Chapter VI: The Form That Crept
Again we searched the house from top to bottom. Again we led the dogs into every nook and cranny. Again they sniffed anxiously in the storeroom, but gave up the quest after a moment or so. In our search of the greater part of the house the dogs had seemed more bored than anything else. We had led them to the dog that had been killed, before attempting to enter the house, and they smelled at his neck cautiously and drew back with low growls. If the gorilla had been in the house, they would surely have scented him and warned us. The only time they gave any indication at all of interest, far less of excitement, was when they sniffed at the storeroom door. Once inside, they moved about aimlessly.
We debated our next move. The gorilla simply could not be in the house. With his ferocity, he would surely have made a move to attack one or another of us during our searchings. At last Arthur found a sign that reassured us as to his absence without lessening in the least the mystery of his means of escape. Something had led him to scout around the edge of the clearing surrounding the house. He straightened up with a shout.
We ran to him and looked where he pointed. There, on the earth, just beneath the overhanging limb of the first of the jungle trees, were the prints of strangely handlike toes.
“Here’s where he jumped for the lowest limb there,” said Evan excitedly. “See?”
Directly above us a heavy limb spread out from the trunk of the tree. Evidently the gorilla had leaped from that spot. How he had run across the moonlit lawn under our very eyes remained inexplicable. Thinking back, however, I remembered that once or twice wisps of infrequent cloud had temporarily obscured the moon. Could he have seized one of those moments of darkness? It seemed impossible, but there was no other explanation that could be made.
Somewhat reassured, we entered the house again. One of us stayed out on the veranda, however, and watched to make sure the beast would attempt no daring daylight rush on our stronghold. We planned to tether several of the dogs that night to the piles which raised the house from the ground.
Evan was on the porch. He peered in at the window suddenly.
“I’m going to take a look in the servants’ quarters,” he said abruptly. “It’s just occurred to me that the beast may have hidden in there and made his break for the jungle from there. That would shorten the run he would have to make.”
He moved away. I went back and tried to help Alicia prepare some food for us all. We had had nothing since the night before and all were ravenous. Arthur was sitting in the big front room, his head buried in his hands, his rifle leaning on the arm of his chair. I put my rifle against the wall and began to open the tins of preserved food, while Alicia donned an apron and with a quaintly housewifely air lighted a spirit lamp and heated water for our tea. Mrs. Braymore was gravely tasting the tinned butter and making a wry face. It is poor stuff until you get used to it.
As I worked, I watched Alicia appreciatively, and far back in my mind a little germ of hope sprang up. It suddenly occurred to me that she had never shown that intense affection for Arthur one expects a woman to show for the man she is going to marry. She appeared fond enough of him, but she seemed nearly as fond of Evan. I remembered what I had been told, that the three of them had been raised together as children so they were little less than brothers and sister.
That was Alicia’s attitude. She treated Arthur as an elder brother of whom she was immensely fond, but she did not treat him as a lover. It was queer that, with drums beating rhythmically night and day in the bush all around us, and in momentary danger from a monstrous gorilla, I should stop and think of romance and the peculiarly trivial shades of affection Alicia might show.
She turned and smiled at me just then.
“You look like a sword,” she said mischievously, “a sword beaten into a can opener.”
Mrs. Braymore joined in her smile. I suppose I must have looked rather queer. A heavy cartridge belt was slung about my waist, and two dull-metal automatics were stuck rakishly into it. I had not shaved for three days. Every moment was too full of suspense to allow for thinking of such minor things as shaving.
“Well,” I remarked amiably, “since it looks as if our friends in the bush are going to do as Evan has suggested and yell themselves into exhaustion without bothering us, and I shall soon revert to peaceable pursuits, that doesn’t matter. A sword is only useful on occasion, but a can opener links us with civilization.”
“It would seem odd,” said Alicia, “to have some one bring one’s mail in the morning, or to use a telephone.”
“There’s a mail once in two weeks at Ticao,” I said, “but it’s four weeks from England usually and often six.”
Mrs. Braymore joined in the conversation. “I should like to receive an invitation to tea,” she said wistfully. “I should like to go somewhere to tea and have people talk interestedly of poetry, and the approaching marriage of somebody’s daughter, and what the curate said about the possibility of repairing the parish house.”
We all laughed at the idea. I set down one of the tins of potted meat and reached for another.
“For myself----” I began and stopped short, every muscle tense.
On the veranda outside the house I had heard a sound, the creaking of a board as a heavy weight was put cautiously upon it. There was something infinitely furtive in the sound. I listened and heard nothing more, but was oppressed by a sense of danger. The sound had come from the front of the house. I drew an automatic from my belt and silently passed it to Alicia. She had heard nothing, but my expression warned her and she took it quickly. Mrs. Braymore took the other. I picked up my rifle from the side wall and tiptoed through the house toward the front. I heard an almost unbelievable slight sound again from the porch. The door into the front room was standing open. I slipped silently up to the threshold.
Arthur had heard. He was still sitting in the chair, but he was alert and ready. His eyes were fixed on the window some fifteen feet from him, and he was slowly and carefully bringing his rifle to bear. The sun was shining from without and struck upon the curtains that hung inside. Evan had made his house ready for the visitors he expected, and every window was curtained.
There was a moment of breath-taking suspense. Arthur, still seated lest the sound of his rising alarm whoever or whatever was outside, was bringing his rifle to his shoulder. I slipped into the room and came to his side, my own rifle ready. Our eyes were fixed upon the window. Then the slanting rays of the sun flung a shadow upon the curtain. The thing was not yet before the window, but its shadow moved on before it because of the position of the rising sun. We saw, cast in perfect clearness upon the flimsy cloth, the silhouette of the head of the gorilla! Its small ears lay back, its jaw protruded in that fearful ferocity of the anthropoid tribe, and we saw it peering from right to left in suspicious cunning. I held my breath, waiting for the moment when we could fire.
The head turned sharply, and I thought I saw the nostrils quivering. Then, abruptly, it vanished, and a dog burst into frantic barking and hysterical yelping on the veranda. Another instant and the dog screamed in terror. There was a crash against the wall of the house, and the yelping became a moan.
Arthur and I had dashed for the door and now rushed down the veranda with hearts thumping madly. One of the dogs was writhing in agony on the floor. It had been flung against the house with terrific force and now lay with broken ribs and backbone, dying. The gorilla had vanished.
Evan appeared with his rifle ready, out of breath. “What’s up?” he demanded. “The beast again?”
Arthur swore hysterically. “The damned beast is here!” he cried. “It’s here! It’s hiding somewhere about!”
We were all thoroughly reckless by now. We went after the huge ape with the temerity that would have made the blood of any of us run cold in a sober moment. We penetrated every corner of the house. We went over every bit of the grounds. We clambered upon the roof and searched there in foolhardy indifference to the danger we might be in if we only located the animal.
“I think it was hiding in the servants’ quarters,” said Evan grimly. “I saw signs of its having been there. It must have grown shy when I explored the place and it probably slipped off toward the house to escape me. I don’t see why it didn’t make for the woods, though.”
None of us understood, but we went about our search as before. We found absolutely nothing. At last we stopped and stared at one another.
“We would have killed it in another moment,” said Arthur despairingly, “but the dog saw it and yelped. Then it ran.”
“Could it have made the woods before we got outside?”
“Heaven only knows,” said Arthur wearily. “I begin to believe the natives have bewitched the thing to kill us all.”
“How many dogs have we left?” asked Evan suddenly.