Chapter VIII: Unmasked
The quiet was deadly. Where five minutes before had been the yelling of the natives and the roaring of the drums, the sharp cracks of our rifles, and the bellowing of the native firearms, now there was not a sound.
Arthur and I, shaken by the suddenness of the transition, waited in cold apprehension. Would the door from the rear of the house burst open and the shaggy beast rage into the room, its colossal arms crushing whatever might come within its grasp? Would we, the four in that one room, fire futilely into its barrellike chest, and then be rent and tore in the huge ape’s hairy arms, while its great discolored fangs sank into our flesh?
The stillness was broken by a feeble sound, and we quivered, gripping our rifles the more tightly. The tension was terrific. Another feeble sound, a scraping sound. Then two or three faint jars, followed by an uncertain, tottering footstep, and a second. We heard Evan’s voice, barely above a whisper, muttering pain-racked imprecations.
The door opened slowly and he limped weakly into the room. His clothes were torn and gory. Blood dripped from a deep cut across the back of his hand. He stared at us uncertainly, and a look of relief came across his face.
“Well,” he said slowly. “They’ve gone.”
Alicia, for the first time, gave way. She burst into sobs, against which she struggled bravely.
“The gorilla!” I snapped, fearful lest I too give way.
Evan shook his head. “The blacks had crept up to and filled the servants’ quarters during the night. I suppose that’s why the dogs were restless. When they made a rush, they dashed out from there and I couldn’t stop them. They were inside, and I was just about gone when the gorilla appeared from nowhere. I dare say I shouted, and then the beast made for the blacks. I suppose it was as frightened as they were, but it charged them, screaming with rage, and they ran. It got one of them. The poor devil is out there now. I’d been knocked down and one of the blacks was just about to finish me off when the brute appeared.”
“Where is it now?”
Evan shook his head again. “I don’t know where it went. It was going for the blacks.”
Alicia stuffed her handkerchief into her mouth and tried desperately to get a grip on herself again.
“We’ll go and look out at the back,” said Arthur grimly. “You stay here, Evan.”
We went cautiously out toward the rear. There lay one of the natives with his neck broken, an expression of infinite horror on his face. Others lay in twisted attitudes about the place, gaping wounds from the buckshot at close range showing how desperately Evan had fought. Of the gorilla there was no sign. We searched the place thoroughly, but found nothing.
We returned to the others, a curious lethargy settling upon us. We had been at such high tension for so long that it was impossible to keep keyed up. I, for one, felt an almost-overpowering desire to sleep. Alicia had recovered her composure by now and was trying to bandage Evan’s hand. He was indifferently submitting, but after she had finished, he looked at it and took the bandage off, substituting a mere strip of adhesive for the many turns of the cloth.
“I can handle my rifle like this,” he said dully.
Mrs. Braymore made coffee and we drank it in silence. Presently Arthur motioned to the women to leave the room and began to tug at the bodies lying on the floor. It was absurd for us to think of trying to bury them. He dragged them to the edge of the veranda and dropped them over the edge to the ground below. He moved jerkily, almost like a man asleep.
“No need to do that,” said Evan suddenly, a little while later.
Arthur stopped and looked at him questioningly.
“We’ll have to start for the coast,” Evan explained uninterestedly. “We can’t stick it out here. The natives won’t bother us now. The fight’s taken out of them.”
“But the gorilla?”
“Have to chance it,” said Evan slowly. “There’s nothing else to do.”
“He’ll get us within the first ten miles,” I remarked, speaking with difficulty because of the peculiar lethargy that affected us all. “You know how he trailed Arthur.”
There was a moment’s silence, then Arthur automatically resumed his task. Alicia came into the room and silently gave us something to eat. Arthur stopped dumbly and began to chew on his food, forgetting the grisly labor he had been performing but a moment before.
“We can’t start to-day, anyway,” he said after a little. “We’ve got to rest. We’re all in bad shape and we’ve two weeks’ travel before we reach another white man’s house.”
Evan made some reply, but I did not catch it. I fell asleep with food in my hands and slept like a dead man for hours. Alicia waked me at noon to eat again.
All that day we were possessed by a peculiar indifference, the result of the reaction from the tension at which we had lived for so many days. I woke with a start at three o’clock, hearing the dogs bark. Evan came slowly into the room.
“I let the dogs loose,” he said, noticing my expression. “They were whining.”
“We’ll need them to-night, in case the beast comes back.” I rose stiffly and went back to douse my head with water. It roused me a little and, after a cup of coffee, I joined the other two. We were all languid and tired, but thoroughly awake now.
“Of course we can’t stay on here,” Arthur was admitting, “but we wouldn’t have one chance in a hundred to make it through the jungle with that ape following us. You’ve seen how it manages to reach the house here.”
“I’ve figured,” said Evan thoughtfully, “that it was in the fringe of bush, and when the drums began to close in from three sides, it was flushed out and came on to hide here in or about the house. It had hidden here before.”
“Probably,” Arthur agreed. “But that doesn’t say how we’re going to elude it during a journey of a hundred and fifty miles without carriers.”
Evan threw out his hands. “But what are we going to do?” He appealed to me. “What do you think, Murray?”
“If we stay here,” I reasoned, “either we’ll get him or he’ll get us. If we go, he’ll probably get one or more of us and we may get him. But we can’t stay here. The only thing I can think of is that we had better try for him to-night. With the dogs to warn us, we’ll have a better chance than before. If he doesn’t come to-night, try to-morrow night. Hang on here as long as we dare and then, if we must, try the trail. If we could strike a caravan coming down from the Hungry Country, now----”
Evan shook his head. “I haven’t been very hospitable to the Portuguese traders,” he remarked. “They steal my slaves and sell them in Ticao. They don’t turn off the main slave trail to my villages any more.”
We were, silent for a moment or two.
“Are there any of the rest barricades any short distance away?” asked Arthur. “We might reach one of them and wait for a caravan to come.”