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Wings of Danger

Chapter 1: The Girl of the Public Square

TO THOSE OTHER DAYS I have not quite said good-by. Here in the prosaic library of my house at Rokesby, in Devonshire, as I look out over the wind-swept downs and see the tall old windows of Rokesby Kirk all aflame in the red glow of evenfall, it seems incredible that it was really I who actually passed through all of those things. And, looking back, it still seems half unreal that the Alan Severn who was the hard-bitten adventurer of the other land can be the same personage as this quiet Sir Alan of today: “Sir Alan Severn, of Severn Hall; F. R. G. S., V. C.,” as the Times has it all formidably set forth in a smashing “beat” this morning; late of South Africa and the Rhodesian Irregulars.

And from this height of my amazing prosperity, I hark back to that time—and wonder! I have no quarrel with the present, save that the deeds of a man seem to have passed out of it. But for so long as it may take to set down this history, I shall live in the other days; for it is conceivable to change the present and even forestall the future, but a man’s past is behind him and he cannot duplicate it. So I sit staring into my ink-pool like some fabled necromancer of the “Arabian Nights,” and see the vague sketch and caricature of a hundred old companions, black and white, in a hundred wild-goose chases, passing in brief review. I stroll on the wonderful Rand, in its heyday; and all upon a day, I step out of that life and into another, caught up and swept away in the master-plot of Cecil Rhodes. I stand once more with De Roquemort and the others in the ring of dark, staring faces, in Matabeleland, and see the assegais flashing in the sun; and then by the spectral mountains, in the red glare of the eruption, watching the dead, black, unholy shadows creep across the sky-line… But best of all, I ride of nights and days to the House of Raylescroft—seeking for a lady, “the Rainbow Lady,” as I used to call her in my dreams. For you may be sure of this: if I had never known and loved that lady, none of those things would have happened; and in fine, there would have been no story. And that takes me back to its beginning—the girl of the public square.

Slim, serene, with wide dark eyes set like jewels in her white face; her head tilted a little back, with a beckoning gesture; her lips half parted in a radiant smile; she stood while the sunlight streaming through the tall French windows enveloped her with the gilded aura of a saint and made a picture to remember. That is how I like to recall her best in our early meetings; not as I saw her first in the square, inert and pallid, with horror-stricken eyes staring down in those other eyes of death.

That was Norma Raylescroft.


I remember as well as if it had been yesterday that day I rode up into Johannesburg town-square, in quest of trek-oxen; I was on the eve of starting up-country with René Duval, the noted sculptor of wild animals—the time he trekked across the threshold of this world into the next. Well, that was farther than he started for; but there is an old proverb of the pitcher and the well. I am not likely to forget that day, for, though I had no fortune in getting oxen before the next day, something else transpired which I would not have missed for all the oxen in the Transvaal; and it was no more than a low word of thanks from a girl’s lips, and a glance from a pair of memory-haunting eyes.

That scene comes up before me now—like the visions of youth which are impossible to forget. I have only to shut my eyes and I enter the moving picture show of memory. Picture after picture... they flash up abruptly, and pass; as real to me now as the rest of the world and these humdrum figures of flesh-and-blood Tommy Atkins in the making; of very undecorative rustic swains and too very decorative country squires; of all the Bill Stokeses and Peggy O’Tooles of the every-day—those prosaic Pillars of the British Empire, now beginning to straggle homeward by twos and threes, in the early dusk, along the box-clipped hawthorn hedges flanking the road beneath my library windows.

The familiar figures of the every-day have passed on, and the hawthorn lane is silent. The tall old church-windows eastward are black in the gathering dusk.

And so, while the pictures are flashing on the screen, let me go back to the girl with the memory-haunting eyes.

To begin in Johannesburg public square… Flowing by endlessly, like a running stream in eddies, along the congested pavements and even down the middle of the street, was a cosmopolitan crowd made up of opposites and extremes; Boers, Englishmen, German curb-brokers and the omnipresent Jew; tall, half-naked Zulus from behind the far-away wall of the Kwathlamba Mountains; yellow-faced Griquas and cringing little Hottentots—“Totties,” in the easy vernacular of Marshall Square.

Close to the curb a Cockney street-hawker was crying his kickshaws and flimsy gilt trinkets to entrap the passers-by at his little stall. Opposite him in the open lounged a vendor of a different stamp, who dealt in deadlier wares—one of the Kora tribe of nomadic Bushmen, employed occasionally by the South African representative of a great Hamburg firm of wild animal trainers to bring in wild things—all manner of oddities—for shipment to the famous museum overseas. Nearby him stood an oddly fashioned wicker basket containing his primitive stock in trade—a couple of wickedly venomous African cobras; while he awaited with the black man’s eternal patience the august pleasure of the Agent, who, in no hurry, for his part, was leisurely breakfasting within a noisy little bar around the corner.

At intervals, an ugly hooded head swayed sluggishly behind the holes in the basketwork, as if seeking something; and the bystanders saw a flash of deadly looking eyes and a lightning-like vision of a forked tongue darting out like a red streak of flame through the gaps in the loosely woven wicker. It was significant to them that the snake-seller did not lounge upon the basket, after the manner of natives when they have a long time to wait. Yet, if that silent nomad had but suspected it, he was standing over an active volcano, for reasons that will presently appear.

And now for the other part of the picture.

Out of the press came slowly a tall old man in his late fifties, but cast in some heroic mold. He was tanned as dark as mahogany and had the face of a Roman centurion, with long silvery-white hair and a flaming eagle’s beak of a nose; and walked with a slight stoop belied by his great frame. At his heels came a girl who walked with a slow stride peculiarly rhythmic and unhurried; while the crowd—though it overflowed the curbs, and the great Rand plutocrats and official demigods steered meekly in the reeling wakes of ill-favoured Boers in their cups, and the naked black shoulders of the Kaffir mine-boys—parted magically for her as she calmly advanced.

She was scarcely more than twenty, perhaps, for there was something in the lithe grace of her supple figure which subtly suggested youth, though her features remained hidden by the crowd. I began to wonder who she was and where she had learned to walk like that—like the great ladies I had once seen as a boy in England. The old Titan’s daughter, to hazard a guess.

They stepped down at the curb and headed across the square, passing a few paces from where I was posted by my saddled nag, idly watching the crowds and drawing stage circles in the dust with the point of a heavy, old-fashioned hunting-crop; the kind of whip which is always “loaded” at one end with a piece of metal.

As they passed me I managed to get a fleeting glimpse of the girl’s face, and experienced an involuntary catch of the breath. It was a lovely, perfect face, of the rare type that engraves its image upon the memory. To look upon its splendid serenity was like gazing into the deep waters of some crystal tide; mere beauty was but a little part of what was pictured there! I was not one to rave over a pretty woman; but a face like that had never crossed my horizon until that hour, and it set my blood tingling.

Heedless of the crowd and looking neither to right nor left, they went on, the old colossus in the lead and the girl close at his heels. Just ahead and directly in their path stood the half-naked Kora, engaged in a heated squabble with a couple of dwarfish Hottentots. His back was turned so that he did not see who came.

Suddenly, with a scream, the girl halted dead in her tracks, gazing as if fascinated at some object on the ground, while the old gentleman, turning too abruptly, wavered, lost his footing on the uneven paving-stones and fell. Unnoticed by the Kora by reason of his absorbing row with the “Totties,” one of the cobras had worked its way through a gap in the wicker, which was old and worn and insecurely woven—not fit to contain deadly creatures—and that was why the Kora might as well have been standing over a raging crater.

A sudden swish on the pavement—one sinuous writhe and coil, and the hideous thing, infuriated almost to madness by the noise and the crowd, instantly stopped within a foot of the advancing girl—a living horror coiled to strike! She remained inert, paralyzed with fear and seemingly rooted in her tracks. The snake faced her with ominously swaying head, while the Kora turned around to see what was the matter; but seeing, stood as if spellbound and made no move to interfere. Neither did the spectators; nobody interfered. That was the other picture! It was not one to be soon forgotten.

Then the horrible spell was broken. With an oath, I had thrown myself between the white-faced girl and the swaying horror on the ground, sweeping her out of the way. There was a moment of shuddering suspense—I saw two terrible little eyes burning wickedly into mine like a pair of diamonds; and struck out suddenly with the heavy crop. The loaded whipstock lit true on the snake’s swaying head. It collapsed like a shattered cricket-ball, and with my boot-heel I stamped it into shapeless pulp. The cobra writhed a little and lay still. The girl shivered slightly but recovered herself with an effort, and raised her eyes, alive with gratitude, to mine. It was like an electric shock.

“I cannot thank you fittingly, but I shall never forget!”

It was all she said, but in the convincing melody of a remarkable voice her few words possessed the weight of a whole benediction. I hesitated; and under the level gaze of her eloquent dark eyes, I grew preposterously embarrassed. I could only stammer out some inarticulate reply.

The old Roman had picked himself up with astonishing celerity for one of his years. His great frame was still vigorous and active and his temper clearly none of the best; his irascible gestures were the reverse of everything senile. There wasn’t anything the matter with him. He had slipped on the paving-stones. And as he began to speak, his voice was vital and brusk, not to say brutally harsh, and he had a queer trick of jerking his words out as though they were nails that he forcibly extracted. He ripped out:

“My daughter is right—we can’t thank you here. Of course it’s not the place—this crowd! Damme, as thick as flies!” He glared all around him several times like an enraged and indignant turkey-gobbler. He was very red in the face. A lot of people were staring. “Curse ’em!” he cried. “Let ’em stare! You’re a trump! A most remarkably prompt young man! You will come to see us tomorrow? The grey house on the hill…” He took a fresh start. “You’ll find that John Raylescroft never forgets a favour. That’s my name; you’ll have heard of me in Africa, I daresay. Queen’s subject… There’s my hand! And you, sir?”

“My name is Alan Severn,” I answered.

“And your profession?” he jerked out.

“I’m—er—a sort of freelance, you know.”

“Ah!” he muttered. There was a world of meaning in his monosyllables. A shade of stiffness had come into his manner. He strove palpably to repress it and did not succeed. He said: “Never mind, come out and see us, anyway. But wait—lend me your whip!”

He took the crop from my unresisting hand and sprung, with a single bound, upon the astonished Kora. Seizing the man in a ruthless iron grip, he cut him half a dozen times across his naked shoulders—then deliberately gave him the loaded end twice on his bullet skull. It struck me as an odd procedure before a lady.

She did not wince nor cry out, but silently accepted the inevitable. I saw her glance swiftly at me and blush red with shame—and saw a wave of pity sweep across her white face. At the second rap the poor wretch, half stunned, went lurching to the pavement and blindly essayed to crawl out of reach. He was too late. The whipstock fell again. He rolled over and lay quite still. Someone held his head and gave him Cape brandy.

Raylescroft faced up and bit down an oath. He had a strange expression in his eyes. It was plain that he was the owner of a black temper.

“There, you scoundrel!” he barked. “That will teach you not to leave poisonous serpents about in people’s way!” He turned to me. “Thank you, Mr. Alan Severn, there’s your whip! Come and see us tomorrow. Come, Norma, we can’t stand here forever with all these people gaping at us open-mouthed!”

He wheeled about.

I am afraid I stared. So that was her name—Norma! It had, even in that old man’s harsh, aged voice, a dreamily enchanting sound, like a chord of music. And, followed by the dark-eyed, quiet beauty with the oddly fascinating name, that imperious old man turned away.

As for me, I could only stare helplessly, and wonder if I should take him at his word and go to see them on the morrow. It was a problem to set me racking my brains for the answer; and at length, half unsure of my reception, I decided to abandon the idea. And then, tossing the poor devil of a Kora, who had revived sufficiently to sit up, a sovereign in payment for his demolished cobra and his broken head, I turned and walked slowly back to the curb. The crowd had melted away.


In those days I was a professional “up-country man” —and in Africa men know the meaning of that phrase. I was a walking Baedeker—a human handbook whose pages opened only to the touch of gold. From Nigeria to the Cape, and along the Ivory Coast, and even in the blazing sands of the Saharas, you may find them; they are the gentlemen-adventurers, the masterless mercenaries whose services any man may buy—for a price. It was a life impossible enough in any land but Africa.

It was inevitable, I think, for I had my share of the roving Severn blood, the compelling strain of the Wanderlust. Generation after generation, the Severns had all been wanderers; it was some ineradicable impulse in the blood. And so I, too, had followed the call, as my father had done before me in his day—he had emigrated from Devonshire, in England. I had travelled up by post-cart from Natal, making for the new Rhodesian goldfields—though I did not flaunt my going in the face of the dayshine. It was discreet enough, that fitting, and a bit sub rosa; for my father, a rather dimly shining light of the Colonial bar, had destined me for a barrister’s career.

Even now it is vaguely disagreeable to review that first year’s unloved friction with the chastening surface of my round-topped legal stool. Accordingly I had flitted. In time, I had been forgiven for taking French leave, and was reluctantly acquitted of being cut out for a counsellor. But fortune plays strange pranks. And in the upshot—stony broke—I had drifted into the Mounted Police. At first, my hard-riding companions-in-arms, the ruthless, invincible spirits who matched immortal Balaclavan charges with the iron courage of Wilson’s heroic Patrol, in that blind dash after Lobengula to the Zambesi, eyed me askance; for a barrister’s son in the irregular police was as great an oddity as a gentleman ranker in the army. Those long, wild, solitary rides across the quiet veld—a speck in a sea of bush—many of them night rides with only the moon and stars for company, made a man of me at last. Later, I saw service in two Matabele wars and learned how to take double toll for a steel-cased bullet fired from a Lee-Metford. They had an unhappy file-formation, those Matabele—and the English troops knew it.

At my discharge I had drifted gracelessly from one place to another, but managed in the meanwhile to see a deal of the country. For a while I set up at Buluwayo and prospered spasmodically until a day when the Cape-to-Cairo Survey arrived, and gave me the post of one of its hirelings—he had blown out his brains in the strain of a long African night at Nairobi, with the dreadful, mysterious, menacing beat of the native “bush-telegraph” drumming everlastingly in his ears.

Afterward, I was made the overseer of a reeking crew of coolies on the new Uganda Railway. I remember very well how the word of my first promotion was brought to me at the billiard-tables of the Mombasa Club, by the seaward windows looking on Kilindini Harbor—the long, low face of the fort; the gingerbread architecture of the Liwali’s palace; and I remember that I was playing off a score with the young Liwali, who was going away to be educated at some place in Europe. I showed him my yellow telegram, and he wished me luck, with a shadowy smile on his dark, Arab face; and then I went away. He thought I would never come back; but I was fever-bit like himself; and in truth the berth suited me immensely, what with the big-game shooting and the wild life of the road-camps and the command of men of mixed nations—their lives were never worth much more than sixpence. People had begun to point me out in the Protectorate, and I lived in an exaggerated atmosphere of repressed bravado, though I had very early schooled my features to wear a hard-set mask. But in those five years I had got the name of knowing the country as few men knew it; and so eventually I found my account in it. In a word, I turned freelance—became a gentleman adventurer-at-large. I had plenty of takers, and my services came high.

But there was risk enough. There was the fever-coast below Beira. Many hard things have been said of that reach of coast. Men of many lands have said them. In marble and in granite they are written—not as artistic efforts but by way of epitaph. On the Admiralty Charts that coast is coloured a watery yellow, ostensibly denoting its low elevation, but meaning in point of fact that it is the perennial abode of a grim and perilous monster—Fever.

To think that men have given up their own hearthstones and risked their all, tearing themselves away from their friends and the bosoms of their families, from loving wives, perhaps, and the prattle of little children, for the “Silent Places,” for this—the courtship of danger; to think of that is to realize what mysteries lurk within a human soul! Well, I have known many; the best and the worst of them. In the quick flood of my reminiscence, I see them go by, one after another; a gallant and picturesque crew.

There was H. H. the Prince of Pless, a decadent son of the warrior Goths, and a great sybarite, for all his fighting ancestry, who trekked with me to the Victoria Falls, and carried (by proxy) an amazing arsenal of sporting Mannlichers. The Mannlicher was the Austrian state service-arm. It is a wicked thing.

There was old Lord Melton, K. C. B., who took back to England as mural decorations a whole shipload of horns and hides—most of which he had got from the native chiefs; for Melton seldom by any accident killed anything but time. To serve him was a perilous thing, for he let fly his dum-dum bullets quite as promiscuously as he scattered his good British sovereigns.

There was René Duval, the sculptor, who played with death once too often; for a mangy old lioness in Bechuanaland, which he had rashly stalked by moonlight, bit his windpipe right out one night when his gun-breech jammed-after he had fired two shots into her loins. After that the lioness decamped and died out in the bush. I found her the next day, all crumpled up like a wet rag, and cursed her; there was nothing else to do. We buried poor Duval under a frowning cliffside where the hyenas will never disturb him, and trekked straight home.

There was also a lady—the first and last to take me into her pay. It was the Inyanga Plains that trip, and the lady was the handsome, eccentric Countess Diane de Montfleur; a comely Amazon but peppery in the mouth; a dashing Diana (and she looked it) who lived up to her name and went on the warpath in light marching order. Merely to look on while Madame, in the final word in “abbreviations,” contrived to miss four large eland, well bunched at sixty paces, was to sign articles of slavery. She nearly always missed; but her shooting-kilts, though a trifle short, were wickedly becoming, and her figure was beautiful and svelte. She was very much “a matter of form,” the Countess Diane.

And there was Banister, the Yankee millionaire. He had a mania for exploring a fever-smitten country, and burned with a barbaric lust to kill. He left a trail of bleaching bones behind him—until, upon a day, an old rogue rhino met him in the narrow way. He pumped that grim beast full of lead-alloy made in the States—but he kept on coming like a brute Nemesis. Before the end came, the rhino had gored him twice and marked him for life with a twisted leg. In the sequel, his fickle fiancée in America had jilted him heartlessly, and married a rival millionaire who had displayed the good sense to stay at home and improve his opportunities and retain the conventional contour of his limbs. Fiancées are horribly unreliable things! And Banister himself, by last accounts, is doggedly limping across Tibet, with rifles and notes and aneroids; counting the dreary steps; hiding his disillusionment from the world—trying to forget!

There were many more whose names and faces I cannot stop to recall; they are scattered now to the ends of the earth.

Finally, there was the Rt. Hon. Cecil Rhodes.

Not the unreal Rhodes of the Blue Book, nor yet the formal Rhodes of history, but the real Rhodes without the mask; the great adventurer whose colossal dream of empire made Africa and Europe reel. That was the Rhodes I knew. I was his old lieutenant in the great Annexation Plot—and I have come out alive! That fact seems wonderful enough to me. But you who scarcely know what the Rhodes dream was, save only from dark, discredited rumours, stifled overseas, from the shadows of dead events, and from the pages of discreet chroniclers who will not tell you all they know—you will smile rather sceptically, perhaps. But Cecil Rhodes is gone to face a higher Court of Inquiry, and I let it pass!... What is your unbelief to me?