Mr. Mason is here at his best. While working out very deftly an extremely intricate and clever plot, he gives us excellent characterization and a remarkably vivid series of glimpses into different settings and phases of life. Colonel John Strickland, wandering the earth in a vain attempt to forget his apparently hopeless passion for a famous young society beauty, visits Burma, where he buys a precious ruby for his lady and is induced to go tiger-hunting. He encounters "No Other Tiger," however, except a ruffianly man, "like a Greek god gone wrong," who makes a moment's mysterious appearance in the jungle. The jewel and the man are but two of many seemingly disconnected links that are forged into a chain of mystery that steadily tightens its hold upon the reader until the brilliant climax is reached. It is questionable whether Mr. Mason is to be praised more highly for his ingenuity or for his unforgettable word pictures.
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THE NOVELS OF
A. E. W. MASON
The Dean’s Elbow
The Prisoner in the Opal
No Other Tiger
The Broken Road
The Four Feathers
Miranda of the Balcony
At the Villa Rose
The Courtship of Morrice Buckler
A Romance of Wastdale
The Witness for the Defence
The House of the Arrow
The Winding Stair
NO OTHER TIGER
A. E. W. MASON
© 2019 Librorium Editions
All rights reserved
A DELIBERATE MAN
THE BIRD, THE CAT AND——
AND THE TIGER
LADY ARIADNE’S RUBY
FIRST-HAND NEWS OF CORINNE
ELIZABETH CLUTTER’S MISTAKE
A LOST OPPORTUNITY
TERROR AT THE SEMIRAMIS
CORINNE’S DOLL’S HOUSE
THE AMATEUR OF THE HORRIBLE
THE TWO GENTLEMEN FROM CAYENNE
THE CASE OF CLUTTER VERSUS CORINNE
ONE TRAVELLER RETURNS
AT PEACOCK FARM
THE TREASURE HUNT
THE UNOPENED LETTER
TWO POINTS OF VIEW
AND A THIRD—ARIADNE’S
CORINNE’S LAST DAY
A Deliberate Man
There is a rough truth, no doubt, in the saying that adventures occur to the adventurous. But fantastic things may happen to anyone. No man, for instance, was ever less fantastically-minded than Lieutenant-Colonel John Strickland, late of the Coldstream Guards. He disembarked from the river steamer at Thabeikyin and motored by the jungle road over the mountains to the Burma Ruby Mines at Mogok with the simple romantic wish to buy a jewel for a lady. Yet in that remote spot, during the sixty hours of his stay, the first fantastic incident happened to him, of a whole series which was to reach out across the oceans and accomplish itself in the fever of lighted cities.
He reached the Guest-House on the slope above the town by midday, ate his luncheon, and, with a Burma cheroot between his teeth, disposed himself on a long chair for a peaceful afternoon. There was, however, to be no peace for him. For, sprung apparently from the earth, three native hawkers were immediately squatting upon the veranda at his feet and flashing at him trays full of tiny stones—splinters of sapphire and ruby, fragments of amethyst and topaz, infinitesimal tourmalines and spinels, the refuse of the ruby mines. Strickland declined their wares, at first politely, then with violence. But pertinacity was their real stock-in-trade. They sold peace rather than jewels; and they merely retired a few yards down the sloping garden, where once more they squatted side by side, patient as vultures about a victim not quite dead.
Strickland closed his eyes again and the latch of the gate at the bottom of the garden clicked. An officer in a uniform, of a solid build and a stolid face, with a small bristling moustache upon his lip, walked up the path between the carefully-tended beds of flowers. He mounted the steps to the veranda and saluted.
“I beg to introduce myself, sir,” he said in a formal voice. “I am Captain Thorne, District Superintendent of Police.”
Colonel Strickland sat up straight and bowed. Whatever annoyance he felt, he concealed.
“It is kind of you to call,” he said. “Won’t you sit down—though, to be sure, you are rather the host than I!”
“Not at all,” said Captain Thorne. But he sat down and removed his topee. After that there was silence. Strickland broke it. He held out a box of cigarettes.
“Will you smoke one?”
“Thank you; I’ll smoke a pipe.”
The Colonel with difficulty repressed a sigh. He began to calculate how many cigarettes went to a pipe in point of time—one certainly whilst the pipe was being loaded and lit. Captain Thorne was thirty-five years old, but he had all the deliberation of an old man.
“You walked into Bhamo two days ago,” he said at length.
“I crossed the hills from Yunnan,” replied Strickland.
“Yes,” said Thorne.
“Yes,” repeated Strickland; and once more silence encompassed the two men. Thorne looked out into the garden. Responsibility sat upon his shoulders like a knapsack. Strickland could almost see it—the knapsack of a man in full marching kit. Thorne slowly turned his eyes from the garden to Strickland’s face and tried again.
“You have been walking for fifteen months in China.”
“You told my colleague in Bhamo that.”
“It’s a long time.”
“I was up to no harm,” said Strickland meekly.
“Of course not,” said Thorne quite seriously.
“No,” repeated Thorne; and once more silence came down like a blanket; and once more Thorne’s eyes reverted to the garden, whilst behind a blank expression he revolved some weighty question. His trouble was that all questions, however small, to him were weighty and must be deviously approached. He was Strickland’s visitor, because he wanted Strickland’s help, but it was not in his nature to ask for it until he was satisfied by a veritable inquisition.
“Shooting?” he asked.
Strickland shrugged his shoulders.
“If it came my way. I had a gun and a sporting Mannlicher with me.”
Thorne was clearly disappointed.
“You were making maps, then?”
“I made a few,” Strickland returned. “But I had no commission to make any.”
“No?” said Thorne.
“No,” Strickland repeated.
The dejection of the District Superintendent was now complete. But he made a last and an audacious inquiry to determine definitely that this was not the man he wanted. He twisted a little in his chair and blurted out:
“Colonel Strickland, will you forgive me an impertinence?”
Colonel Strickland fixed a cold and steady eye upon his uncomfortable visitor.
“I should think not,” he said quietly.
Captain Thorne, however, only twisted in his chair a little more.
“I must risk it nevertheless,” he said stubbornly. “Isn’t it a little odd that a man as young as you are, with your position, your appearance—some money, too, no doubt—with, in a word, all the enjoyments which the war has left at your hand, should go tramping about on foot in the wastes of the earth with one or two natives for servants, and an outfit which a native trader would despise? Isn’t it rather odd?”
The question was an impertinence, but it was put without an impertinent intention. Thorne’s voice had an apologetic timidity; his manner was deferential. Yet Strickland’s colour deepened all over his sun-tanned face and he was very slow to reply.
There were none the less twenty reasons which he could have given off-hand, each one of which held some grain of truth. A strain of the gipsy in his blood; the time-limit of his command when he was still too young for retirement; the loss of his friends; an aching sense of boredom; a feeling that he and his contemporaries were in the way of the busy flambuoyant armies of young people who were so convinced that their elders had made a dreadful hash of their own epoch; a cynical inclination to stand aside and observe whether the new generation would do any better—any of these would have sufficed. But the real ultimate reason, the causa causans of his wandering—no, he would give that to no one.
He chose in the end yet another reason, and that, too, had its share of truth.
“I am not the only one, even of my own regiment, who has gone walking,” he said, and then cited the names of several. “One of them, indeed, died not so long ago over in Yunnan.”
“I remember,” said Thorne.
“Well, we have all one thing in common,” continued Strickland. “Ordinarily, amongst the life interests of the people you have described, people like myself, an enormous place is occupied by the horse. Horses keep half the country houses open and make the very best of summers just a pleasant overture to the winter, isn’t that so?”
“I suppose it is,” said Thorne in that tone of surprise with which a fresh idea is received.
“The one thing we all have in common,” Strickland continued, “is that none of us is fond of a horse.”
Thorne accepted the reason. He asked no more questions. A look of gloom settled upon his face. This last explanation alone was enough to persuade him that Strickland was not the man, nor belonged to the family of the man, of whom he stood in need.
“I am sorry,” he said as he knocked out his pipe. “When they telegraphed to me from Bhamo that you had started down the Irawadi, I hoped against hope that you would disembark at Thabeikyin and come up to Mogok.”
“Well, so I did!” exclaimed Strickland.
“And that you would come with a particular object.”
“So I did,” Strickland repeated, but this time with a smile of amusement. He had never been able to take the hush-hush men seriously. The war had developed them by brigades and divisions, as a bacteriologist multiplies microbes—the men who would never ask you out to dinner until by devious questions they had found out whether you could accept, the man who talked of “particular objects,” and twisted commonplaces into mysteries. Here was one of the very aces of the tribe.
“So I did. I came up to Mogok to buy a ruby.” And, had Thorne been a close observer, he would have seen the blood once more darken Colonel Strickland’s forehead. But he had no eyes for such details.
He rose from his chair with an air of finality, and took up his hat and his stick.
“No doubt you will get what you want at the office. I am sorry to have troubled you. Good morning!”
Captain Thorne was actually going. But this unceremonious departure was too much even for Strickland’s equanimity. Thorne’s foot was on the first of the steps down from the veranda, when a totally new and unexpected voice brought him to a stop.
“That won’t do, Captain Thorne.”
The voice was Colonel Strickland’s. It was calm and pitched in a low key, but it was resonant with a quite compelling authority. Thorne’s disdain vanished at the mere sound of it. He turned.
“Sit down again,” said Strickland, and he pointed with a finger to the chair from which Thorne had risen. The Head of the Mogok police obeyed—slowly, not because he had a thought to disobey, but because he needed a moment or two to revise his judgments. After all, Colonel Strickland had commanded great bodies of men. A brigade during the last year of the war had been under his command, whilst he himself, Thorne, had never had more to deal with than a company.
“You asked me a moment ago to forgive you an impertinence,” said Strickland quietly, as soon as Thorne was seated. “That was all very well. I forgave it. But you have taken it upon yourself to ask me a great many questions, and I certainly will not put up with the impertinence of your departure before you explain to me why you put them.”
Thorne looked curiously at his inquisitor. He laid his hat and stick again on the table at his side. The relation in which the two men stood to each other was completely reversed, and by nothing more than the habit of authority in a voice.
“I was in the wrong, sir,” he agreed, and he speculated whether he had not been as wrong in his judgment as in his manners. After all, this might be the man he wanted.
“I hoped that you had been hunting big game during these fifteen months,” he explained. “I hoped that you had landed at Thabeikyin and come up to Mogok to look for big game about here.”
Thereupon he told his need. Behind the Dâk-bungalow stretched a continent of jungle, dotted sparsely with villages. One of these villages, no more distant than a four hours’ march from Mogok, was suffering from the depredations of a tiger, was actually in a state of siege. A buffalo and other cattle had been eaten, a woman on the outskirts of the village had been carried off in broad daylight, a man had been dragged out of his hut and killed during the night.
“The village is in a panic,” Thorne continued. “It has sent in a deputation to ask us what about it. But we are in a difficulty. The Forest Officers are a long way off upon their duties. I am tied to mine here. And though there’s a famous hunter in the service of the mines, he’s lying down there”—Thorne pointed to a white house on their left at the foot of the hill—“with a broken leg. So, you see, I was hoping that you would prove a godsend to us, and go out and deal with the brute.”
Strickland stared at his visitor and gasped.
“Do you mean to tell me that you have been putting all these questions to me about my life and its object, to discover whether you think me worthy to go out and shoot a tiger for you?” he cried indignantly. “I wonder you didn’t want to know whether I had been at Eton.”
“No, no, sir, that wasn’t necessary,” Thorne returned gravely. He was now neither impertinent nor abashed. Indeed, he felt himself to be once more upon equal terms with the guest of the bungalow. “You would never have been surprised at my questions, sir, if you had once sat out alone all through a long night on the branch of a tree in the heart of the jungle, waiting for a man-eating tiger. You would have known that a night alone in a haunted house could not put your nerves to a greater strain.”
Captain Thorne was very much in earnest. A metaphor so picturesque coming from his unimaginative lips startled Strickland a little, awakened his curiosity and something more than his curiosity—the combative instinct in him.
“I certainly have had no such experience,” he said. “But I could borrow a rifle, I suppose?”
Thorne looked John Strickland doubtfully over from head to foot. Strickland was slim, no more than of the middle height, a little under it perhaps—nimble in his movements, built for endurance, no doubt. But the face was perhaps a little too fine, the eyes, in repose, a little too brooding for the ordeal. There was an aloofness, a look of the mystical about him—that look which is the mark of lonely men—and one of Thorne’s practical and gregarious stamp could not but distrust it. On the other hand there was Strickland’s record . . . yes, that was not to be forgotten.
Thorne rose abruptly. He nodded in the direction of the white house at the foot of the hill.
“Let us go down and talk to Wingrove,” he said. “He is not in pain now and can see us.”
The two men walked down to the famous hunter’s bungalow.
The Bird, the Cat and——
Wingrove, a blond giant of a man, received them in an upstairs room, where he lay in bed with a cradle lifting the bed-clothes from his broken leg. He was propped against a heap of pillows, his face and head showing up against the white linen like a gigantic orange, and he was reading with the concentration of a student the latest issue of The Sporting Times obtainable in Mogok. He dropped his newspaper as his visitors were shown into the room and ordered chairs to be set for them by the bed.
“So you are going to help us, Colonel Strickland?” he said. “We shall be very grateful, I can assure you.”
“But I don’t know that he’s going to help us,” Thorne rejoined. “We have come to you to advise us.”
Wingrove looked from one to the other of his visitors.
“What’s the difficulty? If it’s a rifle, I have a •470 Rigby, which is at Colonel Strickland’s disposal.”
“Thank you,” said Strickland with a smile. He was quite willing to let Thorne argue. He had not a doubt that Wingrove and he could, and would, arrange the expedition between them before he left the house.
“But the rifle isn’t the difficulty at all,” cried Thorne, and he explained that Strickland had had no experience at all. “I am putting the worst of it, of course, Wingrove, because I want him to go, if it’s fair to let him go?”
Strickland had slept out, no doubt, in the strangest places; he had been alone, no doubt, under the most exacting conditions. But this one thing he had not done. He had not sat up in a tree, absolutely by himself, through a whole night, waiting for a tiger in the depths of a jungle.
“It’s a nerve-racking business when you’re one of a party. But alone! The first time! What have you got to say to that?”
Wingrove’s face really made words unnecessary. It grew very grave and doubtful. Strickland was provoked by it to a flippancy which he regretted before he had completed its utterance. For these two men, both of them armed with knowledge, were weighing him in the balance. He felt suddenly as though he were a small boy before a board of examiners. But, above all, he felt an intense curiosity. He must know, by experience, what sort of a test this ordeal about which they were all so grave might be. Thorne had spoken of a night in a haunted house. Within a minute Strickland had yet another image and parallel to put beside that.
“I can’t see what risk there can be, unless I fall asleep and tumble off my branch,” he said lightly.
Wingrove shook his head and let it fall back against the pillows.
“You won’t do that, Colonel Strickland,” he answered softly. “No, there’s not the slightest fear of it.”
He remained for a few moments silent, with his eyes closed. Then he opened them again and smiled.
“I was trying to recapture the sensations which I experienced the first night I set out for a tiger. But it’s not so easy after all these years and all the other expeditions. And I wasn’t alone either. Remember that, Colonel Strickland! I had a friend in the next tree. I could have spoken to him and he would have answered. That makes a world of difference. But even so——” He hoisted himself up suddenly upon his elbow, whilst a spasm of pain distorted his face. But he had remembered.
“I thought of a novice keeping her vigil in her convent chapel through the night before she took her vows. Curious, eh? The crack of a board would sound like a thunderclap. Some tiny animal, a mouse or a rat, scampering across the stones of the aisle behind her would seem the fluttering feet of the dead risen from their tombs. The whirr of a bat would be to her, kneeling upon the flags, the hovering of demons above her head. And the night would be eternal, eh? Yes, eternal.”
His voice sank to a whisper, whilst his eyes rested steadily, searchingly, upon Strickland’s. Strickland returned his gaze as steadily. These two men were not trying to frighten or deter him. Indeed, they both wished him to go, if it was safe to let him go. But each in his own way was at pains to make him understand the gravity of the ordeal through which he must pass. Strickland no longer disparaged it. But, after all, he had been challenged, and in the qualities a man most treasures.
“I should, nevertheless, like to go,” he said evenly; and the modesty of his answer won the day.
Wingrove dropped back again upon his pillows.
“Good!” he cried in a brisk voice. “The two shikaris who go with me are out now tracking the brute. If he kills to-day or to-night, he will leave his kill until to-morrow night—that’s my lord the tiger’s way. He’s like the rest of us; he likes his game hung for a bit. If the trackers locate a kill, they will return here in the morning and take you to the spot. They’ll build a little platform for you—a machan we call it—in a tree, and then they’ll leave you with your rifle, or, rather, my rifle.”
He raised an arm above his head and rang a bell.
“I’ll have the foresight touched up for you with luminous paint. You’ll have a strong moon, but even so, you’ll need the paint.”
He sent for the rifle, and painted the foresight as he lay in bed, and handed the weapon back to his servant with an order.
“He will take it up now with a bag of cartridges to the Guest-House and give it to one of your boys,” Wingrove explained to Strickland.
Strickland and Thorne rose as one man to take their leave, but the crippled hunter would only let Thorne go.
“There’s a detail or two you ought to fix in your mind,” he said to Strickland; and when the two men were alone, he ordered a peg of whisky and soda for each of them, and drew up from the well of his experience a bucket or two of jungle-lore.
“The tiger,” he said, “is a very important person in the kingdom of animals and does not go to his dinner either unannounced or unprotected. You will know long beforehand of his approach, and he, unless you are very still, with a cool grip upon your nerves, will know whilst he is still out of danger, that you are waiting for him. In which case either (a) you will not see him at all, or (b) he may set about hunting you.”
“How shall I know of his approach?” Strickland asked.
“First of all a bird will come, a big kind of night-hawk. You will see it flitting in and out of the trees in the moonlight, and you will find its flight curiously eerie.”
“The bat in the convent chapel,” said Strickland.
“Yes, but perhaps a little more startling. For if you are very quiet, the bird will settle on a branch and call on a harsh piercing note. Then for a while nothing more will happen. The jungle-cat will come next. But you will probably not see the cat at all—not even in a strong moonlight. He will be so silent and swift, so—one with the shadows. But you will hear him—and that’s where”—Wingrove’s face broadened into a grin and he repeated softly—“Yes, that’s where it’ll be up to you, my friend. You’ll hear him suddenly snarling and tearing the kill at the foot of your tree, and you’ll find the impulse to loose off your rifle at that jungle-cat overwhelming. Yes, even though I have warned you! You’ll feel that you must! No other sin in your whole life will ever tempt you more. I tell you that even now I have to watch myself with all my attention, lest I should let go with a rush and do that wicked thing But if you manage to sit very quiet, after a time the snarling and the tearing will cease altogether. There will follow a silence which will last a minute or so whilst the cat listens. Then it will utter a yelp like a dog in fear; and that will be all you’ll have to do with the jungle-cat. Another interval of time will pass—Oh, two or three hundred years!—and in due course, my lord himself will come.”
Wingrove lay back, with the memories of a century of such nights glowing in his eyes and transfiguring his face. He beat with his clenched fists upon the sheets in a gust of passion.
“Oh, how I wish I were going with you!” he cried.
“So do I,” Strickland agreed whole-heartedly.
He walked back to the bungalow on the hill in a curiously expectant mood. He was hardened to solitary bivouacs in desolate spaces, but both Thorne and Wingrove were aware of that, and made light of it as a preparation for his vigil of to-morrow. He could not but be impressed by their disregard of it. It was not that they overlooked, but they deliberately set it aside as of small account. He must be ready for some contingency which was quite new to him, something different in kind from anything he had known, something altogether on the outer edge of experience.
He had the bungalow still to himself that evening, and whilst he smoked his cigar upon the veranda after his lonely dinner, that expectancy deepened and strengthened until it became a foreboding. The moon would not rise on that night until many hours had passed. Beneath him the lights of Mogok twined and strayed over the floor of that cup in the hills. Above his head a myriad of stars marched across a clear, dark sky. High up, under the very rim of the mountains, a bush fire lit up a wild tract of country. Some way off, upon his left hand, long parallel rows of ascending lamps marked the many steps to the great Pagoda. Behind him the illimitable jungle whispered its secrets.
A night in a haunted house! The vigil of a novice in a convent chapel, filled with the little menacing voices which plot and plan in the darkness! Both those images were vividly etched in his mind. From them, and from the witchery of the tropical night, and from his own imagination—for no man content with months of loneliness is without that gift—from the combination of these circumstances, there was born suddenly in Strickland’s mind a conviction that something tremendous in its consequences would happen to-morrow in that jungle whispering behind him. In nine times out of ten—no, ninety-nine times out of a hundred, the premonition is shown afterwards to be a mere marsh-light and delusion.
But the hundredth time it is the truth.
And the Tiger
When Strickland came out the next morning to his breakfast upon the veranda, he saw two strange natives seated on the ground; and before he had finished his meal, Captain Thorne ascended the winding path between the flower-beds and joined him.
“These are Wingrove’s two shikaris,” Thorne explained. “A big sambhar was killed yesterday a few miles from the village in the jungle. There isn’t much doubt that you’ll get your opportunity to-night. The shikaris will guide you to the spot, build your machan, and come back for you in the morning. The place is four hours’ marching from here. So you will do well to start after an early luncheon.”
Strickland set off in the heat of the day, with Wingrove’s trackers and two others who carried a native bedstead between them to make a platform in the branches of a tree. They marched by forest paths and during the last hour through brushwood in many places as dense as a hedge. And towards sunset they came to a small ragged glade in the very heart of the jungle. At the foot of a great tree on the edge of the open space a dead stag lay, his mouth open and black, and the flies crawling in and out of it.
The trackers built the charpoy into the branches twelve feet above the ground and then shouldered Strickland up into the great tree. But all with the greatest silence and precaution; and if a word had to be said, it was said in a whisper.
“For the tiger will be near his kill,” murmured one of the men. “Sir, we will return for you at daylight, and may you have good fortune.”
They stole away with an amazing noiselessness. Not a twig snapped. The faint swish and rustle of bushes might have been the stir made by a passing wind. Then that ceased and only the swoop and chatter of birds above the trees were audible. Then those voices too died away. Strickland had brought with him a case of sandwiches and a flask. He laid Wingrove’s rifle, already loaded, on the charpoy at his side, and whilst he ate his meal took a careful survey of the tiny arena. He had a clear view of the sambhar beneath him, and between the leaves he commanded every corner of the glade. It was a rough oval with a floor of coarse grass, and a solid green wall ringing it about—except just at one spot. At the end upon his right-hand side there was a small break in the undergrowth where bushes had been crushed to the ground. It was black like the opening of a cavern.
“That’s the path he made,” Strickland said to himself. “That’s the path I must watch.”
But the light was already failing. Even whilst he watched, the black cavern mouth was no blacker than the undergrowth about it. The glade became a place of gloom and shadows. Its walls receded.
Strickland altered the position of his rifle, so that its muzzle pointed directly to the fast disappearing gap; and as he did so, he noticed a silvery stump of tree just by the side of it. Hardly noticeable before, it glimmered more and more importantly as the darkness fell.
“I shall know where to look now,” he assured himself with a considerable relief. For, the swiftly changing twilight transfigured everything. The little round of grass was widening into a prairie; metres were extending into miles. And suddenly it was quite dark.
Jungle and open space alike vanished. He might have been lifted above an infinite plain, for all the knowledge with which his eyes could furnish him. As yet there were no stars, and as yet his eyes were not accustomed to the darkness. But in a little while he became like a man once blind who recovers some shadow of his vision. He felt along the barrel of his rifle, and ever so far away he saw a speck of white, the mark of the path by which the royal brute with the velvet paws must come. He had now nothing to do but to wait.
Nothing but that! Whilst he waited, he recalled those other nights which had been quoted to him roughly as parallels, the watcher in a haunted house, the novice in her convent chapel. Curious phrases Wingrove had used—the eternity of the night, its eeriness. Eerie it was, and Strickland caught at the reason of its eeriness. The loss of vision had sharpened his hearing, so that in that tremendous hush, the tiniest noise resounded like a trumpet, and sounds could be heard where there were no sounds at all.
Certain changes took place in the aspect of the night, even to his unaccustomed eyes. The stars came out over his head, were caught in the high branches of the tree, trembled and shook in their captivity, freed themselves and wheeled on. In a very short while now the moon would be rising, he reflected cheerfully, and he took from his pocket his watch with the luminous hands. It had stopped, of course, for the hands only pointed to nine. But when he raised it to rewind it, he heard it ticking. He remembered that he had set it before he left the bungalow, and had wound it before he climbed into the tree. It was only nine o’clock then? It was incredible! There were three hours still to run before moon-rise.
It was some time after this that a small bird settled upon a spray; and the sound it made was a clatter which split the night and set his heart pounding at his side; and later, after hundreds and hundreds of years, some leaves broke from a bough and in a shower rustled and pattered down to the ground. Back there in the bungalow he had thought of the feet of the dead. Here it seemed to him that some old watchman from another century had come to life and sprung his rattle in the deep of the forest.
“This won’t do,” said Strickland. “No, it won’t”; and he spoke in a curious agitated whisper, of which he caught the note—a note of flightiness which alarmed him—almost a note of panic.
To re-establish himself, he strained his eyes towards the white stump. So long as he could see that he was satisfied. But even the stump failed him. It was visible, certainly, in the place where it was rooted, but as he watched it, suddenly, without giving him a hint of warning, it dashed across the ground like a white animal. Strickland closed his eyes, pressing the lids together tightly, and then opened them in a hurry lest something should happen to him whilst they were closed. Both Thorne and Wingrove had calculated aright. The tension and loneliness of that vigil had indeed brought him to the very edge of reason.
But soon he became aware of a change. The vault of the sky had lost its ebony, the stars had grown wan. Somewhere, beyond the prison house of the jungle, the moon had risen. A light, vaporous, unearthly, tender and beautiful as the sheen of pearls, was welling out in a silent tide from under the rim of the sky. It invaded the pool of darkness in which Strickland was plunged. The trees and the glade resumed their contours, and suddenly the leaves upon the topmost sprays sparkled like jewels. Over them she came sailing in her golden panoply, the Huntress, and no lover ever welcomed her more fervently than the watcher in the tree. For in her train came sanity.
Strickland worked his shoulders to loosen his sinews.
“At any moment now,” he said to himself. He sat forward with his eyes upon the white mark. But oddly enough, although the storm of his nerves had quieted, his forebodings of yester-evening crowded back upon him so vividly that, willy, nilly, he must take them for prophecies. The hush of the night, the lonely glade, the very quiet of the trees all seemed ominous and fateful. Strickland waited in a transcendent expectation. Something tremendous would be born out of that night.
Then all forebodings vanished from his mind. In a moment, brain, eyes, and muscle were subdued to one purpose, the purpose for which he had come. For in the enclosure of the trees a bird was flying. Strickland heard first of all the flutter of its wings as it circled about the enclosure. Then he caught a glimpse of it. It was a big bird, a hawk, and as it flitted in the misty light, now and then the underside of its wings flashed like silver. It settled upon a bough and called with a startling loudness in a peculiarly harsh and piercing note. A warning or an invitation? The call ceased. Strickland clenched his hand round the neck of the stock of his rifle.
He repeated Wingrove’s admonition, emphasising each word slowly like a child learning a lesson. It was well that he did. For at the foot of his tree there arose such a clamour of snarling and rending, that his heart jumped within his breast and his rifle was up to his shoulder. Though he knew that if he did shoot, his night was wasted, the temptation to shoot was almost a necessity. But he mastered himself. His rifle was lowered on to his knees. But he felt that he had lost years out of the years which remained to him.
A little rail had been built in front of his platform, on which he could rest the barrel of his rifle. His foresight was covered with luminous paint. He would allow the tiger to come well out into the open. He judged the distance which he would give him. There was a darker patch of grass, about half-way between the white stump and his tree.
“There!” he said to himself, “when he reaches that dark patch. Then!”
And in the far distance he heard a movement in the undergrowth, a snapping of twigs, a sound of bushes whipping back.
The jungle-cat heard the sounds, too. For it ceased from its meal and its snarling was silenced. Then it uttered one sharp squeal and flashed across the glade. Its master was near. By the mouth of that cavern something moved. There was suddenly a great rending of the jungle, and out into the moonlight leapt a man.
He was dressed in the shoes, the stockings rolled below the bare knees, and the shorts usually worn by the English in these parts. His shirt torn at the shoulders revealed a powerful throat; his sleeves were turned back above the elbow and he carried in his hand a great bludgeon which he handled as though it was a dandy’s cane. Strickland’s first impression of him, after his shock of surprise, was of enormous power, the power of an animal. For he moved ever so lightly on his feet. He was tall, above the ordinary, with broad shoulders and a deep chest, but he was lean beyond description, lean of flank and leg and belly—as though for many years he had starved—lean enough to arouse pity.
Strickland, indeed, out of pity, would have called to him from his hiding-place. But the man turned his face, and Strickland remained silent. For the face he saw was not merely haggard and lined, but to Strickland’s strained fancies, horribly evil, evil to the point of majesty. Strickland had never given much credit to those who discerned auras of red and blue about the heads of people. Yet evil seemed to flow from this man, so savage, so furtive he looked, such a mixture of cunning and cruelty was stamped upon his features. Yet he had had real beauty once. The broad forehead, the straight nose with the thin nostrils, the oval of the chin showed it still. He stood out in the open, his eyeballs glistening in the moonlight, the sweat shining on his face; and he moved his head slowly from side to side like a great cobra before he strikes. There was something bestial, something subtle. Strickland actually shuddered in his retreat. Thus, he thought, must Lucifer have looked on the morrow of his fall.
The man gazed up to the skies, seeking his direction. Then he was gone. Strickland would have believed that he had been the victim of an hallucination, had he not heard the man breaking his way through the jungle in the direction of the road. . . .
No other tiger passed that way that night.
Strickland related his experience to Captain Thorne as he sat at his breakfast after his return to the bungalow. He was well aware that Thorne listened with a stoical incredulity, but he went on with it to the end.
“Yes, yes,” said Thorne soothingly. He might have been speaking to a patient whom the doctor had bidden him to humour. Strickland was not annoyed.
“You think that I grew fanciful and saw visions,” he said with a smile. “Sitting here in the sunlight, I could almost believe it myself. But then I should believe that I had slept in this bungalow all night, that I never went out into the jungle at all.”
“You certainly did that,” Thorne assured him, with a look of curiosity upon his face. For the tone of doubt in which Strickland had spoken did suggest that he was not altogether sure.
“Well, then I saw the man, too,” said Strickland doggedly, and he strove once more to paint in words the vivid picture in his memory. “He was ferocious with the ferocity of men who have been hungry for years.”
Thorne repeated his “Yes, yes,” and rose quietly to his feet. He was still apparently in a sick-room, and must needs tread softly lest the invalid should be exasperated. Strickland, however, only laughed, but he said with every intention of carrying out the threat:
“If you say ‘yes, yes,’ to me again, Thorne, I’ll throw a plate at your head.”
Thorne edged a little nearer to the veranda steps.
“I should deserve that for quite another reason,” he replied; “I have heard this morning that one of the Forest Officers will be here in a couple of days, so that, after all, I need not have troubled you as I have done.”
Certainly Captain Thorne was not remarkable for tact. For having clearly shown that he disbelieved Strickland’s story, he now emphasised the point that the Colonel had not succeeded in doing the job which he had undertaken. Strickland, however, was at this moment impervious to such pricks. He was utterly engrossed in an endeavour to convince this singularly thick-headed Policeman that he was speaking the truth.
“The man gave me the impression that he had been twisted and disfigured out of his setting,” he persisted. “Like some fine portrait which has been blackened and mutilated by fire. Yes, that was it! That was what struck me so vividly. Years of sordid horror, after years of established comfort. He had fallen out of Heaven, like the Archangel, into tortures incredible and had escaped seething with wrath.”
Thorne was on the point of saying “Yes, yes,” as he turned back, but he saw Strickland’s hand reaching out towards a plate and he hurriedly revised his formula.
“Quite so,” he said. “Now I’ll tell you, sir, what we might do. You want to buy a ruby, don’t you?”
Colonel Strickland made a sudden movement, he drew in his breath with a little gasp as though something of extreme importance had for the moment slipped from his memory.
“Indeed, I do,” he said fervently.
“Very well. I’ll walk with you to the offices of the mines and on the way we’ll stop and ask a question of Maung H’la.”
“Who in the world’s Maung H’la?” asked Strickland.
“The greatest scoundrel unhanged,” Thorne replied calmly. “But he’s also a native of that village which the tiger has been besieging, and keeps in touch with his people. So if any remarkable stranger has been seen in that neighbourhood, he will be likely to know.”
“Let us go,” said Strickland, and he shouted to his servant for his stick and his topee.
Thorne stopped before a house facing an open space of abandoned excavations. In the garden a stout, perspiring man was spraying his rose bushes. At the sight of him Thorne whistled in surprise. For this stout, perspiring man was the most indefatigable and amongst the most important of the servants of the company. And here he was at eleven o’clock of the morning tending his flowers.
“Where’s your gardener, Mr. Dodge?” Thorne called out.
“Maung H’la?” said Mr. Dodge. He wiped his streaming forehead, replaced his topee and leaned over the gate. “Damn the fellow, he has bolted.”
Captain Thorne’s shoulders stiffened. He introduced Strickland, gave Mr. Dodge a brief epitome of his history and explained the object of his visit to Mogok; but this little speech was, in spite of its exactitude, absent in manner. Captain Thorne’s speculations were chasing the man who had bolted.
“When did he go?” he asked.
Mr. Dodge lit a cigar.
“Two days ago, in the afternoon.”
“Who frightened him?”
“I haven’t one idea,” Mr. Dodge grumbled. “I wish I had, for Maung H’la was a first-class gardener. I wasn’t on the spot at the time. But the servants told me about it.”
“Yes?” Thorne asked. “What did they tell you?”
“Why, it sounded like a fairy story, or rather it would anywhere else,” said Mr. Dodge with a smile at Strickland. “But in the East the fairy stories are the only things which are really true. About four o’clock two days ago Maung H’la was working here, or more probably leaning over this gate smoking one of my cheroots, when a big, lean fellow came swinging down the road from the bazaar. At the sight of him Maung H’la scattered round to the back of the house like a rabbit. They had got to hide him somewhere quick, for someone worse than all the devils rolled into one was after him. Maung H’la was shaking and jabbering like a man with the ague. They hid him away, all right, but they had hardly finished before the door at the back was quietly pushed open and there was the stranger asking for Maung H’la.”
“Did your people describe him to you?” Thorne interrupted.
“Did they not!” replied Mr. Dodge. “I got the impression of a Greek god gone wrong,” and Captain Thorne glanced swiftly towards Strickland.
“Of course he got no information from the servants,” Mr. Dodge continued. “No one had ever heard of Maung H’la. It didn’t seem possible that a Maung H’la could exist and they not hear of him. On the whole the gentleman might take it for granted that there was no Maung H’la—and the gentleman departed with a most unpleasant grin upon his face. They gave him ten minutes and then unlocked the outhouse in which they had stored away Maung H’la. But Maung H’la had climbed out of the window, curse the fellow, and no one has ever seen him since.”
Mr. Dodge turned to Strickland.
“You are going along to the office now, are you?”
“Very well. I’ll follow you in ten minutes and we’ll see what we can do for you.”
Mr. Dodge retired into his house. Captain Thorne stared at Strickland in a perplexity.
“It’s quite true what Dodge said,” he reflected aloud. “The fairy stories are real here. Things fantastic to you and me are just the order of the day. Yes, yes.”
He was silent, with his forehead creased and his mouth pursed up. Then he attacked his problem from a new angle.
“A Greek god gone wrong,” he repeated. “Practically your description, Colonel Strickland.”
“Better than mine,” Strickland answered. “Fewer words.”
“No doubt,” Thorne agreed, following out his own thoughts. “It’s evident, then, that you did see the man you talked about in the forest. Do you know that I hardly believed you?”
“You quite did not believe me,” returned Strickland.
“It’s evident, too, that he made for that village in the jungle after Maung H’la.”
Captain Thorne remained sunk in gloom.
“I don’t like it,” he said, and with an abrupt movement he started off along a winding road between the excavations. “This is our road.”
Strickland fell in beside him and for a little part of the way they walked in silence; Thorne every now and then glancing at his companion and opening his mouth to make a statement and then catching the words back again before they were uttered. His responsibilities were pressing upon him, transforming him into a pedant of formalities and precautions. They had covered half the distance to the medley of buildings which formed the offices of the company before he could bring himself to the point of speech. And even then his speech was nothing but a disappointment to Strickland, so hedged it was with reservations and secrecies.
“Maung H’la as a boy was employed in the mines sifting the gravel through a sieve. He learnt some English, travelled to Rangoon, and became a bearer—ran about with tourists, you know. This went on for some years. But in the end he was taken on as a permanent servant by one—well—family, shall we say? He travelled with them to many parts of the world. Finally, he went with them to England.”
At this point Captain Thorne was in so much difficulty to make his narrative colourless that he had to stop. Strickland, however, was still in the grip of the premonition which yesterday had beset him. In the open space here between the town and the company’s offices, with the white road under his feet and the high, steep, jungle-covered slopes all about him, a glowing green under the cloudless blue of the sky, the premonition was weaker. It stood further aloof. But it waited only for the shadows. At the fall of night it would be back with him, a living conviction that he had seen the beginning of some tremendous battle in which his every energy would be engaged. He looked for clues in vain so far.
“You said Maung H’la was the greatest scoundrel unhanged,” he reminded Thorne.
“Did I? I had no right to say it. For what I know, I know in the strictest confidence. Publicly, there is nothing against Maung H’la. If he was elected to a position of responsibility, no one would have the right to protest. But—no doubt something happened in England—yes, yes—something occurred. And it was thought better that Maung H’la should return to his own country.” Thorne turned in a sudden alarm lest he should have said more than his duty allowed. “There was no deportation, you understand. No, no, not an idea of it. Just a notion of certain authorities that he would be more valuable to the community in his own country than in England. And he returned quite willingly.”
“Glad to get out of England scot-free.” Thus Colonel Strickland bluntly interpreted all this prolixity.
“I couldn’t say that for a moment,” Thorne rejoined earnestly.
“When did he return?” Colonel Strickland asked.
Captain Thorne reflected.
“Yes, I can answer that. Nearly two years ago.”
Strickland had another question to ask and was at pains to approach it warily.
“Two years is a long time. Certainly it wouldn’t be right to hold a suspicion against a man for two years. But, I suppose, a little trouble is taken to make sure that he doesn’t get taken on by tourists as a servant again.”
Thorne swung round with a look of surprise upon his face. For the first time he seemed to recognise signs of intelligence in his companion.
“Well, I never expected you to ask me that question,” he declared, and in his surprise he answered it without a single circumlocution. “Maung H’la is not any longer on the books of any of the agencies.”
The two men were close now to the offices of the ruby mines. Behind them, Mr. Dodge was hurrying along to catch them up. Captain Thorne looked backwards and forwards with relief. There was no longer any time for questions to tempt him into improper revelations; and in this little reaction he himself was spurred to put a question. He found himself putting it with an energy which surprised him.
“That man in the forest—your tiger-man—are you sure that you had never seen him before? I would like you to think very carefully. Are you quite sure?”
Strickland searched amongst his memories, reviewed groups of people, at country houses, in dining-rooms, at race meetings and theatres, at clubs and restaurants.
“I am quite sure that I never saw him before,” he said; and he had not a doubt but that he spoke the truth.
Thorne nodded his head. He had expected no other answer.
“Of course it was absurd,” he said, and he referred to a curious and rather alarming idea which had suddenly sprung up in his mind.
Lady Ariadne’s Ruby
There is nothing more universal, as there are few things more intelligible, than a love of precious stones. So much of beauty and so much of treasure lie packed in so small and shining a receptacle. Thus even the correct and punctilious Thorne lingered from his duties whilst sapphires and rubies and spinels were spread out before Strickland on a table in the great veranda.
Strickland, however, was in a most fastidious mood. He did not want a stone as long as a torpedo, nor, on the other hand, as round as a plate. Crosses of Destiny he pushed aside. He wanted a stone clear as glass and deep—well, as deep as a certain pair of eyes which for some two years now he had been sedulously recollecting. A sapphire would do very well, but it must be unquestionably blue as a tropical sea under a summer sky. Or a ruby. He was not, he said, particular. But the ruby, if ruby it was to be, must burn with the deep glow of a sunset and the sparkle of a dawn.
“Even a lady spending a pleasant morning in Bond Street without meaning to buy anything at all, couldn’t be more particular than you, sir,” said Thorne with a small ray of humour. Remembering his duties, he edged towards the gate in the waist-high railing which enclosed the veranda. Mr. Dodge ran his fingers through his thin locks and said dubiously:
“Of course there’s a ruby . . . A dealer from Bombay is considering it, because he hopes that he can sell it to the Rajah of Chitapur. But no sale has been concluded. We are free to sell . . . Only it’s costly.”
“I should like to see it,” Strickland replied. “You see, I naturally want rather a good stone because——” He hesitated. Of the authority which a day ago had so astonished Captain Thorne there was not now a trace. Colonel Strickland was as shy as a schoolgirl, and he knew—and the knowledge made him shyer still—that the blood was burning in his cheeks and on his forehead. But it would be good policy to name the prospective owner of the jewel. He would surely carry with him a finer stone if he used the magic of her name than if he relied upon that of an obscure retired Lieutenant-Colonel of the Guards. So out the name came—“Because it’s meant for Lady Ariadne Ferne.”
He dropped the name delicately in front of that group of officials as though it were the most precious of their jewels; and at once every one of them stood to attention. Strickland had certainly been right. Smiles ran from face to face. There was a stir of admiration. Even Thorne again deferred those overwhelming duties of his and drifted back to the group about the table.
“Is Lady Ariadne Ferne a friend of yours?” he asked with a peculiar intentness which Strickland was quick to notice and no less quick to resent.
“She is,” he replied; “and what of it?”
“Nothing, except that I envy you.”
Strickland was reminded suddenly of an old major whose constant advice to the junior officers in their relationship to their men was to keep something up their sleeves. Captain Thorne must have drunk deep of that old major’s wisdom. For he kept things up his sleeve all day. Here, for instance, he was once more concealing some knowledge which he possessed. For a moment the sunshine died off that open veranda. Strickland felt the chill of an icy wind. Was it in that quarter that the expected battle was to be fought? Then, indeed, every ounce of his energy would be engaged. Yet between those three persons, the man of the jungle, Maung H’la and Lady Ariadne Ferne, set so far apart in space and circumstance, what link could there be?
Strickland stared blindly out across the plain, the purpose of his visit quite forgotten. For the hint that there was a link marched exactly with the forebodings which had crept into his mind during his first evening at the bungalow.
A voice at his elbow brought him with a start out of the mist of his conjectures. Mr. Dodge had taken his keys and unlocked a safe in an inner room. He now stood again beside the table with a small pouch of black velvet in his hand.
“You will see, Colonel Strickland, that the stone is of the true pigeon-blood red and without a flaw.”
The other stones were cleared away. Mr. Dodge had the manner of some old butler who serves a claret of a rare and ancient vintage decanted without a speck of must. He drew the precious ruby, wrapped in a fold of tissue-paper, from the pouch and laid it all alone on the black velvet pad, where it lay glowing like a thing alive—almost, one might say, throbbing.
From whatever angle Strickland looked at it, deep in the heart of it burned a spark of fire. It had the size of a large filbert nut and its shape, too, and it was of a purity and a depth such as Strickland had never seen before.
Mr. Dodge gazed at it in ecstasy. Strickland might have done the same but he did not wish to increase the price. Clerks and officials stood in expectation of his verdict. He gave it, but in language quite inadequate to the occasion.
“Yes, that’s about it,” he said. He took it up in the palm of his hand and turned it over with his thumb.
“What can I buy this for?”
A price was named. Strickland reflected that he had been saving money every day during his two years’ wandering.
“Very well, Mr. Dodge. I’ll give you a cheque for it now.”
He was guided into the office and seated in the director’s chair. A slip of paper worth four thousand pounds passed into the keeping of Mr. Dodge, the velvet pouch with its ruby into the hands of Colonel Strickland.
“I think,” said Mr. Dodge gallantly, “that it will add a grace even to Lady Ariadne Ferne.”
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