And then suddenly our thoughts were turned into a new direction by the bursting of the storm. A blinding flash was followed by a clap which shook the building. Again and again came the vivid white glare with thunder at the same instant, like the flash and roar of a monstrous piece of artillery. And then down came the tropical rain, crashing and rattling on the corrugated iron roofing of the cooperage. The big hollow room boomed like a drum. From the darkness arose a strange mixture of noises, a gurgling, splashing, tinkling, bubbling, washing, dripping—every liquid sound that nature can produce from the thrashing and swishing of the rain to the deep steady boom of the river. Hour after hour the uproar grew louder and more sustained.
“My word,” said Severall, “we are going to have the father of all the floods this time. Well, here’s the dawn coming at last and that is a blessing. We’ve about exploded the third night superstition anyhow.”
A grey light was stealing through the room, and there was the day upon us in an instant. The rain had eased off, but the coffee-coloured river was roaring past like a waterfall. Its power made me fear for the anchor of the Gamecock.
“I must get aboard,” said I. “If she drags she’ll never be able to beat up the river again.”
“The island is as good as a breakwater,” the Doctor answered. “I can give you a cup of coffee if you will come up to the house.”
I was chilled and miserable, so the suggestion was a welcome one. We left the ill-omened cooperage with its mystery still unsolved, and we splashed our way up to the house.
“There’s the spirit lamp,” said Severall. “If you would just put a light to it, I will see how Walker feels this morning.”
He left me, but was back in an instant with a dreadful face.
“He’s gone!” he cried hoarsely.
The words sent a thrill of horror through me. I stood with the lamp in my hand, glaring at him.
“Yes, he’s gone!” he repeated. “Come and look!”
I followed him without a word, and the first thing that I saw as I entered the bedroom was Walker himself lying huddled on his bed in the grey flannel sleeping suit in which I had helped to dress him on the night before.
“Not dead, surely!” I gasped.
The Doctor was terribly agitated. His hands were shaking like leaves in the wind.
“He’s been dead some hours.”
“Was it fever?”
“Fever! Look at his foot!”
I glanced down and a cry of horror burst from my lips. One foot was not merely dislocated, but was turned completely round in a most grotesque contortion.
“Good God!” I cried. “What can have done this?”
Severall had laid his hand upon the dead man’s chest.
“Feel here,” he whispered.
I placed my hand at the same spot. There was no resistance. The body was absolutely soft and limp. It was like pressing a sawdust doll.
“The breast-bone is gone,” said Severall in the same awed whisper. “He’s broken to bits. Thank God that he had the laudanum. You can see by his face that he died in his sleep.”
“But who can have done this?”
“I’ve had about as much as I can stand,” said the Doctor, wiping his forehead. “I don’t know that I’m a greater coward than my neighbors, but this gets beyond me. If you’re going out to the Gamecock——”
“Come on!” said I, and off we started. If we did not run it was because each of us wished to keep up the last shadow of his self-respect before the other. It was dangerous in a light canoe on that swollen river, but we never paused to give the matter a thought. He bailing and I paddling we kept her above water, and gained the deck of the yacht. There, with two hundred yards of water between us and this cursed island we felt that we were our own men once more.
“We’ll go back in an hour or so,” said he. “But we need a little time to steady ourselves. I wouldn’t have had the niggers see me as I was just now for a year’s salary.”
“I’ve told the steward to prepare breakfast. Then we shall go back,” said I. “But in God’s name, Doctor Severall, what do you make of it all?”
“It beats me—beats me clean. I’ve heard of Voodoo deviltry, and I’ve laughed at it with the others. But that poor old Walker, a decent, God-fearing, nineteenth-century, Primrose-League Englishman should go under like this without a whole bone in his body—it’s given me a shake, I won’t deny it. But look there, Meldrum, is that hand of yours mad or drunk, or what is it?”
Old Patterson, the oldest man of my crew, and as steady as the Pyramids, had been stationed in the bows with a boat-hook to fend off the drifting logs which came sweeping down with the current. Now he stood with crooked knees, glaring out in front of him, and one forefinger stabbing furiously at the air.
“Look at it!” he yelled. “Look at it!”
And at the same instant we saw it.
A huge black trunk was coming down the river, its broad glistening back just lapped by the water. And in front of it—about three feet in front—arching upwards like the figure-head of a ship, there hung a dreadful face, swaying slowly from side to side. It was flattened, malignant, as large as a small beer-barrel, of a faded fungoid colour, but the neck which supported it was mottled with a dull yellow and black As it flew past the Gamecock in the swirl of the waters I saw two immense coils roll up out of some great hollow in the tree, and the villainous head rose suddenly to the height of eight or ten feet, looking with dull, skin-covered eyes at the yacht. An instant later the tree had shot past us and was plunging with its horrible passenger towards the Atlantic.
“What was it?” I cried.
“It is our fiend of the cooperage,” said Dr. Severall, and he had become in an instant the same bluff, self-confident man that he had been before. “Yes, that is the devil who has been haunting our island. It is the great python of the Gaboon.”
I thought of the stories which I had heard all down the coast of the monstrous constrictors of the interior, of their periodical appetite, and of the murderous effects of their deadly squeeze. Then it all took shape in my mind. There had been a freshet the week before. It had brought down this huge hollow tree with its hideous occupant. Who knows from what far distant tropical forest it may have come! It had been stranded on the little east bay of the island. The cooperage had been the nearest house. Twice with the return of its appetite it had carried off the watchman. Last night it had doubtless come again, when Severall had thought he saw something move at the window, but our lights had driven it away. It had writhed onwards and had slain poor Walker in his sleep.
“Why did it not carry him off?” I asked.
“The thunder and lightning must have scared the brute away. There’s your steward, Meldrum. The sooner we have breakfast and get back to the island the better, or some of those niggers might think that we had been frightened.”