Chapter 22 - The Search Party
When dawn broke upon the little camp of Frenchmen in the heart of the jungle it found a sad and disheartened group.
As soon as it was light enough to see their surroundings Lieutenant Charpentier sent men in groups of three in several directions to locate the trail, and in ten minutes it was found and the expedition was hurrying back toward the beach.
It was slow work, for they bore the bodies of six dead men, two more having succumbed during the night, and several of those who were wounded required support to move even very slowly.
Charpentier had decided to return to camp for reinforcements, and then make an attempt to track down the natives and rescue D'Arnot.
It was late in the afternoon when the exhausted men reached the clearing by the beach, but for two of them the return brought so great a happiness that all their suffering and heartbreaking grief was forgotten on the instant.
As the little party emerged from the jungle the first person that Professor Porter and Cecil Clayton saw was Jane, standing by the cabin door.
With a little cry of joy and relief she ran forward to greet them, throwing her arms about her father's neck and bursting into tears for the first time since they had been cast upon this hideous and adventurous shore.
Professor Porter strove manfully to suppress his own emotions, but the strain upon his nerves and weakened vitality were too much for him, and at length, burying his old face in the girl's shoulder, he sobbed quietly like a tired child.
Jane led him toward the cabin, and the Frenchmen turned toward the beach from which several of their fellows were advancing to meet them.
Clayton, wishing to leave father and daughter alone, joined the sailors and remained talking with the officers until their boat pulled away toward the cruiser whither Lieutenant Charpentier was bound to report the unhappy outcome of his adventure.
Then Clayton turned back slowly toward the cabin. His heart was filled with happiness. The woman he loved was safe.
He wondered by what manner of miracle she had been spared. To see her alive seemed almost unbelievable.
As he approached the cabin he saw Jane coming out. When she saw him she hurried forward to meet him.
"Jane!" he cried, "God has been good to us, indeed. Tell me how you escaped--what form Providence took to save you for--us."
He had never before called her by her given name. Forty-eight hours before it would have suffused Jane with a soft glow of pleasure to have heard that name from Clayton's lips--now it frightened her.
"Mr. Clayton," she said quietly, extending her hand, "first let me thank you for your chivalrous loyalty to my dear father. He has told me how noble and self-sacrificing you have been. How can we repay you!"
Clayton noticed that she did not return his familiar salutation, but he felt no misgivings on that score. She had been through so much. This was no time to force his love upon her, he quickly realized.
"I am already repaid," he said. "Just to see you and Professor Porter both safe, well, and together again. I do not think that I could much longer have endured the pathos of his quiet and uncomplaining grief.
"It was the saddest experience of my life, Miss Porter; and then, added to it, there was my own grief--the greatest I have ever known. But his was so hopeless--his was pitiful. It taught me that no love, not even that of a man for his wife may be so deep and terrible and self-sacrificing as the love of a father for his daughter."
The girl bowed her head. There was a question she wanted to ask, but it seemed almost sacrilegious in the face of the love of these two men and the terrible suffering they had endured while she sat laughing and happy beside a godlike creature of the forest, eating delicious fruits and looking with eyes of love into answering eyes.
But love is a strange master, and human nature is still stranger, so she asked her question.
"Where is the forest man who went to rescue you? Why did he not return?"
"I do not understand," said Clayton. "Whom do you mean?"
"He who has saved each of us--who saved me from the gorilla."
"Oh," cried Clayton, in surprise. "It was he who rescued you? You have not told me anything of your adventure, you know."
"But the wood man," she urged. "Have you not seen him? When we heard the shots in the jungle, very faint and far away, he left me. We had just reached the clearing, and he hurried off in the direction of the fighting. I know he went to aid you."
Her tone was almost pleading--her manner tense with suppressed emotion. Clayton could not but notice it, and he wondered, vaguely, why she was so deeply moved--so anxious to know the whereabouts of this strange creature.
Yet a feeling of apprehension of some impending sorrow haunted him, and in his breast, unknown to himself, was implanted the first germ of jealousy and suspicion of the ape-man, to whom he owed his life.
"We did not see him," he replied quietly. "He did not join us." And then after a moment of thoughtful pause: "Possibly he joined his own tribe--the men who attacked us." He did not know why he had said it, for he did not believe it.
The girl looked at him wide eyed for a moment.
"No!" she exclaimed vehemently, much too vehemently he thought. "It could not be. They were savages."
Clayton looked puzzled.
"He is a strange, half-savage creature of the jungle, Miss Porter. We know nothing of him. He neither speaks nor understands any European tongue--and his ornaments and weapons are those of the West Coast savages."
Clayton was speaking rapidly.
"There are no other human beings than savages within hundreds of miles, Miss Porter. He must belong to the tribes which attacked us, or to some other equally savage--he may even be a cannibal."
"I will not believe it," she half whispered. "It is not true. You shall see," she said, addressing Clayton, "that he will come back and that he will prove that you are wrong. You do not know him as I do. I tell you that he is a gentleman."
Clayton was a generous and chivalrous man, but something in the girl's breathless defense of the forest man stirred him to unreasoning jealousy, so that for the instant he forgot all that they owed to this wild demi-god, and he answered her with a half sneer upon his lip.
"Possibly you are right, Miss Porter," he said, "but I do not think that any of us need worry about our carrion-eating acquaintance. The chances are that he is some half-demented castaway who will forget us more quickly, but no more surely, than we shall forget him. He is only a beast of the jungle, Miss Porter."
The girl did not answer, but she felt her heart shrivel within her.
She knew that Clayton spoke merely what he thought, and for the first time she began to analyze the structure which supported her newfound love, and to subject its object to a critical examination.
Slowly she turned and walked back to the cabin. She tried to imagine her wood-god by her side in the saloon of an ocean liner. She saw him eating with his hands, tearing his food like a beast of prey, and wiping his greasy fingers upon his thighs. She shuddered.
She saw him as she introduced him to her friends--uncouth, illiterate--a boor; and the girl winced.
She had reached her room now, and as she sat upon the edge of her bed of ferns and grasses, with one hand resting upon her rising and falling bosom, she felt the hard outlines of the man's locket.
She drew it out, holding it in the palm of her hand for a moment with tear-blurred eyes bent upon it. Then she raised it to her lips, and crushing it there buried her face in the soft ferns, sobbing.
"Beast?" she murmured. "Then God make me a beast; for, man or beast, I am yours."
She did not see Clayton again that day. Esmeralda brought her supper to her, and she sent word to her father that she was suffering from the reaction following her adventure.
The next morning Clayton left early with the relief expedition in search of Lieutenant D'Arnot. There were two hundred armed men this time, with ten officers and two surgeons, and provisions for a week.
They carried bedding and hammocks, the latter for transporting their sick and wounded.
It was a determined and angry company--a punitive expedition as well as one of relief. They reached the sight of the skirmish of the previous expedition shortly after noon, for they were now traveling a known trail and no time was lost in exploring.
From there on the elephant-track led straight to Mbonga's village. It was but two o'clock when the head of the column halted upon the edge of the clearing.
Lieutenant Charpentier, who was in command, immediately sent a portion of his force through the jungle to the opposite side of the village. Another detachment was dispatched to a point before the village gate, while he remained with the balance upon the south side of the clearing.
It was arranged that the party which was to take its position to the north, and which would be the last to gain its station should commence the assault, and that their opening volley should be the signal for a concerted rush from all sides in an attempt to carry the village by storm at the first charge.
For half an hour the men with Lieutenant Charpentier crouched in the dense foliage of the jungle, waiting the signal. To them it seemed like hours. They could see natives in the fields, and others moving in and out of the village gate.
At length the signal came--a sharp rattle of musketry, and like one man, an answering volley tore from the jungle to the west and to the south.
The natives in the field dropped their implements and broke madly for the palisade. The French bullets mowed them down, and the French sailors bounded over their prostrate bodies straight for the village gate.
So sudden and unexpected the assault had been that the whites reached the gates before the frightened natives could bar them, and in another minute the village street was filled with armed men fighting hand to hand in an inextricable tangle.
For a few moments the blacks held their ground within the entrance to the street, but the revolvers, rifles and cutlasses of the Frenchmen crumpled the native spearmen and struck down the black archers with their bows halfdrawn.
Soon the battle turned to a wild rout, and then to a grim massacre; for the French sailors had seen bits of D'Arnot's uniform upon several of the black warriors who opposed them.
They spared the children and those of the women whom they were not forced to kill in self-defense, but when at length they stopped, parting, blood covered and sweating, it was because there lived to oppose them no single warrior of all the savage village of Mbonga.
Carefully they ransacked every hut and corner of the village, but no sign of D'Arnot could they find. They questioned the prisoners by signs, and finally one of the sailors who had served in the French Congo found that he could make them understand the bastard tongue that passes for language between the whites and the more degraded tribes of the coast, but even then they could learn nothing definite regarding the fate of D'Arnot.
Only excited gestures and expressions of fear could they obtain in response to their inquiries concerning their fellow; and at last they became convinced that these were but evidences of the guilt of these demons who had slaughtered and eaten their comrade two nights before.
At length all hope left them, and they prepared to camp for the night within the village. The prisoners were herded into three huts where they were heavily guarded. Sentries were posted at the barred gates, and finally the village was wrapped in the silence of slumber, except for the wailing of the native women for their dead.
The next morning they set out upon the return march. Their original intention had been to burn the village, but this idea was abandoned and the prisoners were left behind, weeping and moaning, but with roofs to cover them and a palisade for refuge from the beasts of the jungle.
Slowly the expedition retraced its steps of the preceding day. Ten loaded hammocks retarded its pace. In eight of them lay the more seriously wounded, while two swung beneath the weight of the dead.
Clayton and Lieutenant Charpentier brought up the rear of the column; the Englishman silent in respect for the other's grief, for D'Arnot and Charpentier had been inseparable friends since boyhood.
Clayton could not but realize that the Frenchman felt his grief the more keenly because D'Arnot's sacrifice had been so futile, since Jane had been rescued before D'Arnot had fallen into the hands of the savages, and again because the service in which he had lost his life had been outside his duty and for strangers and aliens; but when he spoke of it to Lieutenant Charpentier, the latter shook his head.
"No, Monsieur," he said, "D'Arnot would have chosen to die thus. I only grieve that I could not have died for him, or at least with him. I wish that you could have known him better, Monsieur. He was indeed an officer and a gentleman--a title conferred on many, but deserved by so few.
"He did not die futilely, for his death in the cause of a strange American girl will make us, his comrades, face our ends the more bravely, however they may come to us."
Clayton did not reply, but within him rose a new respect for Frenchmen which remained undimmed ever after.
It was quite late when they reached the cabin by the beach. A single shot before they emerged from the jungle had announced to those in camp as well as on the ship that the expedition had been too late--for it had been prearranged that when they came within a mile or two of camp one shot was to be fired to denote failure, or three for success, while two would have indicated that they had found no sign of either D'Arnot or his black captors.
So it was a solemn party that awaited their coming, and few words were spoken as the dead and wounded men were tenderly placed in boats and rowed silently toward the cruiser.
Clayton, exhausted from his five days of laborious marching through the jungle and from the effects of his two battles with the blacks, turned toward the cabin to seek a mouthful of food and then the comparative ease of his bed of grasses after two nights in the jungle.
By the cabin door stood Jane.
"The poor lieutenant?" she asked. "Did you find no trace of him?"
"We were too late, Miss Porter," he replied sadly.
"Tell me. What had happened?" she asked.
"I cannot, Miss Porter, it is too horrible."
"You do not mean that they had tortured him?" she whispered.
"We do not know what they did to him BEFORE they killed him," he answered, his face drawn with fatigue and the sorrow he felt for poor D'Arnot and he emphasized the word before.
"BEFORE they killed him! What do you mean? They are not--? They are not--?"
She was thinking of what Clayton had said of the forest man's probable relationship to this tribe and she could not frame the awful word.
"Yes, Miss Porter, they were--cannibals," he said, almost bitterly, for to him too had suddenly come the thought of the forest man, and the strange, unaccountable jealousy he had felt two days before swept over him once more.
And then in sudden brutality that was as unlike Clayton as courteous consideration is unlike an ape, he blurted out:
"When your forest god left you he was doubtless hurrying to the feast."
He was sorry ere the words were spoken though he did not know how cruelly they had cut the girl. His regret was for his baseless disloyalty to one who had saved the lives of every member of his party, and offered harm to none.
The girl's head went high.
"There could be but one suitable reply to your assertion, Mr. Clayton," she said icily, "and I regret that I am not a man, that I might make it." She turned quickly and entered the cabin.
Clayton was an Englishman, so the girl had passed quite out of sight before he deduced what reply a man would have made.
"Upon my word," he said ruefully, "she called me a liar. And I fancy I jolly well deserved it," he added thoughtfully. "Clayton, my boy, I know you are tired out and unstrung, but that's no reason why you should make an ass of yourself. You'd better go to bed."
But before he did so he called gently to Jane upon the opposite side of the sailcloth partition, for he wished to apologize, but he might as well have addressed the Sphinx. Then he wrote upon a piece of paper and shoved it beneath the partition.
Jane saw the little note and ignored it, for she was very angry and hurt and mortified, but--she was a woman, and so eventually she picked it up and read it.
MY DEAR MISS PORTER:
I had no reason to insinuate what I did. My only excuse is that my nerves must be unstrung--which is no excuse at all.
Please try and think that I did not say it. I am very sorry. I would not have hurt YOU, above all others in the world. Say that you forgive me. WM. CECIL CLAYTON.
"He did think it or he never would have said it," reasoned the girl, "but it cannot be true--oh, I know it is not true!"
One sentence in the letter frightened her: "I would not have hurt YOU above all others in the world."
A week ago that sentence would have filled her with delight, now it depressed her.
She wished she had never met Clayton. She was sorry that she had ever seen the forest god. No, she was glad. And there was that other note she had found in the grass before the cabin the day after her return from the jungle, the love note signed by Tarzan of the Apes.
Who could be this new suitor? If he were another of the wild denizens of this terrible forest what might he not do to claim her?
"Esmeralda! Wake up," she cried.
"You make me so irritable, sleeping there peacefully when you know perfectly well that the world is filled with sorrow."
"Gaberelle!" screamed Esmeralda, sitting up. "What is it now? A hipponocerous? Where is he, Miss Jane?"
"Nonsense, Esmeralda, there is nothing. Go back to sleep. You are bad enough asleep, but you are infinitely worse awake."
"Yes honey, but what's the matter with you, precious? You acts sort of disgranulated this evening."
"Oh, Esmeralda, I'm just plain ugly to-night," said the girl. "Don't pay any attention to me--that's a dear."
"Yes, honey; now you go right to sleep. Your nerves are all on edge. What with all these ripotamuses and man eating geniuses that Mister Philander been telling about--Lord, it ain't no wonder we all get nervous prosecution."
Jane crossed the little room, laughing, and kissing the faithful woman, bid Esmeralda good night.