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Title: The Marriage of Meldrum Strange Author: Talbot Mundy * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1302671h.html Language: English Date first posted: May 2013 Most recent update: Jun 2014 This eBook was produced by Roy Glashan. Project Gutenberg of Australia eBooks are created from printed editions which are in the public domain in Australia, unless a copyright notice is included. We do NOT keep any eBooks in compliance with a particular paper edition. Copyright laws are changing all over the world. Be sure to check the copyright laws for your country before downloading or redistributing this file. This eBook is made available at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg of Australia License which may be viewed online at http://gutenberg.net.au/licence.html To contact Project Gutenberg of Australia go to http://gutenberg.net.au
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This is an immoral story. It proves without intending to that the best of us are weak, and the worst have elements of decency that overwhelm them when the gods get ready; none of which, of course, is orthodox. But orthodoxy is missing from the calculations of those Powers that rule us—"whatever gods there be" as Swinburne calls them.
Cottswold Ommony is incorruptible according to report. Report is wrong. They say—the Press particularly says it and infers it, nearly every morning—that Meldrum Strange is a billionaire with brains but no heart; that his heart, if he has one, is made of iron filings; that his belly is of brass, and his feet of clay; that his friendship is imaginary, but his enmity a bitter and appalling truth; that he lacks remorse, but has insane ambition; and that his superficial outward resemblance to General Ulysses Grant was devised by Satan expressly to bring the memory of that gallant soldier into disrepute.
Unexplainably in the circumstances, Meldrum Strange has friends, and Cottswold Ommony has enemies. We, who view all life accurately, classing this man as a hero, that man as a villain, may wonder; but the fact is so. Ommony stands for nearly all the things that Meldrum Strange objects to, including the heresy that more than enough is much; Strange never had enough, and loves power of money, which Ommony despises, like the rest of us he has to bow to it quite often. Ommony approves of individual liberty whereas Strange believes that all men should be beaten into ploughshares for uplifting use by their betters. They met, and there was no explosion, which is the most remarkable circumstance; but much else happened.
Charlie Wear began it. Charley stepped from a first-class compartment (it was labelled first-class) on the single-track branch of the Bombay and Southern Railway that winds among hills and trees until it makes a short cut through the forest where Ommony lives at intervals and is almost king.
Charley smiled at the naked legs of a porter nearly twice as large as himself, and sent up word on the back of a calling card that he had come, and would Mr. Ommony care to see him. So Ommony, who cares about everything interesting under the sun, sent the tonga. Less than an hour later Charley jumped off the back seat of that prehistoric vehicle, pitched his valise on to the lower step of the verandah (having not got used yet to being waited on) and is aware of Ommony taking his time about rising from a chair under the stags' antlers on the verandah. Three dogs came down and made instant friends with Charley, while a fourth took guard.
"Well met," said Ommony. "Come up."
So Charley climbed the seven steps, shook hands, and sat in a canvas chair, while an enormous staghound sniffed him over carefully and Ommony filled a pipe.
"You like it here?" asked Charley.
"I've liked it for twenty years," said Ommony, observing that Charley stroked the staghound's ears without waiting for introductions—a thing very few strangers dare attempt. "Have you had breakfast?"
"Forgotten what it 'ud feel like! Ate dead goat yesterday afternoon at a junction restaurant."
Ommony sent for the butler, gave orders, and turned to his guest again.
"You've come to stay, of course?"
"If that's agreeable. You got my letter?"
"Yes, but you didn't say much. Tell me who you are."
"Nobody important. Strange hired me to travel with him, but I haven't seen him in two weeks. He sends me ahead. Time he gets to a place I'm miles away."
"I begin to understand," said Ommony without changing his expression. "You're here in advance of Meldrum Strange to—"
"Dope you out? Lord, no! I did that coming up the steps. You're O.K."
"Thanks," said Ommony, without a trace of sarcasm, and sat still, smoking, looking at his guest.
They resembled each other as much as a terrier does a grizzly. Ommony's short beard disguises the kindest mouth and the firmest chin in Asia. His shoulders have stood up under responsibility for so long that the stamp of that is on them permanently. He is staunchly built, muscled up, and is exactly in the prime of life—an age that varies with individuals.
Charley Wear, on the other hand, with no more than five feet seven to boast of, and not much more than a hundred pounds of it, shows twenty-three years and weasel alertness on a clean-shaven face. You can't tell what his hand holds, but you know he has played worse ones, and at the first glance you would trust him with your shirt. He looks like a man who has been hit hard, but who invariably won in the last round, if not sooner; nervous, keen, amused, aware of the world's rough edges, and as hard to beat as a royal flush. His steely grey eyes looked straight into Ommony's dark ones, and each in their own way betrayed absorbing interest.
"Strange heard of you from the gang," said Charley. "Say this for him he has the best string ever. Picks 'em. Knows the trick. James Schuyler Grim's a pippin. Jeff Ramsden, half-a-ton of he-man, right end up; bet your back teeth on him. Athelstan King—Englishman, but not half-bad—used to be major in the army, but wears no monocle. Says, 'Haw, dontcherknow,' like the rest of 'em, but I'll say he's a scrapper if scars mean anything. Olive skin, burnt on from outside. Been to places."
"You know him?"
"Years. He's my friend."
"You're lucky. Strange hired him over the cable and sent Jeff sliding like an elephant on ice to deed him up. Strange keeps you busy—pays good, and has his money's worth. Jeff's sweated off about two hundred, but there's lots left. Grim and King got past the sweating stage before Strange hired 'em, so they don't show it much, but they kind o' know they've made the team."
"What is Meldrum Strange doing?" asked Ommony.
"Bits of everything. Reorganizing the universe mostly. They say his roll grows faster than he can peel it off; and he's sore with his brother man—thinks we're crashing down to the kyoodles—"
"Dogs. Wants to stop it, and has it all figured out, I guess. He started a kind of detective bureau in New York with branches everywhere, and they tell me it went good until he started sleuthing in the U.S. We have legislators over there, the same as everywhere; but there's more of 'em, and more pork. Strange has his; so he looks back at the barrel and gets disgusted—goes bald-headed after corruption in politics, and siks the gang on. Inside three weeks he's foul of the Senate, House o' Representatives, Treasury, and every state legislature in the Union. Foul of all the labour unions, most o' the newspapers, half the courts, and all the banks. They crucified him good between 'em, some just for the fun of it, a few because they were scared, and the rest because they didn't see why Meldrum Strange's millions gave him any right to call names."
"I take it you joined him after this?"
"You bet. I wanted to see the world, but all I'd got was the ambition and an imported camera. I've been studying that for seven years, and I've learned a little—not much, you understand, but more than some of 'em. A picture concern I was working for went fluey, so I thought I'd pick a fat one next time. Strange looked good to me."
"But what would he do with a camera-man?" asked Ommony.
"That's it! He hates 'em. When a man gets money he's always crazy on some point or other. Strange 'ud rather get shaved than have his picture taken, and he's worn foliage since he was old enough to smoke cigars. A man in his office told me Strange was all fed up and going to travel. I began to figure on it."
"It sounds like a difficult sum," said Ommony.
"No. Just like any other sum. You've got to know the formula; then it all works out. None of the papers had Strange's picture. They were crazy to get it, but he was careful. There's an alley behind the office, and he can step out of the backdoor into a limousine, and straight home. He doesn't golf. He likes yachting, but the crew's hand-picked, and he stays below as long as there's chance to snap him. Simply nothing doing; but I'm set on making the long trip, and down to borrowing by that time—mighty near taking a job, and praying like a priest to Lady Luck. She shows up at the very last minute."
"Always!" said Ommony, nodding.
"Female, naturally. The papers never did have Strange in a mix-up with a woman. There was a rumour one time, but Strange has teeth and they were afraid he'd soak them for libel. Couldn't prove a thing; had to be satisfied antagonizing the woman vote by calling him a misogynist—which they did, till further orders.
"I was down to house-to-house canvassing. But I'd a pull with two or three hotel detectives, so I specialized on new arrivals, calling on 'em—camera with me. Funny lights are my long suit. Named a big figure, and agreed to shade it for the privilege of—all that hokum. That's how I met Zelmira."
"Sounds Italian," said Ommony. "Come in to breakfast."
"Greek," said Charley, sitting down in the room where all four walls are draped with tiger-skins, and the only other ornament is a case of rifles in a corner. "Believe me, Zelmira Poulakis is the goods," he went on between mouthfulls. "She's a peach—over thirty, for you can't fool me, but good to look at—and class if I know it. Must have money, too, if her jewellery and clothes are paid for. I got mine in advance, top-figure, and she didn't try to beat me down a nickel. I exposed a dozen plates, and we got talking."
Charley poured a whole cup-full of scalding coffee down his throat and signed to the hamal for more. Then he looked at Ommony, with that peculiar camera-man's eye that sees effects between the shadow and the edge of sunlight.
"She's like you," he said suddenly. "You don't mind what you tell her. I've heard since she had a past in Egypt or somewhere. Her husband was a crook, but that cuts no ice now she's a widow. I fell for her hard, and got telling how I aimed to see the world with Meldrum Strange. She laughed and said she'd rather do that, too, than anything!
"If she'd been real crooked she'd have started in to play me right then, but she didn't. I was the Weisenheimer. I told her how set I was on getting Meldrum's picture, and she laughed. She said that ought to be easy enough. I was wondering just how to play the hand when she suddenly got cold feet and said right out that if I tried to blackmail Meldrum she'd never forgive herself for having as much as encouraged me."
"I was wondering about that, too," said Ommony. "Is Strange that kind of man?"
"You needn't let it worry you!" said Charley, putting down his cup.
"All right," said Ommony. "I apologise. It was your own fault, though. You might have made it clearer that—"
"Well, I made it clear to her; but I had the dickens of a time. She's sweet on Meldrum or his money—both maybe; and he might do worse, or buy worse, any way you look at it. She swore she had no hold on him, but knew him well enough to 'phone and invite him to call. So after she'd put me through a questionnaire that 'ud make Edison look like Easy Street she agreed to tip me off. I went and lay low near the telephone for two days."
"I should have thought you'd have made the round of newspaper offices," ventured Ommony.
"No need. I knew what they'd pay, supposing I was fool enough to spill a good thing. I waited until she 'phoned me, and you bet I was at the private entrance of that hotel an hour ahead of time. He got there half-an-hour ahead of time, and made for the door with a flunkey on each side, but I shot him twice and none of 'em saw me. Then I waited another hour and Lady Luck came across. Out comes Strange with Madame Zelmira Poulakis on his arm, both of 'em smiling, and I took one good shot before the flunkeys got wise. They didn't say a word, but came for me to smash the camera; so I stepped into the hotel, where the detective was a friend of mine, and there wasn't a thing they could do about it inside there. I guess they said nothing to Meldrum, for fear of their jobs—or if they did, maybe they said they'd smashed the camera.
"Anyway, I didn't waste any time then. I developed and printed the pictures that night, and believe me, they were good. Next morning I put copies in an envelope with my calling card, and sent 'em up to Meldrum Strange's private office, saying I'd wait for an answer. It wasn't five minutes before he sent for me.
"'How much d'you want?' he demanded. He was scornful, and he had his cheque-book on the table. Got to hand it to him; he can eat crow good. I could have taxed him. He was three ways when I pulled out the negatives and broke them—pleased, surprised, and curious to see what card I'd play next.
"So I made no bones about it. I said right out I aimed to travel with him, and all I'd planned for was an interview. So he said, 'Well, you've had your interview, and you've smashed your negatives. What if I turn you down now?' And I said, 'Go to it. Then I'll know you're not the kind of man I want to travel with.' We hit it off good after that. He hired me at the end of fifteen minutes. I went and told Zelmira, and she let me buy the dinner just to celebrate.
"No glad rags, and no money. Had to do something about it. Sooner than bleat to anybody else I told her, and she was tickled—lent me the price and some over. I paid her out of the first cheque. Strange had me sworn not to say a word about his movements to anyone, so I didn't drop a hint, although I saw Zelmira pretty often. But she understood; she isn't like a Greek at all—downy, I dare bet, and up to her eyes in ambition, but on the level. She found out when he was going, and where; maybe she asked him; I don't know."
"But what did Strange come to India for?" asked Ommony.
"Open an office, I guess—Bombay, Delhi, Calcutta, Simla—he aims to be a sort of clearing house for information so's to trip crooks before they get started—card indexes to beat the encyclopedia—everything in 'em from a man's past to what he might do if the game looked good. Poker out of books, I'd call it, but that's his affair. The funny part is this: he'd come away to give the papers and the public time to calm down and forget him, Zelmira Poulakis included. I know about her, because on the steamer coming out he asked me whether I'd let on to her about his Well, we hadn't been in Bombay before she puts up at the same hotel!"
"Tagged him, eh?"
"No. We came by way of San Francisco and Hong-Kong. She took the English boat by way of New York and Port Said. But Strange wasn't having any. He swore a blue streak and took the train that night—Delhi like a darned fool; she could go to Delhi. Who's to stop her? She showed up at our hotel in Delhi—never made a move to interfere with Strange, but treated Grim and Jeff Ramsden like old friends. Strange caught me talking to her, so he shipped me off all over the place making dates for him, and I was in a place called Ahmednugger when I got a telegram a yard long telling me to see you and fix up tiger-shooting for him. He wants to hide and have a good time until Zelmira picks on someone else."
"He heard of me, of course, from Athelstan King?"
"Oh, yes, and I'm to say King sends his compliments, do you mind?"
"Strange will have to rough it here," said Ommony. "I'm no millionaire."
Charley looked about him. "Seems you've got tigers," he said. "I reckon Strange is killing mad!"
"How old is he?"
"'Bout fifty—fifty-five—somewhere there. Too much stomach, but totes it himself. Doesn't need a nurse yet. Say, you'll like him for awhile at any rate. He's real good company; there's nothing wrong with him except his point of view," said Charley, almost pleadingly. "King said—"
"I'd have him here for your sake," Ommony interrupted, laughing. "You stay, of course?"
"That's up to him. No orders about that yet. I've got my camera. Say, the gang told me you know animals from A to Issard."
"I've got special English plates, the best lens out of Jena, and scads o' more plates in Bombay. All that's needed is a dark room—"
"I can fix that up."
"—and the animals."
"Make yourself at home," said Ommony. "When will Strange be here? Better wire him, hadn't I?"
Charley's eyes, sky-bright with a hint of steel in them, met Ommony's again and dwelt there half a second.
"If it's all the same I'd sooner wire and you write," he answered. "That'll give us four days extra before he comes."
Ommony laughed again. "All right. I've only one bath room so you mayn't have that; but there's running water, cool enough too, in a shed outside, and I'll lend you two men to cover the shed with tar-paper; there's lots of it in the shed."
"They told me you were white!" said Charley, grinning.
Art is individual, and knows no limits. Fools are they who sneer at new tools, and processes of giving form to idea. Ommony, an artist in his own way, paid suitable homage to Charley's camera, because the thing of brass and glass and wood was the tool of a true enthusiast.
That forest and its outskirts are a thousand square miles. There are temples in it, not wholly ruinous but older than written history, and in places trees have forced themselves up from between the stones of forgotten cities. Men live there, known now as junglis, naked and afraid, whose ancestors were kings in lost Lemuria if the very ancient books are true. And the animals live where human pride one time adored itself.
Above all, there are spots of sunlight filtered through gaps in the foliage; and fire-lanes (Ommony's first charge) along which light flows like a river; clearing where creatures, whose every habit is an open book to Ommony, lie basking, playing with their young; and a look-out rock from which, if the bears aren't there before you, you may view the leagues of jungle spread like a sunlit sea.
Charley was in his element, and Ommony no less.
"My God, you know," said Charley, "you can do this stuff early and late, when the raw's left out and the real thing's looking at you! They say you can't, but you can! I know you can!"
"Let's try," said Ommony.
So they slept at noon, and stalked the mysteries of twilight, when two-thirds of the earth is waking and a third shades into the unknown.
"Any fool can shoot a tiger on the hop!" swore Charley. "Can you shoot him so he'll show on the negative how the light ripples off his pelt? I'll bet you!"
"All bets off," said Ommony. "I think you can."
But they needed the junglis to show exactly where the tiger lay, and Ommony's low whistle to make the beast look up in such way that his proper aspect faced the lens, while Diana the staghound lay growling in rumbled undertones. And once it was Ommony's rifle that changed death's course, when a leopard rushed the click of the ambushed camera and Charley hugged his one tool, turning his back to protect it better.
"So that's all right," said Ommony, measuring the two strides and a half that death had lacked.
"Hope so, at any rate," Charley answered. "I think I got him before he moved. Half a second, while I slip in another plate. Did you notice the brown of that shadow, and how his 'hind-end seemed afloat in it? If that shows on the negative it's worth the trip to India."
"How much will you get for it?"
"No more than for a punk one. You can't make money at this game."
"Nor at mine. But it's good, isn't it?"
They seemed to have been friends a year when Jeff turned up, walking from the station because he loved the feel of brown earth underfoot—Jeff with a beard like Ommony's and a boy's grin, but bigger and heavier than Ommony and Charley both together. The verandah chair creaked under him, but not even the terrier was afraid, and Diana's long tail thumped approval on the floor. Jeff's grin set all the servants grinning. They passed and repassed on imaginary errands, to admire his hugeness and the depth of his bass voice, that is India's measure of a man's heart.
"Strange wanted me along," he said, "so I came to discover if that's convenient. A telegram wouldn't have told you what you want to know—"
"You mean what you want to know, don't you?" said Ommony, chuckling.
Jeff laughed aloud.
"You're right. Charley wrote such a glowing account of you that Strange is suspicious. You know, a multi-millionaire is a poor devil who thinks everyone is trying to work him for something. Thirty per cent of what he thinks is true. Strange can't escape even in India. There's a lady on his heels. He wants to abuse your hospitality until Venus sets, and he'd like to be sure in advance that you won't work him for anything."
"What will you tell him?" asked Ommony.
"Shall I send for my tent from the station, or have you a spare bed?" Jeff answered.
So Jeff's big tent was pitched, and two of the dogs adopted it forthwith, while Jeff's one servant cleaned his boots alongside in the sun and bragged to Ommony's assembled household about Jeff's prowess.
"As a horse he is, yet stronger! Lo, with his fist, thus, he slew a man! They say the skull was broken like an egg-shell, but that I saw not. I have seen him lift a boat with two men in it. When the wrestlers from Tirhoot came to Delhi he threw them all, one by one, and he not weary at the end. They say that once, when men of evil purpose locked him behind doors, he broke down a door with nothing but his hands, and smote them with the pieces of it. Yet he laughs, and his heart is, as a woman's, but not as a too inquisitive woman's. The dastari* is good."
So they were now three who trod the jungle lanes, and laughed until rocks that had known the laughter of four forgotten races re-echoed to the high, the middle, and the bass—until the junglis brought word of a bear, hurt fighting, whom the flies were driving mad, and Jeff strode off to end that misery. (For Ommony is a prince of hosts, reserving to himself no more than right to judge emergency.) The bearskin lay pegged out raw side upward in the sun the morning Strange came, and Charley told him how Jeff had to use four bullets and the butt. Jeff's leg was bandaged; it was nothing serious, but he did not walk to the station.
"I hope you didn't shoot all the game before I got here," Strange growled, when he met Jeff on the verandah. "Hurt again? You're always in trouble!"
He was suffering from bachelor's spleen, and as fearful for his tracks as a hunted animal.
"I think I've given a miss in baulk," he said, sitting down at the breakfast-table next to Ommony. "It's in the papers that I'm on my way home. Met your sister—splendid woman. It was she who first suggested my visiting you. What's Charley doing here? Shooting game too?"
"Visiting me," said Ommony, meeting no man's eye.
"I meant that you and I and Ramsden—" Strange began.
"I've invited Charley too," said Ommony.
"He has his living to get."
"Charley has lived more and better in these last few days than in all his previous life," said Ommony. "You're entirely welcome here, Strange; but so's he."
"Hurrumm!" Strange nearly exploded, then governed himself. "Where did you get these eggs? They're the best I've had in India."
So Ommony talked poultry for a while, and of the business of keeping leopards from the henhouse, which calls for ingenuity.
"Why don't you shoot' em all?" Strange asked him.
"I shoot nothing in the jungle as long as it behaves."
"D'you call stealing chickens behaviour?"
"It's natural to leopards."
"Then you mean we're to shoot nothing but beasts that have broken through the hen-wire?" Strange asked disgustedly.
"You'll find criminals in the jungle in the same proportions as among humans," Ommony answered.
"How do you tell 'em?"
Strange had decided Ommony was crazy, and made a perfectly obvious effort to humour him. You could almost hear the mental mechanism click as he decided to cut his visit short.
"They're just like other criminals. They tell you," answered Ommony.
Strange sat there looking like Ulysses Grant—without the modesty. His was the only face at table that was legible. He resembled the bear that Jeff killed, hurt and driven nearly crazy by the flies of public criticism, and the servants were afraid of him, hardly daring to hand him things to eat. Jeff and Charley, having experienced his moods, were careful to say nothing, so the brunt of it fell on their host, who was at a loss for the present how to manage the situation. Silence fell, as if the fun of recent days had dried up and blown away along a bitter wind.
"I came to kill a tiger," Strange said suddenly.
"I believe you did. I think you shall," said Ommony.
"Now I wonder what the devil you mean by that remark?" Strange asked him.
One thing was obvious. Strange had looked up Ommony in the Gazette and so believed him to be quite a minor personage. He spoke rather as a man might to his game keeper—a man who deserved neither game nor keeper, but had both. It was in his mind that no man drawing such small salary in middle age was of much account, or had much right to dispense the forest privileges. Feudalism, an ancient gas that ever crept along with money, and deluded men, caused him to regard his host as someone who had scant option in the matter. He didn't enjoy being kowtowed to, but expected it, and his new great business organization had made him more tyrannous than ever.
Breakfast, that should have struck the key-note for holiday and comradeship, came to an end on B-flat, and Jeff Ramsden tried to corner Strange alone; for Jeff fears nothing except his own slow-wittedness, which he strangely overestimates.
"Look here," he began; but Ommony interrupted him, sent him and Charley on imaginary business of looking for a leopard's spoor across the vegetable garden, and took Strange off alone to introduce him to the wilderness.
They took rifles and walked to the look-out rock—two miles down a fire-lane rutted by the wheels of loaded carts.
Strange's mood backed and veered without improving. He may have been wondering why a man with an income in the millions should have to hide himself in a forest. From hat to shoe-soles, rifles and all, the same two-hundred-dollar bill would have purchased the entire kit, down to the skin, of either himself or Ommony. It annoyed him that Ommony strode beside him like the owner of the place.
"I've a notion," he said presently, "to buy a tract of desert in Nevada or somewhere, and plant such a forest as this."
"Money won't do it," said Ommony.
"Oh, you can always hire brains."
"But not knowledge. Once a man knows, he's his own man."
"Well, they hired you, didn't they?"
"The Indian Government."
"Not at all. I offered them my services—years ago—for just so long as I believe I can be useful."
"They pay you."
"No. The forest pays me. When I cease to row my own weight and over, I'll resign."
Strange was piqued, but interested.
"Well: suppose I offer you double what you're getting here to come and superintend my forest?"
"You can't. You haven't got it to offer."
Strange began to feel like a patient in one of those rest-cure resorts, where rest consists in humouring the whims of other inmates.
"What do you mean?" he blustered.
"If you'll stay a month, I'll show you."
A month! Strange wondered whether he could endure it a week. It was not the wilderness that got on his nerves; for all his life he had been a solitary man, brooding alone over plans and power. He was used to the 'Come, and he cometh; go, and he goeth' of Rome's centurion, with reason neither asked nor given. Difference of opinion was a trumpet-call to battle, in which the strongest will won. There were men, such as Grim and Ramsden, whom he hired to tell the truth to him and to apply their brains. To them he listened, but always of his own free will, with a feeling he was getting something for his money. This man: who did not even own the forest, yet was so visibly unimpressed by the power of invested millions, irritated him.
"This timber's growing to waste here," he said abruptly.
"The next generation will need it," said Ommony.
"The next generation will govern themselves, let's hope."
"Yes, we all hope that."
It was on the tip of Strange's tongue to say something discourteous about the British having not so long to rule in India. But it filtered vaguely through his mind that Ommony wouldn't care, and, he knew better, from experience, than to waste sharp comment on indifference.
"Then why grow trees for them?" he asked.
"Why not?" said Ommony.
Strange could not answer him, or saw the uselessness of answering. He was cheek by jowl with a fanatic, it seemed to him and he made a praiseworthy effort to change the flow of thought.
"Well, let's shoot a tiger," he said abruptly. "You promised me one at breakfast. Are they as dangerous as they're said to be, or is that another of these—"
"The one I'll let you shoot is," Ommony answered; and Strange looked at him sharply again, aware of a hidden meaning, or a double meaning—something he detested. Yet he couldn't lay his finger on it.
"How so?" he demanded.
"Tigers are like people. Decent tigers are like decent people, only on a lower plane. They only kill for food, and let alone what they can't use. A few of them are greedy, and kill too much. Some are lazy, and kill cattle, which is stealing. Sometimes you can drive those and make them go to work. They've a right to be tigers, just as we've a right to be men, and left to themselves, but watched, they work out a destiny that possibly we can't understand. Now and then I think I understand it. They turn criminal at times, though. Man-killers. Nobody's fault but theirs then. Shortshrift."
"You're after a man-killer?"
"Get him within the month," said Ommony.
Strange was more than ever puzzled. "I should think you'd put your whole force on a man-killer. Go after him, and get him before he can do anymore harm. Why not?"
"If you have him where he can't do harm, why hurry?" answered Ommony.
"Oh, you have him rounded up where he can't escape?"
"He might escape, but I hope not. No. I didn't round him up. He wandered out of his territory into an environment that he thinks he understands, but doesn't. We'll have fun with him."
"I should call that dangerous."
"Perhaps. For him. He won't kill men while we have him under observation. This is the lookout rock."
Ommony sent the stag-hound first up the well worn trail that circled to the summit, to make sure there were no bears or leopards to misinterpret the intrusion. He went next, springing up quickly, leaving Strange to scramble slowly after him. He had talked all the tiger he chose to just then.
For about five minutes, panting on the summit, Strange took in the view of a forest like a raging sea arrested in mid-turmoil. Waves and waves of green, and purple where the shadows were, so shook and seemed to plunge in the breath of a light wind; that a man could think dead tree-tops were the rigging of sunken ships. There were rocks like islands. On the far horizon was a bank of clouds for shore. Kites wheeled like darkened sea-gulls; and the murmur of the wind among the trees was like the voice of "many-sounding ocean."
Size—all enormousness—was something that appealed to Meldrum Strange. He could think in millions as he stood there, and it pleased him. Sight of all those myriads of living things, governed, as he sensed it, by one man, there for one purpose, under his hand, available, awaiting one word by a man with brains, to be swept into the jaws of Titan industry and pulped, sawed, planed, bent into profitable use by folk who couldn't grow a tree or even buy a whole one—thrilled him.
"How many of these were here when you came?" he demanded.
"Very few. Just scattered copses."
"Grew them all, eh!"
"No, they grew themselves. Nature attends to all that, if you coax her."
"This 'ud be a good place to start an industry. This interests me. I must interview the Government about it. Cheap labour. A railway. Only a hundred miles or so from the coast. We could ship this stuff. No small proprietors to bother with. It looks like opportunity. What's the Government thinking of, I wonder?"
"The next generation," said Ommony.
"Good Lord, man! The British won't be here. There'll be an Indian Government by that time, grafting and playing politics. They'll waste, destroy, ruin—"
"That's their look out. It won't be cut in my day."
"I'm not so sure."
Strange was himself again. He stood with arms folded on his breast and the old light burning in his eyes—devouring light, that could not see use in unexploited profit. His brain was already figuring in terms of import duties, labour, and exchange sea—freight—subsidies—and a market where the men who put in number nineteen bolts all day long must have what they can pay for ready-made.
He looked again at Ommony—made a new appraisal. Mad, of course. A fanatic. Yet a man of one idea is like a horse in harness. You can use him. He can be a strong cog in the intricate machine. The punishing grind, that kills or makes a rebel of the fellow who can see both sides of anything, only spurs a fanatic to further effort. He might use Ommony. No doubt flattery—
"A man needs genius at this business, as at everything else, if he's to succeed. You're wasted here now. You've done it. You should go ahead. A man on half your salary could carry on, while you devote yourself to—"
"That's my ambition," Ommony interrupted. He was tired already of the subject Strange had broached. "I'd like to spend my whole time studying trees. But my plan would cost too much."
"There's no such thing as too much, if it's a sound plan," Strange assured him.
"The Government's hard up. Can't afford experiments. They'd listen to me if they had the money, but India's poor."
"Good Lord! Turn this into money then!"
"Trees have never been studied properly. As you see, they grow themselves, given a chance and the right location. My theory is that all the waste land in the world might be turned into forests at very small expense, if we only took the right precautions first and studied the thing from the beginning. It's the first part—travel, observation, comparative analysis, experiment on a sufficient scale that would prove too costly."
Strange made a motion with his tongue, almost suggestive of changing a quid of tobacco from one cheek to the other.
"You say the Government would listen to you. Value your advice, eh? Well: advise them to give me a concession to exploit this forest. If it comes off, look to me for help in the other matter. Think what it would mean."
Diana the stag-hound was growling in a sort of subterranean undertone, not more than loud enough for Ommony to hear, He glanced to his right, where an enormous teak tree, mother of the grove around her, reached three-quarters as high as the rock. An almost naked jungli in a gap among the lower branches caught his eye and signalled. Ommony's eye followed the line of the jungli's arm.
"That might be your tiger," he said quietly.
"Where? Show me!"
Strange clutched his rifle that he had leaned against a corner of the rock, and looked over Ommony's shoulder, trying to get the line.
"You see a rock about a hundred yards from the base of this one—shaped roughly like an egg at this end. Carry your eye to the right from that. Now: d'you see a patch of brown leaves with light and shadow playing on them? Part's lighter than the rest—more gold in it. You get that? That's your tiger. He's looking up at us. It's a very difficult shot indeed from here."
"I used to shoot well once. I'll have a crack at him."
Strange aimed, and hesitated. The light played tricks with his unaccustomed eye. It was almost as if the shadow were limpid water, with little patches of sunlight dancing on it. The angle was awkward and the rifle heavy. He stepped back behind the rock and rested the weapon on a projecting corner.
"Now!" he said, and began to aim again. "Is he still there? I've lost sight of him."
"Still there, looking up at you."
"Curse that dog! She'll scare the brute away!"
"Better shoot then."
"He's moving, isn't he?"
"That was his head that moved. He's standing head-on toward you. He's heard us talking. His tail's twitching now. Can you see it? He'll make his mind up in a minute. Better be quick. You'll likely kill him if you hit him at this angle."
"Too late, and a yard wide—to the right and beyond him," said Ommony. "Well, perhaps he'll take the hint. Some do."
"I wonder if this foresight's any good," said Strange, battling with irritation. "Was that the man-eater?"
"No. One at a time. That was only a greedy brute that kills more than he needs. Too bad you missed him, but he gets another chance."
"You don't tell me you can recognize one tiger from another in that light, through the branches! How d'you know he isn't hit, and hiding down there?"
"It's part of my business to know that sort of thing," said Ommony, and glanced at Diana. She was lying down licking herself. "That tiger's a quarter of a mile away by now, and still going."
"I'd like to look," said Strange. "I didn't see him go. I don't believe he did."
"All right. Go down and look. You'll be perfectly safe. I'll sit here and smoke while you hunt for him," said Ommony. But he made a signal to the jungli, who dropped from a lower branch and kept an eye on Meldrum Strange as one would watch a new unusual animal.
Ommony sat smoking and smiling to himself but he was dreadfully afraid. The smile was hard at the corners. No woman feared for her child, or fought on occasion more shiftingly for it, than he for that forest. His heart was in it. He would have said his soul was in it, too. Several times he had had to counter-sap and mine against the assault of British capitalists. The American was likely to be more resourceful, that's all. He knew the blindness of the money-giant, and its cruelty; its over-riding tactics, and the almost insignificance of ordinary honesty opposed to it.
He had not told Meldrum Strange that nearly all the mother-trees were teak. He had not dared. But Strange would find that out. And he had a notion that it would be better to inform a wolf that there were lambs in a certain valley.
True, Strange was supposed to have retired from the ranks of industry. But there are said-to-be-tamed wolves. Who trusts them? King, Grim, Ramsden were as good men as there are. But so is fire good, until employed by an incendiary. Strange's eleventh hour resolution to reform the world by the weight of his manoeuvred money was only wolf-eat-wolf at best; to judge from Charley and Jeff Ramsden's accounts, the again-to-be-protected people had preferred to protect themselves in the ancient way from uninvited interference. Strange was bitter with ingrowing disappointment. Nothing in the circumstances was likelier, thought Ommony, than that in the twinkling of an eye new internationally interwoven system of bureaux of impertinent information should be changed into the thousand-fanged heads of an industrial monster. A wolf is a wolf. A man who is afraid imagines things.
In one sense Ommony's mood was mischievous. It amused him to see a "money baron" stripped of his pretensions, naked, as it were to an observing eye. In less than a month he thought he could have fun with Meldrum Strange—quiet fun, it would do Strange no harm, possibly some good, certainly amuse himself. But fear for his forest overcame all other emotions.
He knew how sensitive the Government would be to suggestions. Already one of the main planks the revolutionary agitators' platform was the British Government's alleged neglect of Indian industry. The western disease of exploitation for exploitation's sake had its spores in, and was spreading. Big Business had its eye on three hundred millions of possible "wage-earners." The first thing to go would be the trees. They always go first.
You may much more safely burn a decent fellow's house and take his money than undo the work he has laid his hand to. Whatever is indecent in him comes to the surface then. There was a change in Ommony's eye. His teeth bit deeper into the notch on the horn mouthpiece of his pipe, and Diana, dumb but all-observing, came closer to lay a shaggy head on his knee and wonder what next?
Ommony did not move when he heard a rifle shot. He was surprised that Meldrum Strange should have gone so far in so few minutes, but supposed the man's enthusiasm for the chase, or his rage at having missed, was making a fool of him. Now, no doubt, he was shooting at rustling undergrowth. Next, he would lose himself. But there was more than one jungli on the job to hunt him back, and it would be rather amusing afterwards to compare Strange's version of it all with theirs. A man who is lost in the jungle, too, imagines things.
Ten minutes later he did not even look up when Diana pricked her ears, and he heard Jeff Ramsden's unmistakable heavy footsteps clambering the look-out rock. He was not afraid of anything Jeff might do, without Strange to persuade him and direct.
"Sorry, old man," said Jeff from behind leaning on a rifle, "I've made a bloomer. Charley and I found what we supposed were leopard tracks and followed them to about half a mile here, and I fired at a glimpse in the thicket. Hit a tiger, and he got away into the undergrowth Charley's watching the place, and I came to I make my peace with you."
Ommony got to his feet.
"Did you call the dogs off?"
"Yes. They're tied up beside Charley."
"We'll go get the tiger. Where did you him?"
"It looked like a rib shot."
"Did you see Strange?"
They strode down the track together, where wheel-marks came to an end and the fire-lane advantage of rock on which nothing would grow—then plunged out of that wide opening into a narrow lane made by wild elephants and kept growing up again by Ommony's patrol; out of that into a maze of criss-cross tracks, along which Jeff led with a hunter's instinct; at last into a natural clearing entered by a dozen trails, near the of one of which Charley sat on a fallen tree beside the two dogs.
"No sound of him," said Charley. "But the dogs seem to think he's in there."
Something Charley said after that made Jeff laugh, and the deep note boomed along the glade.
"Hey! Where are you?" shouted another voice, and Ommony chuckled. From about a hundred yards away there came a noise greater than that of ten tigers as a heavy man thrust his way against dry branches.
"Better go rescue him, hadn't I?" asked Jeff. "He's in safe hands."
"No, he'd think she was a wild beast and shoot her. I'll manage it."
Ommony put two fingers to his teeth and whistled. Within the minute a jungli appeared in an opening and stood waiting without any visible emotion. Ommony spoke words unintelligible to the others and the jungli disappeared.
"Is he in there, Di?" said Ommony, and the staghound began nosing, but not growling, near the edges of the thicket, into which Jeff and Charley agreed the tiger had escaped. Diana barked once, and looked puzzled, but continued not to growl at all.
"He's in there. I think he's dead," said Ommony.
"Shall we try?" asked Charley, from the depths of inexperience.
Strange emerged into the opening, pushed by one jungli, pulled by another.
"These savages are tearing me to pieces!" he objected. "Why are you here? I thought you to wait for me on the look-out rock."
"We think there's a dead tiger," Charley piped up.
The intention was good. He meant to direct Strange's irritation away from Ommony toward himself. He did banish the irritation. Strange's face suddenly shone with triumph. He left fingering in his torn jacket.
"I told you I hit him!" he said, thrusting his chin at Ommony.
"Yes, you did say so."
Ommony turned his back to hide a grin, winked at the other two, and began peering into the undergrowth. Jeff took twenty strides down the behind him, picked up an empty brass shell, obliterated traces of his own heels in the mould. Ommony sent a jungli up a sar tree, to crawl along an overhanging branch and peer downward. The jungli said two words. Ommony answered. The jungli broke off dead wood dropped it—spoke again.
"All right," said Ommony. "Dogs in first."
So Diana led the way, with the other two yelping at her heels. The junglis hacked behind them with the knives that were their only badge of office. In five minutes Ommony was counting the whiskers and claws of a male tiger, lest the men who would have to take the pelt off should add to their private store of talismans against the devils of the forest.
"There!" said Strange. "You said I'd kill him if I hit him from that angle."
That was Strange's measure of concession, magnanimous for sake of the proprieties. His voice was an unrighteous crow, and Ommony, with his finger in the bullet-hole, making note of the angle of impact, said nothing. Jeff gathered up the carcase and carried it out into the clearing, while the junglis clucked in amazement, because it takes four of them to carry a grown tiger on a pole; and only Ommony observed how carefully Jeff laid the carcase down. Strange might otherwise have seen the hole through which the bullet emerged, after tearing straight across from rib to rib, behind the heart—out of a rifle nearly on a level with the tiger, broadside to.
"Huh! My first tiger! Hu—humum!"
It was meant there should be others to follow this one. Acquisitiveness had its claws in. To Meldrum Strange there was no such thing as enough of anything he liked. Now he would no longer have to be satisfied to smile contemptuously at club members who donated big-game trophies to decorate the rooms (with their names underneath on neat brass plates); he would be one of them. After all, he wasn't only a millionaire, he was human being who had missed a lot of fun he was entitled to.
"You asked me to stay a month, I think?"
"Yes, at least a month," said Ommony.
Three faces changed. Jeff's and Charley's fell; they had been confident that Strange would cut his visit short, and had hoped to be left him for a few days. Ommony's rose like a barometer. His enemy had delivered himself into his hand.
"The forest is yours," he said delightedly, but added, "for a month then," by way of afterthought thought.
"It'll suit me," Strange announced pompously. "Do my health good. And I needn't waste time, seeing I've Ramsden with me. Have you horses, Mr. Ommony?"
Jeff's face fell lower yet. He shook his head at Ommony from behind Strange's back. But Ommony could not deny he had three horses in the stable.
"Good. If you'll lend me two horses, and a few of your savages to show the way, I can ride about with Ramsden and we'll have a good look at this forest of yours. Something might come of it."
Ommony did not care. He never did doubt Destiny when Destiny dealt him the joker. He trod homeward with a lighter step, enduring Strange's arrogance without a twinge, indifferent to the fact that the other two were gloomy.
"And as for Charley," Strange said suddenly, "I'll send him home." Perhaps some memory of how Charley had attached himself revived resentment. "You're not cut out for this kind of thing," he said over his shoulder. "You'd better return to New York on the next ship. I'll give you an order on the New York office for your pay."
"Can you beat that?" asked Charley in an overtone to the world at large.
"Keep you from buzzing about India. Go home, and go to work!" Strange snorted.
Jeff's terrific grip on Charley's shoulder saved a hot retort, Jeff having notions of his own, and the rest of the walk home was made in silence, Strange being awkwardly aware of a great storm brewing behind him. But he was set on his purpose now. No argument from Jeff or anyone was going to move him one iota. Charley should go home. Jeff and he would ride about the forest, appraising it, and killing big game. He strode up the steps of Ommony's bungalow as if he owned the place, and Jeff intercepted Ommony.
"D'you care if I'm in there alone with him first for a minute or two?" Jeff asked.
"Very much. I object!"
"I want a minute's talk with him. If he answers back, I'll thrash him. He may have the tiger, but he can't treat Charley that way, and keep me. I'm through with the brute."
"One minute," said Ommony. "Just how far are you and I friends?"
Jeff hesitated, looking straight into Ommony's eyes. Each knew the other for a man worth trusting but the big man's anger had risen until the veins on his forehead swelled.
"This isn't the first time Strange has made a beast of himself in front of me," he said, with that slow, deliberate impressiveness that argues behind the words. "It's the last!"
"After all, I'm host. Why not leave this me?" said Ommony.
"Oh, if you put it that way, I'll go now. You may tell him I'm through and will call or later."
"Charley's going to stay," said Ommony. "How can he?"
"He's my guest."
"Then Strange will go."
"Not if you stay."
"What's the use?"
"You see this forest? Strange has made mind to cut down every tree in it. I'm alone against him. I want your backing. I want you to help me keep him here occupied, until I have time to upset his plan."
"Humm! He won't listen to me if I argue against it," said Jeff. "He's mule-headed."
"Precisely. Then argue for it. Stay here and help me."
"I'm on the brute's pay roll," Jeff objected.
"All right, give him his money's worth. Show him what the forest would be worth to an exploiter."
"Let me take him by the neck and throw him into the first train leaving for Bombay!"
"The worst thing you could do," said Ommony. "You'd rouse all the monster in him. If he couldn't ruin you—"
"He can't. I'm independent, thank the Lord!"
"—he'd make me deputy and have revenge on me. He'd have to vent his spleen on something, so he'd steal or buy a concession and make this place a howling wilderness."
"I think he would," Jeff answered. "Would it break you?"
"Oh, no. I've saved a competence. But look." He took Jeff's arm and turned him toward the fairest view of nursed and well-loved timber. "Perhaps a hundred years from now—"
"Yes. I've seen him at it. I've exploited for him; but that was gold and silver—you can take them anytime. All right Ommony."
They did not shake hands. An understanding that was much too deep and elemental for surface expression had made them partners. Both men were conscious of a pact that might involve immeasurable consequences. The law of hospitality, that says a guest may not be allowed to betray himself; the law of loyalty, that grants the same grace to the employer; Jeff's habit of open dealing, and Ommony's of absolute reliance on a Destiny he trusted, were all in danger and both men knew it. They had pledged themselves to the lesser of two evils, for lack of an obvious third course, and neither of them liked it, but both were resolute. Jeff strode away to the stables to let his anger cool, there being something about horses that comforts and restores the self-control of outdoor men. Ommony looked for Charley and found him packing his camera in the improvised dark-room.
"You'll stay, of course," he said, abruptly, divining instantly that Charley would not.
"You bet! I'll stay away from him. If this wasn't your house—"
"But it is," said Ommony.
"I'd lick him first! Maybe I can't, but I'd treat myself to the attempt."
"I'd have to protect him, of course."
"Sure. I've no quarrel with you."
"What's your plan, then?"
"Nothing. Pull out of here, and then think. Lend me your rig to the station, soon as I get this stuff packed. If I see him again there'll be trouble."
"Have you money?"
"Not much. But I'll take no more of his."
"Let me help out."
"Thanks. No. I've enough to get to Delhi. Zelmira's there. Maybe she'll finance a scheme for—"
Ommony whistled softly, so that Diana, close at heel, became alert for the unforeseen. She knew that signal of her master's changing mood.
"Why, what's up?" asked Charley.
"The flag," said Ommony. "It's nailed up. Any port in a storm, and any friend in tr—. Tell me, to what extent do you feel beholden to your late employer?"
"From now on? Nix! He's mud for all of me."
"So if Madame Poulakis should ask you for news of Strange's whereabouts, you'd—"
"Tell her he's not fit to run with. Gee! What a woman like her can see in him—"
"Isn't that her affair?" asked Ommony.
"Maybe. It's mine to tell her what I think, and I will if she freezes me for it."
"But you'll tell her where he is?"
"Maybe'if she wants to know, after I'm through knocking him."
"Let me pay your fare to Delhi!"
Charley made a hand-spring to the workbench, and sat there looking at Ommony with those sky-bright eyes that read vague nuances between the light and shadow.
"What's up?" he asked again. "I'd do a lot to help you."
"Is Madame Poulakis clever?"
"As blazes! Only dumb thing about her is she wants Strange. Cave-man stuff, I reckon."
"Well: suppose you warn her against Strange—"
"I'll do that sure, first thing! What then?"
"If she persists after that, would you give her a message from me, as an absolute stranger?"
"I'll tell her anything you say."
"Say this: that Strange contemplates using his money and influence to grab this forest, and she can have me for ally on sole condition that she helps me to prevent that, by using her influence with Strange."
"If, as, and when!" said Charley. "Sure. I get you. If that's his game, why don't you go straight to headquarters and spike it?"
"Daren't. If I should leave here Strange would jump to the right conclusion. Knowledge that I was opposing him would only make him keener, and he can beat us all with his money ridden influence. He could buy some politicians and the native press'pull strings'and have the forest. This fight has got to be personal between Meldrum Strange and me. I'm looking for allies."
"I'm one," said Charley.
"Let's hope she'll be another."
"Yes. But listen here," said Charley. "I reserve the right to warn her first. I'm going to tell her what I think of Strange, and why."
"I'll warn her he's no good, and that if she gets him she'll regret it from the minute they sign up. I'll rub it in good, with illustrations a lecture on the side, and give her a day a night to think it over. After that, if she's still nuts on him, I'll tell her I know she's crazy, and chip in."
"Satisfactory to me," said Ommony.
"What'll I tell her to do, though?"
"Leave that to her. Tell her she can count on me to help her, but on what terms, and say we've got thirty days to win or lose in. Now, let me provide you with money."
"No. I've enough for the present."
"Have lunch before you go, then. There's no train till two o'clock."
"No. Put up some eats for me. Send 'em to the station. I'll wait there. If I see Strange again I'll hurt him. Say—turn round—look through the door! D'you see that line of light down the edge of a monkey on the big tree over to the left? Look at him move now! Can you beat it?"
Je fais mes compliments, Hopp-la-la!
Je m'en fiche de vos dents!"
Ommony stepped back into his house, humming, and if not devoid of care, inclined to laugh at it. Great-hearted men, forever diving into gloom as the price of greatness, rise out of it again and soar the higher for it. Problems lie buried in earth; their hearts are of the empyrean. Ommony again could see his forest enduring for centuries, ripening, reseeding, fulfilling its destiny, as he proposed to fulfil his.
He was more than courteous to Strange; he charmed him. Gone was the feeling of being at the mercy of this invading Visigoth; unnatural restraint went with it, and he made it his business to soften the fall of the tyrant by giving him good entertainment to remember.
If he did have qualms, they had vanished. The means he meant to use were such as Strange provided him, nor had he any thought of personal gain. At the end of that first day he might have entered the millionaire's employment almost on his own terms; for it was part of Strange's pride that he could pick men, and he began to see the unusual characteristics of his host.
Of all the men in India who can weave tales from the entrails of events Cottswold Ommony stands first. His gift is to see below the surface, and interpret; and he sees so much more than camera or microscope, that what he says has a sound of half-humorous prophecy.
All rich men crave amusement, and enjoy the truth if it is handed to them on such terms as let them laugh at it, that being the old court jester's secret. And there on the fringe of that forest all the world's news seemed to come, for Ommony to turn over and subject to scrutiny.
It was not for Strange to know that Ommony stands high in the counsels of the ablest secret service in the world; or that men, near the throne send him sealed communications, to be returned with his marginal comment. His duty and pleasure are trees, and they, like his natural gifts, are a nation's, to be drawn on in emergency.
So Strange learned things that are only guessed at by the politicians, and the days began to pass superbly&mdash:the best, almost the only true vacation Strange had in all his life. He and Ommony, and Jeff Ramsden with the least decrepit of the horses straining under him, explored the forest in all directions, Ommony diverting attention from the trees by telling of ancient races that had once owned cities there.
Whenever Strange became greedy for a stand of timber, it always seemed that they came to an ancient ruin, or the traces of a road, immediately. There Ommony would dismount, to give Jeff's horse a chance, and would turn imagination loose among such facts as he had garnered, speculating on the ways and manners of nations dead centuries ago.
Strange had about decided to endow a new museum in the West when, on the fifth morning, as Jeff was starting for the stable to take pity on his horse before the day's work, he stopped in the garden face to face with a fat Bengali babu.
"Chullunder Ghose!" he exclaimed. "You were fired for good and all. What are you doing here?"
The babu was resplendent in new cotton clothing and a silk turban of rainbow hue that would have shamed a peacock, but he sat down in the dust and fanned himself with a palm leaf. The action was apparently impromptu and induced by the heat; but he seemed aware that in that position a bed of flowers no brighter than his turban screened him effectually from the house.
"You were fired," Jeff repeated.
"Yes. In moment of wrath deprived of pittance for support of wife and numerous dependents. Said brutality was highly desperate for brutalee. Am in new employment therefore."
"Who's the unfortunate employer? Mr. Ommony?
"No, sahib, no such luck; yet better luck. This babu is much blessed."
"Who are you robbing?"
"Immaculate and gorgeous creature, such as queens should envy and the wives of viceroys should imitate, has availed heavenborn self of this babu's confidential services."
"What's her name? Satanita? Jezebel?"
"Ah! All glorious name, if only for a while! How fleeting are life's pseudonyms for spiritual facts! Sahib, pray desist! I said confidential services!"
"You see my boot?" demanded Ramsden.
"Sahib, yes'emphatically; but desist! I must see Mr. Ommony. Instructions are—"
"He's on the verandah."
"Yes, and three dogs. Krishna! Here is one of them! Sahib, call the brute off!"
Diana came and sniffed at the babu, only restraining open enmity on Jeff's account. Chullunder Ghose shrugged himself into the smallest space possible, covering his bare legs with folds of clothing. His toes twitched in his sandals.
"I am fearful! Yow! What evil incarnated into thee?" he demanded, scowling at the dog.
Jeff scratched his chin. Past experience of the babu warned him; however, the house and its problems were Ommony's.
"Fetch your master, Di!" he ordered; and Di went off at a bound.
"Oh, excellent!" exclaimed the babu. "Sahib, the embodiment of homage'thus!"
He blew into his right hand and made a gesture as if throwing the result at Jeff, who grinned at him.
"Ah! Smiles! This babu makes salaam of much appreciation!"
He bowed to the dust.
"What has Di found?" demanded Ommony, appearing down the path. "Snake? Leopard tracks?" he hazarded. "Oh. No, I can't employ a babu. Sorry. You may get food from the servants and sleep one night in the godown, if that's convenient."
"Am overwhelmed by courtesy! Sahib, graciously consent to listen to me Lend me your ear."
"Sahib, this babu is not Mark Antony! Publicity, the breath of all things temporal, is very well for politicians, but for me, unopulent and pitiful babu that I am—"
"All right. Come up to the verandah."
"And spill beans! Sahib, I can say no in seven languages. Will one suffice?"
Ommony glanced sideways, but Jeff had already taken the hint; he strolled to the verandah to keep Strange occupied.
He suspected this man might be of the secret service, that employs the unlikeliest individual. But there was no signal. The babu, having ascertained by peering around the flower-bed on hands and knees that they actually could not be overheard, made ready to enjoy himself. Eyes, gesture, attitude betokened mystery.
"Mellidrum Strange—" he whispered.
"What of him?"
"What of that?"
"She is there!" said the babu, gesturing, thumb over shoulder.
Ommony looked startled, and corrected that too late to spoil the babu's exquisite satisfaction. However, he made an effort to seem ignorant.
"Who is she?"
"Most glorious of feminines! Amazing woman! Oh! Ah! Wonderful! This enraptured babu brings compliments of memsahib Zelmira Poulakis to Ommony sahib, who is therefore enviable."
Ommony turned his back for a moment to consider. The East can read thought fairly accurately if allowed to watch the thinker's eyes and face, and it seldom pays to betray concern.
"Is she at the station?" he demanded, turning again suddenly. He had not quite mastered irritation; Zelmira's move appeared ill-considered, and she a shallow-minded female after all.
The babu almost chuckled, but refrained from prudence. Ommony's toe was too near, and the dog was just behind him.
"Self am strategist."
"I asked, where is she?"
"Not so. The sahib asked, is she at the station? She arrived at a station, let us hope. This babu, not having seen his goddess since Sissoo Junction at hour of midnight, train being belated, can only surmise her ladyship's present whereabouts. Will hazard guess subject to modification by feminine caprice."
"Where is she?" Ommony demanded sternly.
"This babu, having changed trains at Sissoo Junction, hazards guess her ladyship may now be at Chota Pegu—in direction as thumb points—across forest—guestess of three-gun rajah of same ilk."
Ommony's face resumed its normal cheerful He had fought the Rajah of Chota Pegu to a conclusion long ago, over grazing rights and forest boundary, as victor using his influence afterwards to increase the royal revenue by getting an anachronistic tribute payable by the rajah to central government abolished. In consequence rajah had added an elephant to three that formed the tripod of royal dignity, and the men were now as close to being friends as fox might be with badger—mutually tolerant, at least.
"Am intimate in counsels of Rajah of Chota Pegu," said the babu. His air was less of than of possession. Ommony instantly suspected blackmail.
"How did Madame Poulakis come by your services?" he demanded.
"Fortunately!" said the babu. "Self was, as Yankees say, up against it, perambulating Delhi in vain search of occupation for support of wife and numerous dependents. Was shabbiness personified, approaching hotels by back way only, much ashamed. Like Romeo, beholding vision of radiant love on hotel upper-floor balcony by moonlight—tourist presumably—too well dressed in view of income-tax for wife of British officer—sought means of approach to offer services as guide, same gainful, generally. Was spurned forth from back-entrance by officious Punjabi dippity-steward with soul for sale. Returned and purchased same for one rupee eight annas, thus obtaining access to upper landing, whence to glorious creature's balcony was one step. Climbed over and sat down in deep shadow of potted palm tree, to meditate."
"You mean to listen?"
"Same thing, sahib. Recent arrival addressed as Charley, picturesquely indignant at unknown personage named Melidrum Isstrange, held forth, she protesting with much amusement. In vino veritas; in anger indiscretion, which is better. This babu ascertained much that otherwise finding lodgment among thorns or stones, as in Christian parable, might have been unreproductive. Summoning courage to approach expensive suite of rooms by door in corridor, knocked and offered to tell fortunes. Sahiba—glorious sahiba—fell, as Yankees have it. Secret of successful fortune-telling is to tell what customer intensely desires to hear. Was omniscient in that respect."
"I suppose you told her she would marry Mr. Meldrum Strange," said Ommony, grinning.
"Nay, sahib. I said he will have unmerited but enviable destiny to marry her, thus disarming indignation of Charley sahib and encouraging her ladyship in one breath, wisdom being two-faced, looking both ways."
"And she engaged you as guide?"
"Nay, sahib; as philosopher and friend, same drawing more emolument. Who can treat friend with parsimony, or philosopher with mistrust? Being deep in confidence of Rajah of Chota Pegu, knowing your honour's reputation—and aware by meditative process aforesaid of your honour's intention to save this forest from hoppers of western industry—natural gift for strategy overwhelmed this babu with agenda, naturally. No sleep that night. Self-made reservations on morning train. Self-sent cryptically worded telegram to Rajah of Chota Pegu, giving also letter to sahiba, same flattering him deeply and explaining nothing. Now am here, awaiting your honour's good will and cogitation."
"What's your plan?"
"Not having one, can't say. Put cat and dog in bag and agitate same. Fight ensues. Pour chemicals together. There is combination. Place parties to problem at strategic intervals. Game begins. It plays itself, with subventitious assistance from all and sundry. Desire, thou seed of Karma, what amusement thou providest for the gods!"
"Where's Mr. Charley Wear now?" Ommony, demanded.
"Escort to her loveliness. Amazing individual! He likes; he loves her not; whereas this babu loves her, and exceedingly dislikes her restlessness, most discommoding to person of portly configuration. Krishna! You should see them dance together in station waiting-room when trains are late! She carries phonograph as baggage."
"Any message for me?"
"As aforesaid, sahib-compliments."
"Sahib, compliments are all-embracing. Charley sahib, having sung your honour's praises, sahiba—sits and waits."
"Um-m-m! Was there nothing about a promise?"
"Much! Am promised old-age competency if affair of heart succeeds."
Ommony's face clouded. Long familiarity had made him alert to the Indian trick of obliging the questioner, by strictly defining what he wants to know, to admit the questioned into confidence. Thereafter follows blackmail, subtle or crude as the case may be, but as inevitable as the day that follows night.
"This is unsatisfactory to me," said Ommony.
Chullunder Ghose, too wise a strategist to fool himself, conceded a reverse.
"There were words this babu did not understand. Incomprehension being cause of mystification of principles—choosing, therefore, discretion as better part of—"
"Out with it! You don't have to understand a message to deliver it."
"Sahiba said: 'Say this: I will be as Esther with Akazuerus!'"
"Good!" remarked Ommony, and grinned again. He has a baffling kind of grin. "Get your gossip over with the servants," he added' sarcastically, "They'll be curious to know all about this."
"Sahib, in propria persona am dumb discretion, absolutely!"
"Well: if they learn anything I shall know who has told them. Barring that, make yourself at home."
"Sahib, after light refreshment would prefer to rejoin Fountain of Astonishment at Chota Pegu—"
Ommony's laugh cut the argument short.
"There's too much at stake for your personal preferences and mine to have any weight at all, babu. Stay here, and confer with me on my return. You understand me?"
"Disobey'and deal with me!"
"Sahib, with what reluctance would I do the first! To deal with your honour is a privilege."
"A privilege that hurts at times!" said Ommony. "All right, stay here and entertain yourself."
Without pausing to consider what the babu might regard as entertainment, he returned to the verandah. "Sorry. Urgent business on the other side of the forest. Can you and Jeff amuse yourselves?" he asked Strange. And Strange, with a second tiger to his bag in mind, made departure easy.
So Ommony set off on his lean grey pony at a canter, with the staghound careering in advance and the inevitable jungli, rag in teeth to keep the flies out, racing like a black phantom on foot behind. It was part of the honour of those naked forest men never to let out of sight the one white man who understood them, and whom in part—at times—they thought they understood too.
The forest is long and wide, butt Chota Pegu lies on a promontory, as it where, projecting far into an ocean of trees. From Ommony's bungalow to the rajah's palace is hardly forty miles, although by train, including the wait at Sissoo Junction, the journey would take a day and a night. So it was only a little after one that afternoon when the sweating pony steadied to a walk between low houses built from the debris of ancient cities, Diana flopped panting in the shade of a high wall, the jungli followed suit, and Ommony, dismounting, hammered with the butt of his riding-whip on a gate so old that the iron studs had rusted themselves loose and shook as the struck wood quivered. There was a long pause. Then a bell rang, as it does in temples to announce the presence and the service—one clear note and overtones ascending all the way to heaven. A voice, in which a million years of melancholy seemed to find expression, gave an order and the flower of the rajah's bodyguard—four men in crimson and yellow uniform—opened the gate with dignity.
Followed interchange of royal courtesy. Ommony, official tyrant and accommodating friend, stood while the army of four presented arms and a bare-legged man with a bugle blew a fanfare, cracked, but creditable since he did his best. Ommony's right hand went to his helmet-rim in the clean, curt fashion of the West, and then came the rigorously conventional question and reply between him and the turbaned officer, as to health, the crops, the city's peace, and the probable date of the next monsoon.
It would be ascertained whether His Highness was at home and could give audience. Ommony was offered an ancient stool in the shade of a much more ancient tree, while half the army went to find out what all already knew. Compliments were presented—more salutes; Ommony mounted the indignant grey, who had earned a respite, and rode behind the army up a long drive between old sar trees, preceded in defiance of all convention by Diana. But the jungli remained in the street; as the descendant of a race that once ruled half the earth, such trumpery was not for him. He was afraid of it. Perhaps the racial memory had made him wise, as it makes wolves wise, with instinct. Then the palace door, wide open; but ceremony to be gone through first. A great umbrella trimmed with glass was raised over Ommony's head while he dismounted. Two menials removed his riding-boots and gave him embroidered slippers in their place—a great concession, for custom demands bare feet across the threshold. Shabby, but important men in turbans bowed and walked backwards before him, as the pony was led away and Ommony, leaving Diana at the door, entered into the cool gloom of the palace.
Very little, but too much modern vandalism had crept into that back number of the world's volumes of changing manners. Except for some Tottenham Court Road furniture, ridiculously set between antiquities, the place was as it had been for three centuries, low-ceilinged, stately, down at heel, and quiet—with the quietness that the noise of a phonograph emphasized. The thing was playing "Alexander's Ragtime Band," and the racket emerged between curtains at a passage-end.
On the right was the door of the durbar-hall, and Ommony was led through that into a room about thirty feet by twenty, lined with teak and polished. There was no furniture; visitors were expected to stand in the presence; but at one end on a red-carpeted low dais was a gilt and a red silk covered chair of the Napoleonic period, that served as throne. Over that was a tasselled, square umbrella of native embroidery.
There was a pause then of at least five minutes, for sake of the conventions, Ommony waiting bolt upright in the midst directly in front of the throne, wiping the back of his neck with a handkerchief, because there was no punkah, and through the windows, that gave on to a deep verandah, very little air came in.
Then pageantry awoke. A bell rang, and through a door on the right of the throne came the rajah and his whole official family. The rajah, without seeming to notice Ommony, took his seat, bowed to by all five radiantly dressed attendants. Two of them took position, one on either hand, each armed with a jewelled fan, with which they disturbed the sultry atmosphere; but the other three were evidently of inferior rank and did not set foot on the dais. They stood in line on Ommony's right hand.
The men with fans whispered to the rajah, as if informing him who Ommony might be. He appeared interested, and at last looked up, meeting Ommony's gaze directly. Ommony bowed low, and the rajah nodded. He was a lean-looking, whimsically featured man in a yellowish silk suit adorned with a minor British Order (procured through Ommony's influence). His fingers were covered with valuable rings, but his appearance was not otherwise effeminate. He looked like one who practised more or less asceticism for the profit there might be in it, and cynicism for his own amusement—both practices diluted with a liberal amount of intellectual sensuousness.
"I hope you are well. I am pleased to see you," he said solemnly in the language of the land, and the whole court of five beamed appreciation of his tact and condescension.
Ommony replied, and for about five minutes there was rigorously regular exchange of question and answer, without one hint of human feeling or a word said that could by any possibility be construed into importance. Then:
"I am glad to have seen you," said the rajah, and walked out, followed by the court, leaving Ommony standing; whereat he resumed the mopping with his handkerchief. He was used to the business—knew what would happen next. Some minutes later the rajah, with the jewels off and a much less ornate suit on, pushed his turbaned head through the door Ommony had entered by.
"Come on, Ommony, old boy!" he called in English. "Are you so fond of ceremonial that you'll stand there forever? Let's sit under the punkah in the next room."
They shook hands in the doorway, and Ommony submitted to be patted on the back.
"Opportune as ever! Always in the nick of time! I've a surprise for you!"
The phonograph tune now was "Everybody's doing it;" however, Ommony made ready for astonishment. There was a sound of four feet slipping on a polished teak floor; but the wise man, like the adder in the Bible, stops his ears to sounds it isn't time to hear yet. They went into a room in which comfortable couches and a shuttered twilight set the keynote, with lots of French novels scattered about, and some pictures on the walls that would have hardly passed the U.S. censorship.
They sat down vis-a-vis, and the rajah lit a cigarette, waving it airily.
"Ha—ha! Ommony, old boy, you were never more surprised in all your life than you're going to be! Downy old dodger! You're not the only man who can produce the unexpected! What do you think I've got here?"
"A new elephant," suggested Ommony.
"Pooh! Think again. Everybody's scandalized. My chamberlain is wondering whether I intend to abdicate! Now guess."
The rajah's face clouded a moment.
"Not yet. Well, I'll tell you, for you'll never guess. A European lady of most exquisite breeding, looks, and attainments! She is teaching me to dance the two-step, and there will jolly well be a revolution in Chota Pegu if I don't look out! And by Jove, Ommony old boy, you know, if I could afford to I jolly well would abdicate. This business of being a petty rajah is no fun for a man of any intellect. I would like to live in Europe. Paris appeals to me."
Ommony assumed an air of sympathy. He knew Chota Pegu's hold on ancientry, but understood as well that moth-lure of the City of Bright Lights, Chota Pegu's rajah was as obviously fooled as any moonstruck college freshman; out even the freshman survives the experience generally, and India has survived the worst her weaknesses can do to her. There would be reaction at the proper time.
"Paris is a great place," he answered guardedly.
"It is, Ommony, it is! Paris is the mother-city of intellectuals. Hah! They understand there the inanity of hypocritcial convention! They see through things—live through them, Ommony! The land of Voltaire, Pascal, Rousseau—and delightful women!"
"Is your guest, then, a Parisienne?" asked Ommony.
"By birth, no. She is Greek—true offspring of a race that won at Marathon, and moulded the thinking of Rome and all Europe! She knows Paris inside out. We have been speaking of it. She is charming—exquisite! But come and see."
Gesturing for silence, he tiptoed to a corner, where an ancient mirrored cabinet stood built into a recess in the solid wall. Searching for a key, he unlocked the central mirror, revealing a deep cupboard, whose back was nothing but the pierced carving of a wall of the room beyond. The entire room was visible, including a phonograph, with its back to a stand of ancient weapons, and Charley Wear winding it. The rajah pulled Ommony forward by the coat, and signed to him to peer though.
"Hs—s—sh!" he whispered.
Madame Zelmira Poulakis was sitting almost facing the aperture, turning over the pages of a guide-book on her lap, and talking over her shoulder.
"No, Charley, no more dancing, it's too hot. Come and help with this. I can't find Chota Pegu in the book; if we can't find something about it we'll be at the mercy of our own resources, and the fewer they are the more they'll confuse us. Come on. Come and help me."
Nobody had too much praised her. Ommony conceded that at first glance. The mystery remained that she was willing to devote herself to the pursuit of Meldrum Strange; but the whole world is full of the unexplainable. If she was thirty, she did not look it. If her past was wrapped in coils of Levantine intrigue, no symptom of it showed. If she was unchaste, Ommony was unobservant. Mischief sparkled an over her, as brightly as the diamonds on her left hand, but amused, not venomous. If eyes are windows of the soul, as someone says, her merry one looked out at the universe through azure panes and liked it all.
The rajah closed the cabinet again.
"Did you ever see such eyes, or lips—such hair, and such complexion?" he asked.
"Is she not all curves, and suppleness, and lightness? Did you see her ankles? And her wrists? Is her voice not perfect—like the waters laughing at you? And she has money, I imagine; her diamonds surpass mine. Isn't she wonderful?"
Ommony agreed. It was policy; but besides, there was no use in denying the obvious. But he began to dread the next few days, as sure as that he stood there that the management of a forest and a few score men would be as child's play compared to partnership in an intrigue with Zelmira Poulakis.
"Ommony, old boy, I'm going to ask a favour of you," said the rajah, buttonholing him. "She will introduce me into Parisian society. Can I go there? Can I afford it? Can a capital sum be raised?"
"Your Highness' subjects are already taxed to about the limit," Ommony answered warily. Something was coming, and he did not care to nip sprouting information in the bud.
"Yes, confound it! They're not fit to have a rajah; they can't pay for one! I've said that frequently. But I have forest rights, you know. It's all very well for you to claim control of the forest, and you've conserved it beautifully; but the timber revenue from all this section will have to revert to me when it's time to cut down trees. The shroffs* won't lend on it; they say there's no knowing when the Government will cut, or to what extent my right will be disputed. Now, don't you think, if you advised it, Government would buy my rights for money down?"
"My rights are worth a lot—lakhs and lakhs of rupees," said the rajah. "I would be reasonable, on a basis of money down."
All governments are capable of anything. Ommony, as an individual, is not to be judged by that standard. But he was no such fool as to answer outright, and to set the rajah dickering with shroffs again. He tickled hope, that springs eternal in a rajah's breast as with the rest of us.
"I'll ask," he said noncommittally.
"Will you? What a splendid fellow you are! How I wish all Englishmen were like you! Now let me do you a favour and introduce you to the most wonderful woman in the world."
"One minute first. How is it you are entertaining her?" asked Ommony, and the rajah's face took on that supercilious smile with which the opportunist apes omniscience.
"I have ways and means, old boy, that you don't dream of. Chota Pegu is older than the British Raj by quite a few centuries, you know. Connections everywhere. Wheels within wheels. You English will never understand how we obtain our ends. Ha—ha! No use asking her, you old fox! She doesn't know either! She was 'in maiden meditation fancy free', as the Psalmist or Shakespeare or somebody says, and a little bird whispered to her. Ha—ha! I knew she was coming to visit me before she thought of it!"
Whereat Ommony looked puzzled, concealing his satisfaction at being in no way connected in the rajah's mind with Zelmira's visit.
"But isn't it awfully inconvenient?" he asked. And now he was simply curious. The rajah's domestic worries were not even indirectly a concern of his. It was only by hearsay that he knew the rajah had two wives and quite a nice stable of dancing women; but it is always fun to speculate on how a man contrives to keep the peace in such complicated circumstances.
"I do as I dam-please!" the rajah answered after a moment; and in the set lips and studied air of nonchalance was written a whole volume of strife-behind-curtains. But that, again, was no affair of Ommony's; he was merely glad to know it, since, to quote a favourite proverb of Chota Pegu, all straws serve the birds at nesting-time.
"I'm agog to meet madame," he said, with an air of playfulness that overlay real dread lest Zelmira should openly confess him an accomplice.
But not she! Her poise was perfect and she had evidently tutored Charley Wear, whose natural instinct would have been to wear his pleasure on his face at meeting Ommony again. Zelmira glanced at the rajah, as if to deduce from his her own proper attitude toward this bearded, stocky-shouldered individual. She did not shake hands—did not attempt to shine in conversation—hardly indeed looked at Ommony; it was only little by little, as an hour went by, that he knew he was being summed up and analysed from under drooped eyelashes. He confessed to himself that the girl was adorable, and there was an added charm of deep artfulness without any evident malice, that meant more to him than cupid lips or dark, delightful brows.
And that while, with the rajah playing half-intoxicated host, they talked of all inanity, like new neighbours at someone's tea party. A spy, or an intruder might have guessed them all bored, except the rajah. Not the slightest hint was dropped until the rajah left the room, and Zelmira's face became instantly wreathed in smiles. She was about to say something to the point, but Ommony checked her.
"Look annoyed!" he ordered. "You wish the rajah was here! You don't think much of me!"
She registered, and Charley followed suit. Ommony, with forest-trained ears alert, was aware of the cabinet in the wall behind him being opened, and could almost feel the rajah's eyes making holes in the nape of his neck.
"Let me show you my dog," he suggested, as if he could not think of any other way of entertaining; and, as if even that would be better than a dreary conversation with him, Zelmira jumped up with alacrity. Even so, she played safe.
"What fun! Perhaps the rajah will come too. Hadn't we better wait for him?
"Ommony raised his voice a trifle, and capped the safety.
"No," he said, "he's looking up information for me about his claims in regard to the forest. It'll take him fifteen minutes."
With that hint for the man behind the spy-hole he led the way out, and they walked three abreast down the long drive, Zelmira in the midst.
"Don't talk yet," said Ommony. "People's backs give more away than they imagine."
Two hundred yards from the gate in the wall, still in sight from the palace windows, Ommony set fingers to his teeth and whistled shrilly.
"Now watch! The wall's too high for her, but she'll try it first."
Three disappointed, almost piteous barks, announced that the whistle had been heard.
"Three shots at it," he said. "Now watch again. There's a jungli out there. He'll stand against the wall. She'll back across the street and take a running jump, using his shoulders for spingboard. Watch that space between the two trees."
He whistled again. There was a pause, and then the hound's paw just appeared above the level of the wall, missed hold, and disappeared as suddenly. A yelp, half-angry now, another pause—then head and shoulders—a yelp of triumph—and the enormous dog came leaping, thrusting her nose into Ommony's hand and wriggling satisfaction.
"Now," said Ommony, "We can talk while we fool with Diana. That looks innocent enough."
Somehow, woman has come to represent temptation in the minds of most of us. Doubtless she earned the stigma, and we males the worse one, of being weak. Zelmira Poulakis, in pale mauve georgette, was art so refined and simplified as almost to seem divine, so that Ommony wondered whether he could keep his own head. As to Strange, with himself to load the scale clandestinely, he felt no doubt whatever.
"Have you a plan?" he asked her, so well versed in Indian lore that he knew a woman's plan prevails in spite of anything a man can do.
"Nothing," she answered. "He ought to marry me. He ruined my husband."
"Revenge?" asked Ommony, not relishing a campaign for that unprofitable stuff.
"No. My husband probably deserved it. But some of my money went too, and I was innocent. Strange needs a wife; he never had one. He kissed me once in New York, when I interviewed him as my husband's emissary, and—well—propose to conquer him, that's all."
That was frank enough. It was even credible. If money had been her sole aim she would never have needed to pursue Strange, limiting her scope to him. She was more marketable than the diamonds on her left hand, and no doubt scores of wealthy men had let her know it.
"Conquest, eh?" said Ommony. "Yes, Strange needs conquering."
"He likes me," she answered. "He is only so cruel and selfish that he fears marriage. But I can conquer him. I will make him generous. You'll see!"
"Do you know what Strange will think, if he learns you are staying with this rajah?" Ommony asked her. "Our Indian rajahs have a certain reputation."
"Pouf! He knows better. He might pretend to think that. He is cruel enough to pretend anything. But he will know it isn't true, so what does that matter? It is what one knows that influences, not what one pretends to think. He knows in his heart he likes me. He said—over afternoon tea in New York—he would choose me before any woman in the world, if he were of the marrying kind. I am of the marrying kind, and I choose him! Presto! That is the end of it!" And she clipped her hands, while Charley grinned.
"Can't you have Strange come in and rescue her from the rajah?" asked Charley, fertile in screen-drama expedients.
"He wouldn't come. He'd send for the police," laughed Ommony. "No, we must have her rescue him."
"From the rajah?"
"From anything that makes him look ridiculous."
"Wise man! I like you, Mr. Ommony," Zelmira announced, her whole face sparkling with amusement.
The best and the worst of us like to be liked, more particularly by a pretty woman. It gilds the edges of intrigue, and surely dulls conscience to the drab grey underside of human schemes. Ommony began to like his task amazingly. He almost forgot the forest in determination to make Meldrum Strange a captive of this woman's bow and spear.
"I wish you'd tell the rajah about Strange," he said, after making Diana jump over his head a time or two—for he saw the rajah coming. "Not too much, of course. Just say he's a millionaire who wants to buy up Indian forest rights. Say you've heard he is staying with me. I think we can safely leave the rest to Strange, the rajah, and Providence, assisted by Chullunder Ghose. You stumbled on a jewel in that babu. By the way—drop your handkerchief! Quickly!"
She obeyed. Ommony signed to Diana to pick it up. The dog brought it to him, not to her, and Ommony put it in his pocket.
"If ever Di comes, look for a letter inside her collar. You can send an answer the same way."
"Ah! That dog! That dog!" said the rajah, joining them. "A perfect beast! So intelligent! But someone will poison her one of these days, and then my friend Ommony will be disconsolate."
He, too, it seemed, knew how to drop a hint. Perhaps he had seen the handkerchief incident, and guessed its motive. Ommony looked straight at him, and their eyes met.
"Then someone would have a personal fight on his hands with me," he said blandly, and the rajah, pinked, with an effort switched attention to Zelmira.
Ommony excused himself then, borrowed a fresh horse from the rajah's stable, and started back on the long cross-forest journey. After a while he took the jungli up behind him, jungli and dog taking turn about, the jungli between-whiles clinging to tail or stirrup, scouting ahead where he knew of leopard lairs, and not so weary as the fat horse at the journey's end, three hours after dark, an hour too late for dinner.
Jeff was waiting in the dark by a wood-pile near the house, and the horse shied at him. The jungli fled.
"That rascal Chullunder Ghose is up to no good," Jeff began, seizing a rein to hold the horse still. "Strange and I shot a tiger this morning."
"Which of you?"
"He wounded and I killed. We were back here for lunch. Chullunder Ghose was squatting on the verandah like a big brass idol. Strange began to talk to him. All afternoon, when he wasn't taking a nap or smoking by himself, Strange has been questioning the babu, and what he hasn't learned about this forest and one of the local rajahs—Chota Pegu, I think his name is—wouldn't fill a nut-shell. I couldn't prevent it."
"I'm not sorry."
"If I could have broken the babu's neck before he—"
"You or I would have had to do his work. I expect he has done it better."
"Listen. Don't be over-confident," said Jeff. "We used to employ that babu. He plays both ends from the middle always. Nothing he says or does is on the level. He'd sell you out to Strange for one rupee over and above what he could get from you—"
"And then double-cross Strange!"
"Well, I've warned you," Jeff grumbled.
"Be a good fellow and keep Strange occupied while I eat dinner. I'll have one of the servants bring the babu to me in the dining-room."
Ommony saw the horse stabled and the dog fed. Ten minutes later he was in the dinning-room, with Chullunder Ghose cross-legged on the floor at his right hand.
"So you've moved without waiting for me?" he asked.
"Lot's wife was made pillar of salt, according to Christian missionary. She looked back. Kaiser is in Holland, very hard up. He looked forward. Chinese suffer presently from foreign creditors. Stood still! Choice of three evils leaves enigma up to me. No advice available; no orders, except not to talk with servants; no consolation from Ramsden sahib, who threatens me with outsize boot. What can do but tickle ear of money-nabob with account of ripe apples in next orchard, whetting appetite of octopus for loot, which is envy of white man, always? What could do? Must say something! He is incarnation of enquiry armed with can-opener and too much zeal."
"Did you tell about Madame Poulakis?"
"Nay, sahib. Told nothing this babu knows for certain. Truth is like saving's-bank account, for use in dire emergency. Direness not yet obvious. Spoke much of Rajah of Chota Pegu, intellectual gent with expensive leanings and no cash. Conversation turned on said aristocrat's claim to own birthright in enormous tract of this forest. Did mention likelihood of same being exchangeable, like Testament swap for mess of pottage—cash in this case."
"How did you know about that?"
"Am all things to all men, sahib. To your honour, truthfull. Was employed by rajah of that ilk to make rounds of Hindu moneylenders in all cities, offering undiscoverable title as security for long-time loan. Was not inundated with success, but drew personal expenses in advance."
To let such a person as Chullunder Ghose into a secret on equal terms would have been tantamount to asking him to take advantage of it. Ommony did not dare even to smile, much less confess that the babu had led up to his hand with perfect intuition.
"I gave you leave to sleep here one night," he said presently, after turning the problem over in his mind.
"Am 'whelmed with gratitude!"
"Go in the morning—at break of day—before Mr. Strange wakes up."
"On foot? By train? To Hades?"
"The Rajah of Chota Pegu's horse is in my stable. Ride across the forest and return the horse to its owner with my compliments."
"A red one? Sahib, I know that beast! Self am not expert in equitation. Forest, moreover, is full of leopards, tigers, elephants, and snakes of all sorts! Do not know way."
"I will lend you a jungli."
"Who will kill and eat me! Sahib, with your honour's favour this babu will take train and change at Sissoo Junction."
"You will leave with that horse before daybreak. You may have two junglis," answered Ommony. "If you fall off they will catch the horse and put you on again."
"You do not know, sahib, what such fear means to person of unathletic temperament!"
But Ommony did know, and knew, too, the only way short of banishment to keep the babu from jockeying for the upper hand of all concerned. Banishment was out of the question; he needed the babu's services.
"You leave before daybreak on the red horse," he insisted unsympathetically. "Keep out of Mr. Strange's sight meanwhile."
Ommony interrupted by glancing down at him. Their eyes met, and the babu understood. There are men who will listen to all sides of a case, but can never be wheedled when once they have given decision.
"What shall I do, then, at Chota Pegu!"
"My advice to you is to watch your step, Chullunder Ghose. I imagine your reward, if Madame Poulakis' plan succeeds, will be proportioned to your zeal. But I assure you the penalty, in case the plan fails through any treachery on your part, will be out of all proportion to the importance of the matter in hand. Let that ride through the jungle tomorrow morning be a hint to you."
"Sahib, hint at me with a riding-whip! Take bail! Let me sign a stipulation before witnesses! Only not that jungle ride!"
"And when you get there," Ommony went on, ignoring the babu's outburst, "look about you. Get to know people—as, for instance, priests. If I should send word to you by jungli to meet me in a certain place, why not keep the appointment? If the rajah asks you about Mr. Meldrum Strange, you may say—"
"Let me memorize your honour's wisdom!"
"—whatever occurs to you as good sense at the moment. Bed now! There's a cot in the out-house."
The babu shuffled off, his bare feet rutching on the polished floor, and Ommony joined his guests on the verandah. But Meldrum Strange proved taciturn, not even loosening his tongue under the influence of questions about the tiger he shot that morning. He was not diffident about having shot a tiger without Ommony's permission; he made that obvious. From the first he had challenged Ommony's right to have any say in such matters. But there was a new challenge noticeable in his whole demeanour. Abruptly, without apology, he announced his intention of retiring early, and walked off with hardly a muttered good night.
"The old man's cooking something," Jeff said, as soon as they heard the bedroom door slam.
"Did he overhear me speaking to the babu?"
"Then I don't care what he cooks. He'll choke on it!"
"Pity I didn't choke him yesterday!" Jeff grumbled. "Strange is no fool when it comes to business. All the way home this morning, after we slot the tiger, he was telling me what a magnificent property this forest is. He has made up his mind to have it. That beastly babu has told him how to get it. All he's wondering now is how to meet the Rajah of Chota Pegu without arousing your suspicion."
"That's all arranged," said Ommony. "If I know Chota Pegu he'll be here soon after breakfast with his best horse foundered under him. I shan't be here. This is the order of the day: Chullunder Ghose rides away before it's light. In all likelihood he'll meet the rajah and have word with him. I leave an hour later. If I chance to meet the rajah I'll have word with him too. You see him next, and leave him alone with Meldrum Strange. They'll cook up something or other between them; and there's nothing we can do until we find out what that is. There's only one point to be careful on: are you sure the babu didn't tell Strange about Madame Poulakis?"
"Pretty sure. Strange would have blown up if he had told."
"If the rajah says anything to you about her—I expect he won't—just warn him that's a dangerous subject. If Strange once learns she's near—"
"He'll run! He'll run like the wind!" said Ramsden.
"Why is he so afraid of her?"
"He's afraid of himself. He likes her too well. He's afraid of the papers. If he should marry her, they'd dig up the scandal about her first husband in Egypt—scareheads, and a full page in the Sunday supplement. He's afraid the scandal might be made to stick to him. If she wins, Ommony, I'll stick to Strange; he'll be worth it, with her to take the brute out of him. He has imagination, brains, and a kind of courage. She'll give him a heart."
Ommony turned in and lay awake until after midnight, tossing and retossing the problem over in his mind. He was aware of Strange doing the same thing in the next room—brain against brain, greed against conservation, selfishness against a life devoted to the trees. But the odds were in favour of Ommony, and he fell asleep first. Fate's dice, he felt, were loaded against the millionaire.
He was awakened long before dawn by Strange calling to Jeff Ramsden. Jeff came from his tent in pyjamas to sit on Strange's bed, and for a while there was only audible an irregular jumble of explosions from Strange and Jeff's deep mono-syllabic answers. But once he caught words:
"Why don't you go straight to headquarters and have it out with the Government, if you want the forest?" Jeff insisted.
"Don't be an ass! They'd listen to him, not me. Whatever I offered, they'd think they might get more. Odds are, they'd call in competition. Parcel it out in the end to coolie contractors. This has got to be done quietly—jockey 'em into a false position—crowd 'em to the rails, and walk away with it. Ommony's a fanatic. You can't buy or bulldose his sort. Nothing to do but beat 'em to it."
"Well: I've told you what I think," Jeff answered.
"You think with your biceps! You've a head that 'ud make first class wienerwurst!"
Ommony fell asleep again. But he was up before dawn, helping Chullunder Ghose to mount the red horse, charging two junglis to deliver the babu safely at Chota Pegu, and seeing to it that they started off by the back way, behind the house, out of sight from Strange's bedroom window. He breakfasted alone, and was on the way himself less than an hour later, leaving only one horse in the stable, and no chance for Destiny to missfire, because that one horse was so sore-backed from carrying Jeff's weight that none could ride him. Strange, who disliked walking, would have to stay near the house that morning. Ommony, too, took the trail for Chota Pegu, but in no hurry. He had all the dogs with him—a sure sign he was out on no forty-mile journey. At the foot of the look-out rock he tethered the horse, with a couple of junglis close at hand to watch for leopards, then climbed the obelisk-like rock, and waited, turning a pair of field-glasses at intervals on the face of a bare hill, over whose rock-strewn summit the track to Chota Pegu zigzagged not many miles away.
It was an hour and a half before he saw a horseman hurrying along like an insect, downward among the distant rocks. Then it occurred to him there was another trail available to a man in a great hurry who knew the forest well. He called down to the junglis, and one of them started away through the trees like a phantom, followed by Diana and the other dogs. (Hereditary junglis are as dirt beneath the feet of an hereditary prince; but a white man's dogs are not to be despised.) In course he heard barking—Diana's echoing bell, and the yap-yap of the others. Then Diana came streaking down the lane with filtered sunlight poured on her between the trees, so that she looked like a golden god-thing. She climbed in a hundred leaps, and lay down panting, making no remark. There was nothing untoward. But the yap-yap of the other two continued, coming nearer, with now and then an angry shout from someone who, perhaps would rather not have his exact location known. Ommony pulled tobacco out, and lit his pipe. The gradually closing view of Destiny contented him.
Two dogs, belligerent and pausing every now and then to yelp another challenge, galloped into sight, climbed the rock, and lay down gasping beside Diana. The drumming of hoofs pursued them. In a minute more the Rajah of Chota Pegu reined in a sweating stallion, whose legs were trembling, glanced at Ommony's tied horse, looked up, and nodded angrily.
"Keep your dogs chained!" he shouted. "Why don't you thrash your junglis oftener? I'll kill the next beast that gets in my way! Damn them! They drove me like a buffalo at milking-time! Get some decent dogs, why can't you!"
"Come up, and rest your horse," called Ommony. "Why blame the dogs for good luck? We might have missed each other."
Soft answers turn away wrath sometimes. They usually turn violence into vehemence. Occasionally they take all the wind out of a man's sails, suddenly.
"Were you expecting me?" the rajah asked; and his voice betrayed him. He had hoped to get in touch with Strange before Ommony could forewarn or prevent. Now he was wondering how Ommony could possibly have divined his purpose. He was bewildered. He felt like one who sees the rum of his calculations.
"I'm merely delighted to see you," Ommony answered. "Come on up."
So the rajah hitched his horse beside Ommony's, and climbed slowly, turning matters over in his mind. He had to make some excuse for being there, at that early hour, on a horse so obviously foundered, some excuse that could not compromise him.
"Have a seat," suggested Ommony; and the rajah produced a cigarette, after one enquiring glance into Ommony's eyes, East studying West and learning nothing.
"What's your rush?" Ommony asked, knocking his pipe on the rock and refilling it.
The rajah hesitated. How much had Ommony guessed? He had to answer something.
"Madame Poulakis told me of an American millionaire staying at your place," he said at last. "She heard of him yesterday from you. I've never seen one of the breed, and I'm curious."
"Almost eager," ventured Ommony.
"Yes. I propose to invite him to call on me before she goes away. She can help entertain him."
He knew how lame his excuse had sounded, and waited for Ommony to provide him a better cue, but Ommony was leading, not following suit.
"Did you meet anyone on the way?" he asked, with eyes averted. (If he had wanted the rajah to lie he would have looked straight at him and forced the pace.)
The rajah thought rapidly, and saw no sense in an evasion. "Only a babu, bringing back the horse I lent you yesterday."
"Have word with him?"
The rajah thought again. He thought so long that the answer to the question became obvious.
"We spoke. He's a man I have trusted on occasion. Is he in your confidence?"
"God forbid!" said Ommony, grinning.
The rajah looked relieved, but it did not last long. Elbows on knees, pointing the stem of his pipe at him, Ommony cleared the issue and clouded it in one breath.
"See here," he said quietly, Dutch-uncle fashion. "If you want to meet Meldrum Strange there's no objection. He's a free man; you're a rajah. But—if you propose to do business with him—anything along the lines you hinted to me yesterday—count me against you. Understand? I don't want Strange owning any of this forest—don't want him owning even a doubtful claim to a reversionary interest. Are we clear as to that?"
The rajah nodded angrily.
"They are my personal private rights," he retorted.
"Exactly," said Ommony. "Then you do as you personally, privately jolly well please with them. But count me out. I refuse my official backing."
"Ah! Hah! I understand. Unofficially—"
"Unofficially I give you this advice. If you let Meldrum Strange know Madame Poulakis is at your place he'll stay away."
"Thanks. You saved me then from a mistake. Aha! Downy old dodger! I see through you! Officially unbending, eh? Unofficially hoping, isn't that it?" He slapped Ommony on the thigh in the well-known fashion of the hale and hearty West (as per instruction book of Western manners).
"Tell me: what kind of man is this Strange to deal with?"
"Hard," said Ommony.
"No. Crushes like a python."
"Quick, I should say, when he makes his mind up."
"What is his weakness?"
"Dread of publicity."
There was silence for about a minute, in which Ommony would have given a year's pay for the gift of reading what was in the rajah's mind. At the end of it the rajah stood up, straightened himself, and salaamed to the dogs with both hands.
"I apologize!" he said, with a big grin. "You saved a faux pas. You brought me to the fount of wisdom. When you visit me there shall be sheep's bones—and no strychnine!"
He waved his hand jauntily, and started down the rock, awkwardly because of long spurs. Half-way down he turned and called back:
"Downy old dodger! After this you will retire, of course! I will meet you in Paris!"
Ommony ignored the innuendo. In India a man grows used to misinterpretation of his motives. Even if he could have proved, black on white, that Strange had not bribed him, the rajah would have continued unconvinced.
"Don't take my horse," he warned. "That bay's an old friend."
"A very old one—yet fresher than mine!"
"I won't have him ill-treated."
"Pooh! Use him for tiger-bait! That is all he is fit for!"
Ten minutes earlier the rajah would have deemed it dangerous to jest in that strain. Now he judged himself a sharer of Ommony's guilty secret, with privileges accordingly. But Ommony relit his pipe and watched him canter away without letting that disturb him. Nothing need disturb a man, except his enemy find out the truth; the more lies for the enemy to lose himself among the better.
Presently he came down off the rock and rode his rounds as if the day's work in the forest were his sole concern. There was a new fire-lane a-cutting; and he superintended that, contriving to let the hours slip by without any underlings observing that le was simply squandering time. It was high noon before he headed homeward, and met Jeff Ramsden waiting for him at the lane end, near the house.
"They've put you on ice;" said Jeff. "The rajah has been here all morning, and the poor fool thinks he can outwit Strange."
"I think he can, too! grinned Ommony.
"He has offered to sell Strange his rights in the forest."
"Has money changed hands?"
"No, but the rajah has suggested you're corruptible!"
Jeff's ponderous shape encloses an unsubtle mind that detests even the suggestion of dishonesty.
"I could have smashed the brute for hinting it!"
"What did the rajah say, for instance?"
"Nothing definite. When Strange suggested that you might have objections, the brute answered by moving his hand like this, and smiling."
"Saw a great light suddenly! It dawned on him the cheque-book was the key to your position."
"So it is!"
"I'm an at sea," said Jeff. "Are you joking?"
"No. I intend to raid Strange's bank account as surely as he means to raid my forest. Old fellow, I have sold my soul for a promise by Zelmira Poulakis," said Ommony, grinning. "The forests must redeem me. Out of corruption shall come forth trees—"
"This is over my head," Jeff grumbled.
"So shall the trees be in time!"
"Ommony, I warn you: Strange has teeth! Take his money on his terms, and he'll grind you to the ground. Many a man has rued the day he took a—"
Jeff hesitated. Ommony filled in the word.
"—a bribe from him? I'll take blood-money. He and the rajah—"
"They're thick as thieves," said Jeff.
"Thick or thick-headed?" asked Ommony.
"Strange is playing with fire made of ennui, debt, and the lure of a gay city, He'll burn his fingers, Jeff, and come to me for salve and bandages. You wait and see."
"I know Strange, and you don't," Jeff answered dubiously.
"C.O. to Z.P. Hold the fort. Let nothing persuade you to leave the palace until further advice from me. Be sick if necessary. Please feed the dog before sending her back."
In the small, file-littered office behind his bedroom Ommony folded the slip of paper and tucked it under the leather loop inside Diana's collar. Then he pulled out Zelmira's handkerchief and let the hound smell the vague, unusual scent.
"Go quick!" he ordered.
The hound's tail drooped. She detested errands so far away from Ommony, but was too well used to them to hesitate. As if she had been reproved she drew her tail tight under her and slunk out, but broke into a trot the moment she left the house, and within the minute was extended in the long, elastic canter she could hold all day.
Ommony had begun to see daylight through the words; but the rajah was in a quandary. He stayed to lunch, and used every artifice he could invent for decoying Ommony into a téte-â-téte. But that astute individual purposed neither to advise him further nor to arouse suspicion by refusing. He could not even be tempted into a corner by the sight of a new, gold-plated pistol. He was depending on Destiny, in league with the fire "made of ennui, debt, and the lure of a gay city." Prodding at Destiny impatiently is apt to bring the importunist down under the flaming wheels, so his artifices for avoiding private conversation were better invented than the rajah's for procuring it. Even the excuse that the stallion was unfit for the journey home availed nothing; while the beast was resting Ommony employed himself among the new plantations on his own horse, and in the end the rajah had to ride away on the stallion uncomforted by wisdom from his host.
Then Ommony took tea on the verandah, under the guns of Strange's arrogant contempt.
"That stuff's the undoing of the English!" Strange volunteered. "They sip tea like old women—even in the Bank of England. It's the symbol of England's decadence."
"You think we've fallen far yet?" Ommony asked him.
Strange snorted. "You're succumbing to the same degeneracy you've imposed on conquered Peoples—just as Rome did. That rajah's a case for you. Intelligent in a superficial way, like a monkey. I don't doubt his ancestors were men, who could seize, administer, and keep; they'd know enough to rule. That fellow's delighted like a child with a new toy pistol—spineless—no initiative; he's a product of afternoon tea and English education!"
The light back of Ommony's eyes was of a deeper amusement than the outburst seemed to warrant. But Strange by habit scorned the men he proposed to have the better of, and the strongest are blind when in that mood. It is on written record in Millsville, N.H., that Meldrum Strange at fourteen was turned out of Sunday school for insisting that, if he had been Goliath, not only would he have crushed David at long range with a big rock, but that he would have been right to do it.
"I hate to see the world stand still. Progress!" he insisted. "'That's the proper keynote. Progress!"
After dinner that evening he resumed the topic. He was still laying law down, lecturing Ommony on the proper use of opportunity, when Diana slunk up through the shadows to the verandah and lay down at Ommony's feet. She was so quiet that not even Jeff observed her. The other dogs took no notice. Ommony slid his hand down to feel for a message in the loop under the collar, found what he expected, snatched it out, and shouted in Tamil:
"Boy! Bring the flashlight!"
"Care to come, Jeff?" he asked, explaining nothing, but leading the dog by the collar, away from Strange, around the corner of the verandah to where a side-door, seldom used, provided access near the bathroom. The servant brought the flashlight.
"Warm water in a hurry!" Ommony commanded.
"Blood!" said Jeff, fingering the dog's shoulder.
"I thought at first it was a blow from a leopard," said Ommony, "but you see, there's a hole in here and out there. It must have left off bleeding some time ago. No serious damage. Hurts her, though."
Diana whimpered as Ommony fingered the loose skin above her powerful shoulders.
"Bullet undoubtedly," said Jeff.
"Might be a 32. Did you notice a weapon of that bore this afternoon?"
"The rajah's gold-plated toy!"
"Exactly! Nobody else anywhere near this forest owns a 32. That rascally rajah suspected her of carrying a message; Diana's notorious, ain't you, old lady! And he's a good shot with a pistol, damn his eyes!"
"It was a close call for the dog," said Jeff, examining the wound.
"As close for me, I think! Let's see what the message says."
He read it by the bathroom night-lamp, holding Diana with one hand to keep her quiet, while the servant held the flashlight and Jeff syringed out the wound, the dog whimpering.
"Z.P. to C.O. Am sitting tight. Chullunder Ghose met him in forest and told about Strange liking to shoot tigers. Chullunder Ghose says that may open Panch Mahal, but I don't understand what he means. Will be very sick if necessary. Please meet Charley at noon to-morrow at the lookout rock. He will ride the horse you left here. Chullunder Ghose says the rajah has no funds. Shall I lend?"
"No, no, no!" said Ommony, so that Jeff looked up, whereat Ommony took the scissors and clipped carefully.
"There, old lady; you'll be all right in a few days."
He stuffed the note in his pocket and scratched his chin, grinning. "It beats the Dutch," he said, "the way Dave Destiny arranges things. Strange goes from here to the Panch Mahal. That's a little old-fashioned palace twenty miles from Chota Pegu, where rajahs hold high revel on occasion. It means 'the play-place of the ladies.'"
"Gosh!" said Jeff.
"Two tuts! The tiger-shooting's often very good there. Caretakers have kept the place from ruin, but it hasn't been used often in the last ten years."
"Any personal risk to Strange?" Jeff asked, acutely conscious of being on Strange's pay-roll.
"Prodigious, I should say it means Zelmira marries him!"
In spite of his quarrelsome mood Strange presently wearied of sitting alone, and came blustering in to see what they were doing. Diana, in no sweet mood herself, showed him a glimpse of her fangs.
"Place looks like a butcher-shop!" he snorted, and blustered out again.
"Thought so!" said Ommony.
"I have what you'd call the dope on him. Men who want to save the world by system and tyranny are all alike. Everything's impersonal until it applies to him personally—blood in a bathroom included."
"Exactly. That's why I'd rather resign and then like him!" said Jeff. "Do him good!"
"No. Save him for Zelmira! That's her job. Besides, you see, she has bought my soul!" Ommony answered, grinning his pleasantest.
Jeff had utterly ceased to enjoy his visit. A stickler for loyalty all his life long, he hated to lend a hand against Strange, but hated at least equally the thought of Strange accepting Ommony's hospitality and using the man's very roof as a cover for intrigue. Ommony's loyalty to the forest and the job appealed to Jeff; Strange's greed and arrogance disgusted him; but worse than either, he despised himself for not knowing what to do about it. Ommony divined the situation pretty accurately.
"Are Strange's love-affairs your business?" he asked, cleaning out the syringe.
"No, and, by Gad, I'm not his valet!"
"What is your job?"
"I'm his partner in business—salaried partner. He owns control and can vote me out any time he sees fit."
"Stick to business, then."
"I'll have to warn him to pull out of this, then."
Ommony grinned again. "I wish you would! If you'll stick strictly to business, and leave him to paddle his love canoe, there'll be no accidents."
So Jeff recovered his good-humour, and when bedtime came he followed Strange into his room and sat there for an hour, while Ommony, remaining with his pipe on the verandah, caught fragments of a violent debate, in between the pauses of his own conversation with two men, who wore no clothes, and did not trespass on to the verandah, but spoke like dark goblins from the shadow beyond the flower-bed.
"You're a natural born employee! You can't see things on a big scale!"
"I see more than you imagine! I'm warning you."
"You've osseous formations on the occiput! Bone and beef aren't brain! How d'you suppose I made millions? By being afraid of things? You and this man Ommony would make a pair in double harness! Go to bed."
"All right. I've said my say, and you won't listen. I tell you again, you're wrong. D'you want my resignation?"
"No, you ass! When I want that I'll tell you quick enough. You're a first-class detail man—a perfect child when it comes to visualizing. Turn in and sleep off your fears!"
Jeff came glooming out on the way to his tent, and sat down for a minute beside Ommony; and once again, as the pipe-ash glowed and dimmed, Ommony divined the wise remark to offer:
"You see, you're a bit too big to quit in the middle of it all. I've depended on you all along to go to the Panch Mahal with Strange and see him through it."
"I'm dumb from now on!" Jeff retorted, and, shoving his pipe in his pocket, strode discontentedly to bed. Ommony sat still on the verandah for half an hour, chuckling at intervals.
Next morning only the servants saw him, for he breakfasted alone, and thereafter rode to the new plantations, superintending precautions against drought until it was nearly noon and time to keep the appointment with Charley Wear. He was seated up on the look-out rock when Charley came galloping down the glade, and Charley, squinting at lights and half-lights, climbed up to sit beside him.
"I was afraid you wouldn't get the message," Charley began, when lie had his breath. "The rajah said he saw your dog limping along as if someone had shot her. He sent out men to hunt for anyone with a firearm who might have done it.
"In America you call that 'bull,'" Ommony answered. "Here it's known as eye-wash. He shot the dog, but she got home."
"How do you know that?"
Ommony whistled. Two black, naked shadows emerged from the trees and stood bathed in the sun.
"Those men saw it. They came last night and told me."
He whistled again and the junglis disappeared.
"Well I'm damned!" muttered Charley.
"No. The rajah is. It's too bad poor old Di got hurt, but she'll recover, and the rajah won't. For doing that, he shall have his own way and go to Paris, where the last state of that rajah will be worse than the first. Do you know Paris, Charley? There are professionals there, male and female, who can squeeze a rajah dry in shorter time than it takes you and me to squeeze a lemon. Thereafter, the ash-heap! He's a nuisance here."
"Too bad, it'll be his subjects' money."
"No. Strange's money!"
"I don't get you."
"Strange will! And Zelmira will get him, if she plays her hand wisely. There's only one link missing now. What did you come to talk to me about?"
"Nothing serious," said Charley. "There's a box on the way from Delhi, addressed to me in your care. Do you mind paying the charges on it and arranging for me to get it somehow?"
Ommony filled his pipe and lit it carefully before he answered. He likes to suppress excitement. He crowded it down the way he put tobacco in, making sure none protruded.
"I believe I'll be delighted," he said then. "Is it bad manners to ask what's in the box?"
"My motion picture outfit."
"Scads of it."
Ommony's outgoing breath, smoke-burdened, bore a prayer of thanks into the Infinite.
"The last link! Charley, you shall have that box if I have to set it on my own head, and carry it on foot, alone, all the way across the forest to Chota Pegu! What did the gods look like who put that thought into your head?"
"She's a goddess. Zelmira had me send for before he left Delhi," Charley answered. "She's as mad about movies as the rest of 'em."
"Whom attack hath made mad let none offend!" answered Ommony, piously quoting Scripture.
There were days after that when Strange fretted, and the problem was to distract him from a too quick move that might have been equally advantageous for Ommony, who held all trumps, but none the less fatal to Zelmira Poulakis. And Ommony considered her his partner now, to be considered only less than the forest.
The old disease that had rioted unchecked in Strange for forty years, lulled for a while by his now great scheme to be the world's arch-sleuth, had broken out anew with threefold virulence.
Attain! Acquire! Possess! Exploit! Then on to something else! It boiled in his veins—set his brain on fire. It was all so easy! All a man needed was the money and initiative—that, and the gift of recognizing opportunity.
The only immediate outlet for his surging energy was the forest, so he began to butcher game. The slaughtered buck meant no more to him than yesterday when it is past. Blood-lust was not in him. He recoiled from carcases, cared nothing for the trophies, only ached to demonstrate his own ability and feel the power that fed. Blood on his hands disgusted him; it was all too personal. When his clothes were soiled he changed them, and returned for more hunting. He was not cruel in the ordinary sense; he killed clean, or when he failed to kill, kept after the wounded beast until he had it. But the power to kill was his, and he used it, stoking the fires beneath that other power, to have, that he intended to use too.
Jeff protested on occasion, for he was a big-game hunter born.
"If I don't, someone will," Strange answered. "Life's like that. Take, or it shall be taken from you, even that which you have. I've neglected this part of my education. You've neglected business. The result is I've got millions to your thousands, but you're the better shot. I'll learn this. You cultivate your head!"
Ommony knew what was going on, but had no time to interfere, not much inclination. The game had to be sacrificed on the forest altar. Nature, left alone, would restore the balance presently. He had the big victory to plan for. This butchery was an affair of outposts, not beneath his notice, but insufficient to distract him from the main plan. However, it did not reduce his grim determination to make the ultimate defeat of Meldrum Strange a rout, and if he once had thought of offering quarter, that sweet reasonableness vanished. The devil, that in varying percentage lives in every human, had Cottswold Ommony by the heart-strings; nor was its grip loosened in the least by knowledge that Strange had sent to Bombay for money in large quantities, and that the money had arrived.
So he himself sent a telegram, and then rode to interview the rajah; but this time instead of waiting at the outer gate for the usual rigmarole, he sent in a note, and rode away to a clearing near the forest edge, where the masonry of an ancient well was crumbling to decay. There he dismounted and waited, peering curiously into and around the well, as if he had expected something, and presently was satisfied. He did not wait long; there was that in his note that had not suggested dalliance.
The rajah came cantering, and drew rein just in sight of him, then advanced at a walk, endeavouring to look at ease with all the world and his own thoughts. The result was an absurd mixture of nerves and indifference, whose effect was heightened by the extravagant gesture with which he threw away a half-smoked cigarette.
"Shall we ride together?" he suggested.
"Sit here," said Ommony, laying his hand on the stonework of the ruined well.
The rajah immensely disliked receiving orders, but an open quarrel would have been no convenient thing to have on hand at that crisis of his affairs; he dismounted with an ill grace, threw his reins over a tree-stump, and sat down with arms folded.
"Well?" he asked. "What?"
"Have you your pistol with you?"
"You're mistaken. It's in that side pocket."
The rajah muttered an exclamation. It was easy enough to guess what he would have liked to do.
"Huh! My servant put it there, eh? The fool must have thought—"
"May I see it?" asked Ommony.
There was no alternative. As resentfully as a boy caught stealing apples, the rajah produced the gold-plated thing butt-end first. Ommony took it, glanced at it, and dropped it down the well, with his other hand preventing the rajah from peering down after it. The well must have been either deep or empty. There came no sound of the pistol's reaching bottom.
"You won't shoot any dog again with that, at all events."
"I did nothing of the kind—",
"I have the dog to prove it, and two witnesses. Shall we ask the dog to settle the point? She's not fit to run yet, but I can have her carried over; or you may come to my place, and we'll know in a minute who's telling the truth."
The rajah showed his teeth and chewed the end of his moustache. Then he glanced to right and left. There were no witnesses.
"The beast was being used to carry messages from spies on me!" he snarled. "How dare you do that!" he demanded.
"I dare worse. I dare charge you with plotting to sell this forest to Meldrum Strange without so much as notifying the Government of your intention! But be satisfied with throwing your pistol down the well, provided!"
"Provided you're reasonable, too."
The rajah glanced to right and left again. The only audience was the horses. Rage had him by the throat, but princes in these drab, degenerate days are worse off than beggars, in that a beggar need have no master. He choked the rage down with an effort, and forced a smile.
"Well, all right then, we're quits. I did shoot your infernal dog, and that well's deep, confound you! But look here, Ommony, old boy, I must have money, and the shroffs won't lend."
"I understand you've told Strange I'm corruptible," said Ommony.
The rajah glared.
"He told you that?" He lies! He—"
"Oh, no, he didn't lie."
The enemy's mistakes win the victor's battle. The astonishing thought that Strange (not Ramsden) had betrayed him to Ommony more unmanned the rajah than a thrashing would have done; and Ommony was quick to seize advantage.
"What a fool you are to trust a stranger and betray an old friend," he said indignantly. "I've been your friend through thick and thin! I've backed you against the priests, against the central government, against your creditors—against your—self! You've never set a foot wrong when you listened to me. Your revenue is nearly double what it was. You've received a coveted honour on my recommendation. You know as well as I do that my one concern is this forest. And you reward friendship by trying to undo my life's work! What do you think would happen if Strange should ever get a foothold here?"
Now the rajah traced his ancestry so far back into the dawn of time, and was so inbred (lest the royal strain should be defiled), that European kings were vulgar riff-raff by comparison. And that is a condition that begets a point of view. The ancientry arose within him.
"What do I care? Who are you, you foreigner!" he snorted, "to come here and meddle? The land and the forest are mine—you hear me? mine! You English are thieves, that's all—thieves who will be kicked out presently, those of you who are not dead with—"
"With our boots on," Ommony suggested. "Let's not worry about after that. Until then, is the problem. Until the Powers hoist my number I'm forest guardian, and you've me to deal with. Now then. What are you going to do?"
The rajah confessed to himself, at any rate, that he did not know, and his face told Ommony the tale. That is a state of mind that jumps at ready-made solutions.
"What you thought of doing was to sell to Meldrum Strange alleged forest rights, that are doubtful, to put it mildly, and to leave him to fight through the courts for the title. That's dishonest. Why don't you sell him something you do own?"
"Do you own the Panch Mahal?"
The rajah scowled. That was another property on which the shroffs would not lend one rupee, not because the rajah's heritage was doubtful, but because the priests of the temple of Siva in Chota Pegu claimed a lien on it. There was no pretence of its being a legal lien, only one of those theoretical and subtly enforced claims that the Church in all ages and all climes has maintained irresistibly.
"You know what the priests say."
"What can they do?" demanded Ommony.
"Dogs! I won't go near them! They avoid my court. They set the rabble against me. They have me hooted in the streets. They deny me caste. I will make no overtures to that swarm of cankering worms!"
Pride of that sort is impregnable by direct assault, but more susceptible to flank attack than an over-extended speculator.
"Chullunder Ghose has no pride," Ommony remarked, as if to the blue sky, apropos of nothing.
That set the rajah thinking on a new line. He would have loved to cheat the priests—to double-cross and laugh at them; but he did not dare attempt that; the priests' power is too subtle and far-reaching, as well as ruthless. Pride, that is sweeter than success, restrained him from an open bargain with them. Poverty—extravagance—the distant lights of La Ville Lumiere impelled. Chullunder Ghose was a rogue with brains, who would serve any master who paid him well enough. Strange vs. Priests of Siva would be a game worth while for the Pantheon of Heaven to come and watch!
Ommony, watching the rajah as a salesman studies his prospect, judged his time and struck.
"I'm against Strange," he said frankly, leaning back against the masonry with both hands in his pockets. "You'd better sell him the Panch Mahal, and stick to your old friends."
"Will you not prevent my selling him the Panch Mahal?"
"Why should I?"
"Will you help me against the priests?"
"It's against British policy to interfere in religious matters. You must manage them yourself. Perhaps the priests may make first overtures. They're omniscient, you know. They read thoughts. They're always forehanded. You won't have to eat humble-pie if they come to you first."
"I must think this over." said the rajah.
"And Madame Poulakis?"
"For the moment leave her out of it."
"How can I? She is becoming a nuisance. I cannot invite Strange to the palace while she is there, and she has begun to have sick headaches. She complains she is too unwell to travel."
"Keep Strange away, then. Take him to the Panch Mahal."
"But I can't go away and leave her in the palace."
"It is unthinkable."
"Try to think it. She's a gentlewoman. You can't be rude to her."
The rajah hesitated, then took two steps and stood in front of Ommony with arms folded.
"Tell me what she is doing here!" he said. "Chullunder Ghose persuaded me I might reap advantage from her visit. Whenever I ask her why she came, she laughs; and the babu swears he's afraid to tell what her business is. Am I being made a catspaw in some scheme?"
"I'd let the babu manage that, if I were you."
"You took his advice in the first place. Carry on! You've never failed when you took my advice. Go home and think it over!"
The rajah snapped his fingers with irritation, chewed at his moustache a moment, scowled, swore irresolutely, scowled again, glanced once at Ommony, who met his eyes good-humouredly, kicked at a stone, and made his mind up.
"I will try the luck a last time. All or nothing! I will carry on. Ommony, old boy, if you've misled me this time—"
He left the nature of the threat to be imagined, mounted, and rode away, glancing back twice swiftly over-shoulder, as if to catch Ommony's expression unalert and so divine his secret mood. But he was out of sight before a peacock-coloured turban arose slowly from within the well, and a full, fat face beneath it surveyed the scene cautiously.
"Sahib, choose new assignation spot! Standing on six-inch ledge, holding with fingers of one hand, with drop into watery bowels of underworld the penalty for least slip, is Grand Guignol sensation!
"Why not hold on with both hands?" Ommony asked, without looking round.
"Needed one for pistol, which sahib dumped. Self was dumped. Said very valuable weapon fell on this babu. Having caught same, could not move for purpose of disposal within clothing. Verb. sap. Am emasculated—very!"
He climbed out over the rim of the well and stretched himself painfully, one section at a time.
"Am creased like old kerosene can! Yow! I need a hammer to outflatten me!"
"Did you hear what was said?" Ommony asked, lighting his pipe, and not even looking at him sideways.
The babu sat down cross-legged on a broken stone to one side of the well, where he was least conspicuous, and proceeded to examine the pistol. He faced away from Ommony. Their conversation might have been directed to the empty air.
"Unlike regal artillery, am not gold-plated. Oh, no, very far from it. Am impoverished person. Nevertheless, resembling gun in other matters, I go off when safety catch is released and trigger pressed—thus. Yow! I did not know it was loaded!"
"Answer my question then."
"All things on this plane are relative and governed by desire. How much did the sahib wish me to hear?"
"What did you hear?"
"Acoustic properties of well are excellent."
"Can you take a hint?"
"On paper is easiest, sahib—with signature of executive of bank of issue!"
"Get your pay from your employer.
"Sahib, it is difficult for untitled and impecunious babu to obtain permit to carry firearms. Now if influential sahib—"
"Should demand the pistol back," suggested Ommony.
"Will try again! There are but five shots left in magazine, plus one empty cartridge, which might be refilled by expedient person in emergency. Sale of ammunition to this babu being ultra vires of inspected commerce, sahib in his magnanimity might—"
"Better take the hint," suggested Ommony. "If I heard too much talk about pistols I might begin to look for one."
"Ah doo me!"
"Have you made the acquaintance of the priests?"
"Have accumulated glamour of much sanctity."
"Well? What are you waiting for?
"I tell you I'm not your employer."
"Oh, no! You are only person who can send me on red stallion through forest full of tigers, a pulled by cannibals*, who drive me before them, replacing me on back of said terrifying stallion when I frequently fall off! You are unconnected person, who can nevertheless compel me to cling by toe and finger-nails to wall of snakesome well. Not my employer! Nevertheless, this babu awaits emolument."
[* There is a rather widely spread but wholly false belief held by town-bred Indians to the effect that the jungle natives are cannibals.]
But Ommony knew better. Fifty rupees from him would have made the babu as undependable as a dog that is bribed to obey.
"Get on or get out!" ordered Ommony. "I can manage well without you."
"Is gratitude always ex post facto? May not generosity cast its shadow in advance?" the babu grumbled.
"It's getting late," said Ommony. "Suppose you walk to the palace and present my compliments to Madame Poulakis. Ask, if her head doesn't ache too much if she'd care to meet me in the grounds."
The babu sighed, salaamed, and waddled off. Ommony gave him ample time to get out of sight, then mounted and rode slowly after him for a quarter of a mile, in order to make sure he had not doubled back to watch him through the trees. However, he saw the broad back continuing in the right direction; and a back tells more than some men's faces; the babu's air was business-like, and Ommony turned again, contented.
He rode into the forest by a trail not often used, pulled out his watch, whistled, peered about him, cantered for a mile or so along a glade, found rising ground, and ascending that, at last saw what he was looking for. A thing of many legs, like a prehistoric monster, passed slowly over a rise a mile beyond him, moving his way. He sat down then and waited until he heard grunts, complaints, and quarreling; but before their source appeared in sight he mounted and rode back slowly toward the well.
He had not dared wait. He had done a miracle. He had persuaded sixteen junglis, to whom toil at anything but hunting is a worse contemplation than hunger, to carry a load to him across the forest, and they are literal-minded folk. They would have dropped the load and run away if they found him anywhere before the journey's end. So he sat down by a stone but with an iron roof, that he himself had built years ago to hold tools, when planting was in progress thereabouts. The hut was almost hidden in the trees and undergrowth, and the padlock had rusted into uselessness, but he smashed that and put a new one in its place.
Then the junglis came, weary beyond belief, thin-legged and all new to the exercise, carrying shoulder high a big box lashed in the midst of four poles.
He praised them, promising that the devils of the jungle should impose no more red-sickness for seven years, and rewarded them fabulously from the contents of his saddle-bag. Each bewildered one received, when the box was safely in the hut, a brand-new, glittering, imported knife, whose blade would actually fold into the handle. Each knife had a ring on it, to hang it to a fellow's neck by, and a bright brass chain through the ring. It was incredible; but there the knives were, and they ran lest the devils should see, and envy them, and make new sorts of trouble.
No need to warn them not to talk. Only Ommony in all that forest could converse with them. They understood not more than ten words in any other language than their own decayed Lemurian.
With the key of the hut in his pocket Ommony rode on to the palace, and was admitted this time by a side gate, since there was nothing official about his call. Zelmira with Charley in attendance waited for him in an open-sided summer-house in the midst of three acres of neglected garden. There was no chance of eavesdropping, but they themselves were easily visible from the palace windows.
"What's that?" asked Charley.
"A key to Destiny! Your box is in a hut I'll show you. Have you developer?"
"Can you overcome the mechanical difficulties?"
Ommony spoke calmly, but fear was creeping up his back. Knowing nothing of the nature of the difficulties, he had not even imagined any until that moment, when it dawned on him like the knell of disaster that a reel of film might be unmanageable without extensive apparatus.
"I don't know," said Charley. "I've spent part of two years figuring out a kit that would serve in emergencies. It's all in that box. The hardest job is washing and drying. But I've got a collapsible drum to wind the stuff on, if there's scads of decent water, cool enough—"
"There's a perennial spring of cool water within fifty yards of where your box is," Ommony assured him. "It flows over clean rock, rather slowly."
Charley nodded. That was settled. But now another dread took Ommony by the throat, so that he coughed.
"Have you a projector?"
"Bet your life! No use developing film on the spot unless you can test it and see what you're doing."
Ommony laughed outright.
"What's the joke?"
"It's on Strange!"
"I think it's on me," said Zelmira. "I'm feeling so well I could walk twenty miles, and I have to play sick with any head in a shawl! I want to ride, and dance, and sing, and be alive, but I have to pretend that even the phonograph makes my head ache! The rajah's hints that I've been here long enough are getting positively rude."
"That nabob will have his head punched presently!" said Charley, nodding confirmation.
"Faint heart never won fair plutocrat!" laughed Ommony. "Stick it out, madame! The rajah will change his tune from now on. Strange goes to the Panch Mahal within a day or two. Then everything depends on you. I'll have a parson in attendance."
"Surely. Strange needs distraction, or he'll murder everything on four legs and cut down all the trees in the universe! Charley, I want you to look over that kit of yours and foresee every possible chance of accident. We can't afford one faux pas."
Charley promised that and they went into session of agenda, ways and means, Zelmira bubbling laughter and Charley exploding approval at intervals, as Ommony unfolded all his plan.
"It's a sizzling scheme!" said Charley.
"And if it goes wrong it's only another scandal in high life!" Zelmira added, chuckling mischievously.
"If it misses one cog, Amen to my career!" said Ommony, not copying the fabled ostriches that stick their heads in sand. He likes to face all issues.
"The safe bet is," said Charley, "Strange won't dream anyone would try to put that over on him. He's so used to people being scared of him, he'll try to bluster, and make it worse."
"Well, let's hope!" said Ommony; and then, as darkness fell, he went to interview the rajah.
He found him téte-â-téte with the babu, on a side verandah, facing the other way from the summer-house. Chullunder Ghose was squatting on the floor near the rajah's foot, catching a purple handkerchief between his toes, as he let it fall and pulled it back repeatedly in sign of nervousness. They were conversing in English, as a precaution against eavesdropping, and because each understood that language better than he did the other's; but all Ommony overheard was:
"They are worse than moneylenders!"
"True, mighty one, they are priests! They will take no loss."
"This babu, sympathising with your Highness, curses them devoutly! Nevertheless—shall I not say—fifty-fifty? Yes?"
"May gangrene rot them! Yes."
"And my honorarium?"
"Here—take this—there's someone coming—go away'hurry!"
The babu slunk into the shadows, stowing paper money into some recess between his stomach and loin cloth.
"Oh, hullo, Ommony, old boy, I'm glad to see you," said the rajah. "Are you feeling sprightly and full of the old corn and all that kind of thing? What do you say to a ride through the jungle tonight to your place? Dinner and forty winks, then up like Gay Lochinvar and to hell with caution! I'd like to ride with you, and call on Strange at breakfast."
"Suits me well," said Ommony. "You've done your thinking then?"
"Yes, dammit! Those lousy priests want everything! They won't sell their claim or release it. They offer to say nothing for the present on a fifty-fifty basis."
"Will they do anything?" asked Ommony.
"That's just what puzzles me," said the rajah. "They sent that babu to say they'd do anything in reason. They don't know what reason is, confound them! I don't know what they mean, or what you mean, either! You must be a wizard! How have you contrived to make priests offer to do anything?"
"I haven't been near them," said Ommony truthfully.
"You've had correspondence then!"
"You've threatened them?"
"No. I don't interfere with priests."
"I wish you'd let me alone as religiously! Well the priests know everything in advance as usual; and as usual I'm the only one in the dark—the reigning rajah! Huh! Why don't you take me into your confidence?"
"I will when my dog recovers."
That rebuke having reduced the rajah to glowering silence, Ommony pursued the advantage. "It's enough for you to know there's nothing legal in the priests' claim; but I advise you to mention it to Strange and to tell him it isn't legal and can't be enforced in court. If Strange asks me, I'll confirm that. Represent to Strange that if he buys the Punch Mahal and pays you cash for it, then you'll consider the forest deal, but not otherwise. I'll admit to him, if necessary, that as a property-owner he'll have a better leg to stand on when it comes to arguing with the Government. Now, are we agreed? Then good; we'll start after midnight, in time to reach my place for breakfast."
"Apprends-moi z'a parler,
Apprends-moi la manière
Comment l'amour se fait!"
Ommony liked himself in the guise of good Dan Cupid, and as he rode through the forest beside the rajah the trees and rocks re-echoed to his song. All he needed was a stringed instrument of some kind to make him look like an old-time wandering troubadour. His voice was ordinary, but his instinct for the music true. His short, not too well-ordered beard, and a way of throwing back his sturdy shoulders as he sang, with face toward the tree-tops, made him seem hardly of this day and generation. Moonlight in the clearings, gleaming on bridle, his grey shirt, and the bare skin where the shirt lay open at the neck, touched him with romance and annoyed the rajah beyond reasonableness.
"You'll attract wild beasts," he objected.
"Yes, I seem to do that naturally. You and Strange, for instance! Problem is to tame you. Can't be done by cruelty. World's already full of brute force. Marry Mars to Venus, and produce what? Trees!"
"I often think you're crazy," said the rajah.
"And you're right. We all are. The least crazy of us are the keepers of the rest. We're Adams, loose in Eden, and we'll get kicked out unless we tend to business."
That being over the rajah's head (for there is no romance and no true vision left in men on the descending arc of the Wheel) he lapsed into moody silence, wishing the stars between the tree-tops were the lights of Paris, and that Ommony's intermittent singing might be conjured into cabaret revelry. He hated the night, and the loneliness. Ommony revelled in it—had not known the feel of loneliness since the early days, when the forest swallowed him and where began his education. And a pair of junglis, flitting in and out among the shadows, peering this and that way on the qui vive for marauding animals, believed that Ommony was some old god incarnated—his song the echo of the splendour of another world. So do opinions differ, on all sorts of subjects, with the point of view. By the time they reached Ommony's house on the edge of the forest the rajah was bordering on homicidal frenzy.
However, Ommony was feeling at his best, which was the main thing. Adam in Eden never managed the assembled creatures better. He put Strange in good humour by saying wealth must have been imposed on him for inscrutable reasons by Providence.
"There's nothing inscrutable about it," answered Strange. "We're given brains; and if we use them we get wealth. That's all there is to it."
But Ommony was not disturbing heresies that morning. When they finished breakfast he led Strange to the verandah.
"You'll need your brains," he said, "if you really mean business with that rajah. He has been trying to get hints from me as to how to handle you."
"Bah! All he wants is money," Strange retorted. "Western degenerates are exactly like him. First they try to borrow. When that fails they sell out. There isn't a creative atom in them."
He paused, and looked at Ommony with slightly changed perspective. So Ommony was coming over, was he? Tipping off the rajah how to make the right approach, eh? Hah He had seen that happen scores of times. A government official, bound by oath of office to present an impregnable front, knows better than anyone where the flank is weakest. Same old game, eh? Show the line of least resistance surreptitiously, and trust to be rewarded afterwards.
"I'll remember!" he said, nodding. "Does the rajah want to talk to me?"
So Strange and the rajah walked off together, out of earshot of a world that might put false constructions on a simple stroke of business. Jeff, on the verandah, smoked in ponderous disgruntlement, admiring nothing not above-board and branded with its proper name. Ommony opened his mail, and studied it until Strange came to interview him in the office, with an unlighted cigar projecting upwards from the left side of his mouth—a symptom Jeff recognized.
"Is there any doubt about the title to the Panch Mahal?" Strange asked abruptly.
"None," said Ommony.
"The rajah says the priests of some temple or other assert a claim to it under a verbal deed of gift, said to have been made by one of this man's ancestors."
"It isn't legal. They couldn't establish it in court."
"If I should buy the place, what could they do?"
"Depends on your state of mind. If you're nervous or superstitious—
"No!" Strange snorted. "Is that all? No risk of riots?"
"Any risk of the central government objecting?"
"Why should they? It's the rajah's private property. If you buy it it's yours."
"Will you witness the cash payment and memorandum of agreement?"
"I don't mind."
So Jeff and the rajah were summoned into the little file-decked office, and a heap of paper money changed hands that made the rajah's eyes glisten in spite of himself, and whetted an amazing appetite for more.
"Bought sight unseen," said Strange. "Now I'll look the place over. You say it's furnished?"
The rajah nodded.
"How soon can we go?"
"I've only one fresh horse," said Ommony. "If the rajah's horse is fit for the return journey he might show you the way at once. Jeff and I can bring along your bag later, if that suits you."
The rajah was not given to considering horseflesh. Strange considered nothing but his own objective. They two left within the hour, the rajah chattering to Strange like a schoolboy trying to entertain the principal on a picnic.
"How shall we follow without horses?" Jeff demanded. "Yours is dog-tired, and the sore-backed one in the stable isn't up to my weight."
But the resources of him who overlords an Indian forest are more ample than appears. Ommony gave orders, and a man went like the wind. Within the hour there came an elephant that knelt at the foot of the verandah steps, and into the howdah went Strange's bag, and Jeff's, and Ommony's, along with food enough for several days' emergency. Two servants draped themselves in picturesque discomfort on the great brute's rump. Jeff and Ommony piled in with rifles and shot-guns, and word began to spread in widening rings that the sahibs were off on a hunting trip. The mahout exploded harsh impulse; the mountain moved; the howdah swayed; and they were off.
Men carry their emotions with them, and they are more contagious than disease. There is nothing about a ride on the back of an old cow-elephant to bring good-humour and amusement to the surface, nor yet to drown them under gloom. Ommony's high spirits shone forth and aroused Jeff to a similar frame of mind. The trap was sprung at last. The forest-devouring ogre had wallowed in. He was jubilant, and in a half-hour Jeff was singing too, trolling out deep bass harmonies that made the mahout and the servants, clinging like apes on perches, thrill and stir until they nearly fell to earth. All India loves a deep voice and a man of muscle.
And because sleep is less an anodyne than a result of poise and the relapse of worry—midway swing of the pendulum, as it were—Ommony fell asleep after a time, curled up with his legs over the hawdah side, dreaming of things a man can't imagine except at sea, or on the heaving top of an elephant. Bed is a lair of commonplace. Sleep under moving skies, amid experience, and learn! He had a new eye—new confidence when he awoke, having dreamt he saw the wheels and works of Destiny.
He left the elephant resting in the shade of teak trees near the rajah's palace wall, and entered through the side gate into the garden, where he found Zelmira in the summer-house.
"Quick!" he said, laughing. "Nets and cords! Your biggest veil, and best foot forward! Tiger's in the trap!"
She ran to her room and came back with head and shoulders wrapped in an enormous motor-veil. You could hardly see her smiles through it, but the thrill was obvious.
"Where's Charley?" Ommony demanded.
"He's hopeless. Since the box came he is like a dog with a bone. Nothing else matters. He's deserted me."
"Good boy, Charley. We'll pick him up en route."
They climbed on the protesting elephant, who argued reasonably that forty miles and a day's work were the same thing. But the iron ankus overruled protest, and by the time they picked up Charley at the tool-hut the elephant had decided to swing along and get the journey over with. Conversation became next to impossible, as the howdah swung like a small boat in a sea-way and the dusty track payed out behind.
"Is the machine in shape?" asked Ommony.
"I've fixed her so she—whoops! Look out!"
Charley hung overside in the spasms of mal de mer, and there was no more conversation to be had from him, except once when he demanded to walk. But when they stopped and let him down he had grown so weak that even with a rope to hold he could not trot alongside; so they had to pick him up again and let him sprawl and suffer.
"What's your rush?" he demanded through a haze of vertigo. But the explanation was wasted on him; he did not even try to listen to it.
"We've got to keep Strange in. Scare him."
"He'll pick a quarrel with the rajah when he learns where I'm staying!" Zelmira prophesied.
"So much the better. The rajah's out of it now. Paris and the white lights for him until the money's spent!"
Ommony, not all wise—only wise enough to know the probability of guessing wrong—spoke with more assurance than he felt. He had noticed the glint in the rajah's eye when the money changed hands; he understood the lure of that stuff and the risk of treachery. He was silent for the last hour while the elephant, complaining of aching feet, deliberately made the howdah lurch to inconvenience her living burden. Even the servants were feeling seasick when at dusk the walls of the Panch Mahal came in view, with clouds of screaming parakeets swooping between them and the setting sun. There, by a big tree out of sight of the gate, they all got down except Zelmira, taking out all the luggage except Strange's bag.
"Take it to him as if it were the most natural thing in the world," said Ommony; and Zelmira laughed down from the howdah. "If he doesn't ask where you're staying, volunteer the information."
The elephant moved on, seeming to swim in golden dust against the sunset glow with walls of opal for a background. Men built a gorgeous cage for their beloved in the days when that Panch Mahal first rose among primitive trees. At evening it resembles a pearl of prodigious price well set in emerald greenery. Its roofs are domes its walls aged colour, stained and softened and subdued until the whole is lovelier than oyster shells on wet sea-beaches. The screaming of parakeets pierced but failed to break the silence; and in that stillness the elephant's tired footfall sounded like the beat of muffled drums.
Dame Destiny was at her task, but Ommony proposed to watch her, she being a jade who works her will regardless of laggards. "Here's opportunity," she seems to say, and passes on, recalling nothing, changing nothing of her plan, ignoring prayer, not even pausing in her path to laugh at those who clutched and missed. So he is wise who waits alert.
Ommony took the wall and followed that, a shadow casting shadow on the opal, going softly until he reached the corner of the high, projecting gate-arch where the branches of tall trees over-hanging from within combined with the gloaming to make impenetrable gloom.
The elephant was kneeling in the road before the gate. The mahout hammered on old wood with his ankus-butt and the blows rang out like pistol-shots, disturbing parakeets by thousands, sending them screaming in green clouds. But for a long, long time there was no answer. Then, when Ommony, imagining miscues, had thought of all the accidents that might have happened, and knew for certain Strange had gone elsewhere—and the forest was doomed—and his own career was ended—Strange himself came, not to the door, but angrily looking down from above it through an opening in the arch.
"Who are you?" he growled. "What are you breaking down the door for?"
Then his quarrelling eye observed a lady on an elephant, and there was pause. He stood still like a baron up above his own portcullis, with stomach thrust out easily over the belt and one hand stroking at his black beard.
"Who are you?" he demanded at last, a second time.
"I've brought your bag. I was asked to," Zelmira called back, grateful for the light behind her that made her no more than a silhouette.
"I can't see your face."
"You're not intended to. That's why I'm veiled."
"Your voice sounds familiar."
"Hadn't you better come down and get your bag?"
"How does it happen you're bringing it?"
"Mr. Ommony asked me to."
"Down the road. He thought I'd get here sooner. Won't you come down for the bag?"
There were supposed to be servants—caretakers anyhow—somewhere in the building. But even Strange was hardly crude enough to keep her waiting while he should go in search of them, and then find the rajah and get his command interpreted. He grumbled something half under his breath, and started down. Ommony withdrew deeper into the dark angle of the wall.
After a minute's fumbling at the gate-bolts Strange emerged, and with his chin thrust out and upward—eyes half-closed because of the last rays of sunset—laid a hand on the howdah.
"I can't see you through that veil," he said testily.
"You should know me without that, Meldrum!"
She drew back the veil and laughed at him. There was nothing that resembled pleading in her method. It was challenge pure and simple, and amusement—even, perhaps, a hint of ridicule.
"How did you get here?" he demanded. By his tone of voice he might have been owner of India from the Hindu Koosh to Comorin.
"By train from Delhi. I'm visiting the Rajah of Chota Pegu. Any objection?"
"How do you propose to get back there tonight?" he demanded, and she laughed outright, for it was the first symptom of his caring even with qualification about anybody else than Meldrum Strange.
"I don't know, I'm sure," she answered. "This elephant is tired to death. If the rajah were here—"
"This isn't his place. I've bought it."
"That's the situation."
"Very well. I'll sit here until Mr. Ommony comes."
"How do you happen to know Ommony?"
"I know him quite well. Mr. Ommony expects his sister, you know."
"Let's hope she comes!" said Strange, in a voice of absolute disgust. "You need a sensible companion!"
"She may be there this evening. If so, I expect to visit with them."
So that refuge was cut off! The only line of retreat left open to Strange was away by rail from Chota Pegu station. But in the course of the afternoon men had actually come with carts to carry off the furniture. He had to stay in the neighbourhood and watch, if he hoped to save the very bricks from being stolen. He rubbed his chin, pulled out a cigar, and stuck it between his teeth.
"What's the game, Zelmira?" he demanded. "Listen, girl you only compromise yourself by visiting with rajahs and tagging me. It won't get you anywhere. I'm here on business. Now—be sensible, Zelmira. Maybe it's inconvenient at the moment—so—"
He paused. He was feeling diffident for nearly the first time in his whole career. Suddenly he blurted out the rest of the sentence, in a hurry to get it over with.
"—let me give you a cheque for expenses, and you go home!"
Zelmira's eyes were seen to twinkle, even in deepening twilight with her back to the sunset afterglow.
"Do you think that's polite, Meldrum? Are you afraid of me?" she asked, as merrily as Titania.
He snorted indignantly, because he was afraid of her. Presumably the strongest of us, like Napoleon, have qualms on the eve of our Waterloo. He hesitated, which is always fatal, dallying with brutal ruthlessness in the one hand, courtesy in the other.
Something within him, that he judged was weakness, tipped the scale.
"Well, come inside and wait for Ommony," he grumbled.
"I can stay out here," she answered.
"No, come on in."
He offered his hand to help her down out of the howdah, and presently ushered her in through the ancient gate. The elephant rose and hurried off to somewhere where hundredweights of food were to be had, and Ommony turned back along the wall to where Charley and Jeff and the servants waited.
"Has Chullunder Ghose come?" he asked.
Creaking of wheels in the distance and a string of quaint, complaining oaths announced the babu on the way.
"Oh, you oxen! You are snails reincarnated!" Whack! Whack! "You failed to learn. You shall be snails again Pigeons shall eat you!" Whack! Whack! "Oh, my Karma! What a villain I was formerly that I must endure these consequences now!"
He drew abreast, and the shadows of the men beneath the tree so startled him that he nearly fell from the ox-cart.
"And she said, at the Panch Mahal, yet here they wait. Inaccuracy, O thy name is woman! Orders from a woman are a bellyache—incomprehensible wind and weariness!"
"Have you brought what she told you to?" Ommony demanded.
"Everything plus! Whatever Charley sahib placed in boxes in hut is now here, plus."
"Plus instructions from Lord God Almighty priests of Siva! This babu has received more orders in space of four-and-twenty hours than agency of deity creating universe from protoplasm to humanity, all included. Job not worth it, either. No emolument!"
Ommony and Charley checked over what was in the cart, and Ommony, leaving the servants behind, showed the way to what had once been elephant stalls at the rear of the Panch Mahal. Five brick arches stood in a row intact, and one of them had been boarded up before and behind to make a barn of sorts. There Jeff unloaded cases of paraphernalia, setting them down very carefully under Charley's supervision. There in the bat-flitting gloom they left Charley alone.
"And now for the really difficult part!" grinned Ommony. "Come on."
There is a kind of glamour about decadence until it dips too low. Refraction in the unclear atmosphere of low ideals blurs the outline, coaxing imagination to see beauty where none is. Age, toning everything and introducing beauty of its own, imposes charm that glorifies even battlefields, and dead bones please when they are dead enough. So the Panch Mahal was a wonder in its way. They built it for living women two full centuries after Shah Jehan conceived the Taj at Agra for a dead one; and it resembled the Taj as an oleograph by John Smith is said to be "after Rembrandt."
They improved on the Taj, of course, since civilization and modernity are one. They made it practical, affording space for merrymaking and eliminating austere waste. The money had been sunk in spaciousness instead of exquisite refinement; plaster (peeling now) aped marble walls; and in place of the clean sublimity of line and curve, obscene gods grinned. But in the flickering lamp-light Strange's new possession seemed passing fair enough.
Strange was sitting in a courtyard, on a stone bench by a dry fountain, with Zelmira laughing at him from the lap of an immoral-looking deity, when Ommony and Jeff walked in.
"Here's Jeff and his bag," said Ommony, and raised his hat, nodding to Zelmira. She grinned, and lamp-light shone on her white teeth.
Jeff bade the servants follow him, and wandered off to look for quarters, with an old campaigner's eye for comfort, and a great dislike for more intrigue than he could anyway avoid.
"How did you get here?" Strange demanded.
"I've a bullock-cart. Where's the rajah?"
"Lord knows. Can't find him or servants."
"We've brought some food and Jeff's man; he can cook supper."
"Can you take Madame Poulakis back to the palace?" Strange demanded, in a voice of iron. Food was not to be considered in a class with peace.
"If she don't mind riding in a bullock-cart."
"That settles it then," said Strange, and Zelmira exploded laughter into her handkerchief. The man was frank, whatever else.
"Won't you show us the place?" Ommony wondered.
"Some other time. Come to-morrow." Strange did not add the word 'alone', but he implied it, and Zelmira could hardly get down from the god's lap for smothered laughter. She, if none else, was enjoying the game.
"Good-bye!" said Strange, and held his hand out, but she curtsied mockingly instead of taking it, and he did not even follow to the gate to see them away in the bullock-cart. By the way he chewed at a cigar and scratched his chin, he was perplexed.
"Chacun a son gout!" said Ommony, who loves to air bad French. "He's yours! But I can't think why you want him."
"Oh, he's gold!" Zelmira answered. "Gold when you scratch him!"
"I know! But his heart's brass, and in his boots this minute!"
Strange must have guessed already he was cornered. The rajah had even taken away both horses, but that fact only transpired when someone stopped the squeaking bullock-cart. The oxen shied, as they should not have done, for the man was in Hindu costume—bare legs and a turban, with a white man's undershirt, and several yards of cotton cloth around his middle. But his first words explained the oxen's instinct, that detects meat-eating races by the smell street-widths away.
"Everything's here and it works!" said Charley's voice.
"My God!" groaned the babu. "This is nth impersonation of bad business. In that get-up Charley sahib will exist five minutes—if, perhaps! They will detect him with shut eyes, and beat him to death with lathies*!"
[* long sticks]
"I fooled all of you except the oxen," Charley retorted. "Say: what's the rajah doing anyway? There was talking in one of those elephant stalls. The rajah rode off less than five minutes ago, leading the horse you lent Strange; and he's left a gang of three men sitting like stuffed idols right next door to where I've got the stuff cached. Beards—bald heads—lots of white cotton clothes—might be Hindu bishops at a board-meeting."
"Gad! That's quick!" said Ommony.
Chullunder Ghose rolled off his perch in front of the cart and hurried to the rear, where Ommony was sitting on the tail.
"Sahib! Listen! This babu is Codlin, same being friend, not Short! Short is rajah! Atheistic apostate! Too much money is as wine in empty head. This babu knows! That rajah demanded from priests' reinstatement in circle of sanctified orthodoxy."
"How do you know that?"
"Self was intermediary! Self conveyed to him retort discourteous from contemptuous ecclesiastics. Exacerbated rajah now seeks double-cross for all concerned, you, me, and priests included! What is betting? I bet rajah now sends telegram inviting central government to intervene! All is up now! Better leave U.S. plutocrat to stew in juices of annoyed administration! Let us establish alibi!"
The babu's panic spread to Charley and Zelmira, both of whom began to fear instantly, if vaguely, on Ommony's account. He had admitted more than once that a false step would imply the end of his career.
"What if he does send a telegram?" Zelmira asked excitedly.
"It will either confirm mine or contradict it. In either case the Government will send Sir William Molyneux, who'll bring a padre with him! You drive back with Charley to the palace. Charley, I'll meet you in the tool-hut sometime between now and to-morrow morning. Come on, Chullunder Ghose."
"Oh, all inscrutability, what next?" the babu grumbled. But Charley Wear jumped up and took the bullocks' tails. The cart bumped forward, and the babu was left standing in the dark with Ommony, who called out a final warning:
"Remember, you're deaf and dumb, Charley! If you speak, you'll give the whole game away!"
Deafness and dumbness had begun. There was no answer. Ommony took the babu by the arm and started leading him toward the rear of the building where Charley had cached his things.
"Go in and talk to the priests. I'll go one way; you go the other and make lots of noise; give me a chance to get into the next stall without being heard. You talk, and I'll listen. Be sure you talk loud enough. When it's time to bring me a message from them, come out noisily to cover my retreat, and I'll meet you here. You understand?"
"I understand. But sahib, am impoverished babu without—"
"Without any hope of being paid by me! You may leave me to manage this alone, if you'd rather."
"Is idealism always eleemosynary?"
"Hence materialistic tendency of world, no doubt! An idealist, nevertheless. Sahib, my salaams!"
The babu waddled off, remembering the order to go noisily, kicking at stones and unchecked rambling vines, singing a song to himself about the love of Krishna, darling of the Gopis, idol of the dreaming maids. In less than five minutes Ommony was squatting cross-legged in impenetrable shadow under an old brick arch, fearful of scorpions, but absolutely still, and listening to secrets in the language of the Gods next door.
"I ask blessing. I kiss feet. Holiest of fathers, this unworthy babu abjectly salaams. Pray pardon intrusion. Only reverence and devoted attachment to your honours' interest brings these humble feet to threshold of divinity. This miserable babu found the Englishman, whose name is Ommony, and having with such skill as he possesses tempted the unclean foreigner into conversation, hopes now to render acceptable service with much humility!"
The answer to that overture was proud and curt.
"Did you warn the fool to keep his hands off?"
"No use warning him! Moreover, worshipfuls, the unclean fellow pursues same object as your heavenborn selves. Great wrath obsesses him. He is indignant that the other unclean rogue should buy this place that has been rendered blessed by your honours' claim to it. I think I could persuade him to give artful assistance in support of the heavenborns' divinely inspired intentions."
"What would he hope to gain by that?"
"Nothing. He is personally essence of unthriftiness. Idealism, much mistaken doubtless since he is alien ignoramus, burns in his unclean bosom. And he fears lest the other brute, who has bought the Panch Mahal, may aquire the forest too. More-over, he knows the rajah may not be trusted. I think he would eagerly subserve your honours' interests rather than be defeated by the other two."
"Where is he?"
"At a little distance, cudgelling his brains."
"He who allies himself with fools must eat the offal of their folly!"
"True, most worshipfuls. Yet this babu is not a fool. A humble person, totally unworthy to stand in the heavenborn presence, but endowed by the Creators with an intellect. In this babu's unworthy hands, that foreign ignoramus might be trusted."
"We make no bargains with such people!"
"Nay! But with this subservient babu as go-between, much might be managed."
There was whispering, which the babu may have heard, but Ommony did not. Then:
"Let no offer of alliance seem to come from us. There is no treaty—no contract—no given undertaking. Go to him and find out what he wishes. Then report to us again."
The babu backed away, making such a noisy protest of his reverence and full obedience, and stumbling so awkwardly over a heap of fallen bricks, that Ommony had no trouble at all to escape unheard. There was no risk of being seen. The Indian night had shut down like a black dome pierced with diamonds. He and Chullunder Ghose met again in the road where they had parted company.
"Offering advice to sahibs is like touching high-tension wire with monkey-wrench," said the babu.
"Nevertheless, your advice is?"
"Ahsti!* Steady the Buffs, by Krishna! Keep priests waiting! Likewise lord of dollars in Panch Mahal, where loneliness roars like lions! Let us sit down. Smoke a pipe, sahib!"
[* go slow]
So they sat, in mid-road, face to face, each able to watch half of the mysterious horizon; and Ommony smoked a whole pipe out before he offered a suggestion. Then:
"Why was the last rajah—this man's uncle—allowed by the priests to use the Panch Mahal undisturbed?" he asked.
"Because he submitted to initiation, thus acknowledging the priests as superior to himself, and virtual landlords," said the babu.
"And this man?"
"Would like to be initiated; but is such religious apostate and renegade that the priests will have nothing to do with him. He has applied, but they refuse, suspecting he would only turn tables on them, thereafter setting people against them, instead of their making a monkey of him on all public occasions, as now happens. Oh, yes, invariably."
"Is there any other reason why this rajah has had to keep his hands off the Panch Mahal?"
"No other reason, sahib. First he tried to live in it with many women. They say that two women went mad, and one killed herself."
"How was that done?"
"Apparitions! Thefts! Noises in the night! Flesh creeps to think of same! Tunnels! Accomplices can accomplish. Dur—r—rrh! Have heard tales."
"They plan, of course, to treat Strange the same way?"
"Have they started on him?"
"They are not here for nothing."
Ommony chuckled, and then thought of Jeff Ramsden, which made him chuckle more.
"There'll be heads broken," he said; and the babu twitched his bare toes in the sand, comprehending disadvantages.
"Not good," he remarked.
"Excellent!" corrected Ommony. "Strange's nerves will be on end, and the priests will reconsider agenda. Both sides will need advice and assistance. That's where we some in."
"Self being sahib's co-conspirator!"
The babu preened himself. Every atom in his being seemed to tingle with pride at the thought. He leaned forward, laying a finger on Ommony's knee by way of celebrating partnership. But what he was starting to say died stillborn.
"Get away from here! Go and scheme for the other side," said Ommony, seizing the upper hand instantly, at any cost. He knew his babu.
"Betray me all you want to. I'll manage this alone."
"This babu is mud beneath sahib's feet! Am co-nothing—but coincidence! Am subventitious aspirant for eleemosynary service! My excruciated salaams! Only send me not away!"
"Keep your proper place, then! Now: go to the priests, and suggest to them something like this: They're not really owners of this Panch Mahal, but they're as good as owners if they can haze the life-tenant into a proper attitude toward them. Isn't that the idea?"
"Core of the belly of truth, sahib! Most explicit!"
"There's nothing religious about it—nothing Brahminical."
"Rather the contrary. Initiation has always been most scandalous. There are tales—"
"Never mind. Why not initiate Strange? Suggest that to them."
"Tee-hee!" The babu's fat sides began to shake. "Tee—hee! Has the sahib ever witnessed an—hee-hee!—initiation?"
"I've been told. We might get it modified."
"Tee-hee-hee! Temple nautch-girls! Mu-mu-moderation! Tee-hee!"
"Suggest it to the priests. Meet me here later. I'll see Strange."
"Khee-hee-hee! Salaam, sahib! Oh, my ribs! Dee-licious, very! Genius! My God, yes! oh, hah-a-hah! Kuh-scuse it, sahib, please! your humble servant! He-hee-hee-hee-hee! I go, I go, I go—no, no, no—no kick! I—"
The babu waddled off, aheave with irrepressible emotion. What Ommony had only heard of, he had seen. His great bulk shook as long as he was in sight; he almost seemed to be dancing as the darkness swallowed him, and the hugeness of his amusement gave Ommony pause. He would hardly be willing, even for the forest's sake, to overdo the scandal. He decided to commit the priests, and then interview them personally. However, Strange first.
He went and hammered on the wooden gate until it shook and the arch above it echoed; then waited several minutes. No answer, so he beat again. Then he heard Jeff's heavy footstep approaching, and gave another knock or two.
"That's enough!" Jeff roared in Urdu. "If I have to open that gate I'll loose off both barrels at you! Go to the devil, and leave that gate alone!"
"This is Ommony."
"Oh!" The bolts began to rattle. "Sorry, old man. Come in."
Jeff stood in pyjamas and bare feet, with the shotgun ready cocked.
"I meant business!" he announced gruffly. "Strange is nearly off his head with rage. Did you hear me shoot ten minutes ago?"
"This place swallows noise and shoots it out in the way deep mines do," Jeff grumbled. "We thought you'd hear the shot 'way off down the road and come back."
"What did you fire at?"
"Lord knows! There! Look at that damned thing!"
They were under the arch, looking inward across the first courtyard, where Zelmira had sat in a god's lap. Across the court on the far side was a verandah covered by a tiled roof, and above that were rows of shuttered windows. Along the tiles there crawled, or seemed to crawl, a thing like a snake, thirty or forty feet long, moving itself in corkscrew coils, and glowing as if drenched in phosphorus. It had eyes, for they shone and were moving; and it was solid, or semi-solid, for the tiles were invisible through it. Jeff raised the shotgun and fired twice. The pellets rattled on the roof and brought a loose tile away, but nothing else happened. The thing like a snake continued on its way, and disappeared—it seemed into the wall at the far end of the roof.
"Have you seen that before?" asked Ommony.
"No, that's a new one."
"What else have you seen?
"The thing I fired at looked like a naked fakir dancing in a corner of the big assembly-room, when Strange and I were trying to get some sleep. The crittur had horns and a beard like a goat's."
"Did you hit him?"
"You bet I did! But he didn't even trouble to stop dancing till I started across the room. Then he disappeared. There isn't a hole in the floor or the wall thereabouts."
"How does your servant like it?"
"Bolted! Can't find him anywhere."
Strange, in pyjamas too, came to the wide door of the assembly-room, that opened on the courtyard.
"Have you caught someone?" he shouted.
"Huh! Are you responsible for this?" He came to meet Ommony barefooted, looking more than half-inclined to hit him. "If I catch the imbecile who's playing these tricks, I'll jail him or know why!"
"Don't be a fool," Jeff advised quietly. "Let's see if Ommony can explain it."
They entered the assembly-room and sat on Strange's cot. It was a huge place, like a modern theatre, without seats or stage, but with rows of columns down either side supporting a wide balcony, which was grilled up to the ceiling, so that women could watch unseen whatever might transpire below. The other furniture consisted of gilded, upholstered divans, and six tall mirrors in panels against the wall at the farther end.
Strange started to speak, but as he opened his mouth foreknowledge of something about to happen checked him. It was the sort of silence that precedes a bomb explosion, and his mouth stayed open wide.
Suddenly, three times repeated, a breeze several degrees cooler than the surrounding atmosphere struck them in the face. There was a sound like the flapping of a punkah—even the squeak of the cord through a hole in a wall that pulled it—but no punkah visible. The wind was real, for it blew the lamp out.
Then, through the ensuing darkness, came a scream that chilled the marrow of the listeners' bones. It increased and waned in spasms. They could almost see a rack being tightened in jerks, and a woman stretched between the rollers.
"I'm going to kill someone!" Jeff announced, and struck a match. A breath of wind blew instantly. He struck another.
By its light they saw a headless corpse hung by one leg, apparently from a hook between two mirrors on the wall that faced them. And between the next two mirrors was the corpseless head, hung by a nail driven into the mouth, and seeming to have been pulled off, for there were shreds of flesh and sinew hanging down from it. The match burned Jeff's fingers. He swore, dropped it and struck another. The corpse and the head were gone. But again came the cool wind, and the scream of atrocious agony. There were no Words to it. It was pain and fear beyond the power of speech.
"Good God!" Strange exploded. "What kind of place is this anyhow?"
Ommony found the lamp, relit it, and sat down. By its light Jeff exchanged the shotgun for a rifle. The breeze blew out the lamp, and there was silence, broken only by a click as Jeff tested the breech-bolt action in the dark. Then new horror, unseen, unheard at first, and indescribable, but there; some sort of presence, and a musky smell. Presently footfalls, slow, irregular, and almost too secretive for the ear to catch.
Ommony sniffed twice. "Tiger!" he said curtly. There was no sound from Jeff. He was ready.
"My God! A tiger in here? Strike a match!" said Strange, groping vainly for the pockets of his suit on the chair beside him.
"Shut up!" Ommony commanded, sotto voce.
"No matches!" Jeff growled. "You'll dazzle me."
The cot creaked under his weight as he leaned forward, peering along the rifle-barrel. The creak was too much for Strange's nerves. He jumped off the cot, upsetting Ommony, and seized the chair, the only weapon within reach, then stepped back until he felt the wall behind him.
"Now, by God, I can defend myself!" he gasped.
Ommony lay still. Jeff never moved, bent forward, peering along the rifle-barrel. They could hear the soft footfalls more distinctly, as if a beast were exploring the floor in widening arcs.
Then a tiger coughed. That was unmistakable. Jeff's rifle belched light—twice—three times, with a din that filled the place and drowned the answering snarl.
"Got him!" he said.
"You fool, you've—Jesus! Here he is!"
A leg cracked off the chair as Strange raised it and struck the wall behind. Then he hit something with a thud that shivered the chair to pieces, and groped for the cot, backwards. The backs of his knees touched it, and he collapsed, lying still, with his knees curled up under his chin. Ommony, down on the floor, struck a match at last.
"I thought I got him," Jeff said pleasantly. "See twice. The first one missed, but the flash showed his eyes."
A big male tiger lay within a yard of where Strange had stood—shot twice through the lungs. Blood flowed from the open mouth. The claws were extended in his effort to struggle close and slay before life left him.
"Stone dead," said Ommony. Then the match went out.
"Don't light the lamp yet," Jeff whispered.
There were decencies to be attended to, best managed in the dark. He groped for Strange and shook him by the arm.
"Come on," he said, "you're all right."
Strange sat up, trembling, grateful for Jeff's strong grip on his arm.
"Just nerves, that's all," Jeff said quietly. "You did well for us. When you moved you startled him. He coughed, and that gave me the cue."
"But I hit him with a chair! I broke a chair on him!" Strange stammered.
"I know you did. Are you all right now? Light the lamp, old man."
Ommony lit the lamp and held it so that the yellow glow shone full on the tiger, and the stripes appeared to move a little as the flame danced in the chimney.
"Is he dead?" Strange demanded. "Better put a bullet in him to make sure."
"Stone dead," said Ommony.
"Killed a tiger with a chair! Jee-rusalem!" Strange sat down on the cot again. "Can you beat that? Killed a tiger with a chair, you fellows! Can you beat it?"
Ommony, with his back to Strange, stooped down, examining the kill. Jeff joined him.
"Caged for a good many years. Well fed," said Ommony. "Probably half-tame. See his pugs? They're soft, and the hair has grown long over the claws. He's old, too; look at the length of his eye-teeth. That's a collar-mark on his neck, or I'm mistaken. He's been somebody's pet cat."
"Which explains why he didn't attack directly he winded us," said Jeff.
"But he did attack!" Strange got to his feet again and came and stood between them. "I stood there. You see how close he got to me? I wonder if I cracked his skull—must have—his mouth's full of blood." He hesitated. "Say, you men, suppose we keep this among ourselves, eh? I don't choose to be known as a liar. If we took oath to it, nobody'd believe a man of my age killed that brute with a chair-leg. D' you mind keeping it a secret to oblige me?"
Strange was feeling finely again. Even the memory of goose-flesh raising screams had dimmed in the glory of this achievement.
"With all your strength, bet you never pulled off a stunt like that!" he said digging Jeff in the ribs. "It was luck of course, but—"
"Yes you're lucky," Jeff said grinning at him. Then suddenly his face grew sober. "Ommony, old boy, we're wasting time. Who screamed just now and why? We've of to unearth that. Then there's that corpse—"
"Bunkum! Let's sit here and see what happens next," said Ommony. "I don't know how they did it, but it's all a trick. The scheme, of course, is to make Strange abandon the place, just as his friend the rajah had to. The priests are old hands at this frightening business."
"Huh! Scheme to scare me off the lot, eh? Dammit, you told me their claim won't hold water," Strange objected.
"It won't. But they've defeated everybody yet who tried conclusions with them."
"Why didn't you tell me that before?"
"I warned you. You snorted."
"Well. I'll fight 'em." Strange found a cigar, and began chewing it. "They've a Tartar on their hands."
"There's a better way," said Ommony.
"The place is mine."
"Persuade them to admit that, then. Why run the chance of poison, fire, Lord knows what else. They claim the right to approve or disapprove a tenant for life, and they stop at nothing to uphold their rights."
"Neither will I."
"They've always managed to get rid of anyone who disputed their right."
"Oh! They claim right to dispossess?"
"Only if the tenant for life, after they've approved him, backs out of his promise to let them hold a yearly ceremony here."
"Would they exclude me from the ceremony?" Strange asked.
"I think not. You see, they insist on initiating any tenant before they'll let him occupy in peace."
"Initiate him into what? Mysteries?"
"Hardly. They'd never admit a white man into those."
"Well then, into what?"
"I've never seen the ceremony. I might not be allowed to witness it, even if they accepted you. But once you're accepted and admitted, as an initiate they'd very likely let you see the yearly ceremony. It lasts a week, I'm told."
"That might be fun."
"They say it's wild. Its origin is so far back in time that nobody knows its meaning any more, although it was probably religious, once. They used to hold it in the Temple, but it got so scandalous that when this place was built they persuaded the rajah of that day to let them hold it here instead. He was under their thumbs in some way; and ever since then they've asserted an unlegal but prehensile claim to nominal overlordship."
"So I'm told."
"Well. If it's a secret, who's to be any wiser afterwards? It might be good fun."
"You're a damned fool, Strange!" Jeff growled. "Keep out of it!"
"I'm no milksop," Strange retorted. "I'll keep my head in any situation those fossils can invent. If you're afraid, suppose you go home!"
"I've said my say," Jeff answered. "I'll stand by. But you'll get no sympathy from me, whatever happens."
"Nothing'll happen. Huh! They've come to the end of their resources now. We've sat here half an hour and not a sign from them. That tiger was the—"
As he spoke the light went out. The chill blast of air was renewed, only tenfold. A man's shout, and a scream like a woman's in grief as well as agony froze their blood. Something flapped in the air above them, and there was a sudden hurrying noise across the floor that sounded as if ghouls were chasing one another. Then the thud of a trapdoor closing, or something resembling that; and silence, in which Jeff's steady breathing sounded like the ebb and flow of six-hour tides. After two interminable, minutes Ommony struck a match.
The tiger was gone. The only trace of him was blood on the wooden floor where his head had lain, and a long smear where he had been dragged across the room. A blast of cool air blew the match out. Something sighed. A shape like a woman's, faintly phosphorescent, seemed to be wafted on a wind across the room about fifteen feet in front of them. Jeff made a jump for it, and landed heavily on nothing. The shape vanished.
Ommony lit the lamp again, and the three explored the whole room. There were two doors, one they had entered by, and another in the far corner, opposite, but no discoverable trapdoor or sliding panel, although the walls sounded hollow, and in places the floor seemed to hint at booming caverns under it when they jumped.
They opened the door in the corner with difficulty, for although it was not locked something seemed to hold it; but when Jeff exerted his strength and it flew wide, there was nothing there—nobody—no sign of anybody having been there.
So they took two rifles and a shotgun and explored long passages and rooms absurdly furnished with imported export stuff, of the sort that generation after generation of rajahs had believed was "quite the thing." There was almost nothing antique or genuine in the place, although there was plenty of evidence of reckless spending. Not a sign of a human being; only rats that had nested in the stuffing of arm-chairs and ran as they entered the echoing rooms, striking match after match.
Jeff was for exploring the cellars, too, but Ommony demurred. "Snakes," he suggested. "Ambush. Anything might happen and be explained away as accident."
"Upstairs then," Jeff proposed; but that seemed almost equally risky, especially as they had left shotgun in the assembly-room along with their few other belongings. So they turned back, expecting to find their way easily by the light of the lamp they had left burning.
But the light was out again. Jeff groped his way in the lead and struck out with his fist at something that he felt rather than saw in the passage just before he reached the assembly-room; but whatever it might have been, he missed it.
He struck a match and held it high, to get wide a circle of light as possible, stepped forward, tripped over something, swore; and the match went out. Ommony struck another close behind him. Jeff kicked at what had tripped him, and the pieces of a broken shot gun scattered across the floor.
Ommony looked for the lamp, but it was broke too—smashed into smithereens. His feet crunched broken glass, and his shins struck the legs of the overturned cot. Jeff struck his last match, and by the swiftly waning light of that they could see the furniture overturned and their torn clothes scattered at random about the floor. There was not a seam apparently unripped, and the bags were torn to pieces in the bargain. Then darkness, and no matches.
Nothing for it but the courtyard, where the rising moon was just beginning to pour amber light over the roof and change a quarter of the paving into a floor of pale gold. There Jeff took position in the god's lap that had nursed Zelmira recently, and, looking like a herculean god himself in loose pyjamas, kept a qui vive with the rifle pointing every way, as one sound or another drew attention.
But the only noises now were owls' hoots. The only movement was the swooping of the big bats, looking like spectres as they swerved across moonlight and plunged into shadow again. A jackal's yelp broke silence at intervals from over the wall, and once in the distance an elephant trumpeted disgust at something.
"Strange," Jeff said, at the end of an hour's vigil, "I advise you to pull out of here first thing in the morning."
"Yes. In pyjamas! I see myself!" Strange answered. "Mr. Ommony, I'll have to have my trunk sent over from your place. Can you manage it?"
Ommony supposed he could. There were more impossible things.
"It'll take time, though," he warned him. "Meanwhile there's no knowing what these priests will do."
"I'll stay on and stick it out!"
"How would it be for me to suggest to the priests that you'll stand initiation? That might end this foolishness."
"What does initiation amount to? Don't know, eh? Well, dammit, I'm interested—yes try anything once. Yes, get word to 'em!"
"Strange," growled Jeff Ramsden, "You're a fool for all your money. You're a gilt-edged rube—no better!"
Long before dawn they let Ommony out to interview the priests and send for clothes, provisions, servants, and what not else. Strange's cigars had all been ruined; the tobacco in Jeff's tin can was scattered on a dusty floor; they were a desperate garrison in danger of ill-temper.
"Tobacco first!" said Jeff. "Send stacks of it.
"And tell those priests I'll fight 'em to the last ditch unless they're reasonable," was Strange's final word.
So Ommony took the dusty road along to where an idol sat in moonlight on a pile of masonry that might have been a wayside altar once on a time. The idol came suddenly to life as he drew within ten feet of it, rolling off-centre and lurching into the road before him.
"Have seat, sahib. Meditation-place of fakirs—most gregarious for wisdom—just like sitting under shower-bath of ideas! Thoughts being habituated like trained animals to come to holy man in certain place, whoever sits there—take a seat and try, sahib!"
Ommony preferred to take it standing up, and declined the invitation. Too obviously Chullunder Ghose was seeking to soften the impact of bad news.
"What did the priests say?" he demanded.
"They are worse than Christian Devil, which is saying much!"
"What did they say?"
"Very little, yet ultimatively! Proud fools! Unwilling to concede your honour's right to dictate outcome of events! This babu, using seven keys of argument to unlock hierophantic minds, failed nevertheless. Said locked minds are rusty. Nobody home, and nothing doing, same as Charley sahib says! The best they will concede is that Panch Mahal must become theirs absolutely. On such terms they will play into sahib's hands in matter of initiation. They demand explicit promise."
"Meanwhile, how much more of this horseplay have they in mind?"
"Hee-hee! In mind, much. In posse, very much. In esse, at moment, no more. There is armistice. Temporary respite for accumulation of resources. Hee-hee! Sahib, they have congeries of living animals, reptiles, and insects, that would make Zoological Society of London gnash teeth in envy! Noah should be relegated now to second place! Hee! They have gas composed of petrifying corpses, mixed with dust of red pepper and sal volatile! They have a corpse so realistic that there is serious anxiety lest the God of the Dead should demand its immediate decomposition! There is a tube concealed in the walls that will magnify a scream; and there are two tunnels, through which they have access to the interior of the building by secret doors."
"If they're not careful Strange will discover those tunnels—or Ramsden will. Then the game will be up."
"They will be very careful, sahib. They are most resourceful. Trust them."
"I don't, and I won't. But will they trust me If I tell them they may have the Panch Mahal, will they believe it?"
"Why not? A promise made to the priests and broken subsequently is—"
"I get you."
"Sahib, there was a High Commissioner once who broke a promise to the priests, and took long leave, and went to London. He had a servant to taste his food, but neglected to consider the gum on the flaps of envelopes he licked. It is possible to oppose the priests, and even to defeat them without unpremeditated consequences. But to break a promise made to them is suicide. Speaking of which, I see Charley sahib riding this way on native pony!"
Ommony, who had turned his back to the moonlight in order to see the babu's face, did not look round.
"How d'you know it's Charley?"
"Blind idiot with head in hag could recognize in darkness U.S. effort to ride bareback in fashion of Chota Pegu. Backbone of lean old pony proves uncomfortable—very!"
The pony's hoofs drummed nearer, and Ommony expecting new awkward developments, turned slowly to watch the herald of disposing gods. It was not such a bad attempt, after all, that Charley made to ride in Chota Pegu style; he looked like a native of the country mimicking a white man, with turban end a-stream behind him and his right arm working like a flail to keep his balance. The pony 'planted' twenty yards from Ommony, and Charley saved himself from a header by vaulting.
"Glad I've found you," he said. "Your sister has come, along with Sir William Molyneux!"
"Angel of light and devil of darkness in same train, eh!" said the babu.
"Came at midnight in a special locomotive, one car, and caboose. She's A-1. Nice old lady. Don't know what to make of him. His voice is like a kerosene can falling downhill. He looks like a cross between a prize-fighter and an Anglican bishop."
"He is," said Ommony..
"I'd nothing to do—couldn't sleep—so I went to the station to get pointers on how a deaf and dumb Hindu should behave himself. Usual ten or a dozen people there, sleeping on the platform, ready for to-morrow's train, so I sat around and watched 'em, having fun with the station babu who asked to see my ticket. He told me at last to beat it, but I got wise a train was coming, so I shook my head and stayed on squatting in the lamp-light like a—"
"Wait!" said Ommony. "How did you cover twenty miles to the palace in an ox-cart before midnight?"
"Hell! That was easy. I ditched the cart and turned the oxen loose. Zelmira and I both figured we'd sooner walk. I guess we walked a mile, till we came to a thing they call a house in these parts. There were two ponies in a thorn corral; this beast's one of 'em. We waked the owner and Zelmira bought the critturs; she had cash with her, but it took us half an hour to make the guy see reason. Then we rode, and gee! she looked funny. But she beat me to the palace gate. I couldn't go in, of course, in this disguise, so I went to the station after a while, as I told you; and along come Molyneux and your sister, he helping her down out of the car as if she were the queen.
"How's she looking?" Ommony interrupted.
"Fine. The people on the platform all did poojah and the babu fussed like a wet hen. Nobody'd expected 'em, and there weren't any orders, so nobody knew what to do about it, and they all did nothing at the limit of their lungs. I sat there looking deaf and dumb. I guess I was the only one on the platform not yelling—except maybe your sister; she was coaxing Molyneux to keep his temper. Seems a telegram had mined fire. Nowhere to go—nobody to meet 'em—nothing. Your name bursting on the scene like hand-grenades at intervals. Me sitting still.
"Pretty soon Molyneux gets your sister back in the car, and demands a messenger to go and find you. No messenger. Nobody knows where you are. Nobody cares a damn, either. The babu tells Molyneux in English that the train's got to move of the way, or go back to Sissoo Junction or something, and Molyneux swears it shall stay right where it is for a week unless he gets a messenger to go on horseback and find Ommony sahib.
"Well, the babu points to me and says I'm a deaf and dumb lunatic who won't go away. He adds I've a pony hitched to the station railings. Molyneux strides up to me, takes me by the ear, and yanks me upstanding.
"'Let's see whether I can make him understand', he said, scowling with his forehead all over his eyes—just like a pug.
"I didn't take to that any too cordially. So he says: 'Hello! A Hindu who can use his fists? What does this mean?' And he pulled my turban off. 'Short hair, eh?' I said: 'Shut up, you fool!' and he looked kind of hard at me in the lamp-light. I was getting ready to run, for he could have whipped me with one hand tied. However, he says: 'We must look into this. Come with me.' So I went with him into the car, where I told Miss Ommony howdy and said how glad I was to meet a sister of her brother.
"Well: Molyneux thinks at once I'm in the secret service, and I had a dickens of a time to unconvince him. Then he starts to shoot questions at me like an old stork picking a dead dog to pieces, and I was plumb scared. I didn't know how much it was safe to tell him. At last I doped it out that as your sister was there, and he was talking right out in front of her, he was prob'ly o.k. with you. I took a chance on that and told him all of it.
"He laughed for about seven minutes straight on end. His laugh's worse than his talking voice. When I'd done counting all the fillings in his teeth he asked me to go on the pony and find you. I guessed I'd better. 'Tell him', he said, that Brass-face says he is anxious Ommony should watch his step. Say, the Rajah of Chota Pegu has wired to the central government that Ommony is accepting bribes in league with some priests to give a millionaire named Strange a half-nelson on the forest. Tell him we've got to straighten this out without pulling feathers within the week or there'll be trouble.' That's the message."
"Brass-face is a brick!" said Ommony.
"That brick struck this babu once. Not again!" said Chullunder Ghose, and he was on his way instantly—anywhither except in the direction of the station.
"Stop!" commanded Ommony.
"But that Brass-face sahib—"
"Shan't hurt you this time."
"Sahib, he hurts all and sundry. His bowels are merciless! He is chucker-out-bouncer for Government when illegality shall be done under mask of high-handed individual mistake. He thrashed a Maharajah! He will enter temples and desecrate holiness at moment's notice on any whim of caprice. He deprived me of government office, leaving self, family, and numerous dependents at mercy of chance emolument. He kicked me twice in same place, which is manifestly unfair. He—"
"I tell you, I'll protect you."
"Sahib, he will get you next! He is Administration whips and scorpions, laying on hard! Not known as Brass-face because he is gentle. By no means. Believe me."
"Brass-face is my friend," said Ommony quietly.
"Krishna! You and he will then run universe. But if he kicks me, I will poison him."
"My kingdom for a horse!" laughed Ommony.
"Wireless! Telephone's best. I must talk with my sister or Molyneux. I don't care which. Both for choice."
"This brute's about finished," said Charley.
"You're too heavy for him anyway."
"He'll have to serve. Chullunder Ghose! Feed Charley sahib and find him a place to sleep."
"Am I God of Hebrews, producing manna in wilderness?" the babu answered impudently.
"You heard what I said. Work a miracle, confound you! He eats before dawn, or you catch it! See you later," he called back to Charley, driving his heels into the flanks of the miserable plug.
Say what you like about oats (and they're needful), but it is the will of riders that makes horses gallop when reason declares they can't do it. Ommony rode, not using stick or heels too much, those being inefficient substitutes for horsemanship. The lean beast scattered three good leagues behind him, and most of the dust that covered those, until in the glimmer of a false dawn he fetched up foundered near the house of an old-time friend of Ommony's.
The friend came forth with half a dish-rag on his loins and a turban big enough for two men, grinning, and as pleased to be of use as a dog to see his master.
"Aye, sahib, verily; and in haste! The fleetest animal in Hind! A mare I bought from the army, cast for vice because the fat soldiery were afraid of her. A beast with a heart, and legs. Behold her eye! She has but the one, and lo, the white of it! Deal not gently with her, sahib. Best to let her feel a strong hand on the rein; and beat her thrice over the buttock as she rears. See—I will stand here, thus, and strike her with a lathi. Aye, sahib, I will feed the other carrion, though he isn't worth the meal. Come again, sahib! Come soon! Nay, no payment! Nay, the mare is thine!"
So Ommony came to the station on a squealing bay of nearly seventeen hands, who took three fathoms at a spring, and tried to savage him as he dismounted. And as he might have guessed if he had stopped to think of it, he found Sir William Molyneux asleep and snoring serenades to Miss Ommony, who leaned rather bored from the window of the front compartment.
She refused to kiss Ommony, objecting to his whiskers; but she was a nice little middle-aged spinster, with a twinkle in her grey eyes and the same way of carrying her chin half-tilted toward the tree-tops that Ommony, and some sea-captains, have.
"He's really ramping," she said calmly, glancing at the open car-window whence the snores came.
"I think it's a good thing he found me waiting at Sisso Junction and brought me along in his train. He says you play too much politics and he'll break you for it if you don't reform, even if he is your friend. You'd better humour him. I know there's no hope of reforming you, but you needn't emphasize that."
So Ommony entered the other compartment and awoke Molyneux, who was sleeping fully clothed in deference to mid-Victorian proprieties. (His father was a bishop.)
"Hah Uh-huh-hurrum!" said Molyneux, sitting up, wide awake instantly and searching through vest pockets for his monocle.
"Yes, I know all about that, sir," said Ommony.
"The point is, what the devil do you mean by the presumption! Why in blazes didn't you refer Strange to the central government, and leave them to tell him to go to hell?"
"Because they wouldn't have told him to," Ommony answered. "They'd have referred it home, and Whitehall would have asked the Treasury; the Treasury would have called bankers into consultation; and the bankers would have backed up Strange on the scratch me and I'll scratch you principle. Farewell, forest!"
"What's this about the priests?
"They're offering Strange the Third Degree.
"What for, by Halleluiah?"
"Same old game. If he recognizes their authority by submitting to that they'll let him occupy the Panch Mahal in peace. If not, no."
"And the idiot consents? By Gad, he must mean business! He realizes if the priests once recognize him as lawful life-tenant he'll have a status here no government could upset. The priests 'ud construe eviction of him into insult to them. 'Twon't do. Got to stop it. You've made a balls of this!"
"Hear both sides first," said Ommony. "The priests are willing to take our side, on condition they get title to the Panch Mahal."
"We can't do that. It belongs to the rajah."
"No, he's sold it to Strange."
"Worse and worse! If we refuse to register the transfer that means a fight through three courts against Strange and his millions. Complications, Ommony! It won't do."
"You haven't heard all yet. Did you bring the padre? There's a lady in this—"
"Not your sister? For Heaven's sake! Yes, the padre's coming. Couldn't imagine why you wanted him."
"A Madame Zelmira Poulakis—"
"What? Zelmira Poulakis! I met her in Delhi. She's charming."
Molyneux found his monocle at last, screwed it in, and stared at Ommony, frowning over it as if the weight of brow were necessary to keep it in place.
"You'll meet her again then. She's here."
"The hell you say!"
"She's crazy enough to want to marry Strange."
"Crazy my eye! The man's richer than Croesus."
"And as pleasant as physic! However, she wants him. If she gets him, she'll call him off from interfering with the forest. I don't doubt she'll do anything we ask about the Panch Mahal."
"But could she call him off?"
"Oh, yes. He's run away from her. She's the real reason why he's hiding in the Panch Mahal this minute."
"Hates her, eh?"
"'Fraid of her?"
"No. Afraid of himself. He's got bachelor's bile. He's afraid if he sees too much of her he'll discover his heart somewhere, and ask her to marry him, and be a bachelor no more, amen."
"How sure are you of this?"
"As that I sit here. It all depends on you, sir."
"Dammy, what have I done?"
Molyneux sat silent for as long as it took Ommony to charge his pipe.
"Dammy! Eh? A woman in it!" he said at last. "She's a charming woman, Ommony. I'd say she's brains."
"She's all right."
"Yes, I think so. The whole of Delhi was after her, self included. She turned us down one after the other. Knows her p's and q's. Can she be trusted?
"I understand she has been trusted by some of the most suspicious crooks in the world," said Ommony.
"By Gad, sir, so have you!" said Molyneux. "That's a recommendation. Umti-tiddle-i-um-tum-tum. But suppose Strange bolts for it and lays his case before the central government?"
"He can't, sir. He's in pyjamas in the Panch Mahal. No clothes, no horses, no servants, no possible messenger except Jeff Ramsden, who's in pyjamas too; no telegraph—telephone—nothing."
"Got his cheque-book with him, I suppose! He can buy what he needs. There's always someone after money."
"No, the place is watched."
"By whom, for instance?
"Babu Chullunder Ghose for one."
"That rascal? That settles it! Strange can give us all the slip the moment he's inclined."
"No, sir. Chullunder Chose is in Zelmira Poulakis' pay and in the secret, expecting what he calls a 'competency' if she pulls this off."
"By dammy, the thing looks water-tight!" said Molyneux.
"Depends on you, sir."
"Confound it, no! It's you. If you've misjudged the situation—hell! we'll all be in the soup! I admit I've never had cause to regret trusting you. But that's the way it goes; you trust a man, and trust him, until he lets you down finally; it's human nature."
"Up to you, sir."
"What do you want of me?" demanded Molyneux.
"Tobacco and cigars. The more the merrier. I'll take them to the Panch Mahal to keep Strange and Ramsden from going mad, while I get some sleep."
"They're in that handbag. What next?"
"Take my sister to the palace and introduce her to Madame Poulakis. Talk it over with her."
"Dammy! First thing you know, the rajah will blow the gaff. He's a cheap reptile."
"Promise him a trip to Paris, sir. He's got Strange's money. The shell of him that returns in a year's time won't hurt anybody!
"Yes, that's reasonable. The first demi-mondaine he hooks up with'll put the hat on him for ever. All right, what else?"
"Nothing more now, sir. I'll be off," said Ommony. "Look after my sister. Good morning." And Ommony mounted the vicious bay after a five-minute fight for mastery, and vanished in clouds of sunlit dust.
Chullunder Ghose meanwhile solved a problem with Alexandrian simplicity.
"He said I must feed you or catch it, sahib. How much can you eat?" he asked Charley.
"A horse. I'm hungry."
"Carnivorous western blood-hunger! No remedy but this way, then?"
He led Charley to the front door of the Panch Mahal, gave Charley a rock, and bade him hammer on the wood with it.
"But remember: deaf and dumb!" he cautioned. Then he stepped aside, and hid behind the projecting masonry.
So it was Charley who received on head and shoulders the bucket of water that Jeff poured down from above the arch; and Jeff who received the rock, plunk in the chest, hurled by a pretty fair to middling bush-league pitcher's arm.
"Try another exchange!" He suggested, and Jeff recognized the voice.
"You durned young hoodlum! You can't come in here," Jeff laughed. "Strange 'ud—"
"Oh, yes, sahib! Oh, yes!" Chullunder Ghose came under the arch and made violent gestures implying intrigue—conspiracy—secrecy—urgency—silence. "Open and let us in!"
Jeff hesitated. His regard for Charley Wear was nearly as high as his opinion of the babu was low.
"He has promised me breakfast," said Charley.
"Am magician!" said the babu, gesturing again.
"Can cook coffee—fried eggs—bacon—toast—Just think of it!"
Jeff glanced behind him to make sure Strange was out of earshot.
"We had some food, but it's gone," he answered.
"Thieves got away with it in the night."
"Am thief-catcher! Will bring all back. Come, Charley sahib."
He started off at a fast run round the corner, beckoning to Charley to follow.
"I'll let Charley in," said Jeff.
"No, no! Charley sahib is deaf and dumb cook's assistant."
Charley followed the babu. On foot, in the enormous turban, he looked exactly like one of those low-caste Hindu youths who do the chores around sahibs' kitchens. Jeff shrugged his shoulders and returned to the courtyard, less in love than ever with intrigue of any kind.
Chullunder Ghose led the way at a surprisingly fast waddle around the building to the elephant stalls in the rear, and thence to what had evidently been the servants' quarters in the place's palmy days. There was a hut divided into cubicles for twenty or thirty men, but nothing in it at the first glance except rats and beetles. However, the babu seemed well acquainted. Without hesitation he jerked open a cupboard door, disclosing a man fast asleep on a long shelf. Bad language ensued in Tamil—lots of it. The fellow was as much annoyed by the incoming light and air as at being wakened; he was even angrier when the babu started cuffing him and dragged him out on to the floor. Observing then that Charley was the smaller man, and of lower caste, he flew at him, and was sent sprawling for his pains. Thereafter he decided to be reasonable, and, opening another cupboard with a key he kept hidden in his loin-cloth, disclosed the provisions that Ommony had brought on the elephant. Nothing had been harmed. No packages were broken. There were kettles—matches—rather stale bread—everything.
Chullunder Chose heaped the lot into an empty box and hove it on to Charley's head.
"Act part, sahib! Act part complacently!" he whispered. Then, with a parting kick directed at the key's custodian he led the way back to the front gate, through which Jeff presently admitted both of them. Strange, naked to the waist, was washing himself in the fountain, and as it never entered his head that Charley might be Charley, and as the box on top of the turban kept the face underneath in shadow, Charley got by undetected. The babu led straight to the kitchen, and half an hour later there was nothing lacking but cigars to make Strange almost pleasant company. Although he had missed his sleep, he was beginning to find the adventure amusing. It rather intrigued him to think that a middle-aged rich man like himself should be enjoying poor man's fun.
He unbent toward Chullunder Ghose, and, while Charley made away with victuals in the kitchen, using appetite to offset dumbness, asked the babu question after question, seeking to throw light on the night's events. Nothing suited the babu better than exercise of imagination, so Strange heard tales about the priests that, even though he mocked them with explosive snorts and hah-hahs, had some effect. His inborn incredulity (the rich man's vade-mecum) had been undermined in the night. There had to be some explanation, and there might, after all, be something in the babu's.
"They are great magicians, sahib! They can do things done of old in regular course of day's work by wizards only mentioned now in fairy-tales."
Strange encouraged him to talk on, since there was nothing else to do, and no tobacco. Jeff, disgusted, went to the kitchen to interview Charley, and together they made the round of the upper storey, Jeff looking for something to explain the disappearing snake of the night before, and Charley scouting on his own account. They both found what they wanted.
There was a room whose one window provided a full view of every inch of the courtyard. It faced a blank white wall on the far side; and the wall was overshadowed by a cornice. Charley considered that with an appraising eye. Beside the window, just above the floor and on a level with the tiles of the verandah roof that ran along the whole of one side of the courtyard on their left as they looked out, was a large round hole, closed easily by a lid that swung on hinges. The floor-dust was considerably marked with the impress of naked feet; there were spots where two men might have knelt beside the hole; and there was a long smear where something had obviously been dragged across the floor.
"That settles that!" said Jeff, thinking less than ever of intrigue and priestly magic.
"Yes, that settles that," said Charley. "Problem now is how to get the stuff in here unobserved."
"That ought to be easy enough," Jeff mused; then turned and stared at Charley suddenly. "What do you know about it? You weren't here last night! You didn't see that snake they pulled along the roof."
"I was thinking of something else," said Charley. "Let's go, Jeff. I don't want Strange to catch me up here. We can talk outside."
They found a stair within a turret that let them reach the courtyard without having to pass Strange, and, closing the outer gate behind them, went and sat with their backs against a wall in a recess between two buttresses, where Jeff's pyjamas were not so likely to attract attention. There they talked until it was after nine o'clock, Jeff grumbling away steadily and Charley just as steadily insisting that Strange "had it coming to him."
"Anyone who plans to rough-house him has me to fight first," Jeff said definitely, more than once.
"Aw, shucks! They'll only make a fool of him," Charley argued. "They'll fix it so he marries a nautch-girl. I'll have a picture of the ceremony, and we'll rub that in. He'll be told afterwards it's regular, and the only way out is by public divorce, which'll get in all the papers, naturally. See him wince? That's where Zelmira comes to the rescue. She's fake with the priests and calls the whole thing off—on terms."
"I never heard such rot!" Jeff exploded, beginning to laugh. "Strange isn't an idiot. He'll turn the tables on the lot of you, or my name's Johnson. Zelmira will lose out, and serve her right!"
Charley was about to offer further explanation, but they were interrupted. Sitting in a recess between two buttresses of the outer wall, they had neither seen nor heard three horses cantering steadily toward them in the soft dust. Zelmira Poulakis, Miss Ommony, and Sir William Molyneux, all mounted on the rajah's Arabs, drew rein in front of them, and Jeff got to his feet, buttoning his pyjama jacket nervously. Zelmira laughed. Miss Ommony looked sympathetic.
"Seen anything of Ommony?" demanded Molyneux.
To Jeff's disgust Zelmira introduced him. To his chagrin Miss Ommony held him in conversation. To his utter discomfiture Zelmira and Molyneux rode off in search of Ommony, leaving Ommony's sister still conversing with him and exhibiting no inclination to leave off. He couldn't be abrupt and walk away. He couldn't command her to follow the others. She dismounted, springing down from the saddle as easily as a twenty-year-old, and stood in the dust before him. He had to hold her horse for her.
"Jeff Ramsden, I've heard of you. I think you've heard of me. Tell me all about this!" she demanded suddenly. "Is my brother Cottswold mad?"
She had Ommony's face, with the firmness but not the pugnacity—sweetness in the place of subtlety—and all her brother's honesty of purpose shining out of young grey eyes that made the silver in her hair look almost comical by contrast. Jeff almost forgot his unseemly apparel and bare feet, in admiration of her.
"My difficulty is," he said, "I seem to be in everybody's confidence. The less I say the better."
"Except to me. I'm trusted with secrets of State," she answered; and Jeff believed her. She was that kind. However, he hesitated. Deep answers deep by doing as deep does, observing confidences. She respected that, and nodded.
"Very well. Let me see Meldrum Strange."
"He's in pyjamas too."
"I don't mind."
"Does that matter?"
"The gate's not locked," Jeff answered. "I'll hold the horse."
She smiled and walked in through the gate, closing it behind her. Jeff led the horse away to where some trees provided shade, for he had no helmet; and thither Charley followed, to sit in the dust with him again, and yawn, and swear at flies, and wish there were tobacco, and behave in general as two men do who like each other well enough, but disapprove each other's attitude.
Not even Chullunder Ghose knew what transpired on that occasion inside the Panch Mahal. He came out looking like a man rebuked, and in answer to Jeff's questions said that Ommony was bad enough, but his sister was the devil.
"Did she know you?" Jeff asked him.
"She knows too much!" he answered.
"How did Strange like her appearance on the scene?"
"He ran upstairs and shouted at her from upper window. She sat on side of fountain, saying she has seen many people in pyjamas, Viceroys included; will therefore wait until he shall feel brave enough to interview her in riding-suit. He came down, and they talked, this babu listening unsuccessfully. Drew closer without ostentation, and received rebuke—extremely acrid—very! Two minds with but a single thought, same being that babu is dirty person devoid of self-respect. Came forth accordingly."
There was no sign of Ommony. It seemed that Zelmira and Molyneux had found him, for they did not come back. Jeff, Charley, and the babu sat there flapping flies until the shadow shortened to announce approaching noon, and still no sign of anyone. Charley fell asleep. The babu dozed at intervals.
At high noon Jeff got up and strolled toward the gate, wondering whether he ought not to investigate. Those priests might be up to more deuce. There might have been an accident. He should at least peer in through the gate and ascertain that all was well. However, the gate was locked, which rather scared him. He beat on it, imagining a thousand things.
To his astonishment, not Strange but Miss Ommony opened it at last, and she was laughing. There was more unmixed amusement in her eyes than he remembered to have seen in anyone's. Nor did she apologize for having kept him so long waiting. But that was deep to deep again. Her air, he thought, was rather of camaraderie—a sort of 'you'll know soon enough' attitude—as if she understood his position fully, and would explain her own at the proper time.
"Would you mind sending the babu here?" she asked him.
So he walked back, wondering, knowing he liked her amazing well, and feeling confident she would not do anything to make the situation worse, whatever happened. He was sore with Strange, as who would not be? But loyalty to an employer or a partner (Strange was actually both) was almost the breath Jeff breathed. He felt comfortable now Miss Ommony had come, yet wondered why.
"She wouldn't go against her brother," he reflected. "She's notoriously hand-and-glove with him."
Puzzled, yet not so irritated as he had been, he sent the babu hurrying, and sat down for another hour, sleeping at last beside Charley. It was the babu who wakened them both at two o'clock. The horse was gone. There was still no sign of Ommony, or Molyneux, or Zelmira. The babu sat in the dust in front of them, all his dissatisfaction evaporated and a look of sanctified immodesty projecting almost a halo into the air around him. Sunlight heightened the effect.
"Well? What?" Jeff asked him.
"Tobacco. Cigars likewise!"
Chullunder Ghose set them down in the dust—produced matches—struck one—passed it.
"How did you come by these?" Jeff demanded, exhaling imported smoke.
"This babu, beholding state of mind of sahibs, contemplating same, prayed to diverse gods for tobacco, lest ill-temper of deprivees later on make Job unendurable. Gods were very generous—I think."
"Where did you find 'em?" asked Jeff.
"Outside gate of Panch Mahal—in dust. All but trod on same, emerging."
"What went on in there?"
"Miss Ommony sahib went off—on horseback, this babu inducing horse to walk from here to gate. Very gentle creature—fortunately!"
"What happened inside?"
"Inside horse? He ate nothing. She rode outside, this babu assisting her to mount."
"Inside the Panch Mahal, you ass!"
"Oh!" The babu tried to look as if he had not understood the first time. "Nothing," he answered, more blandly innocent than ever.
"Then why did they send for you?"
"Perhaps to prove that nothing happened, sahib. Am exquisitely discreet witness."
"Strange has bought you, eh?"
"Am poor babu, but unpurchasable."
"Where's Mr. Ommony?"
"Not knowing, can't say."
Jeff hove himself erect, left Charley smoking, and walked back to the Panch Mahal, where Strange admitted him. Strange grabbed a cigar.
"Seen Ommony?" he demanded.
"Where did you find tobacco?"
"Ommony seems to have left it outside the gate."
"Huh! His sister was here."
"I admitted her."
"The devil you did! She didn't say that. Have any talk with her?"
"Nothing to mention."
"See her ride off?"
"Talk with the babu?"
"Questioned him. He told me nothing."
Strange seemed satisfied to know that. There was a new atmosphere about him, hardly less assertive, but more pleasant. He was plainly well pleased with something.
"What's eating you?" Jeff demanded.
Strange smiled aggravatingly, eyed Jeff as one appraises, say, a horse, and kept his own counsel.
"I like to put one over on Johnny Bull," he answered cryptically.
"You're the goat all right, this trip," Jeff answered. "Don't be a fool, Strange! Pull out of this before they make you look ridiculous. I won't tell what I know, but I warn you. Pull out!"
"I'd stay and watch, if I were you."
"It won't amuse me to see a man of your age and dignity made the goat by a lot of Hindu priests," Jeff retorted.
"Take my tip and watch!"
Strange, even in pyjamas, looked almost as he used to in New York when he paced the office floor tossing triumphant orders to a corps of clerks. He threw a chest. He clasped both hands behind him, and even kicked the fountain at the end of a to-and-fro patrol just as he used to kick the office wainscot, sitting down at once to curse and fondle his bare toe—but even so, not rabid in his rage as formerly. The pain brought water to his eyes, but he found grace to laugh at himself.
"Why don't you marry Zelmira?" Jeff asked him suddenly, judging that a favourable moment to surprise the underlying truth.
Strange set his toe down and stopped swaying. He glanced up, seeming to think deeply for a minute. He looked half-astonished, as if the notion were a new one.
"You think she would?" he demanded.
Jeff laughed. "Save lots of trouble," he said.
"She's a nice girl."
"Yes, she's nice—confounded nice! But d'you think she could endure a crabbed old fossil like me?"
"I suspect she's game to have a crack at it."
Jeff folded herculean arms across his chest and laughed aloud. If he had had clothes and shoes—or even a horse, without those—he would have started off that minute to find Zelmira and bring her there and offer the two his blessing.
"How long before Ommony sends our trunks?" he wondered. "An elephant might make the journey and return in—"
"Never mind," Strange answered. "I've had a long talk with—er—Miss Ommony. Don't care whether we get the clothes or not. They'll up with doodads for the ceremony; you'll look fine in silk and ostrich feathers!"
"I'll kill the man who tries to haze me!" Jeff retorted. "So Miss Ommony has been encouraging you, has she?"
"I found her quite encouraging."
Strange smiled exasperatingly.
"I'm surprised at her," Jeff growled back. "It's natural, I suppose, that she should take her brother's part, but—"
"Yes, I'm surprised at her too."
"I liked her. I thought she was—"
"Yes, I like her, too, first rate."
"You'll not like anyone—yourself least—before long!" Jeff assured him. "Strange, you're off your head!"
"Maybe, maybe. We've all a right to go mad if we want to."
"Yes!" exploded Jeff, "and take the consequences!"
"Um-huh! Consequences. Take 'em. That's not half-bad. Who eats crow, eh? Wait and see."
Jeff could get no more out of him. Strange avoided further talk by rearranging the overturned cot in the assembly hall and settling down to make up for lost sleep. In fifteen minutes he was snoring, seemingly without a worry on his mind. Jeff explored the building for a while, then wearied of that; cleaned the shotgun and rifles with a fragment of Strange's shirt; wished there were something to read, and, wish producing nothing, rearranged the other cot and presently slept too. Their snores rose and fell like the chorus of a busy lumber-mill.
The next few days were in some respects the most remarkable in Ommony's adventurous career, although at the time he was too occupied to realize it. He fretted for the future of his forest like a woman with one child, and, being a man of action, it occurred to him that the only way to prevent one of those unforeseen slips that send men's plans agley was to keep everyone else busy.
He had to keep good-tempered and apparently serene, which in itself was difficult enough; to think in two languages, which was easy; to divine the thought of Hindu priests and a Bengali babu, in which practice had made him proficient; to foresee chance, which is impossible; and to be everywhere at once, which is mainly metaphysics. And he accomplished marvels; but all men have their limitations.
His opinion of Strange by that time was much lower than any man may safely entertain about any other man. The trunk arrived by elephant, and he sent it to the Panch Mahal. Then, fearing that Strange might walk abroad and stumble over facts too plain to be misinterpreted, he begged his sister to see as much of the millionaire as possible and use her tact to the utmost to persuade him to stay indoors. She consented. She had always been sisterly and loyal; many a difficult negotiation Ommony had pulled off with her devoted aid. But she disgusted Jeff Ramsden by so obviously aiding in a plot that he thought outrageous.
"Women are all cut from the same piece!" Jeff grumbled to himself, and left them as much as possible alone, strolling off for exercise whenever she put in an appearance.
The rajah was another difficulty. Ommony managed him by harping on the Ville Lumiere string. He persuaded the rajah to get busy packing, not, however, encouraging him to leave Chota Pegu yet, for fear he might meet some high official in Bombay or elsewhere and let the cat out of the bag—a thing he would delight in doing.
Then Zelmira Poulakis needed wisely counselling. He insisted to her that the danger was Molyneux, who might at any moment fly of the peg and stop the whole proceedings with a high hand.
"Brass-face is a hard nut for his own sex; but he's putty in a woman's hands," he told her. "He's another of these convinced bachelors who'd rather flirt than feather a nest. Go riding with him. Use the rajah's horses. Keep Brass-face off the lot as much as possible."
She was nothing if not a good sport; and a good sport, of either sex, was the one thing under heaven Molyneux admired. So Molyneux attached himself to her court as mounted baronet in—waiting, and the two rode all about the countryside with a Hindu sais behind them, who entertained the other saises in the stables afterwards with imitations of the Brass-face sahib's Hah-hah-hah. But he could not describe Zelmira's answering music; she laughs like Titania, which is over the head of an Indian groom's histrionics.
Then there was the babu. Something had bitten him. He was getting uppish. He had altogether too much to say—too many notions—too much independence altogether. He did not even clamour for emolument. The wine of the conspiracy had gone into his head. He talked of "we, ourselves, and us," as if Ommony and he were partners, and he senior. When ordered to do one thing he frequently did another; ordered to say one thing, he sometimes said the opposite. Abused and threatened for it, he tried to look chastened, but failed, and could be heard chuckling the instant Ommony's back was turned. Yet Ommony dared not get rid of him at that stage of proceedings. The babu knew too much.
Besides, Chullunder Ghose would have to serve as go-between; almost as master of ceremonies. Someone who knew English and could interpret the priests' requirements would have to be in attendance, and none except the babu was available. Ommony himself could hardly but in an appearance. He intended to witness the initiation, but from hiding, along with Charley Wear; and it was likely anyhow that Strange would object to having any white man, except his own friend Jeff, to witness rites that he felt sure Strange hoped would be outrageous.
And that thought brought another in its wake. He knew Molyneux. He dared bet on what Molyneux would do in any given set of circumstances. Nothing less than fatal injury would restrain Molyneux from witnessing the ceremony—a certainty that presented advantages, but an obstacle as well. Objections raised by the priests themselves would weigh nothing in Molyneux's estimate, who would present himself at the front gate, demand admittance, and obtain it. That might stop the whole proceedings.
"Tell you what," he said to Molyneux. "You don't want to appear in this officially, I suppose?"
"Dammy, sir, by Gad, no!"
"Strange might jib at that too. He'd hate to be made a fool of in front of a uniformed British official."
"I don't blame him."
"The rajah won't be there, of course. The priests and he don't hit it off. Why don't you borrow an outfit from the rajah? You'll look splendid in it, and Strange won't know you're not an Indian prince. He doesn't care in the least what Indians think of him."
"Hah-hah-hah!" The monocle went into place. "Gad, Ommony By dammy, that'ud be a good joke, wouldn't it? Think the rajah's finery would fit me? Eh?"
Ommony took heart of grace. As a machinegun man will test the mechanism that he knows is perfect on the eve of action; as a hunter tests a trap-fall; as a doctor feels a convalescing patient's pulse, he could not keep himself from testing what seemed to him the one uncertain link.
"You've no objection then to going through with it?"
"By Gad, no!"
"No fear of your calling it off at the last minute?"
"None in the world."
Ommony sighed silently, relieved beyond expression, and went off for another interview with the priests, who he knew might not be trusted, but whom he felt he could manage nevertheless. Molyneux was dynamite. If he exploded, nothing invented could contain or hold him. The priests were mercury, elusive and dangerous, but liable to flow downhill along the lines of least resistance.
On the way he met Charley Wear, and stepped aside behind a garden wall to talk with him.
"Is everything ready?" he asked.
"Sure bet. I got the camera in place while Strange was showing your sister the inner courtyard. But it's my belief Strange don't care a hoot. He saw me once, and I think he recognized me. He avoids that room upstairs as if he knows my things are in there and don't want to seem to know. The doors locked, but he's never once tried to open it."
"That's just fortunate coincidence."
"Well: he's looked everywhere else. I asked Jeff what he 'thought about it, and Jeff just snorted. He's not fit to speak to—wanders off on his own like a bear with a sore head."
"Last minute nerves, that's all," said Ommony. "Over the top to-morrow, and all's well."
"Yes. I guess it's nerves all right. I've a hunch a peg loose. However, you're running it."
"Everything's in first-class shape," said Ommony, and laughed and left him.
Then the priests: another matter altogether. They were aloof and alone in a quiet temple that had seen its better days, perhaps, but still exuded an atmosphere of changelessness and influence. Its outer court was hidden among sar trees and surrounded by a wall on which the legends of the gods were carved with no mean skill. The centuries had smoothed and subdued all harshness, and a bell that tolled frequently suggested in mellow overtones that there was comfort in austerity—a thought improved on by the doves, that cooed all day long in an endless hymn of mother-magic.
There was no space in the courtyard where an unclean heretic from oversea might stand; but there was an outer court—a sort of jail-yard, cut off by high, squared masonry, where those untouchables who sweep the streets and make themselves generally useful may squat and listen to beatitude afar off. Ommony was in their class for the time being. He entered the enclosure with suitable reverence, and stood still until a twice-born venerable with shaven head and straggling beard hailed him reasonably insolently from a platform set above the wall. With becoming diffidence Ommony drew nearer.
The platform was designed, with a round hole on the side toward the unclean department, so that from the dregs of the less-than-Brahmin world might stand underneath and be blessed by curt phrases, as it were spat down at them. They might even make their wishes known by standing beneath with faces upturned, that being a properly respectful attitude, calculated to enhance the priestly dignity. But it was excruciatingly uncomfortable; and the view to be had of the under-side of a priest—a sort of worm's-eye view of heaven—added nothing to the charm.
There was silence for quite a long time, while the priest waited for Ommony to speak first, and he waited for the priest, neither man choosing to overestimate the other's pride. The devil of it was, that if you looked up you looked suppliant; and if you looked down you naturally presented a hangdog aspect to the haughty ecclesiastic. However, those were the two alternatives; if you stepped back you were beyond the pale, not speechless necessarily, but according to the rules inaudible.
The temple bell boomed three times, its golden mote shimmering away into infinity, before Ommony could master his exasperation to the point of speaking first.
"Are all things ready?" he demanded.
"All what things?"
Ommony laid hit head right back to see better through the hole, but had to squint because the sun was in his eyes.
"You listen to me!" he retorted angrily. "This affair has gone too far for any high-horse business. It you don't talk frankly you can call the whole thing off and we'll let the Government interfere."
That is roughly what he said. The Urdu of it, literally set down, would not appeal to a Western sense of proprieties. The words he actually used were penetrating—pierced even priestly armour—brought response.
"There is no need for the sahib to feel indignant."
"No, no need! Permit me, sahib."
He turned and found Chullunder Ghose behind him, looking meek and amiable, which surely implied he was full to the cranium of mischief. What was worse, it implied the babu had been spying. Why had he followed Ommony in there uninvited? Why should he approach the priests at all by that humiliating route, when there was another, fairer court reserved for persons of his indeterminate state of unrighteousness?
However, the babu had seized the upper hand by storm before there was time to prevent him. Standing well back, so that he could see the priest over the edge of the platform, he began to hurl abuse at him, insulting him with every epithet Bengali imagination could invent, ending breathless on the point—his real argument:
"Moreover, you are a fool. This sahib has brains. You should treat him with deference."
Whereat the incredible occurred. The priest called to someone beneath him in the inner courtyard. There was a pause, after which keys were heard to jangle on a ring. Then a small door set deeply in a corner of the wall was opened cautiously; and through the opening, but touching neither door nor wall, an arm emerged and beckoned Ommony and the babu.
"Quick, sahib! This is a high honour!"
The babu, almost pushing Ommony in his excitement, hurried through after him, and a lean priest locked the door at their backs. Even so, they were not in the inner courtyard, but in a sort of cell without a roof, with another small door at the far side, through which the man with the keys disappeared. It was like a pen for sorting animals, where they might perhaps be disinfected before admission to the main corral; only there was a stone bench along one side, and Ommony sat down on it.
"High, very great honour!" said the babu, squatting at his feet.
Before they had time to exchange a dozen words the inner door opened and two priests entered, neither of whom were the same who had spoken from the platform. By their air these were "men higher up," although they wore no insignia to prove it. They had no need to swagger. Their assurance was too absolute to call for self-expression. Self-conscious sanctity had no more use for sanctimoniousness. They had come to study an insect, and proceeded:
"What do you want?" asked one of them, as if that might be interesting.
Ommony took his time about answering. He was seated, and it did not run counter to his humour to keep them standing. What little wind he could feel in his sails, so to speak, that minute was so light that he pondered before deciding on which way to lay his helm. And before he made decision the babu robbed him of what little wind there was.
"The sahib comes to ask your honour's excellency whether all is in order for the initiation. Are there hitches?"
"No, no hitches." Just three words, spoken without apparent movement of the lips, in a voice devoid of emotion. Then: "But delay," said the other priest; and if he noticed the look of exasperation that swept over Ommony's face he gave no sign of it.
"The sahib is in haste," said the babu, glancing from Ommony to them and back again. No statement ever was more true, but it had no effect on the priests. They were as interested as anglers might be in the protests of a dying fish. Ommony could not afford to let proceedings hang fire. Strange might cut loose any minute. Molyneux might change his mind and decide the central government should interfere. Zelmira—even his own sister—might make some mistake. He himself was nearly worn out with sleeplessness and worry; and there was no certainty that the rajah might not betray the whole plan any minute. If the rajah should see Strange—
"It is time," he said simply, mastering the impulse to stand and storm at them.
"Then why does he wait?"
That was the ultimate of insolence, expressed superbly. No frown—no curling lip—no hauteur: merely interest, addressed to the babu, not to Ommony. Ommony decided it was time to lose his temper.
"I'm here to tell you I propose to wait no longer!" he answered indignantly. "It's time for you to carry out your promises."
"To what does he refer? We made no promises." To the babu again, not to Ommony as if the babu were his keeper. The babu began to speak, but checked himself. The other priest had a word to say:
"It is for suppliants to promise. We have ears, and we remember."
"What does he mean?" demanded Ommony, trying to turn the tables by directing his question at the babu instead of at them. But he gained nothing by it the priests' indifference was that of graven marble.
"Sahib, it is as this babu said. They make no promises to anyone. They make stipulation, and await sahib's promise, same not having yet been made."
"What do they want?"
"Promise of Panch Mahal."
"It isn't mine," said Ommony. "How can I promise them what doesn't belong to me?"
The babu made no pretence to knowing that. He turned to the priests. The exchange between him and Ommony having been in English, he interpreted.
"Neither does his necessity belong to us," one of the priests answered.
Ommony swore fervently under his breath, not caring whether the priests saw his discomfiture or not. They obviously understood the situation. They had let him lay his plans to the point where success depended solely on themselves, and now took advantage of that to spring impossible demands. How could he promise them Strange's property?
"Tell them I'll do my best," he said angrily.
One of the priests permitted himself the luxury of a thin, hard smile.
"They want definite promise," said the babu, without waiting for the priests to say the obvious.
Ommony got to his feet disgusted, feeling for his pipe.
"All right," he said. "Let 'em call the whole thing off."
He did not know what he was going to do, except to turn his back on the priests and have no more dealings with them. He supposed he must go first to Molyneux and confess failure; then, presumably, to Strange and plead with him. He liked that thought about as much as a condemned man enjoys the prospect of the gallows. However, what was the use of arguing? He laid his hand on the door leading to the outer court. But it was locked.
"Let me out," he said angrily.
But while his back was turned he had given the enemy time for conference. It does not take long for priests of that religion to exchange glances and a nod. They made no move to let him out, and he turned on them again. One of the priests said something in a low voice to Chullunder Ghose.
"Their excellencies say," said the babu, "that the Panch Mahal is theirs by right. No white man will be allowed to occupy it."
The priest spoke again. The babu interpreted.
"They need it for their purposes. They would be careful for the forest:"
The other priest said something in an undertone. The babu's quick ear caught the words, and he turned them promptly into English:
"Moreover, in the matter of the forest, it is not wise to offend the servants of the gods."
The implied threat was obvious enough, but Ommony's spirit surged in him instantly. They were temporizing! They did not wish to close the discussion! Then there was a weak joint in their armour somewhere. He prayed to whatever gods there might be to point it out to him, but the gods seem always humorously dumb in an emergency.
He looked at the priests. They were emotionless. His eye fell on the babu squatting before them in a pose of reverent humility. Reason, intuition, instinct, all three warned him that the babu was playing for no hand but his own. Ergo, if the babu had a private understanding with the priests then he might be the weak joint. But how to prove it? And what then?
Possibly they thought he, Ommony, was somebody whose yea or nay amounted to more than it Really did. Priests think in terms of autocracy, and most of India deludes itself as to the real power, or lack of it, that legally belongs to an official.
"Ask them what they think of me? he demanded suddenly.
The question took the priests entirely by surprise. They smirked at each other, confessing they did not know how to answer it. Their true thoughts would have been so insolent as to make further approach impossible. They had a thousand thoughts about him in the relative, where temporary delusions are acceptable for the sake of convenience. Which thought did he mean?
"None!" was the answer they would have liked to give; but one does not give that kind of answer to a government official at whose hands advantage is sought. One of the priests said something very quickly. The babu caught it and interpreted.
"They say, they know the sahib's influence can prevent a transfer to themselves of legal title to the Panch Mahal."
To tell the truth and deny that would have been mere stupidity.
"I promise not to try to prevent it," he said simply.
"If a transfer is arranged, will the sahib permit it?"
That was all. The priests nodded, saying something as they turned to go.
"The ceremony may take place to-morrow," said the babu, as the man came with the keys to turn them out through the other door. So Ommony went, feeling mystified. What had they up their sleeves? How were they going to compel Strange? What, he wondered, did the babu know about it?
All Chota Pegu turned out in gala attire for a holiday. Lord knew there were few enough occasions, and few, too, who could afford much finery; but such as they had, and such as this was, they made the best of it. The huts yclept houses disgorged their living streams at dawn, and those in turn were swallowed in a denser stream of country-folk from surrounding villages, a trifle shy and rather sniffed at (since even Chota Pegu draws a line between the towny and the hick).
Someone had blundered, or had let the news get out, which amounted to the same thing. Ommony suspected the rajah; the rajah blamed it on the priests; they dropped dark hints about Chullunder Ghose; and he said nothing. But it transpired later that the man who opened up a lemonade stand near the Panch Mahal front gate, and did a roaring trade, had to turn over the lion's share of the profit to the babu, who financed him.
Even jugglers came, and snake-charmers from only they knew where, and performed for copper coins before the crowd, that waited patiently as Indian crowds can be depended on to do when there is entertainment.
There were even wrestlers—such artists in their craft that they would struggle for twenty minutes and tie themselves into inextricable knots of which none could guess the outcome; and they would hold that insoluble conundrum, contrary to all Nature's laws, while a small boy took up a collection; after which they would calmly unravel themselves and begin all over, working up new enthusiasm for a second offertory. And nobody ever did learn which would have won if the match had gone on to a finish.
Then there were acrobats, who could stand on one foot on top of a thin pole whose other end rested on bare earth, distorting themselves on that giddy perch into likenesses of nothing anyone had ever seen. And there were beggars, of course; and a man who said he was a leper, and looked it. And they all gave to the leper, although everybody knew that if he really were one the Government would have taken him away long ago; they being charitable folk, more anxious to acquire merit than to impose it on others.
Then, about eight in the morning, everyone said "Ah—h—h!" because the elephants began to come from the direction of the temple. Lots of people got in the way and were all but trampled on which was exciting; and they naturally laughed because they had escaped, and the rest laughed at them, so there was a great time. They had all seen elephants every day of their lives; but it is the mood you are in, not what you are looking at, that counts.
Besides: the elephants had curtained howdahs, and everybody knows what thrilling secrets that suggests. As each enormous beast padded up, swaying and looking for mischief with his trunk, there was silence to see what happened when he manoeuvred into position exactly in front of the main gate, and knelt there. They all knew what would happen, but they were excited just the same.
Out stepped the most beautiful, ravishing, marvellous, jewelled, and scented nautch-girls the world had ever seen; and all the world that knows anything at all is familiar with the fact that the temple girls of Chota Pegu are the loveliest anywhere. Are they not brought there when hardly old enough to toddle, and trained—and trained—and trained until they can not only dance all the intricate steps that the gods used to dance in the old days when they lived on the earth among mortals, but can even look exactly like the goddesses, whose portraits for comparison are on the temple wall?
They had all seen the nautch-girls scores of times, but it was always a new thrill; and, this being a merry occasion, it led, of course, to jokes that it was a good thing the priests did not hear. Sometimes the priest knows when it is wisest not to listen.
They counted nine-and-forty nautch-girls—seven times seven—a miracle-working number, portentous of good luck. And the last nautch-girl laughed aloud as she got down from the elephant, which was an omen positively. Nothing could possibly go wrong after that; there must be new amazement coming.
And there was! The rajah's elephants—the four that had to be supported from the taxes (as distinguished from the priests' elephants, which were supported by donations, which is different). The rajah was not there, but nobody minded that; the priests had called him a low-caste degenerate, and they were no doubt right, being priests, who know everything. But on the elephants' backs were the most wonderful people they had ever seen, and nobody knew who the people were, which made it thrilling.
On the front elephant there were two ladies—great queens presumably. One was veiled heavily, but the other wore no veil at all. Her jewellery sparkled in the sun—about a crore's-worth* by the most conservative estimate. She was a European queen undoubtedly, for she wore the European style of dress—or so they all supposed, for they had never seen anything like it. She was all trigged out in silver and grey, with a hat so smothered in flowers that it looked as if she must have stolen them that morning with the dew on them from the garden of the gods. She smiled to right and left, and her smile would have melted the heart of a moneylender, it was so genial and kind and merry.
Then everyone said "Ah—h—h!" again; for on the second elephant there was an emperor—no less! He wore some jewels, although not so many as the lady did; but to make up for lack of them he was robed in shimmering silver and golden silk! His turban was woven of silver and golden silk in alternate layers, criss-crossed up the front; and there were half a dozen ostrich feathers stuck into a brooch in front, that would have made the King of England purple with acquisitiveness.
He was a big man—broad—up-sitting—threw his shoulders back as if he were well used to leading armies on parade. No doubt he was a great king from foreign parts or somewhere. Heavens! but he was dignified. His brow, they agreed, was like a mountain frowning down over the sea; and if he hadn't worn a monocle in the English fashion they might almost have believed him a god. Nobody ever remembered to have seen an image of a god who wore a monocle, so that settled that. But he was wonderful.
And now another wonder! On the elephant behind him rode a plain, undignified, unvarnished English clergyman, in a plain black suit, with a white topee, mopping his face with a plain white handkerchief, and seeming unused to elephants. That was old "Begum" anyhow, a cow whose gait was always more uncomfortable than an earthquake. And serve him right! for he was one of those black-dyed rogues who, their priests had frequently assured them, are worse than all the devils in the Hindu Pantheon. They laughed to see how green his face looked; and some said he looked, too, as if he disapproved the whole proceedings, which made it even funnier.
Then, although the rajah stayed away, there were several of his courtiers, who arrived in a troop on horseback; and there was a joke to be made about every one of them, because everybody knew how in debt they were and who really owned their horses if the truth were out. They let the truth out merrily. One wag swore he saw a money-lender's name on the accoutrements, and that joke was voted so excellent that thereafter you might have trodden on folks' toes without making them angry.
But the most surprising marvel of all was yet to come. There had been plans whispered from lip to ear to climb the sar trees presently and see much as might be seen of what should transpire within. The walls were high and available trees were some way off; but the glimpses so had would serve to weave gossip for months to come. Some boys had even gone to fetch a ladder, and they had it stowed in a safe place out of sight. They even had prepared what to say to the rajah's poo-bah policeman, in case that worthy should turn up and make himself objectionable; there were lots of things that might be said, nor any very comforting to his esteem, but they chose the most scandalous, that being high festival. Whatever that irascible official might say in return, they were determined to climb the trees and remain in the branches until the show was over, or until he fetched an axe and cut the trees down, which they offered to wager he was much too lazy and dignified to do. (All Chota Pegu is willing to bet on a certainty.)
However, when the last of the court noblemen had dismounted, tossed his reins to a ragged sais, and swaggered in, the unbelievable occurred. Somebody threw the great front gate open wide and invited them all to enter and be seated! They could hardly believe their senses! True, the priests had a hand in this, and the priests were always generous providers of pageantry; dangerous folk—mean, grasping, contemptible in many ways—but always willing to let the crowd in on eye-feasts. This, though, was a white man's tamasha*. Sahibs did not provide fun for mere village folk—at least not often, and when they did there was always a string to it, like higher taxes, or vaccination, or some other scheme for impoverishing them in this world and depriving them of heaven in the next.
Everybody knew Iss-tee-range had bought the Panch Mahal, and that he had gone mad in there, shooting off his rifles at the rats at night and prowling around by day in pyjamas and bare feet. Perhaps this was part of his madness.
Anyhow, there were the gates wide open, and somebody beckoning, so they all trooped in, treading on one another's heels for fear Iss-tee-range might change his crazy mind and slam the gates in the faces of the last ones. But there was lots of room and no hurry after all. Chullunder Ghose, perspiring and nervous to the verge of a collapse, ushered them into long rows on the side of the courtyard facing the door of the assembly—room (in which all the old scandalous debauches used to be held, which everyone agreed were a disgrace to the countryside, and nobody would have missed for a year's income if by any means he could worm a way in).
And although there was a fountain between them and the other side of the courtyard they could all see nicely, because the fountain was not high, and some sort of stage had been erected, reaching nearly the full width of the courtyard with its back against the assembly—room wall. They recognized that stage; it was the one the priests used when they provided a ceremony outside the temple walls in order that all—even the very lowest castes and the caste-less might benefit. And they knew the screens that stood at each end of the stage and in the midst in front of the assembly-room door; those were the screens the nautch-girls hid behind, to emerge for the ritual dance. They were the screens an old-time rajah—a real one, not to be mentioned in the same breath with this man—had brought from Burma; and some said they had been made in China, or some such far-away land. Whether that was true or not, they were wooden, and carved all over with delightful dragons, and no man now alive possessed the craftsmanship to fashion others like them.
In the midst of the courtyard, with his back to the fountain, beside the image of a god who had four faces so that he might see everything, sat the magnificent prince with the monocle; and it was well worth a three-hour wait to sit in the sun behind him and study the set of his shoulders and see the dignity with which he smoked cigars. The princess with the diamonds and without the veil was beside him in an ordinary arm-chair, and he paid her a great deal of attention—much more interesting than the antics of a leopard in a cage or any other of the sights they were used to.
After a while he complained of the sun, in a big brass voice that must have awakened the gods, because four temple attendants came and rigged up an awning over him and the princess, which rather spoiled the view of those behind him, but they overcame that by crowding closer toward the right and left.
The princess in the dark veil was missing, and none could guess what had happened to her, which was intriguing. But "Mellidrum Iss-tee-range," with a big cigar in his mouth, sat in a chair over to the left, with an enormous man beside him who was twice as big as Ommonee, and who somebody had said could kill an ox with one blow of his fist.
Everybody hoped he would do that as part of the entertainment. He was a sahib such as everybody loved; when he spoke his voice rumbled like gun-wheels; and even the stray dog that had found its way in was not afraid to go near and sniff him. Iss-tee-range and the big sahib were dressed in ordinary serge suits, and Iss-tee-range was smiling (as who wouldn't be who owned all the crores and crores he was reported to own). But the big sahib looked uncomfortable, which nobody could account for. Was he not also an Amelikani? And are not all those people fabulously wealthy? Can a man be rich and anxious at the same time? Well, there he was. Behold him, fidgeting at intervals and throwing away a good cigar before he had smoked the half of it.
Then, Oh! Watch! Watch! Still! Be still! Make those women hush the babies! The musicians come!
And sure enough, out from behind the screen in the midst of the stage, and down the steps in front of it, came twenty-eight members of the temple orchestra, each with his string or wind instrument; and then seven drummers with tom-toms, making thirty-five in all. They squatted in a long row in front of the stage and began there and then to discourse sweet music—so sweet and marvellous that it made the great brass-voiced prince from foreign parts call out:
"Dammy! Can we stick it out? By Gad, by Gad, by Gad!"
They wondered what language that might be, but did not doubt it was applause. And so evidently the musicians understood, for they redoubled their efforts; and the princess of the sparkling diamonds sitting beside the great prince laughed until they all laughed too, they couldn't help it. Nobody in all Chan Pegu ever had half such a wonderful time.
Up in the little hot room with a hole in the wall that provided view of the whole courtyard Ommony stood sweating beside Charley Wear who had abandoned native costume because there was no more need of it. Charley was arrayed in white duck pants and an undershirt. He looked like a gun-layer going into action. But his gun was a machine with a powerful lens, whose food was sensitized film instead of cartridges.
The window was shuttered, which made the air stifling, but there were holes through which a man could see, and Ommony, wiping the sweat from his neck, clapped an eye to each hole in turn repeatedly, careful not to trip over the camera legs that were spraddled out in three directions so that the camera looked like an enormous spider ready to spring on its prey below.
"Can't see my sister anywhere," he grumbled. "Did you notice her come in?"
"No," said Charley. "I was sighting the machine."
"Damn!" remarked Ommony.
He realized that he had seen too little of his sister during the last few days, and she had all the family proclivity for launching off on independent lines of action. Brains she had, and loyalty she had, but scant sense of obedience, and too much reliance on her own judgment. He recalled more than one occasion when she had taken her own course without waiting to consult him. Where the dickens was she?
"Strange is looking much too pleased with himself," he said presently.
"It's my belief he knows this camera's up here," said Charley, squatting down at last beside his gun, since all was ready. "He glanced up here once or twice," he added, wiping the sweat off his hands on the seat of his pants. "Gee! Is that what they call music?"
"Who let the crowd in?" Ommony demanded.
He had been busy talking to an emissary from the priests in one of the other rooms, and the man had been so deliberately stupid that everything had to be said three or four times over, so that Ommony had missed quite a lot of what went on.
"Dunno," said Charley. "The babu acted usher.''
"Damn that babu!"
"He seems like a kind of humorous guy to me," said Charley. But that remark was only further irritation.
Ommony had worse than doubt of the babu, He more than suspected him. He was willing to take oath that Chullunder Ghose was up to mischief on his own account, making money out of the proceedings in some ingenious way. For one thing, he was nearly sure he had an understanding with the priests; and he did not flatter himself for one minute that his own bargain with the priests was worth an arena if the priests should discover another means of getting what they wanted. They had promised nothing—merely permitted him to infer that they would fulfil their part; and he would not have felt much easier even if they had made a definite promise.
"Rascals!" he muttered, over and over again.
Well: it was too late now to change anything or call the whole proceedings off. He foresensed disaster; but in that event he knew what he would do. There would be pictures, that much was certain—pictures that would make Strange look ridiculous—that, if a government a thousand miles away should see them, would show Strange in an intriguing light. If worse came to worst, he would go down into the courtyard and dare Strange to do a thing about the forest—threaten him—tell him of the pictures. And there was a rope-ladder all ready for Charley to make his escape with the exposed reels. If Strange should laugh at the threats, then the reels should go to Simla and be shown there.
His whole plan began to look like a nightmare that might end anyway except satisfactorily, and the infernal music in the courtyard heightened the suggestion, grating on nerves already on end from lack of sleep and proper meals. He had tried to oversee too many things at once, and knew it.
Charley, eyeing him thoughtfully, diagnosed stage-fright and tried to comfort him.
"You should not worry," he said. "You'll have done your best. That's all a man can do."
But Ommony's creed is stern. He must save the forest. India, the world, the universe would undoubtedly continue to evolve, whatever happened. But there would be no excuse acceptable in face of leagues and leagues of slaughtered trees. There was his life's work. When his own hour came to face his Karma there would be the dreadful question—just, simple, inescapable—"What ha' you done?"
Not what the other man did. What had he, Cottswold Ommony, done? Where were the trees entrusted to his keeping? Sincerely, simply, he would rather die than fail the forest. His own personal honour and advantage weighed nothing in the scale.
"Gee! The light off that wall's perfect!" said Charley, scattering encouragement at random in the hope that some might stick.
"Keep Strange in focus. That's the main thing."
"Can't do a close-up from here, you know. He'll show small but recognizable."
"Are you ready?" Ommony snapped suddenly. "Shoot then!"
And the crank of the camera began turning steadily, sixteen times a minute.
Below, the weird stringed instruments burst into sudden spasms of twanged noise and the flutes screamed through that while the thumping of the tom-toms rose and fell. Out filed the nautch-girls from behind the screen—bare of stomach—breasts hidden under tinselled shields—skirted to the knees in pale blue gauzy stuff. Half moved to the right, half to the left, until their line stretched from end to end across the stage and they all stood motionless, leaving a gap in their midst through which the forty-ninth, the "leading lady," came.
She was unlike all the others—prettier; and such scant garments as she wore were bronze instead of blue. The bosses on her breasts were studded with uncut jewels, and her bracelets glittered. In either hand she held garlands made from flower buds threaded on strings, and as she swayed her lithe body those shook until they looked like wind-blown blossom falling from the trees. But that was not their purpose. She had other use for them. Strange sat smiling with a big cigar stuck upward in the corner of his mouth, having his money's worth so far by the look of him, and much too pleased with himself.
"You wait!" muttered Ommony. "You forest robber! Wait!"
But he had an eye, too, for Zelmira, whose golden Indian bracelet rose and fell as she tried to find some intelligible rhythm in the music. It did not seem to Ommony that she was paying sufficient attention; she should have been watching for her cue, instead of whispering to Molyneux and laughing at the man's jokes. Molyneux was perfectly capable of spoiling the whole thing by keeping her there beside him, instead of letting her slip away behind the scenes.
However, the nautch was on. Ommony's urgent business was to stand ready to hand Charley a fresh reel and slip the exposed one into its steel box, so that they might miss as few incidents as possible.
The music diminished to proportions in which some rhythm was at last perceptible, and the forty-nine girls began to sing, swaying from the feet upward, rather like plants seeking to uproot themselves than women dancing. The long line moved in ripples like waving corn, and the song was a wail, mad-melancholy, but redeemed by golden notes and the faint, far-away peal of a bronze bell struck from behind the scenes at intervals.
It was a long dance, and a language. Each motion was a symbol that had meant the same since India arose from prehistoric sea-bed and became a land; plainer and fuller of meaning than words to eyes uneducated in the changing symbols of the West. It was a simple enough story, of seed, rain, growth, and harvest, with fertilizing wind a-blow through all of it, and all the while a lipped hymn to the ancient gods who cause such sequences to be—melancholy only because men refused to recognize the breath of God in all things.
These were the temple virgins—institution older than the hills—no more conscious of the inner meaning of the ancient rite than their audience, that looked for phallic impropriety, and found it, India having descended into evil days. Production, reproduction, birth, and evolution, all were mocked in a rite designed to glorify them. But it pleased Strange. He chewed on his cigar, and smiled with hands across his stomach, like a bald-head in the front row at the Gaiety. It was expensive. He had paid too much for the Panch Mahal. But this was a pretty good make-weight they had thrown in.
You could see him wondering what the fellows at the club would say when he told them all about it. Not many Englishmen, and no Americans, had ever seen that dance. There was one Englishman who did not want to see it, and the village audience chuckled, for the padre-sahib, who had been sitting out of sight of them on a low chair in front of the image of the four-faced god, came around and sat between it and them, where he could not see the stage.
The music changed, as if the padre-sahib's mood invited it. It defied him—mocked his disapproval rose into a wild confusion of wailing wind and thrumming strings, with the drums doing galloping footfalls. The eight-and-forty nautch-girls stood nearly motionless, swaying only slightly from the waist. But she in the midst, with a glittering gossamer shawl to aid her, began a serpent dance, like the fabled madness of the pythons in the spring. And that was devilish.
"Get this!" urged Ommony. "Focus on her now, and follow her whatever happens!"
"Dammit, she moves too quick!" said Charley. "She's the goods, if she'd go slow!"
"Aim for her and nothing else! We'll get some of it."
There came eight priests chanting, and walking slowly out from behind the screen—filed down the steps—and stood in line between them and where Strange sat—backs to the audience—cutting Strange off, as it were, from the common herd. And Ommony laughed, for he saw Jeff Ramsden nudge Strange and clench his fist. There was going to be a fight unless the priests should watch their step, and that would serve perfectly. Anything, in fact, would serve that should give Zelmira her chance to rescue Strange from a predicament.
But Strange whispered behind his hand, and Jeff sat back again apparently contented. And why had Zelmira not vanished behind the wings? She should have gone already, but there she sat still beside Molyneux, without a trouble in the world to look at her.
"Another reel, quick!" snapped Charley. "This is hot stuff!"
The python dance was languishing to long, slow, undulating movements that the camera could record, and fingers slippery with sweat worked feverishly to snap the fresh reel in and resume cranking. Ommony clapped his eye to a hole in the shutter again, and almost shouted:
"Get this now! Get this! Are you sure you're on?"
"Sure, I've got it. It's good."
Slowly down the steps the nautch-girl came, pausing on every step to let the python spirit torture her into new, monstrous shapes. The priests' chant and the music rose to wilder heights. The other nautch-girls swayed in a sort of delirious ecstasy, humming obbligato to the priests. The native audience moved in unison, their breath expiring in great gasps all together. Suddenly Strange let his cigar fall, and sat bolt upright.
"Keep her in the picture now!" said Ommony excitedly.
The dancing-girl ceased writhing like a snake and suddenly ran toward Strange as if he were her only love. For a second it looked as if she would embrace him, and all the audience drew it's breath in sibilantly. But instead, she tossed the garlands over his neck and swept back six paces, pausing a if to admire him, while the music and the chorus rose to a scream and the tom-toms thundered.
Next she advanced and threw her veil before him, knelt on it as if imploring him, and backed away, withdrawing veil and all as if he had rejected her advance and she was broken-hearted. Then forward again as if to fall into his arms, he grinning, and away before he could touch her, not a thread of her gossamer shawl as much as brushing against his sleeve.
"Hah-hah!" laughed Molyneux; and for the first time it seemed to dawn on Strange that possibly he was being mocked. He began to look uncomfortable and a trifle flushed.
"Hah-hah!" Molyneux laughed again, and the audience all began to laugh too, because that kind of jeer is contagious.
But the dancing-girl danced on, and the music wailed and shrieked in time to the dinning tom-toms until Strange, feeling all eyes on him, glanced to right and left looking as if he would like to escape. It is all very well to be made a lot of, but to be worshipped in public by a lady in diaphanous attire is more than even millionaires can stand. He glanced up once as if he knew the camera was recording everything.
"Did you see that?" said Charley. And as he spoke the woman let her gauzy shawl fall over Strange's head and shoulders. The audience yelled as if she had crowned him king.
"Did you get it?" squealed Ommony.
Strange did not know what to do. He simply sat there looking foolish. But Chullunder Ghose appeared from behind somewhere and stood beside him, urging, protesting, gesticulating. Jeff Ramsden laid a hand on Strange's sleeve, but Strange shook it off; and the girl began to dance as if luring Strange on to heaven knew what behind the dragon screens. Chullunder Ghose took him by the right arm and almost pulled him out of the chair, ignoring Jeff's protests. Jeff shook his fist in the babu's face, and Molyneux barked "Hah-hah!" again, while the audience squealed above the din of music. The girl began backing away, and Strange, yielding to Chullunder Ghose, got up and followed her.
"Oh, gorgeous!" chuckled Ommony.
"'Nother reel, quick!" snapped Charley.
They reloaded like a destroyer's gun-crew at battle practice, in time to catch Strange sprawling up the steps in the girl's wake, for somebody or something tripped him. And when he reached the stage the nautch-girls all surrounded him and danced in a whirl, so that for a minute nothing could be seen of Strange at all; it was as if he had been swallowed. They had his coat and collar off, for someone flung them at Zelmira's feet, where she sat beside Molyneux, bubbling laughter. And when the whirling circle broke at last and the girls spread outward either way along the stage the python-girl was gone, and there stood Strange arrayed in a peacock robe and turban with aigrette, looking pompous and ridiculous with boots and trousers showing underneath. Zelmira's laugh rang like a peal of bells, and Strange frowned at her.
"Damn the woman!" muttered Ommony. "She's done for herself now, that settles it!"
It was hotter than a Turkish bath in there, but a cold chill swept over him at the thought that none now would have sufficient hold on Strange to make him let the forest go. Half of the plan had failed with Zelmira's influence. Surely Strange would never listen to her now. Well: there was the other half of the plan—the alternative. Strange looked ridiculous enough, and worse was coming. There would be the pictures to hold over him by way of threat.
Chullunder Ghose, acting fat, obsequious impresario, climbed the steps and began tutoring Strange again—pointing toward the wooden dragon-screen. His words were totally inaudible in the din of drums and music, but he seemed to insist on something prearranged, with one hand gesturing toward the priests, as if he spoke for them, and with the other pushing Strange toward the dragon-screen. And out of the mouth of the dragon came a hand—a woman's—certainly the python-dancer's, for the wrist had the same heavy, jewelled bracelet.
The music crashed, and ceased. In silence, broken only by a crow's caw on the roof, Strange walked toward the hand, and seized and kissed it three times. Crash! went the music again, and the native audience seemed suddenly to go mad, rising and leaping and yelling as if all their future had depended on that one piece of foolishness.
"Have you got that?"
"Got it all!"
"Good! Carry on now! I'll go below. You keep on cranking as long as you've a foot of film left!"
Ommony nearly broke the key in his eagerness to get out—slammed the door nearly off its hinges—and ran stumbling down the stairs, kicking open the door at the bottom and wading through the audience like a man waist-deep in sea-water. Zelmira nodded to him, but he took no notice of her; she had failed the forest, and was out of his calculations for good and all. He was actually off his head that minute—worn out with worry and fear and lack of sleep—fired by the sight of victory almost within his grasp. Strange was still standing there, ridiculously foolish with his turban awry, looking rather like Henry the Eighth, and holding the hand through the screen.
"Chullunder Ghose! Tell him what that means!" yelled Ommony, not recognizing his own voice, it was so strained and high pitched. Jeff Ramsden, recognizing breakdown, understanding men as some know horses, began making his way toward him. The babu grinned, aping humility, bowing and salaaming to Strange, too deferent at last to play a leading part. He began to back away and nearly fell off the stage.
"Strange, you're married!" Ommony roared, his voice cracking strangely. "That's the custom! What'll you do now? Every one of those nautch-girls has to marry before she dies. Most of 'em marry trees. That one's got you! Now then!"
Strange had the effrontery not even to seem sheepish or annoyed. Jeff, getting close enough at last, put his huge arm under Ommony's and tried to quiet him; but Ommony only drew strength from the contact, not calmness.
"You're married, you hear me? You've married a nautch-girl before witnesses!"
It was unseemly—horrible Ommony was screaming at him. Strange with his hunger to exploit had probed the man's secret passion to its depths and driven all that was evil in him to the surface. He was worse than a woman with her child condemned to death, for in that hour he lacked power to plead—a primitive, abysmal human stricken to the heart and fighting back. He struck Jeff's arm away, and Molyneux rose from his chair to help restrain him.
But Strange's answer brought them all to a stand-still.
"May I have a Christian ceremony, then?"
The last chance gone! The monster was willing to marry a nautch-girl He would use that technicality to reinforce his claim on the forest! Ommony stood dumb, bewildered, with the world swaying under his feet, unconscious of Jeff's arm again through his—staring at Strange as at Nemesis.
And Strange let go the hand. Grinning, he stepped to the side of the screen to bring the woman forward; and she came, looking scared, because Ommony fainted away.
She was Ommony's sister.
It was an hour before he returned to consciousness, and the priests, the nautch-girls, and the crowd were all gone. Two women were slapping his hands, and he recognized Zelmira first—hazily, as one awaking from a bad dream. He shook his head at her.
"We're friends. You know me," she answered.
But he only shook his head again.
"You failed. You promised me you'd be behind the screen and marry Strange. Why didn't you?" he murmured.
"I couldn't. How could I? I'm Lady Molyneux! Sir William Molyneux and I were married this morning at seven o'clock."
"I'll be damned!" murmured Ommony; and Molyneux' responsive "Hah-hah-hah!" seemed to revive him quite a little. He turned his head to see who held the other hand, and looked into his sister's eyes.
"You always would do things your own way," he grumbled. "Have you saved the forest?"
"Yes. Here's Meldrum. He'll tell you so."
Ommony sat up suddenly. Memory galvanized him.
"Good God, Kate, you're married to him!"
"No," she said, smiling, "not quite. We're waiting for you to attend the wedding. When you're ready we'll begin."
"You saved the forest?" he repeated. "Marry anyone you like!"
"Oh, closer than a brother!" she laughed delightedly. "Come, Meldrum. Tell him."
So Meldrum Strange came forward and played the man.
"Old fellow," he said simply, "If I had known how your heart was wrapped up in those trees I'd never have caused you such agony. I beg your pardon."
"By Dammy, Ommony, shake hands with him!" roared Molyneux. "He's played the game. He turned the tables on you. He's a good sport after all. What's more, he's given this Panch Mahal to those rascally priests. No chance for anybody now to get a foothold. Go on, shake hands!"
"Not yet," said Ommony. "Where's Charley Wear?"
"Here. I'm all right," said Charley. Then he answered the question unspoken on Ommony's lips. "Strange has been damn decent. He bought the film for enough to finance a picture-shooting trip all through the Indian jungles. Darned white of him, I'll say."
"All right, I'll shake hands with you, Strange," said Ommony.
But Ommony was ill, and very nearly at death's door. He collapsed when he had seen his sister married, and they put him to bed on the cot in the assembly-room, the women taking turns to watch him; and for four-and-twenty hours he raved in delirium, calling to half the gods of India to come and save his trees, while half a dozen naked junglis camped in the courtyard afraid of every-one, but more afraid they might lose Ommony.
They found roots in the jungle, and they killed fresh meat, and brought them and laid them at the threshold, where the women stumbled over them and carried them in—to hide them and pretend they had been put to use. So the junglis tell you to this day that they own Ommony by right of capture from death's claws. (It was they who brought him his dog Diana, to stand guard by the bed; and she did, never stirring until he was well enough to recognize her.)
Then came a night when the women might safely leave him; and he awoke after dark, believing himself all alone with the dog. But after a while he heard another sound beside her breathing, and saw a white-robed figure dimly outlined in the night-lamp glow—a figure like a great fat idol, motionless. For a long time he thought it was an idol, until he remembered there was nothing of that kind in the room. So he coughed, and it brought the thing to life.
"This babu salaams respectfully, hoping sahib is remarkably better!"
"Did the dog let you in?"
"No, sahib. She-dog was most cantankerous, until memsahib, sahib's sister, tendered philharmonic offices. She-dog yielded to blandishment and shrewd behaviour. Have sat still."
"What do you want?"
"Sahib's swift recovery."
"Oh, just to round out."
"You rascal! You drew pay from Madame Poul—from Lady Molyneux."
"Yes, sahib. Likewise percentage from priests in form of cash, and subsidy from rajah, plus gift from Mellidrum Isstrange, added to share of profit from sale of soda-water. Am well contented. Oh, no reason to complain. However, sahib being babu's friend, in view of Karma and advantage of beneficence—have thought it well to—permit sahib to—acquire much merit by—by contributing like-wise and rounding out—emolument? Eh? Yes, sahib? Your very humble and obedient servant! Chullunder Ghose prays to all the Gods for your honour's full recovery!"
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