Chapter V: As by Magic
“And it’s in the house,” observed Evan grimly. “A full-grown beast will weigh three hundred pounds, and he’d leave plenty of sign when he walked. There are no tracks leading away from here. Murray and I looked.”
Arthur was ashen as he stared at us. I felt rather shaky myself. The thought of a creature like that in the same house, with Alicia exposed to its insane rage at any moment it might choose to emerge from its hiding place, was appalling.
The two ladies were in the large front room. I went in and remained with them, my rifle in my hand, while Arthur and Evan went over the house again. They had the dogs with them, and they went into every room and every corner, ready at any instant to face what is possibly the most terrible of all wild beasts at close quarters.
A full-grown gorilla has easily the strength of six or eight men, and in a confined space firearms would be almost useless. I heard the dogs pattering all through the house, sniffing eagerly everywhere they were taken, but finding nothing. Again they seemed excited at the door of the storeroom, and again they gave up the search after they had entered.
Arthur rejoined me and Alicia with discouragement on every feature.
“He isn’t here,” he said wearily, “and he is here. He was here and he wasn’t here. I don’t know where he is!”
Evan slumped into a chair, though it was noticeable that he kept his rifle in his hands. Through the window came the menacing rumble of the drums from all sides.
“I think,” said Alicia, with a ghastly attempt at a smile, “I think a fit of hysterics would be a relief.”
She looked as if she meant it. All of us looked thoroughly on edge. To have hostile drums beating all about you and to realize that a hundred and fifty miles of jungle lie between you and the nearest help is bad enough in itself. When you add to that the consciousness of having hidden in the same house with you a beast almost human in its cunning and fiendish in its hatred, with the face of the devil and the strength of seven men, hysterics seem excusable. She did not give way, however, though we all felt on the verge of hysteria from the strain.
That day was one of the most terrible I have ever spent. It was not that anything happened to make it terrible. The strain came from the fact that nothing happened. If the beast were hidden about the house, it did not show itself, but we did not hear a board creak or a curtain swish against the window without turning with a start, prepared to face anything and to fire vengefully into a hideous, furry form.
The bush outside the casa seemed to take on a threatening aspect. The house was built on a small elevation and we looked for miles over the tops of trees, broken here and there by gaps which meant the existence of clearings and open fields. The treetops were dancing from the heat. The sun beat down with fierce intensity. Blasts of hot, humid wind blew upon us and scorched us, but we paid no attention. And always, from the mysterious, unknown and unknowable bush all around us, drums beat and beat and beat tirelessly and ominously.
When one of us went back to get food for the rest, he went with an automatic held ready in his hand, and the other two were prepared at any instant to hear a shot or the snarl that would mean the reappearance of the gorilla. We were doubly besieged, by the natives without and by the gorilla within. For fear of the natives in the bush, we kept to the house. For fear of the gorilla in the house, we kept to the one room.
Toward evening insensibly we relaxed. No one could keep to such an intensity of attention as we had maintained during the day. We ate a sketchy meal at nightfall and dragged two cots into one of the rooms adjoining the large front one in which we had stayed all day. We explored the room thoroughly, and Alicia and Mrs. Braymore went in to lie down.
None of us thought of taking off our clothes. We three men prepared for a night-long vigil. One of us would keep thoroughly awake, and the other two would snatch such sleep as they could.
Long hours passed. We felt sure that some time during the night the beast would make his appearance. I sat alertly by a window, a dog at my feet, listening to the night sounds outside and the ceaseless drumming that meant the juju councils were debating whether the blacks were sufficiently worked up to attempt an attack.
Arthur and Evan reclined in their chairs and tried to doze, but there was little rest for any of us. We could think of nothing but the animal we felt sure would make some attempt upon us during the night.
At one o’clock Evan took my place by the window with the dog at his feet. I sat in one of the easier chairs and tried to relax, but it was impossible. I was suddenly conscious of the overpowering heat and humidity. I was bathed in perspiration.
“I’ve got to have a drink,” I said abruptly. “I need it.”
Arthur looked up wearily.
“We all need a drink,” he said. “It’s in the back of the house, isn’t it?”
We looked at each other uncertainly.
“I’ll go,” said Arthur quietly.
I interposed. “We’ll both go. Here, in the light, Evan can see to shoot if necessary. We’ll use a flash lamp.”
It was curious that neither of us cared to walk through three rooms and a hallway inside a house we had been in for days. That animal had fretted our nerves badly.
Slowly and cautiously we made our way through the dark rooms, searching before us with the flash light. I can’t speak for Arthur, but my breath was coming quickly, and I heartily regretted having expressed a wish for a drink. I would not back out now, though.
We went cautiously and slowly out to the rear of the house. I was in the act of reaching for the siphon of seltzer when we heard the dog scream in pain and a shout from Evan. We rushed madly for the front, our hearts in our mouths, and cursing our absence at such a critical time. When we burst into the room, Evan was dashing out on the veranda, and Alicia was in the act of emerging from the room into which she and Mrs. Braymore had retired. Alicia had an automatic in her hand and, though her face was full of dread, she was evidently prepared to face anything.
Arthur and myself were quickly by Evan’s side and found him staring about the darkness, his rifle half raised.
“What is it?” Arthur demanded quickly.
Evan’s breath was coming in gasps. “I heard you two moving,” he said sharply, as one whose nerves are strained to the breaking point. “I heard a noise from your direction. I turned to look at the door and caught a movement at the window by my side. I jerked back and the dog screamed. A long, hairy arm had reached in the window and seized him. He was drawn through the window before I could lift my rifle, and the arm vanished. It’s the gorilla!”
We listened, but the house was still. A faint moan came from the courtyard, and I flashed the lamp down. The dog, flung bodily from the porch, stirred feebly and stiffened. Its neck was broken. There on the shadowed veranda, with the bright African moon shining pitilessly down upon the hot, dank, fevered earth, the three of us swore nervously while we stood with our rifles pointing in as many directions, hoping, even praying for that monstrous ape to rush upon us.
“He must have gone somewhere!” said Arthur despairingly. “Where did the beast go?”
“Into the house, no,” said Evan crisply. “Under the house, perhaps. The roof, perhaps. We’ll see.”
My legs crawled as I descended the stairs to the ground. The house was raised from the ground on piles, and I could look clear underneath it. The moon was shining down whitely, and I saw the pillars silhouetted against the brightness on the other side. Half a dozen steps convinced me that the animal was not beneath. It would have shown as a dark outline. I tried to see up, over the roof, but could not. The roof slanted just a little and I could not see the center. The house being on an elevation, moreover, prevented me from backing off and getting a clear view of the top. I called up to the other two on the porch.
“He’s not under the house, but I can’t see the roof. He must be there.”
The tree trunks of the forest all about us echoed my words strangely. I could see dim white blurs where the faces of the two brothers showed their position. One of them moved oddly, and in a moment I saw that Evan was swinging himself up the pillar before him. He grasped the edge of the roof and drew himself up. In a second he dropped down again. He spoke quietly enough to Arthur, but I heard his voice.
“He’s there, squatting on the ridge pole. Lord! What a monster he is!”
“We must get the women out of the house,” said Arthur sharply. “He may tear up the roof and come inside. Alicia!”