NKIMA spent a night of terror. Sheeta, the leopard, prowled on the ground, climbed through the trees. Nkima clung to the loftiest branch that would support his weight and shivered from cold and terror throughout the long night. But at last day dawned, and with the first lessening of the terrifying darkness he swung off through the trees in search of Tarzan and the Waziri. And still he clung to the little cleft stick with the bit of paper fluttering from its tip.
He had not gone far when he heard the voices of men. His little heart beat wildly as he sped in the direction of the sound. So anxious was he to find Tarzan that he had no place in his mind for any doubt that the voices he heard might be those of others than his friends. Nor were they.
Chattering and screaming, Nkima dropped plummetlike from high branches to alight upon the shoulder of his friend. One arm encircled Tarzan’s neck, and from the little clenched paw the cleft stick brought the fluttering bit of paper directly in front of the ape-man’s eyes. He saw writing upon it, handwriting that even in a brief glance he recognized. Yet he could not believe. It was incredible, preposterous to even imagine that little Nkima bore a message penned by Jane. The remarkable similarity between this handwriting and hers could be nothing more than a fantastic coincidence.
Before Nkima could again escape him Tarzan slipped the message from the stick; and, while the monkey chattered and scolded, scanned it hurriedly. The Waziri, watching him, saw sudden concern mirrored in his expression.
“Where did you get this, Nkima?” demanded the ape-man. “Who gave it to you?”
Nkima stopped scolding and scratched his head. Where did he get it? He could not recall. Many things had happened since then. His memory was a long, dim corridor; and this event a tiny thing at the far end.
“Something is wrong, Bwana?” asked Muviro. “Nkima has brought you bad news?”
“It is a message from Lady Greystoke. She and a party of friends were forced down in an aeroplane. They are lost somewhere without provisions or weapons.”
He turned his attention again to Nkima. “Who gave you this?” he demanded. “Was it a she?—a Tarmangani?”
Slowly Nkima was recollecting. “It was not a Tarmangani,” he said.
“It was not a Gomangani.”
“Who did give it to you, then?”
Now Nkima recalled. “No one gave it to Nkima. Nkima found it in a wala.”
“What does he say, Bwana?” asked Muviro; for Nkima had spoken in the language of his people, which only Tarzan, among men, understands.
“He says he found it in a ‘nest’,” explained the Lord of the Jungle. “That might mean a house, or a hut, or a shelter, the lair of a wild beast, or the nest of a bird. I will find out.”
“Nkima, what built the nest in which you found this?”
“Tarmangani. The Gomangani do not build a wala like it.”
“Where is it? Try to recall. You must take me to it. Where was it?”
Nkima waved a paw loosely in the general direction of the West.
“You will take Tarzan to this nest,” said the ape-man.
Instantly Nkima was all excitement. He felt quite important. He hopped to the ground and pulled on Tarzan’s leg.
“Come with Nkima,” he begged.
“Lead your warriors toward the north until you find the village of the Kavuru,” Tarzan directed Muviro. “If they are unfriendly, and you cannot enter their village to recover Buira, wait for me there. If you find her and take her away, leave some sign that will tell me so. You understand?”
“Then Nkima and I go to search for Lady Greystoke.”
It was not by a direct route that Nkima led Tarzan toward the shelter in which he had found the message, but a circuitous one that retraced his wanderings. Each of his mischances and adventures of the preceding days was a landmark on the back trail, and thus slowly he found his way back toward the shelter.
At one point he told Tarzan he had seen a strange Tarmangani with a she-Tarmangani; and Tarzan was almost convinced that it might have been Jane, the captive of a Kavuru. He was tempted to give up the search for the shelter where the message had been found and attempt to trail the man and the woman; but Nkima could not tell him in which direction they had gone, the spoor had disappeared, and his judgment told him that the place to start his search for Jane was at some point at which he might be positive she had been.
It required infinite patience to endure the vagaries of Nkima’s memory and his inability to hold for long to a fixed continuity of thought; but most beasts are patient, and in this respect Tarzan was like his fellows of the jungle. His reward came eventually when Nkima proudly led him down through the trees to the camp that the marooned fliers had made—the camp where Nkima had found the note.
Here Tarzan found indisputable evidence that Jane had indeed been a member of the ill-starred company, and plain before him lay the trail that they had taken toward the east. No longer was he dependent upon Nkima, and with renewed hope he swung off into the unknown country that had swallowed his mate.
Retribution is seldom swift or well directed, yet perhaps in his terror Prince Alexis Sborov was tasting the immediate fruits of his misdeeds through a punishment scarcely less drastic than death itself; for Sborov was an arrant coward, and he was suffering as only a coward might as he trembled alone in the menacing silence of the mysterious jungle.
And he was torn between two terrors, one of which almost cancelled the other. He was afraid of the denizens of the jungle and the thought of facing a jungle night alone, and it was this fear that almost submerged another—his fear of Brown. But not quite. As much as he longed to return to the companionship of those he had persistently sought to offend or injure, the knowledge that Brown would kill him if he did, exiled him to the torture of his terror-stricken loneliness.
When he had finally been forced to definitely abandon any thought of returning to the others, he determined to follow the plan that he had originally suggested to them, the plan that had been voted down in favor of Jane’s suggestion that they search toward the east for friendly tribes; and so he set his face toward the west in the hope that he might stumble upon a white settlement in the Belgian Congo.
One ordeal that he dreaded lay ahead of him on this route, for in retracing his steps he must pass the grave of his murdered wife. He had no regrets for his deed; but his superstitious mind was terror ridden by imaginings induced by Tibbs’ story of the murdered Duchess of Doningham, who returned from the grave to carry away her maid.
As Tibbs had, so did Sborov see a parallel in the mysterious disappearance of Annette, a disappearance that he could not account for logically in any other way.
But there was no alternative. He must pass close to the grave and the scene of the murder. Once again he would wield the hand-axe in the fullness of his imagination, and once again the warm blood of his victim would splatter upon his hand and his clothing.
The first night he spent among the branches of a tree, too terrified to sleep. He heard the hunting beasts prowl beneath him. He heard the screams of stricken prey. The earth trembled to the roar of the king of beasts; and there were other sounds, stealthy, mysterious sounds that were even more terrifying because he could not identify them.
But at last the night passed and dawn came to look down upon a haggard, unkempt creature that started at its own shadow, a creature exhausted by fright, by sleeplessness, and by hunger, a very different creature from the Prince Sborov of the Paris boulevards.
His hands and arms, his unshaven face, his matted hair were caked with dirt and dried sweat, cut down his shrunken cheeks by muddy rivulets of tears. His mind was tottering. He talked to himself, and then cautioned himself to silence lest his voice might attract the attention of some beast of prey.
Thus he stumbled on through the day, without food and without water—hopeless victim of his own avarice, a sorry contrast to the proud beasts he feared, a sad commentary upon the theory of evolution.
It was midafternoon when the thing that he had dreaded occurred. He was walking a broad and, for a short distance, straight trail. As he had been constantly doing, he glanced behind him. His knees trembled. He thought that he must fall. For a moment he was paralyzed.
For where the trail turned to disappear among the underbrush stood a great lion. He was eyeing Sborov appraisingly. What he was doing abroad at that hour of the day when he should have been lying up waiting for evening and the hunting hours is a matter of his own concern, but there he was. He merely stood and contemplated Sborov.
Presently the man regained control of his muscles. He started to move slowly along the trail. He had heard that if one ran, almost any beast of prey would pursue—and overtake; for man is of the slowest of animals.
As Sborov moved away, the lion moved after him. It came slowly, just keeping pace with the man. It was stalking him. When it was ready to do so, it would charge; and that would be the end.
Sborov knew little of the habits of lions; but he had gleaned this much from yarns spun around the camp fires, to which he had listened, even though he had never been encouraged to take part.
He wondered how long it would be before the lion would rush at him and drag him down. He wanted to run. It was with difficulty that he restrained the impulse. He looked longingly at the trees that he was too weak to climb.
A turn in the trail hid the lion from him, and then Sborov broke into a run. An instant later an angry growl sounded behind him. It seemed very close. The man threw a glance back across his shoulder. The lion was advancing at a trot. Its eyes were blazing, terrible yellow-green eyes that shrivelled the last vestige of his self-control.
Sborov voiced a piercing scream of terror.