Hatteras by A.E.W.
The story was told to us by James Walker in the cabin of a seven-ton
cutter one night when we lay anchored in Helford river. It was towards the
end of September; during this last week the air had grown chilly with the
dusk, and the sea when it lost the sun took on a leaden and a dreary look.
There was no other boat in the wooded creek and the swish of the tide against
the planks had a very lonesome sound. All the circumstances I think provoked
Walker to tell the story but most of all the lonely swish of the tide against
the planks. For it is the story of a man's loneliness and the strange ways
into which loneliness misled him. However, let the story speak for
Hatteras and Walker had been schoolfellows, though never schoolmates.
Hatteras indeed was the head of the school and prophecy vaguely sketched out
for him a brilliant career in some service of importance. The definite law,
however, that the sins of the fathers shall be visited upon the children,
overbore the prophecy. Hatteras, the father, disorganised his son's future by
dropping unexpectedly through one of the trap ways of speculation into the
bankruptcy court beneath just two months before Hatteras, the son, was to
have gone up to Oxford. The lad was therefore compelled to start life in a
stony world with a stock in trade which consisted of a school boy's command
of the classics, a real inborn gift of tongues and the friendship of James
Walker. The last item proved of the most immediate value. For Walker, whose
father was the junior partner in a firm of West African merchants, obtained
for Hatteras an employment as the bookkeeper at a branch factory in the Bight
Thus the friends parted. Hatteras went out to West Africa alone and met
with a strange welcome on the day when he landed. The incident did not come
to Walker's ears until some time afterwards, nor when he heard of it did he
at once appreciate the effect which it had upon Hatteras. But chronologically
it comes into the story at this point, and so may as well be immediately
There was no settlement very near to the factory. It stood by itself on
the swamps of the Forcados river with the mangrove forest closing in about
it. Accordingly the captain of the steamer just put Hatteras ashore in a boat
and left him with his traps on the beach. Half-a-dozen Kru boys had come down
from the factory to receive him, but they could speak no English, and
Hatteras at this time could speak no Kru. So that although there was no lack
of conversation there was not much interchange of thought. At last Hatteras
pointed to his traps. The Kru boys picked them up and preceded Hatteras to
the factory. They mounted the steps to the verandah on the first floor and
laid their loads down. Then they proceeded to further conversation. Hatteras
gathered from their excited faces and gestures that they wished to impart
information, but he could make neither head nor tail of a word they said and
at last he retired from the din of their chatter through the windows of a
room which gave on the verandah, and sat down to wait for his superior, the
agent. It was early in the morning when Hatteras landed and he waited until
midday patiently. In the afternoon it occurred to him that the agent would
have shown a kindly consideration if he had left a written message or an
intelligible Kru boy to receive him. It is true that the blacks came in at
intervals and chattered and gesticulated, but matters were not thereby
appreciably improved. He did not like to go poking about the house, so he
contemplated the mud-banks and the mud-river and the mangrove forest, and
cursed the agent. The country was very quiet. There are few things in the
world quieter than a West African forest in the daytime. It is obtrusively,
emphatically quiet. It does not let you forget how singularly quiet it is.
And towards sundown the quietude began to jar on Hatteras' nerves. He was
besides very hungry. To while away the time he took a stroll round the
He walked along the side of the house towards the back, and as he neared
the back he head a humming sound. The further he went the louder it grew. It
was something like the hum of a mill, only not so metallic and not so loud;
and it came from the rear of the house.
Hatteras turned the corner and what he saw was this — a shuttered
window and a cloud of flies. The flies were not aimlessly swarming outside
the window; they streamed in through the lattices of the shutters in a busy
practical way; they came in columns from the forest and converged upon the
shutters; and the hum sounded from within the room.
Hatteras looked about for a Kru boy just for the sake of company, but, at
that moment there was not one to be seen. He felt the cold strike at his
spine, he went back to the room in which he had been sitting. He sat again,
but he sat shivering. The agent had left no work for him... The Kru boys had
been anxious to explain something. The humming of the flies about that
shuttered window seemed to Hatteras to have more explicit language than the
Kru boys' chatterings. He penetrated into the interior of the house, and
reckoned up the doors. He opened one of them ever so slightly, and the
buzzing came through like the hum of a wheel in a factory, revolving in the
collar of a strap. He flung the door open and stood upon the threshold. The
atmosphere of the room appalled him; he felt the sweat break cold upon his
forehead and a deadly sickness in all his body. Then he nerved himself to
At first he saw little because of the gloom. In a moment, however, he made
out a bed stretched along the wall and a thing stretched upon the bed. The
thing was more or less shapeless because it was covered with a black, furry
sort of rug. Hatteras, however, had little trouble in defining it. He knew
now for certain what it was that the Kru boys had been so anxious to explain
to him. He approached the bed and bent over it, and as he bent over it the
horrible thing occurred which left so vivid an impression on Hatteras. The
black, furry rug suddenly lifted itself from the bed, beat about Hatteras'
face, and dissolved into flies. The Kru boys found Hatteras in a dead swoon
on the floor half-an-hour later, and next day, of course, he was down with
the fever. The agent had died of it three days before.
Hatteras recovered from the fever, but not from the impression. It left
him with a prevailing sense of horror and, at first, with a sense of disgust
too. "It's a damned obscene country," he would say. But he stayed in it, for
he had no choice. All the money which he could save went to the support of
his family, and for six years the firm he served moved him from district to
district, from factory to factory.
Now the second item in the stock in trade was a gift of tongues and about
this time it began to bring him profit. Wherever Hatteras was posted, he
managed to pick up a native dialect and with the dialect inevitably a
knowledge of native customs. Dialects are numerous on the west coast, and at
the end of six years, Hatteras could speak as many of them as some traders
could enumerate. Languages ran in his blood; because he acquired a reputation
for knowledge and was offered service under the Niger Protectorate, so that
when two years later, Walker came out to Africa to open a new branch factory
at a settlement on the Bonny river, he found Hatteras stationed in command
Hatteras, in fact, went down to Bonny river town to meet the steamer which
brought his friend.
"I say, Dick, you look bad," said Walker.
"People aren't, as a rule, offensively robust about these parts."
"I know that; but your the weariest bag of bones I've ever seen."
"Well, look at yourself in a glass a year from now for my double," said
Hatteras, and the pair went up river together.
"Your factory's next to the Residency," said Hatteras. "There's a compound
to each running down to the river, and there's a palisade between the
compounds. I've cut a little gate in the palisade as it will shorten the way
from one house to the other."
The wicket gate was frequently used during the next few months —
indeed, more frequently than Walker imagined. He was only aware that, when
they were both at home, Hatteras would come through it of an evening and
smoke on his verandah. Then he would sit for hours cursing the country,
raving about the lights in Piccadilly-circus, and offering his immortal soul
in exchange for a comic-opera tune played upon a barrel-organ. Walker
possessed a big atlas, and one of Hatteras' chief diversions was to trace
with his finger a bee-line across the African continent and the Bay of Biscay
until he reached London.
More rarely Walker would stroll over to the Residency, but he soon came to
notice that Hatteras had a distinct preference for the factory and for the
factory verandah. The reason for the preference puzzled Walker considerably.
He drew a quite erroneous conclusion that Hatteras was hiding at the
Residency — well, some one whom it was prudent, especially in an
official, to conceal. He abandoned the conclusion, however, when he
discovered that his friend was in the habit of making solitary expeditions.
At times Hatteras would be absent for a couple of days, at times for a week,
and, so far as Walker could ascertain, he never so much as took a servant
with him to keep him company. He would simply announce at night his intended
departure, and in the morning he would be gone. Nor on his return did he ever
offer to Walker any explanation of his journeys. On one occasion, however,
Walker broached the subject. Hatteras had come back the night before, and he
sat crouched up in a deck chair, looking intently into the darkness of the
"I say," asked Walker, "isn't it rather dangerous to go slumming about
West Africa alone?"
Hatteras did not reply for a moment. He seemed not to have heard the
suggestion, and when he did speak it was to ask a quite irrelevant
"Have you ever seen the Horse Guards' Parade on a dark, rainy night?" he
asked; but he never moved his head, he never took his eyes from the forest.
"The wet level of ground looks just like a lagoon and the arches a Venice
palace above it."
"But look here, Dick!" said Walker, keeping to his subject. "You never
leave word when you are coming back. One never knows that you have come back
until you show yourself the morning after."
"I think," said Hatteras slowly, "that the finest sight in the world is to
be seen from the bridge in St. James's Park when there's a State ball on at
Buckingham Palace and the light from the windows reddens the lake and the
carriages glance about the Mall like fireflies."
"Even your servants don't know when you come back," said Walker.
"Oh," said Hatteras quietly, "so you have been asking questions of my
"I had a good reason," replied Walker, "your safety," and with that the
Walker watched Hatteras. Hatteras watched the forest. A West African
mangrove forest at night is full of the eeriest, queerest sounds that ever a
man's ears harkened to. And the sounds come not so much from the birds, or
the soughing of the branches; they seem to come from the swamp life
underneath the branches, at the roots of trees. There's a ceaseless stir as
of a myriad of reptiles creeping in the slime. Listen long enough and you
will fancy that you hear the whirr and rush of innumerable crabs, the
flapping of innumerable fish. Now and again a more distinctive sound emerges
from the rest — the croaking of a bull-frog, the whining cough of a
crocodile. At such sounds Hatteras would start up in his chair and cock his
head like a dog in a room that hears another dog barking in the street.
"Doesn't it sound damned wicked?" he said, with a queer smile of
Walker did not answer. The light from a lamp in the room behind them
struck obliquely upon Hatteras' face and slanted off from it in a narrowing
column until it vanished in a yellow thread among the leaves of the trees. It
showed that the same enjoyment which ran in Hatteras' voice was alive upon
his face. His eyes, his ears, were alert, and he gently opened and shut his
mouth with a little clicking of the teeth. In some horrible way he seemed to
have something in common with, he appeared almost to participate in, the
activity of the swamp. Thus, had Walker often seen him sit, but never with
the light so clear upon his face, and the sight gave to him a quite new
impression of his friend. He wondered whether all these months his judgment
had been wrong. And out of that wonder a new thought sprang into his
"Dick," he said, "this house of mine stands between your house and the
forest. It stands on the borders of the trees, on the edge of the swamp. Is
that why you always prefer it to your own?"
Hatteras turned his head quickly towards his companion, almost
suspiciously. Then he looked back into the darkness, and after a little he
"It's not only the things you care about, old man, which tug at you, it's
the things you hate as well. I hate this country. I hate these miles and
miles of mangroves, and yet I am fascinated. I can't get the forest and the
undergrowth out of my mind. I dream of them at nights. I dream that I am
sinking into that black oily batter of mud. Listen," and he suddenly broke
off with his head stretched forwards. "Doesn't it sound wicked?"
"But all this talk about London?" cried Walker.
"Oh, don't you understand?" interrupted Hatteras roughly. Then he changed
his tone and gave his reason. "One has to struggle against a fascination of
that sort. It's devil's work. So for all I am worth I talk about London."
"Look here, Dick," said Walker. "You had better get leave and go back to
the old country for a spell."
"A very solid piece of advice," said Hatteras, and he went home to the
The next morning he had again disappeared. But Walker discovered upon his
table a couple of new volumes. He glanced at the titles. They were Burton's
account of his pilgrimage to al-Madinah and Mecca.
Five nights afterwards Walker was smoking a pipe on the verandah when he
fancied that he heard a rubbing, scuffling sound as if some one very
cautiously was climbing over the fence of his compound. The moon was low in
the sky and dipping down toward the forest; indeed the rim of it touched the
tree-tops so that while a full half of the enclosure was bare to the yellow
light that half which bordered on the forest was inky black in shadow; and it
was from the furthest corner of this second half that the sound came. Walker
bent forward listening. He heard the sound again, and a moment after another
sound, which left him in no doubt. For in that dark corner he knew that a
number of palisades for repairing the fence were piled and the second sound
which he heard was a rattle as some one stumbled against them. Walker went
inside and fetched a rifle.
When he came back he saw a negro creeping across the bright open space
towards the Residency. Walker hailed to him to stop. Instead the negro ran.
He ran towards the wicket gate in the palisades. Walker shouted again; the
figure only ran the faster. He had covered half the distance before Walker
fired. He clutched his right forearm with his left hand, but he did not stop.
Walker fired again, this time at his legs, and the man dropped to the ground.
Walker heard his servants stirring as he ran down the steps. He crossed
quickly to the negro and the negro spoke to him, but in English, and with the
voice of Hatteras.
"For God's sake keep your servants off!"
Walker ran to the house, met his servants at the foot of the steps, and
ordered them back. He had shot at a monkey he said. Then he returned to
"Dicky, are you hurt?" he whispered.
"You hit me each time you fired, but not very badly I think."
He bandaged Hatteras' arm and thigh with strips of his shirt and waited by
his side until the house was quiet. Then he lifted him and carried him across
the enclosure to the steps and up the steps into his bedroom. It was a long
and fatiguing process. For one thing Walker dared make no noise and must
needs tread lightly with his load; for another, the steps were steep and
ricketty, with a narrow balustrade on each side waist high. It seemed to
Walker that the day would dawn before he reached the top. Once or twice
Hatteras stirred in his arms, and he feared the man would die then and there.
For all the time his blood dripped and pattered like heavy raindrops on the
Walker laid Hatteras on his bed and examined his wounds. One bullet had
passed through the fleshy part of the forearm, the other through the fleshy
part of his right thigh. But no bones were broken and no arteries cut. Walker
lit a fire, baked some plaintain leaves, and applied them as a poultice. Then
he went out with a pail of water and scrubbed down the steps.
Again he dared not make any noise, and it was close on daybreak before he
had done. His night's work, however, was not ended. He had still to cleanse
the black stain from Hatteras' skin, and the sun was up before he stretched a
rug upon the ground and went to sleep with his back against the door.
"Walker," Hatteras called out in a low voice, an hour or so later.
Walker woke up and crossed over to the bed.
"Dicky, I'm frightfully sorry. I couldn't know it was you."
"That's all right, Jim. Don't you worry about that. What I wanted to say
was that nobody had better know. It wouldn't do, would it, if it got
"Oh, I am not so sure. People would think it rather a creditable
Hatteras shot a puzzled look at his friend. Walker, however, did not
notice it, and continued, "I saw Burton's account of his pilgrimage in your
room; I might have known that journeys of the kind were just the sort of
thing to appeal to you."
"Oh, yes, that's it," said Hatteras, lifting himself up in bed. He spoke
eagerly — perhaps a thought too eagerly. "Yes, that's it. I have always
been keen on understanding the native thoroughly. It's after all no less than
one's duty if one has to rule them, and since I could speak their
lingo—" he broke off and returned to the subject which had prompted him
to rouse Walker. "But, all the same, it wouldn't do if the natives got to
"There's no difficulty about that," said Walker. "I'll give out that you
have come back with the fever and that I am nursing you. Fortunately there's
no doctor handy to come making inconvenient examinations."
Hatteras knew something of surgery, and under his directions Walker
poulticed and bandaged him until he recovered. The bandaging, however, was
amateurish, and, as a result, the muscles contracted in Hatteras' thigh and
he limped — ever so slightly, still he limped — he limped to his
dying day. He did not, however, on that account abandon his explorations, and
more than once Walker, when his lights were out and he was smoking a pipe on
the verandah, would see a black figure with a trailing walk cross his
compound and pass stealthily through the wicket in the fence. Walker took
occasion to expostulate with his friend.
"It's too dangerous a game for a man to play for any length of time. It is
doubly dangerous now that you limp. You ought to give it up."
Hatteras made a strange reply.
"I'll try to," he said.
Walker pondered over the words for some time. He set them side by side in
his thoughts with that confession which Hatteras had made to him one evening.
He asked himself whether, after all, Hatteras' explanation of his conduct was
sincere, whether it was really a desire to know the native thoroughly which
prompted these mysterious expeditions; and then he remembered that he himself
had first suggested the explanation to Hatteras. Walker began to feel uneasy
— more than uneasy, actually afraid on his friend's account. Hatteras
had acknowledged that the country fascinated him, and fascinated him through
its hideous side. Was this masquerading as a black man a further proof of the
fascination? Was it, as it were, a step downwards towards a closer
association? Walker sought to laugh the notion from his mind, but it returned
and returned, and here and there an incident occurred to give it strength and
For instance, on one occasion after Hatteras had been three weeks absent,
Walker sauntered over to the Residency towards four o'clock in the afternoon.
Hatteras was trying cases in the court-house, which formed the ground floor
of the Residency. Walker stepped into the room. It was packed with a naked
throng of blacks, and the heat was overpowering. At the end of the hall sat
Hatteras. His worn face shone out amongst the black heads about him white and
waxy like a gardenia in a bouquet of black flowers. Walker invented his
simile and realised its appositeness at one and the same moment. Bouquet was
not an inappropriate word since there is a penetrating aroma about the native
of the Niger delta when he begins to perspire.
Walker, however, thinking that the Court would rise, determined to wait
for a little. But, at the last moment, a negro was put up to answer to a
charge of participation in Fetish rites. The case seemed sufficiently clear
from the outset, but somehow Hatteras delayed its conclusion. There was
evidence and unrebutted evidence of the usual details — human
sacrifice, mutilations and the like, but Hatteras pressed for more. He sat
until it was dusk, and then had candles brought into the Court-house. He
seemed indeed not so much to be investigating the negro's guilt as to be
adding to his own knowledge of Fetish ceremonials. And Walker could not but
perceive that he took more than a merely scientific pleasure in the increase
of his knowledge. His face appeared to smooth out, his eyes became quick,
interested, almost excited; and Walker again had the queer impression that
Hatteras was in spirit participating in the loathsome ceremonies, and
participating with an intense enjoyment. In the end the negro was convicted
and the Court rose. But he might have been convicted a good three hours
before. Walker went home shaking his head. He seemed to be watching a man
deliberately divesting himself of his humanity. It seemed as though the white
man were ambitious to decline into the black. Hatteras was growing into an
uncanny creature. His friend began to foresee a time when he should hold him
in loathing and horror. And the next morning helped to confirm him in that
For Walker had to make an early start down river for Bonny town, and as he
stood on the landing-stage Hatteras came down to him from the Residency.
"You heard that negro tried yesterday?" he asked with an assumption of
"Yes, and condemned. What of him?"
"He escaped last night. It's a bad business, isn't it?"
Walker nodded in reply and his boat pushed off. But it stuck in his mind
for the greater part of that day that the prison adjoined the Court-house and
so formed part of the ground floor of the Residency. Had Hatteras connived at
his escape? Had the judge secretly set free the prisoner whom he had publicly
condemned? The question troubled Walker considerably during his month of
absence, and stood in the way of his business. He learned for the first time
how much he loved his friend and how eagerly he watched for the friend's
advancement. Each day added to his load of anxiety. He dreamed continually of
a black-painted man slipping among the tree-boles nearer and nearer towards
the red glow of a fire in some open space secure amongst the swamps, where
hideous mysteries had their celebration. He cut short his business and
hurried back from Bonny. He crossed at once to the Residency and found his
friend in a great turmoil of affairs. Walker came back from Bonny a month
later and hurried across to his friend.
"Jim," said Hatteras, starting up, "I've got a year's leave; I am going
"Dicky!" cried Walker, and he nearly wrung Hatteras' hand from his arm.
"That's grand news."
"Yes, old man, I thought you would be glad; I sail in a fortnight." And he
For the first month Walker was glad. A year's leave would make a new man
of Dick Hatteras, he thought, or, at all events, restore the old man, sane
and sound, as he had been before he came to the West African coast. During
the second month Walker began to feel lonely. In the third he bought a banjo
and learnt it during the fourth and fifth. During the sixth he began to say
to himself, "What a time poor Dick must have had all those six years with
those cursed forests about him. I don't wonder — I don't wonder." He
turned disconsolately to his banjo and played for the rest of the year; all
through the wet season while the rain came down in a steady roar and only the
curlews cried — until Hatteras returned. He returned at the top of his
spirits and health. Of course he was hall-marked West African, but no man
gets rid of that stamp. Moreover there was more than health in his
expression. There was a new look of pride in his eyes and when he spoke of a
bachelor it was in terms of sympathetic pity.
"Jim," said he, after five minutes of restraint, "I am engaged to be
Jim danced round him in delight. "What an ass I have been," he thought,
"why didn't I think of that cure myself?" and he asked, "When is it to
"In eight months. You'll come home and see me through."
Walker agreed and for eight months listened to praises of the lady. There
were no more solitary expeditions. In fact, Hatteras seemed absorbed in the
diurnal discovery of new perfections in his future wife.
"Yes, she seems a nice girl," Walker commented. He found her upon his
arrival in England more human than Hatteras' conversation had led him to
expect, and she proved to him that she was a nice girl. For she listened for
hours to him lecturing her on the proper way to treat Dick without the
slightest irritation and with only a faintly visible amusement. Besides she
insisted on returning with her husband to Bonny river, which was a
sufficiently courageous thing to undertake.
For a year in spite of the climate the couple were commonplace and happy.
For a year Walker clucked about them like a hen after its chickens and slept
the sleep of the untroubled. Then he returned to England and from that time
made only occasional journeys to West Africa. Thus for awhile he almost lost
sight of Hatteras and consequently still slept the sleep of the untroubled.
One morning, however, he arrived unexpectedly at the settlement and at once
called on Hatteras. He did not wait to be announced, but ran up the steps
outside the house and into the dining-room. He found Mrs. Hatteras crying.
She dried her eyes, welcomed Walker, and said that she was sorry, but her
husband was away.
Walker started, looked at her eyes, and asked hesitatingly whether he
could help. Mrs. Hatteras replied with an ill-assumed surprise that she did
not understand. Walker suggested that there was trouble. Mrs. Hatteras denied
the truth of the suggestion. Walker pressed the point and Mrs. Hatteras
yielded so far as to assert that there was no trouble in which Hatteras was
concerned. Walker hardly thought it the occasion for a parade of manners, and
insisted on pointing out that his knowledge of her husband was intimate and
dated from his schooldays. Thereupon Mrs. Hatteras gave way.
"Dick goes away alone," she said. "He stains his skin and goes away at
night. He tells me that he must, that it's the only way by which he can know
the natives, and that so it's a sort of duty. He says the black tells nothing
of himself to the white man — ever. You must go amongst them if you are
to know them. So he goes, and I never know when he will come back. I never
know whether he will come back."
"But he has done that sort of thing on and off for years, and he has
always come back," replied Walker.
"Yes, but one day he will not." Walker comforted her as well as he could,
praised Hatteras for his conduct, though his heart was hot against him, spoke
of risks that every one must run who serve the Empire. "Never a lotus closes,
you know," he said, and went back to the factory with the consciousness that
he had been telling lies.
It was no sense of duty that prompted Hatteras, of that he was certain,
and he waited — he waited from darkness to daybreak in his compound for
three successive nights. On the fourth he heard the scuffling sound at the
corner of the fence. The night was black as the inside of a coffin. Half a
regiment of men might steal past him and he not have seen them. Accordingly
he walked cautiously to the palisade which separated the enclosure of the
Residency from his own, felt along it until he reached the little gate and
stationed himself in front of it. In a few moments he thought that he heard a
man breathing, but whether to the right or the left he could not tell; and
then a groping hand lightly touched his face and drew away again. Walker said
nothing, but held his breath and did not move. The hand was stretched out
again. This time it touched his breast and moved across it until it felt a
button of Walker's coat. Then it was snatched away and Walker heard a gasping
in-draw of the breath and afterwards a sound as of a man turning in a flurry.
Walker sprang forward and caught a naked shoulder with one hand, a naked arm
with the other.
"Wait a bit, Dick Hatteras," he said.
There was a low cry, and then a husky voice addressed him respectfully as
"Daddy" in trade-English.
"That won't do, Dick," said Walker.
The voice babbled more trade-English.
"If you're not Dick Hatteras," continued Walker, tightening his grasp,
"You've no manner of right here. I'll give you till I count ten and then I
Walker counted up to nine aloud and then —
"Jim," said Hatteras in his natural voice.
"That's better," said Walker. "Let's go in and talk."
He went up the step and lighted the lamp. Hatteras followed him and the
two men faced one another. For a little while neither of them spoke. Walker
was repeating to himself that this man with the black skin, naked except for
a dirty loincloth and a few feathers on his head was a white man married to a
white wife who was sleeping — Nay, more likely crying — not
thirty yards away.
Hatteras began to mumble out his usual explanation of duty and the rest of
"That won't wash," interrupted Walker. "What is it? A woman?"
"Good Heaven, no!" cried Hatteras suddenly. It was plain that that
explanation was at all events untrue. "Jim, I've a good mind to tell you all
"You have got to," said Walker. He stood between Hatteras and the
"I told you how this country fascinated me in spite of myself," he
"But I thought," interrupted Walker, "that you had got over that since.
Why, man, you are married," and he came across to Hatteras and shook him by
the shoulder. "Don't you understand? You have a wife!"
"I know," said Hatteras. "But there are things deeper at the heart of me
than the love of woman, and one of those things is the love of horror. I tell
you it bites as nothing else does in this world. It's like absinthe that
turns you sick at the beginning and that you can't do without once you have
got the taste of it. Do you remember my first landing? It made me sick enough
at the beginning, you know. But now—" He sat down in a chair and drew
it close to Walker. His voice dropped to a passionate whisper, he locked and
unlocked his fingers with feverish movements, and his eyes shifted and
glittered in an unnatural excitement.
"It's like going down to Hell and coming up again and wanting to go down
again. Oh, you'd want to go down again. You'd find the whole earth pale.
You'd count the days until you went down again. Do you remember Orpheus? I
think he looked back not to see if Eurydice was coming after him but because
he knew it was the last glimpse he would get of Hell." At that he broke off
and began to chant in a crazy voice, wagging his head and swaying his body to
the rhythm of the lines: —
"Quum subita in cantum dementia cepit amantem
Ignoscenda quidem scirent si ignoscere manes;
Restilit Eurydicengue suam jam luce sub ipsa
Immemor heu victusque animi respexit."
"Oh, stop that!" cried Walker, and Hatteras laughed. "For God's sake, stop
For the words brought back to him in a flash the vision of a class-room
with its chipped desks ranged against the varnished walls, the droning sound
of the form-master's voice, and the swish of lilac bushes against the lower
window panes on summer afternoons. "Go on," he said. "Oh, go on, and let's
have done with it."
Hatteras took up his tale again, and it seemed to Walker that the man
breathed the very miasma of the swamp and infected the room with it. He spoke
of leopard societies, murder clubs, human sacrifices. He had witnessed them
at the beginning, he had taken his share in them at the last. He told the
whole story without shame, with indeed a growing enjoyment. He spared Walker
no details. He related them in their loathsome completeness until Walker felt
stunned and sick. "Stop," he said, again, "Stop! That's enough."
Hatteras, however, continued. He appeared to have forgotten Walker's
presence. He told the story to himself, for his own amusement, as a child
will, and here and there he laughed and the mere sound of his laughter was
inhuman. He only came to a stop when he saw Walker hold out to him a cocked
and loaded revolver.
"Well?" he asked. "Well?"
Walker still offered him the revolver.
"There are cases, I think, which neither God's law nor man's law seems to
have provided for. There's your wife you see to be considered. If you don't
take it I shall shoot you myself now, here, and mark you I shall shoot you
for the sake of a boy I loved at school in the old country."
Hatteras took the revolver in silence, laid it on the table, fingered it
for a little.
"My wife must never know," he said.
"There's the pistol. Outside's the swamp. The swamp will tell no tales,
nor shall I. Your wife need never know."
Hatteras picked up the pistol and stood up.
"Good-bye, Jim," he said, and half pushed out his hand. Walker shook his
head, and Hatteras went out on to the verandah and down the steps.
Walker heard him climb over the fence; and then followed as far as the
verandah. In the still night the rustle and swish of the undergrowth came
quite clearly to his ears. The sound ceased, and a few minutes afterwards the
muffled crack of a pistol shot broke the silence like the tap of a hammer.
The swamp, as Walker prophesied, told no tales. Mrs. Hatteras gave the one
explanation of her husband's disappearance that she knew and returned
brokenhearted to England. There was some loud talk about the self-sacrificing
energy, which makes the English a dominant race, and there you might think is
the end of the story.
But some years later Walker went trudging up the Ogowé river in Congo
Français. He travelled as far as Woermann's factory in Njole Island and,
having transacted his business there, pushed up stream in the hope of opening
the upper reaches for trade purposes. He travelled for a hundred and fifty
miles in a little stern-wheel steamer. At that point he stretched an awning
over a whale-boat, embarked himself, his banjo and eight blacks from the
steamer, and rowed for another fifty miles. There he ran the boat's nose into
a clay cliff close to a Fan village and went ashore to negotiate with the
There was a slip of forest between the village and the river bank, and
while Walker was still dodging the palm creepers which tapestried it he heard
a noise of lamentation. The noise came from the village and was general
enough to assure him that a chief was dead. It rose in a chorus of discordant
howls, low in note and long-drawn out — wordless, something like the
howls of an animal in pain and yet human by reason of their infinite
Walker pushed forward, came out upon a hillock, fronting the palisade
which closed the entrance to the single street of huts, and passed down into
the village. It seemed as though he had been expected. For from every hut the
Fans rushed out towards him, the men dressed in their filthiest rags, the
women with their faces chalked and their heads shaved. They stopped, however,
on seeing a white man, and Walker knew enough of their tongue to ascertain
that they looked for the coming of the witch doctor. The chief, it appeared,
had died a natural death, and, since the event is of sufficiently rare
occurrence in the Fan country, it had promptly been attributed to witchcraft,
and the witch doctor had been sent for to discover the criminal. The village
was consequently in a lively state of apprehension, since the end of those
who bewitch chiefs to death is not easy. The Fans, however, politely invited
Walker to inspect the corpse. It lay in a dark hut, packed with the corpse's
relations, who were shouting to it at the top of their voices on the
on-chance that its spirit might think better of its conduct and return to the
body. They explained to Walker that they had tried all the usual varieties of
persuasion. They had put red pepper into the chief's eyes while he was dying.
They had propped open his mouth with a stick; they had burned fibres of the
oil nut under his nose. In fact, they had made his death as uncomfortable as
possible, but none the less he had died.
The witch doctor arrived on the heels of the explanation, and Walker,
since he was powerless to interfere, thought it wise to retire for the time
being. He went back to the hillock on the edge of the trees. Thence he looked
across and over the palisade and had the whole length of the street within
The witch doctor entered it from the opposite end, to the beating of many
drums. The first thing Walker noticed was that he wore a square-skirted
eighteenth century coat and a tattered pair of brocaded knee breeches on his
bare legs; the second was that he limped — ever so slightly. Still he
limped and — with the right leg. Walker felt a strong desire to see the
man's face, and his heart thumped within him as he came nearer and nearer
down the street. But his hair was so matted about his cheeks that Walker
could not distinguish a feature. "If I was only near enough to see his eyes,"
he thought. But he was not near enough, nor would it have been prudent for
him to have gone nearer.
The witch doctor commenced the proceedings by ringing a handbell in front
of every hut. But that method of detection failed to work. The bell rang
successively at every door. Walker watched the man's progress, watched his
trailing limb, and began to discover familiarities in his manner. "Pure
fancy," he argued with himself. "If he had not limped I should have noticed
Then the doctor took a wicker basket, covered with a rough wooden lid. The
Fans gathered in front of him; he repeated their names one after the other
and at each name he lifted the lid. But that plan appeared to be no
improvement, for the lid never stuck. It came off readily at each name.
Walker, meanwhile, calculated the distance a man would have to cover who
walked across country from Bonny river to the Ogowé, and he reflected with
some relief that the chances were several thousand to one that any man who
made the attempt, be he black or white, would be eaten on the way.
The witch doctor turned up the big square cuffs of his sleeves, as a
conjurer will do, and again repeated the names. This time, however, at each
name, he rubbed the palms of his hands together. Walker was seized with a
sudden longing to rush down into the village and examine the man's right
forearm for a bullet mark. The longing grew on him. The witch doctor went
steadily through the list. Walker rose to his feet and took a step or two
down the hillock, when, of a sudden, at one particular name, the doctor's
hands flew apart and waved wildly about him. A single cry from a single voice
went up out of the group of Fans. The group fell back and left one man
standing alone. He made no defence, no resistance. Two men came forward and
bound his hands and his feet and his body with tie-tie. Then they carried him
within a hut.
"That's sheer murder," thought Walker. He could not rescue the victim, he
knew. But — he could get a nearer view of that witch doctor. Already
the man was packing up his paraphernalia. Walker stepped back among the trees
and, running with all his speed, made the circuit of the village. He reached
the further end of the street just as the witch doctor walked out into the
Walker ran forward a yard or so until he too stood plain to see on the
level ground. The witch doctor did see him and stopped. He stopped only for a
moment and gazed earnestly in Walker's direction. Then he went on again
towards his own hut in the forest.
Walker made no attempt to follow him. "He has seen me," he thought. "If he
knows me he will come down to the river bank to-night." Consequently, he made
the black rowers camp a couple of hundred yards down stream. He himself
remained alone in his canoe.
The night fell moonless and black, and the enclosing forest made it yet
blacker. A few stars burned in the strip of sky above his head like gold
spangles on a strip of black velvet. Those stars and the glimmering of the
clay bank to which the boat was moored were the only lights which Walker had.
It was as dark as the night when Walker waited for Hatteras at the
He placed his gun and a pouch of cartridges on one side, an unlighted
lantern on the other, and then he took up his banjo and again he waited. He
waited for a couple of hours, until a light crackle as of twigs snapping came
to him out of the forest. Walker struck a chord on his banjo and played a
hymn tune. He played "Abide with me," thinking that some picture of a home,
of a Sunday evening in England's summer time, perhaps of a group of girls
singing about a piano might flash into the darkened mind of the man upon the
bank and draw him as with cords. The music went tinkling up and down the
river, but no one spoke, no one moved upon the bank. So Walker changed the
tune and played a melody of the barrel organs and Piccadilly circus. He had
not played more than a dozen bars before he heard a sob from the bank and
then the sound of some one sliding down the clay. The next instant a figure
shone black against the clay. The boat lurched under the weight of a foot
upon the gunwale, and a man plumped down in front of Walker.
"Well, what is it?" asked Walker, as he laid down his banjo and felt for a
match in his pocket.
It seemed as though the words roused the man to a perception that he had
made a mistake. He said as much hurriedly in trade-English, and sprang up as
though he would leap from the boat. Walker caught hold of his ankle.
"No, you don't," said he, "you must have meant to visit me. This isn't
Heally," and he jerked the man back into the bottom of the boat.
The man explained that he had paid a visit out of the purest
"You're the witch doctor, I suppose," said Walker. The other replied that
he was and proceeded to state that he was willing to give information about
much that made white men curious. He would explain why it was of singular
advantage to possess a white man's eyeball, and how very advisable it was to
kill any one you caught making Itung. The danger of passing near a
cotton-tree which had red earth at the roots provided a subject which no
prudent man should disregard; and Tando, with his driver ants, was worth
conciliating. The witch doctor was prepared to explain to Walker how to
conciliate Tando. Walker replied that it was very kind of the witch doctor
but Tando didn't really worry him. He was, in fact, very much more worried by
an inability to understand how a native so high up the Ogowé River had
learned how to speak trade- English.
The witch doctor waved the question aside and remarked that Walker must
have enemies. "Pussim bad too much," he called them. "Pussim woh-woh. Berrah
well! Ah send grand Krau-Krau and dem pussim die one time." Walker could not
recollect for the moment any "pussim" whom he wished to die one time, whether
from grand Krau-Krau or any other disease. "Wait a bit," he continued, "there
is one man — Dick Hatteras!" and he struck the match suddenly. The
witch doctor started forward as though to put it out. Walker, however, had
the door of the lantern open. He set the match to the wick of the candle and
closed the door fast. The witch doctor drew back. Walker lifted the lantern
and threw the light on his face. The witch doctor buried his face in his
hands and supported his elbows on his knees. Immediately Walker darted
forward a hand, seized the loose sleeve of the witch doctor's coat and
slipped it back along his arm to the elbow. It was the sleeve of the right
arm and there on the fleshy part of the forearm was the scar of a bullet.
"Yes," said Walker. "By God, it is Dick Hatteras!"
"Well?" cried Hatteras, taking his hands from his face. "What the devil
made you turn-turn 'Tommy Atkins' on the banjo? Damn you!"
"Dick, I saw you this afternoon."
"I know, I know. Why on earth didn't you kill me that night in your
"I mean to make up for that mistake to-night!"
Walker took his rifle on to his knees. Hatteras saw the movement, leaned
forward quickly, snatched up the rifle, snatched up the cartridges, thrust a
couple of cartridges into the breech, and handed the loaded rifle back to his
"That's right," he said. "I remember. There are some cases neither God's
law nor man's law has quite made provision for." And then he stopped, with
his finger on his lip. "Listen!" he said.
From the depths of the forest there came faintly, very sweetly the sound
of church-bells ringing — a peal of bells ringing at midnight in the
heart of West Africa. Walker was startled. The sound seemed fairy work, so
faint, so sweet was it.
"It's no fancy, Jim," said Hatteras, "I hear them every night and at
matins and at vespers. There was a Jesuit monastery here two hundred years
ago. The bells remain and some of the clothes." He touched his coat as he
spoke. "The Fans still ring the bells from habit. Just think of it! Every
morning, every evening, every midnight, I hear those bells. They talk to me
of little churches perched on hillsides in the old country, of hawthorn
lanes, and women — English women, English girls, thousands of miles
away — going along them to church. God help me! Jim, have you got an
"Yes; an English briarwood and some bird's-eye."
Walker handed Hatteras his briarwood and his pouch of tobacco. Hatteras
filled the pipe, lit it at the lantern, and sucked at it avidly for a moment.
Then he gave a sigh and drew in the tobacco more slowly, and yet more
"My wife?" he asked at last, in a low voice.
"She is in England. She thinks you dead."
"There's a jar of Scotch whiskey in the locker behind you," said Walker.
Hatteras turned round, lifted out the jar and a couple of tin cups. He poured
whiskey into each and handed one to Walker.
"No thanks," said Walker. "I don't think I will."
Hatteras looked at his companion for an instant. Then he emptied
deliberately both cups over the side of the boat. Next he took the pipe from
his lips. The tobacco was not half consumed. He poised the pipe for a little
in his hand. Then he blew into the bowl and watched the dull red glow kindle
into sparks of flame as he blew. Very slowly he tapped the bowl against the
thwart of the boat until the burning tobacco fell with a hiss into the water.
He laid the pipe gently down and stood up.
"So long, old man," he said, and sprang out on to the clay. Walker turned
the lantern until the light made a disc upon the bank.
"Good bye, Jim," said Hatteras, and he climbed up the bank until he stood
in the light of the lantern. Twice Walker raised the rifle to his shoulder,
twice he lowered it. Then he remembered that Hatteras and he had been at
"Good bye, Dicky," he cried, and fired. Hatteras tumbled down to the boat-
side. The blacks down-river were roused by the shot. Walker shouted to them
to stay where they were, and as soon as their camp was quiet he stepped on
shore. He filled up the whiskey jar with water, tied it to Hatteras' feet,
shook his hand, and pushed the body into the river. The next morning he
started back to Fernan Vaz.