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The Fugitives: The Tyrant Queen of Madagascar

The Fugitives: The Tyrant Queen of Madagascar

Author:R. M. Ballantyne


Intense action is at all times an interesting object of contemplation to mankind. We therefore make no apology to the reader for dragging him unceremoniously into the middle of a grand primeval forest, and presenting to his view the cur...
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  Intense action is at all times an interesting object of contemplation tomankind. We therefore make no apology to the reader for dragging himunceremoniously into the middle of a grand primeval forest, andpresenting to his view the curious and stirring spectacle of two whitemen and a negro running at their utmost possible speed, with flashingeyes and labouring chests--evidently running for their lives.

  Though very different in aspect and condition, those men were prettyequally matched as runners, for there was no apparent difference in thevigour with which they maintained the pace.

  The track or footpath along which they ran was so narrow as to compelthem to advance in single file. He who led was a tall agile youth ofnineteen or thereabouts, in knickerbocker shooting-garb, with shortcurly black hair, pleasantly expressive features, and sinewy frame. Thesecond was obviously a true-blue tar--a regular sea-dog--about thirtyyears of age, of Samsonian mould, and, albeit running for very life,with grand indignation gleaming in his eyes. He wore a blue shirt onhis broad back, white ducks on his active legs, and a straw hat on hishead, besides a mass of shaggy hair, which, apparently, not findingenough of room on his cranium, overflowed in two brown cataracts downhis cheeks, and terminated in a voluminous beard.

  The third fugitive was also a young man, and a negro, short, thickset,square, tough as india-rubber, and black as the Emperor of Zahara.Good-humour wrinkled the corners of his eyes, the milk of human kindnessplayed on his thick lips and rippled his sable brow, and intensesincerity, like a sunbeam, suffused his entire visage.

  James Ginger--for that was his name, though his friends preferred tocall him Ebony--scorned a hat of any kind; his simple costume consistingmerely of two garments--canvas trousers and a guernsey shirt.

  The sailor wore a cutlass in his belt. Ebony was unarmed. The youthfulleader carried a short fowling-piece.

  A yell in the far distance, as if from a hundred fiends, told that thepursuers had discovered the trail of the fugitives, and were gaining onthem.

  "We'll have to fight for it, doctor," growled the sailor in a savagetone, "better stop while we've got some wind left."

  "The wood seems more open ahead," replied the youth, "let's push on abit further."

  "Hi!" exclaimed the negro in surprise, not unmingled with alarm, as theysuddenly emerged on an open space and found themselves on the edge of astupendous precipice.

  The formation of the region was curious. There was a drop in the land,as it were, to a lower level. From their elevated position the threemen could see a turbulent river rushing far below, at the base of thecliffs on the edge of which they stood. Beyond lay a magnificent andvaried stretch of forest scenery, extending away to the horizon, wherethe prospect terminated in a blue range of hills. No path was at firstvisible by which the fugitives could reach the plain below. Theprecipice was almost perpendicular. They were about to leap recklesslyover, and trust to descending by means of an occasional bush or shrubwhich grew on the rocky face, when the negro uttered one of his falsettoexclamations.

  "Hi! here am a track."

  He dashed aside the branches of an overhanging bush, and ran along anarrow path, or ledge, which sloped gently downwards. It was afearfully giddy position, but this in the circumstances, and to menaccustomed to mast-heads and yard-arms, was of small moment. On theyran, at a more cautious pace indeed, but still with anxious haste, untilabout a quarter of the distance down the face of the precipice, when, totheir horror, they came to a turn in the path where it suddenly ended.A mass of rock, apparently detached from the cliff by recent rains, hadfallen from above, and in its thundering descent had carried away fullyten yards of the path into the stream below, where they could see itsshattered fragments in the rushing river. The gap in front of them wasabsolutely impassable. On the right, the cliff rose sheer upwards. Onthe left, it went sheer down.

  A sort of groan escaped from the doctor.

  "What's to be done now, Hockins?" he asked sharply, turning to thesailor.

  "Die!" replied Hockins, in a tone of savage bitterness.

  "Stuff an' nonsense! we no' die yit," said the negro, pointing to thesnake-like branches of a climbing plant which, spreading over the nakedface of the cliff, turned into a crevice and disappeared round a juttingpoint.

  "Will it bear our weight, lad?" asked the sailor doubtfully.

  "It leads to nothing that I can see," said the young doctor, "and wouldonly ensure our being dashed to pieces instead of speared."

  "Nebber fear, massa Breezy. Dis not de fus' time I's hoed troo deforests. If you stop here you die. James Gingah he go on an' lib."

  "Go on then, Ebony; we will follow," returned Breezy, slinging his gunon his shoulder so as to leave his hands free.

  A yell of disappointment on the cliffs above accelerated theirmovements. It was evident that the pursuers had come out on the openplateau, but had not observed the path by which they descended. As itwas certain, however, that they would find it in a few minutes, Ebonysprang upon the creeping plant and clambered along its tortuous limbslike a monkey. Young Breezy followed, and Hockins came last.

  The plant was tough. It stood the strain well. If it had given way,death on the jagged rocks below would have been the result. But deathby savage spears was behind them, so they did not hesitate. A fewseconds and all three had passed round the jutting rock and into thecrevice, where they were completely hidden from the view of any onestanding on the path they had just left.

  In the crevice they found a ledge or platform sufficiently large toadmit of their standing together. They had scarcely obtained a footingon it when another shout announced that the pursuer had traced theirtrail to the head of the track.

  We know not, reader, whether you have ever experienced thatheart-melting qualm which comes over one at the sudden and unexpectedapproach of what, at least, appears to be death. If you have, you willbe able to understand the intense relief and thankfulness felt by thefugitives when, safe from immediate danger, they listened to theirpursuers as they held excited conversation at the end of the brokentrack. Not knowing the language they could not, of course, understandwhat was said, and being just beyond the range of vision--owing to thejutting cliff that concealed them--they could not see what theirpursuers were doing, but they heard a suggestive crash and a sharpexclamation.

  Had they been able to see, they would have understood the situation wellenough without the aid of language.

  Two of the natives, who were dark-skinned and almost naked savages, hadcome to the place where the track had been broken away. They gazed atthe profound depths on the left and the inaccessible cliffs on theright, and then glanced at each other in solemn surprise.

  No doubt the creeping plant would in a few seconds have attractedspecial attention, had not an incident turned their minds in anotherdirection. While the foremost savage was craning his neck so as to seeas far round the projecting cliff as possible, the piece of rock onwhich his advanced foot was dislodged, and he had the narrowest possibleescape from plunging headlong after the rock, which went bounding andcrashing into the gulf below.

  Instantly the faces of the two men gleamed with intelligence; theynodded with energy, grinned with satisfaction, and pointed to the abyssin front of them with the air of men who had no doubt that their enemieswere lying down there in quivering fragments.

  Something of this James Ginger did indeed manage to see. Curiosity wasso powerfully developed in that sable spirit, that, at the imminent riskof his life, he reached out by means of a branch, and so elongated hisblack neck that he got one of his brilliant eyes to bear for a momentupon his foes. He appreciated the situation instantly, and drew back toindulge in a smothered laugh which shut up both his eyes and appeared togash his face from ear to ear.

  "What's wrong with you, Ebony?" whispered Mark Breezy, who was inanything but a laughing mood just then.

  "Oh! nuffin', nuffin', massa; only dem brown niggers are sitch asses datdey b'lieve a'most anyting. Black niggers ain't so easy putt off descent. Dey tinks we's tumble ober de precipis an' busted ourselbes."

  "Lucky for us that they think so," said Hockins, in a soft tone ofsatisfaction. "But now, what are we to do? It was bad enoughclamberin' up here in blazin' excitement to save our lives, but it willbe ten times worse gettin' down again in cold blood when they're gone."

  "Time enough to consider that when they _are_ gone," muttered Breezy."Hush! Listen!"

  The sounds that reached their place of concealment told clearly enoughthat a number of the savages had descended the cliffs, presumably tolook at the place over which the white men had fallen. Then there wasmuch eager conversation in an unknown tongue, mingled with occasionalbursts of laughter--on hearing which latter the huge mouth of our negroenlarged in silent sympathy. After a while the voices were heard toretire up the narrow track and become fainter until they died awayaltogether, leaving no sound save the murmur of the rushing river tofill the ears of the anxious listeners who stood like three statues in aniche on the face of that mighty precipice.

  "Now, you know," said Breezy, with a sigh of relief, "this is verysatisfactory as far as it goes, and we have reason to be thankful thatwe are neither speared nor dashed to pieces; nevertheless, we are in anuncomfortable fix here, for night is approaching, and we must retraceour steps somehow or other, unless we make up our minds to sleepstanding."

  "That's so, doctor. There's not room to lie down here," assented thesailor, glancing slowly round; "an', to tell 'ee the plain truth, I feelas funky about trustin' myself again to that serpent-like creeper as Ifelt the first time I went up through the lubber-hole the year I went tosea."

  "What you's 'fraid ob, Mr 'Ockins?" asked Ebony.

  "Afraid o' the nasty thing givin' way under my weight. If it was a goodstout rope, now, I wouldn't mind, but every crack it gave when I wascomin' aloft made my heart jump a'most out o' my mouth."

  "What have 'ee found there, doctor?" asked the seaman, on observing thathis companion was groping behind a mass of herbage at the back part ofthe niche in which they stood.

  "There's a big hole here, Hockins. Perhaps we may find room to staywhere we are, after all, till morning. Come here, Ebony, you've gotsomething of the eel about you. Try if you can wriggle in."

  The negro at once thrust his head and shoulders into the hole, but couldnot advance.

  "Bery strange!" he said, drawing out his head, and snorting once ortwice like a dog that has half-choked himself in a rabbit-hole. "Seemsto me dere's a big block o' wood dere stoppin' de way."

  "Strange indeed, Ebony. A block of wood could not have grown there.Are you sure it is not a big root?"

  "Sartin' sure, massa. I hab studied roots since I was a babby. Holdon, I try again."

  The negro tried again, and with such vigour that he not only displacedthe block of wood, but burst in several planks which concealed theentrance to a cavern. They fell on the stone floor with a crash thataroused a multitude of echoes in the dark interior. At the same momentsomething like a faint shriek or wail was heard within, causing thehearts of the three listeners to beat faster.

  "Did you hear that, Hockins?"

  "Ay, I heard it sure enough. What is it, think 'ee, lad!" said theseaman to the negro.

  Ebony, who was gazing into the dark cavern with glaring eyeballs anddistended nostrils, replied--

  "My advice to you is, let's go back de way we come. Dis no place for'spectable Christians."

  "Do you fear ghosts?" asked Mark, smiling, yet at the same time bringinghis gun into a convenient position, with his finger ready on thetrigger.

  "I fears nuffin," returned the negro with a proud look, while beads ofperspiration stood on his brow.

  "Then ye're a braver man than I am, Ebony, for I fear that climbin'plant worse than a ghost; so here goes to find out what it is."

  Although the sailor spoke thus boldly, and tried to look cool, it iscertain that he also was afflicted with sensations of an unusualdescription, which, of course, he would have scorned to admit were theresult of fear! His power of will, however, was stronger than hisfears. Drawing his cutlass, he was about to enter the cavern, when Marklaid a hand on his shoulder.

  "Come, Hockins, you have accepted my lead hitherto. It is not fair totake it out of my hands at this critical point."

  So saying he glided past his comrade, and was almost lost to sightimmediately in the deep gloom.

  "Softly, softly, doctor," whispered the seaman, as he followed, "theremay be holes or pits within--"

  "All right; I'm feeling my way carefully. Keep close."

  As he spoke a slight, indescribable sound was heard--almost like a sigh.

  "Hist! Did 'ee hear that?" said Hockins in the lowest possible whisper.

  "Oh! massa, let's go back de way we come," urged Ebony, in the same lowbut earnest tone.

  Mark Breezy did not reply, but the click of his gun as he cocked itshowed that he was on the alert.

  For nearly a minute the three men stood in absolute silence, listeningfor a repetition of the mysterious sound, and, though it did not recur,there was an indescribable feeling in the heart of each that they werenot alone in that cavern.

  "Have you not flint and steel?" asked Mark.

  "Yes; but to strike a light would only show our whereabouts if there_is_ any one here."

  The seaman accidentally touched Ebony on the elbow as he spoke, and sentthat worthy's heart, or something like it, into his throat with suchviolence as nearly to choke him.

  "Git along, massa," he said in a gaspy whisper, when able to articulate,"we's got to go troo wid it _now_."

  Acting on this advice the young man continued to advance cautiously,feeling his way step by step and fully expecting every moment to reachthe inner wall of the cavern.

  Presently the explorers were again brought to a stand by the suddenappearance of a light in the far distance. As, however, it did notmove, they continued to advance, and soon were convinced that it wasdaylight shining through an opening in that direction. Every stepconvinced them more and more that they were right, and their spiritsrose with the hope of escaping, though the light made no appreciabledifference as yet in the darkness that surrounded them.

  Suddenly a sharp, loud, short cry filled the cavern for an instant, andalmost froze their blood! The loudness and abrupt stoppage of the cryleft the impression that the creature which uttered it had been suddenlyand effectively killed, for it ended in a sharp gasp or gurgle, and thenall was still,--but only for a moment, for the shock to Mark's nerveswas such that his finger inadvertently pressed the trigger of his gun,which exploded with a deafening crash, and awoke shrieks and cries thatwere not to be accounted for by mere echoes.

  This was too much for ordinary human beings. Fabled knights of old inarmour of proof might have stood it, but the two white men and theblack, being ordinary heroes, regardless of pride and honour, went infor a regular stampede, and it is but simple justice to say that Ebonywon, for he reached the outlet of the cavern first, and sprang throughit into daylight like a black thunderbolt. It is also due to hiscomrades to add that they were not far behind him.

  Their courage, however, was soon restored. Daylight has a celebratedpower of restoring courage. On clearing the bushes which concealed theentrance to the cave they simultaneously stopped, turned round, andresolutely faced their foe!

  But no foe was to be seen! Once again all was still as death. Afterglaring for a few seconds at the spot whence the expected enemy shouldhave issued, the three fugitives relaxed their frowning brows and turnedinquiring eyes on each other.

  "Dis beats cockfightin' a'most," said Ebony, with a sigh of intenserelief.

  "Ay, an' every other sort o' fightin' as I ever heard on," respondedHockins.

  "Come, friends," said their young leader, "whatever it may have been, itbehoves us to get as far away from this spot as possible, and that asfast as we can."