IT WAS with feelings of relief that the five left the scene of the tragedy that had cast a pall of gloom and horror over them; and while the future held out little of encouragement to them, the very fact of being on the move raised their spirits to some extent.
Brown had insisted upon marching at the head of the little column, and Jane had acceded to his request. Annette stayed as close to Brown as she could. Jane brought up the rear and Alexis walked with her. Tibbs plodded along behind Annette.
Either because he tired more quickly than the others, or because he wanted to get out of earshot of those whom he considered servants and beneath him, Alexis lagged.
“We shouldn’t fall so far behind the others,” said Jane. “We must not become separated. You will have to walk a little faster, Alexis.” Her tone was just a little impatient.
“I thought it would be nice for us to be alone together, Jane,” he said. “You see, you and I have nothing in common with those others; and it must be as much of a relief to you as to me to have the companionship of one of your own class.”
“You will have to get over that,” said Jane; “there are no class distinctions here.”
“I am afraid you do not like me, dear lady.”
“You have been very annoying at times, Alexis.”
“I have been terribly upset,” he replied, “and most of all by you.”
“By me? What have I done?”
“It is not that you have done anything; it is just that you are you. Can’t you understand, Jane? Haven’t you noticed?”
“From the first, you attracted me strangely. There seemed to be no hope, though, and I was desperately blue; but now I am free, Jane.” He seized her hand. “Oh, Jane, can’t you like me a little?”
She jerked her hand from his. “You fool!” she exclaimed.
His eyes narrowed menacingly. “You are going to regret that,” he said. “I tell you I’m in love with you, madly in love. I’m desperate, and I won’t stand idly by and see an illiterate aeroplane pilot get the woman I want.”
“Just what do you mean by that?” The girl’s eyes and voice were level and cold.
“It’s too obvious to need explanation. Anyone can see that you are in love with Brown.”
“Alexis, did you ever hear a man referred to as an unspeakable cad? I have; but until this minute I never knew what it meant. I never could have conceived the sort of man it describes until now. Move on now. Get away from me. Get up there with Tibbs.”
Instantly his manner changed. “Oh, Jane,” he pleaded, “please don’t send me away. I don’t know why I ever said that; I was just mad with jealousy. Can’t you understand that it is because I love you so? Can’t you understand and forgive me?”
She made no reply but started ahead, increasing her gait to overtake the others.
“Wait!” he exclaimed, huskily. “You’ve got to listen to me. I’m not going to give you up.” He seized her by the arm and pulled her toward him, endeavoring to throw his arms about her. Then she struck him; and, jumping back, levelled her spear to hold him off.
For a moment they stood there facing one another in silence; and in that moment she saw something in his eyes, in the expression on his face, that made her fear him for the first time. She knew then how really dangerous he was, and it was no longer difficult for her to believe that he had murdered his wife.
“Go up there now as I told you,” she said, “or I will kill you. There is no law here but the law of the jungle.”
Perhaps he, too, read something in her narrowed lids and icy tone, for he did as she bid, and went on ahead of her in silence.
By mid-afternoon, Tibbs and Alexis and Annette were almost exhausted; and when the party reached a favorable spot, Jane called a halt.
The trail by which they had come had followed the meanderings of the stream upon which they had been camped, and thus the water problem had been solved for them.
“What now, Miss?” demanded Brown. “Hadn’t we better rustle some grub?”
“Yes,” she replied. “I’ll go out and see what I can bring in.”
“I’m going to have a look-see myself,” said Brown. “We can go in different directions and maybe one of us will find something.”
“All right. You go on up the trail, and I’ll take to the trees and follow the river. I may run across a drinking hole.” She turned to the others. “And while we are gone, the rest of you can be building a boma and gathering firewood. All right, Brown, let’s get going.”
The three that remained in camp seemed physically unable to drag themselves to their feet, but Alexis was resourceful.
“Tibbs,” he said, “go out and gather material for the boma and get some firewood.”
Motivated by years of servile obedience, the Englishman rose painfully to his feet and started away.
“I’ll help you, Tibbs,” said Annette, and started to rise.
Alexis laid a restraining hand on her arm. “Wait,” he said, “I want to talk with you.”
“But we must help Tibbs.”
“He can do very nicely by himself. You wait here.”
“What do you want, Prince Sborov? I’ve got to go and help Tibbs.”
“Listen, my dear,” said Alexis, “how would you like to have a hundred thousand francs?”
The girl shrugged. “Who would not like to have a hundred thousand francs?” she demanded.
“Very well, you can earn them—and very easily.”
“And how?” Her tone was skeptical.
“You have something that I wish. I will pay you one hundred thousand francs for it; you know what it is.”
“You mean the burned sleeve of your coat, Prince Alexis?”
“You won’t let them frame me, Annette? You won’t let them send me to the guillotine for something I didn’t do, when everybody in this party hates me; they will all lie about me, and when they bring that piece of burned cloth into court, I shall be convicted in spite of my innocence. Give it to me. No one need ever know; you can say that you lost it, and as soon as we get back to civilization I will give you one hundred thousand francs.”
The girl shook her head. “No, I could not do that. It may be all that will save Mr. Brown.”
“You are wasting your time on Brown,” he said, nastily. “You think he loves you, but he doesn’t. Don’t be fooled.”
The girl flushed. “I have not said that he loves me.”
“Well, you think so; and he’s trying to make you think so; but if you knew what I know, you wouldn’t be so anxious to save his worthless head.”
“I do not know what you mean. I do not care to talk about it any more. I will not give you the piece of cloth.”
“Well, I’ll tell you what I mean, you little fool,” snapped Alexis. “Brown’s in love with Lady Greystoke, and she’s in love with him. What do you suppose they’ve gone off into the jungle for? Why, to meet each other, of course.”
“I do not believe it,” said Annette. “I will not listen to any more.”
She started to rise; and as she did so, he leaped to his feet and seized her.
“Give me that piece of cloth,” he demanded, in a hoarse whisper. The fingers of his right hand encircled her throat. “Give it to me or I’ll kill you, you little fool.”
Quick as a cat, and with surprising strength, she tore herself away from him and screamed.
“Help, Tibbs! Help!” she cried.
The Englishman had not gone far, and he came running back.
“If you tell on me,” cried Sborov in a low whisper, “I’ll kill you. I’ll kill you as I killed her.”
Annette looked into his eyes, as Jane had, and was frightened.
“What’s wrong, sir?” demanded Tibbs, as he approached them.
“It wasn’t anything,” said Alexis, with a laugh. “Annette thought she saw a snake.”
“I did see a snake,” she said.
“Well, it’s all right now, Tibbs,” said Alexis; “you can go back to your work.”
“I shall need a little help, sir,” said the Englishman. “I cannot do it all alone.”
“I’ll come with you, Tibbs,” said Annette.
Alexis followed them. He walked very close to Annette and whispered, “Remember, if you tell them.”
“I don’t fancy having a snake around the camp,” said Tibbs, “the nasty beggers. I don’t like ’em.”
“Neither do I,” said Annette, “but I won’t be afraid when Mr. Brown comes back. If a snake tries to harm me then, he will kill it.” She did not look at Tibbs as she spoke, although she seemed to be addressing him, but at Alexis.
“I think I would not tell the others about the snake,” said Sborov; “it might frighten Lady Greystoke.”
“My word, sir, I don’t believe she’s afraid of anything, sir.”
“Nevertheless, see that you don’t mention it,” cautioned Alexis.
“Why, here’s Mr. Brown now,” cried Tibbs. “He’s running. Something must have happened.”
“What’s wrong?” demanded Brown. “I heard someone scream. Was that you, Annette?”
“Annette saw a snake,” said Alexis. “Did you not, Annette?”
“Where is it?” asked Brown. “Did you kill it?”
“No,” replied the girl, “I had nothing with which to kill it; but if it frightens me again, you will kill it.”
“You bet your life I will, girlie. Where is it now?”
“It got away,” said Alexis.
Annette looked straight into his eyes. “Next time it will not get away,” she said.
Brown’s pockets were bulging with fruit which he took out and laid on the ground.
“I hope this ain’t poison,” he said. “I had a heck of a time getting it. Lady Greystoke will know whether or not we can eat it.”
“Here she comes now,” said Annette.
“What luck, Jane?” asked Alexis.
“Not so good,” she replied, “just a little fruit. I didn’t see any game.” Her eyes fell on the fruit that Brown had gathered. “Oh, you found the same thing,” she said. “Well, it won’t taste very good, but it’s safe and it’s food. I thought I heard a scream a few moments ago. Did any of you hear it?”
“It was Annette,” said Brown; “she seen a snake.”
Jane laughed. “Oh, before Annette gets out of Africa, she’ll be used to snakes.”
“Not this one,” said the girl.
A puzzled expression crossed Brown’s face. He started to speak, and then evidently thinking better of it remained silent.
Not much had been accomplished toward the building of the boma and collecting the firewood; so Jane and Brown lent a hand in the work which moved much more rapidly with the aid of the hand-axe.
It was dark before the work was completed, and then they felt that they could take their ease around the fire that Jane had built.
Jane showed them how they might make the fruit that constituted their sole food supply more palatable by roasting it on the end of a stick. So hungry were they that even Sborov ate without complaining; and as they ate, a pair of eyes watched them from behind the concealing foliage of a nearby tree.
Brown had insisted that the three men assume the duty of guarding the camp; and though Jane and Annette insisted upon doing their share, the pilot was firm in respect to this matter and would not be moved.
“Two hours on and four off won’t hurt nobody,” he insisted, “and you girls are going to need all the sleep you can get if you’re going to keep up with us.”
The statement made Jane smile, for she knew that she could endure more than any of them, not excepting Brown; but she appreciated the spirit that animated him; and knowing how jealous men are of their protective prerogative she bowed to his will rather than offend him.
The three men matched coins to determine the order in which they should stand guard.
“I wish you’d let me be a sentry,” said Annette.
“No, that ain’t no work for a girl,” said Brown.
“Oh, please, Neal, just once,” she begged. “Oh, please.”
“Oh, just one little hour. You are on from two to four, Neal. Wake me at four and let me stand guard until five. Then I will wake the prince. It will be almost morning, anyway.”
“Let her do it, if she wants to,” said Jane.
“All right,” said Brown, “but it ain’t goin’ to be the regular thing.”
All were stretched out around the fire, apparently sleeping, when Tibbs woke Brown for his first tour of duty at eight o’clock.
Tibbs was so exhausted that he was asleep almost as soon as he lay down. Then Annette raised on one elbow and looked around. A moment later she came over and sat down beside Brown.
“You better get back to bed, kid,” he said.
“I just wanted to talk with you for a minute, Neal,” she said.
“What’s on your mind, girlie.”
She was silent for a moment. “Oh, nothing in particular,” she replied. “I like to be alone with you; that is all.”
He put an arm about her and pressed her closer, and thus they sat in silence for a moment before Brown spoke again.
“You know, I’ve been thinking a lot about that snake business, Annette,” he said. “It sounded sort of fishy to me. You sure you wasn’t stringin’ me?”
“Stringing? I don’t know what stringing is.”
“Well, skip it. I seen funny looks pass between you and the grand duke when you was handing me that line about snakes. On the level now, kiddo, give me the low-down.”
“The facts—truth. What was it all about?”
“I am so afraid of him, Neal. Promise me that you won’t tell him that I told you. I think of what he did to her; he would do the same to me; he said so.”
“What? He said he’d kill you?”
“If I told.”
“If you told what?”
“That he had tried to take that piece of coat sleeve away from me.”
“That was when you screamed?” he asked.
“I’ll get him for that,” said Brown.
“Please don’t say anything about it; please promise me,” she begged. “Only don’t leave me alone with him again.”
“All right, then,” he promised; “but if he ever makes another break like that, I’ll sure get him. You needn’t be afraid of him.”
“I am not afraid when you are with me. I do not know what I should do if it were not for you.”
“You like me a little, kid?”
“I like you a great deal, Neal.”
He pressed her closer to him. “I guess I like you a lot, too—more than I ever liked anyone else.”
She nestled closer to him. “Tell me how much that is,” she whispered.
“I’m not much good at saying things like that. I—I—well, you know what I mean.”
“I want to hear you say it.” He cleared his throat. “Well—I love you, kid.”
“And you don’t love Lady Greystoke?”
“Eh? What!” he exclaimed. “What put that into your head?”
“He said so; he said that you loved her, and that she loved you.”
“The dirty rat! Imagine that dame, the wife of an English viscount, falling for me. That is to laugh.”
“But you might—what you call it—fall for her.”
“Not on your life, kid; not while I’ve got you.”
She put her arms around his neck and drew him down toward her. “I love you, Neal,” she murmured, before their lips met.
They felt that they had the night and the world to themselves, but that was because they were not aware of the silent watcher in the tree above them. She sat with him until he awoke Sborov.
The camp was sleeping soundly when Tibbs finished his tour of duty at two in the morning and called Brown again.
At four Brown hesitated to awaken Annette, but he had given his word that she might stand guard for an hour; so he shook her gently.
“It’s four o’clock and all’s well,” he whispered. Then he kissed her ear. “And now it’s better.”
She raised herself to an elbow, laughing. “Now you lie down and sleep,” she said, “and I’ll stand guard.”
“I’ll sit along with you for awhile,” he said.
“No, that was not in the bargain,” she insisted. “I want to watch alone. I shall feel very important. Go on, and go to sleep.”
Then quiet fell upon the camp—a quiet that was unbroken until Jane awoke after daylight. She sat up and looked about her. No one was on guard. Alexis, who should have been, was fast asleep.
“Come on, sleepy heads,” she cried; “it’s time to get up.”
Brown sat up sleepily and looked around. He saw Alexis just awakening.
“I thought the grand duke was on guard,” said Brown. “Did you take his place?”
“There wasn’t anyone on guard when I woke up,” said Jane, and then she noticed. “Where is Annette?”
Brown sprang to his feet. “Annette!” he cried. There was no answer. Annette was gone.