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

AN ANGEL UNAWARES.

Not much sleep did Laurence get that night such, indeed, as he obtained being of the “with one eye open” order. Simple trust in anybody or anything was not one of his failings, as we think we have shown; wherefore having carefully scrutinized the plastered walls of his rude quarters, he took the precaution to secure the wicker door from the inside, and lay down with his Express, so covering the same that but the very slightest movement of the hand would be needed on his part in order to rake from stem to stern whosoever should be so ill-advised as to essay a stealthy ingress.

Still more would he have applauded his own foresight in taking these precautions could he have known that a large portion of the night was spent by his “entertainers” keenly debating the expediency of treacherously putting him to death. Here, it was urged, was an opportunity such as might never again come their way. Here was one of the leaders of that dreaded band of slave-hunters one whose very name was a terror and a scourge. Here was this man actually in their hands. It was in their power to slay him without the smallest risk to themselves. Let them not miss such an opportunity of setting up his head above their gates. As for his party, now that its existence was known, they could surprise it, and slaughter every man it contained. They, the Wajalu, were numerous, and had good fire-weapons, and knew how to use them. Why should they not rid the land of this terror? It was in their power to do so.

This sounded all very plausible; many tales do, until their other side is told. And the other side was unfolded by the head man, Mgara, and others, much to this effect: The slave-hunters were more numerous than many there imagined. They had been reinforced by a large body of Wangoni fierce and formidable fighters. To surprise and overwhelm such a force would be impossible, and in the event of failure what would their own fate be? Moreover, it was certain that the slavers were much better armed than the Wajalu. Their best policy would be to treat the man well; he had already given what was as good as an assurance of his protection. These counsels prevailed.

And soon the wisdom thereof was made manifest, for with earliest dawn one of their scouts came running in with the news that the slave-hunters were approaching; that they were in great numbers, and mostly armed with rifles; that it was too late for retreat, in that a large detachment had already gained a position which was practically such as to surround the village.

The effect of this news was to stamp with an expression of the most terror-stricken despair the countenance of every man who heard it. But Mgara, remembering the words of their white “guest,” hurried to the hut where the latter was sleeping.

Yet as the head man approached the door with a quick deferential word of greeting, Laurence Stanninghame was wide awake. The talk outside, the rapid note of fear underlying the tone, had not escaped him, and even though he understood not a word of their talk among themselves he knew what these people wanted of him. And the situation looked serious, for he felt far less confident of his ability to redeem his half-implied pledge than when, moved by the first instincts of self-preservation, he had given the same.

Well, and what then? The extinction of this horde of cannibal barbarians was a mere trifle, a drop in the bucket, when looked at beside other dark and ruthless deeds which he had witnessed, and even actually aided in. But hard, pitiless, utterly impervious to human suffering as he had become, there was one point in Laurence Stanninghame’s character a weak point, he regarded it which he had never succeeded in eradicating. He could not forget or ignore a good turn. These people, monstrous, repulsive as they were in his sight, had saved his life twice indeed the first time unconsciously from the Ba-gcatya, the second time from themselves. They might have slain him barbarously at almost any moment he was but one among a number; yet they had not, but instead had treated him hospitably and well. He was resolved, at any risk, to save them.

Mgara, entering, lost no time in making known his errand.

“O stranger guest, whom we have treated as a friend,” he began, “save us from the slave-yoke, and the guns and spears of your people, for they are upon us already.” And rapidly he narrated the tidings brought in by the scouts.

“I will do what I can, Mgara,” answered Laurence. “Listen. All your people must retire within the huts; not one must be seen. Further, two of your men must bear a token from me to El Khanac, my brother-chief, who leads yonder host, and that at once. Now, call those two men.”

Swift of resource, Laurence picked up a flat piece of wood and, scraping it smooth with his knife, wrote upon it in pencil:

I owe these people my life. Keep ours in hand until we meet.

“These are the messengers, Mgara?” he went on, as the head man returned accompanied by two men. “Are they reliable, and above all, fearless?”

“They are both, Sidi,” answered the chief, now very deferential. “One is my son, the other my brother’s son.”

“Good. Let them now get a piece of white flaxen cloth, and bind it and this token to a staff. Then let them seek out El Khanac yonder.”

In a moment this was done, and, bearing the impromptu white flag and the writing on the board, the two young men started off into the scrub.

“Retire now into your houses, Mgara, you and all your people. I alone will stand within the gate, and maybe it will be well with you.”

The Wajalu, who had been hanging on every word, now hastened to obey; nevertheless there was terror and dejection in every face. And their thoughts were much the same as those of their would-be deliverer. Had he the power to make good his word?

The hot morning hours dragged slowly by, and still no sign of attack. The village was a deserted place, in its brooding, death-like silence, so still, so complete as to render distinctly audible the sweep of the wings of carrion birds circling aloft. The severed heads grinned hideously from the stockade, and the unearthly molten stillness of the silent noon was such as to get upon the nerves of the ordinary watcher. But he who now stood there had no nerves not in a matter of this kind. His experiences had been such as to kill and crush them out of all being.

Ha! What was this? The crows and vultures, which, emboldened by the deathly silence, had been circling nearer and nearer to the tree tops, suddenly and with one accord shot upward, now seeming mere specks in the blue ether. Then the silence was broken in appalling fashion. Rending the air in a terrific note of savagery and blood-thirst, there burst forth the harsh, hissing war-yell of the Wangoni.

It came from the forest edge on the farther side of the village. Laurence realized, with vexation and concern, that his merciful plan would be extremely difficult to carry out. That these ferocious auxiliaries should be allowed to initiate the attack he had not reckoned upon; and now to restrain them would be a herculean task.

“Back, back!” he shouted, meeting the crowd of charging savages who, shield and spear uplifted, were bearing down in full career upon the village.

In the headlong, exciting moment of their charge they hardly recognized him. Laurence Stanninghame’s life hung upon a hair. Then, with a great burst of laughter, mocking, half defiant, they surged past him. They “saw red,” and no power on earth seemed able to stop those human wolves now rushing upon their helpless prey.

“Back, back!” thundered Laurence again. “The village is dead, I tell you. It is the abode of death!”

This told. Barbarians have a shrinking horror of infectious disease. Thoughts of smallpox, cholera, what not, arose in the minds of these. No other consideration on earth could have restrained that charge, yet this one did. They stopped short.

“Lo! the stillness, the silence,” went on Laurence, pointing to the lifeless village. “Would you, too, travel the voiceless and weaponless path of death?”

But mutterings both loud and deep went through the Wangoni ranks. What was this? They had been ordered to charge been signalled to charge, and now they were forbidden to enter the village. “El Afa” (the serpent) had been absent from the expedition, and now turned up here, alone. Savages are ever suspicious, and these were no exception to the rule of their kind.

Whau, what does it mean?” half sneered their leader, scowling resentfully upon Laurence as the warriors crowded around, growling like a pack of baffled wolves. “Had we not better send some in to see if these dogs are indeed all dead?”

“Not so, Mashumbwe,” was the unconcerned reply. “Tarry until the others arrive, then will we act together.”

But a furious clamour arose at the words. The Wangoni did not entirely believe the explanation; and to further their doubts there now arose from the inside of the huts the puling wail of infants which the mothers had not been entirely able to stifle.

Au, we will add those to the death number, at least,” said the chief, giving the signal to his followers to advance.

Not so! said Laurence decisively. Hearken, Mashumbwe, you are chief of your own people, but I am chief of all of all! Not a man stirs until El Khanac comes up. Not a man, do you hear?”

Mashumbwe tossed back his ringed head, and his eyes glared. He was a tall, fine savage, with all the pride of mien inseparable from his rank and Zulu blood. Thus they stood, the savage and the white man, looking into each other’s eyes; the one in a blaze of haughty anger, the other cool, resolute, and absolutely unflinching. How it would end Heaven alone knew.

But now the very thing that Laurence had been longing for happened. A hurried murmur ran through the Wangoni lines. The main body of the slave-hunters had emerged from the scrub, and had quietly surrounded the village. Laurence was satisfied. He had gained time so far, and with it his object.

“What astonishing freak is this, Stanninghame?” said Hazon, who, having taken in the situation at a glance, was promptly at his colleague’s side, displaying, too, the piece of pencilled board. “What becomes of our pact when such a consideration as this comes in?” he continued, meaningly tapping the inscription on the board. “Have we obtained all we wanted on those terms up till now, or not?”

“No, we haven’t; but now, having obtained almost all we wanted, we can afford to do this for once. If it had been your life instead of mine these people had saved twice, Hazon, I would willingly have spared theirs; now will you do less for me?”

“But it will breed a mutiny among our people,” said Hazon doubtfully, with a half glance at the crowd of scowling Wangoni.

“Oh, a mutiny! By all means. We shall know how to deal with that, as we did before.”

It seemed as though such knowledge were about to be called into requisition, for the announcement that all this “property” was to be relinquished absolutely was received by the more important section of the slave-hunters with a sullen silence more eloquent even that the wolfish growls of the Wangoni. The latter’s disappointment lay in the fact that they were balked in giving vent to their instincts of sheer savagery the delight of plunder and massacre. That of the former, however, was a more weighty factor to reckon with; for the smatter of civilization in the Arab and Swahili element had brought with it the commercial instinct of cupidity. It speaks volumes, therefore, for the ascendency which these two resolute white men had set up over their wild and lawless following, that the latter should have contented itself with mere sullen obedience.

Having gained his point Laurence returned within the village, and, calling Mgara, suggested that some of the people should carry forth food to their unwelcome visitors.

“I fear it may leave scarcity in your midst,” he added; “but well-fed men are in better mood than hungry ones, Mgara, and are you not spared the slave-yoke and the spear?”

The head man, with many deferential expressions of gratitude, agreed, and soon a file of women and boys were told off, bringing goats and millet and rice for the slave-hunters. As they passed tremblingly among the ranks of the Wangoni the latter handled their great spears meaningly, and with much the same expression of countenance as a cat might wear when contemplating an inaccessible bird cage.

“Ho, dog!” cried Mashumbwe, as a youth passed before him without making obeisance. “Do you dare stand before me before me! thou spawn of these man-eating jackals? Lo! lie prostrate forever.” And with the words he half threw, half thrust his great spear into the unfortunate lad’s body. The blood spurted forth in a great jet, and, staggering, the boy fell.

Au! And am I to be defiled with the blood of such as this,” growled the chief, upon whom several red drops had squirted. “Let that carrion be removed.”

Several of the Wangoni sprang forward, and, as the quivering body was dragged away, these savages gave vent to their pent-up ferocity by stabbing it again and again. Having tasted blood they rolled their eyes around in search of further victims. But the remaining Wajalu had withdrawn in terror: and well for all concerned that it was so, otherwise the Wangoni, inspired by the example of their chief, would certainly have commenced a massacre which even the prestige and authority of Hazon and Laurence combined would have been powerless to quell. But there was no one outside to begin upon, and, though a truculent, unruly crowd, their interests in the long run lay in submitting to the authority of the white chiefs.

So the Wajalu rejoiced much, if tremblingly, as the last of the dreaded host disappeared. For good or for ill their village was spared spared to continue its most revolting forms of savagery and cannibalism and parricide spared for good or for ill in that it had entertained an angel unawares in the person of that hard, pitiless, determined slave-hunter, Laurence Stanninghame.