King Bemba's Point, A West African Story
by J. Landers
We were for the most part a queer lot out on that desolate southwest
African coast, in charge of the various trading stations that were
scattered along the coast, from the Gaboon River, past the mouth of the
mighty Congo, to the Portuguese city of St. Paul de Loanda. A mixture of
all sorts, especially bad sorts: broken-down clerks, men who could not
succeed anywhere else, sailors, youths, and some whose characters would
not have borne any investigation; and we very nearly all drank hard, and
those who didn't drink hard took more than was good for them.
I don't know exactly what induced me to go out there. I was young for one
thing, the country was unknown, the berth was vacant, and the conditions
of it easy.
Imagine a high rocky point or headland, stretching out sideways into the
sea, and at its base a small river winding into a country that was
seemingly a blank in regard to inhabitants or cultivation; a land
continuing for miles and miles, as far as the eye could see, one expanse
of long yellow grass, dotted here and there with groups of bastard palms.
In front of the headland rolled the lonely South Atlantic; and, as if such
conditions were not dispiriting enough to existence upon the Point, there
was yet another feature which at times gave the place a still more ghastly
look. A long way off the shore, the heaving surface of the ocean began, in
anything like bad weather, to break upon the shoals of the coast. Viewed
from the top of the rock, the sea at such times looked, for at least two
miles out, as if it were scored over with lines of white foam; but lower
down, near the beach, each roller could be distinctly seen, and each
roller had a curve of many feet, and was an enormous mass of water that
hurled itself shoreward until it curled and broke.
When I first arrived on the Point there was, I may say, only one house
upon it, and that belonged to Messrs. Flint Brothers, of Liverpool. It was
occupied by one solitary man named Jackson; he had had an assistant, but
the assistant had died of fever, and I was sent to replace him. Jackson
was a man of fifty at least, who had been a sailor before he had become an
African trader. His face bore testimony to the winds and weather it had
encountered, and wore habitually a grave, if not melancholy, expression.
He was rough but kind to me, and though strict was just, which was no
common feature in an old African hand to one who had just arrived on the
He kept the factory—we called all houses on the coast factories—as
neat and clean as if it had been a ship. He had the floor of the portion
we dwelt in holystoned every week; and numberless little racks and shelves
were fitted up all over the house. The outside walls glittered with paint,
and the yard was swept clean every morning; and every Sunday, at eight
o'clock and sunset, the ensign was hoisted and lowered, and an old cannon
fired at the word of command. Order and rule were with Jackson observed
from habit, and were strictly enforced by him on all the natives employed
in the factory.
Although I have said the country looked as if uninhabited, there were
numerous villages hidden away in the long grass and brushwood, invisible
at a distance, being huts of thatch or mud, and not so high as the grass
among which they were placed. From these villages came most of our
servants, and also the middlemen, who acted as brokers between us, the
white men, and the negroes who brought ivory and gum and india-rubber from
the far interior for sale. Our trade was principally in ivory, and when an
unusually large number of elephants' tusks arrived upon the Point for
sale, it would be crowded with Bushmen, strange and uncouth, and hideously
ugly, and armed, and then we would be very busy; for sometimes as many as
two hundred tusks would be brought to us at the same time, and each of
these had to be bargained for and paid for by exchange of cotton cloths,
guns, knives, powder, and a host of small wares.
For some time after my arrival our factory, along with the others on the
coast belonging to Messrs. Flint Brothers, was very well supplied by them
with goods for the trade; but by degrees their shipments became less
frequent, and small when they did come. In spite of repeated letters we
could gain no reason from the firm for this fact, nor could the other
factories, and gradually we found ourselves with an empty storehouse, and
nearly all our goods gone. Then followed a weary interval, during which we
had nothing whatever to do, and day succeeded day through the long hot
season. It was now that I began to feel that Jackson had become of late
more silent and reserved with me than ever he had been. I noticed, too,
that he had contracted a habit of wandering out to the extreme end of the
Point, where he would sit for hours gazing upon the ocean before him. In
addition to this, he grew morose and uncertain in his temper toward the
natives, and sometimes he would fall asleep in the evenings on a sofa, and
talk to himself at such a rate while asleep that I would grow frightened
and wake him, when he would stare about him for a little until he gathered
consciousness, and then he would stagger off to bed to fall asleep again
almost immediately. Also, his hands trembled much, and he began to lose
flesh. All this troubled me, for his own sake as well as my own, and I
resolved to ask him to see the doctor of the next mail-steamer that came.
With this idea I went one day to the end of the Point, and found him in
his usual attitude, seated on the long grass, looking seaward. He did not
hear me approach, and when I spoke he started to his feet, and demanded
fiercely why I disturbed him. I replied, as mildly as I could, for I was
rather afraid of the glittering look that was in his eyes, that I wished
to ask him if he did not feel ill.
He regarded me with a steady but softened glance for a little, and then
"My lad, I thank you for your trouble; but I want no doctor. Do you think
I'm looking ill?"
"Indeed you are," I answered, "ill and thin; and, do you know, I hear you
talk to yourself in your sleep nearly every night."
"What do I say?" he asked eagerly.
"That I cannot tell," I replied. "It is all rambling talk; the same things
over and over again, and nearly all about one person—Lucy."
"Boy!" he cried out, as if in pain, or as if something had touched him to
the quick, "sit you down, and I'll tell you why I think of her—she
was my wife."
He moved nearer to the edge of the cliff, and we sat down, almost over the
restless sea beneath us.
"She lives in my memory," he continued, speaking more to himself than to
me, and looking far out to the horizon, beneath which the setting sun had
begun to sink, "in spite of all I can do or think of to make her appear
base in my eyes. For she left me to go with another man—a scoundrel.
This was how it was," he added, quickly: "I married her, and thought her
as pure as a flower; but I could not take her to sea with me because I was
only the mate of a vessel, so I left her among her own friends, in the
village where she was born. In a little cottage by herself I settled her,
comfortable and happy as I thought. God! how she hung round my neck and
sobbed when I went away the first time! and yet—yet—within a
year she left me." And he stopped for several minutes, resting his head
upon his hands. "At first I could get no trace of her," he resumed. "Her
friends knew nothing more of her than that she had left the village
suddenly. Gradually I found out the name of the scoundrel who had seduced
her away. He had bribed her friends so that they were silent; but I
overbribed them with the last money I had, and I followed him and my wife
on foot. I never found them, nor did I ever know why she had deserted me
for him. If I had only known the reason; if I could have been told of my
fault; if she had only written to say that she was tired of me; that I was
too old, too rough for her soft ways,—I think I could have borne the
heavy stroke the villain had dealt me better. The end of my search was
that I dropped down in the streets of Liverpool, whither I thought I had
tracked them, and was carried to the hospital with brain-fever upon me.
Two months afterward I came out cured, and the sense of my loss was
deadened within me, so that I could go to sea again, which I did, before
the mast, under the name of Jackson, in a bark that traded to this coast
here." And the old sailor rose to his feet and turned abruptly away,
leaving me sitting alone.
I saw that he did not wish to be followed, so I stayed where I was and
watched the gray twilight creep over the face of the sea, and the night
quickly succeed to it. Not a cloud had been in the sky all day long, and
as the darkness increased the stars came out, until the whole heavens were
studded with glittering gems.
Suddenly, low down, close to the sea, a point of light flickered and
disappeared, shone again for a moment, wavered and went out, only to
reappear and shine steadily. "A steamer's masthead light," I thought, and
ran to the house to give the news; but Jackson had already seen the light,
and pronounced that she had anchored until the morning. At daybreak there
she was, dipping her sides to the swell of the sea as it rolled beneath
her. It was my duty to go off to her in one of the surf-boats belonging to
the factory; and so I scrambled down the cliff to the little strip of
smooth beach that served us for a landing-place.
When I arrived there I found that the white-crested breakers were heavier
than I had thought they would be. However, there was the boat lying on the
beach with its prow toward the waves, and round it were the boat-boys with
their loincloths girded, ready to start; so I clambered into the stern, or
rather—for the boat was shaped alike at stem and stern—the end
from which the steersman, or patrao, used his long oar. With a
shout the boys laid hold of the sides of the boat, and the next moment it
was dancing on the spent waves next to the beach. The patrao kept its head
steady, and the boys jumped in and seized the oars, and began pulling with
a will, standing up to their stroke. Slowly the heavy craft gathered way,
and approached a dark and unbroken roller that hastened toward the beach.
Then the patrao shouted to the crew, and they lay on their oars, and the
wave with a roar burst right in front of the boat, sending the spray of
its crest high above our heads.
"Rema! rema forca!" ("Row strongly!") now shouted the patrao,
speaking Portuguese, as mostly all African coast natives do; and the crew
gave way. The next roller we had to meet in its strength; and save for the
steady force of the patrao's oar, I believe it would have tossed us aside
and we would have been swept under its curving wall of water. As it was,
the good boat gave a mighty bound as it felt its force, and its stem
pitched high into the air as it slid down its broad back into the deep.
Another and yet another wave were passed, and we could now see them
breaking behind us, shutting out the beach from view. Then the last roller
was overcome, and there was nothing but the long heave of the deep sea to
contend against. Presently we arrived at the steamer, whose side towered
above us—an iron wall.
A shout came to me, pitching and lurching with the boat far below, "Come
on board at once." But to come on board was only to be done by watching a
chance as the boat rose on the top of a roller. Taking such a one, I
seized the side-ropes, swung a moment in mid-air, and the next was on the
streamer's clean white deck. Before me stood a tall man with black hair
and whiskers and dark piercing eyes, who asked me if I was the agent for
Flint Brothers. I answered that the agent was on shore, and that I was his
assistant. Whereupon he informed me that he had been appointed by the firm
to liquidate all their stations and businesses on the coast, and "he would
be obliged by my getting his luggage into the boat." This was said in a
peremptory sort of way, as if he had spoken to a servant; and very much
against the grain I obeyed his orders.
That the man was new to the coast was evident, and my consolation was that
he would be very soon sick of it and pretty well frightened before he even
got on shore, for the weather was freshening rapidly, a fact of which he
appeared to take no heed. Not so the boat-boys, who were anxious to be
off. At last we started, and I soon had my revenge. As we drew near the
shore the rollers became higher and higher, and I perceived that my
gentleman clutched the gunwale of the boat very tightly, and when the
first wave that showed signs of breaking overtook us, he grew very white
in the face until it had passed.
The next one or two breakers were small, much to his relief I could see,
though he said nothing. Before he had well recovered his equanimity,
however, a tremendous wave approached us somewhat suddenly. Appalled by
its threatening aspect, he sprang from his seat and seized the arm of the
patrao, who roughly shook him off.
"My God!" he cried, "we are swamped!" and for the moment it really looked
like it; but the patrao, with a dexterous sweep of his long oar, turned
the boat's head toward the roller. It broke just as it reached us, and
gave us the benefit of its crest, which came in over the topsides of the
boat as it passed by, and deluged every one of us.
I laughed, although it was no laughing matter, at the plight the
liquidator was now in. He was changed in a moment from the spruce and
natty personage into a miserable and draggled being. From every part of
him the salt water was streaming, and the curl was completely taken out of
his whiskers. He could not speak from terror, which the boat-boys soon
saw, for none are quicker than negroes to detect signs of fear in those
whom they are accustomed to consider superior to themselves. Familiar with
the surf, and full of mischievous fun, they began to shout and gesticulate
with the settled purpose of making matters appear worse than they were,
and of enjoying the white man's discomfiture,—all but the patrao,
who was an old hand, and on whom depended the safety of us all. He kept a
steady lookout seaward, and stood upright and firm, grasping his oar with
both hands. With him it was a point of honour to bring the white men
intrusted to his care safely through the surf.
We waited for more than half an hour, bow on, meeting each roller as it
came to us; and by the end of that time the unfortunate liquidator had
evidently given up all hope of ever reaching the shore. Luckily, the worst
was soon to pass. After one last tremendous wave there was a lull for a
few moments, and the patrao, who had watched for such a chance, swiftly
turned the boat round, and giving the word to the crew, they pulled
lustily toward the shore. In a few minutes we were again in safety. The
boat grounded on the beach, the oars were tossed into the sea; the crew
sprang overboard; some of them seized the new arrival; I clambered on the
back of the patrao; a crowd of negroes, who had been waiting on the beach,
laid hold of the tow-rope of the boat, and it and we were landed
simultaneously on the dry sand.
Once on shore Mr. Bransome, for that was the new man's name, rapidly
recovered his presence of mind and manner, and, by way of covering his
past confusion, remarked that he supposed the surf was seldom so bad as it
then was. I replied in an offhand way, meaning to make fun of him, that
what he had passed through was nothing, and appealed to the patrao to
confirm what I had said. That negro, seeing the joke, grinned all over his
black face; and Mr. Bransome, perceiving that he was being laughed at,
snatched a good-sized stick from a native standing near, and struck the
patrao repeatedly over the back.
In vain Sooka, for that was the patrao's name, protested, and demanded to
know what wrong thing he had done. The agent was furious, and showered his
blows upon the black. Equally in vain I shouted that Sooka had done well
by us, and that he, Mr. Bransome, was making an enemy of a man who would
have him now and then in his power. At length Sooka took to his heels, and
sure enough, when he had got a little way off, he began to threaten
vengeance for what he had received. I sympathised with him, for I knew
what a loss to his dignity it was to be beaten without cause before his
fellows, and I feared that Mr. Bransome would indeed be sorry, sooner or
later, for what he had done.
I now suggested to him, by way of diverting his thoughts from poor Sooka,
that standing on the beach in wet clothes was the very way to catch the
coast-fever straight off, and he instantly suffered himself to be carried
up the factory. There Jackson received him in a sort of "who on earth are
you?" manner; and Mr. Bransome, clearing his throat, announced himself and
his authority, adding that he intended to make the factory a point of
departure to all the others on the coast; then, very abruptly, he
requested Jackson to prepare quarters for him without delay.
The change that came over Jackson's face as he learned the quality of the
stranger and his requests was great. The old salt, who had been king of
his house and of the Point for so long a time, had evidently never even
thought of the probability of such an intrusion as was now presented to
him, and he was amazed at what he considered to be the unwarrantable
assurance of the stranger. However, he recovered himself smartly, and
asked the new man if he had any written credentials.
"Certainly," replied he, pulling out a document all wet with salt water.
"Here is a letter from Messrs. Flint Brothers, of which, no doubt, you
will have a copy in your mail-bag."
Jackson took the letter and opened it, and seemed to read it slowly to
himself. All at once he started, looked at the new agent, advanced a step
or two toward him, muttering, "Bransome, Bransome," then stopped and asked
him in a strange constrained voice, "Is your name Bransome?"
"Yes," replied the latter, astonished at the old man's question.
"I knew a Bransome once," said Jackson, steadily, "and he was a
For a moment the two men looked at each other—Jackson with a gleam
of hatred in his eyes, while Bransome had a curiously frightened
expression on his face, which blanched slightly. But he quickly resumed
his composure and peremptory way, and said, "Show me a room; I must get
these wet things off me."
As, however, he addressed himself this time to me rather than to Jackson,—who,
indeed, regarded him no longer, but stood with the letter loose in his
hand, looking at the floor of the room, as if in deep meditation,—I
showed him into my own room, where I ordered his trunks to be brought.
These, of course, were wet; but he found some things in the middle of them
that were not more than slightly damp, and with the help of a pair of old
canvas trousers of mine he managed to make his appearance at dinner-time.
Jackson was not at the meal. He had left the house shortly after his
interview with the new agent, and had, I fancied, gone on one of his
solitary rambles. At any rate he did not return until late that night.
I thought Mr. Bransome seemed to be somewhat relieved when he saw that the
old man was not coming; and he became more affable than I had expected him
to be, and relinquished his arrogant style altogether when he began to
question me about Jackson—who he was? what had he been? how long he
had lived on the coast? To all which questions I returned cautious
answers, remembering that I was under a promise to the old man not to
repeat his story.
By the next morning, to my surprise, Jackson appeared to have become
reconciled to the fact that he had been superseded by a man who knew
nothing of the coast, and of his own accord he offered to tell Mr.
Bransome the clues to the letter-locks on the doors of the various
store-rooms; for we on the coast used none but letter-locks, which are
locks that do not require a key to open them. But Mr. Bransome expressed,
most politely, a wish that Jackson should consider himself still in charge
of the factory, at any rate until the whole estate of the unfortunate
Flint Brothers could be wound up; and he trusted that his presence would
make no difference to him.
This was a change, on the part of both men, from the manners of the
previous day; and yet I could not help thinking that each but ill
concealed his aversion to the other.
Months now slipped away, and Mr. Bransome was occupied in going up and
down the coast in a little steamer, shutting up factory after factory,
transferring their goods to ours, and getting himself much disliked by all
the Europeans under him, and hated by the natives, especially by the
boat-boys, who were a race or tribe by themselves, coming from one
particular part of the coast. He had, of course, been obliged to order the
dismissal of many of them, and this was one reason why they hated him; but
the chief cause was his treatment of Sooka, the patrao. That man never
forgave Mr. Bransome for beating him so unjustly; and the news of the deed
had travelled very quickly, as news does in savage countries, so that I
think nearly all of Sooka's countrymen knew of the act and resented it.
Mr. Bransome was quite unaware of the antipathy he had thus created toward
himself, except so far as Sooka was concerned; and him he never employed
when he had to go off to vessels or land from them, but always went in the
other boat belonging to the factory, which was steered by a much younger
negro. In addition to humbling Sooka in this way, Bransome took the
opportunity of disgracing him whenever he could do so. Therefore, one day
when two pieces of cloth from the cargo-room were found in the boatmen's
huts, it was no surprise to me that Sooka was at once fastened upon by Mr.
Bransome as the thief who had stolen them, and that he was tied to the
flogging-post in the middle of the yard, and sentenced to receive fifty
lashes with the cat that was kept for such a purpose, and all without any
inquiry being made. In vain did the unfortunate man protest his innocence.
A swarthy Kroot-boy from Cape Coast laid the cat on his brown shoulders
right willingly, for he also was an enemy of Sooka's; and in a few minutes
the poor fellow's flesh was cut and scored as if by a knife.
After the flogging was over Mr. Bransome amused himself by getting out his
rifle and firing fancy shots at Sooka, still tied to the post; that is, he
tried to put the bullets as close to the poor wretch as he could without
actually wounding him. To a negro, with his dread of firearms, this was
little short of absolute torture, and at each discharge Sooka writhed and
crouched as close to the ground as he could, while his wide-opened eyes
and mouth, and face of almost a slate colour, showed how terribly
frightened he was. To Mr. Bransome it appeared to be fine sport, for he
fired at least twenty shots at the man before he shouldered his rifle and
went indoors. Jackson said nothing to this stupid exhibition of temper,
but as soon as it was over he had Sooka released; and I knew he attended
to his wounds himself, and poured friar's balsam into them, and covered
his back with a soft shirt—for all which, no doubt, the negro was
afterward grateful. Whether Mr. Bransome got to know of this, and was
offended at it, I do not know, but shortly afterward he ceased to live
There was between the factory and the sea, and a little to the right of
the former, a small wooden cottage which had been allowed to fall into a
dilapidated state from want of some one to live in it. This Mr. Bransome
gave orders to the native carpenters to repair and make weather-tight; and
when they had done so, he caused a quantity of furniture to be brought
from St. Paul de Loanda and placed within in it. Then he transferred
himself and his baggage to the cottage.
Jackson displayed complete indifference to this change on the part of the
agent. In fact, there had been, ever since the arrival of the latter upon
the Point, and in spite of apparent friendliness, a perceptible breach,
widening daily, between the two men. As to the reason of this I had my own
suspicions, for I had made the discovery that Jackson had for some time
past been drinking very heavily.
In addition to the brandy which we white men had for our own use, I had,
to my horror, found out that he was secretly drinking the coarse and fiery
rum that was sold to the natives; and as I remembered the mutterings and
moanings that had formerly alarmed me, I wondered that I had not guessed
the cause of them at the time; but until the arrival of Mr. Bransome,
Jackson had always kept charge of the spirits himself, and he was such a
secret old fellow that there was no knowing what he had then taken. Now
that I was aware of his failing, I was very sorry for the old sailor; for
on such a coast and in such a climate there was only one end to it; and
although I could not actually prevent him from taking the liquor, I
resolved to watch him, and if such symptoms as I had seen before again
appeared, to tell Mr. Bransome of them at all hazards. But I was too late
to prevent what speedily followed my discovery. It had come about that the
same mail-steamer that had brought out Mr. Bransome had again anchored off
the Point, and again the weather was coarse and lowering. A stiff breeze
had blown for some days, which made the rollers worse than they had been
for a long while. Both Mr. Bransome and Jackson watched the weather with
eager looks, but each was differently affected by it. Bransome appeared to
be anxious and nervous, while Jackson was excited, and paced up and down
the veranda, and kept, strange to say, for it was contrary to his late
habit, a watch upon Bransome's every movement.
Every now and then, too, he would rub his hands together as if in eager
expectation, and would chuckle to himself as he glanced seaward. Of his
own accord he gave orders to Sooka to get both the surf-boats ready for
launching, and to make the boys put on their newest loin-cloths; and then,
when everything was in readiness, he asked Bransome if he was going off to
"I fear I must," said Bransome; "but I—I don't like the look of
those cursed rollers."
At this Jackson laughed, and said something about "being afraid of very
"The beach is perfectly good," he added; "Sooka knows, and Sooka is the
oldest patrao on the Point."
And Sooka, who was standing by, made a low obeisance to the agent, and
said that "the beach lived for well," which was his way of expressing in
English that the sea was not heavy.
At that moment a gun was fired from the steamer as a signal to be quick,
and Bransome said, "I will go, but not in that black blackguard's boat; it
need not come," and he went down to the beach.
It was one of Jackson's rules that when a boat went through the surf there
should be some one to watch it, so I walked to the end of the Point to see
the agent put off. He got away safely; and I, seeing Sooka's boat lying on
the beach, and thinking that it would be as well to have it hauled up
under the boat-shed, was on the point of returning to the factory to give
the necessary order, when, to my surprise, I saw the boat's crew rush down
the beach to the boat and begin to push it toward the sea.
I waved my arms as a signal to them to stop, but they paid no attention to
me; and I saw them run the boat into the water, jump into her, and pull
off, all singing a song to their stroke in their own language, the sound
of which came faintly up to the top of the Point. "Stupid fellows!" I
muttered to myself, "they might have known that the boat was not wanted;"
and I was again about to turn away, when I was suddenly seized from
behind, and carried to the very edge of the cliff, and then as suddenly
I sprang to one side, and turning round saw Jackson, with a look of such
savage fury on his face that I retreated a step or two in astonishment at
him. He perceived my alarm, and burst out into a fit of laughter, which,
instead of reassuring me, had the opposite effect, it was so demoniacal in
character. "Ha! ha!" he laughed again, "are you frightened?" and advancing
toward me, he put his face close to mine, peering into it with bloodshot
eyes, while his breath, reeking of spirits, poured into my nostrils.
Involuntarily I put up my arm to keep him off. He clutched it, and,
pointing with his other hand to the sea, whispered hoarsely, "What do you
hear of the surf? Will the breakers be heavier before sundown? See how
they begin to curve! Listen how they already thunder, thunder, on the
beach! I tell you they are impatient—they seek some one," he
shouted. "Do you know," he continued, lowering his voice again, and
speaking almost confidentially, "sooner or later some one is drowned upon
that bar?" And even as he spoke a fresh line of breakers arose from the
deep, farther out than any had been before. This much I observed, but I
was too greatly unnerved by the strange manner of Jackson to pay further
heed to the sea. It had flashed across my mind that he was on the verge of
an attack of delirium tremens, from the effects of the liquor he had been
consuming for so long, and the problem was to get him back to the house
Suddenly a thought struck me. Putting my arm within his, I said, as coolly
as I could, "Never mind the sea, Jackson; let us have a matabicho"
(our local expression for a "drink"). He took the bait, and came away
quietly enough to the house. Once there, I enticed him into the
dining-room, and shutting to the door quickly, I locked it on the outside,
resolving to keep him there until Mr. Bransome should return; for, being
alone, I was afraid of him.
Then I went back to the end of the Point to look for the return of the two
boats. When I reached it I saw that the rollers had increased in size in
the short time that I had been absent, and that they were breaking, one
after another, as fast as they could come shoreward; not pygmy waves, but
great walls of water along their huge length before they fell.
A surf such as I had never yet seen had arisen. I stood and anxiously
watched through a glass the boats at the steamer's side, and at length, to
my relief, I saw one of them leave her, but as it came near I saw, to my
surprise, that Mr. Bransome was not in the boat, and that it was not the
one that Sooka steered. Quickly it was overtaken by the breakers, but
escaped their power, and came inshore on the back of a majestic roller
that did not break until it was close to the beach, where the boat was in
Not without vague apprehension at his imprudence, but still not
anticipating any actual harm from it, I thought that Mr. Bransome had
chosen to come back in Sooka's boat, and I waited and waited to see it
return, although the daylight had now so waned that I could no longer
distinguish what was going on alongside the steamer. At last I caught
sight of the boat, a white speck upon the waters, and, just as it entered
upon the dangerous part of the bar, I discerned to my infinite amazement,
that two figures were seated in the stern—a man and a woman—a
white woman; I could see her dress fluttering in the wind, and Sooka's
black figure standing behind her.
On came the boat, impelled by the swift-flowing seas, for a quarter of an
hour it was tossed on the crests of the waves. Again and again it rose and
sank with them as they came rolling in, but somehow, after a little
further time, it seemed to me that it did not make such way toward the
shore as it should have done.
I lifted the glass to my eyes, and I saw that the boys were hardly pulling
at all, though the boat was not close to the rocks that were near the
cliff. Nor did Sooka seem to be conscious of a huge roller that was
swiftly approaching him. In my excitement I was just on the point of
shouting to warn those in the boat of their danger, although I knew that
they could not understand what I might say, when I saw Jackson standing on
the edge of the cliff, a little way off, dressed in his shirt and trousers
only. He had escaped from the house! He perceived that I saw him, and came
running up on me, and I threw myself on my guard. However, he did not
attempt to touch me, but stopped and cried:
"Did I not tell you that somebody would be drowned by those waves? Watch
that boat! watch it! it is doomed; and the scoundrel, the villain, who is
in it will never reach the shore alive!" and he hissed the last word
through his clenched teeth.
"Good God, Jackson!" I said, "don't say that! Look, there is a white woman
in the boat!"
At the words his jaw dropped, his form, which a moment before had swayed
with excitement, became rigid, and his eyes stared at me as if he knew,
but comprehended not, what I had said. Then he slowly turned his face
toward the sea, and, as he did so, the mighty breaker that had been coming
up astern of the boat curled over it. For a moment or two it rushed
forward, a solid body of water, carrying the boat with it; and in those
moments I saw, to my horror, Sooka give one sweep with his oar, which
threw the boat's side toward the roller. I saw the boat-boys leap clear of
the boat into the surf; I saw the agonised faces of the man and the woman
upturned to the wave above them, and then the billow broke, and nothing
was seen but a sheet of frothy water. The boat and those in it had
disappeared. For the crew I had little concern—I knew they would
come ashore safely enough; but for Mr. Bransome and the woman, whoever she
was, there was little hope. They had not had time to throw themselves into
the sea before the boat had capsized, and their clothing would sink them
in such a surf, even if they had escaped being crushed by the boat.
Besides, I feared there had been some foul play on the part of Sooka.
Quickly as he had done it, I had seen him with his oar put the boat beyond
the possibility of escaping from the wave, and I remembered how he had
been treated by Bransome.
With such thoughts I ran along the cliff to the pathway that led down to
the beach; and as I ran, I saw Jackson running before me, not steadily or
rightly, but heavily, and swaying from side to side as he went. Quickly I
passed him, but he gave no sign that he knew any one was near him; and as
I leaped down on to the first ledge of rock below me, I saw that he was
not following me, but had disappeared among the brushwood.
When I got down to the beach, I found that the boat's crew had reached the
shore in safety, but of the two passengers nothing had been seen. The
capsized boat was sometimes visible as it lifted on the rollers, but
through my glass I saw that no one was clinging to it. I called for Sooka,
but Sooka was missing. Every one had seen him land, but he had disappeared
mysteriously. In vain I questioned the other boys as to the cause of the
disaster. The only answer I could get out of them was an appeal to look to
the sea and judge for myself. The woman was a white woman from the big
ship, was all they could say about her; and, negro-like, they evidently
considered the loss of a woman or so of very little consequence.
All I could do was to set a watch along the beach to look for the bodies
when they should be washed ashore, and this done, I returned to the
factory. My next desire was to find Sooka. He could hardly have gone far,
so I sent for a runner to take a message to the native king under whose
protection we on the Point were, and after whom the Point was called, and
who was bound to find the missing man for me if he could, or if he had not
been bribed to let him pass.
In my sorrow at what had happened, and in my doubt as to the cause of it,
I had forgotten all about Jackson; but after I had despatched my messenger
to the king, I went to look for him. I discovered him crouching in a
corner of his own bedroom in the dark.
"Are they found?" he asked, in a voice so hollow and broken that I hardly
knew it; and before I could answer him, he whispered to himself, "No, no;
they are drowned—drowned."
I tried to lead him into the lighted dining-room, but he only crouched the
closer to his corner. At length by the promise of the ever-potent
temptation, liquor, I got him to leave the room. He could scarcely walk,
though, now, and he trembled so violently that I was glad to give him part
of a bottle of brandy that I had by me. He filled a tumbler half full of
the spirits, and drank it off. This put strength into him, and for a
little he was calm; but as he again and again applied himself to the
bottle, he became drunk, and swore at me for my impudence in giving orders
without his sanction. On this I tried to take the bottle from him, but he
clutched it so firmly that I had to let it go; whereupon he immediately
put it to his lips and swallowed the rest of the liquor that was in it.
After which he gave a chuckle, and staggered to a couch, on which he
tumbled, and lay with his eyes open for a long while. At last he fell
asleep, but I was too nervous to do likewise, and sat watching him the
most of the night; at least, when I awoke it was daylight, and it seemed
to me that I had been asleep for a few minutes.
Jackson was still lying on the couch, and his face was calm and peaceful
as he softly breathed. The morning, too, was fine, and as I walked on to
the veranda I saw the sea sparkling in the sunlight, and there was not a
sound from it save a far-off and drowsy murmur. Not a sign remained on its
broad surface of the wrath of the day before. It was wonderfully calm.
Lying here and there on the veranda, rolled up in their clothes, were the
servants of the factory, sleeping soundly on the hard planks.
Presently, as the sun rose in the heavens and warmed the air, the place
began to show signs of life, and one of the watch that I had set on the
beach came running across the yard to tell me that the bodies had come
Immediately upon hearing this I called the hammock-bearers together, and
going down to the beach, I went a considerable way along it toward a dark
spot, which I knew to be a group of natives. On coming up to the group, I
found at least fifty negroes collected round the drowned man and woman,
all chattering and squabbling among themselves, and probably over the
plunder, for I saw that the bodies had been stripped to their
underclothing. Rushing into the crowd, with the aid of a stick I dispersed
it, so far as to make the wretches stand back. The man, of course, was
Bransome, there was no doubt as to that, although he had received a
terrible blow on the left temple, most likely from the pointed stem of the
boat as it had toppled over upon him, and his face was distorted and
twisted to one side. The woman was evidently English, young and pretty,
although her long hair, heavy and wet, was polluted by the sand that stuck
to it, and her half-open eyes were filled with the same. On her lips there
lingered a slight smile. She was of middle height, of slender figure, and
delicately nurtured, as the small bare feet and little hands showed. As I
looked at the latter I saw a wedding-ring on her finger, and I thought,
"It is Bransome's wife." I tried to take the ring away, but it would not
come off her finger—which I might have known, because the natives
would not have left it there had they been able to remove it. I then
ordered the bearers to lay the bodies in the hammocks; and that done, our
little party wended its way along the shore homeward, while the natives I
had dispersed followed one after another in African fashion.
Arrived at the factory, I bade the boys place the bodies side by side on a
spare bed in an empty room, and then I sent them to dig a grave in the
little burial-ground on the Point, where two or three worm-eaten wooden
crosses marked the resting-places of former agents of Messrs. Flint
As quick interment was necessary in such a climate, even on that very day,
I went to call Jackson in order that he might perform the duty that was
his—that of reading the burial service over the dead, and of sealing
up the desk and effects of Mr. Bransome. But Jackson was not in the
factory. I guessed, however, where he was; and sure enough I found him in
his accustomed haunt at the end of the Point. The moment he saw me he
tried to hide himself among the brushwood, but I was too quick for him,
and spied him as he crouched behind a dwarf palm.
"I know, I know," he cried, as I ran up to him; "I saw you come along the
beach. Bury them, bury them out of sight."
"Come, Mr. Jackson," I replied, "it isn't fair to put all the trouble on
to me. I am sure I have had enough of the weariness and anxiety of this
sad business. You must take your share of it. I want you to read the
service for the dead over them."
"No, no," he almost shrieked; "bury them quick; never mind me. Put them
out of sight."
"I will not," I said, resolutely. "For your own sake you must, at any
rate, view the bodies."
"They have not been murdered?" He replied. But the startled look with
which I received the suggestion his words implied seemed to make him
recollect himself, for he rose and took my arm without saying more. As he
did so, I felt for the first time a sort of repugnance toward him. Up to
that moment my feeling had been one of pity and anxiety on his account,
but now I loathed him. This he seemed instinctively to feel, and he clung
closely to me.
Once at the factory I determined that there should be no more delay on his
part, and I took him to the door of the room where the bodies had been
laid, but at it he made a sudden halt and would not enter. Covering his
face with his hands, he trembled violently as I pushed the door open and
advanced to the bedside. The room, hushed and in semi-darkness; the white
sheet, whose surface showed too plainly the forms beneath it; and the
scared, terrified face of the man who, with brain afire, stood watching,
with staring eyes, the bed, made a scene I have never forgotten.
Slowly I turned down the upper part of the sheet, and Jackson, as if
fascinated by the act, advanced a step or two into the room, but with face
averted. Gradually he turned it toward the bodies, and for a moment his
gaze rested upon them. The next instant he staggered forward, looked at
the woman's face, panted for breath once or twice, and then, with uplifted
hands and a wild cry of "Lucy!" fell his length upon the floor. When I
stooped over him he was in convulsions, and dark matter was oozing out of
his mouth. The climax had come. I shouted for the servants, and they
carried him to his own room, and placed him on his own bed.
How I got through that day I hardly know. Alone I buried Bransome and his
wife, and alone I returned from the hurried task to watch by Jackson's
bedside. None of the natives would stay near him. For two days he lay
unconscious. At the end of that time he seemed to have some idea of the
outside world, for his eyes met mine with intelligence in their look, and
on bending over him I heard him whisper, "Forgive me!" Then he relapsed
into unconsciousness again. Through the long hours his eyes remained ever
open and restless; he could not eat, nor did he sleep, and I was afraid he
would pass away through weakness without a sign, being an old man. On the
third day he became delirious, and commenced chattering and talking to
himself, and imagining that all kinds of horrid shapes and creatures were
around and near him. I had to watch him narrowly in order to prevent him
stealing out of his bed, which he was ready to do at any moment to avoid
the tortures which he fearfully imagined awaited him. By these signs I
knew that he was in the middle of an attack of delirium tremens, and I
tried to quiet him by means of laudanum, but it had no effect upon him. I
got him, however, to swallow a little soup, which sustained him. My own
boy was the only negro I had been able to induce to stay in the room, and
he would only remain in it while I was there.
I had sent a messenger to the nearest station, where I remembered there
was a Portuguese doctor; but he had not returned by the evening of the
fourth day. That night, worn out with watching, I had dozed off to sleep
on a chair placed by the sick man's bed, when all at once I was awakened
by a loud report, and I jumped up to find the room filled with smoke. As
it cleared away I saw that Jackson was standing in the middle of the room
with a revolver in his hand. As I confronted him he laughed a devilish
laugh and cocked the weapon, crying as he did so, "It was you who tempted
me with your smooth face and unsuspicious way, and you shall die, though I
suffer doubly in hell for it. Hist!" and he stopped suddenly and listened.
"Don't you hear the breakers? Hark, how they roar! They say they are
ready, always ready," and staring in front of him, he advanced, as if
following the sign of an invisible hand, to the door, unconsciously
placing, to my infinite relief, the revolver on the top of a chest of
drawers as he passed by it. I did not dare to move, and he opened the door
and walked into the front room. Then I followed him. For a little he
remained in the room, glaring vacantly about him, and muttering to
himself; but seeing the outer door open he made a rush toward it, and
disappeared into the darkness of the night. Calling to the boy, I ran
after him, and easily came up to him, when he turned, and picking up a
heavier stone than I thought he could have lifted, threw it at me. I
dodged it and closed with him. Once in my arms I found I could hold him,
and my servant and I carried him back into the factory. We placed him on
the floor of the dining-room, and he was too exhausted to move for a
while. By degrees, however, he recovered sufficiently to stand; and as
soon as he could do so by himself, with devilish cunning he made for the
lamp, which he struck, quick as lightning, with a stick that had been
lying on the table. In an instant the great round globe fell to pieces,
but luckily the chimney was not broken, and the lamp remained alight, and
before he could strike another blow at it I had grappled with him again.
This time he struggled violently for a few moments, and seemed to think
that he was dealing with Bransome, for he shrieked, "What! have you come
back from the sea? You are wet! you are wet!" and shuddering, he tried to
free himself from my hold; and I, not liking to hurt him, let him go,
taking care to keep myself between him and the lamp.
"Back from me, you villain of hell!" he cried, as soon as he was free.
"What have you done with her? what have you done with her?" And then, in a
tone of weird and pathetic sorrow, "Where is my little one that I loved? I
have sought her many a year; oh, why did she forsake me? Aha, Sooka! we
were right to send him to the hell whence he came—the lying,
false-hearted scoundrel, to steal away my white dove!"
After which he drew from his finger a solid gold ring which he always
wore, and threw it from him, saying, with a wild laugh, "There! that's for
any one that likes it; I'm a dead man." He then staggered toward his own
room, and I, remembering the loaded revolver which still lay on the chest
of drawers, tried to intercept him. In his rage, for I verily believe that
he also remembered that the weapon was there, he spat in my face, and
struck me with all his force between the eyes; but I stuck to him, and
with the help of the boy, who had been all this time in hiding, but who
came forward at my call, I laid him for the last time upon his bed. There
he lay exhausted for the remainder of the night; but there was no rest for
me; I felt that I had to watch him now for my own safety.
Toward morning, however, his breathing became, all at once, very heavy and
slow, and I bent over him in alarm. As I did so, I heard him sigh faintly,
"Lucy!" and at that moment the native boy softly placed something upon the
bed. I took it up. It was the ring the sick man had thrown away in the
night, and as I looked at it I saw "James, from Lucy" engraved on its
inside surface, and I knew that the dead woman was his wife.
As the first faint streaks of dawn stole into the room, the slow-drawn
breathing of the dying man ceased. I listened—it came again—once—twice—and
then all was silence. He was dead, and I realised in the sudden stillness
that had come upon the room that I was alone. Yet he had passed away so
quietly after his fitful fever that I could not bring myself to believe
that he was really gone, and I stood looking at the body, fearing to
convince myself of the truth by touching it.
So entranced was I by that feeling of awe which comes to almost every one
in the presence of death, that I did not hear the shouting of the
hammock-boy outside, or the footsteps of a white man coming into the room;
and not until he touched me on the shoulder did I turn and recognise the
sallow face of the Portuguese doctor whom I had sent for, and who had thus
arrived too late. However, he served to help me to bury the mortal part of
Jackson in the little graveyard beside the body of his wife and that of
the man who had come between them when alive. And such was without doubt
the fact; for when the doctor had gone, and I was alone again, I collected
and made an inventory of the dead men's effects, and in Jackson's desk I
found his diary, or, as he himself would have called it, his log; and in
that log was noted, on the very day that Bransome had arrived on the
Point, his suspicion of the man, and later on his conviction that Bransome
was indeed he who had injured him.
Sooka was never found; but when the mail-steamer returned from the south
coast, I discovered that the younger patrao had made his crew row away
suddenly from the steamer's side, while Mr. Bransome had been engaged
below, and was out of sight. So it was evident that the pair had been in
league together to insure Sooka his revenge. What share Jackson had had in
the murder of his enemy I did not care to think of, but feared the worst.
For myself, I had to remain on the Point for many months, until the
factory was finally closed—for no purchaser was ever found for it;
and doubtless, by this time, the buildings are in ruins, and long grass
hides the graves of those who sleep upon King Bemba's Point.