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The Pointing Man - A Burmese Mystery
by Marjorie Douie
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Yesterday has power over to-day; to-morrow even greater power, for to-morrow holds a gift or a whip, and Coryndon knew this, thinking out his little philosophy of life. To be able to handle a situation which may require a strength that is above tact or diplomacy, he knew that all those yesterdays must give their store of gathered strength and knowledge.

As there was no running water to watch, Coryndon watched the shadows and the light playing hide-and-go-seek through the leaves, through his half-closed eyes. They made a pattern on the ground, and the pattern was faultless in its beauty. Nature alone can do such things. He looked at the far-off trees of the park, green now, to turn into soft blue masses later on when the day waned, and the intrinsic value of blue as colour flitted over his fancy. The music that was part of his nature rippled and sang in obligato to his thoughts, and because he loved music he loved colour and knew the connection between sound and tint. Colour, to its lightest, least value, was music, expressing itself in another way.

Hartley went out with his dog; went softly because he believed his friend slept, and Coryndon did not stir. Somewhere in the centre of things actual, Hartley lived his cheerful, happy life, dreaming when he was lonely of the woman who darned his socks and smiled at him. In Coryndon's life there was no woman either visionary or real, and he wondered why he was exempt from these natural dreams of a man. He was very humble about himself. He knew that he was only a tracker, a brain that carried a body, not a healthy animal body that controlled the greater part of a brain. He was given the power to grip motives and to read hearts, and beyond that he only lived in his fingers when he played. He had his dreams for company when he shut the door on the other half of his active brain, and he had his own thrills of excitement and intense joy when he found what he was seeking, but beyond this there was nothing, and he asked for nothing. Blue shadows, and a drifting into peace, that was the end. He pulled himself together abruptly, for it was five o'clock, and time for him to start.

When Coryndon had drunk some tea, he started out on foot to St. Jude's Church. He knew that he would get there in time to find the Rev. Francis Heath. The choir practice did not take very long, and as he walked into the church they were singing the last verses of a hymn. Heath sat in one of the choir pews, a sombre figure in his black cassock, listening attentively.

"Happy birds that sing and fly Round Thy altars, O Most High."

The choir sang the "Amen," and sang it false, because they were in a hurry to troop out of the church; the girls were whispering and collecting gloves and books, and the boys were already clattering off with an air of relief. Heath spoke to the organist, making some suggestion in his grave, quiet voice, and when he turned, Coryndon was standing in the chancel.

"Can I speak to you for a moment?" he asked easily.

"Come into the vestry," said Heath quietly. "We shall be undisturbed there."

He went down the chancel steps and opened a door at the side, waiting for Coryndon to go in, and closing the door behind them. A table stood in the middle of the room with a few books and papers on it, and a square window lighted it from the western wall; there were only two chairs in the room, and Heath put one of them near the table for his visitor, and took the other himself.

He did not know what he expected Coryndon to say; men very rarely came to him like this, but he felt that it was possible that he was in search of something true and definite. Truth was in his eyes, and his dark, fine face was earnest as he bent forward and looked full at the clergyman.

"What can I do for you?"

Heath put the question tentatively, conscious of a sudden quick tension in the atmosphere.

Coryndon's eyes fixed on him, like gripping hands, and he leaned a little over the table.

"You can tell me how and when you got Rydal out of the country."

For a moment, it seemed to Heath that the whole room rocked, and that blackness descended upon him in waves, blotting out the face of the man who asked the question, destroying his identity, and leaving him only the knowledge that the secret that he had guarded with all the strength of his soul was known, inexplicably, to Hartley's friend. He tried to frame a reply, but his words faltered through dry lips, and his face was white and set.

"Why should you say that I helped Rydal?"

"Because," Coryndon's answer came quickly, "you told me so yourself last night at dinner."

He heard Coryndon speak again, very slowly, so that every word came clear into the confusion of his throbbing brain.

"I knew from Hartley that you were in Paradise Street on the evening of the twenty-ninth of July, and that you saw and spoke to Absalom. I am concerned in the case of finding that boy or his murderer, and anything you can tell me may be of help to me in putting my facts together. I had to come to your confidence by a direct question. Will you pardon me when you consider my motive? I am not concerned with Rydal: my case is with Absalom."

He looked sympathetically at the worn, drawn face across the table, that was white and sick with recent fear.

"Tell me the events just as they came," he said gently. "You may be able to cast light on the matter."

Heath looked up, and his eyes expressed his silent acceptance of Coryndon's honesty of purpose.

"I will tell you, Mr. Coryndon. God knows that the case of this boy has haunted me night and day. He was my best pupil, and when Hartley accused me by inference, of complicity, I suffered as I believe few men have had to suffer because I could not speak. I may not be able to assist you very far, but all I know you shall know if you will listen to me patiently."

Heath relapsed into silence for some little time, and when he spoke again it was with the manner of a man who gives all his facts accurately. He omitted no detail and he set the story of Rydal before Coryndon, plainly and clearly.

Rydal had been a clerk in the Mangadone Bank, and had been in the place for some years before he went home and returned with a wife. He was an honest and kindly young fellow and he worked hard. There was no flaw in his record, and Heath believed that he was under the influence of a very genuine religious feeling. He frequently came to see Heath, who knew his character thoroughly, and knew that he was weak in many respects. He talked enthusiastically of the girl he was going to marry, and Heath saw him off on the liner when Rydal got his leave and, full of glad anticipation, went away to bring out his wife.

When the clergyman had reached this point in his story, he got up and paced the floor a couple of times, his monkish face sad and troubled, and his eyes full of the tragic revelations that had yet to be made.

Coryndon did not hurry the narrative. He was engaged in calling up the mental presentment of the young happy man. Heath had described him as "fresh-looking," and had said that his manner was frank and always kindly; he was friendly to weakness, kindly to weakness, his virtues all tagged off into inefficient lack of grip; but he was honest and he found life good. That was how Rydal had started, that was the Rydal who had gripped Heath's hand as he stood on the deck of the Worcestershire and thought of the girl whom he was going home to marry.

"I still see him as I saw him then," said Heath, with a catch in his voice. "He was so sure of all the good things of life, and he had managed to save enough to furnish the bungalow by the river. I had gone over it with him the day before he sailed, and his pride in it all was very touching."

Coryndon nodded his head, and Heath took up the story again, standing with his hands on the back of the chair.

"Rydal came back at the end of three months, his wife with him. She was a pretty, silly creature, and her ideas of her social importance were out of all keeping with Rydal's humble position in the Bank. She dressed herself extravagantly, and began to entertain on a scale that was ridiculous considering their poverty. Before their marriage, Rydal had told me that it was a love match, and that she was as poor as he, as all her own people could do for her was to make a small allowance sufficient for her clothes."

Coryndon sat very still. Heath had come to the point where the real interest began: he could see this on the sad face that turned towards the western window.

"In the early hours of one morning towards the end of July," went on Heath wearily, "I was awakened by Rydal coming into my room. I could see at once that he was in desperate trouble, and he sat down near me and hid his face in his hands and cried like a child. There was enough in his story to account for his tears, God knows. His wife was ill, perhaps dying; he told me that first, but that I already knew, and then he made his confession to me. He had embezzled money from the bank and it could only be a matter of hours before a warrant was issued for his arrest. I must not dwell too long on these details, but they are all part of the story, and without them you could not understand my own place in what follows. It is sufficient to tell you that I returned at once with him, and his wife added her appeal to mine to make her husband agree to leave the country. If she lived, she could join him later, but if he was arrested before she died, she could only feel double torment and remorse. In the end we prevailed upon him to agree to go. The sin was not his morally"—Heath's voice rose in passionate vindication of his act—"in my eyes, and, I believe, in the eyes of God, the man was not responsible. I grant you his criminal weakness, I grant you his fall from honour and honesty, but then and now I know that I did right. The one chance for his soul's welfare was the chance of escape. Prison would have broken and destroyed him. A white man among native criminals. His life had been a good life, and an open, honest life up to the time that his wife's constant demand for what he could not give broke down the barriers and made him a felon."

He wiped his face with his handkerchief and drew a deep breath. This was how he had argued the point with himself, and he still held to the validity of his argument.

"That was early on the morning of July the twenty-ninth?" asked Coryndon.

"Yes, that was the date. There was a small tramp in port, going to South America. I had once been of some little assistance to the captain, and I knew that he would do much to serve me. I went on board her at once, and saw him, disguising none of the facts or the risk it entailed, and he agreed willingly to assist Rydal. He was to be at a certain point below the wharves that evening, and the Lady Helen was to send a boat in to pick him up."

"I understand," said Coryndon, "the warrant was issued about noon the same day?"

"As far as I know, Joicey gave information against him just about then, but he had already left the bungalow. I went down Paradise Street to make my way out along the river bank at a little after six o'clock. I passed Absalom in the street and spoke a word to the boy, but time was pressing and I did not dare to be late. It was of the utmost importance that there should be no hitch in any part of the plan, for the Lady Helen could not delay over an hour. I got to the appointed place by the river just after twilight had come on—"

"Were you seen by anyone?"

Heath paused and thought for a moment.

"I would like to deal entirely candidly with you, Mr. Coryndon, but, with your permission, I must avoid any mention of names. As it happened, I was seen, but I believe that the person who saw me has no connection with either my own place in this story or the story itself so far as it affects Absalom. I saw Rydal go. He went in silence, an utterly broken-hearted and ruined man, and only ten months divided that day from the day that he stood on the deck of the Worcestershire filled with every hope the heart of a man knows. Behind him, his wife lying near death in the little house his love had provided for her, and nothing lay before him but utter desolation. I watched the boat take him away into the darkness, and I saw the lights of the Lady Helen quite clearly, and then I saw her move slowly off, and I knew that Rydal was safe."

He paused and stared into the darkness of the room, seeing the whole picture again, and feeling the awful misery of the broken man who had gone by the way of transgressors. The man who had once been light-hearted and happy, who had sung in his choir, and who had read the lessons for the Rev. Francis Heath and helped him with his boys.

Coryndon's face showed his tense, close interest as the clergyman spoke again.

"I was standing there for some time, how long I do not know, when I saw that I was not alone, and that I was being watched by a Chinaman. I knew the boy by sight, and must have seen him before somewhere else. He was a large, repulsive creature, and appeared to have come from one of the houses near the river, where there are Coringyhis and low-caste natives of India. At the time I remarked nothing, but when the boy saw that he had attracted my attention, he started into a run, and left me without speaking. The incident was so trifling that it hardly made me uneasy. No one had seen me actually with Rydal—"

"You are quite clear on that point? Not even the other person you alluded to?"

"I can be perfectly clear. I passed the other person going in the opposite direction, before I joined Rydal. On the way back I saw Absalom again, and he was with the Chinaman whom I already mentioned; they did not notice me, and they were talking eagerly; my mind was overful of other things, and you will understand that I did not think of them then, but, as far as I remember, they went towards the fishermen's quarter on the river bank. I cannot be sure of this."

Coryndon did not stir; the gloom was deep now, and yet neither of the men thought of calling for lights.

"And the Chinaman?"

Heath flung out his arms with a violent gesture.

"He had seen and recognized Rydal, and he had the craftiness to realize that his knowledge was of value. Next day everyone in Mangadone knew that the hue and cry was out after the absconded clerk. He had betrayed his trust, cheated and defrauded his employers, and left his wife to die alone, for she died that night, and I was with her. That was the story in Mangadone. It was known in the Bazaar, and how or when it came to the ears of the Chinaman I cannot tell you, but out of his knowledge he came to me, and I paid him to keep silence. He has come several times of late, and I will give him no more money. Rydal is safe. I have heard from him, and the law will hardly catch him now. I know my complicity, I know my own danger, but I have never regretted it." Again the surging flood of passion swept into Heath's voice. "What is my life or my reputation set against the value of one living soul? Rydal is working honestly, his penitence is no mere matter of protestation, his whole nature has been strengthened by the awful experience he has passed through. How it may appear to others I cannot say, and do not greatly care. In the eyes of God I am vindicated, and stand clear of blame."

He towered gaunt against the light from the window behind him, and though Coryndon could not see his face, he knew that it was lighted with a great rapture of self-denial and spiritual glory.

"You need fear no further trouble from the boy," he said, rising to his feet. "I can tell you that definitely. I am neither a judge nor a bishop, Mr. Heath, but I can tell you honestly from my heart that I think you were justified."

He went out into the darkness that had come black over the evening during the hour he had sat with Heath, and as he walked back to the bungalow he thought of the man he had just left. There had been no need for Coryndon to question him about Mrs. Wilder: her secret mission to the river interested him no further. Heath had protected her and had kept silence where her name was concerned, and yet she chose to belittle him in her idle, insolent fashion.

He thought of Heath sitting by the bed of the dying woman, and he thought of him following the wake of the Lady Helen down the dark river with sad, sorrowful eyes, and through the thought there came a strange thrill to his own soul, because he touched the hem of the garment of the Everlasting Mercy, hidden away, pushed out of life, and forgotten in garrulous hours full of idle chatter.

Yet Mrs. Wilder had announced with her regal finality no less than three times in the hearing of Coryndon the previous evening that the Rev. Francis Heath was "a bore."



XIX

IN WHICH LEH SHIN WHISPERS A STORY INTO THE EAR OF SHIRAZ, THE PUNJABI; THE BURDEN OF WHICH IS: "HAVE I FOUND THEE, O MINE ENEMY?"

A man with a grievance, however silent he may be by nature, is, generally speaking, voluble upon the subject of his wrongs, real or imaginary; but a man with a grudge is intrinsically different. An old grudge or an old hate are silent things, because they have deep roots and do not require attention, and it is only in flashes of sudden feeling, or when the means to the end is in view, that the man with a grudge reveals details and tells his story. Shiraz paid several visits to, and spent some time in the shop of, Leh Shin before he arrived at what he wanted to know.

He went also to Mhtoon Pah's shop, but came away without discovering anything. Into the ears of Hartley, Head of the Police, the Burman raged and screamed his passionate hate, because he believed it promoted his object; but to the Punjabi he was smooth and complaisant, and refused to be drawn into any admission. Leh Shin, the Chinaman, was Bazaar dust to his dignity, and he knew naught of him, save only that the man had an evil name earned by evil deeds, and Shiraz, who was as crafty as Mhtoon Pah, saw that he had come to a "no thoroughfare" and turned his wits towards Leh Shin.

Little by little, and without any apparent motive, he worked the Chinaman up to the point where silence is agony, and at last, as a river in flood crashes over the mud-banks, the whole tale of his wrongs came bursting through his closed mouth, and with the sweat pouring down his yellow face he out it into words.

The meanest story receives something vital in its constitution when it is told with all the force and conviction of years of hatred behind the simple fact of expression, and the story that Leh Shin recounted to Shiraz was a mean story. The Chinaman had the true Eastern capacity for remembering the least item in the long account that lay unsettled between himself and the Burman. His memory was a safe in which the smallest fact connected with it was kept intact and his mind traversed an interminable road of detail.

The two men had begun life as friends. The friendship between them dated back to the days when Leh Shin and Mhtoon Pah were small boys running together in the streets of Mangadone, and no antipathy that is a first instinct has ever the depth of root given to the bitterness that can spring from a breach in long friendship, and Leh Shin and Mhtoon Pah hated as only old friends ever do hate.

Leh Shin started in life with all the advantages that Mhtoon Pah lacked, and he appreciated the slavish friendship of the Burman, which grew with years. Mhtoon Pah became a clerk on scanty pay in the employ of a rice firm, and Leh Shin, at his father's death, became sole owner of the house in Paradise Street; no insignificant heritage, as it was stocked with a store of things that increased in value with age, and in the guise of his greatest friend Mhtoon Pah was made welcome at the shop whenever he had time to go there. From his clerkship in the firm of rice merchants Mhtoon Pah, at the insistence of his friend, became part partner in the increasing destiny of the curio shop. He travelled for Leh Shin, and brought back wares and stores in days when railways were only just beginning to be heard of, and it was difficult and even dangerous to bring goods across the Shan frontier. He had the control of a credit trust, though not of actual money, and for a time the partnership prospered. Mhtoon Pah was always conscious that he was a subordinate depending on the good will of his principal, and even as he ate with cunning into the heart of the fruit, the outside skin showed no trace of his ravages. Leh Shin's belief in his friend's integrity made him careless in the matter of looking into things for himself, and lulled into false security, he dreamed that he prospered; his dream being solidified by the accounts which he received from the Burman. In the zenith of his affluence he married the daughter of a Burman into whose house Mhtoon Pah had introduced him, and it was only after the wedding festivities that he became aware that he had supplanted the friend of his bosom in the affections of the smiling Burmese girl. Mhtoon Pah was away on a journey, and on his return rejoiced in the subtle, flattering manner that he knew so well how to practise, and if he felt rancour, he hid it under a smile.

Marriage took the Chinaman's attention from the shop, and Mhtoon Pah, still a subordinate in the presence of his master, was arrogant and filled with assurance in his dealings with others. Interested friends warned the Chinaman, but he would not listen to them. He believed in Mhtoon Pah and he had covered him with gifts.

"Was he not my friend, this monster of infamy?" he wailed, rocking himself on his bed. "O that I had seen his false heart, and torn it, smoking, from his ribs!"

Leh Shin was secure in his summer of prosperity, and when his son was born he felt that there was no good thing left out of the pleasant ways of life. In the curio shop in Paradise Street Mhtoon Pah waxed fat and studied the table of returns, and in the garden of the house where Leh Shin lived in his fool's paradise, the Chinaman loosed his hold upon the reins of authority.

The first sign of the altered and averted faces of the gods was made known to Leh Shin when his wife dwindled and pined and died.

"But that, O friend, was not the work of thine enemy," said Shiraz, pulling at his beard reflectively. "Even in thine anger, seek to follow the ways of justice."

"How do I know it?" replied Leh Shin. "He ever held an evil wish towards me. Her death was slow, like unto the approach of disaster. I know not whence it came, but my heart informs me that Mhtoon Pah designed it."

Quickly upon the death of his wife came the disappearance of his son. The boy had been playing in the garden, and the garden had been searched in vain for him. No trace of the child could be found, though Mangadone was searched from end to end.

"Searched," cried the Chinaman, "as the pocket of a coat. No corner left that was not peered into, no house that was not ransacked." The Chinaman's voice quivered with passion, and his whole body shook and trembled.

Life flowed back into its accustomed current, and nearly a year passed before the next trouble came upon Leh Shin. Mhtoon Pah came back from a prolonged journey that had necessitated his going to Hong-Kong, and he came back with dismay in his face and a story of loss upon loss. He had compromised his master's credit to a heavy extent, and not only the gains he had made but the principal was swept away into an awful chasm where the grasping hands of creditors grabbed the whole of Leh Shin's patrimony, claiming it under papers signed by his hand.

"It was then that light flowed in upon my darkness, and I saw the long prepared evil that was the work of one man's hand." Leh Shin rose upon his string bed and his voice was thin with rabid anger. "I caught him by the throat and would have stabbed him with my knife, but he, being a younger man than I, threw me off from him, and, when he made me answer, I saw my foe of many years stand to render his account to me. 'Thou, to call me thief,' said he, 'who robbed me of my wife and cheated me of my son.'"

After that, poverty and ruin drove him slowly from his house outside Mangadone to the shelter of the shop in Paradise Street, and from there, at length, to the burrow in the Colonnade. The bitterness of his own fall was great enough in itself to harden the heart of any man, but it was doubled by the story of the years that followed. Slowly, and without calling too evident attention to himself, Mhtoon Pah began to prosper. He opened a booth first, where he sat and cursed Leh Shin whenever he passed, saying loudly that he had ruined him and swindled him out of all his little store, that by hard work and attention to business he had collected.

From the booth, just as Leh Shin left Paradise Street, Mhtoon Pah progressed to a small unpretentious shop, and a year later he moved again, as though inspired by a spirit of malice, into the very premises where Leh Shin had first employed him as a clerk. That day Leh Shin went to his Joss and swore vengeance, though how his vengeance could be worked into fact was more than his opium-muddled brain could conceive. Vengeance was his dream by night, his one concentrated thought by day, and he came no nearer to any hope of fulfilling it. Mhtoon Pah, wealthy and respected; Mhtoon Pah, the builder of shrines; Mhtoon Pah, who spoke with high Sahibs and had the ear of the Head of the Police himself, and Leh Shin clad in ragged clothes, and only able to keep his hungry soul in his body by means of his opium traffic, how could he strike at his foe's prosperity? His hate glared out of his eyes as he panted, stopping to draw breath at the end of his account.

Had Shiraz known the legend of the wise wolf who changed from man to beast, he might have supposed that some such change was taking place in Leh Shin. His trembling lips dribbled, his head jerked as though supported by wires, and his eyebrows twitched violently as though he had no control over their movements. He had forgotten Shiraz and was thinking only of the tribulation he had suffered and of the man whose gross form inhabited his whole mental world. Shaking like a leaf, he got off his bed and stood on the earth floor.

"May he be eaten by mud-sores," he said savagely. "May he die by his own hand, and so, as is the Teaching, be shut out of peace, and return to earth as a scorpion, to be crushed again into lesser life by a stone."

"By the will of Allah, who alone is great, there will be an end of thy troubles," said Shiraz non-committally as he got up. "Thou hast suffered much. Be it requited to thee as thou wouldst have it fall in the hour that is already written; for no man may escape his destiny, though he be fleet of foot as the antlered stag."

"Son of a Prophet, thy words are full of wisdom."

"Let it comfort thine affliction," said Shiraz, with the air of a man making a gift.

"Yet I would hasten the end." He gave a strange, soundless laugh that startled Shiraz, who looked at him sideways. "And mark this, O wise one, mine enemy hath already felt the first lash of the whip fall, even the whip that scourged my own body. He hath lost the boy whom he ever praised in the streets, and suffered much grief thereby. May his grief thrive and may it be added to until the weight is greater than he can bear." He swung up his hand with a stabbing movement. "I would rip him like a cushion of fine down. I would strike his face with my shoe as the Nats that he dreads caught his screaming soul."

"Peace, peace," said Shiraz. "Such words are ill for him who speaks, and ill alike for him who listens. In such a day as already the end is scored like a comet's tail across the sky, the end shall be, and not before that day. Cease from thy clamour lest the street hear thee, and run to know the cause."

He took leave of his friend and went slowly away to his own house, having achieved his master's mission, and feeling well satisfied with his afternoon's work.

Motive, the hidden spring of action, was made clear, and Shiraz knew enough of his master's methods to realize that he had come upon a very definite piece of evidence against Leh Shin, the Chinaman. From the point of view of Shiraz the man was quite justified in killing Absalom, since "An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth," appeared fair and reasonable to his mind. The Burman had overreached Leh Shin, and now Leh Shin had begun the cycle again, and had smitten at the curio dealer through the curio dealer's boy, for whom he appeared to have a fanatical affection. According to Shiraz, the house in Paradise Street stood a good chance of being burned to the ground. If this "accident" happened, Shiraz would know exactly whose hand it was that lighted the match. It was all part of an organized scheme, and though he did not know how Coryndon would bring the facts home, fitting each man with his share, like a second skin to his body, he felt satisfied that he had provided the lump of clay for the skilled potter to mould into shape.

He took off his turban, and lay down on his carpet. The day was still hot, and the drowsy afternoon outside his closed windows blinked and stared through the hours, the glare intensifying the shadows under the trees and along the Colonnade. The soda-water and lemonade sellers in their small booths drove a roaring trade as they packed the aquamarine-green bottles in blocks of dirty ice to keep the frizzling drink cool; and the cawing of marauding crows and the cackle of fowl blended with the shouting of drivers and sellers of wares, who heeded not the staring heat of the sun.

After the emotion of telling his tale, Leh Shin slept in his own small box of darkness, and, in the rich curio shop in Paradise Street, Mhtoon Pah leaned on an embroidered pillow with closed eyes. The stream of life flowed slowly and softly through the hours when only the poor have need to work; soft as the current of a full tide that slides between wide banks, and soft as sleep, or fate, or the destiny which no man can hope to escape.



XX

CRAVEN JOICEY, THE BANKER, IS FACED BY A MAN WITH A WHIP IN HIS HAND, AND CORYNDON FINDS A CLUE

It is a matter of universal belief that a woman's most alluring quality is her mystery, and Coryndon, no lover of women, was absorbed in the study of mystery without a woman.

He had eliminated the woman.

In his mind he cast Mrs. Wilder upon one side, as March throws February to the fag end of winter, and rushes on to meet the primrose girl bringing spring in her wake. He had dealt simultaneously with Mrs. Wilder's little part in the drama and the part of Francis Heath, Priest in Holy Orders. How they had both stood the test of detection he did not trouble to analyse. "Detection" is a nasty word, with a nasty sound in it, and no one likes it well enough to brood over all it exactly means.

Coryndon was sufficiently an observer of men and life to feel grateful to Heath, because he had seen something for a short moment as he studied the clergyman that dwells afterwards in the mind, like a stream of moonlight lying over a tranquil sea. Hidden things, in his experience, were seldom things of beauty, and yet he had come upon one fair place in the whole puzzling and tangled story collected round the disappearance of the Christian boy Absalom.

Mrs. Wilder and Heath were both accounted for and deleted from the list of names indelibly inscribed in his mental book; but one fact that was sufficiently weighty had been added to what was still involved in doubt: the fact that Heath had seen the boy in company with Leh Shin's assistant.

Coryndon was subject to the ordinary prejudices of any man who makes human personality a study, and he was more than half disposed to go back to the Bazaar and hear whatever evidence Shiraz had been able to collect during his absence. Two reasons prevented his doing this. One was that he would have to wait until it was dark enough to leave Hartley's bungalow without being watched, and possibly followed, and the other that there was still one name on the list that required attention, and he began to feel that it required immediate attention. A toss of a coin lay between which course he should adopt first, and he sat very still to consider the thing carefully.

In the service of which he was a member, he had learnt that much depends upon getting facts in their chronological order, and that if there is the least disunion in the fusing of events, deduction may hammer its head eternally against a stone wall. He did not know positively that Leh Shin had decoyed the boy away by means of his assistant, but he was inclined to believe that such was the case. The blood-stained rag looked like a piece of impudent bravado more than likely to have emanated from the brain of the young Chinaman. His mental fingers opened to catch Leh Shin and lay hold on him, but they unclosed again, and Coryndon felt about him in the darkness that separates mind from mind. He knew the pitfall that a too evident chain of circumstances digs for the unwary, and he fell back from his own conviction, testing each link of the chain, still uncertain and still doubtful of what course he should pursue.

He had another object in view, an object that entailed a troublesome interview, and he turned his thoughts towards its possible issue. Information might be at hand in the safe keeping of his servant Shiraz, but he considered that he must argue his own conclusions apart from anything Shiraz had discovered. Narrowing his eyes and sitting forward on the edge of his bed, he thought out the whole progress of his scheme. Coryndon was an essentially quiet man, but as he thought he struck his hands together and came to a sudden decision.

If life offers a few exciting moments, the man who refuses them is no adventurer, and Coryndon saw a chance for personal skill and definite action. He felt the call of excitement, the call that pits will against will and subtlety against force, and that is irresistible to the man of action. Probably it was just that human touch that decided him. One course was easy; a mere matter of reassuming a disguise and slipping back into the life of the people, which was as natural to him as his own life. A tame ending, rounded off by hearing a story from Shiraz, and laying the whole matter in the hands of Hartley. The proof against the assistant was almost conclusive, and if Shiraz had burrowed into the heart of the motive, it gave sufficient evidence to deliver over the case almost entire to the man who added the last word to the whole drama before the curtain fell.

Coryndon knew the full value of working from point to point, but beside this method he placed his own instinct, and his instinct pointed along a different road, a road that might lead nowhere, and yet it called to him as he sat on the side of his bed, as roads with indefinite endings have called men since the beginning of time.

Against his own trained judgment, he wavered and yielded, and at length took his white topi from a peg on the wall and walked out slowly up the garden. It was three in the afternoon. Just the hour when Shiraz was lying on his mat asleep, and when Leh Shin slept, and Mhtoon Pah drowsed against his cushion from Balsorah, each dreaming after his own fashion; and it was an hour when white men were sure to be in their bungalows. Hartley was lying in a chair in the veranda, and all through Mangadone men rested from toil and relaxed their brains after the morning's work.

Coryndon went out softly and slowly, and he walked under the hot burning sun that stared down at Mangadone as though trying to stare it steadily into flame. White, mosque-like houses ached in the heat, chalk-white against the sky, and the flower-laden balconies, massed with bougainvillaea, caught the stare and cracked wherever there was sap enough left in the pillars and dry woodwork to respond to the fierce heat of a break in the rains.

It was a long, hot walk to the bungalow where Joicey lived, over the Banking House itself, and the vast compound was arid and bare from three days of scorching drought. Coryndon's feet sounded gritting on the red, hard drive that led to the cool of the porch. No one called at such an hour; it was unheard of in Mangadone, where the day from two to five was sacred from interruption.

A Chaprassie stopped him on the avenue, and a Bearer on the steps of the house itself. There were subordinates awake and alive in the Bank, ready to answer questions on any subject, but Coryndon held to his purpose. He did not want to see any of the lesser satellites; his business was with the Manager, and he said that he must see him, if the Manager was to be seen, or even if he was not, as his business would not keep.

A young man with a smooth, affable manner appeared from within, and said he would give any message that Coryndon had to leave with his principal, but Coryndon shook his head and politely declined to explain himself or his business, beyond the fact that it was private and important. The young man shook his head doubtfully.

"It doesn't happen to be a very good hour. We never disturb Mr. Joicey in the afternoons."

"May I send in my card?" asked Coryndon.

"Certainly, if you wish to do so."

Coryndon took a pencil out of his pocket, and, scribbling on the corner of his card, enclosed it in an envelope, and waited in the dark hall, where electric fans flew round like huge bats, the smooth-mannered young man keeping him courteous company.

"Mr. Joicey rests at this time of day," he explained. "I hope you quite understand the difficulty."

"I quite understand," replied Coryndon, "but I think he will see me."

There was a pause. The young man did not wish to contradict him, but he felt that he knew the ways and hours of the Head of the Firm very much better than a mere stranger arriving on foot just as the Bank was due to close for the day. He wondered who Coryndon was, and what his very pressing business could possibly be, but even in his wildest flights of fancy, and, with the thermometer at 112 deg., flights of fancy do not carry far, he never even dimly guessed at anything the least degree connected with the truth.

The Bearer came down the wide scenic stairway and said that his master would see Mr. Coryndon at once. The young man with the smooth manner faded off into dark shadows with an accentuation of impersonal civility, and Coryndon walked up the echoing staircase by the front of the hall, down a corridor, down another flight of stairs, and into the private suite of rooms sacred to the use of the head of the banking firm, and used only in part by the celibate Joicey.

Joicey was standing by a table, looking at Coryndon's card and twisting it between his fingers. He recognized his visitor when he glanced at him, and showed some surprise. The room was in twilight, as all the outside chicks were down, and there was a lingering faint perfume of something sweet and cloying in the air. Joicey looked sulky and irritated, and he motioned Coryndon to a chair without seating himself.

"Well," he said brusquely, "what's this about Rydal?" He pointed with a blunt finger to the card that he had thrown on to the table.

"That," said Coryndon, also indicating the card, "is merely a means towards an end. I have the good fortune to find you not only in your house, but able to receive me."

The colour mounted to Joicey's heavy face, and his temper rose with it.

"Then you mean to tell me—" He broke off and stared at Coryndon, and gave a rough laugh. "You're Hartley's globe-trotting acquaintance, aren't you? Well, Hartley happens to be a friend of mine, and it is just as well for you that he is. Tell me your business, and I will overlook your intrusion on his account."

Something inside Coryndon's brain tightened like a string of a violin tuned up to concert-pitch.

"In one respect you are wrong," he said amiably, and without the smallest show of heat. "I am, as you say, Hartley's friend, but I must disown any connection with globe-trotting, as you call it. I am in the Secret Service of the Indian Government."

"Oh, are you?" Joicey tore up the card and threw it into a basket beside the writing-table.

"It may interest you to know," went on Coryndon easily, "that my visit to you is not altogether prompted by idle curiosity." He smiled reflectively. "No, I feel sure that you will not call it that."

"Fire ahead, then," said Joicey, whose very evident resentment was by no means abated. "Ask your question, if it is a question."

"I am coming to that presently. Before I do I want you to understand, Mr. Joicey, that, like you, I am a servant of the public, and I am at present employed in gathering together evidence that throws any light upon the doings of three people on the night of July the twenty-ninth."

"Then you are wasting valuable time," said Joicey defiantly. "I was away from Mangadone on that night."

"I am quite aware that you told Hartley so."

Coryndon's voice was perfectly even and level, but hot anger flamed up in the bloodshot eyes of Craven Joicey.

"I put it to you that you made a mistake," went on Coryndon, "and that in the interests of justice you will now be able to tell me that you remember where you were and what you were doing on that night."

Joicey thrust his hands deep into his pockets, his heavy shoulders bent, and his face dogged.

"I am prepared to swear on oath that I was not in Mangadone on the night of July the twenty-ninth."

"Not in Mangadone, Mr. Joicey. Mangadone proper ends at the tram lines; the district beyond is known as Bhononie."

Coryndon could see that his shot told. There were yellow patches around Joicey's eyes, and a purple shadow passed across his face, leaving it leaden.

"Unless I can complete my case by other means, you will be called as a witness to prove certain facts in connection with the disappearance of the boy Absalom on the night of July the twenty-ninth."

"Who is going to call me?"

The question was curt, and Joicey's defiance was still strong, but there was a certain huskiness in his voice that betrayed a very definite fear.

"Leh Shin, the Chinaman, will call you. His neck will be inside a noose, Mr. Joicey, and he will need your evidence to save his life."

"Leh Shin? That man would swear anything. His word is worthless against mine," said the Banker, raising his voice noisily. "If that is another specimen of Secret Service bluff, it won't do. Won't do, d'you hear?"

Coryndon tapped his fingers on the writing-table.

"I can't agree with you in your conclusion that it 'won't do.' Taken alone his statement may be worthless, but taken in connection with the fact that you are in the habit of visiting his opium den by the river, it would be difficult to persuade any judge that he was lying. I myself have seen you going in there and coming out."

He watched Joicey stare at him with blind rage; he watched him stagger and reach out groping hands for a chair, and he saw the huge defiance evaporate, leaving Joicey a trembling mass of nerves.

"It's a lie," he said, mumbling the words as though they were dry bread. "It's a damned, infernal lie!"

A long silence followed upon his words, and Joicey mopped his face with his handkerchief, breathing hard through his nose, his hands shaking as though he was caught by an ague fit.

"I'm in a corner," he said at last; "you've got the whip-hand of me, Coryndon, but when I said I was not in Mangadone that night, I was speaking the truth."

"You were splitting a hair," suggested Coryndon.

Joicey drew his heavy eyebrows together in an angry frown.

"Let that question rest," he said, conquering his desire to break loose in a passion of rage.

"You went down Paradise Street some time after sunset. Will you tell me exactly whom you saw on your way to the river house?"

Craven Joicey steadied his voice and thought carefully.

"I passed Heath, the Parson, he was coming from the direction of the lower wharves, and was going towards Rydal's bungalow. I remember that, because Rydal was in, my mind at the time; I had heard that his wife was ill, probably dying, and just after I saw Absalom."

He paused for a moment and moistened his lips.

"Was he with anyone when you saw him?"

"No, he was alone, and he was carrying a parcel. Anyhow, that is all I can tell you about him that night."

Joicey looked up as though he considered that he had said enough.

"And from there you went to the opium den," said Coryndon relentlessly.

The perspiration dripped from Joicey's hair, and he took up the threads of the story once more.

"I went there," he said, biting the words savagely. "I was sick at the time. I'd had a go of malaria and was as weak as a kitten. The place was empty, and only Leh Shin was in the house, and whether he gave me a stronger dose, or whether I was too seedy to stand my usual quantity, I can't tell you, but I overslept my time."

He passed his hand over his face with a sideways look that was horrible in its shamefacedness. Coryndon avoided looking at him in return, and waited patiently until he went on.

"Leh Shin remained with me. He never leaves the house whilst I am inside," continued Joicey. "I was there the night of the twenty-ninth and the day of the thirtieth. Luckily it was a Sunday and there was no fear of questions cropping up, and I only got out at nightfall when it was dark enough for me to go back without risk. Since then," he said, rising to his feet and striking the writing-table with a clenched fist, "I have been driven close to madness. Hartley was put on to the track of Leh Shin by the lying old Burman, Mhtoon Pah, and Leh Shin's shop was watched and he himself threatened. God! What I've gone through."

"Thank you," said Coryndon, pushing back his chair. "You have been of the very greatest assistance to me."

Joicey sat down again, a mere torment-racked mass, deprived of the help of his pretence, defenceless and helpless because his sin had found him out in the person of a slim, dark-faced man, who looked at him with burning pity in his eyes.

The world jests at the abstract presentment of vice. From pulpits it appears clothed in attractive words and is spoken of as alluring; and, supported by the laughter of the idle and the stern belief of the righteous in its charms, man sees something gallant and forbidden in following its secret paths. The abstract view has the charm and attraction of an impressionist picture, but once the curtain is down, and the witness stands out with a terrible pointing finger, the laughter of the world dies into silence, and the testimony of the preacher that vice is provided with unearthly beauty becomes a false statement, and man is conscious only of the degradation of his own soul.

Coryndon left the room noiselessly and returned up the steps, along the corridor and down the stone flight that led into the subsiding heat of the late afternoon. The young man with the smooth, affable manner wheeled a bicycle out of a far corner, and smiled pleasantly at Coryndon.

"You saw the Manager, and got what you wanted?"

"I saw him, and got even more than I wanted," said Coryndon, with conviction.

Things like this puzzled the dream side of his nature and left him exhausted. The gathering passion of rage in Joicey's eyes had not touched him, but the memory of the big, bull-dog, defiant man huddled on the low chair, his arm over his face, was a memory that spoke of other things than what he had come there to discover; the terrible things that are behind life and that have power over it. He had to collect himself with definite force, as a child's attention is recalled to a lesson-book.

"He has cleared Leh Shin," he said to himself, and at first exactly all that the words meant was not clear to his mind. Joicey had cleared the Chinaman of complicity, and had knocked the whole structure of carefully selected evidence away with a few words.

Coryndon was back in Hartley's bungalow with this to consider; and it left him in a strange place, miles from any conclusion. He had sighted the end of his labours, seen the reward of his long secret watchfulness, and now they had withdrawn again beyond his grasp. Heath had seen Absalom with the Chinaman's assistant. Joicey, whose evidence marked a later hour than that of Heath, had seen him alone, and the solitary figure of the small boy hurrying into the dark was the last record that indicated the way he had gone.

Nothing connected itself with the picture as Coryndon sat brooding over it, and then gradually his mind cleared and the confusion of the destruction of his carefully worked-out plan departed from his brain like a wind-blown cloud. There was a link, and his sensitive fine fingers caught it suddenly, the very shock of contact sending the blood into his cheeks.

The picture was clear now. Absalom, a little white-clad figure, slim, eager and dutiful, hurried into the shadows of night, but Coryndon was at his heels this time. The clue was so tiny, so infinitesimal, that it took the eye of a man trained to the last inch in the habit of seeing everything to notice it, but it did not escape Coryndon.

He joined Hartley at tea in the sitting-room, with its semi-official air of being used for serious work, and Hartley fulfilled his avocation by bringing Coryndon back from strange places into the heart of sane humdrum existence. Surely if some men are pillars, and others rockets, and more poets, professors and preachers, some are hand-rails, and only the man who has just been standing on a dizzy height looking sheer into the bottomless pit where nothing is safe and where life crumbles and fear is too close to the consciousness, knows the value and even the beauty of a hand-rail, and knows that there is no need to mock at its limitations. For a few minutes Coryndon leant upon the moral support of Hartley's cheery personality, and then he told him that he was going back to the Bazaar that night, as circumstances led him to believe that he might find what he wanted there and there only.

"That means that you have cleared Heath?"

Hartley's voice was relieved.

"Heath is entirely exonerated."

Coryndon wandered to the piano, and he played the twilight into the garden, the bats out of the eaves, and he played the shadow of Joicey's shame off his own soul until he was refreshed and renewed, and it was time for him to return to his disguise and slip out of the house.



XXI

DEMONSTRATES THE PERSUASIVE POWER OF A KNIFE EDGE, AND TELLS A STORY OF A GOLD LACQUER BOWL

The obese boy sat in Leh Shin's shop, fiddling sometimes with his ears and sometimes with the soles of his bare feet. He found life just a little dull, and had he been able to express himself as "bored," he would doubtless have done so. Peeling small dry scales of skin off wear-hardened heels is not the most exciting occupation life affords, and the assistant wished more than once that his master would return from either the gambling den or the Joss House and liberate him for the night.

It was his night at the river house, and small opportunities for pilfering from the drugged sleepers made these occasions both amusing and profitable. On the whole he enjoyed the nights in the den, and they added considerably to his bank in a box secreted behind the Joss who flamed and pranced on the wall. Meanwhile, nothing was doing in the shop, and company there was none, unless the cockroaches and the lizards could be reckoned in that category.

His master had been shaky and short of temper when he awoke from his afternoon sleep, and had struck his assistant over the head more than once in the course of an argument. Unseen things ticked and rustled in dark corners, and the boy yawned loudly and stretched his arms, making himself more hideous as his contracted mouth opened to its full oval in his large round face. Still nothing happened and no one came, and he returned to the closer examination of a blister that interested him. He probed it with a needle, and it indicated its connection with his foot by stinging as though he had burnt himself with a match.

He was seated on a table bending over his horrible employment, half pastime, half primitive operation, the light of the lamp full upon him, when a sound of padding feet shook the floor and he looked up, his eyes full of the effort of listening attentively, and saw a face peering in at the door. For a moment he was startled, and then he swung his legs, which hung short of the floor, over the side of the table and laughed out loud.

"So thou art back, Mountain of Wisdom?" he said jeeringly. "Come within and tell me of thy journey."

The Burman crept in stealthily, looking around him.

"Aye, I am back. Having done the business."

Curiosity leapt into the eyes of the Chinaman, and he dropped his attitude of contempt.

"What business?" he asked greedily. "Before thy departure thou wast mute, stricken as a dumb man, neither wouldst thou speak in response to any question."

The Burman curled himself up on the floor and smiled complaisantly.

"None the less, the business is done, O Bowl of Ghee, and I have returned."

The assistant ignored the personal description, and adopted a manner calculated to ingratiate himself into the friendly confidence of the mad Burman. He wriggled off the table and crouched on the floor a few inches off Coryndon's face, and the contact being too close for human endurance, Coryndon threw himself back into the corner and retired behind a mask of cunning obstinacy.

"Thy business, thy business," repeated the boy. "Was it in the nature of the evil works of the bad man, thy friend?" He leered his encouragement, and fumbling at his belt took out a small coin. "Here, I will give thee two annas if thou tell the whole story to my liking."

The Burman shook his head, but he appeared to be considering the offer slowly in his obtuse and stagnant brain.

"Give the money into mine own hand, that the reward be sure," he said, as though he toyed with the idea.

"Not so," replied the boy. "First the boiled rice and the salt, and afterwards the payment. Thus is the way in honest dealings."

The Burman shut his mouth tightly and exhibited signs of a return to his former condition of dumbness that worked upon the assistant like gall.

"Then, if nothing less will content thee, take thy money," he said in frothy anger. "Take it and speak low, for it may be that eavesdroppers are without in the street."

He dropped the coin into the outstretched palm, but the Burman did not begin his story. He got up and searched behind boxes and shook the rows of hanging garments. He was so secret and silent that the boy became exasperated and closed the narrow door into the street with a bang, pulling across a heavy chain.

"Let that content thee," he said irritably, chafing under the delay, and sitting down, a frowsy, horrible object, in the dim corner, he prepared to enjoy a further description out of the wild fantastic terrors of the madman's brain.

Surprise does not hover; its coming events are shadowless, and its spring is the spring of a tiger out of the dark, and surprise came upon Leh Shin's assistant as it has come upon men and nations since the world first spun in space.

He looked upon the Burman as a harmless lunatic, and he only half-believed that he had ever been guilty of the act that had ended in a term of imprisonment in the Andaman Islands, but in one moment he realized that it might all be true and that he himself was possibly singled out as the next victim.

In one silent moment he found himself pinned in his corner, the Burman squatting in front of him, a long knife which he had never seen before pointing at his throat with horrible, determined persistency.

He opened his mouth and thought to cry out for help, but the Burman leaned forward and warned him that if he did so, his last minute had inevitably come.

"I am thy friend, thy good and honourable friend," he said pleasantly as he made play with the Afghan dagger. "I do but make mirth for both myself and thee, and I have no thought to harm thee."

The flesh of the gross body crept and crawled under the Burman's look. Fate had put the heart of a chicken in the huge frame of Leh Shin's assistant, and it beat now like pelting hail on a frozen road. He was close to a raw, naked fear, and it made him shameless as he gibbered and cowered before it.

"I have no money," he said, bleating out the words. "All that I have is already paid to thee for thy tale."

He whined and cringed and writhed in his close corner.

"I have heard a strange tale," Coryndon said, bending a little closer to him. "Old now as stale fish that has lain in the dust of the street. It has been whispered in my ear that thou knowest how Absalom came to his end."

"I slew him in the house of a seaman," said the boy, in a quavering voice. "Now take the point of thy knife from my throat, for it doth greatly inconvenience pleasant speech between thee and me."

Coryndon's watchful eye detected the lie before it announced itself in words, or so it seemed to the boy, who resigned himself to the mere paltry limitations of fact, and confessed that he and Absalom had been friends and that he had never killed anything except a chicken, and once a dog that was too young to bite his hand.

The details of the story came out at long intervals, with breaks of sweating terror between each one. Pieced together, it was simple enough. In spite of the existing feud between their masters, Leh Shin's assistant and Absalom had struck up a kind of friendship that was not unlike the friendship of any two boys in any quarter of the globe. They used special knocks upon the door, and when they passed as strangers in the streets they made masonic signs to one another, and they also gambled with European cards in off hours.

The desire for money, so strong in the Chinaman, grew gradually in the mind of the Christian boy, whose descent to Avernus was marked first by the sale of his Sunday school prize-books, which he disposed of at the Baptist Mission shop, receiving several rupees in return. Having once possessed himself of what was wealth to him, and having lost most of it in the gentlemanly vice of gambling, he began to need more, but being slow-witted he could think of no way better than robbing Mhtoon Pah, which suggestion the Chinaman's assistant looked upon as both dangerous and weak, regarded in the light of a workable plan.

It was inside his bullet-head that the idea of a plot that could not be discovered came into its first nebulous being. Absalom found out that Mhtoon Pah was looking for a gold lacquer bowl, and through the agency of Leh Shin the bowl was eventually marked down as the property of a seaman who was lodging temporarily near the opium den by the river, one of Leh Shin's clients. The assistant had the good fortune to overhear the preliminaries of the sale, and he immediately saw his opportunity, as genius alone sees and recognizes chances. It was he who first told Absalom that the bowl was located, and it was he who realized that chance was beckoning on the adventurer.

It was arranged that Absalom should inform Mhtoon Pah that the coveted treasure was to be had for a price, and it was also the part of Mr. Heath's best scholar, to obtain the money from Mhtoon Pah that was to be paid over to the seaman for the bowl. By this time Absalom's gambling debts had become a serious question with him, and even a lifelong mortgage upon his weekly pay could hardly cover his liabilities. Besides which, he had to live. That painful necessity which dogs the career of greater men than Absalom.

He appeared to have an almost childish trust in the craft and guile of his Chinese friend, and set the whole matter before him. Mhtoon Pah was ready to pay two hundred rupees for the lacquer bowl, as he was already offered five hundred by Mrs. Wilder, and was content with the profit. Two hundred rupees was a sum that was essentially worth some risk. To hand it over to a drunken seaman was against all moral precept. The sailor's ways were scandalous, his gain would go into evil hands. Treated in this manner, even a Sunday-school graduate could lull an uneasy conscience, and as far as Coryndon could judge, Absalom was not troubled by any warnings from that silent mentor. Out of the brain of Leh Shin's assistant the great scheme had leapt full-grown, and it only required a little careful preparation to put it into action.

The assistant knew the sailor, a Lascar with a craving for drink, and he became friendly with him "out of hours," and learned his ways and the times when he was likely to be in the house where he lodged. The sailor, having come to know that value was attached to his bowl, guarded it with avaricious care when in a condition to do so; and Leh Shin, who trusted his assistant, through whom the news of the deal had first come to his ear, offered the man fifty rupees for what he had merely stolen from a shop in Pekin. It took the assistant a full week to arrange events so that he and Absalom could work together for the moral good of the sailor, and protect him from the snares of lucre, represented by a third of the money Leh Shin expected to receive.

He dwelt with some pride upon the fact, and his vanity in this particular almost conquered his fear of the Afghan blade that still nestled close to his bull neck. He had drunk in friendship with the sailor, dropping a drug into his cup, and waiting till his eyes grew dim and he fell forward in a heavy sleep. But even in the moment of achievement his wits were worth more than the wits of Absalom, for he ran out of the house and established an alibi while the Christian boy filched the bowl from beneath the bed of the intoxicated sailor. At a given hour he waited for Absalom just where Heath had stood after he had parted from Rydal, and so chance played twice into his hands in one night. Absalom, who appeared to have imbibed some rudimentary principles of honour among thieves, passed the boy his share, which was a hundred and twenty rupees, including his debts of honour, and having done so, sped away into the night, the bowl under his arm.

"And that is all the story," said the boy, beating his hands on the floor, and returning from the momentary forgetfulness of the narrative to the immediate fear of the knife. "Further than that, I know nothing. The hour is late and if I am not at the river house I shall feel the wrath of my master."

"It is a poor tale, a paltry tale," said the Burman, in tones of disgust. "One that hardly requites me for my patience in hearing it out."

He slipped his knife back into his belt and got up from his heels with a leisurely movement. The boy, still on all fours, watched him closely, and the Burman, his eye attracted by a bright tin kettle hanging among the other goods dependent from the ceiling, stood looking at it, and as he looked the boy dodged out with a rush, overturning a bale of goods, and tearing at the door like a mad dog, disappeared into the street.

Coryndon watched him go, and went back to his corner to wait until Leh Shin should return from either the gambling den or the Joss House. He had something to say to Leh Shin, something that could not wait to be said, and he composed himself to the necessary patience that is part of all close, careful search, and while he waited, he turned over the evidence that had arisen from the little clue that Joicey had given him. Absalom had a parcel under his arm, and that parcel was the gold lacquer bowl that had passed from Mhtoon Pah's curio shop to Mrs. Wilder's writing-table.

Coryndon fiddled with his fingers in the dust of the floor, and took a blood-stained rag out of his pocket and spread it over his knee. Here was another tangible piece of evidence brought by Mhtoon Pah to Hartley. So the record of circumstance closed in. Coryndon thought again. A lacquer bowl and a stained rag of silk, that was all. If he handed over the case to Hartley and Mhtoon Pah was really guilty, other evidence would in all probability be found, and the whole mystery made clear.

He leaned against the wall and watched the throbbing lamp-wick, fighting his passion for completed work and his conviction that only he could see it through to its ultimate conclusion. He knew that he was dealing with wits quite as crafty as his own, and argued the point from the other side. Mhtoon Pah had given the rag himself to Hartley, and had sworn that the bowl was left on the steps of his shop. If no further proof was forthcoming, these two facts unsupported were almost worthless. Unless a complete denial of his story could be set against it, Hartley stood to be checkmated.

Coryndon had nearly decided against Leh Shin. He drew his knees up under his chin and came to a definite conclusion. He could not give up the case as it stood; he was absolved from any hint of professional jealousy, and he could count himself free to follow the evidence until it led him irrevocably to the spot where the whole detail was clear and definite.

All the faces of the men who had figured in the drama floated across his mind, and he thought of the strange key that turned in the lock of one small trivial destiny, opening other doors as if by magic. Absalom's life or death had no outward connection with the Head of the Mangadone Banking Firm, it had nothing in all its days to bring it into touch with Rydal and Rydal's tragedy—Rydal whom Coryndon had never seen. It lay apart, severed by race and every possible accident of birth or chance, from the successful wife of a successful Civil Servant, or an earnest, hard-working clergyman, and yet the great net of Destiny had been spread on that night of the 29th of July, and every one of them had fallen into its meshes.

All the immense problem of the plan that so decides the current of men's lives came over him, and he saw the limitless value of the insignificant in life. Absalom was only a little floating piece of jetsam on the great waters that divided all these lives, yet he was the factor that had taken the place of the keystone in the arch; the pivot around which the force that guided and ruled the whole apparent chaos had moved. Coryndon wandered a long way in his thoughts from the shop where he sat on the dusty floor, waiting for the return of Leh Shin. He was so still that the cockroaches and black-beetles crept out again and formed into marauding expeditions where the shadows of the hanging clothes fell dark.

He turned himself from the pressure of his thought and closed his eyes, resting his brain in a quiet pool of untroubled silence. He knew the need and the art of absolute relaxation from the strain of thought, and though he did not sleep, he looked as though he slept, until he heard the sound of approaching feet and a hand pushed against the door.



XXII

IN WHICH CORYNDON HOLDS THE LAST THREAD AND DRAWS IT TIGHT

When Leh Shin opened the shop door and pushed in his grey, gaunt face, he looked around as though wondering in a half-dreamy, half-detached abstraction where some object he had expected to see had gone. At length his eyes wandered to the Burman, who sat on the ground eyeing him with a curiously intent and concentrated regard.

"Thine assistant hath gone to the river house," he said, answering the unspoken question. "He left me in charge of thy shop and thy goods."

Leh Shin nodded silently and closed the door. When he turned, the Burman beckoned to him with a studied suggestion of mystery.

"What is thy message?" asked Leh Shin. He believed the Burman to be afflicted with a madness, and his odd and persistent movement of his arm hardly conveyed anything to the drowsy, drugged brain of the Chinaman.

The Burman made no reply, but beckoned again, pointing to the floor beside him in dumb show, and Leh Shin advanced slowly and took up his place on a grass mat a little distance off. Silently, and very softly, the Burman crept near to him, and putting his mouth close to his ear, talked in a rapid, hissing whisper. His words were low, but their effect upon Leh Shin was startling, for he recoiled as though touched by a hot needle. His hands clutched his clothes, and his whole frame stiffened. Even when he drew away, he listened with avidity as the Burman continued to pour forth his story.

He had a friend in the household of Hartley Sahib, so he told Leh Shin, a friend who had sensitive ears and had heard much; had heard in fact the whole story of the stained rag, and of Mhtoon Pah's wild appeal for justice against the Chinaman.

"Well for thee, Leh Shin, that I have a friend in the house of that Thakin who rules the Police. But for him I should not have been informed of the plot against thy life, for, 'on this evidence,' saith he, 'assuredly they will hang the Chinaman, and Mhtoon Pah is witness against him.'"

"Mhtoon Pah, Mhtoon Pah!" said Leh Shin, and he needed to add no curses to the name, spoken as he said it.

When Coryndon had fully explained that his friend, who was in the service of Hartley, had not only given him a circumstantial account of how the rag was to be used as final and conclusive evidence of Leh Shin's guilt, but that he had also stolen the rag out of Hartley Sahib's locked box, to be safely returned to him later, Leh Shin almost tore it from between Coryndon's fingers.

"Nay, I cannot deliver it unto thee. My word is pledged. Look closely at it, if thou wilt, but it may not leave my hand or I break my oath."

He held it under the circle of lamplight, and the Chinaman leaned over his shoulder to look at it. For a long time he examined it carefully, feeling its texture and touching it with light fingers.

Coryndon watched him with some interest. The Chinaman was applying some definite test to the silk, known to himself. At last he turned his eyes on the Burman, staring with a gaunt, fierce look that saw many things, and when he spoke his words grated and rattled and his voice was almost beyond his control.

"See now, O servant of Justice, I am learned in the matter of silks, and without doubt this comes surely from but one place."

Again he fell to touching the silk, and his crooked fingers shook as he explained that the fragment was one he could identify. It was not the product of the silk looms of Burma, or Shantung; it could not be procured even in Japan. It was a rare and special product fashioned by certain lake-dwellers in the Shan states, and so small was their output that it went to no market.

"In one shop only in Mangadone," he said; "nay, in one shop only in the whole world may such silk be found. Thus, in his craft, hath mine enemy overreached himself."

"Thou art certain of this?"

"As I am that the sun will rise."

Coryndon looked again at the silk, and sat silently thinking.

"The piece is cut off roughly," he said, after a moment of reflection. "Yet, could it be fitted into the space left in the roll, then thou art cleared, and hast just cause against Mhtoon Pah."

"If thy madness comprehends so much, let it carry thee further still, O stricken and afflicted," said Leh Shin, imploring him with voice and gesture. "Night after night have I stood outside his shop, but who may enter through a locked door? A breath, a shadow, or a flame, but not a man." He lay on the ground and dug his nails into the floor. "I know the shop from within and without, and I know that the lock opens with difficulty but to one key, the key that hangs on a chain around the neck of Mhtoon Pah."

Silence fell again as Leh Shin wrestled with the problem that confronted him.

"What saidst thou?" said the Burman, suddenly coming to life. "A key?"

He gave a low, chuckling laugh and rocked about in his corner.

"Knowest thou of the story of Shiraz, the Punjabi?"

"I have no mind for tales," said Leh Shin, striking at him with a futile blow of rage.

"Nay, restrain thy wrath, since thou hast spoken of a key. With a key that was made by sorcery, he was enabled to open the treasure-box of the Lady Sahib, and often hath he told me that all doors may be opened by it, large or small. It is not hard for me to take it from under his pillow while he sleeps."

The Chinaman's jaw dropped, and he cast up his hands in mute astonishment. If this was madness, sanity appeared only a doubtful blessing set beside it. He drew his own wits together, and leaning near the Burman laid before him the rough outline of a plan.

Mhtoon Pah's ways were known to him. Usually he went to the Pagoda after the shop was closed, and he returned from there late; it was impossible to be accurate as to the exact hour of his return. To risk detection was to shatter all chance of success, and it was necessary to make sure before attempting to break into the shop and identify the silk rag with the original roll, if that might be done.

There was only one course open to the Burman and Leh Shin, and that was to wait until there was a Pwe at the Pagoda, which Mhtoon Pah would certainly attend, as his new shrine drew many curious gazers to the Temple. It would also draw the inhabitants of Paradise Street out of the quarter, and leave the place practically deserted. For many reasons it was necessary to wait such an opportunity, though Leh Shin raved at the delay. It seemed to him that the whole plan was of his suggesting, and he did not realize that every vague question put by the Burman led him step by step to the complicated scheme.

"To-morrow I will send forth my assistant to bring me word of the next Pwe, so that the night may be marked in my mind, and that I shall gain pleasure in considering the nearing downfall of my enemy."

Coryndon slipped off to his house. He was tired mentally and physically, but before he slept, he took a bundle of keys from his dispatch-box and tied them to the waist of his loongyi.

In the morning there was a fresh surprise for Leh Shin. His assistant refused to leave the river house, and no persuasion would lure him out to look after his master's shop. He was afraid of something or someone, and he wept and entreated to be left where he was. Leh Shin beat him and tried to drive him out, to no purpose, and in the end he prevailed over his master, whose mind was occupied with other and more weighty affairs.

Like a black shadow, Leh Shin crept about the streets, and he questioned one and another as to the festivities to be held at the Pagoda. Everywhere he heard of Mhtoon Pah's shrine, and of the great holiness of the curio dealer. Mhtoon Pah was giving a feast at the Pagoda with presents for the priests, and the night chosen was the night of the full moon.

"Art thou bidden?" asked one who remembered the day of Leh Shin's prosperity.

"It is in my thoughts, friend, to make my peace," said Leh Shin, with an immovable face. "On the night when the moon is full, I am minded to do so."

His words were carried back to Mhtoon Pah, who pondered over them, wondering what the Chinaman meant, finding something sinister in the sound that added to his rage against his enemy.

The day of the feast was dark and overcast, and the inhabitants of Paradise Street looked at the sky with great misgiving, but the curio dealer refused to be alarmed.

"The night will be fine, for I have greatly propitiated the Nats," he said with conviction, and he lolled and smoked in his chair at an earlier hour than was usual with him.

Even as he had said, the evening began to clear, and by sunset the heavy clouds were all dispersed. A red sunset unfolded itself in a scroll of fire across the sky, and Mangadone looked as though it was illuminated by the flames of a conflagration. A strange evening, some said then, and many said after. Even the pointing man lost his jaundice-yellow and seemed to blush as he pointed up the steps. He had nothing to blush for. His master was at the summit of his power. The Hypongyis lauded him openly in the streets, and he was giving a feast at the Temple at which the poorest would not be forgotten.

Yet Mhtoon Pah was not altogether easy. His eyes rolled strangely from time to time, and it was remarked by several that he walked to the end of Paradise Street and looked down the Colonnade of the Chinese quarter, standing there in thought. Old stories of the feud between him and Leh Shin were recalled in whispers and passed about.

The red of the sunset died out into rose-pink, and the effect of colour in the very air faded and dwindled. People were already dressed out in gala clothing, and streaming towards the Pagoda. The giver of the feast did not start with them. He sat in his chair, and then withdrew into his shop. A light travelled from thence to the upper story, and then with slow hesitation, Mhtoon Pah came out by the front of the house and locked the clamped padlock. He stood still for a few minutes, and then he gasped and shook his fist at the empty air, and he, too, took his way across the bridge and was lost in the shadows.

Still the stream from Wharf Street and the confluent streets flowed on up Paradise Street, and gradually only the maimed and the aged, or the impossibly youthful, were left behind, to hear of the wonders afterwards at secondhand, a secondhand likely to add rather than detract from what actually took place. Even the Colonnade was empty and silent. Shiraz had gone with the crowd to see what might be seen, and Leh Shin's assistant, furtive and watchful, and in great terror of the Burman's knife, was also in the throng that climbed the Pagoda steps.

The moon that was to have shone on Mhtoon Pah's feast rose in a yellow ring, and clouds came up, hazy, gaudy clouds that dimmed its light and made the shadows in the silent streets dense and heavy. Usually there was a police guard at the corner where Paradise Street met the Colonnade, but that night Hartley considered the police would be more necessary in the neighbourhood of the Pagoda. Mhtoon Pah did not think of this. His conscience was easy, he had propitiated the Nats.

The Pagoda was one blaze of light, and a thousand candles flamed before every shrine; even the oldest and most neglected had its ring of light. Small coloured lamps dotted the outlines of some of the booths, and the whole spectacle presented a moving mass of brilliant colour. Sahibs had come there. Hartley Sahib had agreed to appear for half an hour, and he too looked at the crowd with curious, travelling eyes. Coryndon might be among them, and probably was, he thought, but in any case there was little chance of his recognizing him if he were.

Mhtoon Pah had not spared magnificent display, and the crowd told each other that it was indeed a night to remember in Mangadone. Whispering winds came out and rang the Temple bells, but even when the breeze strengthened, the rain-clouds held off. It became a matter for compliment and congratulation, and Mhtoon Pah accepted his friends' flattery without pride. He was a good man, a benefactor, a shrine-builder who followed "the Way" with zeal and fervour, and besides, he had propitiated Nats; Nats who blew up storms, caused earthquakes and were evilly disposed towards men.

Mhtoon Pah would have been at the point where a man's life touches sublimity, but for one thing. The words of Leh Shin echoed in his ears over all the applause and adulation.

"It is in my thought, friend, to make my peace. On the night of the full moon I am minded to do so."

The moon riding clear of clouds, shone out over the concourse of men and women. Anywhere among them all might be Leh Shin, the needy Chinaman, and gripping his large hands into fists, Mhtoon Pah watched for him and expected him, but watch as he might, he did not come, neither was there any sign of him among all the crowd of faces that passed and repassed before the new shrine.



XXIII

DEMONSTRATES THE TRUTH OF THE AXIOM THAT "THE UNEXPECTED ALWAYS HAPPENS"

At the time when Mhtoon Pah was standing in the centre of a gazing group before the new shrine, and trying to forget that nothing except the news of Leh Shin's hanging would give him real satisfaction, the Chinaman, accompanied by the Burman, slipped up the channel of gloom under the Colonnade and made his way into Paradise Street.

The Burman walked with an easy unconscious step, but Leh Shin crept close to the wall and started when he passed a sleeping form in a doorway. Night fears and that trembling anxiety that comes when fulfilment is close at hand were upon him. He knew that the point in view was to effect an entrance into the curio shop, the threshold of which he had not crossed since his last black hour of misfortune had struck and he had gone out a beggar.

Everything in his life lay on the other side of the shop door; all his happy, prosperous, careless days, all the good years. Every one of them was stored there just as surely as Mhtoon Pah's ivories and carved screens and silks were stored safe against the encroachment of damp and must. His old self might even be somewhere in the silent house, and it takes a special quality of courage for a man to return and walk through a doorway into the long past. For the first time for years he remembered how he had brought his little son into the shop, and how the child had laughed and crowed at the sight of amber and crystal chains.

Even Mhtoon Pah grew dim in his mind, and he dallied with the forgotten memories as he stood shaking in an archway watching the Burman cross the street. Insensibly the Burman's mania had waned in the last few hours, and he had grown silent and preoccupied, a fact that escaped Leh Shin's notice. His owl eyes blinked with the strain of staring through the wavering light, and his memories strove with him as though in physical combat. Mhtoon Pah was no longer in the house, and instead of his shadow another influence seemed to brood there, something that called to Leh Shin, but not with the wild cry of hate. Before the days of still greater affluence Leh Shin had lived there with his little Burmese wife.

The Burman was on his knees, having some difficulty with the lock. He could see him fighting it, and at last he saw the jerk of his hand that told that the key had turned, and that the way was clear. Leh Shin dived out of the recess and ran, a flitting shadow, across the road. The door was open, but the Burman for all his madness was not satisfied. There was a way out through the back by which they could emerge, and if the front door hung loose, careless eyes might easily be attracted to the fact. The pointing man was not there for nothing. Almost everyone looked up the steps. Even in his fury of impatience, Leh Shin saw the reason for caution, and agreed to open a window, and admit the Burman after he had locked the door again.

The moments were full of the tense agony of suspense, and he peered cautiously out from under the silk blind. A late passer-by went slowly up the street, and Leh Shin's heart beat a loud obbligato to the sound of his wooden pattens. By craning his neck as the man passed, he could just distinguish the Burman crouching behind the wooden man, who blandly indicated the heavy padlock. The wooden man lied woodenly to the effect that all was well within the curio shop, and a few minutes later the Burman swung himself over the balustrade and climbed with cat-like agility on to the window-ledge.

The darkness of the room was heavy with scent, and Leh Shin stumbled over unknown things. Coryndon struck a match and held it in the hollow of one palm as he opened the aperture in the dark lantern he carried, and lighted it. When he had done so he looked up, and taking no notice of the masses of beautiful things, he went quickly to the silk cupboard, opening it with another key on the ring.

"Leh Shin," he said, speaking in a commanding whisper, "turn thyself into an ear, and listen for me while I search."

Leh Shin nodded silently, half-stupidly it seemed, and went on tip-toes to the door that opened into the passage. All the power of the past was over him, and though he heard the Burman's curt command he hardly seemed to understand what he meant. For a little time he stood at the door, hearing the rustling whisper of yards of silk torn down and glanced over and discarded, and then he wandered almost without knowing it up the staircase and through the rooms, until the sight of Mhtoon Pah's bed and some of Mhtoon Pah's clothing recalled his mind to the reason of his being there.

He hurried down, his bare feet making no sound on the stairs, and looked into the shop again. The Burman was seated on the floor, a width of silk over his knees; all the displaced rolls had been put back. He had worked swiftly and with the greatest care that no trace of his visit should be known later.

Leh Shin slid out again. The passage was dark as pitch, but he knew every turn and twist of its windings, and he knew that it led down to the cellars below the house. He was awake and alert now as Coryndon himself, and as he strained his ears he caught a sound. He listened again with horrible eagerness, looked back into the shop and saw the stooping head going over every yard of a roll of fine silk faithfully; and then he gripped the knife under his belt and, feeling along the wall with his free hand, followed along the corridor. Once only he glanced round and then the darkness of the corridor swallowed him from sight.

Coryndon, busy with the silk made by the lake-dwellers spread over his knees, knew nothing of Leh Shin's disappearance. The fever of chase was in his blood, and he threw the flimsy yards through his hands. Nothing, nothing, and again nothing, and again—he felt his heart swell with sudden, stifled excitement. Under his hand was a three-cornered rent, a damaged piece where a patch rather larger than his palm had been roughly cut out. His usually steady hand shook as he put the stained rag over it and fitted it into the place.

"Leh Shin," he called, as he rose, but he called softly.

No sound answered his whisper, and he stiffened his body and listened. He had been wrong. There was a sound, but it did not come from inside the shop: it was the slow footstep of a heavy man pausing to find a key.

Coryndon listened no longer. He closed the door of the silk cupboard, bundled up the yards of silk in his arms and extinguishing the lamp darted behind a screen. It was a heavy carved teak screen, inset with silk panels embroidered with a long spray of hanging wistaria on a dark yellow ground. As he hid himself, he cursed his own stupidity. In the excitement of his desire to enter the curio shop, he had forgotten to hamper the lock with pebbles.

After what seemed an age, the door opened slowly and Mhtoon Pah came in. Something, he knew not what, had dragged him away from the Pagoda, and dragged him back to his shop. His eyes looked mad and unnatural in the light of the lantern he held in his hand, and he shut the door and stood like a dog who scents danger, and stared round the room. He walked to the silk cupboard and looked in through the glass panes, but did not open it or discover that it was unlocked. He paced round the room, stopping before the screen, his eyes still reflecting his trouble of mind.

From behind the screen, Coryndon watched every stir he made; he saw the look on his face and noted Mhtoon Pah's smallest movement. There was no evidence of thieves, and yet suspicion made itself plain in every line of the curio dealer's body. At last, with a gasping sigh, he sat before the small figure of an alabaster Gaudama and stared at it with unwinking eyes.

"I shed no blood," he said, in a low rattling voice. "I shed no blood. My hands are clean."

Over and over he repeated the words, like an incantation, his voice rising and falling, until Coryndon could have emerged from his hiding and taken him by the throat.

The thought of coming out upon Mhtoon Pah crossed his mind, but his instinct held him back. He wondered desperately where Leh Shin had gone, and if he would come in upon the Burman making his strange prayer. Still Mhtoon Pah repeated the words and swayed to and fro before the image of the Buddha, and the very moments seemed to pause and listen with Coryndon. The shop was close and the air oppressive. Little trickles of sweat ran down his neck and made channels in the stain on his skin, and still Coryndon waited in tense suspense.

For nearly ten minutes Mhtoon Pah continued to rock and mutter on the floor, and then he got up, and, taking his lantern, went out by the door into the passage. Coryndon waited for the sound of a scuffle and a fall, but none came, and he was in the dark, surrounded by silence once more.

Without waiting to consider, he followed across the room and saw the swinging light go down the passage and disappear suddenly. It seemed to Coryndon that Mhtoon Pah had disappeared, as though he had gone through the wall at the end of the passage, and he followed slowly. Silence locked him in again, the dark, motionless silence of enclosed space.

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