The Leopards of Ulundu
THE LEOPARDS OF
IT was in the tornado season, and lightning, that dimmed the yellow lamp-light, flickered about the room of the West African factory, where Blake, Malton's agent, tried to read an old newspaper. Thunder shook the wooden building, and heavy rain roared upon the iron roof. Herries sat blinking with dazzled eyes at a bundle of accounts. He was used to tornadoes, but could not work while the furious din went on. He was the best of a number of assistants whom Blake had trained and buried, and the agent sometimes wondered why he had come to West Africa, since the palm oil trade does not, as a rule, attract young men of ability.
Herries, who did not enlighten him, had been meant for a different career, which was cut short in consequence of a youthful escapade. He might have evaded full punishment, because the fault was not all his; but the lad was generous, and paid for his folly, without trying to divide the blame. Having a cheerful temperament, he made the best of things, and, for some reason that Blake could not fathom, was obeyed with rather unusual docility by the half-naked factory boys. He was strongly built and athletic, although the climate had already left its mark on him. Blake was gaunt and lean, with a jaundiced skin that looked like old parchment.
The uproar lasted for about ten minutes, and when it abruptly ceased, the strange silence was broken by the splash of canoe paddles, that stopped for a few moments and began again. Then there was a knock at the door, and a dripping Krooboy appeared, holding out a wet envelope.
"Ulundu bushman bring them book and lib for down-river one time, sah," he said.
Herries sent him away, and sat down with the note in his hand. "It's from Carson, but it's curious the boy went off down river, without waiting for his dash."
The agent looked thoughtful. Ulundu was up the river, and a negro messenger generally expects a reward.
"I don't know what's the matter, but the boys have been uneasy for some time, and one would imagine that the fellow who brought the note was afraid. Looks as if something that alarmed him was going on in the bush, and it's possible that the War palaver has encouraged the Leopards to get to work again."
"The Leopards? I understood the Government people had stopped that kind of thing. Is there any truth in the stories one hears about them?"
Blake, who knew as much as most white men about the native customs, smiled. The Leopards are a West African secret society, supposed to be controlled by the bush magicians, and associated with the cult of the Ju-Ju mysteries. Their objects are unknown, but they play an important part in native politics, and now and then terrorise the back country, where they are feared for their claim to supernatural powers.
"Well," he said dryly, "I don't believe they can take the form of a leopard, or creep into a hut without being seen, but they're the kind of people I'd much sooner leave alone. The local branch has been quiet since Major Grant had two of them hanged near Ulundu; but I've an unpleasant suspicion that, since the War broke out, our German rivals in the next colony have bribed the chiefs of the order to make trouble. However, you had better see what Carson wants."
Herries opened the wet envelope and read the scribbled note aloud. "‘Can you come up for a few days? I'm ill, Foster's dead, and my boys have left me.’"
Carson served a rival trading firm at a small factory some distance off, and commercial jealousy is keen in West Africa; but Blake, who picked up the note, remarked: "You'll have to go. For one thing, it's obvious that he's very sick, and Ulundu's not a cheerful spot for a lonely young white man. Foster seems to have died suddenly. I didn't know he was ill."
"Then I can have the canoe and a few boys in the morning?"
"I think you'd better start at once," Blake said meaningly. "Take Amade and Alua, and keep them until you come back. They're about the toughest boys we have, and by way of being Mohammedans."
Herries entered his room and threw a few clothes into a bag, and, as he opened a cupboard, an old sweater caught his eye. He had brought it for use on the voyage out, and it reminded him of the time when he played in the football team of a good Scottish school. A faded red leopard was embroidered on the breast of the garment, and, though Herries thought nobody knew of it, the device was tattooed on his skin. An old Navy pensioner at the gymnasium had done this for him. Then he picked up a small medicine chest and said good-bye to Blake, who made him take his gun.
The canoe set off up river, with six muscular negroes at the paddles, and Herries, who lighted a cigarette, vacantly watched the forest slide past. There was no break in the dark wall of timber, but the broad, muddy stream glittered in the light of a furtive moon that slipped in and out among the clouds. White mist clung about the bank, and the air was filled with strange, sour smells. Now and then there was a noise in the forest, but, for the most part, everything was very still.
The old football sweater had given Herries food for thought, but not of a kind it was wise to indulge in, and, striking a match, he opened the medicine chest. He knew a little about drugs, for it had been his ambition to become a doctor. Now, if he worked hard and could stand the climate, he might look forward to being made agent at three hundred pounds a year. There was something ironically amusing in the thought, but he meant to look forward instead of back, and fixed his attention on other matters. It was obvious that the canoe boys had not wanted to go with him, and he speculated about their reluctance.
Civilisation had not penetrated far into the shadowy bush, and the factory stood at some distance from the nearest military outpost; but the colony had been peaceful until war broke out. One heard tales of fantastic cruelties in the back country, where the tribes sometimes raided their neighbours, and life was cheap, but white men were generally safe from open violence, at least. It was said that a grasping agent now and then died of poison, but Herries did not know of any authentic case.
Then he wondered why the boys had submitted, and where his influence upon them lay. When he first came out, he had indulged in swimming, at which he was expert, in waters where crocodiles lurked, and practised a few old gymnasium tricks and feats of strength. The climate had soon put an end to this, but the negroes had seemed impressed. Then he supposed he was just, and had the usual amount of pluck, although, if it came to a test of steadfast nerve, he suspected that Blake would beat him. Yet he had influence, and could sometimes exact obedience when Blake could not. It was puzzling, but he gave it up, and went to sleep under the awning astern.
Dusk was near and rain falling when he approached Ulundu next evening. It was intolerably hot, and there was an oppressive heaviness in the air, while Herries thought the wooden house, which was raised on piles, and row of whitewashed sheds looked strangely desolate. Light mist hung about the building, and draggled palm fans drooped above the roof. He landed in a boggy compound, tunnelled by land-crabs, and went up the rickety verandah stairs. Some of the steps were rotten, and mould clung to the joints of the posts. There were no boys about the sheds, and he felt the unusual silence daunting.
Entering the big general room, which smelt of mildew and kerosene, he found a young man, wrapped in a dirty blanket, lying on a trestle bed. His hair was wet with perspiration, his face was thin and flushed, and the hand he held out shook.
"Very good of you to come, particularly as Malton's and the United don't get on well," he said. "You'll excuse my not getting up, but the cook will bring you some chop. He and the storekeeper stayed on when the others left."
Herries retained his hand and felt his pulse. "It was time to send for somebody. What's your temperature?"
Carson told him, and he opened the medicine chest. "Our drugs are fresh. The firm do us well in that respect," he said. "I'll mix you a dose that generally braces Blake. Luckily, I haven't had much need to take the stuff myself."
The sick lad drained the glass, and then glanced at the gun Herries had put down. "I'm afraid you won't get much shooting. I haven't seen a duck or curlew for some time."
"To tell the truth, I don't know why I brought the gun, but Blake rather insisted on my taking it," Herries answered, and opened a cartridge-bag. "This is curious. Fours are the size for curlew, and he's given me B's."
"Blake knows more about Africa than you do," Carson remarked meaningly.
Herries lighted the lamp, and some time afterwards the Kroo cook brought in a bowl of palm-oil chop and a tin of fruit. Carson ate a little of the fowl and thick, spiced oil, and, when the meal was cleared away, began to talk.
"I feel much better. It was a big relief to hear your paddles. The place has been very lonely since Foster died."
"When did he die?"
"A fortnight since," said Carson, with a shiver. "He hadn't been fit for some time, but we were both ill, and I couldn't do much for him. Then one morning he didn't turn up, and I got a shock when I went into his room. Of course, I'd seen another clerk and the agent out, but I wasn't alone then. Besides, Foster was a very good sort, and I missed him. After he was buried, the fever got worse, and I went down."
"How long have you been without an agent?"
"About eight months. The firm promised to send another man, but he hasn't come. No doubt the War makes it difficult, and, in a way, I'd prefer the trenches to Ulundu. But they wouldn't enlist me if I went home, and I've another reason for stopping here. In fact, I don't want to see an agent. If I can keep things going a little longer, I may get the post."
Herries said nothing. He had fever occasionally—indeed, he had it then—but the attacks were mild, and he suffered chiefly from his eyes. The glare of the river and whitewashed oil-sheds had affected his sight. Carson, however, was worn to skin and bone, and it was strange that he should wish to remain at the unhealthy factory.
"That's why I was bothered about the boys stealing off," the latter resumed. "Oil has rushed up since the War began, and the United really ought to pay me an agent's commission; but I can't handle the stuff now, if the bushmen bring it down."
Herries could understand this complaint. On the few occasions when they had previously met, Carson had shown a parsimony unusual in West Africa, where white men seldom find it worth while to save.
"Well," he said indulgently, "we're all here for what we can get, and it's not often very much."
"You mean to make excuses for me," Carson replied. "I wouldn't join at cards and bet on any foolish thing, like the rest of you. But I'll tell you why I came out, and then you'll understand."
It was rather a moving tale, and lost nothing from being told in the dismal, mildewed room, while the gurgle of the river, flowing through the thick white mist, emphasised the stillness. Carson had been a clerk in England. His people were poor, and it cost him stern self-denial to give them the help they needed. Then he said something about a girl who worked for her living. He talked disjointedly, and Herries thought that fever and solitude accounted for his taking him into his confidence. Knowing very little about the country, he eagerly accepted an offer of employment in West Africa, and arrived at Ulundu with a hopeful heart. It was something of a shock to see a row of crosses, which showed where his predecessors had gone, and find his fellow-clerk a jaundiced victim of fever and drink. The agent was generally sick, and often bemused by drugs.
Still, Carson saw that he must make the best of things, and when the clerk succumbed, a better man arrived. The agent got feebler and hazy in mind, but Carson and Foster kept the factory going after he died, the former hoping to get the vacant post, in which case he would feel himself a wealthy man. He was often ill, but this was to be expected, and Herries gathered that his resolution had not faltered much until Foster's death.
He stopped, rather breathless, and Herries glanced about the room. It felt lonely and looked very bare. There was a smell of rot and mildew, and the light was dim. Opposite was the door of the room in which Foster died. Thunder rambled in the distance, and a heavy shower beat upon the roof. Then Carson gave him a curious look.
"There's a matter I didn't mention in my note: I rather think the Leopards are about again. The Ulundu village was one of their favourite haunts, and something must have frightened the boys."
Herries said it did not matter, but felt uncomfortable. Hitherto he had had Blake, who knew how to deal with the natives, for a companion; but he was now left to his own resources in the deserted factory. His canoe boys must return in the morning, and he would only have the two Mohammedans and Carson's storekeeper and cook. It was a very small party, and the bushmen had been truculent since war broke out. For all that, he talked as cheerfully as he could until he went to bed, but was glad Carson did not give him Foster's room.
He found Carson better in the morning, but felt a strange depression as he watched the canoe boys paddle away. Some of his companion's work, which had got behind, however, demanded his attention, and his uneasiness did not return until the evening. It got dark about six o'clock, and Carson talked in a disturbing way when his temperature went up.
"I keep thinking about Foster. He was a very good sort," he said. "When I went into his room that morning, I felt that I had failed him. You see, there was nobody with him. I was asleep all night."
"But you couldn't have done anything, if you had been awake."
"I don't know," Carson answered hesitatingly. "I heard nothing, and he looked very calm. There was no mark, but I felt that all was not right. One can get into the bedrooms from the verandah; that's why I've slept here. The worst was that I knew he wouldn't have failed me. In fact, I've sometimes a fancy that he's still about the place at night. In a way, I liked to feel it, until you came. I wasn't in the least afraid of him."
Although Herries imagined that the fever accounted for Carson's fancies, he felt uneasy; but the sick lad would not stop, and Herries learned something about the horrors he had faced and fought for the sake of the folks at home. Herries was not superstitious, and thought his nerve was good, but he began to hate Ulundu. When he got up next morning, he found the storekeeper had gone; but a tornado blew off part of the oil-shed roof, and the work of repairing it was something of a relief. After this there were no more storms, and for some days the air was stagnant and oppressive with steamy heat. The sun was obscured, the sky a sickly yellow, and a strange, unnatural silence brooded over gloomy bush and desolate factory. Carson was sometimes better and sometimes worse, and only left his bed for an hour or two.
Then one morning Herries got a shock when, going to see why breakfast was late, he found the Kroo cook lying among his pots. The dark form was cold and rigid, but there was no mark on the skin, except the usual blue stripe on the forehead. A, freshly sharpened by a file, lay near, but the long blade was clean, and there were a few short, coarse hairs on the floor. That was all; but when he had finished his examination, Herries went out quickly and sat down at some distance from the hut. He had begun to study anatomy before he left home, and felt that something was wrong. Besides, the Kroos are a virile race, and do not die without apparent cause. Rousing himself, he sent Amade into the hut, but the big, dark-skinned man could tell him nothing, though his face was very grim. Herries decided to keep the matter from his comrade as long as he could, but when he brought in breakfast, Carson looked up sharply.
"It's late. And why have you done this? White men don't cook."
"Your boy wasn't fit for duty," Herries answered, with clumsy carelessness.
"Ah!" said Carson. "I've been expecting something of the kind, and it's not so much of a shock. Besides. I knew what had happened when I saw your face. I suppose you found nothing suspicious?"
"It looks as if my nerve was not as good as yours," said Herries, who took out the hairs. "I found these."
Carson nodded. "There were some on the verandah the morning after Foster died."
Herries pushed his plate away and took a bottle from a cupboard. "I don't seem to have much appetite, but think I'd like a drink."
There was silence for a minute or two after he drained his glass, and then Carson said: "You had better bury him in our plot. It isn't usual, but Foster liked the man, and he stayed when the others left. Of course, since be came from Liberia, he was, so to speak, a foreigner, and wouldn't have been safe in the bush, but I don't think that altogether accounted for his stopping."
Herries made a sign of agreement and went out. A young man hardens soon in the malaria-haunted swamps, but he felt moved when he and the stern Mohammedans laid the Kroo in the hot soil among the white men's graves. The dusky pagan, who knew that danger threatened, had his rude code of honour, and Herries thought it was not to protect his own life he had filed his machet keen. His face was hard when he went about his work. He meant to see Carson through, but he had not slept for the last few nights, and his nerves were getting ragged. Then he had a touch of fever, and his eyes troubled him. He thought of sending Amade down river for help, but did not like to be left with only one active man. Besides, he wanted to strike back, if his cunning antagonists gave him the chance.
The chance came after two more days of tension. Herries woke from a disturbed sleep a little after midnight, and saw the moon shining into his room. Everything was very quiet, although he could hear the river, but he felt that he had been awakened. He remembered what Carson had said about Foster, but argued with drowsy calm that, if Foster was there in the spirit, he must be a friend. Perhaps it was because he was feverish, but, instead of shrinking, he felt a strange, uplifting confidence. However, since he was awake, he had better see if Carson, who had shivering fits, was properly wrapped up.
Putting on his slippers, for fear of the jigger insect, which bores into the foot, he went out on the verandah in his pyjamas. He did not know why he took that way, but if anything threatened the factory, that was the most vulnerable spot. The moon had cleared the sky, and the wet compound was flooded with silver light. It was empty, but the silence jarred on Herries' nerves, his confidence vanished, and he began to feel afraid. Going back, he locked his door, and then felt he must see if the door of Foster's room was fast. The lock was rusty, and he could not tell which way the key ought to turn. He worked at it for a few moments, making some noise, and then stopped, while his heart beat, and a dew of perspiration started from his skin.
A loose step rattled outside, and he heard a curious sound that seemed to be made by soft pads and not by human feet. Something that went on all fours, like an animal, was coming up the verandah stairs. Herries leaned against Foster's bed and shook with unnerving fear. He felt cold, and the roots of his hair prickled. He thought he had fastened the door of the big room where Carson slept, but could not be certain. He ought to see, but his flesh shrank from the venture, and for a few moments he waited, irresolute. Then he took off his slippers and went silently to the door.
The moonlight streamed into the spacious room and, although the part below the windows was shadowy, touched Carson's bed. He seemed asleep, for the vaguely outlined figure among the blankets was motionless. Then the verandah door opened, and Herries stood, slack and nerveless, in the gloom, as a monstrous object came in. It crept like an animal, and had a hairy skin, but it looked gigantic and deformed. Moving quietly through the shadow, it made for Carson's bed and rose upright. The light fell upon its black and yellow head, but the short hairy body was out of proportion, and stood upon thin, monkey-like legs. Then, although the numbing horror had not left him, Herries was filled with rage. He could not tell if it was a man or not; but the foul thing meant to kill his comrade, as it had killed Foster and the Kroo cook, and he hated it for the fear it inspired in him. Next moment he remembered Blake's gun, and wondered whether he could reach it in time.
Treading very cautiously, he crept towards the door, and then glanced back into the room. The creature had turned away from Carson's bed, and was looking about, as if in search of somebody else; but this was something of a relief, since it gave Herries a few moments longer. He reached the gun, and as he opened the breach and felt that there was a cartridge in both chambers, his confidence returned. Then he knew that the thing in the next room had heard the snap of the closing breach, for soft, padding steps moved towards the door. It was coming after him, and he knew now that it had sought him from the first.
Still, he felt steady. At a few yards' range the large B shot would hold together well, and his antagonist would be in the moonlight at the door. He waited for a moment, and then threw the gun to his shoulder as the monstrous creature filled the opening. It crouched and then sprang forward with a snarl, and Herries drew the trigger.
There was a flash and a deafening report, and the room was filled with thin vapour, in the midst of which an ungainly object lurched sideways and fell. Then Carson shouted, and Herries, leaping over the hairy mass, ran into the next room, where Carson was feebly getting out of bed.
"What is it? What have you shot?" he asked.
"One of the Ulundu Leopards," Herries answered in a strained voice, and lighted the big lamp.
Taking it down, he went back with Carson, and found that the B shot had done its work. The leopard skin had fallen back, and the light fell upon the black limbs of a big naked man. Then there was a patter of footsteps, and Amade, who ran in with his comrade, laughed harshly as he looked at the body.
"Them headman Leopard," he said, indicating a mark on the dark face. "We savvy you go chop him when he come."
"Take him away one time," said Herries hoarsely.
He went back to the next room with Carson, and sat down, feeling suddenly limp. The lock of his door grated, and there was a heavy bumping on the stairs. Then slow footsteps crossed the compound, and there was silence.
Some time afterwards Herries remarked: "I seemed to feel that the fellow was really looking for me. I suppose you heard what Amade said?"
"I did, but don't know what he meant," Carson answered, and added in a meaning tone: "Do you?"
Herries hesitated, and then unbuttoned his pyjama jacket. "I can only think of one thing. It was the club badge, and I got it tattooed after a hard football match in which I scored the deciding goal."
Then he opened the jacket, and Carson saw a small leopard rampant upon his chest.
"That may account for it," he said. "I don't know; none of us really understands the bushman's point of view. But you might get some cigarettes. I don't suppose you feel like going to sleep again."
Herries sat on Carson's bed until day broke, and next evening a steam launch came up river with a white officer and a few black soldiers on board.
"I called at the factory, and Blake told me I had better look you up," he said.
They told him about the Leopard, and he listened thoughtfully, but without surprise.
"We were afraid the War might encourage the brutes to start again, particularly if their chiefs were subsidised by our Teutonic neighbours," he remarked. "However, they've got an awkward check, and I'm inclined to think one or two bush headmen will shortly have grounds for being sorry they meddled with magic. We may be able to hold more civilised gentlemen accountable later." Then he turned to Carson. "I met Captain Leslie, and he said he'd been asked for permission to send another white man here. The fellow's from a Lagos factory, his character seems all right, and, as Leslie gave the permit, he should turn up soon."
"Is he coming as agent?" Carson asked, with forced quietness.
"I don't think so. The application described him as assistant factory clerk."
Carson looked at Herries as he leaned back in his chair with a smile on his hollow face.
"They'll give me the post, and I'll owe that to you," he said. "It was worth waiting for."
Copyright, 1916, by Harold Bindloss, in the United States of America.