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- The People Of The Mist - 19/80 -
now, Otter, lead us to the slaves, quick."
"This way, Baas, but first we must find the tools; they are in the guard-hut, I suppose."
So they crept back to the hut, holding their heads as low as possible, for the light was increasing, although the moon was not yet up, and they feared lest they should be seen against the sky-line. Here they found boxes containing nippers, chisels, and other instruments such as are used to undo the irons upon slaves. Also they found the keys of the padlocks that locked the iron bars to which the captives were tethered. Taking a lantern with them, but leaving another burning as before in the hut, lest its absence should excite suspicion, they passed through two strong gates and down the steps on the further side of the embankment. A few paces beyond stood the first slave-shed, a rough erection supported on posts, but without sides.
They entered the shed, Otter leading the way with the lantern. In the middle of it was a path, and on either side of this path ran the long bars to which the captives were fastened in a double row. Perhaps there might have been two hundred and fifty of them in this shed. Here the sights and scenes were such as need not be described. Of the miserable captives some lay on the wet ground, men and women together, trying to forget their sorrows in sleep; but the most part of them were awake, and the sound of moans ran up and down their lines like the moaning of trees in the wind.
When they saw the light the slaves ceased moaning, and crouched upon the ground like dogs that await the whip, for they thought that this was a visit from their captors. Some of them, indeed, stretched out their manacled hands imploring pity, but these were the exceptions; the most of them had abandoned hope and were sunk in dull despair. It was pitiful to see the glance of their terror-filled eyes and the answering quiver of their wealed frames whenever an arm was lifted or a sudden movement made.
Soa went down the line, rapidly examining the faces of the slaves.
"Do you see any of Mavoom's people?" asked Leonard anxiously.
"Not here, White Man; let us go to the next shed, unless you want to loose these."
"No good in that, mother," said Otter; "they would only betray us."
So they went to the next shed--in all there were four--and here at the second man who was sleeping, his head bowed on his chained hands, Soa stopped suddenly like a pointer dog when he scents game.
"Peter, Peter," she said.
The man awoke--he was a fine fellow about thirty years of age--and glared round wildly.
"Who called me by my old name?" he said hoarsely. "Nay, I dream, Peter is dead."
"Peter," said the woman again, "awake, child of Mavoom; it is I, Soa, who am come to save you."
The man cried aloud and began to tremble, but the other slaves took no notice, thinking only that he had been smitten with a scourge.
"Be silent," said Soa again, "or we are lost. Loose the bar, Black One; this is a head-man from the Settlement, a brave man."
Soon the bar was undone, then Otter bade Peter hold out his wrists while he twisted off the fetters. Presently they were gone, and in the ecstasy of his recovered liberty the man leaped high into the air, then fell at Otter's feet as though he would embrace them.
"Get up, you fool," said the dwarf roughly, "and if there are any more of the men of Mavoom here, show them to us: quick, or you will soon be fast again."
"There should be forty or more," Peter answered, recovering himself, "besides a few women and children. The rest of us are dead, except the Shepherdess alone, and she is yonder."
Then they went down the lines slipping the chains from the Settlement captives. Soon they had unmanacled ten or more men whom Soa selected, and others stood round them with their hands still chained. As they went about the work Soa explained something of the position to Peter, who was fortunately a native of intelligence. He grasped the situation at once and earnestly seconded Leonard's efforts to preserve silence and to prevent confusion.
"Come," said Leonard to Soa, "we have got enough to begin with. I must be off. You can loose the rest at your leisure; the moon is rising, it is a quarter to twelve, and we have not a moment to lose. Now, Otter, before we go, how can we send men to fire the reeds--through the garden?"
"No, Baas, I have thought of a better way, the way by which I escaped myself--that is, if these men can swim."
"They can all swim," said Soa; "they were bred on the banks of a river."
"Good. Then they must swim down the dike where I killed the sentry, four of them. At the end are bars of wood, but in my day they were rotten; at the worst they can be climbed. Then they will find themselves in the morass among thick reeds. But they must not fire these till they have worked round to the place of the sunrise, whence the wind blows strongly. Then they must go from spot to spot and bend down the driest of the reeds, setting fire to them. Afterwards they can get to the back of the fire and wait till all is done one way or the other. If we win they will find us, if we are killed they can try to run away. But will the men go?"
Soa stepped forward and chose four of their number, but Peter she did not choose, for he also knew something of the working of cannon.
"Listen," she said, "you have heard the words of this Black One. Now, obey. And if you depart from them by one jot, may----" and she poured out so fearful a curse upon them that Leonard stared at her astonished.
"Ay!" added Otter, "and if I live through this I will cut your throats."
"No need to threaten," said one of the men; "we will do our best for our own sakes, as well as for yours and that of the Shepherdess. We understand the plan, but to light reeds we must have fire."
"Here are matches," said Otter.
"Wet matches will not light, and we must swim," answered the spokesman.
"Fool, do you then swim with your head under water? Tie them in your hair."
"Ah! he is clever," said the spokesman. "Now, if we live to reach them, when shall we fire the reeds?"
"As soon as you are ready," answered Otter. "You will not come easily to the back of them. Farewell, my children, and if you dare to fail, pray that you may die rather than look upon my face again."
"/Ou!/ We have seen it once, is that not enough?" answered the spokesman, looking at Otter's huge nose with wonder not untouched by fear.
Two minutes later the four men were swimming swiftly down the dike, taking their chance of the alligators.
"Drop the bridge," said Leonard; "we must start."
Otter lowered it, at the same time explaining its mechanism, which was very simple, to Soa, Peter, and some of the other Settlement men.
"Now, mother, good-bye," said Leonard. "Loose all the men you can, and keep a keen look-out, so as to be ready to lower the bridge if you should see us or your mistress coming towards it. If we should not come by dawn, be ready also, for then we shall probably be dead, or prisoners, and you must act for yourself."
"I hear you, Lord," answered Soa, "and I say that you are a brave man. Whether you win or lose, the red stone is well earned already."
Another minute and they were gone.
Having crossed the bridge, which was instantly hoisted again, Leonard and Otter avoided observation by creeping back towards the water-gate as they had come--that is, behind the shelter of the shed. Emerging from this, they ran a few yards till they were opposite the gate, then walked leisurely across the open space, a distance of fifty paces or more, to the thatched hut where the sale of slaves was carried on.
There was nobody in this hut, but looking between the posts upon which it was supported, they could see by the light of the moon, now growing momentarily clearer, that a great and uproarious concourse of people was gathered beyond in front of the verandah of the Nest itself.
"Come on, Otter," whispered Leonard, "we must go among these gentry. Watch me closely, do what I do, keep your weapons ready, and if it comes to blows, get behind my back and fight like a fiend. Above all, don't be taken prisoner."
Leonard spoke calmly, but his heart was in his mouth, and his sensations were such as must have been known to Daniel when he went into the lions' den, for, as in the case of the prophet, he felt that nothing short of a special Providence could save them. They were round the shed now, and immediately in front of them was a mixed gathering of desperadoes--Portuguese, Arabs, Bastards, and black men of various tribes--such as Leonard had never seen in all his experience.
Villainy and greed were written on every countenance; it was a crew of human demons, and an extensive one. These wretches, most of whom had already drunk too freely and were drinking more, stood with their backs to them, looking towards the verandah of the Nest. On the steps of this verandah, surrounded by a choice group of companions, all of them gaudily dressed, a man was standing whom Leonard would have had no difficulty in identifying as the Dom Pereira, even without Otter's warning whisper of "See! The Yellow Devil!"
This remarkable person demands some description as he stood in glory that night, at the apex and, though he knew it not, the conclusion of his long career of infamy. He was old, perhaps seventy, his hair was
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