Chapter IV: The First Victim
In a second he was up again, and ran desperately until he reached my side. Blood was flowing down his cheeks from five deep scratches.
“The pongo,” he gasped. “Nearly did for me. Jumped me, but I got in two shots. Then he grabbed for me but I got away. Stumbled just as you fired. Damn lucky.”
I stood still, facing the menacing jungle, but not a sound came from it except the monotonous, rhythmic beating of the drums from three sides, where juju priests worked their followers into a frenzy of hatred against the white men. Evan went slowly up to the house, exhausted and shaken by his narrow escape from death.
We held a council immediately. The drums on every side of us meant evil brewing. So much was certain. For a white man to attempt to stop the juju councils would be perilous in the extreme, but it was our only chance. On the other hand, for one of us to get through the jungle to take that desperate chance meant eluding the watchfulness of the hate-mad gorilla, whose cunning was increasing.
“I don’t know how he got to me,” said Evan, still shaking from the unexpectedness of the whole affair. “I heard a snarl, and he was coming for me not ten paces away. Startled, I pulled the trigger without aiming, and he came on. I got my rifle halfway to my shoulder, when he reached me. One of his great, hairy paws grasped the muzzle as I fired the second time, while the other reached for my throat. When the rifle went off, he started back and burst out in his screaming. It must have burned or injured his paw. I turned and ran, but he had done this to me in the meantime.”
His coat was half torn from him, and the deep scratches on his cheek showed where the claws had just grazed his face.
“I don’t mind facing natives,” Evan admitted in conclusion, “but I’ll tell you frankly I don’t care to go through that jungle again while that beast is in it.”
The eternal menace of the drums came to our ears, borne to us through the open windows. Arthur began to pace up and down the room, cursing under his breath. Alicia bit her lip and tapped nervously on the floor with her foot. Mrs. Braymore carefully began to fold and refold her handkerchief. Quite suddenly, I noticed that it was falling into shreds beneath her fingers. Struggle as any of us would, our nerves were badly worn.
The strain grew worse during the day. There were two or three dogs about the place, and it was curious to see them puzzled over our abstraction. They kept alertly out of Evan’s way, but they were obviously disconcerted by the absence of the servants who usually attended to them, and they looked at us with perplexity in their eyes. They could get no attention from the solitary native girl who remained. She had withdrawn into panic-stricken silence, serving us when necessary, but spending most of her time in the room to which she had been assigned. We had ordered her to leave the servants’ quarters and stay in the house itself.
All the morning the drums beat rhythmically. During lunch they continued their hypnotic muttering. And all afternoon they kept on, kept on, until it seemed as if we would be crushed by their regular, pulselike, ominous rumbling. Far off in the bush, where we could never reach them, we knew juju councils were going on. Weirdly painted and tattooed witch doctors whirled in their mystic dances and inflamed the minds of the blacks against us.
Men beat upon the drums and yelled and yelled, closing their eyes and surrendering themselves to the ecstasy of the rhythm until they became all but unconscious of the words they reiterated. Slowly and surely the blacks were nerving themselves to lift their hands against their masters. Given time, a drum and a rhythmic phrase, a native can convince himself of anything simply by pounding on the drum and yelling over and over the phrase that contains the idea. He will luxuriate in the rhythm, he will hypnotize himself by the monotony of the drum beats. He will go into an ecstasy, simply yelling over and over the one phrase.
Dinner that night was a repetition of breakfast and lunch. We sat down to the table, our rifles by our sides, our movements jerky and uncertain from the strain of waiting for we knew not what. The dogs lay about on the floor, watching us anxiously. The single servant waited on us, her face dull with apathy, though flickers of panic lighted her eyes from time to time. And always we heard the drums beating far off in the bush. I caught myself sitting with a fork full of food in mid-air, listening to their sullenly menacing rumble.
Arthur, Evan, and myself divided the night into watches. I took the first, and waited tensely until after one o’clock. I heard nothing but the muffled drumming to the northeast, northwest, and south. The moon shone brightly down and made the clearing about the casa like a lake of molten silver. I heard the noises of insects--the loud-voiced African insects--and the cries of the night birds. I heard nothing else. The night was quiet and peaceful, save for the ceaseless throbbing of the drums all about.
Evan relieved me. He came out on the porch and lit a cigarette.
“That drumming gets monotonous.” He yawned. “I wish they’d come on and have the suspense over with.”
“If they come,” I remarked, “we’re done for.”
“Not necessarily. If we hold them off for a week and kill enough of them, they’ll get tired and go away.”
“That wouldn’t help us much. I hardly see how we could make a hundred and fifty miles through the bush with two women and no carriers.”
“We might try, anyway. Some of us would get through. You’ve heard nothing?”
“No,” I replied. “Just the drums.”
I went indoors and lay down to sleep. When I surrendered myself to the rhythm of the drumming, it put me quickly into a deep slumber. I knew what the sound meant, that naked savages yelled and danced themselves into a frenzy of hatred against us, but if one allowed it to become so, it was very soothing.
At one time I half started from my sleep. Some sound within the house aroused me, but a moment later I heard Evan’s footstep on the veranda and recognized the sound of his shoe soles on the flooring. He was humming a little tune to himself. I was reassured and slept again.
I heard when Arthur relieved Evan, too. Their voices came clearly in to me as they exchanged greetings.
“Nothing new?” asked Arthur nervously.
“No. I say, Arthur, the natives are taking a deuced long time to get worked up to the sticking point. I had them pretty thoroughly frightened. Perhaps they’ll hold a big palaver for several days, yell and dance themselves into exhaustion, and let it go at that. I’ve known such things to happen. Our primitive ancestors used to hold hee-hee councils and work off their surplus emotions in the same way. If this juju festival lasts two days more, I think it will peter out and wind up in a palm-wine debauch. Then they’ll come back and be good!”
“It’s the gorilla I’m worried most about just now,” said Arthur grimly. “The natives are men, and you can anticipate their moves, but there’s no telling what an animal will do, particularly a pongo.”
Evan laughed. “I had a start just now,” he said. “I heard a queer sound in Biheta’s room.” Biheta was the native girl. “She gave a queer gurgle. I didn’t know what was up, and I went and peered in the door. She was lying there quite still, evidently sound asleep. She must have had a nightmare, but it gave me the creeps for an instant.”
Arthur seemed to pick up his rifle.
“Well, I’m going indoors to get some beauty sleep,” said Evan with a yawn. “Cheer up, Arthur. There’s a damn good chance that the natives will just yell themselves hoarse and come peaceably back to work. As long as the drums stay at a distance, we’re all right. But wake all of us if they stop.”
He came into the house and went into his own room. I dozed off again. When I woke, it was well after daylight. Evan had stuck his head inside my door and was grinning cheerfully.
“Get up,” he ordered. “Breakfast will be ready in a minute or two.”
I rolled out of bed and heard him go to the rear of the house. He rasped out an order in the local dialect, but there was no reply. He spoke again, harshly. There was still no reply. I heard him fling open a door. Then he exclaimed aloud.
“Arthur! Murray! Come here!”
We went quickly, and into the room in which he was. It was the room assigned to the native girl. Evan was standing over her couch, looking grimly down at the figure lying there.
The dull features of the girl were twisted into an expression of the most horrible fear. It was appalling that such ultimate terror could show itself upon a human face. The eyes were wide and staring, the mouth was drawn back in a voiceless shriek of utter, despairing fright. The hands were clenched so that the nails bit into the flesh of the palms, and the head was oddly askew. The girl was dead.
Evan lifted up her shoulders and the head fell back.
“Neck broken,” he said laconically. “The gorilla!”
“Great Heaven!” said Arthur desperately, white as a sheet. “What next? How did he get in here? Alicia!” He ran from the room and called hoarsely.
Alicia’s voice answered instantly. “What’s the matter?”