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The Pointing Man - A Burmese Mystery
by Marjorie Douie
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He did not dare to call out again to Leh Shin, and for all that he could tell, the Chinaman might have been an arm's-reach away from him in the darkness, also waiting for some sudden thing to happen. The dark passage was an ante-chamber to some event: Coryndon's tingling nerves told him that; and he steadied himself, holding in his imagination in a close, resolute grip.

He had no way of judging the time that passed, but he guessed that it seemed longer to him than it possibly could have been; when from somewhere far below him, he heard a cry and the noise of several voices, all raised into indistinct clamour.

"More than one man," he thought, as his heart beat quickly. "More than two," he added, in wonder as he strained in the effort of listening.

The noise died out, and one low wail, continuous and plaintive, filled the blank of dark silence. Coryndon felt for his matches, and knelt on the floor, feeling before him with his hands. The crying had ceased, and he touched the edge of a step. A long, steep flight began just under his hand.

He leaned back and held the match-box in his hand, knowing that he could not venture the descent in the dark, and as he took out a match a new sound caught his ear. A man was running in the dark. He heard him stumble over the lower steps as he panted fiercely and he broke into a cry as he ran, a strange, mad, sobbing cry, and he still gasped and gave out his wordless wail as he tore past Coryndon and on along the passage and into the shop.

Coryndon heard the door bang behind him, he heard the sound of some heavy thing being dragged before it. The footsteps and the voice were not those of Leh Shin, and Coryndon knew that Mhtoon Pah had fled like a man pursued by devils, and had barricaded himself in.

For a moment Coryndon paused, and then lighted a match. Close under his feet was the perilous edge of a staircase leading sheer down into a well-like depth of blackness. A thin scream came up to him, and without waiting to consider, he ran down quickly. At the bottom he found Mhtoon Pah's overturned lantern, and relighting it, he followed the intermittent call of fear that echoed through the damp, cavernous place he found himself in.

A closed door stood at the end of a narrow passage, and from the further side of the door a stifled sound of terror came persistently. Leh Shin sat in a huddled heap against the door, and Coryndon stooped over him, throwing the light from the lantern he carried upon him.

"I looked into his eyes," said the Chinaman, in a weak voice, "and once more he overcame me. His knife rent my arm, and I fell as though dead."

Coryndon supported him to his feet. His mind was working quickly.

"Canst thou stand by thyself?" he asked impatiently.

The Chinaman gave a nod of assent, and Coryndon hammered on the door, throwing all his weight against it, until it cracked and fell inwards under the nervous force of his slight frame.

What Coryndon expected to see, he did not know. He was following his natural instinct when he threw aside the chase and capture of Mhtoon Pah and burst into the cellar-room. It was small and close, and smelt of the foul, fruity atmosphere of mildew. The ceiling was low, and crouching in one corner was a small boy, clad only in a loin-cloth, who stared at them and screamed with fear.

"The Chinamen, the Chinamen!" he shrieked. "Mhtoon Pah, the Chinamen."

"Absalom," the name came to Coryndon's lips, as he stood staring at him. "My God, it must be Absalom."

He had spoken in English before he had time to think, and he turned to see if his self-betrayal had struck upon the confused brain of Leh Shin, but Leh Shin knew nothing and saw nothing but the face of the boy his enemy loved. He had placed the lamp on the floor and was feeling for his dagger, his eyes fascinated and his lips working soundlessly.

Coryndon caught him by the shoulder and snatched his knife from his hand.

"Fool," he said. "Wouldst thou ruin all at the end? Listen closely and attend to me. Now is the moment to cry for the police. Thine enemy is in a close net; show me swiftly the way by which I may go out of this house, and sit thou here and stir not, neither cry out nor speak until thou hearest the police. By the way I go out will I leave the door open, and some will enter there, and others at the front of the house."

He turned to look at the boy, who pointed at the Chinaman and continued to shriek for Mhtoon Pah. It was no moment for hesitation, though Coryndon's thoughts went to the shop and the front door. By that door Mhtoon Pah might already have escaped, but even allowing for this, there was time to catch him again. He followed the way pointed out by the shaking hand of Leh Shin.

"If thou fail in aught that I have told thee, or if the boy escape or suffer under thy hand, then is thine end also come," he said, as he stood for a moment in the aperture that led into a waste place at the back of the house; and then Coryndon ran through the night.

The rain had come on, teeming, relentless rain that fell in pitiless sheets out of a black sky. The roads ran with liquid mud and the stones cut Coryndon's bare feet, but he ran on, his lungs aching and his throat dry. It is not easy to think with the blood hammering in the pulses and the breath coming short through gasping lungs, but Coryndon kept his mind fixed upon one idea with steady determination. His object was to get into the house unnoticed, and to awake Hartley without betraying himself to the servants.

Hartley's bungalow was closed for the night, and the Durwan slept rolled in a blanket in a corner of the veranda. Coryndon held his sobbing breath and crept along the shadows, watching the man closely until the danger zone was passed, and then he ran on around the sharp angle of the house and dived into Hartley's room. In the centre stood the bed, draped in the ghostly outlines of white mosquito-curtains, and Coryndon walked lightly over the matted floor and shook the bed gently. Hartley stirred but did not wake, and Coryndon called his name and continued to call it in a low whisper. The Head of the Police stirred again and then sat up suddenly and answered Coryndon in the same low undertone.

"Get into your clothes quickly, while I tell you what has happened," said Coryndon, sitting low in the shadow of the bed, and while Hartley dressed he told him the details shortly and clearly.

The bungalow was still in darkness, and, with a candle in his hand to light him, Hartley went into his office and rang up the Paradise Street Police Station. When he came back Coryndon was standing looking through a corner of a raised chick.

"The Durwan is awake," he said, without turning his head. "Call him round to the front, otherwise he may see me."

"Come on, come on, man," said Hartley impatiently, "there is no time to lose."

Coryndon turned and smiled at him.

"This is where I go out of the case," he said. "I shall be back in time for breakfast to-morrow," and without waiting to argue the point he dived out into the waning darkness of the night, leaving Hartley looking helplessly after him.



XXIV

IN WHICH A WOODEN IMAGE POINTS FOR THE LAST TIME

Before the Burman left Leh Shin in charge of Absalom, he had pinned the Chinaman by the arms and spoken to him in strange, strong words that scorched clear across the chaos in his mind and made him understand a hidden thing. The fact that this man was not a mad convict, but a member of the great secret society who tracked the guilty, almost stunned the Chinaman, who knew and understood the immense power of secret societies.

Mhtoon Pah might be driving wildly along a road leading out of Mangadone, and though one old Chinaman and a mad Burman could not stop him, the long arm of police law would grab and capture his gross body. Leh Shin sat quite still, content to rest and consider this. Telegrams flashed messages under the great bidding of authority, men sprang armed from stations in every village, the close grip of fate was not more close than the grasp of the awakened machinery of justice, and in the centre of its power Mhtoon Pah was helpless as a fly in the web of a spider.

"He travels fast, and fear is sitting on his shoulder, for he travels to his death," he repeated over and over, swaying backwards and forwards.

He had an opium pellet hidden somewhere in his clothes, and he found it and turned it over his tongue; weariness and sleep conquered the pain, and Leh Shin sat with his head bent forward in heavy stupor. From this condition he awoke to lights and noises and the sound of a file working on iron.

The police had come and Hartley was bending over the boy, talking to him kindly and reassuring him as far as he could. Upstairs, the heavy thud of blows on the outer door of the shop echoed through the house with steady, persistent sound.

Dawn had come in real earnest, and the street, but lately returned from the excitements of the feast at the Pagoda, was thrilled by a new and much more satisfying sensation. Three blue-coated, leather-belted policemen were on the top of the steps that led to the door of the curio shop, forcing it in. The heavy bolts held, and though the padlocked chain hung idle, the door resisted all their efforts.

Hartley was down in the cellars, and his way through to the shop was blocked . . . blocked by the inner door which was also closed from inside, and somewhere within was Mhtoon Pah. He was very silent in his shop. No amount of hammering called forth any response, and even when the door gave way and the bolt fell clattering to the ground, he did not spring out.

People had sometimes wondered at the curious destiny of the wooden man. He had been there so long and had done his duty so faithfully. In rain or shine alike, he had always been in the street, eternally bowing the passers up the steps. Americans had tried to buy him, and had wished to take him home to point at other free and enlightened citizens, but Mhtoon Pah refused all offers of money. The wooden man was faithful to him, and he in his turn was, in some way, faithful to the wooden man. He had been there when Mhtoon Pah was a clerk and had indicated his rise, he had seen him take over possession of the shop, and he had been witness to many trivial things, and now he stood, the crowd behind him, and pointed silently again. It seemed right for him to point, but it was grotesque that he still smiled and bent forward.

The closed gates of the dawn opened and let in the sun, and the pale yellow light ventured across the threshold where the policemen hung back, and even the crowd in the street were silent. The light fell on a thousand small things that reflected its rays; it fell on a heavy carved box drawn across the further entrance, on the swinging glass doors of the open silk cupboard, on bowls of silver and bowls of brass, and it fell full on the thing that of all others drew the horrified eyes of the watchers.

Mhtoon Pah, the wealthy curio dealer, the shrine builder, the friend of the powerful, hung from a beam across the centre of the low ceiling, and Mhtoon Pah was dead, strangled in a fine, silk scarf. Fine, strong silk made only by certain lake-dwellers in a wild place just across the Shan frontier.

Perhaps the destiny which Shiraz believed a man may not escape, be he as fleet as a flying stag, had caught up with him, and it was not without reason that the image had pointed at something not there years ago, not there when youth was there, and hope and love, and when Leh Shin had lived and been happy there, but to come, certainly and surely to come.

* * * * *

Hartley and Coryndon sat long over their breakfast. Coryndon's face was strained and tired, and heavy lines of fatigue were marked under his dark eyes.

"The boy was not in a condition to give any lucid explanation when I brought him back," said Hartley, "so I left him until we could both hear his story together." He called to his Bearer and gave instructions for the boy to be brought in.

Coryndon nodded silently; his eyes lit up with interest and all his listlessness vanished as he watched the door.

Following Hartley's Bearer, a small, thin boy came into the room, dressed in a white suit, with a tight white pugaree folded round his head. He shrank nervously at every sound, and when he salaamed to Hartley and Coryndon his face worked as though he was going to burst into tears.

"You have nothing to be afraid of," said Hartley kindly. "Just tell the whole truth, and explain how it was that you came to be shut up in the curio shop."

The boy's eyes grew less terrified, and he began to speak in a low, mumbling voice. He began in the middle of the account, and Hartley gently but firmly pushed him back to the beginning.

"Start with the story of the lacquer bowl," he said, talking very slowly and clearly. "We want to hear what happened about that first."

The mention of the subject of lacquer threw Absalom once more into a state of panic, but as his story progressed he became more sure of himself, and looked up, forgetting his fear in the excitement of having a really remarkable story to tell, that was listened to by Sahibs with intent interest.

In tearful, stumbling words he admitted that he and Leh Shin's assistant had been friends, and that those evil communications that corrupt not only good manners but good morals had worked with disastrous results upon him. With his brown knuckles to his protruding eyes, he admitted, further, that he had stolen the gold lacquer bowl from the drugged and drunken seaman, and that Leh Shin's assistant had plundered him of more than half his rightful share of the profit. What remained over, he protested, he intended to give to the "Missen," testifying to the fact that his conscience was causing him uneasiness and that his natural superstition made him adopt means, not unknown to other financiers, of squaring things by a donation to a charitable object.

He went on to explain that Mhtoon Pah had required him to come back late by an unfrequented alley, from where his master himself had admitted him into the basement of the shop. There was nothing altogether unusual about this, it appeared, as Mhtoon Pah was very strange in his ways at times. He cooked his own food for fear of poison, and was constantly suspecting some indefinite enemy of designs upon his life. What was unusual was the fact that he had been taken at once into the small cell, and that, once there, Mhtoon Pah had behaved like a madman.

Absalom could recall no coherent account of what the curio dealer had told him. He had spoken to him of murder, and told him that the Chinamen in the Quarter, headed by Leh Shin, were looking for him to kill him, and that, for his safety, he must remain hidden away. Mhtoon Pah told him that he would protect him, and that he would produce evidence to have Leh Shin hanged, and that once he was dead he would then emerge again, but not until then. He told him how Chinamen killed their victims, and his fears and terrors communicated themselves to the boy, who delivered himself up to bondage without resistance.

For weeks Absalom dragged out a miserable existence, loose when Mhtoon Pah was in the shop, but chained to the wall whenever he went out, and only for an hour after midnight was the boy ever allowed to emerge into the dark, waste garden at the back of the house. The rest of the time was spent in the cell, and Absalom broke into incoherent wailing as he called Hartley and Coryndon to witness that it had been a hard life.

As the end of his story approached, Absalom grew more dramatic and quoted the parting words of Mhtoon Pah before he went out to attend the Pwe at the Pagoda.

"I leave thee in fear," said he, "for thou art the apple of my eye, O Absalom, and when I am gone some calamity may befall. From whence it comes I know not, but as men look at the heaped clouds behind the hills and say, 'Lo, it will soon fall in rain,' so does my heart look out and observe darkness, and I am ill-satisfied to quit this house."

His words rang in the mind of the boy, shut into the stifling darkness below the ground, and he remembered that he cried out for help, not once but over and over again, and that his cries were eventually answered by the voice of Leh Shin, who had called him a child of vipers and threatened to enter and break him against the wall as he would a plantain. After that Absalom had refrained from crying out, and had waited silently expecting the door to open and admit Leh Shin and his last moment simultaneously. Upon the silence came the sounds of scuffling and hoarse cries, and it seemed to Absalom that Leh Shin had called out that he had already cut the heart from his ribs, and was about to force it down Mhtoon Pah's throat, and then nothing was very clear until voices and lights roused him from stupor to fresh terror and alarm.

He knew that the door had been unlocked and that a light travelled in, held by a strange Burman, and that his terror of Leh Shin had made him see things strangely, as though from a long way off; until, at the last, the police had come and knocked the chain off his leg, and someone had told him that his master was dead and had been found hanging in the shop.

Absalom's face quivered and he began to whimper.

"And now my master is dead, and never in Mangadone shall I find such another who will care for me and give me the pleasant life in Paradise Street."

Hartley handed the boy some money.

"Take him away," he said to the Bearer. "You have told your story very well, Absalom."

He looked across at Coryndon when the room was empty, but Coryndon was fiddling with some crumbs at the edge of the table.

"Madness is the real explanation, I suppose," he said tentatively. "Madness and obsession."

"Obsession," echoed Coryndon. "That word explains almost every inexplicable act in life." He took up a knife and held it level on his palm. "There you have the normal condition, but once one end swings up you get Genius and all the Arts, or madness and crime and the obsession of one idea: one definite, over-mastering idea that drives every force harnessed to its car."

He got up and stretched his arms, and walked out through the veranda into his room, where Shiraz was folding his clothes and laying them in an open portmanteau. The old servant stood up and made a low salaam to his master.

"When the sun is down the wise traveller hurries to the Serai," Coryndon said to him. "I leave to-night for Madras, Shiraz, and you with me."

"The end of all things is just, Huzoor," replied the old man, a strange light of reflection in his dim pebble-like eyes. "Is it not written that none may rise so high, or plunge so deep, that he does not follow the hidden path to the hidden end? For like a wind that goes and returns never, or the shadow of a cloud passing over the desert, is the destiny of a man."



GLOSSARY

Almirah A press Babu A clerk Butti Lamp Charpoy Bed Chota haziri (Little breakfast) Early morning tea Dhobie Washerman Durwan Watchman Ghee Butter Gharry Cab Gaudama Buddha Htee Topmost pinnacle Hypongyi Priests Inshallah, Huzoor God give you fortune, Prince Joss A god Khitmutghar Footman Loongyi Petticoat Napi Rotten fish Nats Tree spirits Pani walla Water carrier Pwe Feast Serai Rest house Sirkar Government Syce Groom Tamasha A show Thakin Master Topi Hat

THE END

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