“This is our cooperage,” said he. “We have the staves sent out in bundles, and we put them together ourselves. Now, you don’t see anything particularly sinister about this building, do you?”
I looked round at the high corrugated iron roof, the white wooden walls, and the earthen floor. In one corner lay a mattress and a blanket.
“I see nothing very alarming,” said I.
“And yet there’s something out of the common, too,” he remarked. “You see that bed? Well, I intend to sleep there to-night. I don’t want to buck, but I think it’s a bit of a test for nerve.”
“Oh, there have been some funny goings on. You were talking about the monotony of our lives, but I assure you that they are sometimes quite as exciting as we wish them to be. You’d better come back to the house now, for after sundown we begin to get the fever-fog up from the marshes. There, you can see it coming across the river.”
I looked and saw long tentacles of white vapour writhing out from among the thick green underwood and crawling at us over the broad swirling surface of the brown river. At the same time the air turned suddenly dank and cold.
“There’s the dinner gong,” said the Doctor. “If this matter interests you I’ll tell you about it afterwards.”
It did interest me very much, for there was something earnest and subdued in his manner as he stood in the empty cooperage, which appealed very forcibly to my imagination. He was a big, bluff, hearty man, this Doctor, and yet I had detected a curious expression in his eyes as he glanced about him—an expression which I would not describe as one of fear, but rather of a man who is alert and on his guard.
“By the way,” said I, as we returned to the house, “you have shown me the huts of a good many of your native assistants, but I have not seen any of the natives themselves.”
“They sleep in the hulk over yonder,” the Doctor answered, pointing over to one of the banks.
“Indeed. I should not have thought in that case that they would need the huts.”
“Oh, they used the huts until quite recently. We’ve put them on the hulk until they recover their confidence a little. They were all half mad with fright, so we let them go, and nobody sleeps on the island except Walker and myself.”
“What frightened them?” I asked.
“Well, that brings us back to the same story. I suppose Walker has no objection to your hearing all about it. I don’t know why we should make any secret about it, though it is certainly a pretty bad business.”
He made no further allusion to it during the excellent dinner which had been prepared in my honour. It appeared that no sooner had the little white topsail of the Gamecock shown round Cape Lopez than these kind fellows had begun to prepare their famous pepper-pot—which is the pungent stew peculiar to the West Coast—and to boil their yams and sweet potatoes. We sat down to as good a native dinner as one could wish, served by a smart Sierra Leone waiting boy. I was just remarking to myself that he at least had not shared in the general fright when, having laid the dessert and wine upon the table, he raised his hand to his turban.
“Anyting else I do, Massa Walker?” he asked.
“No, I think that is all right, Moussa,” my host answered. “I am not feeling very well to-night, though, and I should much prefer if you would stay on the island.”
I saw a struggle between his fears and his duty upon the swarthy face of the African. His skin had turned of that livid purplish tint which stands for pallor in a negro, and his eyes looked furtively about him.
“No, no, Massa Walker,” he cried, at last, “you better come to the hulk with me, sah. Look after you much better in the hulk, sah!”
“That won’t do, Moussa. White men don’t run away from the posts where they are placed.”
Again I saw the passionate struggle in the negro’s face, and again his fears prevailed.
“No use, Massa Walker, sah!” he cried. “S’elp me, I can’t do it. If it was yesterday or if it was to-morrow, but this is the third night, sah, an’ it’s more than I can face.”
Walker shrugged his shoulders.
“Off with you then!” said he. “When the mail-boat comes you can get back to Sierra Leone, for I’ll have no servant who deserts me when I need him most. I suppose this is all mystery to you, or has the Doctor told you, Captain Meldrum?”
“I showed Captain Meldrum the cooperage, but I did not tell him anything,” said Dr. Severall. “You’re looking bad, Walker,” he added, glancing at his companion. “You have a strong touch coming on you.”
“Yes, I’ve had the shivers all day, and now my head is like a cannon-ball. I took ten grains of quinine, and my ears are singing like a kettle. But I want to sleep with you in the cooperage to-night.”
“No, no, my dear chap. I won’t hear of such a thing. You must get to bed at once, and I am sure Meldrum will excuse you. I shall sleep in the cooperage, and I promise you that I’ll be round with your medicine before breakfast.”
It was evident that Walker had been struck by one of those sudden and violent attacks of remittent fever which are the curse of the West Coast. His sallow cheeks were flushed and his eyes shining with fever, and suddenly as he sat there he began to croon out a song in the high-pitched voice of delirium.
“Come, come, we must get you to bed, old chap,” said the Doctor, and with my aid he led his friend into his bedroom. There we undressed him and presently, after taking a strong sedative, he settled down into a deep slumber.
“He’s right for the night,” said the Doctor, as we sat down and filled our glasses once more. “Sometimes it is my turn and sometimes his, but, fortunately, we have never been down together. I should have been sorry to be out of it to-night, for I have a little mystery to unravel. I told you that I intended to sleep in the cooperage.”
“Yes, you said so.”
“When I said sleep I meant watch, for there will be no sleep for me. We’ve had such a scare here that no native will stay after sundown, and I mean to find out to-night what the cause of it all may be. It has always been the custom for a native watchman to sleep in the cooperage, to prevent the barrel hoops being stolen. Well, six days ago the fellow who slept there disappeared, and we have never seen a trace of him since. It was certainly singular, for no canoe had been taken, and these waters are too full of crocodiles for any man to swim to shore. What became of the fellow, or how he could have left the island is a complete mystery. Walker and I were merely surprised, but the blacks were badly scared and queer Voodoo tales began to get about amongst them. But the real stampede broke out three nights ago, when the new watchman in the cooperage also disappeared.”
“What became of him?” I asked.
“Well, we not only don’t know, but we can’t even give a guess which would fit the facts. The niggers swear there is a fiend in the cooperage who claims a man every third night. They wouldn’t stay in the island—nothing could persuade them. Even Moussa, who is a faithful boy enough, would, as you have seen, leave his master in a fever rather than remain for the night. If we are to continue to run this place we must reassure our niggers, and I don’t know any better way of doing it than by putting in a night there myself. This is the third night, you see, so I suppose the thing is due, whatever it may be.”