The Eternal Lover

Part I

Chapter VII

Victoria Obeys the Call

Edgar Rice Burroughs

THE NEXT morning the men were examining the stone headed spear upon the veranda just outside the breakfast room.

“It’s the oddest thing of its kind I ever saw,” said Greystoke. “I can almost swear that it was never made by any of the tribesmen of present day Africa. I once saw several similar heads, though, in the British Museum. They had been taken from the debris of a prehistoric cave dwelling.”

From the window of the breakfast room just behind them a wide eyed girl was staring in breathless wonderment at the rude weapon, which to her presented concrete evidence of the reality of the thing she had thought but another hallucination—the leaping figure of the naked man that had sprung past her into the face of the charging lion an instant before she had swooned. One of the men turned and saw her standing there.

“Ah, Miss Custer,” he exclaimed; “no worse off this morning I see for your little adventure of last night. Here’s a memento that your rescuer left behind him in the heart of ‘old Raffles.’ Would you like it?”

The girl stepped forward hiding her true emotions behind the mask of a gay smile. She took the spear of Nu, the son of Nu, in her hands, and her heart leaped in half savage pride as she felt the weight of the great missile.

“What a man he must be who wields such a mighty weapon!” she exclaimed. Barney Custer was watching his sister closely, for with the discovery of the spear in the lion’s body had come the sudden recollection of Victoria’s description of her dream-man—“He carries a great spear, stone-tipped—I should know it the moment that I saw it.”

The young man stepped to his sister’s side, putting an arm about her shoulders. She looked up into his face, and then in a low voice that was not audible to the others she whispered: “It is his, Barney. I knew that I should know it.”

For some time the young man had been harassed by fears as to his sister’s sanity. Now he was forced to entertain fears of an even more sinister nature, or else admit that he too had gone mad. If he were sane, then it was God’s truth that somewhere in this savage land a savage white man roamed in search of Victoria. Now that he had found her would he not claim her? He shuddered at the thought. He must do something to avert a tragedy, and he must act at once. He drew Lord Greystoke to one side.

“Victoria and I must leave at once,” he said. “The nervous strain of the earthquake and this last adventure have told upon her to such an extent that I fear we may have a very sick girl upon our hands if I do not get her back to civilization and home as quickly as possible.”

Greystoke did not attempt to offer any remonstrances. He, too, felt that it would be best for Miss Custer to go home. He had noted her growing nervousness with increasing apprehension. It was decided that they should leave on the morrow. There were fifty black carriers anxious to return to the coast, and Butzow and Curtiss readily signified their willingness to accompany the Nebraskan and his sister.

As he was explaining his decision to Victoria a black servant came excitedly to Lord Greystoke. He told of the finding of a dead ewe in the compound. The animal’s neck had been broken, the man said, and several strips of meat cut from its haunches with a knife. Beside it in the soft mud of the enclosure the prints of an unshod human foot were plainly in evidence.

Greystoke smiled. “The zebra killer again,” he said. “Well, he is welcome to all he can eat.”

Before he had finished speaking, Brown, who had been nosing around in the garden, called to him from a little clump of bushes beside the spot where the lion’s body had lain.

“Look here, Clayton,” he called. “Here’s something we overlooked in the darkness last night.”

The men upon the veranda followed Greystoke to the garden. Behind them came Victoria Custer, drawn as though by a magnet to the spot where they had gathered.

In the bushes was a little pool of dried blood, and where the earth near the roots was free from sod there were several impressions of a bare foot.

“He must have been wounded,” exclaimed Brown, “by Curtiss’s shot. I doubt if the lion touched him—the beast must have died instantly the spear entered its heart. But where can he have disappeared to?”

Victoria Custer was examining the grass a little distance beyond the bushes. She saw what the others failed to see—a drop of blood now and then leading away in the direction of the mountains to the south. At the sight of it a great compassion welled in her heart for the lonely, wounded man who had saved her life and then staggered, bleeding, toward the savage wilderness from which he had come. It seemed to her that somewhere out there he was calling to her now, and that she must go.

She did not call the attention of the others to her discovery, and presently they all returned to the veranda, where Barney again took up the discussion of their plans for tomorrow’s departure. The girl interposed no objections. Barney was delighted to see that she was apparently as anxious to return home as he was to have her—he had feared a flat refusal.

Barney had wanted to get a buffalo bull before he left, and when one of the Waziri warriors brought word that morning that there was a splendid herd a few miles north of the ranch, Victoria urged him to accompany the other men upon the hunt.

“I’ll attend to the balance of the packing,” she said. “There’s not the slightest reason in the world why you shouldn’t go.”

And so he went, and Victoria busied herself in the gathering together of the odds and ends of their personal belongings. All morning the household was alive with its numerous duties, but after luncheon while the heat of the day was greatest the bungalow might have been entirely deserted for any sign of life that there was about it. Lady Greystoke was taking her siesta, as were practically all of the servants. Victoria Custer had paused in her work to gaze out of her window toward the distant hills far to the south. At her side, nosing his muzzle into her palm, stood one of Lord Greystoke’s great wolfhounds, Terkoz. He had taken a great fancy to Victoria Custer from the first and whenever permitted to do so remained close beside her.

The girl’s heart filled with a great longing as she looked wistfully out toward the hills that she had so feared before. She feared them still, yet something there called her. She tried to fight against the mad desire with every ounce of her reason, but she was fighting against an unreasoning instinct that was far stronger than any argument she could bring to bear against it.

Presently the hound’s cold muzzle brought forth an idea in her mind, and with it she cast aside the last semblance of attempted restraint upon her mad desire. Seizing her rifle and ammunition belt she moved noiselessly into the veranda. There she found a number of leashes hanging from a peg. One of these she snapped to the hound’s collar. Unseen, she crossed the garden to the little patch of bushes where the dried blood was. Here she gathered up some of the brown stained earth and held it close to Terkoz’s nose. Then she put her finger to the ground where the trail of blood led away toward the south.

“Here, Terkoz!” she whispered.

The beast gave a low growl as the scent of the new blood filled his nostrils, and with nose close to ground started off, tugging upon the leash, in the direction of the mountains upon the opposite side of the plain.

Beside him walked the girl, across her shoulder was slung a modern big game rifle, and in her left hand swung the stone-tipped spear of the savage mate she sought.

What motive prompted her act she did not even pause to consider. The results she gave not the slightest thought. It seemed the most natural thing in the world that she should be seeking this lonely, wounded man. Her place was at his side. He needed her—that was enough for her to know. She was no longer the pampered, petted child of an effete civilization. That any metamorphosis had taken place within her she did not dream, nor is it certain that any change had occurred, for who may say that it is such a far step from one incarnation to another however many countless years of man-measured time may have intervened?

Darkness had fallen upon the plain and the jungle and the mountain, and still Terkoz forged ahead, nose to ground, and beside him moved the slender figure of the graceful girl. Now the roar of a distant lion came faintly to her ears, answered, quite close, by the moaning of another—a sound that is infinitely more weird and terrifying than the deeper throated challenge. The cough of the leopard and the uncanny “laughter” of hyenas added their evidence that the night-prowling carnivora were abroad.

The hair along the wolfhound’s spine stiffened in a little ridge of bristling rage. The girl unslung her rifle, shifting the leash to the hand that carried the heavy spear of the troglodyte; but she was unafraid. Suddenly, just before her, a little band of antelope sprang from the grass in startled terror—there was a hideous roar, and a great body hurtled through the air to alight upon the rump of the hindmost of the herd. A single scream of pain and terror from the stricken animal, a succession of low growls and the sound of huge jaws crunching through flesh and bone, and then silence.

The girl made a slight detour to avoid the beast and its kill, passing a hundred yards above them. In the moonlight the lion saw her and the hound. Standing across his fallen prey, his flaming eyes glaring at the intruders, he rumbled his deep warning to them; but Victoria, dragging the growling Terkoz, after her, passed on and the king of beasts turned to his feast.

It was fifteen minutes before Terkoz could relocate the trail, and then the two took up their lonely way once more. Into the foothills past the tortured strata of an ancient age it wound. At sight of the naked rock the girl shuddered, yet on and up she went until Terkoz halted, bristling and growling, before the inky entrance to a gloomy cave.

Holding the beast back Victoria peered within. Her eyes could not penetrate the Stygian darkness. Here, evidently, the trail ended, but of a sudden it occurred to her that she had only surmised that the bloody spoor they had been following was that of the man she sought. It was almost equally as probable that Curtiss’s shot had struck “old Raffles’” mate and that after all she had followed the blood of a wounded lioness to the creature’s rocky lair.

Bending low she listened, and at last there came to her ears a sound as of a body moving, and then heavy breathing, and a sigh.

“Nu!” she whispered. “Is it you? I have come,” nor did it seem strange to her that she spoke in a strange tongue, no word of which she had ever heard in all her life before. For a moment there was silence, and then, weakly, from the depths of the cave a voice replied.

“Nat-ul!” It was barely a whisper.

Quickly the girl groped her way into the cavern, feeling before her with her hands, until she came to the prostrate form of a man lying upon the cold, hard rock. With difficulty she kept the growling wolfhound from his throat. Terkoz had found the prey that he had tracked, and he could not understand why he should not now be allowed to make the kill; but he was a well-trained beast, and at last at the girl’s command he took up a position at the cave’s mouth on guard.

Victoria kneeled beside the prostrate form of Nu, the son of Nu; but she was no longer Victoria Custer. It was Nat-ul, the daughter of Tha, who kneeled there beside the man she loved. Gently she passed her slim fingers across his forehead—it was burning with a raging fever. She felt the wound along the side of his head and shuddered. Then she raised him in her arms so that his head was pillowed in her lap, and stooping kissed his cheek.

Half way down the mountain side, she recalled, there was a little spring of fresh, cold water. Removing her hunting jacket she rolled it into a pillow for the unconscious man, and then with Terkoz at her side clambered down the rocky way. Filling her hat with water she returned to the cave. All night she bathed the fevered head, and washed the ugly wound, at times squeezing a few refreshing drops between the hot lips.

At last the restless tossing of the wounded man ceased, and the girl saw that he had fallen into a natural sleep, and that the fever had abated. When the first rays of the rising sun relieved the gloom within the cavern Terkoz, rising to stretch himself, looked backward into the interior. He saw a blackhaired giant sleeping quietly, his head pillowed upon a khaki hunting coat, and beside him sat the girl, her loosened hair tumbled about her shoulders and over the breast of the sleeping man upon which her own tired head had dropped in the sleep of utter exhaustion. Terkoz yawned and lay down again.

The Eternal Lover - Contents    |     Part I - Chapter VIII - Captured by Arabs

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