Chapter II: The Seeker of Vengeance
The consul listened gravely while I told him about it. He had asked me to give all the information I could about Graham. We were on the porch of the consulate and the whole city of Ticao was spread out before us. The sea pounded restlessly against the low bluffs upon which the city was built, and surged angrily about the peninsula on which the fort is situated.
“I woke in the middle of the night,” I concluded, “feeling that there had been a scream somewhere in the house, but not another sound came. I couldn’t get to sleep again, and in the morning I noticed that the girl who had seemed to be the center of interest in the juju procession had been installed as a servant at the house. Another one of the servants had vanished. The new girl looked pitifully scared, perpetually panic-stricken, though the rest of the servants look frightened enough, in all conscience. That’s all I know.”
The consul tugged thoughtfully at his mustache.
“Now why----” he began, and stopped. “The mail boat dropped two Englishwomen here on her last trip, a Mrs. Braymore and a Miss Dalforth. Charming women, both of them. They are calling on the governor’s wife this afternoon. They came to me and asked me to assist them in getting up to Graham’s plantation. They told me he was Miss Dalforth’s cousin.”
I nodded, frowning. “He said that his cousin--second cousin--would possibly turn up. His brother is up in the Kongo somewhere trying to bag gorillas and is going to come from there on through and stop at his place. Miss Dalforth is probably the second cousin and is engaged to the brother who is hunting.”
“Hm.” The consul looked somewhat relieved. “I see. But why on earth should two women want to go up there? Do you think they’d be safe?”
“I don’t know,” I said dubiously. “There’s no fort anywhere near, and the natives are scared stiff. They might bolt, but Graham seems to have them thoroughly in hand. If the ladies once reached the plantation, they’d probably be safe enough, and Graham’s brother could bring them down to the coast again. The plantation is a queer place, though. I think there’s juju in the air. I’d discourage them from going, if I could.”
“I’ve tried,” said the consul. “I’ve informed them what sort the Portuguese traders are, and told them I simply wouldn’t let them go up alone, or with one of those chaps as escort. I didn’t know anything about Graham. They inquired around for an escort, and one of the missionaries mentioned you.”
“As a respectable person?” I asked with a smile.
The consul nodded, matching my smile. “They have quite decided that you are to escort them to Graham’s plantation. I don’t think you’ll refuse,” he added, when I shook my head. “Miss Dalforth impressed me as a young woman accustomed to having her way. She saw the governor and smiled at him, and he agreed that you would be the best possible person. In fact, he said he would ask you himself.”
“I’m not leaving for a month,” I told him. “I’ve had enough of the back country for at least that long, and my carriers need a rest.”
“We’ll see,” said the consul ruefully. “I’ll wager she has you setting out in a week.”
He was nearly right at that. I was introduced to the two of them, and Miss Dalforth was all that he had said. I had to give my bearers a rest, however, and it was two weeks before we set out.
It was a hindrance, having women with me. They traveled in an ox cart, and at nearly every stream the wheels had to be taken off and a tarpaulin fixed about the body of the wagon to make it into a raftlike float, in which they were ferried across. Had Miss Dalforth--or Alicia, as I heard Mrs. Braymore call her--had Alicia been less charming, or less anxious to cause as little trouble as possible, I would have cursed them nearly the entire time. As it was, I bore the delays with equanimity.
They were delighted the first day when we went up the trail to Venghela. I showed them the street lamp at which the great slave trail from the interior ended, and they looked dubious. When I showed them the Padre Silvestre’s mission, with its three villages of redeemed slaves, they grew a little bit white and quiet.
The padre tried to persuade them not to go on, but as luck would have it, a runner came in on his way to Ticao with a message from Graham. His brother had arrived from the interior. That strengthened their resolution. We continued the journey.
While on the trail I could not speak to them, being busily engaged in the supervision of my caravan. At night, however, we conversed. It was good to hear cultivated white women talk again and talk about something besides the slave traffic, the missionary women’s sole topic when they find a listener who can be trusted not to repeat their views to the governor.
The natives are kidnaped or captured far in the interior, brought down to the coast, and frankly sold. Then they are interviewed and, after making a mark upon a bit of printed paper, are considered to have made a contract to serve a white man for four years at one milreis--about a dollar--a month.
To call it slave traffic is highly insulting to the Portuguese, but to call it the servaçal system is inadequate. They are servaçaes, or contrahidos, which means contract laborers, in theory, but in practice they are slaves. They never see their native villages again. The slave trail from the interior is littered with the manacles used to confine them, and there are gruesome relics all along the way, of those natives who were unable to bear the hardships of the journey.
I told them of these things. I told them of how the Padre Silvestre sacrificed his very soul to keep his villagers from being sold again as servaçaes, how the blacks rose on Da Vega’s plantation and sacked it, and all I knew of the whole disgusting system. I had no intention of making myself a hero--and my conscience still hurts me when I think of some of the things I grew absolutely accustomed to--but I did allow myself to show my feelings on the subject of Portuguese government.
Alicia listened, and one night when I had explained to them precisely what it means for a black to be sent to the island of San Felipe or Gomé, she held out her hand to me very gravely.
“I think it is very brave of you,” she said, “to stay here and do what you can to help the poor blacks.”
I stared at her, tempted to laugh. “My dear young lady,” I told her, “I am an outlaw, practically, who trades with the Kongo natives and attempts to elude the Belgian officials as much as possible. I’m tolerated here in Ticao because I bribe the Portuguese. I’m no hero. To the Belgians I am practically what an I. D. B. is in the Transvaal. And you know what an illicit diamond buyer is considered.”
“I don’t believe it,” she said firmly. “I think you stay here to help the poor natives.”
She was so beautifully sincere in attributing the noblest motives to me that I could not laugh at her. Her blessed incomprehension made me forbear to kick Mboka, who is my official gun bearer and lieutenant, when he lost the bolt of my best rifle and threw away the weapon to conceal his misdoing. I had to kick him twice over the day following for the lapse, when he took advantage of my lenience and stole half of my jam.
She was a charming girl. Mrs. Braymore was suffering in the journeying and stoically relapsed into silence to conceal her emotion, but Alicia was perpetually lively and eager for new things of interest.
She soon grew to adopt a tone of frank friendliness with me, and I had to remind myself more than once that she was engaged to Graham’s brother, and that it would not do for me to fall in love with her. It was odd about her engagement, though. She spoke of her fiancé quite simply, but without any excess of affection. In fact, she confessed that she thought of him more as a brother than anything else. All three of them, Graham, his brother and Alicia, had been raised together and were very much like brothers and sister.
I told myself sternly that, no matter how she felt about her fiancé, she was engaged to him, and I had better forget that she was delightful to look upon and an amazingly good companion. I could not manage it, however, and the last week of the trip was not easy for me. I had to be friendly and no more.
In a way I was very glad when we saw two khaki sun helmets coming toward us, though I was much depressed at the thought of parting from Alicia. I had sent a runner on ahead, and Graham and his brother met us some four miles down the trail. I was pleasantly surprised at the sight of Graham’s brother. Years before he had been at a little English seaside resort where I was spending the summer and we had grown very friendly. He kissed Alicia in a brotherly fashion and shook hands with me.
“I perpetrate a bromide,” he said quizzically. “The world is a small place.”
“Arthur Graham!” I exclaimed. “I knew you in Clovelly six years ago.”
“You’re right,” he said cheerfully. “How are you now? Then you were flirting mildly with a buxom Devon lassie.”
“And now we meet in darkest Africa,” I said, smiling. “Let’s move on.”
We went forward again, Alicia, in the ox cart, gayly retailing to the two brothers our adventures on the trip up. I was rather surprised to notice that both of them were heavily armed, and it bothered me a little. It looked as if there were trouble with the natives. Each of the two brothers carried a heavy repeating rifle besides an automatic pistol in his belt, and Arthur looked decidedly worn, though I saw that he was trying to conceal it from Alicia.