We were for the most part a queer lot out on that desolate southwest African coast, in charge of the various trading stations that were scattered along the coast, from the Gaboon River, past the mouth of the mighty Congo, to the Portuguese city of St. Paul de Loanda. A mixture of all sorts, especially bad sorts: broken-down clerks, men who could not succeed anywhere else, sailors, youths, and some whose characters would not have borne any investigation; and we very nearly all drank hard, and those who didn’t drink hard took more than was good for them.
I don’t know exactly what induced me to go out there. I was young for one thing, the country was unknown, the berth was vacant, and the conditions of it easy.
Imagine a high rocky point or headland, stretching out sideways into the sea, and at its base a small river winding into a country that was seemingly a blank in regard to inhabitants or cultivation; a land continuing for miles and miles, as far as the eye could see, one expanse of long yellow grass, dotted here and there with groups of bastard palms. In front of the headland rolled the lonely South Atlantic; and, as if such conditions were not dispiriting enough to existence upon the Point, there was yet another feature which at times gave the place a still more ghastly look. A long way off the shore, the heaving surface of the ocean began, in anything like bad weather, to break upon the shoals of the coast. Viewed from the top of the rock, the sea at such times looked, for at least two miles out, as if it were scored over with lines of white foam; but lower down, near the beach, each roller could be distinctly seen, and each roller had a curve of many feet, and was an enormous mass of water that hurled itself shoreward until it curled and broke.
When I first arrived on the Point there was, I may say, only one house upon it, and that belonged to Messrs. Flint Brothers, of Liverpool. It was occupied by one solitary man named Jackson; he had had an assistant, but the assistant had died of fever, and I was sent to replace him. Jackson was a man of fifty at least, who had been a sailor before he had become an African trader. His face bore testimony to the winds and weather it had encountered, and wore habitually a grave, if not melancholy, expression. He was rough but kind to me, and though strict was just, which was no common feature in an old African hand to one who had just arrived on the coast.
He kept the factory–we called all houses on the coast factories–as neat and clean as if it had been a ship. He had the floor of the portion we dwelt in holystoned every week; and numberless little racks and shelves were fitted up all over the house. The outside walls glittered with paint, and the yard was swept clean every morning; and every Sunday, at eight o’clock and sunset, the ensign was hoisted and lowered, and an old cannon fired at the word of command. Order and rule were with Jackson observed from habit, and were strictly enforced by him on all the natives employed in the factory.
Although I have said the country looked as if uninhabited, there were numerous villages hidden away in the long grass and brushwood, invisible at a distance, being huts of thatch or mud, and not so high as the grass among which they were placed. From these villages came most of our servants, and also the middlemen, who acted as brokers between us, the white men, and the negroes who brought ivory and gum and india-rubber from the far interior for sale. Our trade was principally in ivory, and when an unusually large number of elephants’ tusks arrived upon the Point for sale, it would be crowded with Bushmen, strange and uncouth, and hideously ugly, and armed, and then we would be very busy; for sometimes as many as two hundred tusks would be brought to us at the same time, and each of these had to be bargained for and paid for by exchange of cotton cloths, guns, knives, powder, and a host of small wares.
For some time after my arrival our factory, along with the others on the coast belonging to Messrs. Flint Brothers, was very well supplied by them with goods for the trade; but by degrees their shipments became less frequent, and small when they did come. In spite of repeated letters we could gain no reason from the firm for this fact, nor could the other factories, and gradually we found ourselves with an empty storehouse, and nearly all our goods gone. Then followed a weary interval, during which we had nothing whatever to do, and day succeeded day through the long hot season. It was now that I began to feel that Jackson had become of late more silent and reserved with me than ever he had been. I noticed, too, that he had contracted a habit of wandering out to the extreme end of the Point, where he would sit for hours gazing upon the ocean before him. In addition to this, he grew morose and uncertain in his temper toward the natives, and sometimes he would fall asleep in the evenings on a sofa, and talk to himself at such a rate while asleep that I would grow frightened and wake him, when he would stare about him for a little until he gathered consciousness, and then he would stagger off to bed to fall asleep again almost immediately. Also, his hands trembled much, and he began to lose flesh. All this troubled me, for his own sake as well as my own, and I resolved to ask him to see the doctor of the next mail- steamer that came. With this idea I went one day to the end of the Point, and found him in his usual attitude, seated on the long grass, looking seaward. He did not hear me approach, and when I spoke he started to his feet, and demanded fiercely why I disturbed him. I replied, as mildly as I could, for I was rather afraid of the glittering look that was in his eyes, that I wished to ask him if he did not feel ill.
He regarded me with a steady but softened glance for a little, and then said:
“My lad, I thank you for your trouble; but I want no doctor. Do you think I’m looking ill?”
“Indeed you are,” I answered, “ill and thin; and, do you know, I hear you talk to yourself in your sleep nearly every night.”
“What do I say?” he asked eagerly.
“That I cannot tell,” I replied. “It is all rambling talk; the same things over and over again, and nearly all about one person–Lucy.”
“Boy!” he cried out, as if in pain, or as if something had touched him to the quick, “sit you down, and I’ll tell you why I think of her–she was my wife.”
He moved nearer to the edge of the cliff, and we sat down, almost over the restless sea beneath us.
“She lives in my memory,” he continued, speaking more to himself than to me, and looking far out to the horizon, beneath which the setting sun had begun to sink, “in spite of all I can do or think of to make her appear base in my eyes. For she left me to go with another man–a scoundrel. This was how it was,” he added, quickly: “I married her, and thought her as pure as a flower; but I could not take her to sea with me because I was only the mate of a vessel, so I left her among her own friends, in the village where she was born. In a little cottage by herself I settled her, comfortable and happy as I thought. God! how she hung round my neck and sobbed when I went away the first time! and yet–yet–within a year she left me.” And he stopped for several minutes, resting his head upon his hands. “At first I could get no trace of her,” he resumed. “Her friends knew nothing more of her than that she had left the village suddenly. Gradually I found out the name of the scoundrel who had seduced her away. He had bribed her friends so that they were silent; but I overbribed them with the last money I had, and I followed him and my wife on foot. I never found them, nor did I ever know why she had deserted me for him. If I had only known the reason; if I could have been told of my fault; if she had only written to say that she was tired of me; that I was too old, too rough for her soft ways,–I think I could have borne the heavy stroke the villain had dealt me better. The end of my search was that I dropped down in the streets of Liverpool, whither I thought I had tracked them, and was carried to the hospital with brain-fever upon me. Two months afterward I came out cured, and the sense of my loss was deadened within me, so that I could go to sea again, which I did, before the mast, under the name of Jackson, in a bark that traded to this coast here.” And the old sailor rose to his feet and turned abruptly away, leaving me sitting alone.
I saw that he did not wish to be followed, so I stayed where I was and watched the gray twilight creep over the face of the sea, and the night quickly succeed to it. Not a cloud had been in the sky all day long, and as the darkness increased the stars came out, until the whole heavens were studded with glittering gems.
Suddenly, low down, close to the sea, a point of light flickered and disappeared, shone again for a moment, wavered and went out, only to reappear and shine steadily. “A steamer’s masthead light,” I thought, and ran to the house to give the news; but Jackson had already seen the light, and pronounced that she had anchored until the morning. At daybreak there she was, dipping her sides to the swell of the sea as it rolled beneath her. It was my duty to go off to her in one of the surf-boats belonging to the factory; and so I scrambled down the cliff to the little strip of smooth beach that served us for a landing- place.
When I arrived there I found that the white-crested breakers were heavier than I had thought they would be. However, there was the boat lying on the beach with its prow toward the waves, and round it were the boat-boys with their loincloths girded, ready to start; so I clambered into the stern, or rather–for the boat was shaped alike at stem and stern–the end from which the steersman, or patrao, used his long oar. With a shout the boys laid hold of the sides of the boat, and the next moment it was dancing on the spent waves next to the beach. The patrao kept its head steady, and the boys jumped in and seized the oars, and began pulling with a will, standing up to their stroke. Slowly the heavy craft gathered way, and approached a dark and unbroken roller that hastened toward the beach. Then the patrao shouted to the crew, and they lay on their oars, and the wave with a roar burst right in front of the boat, sending the spray of its crest high above our heads.
“Rema! rema forca!” (“Row strongly!”) now shouted the patrao, speaking Portuguese, as mostly all African coast natives do; and the crew gave way. The next roller we had to meet in its strength; and save for the steady force of the patrao’s oar, I believe it would have tossed us aside and we would have been swept under its curving wall of water. As it was, the good boat gave a mighty bound as it felt its force, and its stem pitched high into the air as it slid down its broad back into the deep.
Another and yet another wave were passed, and we could now see them breaking behind us, shutting out the beach from view. Then the last roller was overcome, and there was nothing but the long heave of the deep sea to contend against. Presently we arrived at the steamer, whose side towered above us–an iron wall.
A shout came to me, pitching and lurching with the boat far below, “Come on board at once.” But to come on board was only to be done by watching a chance as the boat rose on the top of a roller. Taking such a one, I seized the side-ropes, swung a moment in mid-air, and the next was on the streamer’s clean white deck. Before me stood a tall man with black hair and whiskers and dark piercing eyes, who asked me if I was the agent for Flint Brothers. I answered that the agent was on shore, and that I was his assistant. Whereupon he informed me that he had been appointed by the firm to liquidate all their stations and businesses on the coast, and “he would be obliged by my getting his luggage into the boat.” This was said in a peremptory sort of way, as if he had spoken to a servant; and very much against the grain I obeyed his orders.
That the man was new to the coast was evident, and my consolation was that he would be very soon sick of it and pretty well frightened before he even got on shore, for the weather was freshening rapidly, a fact of which he appeared to take no heed. Not so the boat-boys, who were anxious to be off. At last we started, and I soon had my revenge. As we drew near the shore the rollers became higher and higher, and I perceived that my gentleman clutched the gunwale of the boat very tightly, and when the first wave that showed signs of breaking overtook us, he grew very white in the face until it had passed.
The next one or two breakers were small, much to his relief I could see, though he said nothing. Before he had well recovered his equanimity, however, a tremendous wave approached us somewhat suddenly. Appalled by its threatening aspect, he sprang from his seat and seized the arm of the patrao, who roughly shook him off.
“My God!” he cried, “we are swamped!” and for the moment it really looked like it; but the patrao, with a dexterous sweep of his long oar, turned the boat’s head toward the roller. It broke just as it reached us, and gave us the benefit of its crest, which came in over the topsides of the boat as it passed by, and deluged every one of us.
I laughed, although it was no laughing matter, at the plight the liquidator was now in. He was changed in a moment from the spruce and natty personage into a miserable and draggled being. From every part of him the salt water was streaming, and the curl was completely taken out of his whiskers. He could not speak from terror, which the boat- boys soon saw, for none are quicker than negroes to detect signs of fear in those whom they are accustomed to consider superior to themselves. Familiar with the surf, and full of mischievous fun, they began to shout and gesticulate with the settled purpose of making matters appear worse than they were, and of enjoying the white man’s discomfiture,–all but the patrao, who was an old hand, and on whom depended the safety of us all. He kept a steady lookout seaward, and stood upright and firm, grasping his oar with both hands. With him it was a point of honour to bring the white men intrusted to his care safely through the surf.
We waited for more than half an hour, bow on, meeting each roller as it came to us; and by the end of that time the unfortunate liquidator had evidently given up all hope of ever reaching the shore. Luckily, the worst was soon to pass. After one last tremendous wave there was a lull for a few moments, and the patrao, who had watched for such a chance, swiftly turned the boat round, and giving the word to the crew, they pulled lustily toward the shore. In a few minutes we were again in safety. The boat grounded on the beach, the oars were tossed into the sea; the crew sprang overboard; some of them seized the new arrival; I clambered on the back of the patrao; a crowd of negroes, who had been waiting on the beach, laid hold of the tow-rope of the boat, and it and we were landed simultaneously on the dry sand.
Once on shore Mr. Bransome, for that was the new man’s name, rapidly recovered his presence of mind and manner, and, by way of covering his past confusion, remarked that he supposed the surf was seldom so bad as it then was. I replied in an offhand way, meaning to make fun of him, that what he had passed through was nothing, and appealed to the patrao to confirm what I had said. That negro, seeing the joke, grinned all over his black face; and Mr. Bransome, perceiving that he was being laughed at, snatched a good-sized stick from a native standing near, and struck the patrao repeatedly over the back.
In vain Sooka, for that was the patrao’s name, protested, and demanded to know what wrong thing he had done. The agent was furious, and showered his blows upon the black. Equally in vain I shouted that Sooka had done well by us, and that he, Mr. Bransome, was making an enemy of a man who would have him now and then in his power. At length Sooka took to his heels, and sure enough, when he had got a little way off, he began to threaten vengeance for what he had received. I sympathised with him, for I knew what a loss to his dignity it was to be beaten without cause before his fellows, and I feared that Mr. Bransome would indeed be sorry, sooner or later, for what he had done.
I now suggested to him, by way of diverting his thoughts from poor Sooka, that standing on the beach in wet clothes was the very way to catch the coast-fever straight off, and he instantly suffered himself to be carried up the factory. There Jackson received him in a sort of “who on earth are you?” manner; and Mr. Bransome, clearing his throat, announced himself and his authority, adding that he intended to make the factory a point of departure to all the others on the coast; then, very abruptly, he requested Jackson to prepare quarters for him without delay.
The change that came over Jackson’s face as he learned the quality of the stranger and his requests was great. The old salt, who had been king of his house and of the Point for so long a time, had evidently never even thought of the probability of such an intrusion as was now presented to him, and he was amazed at what he considered to be the unwarrantable assurance of the stranger. However, he recovered himself smartly, and asked the new man if he had any written credentials.
“Certainly,” replied he, pulling out a document all wet with salt water. “Here is a letter from Messrs. Flint Brothers, of which, no doubt, you will have a copy in your mail-bag.”
Jackson took the letter and opened it, and seemed to read it slowly to himself. All at once he started, looked at the new agent, advanced a step or two toward him, muttering, “Bransome, Bransome,” then stopped and asked him in a strange constrained voice, “Is your name Bransome?”
“Yes,” replied the latter, astonished at the old man’s question.
“I knew a Bransome once,” said Jackson, steadily, “and he was a scoundrel.”
For a moment the two men looked at each other–Jackson with a gleam of hatred in his eyes, while Bransome had a curiously frightened expression on his face, which blanched slightly. But he quickly resumed his composure and peremptory way, and said, “Show me a room; I must get these wet things off me.”
As, however, he addressed himself this time to me rather than to Jackson,–who, indeed, regarded him no longer, but stood with the letter loose in his hand, looking at the floor of the room, as if in deep meditation,–I showed him into my own room, where I ordered his trunks to be brought. These, of course, were wet; but he found some things in the middle of them that were not more than slightly damp, and with the help of a pair of old canvas trousers of mine he managed to make his appearance at dinner-time.
Jackson was not at the meal. He had left the house shortly after his interview with the new agent, and had, I fancied, gone on one of his solitary rambles. At any rate he did not return until late that night.
I thought Mr. Bransome seemed to be somewhat relieved when he saw that the old man was not coming; and he became more affable than I had expected him to be, and relinquished his arrogant style altogether when he began to question me about Jackson–who he was? what had he been? how long he had lived on the coast? To all which questions I returned cautious answers, remembering that I was under a promise to the old man not to repeat his story.
By the next morning, to my surprise, Jackson appeared to have become reconciled to the fact that he had been superseded by a man who knew nothing of the coast, and of his own accord he offered to tell Mr. Bransome the clues to the letter-locks on the doors of the various store-rooms; for we on the coast used none but letter-locks, which are locks that do not require a key to open them. But Mr. Bransome expressed, most politely, a wish that Jackson should consider himself still in charge of the factory, at any rate until the whole estate of the unfortunate Flint Brothers could be wound up; and he trusted that his presence would make no difference to him.
This was a change, on the part of both men, from the manners of the previous day; and yet I could not help thinking that each but ill concealed his aversion to the other.
Months now slipped away, and Mr. Bransome was occupied in going up and down the coast in a little steamer, shutting up factory after factory, transferring their goods to ours, and getting himself much disliked by all the Europeans under him, and hated by the natives, especially by the boat-boys, who were a race or tribe by themselves, coming from one particular part of the coast. He had, of course, been obliged to order the dismissal of many of them, and this was one reason why they hated him; but the chief cause was his treatment of Sooka, the patrao. That man never forgave Mr. Bransome for beating him so unjustly; and the news of the deed had travelled very quickly, as news does in savage countries, so that I think nearly all of Sooka’s countrymen knew of the act and resented it.
Mr. Bransome was quite unaware of the antipathy he had thus created toward himself, except so far as Sooka was concerned; and him he never employed when he had to go off to vessels or land from them, but always went in the other boat belonging to the factory, which was steered by a much younger negro. In addition to humbling Sooka in this way, Bransome took the opportunity of disgracing him whenever he could do so. Therefore, one day when two pieces of cloth from the cargo-room were found in the boatmen’s huts, it was no surprise to me that Sooka was at once fastened upon by Mr. Bransome as the thief who had stolen them, and that he was tied to the flogging-post in the middle of the yard, and sentenced to receive fifty lashes with the cat that was kept for such a purpose, and all without any inquiry being made. In vain did the unfortunate man protest his innocence. A swarthy Kroot-boy from Cape Coast laid the cat on his brown shoulders right willingly, for he also was an enemy of Sooka’s; and in a few minutes the poor fellow’s flesh was cut and scored as if by a knife.
After the flogging was over Mr. Bransome amused himself by getting out his rifle and firing fancy shots at Sooka, still tied to the post; that is, he tried to put the bullets as close to the poor wretch as he could without actually wounding him. To a negro, with his dread of firearms, this was little short of absolute torture, and at each discharge Sooka writhed and crouched as close to the ground as he could, while his wide-opened eyes and mouth, and face of almost a slate colour, showed how terribly frightened he was. To Mr. Bransome it appeared to be fine sport, for he fired at least twenty shots at the man before he shouldered his rifle and went indoors. Jackson said nothing to this stupid exhibition of temper, but as soon as it was over he had Sooka released; and I knew he attended to his wounds himself, and poured friar’s balsam into them, and covered his back with a soft shirt–for all which, no doubt, the negro was afterward grateful. Whether Mr. Bransome got to know of this, and was offended at it, I do not know, but shortly afterward he ceased to live with us.
There was between the factory and the sea, and a little to the right of the former, a small wooden cottage which had been allowed to fall into a dilapidated state from want of some one to live in it. This Mr. Bransome gave orders to the native carpenters to repair and make weather-tight; and when they had done so, he caused a quantity of furniture to be brought from St. Paul de Loanda and placed within in it. Then he transferred himself and his baggage to the cottage.
Jackson displayed complete indifference to this change on the part of the agent. In fact, there had been, ever since the arrival of the latter upon the Point, and in spite of apparent friendliness, a perceptible breach, widening daily, between the two men. As to the reason of this I had my own suspicions, for I had made the discovery that Jackson had for some time past been drinking very heavily.
In addition to the brandy which we white men had for our own use, I had, to my horror, found out that he was secretly drinking the coarse and fiery rum that was sold to the natives; and as I remembered the mutterings and moanings that had formerly alarmed me, I wondered that I had not guessed the cause of them at the time; but until the arrival of Mr. Bransome, Jackson had always kept charge of the spirits himself, and he was such a secret old fellow that there was no knowing what he had then taken. Now that I was aware of his failing, I was very sorry for the old sailor; for on such a coast and in such a climate there was only one end to it; and although I could not actually prevent him from taking the liquor, I resolved to watch him, and if such symptoms as I had seen before again appeared, to tell Mr. Bransome of them at all hazards. But I was too late to prevent what speedily followed my discovery. It had come about that the same mail- steamer that had brought out Mr. Bransome had again anchored off the Point, and again the weather was coarse and lowering. A stiff breeze had blown for some days, which made the rollers worse than they had been for a long while. Both Mr. Bransome and Jackson watched the weather with eager looks, but each was differently affected by it. Bransome appeared to be anxious and nervous, while Jackson was excited, and paced up and down the veranda, and kept, strange to say, for it was contrary to his late habit, a watch upon Bransome’s every movement.
Every now and then, too, he would rub his hands together as if in eager expectation, and would chuckle to himself as he glanced seaward. Of his own accord he gave orders to Sooka to get both the surf-boats ready for launching, and to make the boys put on their newest loin- cloths; and then, when everything was in readiness, he asked Bransome if he was going off to the steamer.
“I fear I must,” said Bransome; “but I–I don’t like the look of those cursed rollers.”
At this Jackson laughed, and said something about “being afraid of very little.”
“The beach is perfectly good,” he added; “Sooka knows, and Sooka is the oldest patrao on the Point.”
And Sooka, who was standing by, made a low obeisance to the agent, and said that “the beach lived for well,” which was his way of expressing in English that the sea was not heavy.
At that moment a gun was fired from the steamer as a signal to be quick, and Bransome said, “I will go, but not in that black blackguard’s boat; it need not come,” and he went down to the beach.
It was one of Jackson’s rules that when a boat went through the surf there should be some one to watch it, so I walked to the end of the Point to see the agent put off. He got away safely; and I, seeing Sooka’s boat lying on the beach, and thinking that it would be as well to have it hauled up under the boat-shed, was on the point of returning to the factory to give the necessary order, when, to my surprise, I saw the boat’s crew rush down the beach to the boat and begin to push it toward the sea.
I waved my arms as a signal to them to stop, but they paid no attention to me; and I saw them run the boat into the water, jump into her, and pull off, all singing a song to their stroke in their own language, the sound of which came faintly up to the top of the Point. “Stupid fellows!” I muttered to myself, “they might have known that the boat was not wanted;” and I was again about to turn away, when I was suddenly seized from behind, and carried to the very edge of the cliff, and then as suddenly released.
I sprang to one side, and turning round saw Jackson, with a look of such savage fury on his face that I retreated a step or two in astonishment at him. He perceived my alarm, and burst out into a fit of laughter, which, instead of reassuring me, had the opposite effect, it was so demoniacal in character. “Ha! ha!” he laughed again, “are you frightened?” and advancing toward me, he put his face close to mine, peering into it with bloodshot eyes, while his breath, reeking of spirits, poured into my nostrils.
Involuntarily I put up my arm to keep him off. He clutched it, and, pointing with his other hand to the sea, whispered hoarsely, “What do you hear of the surf? Will the breakers be heavier before sundown? See how they begin to curve! Listen how they already thunder, thunder, on the beach! I tell you they are impatient–they seek some one,” he shouted. “Do you know,” he continued, lowering his voice again, and speaking almost confidentially, “sooner or later some one is drowned upon that bar?” And even as he spoke a fresh line of breakers arose from the deep, farther out than any had been before. This much I observed, but I was too greatly unnerved by the strange manner of Jackson to pay further heed to the sea. It had flashed across my mind that he was on the verge of an attack of delirium tremens, from the effects of the liquor he had been consuming for so long, and the problem was to get him back to the house quietly.
Suddenly a thought struck me. Putting my arm within his, I said, as coolly as I could, “Never mind the sea, Jackson; let us have a matabicho” (our local expression for a “drink”). He took the bait, and came away quietly enough to the house. Once there, I enticed him into the dining-room, and shutting to the door quickly, I locked it on the outside, resolving to keep him there until Mr. Bransome should return; for, being alone, I was afraid of him.
Then I went back to the end of the Point to look for the return of the two boats. When I reached it I saw that the rollers had increased in size in the short time that I had been absent, and that they were breaking, one after another, as fast as they could come shoreward; not pygmy waves, but great walls of water along their huge length before they fell.
A surf such as I had never yet seen had arisen. I stood and anxiously watched through a glass the boats at the steamer’s side, and at length, to my relief, I saw one of them leave her, but as it came near I saw, to my surprise, that Mr. Bransome was not in the boat, and that it was not the one that Sooka steered. Quickly it was overtaken by the breakers, but escaped their power, and came inshore on the back of a majestic roller that did not break until it was close to the beach, where the boat was in safety.
Not without vague apprehension at his imprudence, but still not anticipating any actual harm from it, I thought that Mr. Bransome had chosen to come back in Sooka’s boat, and I waited and waited to see it return, although the daylight had now so waned that I could no longer distinguish what was going on alongside the steamer. At last I caught sight of the boat, a white speck upon the waters, and, just as it entered upon the dangerous part of the bar, I discerned to my infinite amazement, that two figures were seated in the stern–a man and a woman–a white woman; I could see her dress fluttering in the wind, and Sooka’s black figure standing behind her.
On came the boat, impelled by the swift-flowing seas, for a quarter of an hour it was tossed on the crests of the waves. Again and again it rose and sank with them as they came rolling in, but somehow, after a little further time, it seemed to me that it did not make such way toward the shore as it should have done.
I lifted the glass to my eyes, and I saw that the boys were hardly pulling at all, though the boat was not close to the rocks that were near the cliff. Nor did Sooka seem to be conscious of a huge roller that was swiftly approaching him. In my excitement I was just on the point of shouting to warn those in the boat of their danger, although I knew that they could not understand what I might say, when I saw Jackson standing on the edge of the cliff, a little way off, dressed in his shirt and trousers only. He had escaped from the house! He perceived that I saw him, and came running up on me, and I threw myself on my guard. However, he did not attempt to touch me, but stopped and cried:
“Did I not tell you that somebody would be drowned by those waves? Watch that boat! watch it! it is doomed; and the scoundrel, the villain, who is in it will never reach the shore alive!” and he hissed the last word through his clenched teeth.
“Good God, Jackson!” I said, “don’t say that! Look, there is a white woman in the boat!”
At the words his jaw dropped, his form, which a moment before had swayed with excitement, became rigid, and his eyes stared at me as if he knew, but comprehended not, what I had said. Then he slowly turned his face toward the sea, and, as he did so, the mighty breaker that had been coming up astern of the boat curled over it. For a moment or two it rushed forward, a solid body of water, carrying the boat with it; and in those moments I saw, to my horror, Sooka give one sweep with his oar, which threw the boat’s side toward the roller. I saw the boat-boys leap clear of the boat into the surf; I saw the agonised faces of the man and the woman upturned to the wave above them, and then the billow broke, and nothing was seen but a sheet of frothy water. The boat and those in it had disappeared. For the crew I had little concern–I knew they would come ashore safely enough; but for Mr. Bransome and the woman, whoever she was, there was little hope. They had not had time to throw themselves into the sea before the boat had capsized, and their clothing would sink them in such a surf, even if they had escaped being crushed by the boat. Besides, I feared there had been some foul play on the part of Sooka. Quickly as he had done it, I had seen him with his oar put the boat beyond the possibility of escaping from the wave, and I remembered how he had been treated by Bransome.
With such thoughts I ran along the cliff to the pathway that led down to the beach; and as I ran, I saw Jackson running before me, not steadily or rightly, but heavily, and swaying from side to side as he went. Quickly I passed him, but he gave no sign that he knew any one was near him; and as I leaped down on to the first ledge of rock below me, I saw that he was not following me, but had disappeared among the brushwood.
When I got down to the beach, I found that the boat’s crew had reached the shore in safety, but of the two passengers nothing had been seen. The capsized boat was sometimes visible as it lifted on the rollers, but through my glass I saw that no one was clinging to it. I called for Sooka, but Sooka was missing. Every one had seen him land, but he had disappeared mysteriously. In vain I questioned the other boys as to the cause of the disaster. The only answer I could get out of them was an appeal to look to the sea and judge for myself. The woman was a white woman from the big ship, was all they could say about her; and, negro-like, they evidently considered the loss of a woman or so of very little consequence.
All I could do was to set a watch along the beach to look for the bodies when they should be washed ashore, and this done, I returned to the factory. My next desire was to find Sooka. He could hardly have gone far, so I sent for a runner to take a message to the native king under whose protection we on the Point were, and after whom the Point was called, and who was bound to find the missing man for me if he could, or if he had not been bribed to let him pass.
In my sorrow at what had happened, and in my doubt as to the cause of it, I had forgotten all about Jackson; but after I had despatched my messenger to the king, I went to look for him. I discovered him crouching in a corner of his own bedroom in the dark.
“Are they found?” he asked, in a voice so hollow and broken that I hardly knew it; and before I could answer him, he whispered to himself, “No, no; they are drowned–drowned.”
I tried to lead him into the lighted dining-room, but he only crouched the closer to his corner. At length by the promise of the ever-potent temptation, liquor, I got him to leave the room. He could scarcely walk, though, now, and he trembled so violently that I was glad to give him part of a bottle of brandy that I had by me. He filled a tumbler half full of the spirits, and drank it off. This put strength into him, and for a little he was calm; but as he again and again applied himself to the bottle, he became drunk, and swore at me for my impudence in giving orders without his sanction. On this I tried to take the bottle from him, but he clutched it so firmly that I had to let it go; whereupon he immediately put it to his lips and swallowed the rest of the liquor that was in it. After which he gave a chuckle, and staggered to a couch, on which he tumbled, and lay with his eyes open for a long while. At last he fell asleep, but I was too nervous to do likewise, and sat watching him the most of the night; at least, when I awoke it was daylight, and it seemed to me that I had been asleep for a few minutes.
Jackson was still lying on the couch, and his face was calm and peaceful as he softly breathed. The morning, too, was fine, and as I walked on to the veranda I saw the sea sparkling in the sunlight, and there was not a sound from it save a far-off and drowsy murmur. Not a sign remained on its broad surface of the wrath of the day before. It was wonderfully calm. Lying here and there on the veranda, rolled up in their clothes, were the servants of the factory, sleeping soundly on the hard planks.
Presently, as the sun rose in the heavens and warmed the air, the place began to show signs of life, and one of the watch that I had set on the beach came running across the yard to tell me that the bodies had come ashore.
Immediately upon hearing this I called the hammock-bearers together, and going down to the beach, I went a considerable way along it toward a dark spot, which I knew to be a group of natives. On coming up to the group, I found at least fifty negroes collected round the drowned man and woman, all chattering and squabbling among themselves, and probably over the plunder, for I saw that the bodies had been stripped to their underclothing. Rushing into the crowd, with the aid of a stick I dispersed it, so far as to make the wretches stand back. The man, of course, was Bransome, there was no doubt as to that, although he had received a terrible blow on the left temple, most likely from the pointed stem of the boat as it had toppled over upon him, and his face was distorted and twisted to one side. The woman was evidently English, young and pretty, although her long hair, heavy and wet, was polluted by the sand that stuck to it, and her half-open eyes were filled with the same. On her lips there lingered a slight smile. She was of middle height, of slender figure, and delicately nurtured, as the small bare feet and little hands showed. As I looked at the latter I saw a wedding-ring on her finger, and I thought, “It is Bransome’s wife.” I tried to take the ring away, but it would not come off her finger–which I might have known, because the natives would not have left it there had they been able to remove it. I then ordered the bearers to lay the bodies in the hammocks; and that done, our little party wended its way along the shore homeward, while the natives I had dispersed followed one after another in African fashion.
Arrived at the factory, I bade the boys place the bodies side by side on a spare bed in an empty room, and then I sent them to dig a grave in the little burial-ground on the Point, where two or three worm- eaten wooden crosses marked the resting-places of former agents of Messrs. Flint Brothers.
As quick interment was necessary in such a climate, even on that very day, I went to call Jackson in order that he might perform the duty that was his–that of reading the burial service over the dead, and of sealing up the desk and effects of Mr. Bransome. But Jackson was not in the factory. I guessed, however, where he was; and sure enough I found him in his accustomed haunt at the end of the Point. The moment he saw me he tried to hide himself among the brushwood, but I was too quick for him, and spied him as he crouched behind a dwarf palm.
“I know, I know,” he cried, as I ran up to him; “I saw you come along the beach. Bury them, bury them out of sight.”
“Come, Mr. Jackson,” I replied, “it isn’t fair to put all the trouble on to me. I am sure I have had enough of the weariness and anxiety of this sad business. You must take your share of it. I want you to read the service for the dead over them.”
“No, no,” he almost shrieked; “bury them quick; never mind me. Put them out of sight.”
“I will not,” I said, resolutely. “For your own sake you must, at any rate, view the bodies.”
“They have not been murdered?” He replied. But the startled look with which I received the suggestion his words implied seemed to make him recollect himself, for he rose and took my arm without saying more. As he did so, I felt for the first time a sort of repugnance toward him. Up to that moment my feeling had been one of pity and anxiety on his account, but now I loathed him. This he seemed instinctively to feel, and he clung closely to me.
Once at the factory I determined that there should be no more delay on his part, and I took him to the door of the room where the bodies had been laid, but at it he made a sudden halt and would not enter. Covering his face with his hands, he trembled violently as I pushed the door open and advanced to the bedside. The room, hushed and in semi-darkness; the white sheet, whose surface showed too plainly the forms beneath it; and the scared, terrified face of the man who, with brain afire, stood watching, with staring eyes, the bed, made a scene I have never forgotten.
Slowly I turned down the upper part of the sheet, and Jackson, as if fascinated by the act, advanced a step or two into the room, but with face averted. Gradually he turned it toward the bodies, and for a moment his gaze rested upon them. The next instant he staggered forward, looked at the woman’s face, panted for breath once or twice, and then, with uplifted hands and a wild cry of “Lucy!” fell his length upon the floor. When I stooped over him he was in convulsions, and dark matter was oozing out of his mouth. The climax had come. I shouted for the servants, and they carried him to his own room, and placed him on his own bed.
How I got through that day I hardly know. Alone I buried Bransome and his wife, and alone I returned from the hurried task to watch by Jackson’s bedside. None of the natives would stay near him. For two days he lay unconscious. At the end of that time he seemed to have some idea of the outside world, for his eyes met mine with intelligence in their look, and on bending over him I heard him whisper, “Forgive me!” Then he relapsed into unconsciousness again. Through the long hours his eyes remained ever open and restless; he could not eat, nor did he sleep, and I was afraid he would pass away through weakness without a sign, being an old man. On the third day he became delirious, and commenced chattering and talking to himself, and imagining that all kinds of horrid shapes and creatures were around and near him. I had to watch him narrowly in order to prevent him stealing out of his bed, which he was ready to do at any moment to avoid the tortures which he fearfully imagined awaited him. By these signs I knew that he was in the middle of an attack of delirium tremens, and I tried to quiet him by means of laudanum, but it had no effect upon him. I got him, however, to swallow a little soup, which sustained him. My own boy was the only negro I had been able to induce to stay in the room, and he would only remain in it while I was there.
I had sent a messenger to the nearest station, where I remembered there was a Portuguese doctor; but he had not returned by the evening of the fourth day. That night, worn out with watching, I had dozed off to sleep on a chair placed by the sick man’s bed, when all at once I was awakened by a loud report, and I jumped up to find the room filled with smoke. As it cleared away I saw that Jackson was standing in the middle of the room with a revolver in his hand. As I confronted him he laughed a devilish laugh and cocked the weapon, crying as he did so, “It was you who tempted me with your smooth face and unsuspicious way, and you shall die, though I suffer doubly in hell for it. Hist!” and he stopped suddenly and listened. “Don’t you hear the breakers? Hark, how they roar! They say they are ready, always ready,” and staring in front of him, he advanced, as if following the sign of an invisible hand, to the door, unconsciously placing, to my infinite relief, the revolver on the top of a chest of drawers as he passed by it. I did not dare to move, and he opened the door and walked into the front room. Then I followed him. For a little he remained in the room, glaring vacantly about him, and muttering to himself; but seeing the outer door open he made a rush toward it, and disappeared into the darkness of the night. Calling to the boy, I ran after him, and easily came up to him, when he turned, and picking up a heavier stone than I thought he could have lifted, threw it at me. I dodged it and closed with him. Once in my arms I found I could hold him, and my servant and I carried him back into the factory. We placed him on the floor of the dining-room, and he was too exhausted to move for a while. By degrees, however, he recovered sufficiently to stand; and as soon as he could do so by himself, with devilish cunning he made for the lamp, which he struck, quick as lightning, with a stick that had been lying on the table. In an instant the great round globe fell to pieces, but luckily the chimney was not broken, and the lamp remained alight, and before he could strike another blow at it I had grappled with him again. This time he struggled violently for a few moments, and seemed to think that he was dealing with Bransome, for he shrieked, “What! have you come back from the sea? You are wet! you are wet!” and shuddering, he tried to free himself from my hold; and I, not liking to hurt him, let him go, taking care to keep myself between him and the lamp.
“Back from me, you villain of hell!” he cried, as soon as he was free. “What have you done with her? what have you done with her?” And then, in a tone of weird and pathetic sorrow, “Where is my little one that I loved? I have sought her many a year; oh, why did she forsake me? Aha, Sooka! we were right to send him to the hell whence he came–the lying, false-hearted scoundrel, to steal away my white dove!”
After which he drew from his finger a solid gold ring which he always wore, and threw it from him, saying, with a wild laugh, “There! that’s for any one that likes it; I’m a dead man.” He then staggered toward his own room, and I, remembering the loaded revolver which still lay on the chest of drawers, tried to intercept him. In his rage, for I verily believe that he also remembered that the weapon was there, he spat in my face, and struck me with all his force between the eyes; but I stuck to him, and with the help of the boy, who had been all this time in hiding, but who came forward at my call, I laid him for the last time upon his bed. There he lay exhausted for the remainder of the night; but there was no rest for me; I felt that I had to watch him now for my own safety.
Toward morning, however, his breathing became, all at once, very heavy and slow, and I bent over him in alarm. As I did so, I heard him sigh faintly, “Lucy!” and at that moment the native boy softly placed something upon the bed. I took it up. It was the ring the sick man had thrown away in the night, and as I looked at it I saw “James, from Lucy” engraved on its inside surface, and I knew that the dead woman was his wife.
As the first faint streaks of dawn stole into the room, the slow-drawn breathing of the dying man ceased. I listened–it came again–once– twice–and then all was silence. He was dead, and I realised in the sudden stillness that had come upon the room that I was alone. Yet he had passed away so quietly after his fitful fever that I could not bring myself to believe that he was really gone, and I stood looking at the body, fearing to convince myself of the truth by touching it.
So entranced was I by that feeling of awe which comes to almost every one in the presence of death, that I did not hear the shouting of the hammock-boy outside, or the footsteps of a white man coming into the room; and not until he touched me on the shoulder did I turn and recognise the sallow face of the Portuguese doctor whom I had sent for, and who had thus arrived too late. However, he served to help me to bury the mortal part of Jackson in the little graveyard beside the body of his wife and that of the man who had come between them when alive. And such was without doubt the fact; for when the doctor had gone, and I was alone again, I collected and made an inventory of the dead men’s effects, and in Jackson’s desk I found his diary, or, as he himself would have called it, his log; and in that log was noted, on the very day that Bransome had arrived on the Point, his suspicion of the man, and later on his conviction that Bransome was indeed he who had injured him.
Sooka was never found; but when the mail-steamer returned from the south coast, I discovered that the younger patrao had made his crew row away suddenly from the steamer’s side, while Mr. Bransome had been engaged below, and was out of sight. So it was evident that the pair had been in league together to insure Sooka his revenge. What share Jackson had had in the murder of his enemy I did not care to think of, but feared the worst.
For myself, I had to remain on the Point for many months, until the factory was finally closed–for no purchaser was ever found for it; and doubtless, by this time, the buildings are in ruins, and long grass hides the graves of those who sleep upon King Bemba’s Point.