim gun persuasively displayed over the bow– into regions untouched by European influence, but the Alebi country was bush. Investigation meant an armed force; an armed force meant money– the Commissioner shook his head.

Nevertheless he sent two spies secretly into the bush, cunning men, skilled in woodcraft. They were absent about three months, and returned one leading the other.

“They caught him, the wild people of the Alebi,” said the leader without emotion, “and put out his eyes: that night, when they would have burnt him, I killed his guard and carried him to the bush.”

Sanders stood before his bungalow, in the green moonlight, and looked from the speaker to the blind man, who stood uncomplainingly, patiently twiddling his fingers.

“What news of the white men?” he asked at last, and the speaker, resting on his long spear, turned to the sightless one at his side.

“What saw you, Messambi?” he asked in the vernacular.

“Bones,” croaked the blind man, “bones I saw; bones and nearly bones. They crucified the white folk in a big square before the chief’s house, and there is no man left alive so men say.”

“So I thought,” said Sanders gravely, and made his report to England.

Months passed and the rains came and the green season that follows the rains, and Sanders was busy, as a West Central African Commissioner can be busy, in a land where sleeping sickness and tribal feuds contribute steadily to the death rate.

He had been called into the bush to settle a witch-doctor palaver. He travelled sixty miles along the tangled road that leads to the Alebi country, and established his seat of justice at a small town called M’Saga. He had twenty Houssas with him, else he might not have gone so far with impunity. He sat in the thatched palaver house and listened to incredible stories of witchcraft, of spells cast, of wasting sickness that fell in consequence, of horrible rites between moonset and sunrise, and gave judgment.

The witch-doctor was an old man, but Sanders had no respect for grey hairs.

“It is evident to me that you are an evil man,” he said, “and–”

“Master!”

It was the complainant who interrupted him, a man wasted by disease and terror, who came into the circle of soldiery and stolid townspeople.

“Master, he is a bad man–”

“Be silent,” commanded Sanders.

“He practises devil spells with white men’s blood,” screamed the man, as two soldiers seized him at a gesture from the Commissioner. “He keeps a white man chained in the forest–”

“Eh?”

Sanders was alert and interested. He knew natives better than any other man; he could detect a lie–more difficult an accomplishment, he could detect the truth. Now he beckoned the victim of the witch-doctor’s enmity towards him.

“What is this talk of white men?” he asked.

The old doctor said something in a low tone, fiercely, and the informer hesitated.

“Go on,” said Sanders.

“He says–”

“Go on!”

The man was shaking from head to foot.

“There is a white man in the forest–he came from the River of Stars–the Old One found him and put him in a hut, needing his blood for charms....”

The man led the way along a forest path, behind him came Sanders, and, surrounded by six soldiers, the old witch-doctor with his hands strapped together.

Two miles from the village was a hut. The elephant grass grew so high about it that it was scarcely visible. Its roof was rotten and sagging, the interior was vile...

Sanders found a man lying on the floor, chained by the leg to a heavy log; a man who laughed softly to himself, and spoke like a gentleman. The soldiers carried him into the open, and laid him carefully on the ground. His clothes were in tatters, his hair and his beard were long, there were many little scars on either forearm where the witch-doctor’s knife had drawn blood.

“M–m,” said Sanders, and shook his head.

„...The River of Stars,” said the wreck, with a chuckle, “pretty name–what? Kimberley? Why, Kimberley is nothing compared to it... I did not believe it until I saw it with my eyes... the bed of the river is packed with diamonds, and you’d never find it, Lambaire, even with the chart, and your infernal compass... I’ve left a cache of tools, and food for a couple of years....”

He thrust his hand into his rag of a shirt and brought out a scrap of paper. Sanders bent down to take it, but the man pushed him back with his thin hand.

“No, no, no,” he breathed. “You take the blood, that’s your job–I’m strong enough to stand it–one day I’ll get away...”

Ten minutes later he fell into a sound sleep. Sanders found the soiled paper, and put it into his uniform pocket.

He sent back to the boat and his men brought two tents which were pitched in a clearing near the hut. The man was in such a deplorable condition that Sanders dared not take the risk of moving him. That night, when the camp lay wrapped in sleep and the two native women whom the Commissioner had commanded to watch the sick man were snoring by their charge, the wreck woke. Stealthily he rose from bed and crept out into the starry night.

Sanders woke to find an empty hut and a handful of rags that had once been a white man’s coat on the banks of the tiny forest stream, a hundred yards from the camp.

*     *

*

THE witch doctor of M’Saga, summoned to an early morning palaver, came in irons and was in no doubt as to the punishment which awaited him, for nearby in the forest the houssas had dug up much evidence of sacrifice.

“Master,” said the man, facing the stare of grey eyes, “I see death in your face.”

“That is God’s truth,” said Sanders, and hanged him then and there.

I. AMBER

AMBER sat in his cell at Wellboro’ gaol, softly whistling a little tune and beating time on the floor with his stockinged feet. He had pushed his stool near to the corrugated wall, and tilted it back so that he was poised on two of its three legs.

His eyes wandered round the little room critically.

Spoon and basin on the shelf; prison regulations varnished a dull yellow, above these; bed neatly folded... he nodded slowly, still whistling.

Above the bed and a little to the left was a small window of toughened glass, admitting daylight but affording, by reason of its irregular texture, no view of the world without. On a shelf over the bed was a Bible, a Prayer Book, and a dingy library book.

He made a grimace at the book; it was a singularly dull account of a singularly dull lady missionary who had spent twenty years in North Borneo without absorbing more of the atmosphere of that place than that it “was very hot” and further that native servants could be on occasion “very trying.”

Amber was never fortunate with his library books. Five years ago, when he had first seen the interior of one of His Majesty’s gaols, he had planned a course of study embracing Political Economy and the Hellenic Drama, and had applied for the necessary literature for the prosecution of his studies. He had been “served out” with an elementary Greek grammar and Swiss Family Robinson, neither of which was noticeably helpful. Fortunately the term of imprisonment ended before he expected; but he had amused himself by translating the adventures of the virtuous Swiss into Latin verse, though he found little profit in the task, and abandoned it.

During his fourth period of incarceration he made chemistry his long suit; but here again fortune deserted him, and no nearer could he get to his reading of the science than to secure the loan of a Squire and a Materia Medica.

Amber, at the time I describe, was between twenty-eight and thirty years of age, a little above medium height, well built, though he gave you the impression of slightness. His hair was a reddish yellow, his eyes grey, his nose straight, his mouth and chin were firm, and he was ready to show two rows of white teeth in a smile, for he was easily amused. The lower part of his face was now unshaven, which detracted from his appearance, but none the less he was, even in the ugly garb of his bondage, a singularly good-looking young man.

There was the sound of a key at the door, and he rose as the lock snapped twice and the door swung outward.

“75,” said an authoritative voice, and he stepped out of the cell into the long corridor, standing to attention.

The warder, swinging his keys at the end of a bright chain, pointed to the prisoner’s shoes neatly arranged by the cell door.

“Put ‘em on.”

Amber obeyed, the warder watching him.

“Why this intrusion upon privacy, my Augustus?” asked the kneeling Amber.

The warder, whose name was not Augustus, made no reply. In earlier times he would have “marked “ Amber for insolence, but the eccentricities of this exemplary prisoner were now well-known, besides which he had some claim to consideration, for he it was who rescued Assistant Warder Beit from the fury of the London Gang. This had happened at Devizes County Gaol in 1906, but the prison world is a small one, and the fame of Amber ran from Exeter to Chelmsford, from Lewes to Strangeways.

He marched with his custodian through the corridor, down a polished steel stairway to the floor of the great hall, along a narrow stone passage to the Governor’s office. Here he waited for a few minutes, and was then taken to the Governor’s sanctum.

Major Bliss was sitting at his desk, a burnt little man with a small black moustache and hair that had gone grey at the temples.

With a nod he dismissed the warder.

“75,” he said briefly, “you are going out tomorrow, on a Home Office order.”

“Yes, sir,” said Amber.

The Governor was thoughtfully silent for a moment, drumming his fingers noiselessly on his blotting-pad.

“What are you going to do?” he demanded suddenly.

Amber smiled.

“I shall pursue my career of crime,” he said cheerfully, and the Governor frowned and shook his head.

“I can’t understand you–haven’t you any friends?”

 Again the amused smile.

“No, sir,” Amber was even more cheerful than before. “I have nobody to blame for my detection but myself.”

The Major turned over some sheets of paper that lay before him, read them, and frowned again.

“Ten convictions!” he said. “A man of your capacity–why, with your ability you might have been–”

“Oh no, I mightn’t,” interrupted the convict, “that’s the gag that judges work, but it’s not true. It doesn’t follow because a man makes an ingenious criminal that he would be a howling success as an architect, or because he can forge a cheque that he would have made a fortune by company promotion. An ordinary intelligent man can always shine in crime because he is in competition with very dull-witted and ignorant fellow craftsmen.”

He took a step forward and leant on the edge of the desk.

“Look here, sir, you remember me at Sandhurst; you were a man of my year. You know that I was dependent on an allowance from an uncle who died before I passed through. What was I fit for when I came down? It seemed jolly easy the first week in London, because I had a tenner to carry on with.

But in a month I was starving. So I worked the Spanish prisoner fraud, played on the cupidity of people who thought they were going to make an immense fortune with a little outlay–it was easy money for me.”

The Governor shook his head again.

“I’ve done all sorts of stunts since then,” 75 went on unveraciously. “I’ve worked every kind of trick,” he smiled as at some pleasant recollection. “There isn’t a move in the game that I don’t know; there isn’t a bad man in London I couldn’t write the biography of, if I was so inclined. I’ve no friends, no relations, nobody in the world I care two penn’oth of gin about, and I’m quite happy: and when you say I have been in prison ten times, you should say fourteen.”

“You’re a fool,” said the Governor, and pressed a bell.

“I’m an adventuring philosopher,” said 75 complacently, as the warder came in to march him back to his cell....

Just before the prison bell clanged the order for bed, a warder brought him a neat bundle of clothing.

“Look over these, 75, and check them,” said the officer pleasantly. He handed a printed list to the prisoner.

“Can’t be bothered,” said Amber, taking the list. “I’ll trust to your honesty.”

“Check ‘em.”

Amber unfastened the bundle, unfolded his clothing, shook them out and laid them over the bed.

“You keep a man’s kit better than they do in Walton,” he said approvingly, “no creases in the coat, trousers nicely pressed–hullo, where’s my eyeglass?”

He found it in the waistcoat pocket, carefully wrapped in tissue paper, and was warm in his praise of the prison authorities.

“I’ll send a man in to shave you in the morning,” said the warder and lingered at the door.

“75,” he said, after a pause, “don’t you come back here.”

“Why not?”

Amber looked up with his eyebrows raised.

“Because this is a mug’s game,” said the warder. “A gentleman like you! Surely you can keep away from a place like this!”

Amber regarded the other with the glint of a smile in his eyes.

“You’re ungrateful, my warder,” he said gently. “Men like myself give this place a tone, besides which, we serve as an example to the more depraved and lawless of the boarders.”

(It was an eccentricity of Amber’s that he invariably employed the possessive pronoun in his address.)

Still the warder lingered.

“There’s lots of jobs a chap like you could take up,” he said, almost resentfully,” if you only applied your ability in the right direction–”

75 raised his hand in dignified protest.

“My warder,” he said gravely, “you are quotin’ the Sunday papers, and that I will not tolerate, even from you.”

Later, in the Warders’ Mess, Mr. Scrutton said that as far as he was concerned he gave 75 up as a bad job.”

“As nice a fellow as you could wish to meet,” he confessed.

“How did he come down?” asked an assistant warder.

“He was a curate in the West End of London, got into debt and pawned the church plate–he told me so himself!”

There were several officers in the mess-room. One of these, an elderly man, removed his pipe before he spoke.

“I saw him in Lewes two years ago; as far as my recollection serves me, he was thrown out of the Navy for running a destroyer ashore.”

Amber was the subject of discussion in the little dining-room of the Governor’s quarters, where Major Bliss dined with the deputy governor.

“Try as I can,” said the Governor in perplexity, I cannot remember that man Amber at Sandhurst –he says he remembers me, but I really cannot place him....”

Unconscious of the interest he was exciting, Amber slumbered peacefully on his thin mattress, smiling in his sleep.

*     *

*

OUTSIDE the prison gates on the following morning was a small knot of people, mainly composed of shabbily dressed men and women, waiting for the discharge of their relatives.

One by one they came through the little wicket-gate, grinning sheepishly at their friends, submitting with some evidence of discomfort to the embraces of tearful women, receiving with greater aplomb the rude jests of their male admirers.

Amber came forth briskly. With his neat tweed suit, his soft Homburg hat and his eyeglass, those who waited mistook him for an officer of the prison and drew aside respectfully. Even the released prisoners, such as were there, did not recognize him, for he was clean-shaven and spruce; but a black-coated young man, pale and very earnest, had been watching for him, and stepped forward with outstretched hand.

“Amber?” he asked hesitatingly.

“Mr. Amber, “corrected the other, his head perked on one side like a curious hen.

“Mr. Amber.” The missioner accepted the correction gravely. “My name is Dowles. I am a helper of the Prisoners’ Regeneration League.”

“Very interestin’–very interestin’ indeed,” murmured Amber, and shook the young man’s hand vigorously. “Good work, and all that sort of thing, but uphill work, sir, uphill work.”

He shook his head despairingly, and with a nod made as if to go.

“One moment, Mr. Amber.” The young man’s hand was on his arm. “I know about you and your misfortune–won’t you let us help you?”

Amber looked down at him kindly, his hand rested on the other’s shoulder.

“My chap,” he said gently, “I’m the wrong kind of man: can’t put me choppin’ wood for a living, or find me a position of trust at 18s. a week. Honest toil has only the same attraction for me as the earth has for the moon; I circle round it once in twenty-four hours without getting any nearer to it–here!”

He dived his hand into his trousers pocket and brought out some money. There were a few sovereigns–these had been in his possession when he was arrested–and some loose silver. He selected half a crown.

“For the good cause,” he said magnificently, and slipping the coin into the missioner’s hand, he strode off.

II. AT THE WHISTLERS

No. 46, Curefax Street, West Central, is an establishment which is known to a select few as “The Whistlers.” Its official title is Pinnock’s Club. It was founded in the early days of the nineteenth century by one Charles Pinnock, and in its day was a famous rendezvous.

That it should suffer the vicissitudes peculiar to institutions of the kind was inevitable, and its reputation rose and fell with the changing times. In 1889,1901, and again in 1903, it fell under suspicion, for in these years the club was raided by the police; though without any result satisfactory to the raiders.

It is indisputable that the habitués of the Whistlers were a curious collection of people, that it had few, if any, names upon the list of members of any standing in the social world; yet the club was popular in a shamefaced way. The golden youth of London delighted to boast, behind cautious hands, that they had had a night at the Whistlers; some of them hinted at high play; but the young gentlemen of fortune who had best reason for knowing the play was high indeed, never spoke of the matter, realizing, doubtlessly, that the world has little sympathy with a fool confessed, so that much of the evidence that an interfering constabulary desired was never forthcoming.

On a night in October the club was enjoying an unusual amount of patronage. Cab after cab set down well-dressed men before the decorous portals in Curefax Street. Men immaculately dressed, men a little over dressed, they came in ones and twos, and parties of three, at short intervals.

Some came out again after a short stay and drove off, but it seemed that the majority stayed. Just before midnight a taxi-cab drove up and discharged three passengers.

By accident or design, there is no outside light to the club, and the nearest electric standard is a few yards along the street, so that a visitor may arrive or depart in semi-darkness, and a watcher would find difficulty in identifying a patron.

In this case the chauffeur was evidently unacquainted with the club premises, and overshot the mark, pulling up within a few yards of the street lamp.

One of the passengers was tall and soldierly in appearance. He had a heavy black moustache, and the breadth of his shoulders suggested great muscular strength. In the light much of his military smartness vanished, for his face was puffed, and there were little bags under his eyes. He was followed by a shorter man who looked much younger than he was, for his hair, eyebrows and a little wisp of moustache were so fair as to be almost white. His nose and chin were of the character which for want of a better description may be called “nut-cracker,” and down his face, from temple to chin, ran a long red scar.

Alphonse Lambaire was the first of these men, a remarkable and a sinister figure. Whether Lambaire was his real name or not I do not profess to know: he was English in all else. You might search in vain the criminal records of Scotland Yard without discovering his name, save in that section devoted to “suspected persons.” He was a notorious character.

I give you a crude biography of him because he figures largely in this story. He was a handsome man, in a heavy unhealthy way, only the great diamond ring upon his little finger was a departure from the perfect taste of his ensemble.

The second man was “Whitey”: what his real name was nobody ever discovered. “Whitey” he was to all; “Mr. Whitey “ to the club servants, and “ George Whitey “ was the name subscribed to the charge sheet on the one occasion that the police made an unsuccessful attempt to draw him into their net.

The third was a boy of eighteen, fresh coloured, handsome, in a girlish fashion. As he stepped from the cab he staggered slightly and Lambaire caught his arm.

“Steady, old fellow,” he said. Lambaire’s voice was deep and rich, and ended in a little chuckle. “Pay that infernal brute, Whitey–pay the fare on the clock and not a penny more–here, hold up, Sutton my lad.”

The boy made another blunder and laughed foolishly.

“We’ll put him right in a minute, won’t we, major?”

Whitey had a high little voice and spoke rapidly.

“Take his arm, Whitey,” said Lambaire, “a couple of old brandies will make a new man of you...”

They disappeared through the swing doors of the club, and the hum of the departing taxi sounded fainter and fainter.

The street was almost deserted for a few minutes, then round the corner from St. James’s Square came a motor-car. This driver also knew little of the locality, for he slowed down and came crawling along the street, peering at such numbers as were visible. He stopped before No. 46 with a jerk, jumped down from his seat and opened the door.

“This is the place, miss,” he said respectfully, and a girl stepped out. She was very young and very pretty. She had evidently been spending the evening at a theatre, for she was dressed in evening finery, and over her bare shoulders an opera wrap was thrown.

She hesitated a moment, then ascended the two steps that led to the club, and hesitated again. Then she came back to the car.

“Shall I ask, miss?”

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