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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe People Of The Mist - Chapter X - LEONARD MAKES A PLAN
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The People Of The Mist - Chapter X - LEONARD MAKES A PLAN Post by :detect2173 Category :Long Stories Author :H. Rider Haggard Date :March 2011 Read :1310

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The People Of The Mist - Chapter X - LEONARD MAKES A PLAN

The road which Leonard and his companions were following led them to
the edge of the main and southernmost canal, debouching exactly
opposite the water-gate that gave access to the Nest. But Otter did
not venture to guide them to this point, for there they should be seen
by the sentries, and, notwithstanding their masquerade dress, awkward
questions might be asked which they could not answer. Therefore when
they had arrived within five hundred yards of the gate, he struck off
to the left into the thick bush that clothed the hither side of the
canal. Through this they crawled as best they might till finally they
halted near the water's edge, almost opposite to the south-west angle
of the slave camp, and under the shadow of a dense clump of willows.

"See, Baas," said the dwarf in a low voice, "the journey is
accomplished and I have brought you straight. Yonder is the house of
the Yellow Devil--now it remains only to take it, or to rescue the
maiden from it."

Leonard looked at the place in dismay. How was it possible that they--
two men and a woman--could capture this fortified camp, filled as it
was with scores of the most wicked desperadoes in Africa? How was it
possible even that they could obtain access to it? Viewed from far
off, the thing had seemed small--to be done somehow. But now! And yet
they must do something, or all their labour would be in vain, and the
poor girl they came to rescue must be handed over to her shameful
fate, or, if she chose it in preference and could compass the deed, to
self-murder.

"How on earth!" said Leonard aloud, then added, "Well, Otter, I can
tell you one thing. I have come a long way on this business, and I am
not going to turn my back to it now. I have never yet turned my back
on a venture and I will not begin with this, though I dare say that my
death lies in it."

"It is all in the hand of to-morrow," answered Otter; "but it is time
that we made a plan, for the night draws on. Now, Baas, here is a
thick tree shaded by other trees. Shall we climb it and look down into
the camp?"

Leonard nodded, and climbing the tree with ease, they peeped down
through the leafiest of its boughs. All the camp lay beneath them like
a map, and Otter, clinging monkey-wise to a branch, pointed out its
details to Leonard. He had been a prisoner there, and the memories of
prisoners are long.

The place was peopled by numbers of men in strange costumes, and of
different nationalities; dealers in "black ivory" of various degree.
Perhaps there may have been more than a hundred of them. Some were
strolling about in knots smoking and talking, some were gambling,
others were going on their business. One group--captains, to judge
from the richness of their attire--were standing round the arms-house
and peeping through a grating in the wall, which they reached by
sitting upon each other's shoulders. This amusement lasted them for
some time, till at length a man, of whom at that distance they could
see only that he was old and stout, came and drove them away, and they
broke up laughing.

"That is the Yellow Devil," said Otter, "and those men were looking at
the maid who is called the Shepherdess. She is locked up there until
the hour comes for her to be sold. They will be the bidders."

Leonard made no reply; he was studying the place. Presently a drum was
beaten, and men appeared carrying large tin pails of smoking stuff.

"Yonder is the food for the slaves," said Otter again. "See, they are
going to feed them."

The men with the pails, accompanied by some of the officers having
/sjambochs/ or hide whips in their hands, advanced across the open
space till they came to the moat which separated the slave camp from
the Nest, whence they called to the sentry on the embankment to let
down the drawbridge. He obeyed and they crossed. Each man with a
bucket was followed by another who bore a wooden spoon, while a third
behind them carried water in a large gourd. Having come to the first
of the open sheds, they began their rounds, the man with the wooden
spoon ladling out portions of the stiff porridge and throwing it down
upon the ground before each slave in turn as food is thrown to a dog.
Then the Arab with the gourd poured water into wooden bowls, that the
captives might drink.

Presently there was a halt, and the officers gathered together to
discuss something.

"A slave is sick," said Otter.

The knot separated, but a big white man with a hippopotamus-hide whip
began to strike at a dark thing on the ground which did not seem to
move.

The man ceased beating and called aloud. Then two of the Arabs went to
the little guard-house that was by the drawbridge and brought tools
with which they loosed the fetters on the limbs of the poor creature--
apparently a woman--thus freeing her from the long iron bar. This
done, some of the officers sauntering after them, they dragged the
body to the high enclosure of earth and up a short ladder having a
wooden platform at the top of it, that overhung the deep canal below.

"This is how the Yellow Devil buries his dead and cures his sick,"
said Otter.

"I have seen enough," answered Leonard, and began to descend the tree
hastily, an example which Otter followed with more composure.

"Ah! Baas," he said when they reached the ground, "you are but a
chicken. The hearts of those who have dwelt in slave camps are strong,
and, after all, better the belly of a fish than the hold of a slave
dhow. /Wow!/ who do these things? Is it not the white men, your
brothers, and do they not say many prayers to the Great Man up in the
sky while they do them?"

"Be still," said Leonard, "and give me some brandy." He was in no mood
to discuss the blessings of civilisation as they have often been put
into practice in Africa. And to think that this fate might soon be his
own!

Leonard drank the brandy and sat awhile in silence, pushing up his
beard with his hand and gazing into the gathering gloom with his hawk-
like eyes. Thus he had sat beside his dying brother's bed; it was a
pose that he adopted unconsciously when lost in thought.

"Come, Soa," he said at length, "we have travelled here to please you;
now give us the benefit of your suggestions. How are we going to get
your mistress out of that camp?"

"Loose the slaves and let them kill their masters," Soa answered
laconically.

"I doubt there is not much pluck in slaves," said Leonard.

"There should be fifty of Mavoom's men there," she replied, "and they
will fight well enough if they have arms."

Then Leonard looked at Otter, seeking further ideas.

"My snake puts it into my head," said the dwarf, "that fire is a good
friend when men are few and foes are many; also that the reeds yonder
are dry, and the sea wind rises and will blow hard before midnight.
Moreover all these houses are thatched, and in a wind fire jumps. But
can a regiment have two generals? You are our captain, Baas; speak and
we will do your bidding. Here one counsel is as good as another. Let
fate speak through your mouth."

"Very well," said Leonard. "This is my plan; it goes a little further
than yours, that is all. We must gain entrance to the Nest while it is
still dark, before the moon rises. I know the watchword, 'Devil,' and
disguised as we are, perhaps the sentry will let us pass unquestioned.
If not, we must kill him, and silently."

"Good," said Otter, "but how about the woman here?"

"We will leave her hidden in the bush; she could be of no help in the
camp and might hinder us."

"No, White Man," broke in Soa, "where you go I go also; moreover my
mistress is yonder and I would seek her."

"As you like," answered Leonard, then went on: "we must get between
the hut, there is only one, and the low wall that borders the canal
separating the Nest from the slave camp, and, if the drawbridge is up
and no other means can be found, we must swim the dike, dispose of the
sentry there also and gain the slave camp. Then we must try to free
some of the slaves and send them round through the garden into the
morass to fire the reeds, should the wind blow strong enough.
Meanwhile I propose to walk boldly into the camp, salute Pereira, pass
myself off as a slaver with a dhow at the mouth of the river, and say
that I have come to buy slaves, and above all to bid for the white
girl. Luckily we have a good deal of gold. That is my plan so far as
it goes, the rest we must leave to chance. If I can buy the
Shepherdess I will. If not, I must try to get her off in some other
way."

"So be it, Baas, and now let us eat, for we shall need all our
strength to-night. Then we will go down to the landing-place and take
our chance."

They ate of the food they had with them and drank sparingly of the
slave-dealers' brandy, saying little the while, for the shadow of what
was to come lay upon them. Even the phlegmatic and fatalistic Otter
was depressed, perhaps because of the associations of the place,
which, for him, were painful, perhaps because of the magnitude of
their undertaking. Never had he known such a tale, never had he seen
such an adventure as this--that two men and an old woman should attack
an armed camp. Indeed, although he was not acquainted with the saying,
Otter's feelings would have been correctly summed up in the well-known
phrase, "/C'est magnifique, mais ce n'est pas la guerre/."

As yet the night was intensely dark, and its gloom did not tend to
improve their spirits; also, as Otter had predicted, the wind was
rising and soughed through the reeds and willows in melancholy notes.

So the time passed till it was nine o'clock.

"We must move down to the landing-place," said Leonard; "there will
soon be some light, enough for us to work by."

Then Otter took the lead and slowly, step by step, they crept back to
the road and followed it down the shore of the canal opposite the
water-gate. Here was a place where boats and canoes were tied, both
for convenience in crossing the canal to and from the camp and for the
use of the slave-dealers when they passed to the secret harbour six
miles away, where the dhows embarked their cargoes.

They waited awhile. From the Nest came the sound of revelry, and from
the slave camp there rose other sounds, the voice of groaning broken
by an occasional wail wrung out of the misery of some lost creature
who lay there in torment. Gradually the sky brightened a little.

"Perhaps we had better be making a start," said Leonard; "there is a
canoe which will serve our turn."

Before the words were out of his mouth they heard the splash of oars,
and a boat crept past them and made fast to the water-gate twenty
yards away.

"Who goes there?" came the challenge of the sentry in Portuguese.
"Speak quick or I fire."

"Don't be in such a hurry with your rifle, fool," answered a coarse
voice. "The very best of friends goes here. An honest trader called
Xavier who comes from his plantation on the coast to tell you all good
news."

"Pardon, senor," said the sentry, "but how was a man to see in the
dark, big as you are? What is the news then? Are the dhows in sight?"

"Come down and help us to tie up this cursed boat and I will tell you.
You know where the post is, and we can't find it."

The sentry obeyed with alacrity, and the man called Xavier went on:
"Yes, the dhows are in sight, but I don't think that they will get in
to-night because of this wind, so you may look for a busy day
to-morrow loading up the blackbirds. One /is/ in by the way--a small
one from Madagascar. The captain is a stranger, a big Frenchman named
Pierre, or he may be an Englishman for anything I know. I hailed him
and found that he is all right, but I didn't see him. However, I sent
him a note to tell him that there was fun on here to-night, which was
generous of me, as he may be a rival bidder."

"Is he coming, senor? I ask because, if so, I must look out for him."

"I don't know: he answered that he would if he could. But how is the
English girl? She is to be put up to-night, isn't she?"

"Oh, yes, senor, there will be a great to-do at twelve, when the moon
is high. So soon as she has been bought, the priest Francisco is to
marry her to the lucky man, there and then. The old fellow insists on
it; he has grown superstitious about the girl and says that she shall
be properly married."

Xavier laughed aloud, "Has he now? He is getting into his dotage.
Well, what does it matter? We have a good law of divorce in these
parts, friend. I am going in for that girl; if I give a hundred ounces
for her I will buy her, and I have brought the gold with me."

"A hundred ounces for one girl! It is a large sum, senor, but you are
rich. Not like us poor devils who get all the risk and little profit."

By this time the men had finished tying up the boat and taking some
baggage or provisions out of her, Leonard could not see which. Then
Xavier and the sentry went up the steps together, followed by the two
boatmen, and the gates were shut behind them.

"Well," whispered Leonard, "we have learnt something at any rate. Now,
Otter, I am Pierre the French slave-trader from Madagascar, and,
understand, you are my servant; as for Soa, she is the guide, or
interpreter, or anyone you like. We must pass the gates, but the real
Pierre must never pass them. There must be no sentry to let him in. Do
you think that you can manage it, Otter, or must I?"

"It comes into my head, Baas, that we may learn a lesson from this
Xavier. I might forget something in the canoe, and the sentry might
help me to find it after you have passed the gates. For the rest I am
quick and strong and silent."

"Quick and strong and silent you must be. A noise, and all is lost."

Then they crept to the canoe which they had selected and loosened her.
They embarked and Otter took the paddle. First he let her float gently
down stream and under cover of the shore for a distance of about fifty
yards. Then he put about and the play began.

"Now, you fool, where are you paddling to?" said Leonard in a loud
voice to Otter, speaking in the bastard Arabic which passes current
for a language on this coast. "You will have us into the bank, I tell
you. Curse this wind and the darkness! Steady now, you ugly black dog;
those must be the gates the letter told of--are they not, woman? Hold
on with the boat-hook, can't you?"

A wicket at the gate above rattled and the voice of the sentry
challenged them.

"A friend--a friend!" answered Leonard in Portuguese; "one who is a
stranger and would pay his respects to your leader, Dom Antonio
Pereira, with a view to business."

"What is your name?" asked the guard suspiciously.

"Pierre is my name. Dog is the name of the dwarf my servant, and as
for the old woman, you can call her anything you like."

"The password," said the sentry; "none come in here without the word."

"The word--Ah! what did the Dom Xavier say it was in his letter?
'Fiend!' No, I have it, 'Devil' is the word."

"Where do you hail from?"

"From Madagascar, where the goods you have to supply are in some
demand just now. Come, let us in; we don't want to sit here all night
and miss the fun."

The man began to unbar the door, and stopped, struck by a fresh doubt.

"You are not of our people," he said; "you speak Portuguese like a
cursed Englishman."

"No, I should hope not; I am a 'cursed Englishman,' that is half--son
of an English lord and a French creole, born in the Mauritius at your
service, and let me ask you to be a little more civil, for cross-bred
dogs are fierce."

Now at length the sentry opened one side of the gate, grumbling, and
Leonard swaggered up the steps followed by the other two. Already they
were through it, when suddenly he turned and struck Otter in the face.

"Why, Dog," he said angrily, "you have forgotten to bring up the keg
of brandy, my little present for the Dom. Go and fetch it. Quick,
now."

"Pardon, Chief," answered Otter, "but I am a small man and the keg is
heavy for me alone--if you will deign to help me, for the old woman is
too weak."

"Do you take me for a porter that I should roll kegs of cognac up
steps? Here, my friend," he went on addressing the sentry, "if you
wish to earn a little present and a drink, perhaps you will give this
fellow a hand with the cask. There is a spigot in it, and you can try
the quality afterwards."

"Right, Senor," said the man briskly, and led the way down the steps.

A look of dreadful intelligence passed between the dwarf and his
master. Then Otter followed, his hand upon the hilt of the Arab sabre
which he wore, while Leonard and Soa waited above. They heard the
man's heavily booted feet going down the steps followed by Otter's
naked footfall.

"Where is your keg? I don't see it," said the sentry presently.

"Lean over, senor, lean over," answered Otter; "it is in the stern of
the canoe. Let me help you."

There was a moment's pause, to the listeners it seemed hours. Then
came the sound of a blow and a heavy splash. They hearkened on, but
nothing more was to be heard except the beating of their hearts and
the distant noise of revelry from the camp.

Three seconds passed and Otter stood beside them. In the dim light
Leonard could see that his eyes stared wide and his nostrils twitched.

"Quick was the blow, strong was the blow, silent is the man for ever,"
whispered Otter. "So the Baas commanded, so it is."

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