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ERB’S BIBLE BLUES:
A Commentary By
Woodrow Edgar Nichols, Jr.
We return to Lord Passmore’s camp where the English woman and the American professor of geology are engaged in pleasant conversation. Things they start to observe in the camp are very mysterious.
Chapter Twenty-Four: The Long Night
The sun was high in the heavens when Lady Barbara, refreshed from her long, undisturbed sleep, stepped from her tent in the camp of Lord Passmore. A smiling, handsome black boy came running toward her. “Breakfast soon be ready,” he told her. “Lord Passmore very sorry. He have to go hunt.”
She asked after Lafayette Smith and was told he had just awakened, nor was it long before he joined her; and soon they were breakfasting together.
“If Jezebel and your friend were here,” she said, “I should be very happy. I am praying that Tarzan finds them.”
“I am sure he will,” Smith assured her, “though I am only worried about Jezebel. Danny can take care of himself.”
“Doesn’t it seem heavenly to eat a meal again?” the girl remarked. “Do you know that it has been months since I have eaten anything that even vaguely approximated a civilized meal. Lord Passmore was fortunate to get such a cook for his safari. I had no such luck.”
“Have you noticed what splendid looking fellows all his men are?” asked Smith. “They would make that aggregation of mine resemble fourth rate roustabouts with hookworm and sleeping sickness.”
“There is another very noticeable thing about them,” said Lady Barbara.
“What is that?”
“There is not a single piece of cast off European finery among them – their garb is native, pure and simple; and, while I’ll have to admit there isn’t much to it, it lends a dignity to them that European clothing would change to the absurd.”
“I quite agree with you,” said Smith. “I wonder why I didn’t get a safari like this.”
“Lord Passmore is evidently an African traveller and hunter of long experience. No amateur could hope to attract such men as these.”
“I shall hate to go back to my own camp, if I stay here very long,” said Smith; “but I suppose I’ll have to; and that suggests another unpleasant feature of the change.”
“And what is that?” she asked.
“I shan’t see you any more,” he said with a simple directness that vouched for the sincerity of his regret.
The girl was silent for a moment, as though the suggestion had aroused a chain of thought she had not before considered. “That is true, isn’t it?” she remarked, presently. “We shan’t see each other any more – but not for always. I’m sure you’ll stop and visit me in London. Isn’t it odd what old friends we seem? And yet we only met two days ago. Or, maybe, it doesn’t seem that way to you. You see I was so long without seeing a human being of my own world that you were quite like a long lost brother, when you came along so unexpectedly.”
“I have the same feeling,” he said – “as though I had known you forever – and –” he hesitated, “– as though I could never get along without you in the future.” He flushed a little as he spoke those last words.
The girl looked up at him with a quick smile – a sympathetic, understanding smile. “It was nice of you to say that,” she said. “Why it sounded almost like a declaration,” she added, with a gay, friendly laugh.
He reached across the little camp table and laid a hand upon hers. “Accept it as such.” he said. “I’m not very good at saying things – like that.”
“Let’s not be serious,” she begged. “Really, we scarcely know each other, after all.”
“I have known you always,” he replied. “I think we were amoebas together before the first Cambrian dawn.”
“Now you’ve compromised me,” she cried, laughingly, “for I’m sure there were no chaperons way back there. I hope that you were a proper amoeba. You didn’t kiss me, did you?”
“Unfortunately for me amoebas have no mouths,” he said, “but I’ve been profiting by several millions of years of evolution just to remedy that defect.”
“Let’s be amoebas again,” she suggested.
“No,” he said, “for then I couldn’t tell you that I – I –” He choked and flushed.
“Please! Please, don’t tell me,” she cried. “We’re such ripping friends – don’t spoil it”
“Would it spoil it?” he asked.
“I don’t know. It might. I am afraid.”
“Can’t I ever tell you?” he asked.
“Perhaps some day,” she said.
Leave it to Lafayette Smith to bring up things at the wrong time and still refuse to take the hint that Lady Barbara is into Jezebel more than she is into him.
A sudden burst of distant rifle fire interrupted them. The blacks in the camp were instantly alert. Many of them sprang to their feet, and all were listening intently to the sounds of this mysterious engagement between armed men.
The man and the girl heard the headman speaking to his fellows in some African dialect. His manner showed no excitement, his tones were low but clear. It was evident that he was issuing instructions. The men went quickly to their shelters, and a moment later Lady Barbara saw the peaceful camp transformed. Every man was armed now. As by magic a modern rifle and bandoleer of cartridges were in the possession of each black. White feathered headdresses were being adjusted and war paint applied to glossy hides.
Smith approached the headman. “What is the matter?” he asked. “Is something wrong?”
“I do not know, Bwana,” replied the black; “but we prepare.”
“Is there any danger?” continued the white.
The headman straightened to his full, impressive height. “Are we not here?”
Jezebel and the “Gunner” were walking slowly in the direction of the distant water hole and cached boar meat, following the bottom of a dip that was the mouth of a small canyon that led up into the hills.
They were stiff and lame and very tired; and the wound on the “Gunner’s” head pained; but, notwithstanding, they were happy as, hand in hand, they dragged their weary feet toward water and food.
“Geeze, Kid,” said Danny, “it sure is a funny world. Just think, if I hadn’t met old Smithy on board that ship me and you wouldn’t never have met up. It all started from that,” but then Danny knew nothing of Augustus the Ephesian.
“I got a few grand salted away, Kid, and when we get out of this mess, we’ll go somewhere where nobody doesn’t know me and I’ll start over again. Get myself a garage or a filling station, and we’ll have a little flat. Geeze, it’s goin’ to be great showin’ you things. You don’t know what you ain’t seen – movies and railroads and boats! Geeze! You ain’t seen nothin’ and nobody ain’t going to go to show you nothin’, only me.”
“Yes, Danny,” said Jezebel, “it’s going to be ripping,” and she squeezed his hand.
Just then they were startled by the sound of rifle fire ahead.
“What was that?” asked Jezebel.
“It sounded like the Valentine Massacre,” said Danny, “but I guess it’s them toughs from the village. We better hide, Kid.” He drew her toward some low bushes; and there they lay down, listening to the shouts and shots that came down to them from where Tarzan fought for his life and liberty with the odds a hundred to one against him.
After a while the din ceased, and a little later the two heard the thudding of many galloping hoofs. The sound increased in volume as it drew nearer, and Danny and Jezebel tried to make themselves as small as possible beneath the little bush in the inadequate concealment of which they were hiding.
At a thundering gallop the shiftas crossed the swale just above them, and all but a few had passed when one of the stragglers discovered them. His shout, which attracted the attention of others, was carried forward until it reached the new chief, and presently the entire band had circled back to learn what their fellow had discovered.
Poor “Gunner”! Poor Jezebel! Their happiness had been short lived. Their recapture was effected with humiliating ease. Broken and dejected, they were soon on their way to the village under escort of two black ruffians.
Good grief! ERB is sure wearing out the escape and recapture bullshit, isn’t he? I mean how many times has the “Gunner” been captured by these guys? Capietro was going to ransom him for ten grand, but none of these black cutthroats was in on that, I don’t believe, though it’s not hard to confuse things in this story.
Bound, hands and feet, they were thrown into the hut formerly occupied by Capietro and left without food or water upon the pile of dirty rugs and clothing that littered the floor.
Beside them lay the corpse of the Italian which his followers, in their haste to overtake his slayer, had not taken the time to remove it. It lay upon its back, the dead eyes staring upward.
Never before in his life had the spirits of Danny Patrick sunk so low, for the very reason, perhaps, that never in his life had they risen so high as during the brief interlude of happiness he had enjoyed following his reunion with Jezebel. Now he saw no hope ahead, for, with the two white men eliminated, he feared that he might not even be able to dicker with these ignorant black men for the ransom that he would gladly pay to free Jezebel and himself.
“There goes the garage, the filling station, and the flat,” he said, lugubriously.
“Where?” asked Jezebel.
“Flooie,” explained Danny.
“But you are here with me,” said the golden one; “so I do not care what else there is.”
“That’s nice, Kid; but I ain’t much help, all tied up like a Christmas present. They sure picked out a swell bed for me – feels like I was lyin’ on a piece of the kitchen stove.” He rolled himself to one side and nearer Jezebel. “That’s better,” he said, “but I wonder what was that thing I was parked on.”
“Maybe your friend will come and take us away,” suggested Jezebel.
“Who, Smithy? What would he take us with – that dinky toy pistol of his?”
“I was thinking of the other that you told me about.”
“Oh, that Tarzan guy! Say Kid, if he knew we was here, he’d walk in and push all these nutty dumps over with one mitt and kick the whole gang over the back fence. Geeze, you bet I wish he was here. There is one big shot, and I don’t mean maybe.”
In a hut on the edge of the village was the answer to the “Gunner’s” wish, bound hand and foot, as was the “Gunner,” and, apparently, equally helpless. Constantly the ape-man was working on the thongs that confined his wrists – twisting, tugging, pulling.
The long day wore on and never did the giant captive cease his efforts to escape; the thongs were heavy and securely tied, yet little by little he felt that they were loosening.
Towards evening the new chief returned with the party that had been searching for Stabutch. They had not found him; but scouts had located the camp of Lord Passmore, and now the shiftas were discussing plans for attacking it on the morrow.
They had not come sufficiently close to it to note the number of armed natives it contained; but they had glimpsed Smith and Lady Barbara, and, being sure that there were not more than two white men, they felt little hesitation in attempting the raid, since they were planning to start back for Abyssinia on the morrow.
“We will kill the white men we now have.” said the chief, “and carry the two girls and Tarzan with us. Tarzan should bring a good ransom and the girls a good price.”
“Why not keep the girls for ourselves,” suggested another.
“We shall sell them,” said the chief.
“Who are you, to say what we shall do?” demanded the other. “You are no chief.”
“No,” growled a villainous looking black squatting beside the first objector.
He who would be chief leaped, catlike, upon the first speaker, before any was aware of his purpose. A sword gleamed for an instant in the light of the new made cook fires and fell with terrific force upon the skull of the victim.
“Who am I?” repeated the killer, as he wiped the bloody blade upon the garment of the slain man. “I am chief!” He looked around upon the scowling faces about him. “Is there any who says I am not chief?” There was no demur. Ntale was chief of the shifta band.
Inside the dark interior of the hut where he had lain bound all day without food or water the ape-man tugged and pulled until the sweat stood in beads upon his body, but not in vain. Gradually a hand slipped through the stretched thong, and he was free. Or at least his hands were, and it took them but a moment to loosen the bonds that secured his ankles.
With a low, inaudible growl he rose to his feet and stepped to the doorway. Before him lay the village compound. He saw the shiftas squatting about while slaves prepared the evening meal. Nearby was the palisade. They must see him as he crossed to it, but what matter?
He would be gone before they could gather their wits. Perhaps a few stray shots would be fired; but then, had they not fired many shots at him this morning, not one of which had touched him?
He stepped out into the open, and at the same instant a burly black stepped from the next hut and saw him. With a shout of warning to his fellows the man leaped upon the escaping prisoner. Those at the fires sprang to their feet and came running toward the two.
Within their prison hut Jezebel and Danny heard the commotion and wondered.
The ape-man seized the black who would have stopped him and wheeling him about to form a shield for himself, backed quickly toward the palisade.
“Stay where you are,” he called to the advancing shiftas, in their own dialect. “Stay where you are or I will kill this man.”
“Let him kill him then,” growled Ntale. “He is not worth the ransom we are losing,” and with a shout of encouragement to his followers he leaped quickly forward to intercept the ape-man.
Tarzan was already near the palisade as Ntale charged. He raised the struggling black above his head and hurled him upon the advancing chief, and as the two went down he wheeled and ran for the palisade.
Like Manu the monkey he scaled the high barrier. A few scattered shots followed him, but he dropped to the ground outside unscathed and disappeared in the growing gloom of the advancing night.
The long night of their captivity dragged on and still the “Gunner” and Jezebel lay as they had been left, without food or drink, while the silent corpse of Capietro stared at the ceiling.
“I wouldn’t treat nobody like this,” said the “Gunner,” “not even a rat.”
Jezebel raised herself to one elbow. “Why not try it?” she whispered.
“What?” demanded Danny. “I’d try anything once.”
“What you said about a rat made me think of it,” said Jezebel. “We have lots of rats in the land of Midian. Sometimes we catch them – they are very good to eat. We make traps, but if we do not kill the rats soon after they are caught they gnaw their way to freedom – they gnaw the cords which bind the traps together.”
“Well, what of it?” demanded Danny. “We ain’t got no rats, and if we had – well, I won’t say I wouldn’t eat ‘em Kid; but I don’t see what it’s got to do with the mess we’re in.”
“We’re like the rats, Danny,” she said. “Don’t you see? We’re like the rats and – we can gnaw our way to freedom!”
“Well, Kid,” said Danny, “if you want to gnaw your way through the side of this hut, hop to it; but if I gets a chance to duck I’m goin’ through the door.”
“You do not understand, Danny,” insisted Jezebel. “You are an egg that cannot talk. I mean I can gnaw the cords that fasten your wrists together.”
“Geeze, Kid!” exclaimed Danny. “Dumb ain’t no name for it, and I always thought I was the bright little boy. You sure got a bean, and I don’t mean maybe.”
“I wish I knew what you are talking about, Danny,’ said Jezebel, “and I wish you would let me try to gnaw the cords from your wrist. Can’t you understand what I’m talking about?”
“Sure, Kid, but I’ll do the gnawing – my jaws are tougher. Roll over, and I’ll get busy. When you’re free you can untie me.”
Jezebel rolled over on her stomach and Danny wriggled into position where he could reach the thongs at her wrists with his teeth. He fell to work with a will, but it was soon evident to him that the job was going to be much more difficult than he had anticipated.
He found, too, that he was very weak and soon tired; but though often he was forced to stop through exhaustion, he never gave up. Once, when he paused to rest, he kissed the little hands that he was trying to liberate. It was a gentle, reverent kiss, quite unlike the “Gunner”; but then love is a strange force, and when it is aroused in the breast of a man by a clean and virtuous woman it makes him always a little tenderer and a little better.
Dawn was lifting the darkness within the hut, and still the “Gunner” gnawed upon the thongs that seemed would never part. Capietro lay staring at the ceiling, his dead eyes rolled upward, just as he had laid there staring through all the long hours of the night, unseeing.
The shiftas were stirring in the village, for this was to be a busy day. Slaves were preparing the loads of camp equipment and plunder that they were to carry toward the north. The fighting men were hastening their breakfasts that they might look to their weapons and their horse gear before riding out on their last raid from this village, against the camp of the English hunter.
Ntale the chief was eating beside the fire of his favorite wife. “Make haste, woman,” he said. “I have work to do before we ride.”
“You are chief now,” she reminded him. “Let others work.”
“This thing I do myself,” replied the black man.
“What do you do that is so important that I must hasten the preparation of the morning meal?” she demanded.
“I go to kill the white man and get the girl ready for the journey,” he replied. “Have food prepared for her. She must eat or she will die.”
“Let her die,” replied the woman. “I do not want her around. Kill them both.”
“Shut thy mouth!” snapped the man. “I am chief.”
“If you will not kill her, I shall,” said the woman. “I shall not cook for any white bitch.”
The man rose. “I go to kill the man,” he said. “Have breakfast for the girl when I return with her.”
Whew! We finally got through that chapter that I thought would never end. I wonder what is coming? Is Danny going to give the shiftas typing lessons with his typwriter? I hope so.
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