By FRED M. WHITE.
HATCH sat on the bank watching the yellow waste of water swirling by, wishing to Heaven that he was well out of it. He was down to his last tin of cigarettes, the soda-water had petered out long ago, and there was no quinine. The hideous silence of the swamp was getting on his nerves. From a spot of sand in mid-stream a crocodile winked a grim yellow eye at him—the crocodile belonged to the fortunate order of those who can afford to wait.
Two handfuls of dry tuberous chips represented six months of grim hard work. There are purple patches in the life of an orchid hunter, and there are other patches. Bernard Hatch was up against one of the others. It was all very well for his partner, comfortably ensconced in Covent Garden, to write in optimistic vein. Doubtless the Waterwitch existed, seeing that the traditions of the Gold Coast were pretty definite, but Hatch had not found it yet.
The main thing he had done up to now was to come in contact with Van Voarst. That oily Belgian rascal had greeted him with large enthusiasm, but forewarned was forearmed. There never had been a more successful orchid hunter in the coast than the Belgian, and certainly never one with a less savoury reputation. The man was a braggart and a bully; nevertheless, he had a pluck of his own. For the most part he hunted alone, and this from compulsion as much as choice. Wanless, of Mason's, of St. Albans, had gone out with him, and Wanless had never come back. Mansfield the same, and others. And Van Voarst's theatrical explanation had not been deemed satisfactory.
The only satisfactory feature of the whole case was that Van Voarst was sticking to Hatch like a leech. Evidently Hatch was getting "warm," and Van Voarst knew it. The man who laid predatory hands on the Waterwitch could retire permanently from the business. His tubers would fetch ten thousand pounds each in the open market, and no question asked.
Now, Harry the Buck had seen the Waterwitch. Harry the Buck was black and faithful, otherwise Hatch had not slept soundly at night with the great rotund carcase of the Belgian snoring so near. The Waterwitch was more or less of a sacred flower, the emblem of a great chief back of beyond the Indu Mountains. When one of the chiefs died peacefully—or otherwise—a flower from the Waterwitch was laid on his grave. It was death for anyone but a high priest of Mumbo Jumbo to touch it. There were dark sacrifices too horrible to mention. And Harry the Buck had seen all this. He told of it with grotesque gestures and volcanic squints. In the ordinary way, and in his ordinary vernacular, he was not taking any. But he happened to want a gun and a supply of cartridges. These he valued a little higher than his own life. Therefore he was on his way to the Indu Mountains, and it was at this part that Van Voarst had joined the expedition.
Nothing short of personal violence would have choked him off. That he guessed exactly what was in the wind Hatch perfectly well knew. The search was getting hot, too, and a couple of days in the canoe would bring the seekers to their destination. It was here that the accident happened to the quinine and soda-water, and Van Voarst apologised for his clumsiness. He took the matter so lightly that Hatch was forced to the conclusion that the big rascal had a private supply of quinine of his own. He could only make the best of it, and look the spectre of fever gloomily in the face. If he got down now, with no quinine at hand, he would never get up again.
Heavens, how hot it was! Harry the Buck, busy getting the canoe loaded, shimmered in a violet haze. His black skin glistened in the sunshine. He beckoned presently with the intimation that all was ready. Hatch called to Van Voarst huskily. From the high bank of the stream the Belgian responded.
"Just for one moment," he said, "then I come. Here is a plant that me puzzles—one of a family that my knowledge eludes. Get into the canoe, and I drop down on you from the branches. It is only the matter of a little delay."
Hatch crawled down as far as the canoe and dropped wearily into it. There was a crackling of branches, and a fragment of rock some two hundredweight or so splashed into the water, missing the canoe by inches. Two pin-points of flame sparkled in Hatch's eyes. Harry the Buck grunted. Apparently the Belgian had been afraid to trust his aim, or possibly he was short of revolver ammunition. It was just the sort of cowardly thing he would do. Hatch jumped from the boat and scrambled up to the spot where Van Voarst was still busy digging. Another stone lay quivering on the balance.
"You shark!" Hatch shouted. "You murderous dog! Take that!"
Half unconscious of what he was holding in his hand, Hatch brought the butt of his revolver down with a crash in the region of Van Voarst's left ear. The Belgian grunted placidly, and lay on his back contemplating the hard sky with the whites of his eyes. He never moved again. From the stern of the canoe Harry the Buck softly applauded. In his eyes it was an exceedingly neat and workmanlike piece of business. He knew nothing of the horrible nausea at the pit of Hatch's stomach. Even when you take a life in self-defence for the first time the feeling is there.
"Get out of that," Hatch commanded. "Come and bury the swine; I can't do it."
Harry the Buck responded cheerfully. He came back in half an hour, lying glibly that the thing was done. As an economist in words with a limited vocabulary, he omitted the fact that he had pitched the fat body into a heap of mimosa and left it there. He took his seat and the paddle, and pushed the canoe steadily up-stream till the dusk shut down and the night closed in. They were under the shadow of the mountains now, and the atmosphere was sensibly cooler. Hatch shuddered slightly. With a grin Harry the Buck drew a square tin box from his tattered linen coat.
"By the gods, quinine!" Hatch cried. "Where did you get it from, Harry?"
"Belgian elephant," Harry grunted. "In um's belt. So this watch, and this revolver—gold. Took um all off Belgian elephant when buried um."
Hatch nodded. He was feeling in no critical mood just now. So Van Voarst, as he guessed, had had his own supply of quinine all the time. Well, he could not trouble anybody in future. And as to what was going to happen in the early future—why——
Hatch slept—for how long he could not say. His slumber was disturbed by strange dreams of Van Voarst. He bad the Belgian by the throat, and he was yelling for mercy. In the distance somewhere a band was making hideous music. The blare of brass and skin became more pronounced, until it dominated everything and brought Hatch sleepily to his feet.
"What, in the name of all that is hideous, is the matter?" he asked.
Harry the Buck made a hissing noise with his teeth. The canoe lay half hidden in a tangle of mimosa scrub by the flat bank of the river. On the slanting plain beyond, a yelling mob of blacks had assembled. They were marching in the rude formation of a column, headed by what, in happier circumstances, might have been a brass band. The serene beauty of the night was stricken by the hideous din. In the centre of the procession was a huge catafalque affair surrounded by a body of men clad in white cotton garments.
"What's it all about?" Hatch asked.
"Big buryin'," Harry explained. "Dead chief. Bury 'em at night—chief. Dem priests. And dere's Waterwitch flowers on top of the body. Sure."
Hatch caught his breath sharply. Luck seemed to be coming his way at last. Some of the stragglers were so near that he could have touched them with the canoe paddle. With a certain vague alarm, Hatch noted that they were all armed. Presently the hideous din ceased and the column became more compact. From the slope of the silent hills there came another sound, full-throated and ripe of menace. A long scattered line of torches flared out; the yellow flame swept down the slope like a torrent of falling stars.
"What's this all about?" Hatch asked.
" 'Nodder tribe," Harry grunted. "Going to be what ye call barney. Old enemies. Hillman, he claim right to make chief in place of un dead. Others say no bally fear. They come take dead chief—hold um ransom till they come to der senses. Seen it done befo'."
Hatch was getting a grip on the situation. There was something rudely strategic in the way in which the column was forming in a solid phalanx around the sarcophagus containing the body of the dead chief. They faced outwards with defiant cries, brandishing their spears over their heads. Down came the other yelling mob, with their torches aflame, till they were within striking distance. Then with one accord, or so it seemed, the flaming sinking torches were hurled into the phalanx, where they roared and spluttered with spitting cracks that added to the hideous din.
"Now, that's not a bad idea," Hatch said admiringly. "Quite a smart dodge."
"Himshi Don, the great chief, great warrior," Harry explained. "Cunning as the serpent. Um planned out this thing. And he will what you call wipe the floor. Bet you a dollar."
"No bet," Hatch smiled. "By Jove, they are at it in earnest."
They were. Taking advantage of the momentary confusion, the attackers sprang forward with the force and fury of a mountain torrent. The defenders swayed and bent before the shock, they reeled backwards, screaming as they went. Then, with a grim silence that was in marked contrast to the roar of battle, another force arose in the rear from the big tangle of scrub, and fell with incredible force and fury on the rear of the funeral party.
In a wonderfully short space of time the defenders faded away like a dream. The din of battle died out, the big crowd departed in the direction of the hills, and as the moon rose slowly over a snow peak. Hatch could see a struggling squad of figures removing the dead. As a matter of fact, the slaughter had not been great—the onslaught had been too impetuous and headlong for that—and in a short time the plain was cleared. Almost immediately afterwards a great bank of flame and smoke burst out from the shadow at the base of the hills, followed by a wail of voices so plaintive and melancholy that Hatch could feel it to the roots of his hair.
"What new devil's work is this?" he asked.
"Burn um village," Harry explained. "Burn um huts. Always de way. No matter. Dey go away to-morrow and build some more in some odder place. Watto!"
Harry turned over on his side and composed himself for sleep. So far as he was concerned, the whole thing was at an end. Doubtless he had witnessed many a scene like this before; no doubt he had been employed as an actor therein himself. It was one of the common objects of the country, so to speak. But Hatch lay awake there, looking up at the silent stars. How far was the Waterwitch off now? he wondered. Harry had declared that some of its mysterious flowers had lain on the breast of the dead chief. And Hatch was wondering what the flower was like, if he did find it. There were all sorts of stories told about this wonderful water orchid, and all kinds of fancy prices had been offered for it. An orchid that bloomed or had its growth in water was a thing calculated to send collectors mad. But how was it grown and how was it to be acquired? Harry the Buck professed to know, but Harry was fast asleep and snoring peacefully. Perhaps the daylight would tell.
Breakfast was ready when Hatch awoke. For once in a way be was ready for the meal. Perhaps the snow breeze from the hills was responsible for the unusual appetite. So far as could be seen, there was no sign of the contending hosts of the night before, nothing but some thin spirals of blue smoke in the distance. It was towards this distance that Hatch's thoughts were wandering. Somewhere amongst the ruins yonder must be the remains of the dead chief's palace, and if Harry the Buck was right, the Waterwitch must be there, too, unless the fire had destroyed it. If this was the case, then it would be his luck all over.
"I'm going to have a squint round that place," he said. "I suppose it's safe?"
Harry the Buck entertained no doubt whatever on that score. The tribe had been beaten, their huts had been burnt, and they would fly further for safety. In Harry's opinion there was not a living soul within miles of the place. If Hatch doubted his word, he could go and see.
"Oh, I'm not afraid," Hatch grinned. "I'll come along. And if I find what I hope to find, the gun is yours, and as many cartridges as you like, when we get to Toparo. I'll leave an order for you to be supplied with a store of cartridges every year of your life. Get a move on you."
They set out across the plain in the direction of the smouldering village. The land was low and flat, and intersected here and there by pools and drains formed by the melted snow on the mountains on its way to the yellow splurge of the river. Harry stopped before one of these and pointed.
"Whatum say?" he demanded. "Here's um Waterwitch. Same as I saw befo'."
With a heart beating fast, Hatch bent over the shallow little pool. A flower broken off short at the head of the stem had fallen there and balanced on the puddle by its own weight. With all his wide experience in the beauty of the orchid, Hatch had never seen anything like this before. The bloom was some five inches in diameter, in the shape of four separate Maltese crosses. And each was a different colour—deep red, a lovely blue, saffron, and rose-pink, with a wide undercup of white shot with rose. The green foliage was veined with gold, exquisite feathery foliage wandering over the bloom and half hiding it from the eye. Hatch fairly gasped as he held it in his hand.
"Good Heavens! "he muttered. "Oh,good Heavens! And to think that I should be the first white man to bump up against this amazing flower! No description could picture its marvellous beauty. But the tuber? What is it like, and where shall I find it? All this is distinctly encouraging, but it doesn't help me much. Just my luck to find everything yonder done to a cinder, and not one of those tubers left."
Hatch pushed on fervently. It was quite late in the afternoon before the ruins were sufficiently cool to allow a proper search being made. In the chiefs "palace" was an old chest, oak and brass bound, containing such odds and ends and cheap adornments as savages love—glass beads, some old cigarette tins, and a packet of post-card photographs. Hatch tossed it away gravely.
"Now, where in the name of fortune did all this come from?" he asked. "How did this chest get here? And what is all this tangle of fibre, with tiny clay marbles attached? Here are some things that look like orchids, but I shouldn't mind betting that they are nothing of the kind. Shove 'em all in the bag, Harry, and let's be off. We'll have another day here to-morrow."
Harry placed the tangle of fibre, with the little clay balls attached like beads irregularly threaded on a string, in a box lately containing cigarettes. This he tossed, a little later on, into the canoe. Hatch took one of his precious cigarettes after supper, and then turned in for the night. In a moment he was fast asleep.
The moon was sliding down behind the mangoes as he woke with a sound like the bursting of a shell in his ears. Harry was kneeling in the canoe with a smoking revolver in his hand. It was the same weapon that he had looted from Van Voarst. In the distance a bulky figure was running towards the watery slope. A groan came from the obese runner, something dropped from his hand and tinkled on the stones. Hatch took in the whole situation at a glance.
"That was that infernal Belgian," he said. "I thought you had buried him for me?"
"Same thing," said Harry. "Bury him or flung him in the bushes, all the same. Give the kites a chance to get a good meal. Not kill, only stun him by blow on head. See canoe move and his hand after stores. Little tin can with the marbles in it. I hit him on the hand and he drop it. Not trouble us any more. Bet you a dollar. Righto."
"Well, righto or not, don't you go to sleep again," Hatch commanded. "Keep your eye skinned till daylight. If it's worth while, we can find the tin box to-morrow."
"Find it to-night," Harry volunteered.
"No, you'll not find it to-night," Hatch retorted. "You'll just stay here and keep a bright look-out for that infernal Belgian. He'll murder us both to a dead certainty if he gets a chance. Don't risk your life for the residuary legateeship of a tin cigarette box."
Hatch turned over on his side and went to sleep again. All these things were merely incidents in the life of an orchid hunter, but, all the same, he was not going to spare the Belgian the next time they met.
He woke presently to find breakfast ready. There had been no further signs of Van Voarst, but doubtless he was somewhere amongst the ruins. Fortunately, he had lost his revolver, so that he was comparatively harmless in the daylight. Hatch was feeling on pretty good terms with himself as he set out for the blackened village. Harry lingered behind on the edge of one of the little pools.
"Oh, come on!" Hatch said impatiently. "Never mind that beastly little box."
"Found the box," Harry said calmly. "Lid off. All um strings and marbles in de water. Look!"
A great cry burst from Hatch's lips as he looked down at his feet. Van Voarst had dropped the little tin box in his flight, and the lid had fallen off. The little string of marbles had dropped into the pool, where they floated with the marbles here and there covering the whole pool. But where each of the marbles had been was a magnificent flower, making the most magnificent display of floral colouring that Hatch had ever seen. The secret was out now—the secret of the Waterwitch and how to grow them. Each of those tubers could be detached, and each grew into a family of lovely blooms. Directly they touched the water they began to expand into glowing loveliness; directly they were removed they would shrivel up to a dirty fibrous root. It was a Rose of Sharon glorified, the very best thing in the way of an orchid.
Hatch removed the whole tangled mass tenderly and placed it in the tin again after the lapse of an hour or so. By this time it was rapidly drying, the bloom had gone, and nothing remained to show what a few drops of liquid could do for it. Hatch drew a deep breath as he turned his face towards the south. The danger and trials of his life were over.
"Let's go back," he said. "Let's spend the night on the river, so that by Friday we can touch something in the way of civilisation again. Leave him to his fate."
He pointed to the blackened ruins of the village. A little black dot was moving from place to place as the Belgian sought patiently for what he would never find.