Fear by Achmed Abdullah
THE fact that the man whom he feared had died ten years earlier
did not in the least lessen Stuart McGregor's obsession of horror, of
a certain grim expectancy, every time he recalled that final scene,
just before Farragut Hutchison disappeared in the African jungle that
stood, spectrally motionless as if forged out of some blackish-green
metal, in the haggard moonlight.
As he reconstructed it, the whole scene seemed unreal, almost
oppressively, ludicrously theatrical. The pall of sodden, stygian
darkness all around; the night sounds of soft-winged, obscene things
flapping lazily overhead or brushing against the furry trees that
held the woolly heat of the tropical day like boiler pipes in a
factory; the slimy, swishy things that glided and crawled and wiggled
underfoot; the vibrant growl of a hunting lioness that began in a
deep basso and peaked to a shrill, high-pitched, ridiculously
inadequate treble; a spotted hyena's vicious, bluffing bark; the
chirp and whistle of innumerable monkeys; a warthog breaking through
the undergrowth with a clumsy, clownish crash--and somewhere, very
far away, the staccato thumping of a signal drum, and more faintly
yet the answer from the next in line.
He had seen many such drums, made from fire-hollowed palm trees
and covered with tightly stretched skin--often the skin of a human
Yes. He remembered it all. He remembered the night jungle creeping
in on their camp like a sentient, malign being--and then that
ghastly, ironic moon squinting down, just as Farragut Hutchison
walked away between the six giant, plumed, ochre-smeared Bakoto
negroes, and bringing into crass relief the tattoo mark on the man's
back where the shirt had been torn to tatters by camel thorns and
wait-a-bit spikes and sabre--shaped palm leaves.
He recalled the occasion when Farragut Hutchison had had himself
tattooed; after a crimson, drunken spree at Madam Céleste's
place in Port Said, the other side of the Red Sea traders' bazaar, to
please a half-caste Swahili dancing girl who looked like a golden
madonna of evil, familiar with all the seven sins. Doubtless the girl
had gone shares with the Levantine craftsman who had done the
work--an eagle, in bold red and blue, surmounted by a lopsided crown,
and surrounded by a wavy design. The eagle was in profile, and its
single eye had a disconcerting trick of winking sardonically whenever
Farragut Hutchison moved his back muscles or twitched his shoulder
Always, in his memory, Stuart McGregor saw that tattoo mark.
Always did he see the wicked, leering squint in the eagle's
eye--and then he would scream, wherever he happened to be, in a
theatre, a Broadway restaurant, or across some good friend's mahogany
Thinking back, he remembered that, for all their bravado, for all
their showing off to each other, both he and Farragut Hutchinson had
been afraid since that day, up the hinterland, when, drunk with
fermented palm wine, they had insulted the fetish of the Bakotos,
while the men were away hunting and none left to guard the village
except the women and children and a few feeble old men whose curses
and high-pitched maledictions were picturesque, but hardly effectual
enough to stop him and his partner from doing a vulgar, intoxicated
dance in front of the idol, from grinding burning cigar ends into its
squat, repulsive features, and from generally polluting the juju
hut--not to mention the thorough and profitable looting of the
They had got away with the plunder, gold dust and a handful of
splendid canary diamonds, before the Bakoto warriors had returned.
But fear had followed them, stalked them, trailed them; a fear
different from any they had ever experienced before. And be it
mentioned that their path of life had been crimson and twisted and
fantastic, that they had followed the little squinting swarthheaded,
hunchbacked djinni of adventure wherever man's primitive lawlessness
rules above the law, from Nome to Timbuktu, from Peru to the black
felt tents of Outer Mongolia, from the Australian bush, to the
absinth-sodden apache haunts of Paris. Be it mentioned, furthermore,
that thus, often, they had stared death in the face and, not being
fools, had found the staring distasteful and shivery.
But what they had felt on that journey, back to the security of
the coast and the ragged Union Jack flapping disconsolately above the
British governor's official corrugated iron mansion, had been
something worse than mere physical fear; it had been a nameless,
brooding, sinister apprehension which had crept through their souls,
a harshly discordant note that had pealed through the hidden recesses
of their beings.
Everything had seemed to mock them--the crawling, sour-miasmic
jungle; the slippery roots and timber falls; the sun of the tropics,
brown, decayed, like the sun on the Day of Judgment; the very
flowers, spiky, odorous, waxen, unhealthy, lascivious.
At night, when they had rested in some clearing, they had even
feared their own camp fire--flaring up, twinkling, flickering, then
coiling into a ruby ball. It had seemed completely isolated in the
And they had longed for human companionship--white
White faces. White slang, White curses. White odors. White
Why--they would have welcomed a decent, square, honest white
murder; a knife flashing in some yellow-haired Norse sailor's brawny
fist; a belaying pin in the hand of some bullying Liverpool
tramp-ship skipper; some Nome gambler's six-gun splattering leaden
death; some apache of the Rue de Venise garroting a passerby.
But here, in the African jungle--and how Stuart McGregor
remembered it--the fear of death had seemed pregnant with
unmentionable horror. There had been no sounds except the buzzing of
the tsetse flies and a faint rubbing of drums, whispering through the
desert and jungle like the voices of disembodied souls, astray on the
outer rim of creation.
And, overhead, the stars. Always, at night, three stars,
glittering, leering; and Stuart McGregor, who had gone through
college and had once written his college measure of limping,
anæmic verse, had pointed at them.
"The three stars of Africa!" he had said. "The star of violence!
The star of lust! And the little stinking star of greed!"
And he had broken into staccato laughter which had struck Farragut
Hutchinson as singularly out of place and had caused him to blurt
forth with a wicked curse:
"Shut your trap, you--"
For already they had begun to quarrel, those two pals of a dozen
tight, riotous adventures. Already, imperceptibly, gradually, like
the shadow of a leaf through summer dusk, a mutual hatred had grown
up between them.
But they had controlled themselves. The diamonds were good, could
be sold at a big figure; and, even split in two, would mean a
Then, quite suddenly, had come the end--the end for one of
And the twisting, gliding skill of Stuart McGregor's fingers had
made sure that Farragut Hutchison should be that one.
Years after, when Africa as a whole had faded to a memory of
coiling, unclean shadows, Stuart McGregor used to say, with that
rather plaintive, monotonous drawl of his, that the end of this
phantasmal African adventure had been different from what he had
expected it to be.
In a way, he had found it disappointing.
Not that it had lacked in purely dramatic thrills and
blood-curdling trimmings. That wasn't it. On the contrary, it had had
a plethora of thrills.
But, rather, he must have been keyed up to too high a pitch; must
have expected too much, feared too much during that journey from the
Bakoto village back through the hinterland.
Thus when, one night, the Bakoto warriors had come from nowhere,
out of the jungle, hundreds of them, silent, as if the wilderness had
spewed them forth, it had seemed quite prosy.
Prosy, too, had been the expectation of death. It had even seemed
a welcome relief from the straining fatigues of the jungle pull, the
recurrent fits of fever, the flying and crawling pests, the gnawing
moroseness which is so typically African.
"An explosion of life and hatred," Stuart McGregor used to say,
"that's what I had expected, don't you see? Quick and merciless. And
it wasn't. For the end came--slow and inevitable. Solid. Greek in a
way. And so courtly! So polite! That was the worst of it!"
For the leader of the Bakotos, a tall, broad, frizzy, odorous
warrior, with a face like a black Nero with a dash of Manchu emperor,
had bowed before them with a great clanking of barbarous ornaments.
There had been no marring taint of hatred in his voice as he told
them that they must pay for their insults to the fetish, He had not
even mentioned the theft of the gold dust and diamonds.
"My heart is heavy at the thought, white chiefs," he said.
"But--you must pay!"
Stuart McGregor had stammered ineffectual, foolish apologies:
"We--we were drunk. We didn't know what--oh--what we--"
"What you were doing!" the Bakoto had finished the sentence for
him, with a little melancholy sigh. "And there is forgiveness in my
"You--you mean to say--" Farragut Hutchison had jumped up, with
extended hand, blurting out hectic thanks.
"Forgiveness in my heart, not the juju's," gently continued the
negro. "For the juju never forgives. On the other hand, the juju is
fair. He wants his just measure of blood. Not an ounce more.
Therefore," the Bakoto had gone on, and his face had been as stony
and as passionless as that of the Buddha who meditates in the shade
of the cobra's hood, "the choice will be yours."
"Choice?" Farragut Hutchison had looked up, a gleam of hope in his
"Yes. Choice which one of you will die." The Bakoto had smiled,
with the same suave courtliness which had, somehow, increased the
utter horror of the scene. "Die--oh--a slow death, befitting the
insult to the juju, befitting the juju's great holiness!"
Suddenly, Stuart McGregor had understood that there would be no
arguing, no bargaining whatsoever; and, quickly, had come his
He had slurred and stopped, somehow ashamed, and the Bakoto had
finished the interrupted question with gentle, gliding, inhuman
laughter: "Your friend? White chief, that is for you two to decide: I
only know that the juju has spoken to the priest, and that he is
satisfied with the life of one of you two; the life--and the death. A
He had paused; then had continued gently, so very, very gently:
"Yes. A slow death, depending entirely upon the vitality of the one
of you two who will be sacrificed to the juju. There will be little
knives. There will be the flying insects which follow the smell of
blood and festering flesh. Too, there will be many, crimson-headed
ants, many, ants--and a thin river of honey to show them the
He had yawned. Then he had gone on: "Consider. The juju is just.
He only wants the sacrifice of one of you, and you yourselves must
decide which one shall go, and which one shall stay. And--remember
the little, little knives. Be pleased to remember the many ants which
follow the honey trail. I shall return shortly and hear your
He had bowed and, with his silent warriors, had stepped back into
the jungle that had closed behind them like a curtain.
Even in that moment of stark, enormous horror, horror too great to
be grasped, horror that swept over and beyond the barriers of
fear--even in that moment Stuart McGregor had realized that, by
leaving the choice to them, the Bakoto had committed a refined
cruelty worthy of a more civilized race, and had added a psychic
torture fully as dreadful as the physical torture of the little
Too, in that moment of ghastly, lecherous expectancy, he had known
that it was Farragut Hutchison who would be sacrificed to the
juju---Farragut Hutchison who sat there, staring into the camp fire,
making queer little, funny noises in his throat.
Suddenly, Stuart McGregor had laughed--he remembered that laugh to
his dying day--and had thrown a greasy pack of playing cards into the
circle of meager, indifferent light.
"Let the cards decide, old boy," he had shouted. "One hand of
poker--and no drawing to your hand. Showdown! That's square, isn't
"Sure!" the other had replied, still staring straight ahead of
him. "Go ahead and deal--"
His voice had drifted into a mumble while Stuart McGregor had
picked up the deck, had shuffled, slowly, mechanically.
As he shuffled, it had seemed to him as if his brain was
frantically telegraphing to his fingers, as if all those delicate
little nerves that ran from the back of his skull down to his finger
tips were throbbing a clicking little chorus:
"Do--it--Mac! Do--it--Mac! Do it--Mac!" with a maddening,
And he had kept on shuffling, had kept on watching the motions of
his fingers--and bad seen that his thumb and second finger had
shuffled the ace of hearts to the bottom of the deck.
Had he done it on purpose? He did not know then. He never found
out--though, in his memory, he lived through the scene a thousand
But there were the little knives. There were the ants. There was
the honey trail. There was his own, hard decision to live. And, years
earlier, he had been a professional faro dealer at Silver City.
Another ace had joined the first at the bottom of the deck. The
third. The fourth.
And then Farragut Hutchison's violent: "Deal, man, deal! You're
driving me crazy. Get it over with."
The sweat had been pouring from Stuart McGregor's face. His blood
had throbbed in his veins. Something like a sledge hammer had drummed
at the base of his skull.
"Cut, won't you?" he had said, his voice coming as if from very
The other had waved a trembling hand. "No, no! Deal 'em as they
lie. You won't cheat me."
Stuart McGregor had cleared a little space on the ground with the
point of his shoe.
He remembered the motion. He remembered how the dead leaves had
stirred with a dry, rasping, tragic sound, how something slimy and
phosphorous-green had squirmed through the tufted jungle grass, how a
little furry scorpion had scurried away with a clicking
He had dealt.
Mechanically, even as he was watching, them, his fingers had given
himself five cards from the bottom of the deck. Four aces--and the
queen of diamonds. And, the next second, in answer to Farragut
Hutchison's choked: "Show-down! I have two pair--kings--and jacks!"
his own well simulated shriek of joy and triumph:
"I win! I've four aces! Every ace in the pack!"
And then Farragut Hutchison's weak, ridiculous
exclamation--ridiculous considering the dreadful fate that waited
"Geewhittaker! You're some lucky guy, aren't you, Mac?"
At the same moment, the Bakoto chief had stepped out of the
jungle, followed by half a dozen warriors.
Then the final scene--that ghastly, ironic moon squinting down,
just as Farragut Hutchison had walked away between the giant, plumed,
ochre-smeared Bakoto negroes, and bringing into stark relief the
tattoo mark on his back where the shirt had been torn to tatters--and
the leering, evil wink in the eagle's eye as Farragut Hutchison
twitched his shoulder blades with absurd, nervous resignation.
Stuart McGregor remembered it every day of his life.
He spoke of it to many. But only to Father Aloysius O'Donnell, the
priest who officiated, In the little Gothic church around the corner,
on Ninth Avenue, did he tell the whole truth--did he confess that he
"Of course I cheated!" he said. "Of course!" And, with a sort of
mocking bravado: "What would you have done, padre?"
The priest, who was old and wise and gentle, thus not at all sure
of himself, shook his head.
"I don't know," he replied. "I don't know."
"Well--I do know. You would have done what I did. Yon wouldn't
have been able to help yourself." Then, in a low voice: "And you
would have paid! As I pay--every day, every minute, every second of
"Regret, repentance," murmured the priest, but the other cut him
"Repentance--nothing. I regret nothing! I repent nothing! I'd do
the same to-morrow, It isn't that--oh--that--what d'ye call it--sting
of conscience, that's driving me crazy. It's fear!"
"Fear of what?" asked Father O'Donnell.
"Fear of Farragut Hutchison--who is dead!"
Ten years ago!
And he knew that Farragut Hutchison had died. For not long
afterward a British trader had come upon certain gruesome but
unmistakable remains and had brought the tale to the coast. Yet was
there fear in Stuart McGregor's soul, fear worse than the fear of the
little knives. Fear of Farragut Hutchison who was dead?
No. He did not believe that the man was dead. He did not believe
it, could not believe it.
"And even suppose he's dead," he used to say to the priest, "he'll
get me. He'll get me as sure as you're born. I saw it in the eye of
that eagle---the squinting eye of that infernal, tattooed eagle!"
Then he would turn a grayish yellow, his whole body would tremble
with a terrible palsy and, in a sort of whine, which was both
ridiculous and pathetic, given his size and bulk, given the crimson,
twisted adventures through which he had passed, he would exclaim:
"He'll get me. He'll get me. He'll get me even from beyond the
And then Father O'Donnell would cross himself rapidly, just a
It is said that there is a morbid curiosity which forces the
murderer to view the place of his crime.
Some psychic reason of the same kind may have caused Stuart
McGregor to decorate the walls and corners of his sitting room with
the memories of that Africa which he feared and hated, and which,
daily, he was trying to forget--with a shimmering, cruel mass of
jungle curios, sjamboks and assegais, signal drums and daggers,
knobkerries and rhino shields and what not.
Steadily, he added to his collection, buying in auction rooms, in
little shops on the water front, from sailors and ship pursers and
collectors who had duplicates for sale.
He became a well-known figure in the row of antique stores in back
of Madison Square Garden, and was so liberal when it came to payment
that Morris Newman, who specialized in African curios, would send the
pick of all the new stuff he bought to his house.
It was on a day in August--one of those tropical New York days
when the very birds gasp for air, when orange-flaming sun rays drop
from the brazen sky like crackling spears and the melting asphalt
picks them up again and tosses them high--that Stuart McGregor,
returning from a short walk, found a large, round package in his
"Mr. Newman sent it," his servant explained. "He said it's a rare
curio, and he's sure you'll like it."
The servant bowed, left, and closed the door, while Stuart
McGregor cut the twine, unwrapped the paper, looked.
And then, suddenly, be screamed with fear; and just as suddenly,
the scream of fear turned into a scream of maniacal joy.
For the thing which Newman had sent him was an African signal
drum, covered with tightly stretched skin--human skin--white skin!
And square in the center there was a tattoo mark--an eagle in red and
blue, surmounted by a lopsided crown, and surrounded by a wavy
Here was the final proof that Farragut Hutchison was dead, that,
forever, he was rid of his fear. In a paroxysm of joy, he picked lip
the drum and clutched it to his heart.
And then he gave a cry of pain. His lips quivered, frothed. His
hands dropped the drum and fanned the air, and he looked at the thing
that had fastened itself to his right wrist.
It seemed like a short length of rope, grayish in color, spotted
with dull red. Even as Stuart McGregor dropped to the floor, dying,
he knew what had happened.
A little, venomous snake, an African fer-delance, that had been
curled up in the inside of the drum, been numbed by the cold, and had
been revived by the splintering heat of New York.
Yes--even as he died he knew what had happened. Even as he died,
he saw that malign, obscene squint in the eagle's eye. Even as he
died, he knew that Farragut Hutchison had killed him---from beyond