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Chapter 3 The Man-Eater by Edgar Rice Burroughs

Sophronia was blithely humming Dixie as she went about her work on the second floor of the Scott house. Occasionally she broke the monotony by engaging in heated discussions with herself.

"Yassem," she said, shaking her head, "Ah never done laik dat Mistah Scott Taylor. He may be po' Miss Do'thy's boy; but he's po' white trash, jes' de same. Yass'm. An' look yere," as she pushed the bed out from the wall to ply her broom beneath.

"Jes' look yere! Dere he's gone and lef' his coat. Shif' less, das what he is—a throwin' his coat around laik dat," and she seized the garment with a vigorous shake.

Throwing the coat across her arm, the negress carried it down to the library, where Mrs. Scott and Virginia were sitting.

"Heah dat Mistah Scott Taylor's coat," she announced, laying it on the table. "What Ah done goin' do wif it—give it to dat good-fer-nothin' nigger Samu-el?"

"No, Sophronia," said Mrs. Scott, "we'll have to send it to him," and she picked up the garment to wrap it for mailing. As she folded it a crumpled sheet of note paper fell from a side pocket. Virginia picked it up to replace it in the coat, when, by chance, she saw her mother's name upon the top of the sheet.

"Why," she exclaimed, "this is yours, mother," and she spread the note out, smoothing it upon the table top. "It's a letter to you. How in the world did it happen to be in Scott's coat?"

Mrs. Scott took the note and read it; then she handed it to her daughter. When Virginia had completed it she looked up at her mother, her face clouded and angry.

"Why, the scoundrel!" she exclaimed. "He actually has been intercepting your mail." Then she glanced again at the date line and her eyes opened wide. "Mother!" she ejaculated. "This letter must have come the very day Scott left in such a hurry. It must have been because of this letter that he did leave. What can it mean?"

Mrs. Scott shook her head.

"I know," announced Virginia. "He has gone to prevent Mr. Gordon from recovering the certificate or else to follow him and obtain possession of it himself. There could be no other explanation of his hurried departure, immediately after the receipt of this letter."

"It does look that way, Virginia; but what can we do?"

"We can wire Mr. Gordon at once."

"What can we say that will not appear silly in a telegram, unless we actually accuse Scott of criminal designs," argued Mrs. Scott, "and we cannot do that, for we have only conjecture to base a charge upon."

"I can go to New York and talk with Mr. Gordon," said Virginia, "and that is just what I shall do."

"But, my dear—" Mrs. Scott started to expostulate.

"But I am," said Virginia determinedly, and she did.

To her dismay she found Mr. Richard Gordon's apartment locked and apparently untenanted, for there was no response to her repeated ring of the bell. Then she inquired at another apartment across the hall. Here a house man informed her that Mr. Gordon's man had told him that he and Mr. Gordon were leaving for Africa—he even recalled the name of the liner upon which they had sailed for Liverpool.

What was she to do? Well, the first thing was to assure herself as to whether Scott Taylor had also sailed for Africa, and if not to arrange to have him watched until she could get word to Mr. Richard Gordon. The taxi that had brought her to Gordon's apartment was waiting at the curb.

Descending to it, she gave the driver instructions to take her to the office of a certain steamship company—she would examine the passenger list and thus discover whether Taylor had sailed on the same boat with Gordon; but after examining the list and finding Taylor's name not among those of the passengers it suddenly occurred to her that the man would doubtless have assumed a name if his intentions were ulterior. Now she was in as bad a plight as formerly.

She racked her brain for a solution to her problem. It would do no good to wire Gordon, for he would not know Taylor if he saw him, and anyway it was possible that Taylor had not followed him and that she would only be making herself appear silly by sending Gordon a melodramatic wireless.

"I only wish," she muttered to herself, "that I knew whether or not Scott Taylor has followed him to Africa. How can I find out?"

And then came a natural solution of her problem—to search for Scott Taylor himself in New York. Her first thought was of a city directory, and here she found a Scott Taylor with an address on West 145th Street, and a moment later her taxi was whirling her uptown in that direction.

It was with considerable trepidation that Virginia Scott mounted the steps and rang the bell beneath the speaking tube. She feared Taylor and knew that she was doing a risky thing in thus placing herself even temporarily in his power; but loyalty and gratitude toward Richard Gordon, a stranger who had put his life, maybe, in jeopardy to serve her and her mother, insisted that she accept the risk, and so when the latch of the front door clicked and a voice, ignoring the speaking tube, called down from above for her to come up, she bravely entered the dark stairway and marched upward, to what she had no idea. She had been glad to note that the voice from above had been that of a woman. It made her feel more at her ease; but when she reached the topmost step and found a slovenly young woman with bleached hair and a green kimono awaiting her, her heart sank.

"Does Mr. Scott Taylor live here?" she asked.

"Yes, but he ain't at home. What do you want—anything I can do for you?"

"Has he left the city?" asked Virginia.

The girl's eyes narrowed, and Virginia noted it, but she thought, too, that she saw a trace of fear in them. She was convinced that this woman could tell her all she wished to know, but how was she to get the information from her?

"May I come in a moment and rest?" she asked. "It's rather a long climb up here from the street," and she smiled—one of those delightful smiles that even a woman admires in another woman.

"Sure!" said the girl. "Come right in. Don't mind how things look. I'm here alone now and takin' it easy. You have to keep things straightened around here when the men folks are home, or they're always growlin'."

So the men folks were away!

"What a cute little place you have here," said Virginia. "You are Mrs. Taylor?"

The girl flushed just a trifle.

"No," she replied. "My man's name is Kelley. Mr. Taylor boards with us when he's in town."

And afterward when she addressed her as Mrs. Kelley, Virginia could not but note an odd expression around the corners of the girl's mouth.

"Is Mr. Taylor out of town now?" asked Virginia.

The girl looked her straight in the eyes for a moment before she replied.

"Say, look here," she demanded at last. "What's your game? Who are you, anyhow, and what's your idea in doin' all this rubberin' after Kid Taylor?"

For a moment Virginia did not know what answer to make, and then, impulsively, she decided to tell this girl a part of her conjectures at least, in the hope that either sympathy for Gordon or fear of the consequences upon Taylor would enlist her services in Virginia's behalf.

There was that in the girl's face which convinced Virginia that beneath the soiled green kimono and evidences of dissipation in the old-young face there lay a kind heart and a generous disposition. And so she told her.

Her story was not all news to Blanche. She had heard most of it from Taylor's lips. When Virginia had finished the girl sat glowering sullenly at the floor for several seconds. At last she looked up.

"I don't know," she said, "what strings Kid Taylor has on me. He ain't never done nothing except to egg Jim on first to one job and then to another that Taylor didn't have the nerve to pull off himself. Jim's been to the Island once already for a job that Taylor worked up an' then sat right here drinkin' high-balls an' tryin' to flozzie up to me while Jim and Bill were out gettin' pinched.

"An' now—" she paused, a startled look coming into her eyes. "An' now he's framed up a murder for them, 'cause he ain't got the nerve to do it himself."

"You mean," cried Virginia, "that they have really followed Mr. Gordon to Africa to murder him?" Blanche nodded, affirmatively. Then she leaned forward toward her caller.

"I've told you," she said, "because I thought you might find a way to stop them before they did it. I don't want Jim sent to the chair. He's always been good to me. But for Gawd's sake don't let them know I told you. Bill 'ud kill me, an' Jim 'ud quit me, I'd care more about that than the other. You won't tell, will you?"

"No," said Virginia, "I won't. Now, tell me, they sailed on the same boat as Mr. Gordon?"

"Yes, Jim and Bill and Taylor, an' they were goin' to follow Gordon until he got the paper, then croak him an' take it away an' say it was an accident or something."

Virginia Scott rose from the chair upon which she had been sitting. Outwardly she was calm and collected, but inwardly her thoughts were in a confused and hysterical jumble in which horror predominated. What was she to do?

How helpless she was to avert the grim tragedy. She thought of cabling Gordon, but when she suggested the plan to Blanche the girl pointed out that it was too late—Gordon must already have left the end of the railroad and be well upon his way into the interior.

For a moment Virginia stood in silence. Then she held out her hand to the young woman.

"I thank you," she said. "You have done right to tell me all that you have. Goodbye!"

"What are you going to do?" asked Blanche.

"I don't know yet," replied Virginia. "I want to think—maybe a solution will come."

And as she was driving back to her hotel the solution did come—in the crystallization of a determination to take the saving of Richard Gordon into her own hands. It was for her that he was risking his life. She would be a coward to do one whit less than her plain duty. There was no one upon whom she could call to do this thing for her, since she realized that whoever attempted it must risk his life in pitting himself against Taylor and his confederates—desperate men who already had planned upon one murder in the furtherance of their dishonorable purpose.

She thought of writing her mother first; but deliberation assured her that her parent would do everything in her power to prevent the carrying out of a scheme which Virginia herself knew to be little short of madness—and yet she could think of no other way. No, she would wait until it was too late to recall her before she let her mother know her purpose.

So instead of returning at once to her hotel, Virginia drove to the offices of a transatlantic steamship company, where she made inquiries as to sailings and connections for Mombasa, Africa. To her delight she discovered that by sailing the following morning, she could make direct connections at Liverpool. Once committed to her plan she permitted no doubts to weaken her determination, but booked her passage immediately and returned uptown to make purchases and obtain currency and a letter of credit through a banker friend of her grandfather.

The morning that she sailed she posted a long letter to her mother in which she explained her plans fully, and frankly stated that she had intentionally left her mother in ignorance of them until now for fear she would find the means to prevent their consummation.

"I know that, to say the least," she wrote, "the thing that I am going to do is most unconventional and I realize also that it is not unfraught with dangers; but I cannot see a total stranger sacrifice his life in our service without a willingness to make an equal sacrifice, if necessary, in his."

And when her mother read the letter, though her heart was heavy with fear and sorrow, she felt that her daughter had done no more than the honor of the Scotts demanded.

To Virginia the long journey seemed an eternity, but at last it came to an end and she found herself negotiating with an agent at Mabido for native porters and guards and the considerable outfit necessary to African travel. From this man she learned that Gordon had left for the interior a month before, but he had not heard of a man by the name of Taylor, though there had been, he said, another party of three Americans who had followed Gordon by about a week. These had been bound for Victoria Nyanza to hunt, and the agent smiled as he recalled their evident unfamiliarity with all things pertaining to their avocation.

Virginia asked him to describe these men, and in the description of one she recognized Taylor, and rightly guessed that the others were Kelley and Gootch. So three men, one of them an unprincipled scoundrel, had gone out into the savage, lawless wilds on the trail of Richard Gordon!

Virginia went cold as the fear swept her that she was too late. Further questioning of the agent revealed the fact that while Gordon and the other three had arrived simultaneously they had had no intercourse, and that Gordon had obtained considerable start on the others because of his familiarity with customs of African travel and the utter ignorance of the others of the first essentials of their requirements.

This hope sustained her; that Gordon with his superior knowledge and experience had been able to outdistance the others, and that she, by traveling light and carefully selecting her path, might overtake them before they overtook Gordon or met him upon his return.

With this idea in mind Virginia hastened her preparations, and once on the march urged her safari on to utmost speed. Almost from the start she discovered that her head man, while apparently loyal to her, had but meagre control of the men of the safari, who were inclined to be insubordinate and quarrelsome. The result was that to her other burdens was added constant apprehension from this source, since it not only threatened her own welfare but the success of her mission as well.

It was upon the tenth day that the first really flagrant breach of discipline occurred—one which the headman could not handle or the girl permit to pass unnoticed. The men had long been grumbling at the forced marching which had fallen to their lot since the very beginning, notwithstanding the fact that they had been employed with the distinct understanding that such was to be the nature of their duty. Today, after the mid-day rest, the porters were unusually slow in shouldering their packs, and there was much muttering and grumbling as the headman went among them trying to enforce his commands by means of all manner of terrible threats. Some of the men had risen sullenly and adjusted their burdens, others still sat upon the ground eyeing the headman, but making no move to obey him. Virginia was at a little distance waiting for the safari to set out. She was a witness to all which transpired. She saw a hulking black Hercules slowly raise his pack in laggard response to the commands of the excited headman.

Just what words passed between them she could not know, but suddenly the porter hurled his load to the ground, shouting to the others who had already assumed their burdens. One by one these followed his example, at the same time shouting taunts and insults at the frantic, dancing, futile headman.

The armed members of the party—the native escort—leaned on their rifles and grinned at the discomfiture of the headman.

Virginia's heart sank as she witnessed this open break. It was mutiny, pure and simple, and her headman was quite evidently wholly incapable of coping with it. That it would quickly spread to the armed guard she was sure, for their attitude proclaimed that their sympathies were with the porters. Something must be done, and done at once, nor was there another than herself to do it.

The headman and the large porter were wrangling in high pitched voices. The other porters had closed in about the two, for it was evident that they would soon come to blows. The attitude of all the bearers was angry and sullen. The members of the safari still grinned—this was the only reassuring symptom of the whole dangerous affair. They had not yet openly espoused the cause of the mutineers.

Virginia came to a decision quietly. She crossed the space between herself and the porters at a rapid walk, shouldering her way between the watchers until she stood between the headman and the bellicose porter. At sight of her they stopped their wrangling for a moment. Virginia turned to the headman.

"Tell this boy," she said, "that I say he must pick up his pack at once."

The headman interpreted her order to the mutineer. The latter only laughed derisively, making no move to obey. Very deliberately Virginia drew her revolver from its holster at her hip. She levelled it at the pit of the porter's stomach, and with a finger of her left hand pointed at the pack on the ground. She said nothing. She knew that size had committed herself to a policy which might necessitate the fulfillment of the threat which the leveled weapon implied, and she was ready to adhere to the policy to the bitter end.

The fate of her expedition hung upon the outcome of this clash between her porters and her representative, the headman; and upon the fate of the expedition hung, possibly, the very life of a stranger who had placed himself in jeopardy to serve her. There was no alternative—she must, she would compel subordination.

The porter made no move to assume his burden, but he ceased to laugh. Instead, his little eyes narrowed, his heavy lower jaw and pendulous lower lip drooped sullenly.

He reminded the girl suddenly of a huge brute about to spring upon its prey, and she tightened the pressure of her finger upon the trigger of her revolver.

"Tell him," she instructed the headman, "that punishment for mutiny is death. That if he does not pick up his pack at once I shall shoot him, just as I would shoot a hyena that menaced my safety."

The headman did as he was bid. The porter looked at the encircling faces of his friends for encouragement. He thought that he found it there and then an evil spirit whispered to him that the white woman would not dare shoot and he took a step toward her threateningly.

It was his last step, for the instant that he took it Virginia fired, not at his stomach, but at his heart—and he crumpled forward to tumble at her feet. Without a second glance at him she wheeled upon the other porters.

"Pick up your packs and march!" she commanded, and those who could not understand her words at least did not misinterpret the menace of her levelled weapon. One by one, and with greater alacrity than they had evinced since the first day out, they shouldered their burdens, and a moment later were filing along the trail. The safari still grinned, for which Virginia was devoutly thankful.

From then on she became her own headman, using that dignitary principally as an interpreter, nor for many days was there again the slightest show of insubordination—that came later, with results so disastrous that—but why anticipate disaster?

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