|Part II: Margaret's Dream|
|Part III: In Aapland continued|
What had happened in Kota-Rajia?
The Dutch assault, supported by their well aimed artillery, had overcome the Aceh's desperate resistance; throughout the smoking ruins the victors had pursued, tracked down and massacred the kraton's defenders: it had been a heroic defence. The Panglima of twenty-two moukims had held in check the attackers at the Three-tiered Mountain; the Sakay had grouped themselves around him and to the last had fought to the death.
The sultan, nestled in his palace, as the fatalistic Moslem that he was, waited for Allah's decision, for a conclusion to the events. All the bearers of bad tidings had been massacred before his eyes, by his order. By not knowing the truth, he could ignore it. At last the ramparts had collapsed, and colonel van der Hyeden had forced his way over a bridge of piled up corpses of the sultan's making, into the mausoleum whose doors were broken open. Mahmoud Shah, apparently impassive, waited for him, crouching on his mat, showing no sign of fear.
But the victors intended to spare his life. They well knew that his true submission would not be long delayed given his financial needs. Thus was it arranged.
The pirates last stronghold was destroyed, and the Dutchmen's hurrahs saluted the European invasion's triumph. Then, after some quickly-ended negotiations with the sultan's councillors, van der Hyeden had summoned all his officers about him, and in a solemn gesture, had planted the Dutch flag on the ramparts of the defeated city.
Then, looking all about him, he said:
"I do not see Captain Villiers. However, I was assured that he had not perished in this dreadful adventure; he was in mournings, I wish him to be honoured."
"Here he is! Here he is! Voices cried out, while the ranks opened up.
Captain Villiers had indeed just appeared, but so pale, bearing on his countenance the traces of such profound despair that the colonel, who had quickly advanced before him, stopped aghast.
"What has happened then?" He cried out. "I had been told that during the heroic mission that you so valiantly fulfilled, you had the unbelievably good fortune of rejoining, right here, your wife and children."
"My children," the captain said sadly, shaking his head. "Ah! How truly you speak, colonel! Yes, at the very moment the Aceh sultan sent me off to die, I had the ineffable joy of marching to execution with my dear wife, she who the executioners called Mayha, and with us were our two children, George, so handsome, so valiant, and Margaret, the dear pet. And truly, having so long been separated in life, it seemed a comfort that we would all be reunited in death! But alas, fate was not yet defeated!"
"What do you mean?"
"That in the middle of the bombardment, as I making my way with my own, my son, my poor George disappeared, and all my efforts to find him again have remained useless."
The unhappy father burst into sobs.
"But perhaps not all hope is lost?" replied the colonel moved to sadness. "Perhaps the child got lost, perhaps he was injured, I will order a search to be made."
"Alas! colonel, all this has been tried: the poor mother has had the sad courage of looking at the injured one by one, and the dead. Our child was not among them, no sign of where he has gone has been discovered, and it may be that this ignorance of his fate is even more upsetting than the certitude of a catastrophe!"
What could one answer? What consolation could one offer to a father so cruelly stricken?
All of Captain Villiers' comrades in arms put themselves at his disposal and conscientiously employed themselves in trying to unravel this sinister mystery.
Finally, a Sakay prisoner spoke, with a dark happiness, savouring the suffering he brought to another, he stated that the child had been kidnapped by Igli-Otou. He had seen him, he swore by the great Antou, and as he indicated the direction taken by the Sakay shaman, a search was begun throughout the surrounding area.
If one had to, one would pursue the miserable kidnapper to the depths of the Malay peninsula, one would search the country, one would sack it until these savages would hand back their prisoner. Captain Villiers would take command of the expedition and the criminal's punishment would be awful! But one had to give up on this last hope as the mutilated, yet still recognizable corpse of Igli-Otou lay at the bottom of the abyss. How had he been hurled there? An awful detail: he still held, in his clenched hand, the belt which had been at the child's waist!
Therefore, no doubt remained. While it was true that one never found poor George's body, beneath the place where the broken body of Igli-Otou had come to rest, a torrent passed, losing itself in the depths of the mountain! The child's body must have been carried away, and even if he had miraculously survived this horrible death, he would have gotten lost in the jungle, and become prey to the wild beasts.
The still recognizable corpse of Igli-Otou lay at the bottom of the abyss.
No doubt could remain. The father's despair was frightening, yet less than the state of prostration into which the wretched Louisa had fallen. It seemed that all the springs of life had suddenly snapped within her. Villiers long feared that she would lose her mind: one had had to separate her from little Margaret, whom she no longer seemed to recognize, and repeated fits of hysterics left it in question whether she would live.
A few months passed in this manner: the conquest was being consolidated. Colonel van der Hyeden, in the hope of softening the captain's sadness, since promoted to a higher rank, had offered him one of the most important posts in the new colony. While there was a time when Villiers and his wife had had a passionate attachment to this wonderful country, where Nature is awe inspiring, where the sun lavishes life and beauty to all, now, staying on the island had become insufferable. Mayha's health, far from improving seemed forever compromised. Wounded to the depths of her heart she was haunted by fantastic visions. Madness laid in wait for her. Villiers had to resolve the situation in a decisive manner.
He went to his superior, and explained to him the difficult circumstances with which he wrestled. Clearly it was a great sadness for him to break his sword, but destiny was deciding his fate. He resigned his commission and announced his departure for Europe. Besides, he seemed to have aged ten years, it was clear that he could no longer sustain the rigours of colonial service.
Le colonel, now General van der Hyeden, did not oppose his resolution, were it not to testify of his respect and friendship for him. With profound regret did he view his separation from this devoted serviceman, this steadfast and generous friend, but why fight the inevitable. He could not but yield to his request.
He resigned his commission and announced his departure for Europe.
Villiers shipped out to Europe with his wife and daughter, and returned to Rotterdam, the city of his birth. There it was that they had loved each other, married, where their children had been born. Might they not rediscover there some peace and quiet, and if not the forgetfulness, then the abatement of their sorrows. They had retired to the old family home in Hoogstraat, a few paces from the Groote Markt. It was one of those old hostels which mysteriously preserve under its black stones the sadness of many generations.
For a long time Louise's health had been shaky, the shock to her system only slowly fading. The least incident that woke her terrible memories plunged her back into dangerous hysterics. Villiers had himself tried to tear himself away from his perpetual worries by devoting himself to starting a business. His brother, Peter Villiers, a chemist, who had, when the catastrophe took place, been joining them in Sumatra, had done all his power in order to stimulate new interests in him.
As director of the famed Vanderheim Co., which owned gold mines and held investments throughout the world, he had made William an associate in the business. But the latter, while consciensciously fulfilling the administrative functions he had accepted, was entirely indifferent to the ambitious schemes whose secrets his brother revealed to him. Then again, the years had passed and time, which softens the greatest sorrows had exerted its beneficent influence on Wilhelm and his wife. But as healed as she was, the wound they had received was still painful.
What of Margaret? She had grown up and was now fifteen. She was a beautiful tall young lady, graced with blond hair and blue eyes, the admirable complexion of Dutch girls, and the fine constitution she held from her French heritage. She was devoted to her mother with all the passion of a loving daughter. She remembered the terrible events she had been mixed up in her childhood, and had not forgotten her dear little brother who had been so good to her and whom she had then already considered as her protector. She had taken on the mission of doubly cherishing her mother, for her sake, and for that of the one she had lost.
Louise enumerated to herself these tokens of great goodwill and was most beholden to her, but she could not forget the other, held in regret, who would now be almost twenty, on whose arm she would have leaned. How proud she would have been to see him, tall and handsome, strolling on the great Rosenboom promenade! And in the smiles she gave her daughter, there always remained a crease of eternal regret, with the thought --- that is the selfishness of mothers --- that the day would come when a man would take her daughter, far, far away, leaving her alone with her anguish.
Her only joy, most precarious indeed, was to read all that was recently published regarding the island of Sumatra: was it an unavowed hope that guided her? Did she hope to one day find a clue, a detail overlooked by all that would reveal the existence of her son? She no longer believed, no longer wanted to acknowledge his death, and oddly enough, when, slightly feverish, she stated to Margaret that her brother was still alive, that she felt him, sensed him. The young girl did not refute her, but shook her head and whispered:
One day, in the Rotterdamsche Dagblad, Louise Villiers came across an article. A lecture was being given at the Academy of Sciences titled: EXPLORATIONS IN CENTRAL SUMATRA Gold mines --- Man's ancestors. Margaret had noticed this announcement, but had not pointed it out to her mother, out of fear that in reading the name of the lecturer, she might give away her ingenuous awkwardness by the trembling of her voice. Two years before a young doctor with ties to the Vanderheim Co. had said to Margaret:
"Will you be my bride?"
Margaret had blushed, but her eyes had not said no.
"Your bride!" she spoke softly. "I'm rather young and perhaps we shall have to wait quite some time. Besides, you know of the bereavement that hangs over my parents home, you know the sad state of my mother...I neither want to or could ever leave her. My only role here on Earth is to replace the son she has lost."
"I know of this terrible adventure." had answered Frederik Leven, --- such was the young man's name. "But you, in turn, listen to me. Do you yourself believe in your brother's death?"
"Alas, how can one have any doubt of it? All the same."
"Tell me all you are thinking. I am and always will be your friend, at least."
"Well then...please don't laugh at me...I have a sort of persistent, unshakeable feeling that tells me that my brother is still alive...Do you believe in dreams?"
"Hmm," answered the scientist, smiling, "I have little faith in the incredible. Nonetheless, who knows? As Hamlet said 'there are greater mysteries between heaven and Earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy.' Speak with no fear of being ridiculed." "Well, here it is, at night, in a sort of half-waking state, I see my brother once again...not as child but as an a man, big and strong as I knew my father...he is surrounded by strange creatures that resemble apes, but aren't, as they speak...like a savage's life, but with some hard to define semblance of a primitive civilisation. I well know that what I tell you must seem crazy...yet...the power of this vision, the constant repetition of the same details has led me to a this belief...I have never spoken of it to my poor mother, though, a thousand times, I wished to tell her of my thoughts. If my dreams were true! if my brother still lived in the depths of the central island, in those forests where, I have been told, no European has ever penetrated."
Frederik had not interrupted the young maiden.
"I do not believe in dreams," he said at last, "I believe in science...but, oddly enough, the slumber- borne illusions you have described to me concur with certain, yet unconfirmed but plausible reports. A number of explorers have stated that in Java and in Sumatra there exists or has existed creatures which would occupy a position midway between the simian and human races. This is a most fascinating problem, and it is my intention to attempt to solve it."
"What do you mean?"
"This, that if I was so forward as to question you; if, having so far hidden the deepest emotions you evoke in me, I have now asked you whether you would be betrothed to my heart, my companion in days to come, it is that I am going to leave."
"I have been hired by the Vanderheim Co. to lead explorations in the island of Sumatra, where, according to all accounts, large gold deposits are to be found. I will be gone for at least two years and I wished to bring along with me some hope. Will you afford it me?"
"With all my heart, but remember that I will never leave my mother."
"I remember, but who knows what the future will bring. I promise that I will at the very least make every attempt to rediscover, if it is possible after so many years, traces of your brother, and what if your dream were to be true!"
And Leven had left: the girl had followed, step by step, in the Javanese newspapers, the explorer who had courted many dangers and little by little developed a well-deserved reputation of courage and erudition. He was now on his way back, and announcement of the conference was like a calling card that would fall under the scrutiny of she who had stayed his betrothed in both heart and soul.
Mrs. Villiers did not know of this: young women have little secrets which they like to keep in the deepest recesses of their soul. And did Margaret not know that she had not the right to leave her mother? What good could come from inflicting a new sorrow upon her? However, Mrs Villiers seemed particularly interested by the announcement.
"Frederik Leven!" she exclaimed in reading the name, "is he not the young man in which your father is so interested and whom we have on occasion met with him?"
"Yes, yes...indeed, I believe so," said the young woman.
"I know that Wilhelm made much of him: he frequently told me that if our poor George had lived, he would have liked him to be like this young man. Listen, Margaret," added Louisa, with an unusual restlessness, "if you wish we shall attend this lecture."
"Dearest mother!" the young girl cried out as she ran to Louise and wrapped her arms around her neck. Mrs Villiers did not guess the emotion which, along with filial love, provoked this demonstration of affection.
"So you'll consent to come along with me?"
"Fine! we'll discuss it with your father tonight."
Villiers did not have, as one would expect, any objection to put forth. As for himself, he would forgo it, never going out at night or seeking any distractions outside business hours. However, he declared that he found Frederik Leven a most likable fellow and that Mr. Vanderheim held him in great esteem, especially since his investigations had apparently been crowned with success and that he had brought back some of the most complete information on the gold mines and primitive races of Sumatra.
Margaret listened, attentive and pleasurably troubled. Thus did she spend the few days before the arrival of the steamer bearing Frederik Leven, in a heightened emotional state. With what great joy did she come, on that special day, to sit with her mother, in the front row of the great hall of the Academy of Sciences, which occupies, as is well known, a veritable palace near the Stock Exchange on the Blaak pier.
A royal magistrate attended the meeting, and all of the city's officials were in attendance, wishing to testify their esteem towards the young explorer. Eight o'clock rang, a great hush fell on the crowd.
Frederik Leven appeared at the podium. Blond, with thick hair pulled up on a wide and bulging brow, handsome in his high-buttoned frock-coat, in a near military stance, he discretely acknowledged the assembly who welcomed him with a salvo of applause. However, in his first survey of the crowd he had picked out she towards whom, during his long absence, all his thoughts had been turned, and amid the crowd that knew nothing of this idyll, two gazes met, renewing the past's delicate chain and a promise of the future.
In a very short speech, the burgmeister of Rotterdam presented the young speaker, child of the ancient city of Four Lions (these emblems appearing on the city's coat of arms), who well deserved the praise of former colonists for his services, and who, all led to hope, would renew and expand commerce. He then gave the floor to Frederik Leven.
Without emphasis, with a simplicity not without charm, the young man began his presentation. He spoke of the superb vistas of the island he explored, described the progress achieved since the conquest, the happy condition of the islanders, and the blessing of an fair and almost paternal administration. The insurrections were more and more scarce. The European domination, capable in its handling of the country's sensitive issues, was accepted in good faith.
The naturally somewhat optimistic picture which the affable and high toned speaker outlined was met with signs of unanimous approval. This allowed the young man to adress, in a more than simply rhetorical manner, the obligation of the conquerors to bring civilization to the natives.
"All violence," he said, "breeds violence: our role is to persuade, teach, to raise the thoughts and conscience: in this only is the justification for conquest."
Margaret thanked the speaker with a slight bow of her head: encouraged, he moved on to the second item of his presentation, information gathered on the country's metallic riches.
They were considerable, but difficult to exploit. One needed to proceed methodically, first to clear the land, then build roads. Turning to a blackboard, he indicated with a few chalk lines the island's system of waterways, showing in which directions the penetration should occur. In addition, one must especially not forget that the wilds were infested with fierce beasts, who, for centuries had made them their domain.
While he had documented the existence of precious minerals, and had brought back the proof that a well-organised exploration would reap great rewards; however...and here he drew his listeners' complete attention to one of the strangest facts he had been given to witness.
Long hence had the island been visited by prospectors, who had boldly, at the risk of their very lives, penetrated inland to the unexplored regions. On a number of occasions they had thought the goal of their ambitions in hand, only to have their hopes dashed by an as yet unexplained phenomenon.
It is well know that gold is rarely found as pure nuggets or even as easily recognizable and collectable specks. In general, their discovery serves as an indication of where to search for larger deposits of pyrites, gold-bearing quartz, of sulphurous ores that make up what is termed the main lode. Guided by the discovery of small quantities of free gold, the prospectors ventured to the most inaccessible locations of the central plateau, frequently recognizing what were clearly large deposits.
Encouraged by their findings, they returned to the population centres, bearing a few ounces of gold powder gathered on their way to prove the truth of their tales. An expedition was organized and pushed into the mountainous solitudes, to the region of Merapi...and here is where the mystery begins. On their way the explorers found only very rare traces of gold, infinitesimal and worthless. When they reached the deposits of pyrites or quartz that had excited their lust --- justified by the analysis that had been made of the material --- all they found before them were black muddy masses wherein not a trace of gold could be found.
"I myself followed one of these expeditions" said the speaker, "and every time the prospectors statements were refuted by such an event."
They defended their good faith with an energy which was certainly not without some probative value; was one to believe that in their passion for discovery they were the victims of some sort of mirage? The young speaker would not venture to say, but that of which he was certain was that, without pushing all the way into the unknown regions, it was possible, even easy to carry on mining operations that would return dividends on the funds invested.
His experience as a geologist had definitely assured him of the presence of gold-bearing minerals, and the diagrams and mineral samples he had brought back would convince even the most incredulous. If expeditions were undertaken methodically and not in the excited state under which ignorant prospectors operated, wandering at random, not following any scientific mode of inquiry, they could be successful. Following his speech he would present the minerals he had personally gathered and which would support his assertions.
However, before ending his talk, there remained a most singular and important question to deal with, as it concerned the history of humankind, its origin and its development.
"First of all," continued the speaker, "I must tell you of the explanation given by the natives for the prospectors lack of success. According to them, these prospectors did indeed find gold, did indeed discover deposits, and --- their imaginations helping out --- the Acehs and Battaks assert that there are nearby caves entirely carpeted in gold, rising from the rock in needles. But these treasures are guarded by monstrous creatures which devote themselves to keeping it from men, their enemies. If a human manages to discover the caves' existence, they destroy them. These mysterious creatures are called Tang-Tomis in Malay, the Gold-slayers.
"Naturally, my listeners, you will understand," continued Leven, "the disbelief with which I greeted such yarns. However, when studied these tales which differ in their details, have, however, certain common threads. I've become convinced that on the high plateaus, isolated from the rest of the world by impenetrable thickets, there exist what are probably very small tribes, which, however, bear most interesting characteristics. Let me state my thoughts in all candour: who may constitute what Darwin termed the "missing link," a being intermediate between our simian ancestors...and man!"
Here the speaker was suddenly interrupted:
"It is not true that man is descendant from the ape! Darwin is a fraud."
Very calmly, almost smiling, Leven allowed the storm to pass, supported by the near unanimous applause of his listeners. Finally, raising his hand, he begged for silence, his presence overcoming the trouble-makers.
"My colleagues," said he, "I make allowances for all points of view and would be most saddened were I to hurt anyone, but I am before all a man of science and stick to established facts. I maintain that there exists in Sumatra --- or at least existed at one time --- beings which, while not exactly like men, were however entirely superior to apes. This is what I propose to show you. My assertions are supported by the discovery of skeletal remains I made myself in Sumatra. I see amongst those assembled the venerable master- scientist Valtenius, the world's premiere anatomist, to whom scientists of all countries pay homage."
"I beg him to come forward, here beside me, to examine the skeletal remains of which I speak, and give his opinion."
Dr. Valtenius, a true glory of Dutch science, had rather retrograde opinions, he did not accept new ideas until they had passed through the crucible of the most exacting criticism and did not admit to Darwin and Haeckel's theories without serious restrictions. To appeal to his enlightenment was to prove one's impartiality and sincere desire to know all the truth. Besides, the doctor --- an elderly man with long white hair --- had risen and had said aloud:
"Young man, I am at the assembly's disposal, but promise me not bear a grudge if I destroy your illusions."
"Master, I give you my word to accept your opinion without uttering the least protest."
"Bravo! bravo! Valtenius! To the podium."
Upon a sign from Leven servants had brought out a chest which they had placed on the table. Valtenius, still nimble for his age had quickly climbed the stage steps, impatient to entertain the terms of the problem which would be presented him. Everyone rose in their seats to see better. Leven had looked at Margaret and had noticed a shadow of worry on her face, no doubt she was apprehensive that her friend become the victim of discomfiture. With a small gesture of the hand, which she only would have noticed, he reassured her.
Nonetheless the chest had been opened and the skeletal remains removed and spread out on the table. Leven had stepped back to allow Dr. Valtenius every liberty in making his examination.
The latter had, during his initial preparations, one must admit, borne a smile the irony of which was clear to all: these young whippersnappers, how easily were they led into the arena of hypotheses! How quickly this one would fall back from dreams to reality. Now silence had returned, profound and respectful. Upon his first glance over the bones spread out before him, he had let out an exclamation of surprise, had bent over, stood up, placed on the nose-piece he always wore a pair of glasses, and gesticulating, taking up each litiginous object one by one, weighed them, ferreted out their secrets, so to speak.
"It's incredible!" he finally cried out.
"Speak, speak!" rose from every mouth.
A current of curiosity swept over them: the demon of science held sway over all and tightened about every chest.
"A chair," uttered Valtenius. "I don't know...but the excitement...my legs are like putty under me."
And as people rushed to obey him, he drew himself up, violently pushed back the chair which tumbled down, and standing up began to speak glibly.
"Unheard of! preposterous!" he clamoured. "These are not the bones of a man and not those of an ape...Ah!, the brain..."
He let his fingers travel over a portion of the cranium, which he spun like a top:
"Roughly 600 cm3 of brain, while no human brain is of less than 1100-1200 cm3...and then, the most remarkable thing of all, while no ape, gorilla or orang-outang has any more than 350-400. This, an ape skull, never! but a man's skull, neither! It situates itself somewhere in the middle."
"An ape? No sirree! here, clearly traced on the internal face are the convolutions of the brain, and that of articulate speech, so ably determined by Broca! it is visible, evident...it does not exist among the apes!"
"And it is not the skull of a man, as even the most inferior races do not have a low and retreating brow, this prominent frontal beetling."
"But," he continued, in greater and greater excitement, brandishing a huge femur, "this isn't from an ape, an ape walks on all fours, it is from an animal with an upright stance. The bone is, however, stronger than in man and he to whom it belonged must have been a damned good tree climber."
"This creature...this man, truly I don't know which term to us, would have stood some 1.70 m tall, and my goodness! this tooth, you hadn't shown me this tooth. and this piece of jaw-bone...no ape jaw, this...nor that of a man, one cannot say anything, my friend, but that this creature is exactly half-way between man and ape!"
"But," he continued, in greater and greater excitement, brandishing a huge femur.
Margaret, transported with enthusiasm, interjected, "the missing link!" in a soft voice.
"Well, so much for that!" Valtenius cried out, "I'm seventy-six and I've been through a lot, but goodness, I wasn't expecting, at my age to receive such a body blow! Ah! young man," he said raising his hand towards Leven, "you can boast of having raised quite a stir in me!"
He broke off, as if struck by a sudden idea, and spoke up again:
"Had he been right, that poor Van Kock whom all so scoffed at? He who, after a trip to Java, had claimed to have seen with his own eyes the Anthropopithecus!"
"So, dear professor," Levin went on, "you admit that there could have existed --- that there may exist such creatures midway between man and ape?"
"Certainly! yes I admit it! unless I were blind or lying, and I am neither. See, I am dumbfounded! Let's see, would you like to come and chat with me tomorrow morning?"
"Certainly, dear professor, it would be a great honour for me and a great joy."
"Marvellous! and now, to show those assembled here that I hold you as my scientific equal --- I will not say my superior as I am unfortunately too old --- let me embrace you."
And the good professor placed on each of Leven's cheeks a resounding kiss. Lengthy applause saluted this act of scientific mentoring. Now orderliness broke down, everyone was climbing on the stage and jostling one another in an effort to have a closer look at the remains of the Anthropopithecus, of the ape-man.
Margaret had taken her mother along with her. She drew near Leven and in a spontaneous gesture, extended her hand to him:
"Ah! you have no idea how happy I am!" she said softly.
"Come to the Science Institute's laboratory tomorrow, I will show you a document, which, I am sure, will very much interest you. Would you, at three o'clock?"
"I'll be there...alone?"
"Yes, please. You can then decide what revelations you can make to madam, your mother."
People had calmed down. Leven finished his address, speaking with all the scientific passion which filled his soul. According to him, there were great sacrifices to be made, a great deal of work to be accomplished, but no doubt that the definitive exploration of Sumatra would yield its bold conquerors veritable triumphs, both in the scientific and commercial domains...but would there be men sufficiently venturesome to risk sufficient capital?"
"Mr. Frederik Leven," a voice spoke up, "you forget that you belong to the firm of Vanderheim... which should tell you that these rash men, as you call them, are already found... and as early as tomorrow the details of a new expedition, which we ask you to lead, will be mapped out, assuming you agree to expatriate yourself once more."
"Yes, yes," cried out the listeners. "He must return! He has no right to escape his duty."
"You see," said Vanderheim, "vox populi... vox Dei!"
Leven replied, smiling:
"Certainly I do not reject a priori the honourable mandate with which my country wishes to entrust me...but you will allow me however, my dear patrons and all of you my good friends and compatriots, to think it over for a few days."
And he added, lowering his voice:
"I may perhaps have to take care of a few personal matters."
"My dear scholar, do take your time," said Vanderheim. "Tomorrow we'll chat about all that, but for now I ask Dr. Valtenius to take the floor. We too must, in our patriotic duty, assure Holland's glory in these possible discoveries."
"But, but...certainly!" the called upon professor replied. "Ah! were I but twenty years old, thirty, fifty! But drats! seventy-six!"
He broke off suddenly:
"Ha! ha!" he spoke up, rising to his feet, "Who knows?"
Margaret and her mother had returned to the hostel in Hoogstraat in a state of great excitement. Once they were alone, Louisa Villiers, in tears, threw herself upon the sofa.
"Mother! Mother!" cried out the young girl, running to her and hugging her, "why cry? from whence these emotions?"
"Ah! dear child, how can it be that you have not understood? As I listened to this young man, I played over in my mind the terrible scene during which your brother, my darling George, disappeared...and I don't know what sort of crazy hope crossed my mind! Who knows if in that impenetrable wilderness, the description of which terrified me, my son, your brother does not yet live!"
"Well! I must admit, mother, as I listened to him --- Mr. Leven --- a sort of involuntary hope rose in me."
"So you see!"
"And I regretted not being a man, not being able, me too, to give myself over to such heroic explorations."
"Really! you would wish to be involved in such studies?"
Margaret looked at her mother. Yes, the thought had arisen in her, but did she dare express it? At that moment, Wilhelm Villiers entered his wife's room. Drawn on by an uncontrollable curiosity, he came to inquire about this exchange, the subject of which he could not help but be preoccupied about. He asked, and his wife told him of the feelings she had experienced.
Villiers listened to her patiently.
"I'm afraid," he said, "that our friend Leven is letting himself be drawn along by his passion for science. That the island of Sumatra houses gold mines, that has long been proven. However, when it comes to primitive races, close to humans, those are but, I believe, worthless fantasies."
"Nonetheless, Dr. Valtenius seemed convinced."
"I don't deny his opinion weighs in heavily, but he too may have succumbed to an impulse which will prove false upon mature reflection. As for our son, alas my dear Louise, you forget ten years have passed since the catastrophe of Kota- Rajia...can you pretend that, were he still alive he would not have found some way to communicate with the inhabitants of Sumatra? He would be twenty years old now...would you postulate him to be held in such close captivity as to make it impossible for him to contact humans? This would be believing in more than a miracle. If this lecture woke in you some painful delusions, I almost regret acceding to your wishes. Believe me, our George is truly lost to us forever. Besides, since Mr. Vanderheim is interested in these studies, we will chat with Leven tomorrow, and everything will come down to our commercial interests."
All night, Margaret was unable to sleep: some inexplicable emotion troubled her. She more than anyone had revelled in the success of the one she had chosen deep in her heart, she had savoured with delight the triumph afforded her in great measure by the young man's glances. Besides, she anxiously awaited the appointment the explorer had asked her to keep. In his tone she had read something mysterious and her greatly heightened curiosity suggested a number of hypotheses to her, accepted and rejected in turn.
At the approach of morning, at dawn, when succumbing to her fatigue she had dropped off into a light slumber, the dream which had already haunted her once, again took shape before her: there were deep woods, so thick that the branches hid the sky, the huge trunks forming an impenetrable enclosure around the clearing. In the half-light, strange outrageous bodies shifted about, creatures that bore the shape of men, but whose features she could not make out. In the middle of them she saw a pale- faced blond-haired young man, sitting atop a mound and seemingly talking to them, like a professor teaching his pupils.
The young man had George's features, as she remembered them from her childhood memories. Suddenly, amidst this deep peacefulness a storm arose, lightning broke through the tight canopy, the trees snapped, a burst of wind raced through destroying everything in its way. Margaret saw the strange creatures drop one by one, struck down by the lightning, and George who had remained alone, knelt beside a dead body and cried.
She woke with a start, horrified and ran to her window. The daylight was coming, with that deliciously softness of northern dawns. She breathed in deeply, tearing herself from the painful nightmare. After all, was it not perfectly natural for last night's worries to raise such visions in her brain? Were these not evoked by her sleep, and without any ties to reality?
She ran to her mother who fortunately had not been disturbed by the same hauntings. On the contrary she had regained her composure and gave her daughter a long hug, as if to prove to her that she was concentrating all the love in her heart upon her.
"You are at the same time my son and my daughter," she said to her. "Don't be jealous of the dear one we have lost, because I love him as reflected in you."
Margaret did not speak of the visit she had promised Leven to her mother. She found a pretext to go out with old Zabeth, her governess, in whose discretion she was assured.
When she reached the scientific institute, Leven was waiting for her. The young scientist quickly came up to her.
"Thanks for coming," he said. "Pardon me for having solicited this visit in a somewhat unconventional manner, but there are moments when secrecy is paramount, when certain revelations are so strange, so delicate that only the bravest souls can withstand them."
He led her into one of the laboratory rooms. Arranged on a long table, all sorts of mineral samples were on display. From a carefully locked drawer Leven drew out a rock, a sort of rounded and polished pebble.
"Listen to me, miss," he said in a voice trembling with emotion. "You trust me and do not believe me capable of playing on your deeply held emotions and respectability: draw upon all your self-control and look at this stone."
He placed it in the young girl's hands. She examined it, then cried out. On the smooth surface two letters stood out, deeply carved, a G and a V.
"What's this?" she cried out. "Where is this stone from? what do these letters mean?"
"Does it not seem to you," said Leven softly, "that they are initials?"
"There's no doubt of that! but again, where was this stone found?"
"In the bed of a torrent that clearly has it's origins in the central highlands of Sumatra. But, I beg you, examine the characters closely, they are rough and irregular; do they not seem to bear a personal component?"
Margaret had allowed herself to collapse onto a seat, so pale she seemed about to faint.
"G.V.," she muttered, "George Villiers!"
"Ah! Well I knew," exclaimed Leven, "that you would translate these two enigmatic letters as I do. But look more closely at them, is it not clear that they were traced out by a yet inexperienced hand, by the hand of a child?"
"Yes, yes, that's for sure. When my brother disappeared he was ten years old, and in Aceh he had only received, you understand, the most rudimentary of schooling."
"Don't forget," replied Leven, that the natives know nothing of European characters, their writing comes from Sanskrit. Thus these letters cannot have been traced out by other than a Dutchman. Now, this stone comes from a region where very few Europeans have penetrated. How long had it tumbled down the torrent from which I picked it up by chance? Now you understand why I wished to show this to you and you alone."
"I thank you, as my mother's emotional response would have been so powerful that it might have killed her, especially since, after all, there isn't in this any absolute proof of my brother's existence. If it's possible, even probable that these letters were carved by him, how long had that stone been sitting there where you picked it up?"
"I cannot answer that; however, there is in this a clear indication that your brother did not die immediately in the catastrophe which has been so often recounted to me. We must thus return to the hypothesis that, due to circumstances which escape us, he was led into the wilderness of Sumatra, and one day, obeying some vague hope or other of indicating his existence, he carved out the two letters on this stone, which he then left to fate. When did he do this? that we don't know. That's why I would not have wished to present your dear mother with such a precarious hope."
Margaret had regained her composure.
"Your discretion directed you well," she said, "and I'm infinitely grateful. I myself dare not hope that my brother is still alive, and yet...I don't doubt that it was my dear George who carved those characters...I want to believe, I believe he is alive...but at the same time I feel a most poignant sadness, thinking that I shall no doubt never see him again! And yet, if such a miracle could occur, that the greatly loved and lamented son were returned to his mother. Alas, it is impossible."
Big tears formed in Margaret's eyes as he said:
"Who knows?" said Leven. "Have you not heard Mr. Vanderheim pledge himself to organize an expedition. Certainly it would be very costly, and it would be tiring work, but it would be planned in such a manner that a methodical search would deliver all of Sumatra's secrets to the explorers.
"Yes, yes, I understand," said Margaret, shifting her hand over her heart, "and you are ready to take on this task? you will leave again...for years maybe...and I, I..."
She interrupted herself; she was crying.
Leven approached her, and took her hand, saying softly, "Margaret, I too sense how painful this separation would be, and I'll tell you something more, I don't wish to force it upon myself."
"What do you mean?"
"Truly," continued Leven, "I'm greatly honoured to have been chosen leader of an expedition whose scientific and commercial pursuits could bear huge dividends! but what is that compared to a lifetime of happiness...and my happiness is not in Sumatra, it is here! Say the word, Margaret and I will turn down the mission they wish to confer on me."
"Oh! no, don't do that!" cried out the young woman. "I have no right to tear apart your life, a great future presents itself to you, thanks to the confidence Mr. Vanderheim has in you and which you so richly deserve, think no more of me, I give you back your freedom."
"And if I refused it? Margaret, listen to me, as you yourself have said, my employers' confidence in me imposes certain obligations which it would be difficult for me to shirk, nonetheless I would be ready to refuse this assignment, but I feel I have another duty, to solve the life and death questions which lie hidden in the Malaysian wilderness. I want to know the truth, to know whether all hope of finding your brother should truly be abandoned. You see I am torn between such widely scattered emotions that I don't dare decide one way or another, yet, this I know, Margaret, I cannot live without you."
Margaret blushed red with a feeling of deepest delight.
"Mr. Leven", said she, "if I understand you well, if you are thinking of refusing the mission Mr. Vanderheim has offered you, it is because you would be most distressed to leave me, to be separated from me."
"A sadness so great that I don't think I'd have the strength to bear it."
"Who tells you I could bear it?"
"I in turn will tell you that I have no right to keep you here, not only because your entire future is linked with this expedition, but more so because, as long as the faintest hope of finding my beloved brother exists, it would be criminal to give up now...so I beg you to go."
"What do you mean?"
"If memory serves," said Margaret smiling, "the law says the wife must follow her husband everywhere."
"Go ask my father for my hand in marriage and I will obey the law!"
"Ah! How good you are to me and how I love you! But do I in turn have the right to take hold of your life, to expose you to the strains and dangers which await us?"
"I am strong and courageous, and I shall be worthy of you. Must I not also sacrifice myself for my brother's sake?"
At that very moment, the laboratory's door slammed open and Dr. Valtenius appeared on the threshold, his head uncovered, his hair tousled:
"I can't stand it!" He cried out. "I haven't slept all night! All I dreamt of were apes that were men and who mocked my ignorance. Mr. Leven, when you leave for Sumatra, will you allow me to accompany you? I know I'm not twenty any more, but I'm still hearty, solid on my feet and clear- sighted...seventy-six I am, but one could say that's twice thirty-eight. Tell me you accept!"
"Wholeheartedly, dear professor," said Leven squeezing both his hands in his own, "however, I would ask you for a couple of days' grace."
"Alright, but don't delay too much, at my age, you know, one cannot wait too long. What the devil keeps us here?"
"A most important reason," said Leven laughing, "I only ask you leave me time to marry, I present you my wife!"
"You are to wed Miss Villiers. Good, very good, that's your business, I'm not saying you're wrong to do so, but, dang it, hurry up!"
A few days later a mysterious scene played itself out in another part of Rotterdam.
There was on the shore of the Haringvliet, near the old West bridge, a inn of ill repute, at the sign of the Black Lion. It was a den of laid-off sailors, deserters, the dregs of adventurers of all sorts, which community forms, in sea ports, a group open to giving a hand in any enterprise, even criminal.
That night, a tall man, wrapped in an overcoat which hid his clothing and wearing an oversized hat which hid his features, had entered the said inn by a back door. The innkeeper, a stout gnome-like creature who had had numerous scrapes with the law, was both in the confidence of and accomplice to all the illegal undertakings which were commonplace to his clients. He had bowed deeply to the man who had just arrived and had led him to a private room, off the common room where the drunkards were mixing loudly.
"Your lordship is early," he said. "But Capt. Ned should be here any minute, I know that boy, he's punctuality personified."
"Very well," said the other. "Bring a bottle of gin and two glasses, then, as soon as the man arrives, bring him in here. Above all, be careful, keep in mind that the least indiscretion would cost you dearly...and you know that if I reward well those who serve me, I know how to punish those who would turn on me."
"Don't worry, I know my people," said the Black Lion's innkeeper. "You are among those one doesn't want to rub the wrong way, and besides, here's your man. I'll make sure nobody bothers you."
He slipped aside to allow the one he had named Capt. Ned to enter. A real old salt, with a tanned face, a short beard covering all of his lower face and sideburns.
The gin having been brought, the two men were alone.
"Well, captain, have you succeeded?"
"Excellently, Mr. Koolman, you will be pleased."
"No need to say my name here. So you've understood, I need fifty solid determined men, strapping fellows who will not back down from any task."
"Fifty crooks!" stated Ned simply.
Koolman --- such was his name --- grimaced slightly.
"You are rather blunt," he said, "let us rather say adventurers. In short, have you able to collect such a crew?"
"Done, I chose them myself. One could search all the prisons in Europe and not come up with better!"
Koolman held back a gesture of impatience, the other's bluntness annoyed him. Truly, as much as Capt. Ned's face spoke of a frank impudent roguery, exhibiting a sort of brutal handsomeness, so much was Mr. Koolman's tainted by the stigmata of vulgarity and hypocrisy. One could expect no less of him than lies and double-crosses. He was clean-shaven, sallow-hued, ugly, and shifty-eyed.
"And these men are ready to ship out?"
"Absolutely, ready as soon as I pay them their agreed upon advance of one hundred florins per head."
"Good, I will give you the money."
He drew from his pocket a wallet swollen with bills.
"Just a minute," Ned spoke up. Before we wrap up, I need to talk to you, to ask you to give me some details about certain things."
Koolman nearly jumped out of his seat: the tone of these words had greatly angered him.
"Details?" he replied. "Well! master Ned, you seem to think a great deal of yourself, undoubtedly you forget that one word from me and you are lost."
"Hmm! I know that full well, Mr. Koolman. I know all too well that I am in your power, because of that damn counterfeiting scheme I was so stupid as to admit to you."
"And to supply me with the proof, remember that!"
"Yes, yes, I know, I'm a loser, I don't disagree, but at least I have an excuse. Hounded by bad luck I've pursued every trade and have succeeded in none, and were I to wish to become an honest man again I couldn't. It's actually the only career that is not open to me. But this is not about me, but about you."
"Well yes. If I'm a crook one can account for that, I have no other trade, but you, Mr. Koolman, cannot use this excuse."
"What, what are you saying? You dare!"
"I allow myself to believe that if Mr. Koolman, former partner of the Vanderheim firm, with a fortune of hundreds of thousands of florins, invites Capt. Ned, a gallows-bird, to recruit on his behalf a crew of former or future convicts, it isn't only to bounce a few ideas off them. I propose that it is to have them commit one or more crimes, and so I have reason to be surprised, and I am. It's not clear to me what going on, and I like to see what I'm getting into. So, Mr. Koolman, before wrapping up and putting my friends at your disposal I want --- ; you understand --- ; I want to know where we are going, why we are leaving, and more or less what our assignment will consist of."
"Truly you are most impudent! And if I were to refuse to answer?"
"I would tell you to keep your money, and I would keep my men, you understand. This is not a pang of conscience, that's something I'm long cured of, but let us suppose that Mr. Koolman for some doubtful speculation or other, wished, for example, to make a killing by taking out insurance on a ship that would go down at sea...it's been done, its barratry and it pays big!"
"I swear that it's nothing like that!" exclaimed Koolman.
"I could list a number of other schemes just as compromising to the health of the crew, but that would lead us too far afield. If it is nothing like that, tell me what it's all about."
Koolman thought for a moment:
"Why not after all? I have too much of a hold on you for you to turn on me. What I want to do is to take revenge on the firm of Vanderheim!"
"Bah! an associate's grudge, things are getting clearer. And what the devil did the Vanderheims do to you...you were such good friends."
"What I want to do is to take revenge on the firm of Vanderheim!"
"And now we are enemies, bitter enemies. They humiliated me, expressed their suspicions regarding my honesty."
"Impossible," replied Ned, in a serious tone which the ironic twist of his lips belied.
"They insolently criticized my management methods, when I was directing our colonial business with energy and a steady hand."
"Ah! yes," Ned interrupted again, "that story of two hundred Malays gassed in a cave."
"They played the humanitarians, those idiots think that you can handle those brutes like men, and since I refused to listen to their squalling, they turned the board of directors and the stockholders against me, I was forced to resign. Well, Ned, I vowed to make them pay dearly for the affronts I have suffered, and that is why I need you."
"Bravo!" cried out Ned. "Now that's getting it out. Now it's clear, crystal clear! Good frank hatred, it explains everything."
"And that hatred I have in the deepest part of me, for the Vanderheims and for that damn Villiers, the man of integrity they call him, my greatest adversary. Oh! I'll find a way to avenge myself on him too. So, under these conditions, can I count on you?"
"Absolutely! My men and I are all yours! But, tell me, what will your role be in all of this?"
"I will be your leader, undeclared, of course."
"You will leave with us?"
"No, but I will reach our destination at the same time, and according to circumstances, I will act."
"Alright, and where are we going?"
"A lovely country where there are fortunes to be made."
"And where I want the Vanderheims to come to ruin. You know the country?"
"Damn sure! I served during the conquest. How many of those Malays and Aceh did I kill, how many of those Sakays and Battaks did I hunt down!"
"It will be for such hunting that I will use you. By the way, when is the Borean, which is to take the Leven mission to Malaysia due to leave?"
"On behalf of the Vanderheims! Ha ha! Now I begin to understand! It is against that scientist and his team that we will have to act."
"Perhaps. One way or the other, complete secrecy."
"Relax, I just wanted to have a clear picture --- light has been shed and I'm your man. So, to answer your question, the Borean leaves in 10 days, this delay being necessary to allow the marriage of Leven with Margaret. Come to think of it, Villiers! that Leven becomes your enemy's son-in- law. Everything's coming together! This could be fun!"
"You talk too much, mind your own business. Here are the five thousand florins for your men, plus five thousand for you, I leave the Porpoise in your hands."
"Ah! the nice little steamer? now there's one that sails like the wind."
"First thing tomorrow, you'll board and supply the ship. You will register for Malacca, with ports of call along the coast of Sumatra. Of course, I don't appear anywhere in any of this, the steamer is rented in your name, and you're in charge of everything."
"And when do we leave?"
"Twenty-four hours before the Borean, whose progress will be slower, which will allow you to outstrip it by two days. You will put in at Banda Aceh and will wait for me there."
"O.K., you can count on me!"
And Ned held out his open hand to Koolman, who put his hand in it, with a wry face.
Leven and Margaret's marriage had taken place. Villiers and Louise had accepted this painful sacrifice, without the youngsters revealing all their hopes. And, on the date set, the young couple went aboard the Borean with Peter Villiers, the chemist, Margaret's uncle.
A few minutes before departure, a man ran unto the deck. It was Dr. Valtenius crying out: "Dang it! you're not going to forget me, at least!"
None knew that Hate had gone out ahead, the night before, on the Porpoise.
Lermina: Goldslayer | Part 2 | Part 3 |
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