More on Lermina (in French): 1, 2
Suggest by Marc Madourand
|Part I: Mayha's Torments.|
|Part II: Margaret's Dream continued|
|Part III: In Aapland continued|
In Kota-Rajia kraton, rising ærie-like above the Kroung-Daroub river, on the northern headland of the island of Sumatra, the Orang-Aceh defended themselves against the Dutch conquerors with a courage born of desperation.
People of violent manners, with an instinct for pillage, the Aceh seemed untamable; their sultan, Mahmoud Shah, shut up in the lofty and savage kraton fortress, perched upon a mass of inaccessible crag, fended off all attacks, directing with a savage energy his troops, whose corpses afforded an impenetrable barrier. About the Master, servant of Allah, the chiefs of barbaric and fearless tribes were assembled. Fanatical, contemptuous of death, they forgot their intestine quarrels in this ultimate crisis, gathering hastily to offer resistance to the invader.
All were in attendance: the cattle-slaughterers of Wasla; the oobo-oobo-, jellyfish- and octopus-eaters of Malaboch; the Malivang, come forth from the impenetrable gorges of Lake Tola; even those of Tibab on the southern headland, near the Straits of Sund. Hatred of the foreigner, of the civilized, the 'roumi,' united these most disparate of peoples under the acknowledged authority of the sultan's three great panglimas (lieutenants): Toukou Ibrahim, Lord of the twenty-six moukims (districts); Toukou Polim, who commanded twenty-two moukims; and Toukou Lampasay, chief of twenty-five.
For nine years the war had raged, tenacious and indefatigable on the part of the Dutch, furious and desperate by the Aceh, audacious pirates who repelled the intrusion of Europeans, the detested white man. For centuries, sheltered in the deep coves of their rivers, they had watched the ships. Like albatross, they would suddenly and without warning swoop down on them. Their pillaging and murderous ways terrorized the Indian Ocean and Straits of Malacca. The islands of Bali, Nias and Raopat were nothing but a nest of pirates, from which, every day, these vultures of the sea came forth, making passage impossible. Oulaylay, the port of Kota-Rajia, was the lair from which the Aceh pirates sprang. Edi, on the strait, threatened the merchant marine headed for Singapore.
After long parleys, after small battles in which the advantage had remained with the Aceh, the Dutch has decided to expend an ultimate effort. In 1872, a first ultimatum had been sent to the sultan, who had answered with insolent bravado: by 1878 the attack had begun in earnest and powerful artillery was bombarding Oulaylay. Yet, before the powerful Aceh resistance, the Dutch had had to fall back.
General Kohler, leader of the expedition had been killed, after him colonel van Gogh, then general van Swieten, who, for an instant, had believed these untamable people tamed, until he encountered a new, even more determined, revolt. During a raid into the twenty-six moukims, general Pel fell, according to some in an apoplectic fit, according to sinister but plausible rumours, poisoned. Finally, general Dianout, giving up on victory, gave up the fight, leaving colonel van der Hyeden in command.
And now the supreme test had come: at Samalaga, the colonel, shot in the head, blinded by blood, had stayed on the battle field until the trumpets had told him of the victory. For the first time, before this man who seemed to cheat death, a breath of fear had wafted over the lands of the Aceh. One sensed that the hour of truth was at hand.
That day, on the great square before the kraton, where the invisible and still-feared sultan stood, the leaders had gathered the men and their tribes. The news of a new defeat had arrived: a hundred Battaks had been surrounded in the bed of a ravine and had been massacred to the last. This was a fierce and pitiless war. The Acehs fury turned to madness: men, frenzied, kriss in hand, drove through the crowd as if drunk or epileptic, wounding and killing all those they could lay their hands on. It was the amok, the Malaysians' bloody delirium which burst out under this paroxysm of despair.
The panglima of Pedir, a superbly proportioned, giant of a warrior, had leapt to the stele, the remains of some ancient Buddhist pagoda, and, his two fists raised to the sky, brandishing a serrated sabre, cried vengeance:
"No! we, the free Orangs, shall never retreat before the eternal enemy! There must be erected, in every corner of the land, beatangs (improvised redoubts) from whence poisoned arrows could fly. Each tree, each fold in the terrain would conceal an avenger! No one is to lose courage, ever! For every child of Aceh fallen, thousands would rise to take their places"
Already the arrival of the kedjouronan of Passangau, the powerful rajah who disposed of eight thousand spearmen, had been announced. Allah would protect his children, and the greasy whites (the Dutch), damn them, would be tossed into the sea friend of the Aceh as bait for the sharks.
Frenzied cries and acclamations, akin to roaring beasts, resounded in answer to these exhortations, and above their heads the air was swarming with steel. Suddenly, a clamour arose:
"To the Three-Tiered mountain!"
And, from every breast rose the cry of:
"To the mountain! Allah! Allah!"
Some distance from the kraton, a strange monument from the era of idolatry less distant than the Muslim conversion might suggest had served for human sacrifices, and since then had been reserved for executions. Enormous egg-shaped stones formed an almost uninterrupted guard-rail around each tier, through which one could still see the evidence of past bloodshed.
The call had been heard and had given way to a general frenzy. By way of the great avenue facing the kraton, from the door to Pontay-Perak, along the Kroung Daroub, the crowd had rushed, lifting upon its shoulders the panglimas and kedjouronans who, brandishing their serrated goloks, roared out their furious cries.
And when this great human wave, far more sinister than one upon the sea, passed before the gloumpang, a tree whose boughs resembled the spread-out plumage of a bird, and beneath which general Kohler had been killed during the attack upon the mosque (missighit), there was a great explosion of howling which had lost all semblance of humanity.
The race continued thrusting forward haphazardly, as if each group sought individually to reach the goal first the Three- Tiered mountain the foundation of which now delineated itself above the banana, grapefruit and koupoulos trees, themselves dominated by the sumptuous soukouw or breadfruit, its huge leaves deployed in an emerald canopy.
They had arrived; upon a signal all voices were suddenly quieted. From the shoulders that bore them, the great leaders had been hoisted to the first tier. There, having sat upon the brilliantly white, oval stones, they remained still, eyes lowered, waiting for Allah's protection to manifest itself by some tangible sign.
There then rose from the crowd, muffled, sussurating, somewhat ill-defined, a murmur one might have thought to be issuing from the bowels of the earth, a soft and mysterious rumbling. From all these men, lately so angry and loud, half- closed lips gave forth sounds in a barely perceptible unity. Little by little, in imperceptible steps, grew the hymn of ancient times, of when the Acehs sought to mimic the rustles and murmurs of Nature, an invocation both supplicatory and passionate to the mysterious forces occupying land and sky.
The leaders had risen, and, above this strange prayer of a thousand sighs, had cried forth in loud strident bursts the name of Allah. Suddenly, as if the Mohammadan God had decided to answer these imperious petitions, unexpectedly and almost instantaneously the scene on the monument changed. On the second and third tiers, in every corner, between and atop every rounded stone, naked men had suddenly sprung up, brandishing blades and assegai, creatures of fantasy evoked in a legend-inspired dream.
The Sakays! the Sakays! the wild people of the Malacca peninsula, denizens of the jungle, having little intercourse with other men, and who had, until now, remained indifferent to the battles raging in Sumatra. They had appeared out of nowhere, in great numbers, and energetic. The Aceh leaders extended their hands towards them, called to them, encouraging them to approach. A bold and combative race, the Sakay, who had swum across the straits, still appeared hesitant to give up their isolation and join their fellows.
But one of them stepped out from among them, and, clearing in one bound the span from a lower tier to that above, a jump of no less than four metres prostrated himself before the Toukou, panglima of twenty-six moukims. Raising his foot, the panglima placed it upon the Sakay's head to complete his act of submission.
The Sakay who had thus prostrated himself before the panglima was a horrible sight. While his companions, energetic, tall, strapping, with abundant black hair and powerful muscles gave the impression of creatures drawing their vitality from the primary elements of Nature, this one was a monster of a sort, shrunken by human misery. Lean, skinny, with bones showing through his parchment-thin, squamous, leprous-like skin, his eyes ringed by a scarlet ridge, this spectre, escaped from some diabolical haunt, nonetheless enjoyed a universal reputation within the archipelago. Of the Sakay, he was the only one to have travelled throughout Malaysia, he was said to be a sage, a sorcerer, a healer. He had command over the lightning and the rain, and he commanded a respectful terror.
The panglima had brought him to his feet, and now, between the two men, the Sakay and the Aceh, a low-voiced colloquy had begun.
Igli-Otou, such was the name of the name of the Sakay, was animate in his speech, his emaciated arms waving about violently. The panglima listened attentively to him, and when the Sakay was finished, gestured to his two colleagues the panglimas of twenty-two and of twenty-five moukims.
Frightful in his ugliness, almost beautiful by excess of hideousness, Igli-Otou waited. His Sakay brothers had not moved and kept their great black eyes upon him; it was understood that it was from him and him only that a call to arms, an order would be accepted.
The panglima of twenty-six moukims, Toukou Ibrahim, then approached the edge of the stone platform and, with an imperious gesture commanded silence. All were quiet and Toukou Ibrahim cried out:
"Aceh brothers, our Sakay brothers come to offer us their strong arms and their courage!"
"Menang! menang! (Bravo!)," cried out all the voices.
"Our Sakay brothers have been pillaged by the Ourang Oulou (the white man, the Dutch) and their women have been taken, their children's throats slashed."
"Talo! Talo!" (Exclamations of anger).
"Our Sakay brothers wish to avenge themselves, they will sacrifice their lives to punish the invaders. They come to us to fight to their last drop of blood. But, before all this, they wish the sultan to accept one condition which they intend to reveal only to him. If our Lord, sultan Mahmoud, Allah's representative on Earth, consents to its being fulfilled, two thousand Sakays will join us, and with us will drive away the invader. Igli-Otou, our Sakay brother, have I correctly stated your thoughts?"
The old man, his two hands folded on his chest, nodded in agreement.
"So," continued Toukou Ibrahim, "we will go to the kraton with a deputation of our Sakay brothers and we will solicit an audience with the sultan. All of you, be confident: welcome in your kampongs (homes) the Sakay who tomorrow will fight for you. Go, keep the peace between you and may Allah protect you!"
But a raucous cry, a then a wild clamour interrupted the proceedings. One of the Sakay, a sort of hairy giant, whose face was entirely concealed, cheeks to forehead, beneath a thick beard, sprang before the panglima who was getting ready to come down, and in a loud voice, frightening in its shrillness, cried:
"No, no! why go to the sultan?...Death to the enemy! God wishes the sacrifice! Forward! Forward!..."
His wild face sparkled with fury, in the excited state the crowd was in, his calls to violence would not fall on deaf ears.
"Talo! Talo!" now screamed the Acehs.
The Waslah leader expressed the general feeling:
"What means our Sakay brother? Let him explain! If there is an act of justice to accomplish, we are ready! Let him speak! Let him speak!"
"Aceh brothers!" began the panglima of twenty- six moukims.
But the crowd cut him off by its clamours. A few of the Sakays encircled Igli-Otou, and given the brutality of their gestures, there was no doubt that they would have readily overthrown his authority were he not to obey their wishes.
And Igli-Otou, concerned above all else with his popularity, decided to speak.
"Aceh brothers," he cried, "the God who presides over the matters of heaven and earth, who loves the Aceh and gives the Sakay his protection, demands, for the good of the country, that be put to death the miserable white woman, who for five years, has soiled with her very presence the holy island of Sumatra. He does not wish the traitorous race to affront you on your own soil, he does not wish the offspring of the accursed race of men from beyond the seas to be able, while growing up in your lands, to spy upon you, betray you, and to sell you to the enemy!"
Of whom did he thus speak? Who then was this person, so dangerous, whose punishment the God of the Sakays demanded? but already the Acehs had understood, and a name came forth, in an exclamation of rage and hatred:
"Mayha! Mayha! yes! yes! the God of the Acehs is the God of justice! Death to Mayha the white, death to the children of Mayha!..."
Was it for political reasons, or purely out of pity that Igli-Otou had not sought to accomplish an act of violence without the sultan of the Acehs' assent? But his plans, whatever they had been, were baffled, a current of fury blew over ever head.
Perhaps the horrible scene they planned disturbed the three panglimas, but the people's anger had be loosed.
The name was now like a war-cry: Igli-Otou, drawing the Sakays behind him, and the entire mass of people, like a raging torrent hurled itself down the slope that led to the shores of the Kroung-Deroub.
And, in the distance, at the door of a small straw-hut whose supports were bathed in the blue water, a delicately-formed woman stood, while amongst the grasses her two children played and laughed. This woman was Mayha! Mayha, the white woman, the exile, the prisoner of the Acehs, who for years, after a series of tragic events which will be recounted later, meek and resigned, had devoted herself completely to her two children. George, barely ten; Margaret, a clear complexioned, wonder-struck little girl.
She lived there in a hillock, extending good-will to all, harmless certainly, and having no foreboding of the horrible peril which threatened her. And now, upon the savage call of Igli- Otou, the crowd surged to the assault of the miserable little shelter of lianas and branch-wood.
Mayha, that morning, had just bathed her two children: little Margaret was five now, gracious and happy and carefree growing up in this luxuriant environment.
George was entering his tenth year of life, he was a robust, plucky young man, with pale eyes and a climate-darkened complexion. The elegant curls of his dark-brown hair framed a handsome and energetic face. Mayha had told him of the terrible events of the past; and in the child's soul, which under the climate had already almost blossomed into that of a man, anger and desire for vengeance had grown.
Mayha tried to calm him, but could she really blame him when he cursed the dishonourable betrayal which had cost his father his life, his mother her liberty, and which chained him to this place of which he knew not the beauties, and only remembered the cruelties?
® Mother! mother!" cried George, who, up on a grassy knoll, had seen the crowd rushing down from the Three- Tiered Mountain. "It seems like the miscreants are mad with rage...where are they going? Ah! they are now engaging themselves upon the path which comes down to the river. Could they be coming here?"
® No, my son, that's impossible!" answered Mayha, whose heart nonetheless tightened under an involuntary anxiety. "Such numbers of men would not unite to attack those as feeble as us."
® Mother, listen to those shouts! They appear to be in a drunken fury and thirsting for blood!... Mother, I tell you, it is we they menace."
Mayha, pale, had taken to her feet: yes, the voices, she recognized them. Those shouts, she had heard them before! She tried in vain to keep her cool.
Horrible forebodings shook her and she trembled, less for herself certainly, as she was resigned to any sacrifice for those dear ones who meant everything to her and which she loved with all the strength of her soul. But, as if reality had wished to destroy in a single stroke all her greatest illusions, such was the name which reached her, repeated by a hundred voices:
"Death to Mayha! Death to Mayha!"
Carried by the wind, the sound resounded in her ears like a peal of thunder, and George, he too, had heard them. He ran to the straw-hut and grabbed a bow and arrow: he had learned to handle this dangerous weapon, and his infallible eye meant he never missed a target.
"No, child!" cried out Mayha. "I beg of you! Think not of fighting! Be careful! think of Margaret!"
The little girl, scared by the noise, instinctively nestled into her mother's dress. Mayha looked about her. Fleeing was not to be thought of! Besides the fact that reaching the bridge would entail far too great a distance for them to cover without a single stop, would the Acehs not have soon overtaken them?
To reach the straw-hut, one had to cross a light rope- bridge which linked the two shores of the river. George sprang towards it, ready to defend the passage.
But his mother called him back: were this impending death, it must be faced with dignity and bravery, as a noble son of Europe who would, still, in death, give a lesson in courage to these madmen. And besides, any reasoning was superfluous! Igli- Otou, having outstripped his fellows, was the first to cross the bridge, and, with the first troop of followers, had run towards the whites' home.
In an instant, Mayha, George, and poor little Margaret herself had been seized, thrown to the ground, and covered in bonds. Triumphant cries saluted this act of monstrous villainy. Already the knives were raised over their heads, but Igli-Otou spoke a few words, projected in a vibrant tone. He drew in the air, with his skeletal hand, a mysterious sign. The arms were lowered.
And the prisoners, bound and gagged, were taken along as the crowd shouted:
Triumphant cries saluted this act of monstrous villainy.
"To the kraton!... To sultan Mahmoud!..."
Who then was this Mayha, against whom such fierce hatred was unleashed?
It had been some five years ago, during one of the first truces between the Acehs and the Dutch : after a number of indecisive battles, but which had in reality turned to the disadvantage of the invaders, the Malaysians had slowly and treacherously prepared the final blow.
An armistice had been agreed upon, with all the signs of a peaceful start, the Dutch boats had even been allowed to put in at Oulaylay. Some commerce had sprung up between the Europeans and islanders who came to exchange their minerals and pelts for European glass-works and fabrics. The Dutch thought the game already won and that they would quickly gain control over commerce, but they had not counted on the cunning and hatred of the Malaysians, who thought of nothing but lulling their fears.
And one night, during a dreadful storm, the Dutch ships saw themselves enveloped in Malay junks. The officers, so convinced of the peace, were mostly on land, among their families they had had brought from the Malacca peninsula.
The element of surprise was devastating: the Malay torched, then boarded the ships. Through the fire and smoke, they slit the throats of whomever was in reach. It was a frightful slaughter. Of those on land who had also been surprised by the Aceh hordes, very few had been able, either by diving and swimming, by untying a small boat from the shore, or by running onto a Malay junk and throwing its occupants into the sea, to reach their ships.
The Dutch, lulled into a false sense of security had found themselves unable to mount a resistance. One had had to flee, and as if this was not horror enough, those who had escaped and had been called back to duty by their leaders and compelled to obey them, heard, on the cursed shores, the screams of those unfortunates whose throats were being slashed by the Acehs.
She who now bore the name Mayha, then bore the name Luisa Villiers and was the wife of a Dutch captain, of French extraction. (We are well acquainted with the fact that, in the century of Louis XIV, many of our French countrymen took refuge in Holland during the religious persecutions.) Her husband, Wilhelm Villiers, commander of the brigantine the Star was on land when the Malay vespers broke out.
Luisa was beside him with their two children and they spoke quietly of their plans for the future: the island, so beautiful, so rich, with it's radiant sky and it paradisaic landscapes had filled them with wonder. Wilhelm had planned, with his spouse's approval, to come and settle there. Even Wilhelm's brother, Peter Villiers, was ready to come and join them. He was a very talented chemist, and their description to him of the island's mineral wealth had so enthused him, that he had decided to leave Haarlem to come and join his brother's family.
It was in the midst of such placid times, of these dreams, that had suddenly burst out the cries of death: Wilhelm, believing it a mere brawl, one of those clashes so frequent among these noisy people, had run outside. But barely had he stepped outside his house was he surrounded, enveloped and taken along. He had defended himself vigorously, calling upon the men he knew to be scattered about Oulaylay to rescue him. Having rallied around him a small troop, he had managed to fray his way through. His duty was to run to the defence of his leaders and, it must be said, he did not fully understand the atrocity of the situation.
When, blinded by blood and raging mad, he had reached the wooden pier beside the port, he had seen the columns of flame rising into the air: they were the Europeans' kampongs, burning. Then the poor man had tried to retrace his footsteps, but what could courage and despair do before the barrier provided by the furious and drunken murderers? His sailors, serving as a shield, had taken him, breathless, his head split open, thinking all they were saving was a corpse!...
What had befallen him in this turmoil? But especially, what had been the fate of poor Luisa and the children? Shocked from a state of full contentment by the appalling reality the fires, the murder the noble woman thought before all else of saving her children, of which the eldest, a boy named George, was five and the other, her daughter Margaret, was still at her breast.
While the wretches threw flaming torches onto the fragile kampong, Luisa had fled through a back door, carrying Margaret, and pulling along George by the hand. And what a sinister thing it was, this mother's flight through a night aglow with the red flames which devoured the city. But, Wilhelm! Where was he? What had befallen him? His wife knew him: intrepid and faithful to his duty until death, he must have fallen under the blows of these madmen, in whom, in her womanly shrewdness, she had sensed the latent hostility beneath the demonstrations of friendship.
And now this hell of hideous reality had been unleashed. By some singular felicity, if under such terrors the word felicity can have a place, the young woman wore Malay dress, tied at the waist with a silk cord, and her blonde hair was hidden beneath an Aceh bonnet. This was a fancy which pleased her husband; the children themselves were dressed as rich natives, and this circumstance saved them.
Luisa had fled through a back door, carrying Margaret, and pulling along George by the hand.
As she fled, flying so to speak through the crowd, in this night rendered even deeper by the pall of smoke hanging over the city, she slipped through unobserved and was thus able to escape from the centre of the furnace itself and reach the great forest which separated Oulaylay from Kota-Rajia. She plunged into those inextricable depths, unconcerned of the vicious beasts which seemed far less cruel to her than did men. Besides, she no longer thought, no longer reasoned. Fever pounded in her fevered brain. If she forced herself to continue running it was that she had lost any sense of reality. Fear and despair make for their own drunkenness.
Doubtlessly, she had finally fallen like a lump in the tall grasses, yet having the marvellous instinct of shielding the child she held in her arms. The other had lain down beside her and exhausted, had fallen asleep.
How long had this prostration lasted? She never knew. When she regained consciousness, she found herself in a thatched Aceh cottage, surrounded by women who looked curiously but not angrily at her. She was unable to explain herself, not then knowing the language of the country: but there exists between mothers a sort of free-masonry under which the same gestures are understood.
In this wilderness, it seemed that the horrific events which turned Oulaylay into a blood-bath were not known. As she was feverish and her weak state prevented her from moving on and where would she have gone? she accepted the asylum offered her by the Malay women. Days and months had gone by. One day some emissaries from the panglima had presented themselves before the village. One had heard that a white woman and her children were in the forest: the order had been given to bring them before their chief.
She obeyed and they interrogated her. She told the full truth, in a straightforward manner. Among those who were assistants to the panglima, some demanded her death and that of her children. One had to crush these reptiles to the last. The chief forced them to be silent and pardoned her. The white woman would remain in the country, forbidden from ever leaving it. She would live as she pleased, however she could manage. They consented to forget her, but no other favours were to be afforded her.
She had asked, tried to find out what had befallen her husband. They told her he was dead, witnesses stating they had seen him fall. She cried, pondered dying. Then she thought of her children and concluded that whatever might occur, she had to live in order to protect and defend them.
They assigned her a modest grass-hut beside the river. She was intelligent and good-hearted: notwithstanding the hateful distrust attached to her, she managed to win over the trust, almost the affection of those around her. She made herself loved by the children and respected by the men, and thus the years had passed. She herself cultivated her field, did various work in exchange for the supplies necessary to survive. She had managed not to simply die.
The children were growing up, happy, unconscious, unknowing of the past and believing in the future: but how often did the mother ponder their dreadful destiny! A single hope remained in the depths of her soul. She knew the strength of the Dutch: it was impossible that they would not seek to take revenge. Who knew if one day they might not come and deliver her from this prison where she sometimes thought herself at the point of death?
Her husband! Oh! she could not but believe him dead, as alive, he surely would have found a way to approach her, were it only to pass her along a message...and besides she knew him to be so valiant! would he not have organized and led the expedition to tear his beloved and his children away from the perils they faced?
Truly, she did not feel safe. Since the hostilities had resumed she had sensed the rebirth of mistrust, suspicion and anger around her. Already people kept their distance and sometimes she overheard threats. Now that she knew the Aceh language, she could discern those subtleties of pronunciation, which modified the meaning of words, lending them a tinge of irony or menace.
But what could she do? Was it not already a miracle that she had been allowed to live and keep her children? And, besides, what umbrage could she solicit in even the most suspicious of them? A woman, a mother, focussed on her household affairs, alone of her race and unable to had she even wished it to find a confederate anywhere, who could fear her? But one must take into account superstitions, ignorance, and hatred.
And now, here were the Orang-Sakays none of whom knew her, and to whom she surely had never done any harm. They imagined that the wartime disasters suffered by the Acehs were the work of this foreigner, this foreign Inong (woman, female), who notwithstanding that she had been named Mayha, meaning meek and harmless, was now accused of being a witch and of having let loose evil spirits in the land!
Nothing more was required to awake their poorly suppressed fury. Bewildered, near death, she was carried off by the frenzied crowd towards the kraton where the most terrible tortures awaited her.
Following the Acehs' successive defeats, sultan Mahmoud-Shah had spent his days confined in his palace-fortress' centrally-located funereal chapel, which housed the remains of the former sultans.
He felt his power slipping away and believed himself to be surrounded with traitors. Wily and defiant, he only maintained intimate contact with his favourite sultana and a few chieftains whose devotion had been tested, and amongst whom he felt particularly safe, given that he held power over their lives. For days on end he remained motionless, seated on the floor, leaning against one of the tombs, chewing on betel-nut, his face never losing its complete impassibility.
The messengers and officers sent by the panglimas found him there. As terrible as was the news they brought, Mahmoud-Shah showed neither the least shudder nor the least flicker of his eyelids. At times one might have thought him a stone idol. But beneath this apparent coolness a savage fury brewed.
Leader, sultan, the man remembered: recalling the time when, master of land and sea, he ruthlessly ransomed and pillaged those with the audacity to adventure themselves along the Sumatran coasts. Angered by the daily worsening decline in his race's fortunes, he also shared the Malay race's open and atavistic hatred towards the white man.
The sultan was continually attended upon by a slave, bared saber in hand. Upon a number of occasions, upon a sign from the master, this executioner would, in a single stroke, sever the head of an inopportune counsellor who had dared speak of compromise with the Dutch.The man who had brought the news of the defeat at Samalaggan had been drawn an quartered.
Combining the ancestral savagery of the Aceh with a perverted and depraved soul's refinements in cruelty, Mahmoud-Shah was a monster feared by all and whose name always inspired dread, yet his subjects idolized this monster. Open to any atrocities or crimes, however heinous, like a hunted beast, he cowered in his kraton.
He entertained strange fantasies: he kept a huge menagerie in his palace, and upon the jungle beasts, he sought to satiate his bloodlust. He would close up a tiger in a narrow steel cage the bars of which were so strong as to defy any attack, and, from outside, cravenly, he would enjoy himself torturing the animal with a long metal-barbed staff, or alternatively with steel rods heated to redness in the fire. The beast screeched and roared, struggled fiercely under the grip of pain. He, silent, struck again and smiled, holding back the blows to prolong the agony.
A recent acquisition greatlyinterested him.
In the middle of the island, upon the mountainous ridges of a tormented landscape --- all chasms and cliffs --- grew thick jungle, which Nature, fruitful and free, had rendered impenetrable. Lianas, prodigious tree-trunks, branches woven into steel arms served to resist human invasion. The few who had penetrated these solitudes, and had lived to talk of it had, since time immemorial, brought back rumours that this impregnable fortress housed a strange and frightening race of mysterious beings, more than apes but not yet men.
They bore themselves upright, holding their head up, knew a few simple skills, but not how to make fire. According to the incoherent tales brought back by the terror-stricken, these advanced apes had a spoken language, but one incomprehensible to any human ear. Full of vigour, they seemed peaceful, living communally in troops in the few clearings, they even sheltered themselves from the inclemencies of weather inside branch-wood huts.
Mahmoud had promised a huge sum - five thousand ringguits --- $5000 --- to anyone who could lay their hands on one of these mysterious beings and bring it to him alive and in captivity. But they appeared to be both physically invulnerable and impossible to capture by surprise. All the ambushes and traps which had been set had been in vain; only once had one been killed, and the killer had dragged the carcass to the kraton.
Dead, the creature was, all told, just an exceptionally large ape, some kind of gorilla. The Aceh's scientific knowledge was far too limited for anyone among them to observe the anatomical characteristics which would have established a closer link between this animal and humans.
Furious at his own discomfiture, Mahmoud had had the poor man, who had so poorly understood his intentions, buried alive. To complete the horror he had tied the beast's corpse to the man's body so they could rot together.
A short time after, quite recently, --- barely eight days ago, actually --- a troop of Aceh, returning from a battle with the Dutch, had surprised, before the very gates of Kota-Rajia, one of these fantastic creatures. He stood still, behind the last huts of the kampong, attentive, seemingly watching, in a state of such undivided attention that the Aceh had been able to surround him, throw themselves upon him and cover him in bonds before he could defend himself
Nevertheless he had fought with such desperate courage, his strength such that it took that of twenty men to subdue him. Finally, his chest struck by a saber-blow which laid it open, he fell, and with triumphant cries, his aggressors had taken him and delivered him to the sultan's people.
His wound, as deep as it was, had healed in two days. Iron fetters were placed about his neck, on his arms and legs, and when it was clear that, notwithstanding his strength, he had been rendered powerless, he was brought before Mahmoud-Shah. Besides, the creature seems resigned to his fate and no longer resisted.
The sultan's dream had finally come true, he beheld before him a man of the forest, one of the fantastic creatures which he so wished to investigate. Face to face, ape and potentate: the latter short, slender and monkey-like; the former towering over six feet, wide-shouldered, its flat chest rippling with muscles, its legs exhibiting a well-defined musculature. However, the creatures' knee-cap was located on the inside, the feet wide, and the big toe elongated and distinctly separate from the remaining toes. The great arms ended in huge hands which reached to the knee.
However, that which characterized the mysterious being, which gave him an appearance both strange and fearsome, was his face. The head stood atop a muscular neck, very slightly tipped forward. As on the rest of the body, the skin was a downy black. On the bulging egg-shaped skull, dark hair was separated into two long strands running under the ears to the nape of the neck where they were knotted. He was entirely naked.
The forehead was ridged, protruding, the nose very wide, with up-turned nostrils, beneath which projected a mouth whose upper lip ran over edgeless, chiselled lips. The rectilinear jaw occupied the full width of the face, giving the impression of a steel jaw. This bestial figure would have, at first glance, been indistinguishable from any other ape, was there not among all that ugliness, the compelling glimmer of those marvellous eyes.
The eyelids were large, heavy, but the eyeball protruding, the sclerotic very white, forming a circle around a continually expanding and contracting pupil, seemingly intimately linked to the creature's mode of existence. These eyes had an undefinably expectant, curious and attentive expression. So much did the animal's physionomy differ from that of an ape, that Mahmoud had instinctively spoken to him as a man, as he would to a slave.
"Monster," had he cried out to him, "who are you? from whence have you come? Are you not bold to be lurking about the homes of men? Answer, brute! Know that I am powerful among the powerful, and that your sad carcass is at my mercy. Are you deaf? Are you dumb?"
The creature did not move, not a muscle in his face even twitched. It seemed as if the sultan's voice had never reached him. Nevertheless, one who would have observed him closely, would have seen a flash beneath his heavy-lidded, half- shut eyes, and observed his tightly fettered hands quiver.
"Lord," said one of the soldiers prostrating himself, "this animal is not deaf, for when we surprised him, he jumped upon hearing, albeit too late, the sound of our footsteps. He is not dumb! for when we first grappled with him he cried out in a manner that resembled words. I swear he knows how to speak."
"Very well," said the sultan. "Have him beaten."
They laid hold of the creature, stretched him out and tied him face-down to a plank. His bonds sank into his flesh and the iron shackles were rimmed in blood. An Ourang-Rautay --- a convict --- was brought forth and was ordered to strike him with a nail-studded length of bamboo. The improvised torturer took up the long rod, making it whistle through the air and waited for a signal, which was immediately given. The steel- barbed bamboo came down upon the prisoner.
Fifty blows! it was horrible. The Aceh's plaintive, agonized, closed-mouthed chant imposed its rhythm to the torture. As the creature had not let out a cry, had not even budged, one might have wondered if his flesh and muscles were moulded of the same clay as man. Mahmoud thought him dead, and called out for the man to stop.
Displeased at having his victim escape him so quickly, he had the creature untied and raised upright. Blood streaming, dark red on dark skin, the creature remained standing, looking before him into his tormentor's eyes before him with a glimmer of surprise and contempt. Under that withering look, Mahmoud flinched involuntarily, and ordered the stranger be put aside. He would be kept chained in an iron cage. He would tell them later what he wished done.
Since then, the sultan daily made his way through the kraton to the cell where the creature was tied up, and assuring himself that none eavesdropped, spoke to him, at times in a voice of authority, at others in a pleading tone. The mystery surrounding this creature frightened him. Under the half-animal, half-human envelope, he sensed something horrifying, one of Nature's darkest secrets!
At such times, it would have taken little for him to have prostrated himself before the incomprehensible creature, and begged it to afford him its protection. But at other times, furious at this impassiveness that bordered on disdain, exasperated by the inflexibility of the stare and its subtle glimmer, which nonetheless remained unfaltering, he lost his composure in an insane rage.
He would then call for his weapons; blades and sticks with which he would strike and lacerate his prisoner. But the latter would not cry out, and continued to merely watch him.
"Why speak! speak," shouted the sultan at him. "I believe, I know you are a man! You have secrets I want to know...Oh! I will surely compel you to reveal them to me!...close your eyes! I do not wish you to look at me so!..."
And yet he could not build up the resolve to destroy those eyes, whose dull look weighed so heavily upon him. It seemed to him that doing so would constitute a sacrilege. Days came and went, he had tried to conquer him through starvation. He had ordered that he not be given anything to eat. The creature refused all meat anyway, accepting only bananas or soukoun fruit (breadfruit). He was not given any for three days. Then, in the narrow space he was allowed, he squatted, his legs folded beneath him. He had not budged, moaned, or spoken any more than before; only now, in the white of his eyes the look was more acute, more daring, an unfathomable reflection of reproach and anger. Tired of this battle, but still wishing to defeat what he termed a brutish stubbornness, Mahmoud-Shah had had the creature untied, and had ordered it relieved of its shackles.
Keeping no more than an iron grillwork between them, he had had him brought into the tomb of the sultans, and there, for long hours he spoke to him, gesticulated at him, tried to bring him to some sudden outburst. Sometimes he though he could see that the creature --- ape-like --- was on the brink of becoming human, he knew himself to be understood: the eyes had a surprising involuntary eloquence that inflamed all the more his desire to triumph over this resistance.
It was at one such moment, following a sudden knock at the door of the sanctuary, that one of the top dignitaries, the Panglima of twenty-two moukims, entered.
"What do you wish of me?" cried out the sultan. "And what is this audacity that allows you to violate my solitude?"
"Lord", replied the Panglima as he prostrated himself, "important events are now taking place, which could have the most fortunate of influences upon upcoming events. The Orang-Sakay have issued forth from their forests and have come before us to offer their courage and devotion."
"The Sakay!" exclaimed the sultan. Those wretched nomads that rank beneath the vilest of beasts..."
"Lord, they are many, and their hatred towards the white man is great. The Dutch, damn them, have entered their forests and have killed some of their friends. They aspire to vengeance. They are precious auxiliaries who will give up their lives for the salvation of the Malay nation... Lord, do not reject them!..."
"Every day the enemy advances. The ring which besieges us tightens and our brothers fall beneath its blows. Our Sakay brothers in their sampans and junks will attack them along the coast, while we will push them from the interior, our spears at their back...and our ancient state of Perak will recover its freedom, and with it its riches..."
"Lord, heed the voice of your panglimas...accept an alliance with the Orang-Sakay."
Mahmoud had fallen back on his pillows, thinking. He had, firmly anchored in his heart, a hatred, a contempt of the Sakay which he judged to be an inferior race. However, he knew that the Panglima spoke the truth. Their courage, built on savagery, could serve as useful support... and anyways!"
Involuntarily he shifted his eyes to the strange creature which seemed to listen attentively to what was said, though obviously could not understand the language. It seemed to him that a grin drew itself upon those silent features. He thought of the dangers to which the Aceh had exposed themselves in refusing help that could have saved them, and deep in his heart he laughed. Mahmoud came to the realisation that he had no more certain enemy than the prisoner, his nemesis...and his gaze fixed upon him, he said: "Panglima. I heed your counsel. Have the Sakay leaders brought before me."
"Lord, that is not all! I pray thee listen to the end. The Orang-Sakay have left their solitudes for no other reason than to avenge themselves, and in their hatred of the white man they demand a token in proof that the Aceh also bear such a hatred."
"A token! a guarantee! What! do these wretches dare impose conditions?"
The Panglima lowered his voice:
"There are times when prudence is the best policy. Let us first profit from the support offered us, and then ultimately we can think about curing our temporary allies of their untimely pride!"
"So be it! And what is this condition?"
"Lord, by your generous boon we have allowed a white woman and her two children to live in a hut by the river. This woman is a witch who casts evil spells on our people. Igli-Otou, the Sakay prophet has proof of her perversity and he demands that this woman and her children be put to death!"
The sultan made a scornful gesture, saying:
"What do I care! Kill them!"
"Lord, the people want you to pronounce the sentence yourself."
"I will allow it. Have the wretch brought before me. Ah! by Allah! I feel myself wanting to mete out some justice...and," he added, turning towards the stranger, "it pleases me to have you see me exert my power of life and death."
Upon a signal the doors opened and the Sakay chieftain entered, headed by the horrible Igli-Otou, followed by the Aceh chieftains, and behind them the crowd who prostrated themselves on the threshold. The soldiers thrust forward Mayha and her two children.
During this frantic race which took her and her children through the city, the unfortunate woman had suffered twofold, both from the bonds which held her delicate limbs and from the horrible thoughts which had suddenly come to mind. She lived in such a peaceful manner, almost happy, having sacrificed her past.
These Aceh which surrounded her, she had ended up becoming interested in them, almost loving them, lavishing her attention upon them, teaching them all sorts of things about life and asking only in return a bit of sympathy for her children.
During this frantic race through the city, horrible thoughts had suddenly come to mind.
What an awakening! It seemed that she had lived in the whirlpool of a hideous nightmare. George! Margaret! Was it indeed true that they were in the hands of these furious men, these savage brutes who battered them! In vain had she tried to keep her cool, in vain had she tried to reason, to grasp within her troubled thoughts some reason to hope!
No, this was death, brutal and atrocious, a thunderbolt falling upon the innocent. Suddenly she found herself standing in the magnificent and sinister mausoleum of the ancient Aceh sultans, having by her side her two children who, pale and weak, could barely keep from collapsing to the marble-tiled floor.
This man with the jewel-encrusted clothing, surrounded by guards with bare sabers in hand, she sensed to be the sultan, the leader, the Mahmoud-Shah who not long ago had fomented the traitorous revolt in which her husband, the father of her children, had died. On this scraggly tanned face she read a brutality so low that all her blood surged back to her heart.
It was upon this monster --- of whose heinous crimes she had heard tell --- that the fate of her children depended. But, at the same time as a greater horror invaded her soul, at the same time the peril declared itself more immediate, personalizing itself of sorts in this man who held the power of life or death. She shook these feelings and pulled herself together.
She was a woman, she was European, she was a mother. Her duty, her dignity, her motherly love demanded she fight to the bitter end. Women have these bouts of heroic nerve that galvanise them completely. However, in the mausoleum's tall chamber, to which the steles of the dead lent their pale and sepulchral tones, under a light that filtered down through narrow windows set in the ceiling, a deep silence had established itself. An etiquette of submission and respect had returned to its former glory.
For the crowd, pressed against the doors, the sultan was Allah's representative on Earth, and was not seen as he was, small-minded and squat, gnome-like, but rather transfigured through divine and human omnipotence. As if struck with bewilderment, the Aceh remained prostrated, forehead to the ground. The Panglimas kneeled.
The Sakays alone --- and Igli Otou --- had contented themselves to bow deeply. These sons of sylvan freedom had an insolence borne of their solitude. Besides, Igli-Otou and the sultan were not unknown to one another, and a leaven of hatred that fought to rise, existed between them. The few that noticed, behind the sultan and separated from him by iron grillwork, a huge simian form, shuddered, wondering if this was not some infernal genie. It was erect, hanging by the whitish extremities of its fingers, which stuck out through the mesh of the grillwork, its eyes opened wide, its huge head cocked and thrust forward attentively.
The sultan, with a sign, had invited Igli-Otou to state his request, and the Sakay sorcerer, with the grandiloquence of official orators had laid out the demands of his fellows. They were ready to devote themselves to the independence of the Malay people. In all sincerity, they brought the support of their courage and energy. Furthermore, Antou, their god, would provide them its omnipotent aid.
But, was it natural or logical that the Aceh race protect, defend and maintain within its ranks a ruthless enemy of its race? Had it been that this woman was alone, one might have allowed that she was harmless. But her children were growing, and they represented for true believers, for the liberty of the Aceh, the Sakay, the Battaks, a living threat. Antou, the god of the Sakays had warned his faithful children of this unavertable peril, nay, perhaps even fatal peril, and his voice had been heard by the Sakay.
Yes, they would fight among their Aceh brothers, they would not haggle over their lives and none would rest until the white man was forever expelled from the sacred soil of Sumatra, but what they demanded before any of this, was the death of the witch, the death of her children.
"The hunter does not leave behind the tigress and her cubs."
A clamour had saluted the Sakay's last words. Crowds, be they civilised or savage, are as prone to suggestions of hate and brutality. The Panglima, in one gesture, ordered silence, then, speaking in turn, he supported Igli-Otou's demand.
This woman --- much testimony proved it --- had maintained her race's instinct for treachery and vengeance. To her, to the conjurations and diabolical ceremonies she performed, to the infernal rites she practised on dark nights, were due the few defeats the Aceh had endured.
Suddenly, loudly, Mayha interrupted him:
"Sultan," she cried, "Lord of the believers, this man lies! He knows that all his information is false. That I be accused by the Sakay, I could always forgive and impute to their ignorance, but this man is a criminal who prefers lies, knowing full well his words are slanderous."
"Enough! Silence! Put her to death!" cried out a hundred voices in the crowd.
Mayha, standing proudly, radiant in her energetic resistance, crossed her arms, looked the sultan in the face, and again proclaimed:
"These men are mad. Lord, in the name of truth, in the name of justice, I adjure you to listen to me."
The sultan remained impassive; it seemed that not one of these voices reached him, neither that of the supplicant, not that of the people.
Igli-Otou, exasperated, had taken up his testimony. Strengthened by the support he received from the Panglima and the fierce crowd, he raised his voice higher, insisting particularly on the death of the children, tomorrow's traitors.
Once again, Mayha fought back.
"Lord, Lord," she cried to the sultan, "What these men are proposing to you is a disgraceful crime! Was their fury only directed at me, I would not even protest. You could have killed me long ago, but you did not, you let me live! and this life you spared me, while you killed my husband, you can take it back."
"Of what am I guilty? I do not know. But against me, against me only, I admit all and renounce even to plead my case."
"But my children! my poor little George, so good, so gentle, so ignorant of human wickedness! But my dear weak little Margaret, barely weaned from my breast! You dare to claim them as your enemies, as threats to your independence? Lord! Lord! look at them, deign lower your eyes upon these weak and innocent creatures! Who would dare accuse them?"
"If you must have a victim, I am here, me the European, me the white woman, the one you despise as not of your race, but out of mercy, out of pity, by justice, in the name of the God you worship and name Allah --- who can only bear the name of God if he is equitable --- I beg you to strike me down, but to spare my children!"
Mayha spoke the Aceh tongue fluently, even eloquently, and notwithstanding the European accent she had been unable to rid herself of completely, not one of her remarks was not understood by the crowd, in which were women and mothers. Certain feelings were even now beginning to trouble these rough rather than truly wicked natures, and a woman's voice even cried out.
"She is right, spare the children!"
But Igli-Otou, sensing the danger, took up yet more vehemently and cruelly his testimony.
"Are not the Aceh children as worthy as those of this European? Did the Aceh mothers not bewail the death of their sons, butchered by the white man? Did they not suffer, more than any, the ferocity of the damned invaders? Did they not burn Pallak, the flourishing kampong, where women and children all perished in the flames? Had they not massacred the entire population of Sidjoh, and were there not children there? The Sakay god demands a sacrifice, who would dare refuse him? And besides, were the Aceh opposed to what was asked of them, what of it. The thousand Sakay would cross back over the sea in fear of being exposed to the spells of the abominable demoness and of her impure offspring!"
He had hit the right note. This evocation of horrible events, wherein the fury of the whites had manifested itself in all its horror, was more powerful than any appeal to mercy. The cries for death resounded more loudly, more authoritatively.
The sultan raised his hand, drew himself up. All were silent, it was the decisive moment. In a muffled voice, sultan Mahmoud-Shah spoke:
"My Sakay sons," said he, "children of Allah, welcome to thee! Fight the good fight with us against our eternal enemy, the greedy and ferocious Dutchman. Our ranks are open to you, and you shall take your place amongst the defenders of Aceh. We have weighed, in our wisdom, the demands which you put to us, remembering that a free people must not give asylum to the enemies of the state."
Here he stopped, and made a sign to his guards, who went to Mayha, whom they seized and dragged before him. The two children followed, trembling, hanging on to her dress.
"Woman," continued Mahmoud, "you are convicted of having, though your spells, brought disaster and ruin to the land of Allah --- what do you have to say in your defence?"
Mayha tried in vain to regain her composure; the Sakay sorcerer's vile testimony had overwhelmed her. What could one say to such absurd accusations whose inanity she felt it was impossible to prove? The sultan's question brutally summed up these absurd calumnies. She could only deny them. She did so:
"I never hurt anyone," she said softly, "and on the contrary tried to accomplish all the good that was in my power to do."
"Will you deny that you are with our enemies in spirit?"
"I am of the white race. My husband, the father of my children was killed by the Aceh, yet nevertheless never a word of anger came from my lips. I may not have forgotten, but from the depths of my souls I have forgiven!"
And, drawing against her the two children, which she wrapped in her arms, she continued:
"Most powerful Lord, I am but a poor, powerless, defenceless woman. Who then could fear me? or be afraid of these little beings who know not of anger and hatred?"
But a grumbling interrupted her speech; the crowd was getting restless. What good were such hesitations, what good were such pleadings? To death! To death!
The Sakay sorcerer took a step towards the sultan:
"Son of Allah!" he cried out, "beware the golden tongue and the hypocritical words. This woman was seen at night devoting herself to infernal ceremonies."
"Yes! Yes!" shouted some voices.
"It is not true!" cried out the poor woman.
"And the children were with her, helping her in her diabolical conjurations!"
"A lie! all of this is lies, I say! Ah! miserable Sakay," said she, rising and staring Igli-Otou in the face, "why do you accuse me? what harm have I inflicted upon you? You know well that of all these words you speak, not one is not an odious slander."
In a sharp voice, Igli-Otou replied:
"In the name of the Orang-Sakay, I demand the death of this woman and her children. Otherwise we will return to our canoes and will return to the depths of our forest, where we will know well how to evade our enemies' strikes. Sakay brothers, have I spoken well?"
"Yes! Yes!" cried out the Sakay, brandishing their weapons, which glittered with a sinister hue in the prevailing twilight.
The Panglima of the twenty-two moukims said aloud:
"The salvation of the Aceh people is the supreme law, Sultan Mahmoud, render justice!"
"So be it!" said Mahmoud. "Let it be done according to your wishes. I give you this woman and her children, that they be taken to the great Toko Square and put to death before the people."
"Ba‰! Ba‰! (good! good!)" cried out all the voices.
Mayha had heard, she rushed towards the sultan, slipping from the hands that wished to hold her back, and she cried, and begged, trying to grab his clothing, saying:
"All powerful Lord, mercy! not for me, but for my poor little children! If it is a crime to be of the white race, they are innocent of it, as how can it be a crime to be born? Sultan, sultan, I give myself up, let me be killed, let me be tortured, let me be torn limb from limb, but have mercy on them!"
As she spoke, her throat torn by her desperate cries, she saw the mysterious creature, the unheard of beast-man, standing up in the cage, behind the sultan, its fingers gripping the mesh, watching wide-eyed this scene of desperation. Did he understand? Had he the slightest notion of the iniquity that was to be perpetrated? His jaws snapped and his face contorted itself.
"Ah!" cried out Mayha, driven to distraction by the sultan's silence, "I know not what this monstrous beast is, but I am certain he would show greater pity than a man!"
There was a dull rumbling. The beast-man shook the bars of his cage, but without paying any attention to him, Mahmoud-Shah said, in an annoyed tone:
"Let this woman and her children be taken away, I have spoken!"
Igli-Otou ran to her and placed his hand on her shoulder. She turned, saw the hideous face, and, in a paroxysm of despair, shoved her hands in his face to push him away. But the Orang-Sakay threw themselves upon her, upon her children --- it was the end, death had come!
At this very moment there rang out a loud, anxious, bugle-call.
The doors of the mausoleum opened suddenly and an Aceh chief appeared, made his way through the crowd, and cried out:
"Sultan Mahmoud, the Dutch are sending a man to parley."
The sultan had heard: it was not the first time that, to fulfil their mission, those sent by the invaders had had the courage to come to the heart of the Aceh, bearing the Europeans' messages. Not one had returned.
"Let no one leave!" cried the sultan. "Brother Sakay, sons of Aceh, all. Battaks and Yolos, children of Allah, close up around me your supreme leader, and we shall answer the enemy's insolent envoy as is proper."
The alarm was such that their attention had suddenly been diverted from Mayha and her children; besides the celebration of their deaths could be put off. The three victims were closely confined in a corner of the great room and guarded by the Sakay. Mayha, in her shattered emotional state, lay sprawled on the ground, her two children desperately clinging to her. A complete silence fell.
A tall, blindfolded Dutch officer appeared on the threshold.
A deep silence reigned with the mausoleum which served as sultan Mahmoud-Shah's state-room. Suddenly, all voices were quelled, and, while not spoken, the hatred against the outsider and enemy were only more ardent. From the eyes of the Aceh, particularly those of the women, it flashed towards the soldier. Straight as a board, head up, pacing firmly, unhesitatingly yet without braggadocio he followed between the Aceh guards, without seeing where he was being taken.
A large area had been cleared before the sofa, before which the sultan was crouching in a quasi-hieratic pose. The Dutchman, judging by the decorations on his uniform held the rank of ship's captain. He was a man of forty or so; in his prime. He was placed in the middle of the half-circle whose circumference was guarded by Aceh and Orang-Sakay soldiers. Then the doors of the mausoleum had been closed again.
In the cage, the beast-man was standing and still watching.
The sultan gave an order and the blindfold was taken from the officer's forehead. He looked around calmly. The Panglima of twenty two moukims was beside Mahmoud, as it devolved to him to question the Dutchman.
"Officer," said he, "What brings you here. You presented yourself to one of our outposts and asked to be brought before our most serene sultan, our Lord, submitting yourself to any conditions which would be imposed. Your wish has been granted: enemy of our country, you are in the midst of those you persecute, you are before the Lord, the son of Allah. Speak."
The officer bowed respectfully before Mahmoud, and, straightening up said:
"In the name of my Lord, the king of Holland, represented in this country by colonel van der Hyeden, I ship's captain, spokesman, claiming my right to free speech, I bring you, sultan Mahmoud-Shah, and you all, inhabitants of the island of Sumatra, those propositions which are made to you and upon which the future holds. Are you prepared to listen to me?"
"Speak," said the Panglima.
"I have nothing to inform you of that you don't already know, our weapons have overwhelmed your resistance, and while praising your courage, I must not hide from you that all hope is lost for you. Our vessels have forced open the port of Oulaylay and have blockaded the coast. At Deli we have captured your arsenals and a large corps of Battaks was forced to surrender. Lastly, the victory at Samalaggan rendered us masters over all the country above Kota-Rajia. You are surrounded by an ever-tightening circle of steel and fire, and our troops await only a signal to mount a decisive assault on the kraton, your last fortress. You are courageous, you are strong, but against the strength of the European all your efforts would be in vain and would only result in pointless massacres."
"Enough blood has already flowed, enough catastrophes have befallen your poor country. In the name of reason, in the name of humanity, I come, on my master's orders, to ask you to end these deadly battles whose outcome is no longer in doubt --- I offer you peace."
"And under what conditions?" said the Panglima in a voice trembling with anger.
"Your people, your belongings, your religion, your customs, your women will be respected. Your soldiers will leave the kraton and give up their arms, all the gates, the redoubts, the forts, the public buildings will be turned over to the protection of the Dutch. You, sultan Mahmoud, your person shall be deemed sacred and our troops will answer for your security. You will be at liberty to discuss the conditions of your final surrender with our leader."
"That is to say," continued the Panglima, "that you come here proposing to soldiers, patriots, to men who have guns and feel themselves to be free, that they commit the vilest of cowardliness."
"I am a soldier," continued the Dutchman, "and I know better than anyone that such necessities are cruel, but the more valiantly one has fought, the more honourably can one see one's defeat. If you refuse the proposals I bring you, leaving your honour intact and guaranteeing your independence under a European protectorate, if you stubbornly continue a fight --- which I assure you without bragging would doom you to defeat --- today, before the sun sets, our shells will pulverise your homes, your palaces and your mosques, steel and fire will open the way for us, and our troops will complete the work of conquest. "
"Sultan Mahmoud! it is to your justice, to your humanity that I make my appeal. There is still time to spare your people from the horrible experiences of a final battle in which so many lives will be pointlessly sacrificed. Give your assent to an immediate capitulation, one which will be honourable and which, I pledge in the name of my master, will not debit from your feelings of righteous pride. Europeans will then enter no longer as enemies, but as friends and protectors."
As he spoke, without raising his voice, in an even and firm tone, a fever appeared to possess all the listeners. They did not interrupt him, but their looks, their gestures, their hands worrying about their weapons, the twitching of their limbs, all pointed to their growing rage being ready to explode.
But the one who was least able to control himself was the sultan himself.
Unmindful of his dignity, he leapt to his feet, and arming himself with a nearby saber, he had run to the officer and striking him full on the forehead, he cried out:
"Dog! How dare you insult me with your disgraceful proposals? Die then and so all those who dare insult the noble Aceh."
In an instinctive gesture, the officer had turned aside the weapon, which glancing off his skull, had scraped along his skin and from whence blood nonetheless came forth. He cried out:
"This is a most dastardly act! I am here as a parliamentary, protected by international law. You have no right to lay a hand on me!"
The Panglimas had thrown themselves before the sultan and we barely able to contain him. They were displeased to see the son of Allah lower himself to taking on the executioner's role.
"You who listen to me! continued the officer, whose bloodied face was a terrible sight, "already, in the past, you have killed my wife and children! Are you not then in reality but a race of assassins?"
At that moment a high pitched, heart-rending cry rang out, and parting the Sakay ranks, who in their keen interest in this scene had somewhat relaxed their vigilance, Mayha, pale and dishevelled, ran to the officer and threw herself in his arms, shouting:
"Wilhelm! my Wilhelm!... you, alive! O! save me, save your children."
"Luisa!" did he cry out in turn, hugging her to his chest. Thus, in the past had the husband believed his wife and dear children to have been massacred, so she had been convinced that all was over for him. And now were they reunited after so many years in a yet more tragic situation.
At first, Mayha, dispirited, broken, had not paid any attention to the scene which was going on: her mind distracted, sluggish, she barely heard the words which were spoken; then, all of a sudden she seemed to recognize the voice that was speaking, she had given ear to it and suddenly, when the officer overcome with despair had spoken these words: "My wife, my children!" she had woken from her torpid state as from an electric shock.
The impossible might be true! the dead were risen from their tombs! And now, there they were, both of them, clasped in each other's arms, in the middle of this hostile, anger-crazed crowd which roared like a host of wild beasts. The Panglima of the twenty two moukims was trying in vain to calm them down. Igli-Otou, the madman, cried out:
"To the Toko! To the Toko! All of you! The man, the woman, the children! Sakay, Aceh, avenge yourselves and make the Antou look with favour on us. Death to them, death!"
At his barking voice, which rang out like a bugle, the rush occurred in the still hesitant masses. In the blink of an eye, Wilhelm, the officer; Mayha, who for the first time in years had rediscovered her wifely name --- Luisa; the tiny George and poor Margaret, whose weaponless father could not even attempt to defend, were bowled over, grabbed, taken and brought away as inert masses towards the execution grounds on the Toko plaza, littered with low-set huts, stores and tents. In an instant, the mausoleum was left empty, the sultan himself having been drawn along into the palace.
None had considered the wild man who was still in his cage, behind the metal grillwork. He had then arched his back, braced his arms against the steel bars, and in a superhuman effort his enormous muscles had tightened, and the bars, bending under this astonishing tractile force, had twisted and broken and an opening was made.
But the creature was large, his shoulders wide, his chest colossal. Nonetheless, he slipped out, bruising himself, tearing his skin and drawing blood, but this did not stop him, putting his bones up against the strength of the steel and forcing it to spread apart. He found himself outside, standing in the middle of the stones which marked the tombs of the sultans. For a moment he paused before these gold-inlaid and jewel- incrusted markers, as if pondering something. He also looked around, curiously, as if hypnotized by the gold and ruby-laden oriental ornamentation. Then he shook his head, reached the door which the crowd had not shut, and slipped through the trees, behind the straw huts, crawling or jumping, moving forward.
Meanwhile, the Orang-Sakay, satisfied to at last have their hands on their victims, dragged them along to the execution grounds. They had arrived, and in the middle of a quickly improvised circle, the two Europeans and their children were grouped together, waiting for the final blow.
A short deliberation occurred: a huge Sakay, bearing a two-handed saber, was to fill the office of executioner. The crowd was howling with impatience. Why was there such a delay? Why had one not stuck them down yet? Why could the people not yet throw themselves upon the corpses and fight it out for a morsel?
Two of the Panglimas had approached Igli-Otou and were involved in a heated discussion. Evidently they were proposing something which he refused to accept. But the Aceh leaders, joining the Panglimas, were addressing themselves to the Sakay chiefs, trying to convince them --- but of what?
Of this: less naive than the crowd, the Panglimas had understood that the words of the European were no simple rodomontade. What he had said was true: the Dutch would, under the protection of their artillery, delivered a furious assault upon the city, and as valiant as the defenders of Koto-Rajia might prove, the outcome of the battle was not in doubt.
But a way of turning this defeat into a certain victory presented itself. A number of things come about by happenstance. The dramatic recognition of husband and wife, of father and children, exposed a situation from which a marvellous, foolproof advantage could be taken: it was a gift from God to the besieged --- why throw it away? And the Panglimas had finally won their point. Igli-Otou had allowed himself to be convinced and strong in his undisputed authority, he quelled their impatience and restlessness. Then Toukou Polim, commander of the twenty two moukims, approached the Dutch officer, Wilhelm Villiers.
The latter, prepared for death, contributed to a final exchange with his beloved Luisa all the emotions of their past, remembering their former happiness, their trials, their sufferings. In a few words they exchanged thoughts which encompassed years. The mother, forgetful of the peril, held little Margaret, who --- as such mercies are afforded to infants --- was asleep. George, pale, already understanding, but putting on a good face, held his father's hand and gazed upon him with loving eyes.
"Captain," said Toukou Polim, "will you allow me a moment to talk to you."
Wilhelm's smile was full of irony.
"Is there nothing I can refuse you?" said he. "What do you wish from me?"
Then, taking him aside and speaking in a low and hurried voice, Toukou Polim explained to him that he was lost: his death, that of his wife and children was only minutes away, yet he could save himself and those he loved.
The Dutchman looked attentively upon this tanned and wrinkled face, on which one could only read wiliness and lies.
"And what must I do for that?" he asked.
"Return to camp and announce that we will offer our submission."
The officer, momentarily perplexed, looked at him in surprise.
"Let the Dutch enter our city, not as enemies, but as friends, as you yourself stated, let your leaders come first to discuss the terms of our capitulation, let your sailors come amongst us confident, not as soldiers ready for carnage, but as brothers. We wish to deal in particular with Colonel van der Heyden --- personally. Persuade him to come here as an ally, a protector, with an escort that represents neither a provocation nor a threat --- such is the mission we offer you, captain, and should you accept it, you are free."
Wilhelm had understood: what they were proposing was simply a shameful betrayal, to draw into ambush the general and top officers of the Dutch army. The long-ago massacre from which he had miraculously escaped would occur all over again. However, he feigned not to have exposed his interlocutor's lies.
"What of my wife, my children?" he asked.
"You will agree that it is fair that we keep them as hostages. If you promise to bring us the general and his entourage, under peaceful conditions, and have not deceived us, we will honour this guarantee. However, if unlike we have agreed upon, your countrymen presented themselves as enemies..."
"You would cut the throats of those you had kept as prisoners. Well! noble Panglima, know that a European officer is not and cannot be your dupe. You are asking me no more and no less than to deliver you my leaders. This would be both stupid and a crime. I will not buy our lives at that price."
"Ah! be careful! just a sign from me and the executioner will have the better of your insolence."
"I don't doubt it; however, noble lord, will you hear me out? Time marches on, and it was arranged with my superiors that if I did not return within two hours of my point of entrance into Kota-Rajia, the attack would proceed. These two hours are up. In turn, since I am not dead yet, I call upon you one last time to submit, otherwise our artillery will know how to impose our will upon you."
The Panglima cried out in a rage:
"Ah! so that is how it is going to be!" he exclaimed, "well! at least we shall be avenged!" --- and he ran towards the Sakay to give the order to execute them. But at that very moment, as though the result of the setting in motion of some great clockwork, a kind of awful whining was heard in the air, and a shell came crashing down on one of the straw huts in the Toko, strewing about its debris. Men fell, curses burst out. A second bomb left its trail through the sky and again fell amongst the Sakay --- it was a massacre.
Wilhelm had told the truth, at the precise moment the bombardment began, the troops were to be at the doors of the kampong. The officer had grabbed a weapon and leading his wife and children he sought to cut his way through. The artillery raged on, Aceh and Sakay fleeing from the missiles raining down upon them.
But would Wilhelm and his family not be hit? The Aceh's panic, at least, gave them some hope of escape.
"Listen!" said Wilhelm to Luisa, "I now can hear our soldiers' bugles, they are forcing open the doors, they will be here in a few minutes. Have courage! hold Margaret tightly to your chest. George, don't leave me!"
And he continued to advanced under the hail of steel and fire which spared him. Already the colonists' uniforms were appearing on the walls of Kota-Rajia; the artillery, well directed, modified its firing to allow the attackers an open field.
"Saved!" cried out Wilhelm.
But at this very moment, Igli-Otou, who did not wish to see his victims escape and who was on their trail, seized upon a moment when the little George, in spite of all his efforts, had lagged back a few steps. He sprang on the child, snatched him away, ran off between the huts, losing himself in the ruins, and disappearing.
He held the child: the shaman believed in his sorcery. By autosuggestion he was convinced that his God, the Antou, a shapeless idol he served in the forests of Malacca, required a human sacrifice. If the blood of a white man was shed, offered to the monstrous divinity, all these cataclysms, the bombardment, the screeching of the shells, the march of the enemy troops clambering up the ramparts, all would suddenly stop and the Dutch would be struck down.
He had taken little George, and leaping amongst the rocks which overhung the kratons, he managed to finally reach a sort of platform which sloped sharply over a fissure so dark and so deep as to appear bottomless. It was a favourable spot. He allowed the child to drop heavily upon the stone, then raising his eyes towards the sky in an invocation, he drew from his belt a dagger whose keen blade was notched like the jaw of a crocodile. The child saw this, was horrified, and wanted to cry out, but the hand of Igli-Otou nailed him to the ground, while the other raised the horrible weapon.
Suddenly, a form which seemingly appeared out of nowhere, dropped in a gigantic leap from a stone above the cliff, landed heavily on the platform, grabbed Igli-Otou by the scruff of the neck, raised him in the air like a young cat, then with a sudden release, dropped him down the fissure. The Sakay smacked against the wall, spread out his arms, scratched the granite with his nails, whirled and disappeared.
The hand of Igli-Otou nailed him to the ground
The child had remained in place, motionless, having fainted away. The man-beast, the mysterious creature then knelt, took the child in his arms, approached his lips as though to kiss him, and supporting him against his chest, allowed himself to quickly drop to the bottom of the rock, ran, reached some woods, plunged into them, and disappeared, taking the child with him.
For hours on end, the sun set, the deepest night, without hesitation, without a break, the escapee from Rota-Rajia ran all out, with his prey, with his conquest.
In astonishing dashes, crossing a chasm, climbing a rock, leaping over a pit, he went, holding the fainted and motionless child tight against his chest. This frail human frame had been subjected to such jolts, both in mind and body that its brain had plunged into a coma. However, it seemed that the great creature understood this weakness: with an incredible dexterity it drew aside all that could have struck and hurt the one he carried, and when he hung suspended by one arm from the branch of a tree, when he dropped from high up onto his feet, he did so in such a manner that the child was not subject to any violent shocks.
At first he had charged through the undergrowth, following a straight-ahead path through the tangled lianas, with the rectitude of a will resolved to attain its goal; nothing, however, suggested any calculation. He was guided by instinct alone, by one of those natural faculties one may find among carrier pigeons. He dashed forward so forcefully, his rush so irresistible that the way opened before him. As soon as he had passed the branches dropped again, closed up, recreating an impenetrable barrier behind him.
Sometimes, when a tree stood before him, a foualang with hard, unbreakable branches, whose colossal trunk six men holding hands could not have spanned, the fugitive, pausing for a moment, flexed his legs, and in a muscular release, shot like a stone from a sling, reached another branch, let himself hang so as to catch one further on, and thus by way of a trapeze exercise before which the most agile of our clowns would have backed away, he arrived over a small clearing, and there allowed himself to drop to the ground and resume his dizzying race.
Thus further and further on, into solitudes where man had never penetrated, into masses of greenery, foliage, of great seedlings as deep as waves upon the sea, through a colonnade of trees so tightly packed, so thick-set that sometimes he had trouble slipping through. Then he would break the younger stems and still make his way through.
Sometimes it was the tree-ferns which enveloped him, tried to tie him up, grabbing him by the neck, the legs, the arms. He fought, braced himself, always made it through, under the rains from dew on the canopy, tramping through the sticky mud which he hammered with his heels to find some purchase.
Water accumulated by the moisture of the vegetation and which remained in milky greenish ponds, gushing springs spurting from some fault in the rock, struck him as he passed, causing such a violent shock as to draw a heh! of defiance, a pause to draw breath --- had the child not been struck? No, he had bent over in time and with his flesh and his hair had protected him.
To the treacherous forest had succeeded the mountain, more brutal with its precipitous slopes, its exposed knolls, its black diamond spires, its piles of crumble rocks strewn there by some internal upheavals, with, all of a sudden a dug-out bowl, the crater of an extinct volcano, whose clean and slippery sides offered no purchase for walking. The feet adapted themselves, the flight continued.
For thirty hours the mysterious creature had thus fought against Nature. Night had passed, then a day, then another night. The sun rose, irradiating the immensity of the place with its vivid and splendid glow. They were in a small upland valley, halfway up the mountain, in a clearing girt with giant trees, which encompassed a gorge lined with mosses and small bushes.
The creature slowed his pace, stopped, looked around, picked out a clump of trees forming a sort of canopy: then in the white light he gazed upon the child with an odd grin, quickly prepared a pile of leaves, and then put his burden down upon it.
The poor little George was pale, as if exsanguinated: why did he not move? He, no doubt, wondered. Very soft sounds escaped from his throat, made up of vowels combined with strong consonants, recalling the Spanish jota or the German ch, odd contractions of the glottis which nonetheless had a certain sonority of melancholy and worry. He had knelt down and his huge mouth almost touched those of the little one, as if to draw in his breath.
He got up suddenly: he had felt the breath caress his face. The child was alive. But why this immobility? why this silence? Why did these frail limbs he held up drop back inert and as if paralysed? He had drawn back slightly, his head falling to his chest, his eyes wide open in a mask of mental strain and thought. Certainly a question remained, still unfathomable, as the frowning of his eyebrows and the pouting of his lips attested.
But, all of a sudden his lips relaxed, he raised his head, and his mobile features brightened. He had figured it out! A personal sensation, that of hunger, had brought on a simple deduction. The child must he too have been hungry, and it was with this condition that one could associate his depressed state.
He uttered several times a single syllable:
He raised his head and finally saw some distance away some lianas that were well known to him and which the natives called Akar-Loodany: these plants contain a lovely and nourishing liquid, while their seeds, milky and wholesome make an excellent food. However, he was separated from this green clump by a deep gulf, a split right through the bedrock, which had accumulated the prevailing humidity in a muddy cesspool. It was a matter of getting across it.
Again he thought: two enormous branches were arranged one before the other, not forming a bridge, but as bars which could serve as an aerial route. He took a step forward, ready to take a running start, yet he stopped, came back. He hesitate to move away from the child, knowing that these solitudes hid terrible treacheries, slimy creatures slithering beneath the tree limbs, wild beasts lurking in the brush.
All was calm, not a sound, not a murmur. The child was well, quietly laying on the bed of moss, the tree branches above his head forming a protective cradle. In this deep repose, his breathing was regular, even some colour was apparent on his cheeks. Everything was reassuring. The creature made a gesture of decision and at a resolute pace ran to the gulf, still turning his head towards the motionless child. He took a running start, jumped, reached the first branch the extremity of which bent under his weight, but not sufficiently that he could not manage to grab onto the other, stronger branch. Thus in an alternating motion, throwing out his arms one after the other, he managed to reach the other side of the dark gulf, slid down, tore off in handfuls the nutritious liana which he hung from his neck and shoulders, and with little squeals of joy, took up once more his perilous way, suspended from the branch which had already held him up.
But, suddenly there was a cracking sound, the branch broke and he was thrown and dropped onto the slippery slope of the gulf. Were he to go down to the bottom it would be a certain and most agonizing death, as the deep, viscous mud would snatch him up, would envelop him, would suck him in. He knew this, and where his fingers were sunk in like steel pins, he held on desperately with his nails to the side.
But the material it was made up of was not compacted enough, he felt it slip away through his fingers. He stuck his heels into the saturated soil, and still he had that horrible sensation that it was all giving way under his weight. At the same time, a horrible cry rang out, terrifying high pitched --- the voice of the child, who from his tight throat called for help!
What was happening? The torpor in which George had been sunk, long maintained by the brutality of the journey and the continuous shaking movement, dissipated little by little in this motionless sleep. The fresh air which came down from the tree canopy penetrated his limbs and released them of their stiffness. It was almost a feeling of well-being, mixed, however, with a little fever-driven excitation, which did not allow him to fully clear his thoughts. He opened his eyes, and by the radiant glow of the dawn, filtered through the trees, saw the strange and magnificent spectacle of the vast forest, with its colossal trees, its inextricably tangled boughs, their vault taller than those of the largest cathedrals.
He thought he was dreaming and closed his eyes, only to open them again. And it was then that he let out a sinister, desperate cry, drawn from all the terrors of his nightmare. A monstrous ape had just bounded out from the depths of the underbrush, a true ape this one, the Maoussa, an orang-outang, a gorilla, huge, deformed, its belly distended, it limbs knotted, its legs short and knock-kneed, bending under the weight of its colossal torso. Its face was grimacing. Near the horrible snub- nose, the eyes, stupid and malevolent, blinked.
From the height of his aerial observation point, the ape had seen the child stretched out, and born in him was a nasty, bestial instinct to acquire this unknown prey, for he had never seen anything like it, as a human being had never yet penetrated to the mysterious depths of Sumatra's innermost forests.
Was it a carnivore's appetite which drew him? No, since even of the fiercest of apes, none feed upon flesh. He obeyed an brute instinct, a desire to destroy. Dropping from branch to branch, the hastened towards the child. Were the poor George to end up between its huge paws, strangulation, dismemberment, and the breaking of his bones on the rocks, would be the result of the unrestrained beast's furious and disgusting game.
Had George guessed all of this? He had only seen the animal when it was about to land on the ground, and in his child's imagination, the vision proved fantastic, demonic. He had cried out with all his strength, with all his breath, without knowing or understanding where he was, without even having the notion that he could be rescued. And one word had burst forth from his mouth, that word which all little ones utter and which sometimes returns to the lips of the elderly in their last moments:
The cry had been so high-pitched that the ape had paused for a instant. The brute, being cowardly, was prudent: from up there he had thought he could attack with impunity a creature which would not even attempt to defend itself. He knew all the denizens of the forests and mountains, knew which he was sure to subdue, and those before which he must flee.
He was almost scared of this little fellow who had suddenly risen to his feet and, petrified with surprise, horrified, was watching him wild-eyed. He got on all fours, hiking up his back, circling around the child, stopping to scratch himself, then again taking a few steps back and then forward.
"Mommy! mommy!" repeated desperately little George.
The ape soon convinced himself that this stranger, very weak, was at his mercy; he leaped on him in one last bound. Feeling the claw on him, Georges, startled, drew back and escaped from him. But more alert, the monster caught up with him, threw out his nails which entered the clothing. The cloth tore, stayed attached to the ape's claws who furiously shook his hand, and then, having decided to get it over with, he resolutely threw himself upon the child, who this time was caught. The beast began to drag him by his arms, towards the forest, grinding its teeth in rage. Georges was struggling, screaming, trying to tear his wrists from the hold.
The other, exasperated, rising on his legs, threw hands around the child's neck. "Mommy!, mommy!"
Suddenly the ape received a violent blow right in the forehead, which made him roll on the ground. The saviour had come. The mysterious creature who, seeing the child at risk at the exactly instant he felt himself slipping into the abyss, had made a supreme, desperate attempt to escape, and had managed to leap onto the crest of the gulf. And now he was before the child, raising his huge bulk, his great hands darting out against the assailant.
The latter, having gotten himself up, did not run away. His simian face was twitching and his blinking eyes showed flashes of rage, while from his throat came high-pitched, inarticulate, bugle-like cries. Relaxing his hamstrings, he charged his adversary, recognizing in him his primordial enemy, he who, issued of the same lineage, despised and abhorred him. Once again he let out his guttural cry.
Suddenly the ape received a violent blow right in the forehead, which made him roll on the ground.
Between the two creatures, one the ape, the other the half-man, the battle was engaged, furious, to the death. The ape was tremendously strong; the other, the colossus, was no less powerful, but what distinguished him from the brute was the coordination of his movements and the attention he brought to defending himself. While the ape, time and time again struck out wildly with his limbs, in instinctive, disordered motions, the other, more master of himself, struck out straight ahead and with accuracy.
The muffled blows rang out frightfully; they finally clinched, the ape seizing his adversary with all four hands, wrapping him up with his arms and legs. In this bestial charge the ape left himself open, the other's hands closed around his throat, tightening, choking, and as the ape rattled out his last, the victor carried him towards the muddy abyss, into which he pitched him.
The ape gave out one last screech, an awful agonizing outcry, then disappeared. But upon this last cry, which might have been a call, apes of all sizes appeared upon the tree limbs, rushing to the aid of their comrade. The half-man, his task accomplished, had come back towards George. It was in the nick of time as the group of apes were close. He perceived the awful danger: this crowd of apes would surround the two of them. It was a horrible, unequal battle.
Quickly he had seized the child and placed it behind him, against a rock, against which, with an elementary sense of strategy, he backed up, sheltering the child with his body. Then, finding within his grasp a young tree trunk, he tore it out with one twist and thus he drew himself up, like a great athlete, ready to receive the attack. It was not long in coming: the apes were the first to charge him, throwing out their arms before them as though seeking to harpoon him, while others, tumbling down from the trees, armed themselves with missiles, fruits, broken branches, with which they bombarded him.
He struck, breaking limbs, cracking open skulls, but the apes were not getting discouraged, their instinct told them that they would eventually manage to tire him out, more so since the little one, terror-struck, held on desperately to his rescuer's legs, and was in danger of paralysing him.
Already a number of missiles had struck the fighter, who now had bloody traces on his brown face. The terrible windmill of his arm was slowing, it was only moments before he would weaken. Then, in turn, he let out an awful, oddly modulated cry, which surely could not simply be the cry of a beast, having two very clear syllables:
And then, in the distance, other calls answered him:
The monkeys, completely wrapped up in their bestial exasperation had neither heard nor understood anything: perhaps they thought it a desperate cry of agony. He, bolstered by a new hope, as he felt himself overwhelmed by their numbers, had tried to expend an ultimate effort. Gathering all his strength, he had taken hold of a large fragment of rock, which he had managed to shake loose, and having pulled it out, had rolled it in front of him and stuck it in the ground as a barricade.
Under this provisional cover, which at least subtracted a portion of his body from their strikes, he fought on, lashing out at the overly audacious amongst his assailants. But, on their side, the apes had numbers, stubbornness, and an instinct for evil. They tried to surprise him, climbing up the tree trunks, jumping from there onto the rock which covered his back, dangling from lianas and trying to tear him apart with their nails; another instant and the whole horde was going to drop on his shoulders, crush him under their weight. His strength was giving out.
All of a sudden, there was a tremendous stampede coming through the forest, a frantic push bursting through the brush and undergrowth: "To-Ho! To-Ho!" and a group of huge creatures, seemingly both human and simian at once, brandishing sticks or holding sharp stones in their hands, threw themselves upon the apes.
A stunning and grotesque scene of horror! The apes were taken with an indescribable panic. On their distorted masks, terror stretched their muscles in convulsive contractions, and it was a leaping, tumbling, stunning mˆl‚e to escape. Hideous and ridiculous, they pushed each other, threw each other over, in a excruciating cacophony of yelps. Those arriving chased them down, bludgeoning those they could reach, slashing the others with their stones.
Amongst them there were some females, of great size: one of them, coming out through the ranks had rushed towards the injured creature. With one muscular exertion she had thrown over the stone behind which he had sheltered himself and had taken him in her arms, hugging him, seeking to staunch the blood that flowed over his face and coagulated on his hairy torso. She whispered softly the two syllables: "To-Ho! To-Ho!" It was clearly his name, his own, which he had called out through the forest as a signal; it was the same his mate repeated as she lavished signs of affection upon him.
But suddenly she saw the child, who, terrified, still thinking himself in a nightmare, hung desperately onto the one he knew to be his friend and defender. The female, in an instinctive and terrified gesture wished to push him away: the little one began to moan. To-Ho heard, and, spreading his big lips in a smile of goodwill, he spoke a few syllables to his mate. She shrugged her shoulders, with a sort of tremor of disbelief and revolt. But To-Ho placed his large hand on the child's head, saying something again, in a plaintive tone, in which tears were held back, and the female suddenly had a down-cast look, big tears even beading under her eyelids.
She then took the child in her arms and looked at him for a long time. She made a gesture of decision, lay the child on one of her shoulders and held out her arm to To-Ho. He leaned on it.
The others, males and females, seemed to be prey to a profound happiness, undoubtedly for having arrived in time and having dispersed the apes, their eternal enemies. The younger ones gave themselves up to wild dances, stepping to a rhythm they accompanied with strange cries resembling a barbarian chant. And, upon a new cry from To-Ho, they all gathered around him and his mate who carried the child. George had thrown his two arms around her neck and was falling asleep, exhausted.
The troop plunged into the forest.
Lermina: Goldslayer | Part 2 | Part 3 |
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