Read CHAPTER XII of The Sign of the Spider , free online book, by Bertram Mitford, on ReadCentral.com.

“THE DARK PLACES OF THE EARTH.”

The sun is setting above the tropical forest hot and red and smoky his fiery ball imparting something of a coppery molten hue to the vast seas of luxuriant verdure, rolling, with scarce a break, on all sides, far as the eye can reach. But beneath, in the dim shade, where the air is choked by rotting undergrowth and tangled vegetation, the now slanting rays are powerless to penetrate, powerless to dispel the steamy miasmic exhalations. Silence, too, is the rule in that semi-gloom, save for here and there the half-frightened chirp of a bird far up among the tree-tops, or the stealthy rustle beneath as some serpent, or huge venomous insect, moves upon its way. For among the decayed wood of fallen tree trunks, and dry lichens and hoary mosses growing therefrom, do such delight to dwell.

Beautiful as this shaded solitude is with its vistas of massive tree-trunk and sombre foliage, the latter here and there relieved by clusters of scarlet-hued blossoms, there is withal an awesomeness about its beauty. Even the surroundings will soon begin to take on shape, and the boles and tossing boughs, and naked, dead, and broken fragments starting from the dank soil, assume form, attitude, countenance, in a hundred divers contortions gnome-like, grotesque, diabolical. Strange, too, if the wayfarer threading the steamy mazes of these unending glades does not soon think to hear ghostly whisperings in the awed silence of the air, does not conjure up unseen eyes marking his every step for the hot moist depression is such as to weigh alike upon nerve and brain.

And now, through the sombre vistas of this phantom-evoking solitude, faint and far comes a strange sound a low, vibrating, booming hum, above which, now and again, arises a shrill, long-drawn wail. The effect is indescribably gruesome and eerie in fact, terror-striking even if human, for there is an indefinable something, in sight, and sound, and surrounding, calculated to tell, if telling were needed, that this is indeed one of “the dark places of the earth.”

But if the sinking beams of the orb of light fail to penetrate this foliage and enshrouded gloom, they slant hot and red upon an open space, and that which this space contains. Inclosed within an irregular stockade mud-plastered, reed-thatched stand the huts of a native village.

The noise which penetrated in faint eerie murmur to yon distant forest shades is here terrific the booming of drums, the cavernous bellowing of the native horns, drowning rather than supporting the shrill yelling chorus of the singers. For a great dance is proceeding.

Immediately within the principal gate of the stockade is a large open space, and in this the dancers are performing. In a half circle in the background sit a number of women and children, aiding with shrill nasal voices the efforts of the “musicians.”

The dancers, to the number of about a hundred, seem to represent the warrior strength of the place. They are wild-looking savages enough with their cicatrized and tattooed faces, and wool, red with grease and ochre and plaited into tags, standing out like horns from their heads, giving them a frightfully demoniacal aspect as they whirl and leap, brandishing spears and axes, and going through the pantomime of slaying an enemy. They are of fair physique, though tall and gaunt rather than sturdy of build. And is it a mere accident, or in accordance with some custom not one there present whether among the truculent crew executing the dance or among the women in the background, appears to have attained old age.

The whole scene is sufficiently repulsive, even terrifying, to come upon suddenly from the silent heart of the dark, repellent forest. But there is yet another setting to the picture, which shall render it complete in every hideous and horrifying detail. For the principal gate itself is decorated with a complete archway of human heads.

Heads in every stage of horror and decay from the white, bleached skull, grinning dolefully, to the bloated features of that but lately severed, scowling outward with an awful expression of terror and agony and hate an archway of them arranged in some grim approach to regularity or taste. This dreadful gate is indeed a fitting entrance to a devil’s abode, and now, as the red, fiery rays of the sinking sun play full upon it, the tortured features seem to move and pucker as though blasted with the flame of satanic fires. A crow, withdrawing his beak from the sightless eye-holes of one of the skulls, soars upward, black and demon-like, uttering a weird, raucous croak.

But as the sun touches the far-away sky line the dance suddenly ceases. In wild hubbub the fighting men stream out of the stockade, through the awful archway of heads. They are followed by women, bearing strange-looking baskets and great knives. All are in high spirits, chattering and laughing among each other.

The forest on this side grows almost to the gate. Just where its shade begins the crowd halts, clustering eagerly around two trees which stand a little apart from the rest. But from one to the other of these two trees is lashed a stout beam, such as butchers might use for hoisting the carcass of a slain bullock. And look! below are oblong slabs of massive wood, and upon them is blood. This is the cattle-killing place, then, and these warriors are about to slaughter the material for a feast!

Now there is more chatter and hubbub, and all faces are turned towards the grim gate are turned expectantly; for the cattle awaited. Then a shout, an exclamation, goes up. The material for the feast is drawing near.

The material for the feast! Heavens! No cattle this, but human beings!

Human beings! Bound, trussed, helpless, five human bodies are borne along by their head and heels, and flung down anyhow at the place of slaughter. The eyeballs of the victims are starting from their heads with terror and despair as their glance falls upon the grisly instruments of death. Yet no surprise is there, for they have seen it all before.

Three of the five are old men. These are seized first, and, a thong being made fast to their ankles, they are hauled up to the beam, where, hanging head downwards, they are butchered like calves. And those who are most active in at any rate preparing them for the slaughter, are their own children their own sons.

These go about their work without one spark of pity, one qualm of ruth. Will not their own turn come in the course of years, should they not be slain in battle or the chase in the interim? Of course. Why then heed such vain sentiment? It is the custom. Old and useless people are not kept among this tribe.

The other two, who are not old, but prisoners of war, suffer in like manner; and then all five of the bodies are flung on to the blocks and quartered and disjointed with astonishing celerity. And women bearing the oblong baskets return within the stockade, passing through the hideous gateway, staggering beneath the weight of limbs and trunks of their slaughtered fellow-species. Within the open space great fires now leap and crackle into life, roaring upward upon the still air, reddening as with a demon-glow this hellish scene, and, gathering around, the savages impatiently and with hungry eyes watch the cooking of the disjointed members, and, hardly able to restrain their impatience, snatch their horrible roast from the flames and embers before it is much more than warmed through; and with laugh and shout the cannibal orgy goes on, prolonged far into the night, the bones and refuse being flung to the women in the background.

At last, surfeited with their frightful feast, these demons in human shape drop down and sleep like brute beasts. And the full moon soaring high in the heavens looks down with a gibing sneer in her cold cruel face upon this scene of a shocking human shambles; and her light, so far from irradiating this “dark place of the earth,” seems but to shed a livid sulphurous glare upon a very antechamber of hell.

The moon floats higher and higher above the tropical forest, flooding the seas of slumbering foliage with silver light. Hour follows upon hour, and in the stockaded village all is silent as with the stillness of death. The ghastly remnants of that fearful feast lie around in the moonbeams human bones, picked clean, yet expressive in their shape, spectral, as though they would fain reunite, and, vampire-like, return to drain the life-blood of these human wolves who devour their own kind. But the sleep of the latter is calm, peaceful, secure.

Secure? Wait! What are these stealthy forms rising noiselessly among the undergrowth on the outskirts of the clearing? Are they ghosts? Ghosts of those thus barbarously slain and of many others before them? The moonlit sward is alive with flitting shapes, gliding towards the stockade, surrounding it on all sides with a celerity and fixity of purpose which can have but one meaning. And among them is the glint of metal, the shining of rifle barrels and spear blades.

The inhabitants of that village are savages, and thus, for all their flesh-gorged state of heavy slumber, are instinctively on the alert. They wake, and rush forth with wild yells of alarm, of warning. But to many of them it is the last sound they shall utter, for numberless forms are already swarming over the stockade, and now the stillness is rent by the roar of firearms. Dark, ferocious faces grin with exultation as the panic-stricken inhabitants, decimated by that deadly volley, turn wildly in headlong flight for the only side of the stockade apparently left open. But before these arises another mass of assailants, barring their way, then springing upon them spear in hand; and the fiendish war-whistle screeches its strident chorus, as the broad spears shear down through flesh and muscle; and the earth is slippery with blood, ghastly with writhing and disemboweled corpses.

If this nest of man-eaters was hellish before in its bloodstained horror, words fail to describe its aspect now. The savage shouts of the assailants, the despairing screeches of women and children, who have come forth only to find all escape cut off, the gasping groans of the wounded and of the slain, the gaping gashes and staggering forms, and ever around, grim, demon-like countenances, with teeth bared and a perfect hell of blood-fury gleaming from distended eyeballs. All is but another inferno-picture, too common here in the dark places of the earth. It seems that in a very few minutes not a living being in that surprised village will be left alive.

But now voices are raised in remonstrance, in command loud voices, authoritative voices ordering a cessation of the massacre, for this is no expedition of vengeance, but a slave-hunting party. In Swahili and Zulu the leaders strive to curb this blood-rage once let loose among their followers. But the savage Wangoni, who are the speakers of the latter tongue and who constitute about half the attacking party, have tasted slaughter, and their ferocity is well-nigh beyond control; indeed, but for the fact of being allowed to massacre a proportion of the inhabitants of each place attacked, they could not be enlisted for such a purpose at all. Still their broad spears flash in the moonlight, and all who are in the way feel them combatants, shrieking women, paralyzed, crouching children; and not until the leader has threatened to turn his rifles upon them will these ferocious auxiliaries be persuaded to desist, and then only sullenly, and growling like a pack of disappointed wolves.

Fully one-half of the male inhabitants have been slain and not a few women and children, and now, as the heavy, sulphurous fumes of powder smoke roll forth on the still, solemn beauty of the night, and the Wangoni, reluctantly quitting the congenial work of plunder and rapine, drive into open space every living being they can muster, the two leaders step forward, and with critical decision inspect the extent and quality of their capture. Of the latter there are none but able-bodied, for the sufficiently hideous reason already set forth. These are drafted into gangs according to age or sex, and yoked together like oxen, with heavy wooden yokes.

Upon the whole of this wild scene of carnage and massacre the principal leader of the slave-hunters has gazed unmoved. Not a shot has he fired, not deeming it necessary, so complete was the panic wherewith the cannibal village was overwhelmed. Rather have his energies been devoted to restraining the blood-thirst of his ferocious followers, for he looks upon the tragedy with a cold commercial eye. Prisoners represent so many saleable wares. If it is essential that his hell-hounds shall taste a modicum of blood, or their appetite for that species of quarry would be gone, it is his business to see that they destroy no more “property” than can be avoided.

The force is made up of Swahili and negroid Arabs, and a strong contingent of Wangoni a Zulu-speaking tribe, turbulent, warlike, and to whom such a maraud as this comes as the most congenial occupation in the world.

The last-named savages are still looking through the reed huts in search of food, arms, anything portable. If during their quest they happen upon a terrified fugitive hoping for concealment, their delight knows no bounds, for have they not the enjoyment of privily spearing such, away from their leader’s eye?

The said leader now gives the word to march, and as the moonlight pales into the first grays of dawn the scene of the massacre becomes plain in all its appalling detail. Corpses ripped and slashed, lying around in every contorted attitude, among broken weapons and strewn about articles of clothing or furniture. Everywhere blood the ground is slippery with it, the huts are splashed with it, the persons and weapons of the raiders are all horrid with it; and in the midst that band of men and women yoked like cattle, and with the same hopeless, stolid expression now upon their countenances. Yet they are not dejected. Their lives have been spared where others have been slain. But they are slaves.

“Bid farewell to home, O foul and evil dogs who devour each other,” jeer the savage Wangoni, as these are driven forth. “Whau! Ye shall keep each other in meat on the way. Ha, ha! For in truth ye are as fat oxen to each other,” pointing with their broad spears to the gruesome trees and crossbeam the scene of the hideous cannibal slaughter. For the Wangoni, by virtue of their Zulu origin, hold cannibalism in the deepest horror and aversion.

These barbarians now, humming a bass war-song as they march, are in high glee, for there are more villages to raid. And as the whole party moves forth from the glade once more to plunge within the forest gloom, the air is alive with the circling of carrion birds; and the newly risen sun darts his first arrowy beam upon the scene of horror, lighting up the red gore and the slain corpses, and the ghastly staring heads upon the gateway. Even as his last ray fell upon a tragedy of blood and of cruelty so now does his first, for in truth this is one of the “dark places of the earth.”