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- Out of the Primitive - 1/60 -

[Illustration: Lord James dropped without a groan. "You coward!--you murderer!" she gasped. Chapter XXX]



Author of "Into the Primitive," etc.






The second night north of the Zambezi, as well as the first, the little tramp rescue steamer had run out many miles into the offing and laid-to during the hours of darkness. The vicinity of the coral reefs that fringe the southeast coast of Africa is decidedly undesirable on moonless nights.

When the Right Honorable the Earl of Avondale came out of his close, hot stateroom into the refreshing coolness that preceded the dawn, the position of the Southern Cross, scintillating in the blue-black sky to port, told him that the steamer was headed in for the coast. The black surface of the quiet sea crinkled with lines of phosphorescent light under the ruffling of the faint breeze, which crept offshore heavy with the stench of rotting vegetation. It was evident that the ship was already close in again to the Mozambique swamps.

Lord James sniffed the rank odor, and hastened to make his way forward to the bridge. As he neared the foot of the ladder, his resilient step and the snowy whiteness of his linen suit attracted the attention of the watcher above on the bridge.

"Good-morning, m' lord," the officer called down in a bluff but respectful tone. "You're on deck early."

"Hullo, Meggs! That you?" replied his lordship, mounting the steps with youthful agility. "It seems you're still earlier."

"Knowing your lordship's anxiety, I decided to run in, so that we could renew the search with the first glimmer of daylight," explained the skipper. "We're now barely under headway. According to the smell, we're as near those reefs as I care to venture in the dark."

"Right-o! We'll lose no time," approved the young earl. "D'you still think to-day is apt to tell the tale, one way or the other?"

"Aye, your lordship. I may be mistaken; but, as I told you, reckoning together all the probabilities, we should to-day cover the spot where the _Impala_ must have been driven on the coral--that is, unless she foundered in deep water."

"But, man, you said that was not probable."

"A new boat should be able to stand the racking of half a dozen cyclones, m' lord, without straining a bottom plate. No; it's far more probable she shook off her screw, or something went wrong with the steering gear or in the engine room. I've recharted her probable course and that of the cyclone. It was as well for us to begin our search at the Zambezi, as I told your lordship. But if to-day we fail to find where she piled her bones on the coral, it's odds we'll not to-morrow. On beyond, at Port Mozambique, we got only the north rim of the storm. I put in there for shelter when the barometer dropped."

"That was on your run south. Glad I had the luck to chance on a man who knows the coast as you do," remarked Lord James. "Look at those steamers Mr. Leslie chartered by cable--a good week the start of us, and still beating the coverts down there along Sofala! Wasting time! If only I'd not gone off on that shunt to India--And they six weeks in these damnable swamps--if they won ashore at all! You still believe they had a chance of that?"

"Aye. As I explained to your lordship, if the _Impala_ hadn't lost all her boats before she struck, there's a fair probability that the water inside the reefs--"

"Yes, yes, to be sure! If there was the slightest chance for any one aboard--Lady Bayrose, Miss Leslie and their maids, the only women passengers, and a British ship! Everything must have been done to save them. While Tom--he'd be sure to make the shore, if that was within the bounds of possibility. Yet even if they were cast up alive--six weeks on the vilest stretch of coast between Zanzibar and the Zambezi! They may be dying of the fever now--this very hour! Deuce take it, man! d'you wonder I'm impatient?"

"Aye, m'lord! But here's the dawn, and McPhee is keeping up a full head of steam. We'll soon be doing seven knots."

As he spoke, the skipper turned to step into the pilot house. Lord James faced about to the eastern sky, where the gray dawn was beginning to lessen the star-gemmed blackness above the watery horizon. Swiftly the faint glow brightened and became tinged with pink. The day was approaching with the suddenness of the tropical sunrise. In quick succession, the pink shaded to rose, the rose to crimson and scarlet splendor; and then the sun came leaping above the horizon, to flood sea and sky with its dazzling effulgence.

Captain Meggs had entered the pilot house in the blackness of night. He came out in the full glare of day. Lord James had turned his back to the sun. He was staring at the bank of white mist that, less than two miles to westward, shrouded the swampy coast. Meggs had brought out two pairs of binoculars, one of which he handed to his charterer.

"Your lordship sees," he remarked. "We're none too far out from the reefs."

"Beastly mist!" complained Lord James, his handsome high-bred face creased with impatience and anxiety. "D'you fancy we're anywhere near the islet from which we put off last evening?"

"I've tried to hold our position, m'lord. But these Mozambique Channel currents are so strong, and shift so with the tides, we may have been either set back or ahead."

Already the bank of morning mist was beginning to break up and melt away under the fervent rays of the sun. The young earl raised his glasses and gazed southwards along the face of the dissolving curtain. Through and between the ghostly wreaths and wisps of vapor he could see the winged habitants of the swamps--flamingoes, cranes, pelicans, ibises, storks, geese, all the countless tropical waterfowl--swimming and wading about the reedy lagoons or circling up to fly to other feeding grounds. Opposite the steamer the glasses showed with startling distinctness a number of hideous crocodiles crawling out on a slimy mudbank to bask in the sunshine. But nowhere could the searcher discern a trace of man or of man's habitation.

"Gad! not a sign! Rotten luck!" he muttered.

He turned and swept the four-mile curve of coast around to the north- northeast. Suddenly he stiffened and held the glasses fixed.

"Look!" he cried. "Off there to the northwards--cliffs!"

"Cliffs? Aye, a headland," confirmed the skipper.

"Put about for it immediately," directed Lord James. "If they were cast up here, they'd not have lingered in these vile bogs--would have made for the high ground."

Meggs nodded, and called the order to the steersman. The ship's bows swung around, and the little steamer was soon scuttling upcoast towards the headland, along the outer line of reefs, at a speed of seven knots.

From the first, Lord James held his glasses fixed on the barren guano- whitened ledges of the headland. But though he could discern with quickly increasing distinctness the seabirds that soared about the cliff crest and nested in its crevices, he perceived no sign of any signal such as castaways might be expected to place on so prominent a height.

When, after a full half-hour's run, the steamer skirted along the edge of the reefs, close in under the seaward face of the headland, the searcher at last lowered his binoculars, bitterly disappointed.

"Not a trace--not a trace!" he complained. "If they've been here, they've either gone inland or--we're too late! Six weeks--starvation-- fever!"

Meggs shook his head reassuringly. "The top of the headland may be inaccessible, m'lord. We may find that they--Heh! what's that?"

He leaned forward to peer through his glasses at a second headland that was swinging into view around the corner of the cliffs.

"_Smoke!_" he cried. "_Smoke!--and a flag!_"

"Gad!" murmured Lord James, hastily bringing his own glasses to bear.

The second headland was about five miles away. The thin column of smoke that was ascending from its crest near the outer end, could plainly be seen with the naked eye. But a sunlit cloud beyond necessitated the full magnifying power of the binoculars to disclose the white signal flag that flapped lazily on a slender staff near the beacon.

Out of the Primitive - 1/60

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