THE DISCOVERY that Annette was missing from the camp momentarily stunned the remaining members of the ill-fated expedition.
“What could possibly have become of her?” demanded Jane. “I know that she wouldn’t just have wandered off into the jungle. She was too much afraid of it.”
Brown advanced slowly upon Sborov. There was murder in his heart and it was reflected in his eyes. “You know where she is, you rat,” he said. “Tell me what you’ve done with her.”
Sborov fell back, instinctively raising his hands in defense. “I know nothing about her,” he said; “I was asleep.”
“You lie,” said Brown, still advancing.
“Keep away from me,” cried Sborov; “don’t let him get me, Jane; he’ll kill me.”
“You’re right I’m going to kill you,” growled Brown. It was then that Sborov turned and ran.
Brown sprang forward. In a dozen steps he had overtaken the terrified man and seized him by the shoulder. Screaming, Sborov wheeled to fight with all the mad ferocity of the cornered rat fighting for its life. He pounded and scratched and bit, but the American bore him to the ground and closed his fingers upon his throat.
“Where is she?” demanded the American. “Where is she, you—”
“I don’t know,” gasped Sborov. “As God is my judge, I don’t know.”
“If you don’t know, you might as well be killed anyway, for you ain’t no good for anything then nohow.”
Brown’s fingers tightened upon the throat of the terrified Sborov, who still struggled and fought furiously to free himself.
All that it takes so long to tell happened in the span of a few brief seconds.
Nor during this time was Jane idle. The instant that she realized the gravity of the situation and that Brown was really intent upon destroying Sborov, she seized her spear and ran toward them.
“Stop it, Brown,” she commanded. “Let the prince up.”
“Not ’til I’ve given him what’s coming to him,” cried the pilot; “and he’s going to get it, even if I hang for it.”
Jane placed the point of her spear beneath Brown’s left shoulder-blade and pushed until he felt the sharp point against his flesh.
“Drop him, Brown,” demanded Jane; “or I’ll run this spear straight through your heart.”
“What do you want to kill me for, Miss?” demanded Brown. “You need me.”
“I don’t want to kill you, Brown,” she said; “but that fact won’t do you any good unless you obey my command and remember that I am leader of this expedition. You are doing a foolish thing, Brown; you haven’t any evidence to uphold your judgment. Remember, we haven’t made the slightest investigation. We should do that first to determine the direction in which Annette left camp, and whether she left alone or was accompanied by another. We can also tell by examining the spoor if she went willingly or was taken by force.”
Slowly Brown’s fingers relaxed upon the throat of the struggling, gasping prince; then he released him and rose slowly to his feet.
“I guess you’re right, Miss,” he said; “you’re always right; but poor little Annette—what she told me yesterday about that rat made me see red.”
“What did she tell you?” asked Jane.
“He waylaid her yesterday and tried to take that piece of coat sleeve away from her, and then he threatened to kill her if she told. It wasn’t no snake that made her scream yesterday, Miss, leastways not an honest-to-God respectable snake; it was him. She was terribly afraid of him, Miss.”
Alexis was gasping his breath back slowly. He was trembling from head to foot from terror.
“Is this true, Alexis?” demanded Jane.
“No,” he gasped. “I just asked her for the coat sleeve so that I could see if it was really mine, and she commenced to scream just to get me in trouble. She did it just for spite.”
“Well,” said Jane, “we’re not accomplishing anything this way. The rest of you stay where you are while I look for some kind of tracks. If we all wander around looking for them, we’ll obliterate any that there may be.”
She started to circle the camp slowly, examining the ground carefully. “Here they are,” she said presently; “she walked out this way, and she went alone.”
Jane walked slowly for a few yards, following the footprints of the missing girl; then she stopped. “They end here,” she said, “right under this tree. There is no indication of a struggle, no sign that she was forced. As a matter of fact, she walked very slowly. There are no other footprints near hers. It is all very strange.”
Jane stood for a moment, looking first at the footprints that ended so mysteriously and then up into the branches of the tree above. Suddenly she sprang upward, seized a branch and drew herself up into the tree.
Brown came running forward and stood beneath her. “Have you found anything, Miss?” he asked.
“There’s only one explanation,” she replied. “People do not vanish in thin air. Annette walked from the camp to the spot where her footprints ended beneath this tree; she did not return to the camp. There is only one place that she could have gone, and that is up here where I am.”
“But she couldn’t have jumped up there the way you did,” protested Brown. “She just couldn’t have done it.”
“She didn’t jump,” said Jane. “Her tracks would have shown it, if she had jumped. She was lifted up.”
“Lifted up! My God, Miss, by what?” Brown’s voice was trembling with emotion.
“It might have been a snake, Miss, if you’ll pardon me for suggesting it,” said Tibbs; “it could have reached down and wound itself around her and pulled her up into the tree.”
“She would have screamed,” said Brown; “we’d have heard her.”
“Snakes charm their victims so that they are helpless,” said Tibbs.
“That is all poppycock, Tibbs,” said Jane, impatiently. “I don’t believe snakes do anything of the sort, and it wasn’t a snake that got her anyway. There has been a man up here. He has been in this tree for a long time, or if not a man some sort of a man-like creature.”
“How can you tell that?” demanded Brown.
“I can see where he squatted on this big branch,” she replied. “The bark is scuffed a little, for he must have remained in the same position for a long time; and then in a line between where his eyes would have been and the camp, some small twigs have been cut away with a knife, giving a less obstructed view of the camp. Whatever it was, sat here for a long time watching us.”
Sborov and Tibbs had approached and were standing nearby. “I told you I had nothing to do with it,” said the former.
“I can’t figure it out,” said Brown; “I just can’t figure it out. If she had been frightened, she would have screamed for help and some of us would have heard her.”
“I don’t know,” said Tibbs, “but I saw something like it once before, sir. His Grace had a castle on the east coast up in Lincoln. It was a most lonely place, overlooking the North Sea. We only went there once a year for about six weeks; but that was enough, and what happened there the last time was why I gave notice. I couldn’t stand the place any longer. Her Grace, the Duchess, was murdered there one night, and that was ’arrowing enough; but what ’appened three days later was, to my way of thinking, even worse.
“Her Grace had a maid she was very fond of, and three nights after the duchess was murdered, the maid disappeared. She just vanished in thin air, as it were, sir. There was never a trace found of her from then until now, and the country folk round said that Her Grace had come back for her—that it had ’appened before in the Castle of the Duke of Doningham—so I was thinking—”
“For Pete’s sake, shut up!” cried Brown. “You’ll have us all nuts.”
“Horrible,” muttered Alexis.
“Well, whatever it was, it wasn’t a ghost,” said Jane. She dropped to the ground beside Brown and laid a hand on his arm. “I’m sorry, Brown,” she said; “I know you were very fond of her, but I don’t believe that there is anything we can do, except to try to reach some outpost of civilization and report the matter. Then a search will be made.”
“It will be too late then,” said Brown. “I reckon it’s too late now. She was so little and delicate. She couldn’t have stood very much. She probably is dead by this time.” He stopped speaking and turned away. “Perhaps she’s better off dead,” he added.
In silence the four ate of what little they had to eat, and then set out once more on their seemingly hopeless journey.
There were few attempts at conversation. The four seemed stunned by the series of calamities that had overtaken them. Suspicion, fear, and distrust dogged their footsteps; and beside them stalked the shadow of the nameless menace that had snatched Annette away.
Brown suffered more than the others, so much so that his mind was numb even to his hatred of Alexis. So completely did he ignore him that it was as though the man did not exist.
Jane walked at the rear of the column. Her tread was firm and light; but Alexis, who was directly in front of her, was footsore and weary. He was, however, no worse off than Tibbs for whose soft muscles continued exercise was little better than torture.
“Jane,” said Sborov, after they had walked a long way in silence, “haven’t you any idea what it was took Annette away?”
Jane shook her head. “All I know is that I don’t believe in ghosts, and that no animal could have done it; therefore it must have been a man, but what sort of man, I have no idea. Whatever it was must have been as agile as a monkey, and for that reason I cannot bring myself to believe that it was a member of any native tribe—they are, as a rule, far from being excellent climbers; and I never heard of one who travelled through the trees as this—creature must have to reach our camp and depart again with Annette without leaving any spoor on the ground.”
“But you are willing to believe now, that it was not I?” queried Sborov.
“There is no reason to believe that you did it,” replied Jane.
“Then why not give me the benefit of the doubt in the other matter. You must know that I couldn’t have killed Kitty.”
“What does it matter what I think?” asked Jane. “That is a matter for the court to decide.”
“Your opinion matters a lot to me, Jane. You have no idea how much.” She looked at him shortly. “I have no desire to know.”
The note of finality in her tone was lost on Sborov. “But I want you to know,” he persisted. “I’ve never known anyone like you; I’m mad about you, Jane. You must have seen it.”
The girl shook her head impatiently. “That will be about enough of that, Alexis,” she said. “Our situation is sufficiently difficult without your making it any worse.”
“Does it make it any worse for you to know that someone is with you who loves you very much?” he demanded.
“Oh, Jane,” he cried, “I could make you very happy.” Then he seized her arm and tried to draw her to him.
Once again she wrenched herself free; once again she struck him heavily in the face with her open palm. Instantly his expression changed. His face became contorted with rage.
“I’ll get you for this, you little—”
“You’ll do what?” demanded a man’s voice angrily.
The two looked up. Brown was striding toward them, followed by Tibbs. The hand-axe swung at the pilot’s side in his right hand. Sborov cowered and backed away.
“I’m going to finish you now, once and for all,” said Brown.
Jane stepped between the two men. “No, Brown,” she said, “we can’t take the law into our own hands, as much as we’d like to.”
“But you’re not safe as long as he’s alive; none of us is.”
“I can take care of myself,” replied Jane; “and if I can, I guess the rest of you can.”
Brown hesitated, but finally he acquiesed. “Very well,” he said, “I can wait.” There seemed a world of meaning in those few words, nor was it lost on Sborov.
That night they camped again near the little river whose winding the trail followed.
The instant that they stopped, Sborov and Tibbs threw themselves upon the ground thoroughly exhausted.
“If I may say so, Milady,” said the latter, “I fancy I couldn’t carry on for another half hour if my life depended upon it. Tomorrow you had better go on without me; I’m afraid I can’t keep up, ma’am; and I’m only delaying the rest of you.”
“You’re doing splendidly, Tibbs,” said Jane, encouragingly. “I know it’s hard on you now; but you’ll be surprised how quickly your muscles will toughen as they get accustomed to the work, and then you’ll be able to keep up with any of us.”
“I ’ope so, Milady, but the way I feel now I don’t believe I’ll be able to go on.”
“Don’t worry, Tibbsy, we’ll stick by you,” said Brown, reassuringly.
“It’s mighty good of you, Mr. Brown, but——”
“But nothing,” said Brown. “We could get along with one less member in this outfit,” and as he spoke, he stared straight at Sborov, “but it ain’t you, Tibbsy.”
“Now,” said Jane, “I’m going out to look for meat. I want you men to promise me that you will not quarrel while I’m gone. We have already had too much bloodshed and disaster.”
“Tibbsy don’t never fight with no one,” said Brown, “and I won’t be here; so you won’t have to worry.”
“You won’t be here?” demanded Jane. “Where are you going?”
“I’m going with you, Miss.”
“But you can’t. I can’t hunt with you along.”
“Then you won’t do no hunting,” said Brown, “because I’m going with you. You may be boss, but there’s one thing you ain’t going to do no more.”
“What is that?” asked the girl.
“You ain’t going off alone by yourself, again, after what happened to Annette.”
“If I may say so, Milady, I think Mr. Brown is quite right. We can’t take any chances with you, Milady.”
Jane shrugged. “Perhaps you’re right,” she said, “from your point of view, but really I’m much better able to take care of myself in the jungle than any of you.”
“That ain’t neither here nor there,” said Brown. “You just ain’t going into the jungle alone, and that’s that.”
“All right,” said Jane, with a laugh. “I suppose I’ll have to give in. Come ahead then, Brown; we’ll see what we can find.”
Tibbs and Alexis watched them depart, and then the former turned to the prince. “Beg pardon, sir,” he said, “but hadn’t we better start building a boma and gathering firewood?”
“Yes, you had,” said Alexis; “and you’d better hurry up about it as it will soon be dark.”
“You’re not going to help me, sir?” demanded Tibbs.
“Certainly not, my man. I’m far too tired.”
“And ’ow about me, sir? I’m tired, too.” Tibbs was surprised at his own temerity.
“You’ve no business to be tired. I’m not paying you to be tired. I’m paying you to work. Come, get busy; and don’t be impudent. You seem to be forgetting yourself, Tibbs.”
“If I may make so bold as to say so, your ’ighness, if you’re not careful, I shall.”
“What do you mean, you impertinent puppy?” demanded Alexis.
Tibbs sat down on the ground and leaned his back against the tree. “I mean, sir, that if you don’t help and do your share there won’t be any boma and there won’t be any firewood when Lady Greystoke and Brown come back to the camp. I daresay they’ll both be very angry, especially Brown. If I were you, sir, I wouldn’t antagonize him any more. I suspect that he does not like you; and out here in the jungle sir, where there ain’t no laws nor no Bobbies, he wouldn’t need much more of an excuse to kill you.”
For a minute or two Alexis sat in silent thought; then he rose painfully and slowly. “Come on, my man,” he said, “and I’ll give you a hand with the boma.”
It was almost sunset when Jane and Brown returned with a small antelope, slices of which Tibbs was soon grilling before a cooking fire, while the others sat silently waiting.
There was little conversation as they ate their slender meal. It was an ill-assorted company, with little in common among them other than the grim disasters which had befallen them and which made such depressing conversation that they were taboo as though by a tacit understanding. The girl and Brown each found the other the most congenial member of the party; and what little talk there was passed between these two; but very soon even they were silent; and presently all slept, except Tibbs who had the first watch.
The long night wore on to the accompaniment of savage, jungle sound, usually remote but sometimes so close as to arouse the sleepers—stealthy sounds, weird sounds, fierce and savage sounds, sometimes whispering, sometimes thundering, died softly, dying into nothingness, or reverberated through the jungle until the earth trembled.
Each in his turn, the men stood guard. At four in the morning, Tibbs completing his second tour, awoke Alexis who was to follow him.
Shivering in the chill of early morning, Sborov piled more wood upon the fire. Then he stood with his back toward it gazing out into the night.
Just beyond the farthest reaches of the firelight rose a black, impenetrable wall of darkness—a mysterious world filled with nameless terrors; when a tongue of flame leaped higher in the air than its fellows its light glanced momentarily from the bole of a tree or from a cluster of leaves giving the impression of movement out there beyond the rim of his little world.
There were noises, too, sounds that he could not interpret. His fear and his imagination put strange interpretation upon the things that he saw and heard. A moaning woman floated at the border line of reality. He could swear that he saw her.
Sborov recalled the ghost of the murdered woman that came back for her maid, and cursed Tibbs. A beast screamed and Sborov shuddered.
He turned away from the forest and sought to concentrate his mind upon other things. His eyes wandered over the figures of his sleeping comrades. They fell upon the hand-axe lying close beside Brown. Sborov breathed an imprecation and tore his gaze away. It fell on Jane and rested there. How beautiful she was. Why did she spurn him? He had always had luck with women. He fascinated them, and he knew it. He could not understand why Jane repulsed him; and so he blamed Brown, whom he hated, assuring himself that the fellow had talked against him and embittered Jane’s mind.
His eyes wandered back to Brown and the hand-axe. How he hated the man and feared him. The fellow would kill him. He had threatened him more than once.
Alexis felt that if the man were dead, his own life would be safer and—there would be no one to stand between him and Jane.
He rose and walked nervously to and fro. Every once in awhile he shot a glance at Brown and the axe.
He walked closer to Tibbs and listened. Yes, the fellow was already asleep, sound asleep. He must have been asleep almost at the instant he touched the ground. Jane was asleep, too, and so was Brown. Sborov assured himself of both of these facts.
If Brown were only dead! The thought repeated itself monotonously, drumming on his tired brain. If Brown were only dead! Presently Alexis Sborov seemed galvanized by a sudden determination. He moved directly, though stealthily, toward the sleeping Brown. He paused beside him and kneeled upon one knee. Listening intently, he remained there silent, motionless; then cautiously one hand crept out toward the axe.
Brown moved and turned in his sleep, and Sborov froze with terror; then the pilot resumed the regular breathing of sleep. Sborov reached out and seized the axe handle. His mad eyes glued upon the forehead of the sleeping man, he raised the weapon aloft to strike.