Previous Chapter 2: The Wild People
THE LITTLE EDEN
The mortar ended hostilities--temporarily, at least; but the cave men loitered about the base of the cliff during the balance of the afternoon, occasionally shouting taunts at the two above them. These the girl answered, evidently in kind. Sometimes she would point to Waldo and make ferocious signs, doubtless indicative of the horrible slaughter which awaited them at his hands if they did not go away and leave their betters alone. When the young man realized the significance of her pantomime he felt his heart swell with an emotion which he feared was pride in brutal, primitive, vulgar physical prowess.
As the long day wore on Waldo became both very hungry and very thirsty. In the valley below he could see a tiny brooklet purling, clear and beautiful, toward the south. The sight of it drove him nearly mad, as did also that of the fruit which he glimpsed hanging ripe for eating at the edge of the forest.
By means of signs he asked the girl if she, too, were hungry, for he had come to a point now where he could look at her almost without visible signs of mortification. She nodded her head and, pointing toward the descending sun, made it plain to him that after dark they would descend and eat.
The cave men had not left when darkness came, and it seemed to Waldo a very foolhardy thing to venture down while they might be about; but the girl made it so evident that she considered him an invincible warrior that he was torn with the conflicting emotions of cowardice and an unaccountable desire to appear well in her eyes, that he might by his acts justify her belief in him.
It seemed very wonderful to Waldo that any one should look upon him in the light of a tower of strength and a haven of refuge; he was not quite certain in his own mind but that the reputation might lead him into most uncomfortable and embarrassing situations. Incidentally, he wondered if the girl was a good runner; he hoped so.
It must have been quite near midnight when his companion intimated that the time had arrived when they should fare forth and dine. Waldo wanted her to go first, but she shrank close to him, timidly, and held back.
There was nothing else for it, then, than to take the plunge, though had the sun been shining it would have revealed a very pale and wide-eyed champion, who slipped gingerly over the side of the ledge to grope with his feet for a foothold beneath.
Half-way down the moon rose above the forest--a great, full, tropic moon, that lighted the face of the cliff almost as brilliantly as might the sun itself. It shone into the mouth of a cave upon the ledge that Waldo had just reached in his descent, revealing to the horrified eyes of the young man a great, hairy form stretched in slumber not a yard from him. As he looked, the wicked little eyes opened and looked straight into his.
With difficulty Waldo suppressed a shriek of dismay as he turned to plunge madly down the precipitous trail. The girl had not yet descended from the ledge above.
She must have sensed what had happened, for as Waldo turned to fly she gave a little cry of terror. At the same instant the cave man leaped to his feet. But the girl's voice had touched something in the breast of Waldo Emerson which generations of disuse had almost atrophied, and for the first time in his life he did a brave and courageous thing.
He could easily have escaped the cave man and reached the valley--alone; but at the first note of the young girl's cry he wheeled and scrambled back to the ledge to face the burly, primitive man, who could have crushed him with a single blow.
Waldo Emerson no longer trembled. His nerves and muscles were very steady as he swung his cudgel in an arc that brought it crashing down upon the upraised guarding arm of the cave man.
There was a snapping of bone beneath the blow, a scream of pain--the man staggered back, the girl sprang to Waldo's side from the ledge above, and hand in hand they turned and fled down the face of the cliff.
From a dozen cave-mouths above issued a score of cave men, but the fleeing pair were half-way across the clearing before the slow-witted brutes were fully aware of what had happened. By the time they had taken up the pursuit Waldo and the girl had entered the forest.
For a few yards the latter led Waldo straight into the shadows of the wood, then she turned abruptly toward the north, at right angles to the course they had been pursuing. She still clung to the young man's hand, nor did she slacken her speed the least after they had entered the darkness beneath the trees. She ran as surely and confidently through the impenetrable fright of the forest as though the way had been lighted by flaming arcs; but Waldo was continually stumbling and falling.
The sound of pursuit presently became fainter; it was apparent that the cave men had continued on straight into the wood; but the girl raced on with the panting Waldo for what seemed to the winded young man an eternity. Presently, however, they came to the banks of the little stream that had been visible from the caves. Here the girl fell into a walk, and a moment later dragged the Bostonian down a shelving bank into water that came above his knees. Up the bed of the stream she led him, sometimes floundering through holes so deep that they were entirely submerged.
Waldo had never learned the vulgar art of swimming, so it was that he would have drowned but for the strong, brown hand of his companion, which dragged him, spluttering and coughing, through one awful hole after another, until, half-strangled and entirely panic-stricken, she hauled him safely upon a low, grassy bank at the foot of a rocky wall which formed one side of a gorge, through which the river boiled.
It must not be assumed that when Waldo Emerson returned to face the hairy brute who threatened to separate him from his new-found companion that by a miracle he had been transformed from a hare into a lion--far from it.
Now that he had a moment in which to lie quite still and speculate upon the adventures of the past hour, the reaction came, and Waldo Emerson thanked the kindly night that obscured from the eyes of the girl the pitiable spectacle of his palsied limbs and trembling lip.
Once again he was in a blue funk, with shattered nerves that begged to cry aloud in the extremity of their terror.
It was not warm in the damp cañon, through which the wind swept over the cold water, so that to Waldo's mental anguish was added the physical discomfort of cold and wet. He was indeed a miserable figure as he lay huddled upon the sward, praying for the rising of the sun, yet dreading the daylight that might reveal him to his enemies.
But at last dawn came, and after a fitful sleep Waldo awoke to find himself in a snug and beautiful little paradise hemmed in by the high cliffs that flanked the river, upon a sloping grassy shore that was all but invisible except from a short stretch of cliff-top upon the farther side of the stream.
A few feet from him lay the girl.
She was still asleep. Her head was pillowed upon one firm, brown arm. Her soft black hair fell in disorder across one cheek and over the other arm, to spread gracefully upon the green grass about her.
As Waldo looked he saw that she was very comely. Never before had he seen a girl just like her. His young women friends had been rather prim and plain, with long, white faces and thin lips that scarcely ever dared to smile and scorned to unbend in plebeian laughter.
This girl's lips seemed to have been made for laughing--and for something else, though at the time it is only fair to Waldo to say that he did not realize the full possibilities that they presented.
As his eyes wandered along the lines of her young body his Puritanical training brought a hot flush of embarrassment to his face, and he deliberately turned his back upon her.
It was indeed awful to Waldo Emerson to contemplate, to say the least, the unconventional position into which fate had forced him. The longer he pondered it the redder he became. It was frightful--what would his mother say when she heard of it? What would this girl's mother say? But, more to the point, and--horrible thought--what would her father or her brothers do to Waldo if they found them thus together--and she with only a scanty garment of skin about her waist--a garment which reached scarcely below her knees at any point, and at others terminated far above?
Waldo was chagrined. He could not understand what the girl could be thinking of, for in other respects she seemed quite nice, and he was sure that the great eyes of her reflected only goodness and innocence.
While he sat thus, thinking, the girl awoke and with a merry laugh addressed him.
"Good morning," said Waldo quite severely.
He wished that he could speak her language, so that he could convey to her a suggestion of the disapprobation which he felt for her attire.
He was on the point of attempting it by signs, when she rose, lithe and graceful as a tigress, and walked to the river's brim. With a deft movement of her fingers she loosed the thong that held her single garment, and as it fell to the ground Waldo, with a horrified gasp, turned upon his face, burying his tightly closed eyes in his hands.
Then the girl dived into the cool waters for her matutinal bath.
She called to him several times to join her, but Waldo could not look at the spectacle presented; his soul was scandalized. It was some time after she emerged from the river before he dared risk a hesitating glance. With a sigh of relief he saw that she had donned her single garment, and thereafter he could look at her unashamed when she was thus clothed. He felt that by comparison it constituted a most modest gown.
Together they strolled along the river's edge gathering such fruits and roots as the girl knew to be edible. Waldo Emerson gathered those she indicated--with all his learning he found it necessary to depend upon the untutored mind of this little primitive maiden for guidance.
Then she taught him how to catch fish with a bent twig and a lightning-like movement of her brown hands--or, rather, tried to teach him, for he was far too slow and awkward to succeed.
Afterward they sat upon the soft grass beneath the shade of a wild fig-tree to eat the fish she had caught. Waldo wondered how in the world the girl could make fire without matches, for he was quite sure that she had none; and even should she be able to make fire it would be quite useless, since she had neither cooking utensils nor stove.
He was not left long in wonderment.
She arranged the fish in a little pile between them, and with a sweet smile motioned to the man to partake; then she selected one for herself, and while Waldo Emerson looked on in horror, sunk her firm, white teeth into the raw fish.
Waldo turned away in sickening disgust.
The girl seemed surprised and worried that he did not eat. Time and again she tried to coax him by signs to join her; but he could not even look at her. He had tried, after the first wave of revolt had subsided, but when he discovered that she ate the entire fish, without bothering to clean it or remove the scales, he became too ill to think of food.
Several times during the following week they ventured from their hiding-place, and at these times it was evident from the girl's actions that she was endeavoring to elude their enemies and reach a place of safety other than that in which they were concealed. But at each venture her quick ears or sensitive nostrils warned her of the proximity of danger, so that they had been compelled to hurry back into their little Eden.
During this period she taught Waldo many words of her native tongue, so that by means of signs to bridge the gaps between, they were able to communicate with a fair degree of satisfaction. Waldo's mastery of the language was rapid.
On the tenth day the girl was able to make him understand that she wished to escape with him to her own people; that these men among whom he had found her were enemies of her tribe, and that she had been hiding from them when Waldo stumbled upon her cave.
"I fled," she said. "My mother was killed. My father took another mate, always cruel to me. But when I had wandered into the land of these enemies I was afraid, and would have returned to my father's cave. But I had gone too far.
"I would have to run very fast to escape them. Once I ran down a narrow path to the ocean. It was dark. "As I wandered through the woods I came suddenly out upon a beach, and there I saw a strange figure on the sand. It was you. I wanted to learn what manner of man you were. But I was very much afraid, so that I dared only watch you from a distance.
"Five times I came down to look at you. You never saw me until the last time, then you set out after me, roaring in a horrible voice.
"I was very much afraid, for I knew that you must be very brave to live all alone by the edge of the forest without any shelter, or even a stone to hurl at Nagoola, should he come out of the woods to devour you."
Waldo Emerson shuddered. "Who is Nagoola?" he asked.
"You do not know Nagoola!" the girl exclaimed in surprise.
"Not by that name," replied Waldo.
"He is as large," she began in description, "as two men, and black, with glossy coat. He has two yellow eyes, which see as well by night as by day. His great paws are armed with mighty claws. He----"
A rustling from the bushes which fringed the opposite cliff-top caused her to turn, instantly alert.
"Ah," she whispered, "there is Nagoola now."
Waldo looked in the direction of her gaze.
It was well that the girl did not see his pallid face and popping eyes as he looked into the evil mask of the great black panther that crouched watching them from the river's further bank.
Into Waldo's breast came great panic. It was only because his fear-prostrated muscles refused to respond to his will that he did not scurry, screaming, from the sight of that ferocious countenance.
Then, through the fog of his cowardly terror, he heard again the girl's sweet voice: "I knew that you must be very brave to live all alone by the edge of that wicked forest."
For the first time in his life a wave of shame swept over Waldo Emerson.
The girl called in a taunting voice to the panther, and then turned, smiling, toward Waldo.
"How brave I am now," she laughed. "I am no longer afraid of Nagoola. You are with me."
"No," said Waldo Emerson, in a very weak voice, "you need not fear while I am with you."
"Oh!" she cried. "Slay him. How proud I should be to return to my people with one who vanquished Nagoola, and wore his hide about his loins as proof of his prowess."
"Y-yes," acquiesced Waldo faintly.
"But," continued the girl, "you have slain many of Nagoola's brothers and sisters. It is no longer sport to kill one of his kind."
"Yes--yes," cried Waldo. "Yes, that is it--panthers bore me now."
"Oh!" The girl clasped her hands in ecstasy. "How many have you slain?"
"Er--why, let me see," the young man blundered. "As a matter of fact, I never kept any record of the panthers I killed."
Waldo was becoming frantic. He had never lied before in all his life. He hated a lie and loathed a liar. He wondered why he had lied now.
Surely it were nothing to boast of to have butchered one of God's creatures--and as for claiming to have killed so many that he could not recall the number, it was little short of horrible. Yet he became conscious of a poignant regret that he had not killed a thousand panthers, and preserved all the pelts as evidence of his valor.
The panther still regarded them from the safety of the farther shore. The girl drew quite close to Waldo in the instinctive plea for protection that belongs to her sex. She laid a timid hand upon his skinny arm and raised her great, trusting eyes to his face in reverent adoration.
"How do you kill them?" she whispered. "Tell me."
Then it was that Waldo determined to make a clean breast of it, and admit that he never before had seen a live panther. But as he opened his mouth to make the humiliating confession he realized, quite suddenly, why it was that he had lied--he wished to appear well in the eyes of this savage, half-clothed girl. He, Waldo Emerson Smith-Jones, craved the applause of a barbarian, and to win it had simulated that physical prowess which generations of Smith-Joneses had viewed from afar--disgusted, disapproving.
The girl repeated her question.
"Oh," said Waldo, "it is really quite simple. After I catch them I beat them severely with a stick."
The girl sighed.
"How wonderful!" she said.
Waldo became the victim of a number of unpleasant emotions--mortification for this suddenly developed moral turpitude; apprehension for the future, when the girl might discover him in his true colors; fear, consuming, terrible fear, that she might insist upon his going forth at once to slay Nagoola. But she did nothing of the kind, and presently the panther tired of watching them and turned back into the tangle of bushes behind him.
It was with a sigh of relief that Waldo saw him depart.
Next Chapter: 4 Death's Doorway