Chapter III: Evan's Sortie
We explored the house first and came upon a surprise. The native girl I had seen conducted to the house by the juju procession two months before crouched in one corner. She was too much frightened to give any coherent account of the other servants’ leaving.
They had simply gone, she said. No one had said anything to her, and she had been left behind. The oxen lay in their stalls, their heads beaten in with blows from a heavy iron bar that lay bent on the ground beside them. Even my own boys had vanished. That struck me most forcibly of all, because I had treated them well and had thought I could count on as much loyalty from them as any white man can expect from the average native.
Mboka’s defection really bothered me. I had believed well of him and was in a way genuinely fond of him. He had gone with the rest, though. The loads of the carriers lay in a huge pile. Small and precious possessions of my boys lay about them. That was perhaps the queerest part of the whole affair. In leaving secretly in the middle of the night, the servants had not stopped to steal, or even to take with them what was their own. They had apparently risen and stolen away in shivering fear.
We went back to the house from the servants’ quarters full of rather uneasy speculations. Juju was obviously at the bottom of whatever was happening, and there is no telling what may enter the head of a juju doctor. Passing through the rear rooms, Evan paused to order the solitary native girl to prepare food for us. We went on to find Alicia and Mrs. Braymore up and curious. They were on the front porch when they heard us, and Alicia came inside to smile at all of us and ask questions.
“Where are all the servants, Evan?” she demanded. “We had not a drop of water this morning. And what’s happened to the native village? On the way up here we saw lots of villages, but none of them were quite like yours.”
We looked down at the squalid huts of the village. Not a sign of life could be seen. Not one of the usually innumerable tiny fires of a native village was burning, and the single street was absolutely deserted.
“We’ll take a look at it,” said Arthur grimly. “I don’t like this business. Murray, you’ll come?”
I picked up my rifle and moved forward. As we walked across the clearing before the casa, Arthur turned to me.
“Don’t forget about that big ape, either. He’s probably waiting for a chance to drop out of a tree on top of us.”
It was a pleasant prospect. If we went down the cleared way toward the village, we would be perfect targets for bowmen or spear throwers from the bush on either side. If we went through the bush, we ran an amazingly good chance of running up against the gorilla. And the gorilla had learned cunning, too, and would not expose himself to a shot if he could help it. He would wait patiently until the chance came for him to rush upon us and crack our skulls together without our having time to raise a firearm, or else, until he could reach a hairy arm down and seize us----
I have seen iron bars bent and twisted by the hands of those big apes. A sudden thought came to me. The iron bar in the stables, with which the oxen had been clubbed to death!
We made our way cautiously down to the center of the cleared space, searching the bush on either side with our eyes, but affecting an unconcerned air in case hidden watchers saw us. We came to the village and strolled inside. It was absolutely deserted. Not one man, woman, or child remained within it. Their possessions were undisturbed, save that all their arms were gone, but cooking pots, carved stools, skin robes, ornaments, minor fetishes, children’s toys, everything else lay as it had last been used by its owners. Only a few native dogs skulked around the silent huts. There was not a single sign that gave a hint of the reason for the mysterious exodus of the natives.
“I’ve not been out here long,” said Arthur crisply, “but I’ve learned that when natives do inexplicable things, juju is at the bottom of it. What do you say?”
“I agree with you. I wish I could see some signs, though. I can read some juju palaver. But there isn’t a sign. No charms, no spoor whatever. We’ll go back to the house and talk it over with Evan.”
We started slowly back toward the house. I was walking on ahead, puzzling over the oddities of the situation and trying to piece together a meaning in it all when Arthur stopped short. His voice reached me, little more than a whisper.
“Murray,” he said sharply, “that pongo is trailing us.”
I listened, but could hear nothing. One would hardly expect a white man’s ears to detect a gorilla taking special pains to be quiet. Arthur seemed to hear something, however. He quietly raised his rifle. I followed the direction in which he was pointing, but could see nothing. He fired. A branch swayed slightly where his bullet had grazed it, but aside from that there was no sign.
“I didn’t see a thing,” I remarked.
Arthur shook his head. “It may be nerves,” he said quietly. “That damned beast has haunted me, but I think I saw it.”
We went on up to the house slowly. Just before we reached the porch Arthur looked at me pitifully.
“I heard it following us all the way,” he told me. The perspiration was standing out on his forehead. “It is there, and it is waiting for a chance to revenge itself on me. And the beast has learned cunning! We must look out for Alicia.”
I nodded. Evan was waiting for us.
“Find anything?” he called down. “What did you shoot at?”
“The gorilla,” said Arthur in a low tone. “It’s there and it’s determined. We’d better warn Alicia and Mrs. Braymore.”
Evan looked dubious. “Did Murray see it?”
I shook my head.
Evan frowned thoughtfully. “Arthur, old chap, it may be just nerves. The women have enough to worry them with the way the natives are acting, anyway. We’ll keep a sharp lookout, of course. I’m going to hunt up those natives, though.”
“They’re your natives,” I said, “but I question whether that’s a wise move. If it’s just native foolishness, they’ll come back. If not, they’re liable to be pretty--well, reckless.”
“They’re my natives,” said Evan angrily. “I don’t intend to humor them. I’ll throw a scare into them that will last them ten years. If I know anything of juju----”
“What?” I asked.
“They’ll never dare breathe without permission hereafter,” Evan said grimly.
He seemed to be in a cold fury. Remembering the abject fear in which his slaves seemed to be all the time, I wondered what he might have in store for them. I opened my mouth to protest against his trying to look for his natives, but stopped. That juju house at which my boys had hinted, concealed in some hidden clearing near the village, might hold a secret by which he controlled them. In any event, he knew his own natives best.
We went into the house and sat down to breakfast. We must have made a queer sight, sitting there before that spotless table, our clothing disheveled and hastily donned, our rifles leaning against our chairs. Neither Arthur nor myself could eat more than a little, but Evan’s appetite seemed undiminished. The native girl waited on us, the lurking panic in her eyes never very far from the surface. It seemed nearest when she looked at Evan.
I was most worried about my own boys. It was decidedly queer that they had deserted me, especially Mboka. He had been with me for all of a year, and I had really grown to trust him. He had gone with the others, though, and the very mystery of his disappearance seemed to add somewhat to the menace of the silence that surrounded us.
When I thought of it, however, it was no less odd that Evan’s overseers had vanished. From the nature of their position, they would be hated by the other and full-blooded natives, and it was singular in the extreme that they had gone with them.
Then I remembered a tale I had once heard, of a mystic voodoo worship that was spreading secretly over the whole of West Africa. The story ran that an attempt was being made to band all the natives possible together in this voodoo worship, and then at a given signal they were all to rise. The Indian Mutiny would be repeated. Every white man on the West Coast would be rushed by the nearest blacks, and the dominance of the white race made a thing of the past, in Africa any rate.
I felt cold at the thought that the attempt--which I had thought dead these many years--might have been secretly and insidiously winning converts all this time, and that all the blacks between us and the coast might be risen and only waiting for courage to attack us. We were the only whites in a hundred and fifty miles anyway, and if the strange behavior of the natives meant mischief, we were probably doomed as it was. It gave me a sickish feeling to think that the other might be true, though, that a second mutiny was in progress.