The sun had already sunk beneath the line of palm trees, and the great arch of the heaven above our head was like the inside of a huge shell, shimmering with dainty pinks and delicate iridescence. No one who has not lived in a land where the weight and heat of a napkin become intolerable upon the knees can imagine the blessed relief which the coolness of evening brings along with it. In this sweeter and purer air the Doctor and I walked round the little island, he pointing out the stores, and explaining the routine of his work.
“There’s a certain romance about the place,” said he, in answer to some remark of mine about the dullness of their lives. “We are living here just upon the edge of the great unknown. Up there,” he continued, pointing to the north-east, “Du Chaillu penetrated, and found the home of the gorilla. That is the Gaboon country–the land of the great apes. In this direction,” pointing to the south-east, “no one has been very far. The land which is drained by this river is practically unknown to Europeans. Every log which is carried past us by the current has come from an undiscovered country. I’ve often wished that I was a better botanist when I have seen the singular orchids and curious-looking plants which have been cast up on the eastern end of the island.”
The place which the Doctor indicated was a sloping brown beach, freely littered with the flotsam of the stream. At each end was a curved point, like a little natural breakwater, so that a small shallow bay was left between. This was full of floating vegetation, with a single huge splintered tree lying stranded in the middle of it, the current rippling against its high black side.
“These are all from up country,” said the Doctor. “They get caught in our little bay, and then when some extra freshet comes they are washed out again and carried out to sea.”
“What is the tree?” I asked.
“Oh, some kind of teak, I should imagine, but pretty rotten by the look of it. We get all sorts of big hardwood trees floating past here, to say nothing of the palms. Just come in here, will you?”
He led the way into a long building with an immense quantity of barrel staves and iron hoops littered about in it.
“This is our cooperage,” said he. “We have the staves sent out in bundles, and we put them together ourselves. Now, you don’t see anything particularly sinister about this building, do you?”
I looked round at the high corrugated iron roof, the white wooden walls, and the earthen floor. In one corner lay a mattress and a blanket.
“I see nothing very alarming,” said I.
“And yet there’s something out of the common, too,” he remarked. “You see that bed? Well, I intend to sleep there to-night. I don’t want to buck, but I think it’s a bit of a test for nerve.”
“Oh, there have been some funny goings on. You were talking about the monotony of our lives, but I assure you that they are sometimes quite as exciting as we wish them to be. You’d better come back to the house now, for after sundown we begin to get the fever-fog up from the marshes. There, you can see it coming across the river.”
I looked and saw long tentacles of white vapour writhing out from among the thick green underwood and crawling at us over the broad swirling surface of the brown river. At the same time the air turned suddenly dank and cold.
“There’s the dinner gong,” said the Doctor. “If this matter interests you I’ll tell you about it afterwards.”
It did interest me very much, for there was something earnest and subdued in his manner as he stood in the empty cooperage, which appealed very forcibly to my imagination. He was a big, bluff, hearty man, this Doctor, and yet I had detected a curious expression in his eyes as he glanced about him–an expression which I would not describe as one of fear, but rather of a man who is alert and on his guard.
“By the way,” said I, as we returned to the house, “you have shown me the huts of a good many of your native assistants, but I have not seen any of the natives themselves.”
“They sleep in the hulk over yonder,” the Doctor answered, pointing over to one of the banks.
“Indeed. I should not have thought in that case that they would need the huts.”
“Oh, they used the huts until quite recently. We’ve put them on the hulk until they recover their confidence a little. They were all half mad with fright, so we let them go, and nobody sleeps on the island except Walker and myself.”
“What frightened them?” I asked.