His bonds had hurt him; his joints ached from long inaction and from cold; he was hungry, but he suffered more from thirst; vermin crawled over him at will and bit him; they and the cold and the hideous noises of the mourners and the dancers and the drums had combined to deny him sleep.
All these things had sapped his strength, both physical and nervous, leaving him exhausted: He felt like a little, child who was afraid and wanted to cry. The urge to cry was almost irresistible. It seemed to offer relief from the maddening tension.
A vague half-conviction forced its way into the muddy chaos of his numb brain—crying would be a sign of fear, and fear meant cowardice! Obroski did not cry. Instead, he found partial relief in swearing. He had never been given to profanity, but even though he lacked practice he acquitted himself nobly.
His efforts awoke Kwamudi who had slept peacefully in this familiar environment. The two men conversed haltingly—mostly about their hunger and thirst.
“Yell for water and food,” suggested Obroski, “and keep on yelling until they bring it.”
Kwamudi thought that might be a good plan, and put it into execution. After five minutes it brought results. One of the guards outside the but was awakened. He came in saying things.
In the meantime both the other prisoners had awakened and were sitting up. One of these was nearer the hut doorway than his fellows. He therefore chanced to be the first in the path of the guard, who commenced to belabor him over the head and shoulders with the haft of his spear.
“If you make any more noise like that,” said the guard, “I’ll cut out the tongues of all of you.” Then he went outside and fell, asleep again.
“That idea,” observed Obroski, “was not so hot.”
“What, Bwana?” inquired Kwamudi.
The morning dragged on until almost noon, and still the village slept. It was sleeping off the effects of the previous night’s orgy. But at last the women commenced to move about, making preparations for breakfast.
Fully an hour later warriors came to the hut. They dragged and kicked the prisoners into the open and jerked them to their feet after removing the bonds from their ankles; then they led them to a large hut near the center of the village. It was the hut of Rungula, chief of the Bansutos.
Rungula sat on a low stool before the doorway. Behind him were ranged the more important subchiefs; and on the flanks, forming a wide semicircle, were grouped the remainder of the warriors—a thousand savage fighting men from many a far-flung Bansuto village.
From the doorway of the chiefs hut several of his wives watched the proceedings, while a brood of children spewed out between their feet into the open sunshine.
Rungula eyed the white prisoner with scowling brows; then he spoke to him.
“What is he saying, Kwamudi?” asked Obroski.
“He is asking what you were doing in his country.”
“Tell him that we were only passing through—that we are friends—that he must let us go.”
When Kwamudi interpreted Obroski’s speech Rungula laughed, “Tell the white man that only a chief who is greater than Rungula can say must to Rungula and that there is no chief greater than Rungula.
“The white man will be killed and so will all his people. He would have been killed yesterday had he not been so big and strong.”
“He will not stay strong if he does not have food and water,” replied Kwamudi. “None of us will do you any good if you starve us and keep us tied up.”
Rungula thought this over and discussed it with some of his lieutenants; then he stood up and approached Obroski. He fingered the white man’s shirt, jabbering incessantly. He appeared much impressed also by Obroski’s breeches and boots.
“He says for you to, take, off your clothes, Bwana,” said Kwamudi; “he wants them”
“All of them?” inquired Obroski.
“All of them, Bwana.”
Exhausted by sleeplessness, discomfort, and terror, Obroski had felt that nothing but torture and death could add to his misery, but now the thought of nakedness awoke him to new horrors. To the civilized man clothing imparts a self-confidence that is stripped away with his garments. But Obroski dared not refuse.
“Tell him I can’t take my clothes off with my hands tied behind my back.”
When Kwamudi had interpreted this last, Rungula directed that Obroski’s hands be released.
The white man removed his shirt and tossed it to Rungula. Then the chief pointed at his boots. Slowly Obroski unlaced and removed them, sitting on the ground to do so. Rungula became intrigued by the white man’s socks and jerked these off, himself.
Obroski rose and waited. Rungula felt of his great muscles and jabbered some more with his fellows. Then he called his tallest warrior and stood him beside the prisoner. Obroski towered above the man. The blacks jabbered excitedly.
Rungula touched Obroski’s breeches and grunted.
“He want them,” said Kwamudi.
“Oh, for Pete’s sake, tell him to have a heart,” exclaimed Qbroski. “Tell him I got to have something to wear.”
Kwamudi and the chief spoke together briefly, with many gesticulations. “Take them off, Bwana,” said the former. “There is nothing else you can do. He says he will give you something to wear.”
As he unbuttoned his breeches and slipped them off, Obroski was painfully aware of giggling girls and women in the background. But the worst was yet to come—Rungula was greatly delighted by the gay silk shorts that the removal of the breeches revealed.
When these had passed to the ownership of Rungula, Obroski could feel the hot flush beneath the heavy coat of tan he had acquired on the beach at Malibu.
“Tell him to give me something to wear,” he begged.
Rungula laughed uproariously when the demand was made known to him; but he turned and called something to the women in his hut, and a moment later a little pickaninny came running out with a very dirty G string which he threw at Obroski’s feet.
Shortly after, the prisoners were returned to their hut; but their ankles were not bound again, nor were Obroski’s wrists. While he was removing the bonds from the wrists of his fellow prisoners a woman came with food and water for them. Thereafter they were fed with reasonable regularity.
Monotonously the days dragged. Each slow, hideous night seemed an eternity to the white prisoner. He shivered in his nakedness and sought warmth by huddling close between the bodies of two of the natives. All of them were alive with vermin.
A week passed, and then one night some warriors came and took one of the black prisoners away. Obroski and the others watched through the doorway. The man disappeared around the corner of a hut near the chief’s. They never saw him again.
The tom-toms commenced their slow thrumming; the voices of men rose in a weird chant; occasionally the watchers caught a glimpse of savage dancers as their steps led them from behind the corner of a hut that hid the remainder of the scene.
Suddenly a horrid scream of agony rose above the voices of the dancers. For a half hour occasional groans punctuated the savage cries of the warriors, but at last even these ceased.
“He is gone, Bwana,” whispered Kwamudi.
“Yes, thank God!” muttered the white man. “What agony he must have suffered!”
The following night warriors came and took away the second black prisoner. Obroski tried to stop his ears against the sounds of the man’s passing. That night he was very cold, for there was only Kwamudi to warm him on one side.
“Tomorrow night, Bwana,” said the black man, “you will sleep alone.”
“And the next night—?”
“There will be none, Bwana—for you.”
During the cold, sleepless hours Obroski’s thoughts wandered back through the past, the near past particularly. He thought of Naomi Madison, and wondered if she were grieving much over his disappearance. Something told him she was not.
Most of the other figures were pale in his thoughts—he neither liked nor disliked them; but there was one who stood out even more clearly than the memory picture of Naomi. It was Orman. His hatred of Orman rose above all his other passions—it was greater than his love for Naomi, greater than his fear, of torture and death. He hugged it to his breast now and nursed it and thanked God for it, because it made him forget the lice and the cold and the things that were to happen to him on the next night or the next.
The hours dragged on; day came and went, and night came again. Obroski and Kwamudi, watching, saw warriors approaching the hut.
“They come, Bwana,” said the black man. “Good-bye!”
But this time they took them both. They took them to the open space before the but of Rungula, chief of the Bansuto, and tied them flat against the boles of two trees, facing one another.
Here Obroski watched them work upon Kwamudi. He saw tortures so fiendish; so horrible, so obscene that he feared for his reason, thinking that these visions must be the figments of a mad brain. He tried to look away, but the horror of it fascinated him. And so he saw Kwamudi die.
Afterward he saw even more disgusting sights, sights that nauseated him. He wondered when they would commence on him, and prayed that it would be soon and soon over. He tried to steel himself against fear, but he knew that he was afraid. By every means within the power of his will he sought to bolster a determination not to give them the satisfaction of knowing that he suffered when his turn came; for he had seen that they gloated over the agonies of Kwamudi.
It was almost morning when they removed the thongs that bound him to the tree and led him back to the hut. Then it became evident that they were not going to kill him—this night. It meant that his agony was to be prolonged.
In the cold of the coming dawn he huddled alone on the filthy floor of his prison, sleepless and shivering; and the lice swarmed over his body unmolested. He had plumbed the nadir of misery and hopelessness and found there a dull apathy that preserved his reason.
Finally he slept, nor did he awaken until midafternaon. He was warm then; and new life seemed to course through his veins, bringing new hope. Now he commenced to plan. He would not die as the others had died, like sheep led to the slaughter. The longer he considered his plan the more anxious he became to put if into execution, awaiting impatiently those who were to lead him to torture.
His plan did not include escape; for that he was sure was impossible, but it did include a certain measure of revenge and death without torture. Obroski’s reason was tottering.
When he saw the warriors coming to get him he came out of the hut and met them, a smile upon his lips.
Then they led him away as they had led the three natives before him.