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The Great White Queen: A Tale of Treasure and Treason, Page 2

William Le Queux



  OMAR had been at Trigger's a little over two years when a strangeincident occurred. We were then both aged about sixteen, he a few monthsolder than myself. The summer holidays had come round again. I had amonth ago visited my uncle in London, and he had given me to understandthat after next term I should leave school and commence life in the City.He took me to his warehouse in Thames Street and showed me the gas-litcellar wherein his clerks were busy entering goods and calling out longcolumns of amounts. The prospect was certainly not inviting, for I wasnever good at arithmetic, and to spend one's days in a place whereinnever a ray of sunshine entered was to my mind the worst existence towhich one could be condemned.

  When I returned I confessed my misgivings to Omar, who sympathised withme, and we had many long chats upon the situation as during the six weekswe wandered daily by the sea. We cared little for the Grand Parade, withits line of garish hotels, tawdry boarding-houses and stucco-frontedvillas, and the crowd of promenaders did not interest us. Seldom even wewent on the pier, except to swim. Our favourite walks were away in thecountry through Willingdon to Polegate, over Beachy Head, returningthrough East Dean to Litlington and its famed tea-garden, or acrossPevensey Levels to Wartling, for we always preferred the moreunfrequented ways. One day, when I was more than usually gloomy over theprospect of drudgery under my close-fisted relative, my friend said to mecheerfully:

  "Come, Scars, don't make yourself miserable about it. My people have asaying that a smile is the only weapon one can use to combat misfortune,and I think it's true. We have yet a few months more together before youleave. In life our ways will lie a long way apart. You will become atrader in your great city, while I shall leave soon, I expect, to----"and he paused.

  "To do what?" I inquired.

  "To go back to my own people, perhaps," he answered mechanically."Perhaps I shall remain here and wait, I know not."

  "Wait for what?"

  "Wait until I receive orders to return," he answered. "Ah, you don't knowwhat a strange life mine has been, Scars," he added a moment later in aconfidential tone. "I have never told you of myself for the simplereason that silence is best. We are friends; I hope we shall be friendsalways, even though my enemies seek to despise me because I am not quitewhite like them. But loyalty is one of the cherished traditions of mypeople, and now that during two years our friendship has been firmlyestablished I trust nothing will ever occur to interrupt it."

  "I take no heed of your enemies, Omar," I said. "You have proved yourselfgenuine, and the question of colour, race, or creed has nothing to dowith it."

  "Perhaps creed has," he exclaimed rather sadly. "But I make no pretenceof being what I am not. Your religion interests me, although, as youknow, I have never been taught the belief you have. My gods are in theair, in the trees, in the sky. I believe what I have been taught; I prayin silence and the great god Zomara hears me even though I am separatedfrom my race by yonder great ocean. Yet I sometimes think I cannot act asyou white people do, that, after all, what my enemies say is true. I amstill what you term a savage, although wearing the clothes of yourcivilization."

  "Though a man be a pagan he may still be a friend," I said.

  "Yes, I am at least your friend," he said. "My only regret is that youruncle will part us in a few months. Still, in years to come we shallremember each other, and you will at least have a passing thought forOmar, the Guinea Pig," he added, laughing.

  I smiled too, but I noticed that although he endeavoured to appear gay,his happiness was feigned, and there was in his dark eyes a look ofunutterable sadness. Our conversation drifted to a local cricket matchthat was to be played on the morrow, and soon the gloomy thoughts thatseemed to possess him were dispelled.

  It was on the same sunny afternoon, however, that a curious incidentoccurred which was responsible for altering the steady prosaic course ofour lives. The most trifling incidents change the current of a life, andthe smallest events are sufficient to alter history altogether. Throughthe blazing August afternoon we had walked beyond Meads, mounted BeachyHead, passed the lighthouse at Belle Tout and descended to the beach at apoint known as the Seven Sisters. The sky was cloudless, the sea likeglass, and during that long walk without shelter from the sun's rays Ihad been compelled to halt once or twice and mop my face with myhandkerchief. Yet without fatigue, without the slightest apparent effort,and still feeling cool, Omar walked on, smiling at the manner in whichthe unusual heat affected me, saying:

  "Ah! It is not hot here. You might grumble at the heat if the sun were aspowerful as it is in my country."

  When we descended to the beach and threw ourselves down under the shadowof the high white cliffs to rest, I saw there was no one about andsuggested a swim. It was against old Trigger's orders, nevertheless thecalm, cool water as it lazily lapped the sand proved too tempting, andvery shortly we had plunged in and were enjoying ourselves. Omar left thewater first, and presently I saw while he was dressing the figure of atallish, muscular man attired in black and wearing a silk hat approachinghim. As I watched, wondering what business the stranger could have withmy companion, I saw that when they met Omar greeted him in native fashionby snapping fingers, as he had often done playfully to me. Whoever hemight be, the stranger was unexpected, and judging from the manner inwhich he had been received, a welcome visitor. I was not near enough todistinguish the features of the newcomer, but remembering that I had beenin the water long enough, I struck out for the shore, and presentlywalked up the beach towards them.

  Omar had dressed, and was in earnest conversation with a gigantic negroof even darker complexion than Mr. Makhana. Unconscious of my approach,for my feet fell noiselessly upon the sand, he was speaking rapidly inhis own language, while the man who had approached him stood listening inmeek, submissive attitude. Then, for the first time, I noticed that myfriend held in his hand a grotesquely carved stick that had apparentlybeen presented by the new-comer as his credential, together with a scrapof parchment whereon some curious signs, something like Arabic, werewritten. While Omar addressed him he bowed low from time to time,murmuring some strange words that I could not catch, but which wereevidently intended to assure my friend that he was his humble servant.

  In spare moments Omar had taught me a good deal of his language. Indeed,such a ready pupil had I been that frequently when we did not desire theother fellows to understand our conversation we spoke in his tongue. Butof what he was saying to this stranger, I could only understand one ortwo words and they conveyed to me no meaning. The negro was a veritablegiant in stature, showily dressed, with one of those gaudily-colouredneckties that delight the heart of Africans, while on his fat brown handwas a large ring of very light-coloured metal that looked suspiciouslylike brass. His boots were new, and of enormous size, but as he stood heshifted uneasily from one foot to the other, showing that he was farfrom comfortable in his civilized habiliments.

  Without approaching closer I picked up my things and dressed rapidly,then walked forward to join my companion.

  "Scars!" he cried, as soon as I stood before him. "I had quite forgottenyou. This is my mother's confidential adviser, Kouaga."

  Then, turning to the grinning ebon-faced giant he uttered some rapidwords in his own language and told him my name, whereupon he snappedfingers in true native fashion, the negro showing an even set of whiteteeth as an expression of pleasure passed over his countenance.

  "We little thought that we were being watched this afternoon," Omar saidto me, smiling and throwing himself down upon the sand, an examplefollowed by the negro and myself. "It seems that Kouaga arrived inEastbourne this morning, but there are strong reasons why none shouldknow that he has seen me. Therefore he followed me here to hold palaverat a spot where we should not be observed."

  "You have a letter, I see."

  "Yes," he said slowly, re-reading the strange lines of hieroglyphics."The news it contains necessitates me leaving for Africa immediately."

  "For Africa
!" I cried dismayed. "Are you going?"

  "Yes, I must. It is imperative."

  "Then I shall lose you earlier than I anticipated," I observed withheart-felt sorrow at the prospect of parting with my only chum. "It istrue, as you predicted, our lives lie very far apart."

  The negro lifted his hat from his brow as if its weight oppressed him,then turning to me, said slowly and with distinctness in his own tongue:

  "I bring the words of the mighty Naya unto her son. None dare disobey hercommands on pain of death. She is a ruler above all rulers; before herarmed men monarchs bow the knee, at her frown nations tremble. In orderto bring the palaver she would make with her son I have journeyed forthree moons by land and sea to reach him and deliver the royal staff insecret. I have done my duty. It is for Omar to obey. Kouaga has spoken."

  "Let me briefly explain, Scarsmere," my friend interrupted. "Until thepresent I have been compelled to keep my identity a secret, for truth totell, there is a plot against our dynasty, and I fear assassination."

  "Your dynasty!" I cried amazed. "Are your people kings and queens?"

  "They are," he answered. "I am the last descendant of the great Sanoms ofMo, the powerful rulers who for a thousand years have held our countryagainst all its enemies, Mahommedan, Pagan or Christian. I am the Princeof Mo."

  "But where is Mo?" I asked. "I have never heard of it."

  "I am not surprised," he said. "No stranger has entered it, or ever will,for it is unapproachable and well-guarded. One intrepid white manventured a year ago to ascend to the grass plateau that forms itssouthern boundary, but he was expelled immediately on pain of death. Mycountry, known to the neighbouring tribes as the Land Beyond the Clouds,lies many weeks' journey from the sea in the vast region within the bendof the great Niger river, north of Upper Guinea, and is coterminous withthe states of Gurunsi and Kipirsi on the west, with Yatenga on thenorth-west, with Jilgodi, Aribinda, and Libtako on the north, with Gurmaon the east, and with the Nampursi district of Gurunsi on the south."

  "The names have no meaning for me," I said. "But the fact that you are anactual Prince is astounding."

  With his hands clasped behind his head, he flung himself back upon thesand, laughing heartily.

  "Well," he said, "I didn't want to parade my royal ancestry, neither do Iwant to now. I only tell you in confidence, and in order that you shallunderstand why I am compelled to return. During the past ten years therehave been many dissensions among the people, fostered by the enemies ofour country, with a view to depose the reigning dynasty. Three years agoa dastardly plot was discovered to murder my mother and myself, seize thepalace, and massacre its inmates. Fortunately it was frustrated, but mymother deemed it best to send me secretly out of the country, for I amsole heir to the throne, and if the conspirators killed me, our dynastymust end. Therefore Makhana, my mother's secret agent, who purchases ourarms and ammunition in England and conducts all trade we have withcivilized countries, brought me hither, and I have since been in hiding."

  "But Makhana has been bribed by our enemies," exclaimed the big negro,who had been eagerly listening to our conversation, but understanding noword of it save the mention of Makhana's name. Turning to Omar he added:"Makhana will, if he obtains a chance, kill you. Be warned in timeagainst him. It has been ascertained that he supplied the men of Molotowith forty cases of rifles, and that he has given his pledge that youshall never return to Africa. Therefore obey the injunction of my royalmistress, the great Naya, and leave with me secretly."

  "Without seeing Makhana?" asked Omar.

  "Yes," the black-faced man replied. "He must not know, or the plans ofthe Naya may be thwarted. Our enemies have arranged to strike their blowthree moons from now, but ere that we shall be back in Mo, and they willfind that they go only to their graves. Kouaga has made fetish for theson of his royal mistress, and has come to him bearing the stick."

  "What does the letter say?" I asked Omar, noticing him reading it again.

  "It is brief enough, and reads as follows," he said:

  "'_Know, O my son Omar, that I send my stick unto thee by our trusty Kouaga. Return unto Mo on the wings of haste, for our throne is threatened and thy presence can avert our overthrow. Tarry not in the country of the white men, but let thy face illuminate the darkness of my life ere I go to the tomb of my ancestors._


  I glanced at the scrap of parchment, and saw appended a truly regal seal.

  "And shall you go?" I asked with sorrow.

  "Yes--if you will accompany me."

  "Accompany you!" I cried. "How can I? I have no money to go to Africa,besides----"

  "Besides what?" he answered smiling. "Kouaga has money sufficient to payboth our passages. Remember, I am Prince of Mo, and this man is myslave. If I command him to take you with me he will obey. Will you go?"

  The prospect of adventure in an unknown land was indeed enticing. In afew brief words he recalled my dismal forebodings of the life in anunderground office in London, and contrasted it with a free existence ina fertile and abundant land, where I should be the guest and perhaps anofficial of its ruler. He urged me most strongly to go as his companion,and in conclusion said:

  "Your presence in Mo will be unique, for you will be the first strangerwho has ever set foot within its capital."

  "But your mother may object to me, as she did to the entrance of thewhite man of whom you just now spoke."

  "Ah! he came to make trade palaver. You are my friend and confidant," hesaid.

  "Then you suggest that we should both leave Eastbourne at once, travelwith Kouaga to Liverpool and embark for Africa without returning toTrigger's, or saying a word to anyone?"

  "We must. If we announce our intention of going we are certain to bedelayed, and as the steamers leave only once a month, delay may be fatalto my mother's plans."

  As he briefly explained to Kouaga that he had invited me to accompany himI saw that companion to an African prince would be a much more genialoccupation than calculating sums in a gas-lit cellar; therefore, fired bythe pleasant picture he placed before me, I resolved to accept hisinvitation.

  "Very well, Omar," I said, trying to suppress the excitement that rosewithin me. "We are friends, and where you go I will go also."

  Delighted at my decision my friend sprang to his feet with a cry of joy,and we all three snapped fingers, after which we each took a handful ofdry sand and by Omar's instructions placed it in one heap upon a rock.Then, having first mumbled something over his amulets, he quickly stirredthe heap of sand with his finger, saying:

  "As these grains of sand cannot be divided, so cannot the bonds offriendship uniting Omar, Prince of Mo, with Scarsmere and Kouaga, be rentasunder. Omar has spoken."