The Darkened Path
The Darkened Path
By PERCEVAL GIBBON
THE captain reached a hand forth and touched the mate's arm.
"Sit down, James," he said quietly.
The mate made a curious quick grimace and sat forthwith. "Shove off," ordered the captain.
Johnny Cos, the yellow, woolly-haired boatman, plying his oars, sat perforce in face of his passengers and close to them. He would have preferred it otherwise; there had been something in the mate's face which daunted him. He glanced at it again furtively as he pulled away from the square-sterned American schooner which had ridden over the bar in the twilight of dawn and anchored, spectral and strange, in Beira Harbour. The mate's face was strong and sunburnt, the face of a man of lively passions and crude emotions; but as he sat gazing forth at the little hectic town across the smooth harbour, it had a cast of profound and desperate unhappiness. Johnny Cos had not words to tell himself what he saw; he only knew, with awe and a certain amount of fear, that he moved in the presence of something tragic.
"James," began the captain again.
The mate withdrew his miserable eyes from the scene. "What?"
"There ain't any reason why"—began the captain, and paused and looked doubtfully upon the faithful Johnny Cos. "D'you speak English?"
"Yes, sar," replied Johnny, ingratiatingly. "You want good 'otel, Cap'n? Good, cheap 'otel? I geeve you da card; 'Otel Lisbon, sar. All cap'n go there."
"No," said the captain shortly. "We can talk better when we get ashore, James," he added to the mate.
"You c'n wait to take me aboard again," said the captain, when the wharf was reached; and the two men went slowly together into the town, along the streets of ankle-deep sand, towards the office of the consul.
IT was an hour later that the loafers on the veranda of the Savoy Hotel observed their slow approach. They had done whatever business they had with the consul. They were deep in talk; the captain's grizzled head was bent toward his shorter companion, and something of the mate's trouble reflected itself in his hard, strongly graven face. In the merciless deluge of sunlight, and upon the openness of the street, they made a singular grouping; they seemed to be, by virtue of some matter that engrossed and governed them, aloof and remote, a target set up by Destiny.
By the steps of the hotel the captain paused, wiping the shining sweat from his face. The eavesdroppers in the long chairs cocked their ears.
"James," they heard him say; "it's bad, it's just as bad as it can be. But it ain't no reason to go short of a drink with a saloon close handy."
He motioned with his head towards the shade of the long veranda, with the bar opening from it and its bottles in view. The mate, frowning heavily, nodded, and the pair of them entered and passed between the wicker chairs with the manner of being unconscious of their occupants.
From within the bar their voices droned indistinctly forth to the listeners.
"Leavin' you here," they heard the captain say; "James, I'm sorry right through; but you said yourself——"
"Sure," the mate's voice answered hoarsely. "Here or Hell or anywhere, what's the difference to me now?"
After that they moved to the window, and what they said further was indistinguishable. The loafers on the veranda exchanged puzzled looks; they lacked a key to the talk they had heard. When at last the two seamen departed they summoned forth the barman for further information. But that white-jacketed diplomat, who looked on from the sober side of the bar at so much that was salient to the life of Beira, was not able to help them.
BUT the mate's conduct continued to be as unusual as his words overheard on the hotel veranda. He did not accompany the captain back to the ship, and in the afternoon he was seen sitting on the parapet of the sea-wall, his face propped in his hands, staring out across the shining water of the harbour. The vehement sun beat down upon his blue-coated back and the hard felt hat that covered his head; he should have been in an agony of discomfort and no little danger, clad as he was; but he sat without moving, facing the water and the craft that lay at their anchors upon it. It was Father Bates, the tall Scottish priest, who saw him and crossed the road to him.
"My friend," the priest accosted him, with a light tap on the shoulder. "You'll die the sooner if you take your hat off; but you'll die anyhow if you go on sitting here."
At his touch the mate looked round sharply. The tall white-clad Father, under his green-lined sun-umbrella, rested a steady look on his face.
"You're in trouble, I'm afraid," said the priest. "Is there anything a man can do for you?"
"No!" The word came hoarsely but curt from the mate's throat. "Leave me alone!"
The tall priest nodded. "Nothing a man can do, eh?" he said. "Well, then—you know who can help you, don't you?"
The miserable rebellious eyes of the young man hardened.
"Leave me alone," he growled. "Say, you're a kind of a missionary, ain't you? Well, I don't want none of your blasted cant—see?"
The Father smiled. "I know how you feel. My name is Father Bates, and anyone will show you where I live. Bates—don't forget! And I really wouldn't sit much longer in that sun, if I were you."
A sound like a snarl was his answer as he passed on. Looking back before he turned the corner, he saw that the mate had returned to his old posture, brooding in his strange and secret sorrow over the irresponsive sea.
He was still there at sunset when the schooner went out, holding himself apart from the little group of Beira people who halted to watch her departure. Upon her poop a couple of figures were plain to sight, and one of these waved a hand towards the shore as though to bid farewell to the man they left behind. The mate, however, made no response. He watched unmoving while she approached the heads and glided from view, her slender topmasts lingering in sight over the dull green of the mangroves, with the sunset flush lighting them delicately. Then she was gone, like a silent visitor who withdraws a presence that has scarcely been felt.
The mate crossed the road and addressed the man who stood nearest.
"Where's the deepo?" he demanded, abruptly. "The railway station."
The other gave directions which the mate heard, frowning. Then, without thanking his guide, he turned to walk heavily through the foot-clogging sand in the direction indicated.
IT was a hundred and fifty miles up the line that he next emerged to notice, at Mendigos, that outpost set in the edge of the jungle, where the weary telegraphists sweat through the sunny monotony of the days and are shaken at night by the bitter agues that infest the land.
The mate dropped from the train here, still clad as at Beira in thick, stifling sea-cloth and his hard hat, though his collar was now but a limp frill. He came lurching, on uncertain feet, into the establishment of Hop Sing, the only seller of strong drink at Mendigos. The few languid, half-clad men who lounged within looked up at him in astonishment. He pointed shakily towards a bottle on the primitive bar. "Gimme some of that," he croaked, from a parched throat.
The smiling Chinaman, silk-clad and supple, poured a drink for him, watched him consume it, and forthwith poured another. With the replenished tumbler in his hand, the mate returned his look.
"What you starin' at, you Chow?" he demanded.
The subtle-eyed Chinaman ceased neither to smile nor to stare.
"My t'ink you velly sick man. Two shillin' to pay, please."
"Sick!" repeated the mate. "Sick! You—you know, do ye?"
"SAY," he demanded hoarsely, "it—it don't show on me?"
The Chinaman made soothing gestures. "My see," he answered. "But dem feller belung here, him not see nothing. All-a-light foh him. Two shillin' to pay, please."
The mate dragged a coin from his pocket and dropped it on the bar. He turned at last to the others, as though he now first noticed them.
"What's back of here?" he asked abruptly, motioning as he spoke to the still palms which poised over the galvanised iron roofs.
"How d'you mean?" A tall, willowy man in pyjamas answered him surprisedly. "There's nothing beyond here. It's just wild country."
"No white men?" asked the mate.
"Lord, no!" said the other. "White men die out there. It's just trees and niggers and wild beasts and fevers." He looked at the mate with a touch of amusement breaking through his curiosity. "You weren't thinking of goin' there—in that kit—were you?"
The mate finished his drink and set his glass down.
"I am goin' there," he answered.
"But look here!" The telegraphists broke into a clamour. "You've been too long in the sun; that's what's the matter with you. You can't go up there, man; you'd be dead before morning."
The tall man, to whom the mate had spoken first, had a shrewd word to add. "If it's any little thing like murder, dontcher know, why—the border's just a few hours up the line."
"Murder!" exclaimed the mate, and uttered a bark of laughter.
THEY were possibly a little afraid of him. He had the physique of a fighter and the presence of a man accustomed to exercise a crude authority. Their protests and warnings died down; and, after all, a man's life and death are very much his own concern in those regions.
He gave a half-nod to the other men, but no word, pulled his hard hat forward on his brow, and walked out to the aching sunlight, and towards a path that led between two iron huts to the fringe of the riotous bush. The telegraphists crowded to look after him, but he did not turn his head. He paused beneath the great palms, where the ground was clear; then the thigh-deep grass, which is the lip of the bush, was about him, grey, dry as straw, rustling as he thrust through it with the noise of paper being crumpled in the hands. A green parrot, balancing clown-like on a twig, screamed raucously; he glanced up at its dazzle of feathers. Then the wall of the bush itself yielded to his thrusting, let him through, and closed behind his blue-clad back. Africa had received him to her silence and her mystery.
BUT the end of the tale came later. It was told in the veranda of Father Bates's house at Beira, by Dan Terry, as he lay on his cot and drank in the air from the sea in life-restoring draughts.
It was evening when he told it, propped up on his pillows, with the blankets drawn up under his chin, and his lean, leathery face, a little softened by his fever, fronting the long, benevolent visage of Father Bates. The Father had a deck-chair, and sprawled in it at length, listening over his deep Boer pipe. A faint, bitter ghost of an odour tainted the still air from the mangroves beyond the town, and there was heard, like an undertone in the talk, the distant slumberous murmur of the tide on the beach.
"But how did you first get to hear of him?" the Father was asking, carrying on the talk.
"Oh, that was queer!" said Dan. "You see, I was making a cut clean across country to that river of mine, and, as far as I could tell, I was in a stretch of land where there hasn't been one other white man in twenty years. Bad travelling it was—swamp, cane, and swamp again for days; the mud stinking all day, the mist poisoning you all night, the cane cutting and scratching and slashing you. It was as bad as anything I've seen yet. And it was while we were splashing and struggling through this that I saw, lying at the foot of an aloe—of all created things—an old hat. I thought for a moment that the sun had got to my brain. An old, hard, black bowler hat it was, caved in a bit, and soaked, and all that, but a hat all the same. I couldn't have been more surprised if it had been an iceberg. You see, except my own hat, I hadn't seen a hat for over two years."
Father Bates nodded and stoked the big bowl of his pipe with a practised thumb.
"It might ha' meant anything," Dan went on; "a chap making for my river, for instance. So the next Kaffir village I came to I went into the matter. I sat down in the doorway of the biggest hut and had the population up before me to answer questions."
"They were willing?" asked the Father.
"I HAD a gun across my knees," explained Dan; "but they were willing enough without that. And a queer yarn they had to tell, too; I couldn't quite make it out at first. It began with an account of a village hit by smallpox close by. Their way of dealing with smallpox is simple: they quarantine the infected village by posting armed men round it until all the villagers are starved to death or killed by the smallpox. Then they burn the village. It costs nothing, and it keeps the disease under. This village, it seems, was particularly easy to deal with, since it stood three hundred yards from the nearest water, and the water was placed out of bounds.
"It must have been about the third day after the quarantine was declared that the—the incident occurred. A man and a girl, carrying empty waterpots, had come out of the village towards the stream. The armed outposts, with their big stabbing assegais ready in their hands, ordered them back, but the poor creatures were crazed with thirst and desperate. They were pleading and crying and still creeping forward, the man first, the girl a few steps behind, mad for just water. What happened first was in the regular order of things in those parts. The fellows on guard simply waited, and when the man was up to them one stepped forward and drove the thirty-inch blade of a stabbing assegai clean through him. Then they stood ready to do the same to the girl as soon as she arrived.
"She had tumbled to her knees at the sight of the killing, and was still crying and begging piteously for water. They said she held out her arms to them, and bowed her head between. After a while, when they did not answer, she got to her feet and stood looking at the dead body stretched in the sun, the long blades of the spears, and the shining of the water beyond. It was as though she was making up her mind about them, for at last she picked up her water-pot and came forward towards her sure and swift death. The assegai-men were so intent on her that none of them seem to have heard a man who came out of the bush close behind them. One of them, as I was told, had actually flung back his arm for the thrust—and the girl, she hadn't even flinched! The thing was within an inch of being done; the stabbing assegai goes like lightning, you know; she must have been tasting the very bitterness of death. The man from the bush was not a second too soon. The first they knew of him was a roar, and he had the shaft of the assegai in his hand and had plucked it from its owner.
"He must have moved like a young earthquake, and bellowed like a full-grown thunderstorm. All my informants laid stress on his voice; he exploded in their midst with an uproar that overthrew their senses, and whacked right and left with fist and foot and assegai. He was a white man; it took them some seconds to see that through the dirt on him; he was clad in rags of cloth, and his head was bare, and he raged like a sackful of tiger-cats. He really must have been something extraordinary in the way of a fighter, for he scattered a clear dozen of them, and sent them flying for their lives. One man said that when he was safe he looked back. The white man, with the assegai on his shoulder, was stumping ahead into the infected village, and the girl—she was lying down at the edge of the water drinking avidly. She hadn't even looked up at the fight."
Father Bates nodded. "Poor creatures," he said. "Yes?"
"Well, the cordon being broken, those of the villagers who weren't too far gone to walk on their feet promptly scattered, naturally, and no one tried to stop them. When at last the people from the neighbouring kraals plucked up courage to go and look at the place, they found there only the bodies of the dead. The white man had gone, too. They never saw him again, but from time to time there came rumours from the north and east—tales of a wanderer who injected himself suddenly into men's affairs, withdrew again and went away, and they remembered the white man who roared. He was already passing into a myth.
"I couldn't make head nor tail of the thing; but one point was clear. Since this white man had neither Kaffirs nor gear he couldn't hurt my river, and that was what chiefly mattered to me just then. I might have forgotten him altogether, but that I came on his tracks again, and then, to finish with, I saw the man himself."
"HE must have been getting a reputation for uncanniness from every village he touched at. By the time I came up with the scene of his next really notable doings he was umtagnit in full form—supernatural, you know, a thing to be dreaded and conciliated. And I don't wonder, really. Here was a man without weapons, bareheaded in the sun, speaking no word of any native language, alone and nearly naked, plunging ahead through that wild unknown country and no harm coming to him. You can't play tricks of that sort with Africa; the old girl holds too many trumps; but this chap was doing it. It was against nature.
"He'd made his way up to a place where I always expect trouble. There is, or rather, there was then a brute of a chief there, a fellow named N'Komo, who paid tribute to M'Kombi, and was sort of protected and supported by him. He was always slopping over his borders with a handful of fighting men and burning and slaughtering and raping among the peaceful kraals. A devil he was—a real black devil for cruelty and lust. He had just started on a campaign when this lonely white man arrived in the neighbourhood, passing through a bit of district with N'Komo's mark on it in the form of burned huts and bodies of people. A man N'Komo had killed was a sight to make Beelzebub sick. Torture, you know; mutilation—beastliness! The white man must have seen a good many such bodies.
"N'Komo and his swashbucklers had slept the night in a captured kraal, and were still there in the morning when the white man arrived. I know exactly the kind of scene it was. The carcasses of the cattle slaughtered for meat would be lying all over the place between the round huts, and bodies of men and women and children with them. The place would be swarming with the tall, black spearmen, each with a skin over his shoulder and about his loins; there would be a fearful jabber, a clatter of voices and laughter and probably screams, horrible screams, from some poor nigger whose death they'd be dragging out, hour after hour, for their fun. Near the main gate N'Komo was holding an indaba with his chief bucks. I've seen him many times—a great coal-black brute, six feet four in height, with the flat, foolish, good-natured-looking face that fooled people into thinking him a decent sort. I wish I'd shot him the first time I saw him.
"WELL, the indaba—the council, you know—was in full swing when up comes this white man, running as if for his life, and wailing—wailing! The Kaffir who told me had seen it from where he was lying, tied hand and foot, waiting his turn for the firebrands and the knives. He said: 'He wailed like one who mourns for the dead!' There was a burnt kraal not a mile away, so one can guess what he had been seeing and was wailing about. 'His face,' the nigger told me, 'was like the face of one who has lived through the torment of N'Komo and is thirsty for death—a face to hide one's eyes before. And it was white and shining like ivory!' He came thus, pelting blindly at a run, into the midst of N'Komo's war indaba.
"He picked out N'Komo as the chief man there in a moment; that was easy enough, and he broke into a torrent of words, gesticulating and pointing back in the direction from which he had come. Telling him of what he had seen, of course—poor beggar! Can't you imagine him, with those tall surprised black soldiers all round him and the great dangerous bulk of negro king before him, trying to make them understand, trembling with horror and fury, raging in homely useless English against the everyday iniquity of Africa? Can't you imagine it, Padre?"
"Ssh! You'll get a temperature," warned Father Bates. "Yes; I can imagine it. It makes me humble."
"You see, I know what had maddened him. The first work of N'Komo's I ever saw was a young mother and a baby—dead and—and finished with, and it nearly sent me off my head. If I'd been half the man this poor beggar was I'd have had N'Komo's skin salted and sun-dried before I slept. He—he didn't wait to mourn about things; he went straight ahead to find the man who had done them and deal with him.
"Probably they took him for a lunatic; at any rate, they soon began to laugh at him, shaking and talking in their midst. He was a new thing to have sport with, and N'Komo presently leaned forward, grinning, touched him on the arm, and pointed. The white man's eyes followed the black finger to where a poor devil lay on the ground, impaled by a stake through his stomach. It was N'Komo's way of telling him what to expect, and he understood. He stopped talking.
"THE nigger who saw it all and told me about it said that when he had looked round on all the horrors he turned again towards N'Komo, and at the sight of his eyes N'Komo ceased to grin. His big brute face went all to bits, as a Kaffir's does when he is frightened. But the white man made a little backward jerk with his hand—that's what it seemed like to the nigger who told me—and suddenly, from nowhere in particular, a big pistol materialised in his grip. He must have been pretty clever at the draw. His hand came up, there was a smart little crack, a spit of smoke, and N'Komo, the great war chief, was rolling on the ground, making horrible noises like—like bad plumbing, with half his throat shot away, and the man who had done it was backing towards the main gate with the big revolver swinging to right and left across the group of warriors.
"And he got away, too. That, really, is the most wonderful part of the whole thing. I expect that as soon as N'Komo was settled, the usual row and the usual murders began by various would-be successors. By night they had all started north again, on a hot-foot race to occupy and hold the head kraal, and the country was clear of them, and the white man's credit as a magic worker stood higher than ever. He could have had anything he liked in any of the kraals for the asking; he could have been law-giver, king, and god. But he was off in the bush again, alone and restless and mysterious, with his ivory-white face and his eyes full of pain and anger."
"Aye," said Father Bates. "Pain and anger—that's what it was! And at last you saw him yourself, didn't you?"
"YES, said Dan. "I saw him. I was at my river then, combing the gold out of it, when a Kaffir trekking down told me of him. He was at a kraal fifty miles away—two days' journey, lying up with a hurt foot. The gold was coming out of that river by the bottleful; it wasn't a thing to take one's eyes off for a moment; but a white man, the white man who had killed N'Komo—well, I couldn't keep away. I spun a yarn to my men about lion spoor that I wanted to follow, and off I went by myself and did that fifty miles of bush and six-foot grass and rocks in thirty hours, which was pretty good, considerin'. It was afternoon when I came through a patch of palms and saw the kraal lying just beyond.
"I hadn't much of an idea what kind of man I expected to see. I rather fancy I expected to be disappointed to find him nothing out of the way after all, and to learn that nine-tenths of the yarns about him were just nigger lies. I was thinking all that as I stopped in the palms' shade to mop the sweat out of my hat, and then—I saw him!
"He was passing between me and the huts, a strange lame figure, leaning on a stick, with a few rags of clothing bound about him. His head, with its matted thick hair, was bare to the thresh of the sun; he was thick-set, shortish, slow-moving, a sorrowful and laborious figure. I saw the shine of his bare skin, and even the droop and sorrow of his heavy face. I stood and watched him for perhaps a minute in the shadow under those great masts of palms; I saw him as clearly as I see you; and suddenly a light came to me and I knew—I understood it all. His loneliness, his pain and anger, his wanderings in that savage wilderness, the wild misery of his eyes and the ivory-white of his stricken face—I understood completely. He had run away from the sight of men of his own colour—he would have no use for me. So then and there I turned and went back through the palms and started on the trek for my own camp. It was all I could do for him."
"But," said Father Bates, "you've not said what it was that you saw."
"Padre," said Dan; "that poor, poor fellow, who loomed to the Kaffirs like a great and merciful god,—he was a leper as white as snow!"
"Holy saints defend us!" The Father made a startled motion of crossing himself, staring at Dan's lean, sombre face in a blankness of consternation. "So that's what it was, then! A leper!"
"That's what it was," said Dan. "I've seen it before in the East."
"He said," continued the Father—"he said he had no use for my blasted cant. And he hadn't—he hadn't! He knew more than I."