“DON’T get it into your heads that you are going to hang me.” There was a challenge in Brown’s tone that sounded to Jane like the defiance of a guilty man; and yet she could not believe that it was he who had killed the Princess Sborov.
“We shall hang no one,” she said. “We cannot take the law into our own hands; we must all be equally under suspicion until a properly constituted court of law determines our guilt or innocence. There is but one thing to do; we must try to reach the nearest established civilized authority, tell our story, and let the law take its course.”
“I quite agree with you, Milady,” said Tibbs.
“Well, I don’t,” grumbled Alexis; “it wouldn’t be safe to travel through this lonely country with a murderer who might easily kill all of us and thus dispose of all the witnesses who could testify against him.”
“And what do you suggest?” asked Jane.
“That we leave the murderer here, make our way to the nearest post, report the affair, and leave it to the authorities to apprehend the guilty man and arrest him.”
Jane shook her head. “But we don’t know who the murderer is; in the eyes of the law, we are all equally suspects. No, the only proper thing to do is to find a magistrate or a commissioner, tell our story and request an investigation.”
“Not for me,” said Brown. “I wouldn’t have a chance in one of these foreign ports. There ain’t anybody in Europe got any use for an American anyway, but they sure knuckle down to titles. What chance would an American without money have against a prince with millions? Nix, Miss, there ain’t nobody goin’ to railroad my neck into a noose!”
“You see, Jane,” said Alexis, “he practically admits his guilt. An innocent man would not be afraid to stand trial.”
“Listen, Miss,” said Brown, turning appealingly to Jane, “I ain’t never bumped anyone off yet; but if you don’t want another killing around here, make that fool shut up and keep shut up.”
“Then you refuse to come with us, Brown?” demanded Jane. “I think you are very foolish.”
“I may be foolish, Miss; but I ain’t taking no chances with no foreign court. An English court might be all right, but we are not in English territory. No, I came out here with these people in the hopes I could get hold of that formula for perpetual youth. That would be worth millions back home; and now that I am here, I am going ahead and try to find it. I don’t know how, but I am going to try.”
“There are so few of us,” said Jane, “and we are so poorly armed that we really ought to stick together, at least until we contact some friendly natives.”
“I didn’t plan on leaving you cold, Miss,” said the pilot. “I’ll stick until you and Annette are safe.”
“I was sure you would, Brown; and now that that’s settled, we’ve something else to do—a very unpleasant duty. The princess must be buried. I guess you men will have to dig the grave.”
The only implement they had with which to dig was the hatchet that had been used to kill the princess; and thus a task, sufficiently gruesome in itself, was rendered incalculably more so.
While one of the men loosened the earth with the hatchet, the other two scooped it out with their hands; and while the men were thus occupied, Jane and Annette prepared the body for burial as best they might by wrapping it in articles of the victim’s clothing taken from her baggage.
Annette wept continually; but Jane, even though she felt the loss infinitely more than the little French maid could have, remained dry-eyed. She had work to do, a duty to perform; and she could not permit her personal sorrow to interfere.
When all was in readiness and the body lowered into the grave, Jane recited as much of the burial service as she could recall, while the others stood about with bowed heads, the men uncovered.
“I think,” said Jane, when it was all over and the grave filled, “that we had better break camp immediately; no one will want to remain here.”
“Have you any plan?” asked Alexis. “Do you know where we are going?”
“There are only two things we can do,” said Jane. “One is to follow this trail toward the west, and the other is to follow it toward the east. The toss of a coin could decide that as intelligently as any of us. Not knowing where we are, it is impossible to know in which direction lies the nearest friendly village. Personally, I should prefer going toward the east because there lies the country with which I am familiar, the country where I have many friends among the natives.”
“Then we go to the east,” said Brown. “You’re boss; what you say goes.”
“I doubt the wisdom of your decision, Jane,” said Alexis. “The Belgian Congo must lie to the west, if we are not already in it, which I believe; and in that event, we shall strike civilization sooner by going in that direction.”
“It’s all guess-work at best, Alexis,” said Jane. “It really doesn’t make much difference which way we go. Let’s leave it to a vote. How about you, Tibbs?”
“I—ahem—I beg pardon, Milady, I shall cast my lot with the majority.”
“You’re a lot of help,” said Brown.
“And you, Annette?” asked Jane.
“Oh, if you and Mr. Brown wish to go to the east, I wish to go to the east also.”
“That’s settled,” said Jane; “we go to the east then.”
“I still object,” demurred Alexis. “As the financial head of the expedition, the one who has paid and must pay all the bills, I believe that some consideration should be shown my wishes.”
“Alexis,” said Jane, “you make it very difficult. Like the rest, you will have to follow my orders, or when there is a question, accept the will of the majority. As for financing the expedition, each of us has the necessary wherewithal if we care to use it, and it’s not money; it’s cooperation and loyalty, courage and endurance.”
Alexis had been watching her closely as she spoke, and suddenly his whole attitude changed. “I am sorry, Jane,” he said, “I spoke thoughtlessly. You must understand that I am terribly upset by what has happened. I have lost my dear wife, and I am heart-broken.”
Brown turned away disgustedly and held his nose with a thumb and forefinger.
“All right, Alexis,” said Jane. “Now let’s gather up what necessities we can carry and get going.”
“How about breakfast?” demanded Brown.
“Oh, I had forgotten all about breakfast,” said Jane. “Well, it will have to be bush-buck again.”
“I don’t believe I can eat a mouthful,” said Annette to Brown.
“Oh, yes you can, girlie,” replied the pilot; “you gotta eat whether you want it or not. We’ve probably got a lot of hard days ahead of us and we got to keep up our strength.”
“I’ll try,” she said, “for you.”
He squeezed her arm. “And say,” he said, “you don’t believe I done it, do you?”
“No, Mr. Brown, I do not believe it.”
“Aw, can the mister, girlie.”
“All right—Neal, but I do not see how he could have done it; I do not see how a man could kill his wife. She was such a nice lady.”
“Yeah, she was sort of nuts, but she was all right at that. She was a whole lot better than him. As a matter of fact, the old dame killed herself.”
“What do you mean? How could she kill herself so horribly with a hatchet?”
“Well, she done it all right; she done it when she told him she was going to change her will.”
“Oh! What a terrible man.”
“I’ve known of fellows that was bumped off for less than what this guy will get,” said Brown. “Back in the land of the free and the home of the brave, you can get it done to almost any guy for a hundred smackers.”
“One hundred smackers? What is a smacker? My English, she is not so good.”
“I’ve noticed that, kiddo, but don’t worry; I’ll learn you.”
“Now I must cook the meat for our breakfast,” said Annette, “if you will cut off a few slices for me from the hind quarters.”
“Sure.” He felt in his pockets. “Where’s my knife? Oh, yes, I remember,” and he turned to Jane. “Say, Miss,” he called, “let me have my knife if you are through with it.”
“You haven’t any knife,” laughed Jane, “but I’ll loan you mine.” Brown rubbed his chin. “That’s right; I did lose, didn’t I?”
While Annette was cooking the antelope, the others busied themselves selecting such things as they thought they would need and could carry on the march. Tibbs was busy repacking suitcases under the direction of Alexis. Jane gathered her weapons together and then fastened a small hand-bag to the belt that supported her shorts. It was such a bag as a woman uses to carry her money, keys, lipstick, and such odds and ends. Other than this and her weapons, Jane selected nothing more than what she wore.
Brown, who was wearing aviator’s boots, chose to take along an extra pair of shoes and several pairs of socks. He also crammed the contents of a carton of cigarettes into various pockets and inside his shirt. These things, with a supply of matches, and the fateful hand-axe, constituted his entire equipment. He knew the bitterness of heavy packs.
As Annette grilled the meat over the coals, her eyes were attracted by something at the edge of the fire, among the cooling ashes. It was a bit of burned fabric to which three buttons remained attached. With a piece of stick, she turned it over. As it had been lying flat on the ground near the edge of the fire, the underneath portion of the fabric was not burned; the color and pattern remained.
A look of recognition entered her eyes; then they half closed in brooding, speculative contemplation of her find.
Brown wandered over toward the fire. “I’ll finish the meat,” he said; “you go and gather together what you are going to take.”
“I don’t know what to take,” said the girl. “I can’t carry very much.”
“Take whatever you need, girlie,” he said; “I’ll help you carry the stuff. Take extra shoes if you have them and plenty of stockings and a warm wrap. Unless I’m mistaken, we are going to need a lot of shoes and stockings, especially you. Them things you are wearing was never meant to walk in nohow.”
“I have two pair of low-heeled shoes,” said the girl.
“Then throw them things away and take the low-heeled ones.”
“All right,” she said; “I’ll go and get my things together. While I am gone, you might like to look at this,” and she touched the piece of burned fabric with the stick she was holding.
Brown picked the thing up and looked at it; then he whistled as he raised his eyes to the person of Prince Alexis Sborov. Annette walked away to make up her bundle. Tibbs was still busy packing. Jane was seated on a rotting log, deep in thought. Brown was whistling; he seemed very much pleased about something. Presently he looked up at the others.
“Come and get it,” he called.
“Beg pardon,” said Tibbs, “come and get what?”
“Chuck,” explained Brown.
“‘Chuck’!” sneered Sborov.
Jane rose. “I guess we eat,” she said, “and after all, I am hungry. I didn’t think I should be.”
They all gathered around the fire where Brown had laid strips of cooked meat on a little bed of clean twigs close beside the coals.
“Come ahead folks; pitch in,” said Brown.
“Tibbs,” said Alexis, “you may fetch me a piece not too rare nor too well done—about medium.”
Brown looked up in undisguised disgust. He jabbed a stick into a piece of meat and tossed it at Alexis. “Here, Napoleon,” he said, “we are sorry we ain’t got no gold platters; but the keeper of the imperial pantry ran out on us and no one else ain’t got no key.”
Alexis gave Brown a venomous look, but he picked up the sorry-looking piece of meat and took a bite of it.
“This is terrible,” he said; “it’s burned on the outside and raw on the inside. My stomach will never be able to stand such cooking as this. I shall not eat it.”
“Well, ain’t that just too bad!” said Brown. “Let’s all cry.”
“You better eat it, Alexis,” said Jane. “You’ll get awfully hungry before night.”
“Tibbs will prepare my food hereafter,” said Alexis haughtily. “I shall eat apart.”
“That will suit me,” Brown assured him, “and the farther apart, the better.”
“Come, come,” said Jane, “don’t start that all over again; we’ve had enough of it.”
“O.K. Miss,” assented Brown; “but there is something I’d like to ask the grand duke. I notice that he’s changed his coat. That was a mighty nice coat he was wearing last night, and I thought if he wasn’t going to use it no more, I’d like to buy it from him—that is, if nothing ain’t happened to it.”
Alexis looked up quickly, his face paling. “I do not sell my old clothes,” he said. “When I am through with it, I’ll give it to you.”
“That’s mighty nice of you,” said Brown. “May I see it now? I’d like to find out if it fits me.”
“Not now, my man; it’s packed with my other things.”
“All of it?” demanded Brown.
“All of it? What do you mean? Of course it’s all packed.”
“Well, here’s one piece you forgot, Mister,” and Brown held up the charred remnant of the sleeve with the three buttons still remaining on it.
Sborov’s face took on a ghastly hue; his eyes stared wildly at the bit of cloth, but almost as quickly he regained his self-possession.
“Some more American humor?” he asked. “That thing doesn’t belong to me.”
“It looks a powerful like the coat you was wearing last night,” said Brown. “Annette thinks so, too; but Tibbs ought to know; he’s your valet. Ever see this before, Tibbs?”
The valet coughed. “I—er—”
“Come over and take a good look at it,” said Brown.
Tibbs approached and examined the piece of fabric carefully, turning it over and wiping the ashes from the buttons.
“When did you see that last, Tibbs?” demanded Brown.
“I—really—” He glanced apprehensively at Sborov.
“You’re a liar, Tibbs,” shouted the prince. “I never had a coat like that; I never saw it before. It’s not mine, I tell you.”
“Tibbs didn’t say nothing,” Brown reminded him; “he ain’t opened his trap except to say ‘I—er.’ He never said it was off your coat; but you’re going to, ain’t you, Tibbs?”
“It looks very much like it, sir,” replied the Englishman. “Of course, I couldn’t exactly take oath to it, seeing as how it’s so badly burned.”
Brown turned his gaze upon Alexis. “The blood must have spattered some when you hit her.”
“Don’t!” screamed Alexis; “my God! don’t. I never touched her, I tell you.”
“Tell it to the judge,” said Brown. “You’d better hang on to that evidence, Annette,” he added; “the judge might like to know about that, too.”
Alexis had quickly gained control of himself. “It was my coat,” he said; “someone stole it out of my luggage; it’s what you call in America a frame.”
“Let’s leave this whole terrible matter to the courts,” said Jane; “it’s not for us to try to decide, and constantly harping on it only makes our situation all the more bitter.”
Brown nodded. “I guess you’re right, Miss, as usual.”
“Very well, then. If you have all finished eating, we’ll start. I’ve left a note stuck up in the shelter telling about our accident and the direction we are taking, and giving the names of all in the party, just on the chance, the very remote chance, that someone might pass this way some day—some white hunter who could take our message out in case we never get out ourselves. Are you all ready?”
“All ready,” said Alexis. “Tibbs, my luggage.”
Tibbs walked over to where his small handbag, a large Gladstone, and two suitcases were stacked.
“Where’s your luggage, Jane?” asked Alexis. “Brown could carry that.”
“I’m carrying my own,” replied Jane, “what little I’m taking.”
“But you haven’t any,” said the prince.
“I am carrying all that I am going to take. We are not travelling de luxe.”
They were all standing silently watching Tibbs trying to gather up the four pieces of baggage so that he could carry them.
“Beg pardon, sir,” he said, “but if I may make so bold as to say so, I don’t think that I can carry them all.”
“Well, let Annette carry that small bag of yours, then. You certainly ought to be able to manage three pieces. I’ve seen porters carry twice that much.”
“Not across Africa,” said Jane.
“Well,” said Alexis, “I’ve only brought along what I actually need; I’ve left nearly all of my stuff behind. Tibbs will have to manage somehow. If Brown were the right sort he’d help him.”
Only by the exercise of all his will-power had Brown remained silent; but now he exploded. “Listen, mister,” he said, “I ain’t going to carry none of your stuff, and neither is Annette, and if Tibbs does, he’s a damned fool.”
“I fancy I rather agree with you, Mr. Brown,” said Tibbs, and dropped all three of the pieces of baggage.
“What?” demanded Alexis. “You refuse to carry my lug gage? Why, you impudent upstart, I’ll—”
“No you won’t, sir,” said Tibbs; “I know just what you are going to say, sir, if I may make so bold as to say so; but it won’t be necessary, sir.” He drew himself up haughtily. “I am giving notice, sir; I am leaving your employ now, immediately.”
“Lady Greystoke,” said Alexis, with great dignity, “you have assumed command here. I demand that you compel these people to carry my luggage.”
“Nonsense,” said Jane. “Take an extra pair of shoes and some socks and whatever else you can carry, and come along. We can’t waste any more time here.”
And thus the unhappy party started upon the trail toward the east. They had had but two guesses; and they had guessed wrong, but fortunately they could not know the dangers and the terrors that lay ahead of them on the trail toward the east.