The band whooped and wailed, gurgled and grumbled, rose in a banshee shriek of tortured melody, then shivered to silence with such studied leisureliness that the whispering patter of dancing feet, left in undisputed possession of the room, sounded like the silken rustle of approaching rain over dried and dusty soil. Slowly the dancers slid to a standstill, some laughing, some irritated and half-angry, some waking as though from a dream. The young man who had stood watching them from a vantage-point near the double doors at the end of the long room, smiled suddenly with a faint cynicism. For to him the spectacle of Calcutta’s élite, busily gyrating in the vast ballroom of its most popular club, had presented itself momentarily as that of a huge and complex machine dying to inactivity through the failure of the electric current.
“Juice given out,” he murmured to himself, as the crowd upon the floor began to disperse.
They were automata, these people—machines, or rather tiny cog-wheels, screws even in a vaster machine. Switch on the power, set that current of wailful, rhythmic syncopated sound streaming through the room and the machine sprang to activity, every wheel, every lever, every screw working with feverish life. Turn off the current, or let it die away, and at once all that mass of movement lost its meaning and unity, became grotesque, spasmodic, then died down to stillness. In another moment there was emptiness in the ballroom, the polished floor reflecting the glowing orange of the lights overhead in long bars of dim gold. In the raised verandas round the room the severed couples, massed now for the most part in groups, sank exhausted into chairs, some of the women ostentatiously pulling on wraps, for the month was December, and Calcutta is proud of its winter. The watcher, conscious suddenly of his aloofness, though unembarrassed by it, moved from his vantage-point, and made his way over to the long windows giving on to the gardens.
“Who’s that?” demanded a young man whose table he passed. “Seems a stranger.”
His companion looked up from the plate of chips which she had been examining with an expert eye—she was newly out from school and such things to her were more than mere thirst promoters.
“Don’t you know?” she answered in surprise. “That’s Philip Masson.” There was a hint of reverence in her voice.
“How splendid,” he replied, quite unimpressed. “And who is Philip Mason?”
“Masson,” she corrected, “you know—the man who’s just written David Dangerfield. He’s a poet too I believe.”
“That would explain it, of course.”
“Well, everything—his hair’s wavy and I’ve never seen him on the tennis courts,” he replied, with the elliptic vagueness of the young Briton asked for an explanation.
His companion regarded him severely.
“Wavy hair does not mean you are a poet,” she said.
“I wish it did.”
“Not even if it’s permanent?” he asked, glancing mischievously at the golden undulations into which her carefully shingled tresses broke over her ears.
“Mine really is natural, even though you mayn’t believe it.”
“But who mentioned anything about yours? The way women always take things personally——”
“We were talking about Philip Masson,” she interrupted rather hastily. “Have you read his book?”
“No, can’t say I have. I’ve not got much time now——”
He left the sentence unfinished and sat staring rather glumly in front of him. It was just three days since he had returned to India after a year’s furlough, and in another week he would be back at work, not here but far away in the wilds of Eastern Bengal. Hitherto the six months’ field work of a Survey Officer had appealed to Robin Carstairs as the ideal existence—the one he would have chosen before all others—and it was in this frame of mind that he had boarded the ship for his return voyage nearly three weeks ago. But on the voyage he had met Jean Stafford, and Jean’s people lived in Calcutta. Moreover Christmas was coming, and at the moment Christmas in Calcutta seemed to Robin the most desirable thing on earth.
“Seems a pity you have to go so soon,” said Jean, breaking in on, and unconsciously echoing, his thoughts. “Don’t you get any holidays at Christmas?”
“No, no Christmas leave in the Survey. I heard from the Colonel to-day. He wants me to take over at Dawana on the 19th. He’s coming for an inspection there on the 20th. Then he’ll come back with me up to Jamala——”
“Dawana?” interrupted Jean, frowning reflectively. “But that’s not so very far away is it?”
“No——it’s somewhere in the Gaya direction. Right out of this year’s work, but coming on our programme next year. That’s why we’ve got to see it. Also, I gather there’ll be a shoot there on Christmas Day. Bit of a party going to be there——”
Once more he relapsed into gloom. At any other time the prospect of a Christmas shoot would have appeared to him as nothing short of a gift from the gods. But just now it seemed merely a waste of time. If he was not to be working on either Christmas or Boxing Day, why should he not be in Calcutta? Jean, however, was intent on a line of thought of her own.
“What is your Colonel’s name?” she demanded with seeming irrelevance.
“Vereker—that’s it. Then that is the party Philip Masson is joining. He told me about it. He thought, perhaps——”
“What does he want to go on a Christmas shoot for? Shouldn’t think he cared for that sort of thing.”
“As a matter of fact I believe he’s quite a good shot,” said Jean with a severity which did not wholly hide a twinkle in her blue eyes. Robin’s resentment of the very mild interest she had displayed in Philip Masson was by no means unpleasing. “But actually he’s in search of atmosphere and copy for his new book. It’s to be on the Moghuls.”
“The Moghuls were never in this part of the world. I should have thought he’d know that much.”
“Don’t be silly. I said ‘atmosphere.’ You can’t get that just locally—you want to know the whole country, the people, everything. Philip Masson was talking about it only the other day. He said that any history book could give you just the events that happened, but to see their meaning you had to feel you knew the actors in them, and he could never visualize any character until he saw it against a background——”
“Still I don’t see——”
“The really interesting point I was coming to,” continued Jean, raising her voice sufficiently to drown his protest, but endeavouring to speak casually, “is that Mr. Masson says he knows Mrs. Vereker, and he thinks he could get me asked to the shoot.”
Just for a moment Robin remained still jealously resentful, then the full splendour of the prospect burst upon him.
“By Jove—” he exclaimed.
The band broke in upon their talk with a hiccoughing hotch-potch of noise vaguely suggestive of a rather refined monkey having hysterics, and rising obediently to their feet they made their way down to the gleaming dance floor, punctuating the scientific precision of their subsequent gyrations and contortions with excited, albeit unfinished comments.
“By Jove, we’ll be able to——”
“Do they have tigers at Christmas shoots?”
“And I’ll show you——”
“Shall I be able to shoot myself——”
Meantime Philip Masson had made his way through the wide glass doors into the garden. He heard Robin’s “Who’s that?” as he passed their table, and the same question from a woman at another table further on. He smiled faintly as he formulated the probable answers in his own mind:
“My dear, don’t you know? That’s Philip Masson. Yes—David Dangerfield. You’ve read it, of course! Oh, but my dear it’s too—— What’s it about? Oh, you must read it for yourself. It’s really too—— And he is so wonderful. A poet, oh yes, a poet. No, I don t think it’s in verse. Do you know they say he even learnt the language before coming out here? Isn’t it extraordinary? Yes, a new book on India. And learning the language first——”
That was how they talked, all of them, with minor variations here and there. And how many of them, he wondered, had read the book? Scarcely a dozen probably. How many of them could even have given an intelligent answer to the question “What is it about?” from the reading of a review? Very few. How many of those who really had read the book could have said what it really meant? Not one.
He smiled again cynically as he made his way outside. Here was quiet and the swift mysterious blue of Oriental night folding round him like a tangible veil. Scarcely five minutes ago there had been daylight, but now only a thin rim of gold in the west told of the sunset. The night had not fallen, it had rushed, pounced almost, upon the world. The stars were already shining in their thousands, but for all their brightness they seemed dim, far away, insignificant in comparison with the flaming orange torches round the Italianized garden. Over the tennis courts the huge arc lamps were alight, turning the space below them into one of silver daylight in which the white-clad figures of the players showed up like actors in the glare of white footlights. It was a study in contrasts—the dark mysterious blue of the night all round framing, nay, shaping the scene, as silence bounds and shapes all sound; the glowing gold of the orange lights which cast an unnatural, almost theatrical beauty on the grass and flowers; and the blaze of white silver in which the players moved, unconscious of watching eyes, wholly intent on punishing the small bounding white sphere. Gold and silver, and the blue of mystery—the colours after all were symbolical, or so it seemed to him. Everything, even the ball seemed to have momentarily a strange, almost mystic significance in the eyes of this poet watcher. He smiled as he moved away, and, skirting the fringe of the light, made his way round the building out into the street. It was darker here, only a few street lamps at wide intervals and the glowing eyes of parked cars piercing through the shadows. Philip Masson hesitated for a moment as though in doubt, then turning to the left he made his way into the labyrinth of streets which everywhere in Calcutta abut on the stately thoroughfares of civilization. They fascinated him, these streets. His secretary Chandra Roy had hinted that there was danger in his walking through them at all hours alone and unattended, but he had no fears. Feeling might run high politically but bombs and other such delicate attentions were still reserved only for officials, and even more perhaps for private enemies. What then had he as a stranger, a mere tourist, to fear? It was the picturesqueness, and even more the sense of mystery in these streets which appealed to him, and he never passed through them but what he saw much that both interested him and served the purpose for which he had come to India. They abounded in copy for the literary pen as well as food for the poetic imagination.
A large saloon car slid past him as he turned at the corner of the street and made his way down a tortuous by-way which he knew would lead him into the heart of the bazaar. He looked up at it half unconsciously, his mind on other things, but the face of the man staring at him out of its depths became engraved on his memory in the way that often happens with such lightning-like impressions. It was a large, heavy face, darker skinned than is usual among the better bred Indians, and the eyes bulged in a startled manner above bags of fat. But it was the expression in the eyes rather than the unattractive face itself which riveted itself on Masson’s memory. There was an intentness in the stare, a malevolence in the whole set of the features which startled him, causing him to look round him uneasily, for once regretting his isolation in the midst of this dark, alien city. But the alley way was too narrow to allow of traffic, the car was already gliding out of sight, and he shook himself half angrily out of his nervousness. What possible harm could come to him, a stranger in these well patrolled, even if somewhat sinister streets? There was after all a policeman at almost every corner.
For all his reassuring, commonsense reasoning, he almost unconsciously quickened his pace and it was with a distinct feeling of relief that he emerged from the dark alley way into the comparative brightness of one of the larger arteries of the bazaar. Here at least there was humanity—a crowded, noisy, rather evil-smelling humanity, comforting in its many-headed variety. There could be no chance of collusion, no conspiracy surely among this motley assembly. The sight too of a policeman’s turban was reassuring——
Slowly and more confidently he threaded his way through the jostling crowds listening to the queer jumble of tongues which made up the babel around him— Bengali, Hindi, Urdu, with here and there the guttural notes of a more barbaric patois, probably from the hill districts. He smiled as he thought of the emphasis the world placed on his having “learnt the language” before coming to India. A few sentences, scarcely more, of Urdu, learnt from his secretary, comprised the sum-total of his knowledge, and for the most part the crowds about him might have been discoursing in the prehistoric tongue of Eden for all he understood of their conversation.
At the corner of the street he paused, arrested seemingly by a curious sight. A rather larger shop marked the junction of the street with another of similar importance, and outside the shop, standing in lively converse with a road-sweeper was the figure of a Friar. He was clad in a disreputable brown habit and his head was crowned, despite the fact that it was night, by a battered old sun-topi. His Urdu had the colloquial fluency which only Missionaries, and Continental Missionaries at that, ever achieve, and Masson put him down—correctly as he was afterwards to learn—as a Belgian. But it was neither his strange appearance, his fluency of speech nor his liveliness of gesture, which interested the poet for the moment, but rather the strong impression that the priest, for all his seeming absorption in his conversation, was in fact giving it but half his attention. The other half of his mind was poised waiting, waiting for something, or for someone, but for what or whom was not apparent. So strong was the impression that almost involuntarily Masson paused in the shadow of the far side of the shop, his eyes fixed on the brown-clad figure. He had no time to speculate on the triviality of the incident—after all why should the priest not wait for someone, probably a sheep of his flock?—nor of the absurdity of his own action in thus stopping to spy—it amounted to that—on a perfect stranger. His mind jumped easily to romantic and even sinister interpretations of ordinary events, and he was more sensitive to impressions for which he could give no very lucid reasons than are people ungifted with a poetic imagination.
The events which followed were so swift in their sequence that afterwards he could never satisfactorily decide how much time was occupied by their action. It might have been five minutes or only as many seconds that he stood watching the lively interchange of pleasantries between the Missionary and his humble acquaintance, but at a certain point Masson became aware that the event for which the former waited had taken place. It was a small thing which told him:—no more than a swift, involuntary, upward glance of enquiry, but the quick unconscious eagerness betrayed in the action made it sufficient. Turning his own eyes in the direction the priest’s had taken he looked up at the high veranda of the shop near which he was standing. The shop itself was an ordinary affair—the usual steps leading to the usual wooden veranda whereon reposed at either side two cushions on a spread cloth, designed for the comfort of those who kept the accounts of the business. Beyond this the usual dim interior, indifferently lighted by a central hanging lamp round which the flies and moths buzzed in their hundreds, affording vague glimpses of walls lined with bales of material, of a sewing machine, and of figures grouped together on the floor, chewing sweetmeats and indulging in conversation. But it was not at the interior of the shop, but rather at a group of three people who had just emerged on to the veranda that Masson looked. They were oddly assorted. On the left was an Indian, obviously the shopman, a fat, somewhat oily Bengali, his face beneath its white Gandhi cap wreathed in a bland smile that only thinly veiled an insolent sneer. Of the couple whom he faced, it was the woman who chiefly attracted Masson’s attention. She was of medium height and neutral colouring—indeed everything about her seemed of such a quiet and ordinary quality that in a crowd she might have been barely noticeable. Yet it was not the mere fact of seeing an Englishwoman in this unexpected spot at an unusual hour which caused his interest—the man was a worshipper of beauty, of beauty of a rare and perhaps subtle order. The blatant, even the obvious held no attraction for him, but something in the quiet harmony of tone and colouring, the delicacy with which this woman’s face stood out, etched as it were on a background of darkness and mystery, caught and held his imagination. Of her companion he had only a shadowy impression of a tall lean figure and long, somewhat sallow face.
The shopman was speaking.
“I regret of course, sar. It is unfortunate but regulations must be observed——”
The tall man turned on him.
“I’d like to know,” he exclaimed, and to Masson’s surprise the accent was unmistakably American, “just what you mean by ‘regulations.’ I——”
The woman put her hand on his arm.
“We’d better be going,” she exclaimed. “It’s late, I shall miss——”
It was at this moment that Philip Masson suddenly became aware of another actor in the drama, and he did not hear the end of her speech. Beyond the light thrown by the lamp in the shop, beyond the quaint figure of the priest and the road-sweeper, he had caught sight of the man who had passed him in the motor at the corner of the narrow alley way. He was standing staring at Masson, or at least so the poet thought at first, but as he looked more closely he realized that the eyes with their bulging startled gaze were fixed not on him but on some point behind him. Almost involuntarily he turned and looked nervously over his shoulder and even as he did so he was aware of a thundering explosion, a stabbing pain shot up his arm, and above the tumult which arose on every side he heard a voice shouting
Afterwards in looking back on the episode Masson always thought of himself as one returning to consciousness after drowning. Actually he never fainted, and the wound in his arm proved to be only slight, but the rush and pressure of the crowd about him, the turmoil of shouting and excitement without, the confusion of thought within, impressed themselves on his vivid imagination as the buffetings of an angry sea. It was only the sight of the man of the motor struggling with handcuffed wrists in the arms of two police constables that restored him to himself. Then, it seemed to him, he took instant command of the situation almost without his own volition. He heard his own voice asking a question with a calm matter-of-factness which proved more easily heard than any of the noisy shouting going on about him.
“I say, what has happened exactly?”
A voice from his elbow answered him, in guttural and somewhat peculiar English.
“It was a wassis bomb, no? You have the narrow escape.”
Masson looked down with interest to discover that the speaker was the priest whom he had seen talking to the road-sweeper, and who, divested of his topi, was seated on one of the veranda steps doctoring his, Masson’s arm. And realizing this, Masson also discovered that he himself was seated on the veranda, his legs dangling over into space.
“Was anyone else hurt?” he demanded.
“No, the bomb it was what you call a dud, hein? And already they make the arrest.”
He turned to the shopman who was standing, Masson realized, close behind them.
“But scissors, brother, are required, is it not so?” he exclaimed in the vernacular. “Ah—” as a pair appeared seemingly by magic, “now we advance. But it is nothing of the great importance, that is good.”
This last remark was made as, having rapidly snipped away Masson’s sleeve, he exposed the wound. The poet looked around him somewhat uncomfortably, aware for the first time that the entire population of the bazaar appeared to have assembled to watch his arm dressed. As in a flash too he realized that the American with his companion had vanished.
“Whom have they arrested?” he asked. “The man—Ah—” in relief as he saw an Englishman in police uniform approaching, “now perhaps we shall get on.”
The policeman raised his hand in a friendly salute as he came over.
“Mr. Masson? My name’s Schofield. We met at a luncheon last week, I think. I’m very sorry you should have dropped in for this unfortunate business.”
“So far as that is concerned I find it rather interesting,” he replied. “An arresting bit of local colour. And speaking of arrests I hear you have made one?’
“Yes—you might just have a look at him, he said. “Not that you’re likely to know him, of course, but just as a matter of form.”
He signed to the constables and the man of the motor, as Masson styled him in his own mind, was brought over. The poet looked at his handcuffed wrists in puzzlement.
“Ever seen him before?” demanded Schofield in the tone of one who asks a purely formal question.
Masson shook his head.
“No—only just this evening in a car coming in this direction. I caught a glimpse of him. I’m afraid I was even less successful with his assailant—I only saw his headgear. But why have you handcuffed this unfortunate man?”
“Why—handcuffed? His what?” ejaculated the police officer in complete bewilderment, whilst the priest abruptly left off his ministrations on Masson’s arm and looked up in stupefaction.
“Wassis?” he murmured.
Masson looked from one to the other, puzzled in his turn. There seemed to be an element of cross purposes.
“His assailant,” he repeated, “the man who threw the bomb.”
“But this is the man who threw it—Maha Lal!” exploded Schofield, his already rubicund face taking on a deeper hue in his surprise and irritation.
“Surely not—” Masson looked doubtfully at the prisoner. The man was standing sullenly, his hand-cuffed wrists dangling in front, his bulging eyes staring insolently ahead of him. He turned slightly as he realized Masson’s regard was fixed on him, and for perhaps the space of a minute returned the poet’s look with a perfectly expressionless countenance. Masson shook his head.
“You are right, no doubt,” he said to Schofield, “but I confess I had the impression this man was the intended victim, rather than the assailant.”
“What makes you think that? Which direction did the bomb come from?”
That I can t say—I saw nothing. It fell at the very moment that I had turned my head away.”
“Perhaps,” interpolated the priest who had resumed his ministrations to Masson’s arm, “this gentleman will tell just what he see before the bomb fall, no? The thing which make him turn away his head?”
“Yes,” he said, “that was the important point. I had just caught sight of this fellow, standing there—” he pointed to the spot on the road, behind where the priest and his friend the sweeper had stood, and to the left of the shop, “and he was staring in my direction, but past me, at something it seemed just behind me. I turned to see what had startled and alarmed him—for he looked startled and alarmed—and at that instant the bomb fell. I caught sight of a figure—or rather I should say the head—of a man moving in the crowd there. He was moving away quickly—I received the impression he was running, and a vaguer one that I had seen his hand raised as I turned, and naturally I formed the opinion that it was he who had thrown the bomb. But it was all very swift and blurred by the confusion which the bomb caused.”
“What kind of a head was it?”
“What kind of a head?”
“I mean what kind of headgear was the man wearing?”
Masson paused frowningly for an instant in an effort at recollection. Then he shook his head.
“I can only remember that it seemed an ordinary grey—dark grey Homburg,” he answered. “Nothing distinctive about it.”
“A Homburg? You mean he was wearing European clothes?”
Masson glanced up at him as though surprised and a look that was almost one of relief swept over face.
“Why yes, of course,” he answered. “That was it. I am new to this country and it had not occurred to me to connect a Homburg hat with an Indian.”
“You mean you thought if was a European?”
“No, I had no time to think at all. If I had, I should have made the inevitable deduction.”
Schofield stood staring frowningly in front of him without speaking for several moments. Five minutes ago the case had seemed a straightforward one, handled with commendable promptitude by the constables. Now if this was right—and Masson after all was by far the most credible witness on the spot—they were condemned to a wild goose chase after someone wearing a grey Homburg hat who had been seen running, or at least moving quickly, down the crowded street. He himself had not been on the spot at the moment of the outrage—in fact it was only a fortunate chance which had led to his being in the neighbourhood sufficiently near to be fetched within five minutes. But it did not seem as though his early arrival was going to be of much advantage if the only clue available was “a dark grey Homburg hat with nothing at all distinctive about it.”
He turned rather truculently upon the priest.
“You were here when the bomb fell. Did you see from which direction it was thrown?”
The other shook his head.
“But no,” he explained. “I come here to——” It seemed to Masson that he cast a swift glance of enquiry above on to the veranda as though in search of something or someone, before continuing with barely a change of tone. “I am here with my friend, no?” he indicated the sweeper, “and we are talking. I see nothing until all at once there is the big noise—pouf! This gentleman he wassis stagger so, and I see there is blood on his sleeve. I run to help him. I hear someone calling ‘Makra, Makra,’ but who it is I do not know. There is the big confusion everywhere.”
“Makra?” Schofield took the word up quickly. It was evident to Masson that it held a very definite significance for him. “You are sure of that?”
“But quite sure, yes.”
“Did anyone hear who it was cried ‘Makra’?”
“I heard the word, but it conveyed nothing to me,” said Masson. “Nor could I say who it was that raised the outcry.”
Schofield turned on the crowd and repeated his question in the vernacular. But it provoked no response. The people had been ready enough to crowd round and witness the excitement when there was the comfortable feeling of an arrest already having been made. Now that their quick instincts told them there was some hitch, that the police were not sure of their ground, they became at once sullen and suspicious—unwilling to be dragged into the affair. Everywhere Schofield’s enquiry was greeted with blank stares of incomprehension, or at the best by emphatic head shakings. In the end it was a constable who answered.
“But was it not the prisoner who cried?” the man exclaimed. “We heard him and we arrested him.”
“For raising the cry or for throwing the bomb?” demanded Schofield truculently.
“Nahin Sahib, it was for throwing the bomb.”
“Did you see it thrown?”
“No, I was there at the point where the streets meet. I could not see with my own eyes, but there were many who testified.”
“Who are they, and where?”
The constable turned confidently to the space behind him, then stared, obviously taken aback at the sight of an empty street. The witnesses had disappeared.
“We have their names, Sahib,” he exclaimed. “They are all noted, and the residence of each.”
Schofield swore under his breath. The situation was not difficult to read for one who knew the Indian mentality and its perpetual attitude of self-defence when confronted with the police. To be in the near vicinity of a bomb, thrown at an Englishman—and by the casual passer-by doubtless Masson was assumed to be the intended victim— was a somewhat unenviable position in which to find oneself. A stranger standing handily conspicuous on the spot, particularly if he was foolish enough to call attention to himself by shouting, would present himself in the light of a heaven-sent scapegoat. Schofield could understand the readiness with which eye-witnesses who had actually seen him throw the bomb would be found. When, however, the matter began to be sifted and the supposed thrower turned, or seemed likely to turn, out to be the intended victim of the outrage, the situation would be altogether different. Then it would not be very wise to appear as a witness for the prosecution, particularly if one’s witness was false. Enemies must indeed be made occasionally in matters of self-defence, but they are neither healthy nor desirable acquisitions. That, as Schofield well knew, was the most probable attitude of the vanished witnesses. A discreet retirement whilst attention was directed elsewhere had presented itself to them as by far the better part of valour. When, or if, they were found at their addresses, they would be, severally and collectively, he was prepared to stake his oath, afflicted with a monumental stupidity, a shortness of memory and a density of intelligence that no patience could overcome.
He turned to the prisoner.
“Was it you who cried ‘Makra’?” he demanded.
“No, it was not I who cried,” replied the man in an even, expressionless voice.
“Then who was it?”
“I do not know. It was not I who cried.”
Schofield sighed as he turned away. It was obvious that Maha Lal intended giving them no help. He had seen the way things were going and had realized that a policy of what might be termed passive insolence would serve him best, He would be sullen, uncommunicative, unhelpful, under a mask of stupidity, or it may be, ignorance. That he knew far more than he would admit of the meaning of the episode Schofield did not doubt for a minute.
Masson’s arm was bandaged successfully now and he was sitting on the veranda staring reflectively in front of him. It was obvious from his words and from his whole attitude that he did not relish the responsibility of upsetting the whole case for the sake of a fleeting impression that he could not amplify with any helpful details.
“There must be someone who saw the fellow running away,” he exclaimed, “if only we could get hold of him.”
“There are probably dozens of people who saw him,” retorted Schofield, “but to get them to say so is not as easy as it looks. You’ll realize that when you know the country a bit better.”
Masson raised his unhurt arm and stroked the back of his head reflectively, pushing his hat over his eyes. Then as though with a sudden inspiration he looked up at the shopman who still stood behind him on the veranda.
“But you must have seen him,” he exclaimed in English, with the assurance of conviction. “I remember where you were standing—you must have been looking straight at him.”
For a moment the man appeared taken aback by the sudden accusation—Masson’s tone made it sound such. Then he recovered, and answered with the unctuous blandness which only an Indian can achieve.
“I remember to have seen a man running, sar, but I did not see him throw the bomb. I was not regarding him at the instant when the deadly missile was thrown.
“But you saw the man?” exclaimed Schofield. “What was he like?”
“I observed chiefly his hat—it was a grey one something similar to the one this gentleman is wearing. He indicated Masson.
“Did you see nothing but his hat?”
“I recall, sar, that he wore a blue coat.”
“Did you see his face?”
“No sar, I did not perceive him until after he had hurled the instrument of destruction, by which time he was retreating from me.”
“You mean you saw only his back view?”
“Only the back side of his hat and shoulders, sar.”
“And he was running?”
“He moved sar with extreme celerity.”
Again Schofield swore. This was corroborative evidence certainly, but it did not advance them one whit, unless indeed the blue coat could be said to be an added clue. But to find a man with a grey hat and a blue coat in the city of Calcutta, and to identify him with the bomb-thrower, were two separate and distinct things. He shrugged his shoulders resignedly.
“Well anyway, we’d better get away from here,” he said. “I’ll have to get you people to come along with me and let me take down your statements. That will facilitate things later. You ought to get a doctor to look at your arm too, Masson. I’ve got a car here so we may as well be moving.”
Masson got to his feet with alacrity—he had had quite enough of being stared at by the entire population, or so it seemed to him, of a not very salubrious neighbourhood.
A quarter of an hour later the three Europeans of the assembly settled themselves in Schofield’s comfortable, if somewhat austere office, and endeavoured to supply him with a lucid and illuminating account of the event which could be committed to writing. But their efforts added little to what had already been gleaned on the scene itself.
The priest who gave his name as Father Xavier explained that he came from the Punjab and was at present on leave.
“I have the wassis breakdown, no?” he expounded; with a cheerfulness that belied his words. “They tell me to go home, but it is cold there now, so I get the wassis permission to remain in India. I go here and there—it is a wassis holiday.”
Philip Masson was a student of words. All his life they had held for him a special attraction. He had studied them, remembered them as men remember their friends—but he was forced to admit that “wassis” was one which hitherto had escaped his acquaintance. Had he not already heard it that afternoon he would have inclined to the belief that it was the name of the mysterious illness responsible for Father Xavier’s breakdown. As it was, vaguely recalling other contexts in which he had heard it he concluded that it derived from the root “what’s this?” and was thrown into the conversation when the priest was momentarily at a loss for the correct English word.
“I see,” said Schofield a trifle dazedly as the priest concluded his breezy explanation. “And you too, Masson, are a stranger in Calcutta? In a sense of course that narrows the field as it wipes out the possibility of personal feud or revenge.”
“You think it was political then?” said Masson. “And that the fellow who ran away had a down on our friend the prisoner for some reason or other?”
Schofield shrugged his shoulders.
“It looks like that at first sight,” he admitted, “and it was roughly what I thought when first you told us of the mysterious assailant. But that cry makes me think it may be something not political after all.”
“What cry? You mean that word Muck-no Makra, was it? I thought makra meant spider in Hindustani. How does it alter the case?”
Again the policeman shrugged his shoulders. “We have many varieties of spiders in India, he answered enigmatically. “And now honestly I think you ought to see a doctor about your arm.”
When Philip Masson at length fell asleep that night, it was to the tune of three questions which seemed to beat through his brain, keeping time with maddening persistency to the throbbing of his arm.
Why had that Englishwoman and the American been in Pandra Roy’s shop?
Why had the bomb been thrown?
What precisely had been the significance of that cry— Makra—Makra?
Chandra Roy, Masson's secretary, was busy in the adjoining room when he awoke the following morning, for despite the pain in his arm and the tumult of questions in his head, he slept well and late, only waking after his servant had placed a tea tray and the morning's letters by his side. He was aware of their presence, but it was some moments before he gave any sign of wakefulness. From where he lay he could see his secretary busy with papers in the next room and he preferred to lie idly watching him without speaking. His arm felt easier after his rest, but all the same he did not think he would get up —getting up meant grappling with business and other problems, and he felt that a day in bed was after all not an exaggerated tribute to pay to a bomb thrown in ones vicinity—even if it had been a dud one and intended for someone else.
A strange fellow, Chandra Roy, he mused as he watched his secretary’s slim brown hands moving swiftly and efficiently among the papers on his desk, tidying, destroying, docketing, sorting. Chance had thrown him in Masson’s way one rainy day in London, when the two men, neither having an umbrella, had sought refuge under the porch of a church. Conversation regarding the eccentricities of the British climate had led to more intimate talk in the course of which Masson had learnt much of the history of his chance companion. He had been, it appeared, some eighteen months in England studying, but had failed in the examination, and was now contemplating without any enthusiasm whatsoever, a return, not only to his native land, but to the unalluring prospect of account keeping in a small emporium.
“But surely, your education——” Masson had protested.
“Failed B.A.’s sir,” Chandra replied with a certain grave sadness of demeanour, “are no longer unnumerous.”
No doubt it was a mere freak of impulse which had caused Masson to engage the man forthwith as his secretary, but he had had no reason to regret his action. Their association had lasted over a year now, and it would have been difficult to say to what extent this Indian trip had been brought about as a result of Chandra Roy’s enthusiasm for his country. There were moments, however, of late when it had occurred to Masson that his secretary had perhaps had ulterior motives in his desire to show his employer the attractions and interests of India; motives not unconnected with the diversion of some of the wealth belonging to the the writer of David Dangerfield into political channels. Doubtless he was mistaken—he knew little of Indian politics, but Chandra’s enthusiasms certainly seemed to be pressed both in season and out of it. A queer fellow—after all, he knew nothing about him really, and a year’s association had brought no feeling of intimacy. There was that likeness too—it had teased him all last evening, and this morning he could see it still——
The entrance of the doctor cut short his meditations.
“Well, well,” exclaimed that worthy, “and how is the arm this morning?”
Colonel Stafford was of the bluff and hearty type of medico who place breeziness before originality. Masson smiled at him.
“All right—everything all right except a vile headache.”
“H’m—bad luck. Still we ought to be able to put that right. Let’s look at the gaping wound——”
His hands were as gentle as his manner was brusque and Masson scarcely felt the deft touches which removed the bandage from his arm.
“H’m—nothing much wrong there. You had a lucky escape, young man, let me tell you.”
“We all did that, it seems. The street was pretty crowded, yet I was the only one touched at all.”
“H’m—and they’ve had to let the fellow go, I hear.”
“Who—Maha Lal? I’m glad to hear that. I gathered they would have to do so last night, but I’m glad to hear it definitely. He had nothing to do with it.”
“H’m—probably deserved hanging—if not for that, for something else,” observed the doctor gloomily. “Never sure of these fellows with their bombs.”
Masson smiled again.
“Still I’m glad he’s been released,” he said, “if for no more altruistic motive than that it makes it seem less likely I shall be wanted as a witness. I’m hoping to get away next week, and it would have been a bore to be kept here to give evidence.”
“Oh—ah—yes!” Colonel Stafford smiled suddenly with the air of a man turning to a more genial topic. “My young daughter was mentioning something about it. Joining the Vereker’s party aren’t you?”
“I mentioned the matter to Miss Jean,” he said. “She seemed keen on seeing something of the jungle and camp side of life here, and as I know Mrs. Vereker I thought—”
Colonel Stafford chuckled.
“It’s all fixed up,” he exclaimed. “Jean doesn’t let the grass grow under her feet. Seems the Verekers are in Calcutta rather unexpectedly. She met them last night. Result—an invitation to join them at Dawana. Wish I could do things like that—jolly good sport I expect. I remember when——”
“If Miss Jean is to be there then I am doubly glad that I shall not be kept in Calcutta,” interpolated Masson. He hoped the feeble gallantry would serve as a dam to stem the flood of Colonel Stafford’s shikari memoirs, but it proved no more than a straw thrown upon the waters. For the next quarter of an hour he listened to an account of how the Colonel had missed his first (and only) tiger, told with a wealth of detail which left him in grave doubt as to whether it was the rifle, the bullet, the shikari, the moon, the wind, the weather, or the tiger itself, which was responsible for the debacle. The only fact which emerged at all clearly was that the Colonel himself had been in no way at fault.
“Well, well—must be getting on,” exclaimed that sportsman at length. “Glad you’re feeling so fit. I’ll look in to-mo——”
“How about something for my head, doctor?”
“Oh—ah, yes, of course. Must see to that. H’m— shouldn’t have a headache——”
He sat down by the bedside table and wrote rapidly.
“I’ll have this sent in for you,” he said as he rose. “And take it easy. No getting up to-day——”
Masson lay back with closed eyes when the Colonel had departed. He liked him as a friend, he was grateful for the news he had brought him, he even felt that his manner must have its value in reassuring patients—but it did not impress him as being the best thing for a splitting head.
His secretary entered the room with a soft tread, making no sound on the marble floor.
“I trust, sir, that you are better,” he said in quiet, well modulated tones which contained no trace of the clipped accent of the Oriental, “and that the doctor finds your progress satisfactory.”
Masson opened his eyes.
“He seemed to think me very well indeed,” he answered a trifle grimly. “Probably if he had thought me worse I might be feeling better now. Tell my bearer to have those powders brought up directly they arrive.”
“I have already done so, sir. And if I may say so, I think it would be unwise for you to rise to-day.”
“I entirely agree with you. There’s nothing very pressing in any case is there?”
“Nothing with which I cannot deal, sir.”
Masson had reclosed his eyes, but he opened them again and looked interestedly at his secretary as the latter moved quietly about the room, lowering the blinds, gathering together the papers and letters, placing a clock were it could be more easily seen from the bed. Despite the thoughtfulness and efficiency betrayed in his every action, Masson’s quick eyes detected an element of perturbation, even of agitation, underlying the faultless exterior.
“How much do you know of this affair, Roy?” he demanded suddenly.
Chandra Roy started violently at the words. There was no mistaking the agitation in the face he turned towards his employer.
“Sir?” he stammered.
“I mean,” Masson explained, “what account have you had of my accident? Since you were not here when I came home last night I have not seen you before this moment to tell you anything myself.”
“I was informed of your mishap, sir, by the bearer.”
“What did he say?”
“He told me nothing, sir, but that you had been wounded. He did not know how it had come to pass.”
“Ah—then that is all you know?”
Chandra Roy did not answer immediately. His fingers moved rather nervously among the papers he held.
“There are rumours, sir,” he said at last, “that your honour has been in close vicinity to a seditious bomb thrown by one Maha Lal——”
“It was certainly a dud bomb. I never asked if it was seditious,” said the writer a trifle impatiently, “and there would seem to be some doubt of Maha Lal’s having thrown it as they have released him.”
“Released him? He has been released, sir?” exclaimed Chandra Roy. There was no disguising the eagerness in his voice.
“So I hear—released this morning,” replied Masson. “But they do not seem to have caught the other fellow.”
“Other fellow? There was there another miscreant, sir?” demanded the secretary. Masson noted with interest that his eagerness, or agitation, whichever it might be, was having a deteriorating effect on his English. Never before had such a phrase as “there was there” fallen from his lips.
“Yes, another—or should we say ‘yet another’?— miscreant,” he agreed. “Dressed in a blue coat and a grey Homburg. I have no doubt he wore trousers as well—he does not seem to have gone in for sartorial originality—but no one saw them. By the way, you don’t wear a grey Homburg do you, Roy?”
He opened his eyes which he had closed at the beginning of his speech, and looked fixedly at his secretary. Chandra Roy was wearing, as usual, a blue blazer above grey flannel trousers. Masson had never seen him in Indian dress though he knew that he possessed a trunk load of strange, rather flamboyant looking garments.
“I—I possess a grey Homburg, certainly, sir,” the secretary stammered in answer to the sudden question. “Though I do not wear it frequently.”
“But not a light grey one is it?”
“Oh no sir, not light. Dark grey—quite unusually dark, sir.”
“Ah—” Masson closed his eyes once again. “The other miscreant’s as I remember it was only quite usually dark—nothing distinctive about it. All the same I shouldn’t wear that hat at the moment, Roy. Perhaps if you have a blue one you could wear it with a grey coat. That might confuse them. By the way, you don’t have surnames in India do you?”
“Sir?” stammered the secretary, obviously at a complete loss to understand the abrupt change of theme.
“Surnames—names common to a family but not given separately to individuals,” Masson explained.
“Why, sir,” Chandra Roy was obviously striving to recover the poise of the perfect secretary, “the custom though not as general as in Western Europe can nevertheless not be held to be entirely non-existent. Also there is at the present time a strong tendency to use the caste name as a surname. This will produce inevitably many individuals of like patronymics in no way related one to the other. Yet the disadvantage need be held to be no greater than that produced by the clan system——”
He stopped as he realized that his employer was not attending to his lecture.
“Pandra too,” murmured Masson. “Have you a poet in the family, Roy? It makes a good rhyme with Chandra. The likeness is really extraordinary.”
“Sir, I do not understand. Which likeness?” said the secretary with a certain simplicity and dignity.
“Your likeness to Pandra Roy. Is he your father?
“My father, sir, is dead. Pandra Roy is the eldest brother of my mother.”
“Then for heaven’s sake call him your uncle,” begged Masson. “Relations are trying things. So are French exercises—but there’s no need to combine the two.”
“Yes sir—he is my maternal uncle.”
“I see. And Maha Lal?”
A swift change of expression passed over the secretary’s face.
“Maha Lal, sir, is not my blood relation,” he said.
Masson closed his eyes once more.
“I admire your curt restraint, Roy,” he murmured. “Had you asked me that question I should have been tempted to lengthen the adjective. I’m glad he isn’t a relation of yours. I didn’t really take to him at all——”
The entrance of the bearer with the powders from the chemist interrupted the conversation, and the secretary seized the opportunity to withdraw.
“With your permission, sir,” he said when he had placed a glass of water beside the bed, “I will remove the typewriter to my own room. In that way you will not be disturbed by my activities.”
“A good idea,” he said. “I was just going to suggest it. Pull that blind a little further over and see that I’m not disturbed till tea time. No—I shan’t want any lunch.”
His brow furrowed as Chandra Roy left the room.
“Now I wonder——” he murmured.
Chandra Roy did not unlock the typewriter once he had reached his own room—he locked the door instead. That done he stood for a moment in the centre of the room, his hands pressed to his head, like a man utterly distraught, unable to think or to act. Despite the coolness of the day there were beads of perspiration on his forehead and with a sudden impatient gesture he switched on the fan, but the sawing, menacing crescendo of sound as the twisted blades clove the air, affected him in his nervous overwrought condition with a feeling akin to train sickness. He clicked off the switch once more and making his way over to the window, flung open the shutters, careless of the fact that the noonday sun was beating straight down upon him.
For perhaps five minutes he stood so, breathing heavily, then the sound of a clock striking roused him from his inertia. Twelve o’clock—mechanically he looked at his watch, adjusted it by a minute, then glanced down into the compound of the hotel—a backyard rather might be a better description of it did India own such things as yards—which lay sun-drenched and utterly deserted four stories below.
An idea struck him—this was the dinner hour for all Indians; not a servant, hotel or private, would be about the place. If he was to take any action now was his opportunity,
For a moment still he hesitated, then with sudden energy he dragged a box from beneath the bed, and opening it, began pulling out the garments which it contained.
It would have been difficult to recognize in the quietly dressed, ordinary looking babu who left the room a few minutes later, the smart, carefully tailored, fully Europeanized secretary of Philip Masson, the popular author. Strangely, it seemed that the change of clothes had totally altered his personality—or rather perhaps that his real personality had emerged triumphantly from the artificial bonds which hitherto had held it in concealment. The gait of the thin brown legs emerging from the muslin draperies, the poise of the head beneath its small round cap, the grasp of the hand on the short cane, all seemed to speak of a mentality which had never looked beyond its account books and the niceties of the letter of the law.
For all the alteration in his appearance, he took no unnecessary risks. There was a servants’ stairway directly opposite his room, and it was down this that he hurried. There would be no servants about, but the visitors’ stairway and the lifts might quite easily lead to chance encounters with someone who knew him in his more ordinary appearance. He reached the ground level without meeting anyone, and paused before crossing the small back courtyard to look round him for possible witnesses of his departure. There was no one in sight, but in spite of this, he was assailed violently by the feeling that he was watched as he made his way out into the street. He did not stop to look round again—despite his nervousness, his commonsense had reasserted itself, and he told himself rather irritably that he was behaving like a panic-stricken child. What harm, after all, could there be in his leaving the hotel for an expedition to the bazaar? Why should anyone watch him? Would they recognize him if they did? And if he were recognized, again what harm was lie doing in merely going to visit his relatives and make certain enquiries?
For all this sturdy logic the creepy sensation of watching eyes fastened on his every movement, did not leave him even in the tram, and redoubled its vigour when, having descended from that conveyance, he turned into the street where his uncle’s shop stood,
The street was quiet, almost deserted in fact, at this noonday hour, and save for a stray loiterer here and there, Chandra passed no one as he hurried along its narrow length. Once inside his relative’s domain, however, he had perforce to wait before a chance of the private conversation for which he had come presented itself, for Pandra Roy was deeply immersed in that all important ceremonial—the midday meal.
Chandra shrugged his shoulders in resignation as he bowed to the inevitable and made his way back into the front apartment of the shop to wait with what patience he could muster. It was a strange emporium viewed in comparison with the Western shops he had seen—he wondered for a moment how it was that its oddness had never struck him before. It seemed as though in one sense he was seeing it now for the first time—seeing it, and all it stood for, and the tangle of events in which he had become involved, and those deep smouldering ambitions which for so long had moulded his life in a new light, in a fresh perspective, all forming one rather startling pattern against a background of gloom and discouragement. A feeling of depression, nay, almost of despair, that deadly nausea of the spirit, born of fatalism which is the peculiar lot of the Oriental, fell upon him, crushing it seemed his very soul in agony beneath it. He felt himself but a pawn in a game of inconceivable magnitude—a pawn without power or volition of its own, doomed to struggle unavailingly with a burden which in the end must fall and crush him.
With a groan he sank to the ground and sitting in the attitude he had adopted in many boyish griefs, his head bowed forward between his updrawn knees, his hands clasping his ankles, he rocked his body to and fro, moaning softly in rhythm to the movement.
It was so that his uncle found him some ten minutes later, and, though it would have been difficult to recognize in this hysterical, demoralized man the debonair Chandra Roy, student of literature and history, the elder man did not exhibit any undue surprise.
“Nay, but what is this?” he exclaimed with a simulation of anger, taking the moaning figure roughly, but not unkindly, by the shoulder. “Wilt thou make thy sorrow a carrion for the crows of the bazaar to descry? Behold—they gather.”
He pointed to where outside the shop a few loiterers had undoubtedly paused, and were peering curiously into the tiny apartment from which the sounds of grief were issuing. Chandra looked up listlessly.
“I would speak with thee,” he said.
“But come within then,” invited his uncle urgently, concerned only to prevent his obviously distraught nephew from speaking where there were unsympathetic ears strained with curiosity to hear what passed.
Once in the inner room to which he led the way he turned upon Chandra angrily.
“Oh fool, born of——” a string of picturesque but slightly lurid epithets poured from his lips without however striking a spark either of resentment or penitence from the younger man. Chandra gathered the burthen of the tirade well enough—his coming had endangered not only the comfort but the very lives of his uncle’s household, by tending to rouse suspicion in quarters where it was important no suspicion should exist—but he remained utterly indifferent to his relative’s wrath.
“It is said,” he replied dully when at last the other’s voice sank to silence, “that thou wert here when the bomb was thrown?”
“But yes—did I not see it with my own eyes?”
The younger man looked up swiftly and searchingly, but Pandra Roy’s face remained bland and inscrutable.
“It is said,” repeated his nephew, “that Maha Lal was also seen.”
“Thy father-in-law? But yes, did they not arrest him?”
“It is said,” repeated Chandra for the third time, paying no attention to the rather malicious emphasis which the other had laid on his relationship to the arrested man,” that another miscreant was descried—and it is even believed that it was he who cast the bomb?”
“But yes—was it not I who testified to the blue coat that he displayed upon his obscure and abhorred form?” replied Pandra Roy, rolling the words unctuously round his tongue.
Once more Chandra looked up with that swift, searching gaze, and this time the eyes of the two men met. For a moment there was silence. Then Chandra rose from his sitting posture on the floor.
“It is said,” he repeated for the fourth time, and his voice was lowered as though unconsciously, “that there was a cry raised at the moment the bomb was thrown?”
“That is so,” replied the other gravely. His voice had lost the tone of half-veiled mockery he had employed throughout. He spoke soberly and quietly.
Chandra shuddered involuntarily. He stood for a moment without speaking, gazing out at the blinding white light of noonday as it shimmered on the mud wall of a house close to the tiny unglazed window of the apartment. There was unmistakable fear in his eyes.
Pandra Roy spoke again in the same quiet tone.
“They have released him,” he said.
Chandra nodded. It seemed he had no difficulty following the train of thought which had led up to the speech. Then he turned to the other with sudden resolution.
“Thou hast seen him?” he demanded.
Pandra Roy nodded.
“Then tell me where he is now—I must speak with him,” said the younger man.
“Nay, nay—it is unwise——”
“It is essential that I see him.”
“What if thou but lead the panther to the tethered goat?”
“I will be cautious—but I must speak with him.”
“Why then—is he not in the boat of Muni, the fisherman?”
“He goes?” exclaimed Chandra, and there was undoubted relief in his voice.
“Maybe—” replied the other “maybe not. When a bird has wings they look for it in the air. Is it not safer then on the ground? Maybe—what is that?”
Both men started as a faint sound—it might have been of a stone falling in soft sand—came from outside the window. Chandra strode across the room and thrust his head through the tiny aperture.
“Nay, it was but a rat without doubt,” said his uncle reassuringly.
The younger man did not answer immediately. The narrow, winding lane on to which the window gave, was certainly empty, but there might have been time for an eavesdropper to have got out of sight round the nearest bend. On the ground, beneath the window, a lump of mud plaster from the side of the house was lying—evidently newly severed.
“Here is what sounded,” he said. “But from what cause did it fall?”
His uncle peered over his shoulder.
“That is strange,” he murmured, and for a moment he frowned.
“Had one stood here—” said Chandra pointing with his finger to a recess in the wall—one of those strange inconsequent recesses in which Eastern houses are so prolific—”he would doubtless have heard our speech. And had he leaned with his hand, so—” he gestured with his own hand, “he might in moving have dislodged the plaster. See, it is from there it has fallen.”
“He would need to be tall—” said Pandra Roy doubtfully, but he looked disturbed.
At that moment a crow flew down from the opposite house, and perching on the wall immediately above them, emitted an impertinent “caw.” As its feet gripped the wall another piece of plaster fell to the ground. Pandra Roy drew in his head, laughing.
“There is thy listener, little son,” he exclaimed.
Chandra still continued to stare out of the window, frowningly.
“Perhaps——” he muttered.
“Nay, nay,” exclaimed his uncle. “Shall we find a spy in every bird, an enemy in every spider?”
Chandra gestured sharply with his hand at the last word.
“Are we not as flies?” he exclaimed angrily. “Yet as thou sayest it is unwise to find enemies where there are none. Now I will go——”
“Go having eaten,” protested his uncle. “Hunger makes little haste.”
“Nay—I cannot eat——”
“Some fruit at least,” said the older man. “See, I will procure it——” and he left the room, calling out a peremptory order.
Chandra had returned to the window and stood for some moments staring out into the narrow, sun-baked, none too pleasant-smelling lane. The crow had returned to its vantage-point on the opposite house and cawed at him raucously. The young man turned away idly and wandered round the tiny apartment, as though in search of something with which to fill in his time. The room was empty but in the far corner stood two boxes, leather trunks, strapped and labelled ready for travelling. For a minute or two he regarded them absently, then something vaguely familiar in their appearance caught his attention. Swiftly he crossed the room and stood looking down at them, puzzled at first, then incredulous as their strange familiarity, and yet their still stranger unfamiliarity dawned upon him. There were the initials on top of the larger of the two trunks—the only one indeed which could properly be called a trunk, for the other was only a large suitcase. The initials were familiar—so was their worn half-obliterated appearance, yet as he looked more closely, it seemed to him that there was something odd, artificial about this latter. It was as though someone had been carefully reproducing a travel-worn effect on a new trunk. That old label too, with Hotel Metropole half torn away—it was surely spurious? Stooping quickly he read the address on the new label which had been attached to the handle as though in preparation for an immediate departure. A slight gasp escaped him. For a moment he hesitated, listening intently, then as all remained quiet in the house, he bent down once more and working rapidly, removed the straps from the trunk. It was locked, but a search through his pockets produced the right key—or rather a key which experience had taught him would open any bazaar-made lock—and in another moment the box stood open.
For a moment the contents puzzled him—they seemed harmless enough, just an array of garments, obviously emanating from the bazaar, but purporting to be European. He was familiar enough with the type, but why should they be here in a trunk obviously doctored to resemble one he knew well? He stooped once again, and put his hand in under the clothes, feeling about for something, though for what he could not have said. But blind though it was, his search was rewarded—in another second his fingers touched steel. Carefully, and not without difficulty, he abstracted the object, and once more stared in puzzlement. At first sight it suggested nothing but the absurd idea of a doll’s collapsible music stand, but as his fingers gingerly pressed the two ends apart, its true purpose became apparent—a murderous looking knife emerged at the spot where the supporting stem of the stand should have been.
Had Chandra Roy been an Englishman it is probable that he would have whistled—being an Oriental he gave vent once more to the gasp which had been drawn from him by the address on the labels. He was standing, the knife still clasped in his hand, the trunk open behind him, when his uncle re-entered, bearing a basket of fruit. The older man halted on the threshold, his eyes dilating a little as though in fear, and in the scene that followed it seemed as though their roles had been reversed, for now it was Chandra who broke forth into abuse, his voice rising high, cracked and hysterical, his hands gesticulating passionately, his whole body shaking with the vehemence of his feelings.
“Nay, gently little son, gently,” remonstrated Pandra Roy, when at last he was able to make himself heard above the tumult. “Have not all precautions been taken? Why then this wrath?”
“Precautions? Precautions—I speak not of precautions,” exclaimed his nephew. “Nay—it is more than that——-”
He made an odd gesture—almost it seemed of despair—and letting the knife fall from his hands, stood staring in front of him listlessly. His uncle put down the basket of fruit, and crossing the room picked up the knife, replaced it in the box, closed down the lid, and busied himself with the straps.
“I do not understand this tomasha,” he remarked placidly.
His nephew watched him in silence, his eyes dull and indifferent. It seemed as though the depression of a short while before had fallen on him again, though this time it did not break out in hysterical weeping.
In the far corner of the room a spider had spun its web, and a fly, caught unaware, filled the air with the sound of its angry, alarmed buzzings. In the centre, the spider sat watching, utterly unperturbed, awaiting the inevitable issue of the event. As Pandra Roy rose to his feet, the eyes of uncle and nephew met. Chandra pointed to the web.
“Does he know?” he demanded fiercely.
“But certainly,” replied the older man calmly, “who else?”
He crossed the room once more and took up the basket of fruit.
“But eat, little son,” he exclaimed. “Of what use this anger?”
A quarter of an hour later, Chandra left the house. He had eaten the fruit and drunk some milk, and he felt physically refreshed. But there was a strange look—a look of anger, of fear, yet also of resolution, on his face as he made his way to the tram.
The clocks were striking half-past three as he came near his journey’s end, down on the river where the boats of the fishermen are moored. He glanced rather anxiously at his watch, for he must be back in the hotel before five, yet his determination to see Maha Lal had been strengthened rather than weakened during the last half hour. Whatever happened, he must find Muni’s boat, and talk with its inmate.
He glanced round him cautiously—but there was no one in sight to suggest that he was being followed. All around him it seemed was nothing but space and sunlight. The town lay behind, with a faint rumble telling of the roar of its traffic, far away to the left a forest of masts told where the docks lay, but for the rest there was only the glaring flat expanse of the low lying embankment, and the shimmering expanse of the water, with the kites wheeling and whirling overhead. Chandra could hear their shrill, pealing whistles above the muffled rumble of the distant traffic.
He walked slowly, picking his way delicately as the mud grew wet and soggy beneath his feet, and looked about for a stray passer-by from whom he could discover Muni’s whereabouts. Not till he was close to the water’s edge and the anchored boats did he see one, and then it was a short, bent little man, a fisherman, who overtook him from behind. He was laden with provisions, and obviously returning from an expedition to the nearest bania’s shop. He stopped respectfully as Chandra addressed him.
“Hazur,” he replied, “but is not my name Muni?” Chandra’s face showed nothing of the pleased surprise which the answer gave him. This was an unexpected piece of good fortune. Cautiously he enquired after Muni’s guest only to find that the little man was not to be drawn. Chandra extracted his purse.
“I am his son-in-law,” he said urgently. “Tell him Chandra Roy would speak with him.”
Muni regarded him owlishly without speaking for a moment.
“Has he then,” he demanded at last, with sudden cunning, “two sons-in-law of that name?”
“What?” Chandra felt a panic seize him. Nor was it dispelled by the story which eventually he succeeded in extracting from Muni, of a man—a strange kind of man, beyond that Muni’s powers of description could not go—who had come but half an hour, say at the most three quarters of an hour ago, demanding to see Maha Lal. Muni had been cautious—for was that not what he had been taught from his youth? Nevertheless the persistence of the stranger had overcome his native caution, and on being informed that the stranger’s name was Chandra Roy, he had taken the information to the man in hiding on his boat, returning with the message that Chandra Roy was welcome. On hearing that, the stranger had dispatched him, Muni, to the bania’s shop, with instructions relating to certain tins of tobacco and biscuits which were required, so he understood, for the stranger’s comfort on a journey he proposed making. From that expedition he was but now returning. It was odd therefore to find another stranger describing himself as Chandra Roy and demanding to see Maha Lal.
Chandra Roy wasted no time.
“But hurry then—where is the boat?” he exclaimed, and despite Muni’s suspicions and reluctance, succeeded at last in eliciting the required information. But even as he boarded the crazy craft where it lay moored, he knew he was too late.
Maha Lal lay dead in the bottom of the boat. His throat had been cut, and by his side lay one of the strange knives Chandra had discovered in Pandra Roy’s house.
It was after five when Masson, opening his eyes, realized that his secretary had entered his room and was standing at the foot of his bed.
“So you’re there at last,” he exclaimed a trifle peevishly. “Where on earth have you been? And what’s the matter with you? You look ill.”
“I am not quite well sir, I have a touch of fever. I have been lying down——”
“Since when? I suddenly remembered something I wanted to talk to you about, some time ago—-half-past three I think it was—and as my head was better I went along to your room. But you weren’t there and they told me you’d been out all—hullo, I say, what the devil——”
He jumped out of bed in consternation as the crash came. Chandra Roy had fainted.
Pandra Roy did not remain inactive after his nephew left him. Scarcely indeed had Chandra's figure disappeared when his uncle sprang into activity. The cases in the corner of the room which had incurred the younger man's disapproval were the first cause of his solicitude. He had not altogether liked the expression on Chandra's face as the latter had left the shop, for experience had made Pandra familiar with his nephew's mentality and its sometimes uncomfortable results.
“He will not hesitate to sacrifice even his own blood maybe,” he muttered as he left the house hurriedly and made his way along the narrow street. “I do not understand these young men and their politics.”
Uncle and nephew indeed presented a curious contrast and an interesting study in psychology, which those more optimistic of India’s future might choose to think represented the India of to-day and of to-morrow. Though both had embraced the same political creed and both would have declared that complete independence for their country was their goal, Chandra’s mind was the more constitutional of the two, and far more cognizant of the difficulties involved. For him also his political ideals were things for which he was prepared to sacrifice personal feuds and ambitions, whilst to Pandra politics loomed chiefly as a means to an end—the end being his own advancement and complete triumph over all whom caste, creed or circumstances had made his enemies. It was this divergence of attitude which had become apparent when Chandra discovered the knives, and it was his knowledge of his nephew’s rather headlong temperament which now prompted the older man to consign the tell-tale cases to a place of safety. What if Chandra were to send information, anonymously, to the police? The result would inevitably be a search and for that the obvious and only remedy was for the cases to leave the house without even a shadow of delay——
It was late when he returned but he felt satisfied with his evening’s work. The cases were gone—moreover they had been conveyed by such circuitous routes, and with so many changes of porterage to their temporary destination—the railway cloakroom—that it seemed unlikely the police would be able to follow their trail in time to prevent their dispatch by train the following day. Pandra breathed a sigh of relief as he looked round the empty room, then carefully collecting a handful of dried mud from the wall of the house, outside the window, he scattered it over the floor where a faint mark on the boards seemed to show where the cases had stood.
“Doubtless he will not go to such lengths,” he muttered, “but it is well to omit no precaution. Who comes?”
The last words were uttered loudly in response to a cough from outside the door. Pandra Roy opened it to admit a small boy of about ten years of age.
“My mother would speak with thee,” said this new arrival with the faint touch of importance befitting one who had piloted his mother through the streets of Calcutta.
Pandra Roy caught his breath and his eyes dilated slightly at the sight of the woman who followed her son into the room. She had drawn the sari across the lower portion of her face as a shield from the curious gaze of the crowd in the bazaar, but even if her son had not announced her he would have recognized her—she had been an inmate of his house during his nephew’s absence in England. But what had brought Chandra’s family to him at this hour? And why was the daughter of Maha Lal promenading the streets like any low caste woman?”
“What means this?” he exclaimed adopting the blustering tone in which Indians almost invariably address inferiors.
The woman dropped the sari from her mouth and raised her eyes. They were beautiful eyes but swollen now and red with weeping, and her face, pale and patrician with the smallness of feature and lack of animation which in the East commonly go with good breeding, looked heavy and sullen with fear.
“The father of my son is ill,” she said, referring to her husband in the indirect manner all Indians employ, “he was unable to come to you and desired that I should be his messenger.”
“Of what news? And if my nephew is ill who brought thee the message?” demanded Pandra. Chandra Roy had not kept his wife and family with him in the hotel—they had lodged in the city in Maha Lal’s house.
“Nahin—but was it not by the hand of Masson sahib’s servant that the message came?”
“And the message?”
A spasm passed over the woman’s face and for a moment she struggled as though striving to speak. Then with a gesture of abandonment she tore the sari from her head, uncovering her hair, and sinking to the ground broke into a wailing cry.
“Wa—eh, wa—ela—” she wept rocking her body to and fro as her husband had done earlier in the day on the same spot. “Wa— eh, wa-eh——”
Her hands scratched the boarded floor and scattered the dust on her head, whilst her son opened his mouth and emitted a steady howl which swelled in an earsplitting crescendo. Though their noise conveyed no definite information it was at least instrumental in breaking the news they had brought, for Pandra guessed the purport of their message.
“Death has visited thy house daughter?” he asked more gently than he had yet spoken.
The woman raised her face once more.
“It is said,” she replied, abating her cries for the moment.
“And for whom——?”
She flung out her hands in a dramatic gesture, then wrung them together in agony.
“It is said,” she repeated, “that my mother must lay aside her jewels, and walk in the way of sorrow.”
Pandra Roy started. The woman’s mother a widow? Then Maha Lal——
He stooped quickly and caught her roughly, but not unkindly by the shoulder.
“Enough,” he cried. “Give then the message my nephew has sent by thy mouth.”
“But is it not given?” she retorted. “The father of my son would have thee know his father-in-law has died by the hand of an assassin. The police will investigate.”
Pandra Roy straightened himself and stood staring in front of him. His first coherent thought was one of congratulation that the cases had been removed already—their presence, evidently, had been the true reason for the news of Maha Lal’s death being conveyed to him so speedily, for it seemed inevitable that the police would visit his house, to question him as to when and where he had last seen the dead man. Boxes containing weapons would not be pleasant things to have on the premises under such circumstances, His next thought turned to the more practical matter of what action was to be taken. Obviously to pretend ignorance of the death, to carry on placidly as though nothing was amiss, seemed the safest course when he was wholly in the dark as to the circumstances of the case—had Chandra Roy himself discovered the body he wondered? Or had he—? Yes, decidedly a policy of masterly inaction was the safest game to play, but what of the woman? There would be many who had seen her come to his house and would say she had come to give the news of her father’s death. Pandra thought hard for several moments. It was known that Maha Lal had been arrested on suspicion of having thrown the bomb and that on his release he had seen fit to vanish discreetly. It would be natural, therefore, if his nephew’s family were to transfer themselves to his house temporarily as they had done during Chandra Roy’s residence in England. He could then make it seem that they had but come that night to stay with him and that their belongings were following them. He turned to the boy.
“Thy mother stays under this roof. Thou also. Go, give the information to my household——”
It says much for Pandra Roy’s placidity of temperament that he slept that night without stirring until the sound of knocking disturbed him shortly before the dawn. The figure, muffled closely against the chill of early dawn, which stood upon the threshold was the one he had feared to see, and he frowned heavily as he led the way into the room they had occupied the day before.
“What folly is this?” he demanded. “Hast thou then no care that suspicion may fall on thine own kin?”
Chandra Roy made a gesture of what seemed to be indifference as he removed the scarf from about his neck and face. He was wearing Indian clothes.
“Of what shall they suspect thee?” he replied. “Were there not many who saw thee on the veranda when I left? I went by a straight way to the river, yet when I reached the boat Maha Lal was dead. How couldst thou have reached it before me?”
“That is the truth?”
“The older man gazed searchingly at his nephew as he put the question.
“What else?” he replied. “Listen——”
Swiftly but graphically, omitting no detail, he told the story of his grim discovery. There was a look of fear on his uncle’s face when he had ended.
“But how——?” he almost whispered.
Chandra Roy went over to the tiny unglazed window through which they had peered the day before. Outside the dawn was only faintly visible in the sky and the narrow alley way was all but dark.
“Bring a lantern,” said Chandra. “We will see if there are not tracks beneath the window. It is here the spy must have hidden.”
Pandra obeyed him without speaking, and, the lantern lighted, the two men slipped out by a door in the side of the house giving straight into the alley way.
Beneath the window the mud was hard as they had seen the day before on looking down, but further away the soft dust of an unmetalled roadway lay thick and powdery.
“But there be many who pass this way,” objected Pandra Roy. “How shall we know his footprints!”
The younger man did not answer immediately. He had taken possession of the lantern and was examining the walls of the house by its light.
“See——” he said suddenly, pointing to a mark about the height that a man might rest his hand if standing beneath the window, “that was not made by a bird. The palm has rested so——” he gestured with his own hand.
Pandra Roy grunted.
“But of what use is this?” he demanded. “It is certain there was here a spy. Do we then gain by seeing his tracks?”
Chandra did not answer. He was crawling slowly along by the wall holding the lantern close to the ground and examining every inch of the caked mud as he went. Suddenly he gave an exclamation.
“See!” he cried triumphantly.
At a spot not far from the window the mud had broken as though under pressure from a foot that had perhaps slipped in stepping insecurely. In the crumbled dust around the break was the print of a shoe sole.
Chandra Roy straightened himself and stood staring frowningly down at the tell-tale mark.
“It is here he has stood,” he said after a while, speaking his thoughts aloud. “One who passed by would not tread so close to the wall.”
“Behold how great wisdom has come to earth,” exclaimed his uncle sarcastically. “Now do we know for a surety, not only that our spy had feet, but even that he wore shoes; not only that he listened to our talk, but that to listen he stood still. Truly it is a wonder what belait will teach our young men.”
Then catching sight of his nephew’s face which illumined by the flickering yellow light of the lantern showed ghastly with fear, he changed his tone suddenly.
“But come within little son,” he exclaimed. “Of what use thus to shiver in the dark and the cold. See, I will arouse the household and we will drink tea.”
“He followed me then,” muttered Chandra as mechanically he preceded his uncle into the house holding the lantern to light the way. “It is true—I had hoped perchance that it was not he——”
“Of what avail to speculate?” said Pandra Roy consolingly, “what is to be will come to pass—we awaiting its coming have but to enjoy the present. And undeniably hot tea will take the chill from our bones,”
It was not until they were seated in the room once more, drinking the tea, that the younger man appeared to notice the absence of the cases.
“They are gone then?” he said.
His uncle nodded.
“They are gone,” he affirmed. “And it is well surely that thou shouldst not ask ‘whither?’ For is not knowledge of some matters but a scorpion which may sting us when we know not?”
Chandra did not answer but sat staring moodily at the floor. Outside the dawn had come and as is the way with Indian cities, the streets were already astir. Shops were opening and here and there the trim respectable figures of sahibs’ servants hurried towards the residential streets to begin the work of the day.
“It is folly,” burst out the younger man at length. “Canst thou not see where it will lead? I tell thee thou dost but do the work of a tyrant thinking to serve thyself. This man is ambitious of power. He will equip an army for himself that it may rise at his bidding. And who more powerful than he? I tell thee that in every part of India there will be men to do his bidding—and thou thinkest to serve the cause by these plots, by this secret sending of knives to thy friends.”
“Nahin—but are they not sent to those of our kind? To the Hindu people that they may have a defence against the fierce followers of the Prophet who plot to kill us?”
“So maybe it is said. But I tell thee——”
He stopped suddenly, looking upwards at the doorway from his seat on the floor and it seemed that further words had frozen on his lips. His uncle too turned and remained seemingly petrified. Yet the figure which had entered quietly through the shop from the street outside whilst the two men were talking, did not look awe inspiring. At first glance it was that of a sahib’s bearer, dressed in the sober, neat garb affected by the tribe, his mouth muffled against the chill of the dawn in a white scarf.
For perhaps five seconds there was silence, while not one of the three figures in the room stirred. Then simultaneously uncle and nephew rose to their feet and from the latter there came a half-strangled, wholly incredulous whisper:
A week later Philip Masson departed to join the Christmas shooting party in the wilds. Chandra Roy did not accompany him since it seemed likely that his presence might be needed to give evidence regarding the death of Maha Lal. It was a considerable relief to Masson that it was only for evidence that his secretary was required, for on first hearing the tale Chandra Roy had told on recovering from his faint, he had been filled with many misgivings. Fortunately, however, Muni’s story of the two Chandra Roys, told with the unshakable stolidity of a primitive mind, sure of its facts and unbewildered by conflicting theories, had completely exonerated the authentic bearer of that name. Muni had been unhesitating in his identification of Chandra Roy as the second of the two men who had come that afternoon, and the one in company with whom he had made the gruesome discovery. Beyond that, however, his intelligence could not go—he was totally incapable of giving any description of the first caller beyond the fact that he was “strange” and dressed like a babu of the better caste. He had talked strangely, but this Muni had attributed to the fact that he had been suffering from fever—had he not kept his mouth covered with a cloth to guard against chill, so that one could scarcely see his face?
“And we may conclude, no doubt,” Masson remarked to his secretary, as that efficient man turned the key of the dispatch case containing manuscripts, which was to accompany the writer into the wilds, “that one half of the Calcutta police are busy searching for a babu with fever, what time the other half pursues its no less exciting hunt for a man in a blue coat and grey Homburg. Truly the lot of the upholders of the law is not an enviable one.”
Chandra Roy dutifully displayed his teeth in a smile, but it was no more than a facial contortion unprompted by any amusement. There was an air of strain, of nervous tension about the man’s whole bearing, these days, Masson noticed.
“Well, is that all?” he asked as Chandra Roy finished closing the case and handed the key to his master.
“Yes, sir, that is all. With your permission I will now depart for the station.”
“Shall I take the dispatch case, sir?”
“No, I’ll bring that.”
Masson called at the bank on his way to the station some half an hour later. The book on which he was engaged involved the use of many valuable documents which he had lodged at the bank for safety. He intended, however, taking them with him, as he hoped to work during his holiday, and after all, there was not likely to be any danger to documents, however interesting from some points of view they might be, in the wilds of Bengal. He preferred, however, to pack them in the dispatch case which he always carried in his own hand.
“I regret, sir,” Chandra Roy greeted him when he reached the station, “that it has been impossible to procure you a carriage to yourself. There is one other occupant.”
Masson shrugged his shoulders resignedly. If there was one thing he hated it was having to share his carriage on a night or even on a day journey.
“Train crowded?” he asked as he climbed into the compartment, and laid his dispatch case on the bunk which bore his name.
“Yes, sir, it is unusually crowded with people departing for Christmas leave. The other first class compartment is entirely full, as are also all the second class.”
“Which means,” said Masson patiently, “that any chance second class traveller who joins the train en route, will be insinuated into our compartment. Well, well— it’s a sad world.”
“Under such circumstances, sir, complaint may be lodged and if not heeded at least only second class fare need be paid. For redress application should be made to——”
“You’re always so helpful, Roy,” said his employer, breaking in upon the flood of information. “Unfortunately I don’t really want to travel for second class fare—what I want is a carriage to myself. And as to complaining—well you know these things aren’t done. No, Roy, when it comes to the point somehow or other they aren’t done.”
He moved across to the opposite bunk and examined the card above it.
“Mr. West K. Peters,” he read aloud. “That is what I call a picturesque name—it calls up a picture to the mind. Yes, decidedly a picture, even if not a pretty one. What should you say his nationality was, Roy?”
“Sir, he is a European gentleman, I have seen him.”
“Now there, Roy, strange though it may seem, I am certain you are wrong. He may be a gentleman—I hope so, since I’ve got to spend twenty-four hours in his company—but most assuredly he is not European.”
“But sir, I have seen him. He is at the moment purchasing papers——”
“Which of course proves him to hail from Europe? What you really mean Roy is that he has a more or less fair skin, wears a coat, trousers, collar, tie, boots and a topi, and is not an Indian——ergo, he is a European. Yet, there are fair faces, yea, are there not even collars and ties, in these unregenerate days in—Israel, let us say?”
“Sir, I have met many Jews,” replied the secretary, catching the drift with commendable intelligence, “also I have read at one time the Bible for historical purposes. But I do not recall anyone named West.”
Masson smiled suddenly.
“I believe you’re right, Roy,” he said. “Somehow ‘West’ does not suggest the Middle East—or should one say Middle West when one is in the Orient? As I said, it is a picturesque name—it makes me visualize horned glasses and a store suit. Also a nasal accent if one can visualize such a thing. Am I correct?”
“I did not see that he was wearing glasses, sir, and for clothes he has on khaki shorts and coat. I did not hear him speak, but he was tipping the coolies one rupee per head and I judged him to be an American.”
“Then why not call him one?” sighed Masson. “You should learn to speak accurately, Roy.”
The arrival of his bearer with a question regarding the luggage, put a stop to further conversation, and after the man had gone, Masson dismissed Chandra Roy.
“There is no need for you to wait—I’ll buy a paper like my Yankee companion, then settle down. We’ll be off directly. You know all that has to be done? Send me those notes along as soon as you have them typed——”
He walked to the bookstall, and after selecting a variety of literature of the kind designed to while away time, strolled to the end of the train where the luggage van was situated, only returning in time to step into his carriage as the guard’s whistle blew. Mr. West K. Peters was already installed, and busy fixing his dressing case in a more convenient position to act as footstool when Masson entered. He looked up with a friendly smile and the author started in recognition. Mr. Peters was the man he had seen that night in the bazaar before the bomb had been thrown.
“Going hunting?” enquired the American genially.
“Hunting?” repeated Masson, to whom the word suggested only the sort connected with a fox and hounds, “er—no. Do they hunt about here?”
“Surely—a good bit I think. Aren’t those your guns, then?”
“Oh, I see,” exclaimed Masson as the realization of his mistake dawned on him. “Yes, of course I am going hunting—I mean, I hope to shoot something, don’t you know——”
His companion looked at him in mild wonderment and for a while conversation languished.
The train laboured upon its way with that heavy lumbering rumble and bump peculiar to Indian locomotives. Masson ensconced himself in the half sitting, half lying attitude on the bunk which constitutes the only comfortable method of getting through an Eastern railway journey. Borne forward so, at a pace which had all the trappings and accompaniments without the disadvantages of intense speed, he should, he felt, be able to soak in the atmosphere that all deemed to be necessary for his work. Actually, however, the flat featureless panorama of sun-soaked palm trees and thatched huts woke little response in his soul. We are wont to speak of all countries as “she” and surely among other feminine traits they share this—that none may know them intimately at the first meeting? Most of all is this true of India, who, it seems, is not only a woman, but a veiled woman. From the stranger she will hide not only her thoughts and her mind, but even the mere outward beauty of her face, showing instead a tawdry tinted veil, drabbled with mud, patched and darned with tinsel. It was this veil which baffled Masson now as he looked out at the dazzling landscape striving to force his mind to constructive thoughts, for time was getting on and he felt he could not conscientiously waste much more of it on this business of acquiring atmosphere. The rumble of the train began insensibly to fit itself to the rhythm of words—words which he knew and which at the moment effectually put a stop to any attempt at creation—
Where the sober-coloured cultivator smiles
On his byles;
Where the cholera, the cylcone, and the crow
Come and go——
Yes, that was it—that hit it off exactly. What was the use of striving to create—to re-create rather—the atmosphere of that other India after which he was straining. Kipling, after all had covered all the ground—
Stands a city—Charnock chose it—packed away
Near a Bay—
By the sewage rendered fetid, by the sewer
So perfectly did the rhythm of the rhyme and the rumble of the train coincide that Masson found himself wondering whether the poem had been composed on a journey. But that was absurd, of course. He closed his eyes to shut out the blinding sunlight which was beginning to make his head ache. It was absolutely impossible trying to think out anything whilst that rhythm of words was pounding on his brain all the time. And there was this other matter too—just exactly where was Mr. West K. Peters going? Why was he here? What had he been doing that evening at Pandra Roy’s shop? And who was the woman with him that night when above the packed and pestilential town
Death looked down.
Confound—— it Masson jerked himself awake as he realized that he had been dosing. If he slept now it would mean that he would lie awake all night. They were drawing into a station and West K. Peters had risen and was leaning out of the window looking hopefully along the platform. Masson too thrust his head and shoulders out into the open air—cooler now that the sun was sinking—but the turmoil which broke out as the train drew to a halt caused him to retreat once more. It was always a mystery to him, this noise of an Indian station. As the train glided into the platform all seemed quiet, with but a few loiterers standing here and there among a half dozen waiting passengers. But no sooner had the train drawn to a standstill than inferno broke loose. Crowds, risen presumably from the stones of the station, surged round the carriages, imploring, commanding, suggesting, that Hindus should drink hot milk; that Mahommedans should eat hot meat; that Hindus should take tea, or sweetmeats, or at the least water. That Mahommedans should do likewise with a slight variation in the items suggested. And through all the turmoil of the nasal cries the traffic and the payments, coolies fought with luggage and occasionally with each other, passengers descended, others insinuated themselves into compartments already crowded from floor to roof, guards exhorted and station masters strove to give information to six different enquirers at once. It was always the same whether the hour was three in the morning or midday—an Indian station never sleeps.
The American drew in his head laughing.
“Not much chance of tea here it seems,” he said.
“No, what station is it, do you know?”
“Can’t say I’m sure. They’re all the same to, me.”
“I believe,” said Masson consulting his watch, “that we get tea about five. That will probably be the next stop.”
“That’s good,” said the other as he made his way back to his bunk. “This kind of travelling makes you want tea.”
“Yes. Are you going far?”
“Why that’s my destination too.”
“Is that so?” replied the American politely without evincing any undue surprise.
“Yes—I’m joining the Verekers’ party. Are you?”
“Well, yes I think so, though Mrs. Vereker hasn’t asked me. I gather it’s a combined party, with two hostesses.”
“I see,” replied Masson.
He sat staring out into the deepening colours of the landscape as the train drew screechingly away from the station and rumbled on its way. It was a coincidence that Mr. West K. Peters should be joining the very same party as he was. And yet, was it? He was beginning to scent mystery everywhere. Yet still the question teased him—what had been the American’s errand in the bazaar that night when the bomb was thrown? And why had he left so suddenly?
He turned his mind to the memory of the woman’s face as he had seen it, etched against the dark interior of the shop. What had there been about it that had called so insistently to the artist in him? There was nothing striking in the face, either of feature or colouring, but perhaps it was just that which had constituted its attraction. It had had the quiet, delicate perfection of a miniature, of a face in some old-world tapestry. Yes, that was it—he always loved the beauty that had to be sought, or that needed the connoisseur’s eye. He had no use for poster art.
Tea was duly obtained at the following station; so also was that eventuality that Masson had foreseen—a third occupant for their compartment. Their first intimation of his arrival was a coolie, who, opening the door without ceremony, deposited on the floor a dilapidated suitcase tied with rope; a black tin box similarly fastened; a lidless basket containing apparently a variety of things ranging from socks to bananas; an uncured chital skin; a hurricane lantern and a minute roll of bedding done up Indian fashion in a duri.
Both men regarded the conglomeration in silent consternation, and even as they did so there came the sound of a strident, cheerful voice, addressing the guard outside.
“But it goes late your train, no? That is fortunate for me. I feared not to make the wassis connection.”
“Why——” he exclaimed.
Peters got to his feet.
“Surely——” he exclaimed.
The next instant Father Xavier, brown habit and battered topi all complete, had entered the compartment.
On the whole his surprise seemed less acute than theirs. “But it is Mr. Masson?” he said, shaking Philip warmly by the hand as though they had been lifelong friends. “And Mr. Peters—we have met you remember one day?”
“Surely—and I’m pleased to renew the acquaintance,” replied the American. “Have you come far to-day?”
“From Gaya only. You know it, hein? Ah, but it is a wonderful place.”
He busied himself capably with the disposal of his eccentric luggage.
“I stay with friends near to Gaya,” he explained, “who shoot, no? And they give me this—” he indicated the chital skin. “It make a good mat some day, but now its smell is perhaps not very pleasant. No—I place him here I think.”
With considerable dexterity he fastened the offending skin to the brass bars outside the door by which passengers are expected to haul themselves up the steep steps into the carriages, using for the purpose a piece of rope taken from the strappings of his suitcase.
“There—that is good,” he exclaimed, contemplating his finished handiwork with pride.
“Suppose someone steals it?” suggested Peters.
“But no—who will do that?”
Father Xavier’s gesture seemed to indicate his complete confidence in the honesty of the entire Indian population. He removed his battered topi and placed it tenderly in the rack.
“Now we rest,” he said, and seated himself in the chair which stood at the end of Peters’ bunk.
“Are you also travelling to Dawana, Father Xavier?” asked Masson.
“Later I think to return there,” the priest answered, “but for the moment I go further up the line.”
“Will you be joining our party when you return then?” asked the American.
“Most probably, I think.”
Masson made no comment, but once more a question rose in his mind. If Father Xavier and Peters had met only once before, as appeared to be the case, how came it that the priest knew which party the American was joining? Yet surely that comment “we met one day, you remember?” had rung true?
“Can I offer you some literature?” he asked, seeing that the priest sat idly gazing out of the window.
“Ah, you are kind—I should be wassis grateful. You have not here perhaps your book—the one so famous, no?”
Masson was surprised. He had in fact one copy of David Dangerfield, brought for purposes of study, for though his present work might seem to have little connection with the novel which had created such a sensation, there was in all his work a unity which came of one underlying purpose and message. But he had hardly expected Father Xavier to have heard of the book.
“I—I have one copy here,” he said hesitatingly, “but I hardly think it would interest you.”
“Oh, but yes—I shall be pleased,” the priest protested beamingly.
Masson extracted the book from his case.
“Please say if it bores you,” he said as he handed it over.
“I have a real fine murder story here, Father Xavier,” said Peters, holding up a somewhat flamboyant-looking volume. “Maybe though you don’t care for that sort?”
“But yes, I like them,” replied the priest. “For the moment I am complete, no? Mr. Masson, he cast me the pearl.”
It was only some moments later that the implication dawned upon Masson and he smiled involuntarily at the shrewdness of the comment. Probably there had been something of that in his attitude, but was he altogether to blame in view of all the Press had said regarding his book? He sighed as his mind went to the days of its inception. How he had lived in it, brooded over it, poured his very soul into it. One by one he passed its pages in review for it seemed that he had them almost by heart. That dramatic opening scene of the trial, with David Dangerfield, the young judge gazing at the prisoner—that enigmatic personality, his own kinsman, accused of revolutionary propaganda and other crimes. The fierce struggle in the judge’s mind, culminating in the condemnation of the prisoner. Then the real story to which this had been but in the nature of a prologue—the long history of David’s fantastic adventures and his enemies’—the friends of the executed man—implacable hatred. Fantastic adventures, fantastically told, yet running through them all that theme of reality—the deepening, developing, strengthening, hardening of David’s character, all leading up to that final scene of his triumph when in one swift dramatic, shattering moment his enemies realize his power and their impotence—their complete dependence upon him. Yes, it had been thought out, brooded over, refined to the veriest point in its every detail—yet how many explanations had the Press given of it. Many had deprecated the designedly fantastic nature of the adventures as mere exaggerations, claiming that they were overdrawn and untrue to life; others had made haste to proclaim their penetration of the book’s allegorical character, some declaring David to be a personification of Art or of Literature, a few of Religion, but most plumping for the sex instinct. He smiled as he remembered the wording of some of the reviews. One and all had united at any rate in praising his style—it seemed to be the only point on which they felt themselves to be on firm ground. Well, well—he must be thinking of his next book, not his last——
The party dined together at eight-thirty at a primitive refreshment room, off the inevitable chicken and custard pudding, the priest discoursing upon Buddhist architecture, history and philosophy, with a wealth of detail and knowledge which made Masson wonder less at his desire to read his book. Later they retired to bed and the poet lay for a long time dosing and waking alternately, as the train went on its way or stopped at stations. It was not until nearly three in the morning that the recognition of yet a third person travelling on the same train came to him. They had stopped at a small wayside station and the inevitable crowd was surging round the windows. Over the heads of a group of vociferating coolies Masson caught sight of a strangely familiar face. For a moment he stared thinking that he had seen his secretary, but as the man turned his identity became obvious. It was Pandra Roy.
“Why,” demanded Jean Stafford, “do you call Colonel Vereker the Map-Maker?”
It was the morning of December 23rd and the party of four, Jean, the Verekers and Robin Carstairs, were at breakfast in the dâk bungalow at Dawana. The Verekers had arrived by motor from Calcutta the night before, bringing Jean with them, and had joined Robin who was already encamped in Dawana where some of his work for that year lay.
Colonel Vereker endeavoured to look stern as he eyed Jean across his tea-cup.
“Such ignorance,” he exclaimed, “do you not know, young woman, that among the many noble departments working for King and Empire in this country, is one pre-eminently devoted to the production of maps?”
“Oh, yes, and it does other things, mysterious things too, doesn’t it?” exclaimed Jean who had a somewhat exalted idea of the said department’s activities, culled from a passionate devotion to the pages of Kim.
The Colonel waved his hand.
“Its machinations are of course multitudinous,” he replied, “but still it cannot be denied that we possess a distinct penchant for maps. It is a beautiful and instructive sight year by year as the cold season approaches to see the bipeds with their tripods——”
“What’s a bi-pod?” demanded Jean.
“In the present case he is the map man, ‘taking the field’—departing to the scene of his labours where he will remain for six months, moving from time to time dwelling in tents, working from dawn till dusk, inspected twice monthly by a camp officer, who is superintended by a Party officer, who in turn is inspected for ten happy days each season by a more lofty official whose precise status and loftiness modesty forbids me to define.”
“But why only for ten days?”
“Because, dear child, the quality of mercy is not strained. Though it be the settled order of departmental nature that little fleas have bigger fleas upon their backs to bite ’em, we are kind, we are merciful.”
Jean returned to her first question.
“But then Robin is a map-maker too,” she protested.
Mrs. Vereker hastened to explain.
“My name is Catharine, you see,” she said, “and his is Christopher. Our friends had called each of us Kit, and they found it confusing when we married—so he became Kit, the Map-Maker.”
“The sweet scent of a rose under an alias,” said Colonel Vereker, “is of course, proverbial, as Robin remarked when Elizabeth broke down.”
“Who’s Elizabeth?” demanded Jean swiftly, and had the grace to go a little pink when Vereker answered:
“Our car. It would be impertinent to call her Lizzie since Henry made a lady of her.”
“I wish,” said Catharine Vereker, reverting to a subject which had been exercising her mind for some time, “that I could tell how our Christmas party will go off. It seems we are to be a somewhat motley gathering.”
‘“But why,” asked Jean, “don’t you know the people you’ve invited?”
Mrs. Vereker laughed.
“These parties are sometimes like Topsy,” she said, “They just grow. When first the idea was mooted Mary Spenlow and myself were to be the only guests—guests that is of our respective husbands who had arranged the shoot. Then we discovered that Robin would be able to join us as there was work to be done in this part. The Spenlows then wrote to ask if we should include the D’Silvas—he’s doctor to some tea plantations, I believe— and by the way, you’ve met them haven’t you Robin?”
“They live at Jamala,” he said, “where my H.Q. camp is. She seems quite nice. I haven’t spoken to him very much. Thin, sallow chap.”
Catharine Vereker’s exclamation was cryptic as she busied herself pouring hot water into the teapot. There had been a vague element of apology in Mary Spenlow’s letter regarding the D’Silvas, from which she had deduced that Mary was not unduly keen on D’Silva, but liked his wife. Now Robin appeared to share the sentiments.
“Then I met Philip Masson in Calcutta,” she added, continuing her account of the guests, “and found he was keen on joining a party somewhere in the wilds for Christmas. He is in search of ‘atmosphere’ for his book, I think. I remember him as a boy. His mother had a large house not far from ours in Rivendown, and I often saw him. He was a dreamy-eyed, rather delicate little boy then—it seems extraordinary to think of him becoming so famous. Anyhow—I naturally asked him to join us here.”
“And is that the whole party?”
“No. The Spenlows then added another guest—an American by name of West K. Peters. You’ve met him too, haven’t you Robin? What is he like?”
“Rich, but nice,” said Carstairs tersely. “Stranger to India more or less, though I believe he was out here as a boy, and his father before him. He’s in search of atmosphere and local colour too, but probably more interested in the jute market.”
“And now,” she concluded, “I hear the Whatmans— he’s in the police—are joining us, so the original four has grown to twelve. And as I remarked, a somewhat motley gathering.”
“Where is the camp to be?” demanded Jean, to whom the guests were only of secondary interest.
“At Tarmaya. It’s the tiniest village—out there under the hills and surrounded by jungle. Heaven send our supplies don’t give out.”
“Women,” complained the Map-Maker, disposing of his last (and fourth) slice of bread and honey, “are so incurably mundane. You notice my wife has referred only to the social and material side of the party—there is no hint that we hard-worked bread-winners hope to obtain mental and physical relaxations from our super-human labours by outwitting and slaying the ferocious tiger or the lordly sambar. Well, well—talking of labours—what about it?”
Catharine Vereker disposed herself in a long chair on the veranda when the bread-winners had departed. Jean had elected to set them upon their way, and she felt inclined for a lazy smoke in the comfortable warmth of the morning sun. It was good to be in camp again. She had felt thrilled even by the feel of the old khaki drill and the ancient comfortable topi as she had donned them that morning, and now, the topi lying on the ground beside her, she found it more than good to lie at her ease in the long chair, and to gaze through carefully lowered lids into shimmering space; to know again the indefinable smell of dusty roads and sun-baked fields and to listen to the lazy creak of an unoiled cart-wheel, the cheery squabbling of minars and the raucous cawings of crows. Though she loved the Indian hills as perhaps few can love them, she never failed to respond with a quickening of the pulses to those three sounds which blended together make up the husky, but not harsh voice of the plains. Of the plains in their less populated areas, that is to say. In towns the sounds are more human but less pleasing. Doubtless, it would be useless to try and convince our Aryan brother that more than half the bitter gulf yawning between East and West could be bridged by his buying some handkerchiefs and refraining from clearing his throat with such audible enjoyment. His mind is too firmly set upon racial, religious, social and political points of difference.
Catharine had often striven to define the attraction which this nomad life in the wilds held for her, but its precise nature eluded her. For the men, of course, there was the interest of the work and the sport, but she could never quite understand why she should enjoy living in dâk bungalows, which, even when they were clean as the one they occupied at the moment, were small, generally uncarpeted, always unornamented, and furnished only with the bare necessities of life. There must be some potent attraction she felt that could gloss over the disadvantages of rough food, often smoky, and a bed so hard that she awoke in tortures from pins and needles. Yet what that attraction was she could never quite say. There was of course the liberty of a life where time was no longer cut into neat squares and oblongs, and meals became incidents rather than institutions, but more than that, she always felt that the thinking, feeling part of her, came to life in such an environment, awaking from the drugged sleep into which it had been lulled by the deadly monotony of the social round.
The postman disturbed her meditations about ten o’clock, and reluctantly she roused herself to the task of sorting the letters. There were the usual crop of Christmas cards, the usual official files and the usual assortment of postcards and strange looking letters for the servants, so written over in scrawling Hindi and Urdu characters that it seemed incredible that they should ever reach their correct destinations. Catharine gathered these last into a pile and gave them to Khem Singh, Kit’s bearer, as he came out from his task of bed-making and tidying indoors.
“This is for you,” she said, extracting one from the pile as she gave them to him. She had noted that the address was written in English, and thought that he might not realize for whom it was intended.
The man took the card with a salaam, glancing down at it as he did so. Something, she could not have said what, in his manner struck Catharine as unusual and she looked up at him enquiringly. He was standing rigid, staring at the card in his hand, and his eyes held something the expression of one who has seen a scorpion under his hand. For a moment Catharine remained silent, too startled to speak, then very gently she recalled his attention to the remaining letters in her hand.
“There be these also,” she said, “for the others.”
The man appeared to come to himself with a start. Mechanically, it seemed, he took the letters from her hand, and without a word, or even the customary vague gesture of salaam, moved out with them into the compound. Catharine watched him, puzzled. In all the years he had been with them she had never known Khem Singh flustered, hurried, or in any way perturbed. His whole appearance, from the clean-shaven, rather solemn face beneath the large, faultlessly-wound pagari, set squarely on his head, to the straight, thin legs in their straight narrow trousers, seemed to speak of dignity, middle-aged staidness and composure. He was a Gharwali and to look at him was to see a picture, not only of the snow-peaks and pine-covered slopes of the Himalayas, but of ancient walled cities in the plains, for the Gharwalis had been Rajputs in their time—men who kept their soldier spirit amidst the culture of courts, and who now keep their pride of race and tradition among the wild bleakness of the hills.
Towards the Map-Maker and herself she always felt Khem Singh’s attitude to be much that of a capable and devoted nurse towards two royal charges, who had to be both served and shepherded. The tact with which he contrived to remind them of such necessary matters as ascertaining the correct time of a train, or safely locking up money brought from the bank, was a never failing source of admiration to her. Years of association and faithful service had bred between the servant and the served that strong bond of genuine affection and regard which in the West has become so much a thing of the past that few now will believe in its existence. Catharine watched the Gharwali as he crossed the compound with a sense of real disturbance in her own mind. What could be wrong?
Khem Singh had handed the packet of letters to the office Jemadar for distribution, and now on his way to his own godown he paused by the kitchen where Firoze, Robin’s bearer was busy.
“There is no letter for thee, brother,” he said.
Firoze came smiling out of the dark smoke-filled kitchen. The two men presented a curious contrast. Firoze was a Pathan and to look at him was to see a brief vision of bare hills and a brazen sky; to feel the biting Khyber wind and to think of blood feuds and whistling bullets. He was just old enough for his beard to grow thick and dark, though moulded still close to his chin, and his clothes had the jaunty smartness of the Northern tribesman, from the small, neatly wound pagari, set rather rakishly askew, its flowing end dangling between his shoulder blades at the back, to the bright blue waistcoat which did duty for jacket and the baggy Pathan breeches billowing about his ankles. There was something of vague swagger, a certain suggestion of the swashbuckler in his walk and manner, which stamped him a son of fighting men—men who knew no discipline except that of the sword; no creed except the clear-cut, unspeculative religion of the Prophet; men who carried their blood feuds from generation to generation, but who also carried their friendships and their loyalties to the grave.
It seemed strange to Catharine that he and Khem Singh should be such close friends, for unlike in age, race, creed, culture, custom and character, she could think of no point of contact, no bond which would weld them together. Yet that the friendship was a real one, she had no doubt, for she had watched it grow through several years. At the moment Khem Singh’s distress seemed to have startled Firoze.
“Has the fever come on thee brother?” she heard him ask.
The Gharwali made a gesture of dissent.
“Nahin—it is not the fever which has come,” he answered. For a moment he was silent gazing up at the eaves of the tiny cookhouse intently. Then he pointed upwards though at what Catharine could not see.
“Makra,” he exclaimed. “Makra ane wala hai.”
Firoze turned, obviously startled and followed the direction of his pointing finger.
“Nahin bhai,” he exclaimed, “it is an evil thing, that——”
Catharine turned back into the house and picked up her topi. Jean was nowhere in sight as yet, but she was tired of her lazy morning and a walk would do her good. She might as well go and look for the girl and see whatever was to be seen of the countryside, as waste her time idly in the bungalow. As she set off her thoughts were still on Khem Singh and his strange perturbation. What had been the meaning of that cryptic sentence? She could not see at what he had pointed, but obviously from his words, it had been a spider, or a spider’s web. But why had he said, “The spider is coming” or rather in the more graphic idiom of the vernacular, “The spider is a comer?” And still more why had Firoze seemed so startled? “Makra.” The words seemed to strike a chord in Catharine’s memory. Where had she heard it, or seen it written, quite lately? For a moment or two she strove to fix the vague memory then with a shrug she dismissed the matter from her mind. After all, it was no business of hers.
The scenery was of the dolls’ house variety, common in that part of India, with little dilapidated, straw-hut villages here and there, on a wide plain dotted with palmyras. To one new to the country it would have seemed tame and featureless, but Catharine found abundant interest in its tiny insignificant details. Ahead of her, looking like a Christmas cake on a gaudy table-cloth, was a large whitewashed building which she knew to be a Jain temple and as she passed there came to her the sound of chanting raised by devotees within. Involuntarily she paused, arrested as she had been many times before, by the amazing familiarity with which the mysterious sound fell upon her ears. She had heard it— or chants so similar that she could hear no difference—from pilgrims of China and Tibet congregated at Gaya; from Muslims in camp, reading the Quran by the light of a lantern before dawn; from Sikh veterans marching with drawn swords before their holy book; emanating, from copper-roofed Hindu temples, glowing among the hot green jungles of the south. It had travelled, so it seemed to her, by way of the synagogues, to Europe, and there purified and exalted, it still sounded in Christian churches—a deep deliberate voice, not truly of the East or of the West, but of humanity: the voice of prayer served by her handmaid Music.
She left the road and wandered round to the back of the temple to where there was a large tank, or artificial lake, black with duck and geese. The creatures seemed to realize that it was sanctuary for they did not stir at her approach. Nor was she, as she soon perceived, the only disturber of their privacy, for as she rounded the edge of a dal field, she all but fell over two khaki clad figures seated on the low band watching the birds on the water.
They rose to their feet and the man raised his topi.
“Mrs. Vereker? My name is D’Silva.”
“Oh——” Catharine held out her hand to the woman who stood silently behind him, her eyes, hidden by blue sun-goggles, seemingly still fixed on the tank. “Then I am half your hostess so to speak, or shall be to-morrow. I didn’t know you had arrived here yet. Where are you putting up?”
“We are in the P.W.D. bungalow,” Mrs. D’Silva answered. Her voice surprised Catharine by its quietness and breeding.
“We were only too pleased to vacate the larger bungalow on your arrival,” added her husband, “we have been here since the evening of the twenty-first.”
Catharine was conscious of a slight jar, though nothing of it appeared in her expression. She had not been aware that they had turned the D’Silvas out of the dâk bungalow by their arrival, and the man’s intrusive reference to the matter, forestalling any apology on her part, was in bad taste.
“I am so sorry you should have had to move,” she said, “but we are a large party and most of our tents have been sent on to Tarmaya, so we are dependent on a bungalow for the moment. Isn’t this a sweet spot?”
“It is nice, yes,” he answered. “But it is not like England.”
Catharine resisted a desire to retort that no one would expect it to be, realizing well enough that the main object of the remark had been to acquaint her with D’Silva’s familiarity with England.
“I suppose not,” she answered demurely. “The palmyras spoil the English effect—but I love them, don’t you? They are like toy palms out of a Noah’s ark.”
“They always make me think of the seven maids with seven mops,” said Mrs. D’Silva unexpectedly.
Catharine looked at her with interest. Hitherto she had been aware only of blue goggles and a heavy topi surmounting a medium sized figure, clad in the inevitable khaki, and of a voice whose timbre and accent served to accentuate the country-bred intonation of D’Silva. It struck her for the first time that the woman might be interesting.
“I never thought of that,” she exclaimed. “Yes— they are like mops.”
The faint honk-honk of a gaggle of geese overhead made itself heard and instinctively all three crouched down into the dal. The birds, obviously returning late from a distant feeding ground, flew low, unsuspectingly, and not till they were directly overhead did D’Silva fire.
“Oh, good shot!” exclaimed Catharine as the heavy plop of a fallen body came distinctly through the whirr of rising wings. “But I thought this was sanctuary?”
“On the tank only,” he answered. “This is not temple ground. Oh—look, it is a Brahminy.”
The last words came in tones of faint disgust as he picked up his prize. Catharine, accustomed to her husband’s keen sight which could distinguish not only the bird, but the species, and pick out the pintail from the shoveller as the flight whirred overhead, felt sorry for the man.
“Hard luck,” she sympathized. “I could have sworn they were geese.”
D’Silva, however, appeared unabashed by his mistake.
“Oh, in many parts the shelldrake is a game bird,” he assured her. “The Brahminy is the Ruddy Shelldrake.”
“Perhaps it was named by someone who mistook it for a goose,” suggested Catharine. “Well, if one can fire at the birds when they are flighting, how about a shoot this evening?”
She felt more than ever impressed with the motley nature of their Christmas party as she made her way back to the bungalow. It was not merely that D’Silva was—as she had already guessed—”of the country.” That phrase, nowadays, has lost much of the odium which used to attach to it, but there was no denying that the man did embody many of the less pleasing characteristics which used to be inferred by it. In person he was not bad looking though thin and inclined to be sallow—too slim of wrist and ankle. But it was his rather aggressive defensiveness which was objectionable. He had seemed to expect her to look down on him and to have been on his guard against it. Also, though he was undeniably a good shot, she could not quite imagine him being popular amongst a gathering of English sportsmen.
“Well, anyway, Philip Masson and West K. Peters will get their atmosphere genuine and undiluted,” she decided as she turned into the compound of the bungalow. “Let us hope they like it.”
The two men in question arrived that evening. The party, returning from their “wild goose chase”—which had justified its reputation—beheld a figure standing on the veranda, silhouetted against the sunset, and were apprised by hearing his voice which of their expected guests it was. Not that Peters spoke in the least like the American of English fiction—it was only a certain lazy throatiness of diction, coupled with a strict economy of words which betrayed his nationality. Catharine, as she shook hands, decided that she liked him. His large-featured, sallow face struck her at first as not only plain, but reasonlessly plain—she could see no meaning in it until she chanced to think of the Pilgrim Fathers and pictured it beneath a high-crowned hat. Then she saw to what type it belonged. She had an idea that it would be necessary to perform similar mental gymnastics on occasion before seeing his mind in the right perspective. But she liked the friendly directness of his greeting.
“You’re my second hostess? It’s real kind of you to have me. I’ve been set on one of these hunting expeditions for a long time.”
Philip Masson—who had been busy removing the stains of travel in a bath—came in whilst a belated tea was in progress, and the conversation turned upon a description of the journey made in company with Father Xavier and the chital skin. Catharine found it hard to recognize the delicate, dreamy eyed boy of her recollections in this man of the world who sat opposite her.
“Well, now we are all more or less assembled,” she said. “The D’Silvas are in Dawana, and the Spenlows and Whatmans are waiting for us at Tarmaya. It’s nice to be a big party.”
“You forget Father Xavier,” said Masson. “He is joining us on Boxing Day, I believe.”
“Why then, we’ll be thirteen,” exclaimed Jean. “How unlucky!”
“Maybe he’ll bring the chital skin,” suggested Peters.
“Then we’ll be a crowd.”
Harry Whatman pushed his fingers irritably through his hair as he gazed at the pile of files and correspondence before him. It was Christmas Eve and he thanked heaven devoutly that within a few hours he would be in Tarmaya, his back turned upon work and all its problems for at least three days—more than that he could not promise himself. He and his wife had, as a matter of fact, arrived at Tarmaya by car the day before and taken up their quarters in the Spenlows’ camp, but since the place was in his own district, he had come over to Sulama, a spot some twenty miles distant from the camp, to carry out an inspection. And he was a much worried man as he sat in the tiny mud-walled room of the thana which did duty as his office.
“From bribery and babus and bombs that go bump in the night, good Lord deliver us,” he paraphrased, giving a neat summary of the main items which figured in a file under his hand. “Truly the lot of a policeman is a hard one. Let’s have a look at the letters for a change——”
For a while he worked swiftly and almost mechanically, reading, signing, sorting and annotating the heap of correspondence before him. It was all routine work, and only as he came to the end of the pile did he pause, looking with more than usual interest at a small, common looking envelope addressed in a sprawling hand which claimed his attention.
“Anonymous, or I’m a Dutchman,” he exclaimed. “Well—what is it this time, an unknown enemy watching me, or am I accused of accepting bribes? Hallo— what’s this?”
He had slit open the envelope, spreading the folded scrap of cheap discoloured paper it contained, in front of him, and his brow furrowed as he read the sentences scrawled across it. They were somewhat different from the usual run of such things.
“The bombs were all duds,” he read. “Moreover they are difficult of manufacture and dangerous of transport. What then will a cunning spider,” the word was thrice underlined, “do? Knives are efficient weapons for those accustomed to their use, and it has come to our knowledge that certain cases of these lethal instruments are to be forwarded shortly to the vicnity of Sulama. Further details will be given when they are ascertained by
P.S. Does a spider entrap flies only that they may glut his appetite or has he perchance the lust of power?”
“H’m——” Whatman picked up the envelope which he had thrown aside and examined it carefully. “Posted in Calcutta yesterday. Handwriting naturally neat and educated, but disguised as usual. Paper torn from a notebook. Envelope cheap business variety. All quite according to pattern except the contents. Decidedly my correspondent in this case has a turn of originality. Moreover his education would appear to be above the average of such mentalities. Now I wonder——”
Usually Whatman paid scant attention to anonymous letters, being indeed too accustomed to their arrival, but this one interested him for several reasons. Those references to a spider, for instance. There was no mistaking the inference, and there had been vague rumours lately——
Then, too, the bombs. It was odd that he should have received an allusion to that matter just at the present moment. And might it by any chance give him a new slant on things? For a moment he hesitated as though undecided, then he brought his hand down sharply on the bell which stood on his desk.
“Constable Kumar Singh,” he commanded as an orderly’s figure appeared as if by magic in the doorway.
Whatman sat gazing frowningly in front of him as he awaited the man’s coming. The interview was distasteful for many reasons. For some months now the police, not only of his own district, but of the entire countryside, had been striving to check either the manufacture or importation—so skilfully was the traffic carried on that they could not say which it was—of bombs. Again and again, though they had believed themselves to be on the track of the men concerned, though they had had news of consignments of the bombs being passed from one place to another, they had been outwitted. Even when they had been in time to prevent the distribution of the weapons they had been unable to trace those responsible for their dispatch, and had taken such consolation as was to be drawn from the fact that the bombs themselves being duds, little damage had resulted from their use. About a fortnight ago Whatman had received information that a consignment of bombs was thought to be on its way to Calcutta by a circuitous route, which would bring it through this very village of Sulama, in which he now sat.
The village, though insignificant in itself, chanced to lie between two converging lines of railway which met at Ghunda Junction to the west. Moreover, the hills which lay like a high wall some twenty miles to the south of Sulama, and between the two lines, made the track by which it was proposed to transfer the bombs, by cart from one line to the other, an unlikely one to be suspected, since though actually passable to bullock cart traffic, it was difficult and dangerous.
Whatman had laid his plans carefully, posting his men at the point where the track emerged from the hills into the plains, with instructions to search any cart which passed. But there was, he had perceived, one point on the hill-top where a narrow and tortuous footpath took off from the cart track, and led down to the river. It would have been quite impassable to any wheeled traffic, but a coolie, even with a load on his head or back, might have negotiated it. To insure that no jugglery could occur on the way, Whatman had posted a constable at this point, with instructions to communicate by signal with those below, directly the cart passed him, and, in the unlikely event of the contents being transferred at this point to coolie transport, to warn the waiting men to proceed to the river on their cycles.
On the night all had gone according to plan; the party waiting below had received Kumar Singh’s signal that the cart was proceeding on its way downward without transferring any of its contents, and, as it emerged, slowly and creakingly on to the plains, they had detained and searched it, only to find that it contained nothing more dangerous than a sleepy and apparently slightly intoxicated, babu.
Whatman had been inclined to think that the information he had received had been a deliberate hoax, designed to put him off the real trail, yet now, from information which had reached him, it seemed certain that the bombs had not only been in the cart when it started from the station on the further side of the hills, but that they had been transferred to the river, and so finally reached their destination. There was, of course, the bare possibility that they had been taken from the cart at some other point than the one he had noted as a danger spot, yet even so, there were few points on the road which had not been under Kumar Singh’s observation from his point of vantage on the hill-top. There seemed to be only one explanation—Kumar Singh had deliberately allowed the cart to transfer its contents under his eyes, and had failed to give the signal.
Whatman sighed. Palm oil presumably was the true explanation of the affair, and yet he would have staked his reputation on the man’s straightness and honesty—had indeed chosen him for that particular post because he trusted him.
“Enter,” he called sharply, as he heard footsteps outside.
Kumar Singh came into the room with a military stride and stood stiffly to attention. Whatman did not speak at once, but sat looking up at the man intently. He was apt to rely on his own judgment in reading faces and characters, and in the present case he was hoping to detect signs which would reassure him—would make him believe that however strong the circumstantial evidence might be Kumar Singh was innocent. But after a few minutes’ scrutiny he looked away sharply, and busied his hands in rearranging the papers on his desk. Such signs as he could read were the reverse of reassuring. It was an intelligent face into which he had looked, oval, and smooth as a boy’s, with very large brown eyes, darkly bright as the eyes of a startled deer. But they had failed to meet his, and the face, despite its smoothness exhibited lines of strain and worry.
“Two weeks ago,” said Whatman, returning his gaze to the stiffly attentive figure, “an order was given with regard to the searching of a cart.”
“Hazur,” came the conventional reply, expressing respectful agreement and memory of the incident in question.
“What was the order?”
“Hazur it was ordered that a detachment of men should be at the place where the hill track enters the plain, and should there detain and search any cart which came towards Sulama.”
“And what occurred?”
There was a ring of iron in the question, but the man’s gaze did not waver. Only, Whatman’s quick eyes noted a faint tremor at the corner of his mouth.
“As your honour knows, the cart came, but in it was found no contraband.”
“And what was your work the night?”
“Hazur, it was ordered that I should wait in concealment on the hill top, and should give news to those below of the cart’s passing.”
“And what occurred?”
This time the question came with the crack of a pistol shot, and Kumar Singh flinched.
“Hazur——” his voice came steadily but with an effect of breathlessness, “nothing occurred.”
“Nothing? You saw no cart?”
“But certainly—a cart passed me and I duly gave the agreed signal to those below.”
“What was that signal?”
“Three flashes of the bijili torch which I carried.”
“You are sure? It was not two, then two again, and then two, at a minute’s interval?”
“Nahin Sahib. As your honour knows that was the signal to be given should the cart stop, and send its goods by coolie to the river.”
“Then why,” Whatman leaned forward and fired the question with the force of a cannon, “was that not the signal given?”
Kumar Singh backed involuntarily, then recovering himself stood to attention once more. The olive of his skin had turned a sickly grey.
“Hazur, I do not understand——” he stammered.
“Why,” persisted Whatman inexorably, “did you not signal the truth—that the cart had stopped and was sending its contraband goods by coolie to the river?”
Twice the man swallowed noisily before he spoke, and Whatman detected a small bead of perspiration on his temple.
“I signalled the truth—the cart passed by me without stopping.”
The answer came in a flat, toneless voice, and Whatman’s gaze was met by a blank, expressionless face. He sighed sharply, for he knew the signs well enough. The man was lying, but no power on earth could shake him into telling the truth.
“What did the babu say to you?” he demanded, returning to the attack.
“Which babu? I do not understand your honour.”
“The babu in the cart.”
“The cart passed by me without stopping. The babu did not speak to me. He was asleep.”
“If the cart did not stop how do you know the babu was asleep.”
“I could see into the cart.”
“Where were you?”
“Up a tree which overhung the roadway.”
“How much money did you receive for sending that signal?”
Whatman repeated his question relentlessly, and Kumar Singh drew himself up with sudden dignity.
“Hazur, I have taken no money, I swear it,” he exclaimed earnestly.
Whatman frowned. He could have sworn there was the ring of truth in those words, and he was seldom mistaken in such matters. Yet if that were so, how explain Kumar Singh’s confusion over the other questions? His mind went to the anonymous letter. What if the vague hint it contained were really true? There had been rumours lately——
He determined on a long shot.
“There be other bribes than money,” he said, changing his tone abruptly. “As, for instance——”
There was a small spider’s web spun across the corner of the mud wall, in which a fly was buzzing hysterically. Delicately Whatman stretched out his hand and with the point of his pen broke the silvery meshes, setting the captive free. His gaze returned piercingly to the man opposite him. Kumar Singh stood without speaking, but the perspiration was thick on his forehead, and his limbs were shaking. Whatman thought the man was on the verge of an hysterical breakdown.
“You may go,” he said sharply.
Without a word the constable wheeled and strode to the door, but as he reached it he paused.
“Hazur, with how much shall a man serve the Raj?” he asked.
“With his death if need be, since he has eaten its bread,” replied Whatman.
“With the dishonour of his father’s name, with the unhappiness of his household, and the hunger of his children? There be some who hold a man bound above all to serve his family. It should be remembered.”
“It shall be remembered,” said Whatman, and his voice had a kindly ring in it. But he sighed as the man left the room. He felt sick and tired of the whole affair. He had taken pride and pleasure in training that man, had felt a personal liking for him, trusted him—and now? Dismissal and disgrace were the best that could be hoped for.
“Poor devil,” he muttered, “the same old story. How wide the web is flung. And yet we can do little—unless indeed we get the blighter over this. It seems as though he had really changed his tactics——”
He checked himself as he realized he had fallen into his habit of speaking half aloud, as he often did when he was seriously perturbed, and taking up the letter examined it once more. Yes, there could be no doubt as to the meaning of those cryptic references to a spider, and the one in the postscript was especially pointed. It fitted in too with various vague rumours and reports which had been going about, and with that mysterious bomb affair in Calcutta. He made a mental note that as Philip Masson, the passer-by who had been unfortunate enough to get in the way of the missile, was to be at Tarmaya, he could ask him for details of the matter. There was no knowing where one might pick up a stray hint which might lead to the right solution.
He made a wry face at himself suddenly. Had he not vowed that he would turn his back on work and all that concerned it for three whole days, and here was he planning to drag it into his holiday. Well, well—it was time to start for Tarmaya.
Catharine Vereker always felt on looking back, that a shadow of premonition had fallen on her that Christmas—a faint foreshadowing of the black storm which was to engulf them so soon—but at the time it seemed only a rather more acute form of the depression which commonly assailed her at that season. Christmas is the feast of home and of children, consequently, for ninety per cent, of the women in India, it is merely the feast of homesickness. Moreover she had begun it feeling tired and dispirited, beset with a conviction that the sport would be poor, the guests incompatible, the provisions scarce—-a form of nerves not uncommon to those who play hostess in the wilds. She and the Map-Maker had sat up the night of the twenty-third in the hopes of bagging a panther, but not so much as a whisper or scent of one had there been to reward their patience. The small preliminary shoot on the morning of the twenty-fourth had proved equally unsuccessful, nothing larger than a jungle fowl and five red dogs emerging from the drive, and the two facts taken in conjunction may have been responsible for her pessimism regarding the sport. Regarding the incompatibility of the guests, she found her reasons more hard to define. The party had left the dâk bungalow that morning packed tightly into the only two cars at their disposal. Catharine and Masson, with Jean, had travelled in Robin’s nominal two-seater, whilst the Map-Maker brought West Peters, the lunch and four servants in Elizabeth. The D’Silvas had gone out by country cart and arrived ahead of the cars at the rendezvous, their waiting figures indeed being the first sight which met Catharine’s eyes as she descended from Robin’s heated but undefeated vehicle. D’Silva hurried forward to help her alight, but his wife remained at a distance with her back to them, only turning when Catharine introduced Masson. As she did so, he dropped the field-glasses he was carrying, with a clatter, and Catharine, sensitive in such matters—received a vivid but unaccountable impression that he had done so deliberately to hide a start of confusion or surprise. But why? Mrs. D’Silva without her sun-goggles was undeniably good looking, but it was a quiet restrained type of beauty, hardly calculated to upset the equilibrium of a man of the world such as Catharine knew the author to be. She stole a swift glance up at him, but there was nothing beyond the usual conventional smile on his face as he acknowledged the introduction. He turned almost immediately to D’Silva.
“You have just come from Calcutta?” he asked.
“Oh no—” D’Silva’s clipped accent, though only mild, sounded more pronounced in contrast to Masson’s level, cultured tones. “I have not been there for a year. This is my first holiday for a long time.”
“Strange—I thought we had met.”
“Oh no—but perhaps it is my wife you have met? She has just been to Calcutta on a holiday—eh, Vera? Have you met Mr. Masson?”
“I don’t think so,” she answered. “In fact I’m sure I haven’t.”
It was at this moment that Elizabeth arrived, and in the scramble of getting her unpacked and the luncheon things dispatched to the right spot, Catharine omitted to introduce West Peters. Masson, however, supplied the deficiency.
“You know Mr. Peters, I think?” he said turning to Mrs. D’Silva.
She did not reply and there was an odd moment—second rather though it seemed long—of silence. Then West Peters answered.
“Mrs. D’Silva, I presume? I heard you were to be here.”
Vera D’Silva bowed, acknowledging the introduction without speaking, but she glanced up swiftly as Masson moved away, and her face looked strangely pink. Also it seemed that her eyes were startled, almost afraid. Catharine was puzzled. Possibly the whole thing was her imagination, yet undeniably there had seemed to be a moment of tension.
As has been mentioned the drive was a failure and it was a somewhat disgruntled party which assembled to eat sandwiches and drink shandy at two o’clock, though Catharine for her part felt cheered later by the loveliness of the sixteen mile drive to their camp at Tarmaya. The road was abominable—no more indeed than the merest track which took ditches and banks, fields and hedges in its stride, and turned their progress into a channel passage with variations—but around them the colours were deepening in the evening light and she thrilled in response. There was once an Indian poet who sang of winter with its ripened corn, yet seemed to deplore the passing of the lilies. Surely he cannot have seen the plains cultivated as they are to-day? Cannot have seen whole acres touched with the faint blue of linseed flower, delicate as the bloom on sun-sweetened grapes; nor wide stretches smiling with the sunny gold of mustard and glowing with the rich jade and emerald of sugar-cane and young rice? Catharine had always wondered where Flecker saw his “Indian carpets dark as wine.” Indian carpets are not dark, they are bright, even gaudy—too garish to please the sombre brand of taste which an obscure national tradition had wedded to the adjective “good”; but to appreciate them one must perhaps be familiar with the ever changing carpet of the Indian plains which winter spreads round the feet of the hills. There were hills in front of the party as they rocked on their crazy way—not the massive majesty of the Himalayas, but a more softly etched line of jungle-clad slopes, turning purple in the sunset light. The Nameless Hills, Catharine had dubbed them, for though each separate peak seemed possessed of a name, there was no tribal one, the range being small and insignificant—barely twelve hundred feet at its highest point.
They came on the camp suddenly, beyond a narrow belt of trees which had screened it from their sight. It was an imposing affair of nine large tents grouped round an enormous marquee, with an array of smaller tents and grass huts in the background, and it looked like a miniature white town on the plain. Mary Spenlow greeted them. She was a large-boned cheerful woman, and looked a colossal figure in the combined riding and land-girl habit she wore, as she wrung Peters’ hand with a cordiality which made him wince, despite his American courtesy, and told Masson she hoped he wasn’t feeling sick after the bumpy road, but that if he was, everyone would understand. From the expression on their faces it struck Catharine that both men felt they were getting the atmosphere very undiluted.
The camp was all lighted up after dark on Christmas night, and there was greenery, if not holly, in the marquee for dinner; and turkey, plum-pudding, crackers, caps, mottoes—everything in fact for Christmas, except just Christmas itself with children and church bells, and home.
D’Silva was in good form at the beginning of dinner and Catharine felt grateful to him for keeping the conversational ball rolling with such zest, for the vague shadow of depression or premonition—whichever it might be—had lain heavy on her all day. It was only half way through the meal that a sense of uneasiness began to be felt, obviously by more than one of the party. Then in a pause in the noise Catharine caught a sound which she knew she would remember all her life. Just a whisper—
“Oh, dear God——”
It came from Vera D’Silva and it was the tone rather than the words which made it so horrible. It seemed incredible that anyone could put so much misery into so quiet and short an exclamation. Catharine looked round the table, startled, and only then did she realize that D’Silva was drunk—drunk with an aggressive completeness which left no room for charitable doubt. She never quite knew what happened next, though it seemed that Philip Masson really saved the situation. He began to talk, about what she could not have said, though she had a vague impression that it was almonds, or maybe raisins, and gradually, it seemed as though he were building up a shelter of talk, a barrier between those whom he chose to include, and the world outside. Without knowing by what path they had reached it, they found themselves involved in a discussion on Persian poetry, and Dick Spenlow and the Map-Maker between them contrived to get D’Silva away quietly. Catharine glanced across at his wife as the men left the tent, but she gave no sign that she saw them going. After that one tragic exclamation she had relapsed into silence— which indeed seemed to be her usual state. The elder woman regarded her critically. Undoubtedly she was good-looking—might even have been termed beautiful were she more animated. Her features were small and regular, her complexion pale, but utterly clear, and her eyes lovely, dark hazel, exactly the colour of her hair and fringed with long black lashes. But she seemed cold, lifeless—and no wonder. Catharine shuddered involuntarily as the thought crossed her mind. What a life— heavens, what a life! They lived on a small property miles from anywhere, except the tea gardens to which he was doctor. Moreover, they were poor—she had gathered vaguely that D’Silva was in debt—so there was little chance of change for Vera, and month after month she would be isolated with him, watching him get drunk, watching him wreck what little chance of a career he might have, and with no one to talk to, no one to help her.
Yet she would have been a difficult person to help. Catharine realized that that night when the party broke up. She and the Map-Maker were the last to leave the marquee and as they crossed the open space to their own quarters they saw Vera D’Silva standing outside her tent. Colonel Vereker paused and made some trivial comment on the night as they passed. His intention was obvious to his wife—he wanted to let the girl—she was little more—see that there were friends near to help her if need be, and Catharine felt angry at the frosty “yes” which was all the response his efforts met with—it would have chilled a salamander. Yet so forlorn, so unconsciously pathetic was the figure standing silhouetted against the light from inside the tent, where D’Silva presumably was “sleeping it off” that Catharine herself turned and spoke on impulse.
“That is our tent at the end of the line, Mrs. D’Silva,” she said, “please don’t hesitate to call us if—if you should want anything.”
Vera D’Silva looked at her quietly.
“I shan’t want anything—thank you,” she replied.
That was all, and the “thank you” had been an obvious afterthought. Catharine sighed as she moved after her husband. She lay awake a long time watching the glittering brightness of Orion swing slowly across the serene blue framed by the open tent doors, towards the western horizon and the birth of another night. Life and its sordid complexities seemed by comparison singularly inartistic.
Boxing Day, which in civilization is apt to loom gloomily, tinged with the ashen hue of “the day after,” and further dimmed by the thought of blank shop-windows, shuttered doors and bus-less streets, holds no horrors for those in the wilds. It was the day fixed for the big drive in which it was hoped a tiger might be put up, and the party assembled before dawn, coming shivering out of their tents to cluster eagerly round the oil stove in the marquee.
Vera D’Silva was one of the last to arrive, and if she was aware of the general relief occasioned by her quiet announcement: “Dominic has fever, he won’t be coming out to-day,” she did not show it. The rather icy nature of her composure chilled the conventional words of sympathy which rose automatically to everyone’s lips, and there was a somewhat strained silence until the servants announced chota haziri, and the party sat down to dispose of a meal of porridge, poached eggs and hot tea.
The drive itself was a moderate success. No tiger was put up, but the Map-Maker got a fairly good sambar, and Whatman a chital, the rest of the bag consisting of two pig, a barking deer, and several pea-fowl. For herself Catharine considered the most enjoyable part of the day was the ride out on elephants through the jungle in the early dawn. She returned tired with the heat of the sun and lay on her bed resting until dinner time, whilst the Map-Maker dressed and went over to the marquee to discuss the day’s sport with the other men.
Khem Singh was standing outside the tent when Catharine came out ready for dinner. She spoke to him, giving some trivial order regarding the Map-Maker’s clothes, but he did not seem to hear. She looked at him, puzzled to account for the depression which seemed to have fallen on him since he read the card she had given him that day at Dawana.
“Are you well?” she asked gently. “Or has the fever come on you?”
“Hazur, I am well,” he answered, coming to himself with a start. “There is no fever come upon me.”
“And it is well with the family?” persisted Catharine. She was loth to pry into his affairs, but his evident depression distressed her.
For a moment the man hesitated.
“With the family it is not all well,” he said at last. “There is need of money——”
“It would be well to speak to the sahib,” said Catharine kindly. “It maybe he can help.”
“Bahut acheha” Khem Singh brought his hand to his pagari, salaaming profoundly as she left the tent. Yet she had the impression that his load of anxiety was not dissipated.
There were two tables laid for dinner in the marquee, for Father Xavier had arrived, bringing the number up to thirteen, and Mary Spenlow was not above the average superstitions, despite her aggressively strong-minded appearance. The new arrival’s rather strident voice was the first sound which greeted Catharine as she entered the large living room. He was discoursing volubly upon the subject of the local roads over which he had been motored forty miles that day, and which did not meet with his approval.
“They are wassis bumpy, no?” he exclaimed, holding up a more than usually battered topi for Catharine’s inspection. “They bump—pouf—I jump, and my hat it hit the top of the wassis car.”
He tenderly pushed a large piece of pith back into place, whilst Catharine sympathized with him. Though she had not met him before she had, as it happened, heard of him through one of the men in their own department, whom he had befriended at the time when the Secret Brotherhood had been causing trouble. And unfeignedly she was glad of his presence that night, for the dinner promised to be a trying affair. D'Silva was there, looking pale and a trifle sullen, and the rest of the party, tired with their long day in the sun, did not seem to hold out any lively promise of keeping the conversational ball rolling. But the priest's energy seemed wholly unimpaired by his travels. He took command of the conversation from the outset and the others gratefully left the reins in his hands.
“Ah, Mr. Masson,” he exclaimed as they took their places at the tables—placed close together to facilitate talk—”so you arrive safely. And I have here your book which I have much enjoyed. It is a wassis allegory, no?” He continued to talk of David Dangerfield, until chance gave an unexpectedly interesting turn to the conversation. There was a small spider busily spinning its web on one of the chiks over the door, and Mary Spenlow, who had a peculiar horror of them, shuddered, demanding that Dick should instantly remove, though without killing it.
“But no,” exclaimed Father Xavier, “why be afraid? It is not the wassis makra.”
Instantly Catharine was aware of a sense of tension in the atmosphere. It seemed as though someone had made a tactless remark but from which member of the company the feeling of startled discomfort proceeded she could not have said. Whatman pricked up his ears.
“Have you Makra in the Panjab, Father Xavier?” he enquired.
The priest nodded his head vigorously.
“He is everywhere,” he answered, “and he is nowhere. Is it not so? The most execrated name, the most ubiquitous personage in the country—yet do we know him? Can we describe him? No!”
“That sounds exciting,” exclaimed Catharine, but Whatman shook his head.
“It’s true enough in one way,” he said, “but don’t get the idea of a romantic criminal of modern fiction, Mrs. Vereker. Makra is not an unknown criminal—it is more than likely if he were a criminal in the accepted sense of the word, that he would not be unknown.”
“But what is he then?”
“Just a common money-lender,” retorted Whatman. “A fat old bania who sits cross-legged on his mat, gorging ghi that he has got from the sweated interests of the poor man’s labours.”
There was a hard ring in Whatman’s voice, for a memory of Kumar Singh, and of many other victims whom he had seen struggling in the spider’s web came up before him.
“You say a common money-lender, my friend,” said Father Xavier. “I do not agree. He is an uncommon money-lender. It is well that he is uncommon, even in that unpleasant brotherhood.”
Whatman nodded, and D’Silva, who had been sitting in sullen silence, put an oar into the conversation suddenly.
“Oh, I agree with you, Father,” he exclaimed. “If there were more than one such spider, there would be no flies left in India.”
Philip Masson looked across at him in brief interest. There had been an odd intonation in the way the words had been spoken, and, as Catharine had noticed more than once, the author was shrewd in observation.
“But why did you say he was unknown?” he enquired, taking part himself in the discussion, “if he is a fat old bania sitting cross-legged on a mat?”
“That, my dear Watson,” he replied, “was an example of elementary deduction. I will retrace the steps. Ghi makes people fat. Fat people tend to sit cross-legged on mats in this country—I don’t quite know why. People who can afford to eat ghi and sit idle must be rich. Money-lenders are always rich. Moreover money-lenders tend to blossom in the bania. or tradesman class, because it is a trade which demands a small capital to start with, and flourishes best when the financier is in contact with men in crowded city streets.”
“I see—but it was a fancy portrait? The man is actually unknown?”
“You might say so. No one has ever seen his face—it is as dark as his deeds, or almost,” replied Whatman. “Probably because he hasn’t got a face. He is Makra and Co.”
“But if he is a firm,” reasoned the American, “there must surely be ways of tracing him?”
“Oh, I didn’t mean you’d find Makra and Co. on any registered list,” retorted Whatman. “He is Makra and Co. simply in the sense that he is an institution rather than an individual. We are familiar with the name chiefly through the stories of his victims, that is all. Yet he is an institution which is an old-established one—we can trace him back for more than one generation.”
“Gee, and you mean it’s possible for an institution like that to carry on trade without any means of identification?” exclaimed the American in tones of mildly shocked incredulity.
“If it were a criminal organization, no,” retorted the policeman a trifle testily. “One might in fact almost pray for the good of humanity that Makra would commit a crime. As it is he does not come under our observation—there is, unfortunately, no law against a man borrowing money from his friend at whatever rate of interest he is fool enough to pay, and Makra is well content to blush unseen as the anonymous and ubiquitous friend of all in financial trouble. The fellow clerk who offers to assist his companion with the loan of five rupees, at the trifling rate of five annas a month—probably they do not realize that even that is seventy-five per cent.—may prove to be his agent. Nothing is too small for him—probably nothing is too big. But he does not come under our notice himself—we only get the results of some of his machinations—the men who rob, embezzle, cheat, murder even, in their desperate efforts to shake free of his web. Probably in that way he has more crimes on his conscience than any man living, but his own dealings, at least until quite lately, have kept well within the law.”
“Is Makra his real name?” Catharine asked, but Whatman could give no definite information. It had certainly become the name by which he was known to all his victims. The talk slid to a general discussion of the evil of money-lending in India. It is one with which everyone who has sojourned in the East is familiar—even in a man’s own compound, among his own servants very often, a few months is sufficient to set up a complicated tangle of financial obligations, and it was easy to conceive the horror of those stray filaments and threads being slowly and patiently gathered together until they formed one vast web, controlled from the centre by one watchful spider.
It was Father Xavier who brought the talk back to Makra himself.
“You say ‘until quite lately’,” he remarked, turning to Whatman. “It is true then, that of late he has changed his methods?”
The policeman nodded.
“I think so,” he answered. “They are not altogether above suspicion, but that does not say that it makes it any easier for us to get hold of him. Blackmail would appear to be one of his new sidelines, and it is notorious that the blackmailer is the hardest man to lay by the heels—he is protected even by his own victims; they dare not give him away.”
“But why has he taken to blackmail suddenly?” demanded Robin, who until then had taken no part in the conversation.
Whatman shrugged his shoulders.
“That I cannot tell you,” he said, “but it appears to be part of a general forward movement, so to speak. After years of more or less passive existence, the Spider has sprung into life and renewed activity. He has taken the offensive—he is making aggressive efforts to extend his web, to draw in more and more flies. To do that, an inside knowledge of people’s financial affairs is, of course, a great assistance, and with an army of potential spies—I mean an army of victims in all walks of life, upon whom pressure can be brought to bear—the thing is easily accomplished. But secret knowledge of one’s neighbour’s affairs is a temptation to blackmail—hence the new sideline. At least that is how I read the riddle.”
“It is true that he has changed his methods,” exclaimed D’Silva excitedly. “I have heard many tales. They say a man under warning will find the drawing of a spider upon the walls of his house, or on a postcard that comes to him perhaps. And he knows what it means. He is terrorizing the people—they are superstitious about him. They know his power.”
“Exactly,” retorted Robin, who had been struggling to interrupt him. “It is simply the result of education. The fat old bania sitting cross-legged and eating ghi for generations, has been a pretty foul brute, but not so foul as his son who gets educated and starts to bring modern business push and methods into the trade.”
Education of the Indians was a favourite topic with Robin, and he showed signs of heat, as people always do when discussing a subject on which they “hold views.”
“But I disagree,” said the American with his lazy drawl and faint smile. “Scrawling spiders on a wall is not a modern business method. He’s going backwards not forwards.”
“Unless,” suggested Masson, “he is sufficiently advanced to read modern detective literature.”
Peters acknowledged the hit. He had supplied the camp with several thrilling volumes of the kind alluded to.
“But you’ll admit,” he answered, “that we read detective novels precisely because they are unlikely and romantic. The kind of thing they describe is not really possible, anyway it’s not probable these days. That’s why we like reading about it.”
The talk seemed likely to drift into a discussion of that form of literature, but Father Xavier interrupted.
“You mistake,” he exclaimed, knocking out a villainous looking pipe against the tent pole, “to scrawl a spider on a wall, that is not dramatic rubbish. You forget the people with whom this spider deal. They are for the most part poor, ignorant and illiterate. A man—a labourer we will say, is in debt. He is behind with his wassis interest. He get a postcard and on it is a spider. He cannot read, but that he can understand. It is a reminder—and a warning. That is practical, hein?’
They had to admit it was.
“Well,” said the American with his throaty drawl that cannot be transcribed, “I don’t like the Spider’s character, but I’ll admit he’s a good business man.”
It was at this moment that Catharine remembered where she had seen Father Xavier’s name quite lately, and also why the word Makra had been familiar to her.
“Why,” she exclaimed, “you were there, Father Xavier, when the bomb was thrown near Mr. Masson—I remember seeing your name in the papers—and there was a mention of Makra, too!”
The words caused quite a sensation. The majority of the party had not paid much attention to the matter. It was, indeed, only the recognition of Philip Masson’s name which had made Catharine read with interest the account of an affair to which very little prominence had been given in the papers—she had gathered on her first reading of it, that the explosion of the bomb was held to be due either to an accident, or, at most, to have been thrown in a private quarrel between Maha Lal and some enemy of his. The question of where the bomb had been procured had interested the Press more than the mere occasion of its throwing, and that, of course, had been a matter of much wider investigation. The death of Maha Lal with the mention of Philip Masson’s secretary had further aroused her interest in the matter, but it is doubtful if any other members of the party except, of course, Whatman, had paid it any attention. Now, however, the discovery that they had no less than two witnesses to such an event in their midst, put quite another complexion on affairs. For the next quarter of an hour—until, in fact, the servants had removed the last traces of the dessert and retired—they were busy demanding explanations and descriptions from the priest and from Masson. The latter, though he seemed reluctant at first to discuss things, eventually drew a plan of the scene on a piece of paper, then breaking up a match into small fragments, placed them on the plan to indicate the positions of the various actors, in the affair, shifting them about as required.
“And you actually had no idea as to which direction the bomb came from?” questioned Whatman.
Masson shook his head.
“I saw nothing,” he replied. “You must remember it was dark and only things within the radius of a lamp were clearly visible. But as I turned my head I certainly had a quick impression of something flying past it—one of those queer impressions we get, which we cannot say come through either hearing or sight—I mean we can’t say which they come through, and after the event we are inclined to think they must really have been supplied by our imagination to fit in with the facts. That was why I did not mention it at the time—it seemed too vague.”
“Then your reading of the affair is that Maha Lal, when you saw him, had just caught sight of his assailant aiming at him from the street behind you?”
“I suppose so. He certainly had caught sight of something or someone which startled him, but whether he knew who it was or what the man’s object was, one can’t say.”
“You mean he might have recognized him, even perhaps seen him throwing the bomb, without realizing that he himself was the intended victim?” Catharine asked. It seemed odd that the man should have stood waiting to have a bomb thrown at him without making any attempt to duck or run.
“Is it after all certain that Maha Lal was the intended victim?” put in the Map-Maker, to whom the same objection had obviously occurred.
“Well—it looks like it doesn’t it?” said Whatman. “We can’t be sure, of course, but the subsequent events make it look as though Maha Lal not only recognized the assailant but knew he was intended to be the victim. For some reason we shall probably never fathom, he deemed it better not to give the man away, but when he was released he went into hiding—that is the only explanation of his being found murdered in the boat of a fisherman—but his hiding place was not quite good enough; the man found him and tried a knife since he had been unsuccessful with the bomb.”
“But there is one thing I do not understand,” said Father Xavier, breaking into the conversation after a long silence during which he had seemed to be pondering some obscure point. “Maha Lal, you say, will not give the man away—he was afraid maybe. Why then did he cry ‘Makra, Makra,’ as the bomb was thrown?”
“Are you certain it was he who shouted it?” said Masson. It struck Catharine that he too had been puzzled by the point.
The priest shrugged his shoulders.
“No, I am not sure,” he answered frankly. “It is all a wassis confusion that moment. I cannot swear who it was who make the shout. But if it was not Maha Lal, then who is it? Not me, not you, not—” it seemed that he stopped himself on the point of saying something he deemed indiscreet, then continued quickly, “not my friend the wassis sweeper, not Pandra Roy——”
The exclamation came from a new and unexpected quarter. It was D’Silva who spoke and they looked across surprisedly at his startled, almost frightened face. It seemed as though the name was familiar and significant to him.
“Pandra Roy, the shopkeeper,” Masson explained. “No—I don’t think it could have been Roy who shouted nor yet his—customers.”
“Customers? Were there other witnesses on the scene?” put in Whatman quickly.
“Yes—a man and a woman, but they left before Schofield, or for the matter of that, the constable arrived on the scene.”
“A man and a woman—Indian?”
It seemed as though Masson made the answer deliberately laconic.
“If that is the only alternative to being Indian, certainly,” the writer answered smiling.
“Whoever shouted ‘Makra’ must surely have been an Indian,” put in Vera D’Silva quietly. Once again the whole party looked in one direction in surprise. Till then she had taken no part in the conversation, and indeed had seemed rather pointedly to dissociate herself from it, retiring into her own thoughts and sitting in a silence which had something almost aggressive about it. Now, though she spoke quietly, there was a tone of suppressed emotion in her voice hard to account for. The shrewdness of her observation though was apparent.
“Yes—that would seem to be so,” Whatman agreed. “But if there were witnesses there why did they leave so abruptly?”
“Maybe they had a train to catch,” said Peters, speaking for the first time since the discussion had begun. “If as you say they were on the veranda of the shop they couldn’t have seen anything much.”
“What makes you so sure it was not Pandra Roy who shouted?” demanded the Map-Maker, who had not been particularly interested in the question of the customers.
The remark was addressed to Father Xavier and the priest again shrugged his shoulders as he replied.
“I am not certain—no. But Pandra Roy is on the veranda, no? He is therefore above my head where I stand. And though it is difficult, maybe it is impossible, to locate sounds so accurately, I have the strong impression that that cry did not come from above my head.”
“Then it looks as though it really had been Maha Lal who shouted,” said Robin taking his turn with the amateurs. “It all seems clear enough to me. Maha Lal saw his enemy, the fat old bania, and he shouted at him, just as the other threw the bomb. What’s wrong with that?”
“If he saw him why didn’t he duck and run?” Catharine objected.
“Hadn’t time,” said Dick Spenlow, making his first and only contribution to the discussion.
“Perhaps he was sort of petrified—I know I should be,” said Jean, hot in defence of Robin’s theory.
“But how did he guess it was Makra?” objected Peters, “you said no one knew the guy by sight.”
“So far as we know,” agreed Whatman, “but, come to think of it, some of his innumerable agents must know him. Maybe Maha Lal was one of them.”
“But yes—and maybe also that is why Makra throw the bomb,” agreed Father Xavier. “Maybe he like it not that Maha Lal should recognize him.”
“Yes, that’s an idea, certainly,” said Whatman, but Masson shook his head.
“I don’t see how it could be that,” he objected. “Makra wouldn’t wander round the bazaar with a bomb ready in his pocket just in case Maha Lal gave him away. He’d get his stroke in first in some other way—like he did in the end.”
“Yes—that is so,” said the priest.
“But what I can’t understand is this,” broke in the Map-Maker, “how was it Makra had the bomb at all? I didn’t read the account of the affair very carefully, but as far as I remember, the bomb was proved to be of the same kind as some lately found in some swaragist den. The police connected the whole affair with a political or seditious plot in consequence. Yet if what we have been supposing is correct, the whole thing appears to be just a quarrel between a super money-lender and one of his victims. Surely the police explanation seems to be the most likely one?”
Whatman nodded his head slowly.
“Well, yes,” he agreed. “But I don’t see why one necessarily excludes the other. Swaragists after all have their private quarrels, and the fact of Makra being what he is, doesn’t prevent him dabbling in sedition. In fact——” he stopped, it seemed almost instinctively, and glanced round to see whether any of the servants were still in the tent. “In fact,” he went on, unconsciously lowering his voice a tone, “we’ve suspected for a long time that he is behind a good many things that have been taking place lately.”
“What kind of things?” asked Masson.
Whatman shrugged his shoulders.
“Oh, their name is legion,” he answered, “but amongst others there is the smuggling in of, or the manufacture of bombs and other such pleasant little toys. The thing goes on the whole time—not to a very great extent, but just persistently. Whatever precautions we take there is always a leakage here and there. People suspect Russian money is at the bottom of it—financing it and no doubt they are right. But still, of course there is a lot of wealth in India itself, and Makra, on our supposition, is both wealthy and powerful. He has an army of ready-made tools to his hand, for anything he wants to carry out, because he can put the screw on just where and when and as hard as he likes. He may well be one of the prime movers in the affair.”
“But have you any proof that he is?” demanded Peters.
The other did not answer immediately.
“Well, no—no proof,” he said at last slowly, “but—I don’t mind telling you there is a sporting chance of our getting something that may prove a clue to lead us to the truth, and what’s more getting it here—in my very own district.”
About half a dozen voices made the exclamation at once. Whatman nodded.
“It may be nothing,” he said. “These things often prove to be only a mare’s nest, but we got an anonymous letter only two days ago telling us that Makra intends making a distribution of knives—a peculiar and very murderous kind of knife, I gather—here shortly. The writer evidently did not know all details, but he promised further help. If it is true—well, it’ll be a feather in our cap, and we’ll have the satisfaction of feeling we’ve earned our keep.”
“But why should he want to distribute knives?” objected Peters. “I thought bombs were more his ticket.”
“Knives are useful weapons in a country where most can use them and only few know how to handle a gun,” said Whatman.
“That a knife is better than nothing if it comes to a scrap.”
The party broke out into excited comment, some upholding one theory, some another. There was still a good deal of doubt as to whether the assailant who threw the bomb could have been the mysterious “Spider,” but not till the argument had raged for several minutes did Sylvia Whatman and Mary make their sole contributions to the affair.
“Surely,” said Sylvia, “if Makra is a fat old bania, he wouldn’t have been wearing a grey Homburg?”
“Good Lord,” ejaculated Mary. “You’ve hit it, Sylvia. What a ghastly sight it would have been. Of course—one has to remember it would certainly have accounted for Maha Lal being too petrified to move.”
Upon which they broke up.
“And to think,” said Jean, “this is our last day at Tarmaya.”
It was the morning of the 28th, and the party were assembled at breakfast. The 27th had been a more restful day than the preceding ones, for there had been no organized shoot, the party, severally or in couples, wandering off on their own, with sandwiches in their pockets and guns somewhere about them—generally behind, carried by a kalasi—ostensibly looking for pigeon, or any other winged game silly enough to show itself in a not too inaccessible spot. Their efforts were either unsuccessful, or lacked energy, for the total bag was a poor one, and Philip Masson who had virtuously remained in camp, working at his typewriter, waxed sarcastic over their skill. Peters came in for the greater part of the chaff for he was the last to return, and for the nett results of his day’s labours could only exhibit one bird. Later, spurred on by the author’s gibes, the more energetic had gone out “ghuming”—that is, circling the jungle after dark and striving to pick out game with the searchlights of their cars. The Verekers had remained in the camp, bringing their chairs out to the giant bonfire that had been lighted, and working by the light of a petrol lamp, the Map-Maker at a black and white sketch he had made of the scene, and Catharine at some verses which she had written, but which did not come up to the required standard. They were fellow artists, and to Catharine, such evenings, spent restfully, with the crisp cold of sundown stinging their cheeks after the heat of the day; the murmur and bustle of the camp all about them, and the homely warmth of the flickering orange flames piercing the blue mystery of the twilight, formed one of the chief attractions of their nomad life.
For to-day a picnic had been arranged to some waterfalls up in the Nameless Hills. Guns presumably would be taken just to give a sporting flavour to the expedition, but sight-seeing was the main object of the outing.
Robin grimaced across the table in reply to Jean’s remark.
“It’s not over yet,” he said, “and anyway, if you come to Jamala——”
“You will be able to appreciate the difference between work and play, in the Survey,” interpolated the Map-Maker.
Catharine laughed as she got to her feet.
“Well, anyway, we are still on holiday to-day,” she said.
She walked up the steep jungle path to the falls, with Philip Masson bringing up the rear of the party, and almost unconsciously their talk turned on the subject which had been discussed at dinner on Boxing night, for a rather startling fact had occurred to Catharine.
“Has it struck you,” she asked, “that there was one significant detail relating to those knives that no one commented on?”
He turned and looked at her quickly, as though startled.
“You mean,” he said after a pause, “that they are said to be of a peculiar pattern, and Maha Lal was killed with a knife of peculiar pattern.”
“Yes,” she said, adding after a brief pause, “and Maha Lal, it seems, was killed by Makra.”
For a moment he walked on in silence gazing frowningly ahead of him.
“I wish you had not said that,” he burst out at last. “Oh, of course I realize how inevitable the connection is—I have been trying not to see it.”
“But why?” she exclaimed, surprised and puzzled by his vehemence, and then as the explanation dawned on her, “You mean you—suspect your secretary of being mixed up in the affair?”
She had almost forgotten Chandra Roy’s part in the matter, but she remembered now that he was the son-in-law of the murdered man, and that his name had been mentioned in a rather curious way.
Masson shook his head slowly.
“No,” he said. “Oh, no—suspect is the wrong word. And yet—oh, no it isn’t that I suspect him, Mrs. Vereker, rather that I think I am afraid of his coming to be suspected—perhaps of his proving to be mixed up in the affair after all. Honestly he is a very good fellow—I’m genuinely attached to him. If by any chance he should prove to be connected in any way with—with this mysterious Spider person, I should believe that it was not of his own will, but rather through his relations that he had been dragged into the thing.”
“But,” Catharine protested, “have you any reason for supposing that he has been dragged into it?”
“Why no,” he answered. “There really is nothing except that he was the son-in-law of Maha Lal, and that his name was used by whoever did murder the wretched man. There is really nothing very damaging in that, is there?”
But his tone did not carry conviction. He spoke rather as though he were seeking to reassure himself.
Catharine’s, next remark was a surprise to herself.
“Perhaps,” she suggested, “you know that Chandra Hoy has a grey Homburg?”
Directly she had spoken she was sorry.
“No, no—-” he exclaimed almost violently. “It isn’t that—at least, of course he has got a grey Homburg—most people have—but it is impossible—oh yes, it is absurd——”
“Of course—it was silly of me to suggest it,” said Catharine quickly. It was obvious to her that Masson was arguing against his own convictions, and she surmised that there were probably other facts—facts more damning than the mere possession of a grey Homburg—which formed the basis of the suspicions against which he was struggling. But the affair was after all no concern of hers. She turned the conversation to a subject of interest to them both, and for the remainder of that steep, heart-breaking climb, they argued cheerfully and amicably as to what constitutes a poet, Catharine contending that there were dumb poets, since it was the hunger for creation, the desire rather than the ability to express the beauty they perceived, that made poets, whilst Masson maintained that it was the gift of expressing beautifully, wedded to the gift of perceiving beauty that was the essential core of every poet’s inspiration.
“Well, perhaps our ideas are complementary, rather than contradictory, Mrs. Vereker,” he admitted, as they reached the end of their climb. “Oh, what a sweet spot.”
Catharine agreed with him—indeed she felt she had seldom seen a more lovely place nor one more un-Indian in its detail and colour scheme. A tiny river—so small that at that season it was no more than a spout of spray—fell perpendicularly from a height of about thirty feet into a wide, deep pool, sheltered on three sides by sheer walls of rock. The spray was sharply white and pure, the rocks a dull grey-purple, the pool dark cool green, like unpolished jade, and to Catharine, coming on it heated and tired from her climb, the colours seemed those of rest and quiet, of mystery and of refreshment. But she was aware that to describe a mere picnic spot in such terms was to court ridicule.
“Why will life never be artistic?” she complained as she seated herself on a convenient stone and dabbled her hand in the water. “She will stage the most romantic of love scenes in the surroundings of a railway station, or somewhere sordid, then bring one to eat and drink in a spot like this—redolent of mystery.”
“It will be redolent of beer in a moment, if Dick isn’t more careful with that opener,” said Mary, “and for my part I’m ravenous. Have a sandwich, Kit, and don’t be so high-brow.”
“Mary always was a vandal,” said Dick Spenlow as he dexterously inverted the beer bottle into a glass just in time to avert disaster. “But for my part I’ll admit a sandwich doesn’t seem altogether out of the picture. Try one of these——“
“And as for romance,” commented the Map-Maker, have we not youth, beauty, wit, valour, brains, poetry and art, amongst us? I resent the implication.”
“For the matter of that,” said Peters, helping himself thoughtfully to a sandwich from the dish Dick extended to him, “how do we know one of us isn’t a notorious crook? You never can tell.”
“That is so,” agreed Father Xavier. He had removed his topi, and sat mopping his forehead in the shade of the rock walls. “We cannot tell. It is not perhaps the wassis kind of mystery that Mrs. Vereker has meant, but maybe, Mr. Masson, you will write of this place in your book, hein? That will make it the immortal.”
Masson shook his head.
“Can’t be done, I’m afraid,” he said. “The book is on the Moghuls, and I doubt if they ever got as far east as this.
“Is it a novel?” demanded Peters, “or just a historical narrative?”
Masson smiled faintly as he replied.
“I’m not sure,” he said. “It is intended to be the latter, but there is love and human interest in it, if that constitutes a novel. In fact, I’m not sure,” he went on, his smile widening with a hint of mischief, “that there is not the material for a good mystery yarn in it. There is, anyway, a cypher, and a story of hidden treasure.”
“Treasure? Oh, but how thrilling,” exclaimed Jean.
“What’s this about a Moghul treasure?” broke in D’Silva with suddenly awakened interest. Up till then he had sat in silence seeming to pay little attention to his surroundings.
“It’s in Mr. Masson’s book,” explained Jean.
“And the book is on the Moghuls? It is an historical narrative?” demanded D’Silva turning to Masson.
The author laughed.
“Well, that’s the question I have been trying to answer,” he said. “Certainly, I should call it historic, though there is much in it that you will not find in history books. It so happens that I was given—or rather lent—some old manuscripts and documents belonging to a family whose ancestors had been at the court of the Moghuls. I have incorporated a great deal of them in my book. For the rest—there is beauty in it, and where there is beauty there will be mystery, there will be romance, isn’t that so?”
“But there is a buried treasure?” persisted D’Silva.
Masson, however, did not appear to hear him. His eyes had wandered from the group around the spread picnic cloth, and he was gazing abstractedly in the direction of the water. Turning her head to see what had attracted him, Catharine saw Vera D’Silva standing at the pool’s edge, watching Bratus, Robin’s dog, who was striving to summon up courage for a dive. Catharine had realized before that the girl was good-looking- beautiful, rather, were perhaps the better word—in a frozen, colourless way, but she was startled at the loveliness of the picture which she made against the soft background of grey-purple rock and cold green water. By accident she had found exactly the right background to throw into relief the perfection of her cameo-like face.
Masson repeated his last words.
“Where there is beauty there will be mystery, there will be romance—is it not so?”
“Perhaps,” said Catharine cryptically. “But it is a pity you cannot incorporate all this into your book.”
He turned to her smiling half apologetically.
“You seem interested in my book, Mrs. Vereker. Would it be asking too much if I were to suggest your reading the manuscript? I am a little doubtful about the atmosphere, and it would be a boon to have the benefit of your opinion.”
“Why, I should be delighted,” Catharine exclaimed. She felt indeed both flattered and frightened. Those who have been in India a long while are apt to see her differently from those who are new to her acquaintance, and she did not want to make criticisms of what she guessed to be a work more of art than of history.
The talk slid to the jute market and from that to the future of Indian coal. The American turned to D’Silva with a question.
“You live up Jamala way. Have you any confirmation of the rumour there’s coal to be found there?”
The question seemed innocent enough, but for some reason D’Silva appeared to resent it.
“Coal? Man, you’re crazy,” he exclaimed, his clipped accent even more noticeable than usual. “Who told you that fairy tale?”
“Why, I cant remember exactly,” replied Peters meditatively, “but someone sure mentioned it.”
“Who said it said a lie,” exclaimed D’Silva with what seemed unnecessary emphasis.
Both Catharine and Masson looked across at him in surprise. What a queer excitable creature he was. His unnecessary aggressiveness seemed to have created an atmosphere of strain, and Mary Spenlow, seeming to become dimly aware of the fact, proposed a move.
“It’s up to you men to get something for the pot,” she said.
Philip Masson stared at the crazy road ahead with a frown which, despite the need for care in driving, betokened a mind given to thoughts far removed from his occupation. It was December 29th—the camp at Tarmaya had been struck and the party were in process of dispersal, returning to Dawana preparatory to going their separate ways, the Verekers, Jean Stafford and Robin Carstairs to Jamala where the latter’s work lay, in company with the D’Silvas whose home was there and with Father Xavier who was going on a visit them; the Spenlows to Gaya, the Whatmans to Sulama, where the policeman seemed to be expecting trouble owing to Makra’s machinations; Peters and himself to Calcutta. It had been arranged, however, that they should both rejoin the party at Jamala, where there was the promise of good sport to make up for that of the Christmas camp, which had been on the whole disappointing. There was to be a farewell dinner of the whole company that night at Dawana before the final break up on the morrow. The lorries bearing the kit and servants had preceded them along the road to the last mentioned place, early that morning, and Elizabeth, carrying Mrs. Vereker, the D’Silvas, and Father Xavier, in company with the Spenlows and Whatmans, each in their own small two-seaters, had followed an hour later, while Peters, who had business with his stockbroker which necessitated the close vicinity of a telegraph office, had taken the seat beside the driver, on the first lorry. Masson, driving Jean Stafford in Robin Carstairs’ car, was the last of the procession. It had been arranged that Colonel Vereker and Robin should work their way in the direction of Dawana in company with a surveyor and a plane-table, and since there seemed to be some difficulty presented by Robin’s car, Masson had volunteered to drive it in to Dawana. Elizabeth, having deposited her load, was to return, piloted by D.F. (the Vereker’s Gurka driver, who despite his somewhat small and weed-like physique was referred to by these initials, the Colonel’s habit of starting the vehicle before all were aboard often forcing him to perform feats not unworthy of a famous film star) and wait for them at a spot on the road, some ten miles distant from Tarmaya. Thus, as Catharine Vereker had said, would all the kings be safely got across the water. Jean Stafford had elected to accompany Masson and seemed, so far as he could judge, to consider herself the appointed guardian and nurse of Robin’s car. More than once she had called his attention to the state of the roads and their probable reaction upon tyres and springs. At the third reproof he turned to her smiling.
“Your opinion of my driving hardly seems characterized by that quality of child-like trust I should like to see,” he said.
Jean grinned frankly, quite unabashed.
“I think you’re handling her very well,” she remarked patronizingly. “Have you driven much?”
“Oh, a bit.”
Jean returned her gaze to the road and stared reflectively ahead of her.
“You must have done,” she mused aloud, “if you can manage a car on a road like this and think out a plot or a poem at the same time.”
Masson laughed, allowing the imputation to pass unchallenged, though truth to tell his abstraction had not been caused by his literary work. Other thoughts were hammering at his brain—why had both Peters and Vera D’Silva remained silent about their visit to Pandra Roy’s shop that night? The recognition of Vera as the woman he had seen on the veranda that night had come as a shock to him, though looking back it seemed that he might have been prepared for it. That neither she nor Peters had recognized him was not surprising. He had been standing on the ground, in the shadow thrown by the shop, whilst they had stood on the higher level of the veranda in the full light of the swinging lamp which hung there. It was obvious that, though they were facing the place where he stood, they might easily have failed to notice him—especially as, coming from the more dimly lighted interior of the shop, the lamp would dazzle their eyes, rendering the details of the street scene momentarily invisible. Probably Peters had spoken no more than the truth when he had suggested that a couple standing on the veranda would not have been able to supply any valuable information as to the throwing of the bomb. That had been a bad slip of his, though, showing that he knew the couple under discussion to have been standing on the veranda, when no one had mentioned the fact. But why, when they both must have realized that Masson had recognized them, did they still remain obstinately silent?
Further, what was Father Xavier’s part in the affair? That night, Masson had received the impression that the priest was waiting for something to happen—that the advent of the two strangers on to the veranda in company with the shopman had been that awaited event, and arguing unconsciously from that, perhaps, he had supposed the priest to have known of their errand, to have come there, indeed, in their company. But had he been right?
What if the priest had followed them there without their knowledge? What if he had been, well, not spying exactly, but shadowing them? If that were the case, still why did they not speak when they realized that he too must have recognized them?
There was D’Silva too—rather a nasty bit of work, D’Silva. Did he know of their errand that night? Did he even know of Vera’s acquaintance with Peters? It seemed likely that he did not, for the American had virtually denied their having met, when Masson had introduced them that day. He had set that trap deliberately, but he could not make out whether the quarry had fallen into it or not—he rather thought not. But if D’Silva did not know of his wife’s acquaintance with Peters, then it followed he had nothing to do with the errand which had taken her to Pandra Roy’s shop. According to his own account he had not been in Calcutta for over a year. Was that true? Well—why shouldn’t it be?
Masson sighed as his mind went round in the same circle, without finding any answer to his own questions. Yesterday, up at the falls, he had tried to lead up to the subject with Vera—had talked round it, dropped hints, given her every chance for speaking and explaining what after all was probably something quite ordinary and unmysterious. But she had shied away from the subject. Every time he had come close to it, she had frozen, or so it seemed to him. But how lovely she had looked there by the pool with the rich tones of the rock and water forming the very background needed to show up the delicate perfection of her own colouring. He sighed again, and Jean, growing tired of his silence and abstraction, broke in with a demand to know the time.
“My watch has stopped,” she explained.
Masson consulted the one on his wrist.
“It’s just about twelve, as near as I can say, he answered, “my watch has been a bit groggy lately, and we’ve none of us bothered much about the time.”
Jean set hers carefully, her brow furrowed in calculation.
“We’ve taken nearly an hour to do seventeen miles,” she announced. “On the whole I don’t think you are such a good driver, though I grant you the road has been a trifle—well, like a model of the trenches.”
“Seventeen miles? How far are we from Dawana, then?”
“Just three miles. I saw the milestone. Fancy a track like this having milestones.”
“Three miles? H’m—I suppose you’re right. The others ought to be at Dawana by now—we were some way behind them.”
“You took such a beastly long time getting those films into your camera,” Jean answered candidly.
Masson smiled, but without replying. His eyes were roaming round obviously in search of something.
“There’s a jhil somewhere near here—” he began, “I thought—by jove, yes—aren’t those duck?”
“Over there on the right—look——”
“Oh, yes, I believe they are. Where are they going to?”
“They must have got up from the jhil I mentioned. Yes—look, they’re settling.”
“Are you going to have a wang at them?”
“I’d like to—though it won’t be any good, I expect. Could we get the car anywhere near, I wonder——”
“Yes, look, there’s a track——”
“So there is.”
Masson turned the car gingerly into the cart track, which for all that it did not boast milestones, scarcely differed as to surface from the “road” they had been following. The nature of the country changed rather abruptly at this point. Since leaving Tarmaya they had run through open cultivated plains, but here they approached a long ribbon of jungle, about three to four miles in width, which stretched between them and Dawana. The cart track led into it, though for some distance it remained open jungle, largely composed of bushes and small stunted trees, and at no point did it become dense. They could see the jhil of which Masson had spoken lying, a long green line, below them on their left. He ran the car along for about half-a-mile, at last bringing it to a standstill under a tree at a spot which afforded a good view of the jhil.
“Will you stay here?” he asked, “or would you rather come round? I thought of making my way round the edge of the water there and trying to get up close to them on the further side.”
“Then I’ll stay here,” decided Jean. “If you put them up from the opposite side I’ll have a good view of the sport.”
“Righto—I shan’t be long.”
“There’s no hurry really. We’ve got sandwiches and drinks with us in case we don’t get to Dawana for lunch,” said the girl, to whose healthy schoolgirl—she was little more—appetite such matters loomed important.
“Yes, but as a matter of fact I want to get into Dawana early if I can. I may have to run out to Kupi station to see about a mysterious letter I got this morning.”
“Oh, not excitingly mysterious—I don’t mean that. It was only what looked like a railway receipt for some packages of mine being sent from Ghunda to Kupi.”
“But what is there mysterious about that?”
“Nothing—except that I gave no orders for them, to be sent and certainly not for them to be sent to Kupi,”
“How very odd.”
“Oh, it will probably turn out to be only a clerical error. Still I think I ought to see about it. Well—so long. You’ll be all right here?”
“Rather—mind you get a good bag.”
She laughed as she watched him move away, bending low as he got nearer the jhil to avoid being sighted by the duck. Camp life is a great leveller, and few people would have suspected that the rather shabby, khaki-clad figure, looking with the bulging haversack on its back like a miniature camel, was Philip Masson, the popular author and poet.
It seemed a long time to Jean waiting. She got out of the car and stretched her legs walking about under the tree, but she did not dare to go far for fear of putting up the duck before Masson got within range. There was no sign of him now—and would not be, she supposed, until the duck rose and she could locate his position by a bang and a puff of smoke.
She looked at her watch. Half-past twelve. The others had been in Dawana for some time now, and probably most of them had gone out again shooting somewhere. Funny if any of them came to this jhil. The sound of a car faint at first, but growing louder minute by minute, made itself heard, and she turned towards the road in time to see Elizabeth sweep past in the direction of Tarmaya to wait for the Map-Maker and Robin by the roadside some six miles further on.
It was as the humming grew faint and died into the distance that another sound, faint also, but near at hand came to her. It seemed to her in the second of thought that was allowed her, that she had heard it a few moments before behind her, but the noise of the passing car had masked it. Quickly she turned her head, but even as she did so a hand closed over her mouth—a brown hand protruding from a blue coat sleeve, so much she saw before her topi, knocked from behind, came down over her eyes and blinded her. The hand was pressing a wad of cotton-wool over her mouth and nostrils, and she was held from behind in a vice-like grip. Gamely she struggled with all her strength, and she was a strong girl, but it was useless. The sickening fumes of the chloroform were suffocating her. Her head was swimming. For what seemed an eternity—though in reality it was probably no more than three minutes—she fought, then with a sickening sinking feeling, as though the earth had opened beneath her, as though the walls of it were rushing in to close on her as she sank through, the chloroform took effect and she collapsed limply in her captor’s arms.
It was quiet when she woke. For a long time she lay only half conscious, feeling vaguely sick and dizzy, aware of aches and pains in her limbs, of a pain in her back where some hard object was pressing, but too drowsy to move, to attempt to remedy matters.
Gradually things grew clearer. Memory came back and with a sudden start she attempted to sit up, only to sink back again, dizzy and weak, her head throbbing unbearably. She lay quiet for some time after that, though for how long she could not have said. Things began to grow clearer to her—she could realize and appreciate details now. She could take in circumstances. It was she realized not dark as at first she had supposed—the sun was still shining, but her topi was over her eyes as she lay—that was why she could see nothing. Feebly she strove to raise her hands to lift it, only to discover that they were tied. For a moment panic seized her as the thought of her loneliness—of what might happen to her, rushed over her—but she fought it back. She must make some effort.
Gathering her strength together she jerked her head violently upwards, sinking back exhausted with the pain and the dizziness it caused, but the effort accomplished its object. Her topi, unseated from its perch, rolled away leaving her free to breathe the fresh air. The effect was almost instant. She could feel the sickness and dizziness leaving her, almost as though—the quaint fancy came to her—there had been a cloth or a veil tied on to the topi and dragged away by its weight as it rolled off. For a few moments still she lay quiet, then carefully she raised her head a few inches and looked at her bound hands. The glimpse she got was encouraging, and dropping her head back once more she brought her wrists up to her mouth, and with her strong young teeth began gnawing at the strips of cotton—a torn handkerchief, she surmised—which bound them. In a short while they were free and she stretched them gratefully, closing and expanding the fingers, chafing one with the other until the circulation came back. Her mind was in a whirl. Where was Masson, she wondered? Had they got him too? Her nerves suggested to her a plain full of lurking enemies, and for a moment she was too frightened to move. She looked at her watch, but it had been broken and she was unable to gauge the time, even by the sun, for she was lying in the shade of the large tree.
Once more she gripped hold of herself, fighting desperately for self control. She must get up—it was no good lying there——
With a violent effort she struggled to her feet and stood shaken and dizzy leaning against the tree. One glance had shown her that the car was gone, and panic, almost despair seized her as she realized what it meant. “They,” whoever they were, had got Masson too, and she was alone here—she must do something—she must find him—but she felt too weak and dizzy—her head was swimming.
It was just as the first tears she had allowed herself were forcing her way through her eyelids, that she heard a faint humming. It meant nothing to her for the first second or so, except to bring back the memory of those few moments before she had lost consciousness. Then in a flash she realized what it meant—it was the car—Elizabeth—bringing back Robin and the Colonel. Before she had known she could do it, Jean found herself running, running blindly over the broken ground which separated her from the main road. Though Masson had run the car along the cart track for nearly half a mile, the distance from the road was not so great for the two tracks did not diverge very widely until further along. Jean heard her voice, quavering and cracked, shouting feebly as she ran. She waved her arms above her head, then, as she heard the brakes screeching, saw the car drawing to a standstill, and knew that they had seen her, she sank in a huddled heap to the ground.
“Good Lord, sir, what on earth can have happened?” exclaimed Robin a few minutes later, as the two men hurried up to her over the broken ground. It was difficult to realize that the shaken, hysterical girl in front of them was the laughing, self-confident Jean of every day.
“What is it, Jean? Something happened, eh? Steady, old girl, take it easy——”
Colonel Vereker’s quiet matter of fact tones acted as a sedative and Jean’s sobs grew less violent, but she did not speak until the men had carried her between them to the car. Robin found her topi, lying at a distance on the ground and ran to pick it up.
“Great Scott—what has been happening?” he exclaimed staring at it in bewilderment. “Just sniff it, sir —it reeks of chloroform.”
“H’m, ugly work—let’s lay her along the seat, she’ll feel more comfy. There’s some hot tea in my thermos.”
The tea, the comfort of the seat, and above all, the feeling of security completed Jean’s cure in a surprisingly short time.
Within five minutes she was able to give them a perfectly clear and coherent account of all that had happened.
“But Mr. Masson——” she exclaimed, when she had finished. “They must have got him too——”
“Are you sure? He may be just out of sight not knowing anything has happened to you. Did you scream when the villain got hold you?”
“No—I hadn't a chance. But he'd have heard the car started up, wouldn’t he?”
“Yes—I suppose so—we’ll go and look for him “
“What time is it?” demanded Jean, coming back to practical matters and her own self with reassuring completeness.
“It’s just two by my watch.”
“Then it’s an hour and a half since they put me out of their way—something awful must have happened to Mr. Masson.”
“Look here—” interrupted Colonel Vereker, who had been hastily consulting a map whilst Robin and Jean argued, “the main thing obviously is to get this young lady to Dawana and into my wife’s charge at once. On the other hand we can’t go without looking for Masson. I see it’s only a little over two miles from here to Dawana, and that there’s another road out from there to Sulama which runs just the other side of this jhil. See——”
He spread the map out in front of Robin.
“If you’ll take Jean back in Elizabeth to Dawana, I’ll start off with the khalasis—we’ve got two haven’t we? Yes—and work my way round the jhil in the direction we know Masson started. He’ll probably be about here——” he put his finger on the straggling blue lozenge which marked the jhil on the large scale map, “and when I find him I’ll do what I can for him, and then get him to whichever road is the nearest. Have a car sent along the Sulama road, will you, and one along here? Get some men together to help us—and you’d better see that Whatman is told of it—he may be out when you get there.”
“Right you are, sir,” exclaimed Robin. “We should be back in half an hour at most—ten minutes into Dawana—ten minutes or maybe a quarter of an hour to rouse people and get things done, and then ten minutes back again.”
“H’m—well don’t rush it too much, remember you’ve got an invalid on board.”
“Oh, Colonel Vereker, do be careful,” called Jean as the car moved off.
There were, though Colonel Vereker did not know it, two other members of the camp at Tarmaya, who had found their way on to the Sulama road, and were even now at the moment when he set out in search of Masson, returning along it from the direction of Sulama. Earlier that day, when the lorries had landed their loads of kit and servants at the Dawana rest houses, Khem Singh had gone about his accustomed business of unloading, unpacking, arranging and settling, with more than his usual celerity and efficiency. Anyone watching the hill-man might have deduced that he was in haste to complete his work, and would not therefore have been surprised had they seen him leaving the bungalow about midday and setting off along the Sulama road with the purposeful gait of one who has an appointment to keep.
But, though he walked with energy and purpose, there was a suggestion of the doomed man in his air, and such indeed he felt himself to be. For Khem Singh was a fly entangled in the meshes of the Spider’s deadly web.
The matter had come about in this way. Some years ago there had arisen the chance of purchasing a good piece of land, which in addition to its other excellent qualities, possessed the paramount one of adjoining that of his people. This meant that during Khem Singh’s absences in service, his wife and growing family, left in charge of his brother, could remain in close contact with the property, could till it and tend it, guard it and watch over its development. Unfortunately, though the price was not excessive, the family were in process of recovering from the financial drain of a wedding and funds were low. Khem Singh had recourse to a local money-lender with what he deemed to be satisfactory results, and though he shortly learnt that the local man had been only the tool, the agent of Makra, the Spider, the money-lender of the money-lenders, the news did not cause him undue consternation, for in those days, though the name of Makra could not be said to be popular, it had not yet acquired the almost superstitious horror with which the last year had invested it.
For a time all went well. Makra indeed had methods and idiosyncrasies of his own in business, but for the first year or so they did not perturb the hill-man unduly. One of the minor of the Spider’s foibles appeared to be a profound distrust of the postal service. His clients were never encouraged to send their interest at stated intervals to a given address. Rather, from time to time, a species of Assize—it could be called nothing less—would be held. His “judges”—he called them agents—touring a particular district, would summon all and sundry to the tribunal, investigate the case, receive the payment due and deliver judgment. It was the uncanny precision with which such summonses would find him out in whatever part of the continent he might chance to be that had caused Khem Singh the first tremor of uneasiness. He had the sensation of being indeed a fly, entangled in a web, whose every movement was watched by the sentinel spider in the centre.
But a worse factor in the case was the clause enacting that the exact sum owing must be paid at each demand. Were it short by so much as a rupee, the “judges” would refuse to accept payment, which meant that the entire sum owing went to swell the principal on which interest had to be paid—and paid moreover at double rates when such defalcations occurred. Since the summons was issued at irregular intervals, and since moreover the original contract had been the reverse of simple, the exact sum was often difficult to calculate, and it was a strange fact that the hill-man’s calculations seldom tallied with those of the “judges.” And there was even a worse matter troubling him at the moment. There had been clauses relating to foreclosure in the contract about which he did not think any more than he could help, but he knew that if any more defalcations occurred, now that the amount had been owing for over five years, Makra could foreclose upon the property without any further notice. This meant that all the money saved and screwed and paid with such difficulty during those five years had, so far as Khem Singh was concerned, been poured into the gutter. What hurt him even more was to think of the labour expended on the land, developed now and giving promise of good things in the future, all in vain, all done for the benefit of Makra and his agents. His mind went over and over such clauses of the contract as he could remember, with accuracy, but he found no relief. One more failure to hand over the exact sum, and he was doomed. And he had little hope that the sum at the moment in his pocket would prove to be the exact amount required. Even on his own calculations it was about thirty rupees short, for the summons had taken him unawares in camp where facilities for raising the sum were slight, and, since the summons had given him only a week’s notice, he had had no time to receive a reply from far Gharwal. He had borrowed from the sahib, but one cannot, after all, ask for more than two months’ pay in advance—at least, Khem Singh did not feel that one could. His monthly wage was forty rupees and the amount owing, so far as he could calculate, swollen as it was now by accumulated interest and other items, was at least a hundred and ten rupees.
He sighed as he walked steadily, doggedly on. It meant the loss of everything—not money only, but land, position, izzat, that mysterious but potent element in the life of every Indian. It meant years of poverty and uphill grind, beginning again from the very beginning.
Several times as he went on his way the hill-man had the vague impression of being followed, but, his thoughts taken up with his gloomy calculations, he paid it scant attention. Once arrived at Sulama he had little difficulty in finding the rendezvous, a mud hut at the end of the village street, inside which a familiar scene met his eyes. Though Makra of late had taken to touches of melodrama in the method and distribution of his summonses and warnings, there was little that was not sordid and commonplace about the company gathered in the tiny apartment of the hut. A babu sat at an improvised table in the middle and round him stood grouped a dozen or more creditors. Khem Singh listened wearily to the same arguments, questionings, evasions and expostulations, that he had heard a dozen times before. It was always the same, always hopeless. He sighed. Even in his depression there was a faint consolation in the thought, that if the worst happened he would at least be free of the web—he would not have to come to another such gathering.
When his turn came he stated his case with a simplicity and quiet dignity which were not without their effect, even in that company. But so far as the result went, there was no hope of respite. The usual argument ensued. The sum owing was stated in a series of complicated calculations which bewildered rather than enlightened. Gradually, however, there emerged from the chaos the figure, one hundred and fifteen. One hundred and fifteen rupees was the amount owing—the hill-man’s calculations had been out by five rupees. One hundred and fifteen rupees—and Khem Singh had brought eighty. The babu called the assembled company to witness the fact. What was an honest and kindly agent of such a well-known philanthropist as Makra to do when people defaulted in such a manner? Regulations must be obeyed. The capital had been owing over five years. That fact was indisputable. There were clauses in the agreement which could not be gainsaid. One hundred and fifteen rupees would have saved matters. Again he called all to witness that one hundred and fifteen rupees was the sum—were that but forthcoming all would be well. As it was Khem Singh sighed. The babu dipped his pen in the ink. And at the very moment when the fatal entry was in the throes of birth, a new voice spoke.
“One hundred and fifteen rupees, babu?” it enquired politely.
The babu started, all but dropping his pen and blotting the page, but his amazement was as nothing compared to that of Khem Singh as he turned to see Firoze standing in the middle of the hut. Firoze debonair and self-confident, his curly beard black with brushing and shiney with oiling, his turban rakishly askew; his cane held with a jaunty swagger; Firoze, the Pathan, the Mahommedan, gazing with complacent contempt upon the assembly of idolaters and usurers.
One hundred and fifteen rupees is the exact sum?” he enquired.
The babu nodded.
“It is the amount due,” he said with an attempt at blustering in his manner for which he himself could have found no valid reason.
But it is a fortunate chance which brought the dâk wala so soon upon the heels of thy departure, brother,” exclaimed Firoze, pulling a wallet from his pocket.
“Behold the sum which thy family has sent from Gharwal.”
Khem Singh stretched out his hand in silence, whilst the Pathan counted thirty-five rupees in notes into it. That there had been no money-order from Gharwal—how indeed could Firoze have obtained possession of the sum had it been sent?—he knew perfectly well, but he recognized the wisdom of the lie. Had Firoze offered to lend the money the babu would have raised objections—there would have been regulations, clauses of the agreement to be considered, half a dozen reasons for postponement, and for allowing the interest to mount yet more; so that the exact sum would not be paid for yet another period. But if the money was indeed his own, sent by his relatives from Gharwal, there need be no argument.
“One hundred and fifteen rupees,” he said, counting the notes slowly, after he had added them to the eighty which he had brought. “It is correct, babu?”
The babu frowned, uncertain of his ground.
“The sum is correct,” he muttered, “but the manner of its payment is irregular. How shall I know that this money is indeed lawfully come by? Is it the debtor’s own? Or is it not lent to him by another firm?”
“I am a Son of the Prophet, shall I take usury like an idolater?” demanded Firoze contemptuously. “Enough of these excuses. Are there not witnesses to the transaction? Give then a receipt and we will go—for we have work that waits not for the hair-splitting of a babu.”
“Aye, brother, give the receipt,” echoed Khem Singh stolidly. “There are many witnesses to the transaction.”
Only when he was outside once more, the receipt safe in his pocket, his face turned towards Dawana, did he allow his gratitude to find expression. Then it overflowed with an Oriental extravagance of idiom, which yet scarcely outran his genuine feelings. And Firoze sunned himself in the warmth of praise. True Eastern that he was, he felt no embarrassment. Such disclaimers as he attempted—and they were not many—rang obviously hollow. He swaggered with a self complacency as free from offence as that of a boastful baby.
“I awaited the propitious moment,” he proclaimed for the fifth time, as they swung into the jungle road, “to have spoken earlier would have been vain. For they are cunning these snakes. Only when he has declared ‘One hundred and fifteen rupees is the required sum. With that all will be well,’ did I speak. For see you, there were witnesses.”
“Aye, brother—that was thy wisdom,” answered the hill-man.
“But for this usury, it is an ill thing——” declaimed Firoze, and proceeded to a lecture on the evils of money-lending and its prohibition by the Prophet, which lasted them for the first mile of their homeward journey. The two men walked Indian fashion, one behind the other, talking in high resounding tones, trudging sturdily and taking advantage of every short cut which the winding road afforded.
“Nay—but what is that?” exclaimed the hill-man as they came through a narrow passage between rather higher trees than the general run of those about them, “there lying by the side of the road?”
He pointed to a spot on the left some distance from the road.
“It—it is a sahib’s topi,”said Firoze, staring intently at the object, “but there is something strange——”
For a second they hesitated, then by common consent made their way in silence across the intervening space.
“Are, but here is ill work,” exclaimed Khem Singh, as they approached closer and saw that the topi lay on the head of a prone khaki clad figure, extended full length upon the ground, the arms thrown wide with an abandonment which seemed to speak of disaster. Quickly the hill-man stooped and pulled the topi from off the face.
“M’sson sahib,” he ejaculated.
Philip Masson’s face was dead white and there was blood oozing from a gash in his cheek, but he was breathing—breathing heavily and stertorously.
“But what can have befallen him?” exclaimed Firoze in bewilderment.
Khem Singh’s severely practical mind brushed such questionings aside.
“Of that we can enquire later, brother,” he said authoritatively. “For the moment water is needed, no? And then must we find a bullock cart on which the sahib may journey to Dawana.”
He picked up the topi which he had placed on the ground whilst he strove to lift Masson’s head into a more comfortable position, and sniffed it curiously.
“It has the odour of the hospital,” he said. “I have smelled it before.”
“But from whence shall we procure water?” demanded Firoze. “The sahib-log do not drink of the water of the jhil as we common people will do, and there is here no well.”
“There is a village near?” queried Khem Singh, peering out over the plain under his hand in search of a sight of roofs or at least of cultivation which would betoken the vicinity of human habitations. But nothing but the green and blue of the marsh and water of the jhil set amidst the dusty bushes of the scrub jungle met his gaze.
“We will shout,” he decreed. “There will surely be some who will hear.”
“But would it not be well if one should run to Dawana?” suggested Firoze. “It is but two miles and from there a motor ghari would come swiftly.”
The hill-man did not answer—he was staring with a new intentness across the plain.
“Nay, brother, we will shout,” he said. “See—a sahib comes,” and without waiting for Firoze to join him he sent out the ringing, echoing, rather blood-curdling yell with which an Indian will make himself heard over miles of country.
An answering call came to him, distant, but distinct; both Khem Singh and Firoze answered it, and the shouted conversation continued for several minutes, by the end of which time both parties to it seemed to have acquired a surprising amount of information.
“It is my sahib, the Colonel sahib who comes,” said Khem Singh. “There has been ill work and the Miss Sahib too has been hurt, though not gravely. A motor will be coming this way shortly.”
It was some ten minutes before Colonel Vereker and his two attendants hurried up, and Philip Masson still lay unconscious on the ground. But he stirred as the Colonel lent over him and raised his head gently.
“Chloroform,” muttered Vereker. “Good Lord—what on earth has been happening? Here men—lift him into the shade “
They performed the task without much difficulty amongst them, and the patient showed signs of returning consciousness as they laid him down more comfortably under the shade of a large tree. Vereker poured some water from a flask he had brought, between his lips.
“Feeling better?” he enquired cheerily.
A faint sound came from Masson’s lips and he seemed to attempt a smile, but his head sank down once more and his eyes closed.
“Had a goodish dose,” diagnosed the Colonel. “Wonder where the nearest doctor is? Oh, of course, D’Silva. Hallo—is that the car by any chance?”
It was the car—Elizabeth in fact—driven by D.F. and bringing Vera D’Silva and Father Xavier. Robin had gone with Dick Spenlow, in the latter’s car, to the spot on the Tarmaya road where the track branched off to the jhil, but from what Jean said, it had seemed likely that the Sulama road would be the more likely one on which to find Masson, so Vera who had been a nurse, and Father Xavier, who was interested in the events, had been dispatched in the larger car along the latter road with such first-aid appliances as Mrs. Vereker could raise. She herself had remained behind to get a room ready and to look after Jean, who, however, seemed little the worse for her adventure.
“And where’s Whatman?” demanded Vereker when he had been given these details.
“Down at the katcheri, still,” replied Vera. “He had to go there on urgent business. My husband is out, shooting, but we came away without waiting—we thought it better.”
She was down on her knees by Masson as she spoke, and leaned over gently to take his wrist and feel his pulse. He stirred feebly and half opened his eyes.
“What do you make of him?” asked Vereker.
Vera shrugged her shoulders.
“I don’t think he’s bad—but he must have had a good dose of it. We ought to get him back quickly “
Father Xavier meantime had been examining the ground around where the patient lay.
“You find him here, Colonel?” he demanded.
“No—not quite in this spot. We moved him into the shade, but he was lying there when I came up.”
He pointed to the spot.
“Ah, so—by the wassis short cut. Yes——”
He stooped to examine the ground more closely.
“He was alone when you find him?”
“It wasn’t I who found him really,” Colonel Vereker explained. “My bearer and Firoze, Carstairs’ servant, were coming this way from Sulama—I suppose they had been to buy supplies there, maybe it is market day—and they saw him as they came along. I was working my way round the edge of the jhil from the Tarmaya road direction and they saw me. We heard them calling and the two men with me shouted back. Then we hurried up and found him lying in that spot there.”
“Ah, yes—and this?”
The priest pointed to a small square of paper, obviously an envelope lying at the distance of perhaps three yards from the spot where Vereker had first found Masson lying.
“That’s not mine,” said the Colonel. “Masson’s, no doubt. Must have fallen from his pocket.”
Father Xavier crossed over and stooped to examine the envelope, but without touching it.
“But yes—it is addressed to Mr. Masson,” he said. “It has fallen—but from his pocket. No, I do not think so. The things which are so light do not fall easily from inside the pocket. No. Besides, it has in it no letter—and I do not think Mr. Masson will keep it therefore.”
“What do you mean?”
The priest shrugged his shoulders.
“I think maybe it has been taken from his pocket— that the letter inside has been extracted, and then maybe the envelope thrown here. We place a man here on guard, is it not?”
“Yes—we’ll leave one of the khalasis. Whatman will want to examine everything, no doubt.”
“One moment, Colonel. The khalasis and your bearer they wear the boots I perceive. But the Pathan he has on the shoes. Perhaps you have not noticed when you arrive whether he wear them, or whether he carry them in his hand, as so often they will do when walking when the ground is soft?”
“Good Lord,no—I never looked at Firoze to see whether he had his shoes on or not. Why?”
“Because of this—you see?”
The priest pointed to the soft dust at the side of the road where, plainly discernible, were the prints of two bare feet.
It was not until six that evening that Masson was sufficiently recovered to give an account of what had happened. He came indeed out of his heavy stupor almost immediately after his arrival at Dawana, but a splitting headache kept him prostrate for another hour. By five o’clock a sleep had restored him and by a quarter to six, when D’Silva—who had gone out with a gun as soon as the party arrived at Dawana that morning, and who had not been found by any of the men sent out to look for him—returned with a goose to his credit, he found both patients practically themselves again, and in no need of his ministrations.
Whatman in the meantime had not been idle. Immediately on his return from the katcheri he had listened to Jean’s story, interviewed Khem Singh and Firoze, then gone out to see the spot where Masson had been found.
“Take your time,” he said breezily, when at last he entered the latter’s room. “I don’t want to bother you or start the headache again, but it will be a help if you can tell us anything of what happened.”
“There’s really nothing wrong with me now,” he said. “It’s Jean I’m concerned about.”
“H’m—when last seen Jean was investigating a mound of buttered toast, and appeared to find it satisfactory. I shouldn’t worry about her.”
“And the car?” demanded Masson anxiously. “I hear it has disappeared. Carstairs must be cursing me.”
“Oh, we’ll find the car all right. Don’t you worry. After all, cars in a place like this aren’t so common that they are easy to hide. Now—just let’s hear all you can tell us “
“Well, I left Jean as I suppose you have been told, at a spot about half a mile long the track that takes off from the Tarmaya road in the direction of a village beginning with S, I think. I’ve seen it on the map, but I can’t remember the name exactly.”
“Yes—that’s it, no doubt. There’s a jhil just at that point as you know—it lies in the sort of large triangle formed by two roads and the cart track we were on. I’d seen it on the map and thought it would be a good place for duck, before we started, then when we saw the duck actually settle there, it seemed too good a chance to lose. Well—I wanted to work my way round from where I left Jean to the south side of the jhil, near the other road. As you probably know, the Tarmaya road end of the jhil is all marsh and what clear water there is, is all at the other end, so I knew the duck would be there—in fact I could see them—and I thought the light would be better for shooting if I got on the south side before they rose. Otherwise I should have been staring straight at the sun.”
“Yes, yes,” said Whatman, a trifle bored by these details, most of which he could have worked out for himself.
“I went carefully so that the duck shouldn’t be alarmed and get up too soon——”
“Just a minute—how long did it take you?”
“Oh, I couldn’t say exactly, but I suppose about a quarter of an hour.”
“Then I suppose you don’t know what the time was when you got to the other side?”
“Yes, as it happened I looked at my watch and it was just on half-past twelve. I remember thinking I must hurry as it was so late.”
Whatman made a note that it was at that very moment Jean too had looked at her watch, obviously calculating Masson’s movements rather well, if she expected to see him emerge by that time.
“You didn’t hear anything did you?”
“What sort of thing?”
“Well—a cry or a scuffle or anything?”
“Oh no, nothing. I should have been too far to hear a scuffle. I might have heard a cry, I suppose, but I should think it unlikely. Anyway, I didn’t hear anything.”
“Not even the car being started?”
“No—the car hadn’t been started then. I could see the bonnet, protruding from behind the large tree where I had left it, shining in the sun.”
“You couldn’t see Jean?”
“No—I remember thinking that she was keeping well out of sight for fear of scaring the birds.”
“Had she been on the bank you would have seen her, I suppose?”
“Yes, because as I am going to tell you, I saw someone else a few moments later.”
“Yes—I’d just got well round on to the other side and was looking for a good spot to get to where I should see the duck as they rose, clear of trees. I thought the best way would be to get on to the road, and walk along it for a bit to where it came down closer to the water’s edge. It was just as I turned to go on to the road, that I saw a man come out into the open on the other side of the jhil. He stood for a minute——”
“Can you describe him?”
“Well, not in very clear detail—he was too far away. But I should say he was of medium height and rather slim. He was wearing European clothes “
“But he was an Indian?”
“Well, that was the impression I had, but I really can’t swear to it, you know, at that distance.”
“What sort of clothes was he wearing?”
“They gave the effect of being grey trousers and a dark coat——”
“A blue coat?”
Masson shook his head.
“It really is impossible to say—at the moment I saw the man I had no reason to think there was anything odd about him, so took no special notice of his clothes. Now, though I do seem to think he had on a blue coat—something like a blazer I suppose—I feel it may be just my own mind suggesting it.”
“According to Jean the man, what little she could see of him, was wearing a dark blue coat.”
“Is that so? I haven’t of course heard Jean’s story yet. Well then no doubt it was blue.”
“It didn’t strike you that the man might have been one of our party? I mean, there was something obviously unfamiliar about him? ‘‘
“Well—I can’t really say that I thought much about him. I think my chief feeling was one of annoyance, because I thought he was going to put up the duck whilst I was out of range.”
“And did he?”
“No, oddly enough they didn’t get up. He stood out on the far side of the jhil, looking in my direction for a few minutes, then raised his hands to his mouth and gave a kind of call. I thought he was calling to me and stood still to listen. Then suddenly I heard a sound behind me, and turned just in time to see a man, a huge Indian, bearing down on me threateningly. I hit out as he made a grab at me, and he pressed a cloth soaked in chloroform over my mouth. It was so utterly unexpected from such a type of man—I might have thought of any ugly weapon but not chloroform—that it took me completely by surprise.”
“Did you go out at once?”
“No, I can remember fighting for quite a while and his dragging me through the bushes just as I was losing consciousness. There must have been a thorn tree there which did this gash on my face. It’s only a scratch really, though it seems to have bled a lot.”
“The next thing I remember is Colonel Vereker’s voice asking if I was feeling better.”
“H’m——” Whatman sat staring frowningly in front of him.
“It seems to me you had a narrow escape, Masson,” he said at last. “Can you describe the man you had to deal with at all? How was he dressed?”
“As far as I can say, like an ordinary man one sees about, driving bullock carts, or maybe, tilling his fields.”
“And his face?”
“Well, I should know it again if I saw it, I’m sure, but I really can’t think of any way of describing it.”
“Not very helpful, is it?” he said. “But it’s all one can hope for in real life. It’s only in detective novels that villains go in for unique eyebrows or moles on their left ears. Anyway, we can piece it together a bit now. They wanted the car—that’s why Jean had to be put out of the way. You played into their hands by separating. Our friend, the cultivator, as we’ll call him, was obviously told off to follow you with a small bottle of chloroform whilst his pal got busy with Jean. When all was ready in regard to the car, he shouted across to his friends, the cultivator, who——”
“But, good heavens, if it was only the car they wanted, surely they needn’t have resorted to such measures? They could have got away with it, so far as I was concerned, perfectly easily. If they’d driven away I couldn’t have stopped them on my flat feet from where I was. And as to Jean surely it would have been easier to have sent her a bogus message or something like that, to have suggested her coming over to where I was?”
“Yes, certainly, if the car was the only thing they wanted.”
“But what else was there?”
“You haven’t missed anything?”
“Not so far as I know. Naturally, I haven’t had time to examine my things, but actually there was nothing anyone could have wanted to steal. I hadn’t even any money beyond a few rupees in my pocket—the rest of it had come here in my boxes. And certainly I had nothing else of value on me.”
Whatman took out his notebook and opening it, extracted an envelope.
“Ever seen that before?” he asked.
Masson took the small square of paper and looked at it in surprise. It was addressed to him, and was of the ordinary business shape with the printed name of the railway company in one comer.
“Why—yes,” he said at last, looking up in bewilderment at the other. “I think it’s the envelope which contained the railway receipt that had puzzled me so.”
“Let’s hear about it.”
“Well, when I started out for this show, there was some talk of my staying on, and travelling with the Verekers up to Jamala. As it turns out, though I am joining them later, I find I have to return to Calcutta meantime. But when first I started I thought I might be in for a visit of several weeks, so I brought the necessary things with me—warm clothing and so on, as I understand it will be colder at Jamala than it is here.
“Quite,” said Whatman as the other paused.
“It added to my amount of kit considerably, of course, and I didn’t want to cart it all along here, so I arranged with the station-master at Ghunda to leave two boxes there. I was to wire instructions to him as to where and when I wanted them sent.”
“And have you wired?”
“No, that’s the odd part. Finding I should be passing through Ghunda on my way back to Calcutta, I decided to give him the instructions in person when I saw him. Yet, yesterday, I got the receipt for my boxes, which appear to have been dispatched to Kupi.”
“Did you mention Kupi to him as a possible place where you might want them sent?”
“No, certainly not—I’d never even heard of Kupi until after I got the receipt, and found out from my bearer that it was the name of a station some five or six miles up the line from here.”
“Ah, I see,” Whatman nodded with the pleased expression of one who begins to see daylight. “You mentioned it to your bearer—did you by any chance tell him of your intention to shoot at that particular jhil on your way into Dawana?”
Masson’s brow furrowed for a moment.
“I can’t remember——” he said. “I may have done—oh, yes, I remember telling him to give me some number four cartridges—there were only eights in my bag—as I might want to fire at the duck on the jhil near Dawana.”
“And what did you do with the railway receipt?”
“So far as I can remember, I put it straight in my pocket.”
“In the envelope?”
“Yes—I think so.”
“Ah things begin to grow clearer.”
“Glad you think so.”
“Just one more question, Masson. What instructions did you give your bearer before he left Tarmaya?”
“Instructions? How do you mean? I gave him no special orders that I can remember.”
“Nothing about what he was to do on arrival here?”
“No, I never do. He knows his job through and through. As a matter of fact, I can’t imagine why the beggar isn’t here now. I asked Mrs. D’Silva to send him some time ago.”
“I see—then I gather it wasn’t true that you had given him instructions to leave here by the 12-10 train immediately on his arrival, and to depart to a destination which he was on no account to disclose to anyone?”
“What on earth are you talking about?”
Whatman grinned at the other’s bewildered face.
“Just that,” he said. “I asked for your bearer some time ago as it struck me he might repay a cross-examination. I was told that he had gone. Further enquiries elicited the information I have just given you.”
“You mean that Binbo has gone and that he told people that I had sent him away on some secret errand?”
“Something like that.”
Masson sat up in bed and stared at the other open-mouthed.
“You’re not pulling my leg, I suppose, Whatman?” he remarked at last.
“Afraid not. Tell me—what do you know of this Binbo?”
“Well, nothing much, except that he’s an excellent servant and had good chits. My secretary really engaged him for me.”
The exclamation had an intonation which made Masson look at the speaker searchingly.
“You have,” he remarked, “something up your sleeve. So much is obvious. Reconstruct the crime, oh Sherlock.”
“Well, as I see it, Binbo was told to get possession of that receipt and bring it into Tarmaya. You foiled him in that by putting it straight in your pocket. Short of putting you out there and then, which had obvious disadvantages in a camp full of people, he had no choice but to come into Dawana, and there inform his confederates or employers, whichever they were, that you were following, and would probably stop en route to shoot the jhil. Their plans are laid accordingly. You must remember the jhil is only a couple of miles or so outside Dawana and its nearness to the Kupi road made it a good spot for their scheme. They went out and waited for you there. Friend Blue-Coat sees to Jean and stays near the car. As soon as he knows things are ready he jumps into the latter and buckets round to where you have been laid out. He takes the receipt from your pocket, throws the envelope on the ground, and——”
“Stop, man, stop—for heaven’s sake stop,” interrupted Masson, clasping his hand to his head. “Has all the world gone crazy or is it only you? Why in thunder should they be so keen on stealing two boxes which contained at the most, besides winter clothes and some books, a few boxes of spare cartridges?”
Whatman did not answer immediately.
“You know, Masson,” he said at last, “I think you’ve had bad luck. Yet, being a writer perhaps you’ll appreciate it as an experience.”
“Do you think you could talk a little more simply? Remember I’ve had an anaesthetic and ought not to excite my brain.”
“Well then, to put it bluntly, I think you’ve had the misfortune to get into the hands of a seditious crowd, and they’ve been using you as a cloak for some of their work.”
Masson did not speak for quite three minutes. He sat staring at Whatman, seemingly bereft of the power of speech.
“You mean Roy, I suppose,” he said at last. “You’ve got it into your head that he was mixed up in that bomb affair.”
“Well, he was connected with it, wasn’t he?”
Masson shook his head.
“In a way, I suppose, yes,” he said, “but do you know, Whatman, I can’t bring myself to believe it of Roy? Oh, I admit his political opinions are a trifle—well, extreme. I’ve suspected more than once that he would like to get my support—financial support—for some of his propaganda, but this kind of thing, bombs and murders, aren’t in his line. He’s too constitutionally minded. If by any chance he is implicated, I’m sure it is through his relations more than of his own free will. But in any case we have to remember that Muni’s evidence cleared him.”
“H’m—when you’ve been in this country as long as I have you’ll learn to distrust evidence.”
Masson sighed as he leaned back once more and closed his eyes.
“I suppose I’m dense,” he murmured. “The fact that Chandra Roy may be a seditionist is no doubt illuminating, but his strangely elaborate plans for stealing my winter underclothes still seem to need explanation.”
Whatman grinned, then he grew grave again.
“You’ll have to prepare for a shock, Masson,” he said. “You remember my anonymous correspondent I mentioned at Tarmaya?”
“Great Scott, yes. I’d forgotten about him.”
“Well, he kept his promise. I had another letter from him this morning.”
“What did he say?”
“He said the knives were to be smuggled into this district in luggage bearing the labels of, and belonging to, one Philip Masson, Esquire.”
Once again there was silence as Philip Masson, Esquire, sat up in bed staring at Whatman.
“But—but the thing’s impossible!” he broke out at last. “I saw those boxes packed myself.”
“Are you sure of that?”
“Quite sure. I was anxious there should be no muddle regarding what things came with me here and what things were left till sent for.”
“Then they must have been re-packed after you saw them closed.”
Masson’s brow furrowed in an effort to remember.
“Honestly, I don’t see how that would have been possible,” he said. “They were only packed the day I left Calcutta and sent off immediately on a bullock cart. I remember thinking at the time that they wouldn’t have any too much time to spare.”
“Yet they must have caught the train all right if you found them when you got to Ghunda. I suppose Chandra Roy saw to the booking of them?”
“Yes. And they were certainly in all right when I got to the station. I remember seeing them myself in the van.”
“H’m—well, no doubt we shall—yes, who’s there?” There had come a knock at the door, and rising Whatman went over to open it. Outside a constable was standing.
“What is it?” demanded Whatman in the vernacular.
“Hazur, we have discovered the motor. Also there are some boxes——”
With a muttered excuse to Masson, Whatman left the room, returning in a few minutes obviously pleased with the course of events.
“We’ve got the car,” he exclaimed. “Found stuck in a ditch on the Sulama-Kupi road, not a couple of miles from where you were lying. It seems the petrol had run out—my men found a loose nut lying on the road some way away, so it looks as though there had been a leak which upset their plans. They seem to have pushed the car off the road when they discovered that it wouldn’t go and tried to hide it in the trees, but it got stuck in a ditch and evidently they couldn’t move it. That must have made them realize the game was up—they couldn’t hope to come back and retrieve the boxes before the alarm was raised. All the same they did their best to hide them.”
“Have you got them?”
“Yes—here they come. Do you recognize them?” Masson looked carefully at the trunks the constables had deposited on the floor.
“Yes, their mine,” he said briefly after a pause.
“Have you the keys?”
“I ought to have, but heaven only knows where Binbo will have put them. Better have the things broken open.”
Whatman turned to the constables and gave the necessary orders.
“Wait just a moment,” exclaimed Masson, who had been staring more intently at the boxes. He slipped out of bed and stood a trifle shakily on the floor beside them.
“Do you know,” he said slowly, “it seems absurd, but I really begin to doubt whether they are mine. Look, that label doesn’t look genuine.”
Whatman stooped and examined the leatherwork closely.
“Where did you buy yours?” he asked.
“Then that settles it. These are bazaar made. Look——”
He proceeded to point out various qualities of the leather and of the work which put the matter beyond dispute.
“But, good heavens,” ejaculated Masson feebly, “how on earth—who on earth could have had them made?”
Whatman shrugged his shoulders. To him it seemed that every fresh step implicated Chandra Roy more and more deeply, but he realized that Masson still obstinately believed in the man.
“We shall see,” he said.
The constables had worked with skill and efficiency at their task of lock-picking, and as Whatman spoke they lifted the cover of the smaller box. Inside, neatly packed, in gleaming rows were the deadly knives of the pattern which had killed Maha Lal.
Whatman was early afoot the following morning. He had arranged overnight that the party was not to break up that day as had been planned, but to remain in Dawana at least until the first of January in case the evidence of any of them were needed. D’Silva was against either of the patients travelling too soon, so matters fitted themselves together conveniently and well.
The policeman had a heavy day in front of him. His theory of the cause and course of the events was clear, but it needed verifying and for that purpose he must visit the place where the car and the boxes had been found; he must interview the station-master at Kupi, and ascertain whether the car had indeed called there for the boxes at the time he supposed, and whether it had contained a man in European clothes and an Indian, and whether their descriptions tallied with those which had already been circulated regarding the “wanted” men on the data supplied by Masson and Jean. He must also see the station-master at Ghunda, or at least send someone to interview him and discover what had caused him to send the boxes to Kupi. If this cause had been written orders of any kind, these would probably need investigation, but it seemed far more likely that Blue-Coat, or his friend, had called in person, and somehow persuaded the official that they came with orders from Masson. Further, he must receive and sift the various reports which were bound to come in from various sources now that he had set the machinery of the law in motion, and last, but not least, he must make some effort to discover what had become of Masson’s own authentic luggage, and at what point the bogus boxes had been substituted. He decided that he would make a start over this last item before leaving his office to begin the more strenuous part of the day’s work, and he wrote out a telegram to the police and also the station authorities at Calcutta. If his theory of the case and of Chandra Roy’s implication in it were correct, the odds were overwhelmingly in favour of the substitution having taken place between the hotel and the station, but since it was wiser to leave nothing to chance he decided to send out a call to every station along the line demanding whether there had been any unclaimed luggage deposited there. That was a piece of routine work to which his underlings could attend, and, having written out the instructions, he got into his car and set out for the spot on the Sulama-Kupi road where Robin’s car had been found.
He was surprised, and, it must be added, slightly annoyed on his arrival to find that he was not the first comer. As the car drew to a standstill a figure in a shabby brown habit and dilapidated topi rose from a seat improvised on a large rock.
“Ah, good morning, Mr. Whatman. You are early, no?”
“Not as early as you, it appears, Father Xavier.”
“No—I have been here already a quarter of an hour. But do not be afraid; I sit on that rock only. I have not walked over the wassis ground. I have touched nothing.”
Whatman smiled, slightly mollified.
That was good of you,” he said. “You seem to have studied police work?”
“But no—I study the novels of murder.”
“I see,” he said. “Well—come and see the sleuth hounds at work.”
The spot where the car had been found yielded very little that was not already known, but Whatman was pleased to see that such tracks as there were fitted in well with his theory of the case. At the place where the wheel tracks left the road and diverged into the jungle the ground had been broken up and in the dust by the roadside were the prints of bare feet.
“You see,” Whatman pointed, “that’s our friend the cultivator.”
As briefly as possible he gave Father Xavier the facts he had gleaned from Masson the night before, adding a quick outline of his theory of what had happened at this spot.
“The petrol petered out just as they got here,” he said, “and they realized they could get no further in the car. Before that, their plan I imagine had been to get through Sulama, and out on the road that leads to the hills. There they would have tried to hide the car, and the knives until they could distribute them.”
“Which they must do quickly, no? The police will be looking for them when they have found Mr. Masson and it is not easy to hide such things in the jungle. No, the place to hide a car is in a city.”
“That’s true enough. But, as I see it, the chloroforming of Masson was not according to the original plan. They had hoped to get through without any incidents of that nature—to obtain possession of the cases containing the knives without arousing suspicion. Probably they were banking on Masson not wanting his things yet awhile, and by the time he did send for them doubtless the authentic case would have been got to Kupi by some means or other and he would have suspected nothing =except that the station-master at Ghunda had played the fool. You must remember that they knew nothing supposedly of the anonymous letter of warning I had had.”
“You think not?“
“No—how should they?”
“How, I cannot say, but I think they are in a hurry, those men. They cannot wait until Mr. Masson come into Dawana with that receipt in his pocket, that the bearer may abstract it quietly. No they must hurry—they must chloroform him—pouf—they must run here, there, with the petrol leaking over the road. Oh, yes—they make the big haste, and for why? Is it not perhaps that they hear of that letter?”
Whatman frowned thoughtfully.
“I admit they seemed in a hurry,” he said, “though the petrol leaking doesn’t seem to affect the case——”
“But yes, my friend—for why? Because Mr. Carstairs, he say there are over four gallons in the tank when the car leave Tarmaya. Miss Stafford when she is left in the car alone, she look at the gauge. It say four gallons. Your men they find the wassis nut on the road between here and Kupi. But four gallons of petrol does not escape through that so small leak in only two and a half miles when the car travel quick. Therefore, I say it begin to leak before they arrive at Kupi; it leak the whole time they load the luggage. There must therefore be the great smell of petrol and I think it strange that those men, when they are busy near the car, putting in the boxes, do not notice it. Yes—they were in the great hurry—they think of nothing but haste maybe.”
Whatman stood pondering the matter frowningly.
“By Jove—that’s an interesting point,” he said at last. “Certainly it would seem to be impossible that so much petrol could escape in that short space of time. Even allowing it to have started on the road to Kupi, it seems incredible—we’ll have to try some tests. Well, we’ll admit all you say. They were certainly in a hurry— more than that, they were flustered and flurried. Everything seems to point to that. Something had gone badly wrong with their plans and they were running round in circles so to speak to retrieve the error if possible. You say that something was the anonymous letter—that they had heard their plans were betrayed. It is possible, of course, that you are right, but candidly I can’t see how it could have happened—I mean how they could have heard of the letter. And there’s one other possibility which might account for their upset, that is the railway receipt. As I read it, that receipt was never meant to fall into Masson’s hands at all. Once he had received it, they must have realized that his curiosity would be roused, sufficiently to take him to Kupi station at any rate. That may well have been the reason for their hurry —to get the cases away before he called to enquire about them.”
The priest nodded slowly, but he appeared dissatisfied.
“It is possible,” he said, “but I ask myself, why this so great importance of that receipt? Already me assume they have forged Mr. Masson’s orders. Why can they not again do so? Why can they not say to the station-master of Kupi, ‘The receipt is not yet received, we will give a bond of indemnity’?”
The policeman nodded.
“That’s true,” he said, “but possibly they were afraid of the plan miscarrying, or anyway causing delay by the station-master being reluctant to give up the cases without the receipt, or something he could identify as Masson’s order. They were flustered, we have already agreed, and their chief idea seems to have been to prevent Masson going to Kupi himself.”
He turned to the constables who during his conversation had been busy carrying out the orders he had given for extricating the car from its bogged condition. The priest followed him and stared with interest at the small morass which at this point lay like a dark brown smudge amongst the dry ground around.
“It is strange why this moisture?” he asked musingly.
“It’s the bed of an old stream, I think,” said Whatman. “You can trace the line right up from the river which lies a mile or two to the west of us here, through the jhil and other jhils and tiny morasses, running right east for several miles.”
“Ah, so there is a river here?”
“Yes—comes down from the hills not far from Tarmaya and runs southward. The line crosses it at Kupi.”
“So—that is interesting,” murmured the priest politely.
Whatman turned to the men once more.
“Has the gun been found?” he demanded in the vernacular.
“Hazur, no. There is as yet no trace discovered of the gun, though all seek it diligently.”
“That is the gun of Mr. Masson?” asked Father Xavier.
“Yes—it hasn’t turned up yet. They seem to have made away with it. Well—we’d better be getting on to Kupi in my car. Care to come, Father? You seem to find those footprints interesting.”
“Yes—they are peculiar, no? But certainly, I would like much to come to Kupi.”
“The chief thing I’m anxious to obtain,” Whatman explained as they rattled and bumped over the crazy road, with two constables in the dicky, “is some further description of our friend Blue-Coat. So far we have absolutely nothing that would identify him except the colour of his coat, and after all—there are a good many blue coats about.”
“It is strange that those two men, Khem Singh and the bearer of Mr. Carstairs, have seen nothing of the men as they returned from Sulama.”
“Yes—I thought of that. But they seem to have seen and heard nothing.”
“There is another thing that is strange—and that is that there was no market at Sulama yesterday.”
Whatman looked at him sharply.
“Now I call that really smart of you, Padre,” he exclaimed. “You mean that it is odd two men should have walked all the way from Dawana to buy their stuff when there was no market? As a matter of a fact I have already had a report in from Sulama that there was an agent of Makra there yesterday, holding one of his ‘courts’. But so far it hadn’t occurred to me to connect Khem Singh and Firoze’s visit with him—as a matter of fact they had slipped from my memory once I had interrogated them. But it is odd as you say. I must question them again, and the people in Sulama too. Maybe, I shall get a description of the agent which may prove illuminating.”
“I think perhaps you do well to go to Kupi first,” remarked the priest dryly, and Whatman laughed.
“You know this country well, Father,” he said. “Yes—I don’t anticipate that any of the flies will give the Spider away. They daren’t. I shall find their memories singularly bad, I expect.”
The station-master anyway proved communicative. He was discovered upon the platform making winning gestures with a green flag to a train which appeared reluctant to leave its siding, and, on Whatman stating his business, invited them into his office.
“All information at my disposal, sir,” he announced magnificently, “is also at yours.”
Whatman thanked him and proceeded to the matter in hand, saying he wished to know the exact time the cases had been called for, and by whom they had been taken away. On both points the station-master was voluble, and it appeared to be beyond dispute that a car answering to the description of Robin’s had arrived at the station the day before, at about ten minutes or a quarter past one. It had had only one occupant—the man who drove it, and who was most certainly wearing a blue coat and grey flannel trousers. He had given the railway receipt to the station-master, saying that he had come from Mr. Masson, and that as he was in a hurry to get back, he’d like the cases loaded on to his car at once. He had left with the cases at about one twenty-five or thirty.
“Can you give any description of him?” asked Whatman.
“I did not, sir, see his face very well. He appeared to have a cold and held his handkerchief to his mouth. But I noticed one scar.”
“A scar?” Whatman was all attention. “What kind of scar?”
The station-master placed one plump brown finger on his own left eyebrow.
“It began here, sir, and extended downwards in the direction of the ear—so. It was in the nature of a sore eye.”
“A what? Oh, an eyesore, I see. And you noticed nothing else about him?”
“He was ordinary, sir—but should I see him I would know him.”
“He spoke in English, no?” asked Father Xavier.
“Yes, in English.”
“Good English?” demanded Whatman.
“Good English, sir—the same as I speak myself.”
“And what had he done with the cultivator one wonders,” murmured Whatman as he turned to go out of the station. “What’s all this?”
“This,” proved to be a group of interested spectators gathered round a shivering coolie, who, clad only in a yard or so of wet longcloth, was holding forth in resounding tones, and with copious gestures to one of the constables. The constable held a gun in his hand.
“What is it?” asked Whatman in the vernacular.
The constable turned and offered the gun for his inspection.
“It has been discovered in the river,” he said.
“Masson’s gun—good,” ejaculated Whatman. “Now, why the deuce did they throw it in the river do you suppose?”
“These also have been recovered from the water. They were wrapped round the gun,” continued the constable unemotionally. He held up two objects at which Whatman stared dumbfounded, for they were a coat and trousers, black with wet, but undoubtedly showing tones of their native blue and grey, where the water had drained from them.
“Hell,” swore Whatman. It seemed that the man bested him every time. Here had he been circulating a description of which the main point was a blue coat and European dress, and all the time the coat had been in the river and the wanted man probably dressed as an aboriginal peasant.
He turned to his companion.
“I don’t know what you feel like,” he said, “but personally I think lunch is indicated. I had my breakfast somewhere about seven o’clock and my temper is beginning to feel the strain. Let’s get back to Dawana.”
The rest of the party had finished their meal by the time they arrived, and the priest and policeman ate the food put before them in a silence which had been almost unbroken since leaving Kupi station.
Once arrived in his office—Father Xavier having departed to his own quarters—Whatman found more work awaiting him. An Inspector saluted him as he entered.
“The missing boxes, sir, of Mr. Masson have been traced,” he said.
“Good. Where—at Calcutta?”
“No sir. At a small station by name of Tania on the line between Ghunda and Calcutta. They had been left there at the date Mr. Masson passed through.”
“Who by—did you find out?”
“We have had only telegraphic communication with Tania, sir. But the report says that they were deposited by an Indian—a middle aged man who would appear to be a prosperous merchant.”
“Great Scott! The plot thickens—it’s done little else so far. Well, I’m glad we’ve traced Masson’s luggage, anyway. Anything else?”
“From Ghunda we are advised that the station-master received a wire signed ‘Masson’ on 27th instant, ordering despatch of cases to Kupi.”
“On the 27th? Where was it sent from?”
“From Khunpur, sir—a village four miles from Tarmaya. It is the nearest telegraph office to that place.”
“That’s interesting. Have you sent to Khunpur for the originals of the telegrams?”
“We have already procured them by car. They are here, sir. The handwriting bears no resemblance to that of Mr. Masson. He has kindly furnished us with specimen for comparison.”
Whatman examined the papers the Inspector put in front of him, without much interest. Obviously the two handwritings bore no resemblance to each other—but then he had not expected them to do so.
“Any description of who handed these in at Khunpur?”
“The description, sir, is not individual. It would fit any respectable servant.”
“Friend Binbo, no doubt. Any news of him, by the way?”
“Not as yet, sir.”
“No—he had a good start and would have passed Ghunda junction before we started looking for him. Well—anything else?”
“There is here one telegram form, sir, you have not examined.”
The Inspector extricated the paper he wanted from amidst the pile lying in front of Whatman, and presented it for reading. Whatman looked at it puzzled. It ran—in the same straggling, uneducated hand which characterized the other forms—”Advise 29th. Ibila.” It was addressed to Pandra Roy, at Gaya.
“Strange name that, isn’t it?” he asked, frowning over the letters. “Ever come across it before?”
“No sir, it is most probably an up-country name.”
“H’m—never heard of it, I confess. Now, I wonder if it is a code word.”
For perhaps five minutes he sat frowning at the crumpled form with its straggling line of letters, and the Inspector made no attempt to interrupt him.
“Pandra Roy——” said Whatman at last. “H’m—yes we’ve heard of him before. Now I wonder—by jove, I believe I’ve got it. Inspector—have you ever come across that pleasant and easy code which consists of writing words backwards?”
“I have heard of it sir, but it is elementary.”
“Yes—well if you will read Ibila backwards you will see it conveys advice which if elementary is at least sound.”
Laboriously the Inspector spelled out the message.
“Advise 29th. A—L—I—Alibi! It spells alibi, sir.
“Exactly. Doubtless he would have preferred to write ‘advise alibi 29th,’ but caution cramped his style. Now, why do you suppose Pandra Roy, in Gaya, should need an alibi for what is done in Dawana on 29th?”
“Perhaps, sir, he is known to be implicated in this matter of the knives.”
“It would seem so, certainly. Well—what of this report from Sulama? Is there any confirmation of the rumour that one of Makra’s agents was there yesterday?”
“Yes, sir, we have confirmation. Moreover, we have detained the man.”
“The agent, sir, who was yesterday collecting dues at Sulama.”
“The deuce you have—why didn’t you say so before? Where did you find him?”
“He came into Dawana, sir, and was seen and identified by Firoze, the bearer of Lieutenant Carstairs, R.E. Shall I bring him to you for interrogation?”
“Yes, in a minute. What is his name and what account does he give of himself?”
“As yet he has refused to give a name, sir. His business he states was perfectly legal and his books are all in order. We have examined them.”
“They would be, of course. Well, bring him to me—no, wait. I’d rather see him after I’ve tried a few experiments in identification, I think. We’ll have to get hold of the station-master from Kupi. Just see to that, will you? And, I’m going over to the veranda of the house. Arrange to pass by with the man beside you. I’d rather like to have a look at him without his knowing who I am.”
“Very good, sir,” replied the Inspector without betraying surprise.
Masson was on the veranda talking to Father Xavier when Whatman went across a few minutes later—indeed, the policeman had seen him there as he went to his office.
“And how is the invalid?” he enquired, coming up and offering his cigarette case.
Masson made a wry face.
“‘Good, but not so good,’ as the babu, I believe, was heard to remark. I’m all right really, but a bit thick in the head. Jean is the same, and though it may seem brutal I find the fact consoling. Had she exhibited symptoms of her usual rude health I should have felt that the advance of anno Domini was responsible for my own inferior state of well being.”
Whatman smiled, but he did not answer. He heard the steps of the Inspector and his companion behind him in the compound, and turned carelessly to look at the man as he walked past. The next moment he was startled by an exclamation from Masson.
“Good Lord—Chandra Roy!”
There was silence whilst the secretary involuntarily halted and looked up at his employer. Whatman mentally patted himself on the back. It had been a long shot of his, but it had succeeded. His conscience pricked him a little when he looked at Masson. The writer’s distress was obvious. He sat rubbing the back of his head with the palm of his hand, and combing the hair upwards with his fingers as he stared incredulously at his secretary.
“Roy—what on earth are you doing here?” he ejaculated at last feebly.
For a moment Chandra Roy did not answer, then he spoke in a deliberate, toneless voice.
“I came here, sir, to bring certain notes for your approval. Finding that I was to be in this part, my relatives commissioned me to perform some business for them. As you were not in Dawana yesterday, I went to Sulama and accomplished their desire.”
Once more Whatman congratulated himself. He had felt sure that if Makra’s agent proved to be none other than Chandra Roy, the man’s defence would open on those lines. He would strive to plead innocent of any possible irregularities in Makra’s business by proving that he had come on Masson’s account, and only been dragged into the other matter by his relatives or friends. Had Whatman cross-examined him, he might have put up a better case, complete with details which Masson, later, hampered by his obvious prejudice in Roy’s favour, might not have contradicted. As it was, Masson’s obvious amazement, and Roy’s own discomfiture, gave Whatman the trick. The silence remained unbroken for perhaps a minute, then Masson turned to the policeman with an air of resolution.
“I don’t pretend to know why my secretary is here, and apparently under detention,” he said, “but before you arrest him—if you haven’t already done so—let me have a word with you.”
Whatman nodded, and signed to the Inspector, who moved on in company with Chandra Roy.
“Well, what is it, Masson?” asked the policeman.
Masson smiled up at him frankly.
“Look here, Whatman,” he said. “You know your own business and it’s not for me to stop you making a fool of yourself. I told you my opinion of Chandra Roy yesterday—the man’s no doubt, a fool, but I don’t believe he’s a knave. I’ll admit I haven’t an idea what he’s doing here—I thought he was in Calcutta slogging away at typing my MSS.—but I still believe he’s innocent of this matter. If there’s anyone to blame it’s probably some relative of his and it’s about that I wanted to see you. I remembered after you had gone last night, one curious fact. That was that chancing to look out at a station we passed through in the train, I saw—I could swear to it—Chandra’s uncle, Pandra Roy, standing on the platform.”
“The deuce, you did,” exclaimed Whatman with suddenly quickened interest. “What station was it?”
“I haven’t an idea. It was some small place we passed through in the still smaller hours.”
“Not Tania, by any chance?”
“It might have been for all I know. I never saw the name.”
“Had Pandra Roy got out of the train?”
“I think so—but I really don’t know. I was not very interested at the time. It was only the fact that I recognized the man that made me notice him at all.”
Whatman pondered the matter for some moments. Pandra Roy on the train which presumably had brought the cases containing the knives; Pandra Roy warned to have an alibi for the 29th. The facts were certainly suggestive taken in conjunction.
“But Pandra Roy, he have not a scar,” remarked Father Xavier, suddenly.
“Possibly not. Neither for the matter of that has Chandra,” agreed Whatman. “We’ll have to see about that scar.”
Later in the day Whatman sat cursing as he stared at a telegram before him. The Kupi station-master had completely failed to identify Chandra Roy with the man in the blue coat. It was not merely the scar—there was, he maintained, no resemblance between the two men. Further, investigations seemed to put it beyond doubt that Chandra Roy had been at Sulama from eleven in the morning until after two o’clock in the afternoon. The matter, therefore, hinged on Pandra Roy, and the telegram in his hand informed him that Pandra Roy had been arrested on the morning of 28th, in Gaya, and was still in jail.
There was also a warrant out for the arrest of Chandra Roy for complicity in the theft perpetrated by his uncle and his presence was required in Gaya.
“Shall I arrest him, sir?” demanded the Inspector imperturbably.
“Oh, Lord, yes, arrest him,” exclaimed Whatman irritably. “Send him to hell.”
“Very good, sir,” replied the Inspector.
Whatman crumpled the telegram in his hand and tossed it on to the table. Alibis are notoriously tricky things, but if ever there was an unshakable one it would appear to be Pandra Roy’s.
Catharine Vereker nestled comfortably into her fur coat as the car sped on its way up the long straight avenue of trees, which, with its mosaic of sun and shadow on the ground, its evenly spaced columns of trunks and its turquoise and jade roof of interlaced boughs, looked like the vast aisle of some cosmic cathedral. Ahead, just where the altar should have stood, loomed the mass of the Himalayas—ivory, crystal and pearl, crowning the dark lapis lazuli of the lower slopes. Catharine revelled in the keen air, the warm sun, the vivid colours, the quaint yet human interest of the passers by. This was the India she loved. Resolutely she turned her mind away from the incident of the knives and all connected with it. Somehow, though she could not have told why, the memory brought with it a chill sense of foreboding— she needed to reassure herself that it was all over, that it had been but one isolated episode, one point of contact between themselves and the Spider’s web—it would not touch them again. It had been a relief when the Staffords had wired that Jean was to return to Calcutta, and not accompany them to Jamala. Much as she liked the girl, Catharine shrank from the responsibility of chaperoning her in a country where bombs, knives and chloroform pads had become at least possibilities, though, she sincerely hoped, not probabilities, of camping adventure.
She had breathed a sigh of relief when at last Elizabeth, bearing her accustomed burden of two camp beds; two deck-chairs; two suitcases; a box of crockery; a tin box of office files; a gun; a rifle; a box of cartridges; fishing-tackle; books; maps; two large rolls of bedding; two smaller rolls of servants’ bedding; two servants; a sack full of servants’ cooking pots, and finally, their two selves, wedged in the front amongst a welter of cameras, sandwich tins, thermos flasks, and baskets of fruit, drew away from the bungalow at Dawana, and set out upon her way. Masson and Peters, together with Jean and Robin, had departed by the early morning train for Calcutta, the last mentioned bearing the prospect of a visit to his dentist for necessary repairs with stoical fortitude, since it afforded him the chance of a journey to Calcutta in Jean’s company. It had been agreed that Masson and Peters should both rejoin the party at Jamala, driving there in their own cars, in a day or so, whilst Robin, travelling by train, expected to reach the camp before the Verekers themselves. His car was being driven up from Dawana by the D’Silvas, with Father Xavier occupying the dicky seat.
For a while all had gone well, then following upon some vague mysterious noises, came a hot smell which had aroused the Map-Maker to dire forebodings. Descending to discover the cause of the trouble, he found, in the language of cliché, that his worst fears were confirmed. Elizabeth was red hot—so red hot that she could not be prevailed upon to swallow any water without spouting it out high into the air. When at last the radiator was full once more, they discovered that, by an unhappy coincidence, the carburettor, cylinders, and a few other parts were also full—of water.
The events of the following hours were blurred in Catharine’s mind, though she remembered with gratitude the name of one Narain Singh. He had already procured them water, and on their full plight being made clear to him, at once took charge of the situation. His figure, clad in a brown (lady’s) jersey, and surmounted by a Balaclava helmet worn after an original fashion, seemed to command respect wherever it went. With one wave of his hand he summoned a bullock cart, with the other conjured a rope, seemingly from the air. They had been towed joyously for two miles at the speed of three miles per hour, then at another village had crossed the route of a lorry service. True, the lorries at that time of day were proceeding in the wrong direction, but the villagers had not allowed such trifles to stand in their way. They once more took command of the situation, and in an incredibly short space of time a lorry had been stopped, emptied of its passengers and turned back the way it had come. Again Elizabeth was towed, eleven miles this time, at a slightly faster pace, but through dust which would have made a burial in the Sahara seem by comparison a refreshing experience. Arrived at a town of sufficient size to possess a motor works they had spent a hot and happy day sitting on a packing case in a yard conveniently situated in the middle of the bazaar, whilst the entire population assembled to watch Elizabeth doctored. There seemed no prospect of getting any food, but they had the sandwiches and the wherewithal for making tea, and Khem Singh discovered a well and a bucket, likewise three stones (pulled out of a wall), a few scraps of stick and straw, and in ten minutes the kettle was boiling.
They ate their lunch still sitting on the packing case, to the acute admiration of all the assembled multitude, and in the course of the meal, the D’Silvas and Father Xavier, having had news of their plight, arrived with eager offers of assistance. Since, however, even if there had been room for the whole party in Robin’s car, the Verekers could not have deserted Elizabeth, there was little that could be done, except to lighten her burden by transferring one of the suitcases and some minor items to the two-seater. Catharine smiled as she recalled her last vision of Father Xavier, struggling manfully to hold a deck-chair in place whilst the car and its party of would-be rescuers bumped crazily over the road and away into the distance.
The Verekers themselves got away just before sunset and covered another thirty miles, landing for the night at a tiny deserted bungalow, which except for bats and beetles seemed to have remained uninhabited since the days it was built. There was no proper bazaar in the place and all Khem Singh’s determined foraging failed to produce anything more sustaining than a handful of potatoes, but Catharine as she boiled, peeled and dished them up in a cake tin, eked out with biscuits, felt her spirits rising. This was the India she loved and had known so well for many years. Once more she assured herself that the events of the past week had been abnormal—just a strange experience, such as may come once in a life time. Now, with the Himalayas looming massive and majestic above them, the snow-cold air from the white crests bringing the blood to her cheeks, she felt the last shadow of depression lift from her.
“How much further?” she asked her husband.
He nodded vaguely ahead.
“Only a mile or so, I think,” he answered. “Nice here, isn’t it?”
Catharine too nodded without replying in words. It was the first time either of them had been in these parts—the wild but lovely regions that lie round the borders of Bhutan—yet already she felt that she knew and loved them—loved not only the blue and crystal hills (which were old friends) and the dense jungles lying like a great green sea to the south of them, but loved too this quaint tract of open country which lay between the two, with its white, level, dusty roads, its acres of tea gardens whose prim trimness seemed only to accentuate the wildness around, its many rivers (they had crossed five on crazy ferry-boats, shared with sheep goats and pigs, and punted by wholly inadequate-looking poles), and its motley troop of wayfarers. She gazed inquisitively at a group of Bhutanese who passed, dressed in duffle grey, with great heavy boots and felt hats, the women with their hair cropped like men, and no apparent difference in their clothing.
“Looks as though the sex problem must be always a burning question in Bhutan,” commented the Map-Maker.
“Anyway, they look cheerful,” Catharine answered.
She felt no fear of these wild people, nor of the lonely places they lived in—rather it was civilization which at the moment seemed to her full of sinister possibilities.
They found their camp on an island in the middle of a river, and approachable only by a bridge which had been built seemingly to allow cattle grazing on the island grass.
“Hope it bears us,” said the Map-Maker, as he sent Elizabeth gingerly across it.
“It’s a perfect camping place,” exclaimed Catharine.
She felt, indeed, a sense not only of home-coming, but of security as she got out of the car and saw the familiar faces of their own servants and khalasis about them. It seemed as though those channels of clear, swift-running water, narrow but deep, on every side of them, were enclosing them in a magic circle—keeping them safe from harm.
“How’s Calcutta? And when did you get here?” she asked of Robin about half an hour later, when having washed, had tea, read her English letters, which had been awaiting them, and interviewed the servants, she came out of the tent to enjoy a cigarette and a stroll beside the water. The Map-Maker was already at work painting the hills as they showed in the sunset light—amethyst and silver-grey across a field of ripening corn.
“Last night, to answer the last question first,” Robin replied. “And as to the other one—well much as usual. There’s some excitement over the police having found the bomb and knife factories—at least some of them. Apparently it was a pretty big thing—the plot to distribute them, I mean, Planned on a big scale.”
“Don’t please talk of sordid things in an environment like this,” begged Catharine. “It’s a sort of sacrilege. Tell me—have the D’Silvas arrived?”
“Yes—that’s their bungalow over there—” he pointed out a tiny white dot, lying close under the hills, about a mile to the north of the camp. “They brought your suitcase.”
“Good, then I’ll unpack,” said Catharine. “I shall have to call in D’Silva to-morrow. It seems there are a lot of men down with fever.”
The party of three dined early, and afterwards, the talk becoming alarmingly technical, Catharine slipped away to her tent. She had no book to read, but the manuscript on which Masson had asked her opinion was in her suitcase, and, having undressed, she settled down to read it, the lamp conveniently close to her head, a stove at a comfortable distance from her feet, the bright, gaudy colours of the tent and the carpet—yellow diapered with brown overhead, blue striped with red underfoot— wrapping her round in homely comfort, whilst the blue, star-dusted sky framed by the open flaps of the tent, told of loneliness and mystery.
At first she read critically, conscious of her responsibility but gradually the book gripped her. She was back in the India of long ago, a different India, both of time and of place, remote from this wild but lovely country in which she found herself, back deep in the intrigue and mystery of Akbar’s court. So vivid was the writing that she felt, not only could she see the outward scene, with the coloured evening light drawing a deeper tone from the red sand-stone walls of the new City of Victory, till it glowed like a vast overblown rose upon the jewelled carpet of the plain; the glinting jewels of the slave girls, Akbar’s living chessmen as they stood waiting to take their part in the game; the Emperor himself reclining where the shade of the huge pipul tree made a grey lacework of shadow on the paved courtyard; the gathering of courtiers and guests—bearded Muslims with huge billowy trousers, embroidered coats and imposing turbans, clean-shaven Hindus in flowing muslin draperies, Portuguese merchants in outworn European fashions, solemn faced Jesuits in black gowns; could see not only all this, but gifted with an inner vision, could look into the minds of each member of that motley assembly. The atmosphere was heavy with intrigue, for there was to be a debate on religious matters that evening—one of those strange intellectual combats in which the Emperor delighted—and each faction of the crowd reacted mentally to the event according to its own position and creed. In the minds of the Muslims there was anger and orthodox indignation, coupled with fear of what might occur, of where this mad whim of their master’s might end; in the minds of the Hindus there was craftiness, avidity, and hope of gain, whilst the Jesuits fixed their whole minds on the hair-splitting subtleties of the argument ahead of them.
Of a sudden there was a movement in the throng—a new figure had entered the scene, and as it moved forward there was an involuntary drawing aside, an unconscious gesture of fear on the part of all present. Yet the old man in his shabby black cloak must have looked harmless enough as he crossed the courtyard. It was Matthew, the Jew, the Jesuits’ opponent in the day’s battle, and the man who had dared to keep the whole court waiting.
The details of the debate which followed rather bored Catharine. They seemed to be only an interchange of Biblical texts, prophecies—chiefly relating to the Messianic Kingdom—and familiar quotations bandied to and fro. Vaguely she gathered that the point at issue was the difference between a millennium and a spiritual kingdom, but the matter did not interest her and she was glad when the scene shifted to the Jew’s own home. An odd story developed, centring round Matthew, a complex character, who, so far as she could see, was not only credited with, but actually seemed possessed of some strange occult powers. He himself ascribed these (a great part of the story was apparently culled from the pages of a diary he had kept) to a treasure to which he alluded under the name of “the King’s treasure” whose whereabouts had been revealed to him alone. To Catharine it read like a fairy tale and she could not have said how much of it was meant to be sober historical fact, yet the details of the story which followed were circumstantial and told convincingly. There was, it seemed, a young Hindu girl, affianced to a Portuguese merchant, on whom Matthew’s regard had rested with favour, for she had “a skin golden as honey, gathered in the warm months before the rains.” By means of his strange powers, she is lured from her family and becomes an inmate of his house, a mud hut, little more, on the outskirts of the city. There is consternation among her people, and a plot of vengeance is instigated by her brother in conjunction with her Portuguese lover, who apparently is still willing to marry her.
The story concerned itself for many pages with the scene in that mud hovel where the Jew, fully aware of his enemies’ plottings, sits writing, night after night in the hot darkness, illumined only by the flickering light of an oil lamp. It is of his treasure, and of his secretly gained, patiently acquired power, that he writes, writes in cypher, committing the mystery to paper for the benefit of his heirs. Theirs shall be both the treasure and power which it brings. The girl lies watching him broodingly, and her eyes loom out of the blue shadows like the Twin stars at dawn when the eastern sky turns red. In a dramatic moment, his enemies break in upon him, the fat, pompous little brother, dressed in a tight blue satin coat, the long-legged, sober-garbed Portuguese cloaked in brown. They are armed and swearing vengeance, but in the very moment of victory they stand still, arrested by the Jew’s mysterious powers. He has thrown a paper with writing on it, between himself and them, and at sight of it, their strength leaves them. Matthew himself, standing secure in the shadows by the girl’s side, taunts them unmercifully. There are winged creatures of all kinds buzzing round the flickering orange flame of the lamp, and to two of these, a blue-bottle, and a daddy-long-legs, does he compare the fat, fussy little brother and the blundering, long-limbed Portuguese, breaking into shrill cackling laughs at their impotence and their futile struggles. Then as slowly they creep away, defeated, he draws himself up in triumph, and, pointing to the star-dusted sky outside, breaks forth into what is evidently his canticle of victory, though for herself Catharine could make little sense of it:
Jehovah is he who sitteth in the centre; and his ends reach even unto the stars;
Like wings about the brightness of flame are they about the dark one.
Yet are they snared in his hair.
Yea, they are snared in the meshes of silk and of silver;
For his hair is exceedingly fine and it netteth the stars.
And behold I am he who sitteth alone in the centre,
And the children of men are become to me as the stars of Jehovah.
For so has the Lord appointed.
Thy thread shall be thread of silver, yea, of fine silver,
Yet shall it be as a chain of gold.
We have laughed, yea the sides of Jehovah have shaken
Because of their folly and pride.
For they said: not with gold nor with pearls shall he pay us;
We will cast them beneath, they are crushed by the weight of our groanings.
And behold on gold and on silver he cometh,
On gold that is soft to his feet as the bosom of woman.
Twin children, a boy and a girl, are born to Matthew, and the Hindu girl dies at their birth. In one of the last scenes of the manuscript there was an account of him dispatching the boy to Europe, in the charge of some English traders who had visited the court. The cypher manuscript, containing the revelation concerning his secret treasure and powers, was sent with the child and there were complicated instructions to the old man’s co-religionists, to whose care the child was committed, as to the manner in which this knowledge was to be imparted to him as he grew older. Concerning the girl, little was said, though she would appear to have been consigned to the care of the Blue-Bottle brother, and subsequently adopted by the Portuguese, growing up, so the account seemed to suggest, to marry into the family of her adopted father.
A strange story—or rather, perhaps, strange only in the manner of its telling. The elements of it—romance, seduction, revenge, magic—could be met with in any ancient legend or fairy tale, but to find them embedded in a semi-historical book, and told with a vividness and art which could make even their fantasies seem real, was certainly unusual.
Catharine realized that on the one point on which her opinion had been asked, she had no criticism to make—the atmosphere of the book was perfect. But it was the story itself which roused, not perhaps her criticism, but at least her curiosity.
There was a cryptic row of letters and figures, purporting to be the key to the old Jew’s cypher, and she spent some time striving to make sense out of them. But since she had not the cypher manuscript itself, she reflected, there was not much chance of testing her theories. She fell asleep to dream of Fatephur Sikri, Akbar’s city of Victory lying like a fallen rose upon the plain.
The Verekers were early astir the next morning, for the Map-Maker wanted to paint the hills in the dawn-light, cold blue, against a sky still grey with mist, and seen across wide fields of yellow mustard. Catharine left him at work and set off for a walk along the road leading northward. Her objective was the D’Silvas’ bungalow, but as it chanced she met D’Silva himself not far from the camp. He was on horseback and looked surprisingly well—he had a splendid seat she noted, though perhaps more like that of an Indian than a white man.
“Were you coming to see us?” she asked when they had greeted one another.
“No,” he answered. “I did not know you had arrived. This is my land here. I was riding round my property.”
“Your own land? I congratulate you,” exclaimed Catharine. “I don’t know when I have seen a more lovely spot.”
“Oh, it is not like England,” he said, making a slight grimace of contempt. His accent seemed more noticeable after not having heard it for several days.
“Why should it be? It is India,” protested Catharine, yielding to the temptation she had experienced on a former occasion. But he shook his head.
“Oh no. If you want to see Indian scenery you should go on the west coast. Oh, that is fine, with the palm trees and pepper gardens, and the luxuriance of the vegetation.”
“I’ve been there once,” Catharine answered, “but I prefer this, I think. The west coast is too—too exotic. Do you know it well?”
“I have been there as a child only,” he answered, evasively she thought. “My family owned property there once. Big property—oh, not like this.”
How much of what followed was true she could not have said, but he gave a highly coloured account of his family’s past grandeur, their vast tracts of land with palm groves and spice plantations, their wealth and their European (he pronounced it U-rope-ean) trade. Catharine found herself watching him interestedly whilst he talked. There was an element of suppressed excitement in his manner, she thought.
“Are you kept busy here?” she asked. “There doesn’t seem to be a tea garden very near.”
“Oh no—the nearest is five miles away—over yonder at the mouth of the gorge,” he answered. “It is not convenient to be so far away, but as this is my property the arrangement is tolerated.”
Catharine told him of the men who were down with fever and he promised to send his assistant, Babu Shiv Lal. He himself had to ride over to a village some seven miles off, where there was a report of small-pox.
“I have a car, but for myself I prefer horse back,” he explained as he turned his steed northward. Catharine stood watching him as he rode away, then deciding that there was not time to pay a call on Vera, she returned to the camp and to breakfast.
D’Silva was as good as his word and the assistant arrived about twelve o’clock, a stout and stocky little Madrasi, with smooth and chubby brown cheeks bulging beneath a small, neat turban. His nether limbs were enveloped in flowing muslin, draped so as to display his sock-suspenders to full advantage, and the remainder of him in an alpaca coat melted to the curves of his figure and clasped in front by one staunch button.
“Madame, you have malaria in the compound. I am here,” he announced grandiloquently as he descended from his bicycle.
Catharine took him round the camp, realizing in the course of the tour that whatever his outward idiosyncrasies might be, he knew his work well enough. She surmised that there might be many times when he had to deputise for D’Silva.
“It would be well if I examined the camp, madame,” he said when he had finished with the men. “I can advise you on medical matters. There must be no stagnant water, no rank growth, etc., etc.”
Catharine repressed an inclination to retort that this was not her first season under canvas. There was something attractive and vaguely pathetic about the comical little man, like an over-stout, self-important robin, and she meekly took him on a round of inspection, listening respectfully to his remarks on the subject of bashas (straw huts) two of which were being erected to accommodate Masson and Peters.
“Do not be uneasy, madame,” he assured her as he prepared to depart. “The servants will be soon well and the inconvenience of their absence obviated.”
Catharine replied rather testily that the inconvenience was not troubling her. They were for the most part old and trusted servants and she was concerned at their illness.
“Oh, that is so,” he replied. “The ties of service, of antiquity, of tradition—these things are esteemed in India.”
One of his sock-suspenders broke as he cycled heavily away, and he descended pantingly to remedy the evil.
Vera D’Silva arrived shortly after the little babu’s departure with an invitation for the entire party to dine with them that night.
“Mr. Masson and Mr. Peters will be here in time, I suppose?” she asked when Catharine, not without inward qualms, had accepted the suggestion.
“We expect them this afternoon,” Catharine answered, and in her turn invited the girl to share her solitary lunch. The Map-Maker and Robin would not be back until sunset.
Watching Vera later as she went away, it seemed to the older woman as though she had suddenly understood the reason for her queer social angularity. All through lunch the girl had been gauche and ungracious, relasping into silences hard to break through. Yet as she caught sight of the slim figure silhouetted against a background of hills and open plains, Catharine seemed to see the meaning of it all. The girl was repressed, pent up, thrown inward on herself and coming to lean more and more heavily as time passed on a rather hard independence. For a moment Catharine wished she could see her thawed, softened, expanding, but then as she looked at the tiny white bungalow, seeming in its remote loneliness no more than a pebble on the plain, she wondered if after all it were not better for Vera to be as she was. . . .
Catharine spent her afternoon fishing—wading up to her waist in the cold water of the streams surrounding the camp, for the banks proved too steep to stand upon. Fishing was not a favourite pastime of hers, but she loved the splash and gurgle of the water, the play of silver light and shadow, and the sense of mystery inseparable from the moist depths. The rivers of those parts were, as she had already noted, wonderful—snow-fed and very swift running; not “crystal clear” as the poets might have it, but something that could only be described as pure and utterly colourless. From a little distance they were tinted faintly by the sky, but standing above them all hue vanished, and it was impossible to express the fascination of gazing down into the depths and watching that great weight of water passing so swiftly, and yet, except for an occasional chuckling gurgle, so silently.
She had only just emerged from her tent, warmed and invigorated from a hot bath and a change of garments, when she saw the Map-Maker and Robin returning unexpectedly early from work, and a moment later the hum of a car along the road announced Masson’s arrival. Peters, it appeared, had fallen behind owing to a puncture and could not be expected for some time.
Tea was a cheerful meal and even the news of the pending dinner at the D’Silvas did not cause the consternation Catharine had half feared that it might.
“Hope he’s all right, anyway,” grunted the Map-Maker, but neither of the others made any comment.
Masson looked across at Catharine smilingly.
“Well, have you discovered the treasure yet, Mrs. Vereker?” he asked.
She shook her head.
“I read the manuscript last night, and I was thrilled to the core,” she answered. “But I confess the treasure is beyond me.”
“What treasure?” asked Robin, and getting a nod of permission from Masson, Catharine recounted the tale of old Matthew as she had read it the night before.
“But I thought it was a historic book?” objected the Map-Maker when she had finished.
Masson shrugged his shoulders.
“Semi-historic if there can be such a thing, might be a better description, perhaps,” he said. “But old Matthew is a real person. He existed, and his story is authenticated from several sources I have investigated.’
Masson smiled at the obvious incredulity of the tone.
“Yes, really,” he repeated. “The manuscripts I was given—lent rather—are in themselves a strong proof of his existence. They were given me by a woman. I think, perhaps, I ought not to give her name—” he hesitated, and it seemed to Catharine that there was a faint embarrassment in his manner. “She told me they had been in her husband’s family for over nine generations. Of course, I had to supply a good deal for myself in building up the story. The documents themselves were fragmentary.”
“What did they consist of?”
“A brief account of the story of the old Jew written by one who claimed to be his grandson; a few fragments purporting to be translations of his diary, and—the cypher manuscript.”
“The cypher manuscript? Have you solved it?” exclaimed Catharine excitedly. “I tried to understand the key last night, but naturally, I could not test my theories.”
“I doubt if it is possible, in fact I am sure it is impossible to solve the cypher with that key as it stands,” Masson said. “It is obviously incomplete.”
“Have you the cypher with you?” demanded Robin.
“A copy only. I did not dare to bring the original— as I told you the documents were lent me and they are valued family possessions.”
Catharine shook her head at him.
“Then you obviously do try to solve the puzzle,” she exclaimed. “Otherwise, why bring a copy with you?”
“You forget I am using it for my book, and the book is not quite finished yet,” he protested, then admitted with a laugh, “Well wouldn’t you find it more exciting than cross-words, Mrs. Vereker?”
“I don’t know,” said Catharine musingly. “Buried treasure in these days of stock exchange flutters, has lost a good deal of its thrill. It would be difficult to find one large enough to be really worth it.”
“Women are so mercenary,” complained the Map-Maker gloomily.
“Well, you’d have all the difficulty of proving who owned it,” explained Catharine. “It would be too irritating to find it then have to give it up.”
“But what I don’t understand,” said Robin, “is this. Old Matthew may be O.K., I don’t say he isn’t. But that part about his magic powers is all a fairy tale. It must be.”
“Why?” asked Philip Masson.
“Well, I mean to say—you know “
Robin’s vocabulary had a way of failing him when confronted with an unexpected question.
“I think there is often an underlying truth in fairy tales,” he said. “After all, anyone who discovered genuine scientific facts ahead of his time, would have been credited with occult powers.”
“You mean you think the old man had discovered electricity or something like that?” suggested the Map-Maker.
Masson shook his head.
“I don’t know—it would be impossible to say,” he answered. “But it would be a more exciting form of treasure don’t you think, Mrs. Vereker?”
Catharine shook her head obstinately.
“Not really,” she said. “We are too blasé these days. Even the elixir of life pales in the light of monkey glands. It must be hard luck on the writers of sensational novels and mystery stories. There’s really nothing left for them but that last resort of the shocker—a super engine of war destined to bring victory to a particular nation.’
“I don’t see how that would fit these facts,” objected Robin, and Masson laughed as he got up from the table.
“Let’s hope it doesn’t prove too deadly, if we find it,” he said.
Peters had not arrived by eight o’clock when the party left for the D’Silvas. They were late in starting, for Catharine had been scurrying up to the last moment to get her English mail letters off by the chuprassi who was going to the rail head with the dâk that night. The doctor babu had arrived at the camp about six o’clock armed with quinine, and had kept her over half an hour listening to instructions on points which she knew quite as well as he did. Afterwards she remembered the drive along the road to the bungalow, with the blinding white glare of the head lamps pitilessly illuminating the utter loneliness around them.
The dinner went off better than she had dared to expect. D’Silva was quiet and restrained, though still with that odd impression of suppressed excitement in his manner, but Vera, seated between Masson and the Map-Maker at the foot of the table, proved an unexpectedly good hostess. It was the first time Catharine had seen her animated, and she found herself involuntarily admiring the cameo-like perfection of the girl’s face and colouring, seen as it was against a background of dark hangings and shaded lamps. The good taste of the house decorations had been another surprise.
They were at the joint stage when a servant entered and handed a note to Vera on a tray. She read it, her brow furrowing as though with irritation.
“Mahommad Ali’s wife is worse,” she said, looking across at her husband. “I suppose I shall have to go?”
He frowned for a moment in indecision.
“It is a pity,” he said, “but I suppose it is necessary. Take the car. It is useless my going,” he added in explanation to the others. “They are Mahommedans and they will not let me see the woman. Vera has to deputise for me. But anyhow, it is a case for a nurse rather than a doctor—nothing serious.”
“How far is it?” asked Catharine as Vera left the room.
“Oh, five miles only,” he answered with the contempt for distance known only to those who live in the wilds.
The conversation flagged for a while after the departure of the hostess, but the unexpected arrival of Peters shortly after did much to restore animation to the party. He had reached the camp about ten minutes after they had left it, so far as he could gather, and after a hot bath and a change had come on as fast as his car could bring him.
“Puncture mended?” enquired Masson.
“Four of them,” replied the American laconically.
“I guess I struck unlucky this trip.”
“And the business—it marches?” asked Father Xavier suddenly. Up till then he had sat somewhat silent.
Masson looked across at the priest sharply as though he wondered what the question meant, but the American did not seem to sense any hidden meaning in the words.
“Sure,” he answered. “A bit slow on the jute market, but minerals are booming.”
There was a short silence broken by Masson.
“I’ve heard it rumoured,” he said, “that the firm trading under the name of The Property and Estate Development Co. has American capital behind it. Know anything about it?”
“Quite a lot,” said Peters crisply. “That’s my firm.’
Catharine decided that she would leave the men to a talk which seemed likely to develop on boring lines, and she retired to the drawing-room, where on D’Silva’s suggestion she passed the time by playing Vera’s piano—he had pronounced the instrument as though it were a well known shipping line.
The party did not leave till late, for it was past eleven when Vera returned looking tired and depressed. Catharine turned her head as the car—Peters was driving her home—swung through the gate on to the road. Vera was standing on the veranda steps watching them depart and the tragic loneliness of the figure made the older woman wince.
“She is a beautiful girl,” she exclaimed impulsively, “but, oh, what a ghastly lonely life!”
The American did not answer for a moment, but turned his head and glanced back at the figure silhouetted against the light.
“I’d like——” he began, then broke off abruptly, seemingly in order to give his mind to the safe negotiation of a rut in the road. “I’d like to have her see my home,” he added some moments afterwards.
The family lingered in the large tent which served them as both dining and living-room when they arrived at the camp, and it was close on twelve when Masson walked over to his basha. As he entered the hut he stopped abruptly.
“Hallo, what on earth——” he exclaimed involuntarily, and at the same instant there came an exclamation from Peters’ hut next door.
“Say, what the hell——”
“What’s the matter?” called Vereker’s voice from the living tent.
“Someone trying to be funny——” answered the American.
“Somebody’s been in my hut,” said Masson. “The things are all strewn about.”
“Same here,” replied Peters.
He emerged from his hut as he spoke, and joined the Verekers and Robin as they hurried to Masson s basha. The suitcase was broken open and the contents were all strewn in confusion over the floor.
“Who on earth can have been here?” exclaimed Catharine.
“Say—what’s that?” demanded the American suddenly. “On the suitcase lid? Someone’s chalked the duplicate on my shaving mirror.”
They all looked in silence at the strange straggling white marks at which he pointed, and Catharine felt a sick wave of premonition sweep over her. It was Masson who answered Peters’ question, and it seemed as though he strove to make his voice deliberately casual.
“I think it must be meant to be a spider,” he said.
“Women,” remarked the Map-Maker didactically, “like these things, even in camp.”
“Especially in camp,” corrected Catharine, “when we have enamel plates.”
It was breakfast time, the following morning, and the conversation round the table up to this point might have led any casual listener to suppose that the four male members of the party were no other than Sherlock Holmes, Thorndyke, Hanaud and Poirot. All eyes were turned on Vereker as he held up the object—a d’oyley taken from under a bunch of bananas—which had provoked his comment.
He laid it before him on the table, removing his plate to one side.
“I will forbear,” he remarked, “from moralizing on the strange concatenation of events which has rendered even this humble piece of damask useful. But you will all observe that it is roughly oval in shape and therefore resembles our present island abode. A few minor irregularities which could be produced by a knife might enhance the resemblance——”
“Please——” protested Catharine.
“Very well,” conceded her husband as he laid aside the implement in question, and took a piece of banana skin from his plate instead. “Give me that bit of toast—no one seems to want it.”
He laid the banana skin at right angles to, and a few inches from, one end of the oval mat, joined to two by a crust of bread, then breaking the toast into small pieces proceeded to dot them at intervals round the d’oyley.
“It takes a Survey officer to do these things really well,” he remarked regarding the result complacently, then, taking a pencil from his pocket marked the exhibits alphabetically, despite his wife’s frown.
“It will wash off,” he said. “And thereby destroy a work of art, but women have no soul for such things. Now, I will expound. This banana skin, marked A, represents the road, running north and south, and passing our camp on the east side. B, is the bridge; C and D, the twin bashas of Masson and Peters where the theft occurred; E, is the tent we are in at the moment, in front of which a large bonfire was burning—I’ve marked it with a tiny crumb but it isn’t worth a letter; F, is our bedroom tent; G, Robin’s tent; H, is Firoze’s basha, in which, last night, besides himself, Masson’s servant—who appears to have been down with fever— slept; I, is the elephant stables where three mahouts and three elephants were tethered—I mean the elephants were tethered, I don’t know about the mahouts; J, is the kitchen basha; the row of crumbs, marked K, represents the servants’ tents and bashas, six in all; L, is my office tent and M, Robin’s ditto. Is that quite clear?”
“Quite,” they all assured him.
“Now, lady and gentlemen, the facts governing the situation appear to be as follow: our search in the dark last night revealed nothing—that I believe is the correct classical expression?”
“The expression’s O.K.,” admitted Peters, “but the fact isn’t. Our search revealed that papers had been taken from both huts, though no money or valuables had been touched.”
“Exactly,” agreed Vereker. “A significant point that, Watson—very significant. No money or valuables were touched! But to continue, a rapid glance at a diary or almanack will assure you, should your own memories not be sufficient, that there was a bright moon last night. Add to that the facts that the stream on the north of the island would be illuminated by the bonfire; and those on the north-west, west, south-west, south and south-east by the fires of Firoze’s tent, the elephant mahouts’, the kitchen and the other servants’ (for all of them were getting ready to cook their food when we left the camp), and add further the reasoning that anyone seen wading up to his neck in a snow-fed river on a cold night would be instantly suspected either of lunacy or burglarious intent, whilst a man crossing the bridge could easily, if detected, pretend merely to have mistaken his road, and the probability emerges that our burglar entered the camp by the bridge B. Is that sound?”
“I’ll say it’s sound,” said Peters.
“Sound, but perhaps not conclusive,” demurred Masson. “He might have taken the risk.”
“The currents are fearfully strong,” said Catharine. “I nearly lost my footing twice yesterday, and I wasn’t anywhere near the middle of the stream. As for the cold——” She shivered.
“I think it almost certain he came by the bridge,” said Robin, giving the final vote, and the Map-Maker resumed his discourse.
“There’s the question of time to be considered, he said, dropping the Holmes’ manner and resuming his own. “We left here at eight, and got back only a little before twelve, midnight. That means nearly four hours to be investigated. Well, as I said, when we left most of the servants were in their own quarters preparing to cook their food—at least that is what emerges from questioning them. Khem Singh was in tent F, putting things straight after we had left it; Firoze was in Robin’s tent G, and Masson’s servant was apparently sitting outside basha H, cursing the day he was born.”
“Just a minute,” interrupted Catharine. “Isn’t it a bit odd that he should claim to be ill just on the very evening that his master’s tent was robbed? Mightn’t it be an effort to establish an alibi? Was he all right on your journey here?” she added, turning to Masson.
“For heaven’s sake don’t tell me I’ve picked another dud, Mrs. Vereker,” he exclaimed, and she smiled at him sympathetically. She had already divined that Roy’s arrest and the disappearance of his former bearer had hit him hard. He felt he could trust no one.
“It certainly seems far fetched,” she said, “but—well was he all right or not on the journey?”
“He seemed so, but then I’m told most of these natives have malaria in their systems, and cold, or any unusual fatigue, is apt to bring it on. It was quite cold on the run up.”
“That’s true,” she admitted. “What do you know of the man?”
“Jean’s father found him for me and he had unimpeachable chits,” he replied. “He’s a Mahommedan— I thought I’d had enough of Hindus.”
“And in any case,” Robin pointed out, “his account of himself is corroborated by Firoze who seems to have spent most of his time attending to him.”
“Yes, of course, I’d forgotten that,” said Catharine.
“Well, carry on, Kit.”
“Masson’s basha was therefore empty,” continued Vereker, “and so also, naturally, was Peters’. Khem Singh was inside tent F, Firoze inside tent G, Masson’s bearer round the corner facing west and feeling ill, the remainder of the servants busy with their cooking. There was, of course, the man on guard outside the guard tent, which, by the way, is the most easterly of the row marked K, but one has to remember that he is told oft to guard the tent itself, not to watch the bridge or any other points. It does seem, therefore, as though there was a short period, from our departure until the arrival of Peters, when it would have been possible for the thief to cross the bridge unseen. Isn’t that so?”
They agreed that it was.
“I gather you must have arrived about ten minutes after we left?” the Map-Maker continued, turning to the American.
“That’s so,” he agreed. “At least Khem Singh told me that was about the time that had passed since you started. I walked over to this tent to see if there were any letters or papers put here for me, and my bearer, assisted by Khem Singh, got my gear out of the car and prepared my bath. When I’d had it and changed, I started right away for the D’Silvas.”
“All of which, judging from the time you arrived there, must have taken you about twenty minutes?”
“That would be about it, yes.”
“After you had gone, according to Khem Singh, he helped your bearer make up your bed and unpack, then the two of them went over to the servants’ quarters to cook and eat their own food, but before going Khem Singh called one of the khalasis and set him to guard the front of the camp, as he realized that it could not be seen from the guard tent. From that moment until our arrival then, there was a guard in front of our tent as well as in the rear. Isar-u-din may of course be lying when he swears he spent his time walking up and down, and that he did not go to sleep, but his story is corroborated by the khalasis who came to build up the bonfire from time to time, also there is no black mark in Isar-u-din’s record.”
“But if he was walking up and down,” objected Masson, “someone might have got across the bridge when his back was turned.”
“Yes, that is just a possibility. But we’ve got to remember that it is a question not only of getting in but of getting out again as well, and it seems to me that it would be extraordinarily difficult for a man to cross the bridge twice without being seen by either Isar-u-din or the man at the guard tent. One of them alone he might dodge, anyway once, but to dodge them both twice seems unlikely to say the least of it.”
“It comes to this then,” said Peters, “that the most likely time for the thief to have got in, is in the ten minutes before I came, and that he must have watched his opportunity to dodge the chap in front, and risked being seen from the guard tent when he went out again?”
The Map-Maker nodded.
“That seems to be as near as we can get,” he said, “but it’s not very convincing.”
“It isn’t,” said Catharine, “and there’s the further difficulty that if he got in within ten minutes of leaving, he must have been somewhere pretty close, yet we saw no one on the road—I’d swear to that.”
“But he might have come from the other direction,” objected the Map-Maker, “the direction Peters came from but ahead of him.”
“Yes, that’s so,” she agreed, “but in that case he must have come from the north side earlier in the day and lain up somewhere in hiding, because the nearest village along that road to the south, as you know, is twenty miles off and it doesn’t seem likely that he’d work from a base so far away.”
“By jove, no, that’s true,” exclaimed her husband.
“But where could he hide?” objected Robin. “There are only flat open cornfields on every side of us.”
He must have been lying in the corn,” said the Map-Maker, “somewhere near at hand since he got in so soon after we left, and—by jove——” He sat forward suddenly as an idea came to him. “Listen,” he exclaimed, “it’s ten to one that the thief is working from a base somewhere to the north of us here, because as my wife has pointed out, no one who came deliberately to steal those papers would work from a base twenty miles away, and it seems unlikely in view of the fact that no valuables were taken that this is just a casual robbery. Now, if he came from the north and was lying in hiding, it’s a hundred to one that he lay in the cornfields to the north of us here—why should he go to the bother of passing the camp just to get to the other side of it, when there was the same cover to be had on the nearer side? Well, then, if he came into the camp by the bridge, he must have first got on to the road. The road is bordered on each side by irrigation channels, and I happened to notice as we went out to work yesterday morning, that they were running, though the water had been shut off by the time we came back, leaving the channel beds wet and soggy. So——”
“I see the idea,” exclaimed Robin excitedly, “if our deductions are correct we ought to be able to get traces of the thief’s footprints as he crossed the water channel to get on to the road. By jove, that’s exciting!”
The party broke up, for it was time for Robin to get to work and Peters was eager to put Vereker’s theory to the test.
“I’ll go up the road to the north,” he said, “and examine the water channels for footprints. How about your going along the road southward, Masson, and seeing the lie of the land there? After all, there might be some clue to be gathered.”
“All right,” agreed Masson.
“You can come and report to me here at H.Q., said Vereker, “I’ve got a morning’s office work ahead of me. And by the way, I haven’t asked either of you fellows yet if you want me to communicate with the police? Anything of great importance stolen among the papers?”
“Why, you’d surely never get in the police and miss a chance like this of having a real mystery to solve?” exclaimed the American in something the tone a sportsman might have replied to the suggestion that he should engage a professional to fire his gun for him. “At least,” he added, “unless Mr. Masson has missed something of value. There was nothing in the least important in my papers.”
“And you, Masson?” asked the Map-Maker.
For a moment Masson hesitated, then he shook his head.
“I don’t see what good the police could do,” he said. “By the time they got going in this wild spot, the thief would be miles away, and though there was certainly something of interest stolen among my papers, it was not of vital importance.”
“Not the cypher manuscript?” exclaimed Catharine.
“Yes, that’s been taken,” he said, “though whether by accident or design, I couldn’t say. From the look of things, I think the thief must simply have grabbed anything he could lay his hands on, and trusted to finding something of value when he had time to sort them. But please don’t worry, Mrs. Vereker. As I told you, the thing was only a copy, and I can get on with my work without it now.”
Catharine, however, as she went about her work that morning, felt more than a little worried. She was glad that both men had decided against sending for the police, because for herself she felt almost certain that the thief had been inside, not outside the camp, and, illogical though it might be, she dreaded the thought of any of the servants being suspected, and perhaps proved guilty. Then, too, there was that spider scrawled on the suitcase and shaving mirror. It was significant, she thought, that they had none of them commented upon it in their theorizing, nor had they broached the question of motive. It was with a feeling of relief that she heard, about eleven o’clock, the sound of a cheerful, strident, but not untuneful voice, carolling what appeared to be snatches of Italian opera, and on looking up from her sewing, saw Father Xavier crossing the bridge.
“So you have the wassis spider here, no?” he greeted her, a moment later. “I come to find him for you.”
The Map-Maker emerged from his office, apparently glad of the temporary diversion, and together they took the priest round the camp, pointing out to him the items of interest and significance.
“Ah, and the spiders—they are drawn in chalk, no?” he crossed over to Masson’s suitcase as he spoke and bent down to examine the lid.
“No, it is not chalk, but mud,” he said. “He have picked a bit up from the ground, see?”
“It’s the same in Peters’ basha,” the Map-Maker said, “only there he drew it on the shaving mirror, instead of the suitcase lid.”
“So, that is interesting,” replied the priest. “And Mr. Masson he have not the shaving mirror? But yes, and it is in the position identical as the mirror of Mr. Peters. It is interesting.”
He appeared to indulge in some abstruse calculations, and Catharine wondered what point he found so interesting.
“And now, Mrs. Vereker,” he exclaimed, coming out of his reverie, “you will do me the favour to recount all that have happened in the camp since you come, no?”
To the best of her ability Catharine complied, giving all details and answering such questions as he put.
“And you do not suspect any servant?” he demanded when he had finished.
“No, certainly not,” she replied.
The Map-Maker explained their deductions at breakfast that morning, adding that Peters had gone along the road to search for footprints in the water channels. The priest made a sudden gesture.
“Oh, I am the big stupid,” he exclaimed. “I bring a message from Mr. Peters whom I have met on the road. D’Silva have the fever to-day—he stay in bed and his wife and assistant they must deputize for him. They go to that village yonder——” he pointed vaguely in the north-westward direction. “I start to go with them in the car, and at the gate we meet Mr. Peters. He tell us of the robbery. I say I will come here to investigate, no? He say he would like much to go to that village near the hills for the scenery is wassis beautiful. So he go, and I come. He ask me to say he have most carefully search in the water wassis, but he find no prints at all.”
“No prints?” exclaimed Catharine. She felt her heart sink in dismay, for it seemed the only chance of proving that the thief came from outside the camp itself. Father Xavier’s next question, however, diverted her attention.
“And you, Mrs. Vereker, you have lost nothing?”
“Nothing,” she answered in surprise.
“You are sure?” he persisted.
“There was no disorder in our tent,” the Map-Maker added, “and nothing appeared to have been broken open.”
“You have missed no papers—no wassis poetry, hein?” the priest still insisted looking at Catharine. “You write it, I think.”
Catharine went a trifle pink and the Map-Maker grinned in rude delight.
“Fame at last,” he exclaimed sardonically.
“I do occasionally attempt to write verses,” she admitted, “but I should be more than flattered if anyone tried to steal them.”
“You make the search, perhaps?” the priest suggested, and to satisfy him she went to examine her suitcase and the interior of the tent.
She was returning to report all in order and nothing missing, when it occurred to her that there had been a paper of verses among her letters—some lines she had jotted down one evening at Tarmaya.
“Of course, it’s nothing,” she said when she had mentioned the fact. “It will turn up—I have just mislaid it, I expect. In any case I always remember my verses and can write them out again.”
“Ah, it is a wassis pity,” he exclaimed in heartfelt accents, and she wondered what he meant.
Masson returned at that moment, some letters and an open paper in his hands.
“I met the dâk wala,” he explained as he came up, “and—what do you think? I see in the paper that both the Roys have been released.”
The Verekers broke into excited comment and in the midst of the conversation which ensued, Father Xavier took his leave. He was going for a walk, he explained, and if Brutus, Robin’s dog, would care to accompany him, it would be pleasant for them both. He perceived that the animal was tethered and bored. Catharine released the dog, and nothing loth he trotted over the bridge in the wake of his unexpected benefactor. Father Xavier, however, did not stick to the road. Reckless of both his own boots and the virgin mud of the water channel, wherein he left their sturdy imprint, he struck off to the left across the cornfields, fetching a wide circle which eventually brought them out on the road again where it turned westward, running parallel with the line of the hills. It was here that the exciting thing happened, for as they rambled along in silent but happy companionship, the priest paused suddenly, peering under his hand at a figure he had perceived retreating from them along the road. Then with unmistakable gesture and noises, he indicated that a search was to be made.
Brutus bounded obediently hither and thither, barking at innocent bushes, challenging coldly indifferent stones, sniffing immovable tree roots. Then, the scent of newly turned earth and some alien substance assailed his sensitive nostrils, and a few moments later, with scufflings, scoldings, rootings and burrowings, he had laid bare a pile of papers.
The priest’s face was grave as he marched back to the camp, nor did the excited questionings of the assembled party draw much response from him.
“But they were there, no?” he exclaimed, waving his hand in a gesture which seemed to include the heights of the Himalayas, in reply to the reiterated demands to know where he had discovered the missing documents.
“They are complete, hein?”
“All complete, here,” answered Peters, who with Masson had been busily sorting the pile of papers on the table.
“All here, so far as I can see,” said Masson, “except one.”
“Which one?” demanded Catharine.
“The cypher manuscript,” he answered quietly.
Masson walked meditatively up and down the strip of grass which bordered the river in front of his basha and the living tent. It was the day after the discovery of the papers, and the whole queer incident passed and repassed through his mind. He was both puzzled and worried as to the meaning of the theft. Inevitably his mind went to the Roys—surely it was a strange coincidence that they had been released the day before the theft took place? Yet an examination of the time-table proved conclusively that they could not possibly have arrived at the nearest rail head in time to have reached Jamala by any other means than aeroplane, at the hour the papers were abstracted. Besides, why on earth should Chandra Roy take such dramatic steps to steal papers he had had through his own hands many times before? True, Masson kept them in the bank, but there had been many occasions in the course of their travels when the secretary could have abstracted, copied and replaced them without attracting attention or rousing suspicion. And, in any case, of what possible interest could the papers be to Roy? Or, for the matter of that, to anyone? His brow furrowed heavily as he pondered this point, but at the back of his mind there was a more definite suspicion, almost it might be said, fear, struggling to make itself clear. The united detective efforts of the party, though they had not perhaps come to any very concrete conclusions, had at least served to elucidate the difficulties attendant upon the theory that the thief came from outside the camp. On the other hand the alternative theory, that one of the servants was the thief, presented its own peculiar difficulties, not the least of which was the question of motive. For what conceivable reason should men of that class steal papers which they could not read, yet leave money and valuables untouched? The very nature of the theft pointed to the thief being a man of at least average culture and education, one moreover who, if not actually within the camp, could enter and leave it without arousing suspicion, and palpably and obviously there was one man who fulfilled all these conditions—that man was Peters himself.
Once more Masson’s mind went to the scene that evening in the bazaar when the bomb had been thrown. What precisely had been the American’s errand at Pandra Roy’s shop that night? And Vera D’Silva’s? Then, there was the spider scrawled on his suitcase. . . .
Catharine too had spent her morning fighting suspicions, for to her also the possibility—the circumstantial possibility, as she expressed it—of Peters having stolen the papers had occurred. At first she had run away from the idea, but at last she had determined to face it out and defeat it, to convince herself of its inherent absurdity. One by one she passed the facts and the possibilities in review. Peters, delayed by a somewhat unusual number of punctures, had arrived at the camp when they had left it, and he had the field clear for anything he wanted to do. Was that suspicious? Hardly, since he could not have known before his arrival that they were invited to dinner at the D’Silvas that night. Anyway, on his arrival, he had learnt the fact, and must have realized that he had the camp to himself. By his own account he had walked over to the living tent, whilst the servants prepared his bath and unloaded his kit. But, had he wandered instead into Masson’s basha, it seemed quite possible that the servants, busy about their work, might not have noticed him, and even had they done so, would never have questioned his right to go where he pleased. What then? It would have been dark in the basha of course, but the light of the moon and the glow of the bonfire outside would have given him sufficient light to open the suitcase, extract anything in the nature of documents with which his hands came in contact, scrawl the spider on the lid, and then leave the basha, hiding the documents inside his coat—he would have been wearing his overcoat Catharine reminded herself—and the fact that he had left things strewn about the floor, pointed to the theft having been carried out against time, and in the dark. His own things he could have faked to look as though a theft had occurred, when they returned, before she and the Map-Maker crossed over to the bashas on hearing the exclamations from Masson and from Peters himself. And as to the finding of the documents, Father Xavier’s account, though vague (had it been designedly so?), had at least shown that the papers had been found somewhere to the north-westward of the camp, and that was precisely the direction that Peters had been motored out by Vera D’Silva on her way to visit her husband’s patients. He had returned to the camp on foot, not so very much in advance of the priest with the papers. Supposing it was he who had hidden them in the spot where Brutus found them?
Yes, Catharine admitted reluctantly, there was nothing utterly impossible in the theory, though surely it was wildly fantastic. What possible motive could Peters have for stealing the papers? Then too, there was the spider drawn on the suitcase lid. Why should he have done that? Unless, indeed, he was influenced by the form of literature he affected, and intended it as a blind? But had it been a blind? And if not, was the mysterious Spider really active here, as well as in Dawana and Calcutta? Had he been behind that affair of the knives? And could Peters——? At this point in her reflections Catharine’s mind shied violently away from the suspicion which arose in it, and almost in desperation she took refuge in the thought that, after all, it seemed probable that the cypher manuscript had been the real object of the thief’s search. Somehow, to connect Peters with anything of that nature seemed altogether too wild and fantastic.
She felt convinced that Masson, as she watched him pacing to and fro in front of the tent, was busy with almost the same suspicions and theories as she was herself, and her idea was confirmed when about eleven o’clock Father Xavier crossed the bridge and strode into the camp. The priest had something in the palm of his hand, which he was examining intently, and Masson called out eagerly:
“What’s that you’ve got there?”
Father Xavier looked up in surprise.
“But it is a stone, no?” he exclaimed, dropping the object and dusting his hands together. “Did you think it was a wassis document?”
Masson laughed half-shamefacedly.
“It would hardly be small enough to he in the scoop of your palm,” he said, “but I’m afraid I’ve got the whole affair on the brain. Have you come to give us any fresh theories or ideas?”
“But no,” replied Father Xavier, “I bring a message for Mrs. Vereker. Mr. D’Silva is better to-day,” he added turning to Catharine, who had come out of the tent and joined them, “but he will not be able to come to Bhutara. Mrs. D’Silva would much like to come, and invite you all also to picnic on their land there——” he pointed to a spot not far distant, where there was a small wood, “as it is on the road to Bhutara.”
“Oh, thanks, that will be delightful. I’m glad Mrs. D’Silva can come,” said Catharine.
It had been arranged that the party should move to a forest bungalow some twenty-five miles distant, for the week-end, and try their luck at bigger game than was to be had at Jamala. Catharine had extended the invitation to the D’Silvas from a sense of duty, but she was genuinely glad that Vera would be able to accompany them, and still more glad on her own account that they would all be moving to a new environment. It seemed as though it would help them to escape from the atmosphere of suspicion and strain into which they had fallen.
“And you, Father Xavier?” she added. “Will you be able to come?”
“But no, I regret,” he answered. “I am going eighty miles away to a wassis tea plantation. They send the car for me.”
Catharine nodded. She was not surprised that Father Xavier’s profession should prevent his accompanying them, for the Catholics of the neighbourhood seemed to have hailed the unexpected advent of a priest as a gift from heaven, and made repeated calls upon his time, but, though she could not have said why, she felt sorry that he would not be with them at Bhutara. Somehow, his sturdy, matter-of-fact personality brought a feeling of comfort and reassurance.
“And you have not the new theory concerning the manuscript?” the priest asked, turning to Masson.
“No,” he answered with what seemed unnecessary emphasis. Catharine almost smiled as she realized how his suspicions, too, had strayed in uncomfortable directions.
“For my part,” she said, “I think we haven’t given enough weight to the significance of the cypher manuscript being the only document that has not been found.”
“Ah, but yes—it is interesting that. And this manuscript it has a history, no?”
Catharine told the story to the best of her ability, appealing to Masson to embellish and explain the more interesting points, and she was surprised at the interest the priest betrayed in the account.
“But it is a wassis queer story,” he exclaimed, when she had finished. “You permit that I read it, Mr. Masson?”
“If Mrs. Vereker has finished with it, of course,” said Masson, and Catharine was conscious of relief. She had not relished the responsibility of keeping the MS. since the robbery occurred.
“Yes—I’ll get it for you at once,” she answered with alacrity.
The picnic lunch on the corner of the D’Silvas’ land, proved a rather trying affair. Both the D’Silvas were there, though only Vera went on to Bhutara, Dominic walking back to the bungalow across his rice fields. He was in a strange, rather terrifying mood—or so it seemed to Catharine—sullen as a wounded beast sulking in its lair, yet ready to fly out at the first person who approached. She wondered if it were the aftermath of his attack of fever, or whether that had been but one more euphemism for a drinking bout. Of one thing she felt pretty sure— whether he had drunk the day before or not, he would do so that night alone in the bungalow.
It seemed to her that Vera was certain of it too. She was obviously nervous and overstrung at lunch, eating practically nothing, sitting silent and abstracted, starting if she were spoken to. Then, as D’Silva moved away when they were packing up preparatory to getting into the cars, she turned abruptly, almost as though her mind were suddenly made up on some point, and called after him:
He turned and looked at her sullenly, making no effort to move from where he stood.
“Well?” he demanded.
She made a queer little gesture, oddly eloquent because so involuntary, yet difficult to interpret.
“It’s all right,” she said. “I thought I had forgotten something, that’s all.”
Masson was standing near, and as she turned back he called out gaily:
“Now for the cars. Have you ever considered what a marvellous invention the car is, Mrs. D’Silva? It opens the world to us—it finds us a way out of all our troubles.”
“Sometimes,” said Vera, “there is no way out.”
He did not answer immediately, and when he did it seemed that he deliberately accentuated the lighter note as though to draw her away from the bitterness that had crept into her voice.
“Don’t say that,” he pleaded. “So long as we have four wheels to run away on, we can turn our backs on all our troubles. Things are only present to us when we have to look at them.”
“Yes,” said Vera, “that is true.”
It was at that moment that a man arrived, bringing news of a panther kill barely a mile from the little forest bungalow at Bhutara. He had been to the camp to find the Sahibs and the servants had sent him hurrying on to the picnic spot.
They called D’Silva back, for he spoke the local patois fluently, and when all right details had been extracted from the messenger, the men drew lots for the right of sitting up in the machan, for it seemed to be one of those chances which only occur once in a lifetime. Catharine was disappointed when Masson drew the prize ticket for she could not imagine he would obtain much pleasure from shooting a panther, and he was easily the worst shot of the party. However, later on arrival at Bhutara he insisted on a re-draw on those very grounds. Peters was the lucky one that time and Catharine could not help wishing it had been Robin; it would have meant so much to him to shoot a panther.
The party went on quickly to Bhutara after getting the news, running the twenty-five miles over forest roads like deep cool tunnels cut into the green gloom of the jungle. They were soft, and grassed all the way, and the cars seemed to run absolutely silently. At times there would be a break in the green walls and they would catch a glimpse of hills blue as polished lapis lazuli, their crests powdered with white.
The kit and servants who had gone on elephants by a short cut, which though rough and difficult reduced the twenty-five miles to little more than seven, were there well ahead of them, and there was a fire of huge logs burning in the living-room. The bungalow proved a romantic little spot, built in so small a clearing that the jungle lapped round the very fringes of the compound. It was built entirely of forest wood, and as the boards creaked under her tread, it almost seemed to Catharine as though the souls of the dead trees still lingered in and about it, striving to talk to their living comrades outside. The ground floor was taken up by one long living-room with rough but solid furniture, and horns for decoration round the walls. Upstairs there were two bedrooms of which Vera occupied one and the Verekers the other, the remaining three men being accommodated in bashas in the compound.
They had tea round the fire, with plenty of plum cake and a new loaf of Firoze’s bread, which they spread with strawberry jam, and they were a gay, almost a hilarious party—perhaps because they all were feeling the relief of escaping into a new atmosphere after the strain and suspicion of the last two days. Vera especially was scarcely recognizable in a new found animation and gaiety. It seemed to Catharine that she had made up her mind to follow the advice Masson seemed to give her—to shut all thoughts except those which were pleasant out of her mind, because once, when he quoted a few lines of beautiful but rather pessimistic verse, she exclaimed:
“No, not this evening. I will not listen to gloomy things until Monday.”
Peters went off to the machan before they had finished tea so as to be well settled into it before dusk, but he looked as though he were sorry to leave the party and would gladly have let Robin go in his stead.
“Wish me luck,” he said, turning to Vera as he went out.
“Of course I do,” she answered, but absently, without looking at him.
The other men went down to the river which ran close to the bungalow, as soon as tea was over, taking their rods to try their luck, and Vera and Catharine pulled their chairs up to the fire. There is always something about a twilit room which promotes conversation, and the girl expanded surprisingly, talking almost as though she were speaking to herself and, incidentally, revealing more than she realized. It was a pathetic, though in many ways, a commonplace story that Catharine gradually pieced together—a story that had its tragedy in temperament rather than incident.
One of many daughters, children of ordinary parents neither rich nor poor, patrician nor plebian, the girl had had no chance to discover the appointed outlet for her temperament—a temperament that the older woman began to understand more fully as the story proceeded. Vera’s sisters had thought her cranky and conceited, ascribed her bookish tastes to pose, and her rather cynical attitude towards the mild gaieties their lot afforded, to blaséness. Yet, so it seemed to Catharine, listening to the almost unconscious confidences, this girl had been more eager, nay, avid, for pleasure than they, for she had found it less easily.
With the idea of making a career for herself, she had trained as a nurse, but even there her temperament had followed her.
“I liked the work well enough,” she mused aloud, leaning back in the long chair, her hands clasped behind her head, her eyes fixed on the blazing logs, “though I’d have liked to have been a doctor better, I think. They didn’t teach us enough. But I couldn’t get on with the other girls. They thought it queer of me always wanting to learn more things, instead of less, but I was only trying to understand.”
It had been during her training that she had met D’Silva. Despite her mood of unusual expansion, she told Catharine little on this point, but the other woman could supply details easily enough. It was not difficult to see how D’Silva’s very strangeness, coming as he did into the girl’s life from an unknown and romantic country, afforded her a peg on which to hang her passionate idealism.
No, not difficult to understand, neither was the disillusionment difficult to imagine. . . .
In spite of her determined gaiety, Vera succumbed to a bad headache and went to bed immediately after dinner. Catharine lingered downstairs for a short time, but, the conversation taking a heavily sporting turn, she slipped upstairs, and settled down to writing up her diary.
It was close upon eleven o’clock that she heard the sound of a shot. Evidently the panther had come back to the kill.
Later, looking back on that night, Catharine marvelled that she had felt no shadow of premonition at the sound of that shot. She who had been oppressed with a sense of impending disaster when the storm was afar off, felt no tremor at its more immediate approach.
They were some time in setting out for tire machan, for it is always a ticklish business going out into the jungle at night, after the sound of a shot, when there may be a wounded panther lurking behind any bush. The man in the machan most probably has at least some idea of the direction the beast has taken, always supposing that he cannot see it lying dead where he has shot it, but to those setting out to evacuate him from his post, there is no such comforting knowledge.
When Catharine reached the living room, a mild argument was in progress. The servants and khalasis had assembled with sticks and ropes, and both Masson and Robin were for starting straight away on foot. But the Map-Maker, with a wider knowledge and experience, stood firm, protesting that it was foolhardy, and that the elephants must be brought out.
It took some time before the two which had brought kit could be fetched, and by the time they started, the Map-Maker and Catharine on one, Robin and Masson on the other animal, each with a mahout up in front and a servant behind, half an hour must have elapsed since the moment when they heard the shot. The rest of the servants came on foot well in the rear.
It took about another quarter of an hour to reach the machan, and it was none too pleasant going, through the jungle in the dark. There was a moon, but it was low in the sky at close on midnight, and gave scarcely any light through the thick trees. The lanterns served to illuminate the path, but what was needed most was a light to show the low branches overhead. The mahout had his knife, and hacked to right and left, but even so, though they were all bending low on the pad, their faces and necks were continually whipped and scratched.
Afterwards, Catharine remembered one incident of the short trek, and that was the sound of some animal giving tongue, away on their left.
“What’s that?” she heard Robin exclaim, and she could sense that he gripped his gun ready to fire; their nerves were all tense and alert.
“Sambar I should think,” answered Masson’s voice.
“It wasn’t the panther, anyway,” the Map-Maker called back over his shoulder. “Nor a sambar either,” he added in a lower tone to his wife. Masson’s rather shaky jungle-lore had been a source of amusement to both of them on occasions.
“It sounded more like a horse to me,” Catharine said.
“Yes, but it couldn’t have been, obviously,” he answered. Then turning to the men, in the vernacular
“Give a call; we are near the machan.”
They were, as it subsequently transpired, nearer than they had supposed, but it took a long time to find the machan, for they could get no answer to their shouting. Again and again Lal Singh, the khalasi who carried the lantern, sent out a rather blood-curdling yell, but there was no answering shout.
“Peters, are you there?” shouted the Map-Maker.
“Ho, Peters——” came from Robin in the rear.
But there was no reply.
“Where is the machan?” demanded the Map-Maker, of Lal Singh, after they had waited a moment in silence.
But it is here, hazur, entirely near,” he answered, and then, since any wounded panther which could stand the noise that had been made, might be trusted to have calm nerves, he pushed ahead of the Verekers’ elephant, striking along a path to the right.
“Damn the man, why can’t he answer?” the Map-Maker swore under his breath.
“Do you think he’s got down and gone after the beast on foot, sir?” asked Robin.
“Hope not,” was the short response. Nothing is more irritating to an experienced shikari, than the thought of a novice at the game rushing foolhardily into danger.
They came upon Lal Singh as he spoke, standing under a large tree.
“He sleeps,” he remarked in a puzzled voice.
“Don’t be silly,” snapped the Map-Maker, “where’s the machan?”
“Why—here it is,” exclaimed Catharine, suddenly realizing that the little platform was built in the tree under which Lal Singh was standing, and that it was level with her eyes, almost near enough to touch.
“Kit, he’s there—he is asleep——”
Her voice faltered as she spoke and a chill ran down her spine—she had caught sight of a dark, curiously huddled shape, half lying in, half hanging over, one end of the machan. Just then Masson (the second elephant had drawn level with the first) cried out sharply:
He pointed down at something in the circle of light thrown by the lantern, immediately below the machan.
“It’s blood,” said the Map-Maker.
Catharine’s memory always refused to give her any accurate record of the moments which followed that remark, though at the time she was conscious of acting with a curious competence and control, obeying orders making suggestions, standing ready to take her part. Getting Peters out of the machan proved their most difficult task—once that was over things progressed more easily. They had improvised a stretcher for him with cloths taken from the elephant’s pad and laid over boughs of trees cut down for the purpose, and on this he rested comfortably whilst the khalasis carried him slowly back to the bungalow. Catharine hurried her pace as they neared the house, meaning to rouse Vera, but it proved unnecessary, for her figure silhouetted against the light from her bedroom as she stood on the upper veranda was the first thing the party saw as they emerged into the clearing out of the thick jungle. Her startled staccato:
“What has happened?” reached them as they entered the gate, and Catharine felt she would never forget the cry she gave when Masson answered:
“Someone has been trying to shoot Peters.”
Certainly though, the girl was a wonderful nurse, even if a somewhat stiff and frozen one. She took instant and competent charge of the situation and Catharine gratefully let the burden of responsibility slip from her own shoulders.
Peters had regained consciousness on his way to the bungalow and recovered still more on drinking some hot coffee from a thermos, but he could give them no information. There had been no sign of the panther and he had been on the point of giving up the vigil, when the bullet caught him in the arm. It had bled freely. He had endeavoured to staunch the wound, and, failing, had endeavoured to climb out of the machan, but, apparently, had fainted in the effort. That was all.
“Is it serious, do you think?” the Map-Maker asked Vera when they had put Peters to bed in the living-room, and he appeared to be sleeping easily.
She shook her head.
“I don’t think so,” she answered, “but I’ll be glad when my husband arrives. Has Mr. Carstairs started yet?”
“Yes—he’s just gone.”
Robin indeed was well on his way in his car, and, whilst the women kept watch in the sick room, Vereker and Masson discussed endless theories of the night’s events on the veranda. It was not until dawn had turned the white peak which showed through a gap in the trees beyond the bungalow crystal white, that they heard the hum of the returning car.
D’Silva confirmed the diagnosis regarding the nature of Peters’ injury, but for himself Vereker took more consolation from Vera’s calm assurance than from her husband’s more professional verdict. Catharine had obviously been right regarding the probability of a drinking bout the night before—for the signs of it were only too clear in the morning light. The man was deathly white—a thick, heavy, unwholesome white—and his hands were shaky. Moreover, according to Robin he had been sleeping like a log, and was only roused with difficulty. He still seemed half dazed when he went into the room where Peters lay with Vera in attendance.
“My God, but this is awful, what can it mean?” he exclaimed in his clipped jerky style, his accent as usual more pronounced under the stress of excitement. “Thank God he is alive, anyway.”
“You’d better look at him, Dominic. I don’t think it is serious,” Vera interrupted him, firmly, and with a hint of iron in her voice which seemed to have the effect of controlling his agitation.
Catharine slipped out of the room, leaving them together, and like her husband, when D’Silva came out, confirming the verdict that the wound was only slight, she drew more comfort from the fact that it was Vera’s and her own opinion than from his pronouncement.
“It is a flesh wound only, but with much bleeding. He will soon be well. But what can be the meaning of this murderous attack?”
“That’s what we are all wondering,” Catharine answered. “But it seems absurd really to speak of it as an attack. It must surely be an accident however unlikely. Mr. Peters is a stranger to the country. What possible enemy could he have here?”
“Oh, that is true,” he exclaimed, as though the idea were an entirely new one to him.
Catharine was stopped from making any further speculations on the subject by the arrival of the Map-Maker and Masson, who both joined them at this juncture, the former demanding to know what the next move was to be. It was Vera D’Silva who answered.
“I think Mr. Peters had better be moved to our house,” she said quietly. “I can look after him there. The bullet will have to be removed from his arm and Dominic is going to ’phone for a doctor who lives about fifty miles from us. If you and Mrs. Vereker could possibly move your camp to our compound, I should be more than grateful. It would be nice to have you near.”
“That seems a sound arrangement,” Colonel Vereker approved. “How about getting him back to Jamala?”
“We thought his own car would be the best,” explained Catharine. “Robin can drive it, he says. We can fix up a sort of bed in it, I think.”
“Good, then whilst your seeing to that Masson and I have some investigations we want to make. Come on, Masson—I’ll get a lantern——”
Though dawn had come, it was still dark in the jungle and the pair of investigators moved slowly along the track, holding the lantern to light their footsteps.
“It seems a fairly well defined path,” commented Masson. “Where does it lead to, do you suppose?”
“To the machan itself, I imagine,” answered Vereker. “This bungalow is a well-known spot for panther shooting and probably the machan has been in existence for ages. Convenient spots for building them are not as many as you might suppose.”
“But do the beasts kill their victims conveniently under the machan, then?”
“Well, yes, when the said victims are tied up for them there,” retorted the Colonel dryly. “This is the tree, isn’t it?”
“Yes—have you got the paper?”
Their cold vigil on the veranda had not been entirely fruitless, for they had spent the time working out the probable direction of the bullet from the position of the machan, the height of the moon, the way Peters had been lying and the position of the wound.
“Here it is,” replied Vereker producing the crumpled envelope on which their calculations had been recorded from his pocket. “Now let us see. The moon would be about there—where’s my pocket compass?—yes, there, so that if the assailant saw Peters silhouetted against it, as we have supposed, he would have had to be somewhere in this direction—yes, by jove, this seems all right. A nice open little glade and a good thick tree to hide behind at a convenient distance——“
Masson had already reached the tree in question.
“O.K.,” he shouted excitedly, “look, someone has been standing here——”
The Map-Maker regarded the trampled earth below the tree disgustedly.
“Now if this were a detective story,” he remarked, “we should be able to gauge the fellow’s height by the length of his stride, perceive that he was left-handed and had patched shoe-sole, but as it is——”
Masson did not seem to be attending. He was gazing intently at the tree where the machan showed clearly against a patch of sky.
“Do you suppose,” he asked thoughtfully, “that anyone sitting there would be recognizable from here?”
“H’m——” Vereker pursed his mouth as he pondered the point. “It’s hard to say,” he said. “He’d be silhouetted against the moon, of course, and Peters’ silhouette is a characteristic one. Yes, on the whole I should say he would be recognizable to anyone who knew him fairly well.”
“Yes—that of course is the moot point,” commented Masson.
Vereker looked round him once more.
“Well, I suppose we’d better be getting back,” he began, “Hallo—what’s that?”
He broke off, pointing at the tree under which they stood, and both of them stared in amazement.
A piece of bark had been slashed off, as though with a knife, and on the white mark thus made, there was scrawled in mud the rough drawing of a spider.
Catharine Vereker sank gratefully into the deck chair outside her tent, and lay back closing her eyes. It was Monday, and to her it seemed as though she had scarcely sat down since that moment on Saturday night when she had heard the shot. Actually, it was her mind rather than her body which had been on the stretch, and she had almost welcomed the physical fatigue which at least prevented her from thinking. But even now, as she rested, she was conscious of clamouring speculations and suspicions lurking behind the most seemingly innocent thoughts.
Peters had stood the journey well on the Sunday, and on the arrival of the other doctor, the bullet had been extracted satisfactorily. It had proved to be one of the size used in an ordinary light sporting rifle. The Map-Maker, Robin, Peters himself, D’Silva, and probably every other sportsman within a hundred mile radius, possessed a weapon from which it could have been fired, so as a clue it did not seem particularly valuable.
There had been a discussion regarding the question of sending for the police that morning, but nothing had been done, nor did it seem likely that any further action would be taken on the point, since Peters, who after all was the person most concerned, was dead against the authorities being informed of the incident. In fact so excited did he get on the subject, that they dared not mention it in his presence again.
“I tell you it was an accident,” he reiterated, his colour (and they feared his temperature also) rising dangerously. “Just some crazy poaching guy, got loose in a Government forest, and potting at birds in trees.”
The others pointed out, as tactfully as possible, that a rifle, even of a light build, was hardly the weapon for potting birds, sitting or otherwise, but it had no effect.
“Then it was a deer he fired at,” he replied, “and the bullet ricocheted off the ground.”
Anyway, it was made abundantly clear that West K. Peters would not show himself up for a fool by reporting an accident as an attempted murder, so the matter was allowed to drop, and Catharine for one felt glad.
That day, Monday, the Verekers had spent moving their camp to the D’Silvas’ compound. It had been a rushed, tiring day, and now at six o’clock in the evening, Catharine was glad of the opportunity to rest, before dinner, and the time for her to go on duty in the sick room. It had been arranged that, whilst Vera did the day work, Catharine should sit up—or rather dose in a chair—in the patient’s room during the night. The work was not likely to be arduous but D’Silva seemed determined to take no risks. He had been something of a surprise to Catharine, and indeed to all of the party. They had been forced to admit that he was a better doctor than they had given him credit for being, and, moreover, there was at the moment a steadiness and quietness about him, a sense of concentration on the work in hand, which was even more unexpected. He had elected to sleep in a dressing-room opening out of the sick-room. It had a door on to the veranda as well, so he was able to enter and leave it without disturbing them, and Catharine was genuinely grateful for the knowledge of his nearness in case of emergency, during her lonely night vigils. Vera slept in her own bedroom some little distance away.
Father Xavier had returned to Jamala that morning. He seemed extraordinarily perturbed when he heard of the affair.
“But no, it is incredible,” he exclaimed. “The Spider hein?”
He came striding up to Catharine now, as she rested in front of their newly pitched tents.
“Mrs. Vereker, you keep a wassis journal I think? You record the daily events, no?”
She nodded, surprised, not for the first time, by the quickness of the priest’s observation.
“And you have already recorded this happening—in detail?”
Again she nodded. She had done it as a matter of fact during her vigil the night before in the sick-room. Without waiting for an invitation Father Xavier pulled out a chair from the tent and sat down upon it.
“Then you will do me the big favour. You will read it, and I shall listen. It will give me the great instruction.”
Catharine complied, chiefly because there seemed to be no choice, though she could not see what help the priest expected to derive from her account of the affair. She was flattered though by his remark when she had finished.
“So—I congratulate you; you have the eye in the pen. It is a gift. I have it now all on the tip-fingers.”
He relapsed into silence, leaning back with closed eyes and furrowed brow. Then rising abruptly to his feet, with an air of determination, he announced:
“I go for a walk,” and strode off into the jungle.
He marched with an air of purpose for some distance, then halted like a hound at fault in the scent, and stood gazing first at the hills, then at the sunset, as though striving to get his bearings. The figure of a forest Guard, passing on a track which led deeper into the jungle on the south attracted him presently, and he shouted a greeting in the vernacular. A lively conversation ensued, carried out in fluent idiom and assisted by copious gestures on both sides. At the close of the courtesies Father Xavier himself walked along the track gazing intently at the ground.
“So—it is clear,” he murmured to himself, “the elephants—they go, and they return. But this? It is a horse, I think. It return, but before the elephants. The wassis prints are not so clear.”
It was late when he reached the bungalow, and after a hasty wash he strode into the drawing-room carrying a sheaf of papers in his hand, to find Catharine seated there alone.
“So—I bring you the manuscript of Mr. Masson,” he exclaimed cheerfully. “I have much enjoyed it.”
Catharine looked up with a start. The events of the past two days had thrust the more trivial matter of the theft out of her mind, but it returned now, with all its minor puzzles.
“Have you solved what was in the cypher?” she asked, in an attempt at levity. She had no desire to discuss any of the mysteries with which they seemed to be surrounded from a more serious standpoint.
“I have a theory,” he answered calmly, but astoundingly.
She stared at him in amazement.
“A theory? Of who stole it do you mean?”
“Oh, that——” he flicked his fingers as though dismissing the matter. “It is not of the great importance. But I have a theory—no, a wassis guess only—of what may be in the cypher.”
Catharine gazed at him helplessly. Then she gave a laugh.
“I wish I had,” she said, “the whole affair seems like a mad nightmare to me.”
“It is perhaps that you have not noted what was the theory old Matthew supported in his arguments with the Jesuits, no?”
“What on earth can that have to do with it?”
He laughed at her bewilderment.
“Not much, maybe,” he said. “And yet—it is an indication. But I will tell you one thing I have discover which is more certain. It is the name of that Portuguese who wear the sober garments like the daddy-long-legs.”
“His name?” exclaimed Catharine. Then as sundry half acknowledged suspicions of her own rushed into her mind—“what was it? Not—not Peter?”
He looked at her in surprise.
“But no, it was Dominic. Dominic D’Silva.”
For a moment there was silence and the priest rose and went over to a cabinet which stood in the corner of the room.
“You see——” he said.
He had opened the door of the cabinet and extracted a huge tome which he carried over to her, placing it upon her knee. It appeared to be an old Missal, and on the fly-leaf was written in thin faded characters: “Believed to have been the property of my ancestor, Dominic D’Silva, c.1567.” There was no indication of whose hand had penned the words, but the writing was old and discoloured.
“It is in the reign of Akbar,” the priest pointed out.
“But I don’t see that that proves anything,” Catharine objected. “What is there to show there is any connection with the Portuguese mentioned in the manuscript?
“Here—nothing,” he answered. “But I have learnt the history of this ancestor from D’Silva—what he know of it, which is not the great deal—and it coincide with the story.”
“But—according to the manuscript the Portuguese did not marry,” said Catharine, striving to remember the details of the tale.
“No—but he adopt the daughter of the old Jew, no? And it say that she grow up to marry into the family of her benefactor. It is a nephew that she marry, I think, from what D’Silva say.”
Catharine made a helpless gesture.
“Oh, I can’t understand it,” she exclaimed.
He smiled, but she noticed that his eyes were grave.
“No—it is perhaps complicated,” he said, taking the Missal from her and replacing it in the cabinet. Then as there came the sound of a door closing and footsteps outside he turned to her quickly.
“Mrs. Vereker you will do me the favour? I have not the address for this letter. You will write it for me?”
“Certainly,” said Catharine, taking the stamped envelope he held out to her.
The surprise she had felt at the request deepened when she read the name written in a flowery foreign handwriting on the envelope.
It was addressed to Miss Jean Stafford.
Colonel Stafford put down the paper with a grunt.
“Another bomb factory discovered,” he exclaimed. Right up in the Punjab this time. Seems a pretty wide-spread organization.”
“They’re getting on to them all right, anyway,” said Jean, looking up from a letter she had been reading. “I was looking at the paper before you came in, and I see it was the clue of the Spider being connected with the affair that helped the police. They knew various points where he had agents, and so——”
“And so they arrested the agents, but let the Spider himself slip through their fingers,” concluded her father disgustedly. “And then they go and let the Roys out of prison.”
“But they had only been accused of embezzlement in a private affair——”
“Oh dear, are those horrid men out of prison?” interrupted Mrs. Stafford, emerging from a dreamy preoccupation with household affairs. “Then Jean you mustn’t go out, darling. They might catch you with a bomb or something.”
Jean looked across at her father in comic dismay. Her mother was a lady of nervous temperament and somewhat vague mentality. Since Jean’s adventure in the wilds, nothing would convince her that her daughter was not, for some inscrutable reason, the target of every anarchist, seditionist and political malcontent in the country.
“I want to go and see Nora Burgin this morning, Mums,” Jean said firmly, “but perhaps Daddy can take me there when he starts out on his rounds.”
“Righto,” answered her parent, rising nobly to the occasion. “And I’ll send the car back for you later.”
“Well darling, pull your topi well over your eyes and sit back in the car so that no one can recognize you,” pleaded Mrs. Stafford. “Oh, and I’ll give you a bottle of ammonia. I read somewhere that it would be a powerful weapon if one was attacked.”
Nora Burgin was disposed to be sarcastic some half-hour later when Jean arrived, complete with ammonia, a scarf to muffle her face, her camera and a newspaper.
“Do you mean to say you’re allowed out without an escort of police?” she demanded. “How very foolhardy. And I don’t think it’s quite nice of you to endanger this house with your presence “
“Shut up, Nora,” answered Jean, depositing the ammonia and scarf in an inconspicuous corner. “I can’t help being an only child. And listen, I’ve got some exciting news——”
She brought the letter she had received that morning from her pocket with an appropriate air of mystery.
“This is from Father Xavier,” she explained.
“Well, that doesn’t sound very exciting,” retorted Miss Burgin, unimpressed.
“No, but listen—he says, ‘We have here the Spider once more——’ I wonder what can have been happening this time, don’t you?”
“Why does he write to you about it?”
“Well, he says, ‘I make the investigation and I should be so grateful if you will take me the photo of the veranda of Pandra Roy.’”
“What on earth can he want that for?” exclaimed Nora, interested at last. “Are you going to take the photo?”
“Of course—that’s what I’ve brought the camera for.”
“And the newspaper?”
“That’s the old one with the account of the bomb outrage in it. Daddy makes a collection of such things. I thought we might read the account and try and guess what Father Xavier is after. But we’ll have to go and take the photo first—the car is coming back for me and Mother will have a fit if I don’t get home to time.”
Even a fit might have been an inadequate expression of Mrs. Stafford’s feelings could she have seen her daughter some twenty minutes later, making her way down the crowded bazaar streets, minus the ammonia, and with no greater protection than Miss Burgin might be held to supply.
The shop took some little finding, but helped by the newspaper account of the affair they eventually identified it, standing at the corner of two roads. The taking of the snapshot, however, presented a few difficulties.
“If you take it from here,” pointed out Nora Burgin, as Jean, standing straight in front of the shop, levelled the camera, “it won’t come out at all. You’re pointing the camera straight at the sun.”
“But if I go up the side to take it,” objected Jean, “I can’t see the veranda at all, because it has solid wooden sides. And after all, it was the veranda he said he wanted.”
“Of course if we only knew what he wanted it for, it might be a help,” sighed Nora.
“I shall take it from the front,” decided Jean, and you’ll have to try and shade the lens. Then, in case it doesn’t come out, I’ll draw him a plan of the place.”
“That will be a help,” said Miss Burgin, sarcastically—she had some knowledge of her friend s artistic abilities.
Nothing deterred, Jean took a series of snapshots, Nora shielding the lens from the blinding glare, then, resting the envelope of Father Xavier’s letter against the wall of a house, proceeded to draw the plan.
“It doesn’t look very good,” she remarked dubiously as she surveyed the result. “But I can’t get the house any better.”
“Oh, it’s a house, is it?” said Nora brightly. “I wondered why you were drawing a hen-coop. But come on Jean, there’s a crowd collecting to watch your artistic efforts, and I think we ought to get home.”
They left the films to be developed on their way back, then, once safe in Nora’s room, settled down to study the plan in the light of the account given in the newspaper.
“You read out what the witnesses said,” said Jean, “and I’ll try and mark the positions of the ‘actors in the drama’—that’s the right expression, isn’t it?—occupied at the moment when the bomb was thrown, on my plan.”
Nora coughed and achieved a creditable imitation of a legal voice and manner.
“‘Not until directly challenged did the merchant, Pandra Roy,’ no, that’s not much use, is it? Here we are: ‘Witness deposed that at the moment the bomb was thrown Maha Lal——’”
It took them several minutes to worry out the positions, for many of them were not mentioned at all. But at last they achieved a plan which appeared satisfactory.
“That must be it,” said Jean, studying the result carefully. “They mention where Masson was standing—I’ve marked him M—and I know he was near Father Xavier, and that Pandra Roy was immediately above Father Xavier’s head as he stood on the veranda. I’ve marked them X and P. Then Maha Lal”—she added the letters ML to the plan—“must have been somewhere here if he saw his assailant beyond Masson. I’ll mark the assailant Q, because it’s a mysterious kind of letter and this arrow indicates the way he ran away. Now put just two spots without any letters for the place where Pandra Roy’s customers were probably standing.”
“Customers? It doesn’t mention any here.”
“No—no one heard about them,” said Jean, “but,” she lowered her voice mysteriously, “I’ve got my ideas about them, Nora. I was noticing Philip Masson when he told us about them, and he was watching Peters and Mrs. D’Silva all the time. And they seemed embarrassed. I’m sure they had met before they came to Dawana. They were—well, queer somehow, when they were introduced.”
“And you really think they were there in Pandra Roy’s shop that night?” exclaimed Nora, genuinely impressed at Jean’s acumen.
“Well, I can’t say, of course. It’s just a sort of hunch, as Peters himself would say. But I wonder——”
She paused, and sat staring absently at the plan in her hand.
“I say, Nora, that’s funny,” she remarked suddenly.
“Darling, it’s a scream. The world’s most comic picture. Are you going to exhibit it?”
“No—I don’t mean the drawing, but—give me the newspaper a moment——”
She scanned the columns for perhaps five minutes, her brow furrowed in concentration, then letting the paper slip from her fingers sat staring straight in front of her, as though engaged in some abstruse mental calculations. Nora, looking at her, saw that her face had gone strangely white.
“Hallo, kid, what’s up?” she asked surprisedly.
“I say, Nora——” Jean’s voice sounded shaky, “won’t it be ghastly if—if there’s another murder?”
“But who on earth will they try to murder this time?”
“That’s just the awful part,” said Jean. “I don’t know.”
Philip Masson left the bungalow and strolled, slowly, but with a set purpose, in the direction of the Verekers’ old camping ground. He felt that he would stifle if he stayed any longer in the undeniably strained atmosphere of the bungalow. It was strange, he reflected, how two, admittedly mysterious, but not very serious, happenings had upset the nerves of the whole party. Even Catharine Vereker—surely a sane and level-headed woman ordinarily—seemed ready to jump at the slightest sound and to suspect the Spider lurking in any shadow. Moreover, there was another cause for his discontent; Vera D’Silva, whose elusive, cameo-like beauty had hitherto formed a restful focus for his thoughts, was seldom visible now, spending all her days in the sick-room. She was out at the moment for her daily walk, and it was, in fact, the sight of her figure, seated upon the island camping ground, which lent purpose and direction to his walk. There were many things he wanted to ask her—many things to be said.
He crossed the bridge silently, and it was not until he spoke that she realized his presence. Then, as she turned with a start, he saw that her eyes were red and her face wet with tears.
For a few minutes he made conversation lightly and conventionally, his eye fixed on the river, striving to give her an opportunity of recovering her composure; but it was useless, the situation was too tense, the atmosphere in which they had moved lately too abnormal for conventionality to bridge the awkwardness. On a sudden impulse he turned to her.
“Won’t you tell me about it, Vera?” he said. It was the first time he had used her name, but she did not seem to notice it. The tears had suffused her eyes once again.
“I can’t,” she said, piteously, “Oh—you don’t understand——”
“Let me help you,” he said. “You have discovered that your husband is in debt?”
She nodded, keeping her eyes on the water.
“I knew he was in debt,” she said, “always—before we married I knew about it. But——”
“You have realized that he is a fly in the Spider’s net?” he suggested, gently.
Again she nodded, but without speaking.
“How have you discovered that?”
“It was Father Xavier who asked him the question, and he admitted that Makra was his creditor,” she answered. “Of course, directly Mr. Whatman told us about the Spider I guessed that it was he who had Dominic in his power. But at the time it didn’t seem to make much difference.”
“And now you are afraid——”
He did not complete his sentence, for indeed he guessed her fear well enough. Had not his own thoughts been busy working out the pros and cons of the suspicion which was torturing her?
He moved away from the river and dropped down beside her on the grass.
“Tell me about it—all,” he said. It was almost a command.
He lent forward and took her hand in his, and she let it lie there without comment. Then keeping her eyes on the river she began to speak.
It was an odd, complex, yet very complete story that he gleaned in the course of the next quarter of an hour, for Vera had the fluent vocabulary of a silent woman given to thinking out her thoughts in leisure and solitude.
The D’Silva family had owned big property up to the time of Dominic’s father, but it had been heavily mortgaged and in difficulties for many generations—how long, Vera could not say, but for himself Masson thought he could supply the probable date.
The estate on the fertile West coast dwindled and grew again, subject to political as well as to financial troubles, but the final crisis did not occur until early in Dominic D’Silva’s childhood. His mother had died at his birth and at this time his father was contemplating marrying again, a middle-aged woman of some property, whom he had met while on a visit to Calcutta. It was just at this point that Makra and Co. brought themselves somewhat insistently to his notice over a matter of interest, which had been allowed to stand over pending a time of comparative prosperity dawning for the estate. The sum was so huge, the company’s manner and methods so unpleasant, that the bankruptcy court loomed to the unfortunate elder D’Silva as a veritable haven of refuge. Things, he assured himself, were better now—something could be arranged which at least would enable his son, if not himself, to be free from the crushing burden he and his ancestors had carried. He had almost made up his mind to the step when he was startled by a letter from his fiancée. The first few lines relieved him, for it seemed that, even in far away Calcutta, the news of his embarrassments had reached her, and he was thus saved the unpleasant task of relating them to her. But as he perused the closely written, discursive, elliptic, ungrammatical pages, horror dawned upon him. For one fact emerged clearly—the warm-hearted, impulsive creature, in her anxiety to help him, had mortgaged her own by no means inconsiderable property, in the east of India, and the money raised thereby was for his use, to be employed in paying the sum for which he was being sued. Aghast though he was at her action, he soon saw that he could not hurt and disappoint her by refusing to take the money. Accordingly, the debt was paid, but Makra acknowledged it by sending in a further and stiffer bill for interest alleged to have been left unpaid in the time of D’Silva’s grandfather. He disputed the account. Makra took it to court, and by the time the lawyers had piled up a sum in fees almost equal to the amount of the disputed interest, he was glad enough to compromise—to let Makra have his whole estate in settlement of the alleged debt, and to borrow money to pay the lawyers. This done, he married and retired to live on his wife’s mortgaged estate in the east. It was only gradually that it grew clear to them that the lawyers, the man from whom the money for the lawyers’ fees had been borrowed, and the firm to whom Mrs. D’Silva had mortgaged her own property, were each and everyone but Makra, under a variety of pet-names, but smelling as sweet under all.
This was the inheritance to which Dominic D’Silva had succeeded—a property now dwindled pitiably, and his in name only, for the agreement which his step-mother signed in her impulsiveness had been an iniquitous one; a memory and tradition of past grandeur heightened by time and a romantic imagination; and an almost superstitious conception of the Spider’s subtlety and power.
Of Dominic’s personal character the worst that emerged was that he was neurotic, and conspicuously lacked the asset commonly known as a head for drink. The most harmless of pegs was sufficient to render him slightly more than hilarious, whilst a larger quantity was apt to have serious consequences of an unusual type. During Dominic’s time in England, it had been his lot to fall foul of a fellow-student of the type which prides itself on its British bull-doggism and interprets that quality as a profound, and continually expressed, contempt for anything or anyone differing in manner, custom or race from its own sealed pattern. The duel between the two reached its climax at a revel where the Bull Dog made repeated comments regarding “dirty niggers” and “damned half-castes.” Nothing happened at the time, but that night Dominic got drunk—so drunk that his friends took him away forcibly to his room, and, unable to persuade him to go to bed, compromised by locking him in safely away from harm, as they fondly imagined. It must have been about an hour later that they heard screams proceeding from the Bull Dog’s room, and rushing in found him being belaboured by a wild, almost demented figure, clad in pyjamas, and armed with a heavy cudgel, which, when they could stop its mad gyrations, proved to be Dominic D’Silva. How he had got out of his room unharmed remained a mystery, for it seemed certain that he had climbed out by the window. The affair was hushed up, it being clear the next day that Dominic genuinely remembered nothing of what had happened, except as a vague nightmare. The episode had a beneficially sobering effect on him, and for many years after he touched no alcohol.
Of worse qualities than these it was difficult, Masson realized, to find any trace in the man’s character—he was weak but not vicious. He had, it is true, the mannerisms and outlook of his kind, which to some—as to the Bull Dog student—loom as worse crimes than many moral defects, but neither could justly be laid to Dominic’s charge, any more than his failure to fulfil Vera’s ideal of a dream-lover. It is the curse of such temperaments as Vera’s, that they think their own dreams and vagueries the normal, instead of the exceptional. Savage with loneliness, repressed, denied companionship and expansion just where she needed it most, Vera had often been unjust to Dominic—a fact she herself recognized and spoke of now in her unconsciously self-revealing narrative. Life between them in that lonely bungalow had been stormy and difficult, but not impossible, until the day when coal was discovered on Dominic’s land. This, which to most people would have been hailed as the long-awaited dawn of prosperity, to him brought nothing but trouble, and almost despair. According to that iniquitous agreement by which he held the land, he could neither sell, nor in any way dispose of his property, without the consent of Makra and Co., who, moreover, had the power to foreclose at any moment they chose should the entire capital debt not be forthcoming on the instant. It needed little perspicacity on Dominic’s part to foresee that the announcement of the discovery of a coal-seam would provide the moment of their choice. The fact that at this very moment Makra chose to begin a new offensive added the last straw to his already exaggerated awe of the Spider. He was ready to believe each and all of the wild rumours which were afloat concerning the mysterious insect’s sinister doings.
Always reserved, he grew sullen and secretive, fearful to follow the sane course of taking legal advice on the matter, fearful even to allow Vera into his confidence. Worst of all he had begun to drink again.
Vera paused in her narrative and sat staring at the river.
“Of course I didn’t know all this then,” she said. “I had heard that the money-lenders had tricked his father out of his property in some way; I knew that Dominic had what seemed to me an exaggerated fear of them—but that was all. I did not know the details of the story, and I had never heard of Makra nor of his reputation. I began to think Dominic’s mind had become unhinged. Then, when he began talking of the old Jew’s treasure——”
“The what?” exclaimed Masson, startled. “What is that?”
Vera shook her head.
“I don’t know,” she said. “Neither does Dominic really, that is the silly part of it. It is just a vague family tradition.”
“What is the tradition, do you know?”
“No—nothing at all definite. There isn’t anything definite to know, but there is a story that a paper they have—some sort of acrostic—if properly solved, would bring them ‘the Jew’s treasure.’ I don’t know what Jew.”
Masson did not answer but sat staring ahead of him, his brow puckered as though striving to work out a train of thought.
“And then?” he prompted at last.
Things had gone from bad to worse, it seemed, and at last Vera in desperation, hearing that Father Xavier, whom she had met once on a visit to northern India, was to be in Calcutta, had determined to see him and ask his advice.
“And then?” prompted Masson once again.
She did not answer immediately.
“Was it then that you met Peters?” he asked.
She shook her head.
“No, I had met him before. I knew that his firm often bought up land and estates out here, and I thought it would be worth while talking to him of our troubles. He was very excited when I told him about the discovery of coal, and he said he was sure his people could do something in the matter. Of course I couldn’t tell him much of Dominic’s affairs, but as it happened I knew the name of the agent to whom he paid his interest.”
“Pandra Roy?” suggested Masson.
“Yes—Mr. Peters seemed to know of him. He offered to take me there, and I went with him, the day I was due to leave Calcutta. Father Xavier came with us, but he stayed outside whilst we interviewed Pandra Roy.”
“And what happened at the interview?”
Vera shook her head.
“I don’t know,” she said. “They spoke in the vernacular and I can never follow anything complicated. But Mr. Peters was very angry. He said the man was insolent, but that he would deal with him later—I wasn’t to worry. We had only just come out when the bomb was thrown. I saw someone was hurt—I didn’t see who—and I felt I ought to stay and help. But Mr. Peters hurried me away. He said he didn’t want me mixed up in an affair of that kind. Anyway, I had my train to catch.”
“And Father Xavier?”
“I wrote to him from Dawana asking him to come and stay with us. I knew Mrs. Spenlow wouldn’t mind.”
“I see,” said Masson slowly. “And why—why did you pretend you had not met Peters before?”
“I had to,” she answered, and her voice shook as she spoke. “Dominic was so queer when I got back I didn’t dare tell him I had been trying to take a hand in his affairs. I wrote and warned Mr. Peters about it. I meant to tell Dominic later—when he and Peters had had a chance to talk of things. But then, when I heard about the Spider I—I didn’t dare to——”
She broke off, and as he looked at her quickly, he saw that her face was deathly white.
“You are sure you have told him nothing about it?” he asked.
“Yes, yes, quite sure,” she cried, and he saw the terror in her eyes.
“But he might have got to hear of it?”
“No—I don’t see how—+” she began, then without warning broke down utterly, throwing herself face downwards on the grass and crying with the abandonment of a child.
Catharine Vereker knelt on the floor of her tent, thrusting clothes hastily into a suitcase. They were to leave the following day for Calcutta, and she found herself surreptitiously counting the hours that must elapse before their departure. There was no denying that the atmosphere of the bungalow had become almost unbearable with strained nerves and suppressed suspicions. Catharine indeed found herself automatically thrusting several of the latter out of sight, even as she pushed her garments into the suitcase, careless of creasing and rumpling. Yet, whilst the garments at least remained where she had put them, the suspicions refused to be eliminated. One by one they pushed their heads upwards again, besieging her mind with questions and surmises.
That track to Bhutara, by which the elephants and servants had travelled with the kit—only seven miles instead of the twenty-five by road. A villainous track no doubt, but still negotiable by an able horseman. That animal they had heard as they went out to the machan which she had thought at the time sounded like a horse. And D’Silva, a fine horseman left at Jamala alone; D’Silva who knew the country like the palm of his hand; who had been sleeping like a log when Robin came to rouse him. Had there been time to ride back seven miles over rough ground, get into bed and feign, or perhaps actually sleep? Yes, there would have been time—but how mad the whole thing was. She was going demented—trying to make things pan out like a shilling shocker—real life wasn’t like that. Her mind switched to another point. What a strange connection seemed to have been established between the story of old Matthew, the Jew, and the D’Silvas. Dominic D’Silva, the descendant of the baby girl who had been adopted by the solemn lumbering Portuguese lover—what bearing had that on the present happenings? Then why— Catharine almost started visibly as the thought flashed through her mind—why had Masson withheld the name of the woman who owned the manuscripts? At the time she had thought nothing of it, supposing it to be ordinary reticence concerning what were after all family documents which had been lent to him, but now it seemed to her to have another significance. What reason could he have for withholding the name, unless it was one familiar to them? One, that is to say, borne by one or other of the party? Or some friend known to them all? At the time, she remembered, she had laughingly accused Masson of having his own ideas on the subject of the cypher—perhaps he had.
She started uncontrollably as Khem Singh entered the tent with his usual soft tread, then took herself to task angrily for her childishness. Really, she was becoming ridiculous.
Undeniably, Father Xavier’s rather odd behaviour was responsible for a great deal of this jumpiness. The priest, for some reason, radiated an atmosphere of vigilance and expectation, though of what she could not have said. It was as though he had constituted himself the watch-dog of the house—and certainly, to Catharine’s knowledge, he had not left the compound since the day he came back to hear of Peters’ mishap—though over whom, or against what he watched, she had no idea. Each night as she began her vigil in Peters’ sick-room the priest marched determinedly in, and went the round of doors and windows, looking at the bolts and locks.
“I make all safe, no?” remarked cheerfully. “It is a wassis dangerous country.”
Perhaps it was not surprising that her nerves had begun to feel the strain. Well, she thanked heaven that to-day saw the end of it—Peters was up and dressed for the first time. He looked pale from his sojourn in bed, but otherwise well enough—and, indeed, why should he not be? Night by night as she had kept her vigil, listening to the patient’s even breathing within the room, and the doctor’s faint snores which came to her from the dressing-room, it had come home to Catharine that her own post was that, not of night nurse, but of sentinel. She too was there on guard, though why she did not know. The situation had become a nightmare in which everyone watched for a danger they could not define.
Well, anyway, to-day, with the patient up and dressed, she reminded herself again, things would be more normal, and as if to emphasize this return to normality, Father Xavier broke through his rule of ceaseless vigilance that afternoon. D’Silva announced at lunch that he had to visit an estate some miles away, where there was reputed to be an outbreak of cholera—news had just come in. Catharine saw the priest look up sharply and his eyes narrowed momentarily, as though in speculation of some obscure point.
“Then I will come with you, I think, my friend,” he said, seemingly making up his mind. “It will be a change for me, no?”
D’Silva looked across at him steadily for the space of a second without speaking, and Catharine could not fathom the meaning of the glance.
“Oh, I’ll be glad of your company, Father,” he returned at last. “It is a beautiful day for a drive. We’ll go in the car.”
Catharine herself spent the afternoon reading on her bed. She was tired, but she would not sleep for fear of spoiling her first night’s real rest. She went to bed that night disgracefully early as she herself phrased it, and was asleep almost before her head was on the pillow.
She knew nothing until the sound of a scream tore through the air and shocked her into wakefulness.
Always afterwards Catharine remembered that moment as the climax of the nightmare. It would come back to her in her dreams, the awakening in the dark with her heart pounding suffocatingly; the Map-Maker’s slower awakening; the sense of mystery and of horror; then the hurried scramble into slippers and a fur coat, and the dash across the compound in the cold, with a metallic waning moon casting an unearthly light on the familiar scenes.
Over at the bungalow all was confusion, but gradually—she never knew how—the facts reached her. Vera, unable to sleep, had gone into her husband’s room for some aspirin and had found him dying, indeed, all but dead, obviously from the effects of some poison. Vera herself, assisted by the little doctor babu, was doing all that she could for him, and Masson had ’phoned, with considerable difficulty at that hour, for a doctor. He came, just as dawn was breaking, but he was too late—as indeed they had known he must be—D’Silva was dead.
Father Xavier was with him to the end. He came to Catharine as she sat shivering in front of her tent, striving to drink some hot tea which Khem Singh had brought her.
“It is over,” said the priest, simply.
She looked up at him in mute horror.
“Is—is anything known?” she managed to stammer at last.
He shook his head. D’Silva it seemed had been conscious to the end—able to respond to questions by a pressure of the hand, but unable to speak. His speech had been paralysed, and if he knew who his assailant had been, the secret perished with him.
“Is it certain that there was foul play?” asked Catharine. It seemed an absurd question even as she asked it.
For answer the priest extracted, from the capacious sleeve of his brown habit, an object which he had been holding there in concealment. It was an all but empty whisky bottle.
Catharine stared at it uncomprehendingly.
“Yes?” she queried.
“It was lying near the bed, on the floor in D’Silva’s room,” he answered.
“Yes?” she said again, “and you think——?”
“But look closer,” he said quietly.
Catharine bent her head over the bottle. The dawn was not yet fully come, but in the faint light she could just make the tracing of a spider, clumsily scrawled on the label.
She gave a sudden involuntary cry, but he stopped her with a gesture as there came the sound of voices, and turning they saw Colonel Vereker, the doctor, Robin, Masson and Peters, coming down the steps of the veranda.
Father Xavier at once moved over to them. There was an air of authority about his manner.
“You are satisfied, doctor, as to the cause of the death?” he asked formally.
The doctor nodded.
“Yes, there seems to be no room for doubt,” he answered gravely. “The man was poisoned. I am, of course, sending my report of the case and stating the nature of the poison.”
“Where is Mrs. D’Silva, do you know?” asked Masson who had been standing on the steps behind the group. “I have not seen her since the first alarm.”
“Someone surely should go to her,” exclaimed Peters.
“No—please,” said the doctor. “Mrs. D’Silva is best left alone. She fainted when she realized what had happened—I mean when she realized there was no hope. I had a difficult task bringing her round. I have given her an injection and she is asleep now. It is to be hoped that she will be allowed to rest in absolute quiet. One of the native women who has done ayah’s work is with her. She will call Mrs. Vereker as soon as the patient wakes.”
Father Xavier turned to Colonel Vereker.
“And the police?” he questioned quietly.
“I am just going to ’phone for them,” said Vereker.
The priest nodded.
“Yes, that is necessary,” he said. “And you, Colonel, as senior officer are in charge, no? For the rest of us, the men at least, it is understood we are en parole, I think. No one must leave the compound.”
“No,” agreed Vereker gravely, “that is obvious, of course.”
“And the rooms of the bungalow, they will be locked until the arrival of the police?” suggested Father Xavier.
“I guess that’s for Mrs. D’Silva to say,” exclaimed Peters. “Don’t you think these precautions are a bit—well dramatic, Father Xavier?”
“Surely for Mrs. D’Silva’s sake——” began Masson, but the priest shook his head.
“It is largely for her sake that I make the precautions, he answered inexorably.
D’Silva was buried that afternoon, and perhaps never had a more curiously assorted group of people gathered at a graveside. Though outwardly their faces expressed nothing but the conventional solemnity the occasion demanded, in the minds of each one grim thought was paramount—D’Silva had been poisoned by doctored whisky, and enquiries had elicited the fact that he always kept a bottle of the spirit in a cupboard in his bedroom; further questionings and deductions had seemed to establish the fact that only on the afternoon of the day before, could anyone have entered his room for the purpose of substituting the doctored bottle for that ordinarily kept there, for previously the sick-room, opening off the one D’Silva had occupied, had been tenanted, and anyone entering the smaller room, even by the door from the veranda, would have been under observation: further—and this was the grim thought—with the exception of Father Xavier—who at least had been absent from the compound in the company of the murdered man—not one of the party had an alibi for the fateful hours. Each had spent the time differently—Catharine lying reading on her bed, the Map-Maker working in his office tent, Robin out on the plain striving to correct the errors he had detected in a surveyor’s work, Masson working at his typewriter, Peters dozing in a chair on the other side of the house, but not one had been in sight or hearing of another. Each and anyone of them might equally well have entered the house and placed the doctored whisky in the cupboard.
Father Xavier’s face was grave and composed, but pale, as he read the prayers. Catharine knew, that for some reason she could not fathom, he held himself guilty of carelessness in not having foreseen D’Silva’s danger, otherwise why had he exclaimed as he locked the whisky bottle away safely the day before, “Oh, the big fool I am, not to think of that?”
Vera stood white and frozen as a statue by the graveside, her face an expressionless mask, but the little doctor babu was openly blubbering as he stood some distance off, among the servants and villagers who had assembled in the compound. It seemed strange that D’Silva should have inspired affection in such an unexpected quarter.
Catharine strove to speak to Vera when the ceremony was over, but the girl’s look of cold composure froze the words of conventional sympathy which rose to the elder woman’s lips, and she let her go back to the bungalow in silence. She turned instead to Father Xavier, who, divested of his stole and cotta, was strolling in the compound, breviary in hand.
“There is one thing I wish you would tell me,” she said, “and that is—why did you make that mysterious allusion to my writing verses in connection with the theft?”
The point was a convenient one to raise, for whilst she found it impossible to make conversation on any subject wholly unconnected with the mysteries which surrounded them, she did not wish to speak of the more tragic occurrences.
The priest smiled faintly at the question, hesitated for a moment, then took a notebook from his pocket and opening it extracted a folded paper.
“It is this, no?” he asked holding it out to her.
To her surprise she saw that it was, in fact, the paper with her verses scribbled on it.
“Yes—but where on earth did you find it?” she exclaimed.
“I found it lying on the floor in D’Silva’s room one day.”
“But how did it get there?”
Father Xavier shrugged his shoulders.
“We bring your suitcase in the car, you remember?”
“Oh——” sudden enlightenment came to Catharine.
“Then you think that someone—D’Silva—opened my suitcase for some reason and the verses fell out without being noticed?”
“I think that the suitcase come open,” he explained, “for we have noticed that it is not locked, and that D’Silva see inside the manuscripts of Mr. Masson’s book. You recall that he has spoken of that book—of the old documents which have come into his hands, of the story of a treasure and a cypher, no? And in D’Silva’s family there is a legend of a treasure that may be found if they shall solve a puzzle, a strange wassis jumble of letters on an old bit of parchment which they have preserved in the family. It will bring them wealth, riches maybe—they have all heard of the old legend, they have seen the puzzle. And D’Silva at the moment need money—he dream, maybe, of finding the Jew’s treasure, of gaining riches which will help him out of his troubles. It would be a temptation, no? Just to borrow those manuscripts and read the story?”
“It certainly would,” agreed Catharine. “But—you think then that it was D’Silva who stole the manuscripts from Masson and Peters? Or, at least, that it was he who arranged to have them stolen?”
“I think that it was he who arrange to have them—borrowed, shall we say?”
“Because he has seen in the manuscript that he has read, the cypher key, no? Also he has read of a cypher book. The cypher key is incomplete—but it is the same as the strange paper his family has kept for so long, and also, his is more complete. He think then that he can only have that cypher book he will be able to discover the Jew’s treasure, and he wish to find out if Masson has it with him in camp.”
“But why take Peters’ papers, then?”
Father Xavier shrugged his shoulders once again.
“For that,” he said, “it was perhaps a blind. Also I think that the drawing of the spider is a blind. There has been much talk of that insect, no? It would be a what you call red bloater, no?”
“I see,” said Catharine slowly. “But how came it I wonder that D’Silva had the cypher key in his family?”
The priest smiled suddenly with genuine amusement. It was the first time she had seen him do so for many a day.
“We cannot say, of course,” he answered, “but I think that wassis Matthew make a common mistake perhaps—he underestimate the intelligence of women.”
“But the Hindu girl, no? She would lie and watch him write. He would talk to her maybe—tell her (thinking she cannot understand) how he tell the secret of his wisdom and his wealth. She cannot write or read, so he think she have no brain. But she can copy maybe, or perhaps there was one copy of the key which he reject for some so small error and throw away. She find it and give it to her brother, no? She tell him, perhaps, it is the secret of the old man’s hidden money—who can understand it will find the money. And the brother keep the paper, he give it to the baby girl when she is adopted by Dominic D’Silva, and it remain always in the family,
“Yes, I see,” said Catharine again. One tiny bit of the jig-saw puzzle seemed to have been fitted into place. “What a pity D’Silva did not live to solve the cypher.”
“But,” exclaimed Father Xavier surprisingly, and there was a grim note in his voice. “He solve it. Oh yes, most certainly he solve it.”
He turned to her with a sudden change of tone, before she had time to comment or ask a question.
“Mrs. Vereker, it is that you will do me a favour? You see, I am en parole, no? I cannot leave the compound. But to you that do not apply I think. You will be so kind as to take this wire for me to the telegraph office? It is of the great importance that it is dispatched to-night, for I hear that the police officer comes early to-morrow.”
“Certainly,” she exclaimed. She indeed welcomed the thought of the distraction the errand would provide.
The walk to the telegraph office did her good, and she felt a saner, more normal attitude to fife, and the events of the past days coming to her as she stepped briskly along the stony road. She had little to do once she had reached the office, for the priest had given her the message in a sealed envelope addressed to the Postmaster. There was a letter for Father Xavier which had just arrived by the mail, and Catharine took it back with her. Since D’Silva’s death, it had been thought better to allow none of the servants to leave the compound, so they could not send for their letters, and were dependent on the somewhat haphazard delivery system of the local office.
The letter was addressed in Jean’s handwriting.
The sun had set and it was already dusk as she entered the gates of the compound again. The bungalow looked homely and peaceful, silhouetted against the tea-rose tinted sky, the light from Vera’s room showing deep, warm orange through the violet shadows. It seemed impossible for the moment to believe that it had been the scene of such a grim tragedy, yet even as Catharine approached up the drive, a shrill scream rang out followed by another, and another, then a crash of something overturned and a sound of broken crockery.
For a second Catharine stood still, paralysed, then she began to run. Dimly she was aware as she did so of a dark figure that slipped from a side door and vanished round the corner of the house; of other figures—Khem Singh and Firoze they looked like, giving chase, then from the other side of the house came a sudden view-hallo in Masson’s voice.
“There he goes—after him——” and she heard the sounds of the pursuit die away towards the far corner of the compound.
Yet a quarter of an hour later, when the entire party assembled in front of the house, they had to admit that they were defeated. The man had got clean away.
“I never even saw him,” the Map-Maker said, “after he came round the corner and slipped into the shadow of the trees. Then I heard your voice yelling to us to come on, so I came. Which way did he go?”
“Over to the north side, obviously making for the hills,” answered Masson, “but he had too big a start on me. And he could run and no mistake.”
“I never saw the blighter once,” complained Robin bitterly.
“Nor I,” said Peters. “Who’s this?”
Khem Singh emerged from the shadows.
“These have been found,” he said. “Over yonder where the wall runs close to the hill.”
He pointed northward, in the direction Masson had already indicated. The things which he held out proved to be a black dressing-gown-like garment, a mask and gloves, also black.
“Damn,” swore Masson. “He can’t have been more than a score of yards ahead of me, but he dropped his disguise and did us down. For all we know he may be still in the compound “
Catharine meantime had been with Vera. The girl had been lying in a dead faint when she entered the room, and it had taken a long time to bring her round. Catharine had sent the little ayah for the doctor babu, but he was out, and she had to cope with the situation as best she could.
Vera lay utterly still, even after she had opened her eyes, staring at the ceiling with a look of fixed, unspeakable horror.
“Vera dear,” said Catharine gently, “don’t look like that. It is all right now—quite safe——”
The girl looked up at her stonily.
“You don’t understand,” she said in a dead, toneless voice. “It was I who killed Dominic really. I had feared it before—but now I know for certain——”
Catharine slept in her room that night, and, strangely, slept well. It seemed as though her mind, her nerves, her entire system were exhausted, utterly incapable of further fears, speculations or emotions.
Khem Singh roused them at dawn with the news that the Police Sahib’s car had been sighted coming in the distance.
They dressed hurriedly, though in silence, and went into the dining-room where the Map-Maker was awaiting them, and some hot tea. Robin came in a few seconds after them and Father Xavier arrived only a minute or two ahead of the policeman’s car. The priest’s face was graver than it had ever been and Catharine felt her heart sink as she looked at it. In his hand he held a telegram which despite the earliness of the hour had been delivered.
Vera sat like a statue at the table. Only once did she speak, and that was as the drive outside showed up momentarily in a white illumination.
“That must be Mr. Bronson’s head-lights,” she said.
Oddly enough the arrival of the police officer seemed to have a reassuring effect. He was a big, red-faced, heavily built man with a great booming voice, and his total lack of anything approaching an official manner, his unexpressed but obvious sympathy for Vera, his questions regarding discontent among the labour on the property, sedition-mongers and other matters, jerked them instantly out of the rather abnormal atmosphere into which they had sunk.
“Well, since you’re so kind as to suggest it, Mrs. D’Silva,” he boomed, “I will have a spot of breakfast before getting down to work. I’ve another forty miles to go to-day after clearing things up here, and the roads are pretty bad.”
“Then since time presses,” said Father Xavier, “it is permitted that I speak to you with your breakfast? I have information of the great importance.”
Bronson looked surprised, but he agreed to the suggestion and the rest of the assembled party went out on to the veranda.
Catharine did not know how long after it was that they heard a cry and saw a servant run agitatedly from one of the bashas into the house. At the moment, perturbed by something in the man’s manner—something that spoke plainly of terror and disaster—she was too agitated to recognize him or to say from whose basha he had come. But in a moment or two she knew. Instinctively they had moved over to the basha, and as Bronson and Father Xavier came hurrying out from the bungalow they crowded in through the low straw doorway of the tiny hut.
Masson was lying dead upon the bed. By his side on the tiny table was a glass of water and a bottle of quinine tablets.
“What’s this?” exclaimed Bronson. Don’t touch it,” he added as instinctively Catharine put out her hand for the tiny bottle. “There may be finger-prints.”
“It’s quinine,” she answered mechanically. “We all take it every night for malaria.”
“H’m—I wonder,” said Bronson.
He took out his handkerchief and wrapping it round his hand took up the bottle, removing the stopper and smelling at its contents. But as he raised it Catharine caught sight of a pencilled hieroglyphic scrawled on the label.
“The Spider,” she cried.
“But no,” said Father Xavier, peering over Bronson’s shoulder, “it is a wassis fly.”
There are some remarks that seem to ring down the curtain and that of the priest’s was one of them. Catharine never remembered the events of the next few hours, nor indeed of the next few days. She and the Map-Maker, as well as all others in the house, were perforce obliged to stay, answering questions, and giving information, whilst the police investigated matters. Many documents were found among Masson’s things which helped to elucidate things, but it was not until both Roys, hearing the news of his death, made voluntary statements, that the last details were cleared up. Catharine herself only learnt the full story from Father Xavier the day before she and her husband left for Calcutta.
“I am still utterly bewildered,” she said, coming up to the priest as he walked in the garden in the cool of the evening. “I can’t fit the jig-saw together. Won’t you give me the whole history, Father? What first put you on the right track?”
He smiled as he turned, and indicating a seat placed near by, moved over to it.
“But it was that book of Masson’s, no?” he said when they were comfortably seated. “You recall that you give me the manuscript that time when you go to Bhutara. I read it that night and the next day. And I am wassis puzzled by that story. I do not understand it; I say to myself—this power, this treasure of the Jew, what are they? And then—you recall that when I read it I have the thought of Makra in my mind because of the theft?—a so small point strike me: there is mention of the ‘winged creatures’ round the flame, of how they struggle, they buzz, no? But flies they do not struggle and buzz round a flame. No, it is one place only, the spider’s web they do that. Then it come to me—pouf—like that. To what does he liken the brother of the girl, the lover? To flies in the spider’s web. This power then of which he write so mysteriously, it is the power of the spider? And Matthew is a Jew—may he not also be then a money-lender? And that paper he throw on the table between him and his enemies—it is perhaps the proof that they are in his power? Till then they may not know who is their creditor, as many to-day do not know Makra. It is what you say coincidence, no? Moreover, I know already that D’Silva is in debt to Makra; that the estate it is in the spider’s web for many generations; that there has been a D’Silva at the court of Akbar—it is a family tradition; that they have also in the family the story of the Jew’s treasure—and I put the puzzle gradually together. But one thing it puzzle me—if this wassis mysterious power is the power of usury, the treasure is the treasure of money and interest; of what need then to write the cypher manuscript? Of what need all the mystery? Then I remember the point on which Matthew have argued in that court when he dispute with the Christians. It is that he contend for an early millennium and they for a spiritual kingdom, no? It is not perhaps of the great importance yet it show to me the mentality of Matthew—-he is a man who believe this world to be of the supreme importance; for him to be rewarded by Jehovah, is to be rewarded in this world; to be rich and powerful in this world mean to be the favoured of Jehovah. Such a mind, if it become unbalanced—and there are indications that in the heat, the wassis luxury, the intrigue of that court, Matthew have become mad—such a mind might well exaggerate this power of usury, might deify it, might believe it to be a revelation. That is how I think Matthew has reasoned—then I read that so strange poem at the end of the story and I see I have the right nail on the foot— no, on the head. Matthew I think have argued like this— I am a poor old man; shabby; no one loves me; yet have I not the power as great as the Emperor himself? For I have money, and these flies in my net, they are my slaves, they must do my bidding. Then when he look out at the sky, he see a mad vision—the stars are the bright flies in the invisible net of Jehovah, and he, Matthew, is the appointed type, representative, of Jehovah on earth; the children of men are his flies, for so it has been appointed. But more, he is himself the type of his race; of his seed shall be born the promised king who shall reign over the whole world, for theirs shall be the wealth and the power by the means of usury extended and extended, drawing through the generations so many millions of flies into their net. This is the big ‘revelation’ he believe to have been given to him, and he laugh as he think of the proud Christian who say that gold and the things of this world are not great enough reward. It is this ‘revelation’ he put into the cypher manuscript which he order to be given in the manner so solemn, so mysterious, to his descendants.”
“Then there was no real treasure?” exclaimed Catharine disappointedly. “No real secret or power?”
The priest smiled.
“There was no wassis buried gold, no secret potion, no. But for reality”—he paused and made an expressive gesture. “You have that mysterious cypher no? And the instructions so elaborate of how it is to be imparted to the child as he grows up. They are carried out those instructions, but for a long while the descendants of Matthew do not heed them greatly. They grow up, they make the money, they practise usury, they come to India maybe to look after their interest—it is the right word, no?—but for the rest they do not attach to it the great importance. Yet they will pass on that knowledge, they will observe the ceremony which they have been told to carry out, for it have become a family tradition. And at last, in Philip that idea of the old Jew come to life. He have the great imagination Philip, and the temperament artistic; also he lead a lonely life, for his father is dead and his mother do not send him to school. He dream and he dream; he receive the ‘revelations’ with all the ceremony Matthew have prescribed, and they make the big impression. He dream then that he himself will fulfil the ‘revelation,’ that he will be the supreme ruler and king of the world. When he come to India he set about working for that fulfilment. For the results—you have seen them. It is real that secret of Matthew’s no? It is at least powerful for evil.”
Catharine shuddered. It seemed to her that she could see the wicked, mad mind of the old Jew thrusting itself like a wand of evil through the centuries.
“So Philip was the descendant of the baby boy who was sent to England?” she said.
“Yes—so it seem, but at the time of which we speak, I do not know that. I guess only that old Matthew is Makra, Makra the First, and that D’Silva is in his web. And I know that Masson has the wassis documents in his possession though he say they have been given to him. It is strange I think that he told the truth there—they were given to him by a woman—his mother since his father is dead—and they were ‘lent’—for he must pass them on to his own son in due course. It please him that, I think; it amuse him to tell the literal truth yet find people too stupid to understand. It is in that spirit that he write his books. But to continue. I do not yet guess that Philip is the descendant of Matthew. I wonder, only. I know he have the papers and that he come to this part to seek atmosphere for his book on the Moghuls. It does not altogether explain itself that.”
“Why did he come, actually?” interpolated Catharine.
“Because of the coal which it is rumoured have been found here. You recall how he say quickly, ‘What is that?’ when I regard a stone. He wish to see if it is true, and if so he will for-close on D’Silva’s property. But I continue. I think to myself—this Mr. Masson, who is he? He is English, yes? He is a Jew, no? Then it come to me again—pouf—that book of his, David Dangerfield. And at once I see it.”
“See what?” asked Catharine.
“But you recall the story, no? Of the young judge who condemn his kinsman to death, and is hunted, persecuted, tortured by the followers of the dead man? It is an allegory of the Hebrew race and the Christians, I think.”
“Of course,” exclaimed Catharine. “I felt it was something I should understand if only I could get the key.”
The priest nodded.
“But more,” he said, “David is also, I think, Philip himself. Like old Matthew, he think himself the type of his race, only he is the end not the beginning, the fulfilment, not the promise. And when I think of that I see plainly the character of Philip, the lust for power, the desire for vengeance—and I grow afraid.”
He paused and stared meditatively ahead of him before continuing his narrative.
His mind had remained in this state—all but convinced, yet with still lingering doubt, when he returned to Jamala and found Peters wounded. At once with the key in his possession he read the incident aright. His knowledge of D’Silva’s own history, of the incident of the Bull Dog student, left him in little doubt as to who had been the aggressor, and, as he saw by his perusal of Catharine’s diary, it was Masson not Peters whom D’Silva expected to find in the machan, for Masson had drawn the lucky number in the first lottery. It was only after arrival at Bhutara that he had resigned his chance and Peters had drawn the lucky ticket. D’Silva then Father Xavier deduced, having had the papers abstracted, had feigned a day’s fever in order to peruse the cypher. His familiarity with the key had doubtless aided him, and the cypher itself not being of a complicated kind, he had solved it, and as he did so his hopes crashed to the ground about him. No treasure—but just the vapouring of a mad old man’s imagination; no treasure, but just the same old evil, under which he and his had groaned for generations, extolled and deified. Then, dimly at first perhaps, but with growing clarity, the stupendous fact dawned upon him—Matthew—Makra? Masson—son of Matthew? Masson with the papers in his possession; Masson here within his gates, talking to his wife, spying on him——
It was small wonder, taking into account D’Silva’s almost superstitious awe of the Spider, that the discovery had all but unbalanced his mind and driven him to desperate action in his delirium. Father Xavier had been more concerned to circumvent Masson’s own probable reactions to the discovery that his identity was known. He had thought to avert disaster by being always on guard, but D’Silva’s call to the cholera outbreak had defeated him, for, fearing an attack on the lonely road by one of the Spider’s agents, he had decided to accompany Dominic and so had given Masson his chance to put the doctored whisky in the cupboard.
“Did Masson know who D’Silva was?” asked Catharine. It seemed to her strange that he had waited so long before striking if he had been sure of his enemy.
No, Father Xavier thought not. To him D’Silva had probably been only one of many similar flies, entangled for a long time in the web, but no more. It was for this reason that the theft must have puzzled him badly and, the priest thought, it was probable that he had suspected Peters. It chanced that Peters’ firm, in the ordinary course of their business, had often come in contact with Makra’s victims and made efforts to take over their debts. They had done so innocently, merely as an ordinary business proposition, but Masson’s mind from its very nature was prone to suspect ulterior motives. Doubtless he thought Peters had abstracted the papers in an effort to establish his identity, and though the fact that the cypher manuscript was the only one not returned must have puzzled him, it would not necessarily make him change his mind. It was for this reason perhaps that he seemed to fail at first to make the obvious connection between D’Silva and the attempt on Peters in the *machan. Only when Vera told him the history of her husband’s affairs did he solve the riddle. Even then he seemed to have thought that D’Silva might have suspected Peters of being Makra, but the true nature of the case was too obvious not to bring conviction. Catharine realized as she listened the reason for the priest’s precautions to protect Vera after her husband’s death.
“Did she know he was Makra?” she asked.
The priest smiled enigmatically.
“Maybe she suspect, and try to warn him, not realizing the danger,” he answered.
“And it was he that night—the figure in black who broke into Vera’s room?” Catharine said.
Father Xavier nodded.
“Yes,” he said gravely. “He was desperate, no. For he think she know who he is, and that he has killed her husband. He must act before the police come. He go into her room by way of the bathroom and try to strangle, her. But he do not know I have stationed Khem Singh and Firoze outside. They come rushing in and Masson escape through the bathroom once again. He slam the door in their face and run out of the outer door. They must go round the house to reach him, and so he gain a start. He run into the shadows, and call out in his own voice, stripping off his disguise. Then he drop it and join in the chase. It is easy, no?”
Catharine nodded slowly. The jig-saw was gradually being built up.
“But what about the knives?” she exclaimed. “And the bomb?”
The priest smiled.
“Ah yes, those are the difficulties,” he exclaimed. “For a long time they puzzle me—I cannot see the details.”
Much, indeed most of what followed, was drawn not from the priest’s own deductions, but from knowledge he had gained subsequent to Masson’s death, from statements made by the Roys and other sources. At the time he had only guessed dimly at the actual sequence of the events, knowing nothing of motives and intentions. It was in fact not for a long time that Catharine herself could fit all the pieces together and gain clear conception of what she termed “the second act.” The first act had been played long ago, at Akbar’s court, and the last act was the one they themselves had played in at Jamala.
The first words of this act, strictly speaking, had been spoken in England, on a rainy day when Masson and Chandra Roy both sought shelter under the same church porch. To both men the meeting must have seemed specially designed by fate, for to Chandra Roy it opened up the chance of financial aid for his cause and to Masson provided a means of realizing his dreams of a visit to India and an intensive campaign of money-making. Just how soon his identity with Makra—together with the reciprocal information that Chandra was a fly in the web was revealed is not quite clear, but it would appear to have been soon after the meeting. A compact was struck, and the two men sailed for India, there to begin that offensive which brought terror and despair to Makra’s victims throughout the length and breadth of the country. Though the affair was managed and organized by Chandra Roy, Masson’s own peculiar characteristics of good business sense coupled with a romantic imagination verging always upon melodrama could be traced in it.
But Masson had no intention of allowing Chandra Roy to dominate him nor circumscribe his policy. He was aware of his secretary’s political tenets and ambitions, of the scarcely veiled intention of diverting some of his wealth to political ends, and it amused him to carry on intrigues with the less constitutional party. His knowledge of the vernacular, imperfect though it was, was sufficient to enable him to keep in personal touch with his other agents and victims. Finding Pandra Roy a likely tool, he had, unknown to Chandra, put him in charge of the elaborate scheme for the manufacture and distribution of the bombs and knives.
Though Masson’s identity was known only to a few of his leading agents, such as Pandra Roy, and though Chandra was loyal in his guarding of the secret, he had been guilty of one indiscretion—he had told his wife. She in her turn had mentioned it to her father, Maha Lal, a man of somewhat violent and unbalanced temperament, and himself a victim of Makra’s. There was an irony in the thought that the bomb thrown at Masson was one of those which he himself had schemed to manufacture and distribute. He had gone that evening to visit Pandra Roy in his shop, and to discuss with him the final arrangements re the distribution of the knives, and on his approach saw not only Father Xavier, but Peters and Vera. is curiosity was instantly aroused for he knew Peters vaguely by sight, and that astute business instinct of his told him that Vera was a fly struggling to escape the Spider’s web. He stopped, in the shadow of the house, to watch them, and whilst doing so became aware of Maha Lal watching him. It seemed, indeed, as though the latter were just on the point of throwing the bomb, when Masson perceived him, and wishing to distract his victim’s attention, Maha Lal adopted the subterfuge of looking beyond him as though at something which startled him. An old ruse, but it succeeded, for Masson instinctively turned and at that moment Maha Lal hurled the missile—hurled it too with good aim. Had the bomb not been a hopeless dud the career of Makra would have ended abruptly there and then. As it was, it must have been chiefly his thoughts and his feelings which were damaged. They can be easily pictured—here was he, the execrated Spider, whose chief safeguard had been his anonymity, not only recognized, but publicly proclaimed in a crowded bazaar street. Moreover, there must inevitably be an enquiry, and a police enquiry into the affairs of Makra and his agent, Pandra Roy, just at the moment when two packed boxes of knives were reposing in the latter’s house, already bearing the name and address of Philip Masson, Esq., was, to put it mildly, undesirable. It was impossible not to accord a grudging admiration to the quickness with which his wits coped with the situation—the skilful suggestion that Maha Lal was the intended victim, not the aggressor; the description, utterly vague, yet circumstantial of the mythical assailant, finally the forcing of confirmatory evidence from Pandra Roy. Masson’s romantic mind had designed a “rallying call” to be used only in case of danger, which consisted in a gesture of the hand, rubbing the back of the head and combing the hair upwards. It was this which he employed now, as he spoke to Pandra Roy, and the latter did not dare disobey—for it carried with it a threat of Makra s full displeasure. The scheme succeeded, and Maha Lal was eventually released as the doctor, all unwittingly, informed Masson the next morning. But his fate was sealed—the Spider could not afford to let a man who had threatened his life and also his identity go free. He would have been a constant source of danger to life and to the whole scheme of Makra’s ambitions. Masson had already suspected how the information of his identity had leaked out, and though unaware of the actual relationship between the Roys, had observed the family likeness. It was easy to play on his secretary’s obvious uneasiness; easy after having duped him with a sham headache to follow him, for Masson possessed two disguises—one that of a babu, the other of a good caste servant—which he had used as fancy dresses. Eastern disguise is not difficult if a good brown stain is procured for the skin, and would be rendered particularly easy if half the face were covered with a cloth after the manner of Indians when suffering from illness or the cold. Nor was it difficult, having followed Chandra to his uncle’s house, to contrive to overhear their conversation, for Indian houses with their crazy walls and unglazed windows, are seldom proof against a determined eavesdropper. It was easy having discovered where Maha Lal—who was under no illusion as to the danger he was in—lay hiding, to precede Chandra to the spot and accomplish the work he had in mind. In only one item did his plan miscarry—he had counted on his secretary reaching the boat sooner than he actually did, and therefore, arriving before Muni returned from the errand on which he had been dispatched. It was indeed no part of Masson’s plan that Roy’s loyalty should be subjected to the strain of an arrest for murder, but he wished to have a hold on him, occasioned by a guilty secret on the secretary’s part that he had indeed been to the boat and seen his father-in-law lying dead. Muni, presumably, would fail to identify Chandra Roy with the man who had been there, but the situation would be uncomfortable to say the least of it, and a suggestion from Masson that the secretary had indeed been out at the hour the murder was committed would have been a powerful weapon in his hands.
Chandra’s fainting fit and subsequent story told Masson that the discovery of Maha Lal’s dead body had already been made—probably he had hoped Muni would not have the courage to take his tale to the police, and that the body would not be found for several days—and, as usual, he acted with promptitude. Chandra’s wife was dispatched with a seemingly harmless message to Pandra Roy, which served the purpose of warning him that a police investigation might possibly ensue, and the next morning, Masson himself, in the guise of a servant, visited the shop in the early dawn, and gave his commands to both the Roys. Chandra, however, though outwardly obedient, had already formed his plan of putting a spoke in the Spider’s wheel.
A week later Masson left for the shooting party, the main object of which, from his point of view, was to gain the opportunity of investigating the rumours regarding the possibility of coal being discovered on the D’Silva estate. His own authentic luggage preceded him to the station and was duly placed in the van. At a further station down the line, Pandra Roy joined the train with the cases containing the knives which were labelled to Tania. It was an easy matter at the latter station—in the small hours of the morning—to obtain possession of the wrong boxes and leave them at the station to be sent for later. That not only Peters, but also Father Xavier happened to be his travelling companions, must have caused Masson some uneasiness. At the time Father Xavier had not, of course, come anywhere near suspecting Masson, but even then there was a question in his mind, coupled with a feeling of something being wrong in the explanation of the affair of the bomb.
“You know it, that feeling, hein?” he said, gesturing graphically. “I have the strong impression that it is Maha Lal who have thrown the bomb; that it is he too who has cried ‘Makra, Makra.’ But when I reflect, I can give no reason for that impression for I have not seen, I have not heard, anything that is definite. And I ask myself one question—this Mr. Masson, why does he promenade himself in the bazaar at that time? It is not usual, no? Further, when I meet him in the train, I ask myself again, why it is that for a book on the Moghuls—so he has told me—it is necessary to acquire the wassis atmosphere of the Bhutan hills. In the train I receive the impression that Mr. Masson is restless—at each station—pouf—he is awake. But, maybe, it is only that he is not used to travel. Then I read his book and I do not like it much—no. It is written so beautifully, no? Yet it bring to my mind something which I cannot recall with the exactitude. It is an allegory I see, but of what, I do not know. Yet I have the impression that it is something I do not like, that allegory.”
It was whilst the party were at Tarmaya that Chandra Roy put his spoke—characteristically an anonymous letter—into Masson’s wheel, and once again Catharine, as she listened, accorded the Spider a grudging admiration for his quickness of wit. The situation from his point of view was desperate, and she wondered just what his feelings must have been as he sat at table and heard Whatman speaking of his information regarding Makra’s activities. Chandra Roy—knowing his secretary’s mentality, Masson can have had little difficulty in guessing the identity of Whatman’s correspondent—was due to arrive at Sulama on the 29th, on Makra’s business, and it would be easy for him, representing himself as Masson’s secretary, to obtain information regarding the cases left at Ghunda—just what the instructions had been, where they were to be sent and when. The 29th, therefore, or possibly the morning of the 30th, was the date on which Whatman might be expected to receive the promised further information from his correspondent, and it was on the night of the 26th that Masson heard of the danger. What should he do? There were, it seemed, about three possible courses open to him; he might take no action, allow the cases to be discovered, and trust to his powers of acting to carry matters off and convince the police of his innocence; he might on the other hand wire instructions to the station-master at Ghunda to dispatch the cases to Gaya where Pandra Roy, also informed by wire, could take delivery of them, but in either solution, Masson felt his own trail would be too apparent—the police could not fail to take the obvious hint which Chandra had dropped them. What was wanted was something which, in spite of appearances, would seem to put Masson definitely on the opposite side to the plotters, and the whole elaborate drama of the chloroforming was arranged with that end in view. A wire, carefully written in an illiterate handwriting, for he foresaw that the form would be acquired by the police, was dispatched to the station-master at Ghunda, naming Kupi as the place where the boxes were to be sent, and a further wire of warning was sent to Pandra Roy, for as has been said, Masson was anxious that neither Chandra nor Pandra should have his loyalty put to the severe test of a police enquiry, and he deemed it wiser seemingly to leave nothing to chance. Pandra Roy acted both promptly and efficiently on the advice, providing himself, through the kind offices of a relative who was obliging enough to prosecute him, with a water-tight alibi. More than this—he contrived to implicate his nephew sufficiently to ensure the latter’s arrest and temporary imprisonment; desperate measures certainly, but the Roys between them harboured, if possible, even fewer illusions as to the Spider’s true nature than Maha Lal had done. Police protection even in a prison was their only hope. Once the acuteness of the danger was past, the obliging relative still more obligingly discovered the missing property which the Roys were accused of stealing, and withdrew the charge.
On the morning of the 29th Masson’s plans were carefully laid. Binbo, an honest, but not over intelligent servant, was sent into Dawana with complicated instructions for the taking of an immediate departure to Calcutta by a circuitous route and with every symptom of melodramatic secrecy. Just what Binbo made of the instructions did not apparently worry his master in the least. He knew they would be obeyed. That done and a tiny link of false evidence thus forged, he had only his own part to think of. At first probably he had intended working the drama from Dawana, but the offer of Robin’s car suggested a better way. Jean’s presence, it is true, must have been an obstacle, but one which he was quick enough to see could be turned to account. He contrived, on the pretext of putting films into his camera, to delay their departure so that they were the last car of the procession. Once he had left Jean at the jhil, it was an easy matter to crawl out of her sight amongst the jungle, to don the blue coat—which along with other necessary things he had in his haversack—to smear one hand at least with brown stain, and to creep back behind her with the chloroform pad ready. Catharine wondered and shuddered as she wondered, what would have happened had Jean turned and seen him before he had gripped her, and knocked the topi over her eyes. It was not difficult to guess that in that case she would have paid the full penalty for her knowledge, for the Spider did not show himself squeamish in matters where his own safety was concerned.
Once Jean had been put to sleep, he had only to get into the car and drive away to some convenient spot where he could complete his make-up. It would seem that he had considerable skill in this matter, and the addition of the scar on this occasion was a stroke of genius. Its presence was obviously to preclude the remote possibility of the station-master at Kupi identifying his blue-coated visitor with Masson, should he at any time see the latter, for it must be remembered that this time Masson was not wearing oriental garments. The matter of the disguise was not so difficult since he had only to face the station-master, a wholly unsuspicious man, for a very short time. His topi would be well pulled down over his eyes, his handkerchief held to his mouth, so there would only be a small expanse of brown skin and the scar showing. Once the cases were safely on board the car he had only to drive back to the spot he had already marked as a suitable one for its discovery where the moistness of a small morass gave him a bog in which to strand the car realistically. The petrol he deliberately ran out of the tank in order to provide a reason for the car’s supposed abandonment by the miscreants. Again his plan only miscarried in one detail—he had not counted on Chandra having the temerity to go to Dawana, and as a result to fall into the hands of the police. Confronted with him, not knowing just what his secretary might say, he gave once more the rallying call of Makra, and Father Xavier, sitting near, had once more a vague, almost subconscious impression of familiarity, too vague however to do more than go to swell the other impressions which were burgeoning in the priest’s mind. At this point Father Xavier had progressed a little, but perhaps not very far, along the path of his suspicions. He was dissatisfied with the explanation given of the whole episode. The two men who were supposed to have been the actors in the drama appeared to him to have acted utterly senselessly. Even granted that they were flustered and rattled by some miscarriage of their plans, their actions seemed totally illogical.
“If it is the anonymous letter that frighten them, why do they not make arrangements to have the cases sent to Calcutta, or to some other station? To bring them here where the police look for them, it is not reasonable, hein?”
He had been struck, too, by the bare footprints in the dust. They seemed to him to be those of a person more accustomed to the use of shoes, than would have been the cultivator of whom Masson spoke. In Indians the toes are separate and uncramped, whereas the prints left on the scene of the crime showed them pressed close together. Further, the scar interested him taken in conjunction with the fact that Blue-Coat had kept his mouth covered. Remembering that Maha Lal’s murderer had done the same, the priest deduced that the scar was not genuine, for why should a man deliberately cover his mouth to avoid detection whilst showing a damning piece of evidence for identification? And the fact that it was always the mouth that was covered, suggested the idea that it was the voice the man was anxious to disguise—to render muffled and indistinct. The voice—or maybe, the accent?
Yet even having got thus far, so implicitly did the priest, along with the rest of the party, assume Makra to be an Indian, that his mind refused to make the obvious connection.
“It is only when I approach the matter from the different direction, that I see the truth, no?”
“But why did he do it?” exclaimed Catharine. “He had enough money surely, in all conscience. What was the object of the plot of the bombs and the knives?”
The priest shrugged his shoulders.
“It is the lust for power, I think,” he answered. “To understand it we must perhaps see clearly the mentality of Masson. He have been brought up much alone, with his dreams, and the wassis ‘revelation’ of the old Jew. To him also the whole world I think is but a big edition of that so small town in which he have lived. It would not be difficult to be king of a world like that, no? Also he have the romantic imagination, the love of intrigue. He come to India where there is much intrigue, where they make always the plots at present. The idea come to him—he, the Spider, will have his own secret army. Or, maybe, it is a secret society he aim to make. He will arm his victims, secretly; afterwards they will have their signs, their means of communication, their instructions. Oh, a mad idea, no? But maybe, not so mad as it seem. Men like Whatman will tell you how wide the web is thrown—how strong it is. There are spies everywhere—for there are victims everywhere who must obey the Spider. Even the best men, the most loyal are not proof against the Spider’s power. And why? Wiry is it that not one of the agents in charge of bomb or knife factories who have been arrested, have told who the Spider is? It is because they fear worse things than arrest—it is not only they who must suffer but their families also.”
“Yes—I can understand, I think,” she said. Then with a sudden start she remembered the obvious gap in her information.
“But, Father Xavier, who killed him?” she cried.
“Who was the Fly?”
The priest did not answer immediately.
“That I cannot say for certain, for I do not know,” he replied at last. “Yet in my own mind—yes, I am certain. It is the same man who steal the papers—D’Silva accomplice.”
“And who was that? I never discovered.”
“No?” he replied. “And yet it is you who see him, who speak to him that evening.”
“I? I spoke to no one. We passed no one on our way——”
“But that is it, no?” he exclaimed. “There is then one you do not pass?”
“I have the good memory. Let me recall what you have told me. We were wassis delayed in starting for the doctor babu he come——”
“The doctor babu,” she exclaimed thunderstruck, whilst a vision of the podgy, pompous little man, with his plump calves and sock suspenders rose in her mind. Then with a sudden shock she remembered that he was missing. He had not been there when Vera fainted, and she had not seen him since.
“But it is easy, no?” said Father Xavier. “He is in the camp. When Masson go to the car he walk over to the basha. If he is seen, it does not matter, for he say only that he go to acquaint the sahib about his servant’s illness. It is convenient I think, that illness.”
“You mean he had given the man something to upset him?” she exclaimed. “It’s true he had been doctoring the whole compound with quinine. It would have been easy.”
“I think it is likely. Then when he have the basha to himself, at once he begin his search for the paper he has been told to try and find. He use, I think, his torch to see. Then all at once he get a big fright. The car come with Peters. There are men, servants, Peters himself in the basha next door. He can no longer use his torch to see. He have already, I think, got things strewed on the floor. At first doubtless, it has been his intention to replace them—to leave no outward sign of his visit. But now that is difficult in the dark. I do not know if it is then the idea come to him, but I think that before he has been told that to leave the sign of the Spider, may be a good way to deceive—there has been plenty of talk of that insect! He pick some mud from the ground—it is not so very difficult to draw it even in the dark, on the lid of the suitcase. But he cannot escape for the servants remain talking outside the other basha. They have their backs to him it is true, but they will see him if he try to pass. Then, while he wait, another idea come to him—if he can get into Peters’ basha and make there the confusion, it will further deceive. And it is easy. Each basha have two doors, no? One in front, one at the back for the baths. Quickly he slip out of this back door, in through the other back door. The servants are not too near, they do not look his way. Inside he work quietly, quickly. The suitcase is not locked. He open it, he strew the things on the floor; he take anything that feel like documents. Then the mirror catch his eye. It is one little spot of light in the darkness, for it chance to reflect the sky outside. Quickly he take some mud, he draw the spider on it—then pouf—he is back again in Masson’s basha, under the bed maybe, in case anyone look inside. When the car come the servants go down to meet it in front of the main tents. At once he is out, he have his bicycle hidden against the side of the basha in the shadow. It is dark, for by then the moon is set, and he have no light—who shall see him? He pass along the road the car has come while you all talk, and before the alarm is raised. Once outside he ride quick, quick, for he know the road well and the darkness do not stop him. Next day he bury the papers when Mrs. D’Silva have taken him to attend to the patients. It is easy, no?”
It sounded so, and Catharine wondered why they had none of them had sufficient intelligence to solve the riddle, but paradoxically, it seemed as though the babu’s largeness and rotundity had prevented them seeing him. There is, of course, no reason why plumpness should be incompatible with mystery, but Catharine confessed that the picture in her mind had been of someone more dark and sinuous and sinister.
“Yes, that part of it is easy,” she admitted, “but why on earth should he kill Masson? I realize he was attached to D’Silva, but were they after all intimate enough for him to know D’Silva’s affairs, to understand who Masson was and that he had killed D’Silva?”
“It is strange that, perhaps,” said the priest, “but yes, I think he understand. You have not forgotten that so fat, but faithful brother—the Blue-Bottle? He too will have his descendants. There is a mention of his caste in the story, and it is the same as that of the doctor babu. Moreover, I know that the father of the babu have served the D’Silva’s, and his father before him, for many generations. There is a bond between the two families, of interdependence, almost, it seem, of kinship. Maybe, the babu too have his family tradition which enable him to understand the story.”
“Good heavens,” exclaimed Catharine. The strangeness of the drama which had been played out before their eyes came home to her with new force.
“There are still two things I don’t understand,” she said, after a pause. “Why did you write to Jean, and what was in that telegram you asked me to send?”
The priest pulled a wry face. He paused for a moment meditatively, then made a sudden expressive gesture with his right hand.
“You see how I am situated, unfortunately,” he explained. “For myself, I am satisfied—Masson is Makra. But of proof—flut——” he flicked his fingers, “I have not the hair of a mosquito. But it is important that I get that proof. I think and I think. Then suddenly it come—the illumination.
“I have been thinking of that bomb and it come to me suddenly a picture, oh, so clear, of Pandra Roy’s shop and the veranda. It is so——” the priest spread out his hands in graphic gestures of explanation whilst he spoke. “The veranda it is high above the street. It look out to the front, but at each end it is enclosed, hein? You cannot look to the side from that veranda. Pandra Roy he stand on the left—here. Mrs. D’Silva and Peters they are on the right—so. Down below in the street Maha Lal stand on the right, below Peters. He is therefore looking towards Pandra Roy. Masson, he stand on the left, near the corner of the shop, below Pandra Roy, and he is looking towards Maha Lal on the left—you have it, no? If, therefore, Maha Lal has thrown the bomb, Pandra Roy can see it—he look in that direction. But if it is thrown from behind Masson (as he say) then Pandra Roy cannot see it—for the veranda is enclosed that end, also he look in the opposite direction. But I remember that Masson say to Pandra Roy ‘You must have seen the wassis villain. I remember the direction you look.’ It was strange that, no? I send therefore a letter to Miss Jean, ‘Take me the photo of Pandra Roy’s shop.’ It come the evening before Mr. Bronson arrive. Also I send a telegram to Pandra Roy. It run ‘Kindly wire why no answer my communication 27th December received.’ I do not sign any name, but I put the name of this place.”
The priest paused and stroked his beard thoughtfully.
“It is true,” he mused, “that I have written a letter on the 27th for which I desire an answer, but I do not write it to Pandra Roy. No, that was a mistake.”
“And the answer?” she exclaimed. “You got it the next morning?”
“But yes,” he replied. “It run—’Honoured communication 27th instant duly received, instructions carried out, further esteemed orders promptly executed when received.’ He is frightened, Pandra Roy. Also he is puzzled. It is perhaps natural. But that he address the reply to ‘Philip Masson’ when I have put no name—that is not natural. No—that is, I think, mysterious.”
“Good heavens,” Catharine exclaimed, “and it was on the 27th that Makra sent Pandra Roy the wire about the alibi. What a wonderful idea.”
He shook his head.
“But no—-it prove little. It is mysterious only—and that mystery we wish Masson to explain. But—he give the explanation elsewhere, no?”
Yes—and Catharine shuddered at the thought of that explanation.
“I hope that little man escapes,” she exclaimed suddenly, not troubling to explain to whom she referred.
Father Xavier smiled.
“You will have your wish, I think,” he replied. “He is by now, where? In Bhutan, I think. And he is a doctor. For years he has lived on the border. He has doctored many from those hills it may be. He will be known, and a doctor of skill is welcome among such people. No, I do not think he will be caught.”
“I hope not,” said Catharine.
It is not permissible, of course, to admire a man for committing a murder, but as she thought of those plump calves trudging the steep, heart-breaking hills, exiled from the more kindly undulations of their native plains, it seemed to Catharine that even the sock-suspenders took on momentarily a faint halo of dignity.
January 25th, Calcutta.
It is restful to find oneself in civilization once again. The complete change of atmosphere seems to shut one off, to draw a curtain between one and the events of the past few weeks. They might almost belong to another life.
I saw Vera to-day. She is staying in a convent here, and had only just been allowed up after a bout of fever. She looked white and tired, but the frozen, stony expression had gone from her face. She was writing as I went into her room, papers which she tried to conceal hastily at my entrance, then seeing that my eye had caught them, pulled out again, colouring faintly.
“They are some old MSS.,” she said, half-shamefacedly. “I used to write as a girl and somehow, lately, I have felt I must take it up again—I do not know why—but I must.”
So I was right in thinking that she possessed the strange hunger for creation, the need for expression which is at once the bane and the boon of the artist.
Poor Vera. Life has dealt her many hard and crushing blows, and one can only hope that the instrument was a chisel, not a hammer
Yet I do not feel too unhappy about her. Peters drove me to see her, and waited to take me home again. As we drove away in his luxurious car, I looked back, as I had done once before, and saw her standing alone on the balcony watching our departure. There seemed to me already a sense of warmth and expansion about her, but there was no denying the loneliness of the figure standing there.
“She has had a terrible time,” I exclaimed, impulsively. “She needs happiness. She needs a friend——”
“Sure,” agreed Peters, changing gear with precision and hooting cautiously as we emerged into Park Street. “Well—I’ll just stay around——”
I think that is what Vera needs—someone who will just “stay around”; someone who “would like to have her see” his home; someone who will call her “honey” and surround her with warmth and comfort; someone who, knowing all she has endured, will realize that response cannot come at once.
No, decidedly I do not feel too unhappy about her, and it is nice to feel that good may yet come out of our stormy Christmas party. Jean’s and Robin’s engagement has just been announced too.
Well, well—it is time to dress for the club and I can hear the Map-Maker calling——