As I walked there, occasionally stopping to peer into some shadowy glade or opening, and to listen, I was tempted again and again to call the name of her I sought aloud; and still the fear that by so doing I might bring some hidden danger on myself, perhaps on her, made me silent. A strange melancholy rested on the forest, a quietude seldom broken by a distant bird's cry. How, I asked myself, should I ever find her in that wide forest while I moved about in that silent, cautious way? My only hope was that she would find me. It occurred to me that the most likely place to seek her would be some of the old haunts known to us both, where we had talked together. I thought first of the mora tree, where she had hidden herself from me, and thither I directed my steps. About this tree, and within its shade, I lingered for upwards of an hour; and, finally, casting my eyes up into the great dim cloud of green and purple leaves, I softly called: "Rima, Rima, if you have seen me, and have concealed yourself from me in your hiding-place, in mercy answer me — in mercy come down to me now!" But Rima answered not, nor threw down any red glowing leaves to mock me: only the wind, high up, whispered something low and sorrowful in the foliage; and turning, I wandered away at random into the deeper shadows.
By and by I was startled by the long, piercing cry of a wildfowl, sounding strangely loud in the silence; and no sooner was the air still again than it struck me that no bird had uttered that cry. The Indian is a good mimic of animal voices, but practice had made me able to distinguish the true from the false bird-note. For a minute or so I stood still, at a loss what to do, then moved on again with greater caution, scarcely breathing, straining my sight to pierce the shadowy depths. All at once I gave a great start, for directly before me, on the projecting root in the deeper shade of a tree, sat a dark, motionless human form. I stood still, watching it for some time, not yet knowing that it had seen me, when all doubts were put to flight by the form rising and deliberately advancing — a naked Indian with a zabatana in his hand. As he came up out of the deeper shade I recognized Piake, the surly elder brother of my friend Kua-ko.
It was a great shock to meet him in the wood, but I had no time to reflect just then. I only remembered that I had deeply offended him and his people, that they probably looked on me as an enemy, and would think little of taking my life. It was too late to attempt to escape by flight; I was spent with my long journey and the many privations I had suffered, while he stood there in his full strength with a deadly weapon in his hand.
Nothing was left but to put a bold face on, greet him in a friendly way, and invent some plausible story to account for my action in secretly leaving the village.
He was now standing still, silently regarding me, and glancing round I saw that he was not alone: at a distance of about forty yards on my right hand two other dusky forms appeared watching me from the deep shade.
"Piake!" I cried, advancing three or four steps.
"You have returned," he answered, but without moving. "Where from?"
He shook his head, then asked where it was.
"Twenty days towards the setting sun," I said. As he remained silent I added: "I heard that I could find gold in the mountains there. An old man told me, and we went to look for gold."
"What did you find?"
And so our conversation appeared to be at an end. But after a few moments my intense desire to discover whether the savages knew aught of Rima or not made me hazard a question.
"Do you live here in the forest now?" I asked.
He shook his head, and after a while said: "We come to kill animals."
"You are like me now," I returned quickly; "you fear nothing."
He looked distrustfully at me, then came a little nearer and said: "You are very brave. I should not have gone twenty days' journey with no weapons and only an old man for companion. What weapons did you have?"
I saw that he feared me and wished to make sure that I had it not in my power to do him some injury. "No weapon except my knife," I replied, with assumed carelessness. With that I raised my cloak so as to let him see for himself, turning my body round before him. "Have you found my pistol?" I added.
He shook his head; but he appeared less suspicious now and came close up to me. "How do you get food? Where are you going?" he asked.
I answered boldly: "Food! I am nearly starving. I am going to the village to see if the women have got any meat in the pot, and to tell Runi all I have done since I left him."
He looked at me keenly, a little surprised at my confidence perhaps, then said that he was also going back and would accompany me One of the other men now advanced, blow-pipe in hand, to join us, and, leaving the wood, we started to walk across the savannah.
It was hateful to have to recross that savannah again, to leave the woodland shadows where I had hoped to find Rima; but I was powerless: I was a prisoner once more, the lost captive recovered and not yet pardoned, probably never to be pardoned. Only by means of my own cunning could I be saved, and Nuflo, poor old man, must take his chance.
Again and again as we tramped over the barren ground, and when we climbed the ridge, I was compelled to stand still to recover breath, explaining to Piake that I had been travelling day and night, with no meat during the last three days, so that I was exhausted. This was an exaggeration, but it was necessary to account in some way for the faintness I experienced during our walk, caused less by fatigue and want of food than by anguish of mind.
At intervals I talked to him, asking after all the other members of the community by name. At last, thinking only of Rima, I asked him if any other person or persons besides his people came to the wood now or lived there.
He said no. "Once," I said, "there was a daughter of the Didi, a girl you all feared: is she there now?"
He looked at me with suspicion and then shook his head. I dared not press him with more questions; but after an interval he said plainly: "She is not there now."
And I was forced to believe him; for had Rima been in the wood they would not have been there. She was not there, this much I had discovered. Had she, then, lost her way, or perished on that long journey from Riolama? Or had she returned only to fall into the hands of her cruel enemies? My heart was heavy in me; but if these devils in human shape knew more than they had told me, I must, I said, hide my anxiety and wait patiently to find it out, should they spare my life. And if they spared me and had not spared that other sacred life interwoven with mine, the time would come when they would find, too late, that they had taken to their bosom a worse devil than themselves.