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THE CHIMNEY CORNER

ON THE WEST COAST OE AFRICA.

{ Continued. )

Carried back to the old manor house, for some weeks I hovered between life and death, during which time Kitty Heathcote nursed and tended me with more than a sister’s care. At length the doccor reported that his patient was out of danger, and my stern old uncle, who throughout had refused to see me, sent a message to the o fleet that I was to leave his house as soon as I was able to travel. This edict of the old man’s was received with great regret, not only by me, but by another as well. Yes, the fickle-hearted Kate had given up her flirtations, and was fickle no longer. That “ pity,” which is so justly said to be akin to love, had worked the spell, and now she, in her turn, loved with far greater affection than she had before simulated. Ay, loved —Kitty loved; and I it was that she loved ! What a heaven there was in the thought! My inexorable uncle had no more terrors for me—my wound no more pain. The only worthy thing was to endeavor to deserve her. But that was not to be done by trying to induce her to desert her grey-haired old father in his last days, for the man whom he Was about to drive from his doors. I scorned the thought that could suggest such a course. No ; there was nothing for it but to go afloat again, and abide the chances and changes of a few years.

A request to be appointed to a vessel serving on that fatal station, the West Coast of Africa, was only too willingly granted by the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty. It may well be deemed a strange choice for one whose highest hopes were just arriving at a climax. Under the circumstances that existed immediately before the duel, it would not have been so extraordinary. The coast is the well-known refuge of the hopeless ; there they commit suicide honourably. But, on the other hand, I trusted to an unusually strong and well-tried constitution to preserve me unscathed from the virulent attacks of the deadly fevers and malaria of the African swamps. Besides, there was a strong, ungovernable motive that impelled me thither. Of this none knew. After the duel, James Trail Withering'ton was never seen again. A bundle of papers were found in his trunks. The

old steward for some reason brought them to me. All scruples at opening them were removed by the suggestion of the

obvious unfairness of the duel. An examination at leisure proved conclusively tiat my suspicions were after all correct. He had been sailing under false colours, and was indeed a slave-dealor, the Government appointment being altogether a myth. Some of the papers showed conclusively that not only did he carry on this revolting trade, but that he did so very unfairly; so much so, indeed, that on two occasions he had narrowly escaped paying with his life the penalty of his injustice. And now, if I couid (I thought) but just put a stop to his slave-dealing propensities, it would prove to him conclusively the fallacy of his ideas concerning the incompetency of Her Britannic Majesty’s naval service. At the same time it would be possible to obtain that satisfaction to which he invited me, and of which lie, in so cowardly a manner, defrauded me. There was my motive. After a most painful parting from Kitty, the father still unrelenting, and three months passed away, I found myself in command of a fine despatch gun boat vessel in the Bight of Benin. No time was lost in endeavouring to find Witherington, but no such person was known. In all his papers the names had been carefully blotted out, but many being in his own handwriting, there was no doubt as to whom they referred. It was, therefore, quite possible that he was trad in under another name. One Miguel Antonio dos Santos, a noted slave-dealer, was said to answer his description exactly. From Witherington’s appearance and knowledge of the language he might well have passed for a Spaniard. He was reported to have gone to Cuba, but there is no reliance to be placed on any information as to slavers and slave-dealers. It seemed probable, however, that this was the case, for during two years nought could be seen or heard of him, and so I nearly gave up all hope of meeting him. In the meantime we had tolerable success in our cruising operations, having captured a very fair number of prizes, but on the whole nothing occurred worthy of particular notice. •

Towards the end of our three years’ commission the doctor and I landed with our rifles one day for the enjoyment of a little shooting. We wandered a long way down the coast, from the flats of the old Calabar river to where the usually low coast rises into red sandstone cliffs of some height. From the summit of these cliffs the sharks could bo plainly seen rising and falling with the long ground-swell of the ocean. As they basked in the sunlight, their sharp black dorsal fins appearing above the surface, we tried a few shots at them, but with no great success. The sun was getting low, and we were on the point of returning, wh*n there appeared a savage procession coming from inland towards the next cliff to the one on which we were. Judging that some Fetish worship or superstitious rites were about to take place, we concealed ourselves behind a rock to watch the proceedings. On came this wild horde of savages, with much beating of drums and cymbals, howling and shouting, and other horribly ‘ discordant sounds. Their usually ugly faces were rendered ten times more hideous by a profusion of red and yellow paint, which was also daubed freely over their bodies. Thus as they came wildly dancing and leaping along, filling the air with their savage cries, they more resembled a band of fiends than human beings. They were preceded by four men bearing a long wide plank ; this, on reaching the edge of the cliff, they launched out nearly half its'length and left balanced on the brink.

The dreadful truth flashed across our minds, for this explained everything. ■ They were about to offer a human sacrifice to their Fetish. We turned sick and faint as we thought of their horrible custom of making their victim walk to the end of the plank, which, overbalancing, precipitates the miserable wretch with a shriek and a plunge into the sea, to be, whilst yet struggling, devoured by the swarming sharks. And yet we dared not move to turn away from this revolting spectacle. The victim is generally intoxicated with some poisonous decoction of drugs, and at the last moment, being completely stupe- ; fled, voluntarily walks the plank. It would render the sacrifice infficacious were hands to be laid upon the victim to push him over. But in this case there seemed to be some difficulty. From the struggling on the verge of the precipice it would seem that the miserable creature had refused to make a sacrifice of himself.

Perhaps the drugs had not done their work.

Presently we observed _ them goading the unfortunate being on to his destruction with the sharp points of long arrows. Up to this time we had been unable to catch sight of the victim;; but now, the crowd opening a little bh our side, we saw him, and with one.. .voice exclaimed, “ Good Heaven, it’s a European !” There in that sayage crowd he stood bleeding, frantic with the pain of the

stabs from the arrow-heads, wildly imploring mercy, his cries drowned in theirs, and doing what he could to resist the fearful death that awaited him. One more instant and he would have been over. A steady aim, and with a sharp crack from my rifle a bullet went swinging through the air, and found its billet in the head of the chief, smashing his skull and laying him lifeless on the ground ; the doctor reserved his fire whilst I reloaded. For a moment they seemed to waver, perhaps totally bewildered ; and then, utterly terrified, took to their heels, and scampered away with all the speed of susperstitious fear. As soon as they were out of sight, we ran to their victim, whom they had entirely forgotten in their headlong flight. He was sitting with his back towards us, gesticulating violently, and talking wildly and incoherently. His mind was evidently gone, and he fancied himself already in the sea fighting with the sharks, for he was saying in a thick unnatural voice—

“Keep off, ye ghastly grey sharks—hungry fiends—why will ye glare so? Tear me not, ye triple-fanged demons, I never harmed ye. For heaven’s sake, spare me one moment. What a bitter draught that was! Aha ! you change—you are black imps now. Curse ye, I fear ye not. Keep but but one white devil, that I myself made, away from me, and then I defy you all. Curse ye, I say. ” He turned suddenly, and I found myself face to face with my long-sought adversary. It was no other than James Trail Witherington. As his straining, blood-shot eyes met mine, they dilated fearfully—his whole form was convulsed with a frenzy of maniacal terror. He started back shriek-

mg—“’Tis he! ’tis he! This is the devil I feared! save me from him. Oh, save me.” and then in a lower tone, “Keep him off, good sharks; tell him not that I fired too soon, because I thirsted for his blood. See, there he is, as I left him in the forest. Look at the blood, how it roars and rushes out of his mouth ! Blood ? blood ? No ’tis not; ’tis molten copper ! and,” shrieking again, “ see he bathes my heart in it! he pours it down my throat! Mercy—mercy—spare me ! ” As he said this, he ran , backwards towards the edge of the cliff. In vain we tried to warn him of -his danger. The longer we approached him, the faster he ran backwards, screaming—- “ Away—away ! keep back, ye fiends—keep back ! save me from him ! Back, I say, back—keep him off! ” Thus shrieking, he stepped back over the precipice and disappeared. A dull, heavy splash told us that the sharkinfested waters had received him, and it was all over.

It turned out subsequently that Witherington, alias Miguel Antonio dos Santos, had been carrying on his nefarious policy of kidnapping, instead of fairly buying slaves, and in doing so had himself fallen into the hands of the natives. They were not slow to find out what to do with him. He would make as good a sacrifice to their diety as one of their own men. Although we cheated the Fetish of his victim, we had not robbed Nemesis of hers.

On my return to England. I received a most affectionate letter from my uncle, consenting |to my marriage with his daughter, my pretty cousin, Kitty Heathcote ; and inow, when my wife Kitty reads this, she will know the only secret that*l ever kept from her—namely, why I went to the West Coast.

CONCLUDED

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Permanent link to this item

http://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/newspapers/AG18800417.2.26

Bibliographic details

THE CHIMNEY CORNER, Ashburton Guardian, Volume 1, Issue 88, 17 April 1880

Word Count
1,873

THE CHIMNEY CORNER Ashburton Guardian, Volume 1, Issue 88, 17 April 1880

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