The run to Santa Helena was uneventful enough in spite of the bad weather. We didn’t get away until much later than had been anticipated because of poor visibility, but from nine o’clock on, there was a perceptible lightening in the sky although the rain still fell heavily and Hannah decided to chance it
He asked me to take the controls which suited me in the circumstances for it not only kept me out of Joanna Martin’s way, but also meant that I didn’t have to struggle to find the right things to say to Sister Maria Teresa. I left all that to Hannah who seemed to do well enough although for most of the time the conversation behind was unintelligible to me, bound up as I was in my thoughts.
The situation at Santa Helena was no better. The same heavy rain drifting up from the forest again in grey mist because of the heat, but landing was safe enough and I put the Hayley down with hardly a bump.
I had radioed ahead on take-off and had given them an estimated time of arrival. In spite of this I was surprised to find Alberto himself waiting to greet us with the guard detail at the side of the strip.
He came forward to meet us as the Hayley rolled to a halt and personally handed the two women down from the cabin, greet-ing them courteously. His face beneath the peaked officer’s cap was serious and he presented a melancholy figure, adrift in an alien landscape. The caped cavalry greatcoat he wore was obviously an echo of better days.
He led the way back to the small jetty where the motor launch waited. It presented a formidable appearance. There was a Lewis gun on the roof of the main saloon, another in the prow, each protected by sandbags, and a canvas screen along each side of the boat deck made it possible to move unobserved and also provided some sort of cover against arrows.
An awning had been rigged in the stern against the rain, there was a cane table and canvas chairs and as we approached, an orderly came out of the saloon carrying a tray. He wore white gloves and as the ladies seated themselves, served coffee from a silver pot in delicate china cups. The rain hammered down, a couple of alligators drifted by. A strange, mad dream standing there by the rail with only the stench of rotting vegeta-tion rising from the river to give it reality.
Alberto approached and offered me a cigarette. “In regard to our conversation yesterday, Senhor Mallory. Have you come to any decision?”
“A hell of a morning for a walk in the forest,” I said, peering out under the awning. “On the other hand, it could be interesting.”
He smiled slightly, hesitated, as if about to say something, obviously thought better of it and turned away leaving me at the rail on my own. To say that I instantly regretted my words was certainly not so and yet I had voluntarily committed my-self to a situation of grave danger which made no kind of sense at all. Now why was that?
A couple of soldiers were already casting-off and the launch eased away from the jetty. Alberto accepted a cup of coffee from the orderly and said, “There won’t be time to drop you at Santa Helena at the moment. The Huna have changed our meeting-place to the site of an older rubber plantation, a ruinedjazenda about five miles up-river from here and a mile inland. The appointed hour is still the same however, noon, so we shall barely make the rendezvous on time as it is. Under the circumstances, I’m afraid you’ll all have to come along for the ride.”
“May I ask what your plans are, Colonel?” Sister Maria Teresa inquired.
“Simplicity itself, Sister.” He smiled wearily. “I go to talk peace with the Huna as my superiors, who are at present sitting on their backsides a good thousand miles from here behind their desks, insist.”
“You don’t approve?”
“Let us say I am less than sanguine as to the result A dele-gation, one chief and five elders, has agreed to meet me on their terms which means I go alone, except for my interpreter and very definitely unarmed. The one change in the arrange-ment so faris that Senhor Mallory, who knows more about Indians than any man I know, has agreed to accompany me.”