It was hot—and off to the west, Tamatave's houses gleamed white and blistering against the green background of the Madagascar jungle, blued by the distance. Away to the north the coastline stretched illimitable. It would be another day at least before the steamer arrived at Andovorata, and Walter Weyl, A.B., A.M., B.Sc, would be able to get at the heart of the mysterious occurrences that had brought him there.
His mind traveled back to the letter from his friend of college days, Raoul Duperret, now on French government service in that mysterious land—Madagascar. He saw it again before him, the characteristic French handwriting, the precise French phrasing: "... alas, we cannot pursue these investigations, through lack of money. To you, then, my friend, I appeal. To you belongs, permit me to say, that combination so rare of the talent for scientific investigation and the means to pursue it. To you also will appertain the credit for any discovery.
"Let me, in detail, tell yon of what we know. Diouma-Mbobo is a chieftain of the blacks in the part of the island, who have never been rescued from cannibal practices. He is, as far as we know, a man who rules by law and is of a truthfulness. Thus, when he accused the Tanosy, who are the next tribe to him, of stealing people and eating them, we took measures and did not too much believe the denials of the Tanosy. But Diouma-Mbobo's people continue to disappear, and when the commandant sent a whole company of Senegalese to preserve order, they still disappeared. What is still more distressing, is that some of the Senegalese also disappeared, and save but a solitary rifle or two found in the jungle, no trace of them remains.
"There is some fear in the island and we are in danger of losing our grip on the natives, for we cannot at all explain these disappearances nor prevent them. The commandant says, 'Send a battalion of chasseurs,' but it is my belief that a battalion of chausseurs would likewise fail, and I send for you, for I believe the agency that destroys men thus is not human. No human would neglect the rifles.
"As you know, Madagascar is a country apart. We have here the giant spiders, large as bats; the lizards, large as sheep, and no, not a single snake. All our animals are outre, impossible even, and what if one more impossible than all . . . ? And thus it is to you, my rich American friend, I appeal for myself and my country."
It had offered precious little real information, that letter, but enough to have caused Walter Weyl to drop a learned monograph on the ammonites of the Upper Cretaceous and hurry across ten thousand miles of ocean with microscopes, rifles and all the equipment of the modern scientist, to the aid of his friend.
The sun went down suddenly, as it does in the tropics, and the sea was purple darkness all at once. The lights of Tamatave twinkled away behind and were blotted out; off to the west was only the menacing blot of the huge island, forbidding and dangerous in the gloom. Weyl sat musing by the rail, listening to the hushed voices of a couple of men in the bows.
Forgetting his dinner below, he fell into a half-doze, from which he was suddenly awakened by a sense of approaching evil, definite, yet which could not be located. He looked about lazily. The Southern Cross hung brilliant in the sky; there was no other light but the flare of portholes on the water, and no sound but the slap of waves against the bows. Yet the night had suddenly become dreadful. He struggled lazily to put a name to the sense of impending doom, and as he struggled there was a sudden and terrible scream from the bow — the cry of a man in mortal anguish and fear.
"Oh—o—o—u—" it went, running off into a strangled sob, and through it cut the shout of the other sailor, "Secours! Secours! Ferent ..." and the sound of a blow on soft flesh.
Weyl leaped to his feet and ran forward; there was the sound of a slamming door, and a quick patter of feet behind him. In front was the blackness of the bows, out of which emerged a panic-stricken man who charged against him, babbling incoherent French, and bore him to the deck. As he went down he caught a glimpse of two waving prehensile arms, like lengths of fire-hose, silhouetted against the sky.
Somebody ran past him, the deck leaped into illumination as lights were switched on, and he picked himself up to see — nothing. The bows were empty. There was a babble of conversation: "Where is Ferentini?"
"What is the trouble?"
"Who is there?"
There was confusion, stifled by the appearance of the captain, a eupeptic little man in a blue coat and a tremendous moustache which swept his shoulders. "This uproar — what does it mean?" he said. "Let the sailor Dugasse come forward."
A big Basque, obviously panic-stricken and with rolling eyes, was shoved into the light. "Tell us the reason for this," demanded the captain.
"Ferentini and I," he gasped, "we were talking, so, in the bow. One, two big arms, like a gorilla, seize him by the neck, the chest, and zut! he is gone. I strike at them, but he is gone."
"Assassin!" said the captain briefly, "Confess that you quarreled and you threw him over."
"No, no. He was taken. I swear it. By the Holy Virgin, I swear it."
"Put this man in the lazarette, you Marulaz, and you Noyon. There will be an investigation. Take his knife away from him."
"His knife is gone, monsieur," said one of the seamen who had stepped forward to take charge of the sailor Dugasse.
"Without doubt, he stabbed the other. Put him in irons," was the captain's succinct reply, as he turned toward the cabin and his interrupted dinner.
Walter Weyl stepped forward. "I think the man's story is true," he offered. "I think I saw something myself."
"Permit me to inform you, monsieur, that I am the commandant of the vessel," remarked the eupeptic captain, with the utmost courtesy. "There will be an investigation. If the man is innocent it will do him no harm to spend a night in the lazarette." And again he turned away.
Dissatisfied, but realizing that he could do nothing, Weyl walked toward the bows, to see if he could find any trace of the strange encounter. There was nothing, but as he was about to return and go below, his foot struck something, which on investigation with a flashlight, proved to be the knife of the sailor Dugasse.
The blade was wet, and as he picked the weapon up there dripped slowly from it a pale, greenish oleaginous liquid, totally unlike human blood. With this bit of evidence in his hand, he started thoughtfully for his cabin.
Two days later the friends sat under the giant mimosa, in whose shade Raoul Duperret had built a little cottage on the height overlooking Andananarivo. A table had been dragged outdoors and was now piled with a miscellaneous collection of instruments, papers and microscope slides.
Weyl leaned back in his chair with a sigh and lit his pipe.
"Let us see what we have, after all this study," he said. "Check me if I go wrong. Diouma-Mbobo's people and about a dozen of the Senegalese have disappeared mysteriously. So did the sailor Ferentini on the boat that brought me here. In no case was any trace found of the man after he disappeared, and in the cases on the island when anything was found it was always a knife or a rifle.
"This report," he ruffled the papers, "from one of the Senegalese, says that he saw his companion jerked up into a tree by a huge black rope, but when he rushed to the tree he could see nothing. It was late in the evening. Now this account agrees singularly with that of the sailor Dugasse — and moreover, if natives were responsible for the disappearances, they would at least have taken the knives, if not the guns.
"Therefore, I consider that the disappearance of Ferentini, the Senegalese and the natives was due to the same agency, and that the agency was not human; and, therefore, I think the Tanosy and the sailor Dugasse, although he is still in jail, should be acquitted."
Duperret nodded a grave assent.
"But I am sure it was nothing supernatural. I saw something on that boat, Duperret, and the Senegalese saw something. Moreover, there is Dugasse's knife. I have analyzed that liquid which dripped from it; it is blood, indubitably, but blood different from any I have ever seen. It contains a tremendous number of corpuscles of a new character, not red, but greenish yellow, and the liquid in which they float is similar to that of all other bloods. More than anything, it resembles the blood of an oyster, which is impossible, as oysters do not lift men into trees. Therefore, I accuse some hitherto unknown animal of these deaths.
"But what kind of an animal are we dealing with?" Weyl went on without paying any attention to an interruption from Duperret. "Evidently a very swift and formidable one. It killed Ferentini in a few seconds. It dragged a powerful Senegalese, who was provided with a rifle, off with equal swiftness, and the stabs of Dugasse were as futile against it as the rifle of the other black boy.
"In both cases, the attack came from above, and I am inclined to think, since we were attacked some distance off the coast and the natives some distance inland, that the animal possesses extraordinary mobility — probably wings. This would make a bird of it; which is impossible because of the blood; therefore, making the whole thing absurd . . . But in any case, the hunt for this animal, or animals, for there may be more than one, will be a dangerous business."
"All is decided then?" asked Duperret. "Very well, let us depart. I am eager for action, my friend." And he stood up, stretching his muscular frame toward the towering tree.
"Done," said Weyl.
He rose. "You have same influence with the military authorities, you of the civil arm? If the matter were put to the commandant in the proper way, do you suppose we could get an escort? I need not conceal from you that this big-game hunt is likely to be a serious business. Any animal that devours live men . . ."
"The commandant and I were at St. Cyr together," replied Duperret. "He will doubtless appoint a lieutenant and a demi-company of African chasseurs to assist us."
A week later found them with a dapper French lieutenant, Dubosc by name, making the best of insufficient pup tents and canned French sausage by a dank, slow stream a few miles out of Fort Dauphin. Around them lay or squatted a perspiring group of black soldiers in the uniform of the Chasseurs d'Afrique, while round them again, further from the sun of the white men's presence, were as many natives, equally sable of hue, and with no uniforms at all. These were the guides lent by Diouma-Mbobo, silent and somewhat scared men, for that portion of the jungle had earned a bad reputation from the repeated disappearances.
Weyl was annoyed. "If we only knew what we were looking for and where to find it," he said to Duperret that evening, "but here we are three days out, with our labor for our pains. Hunting for one animal in this jungle is like the old needle and haystack saying."
"Yes, and I'm afraid for the guides," the Frenchman had answered. "They'll desert unless they are given something to do."
Night found them as restless as the guides. Weyl woke to a sense of something impending, looked out and saw only the calm sentries speaking in low tones as they encountered each other at the end of their rounds. He felt reassured, and dropped off into another hour or two of slumber punctuated by fierce dreams, woke again and saw a moonlit shadow on the flap of his tent. "Raoul!" he called softly.
The Frenchman bent and entered.
He was fully dressed.
"Nerves keep you awake, too?" said Weyl. "I've been awake before, but everything's quiet. But why are you dressed?"
"I have a premonition. Also, I hear something unusual. You hear that strange whistling? No, you would not. You are not used to jungle noises. To me it is very much to notice. Something . . ." and he looked at his friend, who, though in a strictly unofficial manner, was recognized as commander of the expedition. "Shall we rouse the soldiers?" he questioned.
"They'll need sleep if we're to march all day," Weyl answered.
"But I am thinking we will not need to march. However—" Raoul was about to dismiss his feeling as a fancy and threw another glance over his shoulder through the open tent flap.
In an instant he was on his feet, almost tearing the tent from its pegs, a half cry escaping his lips that caused Weyl to leap up beside him, seizing the revolver that lay by his hand.
Three, four, half a dozen snakelike arms, mysterious in the moonlight, hovered for an instant over the heads of two sentries who had met at the edge of the trees, and before they had comprehended their danger, before they could be warned, they were gripped, lifted from their feet and their cries stifled before they reached the gloom of the branches fully ten feet above.
Weyl, with a horror such as he had never felt before, seemed to clutch at his throat, fired rapidly into the tree. Something dropped with a crash of leaves; a veritable chorus of whistlings and swishings rose around the camp, and in the tents and along the sentry line there were sudden lights and activity, shouts of "Qui vive?" "Aux armes!" and the thick note of a hastily blown bugle as its owner was roused from sleep.
Men ran from their tents to stand gazing. "Raoul!" shouted the American. "It's here! The machine gun!" and, pistol in hand, in his sleeping garments, he dashed for the tree.
He glanced up. A subdued rustling gave no clue to its source, nothing to shoot at, but out of the tail of his eye he caught a glimpse of motion among the giant ferns, and the peculiar whistling again became audible.
He turned, and was suddenly conscious of an insane disbelief in his senses. What he saw resembled nothing so much as an enormous umbrella, standing ten feet high on stilt-like, but prehensile arms, while at the point where they gathered, a huge, bulbous head rose and fell rhythmically as the thing emitted that singular, high-pitched whistle. There was something unspeakably loathsome, some touch reminiscent of putrefaction and decay about it.
An arm, like a huge snake, lifted from the ground and swung aimlessly about under the leaves. Abruptly, another animal, the duplicate of the first in all respects, came from behind a tree to join it, and the two, despite their clumsy form and lurching uneven movement, began to advance toward him with a rapidity that was astonishing.
Weyl awoke to the necessity of flight. He raced back toward the camp, where Lieutenant Dubosc, aroused by the shots and cries, and aware that something was impending, had formed the Senegalese in a rough, slanting angle of a line, the men facing the jungle, while behind them Diouma-Mbobo's natives crouched in frightened curiosity.
The American turned as he reached the line. Behind him, into the clearing, with an odd semblance of order, came a half-dozen, a dozen, twenty of those terrible umbrella-like shapes, moving deliberately, but covering the ground as fast as a man runs.
A shot was followed by an order, a bugle note, and the irritating crash of the volley, which shaded into the rattling drum of the machine guns. When his eyes again became used to the dark after the flame of the rifles, Weyl saw that the giant, shapeless beasts were moving forward as swiftly and imperturbably as before. Had all the shots missed?
Another volley collapsed into a frantic and spasmodic burst of firing, as no effect was visible on the hideous shapes that came on swiftly.
Weyl aimed his revolver carefully at one bobbing head, and the shot was drowned in a crashing chorus of fire; the beast came right on. He was dimly conscious of shooting again and again in a kind of frenzy at those horrible bulby umbrellas that kept coming closer, dim figures of horror in the green moonlight, huge and impregnable, towering over the little group of humans who shouted and cursed and fired impotently.
One man, half maddened, even ran forward, waving his bayonet, and was gathered gently up by two of those big arms as a child might be picked up by its parent.
A thrill of wavering ran down the line; one or two threw away their rifles, when suddenly, right at their feet, one of the monsters collapsed. There was a chorus of whistling and they moved backward, apparently without turning, as rapidly and silently as they had come. . .
A feeble cheer rose from the Senegalese, a cheer that was silenced instantly, for a glance revealed that half the hastily formed line was missing, the men gone as completely as though they had never been.
Weyl was aware that he had been clicking an empty pistol, that his throat was dry, that Duperret sat at his feet, his face in his hands, seemingly without power of motion. Senegalese and natives, frightened to the verge of madness, babbled like children all around him. The iron voice of Dubosc rose: "Silence, my children!"
Out in the clearing before them was no sign that men had battled for their lives, save one ugly, loathsome shape, that sprawled on the ground and twitched feebly in the gloom.
The survivors of that unbelievable, one-sided battle dragged themselves back into Fort Dauphin five days later. One man was violently insane, tightly bound, and as for the rest, it seemed that only remnants of sanity remained. The emotional blacks had almost collapsed under the strain, and nothing but incoherent gibberings could be extracted from them by the soldiers who cared for the exhausted, weaponless, starving and almost naked remainder of the trim company of Chasseurs who marched out with drum and bugle only a fortnight before.
Weyl begged off from an immediate report to the commandant, and went to bed, where he slept the sleep of exhaustion for twenty hours on end, and Duperret did likewise.
Weyl woke vastly refreshed, and with the horror that had been dragging at his mind relieved, though with such a feeling of weariness as he had not known since college football days. The black boy at the door obligingly brought him the latest newspapers, now not quite a month old, and he re-established his touch with the world of men by reading them over the tiny breakfast of coffee and rolls which was all the fort physician would allow him.
An item in one of them caught his eye, and caused him to sit up in his chair with a whoop of joy, that brought a scandalized glance from Major Larivet, the white-moustached old Alsatian who was in command of the fort, and a grin from Duperret, the first since that dreadful night of the attack.
The item, in bad French, was a translation from the bad English of a New York newspaper telling of Weyl's departure for Madagascar. It was filled with the exalted pseudo-science of which newspapers are fond and contained much ingeniously sketchy biographical and geographical data, but its appeal was obvious.
The American leaned forward over the cups.
"Does your fort boast a typist?" he asked. "Lieutenant Dubosc has probably already told you of the terrible experience we have had. I am anxious to make my report on it through the newspapers."
"Monsieur," said Major Larivet, gravely, "he died an hour ago by my side. I know nothing but that I have lost many men from my command."
"So . . ." said Weyl, "All the more reason I should make my report in writing. I need not conceal from you the fact that we are facing a danger which threatens not merely Fort Dauphin and Madagascar, but the entire world."
There was incredulity on the major's face, but he replied courteously, "My means are entirely at your service, gentlemen."
Beginning his report with scientific exactitude, Weyl included Duperret's letter, noted the sudden midnight attack on the steamer and went on to the details of the expedition: ".... For hours after the attack," he wrote, "W were unable to get anything like control out of the chaos in the camp. I think another attack of these unspeakably loathsome 'Umbrella Beasts' would have brought complete panic; certainly hardly any rifles but Duperret's and mine would have met them.
"We could not hope to escape by an immediate dash for the fort, though it was less than thirty hours' march away. The beasts seemed to be on every side, and they would have every advantage in the jungle, where we would have been instantly swept into the trees by their swinging tentacles.
"Fortunately, these hideous monsters appeared to have gathered their fill of human food for the time being, and meanwhile the idea of fire occurred to us. All the wood we could gather without too closely approaching the trees was collected and heaped in piles about five feet apart in a complete circle. These were set alight, and we huddled in the center of the blazing ring, almost roasted by the heat, but feeling infinitely safer. With the coming of day, the heat was almost intolerable, but we gained confidence as it became apparent that the beasts would not dare the fire, though we could hear them whistling in the trees.
"Our situation was bad. The supply of wood was not inexhaustible, and that of water was already used up. I am convinced that these beasts were possessed of a comparatively high intelligence. The manner of their attack, the character of the one killed in the battle, led to this conclusion; and they were evidently deliberately laying siege to us with the intention of starving us out of our refuge.
"Our rifles were useless, and to make a sudden dash through the lines would certainly involve the sacrifice of most of those present — perhaps all. So we sat down to plan a way out. Obviously, we had to find a means to make ourselves immune to their attacks.
"I thought I had it when I remembered that no barbarian, beast or insect, would tolerate castor oil. Desperate as was our situation, the idea of escaping a deadly and horrific death by means of that homely remedy made me want to laugh hysterically. I remember Duperret watching me trying to smother the urge, looking queerly at me, quite obviously doubtful of my mental balance. His speculative and startled glance added to the absurdity of the thing, and I almost lost my self-control. I realized we were all on the edge of madness.
"The idea had, of course, to be discarded. We had castor oil among our medical supplies, but barely enough to discourage the insects of the tropical jungle; certainly not enough to smear ourselves from head to foot to keep off those giant monstrosities menacing us from all sides.
"The solution we hit upon finally may not have been the best, but it was simple, and like many another, did not occur to us till we were ready to give up in despair. Duperret, Dubosc and I had spent the entire first day of our siege discussing and rejecting ways and means, and we had just about decided that the only thing to do was to make a concerted dash into the jungle, firing into the trees, and trusting to luck and mobility to carry us through, when the lieutenant startled us with a sudden leap, and shouted something wild, something we did not understand.
"We feared for his sanity as mutely we watched him dashing about furiously from spot to spot in the clearing, tearing up handful after handful of liana grass and throwing them on the fire.
"When, however, a dense cloud of thick, choking, black smoke rolled up, and when Dubosc turned to us with a triumphant light in his face, we understood dimly what his idea was, and in a frenzy of relief several of us danced foolishly in a circle about the fire and its column of smoke.
"In a council that followed, we decided that our attempt to escape had better be made during the day, once we had all noticed that there was less activity among our besiegers during the hours when the heat was most intense. We kept our fires burning, then, throughout the night until dawn. Nobody slept; we were too apprehensive, and too busy improvising torches for our protection during the march. The beasts, evidently fearful of the fire, remained in their trees all that night, and though they continued to whistle about us (this seems their sole mode of communication) there seemed to be less whistling from the side to which our smoke drifted. This assured us that our lieutenant's plan would work.
"At dawn, bearing our smoking flambeaux, we set out. Arms and equipment were useless; they were discarded. To prevent the panic that appeared imminent among the men, Dubosc threatened to shoot down any man who left the formation, and to insure obedience, only Duperret, he and myself were allowed to retain revolvers.
"As we neared the trees, there was crowding among the men, but a few sharp words brought them to their senses. We halted just at the edge of the clearing, and Duperret and I leading the shivering company, threw our branches down under the trees and piled more wood on to make a little blaze. There was a discernible commotion in the foliage above us, but we could see nothing. When the noises subsided, we ventured in a hundred yards or so and built another fire.