The Pointing Man - A Burmese Mystery
by Marjorie Douie
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A Burmese Mystery
























































Dust lay thick along the road that led through the very heart of the native quarter of Mangadone; dust raised into a misty haze which hung in the air and actually introduced a light undernote of red into the effect. Dust, which covered the bare feet of the coolies, the velvet slippers of the Burmese, which encroached everywhere and no one regarded, for presently, just at sundown, shouting watermen, carrying large bamboo vessels with great spouts, would come running along the road, casting the splashing water on all sides, and reduce the dry powder to temporary mud.

The main street of the huge bazaar in Mangadone was as busy a thoroughfare as any crowded lane of the city of London, and it blazed with colour and life as the evening air grew cool. There were shops where baskets were sold, shops apparently devoted only to the sale of mirrors, shops where tailors sat on the ground and worked at sewing machines; sweet stalls, food stalls, cafes, flanked by dusty tubs of plants and crowded with customers, who reclined on sofas and chairs set right into the street itself. Nearer the river end of the street, the shops were more important, and business offices announced themselves on large placards inscribed in English, and in curling Burmese characters like small worms hooping and arching themselves, and again in thick black letters which resembled tea leaves formed into the picturesque design of Chinese writing, for Mangadone was one of the most cosmopolitan ports of the East, and stood high in the commercial world as a place for trade.

Along the street a motley of colour took itself like a sea of shades and tints. Green, crimson, lemon yellow, lapis-lazuli, royal purple, intermingled with the naked brown bodies of coolies clad only in loin-cloths, for every race and class emerged just before sunset. Rich Burmen clad in yards of stiff, rustling silk jostled the lean, spare Chinamen and the Madrassis who came to Mangadone to make money out of the indolence of the natives of a place who cared to do little but smoke and laugh. Poor Burmen in red and yellow cottons, as content with life as their wealthy brethren, loitered and smoked with the little white-coated women with flower-decked heads, and they all flowed on with the tide and filled the air with a perpetual babel of sound.

The great, high houses on either side of the street were dilapidated and gaunt, let out for the most part in flats and tenements. Screaming children swarmed naked and entirely unconcerned upon every landing, and out on the verandas that gave publicity to the way of life in the native quarter. Sometimes a rag of curtain covered the entrances to the houses, but just as often it did not. Women washed the big brass and earthenware pots, cooked the food, and played with the children in the smoky darkness, or sat to watch the evening show of the street.

At one corner of the upper end of the street was a curio and china shop owned by a stout and wealthy Burman, Mhtoon Pah. The shop was one of the features of the place, and no globe-trotting tourist could pass through Mangadone without buying a set of tea-cups, a dancing devil, a carpet, or a Burmese gong, from Mhtoon Pah. A strange-looking effigy in tight breeches, with pointing yellow hands and a smiling yellow face, stood outside the shop, eternally asking people in wooden, dumb show, to go in and be robbed by the proprietor. He had stood there and pointed for so long that the green glaze of his coat was sun-blistered, but he invariably drew the attention of passing tourists, and acted as a sign-board. He pointed at a small door up a flight of steps, and behind the small door was a dark shop, smelling of sandal-wood and cassia, and strong with the burning fumes of joss-sticks. Innumerable cardboard boxes full of Japanese dolls, full of glass bracelets of all colours, full of ivory figures, and full of amber and jade ornaments, were piled in the shelves. Silver bands, embossed in relief with the history of the Gaudama—the Lord Buddha—stood under glass protection, and everything that the heart of the touring American or Britisher could desire was to be had, at a price, in the curio shop of Mhtoon Pah. Umbrellas of all colours from Bussan; silk from Shantung; carpets from Mirzapore; silver peacocks, Japanese embroideries, shell-trimmed bags from Shan and Cochin, all were there; and the wealth of Mhtoon Pah was great.

Everybody knew the curio dealer: he had beguiled and swindled each new arrival in Mangadone, and his personality helped to make him a very definite figure in the place. He was a large man, his size accentuated by his full silk petticoat; a man with large feet, large hands and a round bullet head, set on a thick neck. He had a few sleek black hairs at the corners of his mouth, and his long, narrow eyes, with thick yellow whites and inky-black pupils, never expressed any emotion. Clothed in strawberry-red silk and a white coat, with a crimson scarf knotted low over his forehead, he was very nearly as strange and wonderful a sight as his own shop of myriad wares, and his manner was at all times the manner of a Grand Duke. Mhtoon Pah was as well known as the pointing effigy outside, but, whereas the world in the street believed they knew what the wooden man pointed at, no one could ever tell what Mhtoon Pah saw, and no one knew except Mhtoon Pah himself.

All day long Mhtoon Pah sat inside his shop on a low divan and smoked cheroots, and only when a customer was of sufficient importance did he ever rise to conduct a sale himself. He was assisted by a thin, eager boy, a native Christian from Ootacamund, who had followed several trades before he became the shop assistant of Mhtoon Pah. He was useful because he could speak English, and he had been dressing-boy to a married Sahib who lived in a big house at the end of the Cantonment, therefore he knew something of the ways of Mem-Sahibs; and he had taken a prize at the Sunday school, therefore Absalom was a boy of good character, and was known very nearly as well as Mhtoon Pah himself.

It was a hot, stifling evening, the evening of July the 29th. The rains had lashed the country for days, and even the trees that grew in among the houses of Paradise Street were fresh and green, though one of the hot, burning breaks of blue sky and glaring sunlight had baked the road into Indian-red dust once more, and the interior of Mhtoon Pah's curio shop was heavy with stale scents and dark shadows that crept out as the gloom of evening settled in upon it. Mhtoon Pah moved about looking at his goods, and touching them with careful hands. He hovered over an ivory lady carrying an umbrella, and looked long at a white marble Buddha, who returned his look with an equally inscrutable regard. The Buddha sat cross-legged, thinking for ever and ever about eternity, and Mhtoon Pah moved round in red velvet toe-slippers, pattering lightly as he went, for in spite of his bulk Mhtoon Pah had an almost soundless walk. Having gone over everything and stood to count the silver bowls, he waited as though he was listening, and after a little the light creak of the staircase warned him that steps were coming towards the shop from the upper rooms.

"Absalom," he called, and the steps hurried, and after a moment's talk to which the boy listened carefully as though receiving directions, he told him to close the shop and place his chair at the top of the steps, as he desired to sit outside and look at the street.

When the chair was placed, Mhtoon Pah took up his elevated position and smoked silently. The toil of the day was over, and he leaned his arm along the back of his chair and crossed one leg over his knee. He could hear Absalom closing the shop behind him, and he turned his curious, expressionless eyes upon the boy as he passed down the steps and mingled with the crowd in the street. Just opposite, a story-teller squatted on the ground in the centre of a group of men who laughed and clapped their hands, his flashing teeth and quick gesticulations adding to each point he made; it was still clear enough to see his alternating expression of assumed anger or amusement. It was clear enough to notice the coloured scarves and smiling faces of a bullock cart full of girls going slowly homewards, and it was clear enough to see and recognize the Rev. Francis Heath, hurrying at speed between the crowd; clear enough to see the Rev. Francis stop for a moment to wish his old pupil Absalom good evening, and then vanish quickly like a figure flashed on a screen by a cinematograph.

Lights came out in high windows and sounds of bagpipes and beating tom-toms began inside the open doors of a nautch house. An evil-looking house where green dragons curled up the fretted entrance, and where, overhead, faces peered from a balcony into the street. There was noise enough there to attract any amount of attention. Smart carriages, with white-uniformed syces, hurried up, bearing stout, plethoric men from the wharf offices, and Mhtoon Pah saluted several of the sahibs, who reclined in comfort behind fine pairs of trotting horses.

Their time for passing having gone, and the street relieved of the disturbance, lamps were carried out and set upon tables and booths, but a few red streaks of evening tinted the sky, and faces that passed were still recognizable. A bay pony ridden by a lady almost at a gallop came so fast that she was up the street and round the corner in a twinkling. If Mrs. Wilder was dining out on the night of July 29th she was running things close; equally so if she was receiving guests.

A flare of light from a window opposite fell across the face of the dancing man, who pointed at Mhtoon Pah, and appeared to make him offer his principal for sale, or introduce him to the street with an indicating finger. The gloom grew, calling out the lights into strength, but the concourse did not thin: it only gathered in numbers, and the long, moaning hoot of an out-going tramp filled the air as though with a wail of sorrow at departure. Lascars in coal-begrimed tunics joined in with the rest, adding their voices to the babel, and round-hatted sailors from the Royal Indian Marine ships mingled with them.

All up and down the Mangadone River lights came out. Clear lights along the land, and wavering torch-lights in the water. Ships' port-holes cleared themselves in the darkness, ships' lights gleamed green and red in high stars up in the crows'-nests, or at the shapeless bulk of dark bows, and white sheets of strong electric clearness lay over one or two landing-stages where craft was moored alongside and overtime work still continued. Little sampans glided in and out like whispers, and small boats with crossed oars, rowed by one man, ferried to and fro, but it was late, and, gradually, all commercial traffic ceased.

It was quite late now, an hour when European life had withdrawn to the Cantonment. It was not an hour for Sahibs on foot to be about, and yet it seemed that there was one who found the night air of July 29th hot and close, and desired to go towards the river for the sake of the breeze and the fresh air. He, too, like all the others, passed along Paradise Street, passing quickly, as the others had passed, his head bent and his eyes averted from the faces that looked up at him from easy chairs, from crowded doorsteps, or that leaned over balconies. He, also, whoever he was, had not Mhtoon Pah's leisure to regard the street, and he went on with a steady, quick walk which took him out on to the wharf, and from the wharf along a waste place where the tram lines ceased, and away from there towards a cluster of lights in a house close over the dark river itself.

The stars came out overhead, and the Southern Cross leaned down; seen from the river over the twin towers of the cathedral, seen from the cathedral brooding over the native quarter, seen in Paradise Street not at all, and not in any way missed by the inhabitants, whose eyes were not upon the stars; seen again in the Cantonment, over the massed trees of the park, and seen remarkably well from the wide veranda of Mrs. Wilder's bungalow, where the guests sat after a long dinner, remarking upon the heat and oppressiveness of the tropic night. The fire-flies danced over the trees like iridescent sparks hung on invisible gauze, and even came into the lighted drawing-room, to sparkle with less radiance against the plain white walls. Fans whirred round and round like large tee-totums set near the ceiling, and even the electric light appeared to give out heat; no breeze stirred from the far-away river, no coolness came with the dark, no relief from the brooding, sultry heat. It was no hotter than many nights in any break in the rains, but the guests invited by Mrs. Wilder felt the languor of the air, and felt it more profoundly because their hostess herself was affected by it.

Mrs. Wilder was a dark, handsome woman of thirty-five, usually full of life and animation, and her dinners were known to be entertainments in the real sense of the word. Draycott Wilder was no mate for her in appearance or manner, but Draycott Wilder was marked by the Powers as a successful man. He took very little part in the social side of their married life, and sat in the shadow near the lighted door, listening while his guests talked. The party was in no way different to many others, and it would have ended and been forgotten by all concerned if it had not been for the fact that an unusual occurrence broke it up in dismay. Mrs. Wilder complained of the heat during dinner, and she had been pale, looking doubly so in her vivid green dress; her usual animation had vanished, and she talked with evident effort and seemed glad of the darkness of the veranda.

Suddenly one of those strange silences fell over everyone, silences that may be of a few seconds' duration, but that appear like hours. What they are connected with, no one can guess. The silence lasted for a second, and it was broken with sudden violence.

"My God," said the voice of Hartley, the Head of the Police, speaking in tones of alarm. "Mrs. Wilder has fainted!" She had fallen forward in her chair, and he had caught her as she fell.

Very soon the guests dispersed and the bungalow was still for the night. One or two waited to hear what the doctor had to say, and went away satisfied in the knowledge that the heat had been too much for Mrs. Wilder, and, but for that event, the dinner-party would have been forgotten after two days. Hartley was the last to leave, and the sound of trotting hoofs grew faint along the road.

By an hour after midnight nearly the whole white population can be presumed to be asleep; day wakes early in the East, and there are few who keep all-night hours, because morning calls men from their beds to their work, and even this hot, sultry night people lay on their beds and tried to sleep; but in the small bungalow where the Rev. Francis Heath lived with a solitary Sapper officer, the bed that he slept in was smooth and unstirred by restless tossing inside the mosquito net.

The Rev. Francis was out, sitting by the bed of a dying parishioner. He watched the long hours through, dressed as he had been in the afternoon, in a grey flannel suit, his thin neck too long and too spare for his all-around collar, and as he watched sometimes and sometimes prayed, he too felt the pressure of the night.

The woman he prayed beside was dying and quite unconscious of his presence. Now and then, to relieve the strain, he got up and stood by the window, looking at the lights against the sky and thinking very definitely of something that troubled him and drew his lips into a tight, thin line. He was a young man of the type described usually as "zealous" and "earnest," and a light that was almost the light of fanaticism shone in his eyes. A dying parishioner was no more of a novelty to Mr. Heath, than one of Mrs. Wilder's dinner-parties was to her guests, and yet the woman on the bed appealed to his pity as few others had done in his experience.

When the doctor came he nodded to the clergyman and just touched the hand on the quilt. He was in evening dress, and he explained that he had been detained owing to his hostess having been taken suddenly ill.

"Where is Rydal himself?"

He asked the question carelessly, dropping the pulseless wrist.

"Who can tell?" said the Rev. Francis Heath.

"He'd better keep out of the way," continued the doctor. "I believe there's a police warrant out for him. Hartley spoke of it to-night. She will be gone before morning, and a good job for her."

The throbbing hot night wore on, and July the 29th became July the 30th, and Mangadone awoke to a fierce, tearing thunder-storm that boomed and crashed and wore itself out in torrents of heavy rain.



Half-way up a low hill rise on the far side of the Mangadone Cantonment was the bungalow of Hartley, Head of the Police. It was a tidy, well-kept house, the house of a bachelor who had an eye to things himself and who was well served by competent servants. Hartley had reached the age of forty without having married, and he was solid of build and entirely sensible and practical of mind. He was spoken of as "sound" and "capable," for it is thus we describe men with a word, and his mind was adjusted so as to give room for only one idea at a time. He was convinced that he was tactful to a fault, nothing had ever shaken him in this belief, and his personal courage was the courage of the British lion. Hartley was popular and on friendly and confidential terms with everybody.

Mangadone, like most other places in the East, was as full of cliques as a book is of words, but Hartley regarded them not at all. Popularity was his weakness and his strength, and he swam in all waters and was invited everywhere. Mrs. Wilder, who knew exactly who to treat with distant condescension and who to ignore entirely, invariably included him in her intimate dinners, and the Chief Commissioner, also a bachelor, invited him frequently and discussed many topics with him as the wine circled. Even Craven Joicey, the banker, who made very few acquaintances and fewer intimates, was friendly with Hartley; one of those odd, unlikely friendships that no one understands.

The week following upon the thunder-storm had been a week of grey skies over an acid-green world, and even Hartley became conscious that there is something mournful about a tropical country without a sun in the sky as he sat in his writing-room. It was gloomy there, and the palm trees outside tossed and swayed, and the low mist wraiths down in the valley clung and folded like cotton-wool, hiding the town and covering it up to the very top spires of the cathedral. Hartley was making out a report on a case of dacoity against a Chinaman, but the light in the room was bad, and he pushed back his chair impatiently and shouted to the boy to bring a lamp.

His tea was set out on a small lacquer table near his chair, and his fox-terrier watched him with imploring eyes, occasionally voicing his feelings in a stifled bark. The boy came in answer to his call, carrying the lamp in his hands, and put it down near Hartley, who turned up the wick, and fell to his reading again; then, putting the report into a locked drawer, he drew his chair from the writing-table and poured out a cup of tea.

He had every reason to suppose that his day's work was done, and that he could start off for the Club when his tea was finished. The wind rattled the palm branches and came in gusts through the veranda, banging doors and shaking windows, and the evening grew dark early, with the comfortless darkness of rain overhead, when the wheels of a carriage sounded on the damp, sodden gravel outside. Hartley got up and peered through the curtain that hung across the door. Callers at such an hour upon such a day were not acceptable, and he muttered under his breath, feeling relieved, however, when he saw a fat and heavy figure in Burmese clothing get out from the gharry.

"If that is anyone to see me on business, say that this is neither the place nor the hour to come," he shouted to the boy, and returning to the tea-table, poured out a saucer of milk for the eager terrier, now divided between his duties as a dog and his feelings as an animal.

The boy reappeared after a pause, bearing a message to the effect that Mhtoon Pah begged an immediate interview upon a subject so pressing that it could not wait.

Hartley listened to the message, swore under his breath, and looked sharply at Mhtoon Pah when he came into the room. Usually the curio dealer had a smile and a suave, pleasant manner, but on this occasion all his suavity was gone, and his eyes, usually so inexpressive and secret, were lighted with a strange, wolfish look of anger and rage that was almost suggestive of insanity.

He bowed before the Head of the Police and began to talk in broken, gasping words, waving his hands as he spoke. His story was confused and rambling, but what he told was to the effect that his boy, Absalom, had disappeared and could not be found.

"It was the night of the 29th of July, Thakin, and I sent him forth upon a business. Next morning he did not return. It was I who opened the shop, it was I who waited upon customers, and Absalom was not there."

"What inquiries have you made?"

"All that may be made, Thakin. His mother comes crying to my door, his brothers have searched everywhere. Ah, that I had the body of the man who has done this thing, and held him in the sacred tank, to make food for the fishes."

His dark eyes gleamed, and he showed his teeth like a dog.

"Nonsense, man," said Hartley, quickly. "You seem to suppose that the boy is dead. What reason have you for imagining that there has been foul play?"

"Seem to suppose, Thakin?" Mhtoon Pah gasped again, like a drowning man. "And yet the Thakin knows the sewer city, the Chinese quarter, the streets where men laugh horribly in the dark. Houses there, Thakin, that crawl with yellow men, who are devils, and who split a man as they would split a fowl—" he broke off, and waved his hands about wildly.

Hartley felt a little sick; there was something so hideous in the way Mhtoon Pah expressed himself that he recoiled a step and summoned his common sense to his aid.

"Who saw Absalom last?"

"Many people must have seen him. I sat myself outside the shop at sunset to watch the street, and had sent Absalom forth upon a business, a private business: he was a good boy. Many saw him go out, but no one saw him return."

"That is no use, Mhtoon Pah; you must give me some names. Who saw the boy besides yourself?"

Mhtoon Pah opened his mouth twice before any sound came, and he beat his hands together.

"The Padre Sahib, going in a hurry, spoke a word to him; I saw that with my eyes."

"Mr. Heath?"

"Yes, Thakin, no other."

"And besides Mr. Heath, was there anyone else who saw him?"

Mhtoon Pah bowed himself double in his chair and rocked about.

"The whole street saw him go, but none saw him return, neither will they. They took Absalom into some dark place, and when his blood ran over the floor, and out under the doors, the Chinamen got their little knives, the knives that have long tortoise-shell handles, and very sharp edges, and then—"

"For God's sake stop talking like that," said Hartley, abruptly. "There isn't a fragment of evidence to prove that the boy is murdered. I am sorry for you, Mhtoon Pah, but I warn you that if you let yourself think of things like that you will be in a lunatic asylum in a week."

He took out a sheet of paper and made careful notes. The boy had been gone four to five days, and beyond the fact that the Rev. Francis Heath had seen and spoken to him, no one else was named as having passed along Paradise Street. The clergyman's evidence was worth nothing at all, except to prove that the boy had left Mhtoon Pah's shop at the time mentioned, and Mhtoon Pah explained that the "private business" was to buy a gold lacquer bowl desired by Mrs. Wilder, who had come to the shop a day or two before and given the order. Gold lacquer bowls were difficult to procure, and he had charged the boy to search for it in the morning and to buy it, if possible, from the opium dealer Leh Shin, who could be securely trusted to be half-drugged at an early hour.

"It was the morning I spoke of, Thakin," said the curio dealer, who had grown calmer. "But Absalom did not return to his home that night. He may have gone to Leh Shin; he was a diligent boy, a good boy, always eager in the pursuit of his duty and advantage."

"I am very sorry for you, Mhtoon Pah," said Hartley again, "and I shall investigate the matter. I know Leh Shin, and I consider it quite unlikely that he has had anything to do with it."

When Mhtoon Pah rattled away in the yellow gharry, Hartley put the notes on one side. It was a police matter, and he could trust his staff to work the subject up carefully under his supervision, and going to the telephone, he communicated the principal facts to the head office, mentioning the name of Leh Shin and the story of the gold lacquer bowl, and giving instructions that Leh Shin was to be tactfully interrogated.

When Hartley hung up the receiver he took his hat and waterproof and went out into the warm, damp dusk of the evening. There was something that he did not like about the weather. It was heavy, oppressive, stifling, and though there was air in plenty, it was the stale air of a day that seemed never to have got out of bed, but to have lain in a close room behind the shut windows of Heaven.

He remembered the boy Absalom well, and could recall his dark, eager face, bulging eyes and protuberant under-lip, and the idea of his having been decoyed off unto some place of horror haunted him. It was still on his mind when he walked into the Club veranda and joined a group of men in the bar. Joicey, the banker, was with them, silent, morose, and moody according to his wont, taking no particular notice of anything or anybody. Fitzgibbon, a young Irish barrister-at-law, was talking, and laughing and doing his best to keep the company amused, but he could get no response out of Joicey. Hartley was received with acclamations suited to his general reputation for popularity, and he stood talking for a little, glad to shake off his feeling of depression. When he saw Mr. Heath come in and go up the staircase to an upstairs room, he followed him with his eyes and decided to take the opportunity to speak to him.

"What's the matter, Joicey?" he asked, speaking to the banker. "You look as if you had fever."

"I'm all right," Joicey spoke absently. "It's this infernally stuffy weather, and the evenings."

"I'm glad it's that," laughed Fitzgibbon, "I thought that it might be me. I'm so broke that even my tea at Chota haziri is getting badly overdrawn."

"Dine with me on Saturday," suggested Hartley, "I've seen very little of you just lately."

Joicey looked up and nodded.

"I'll come," he said, laconically, and Hartley, finishing his drink, went up the staircase.

The reading-room of the Club was usually empty at that hour, and the great tables littered with papers, free to any studious reader. When Hartley came in, the Rev. Francis Heath had the place entirely to himself, and was sitting with a copy of the Saturday Review in his hands. He did not hear Hartley come in, and he started as his name was spoken, and putting down the Review, looked at the Head of the Police with questioning eyes.

"I've come to talk over something with you, Heath," Hartley began, drawing a chair close to the table. "Can you remember anything at all of what you were doing on the evening of July the twenty-ninth?"

The Rev. Francis Heath dropped his paper, and stooped to pick it up; certainly he found the evening hot, for his face ran with trickles of perspiration.

"July the twenty-ninth?"

"Yes, that's the date. I am particularly anxious to know if you remember it."

Mr. Heath wiped his neck with his handkerchief.

"I held service as usual at five o'clock."

Hartley looked at him; there was something undeniably strained in the clergyman's eyes and voice.

"Ah, but what I am after took place later."

The Rev. Francis Heath moistened his lips and stood up.

"My memory is constantly at fault," he said, avoiding Hartley's eyes and looking at the ground. "I would not like to make any specific statement without—without—reference to my note-book."

Hartley stared in astonishment.

"This is only a small matter, Heath. I was trying to get round to my point in the usual way, by giving no actual indication of what I wanted to know. You see, if you tell a man what you want, he sometimes imagines that what he did on another day is what really happened on the actual occasion, and that, as you can imagine, makes our job very difficult. I don't want to bother you, but as your name was mentioned to me in connection with a certain investigation, I wished to test the truth of my man's statement."

Heath stood in the same attitude, his face pale and his eyes steadily lowered.

"It might be well for you to be more clear," he said, after a long pause.

"Did you go down Paradise Street just after sunset?"

"I may have done so. I have several parishioners along the river bank."

"Why the devil is he talking like this and looking like this?" Hartley asked himself, impatiently.

"I'm not a cross-examining counsel," he said, with some sharpness. "As I told you before, Heath, it is only a very small matter."

The Rev. Francis Heath gripped the back of his chair and a slight flush mounted to his face.

"I resent your questions, Mr. Hartley. What I did or did not do on the evening of July the twenty-ninth can in no way affect you. I entirely refuse to be made to answer anything. You have no right to ask me, and I have no intention of replying."

Hartley put his hand out in dismay.

"Really, Heath, your attitude is quite absurd. I have already told one man to-day that he was going mad; are you dreaming, man? I only want you to help me, and you talk as if I had accused you of something. There is nothing criminal in being seen in Paradise Street after sundown."

Mr. Heath stood holding by the back of his chair, looking over Hartley's head, his dark eyes burning and his face set.

"Come, then," said the police officer abruptly, "who did you see? Did you, for instance, see the Christian boy, Absalom, Mhtoon Pah's assistant?"

The Rev. Francis Heath made no answer.

"Did you see him?"

"I will not answer any further questions, but since you ask me, I did see the boy."

"Thank you, Heath; that took some getting at. Now will you tell me if you saw him again later: I am supposing that you went down the wharf and came back, shall I say, in an hour's time. Did you see Absalom again?"

The clergyman stared out of the window, and his pause was of such intensely long duration that when he said the one word, "No," it fell like the splash of a stone dropped into a deep well.

Hartley looked at his sleeve-links for quite a long time.

"Good night, Heath," he said, getting up, but the Rev. Francis Heath made no reply.

Hartley went back to his bungalow with something to think about. He had always regarded Heath as a difficult and rather violently religious man. They had never been friends, and he knew that they never could be friends, but he respected the man even without liking him. Now he was quite convinced that Heath, after some deliberation with his conscience, had lied to him, and it made him angry. He had admitted, with the greatest reluctance, that he had been through Paradise Street, and seen the boy, and his declaration that he had not seen him again did not ring with any real conviction. It made the whole question more interesting, but it made it unpleasant. If things came to light that called the inquiry into court, the Rev. Francis Heath might live to learn that the law has a way of obliging men to speak. If Hartley had ever been sure of anything in his life, he was sure that Heath knew something of Absalom, and knew where he had gone in search of the gold lacquer bowl that was desired by Mrs. Wilder. He made up his mind to see Mrs. Wilder and ask her about the order for the bowl; but he hardly thought of her, his mind was full of the mystery that attached itself to the question of the Rector of St. Jude's parish, and his fierce and angry refusal to talk reasonably.

He threw open his windows and sat with the air playing on his face, and his thoughts circled round and round the central idea. Absalom was missing, and the Rev. Francis Heath had behaved in a way that led him to believe that he knew a great deal more than he cared to say, and Hartley brooded over the subject until he grew drowsy and went upstairs to bed.



It was quite early the following morning when Hartley set out to take a stroll down Paradise Street, and from there to the Chinese quarter, where Leh Shin had a small shop in a colonnade running east and west. The houses here were very different to the houses in Paradise Street. The fronts were brightened with gilt, and green and red paint daubed the entrances. Almost every third shop was a restaurant, and Hartley did not care to think of the sort of food that was cooked and eaten within. Immense lanterns, that turned into coloured moons by night, but they were pale and dim by day, hung on the cross-beams inside the houses.

Some half-way down the colonnade, and deep in the odorous gloom, Leh Shin worked at nothing in particular, and sold devils as Mhtoon Pah sold them, but without the same success. The door of his shop was closed, and Hartley rapped upon it several times before he received an answer; then a bolt was shot back, and Leh Shin's long neck stretched itself out towards the officer. He was a thin, gaunt figure, lean as the Plague, and his spare frame was clad in cheap black stuff that hung around him like the garments of Death itself. Hartley drew back a step, for the smell of napi and onions is unpleasant even to the strongest of white men, and told Leh Shin to open the door wide as he wished to talk to him. Leh Shin, with many owlish blinkings of his narrow eyes, asked Hartley to come inside. The street was not a good place for talking, and Hartley followed him into the shop.

It was very dark within, and a dim light fell from high skylight windows, giving the shop something of the suggestion of a well. Counters blocked it, making entrance a matter of single file, and, in the deep gloom at the back, two candles burned before a huge, ferocious-looking figure depicted on rice-paper and stuck against the wall. It was hard to believe that it was day outside, so heavy was the darkness, and it was a few moments before Hartley's eyes became accustomed to the sudden change. Second-hand clothes hung on pegs around the room, and all kinds of articles were jumbled together regardless of their nature. On the floor was a litter of silk and silver goods, boxes, broken portmanteaux, ropes, baskets, and on the counter nearest the door a tiny silver cage of beautiful workmanship inhabited by a tiny golden bird with ruby eyes.

At the back of the shop and near the yellow circle of light thrown by the candles, was a boy, naked to the waist, and immensely stout and heavy. His long plait of hair was twisted round and round on his shaven forehead, and he stood perfectly still, watching the officer out of small pig eyes. He was chewing something slowly, turning it about and about inside a small, narrow slit of a mouth, and his whole expression was cunning and evil. Leh Shin followed Hartley's glance and saw the boy, and the sight of him seemed to recall him to actual life, for he spoke in words that sounded like stones knocking together and ordered him out of the shop. The boy looked at him oddly for a moment; then turned away, still munching, and lounged out of the room, stopping on the threshold of a back entrance to take one more look at Hartley.

As a rule Hartley was not affected by the peculiarities of the people he dealt with, but Leh Shin's assistant impressed him unpleasantly. Everything he did was offensive, and his whole suggestion loathsome. Hartley was still thinking of him when he looked at Leh Shin, who stood blinking before him, awaiting his words patiently.

"Now, Leh Shin, I want to ask you a few questions. Do you sell lacquer in this shop?"

The Chinaman indicated that he sold anything that anyone would buy.

"Do you happen to know that Mhtoon Pah was looking for a bowl of gold lacquer, and that he sent his boy Absalom here to get it?"

Leh Shin shook his head. He was a poor man, and he knew nothing. Moreover, he knew nothing of July the twenty-ninth, he did not count days. He had not seen the boy Absalom.

"Let me advise you to be truthful, Leh Shin," said Hartley. "You may be called upon to give an account of yourself on the evening and night of July the twenty-ninth."

Leh Shin looked stolidly at the mildewed clothes and tried to remember, but he failed to be explicit, and the greasy, obese creature, still chewing, was recalled to assist his master's memory. He spoke in a high chirping voice, and looked at Hartley with angry eyes as he asserted that his master had been ill upon the evening mentioned and that he had closed the shop early, and that he himself had gone to the nautch house to witness a dance that had lasted until morning.

"You can prove what you say, I suppose," said Hartley, speaking to Leh Shin, "and satisfy me that the boy Absalom was not here, and did not come here?"

Leh Shin, moved to sudden life, protested that he could prove it, that he could call half Hong Kong Street to prove it.

"I don't want Hong Kong Street. I want a creditable witness," said Hartley, and he turned to go. "So far as I know, you are an honest dealer, Leh Shin, and I am quite ready to believe, if you can help me, that you were ill that night, but I must have a creditable witness."

When he left the shop, Leh Shin looked at the fat, sodden boy, and the boy returned his look for a moment, but neither of them spoke, and a few minutes later the door was bolted from within, and they were once more alone in the shadows, with the rags, the broken portmanteaux, the relics of art, and the animal smell, and Hartley was out in the street. He was pretty secure in the belief that Leh Shin had not seen the boy, and that he knew nothing of the gold lacquer bowl, but he also believed that Mhtoon Pah had been far too crafty to tell the Chinaman that anyone particularly wanted such a treasure of art. Mhtoon Pah, or his emissary, would have priced everything in the shop down to the most maggot-eaten rag before he would have mentioned the subject of lacquer bowls.

There was no mystery connected with the bowl, but there was something sickening about Leh Shin's shop, and something utterly horrible about his assistant. Hartley wished he had not seen him, he wished that he had remained in ignorance of his personality. He thought of him in the sweating darkness he had left, and as he thought he remembered Mhtoon Pah's wild, extravagant fancies, and they grew real to his mind.

It was next to impossible to discover what the truth was about Leh Shin's illness on the night of July the 29th, and it really did not bear very much upon the matter, unless there was no other clue to what had become of the boy. Hartley returned to other matters and put the case on one side for the moment. On his way back for luncheon he looked in at Mhtoon Pah's shop. He had intended to pass, but the sight of the little wooden man ushering him up the steps made him turn and stop and then go in. Mhtoon Pah sat on his divan in the scented gloom, very different to the interior of Leh Shin's shop, and when he saw Hartley he struggled to his feet and demanded news of Absalom.

"There is none yet," said Hartley, sitting down. "Now, Mhtoon Pah, are you quite sure that it was Mr. Heath that you saw that evening?"

"I saw him with these eyes. I saw him pass, and he was going quickly. I read the walk of men and tell much by it. The Reverend was in a great hurry. Twice did he pull out his watch as he came along the street, and he pushed through the crowd like a rogue elephant going through a rice crop. I have seen the Reverend walking before, and he walked slowly, he spoke with the Babus from the Baptist mission, but this day," Mhtoon Pah flung his hands to the roof, "shall I forget it? This day he walked with speed, and when my little Absalom salaamed before him, he hardly stopped, which is not the habit of the Reverend."

"Did you see him come back? Mr. Heath, I mean?"

Mhtoon Pah stood and looked curiously at Hartley, and remained in a state of suspended animation for a second.

"How could I see him come back?" he said, in a flat, expressionless voice. "I went to the Pagoda, Thakin. I am building a shrine there, and shall thereby acquire much merit. I did not see the Reverend return. Besides, he might not have come by the way of Paradise Street."

"He might not."

"It is not known," said Mhtoon Pah, shaking his head dubiously, and then rage seemed to flare up in him once more. "It is Leh Shin, the Chinaman," he said, violently. "Let it be known to you, Thakin, they eat strange meats, they hold strange revels. I have heard things—" he lowered his voice. "I have been told of how they slay."

"Then keep the information to yourself, unless you can prove it," said Hartley, firmly. "I want to hear nothing about it." He got up and looked around the shop. "I suppose you haven't got the lacquer bowl since?"

"No, Thakin, I have not got it, neither have I seen Leh Shin, an evil man. The Lady Sahib will have to wait; neither has she been here since, nor asked for the bowl."

Hartley walked down the steps; he was troubled by the thought, and the more he tried to work out some definite theory that left Mr. Heath outside the ring that he proposed to draw around his subject, the more he appeared on the horizon of his mind, always walking quickly and looking at his watch.

Through lunch he went over the facts and faced the Heath question squarely, considering that if Heath knew that the boy was in trouble, and had connived at his escape, he would be muzzled, but there was nothing to show that Absalom had ever broken the law. His employer, Mhtoon Pah, was in despair at his disappearance, his record was blameless, and he had been entrusted with the deal in lacquer to be carried out the following morning.

Looking for Absalom was like tracing a shadow that has passed along a street on soundless feet, and Hartley felt an eager determination seize him to catch up with this flying wraith.

Still with the same idea in his mind, he drove along the principal roads in his buggy, directing his way towards the bungalow where the Rector of St. Jude's lived with Atkins, the Sapper. The house was draped in climbing and trailing creepers, and the grass grew into the red drive that curved in a half-circle from one rickety gate to another. He came up quietly on the soft, wet clay, and looked up at the house before he called for the bearer, and as he looked up he saw a face disappear quickly from behind a window. After a few minutes the boy came running down a flight of steps from the back, and hurried in to get a tray, which he held out for the customary card.

"Take that away," said Hartley, "and tell the Padre Sahib that I must see him."

"The Padre Sahib is out, Sahib."

The boy still held the tray like a collecting-plate.

"Out," said Hartley, "nonsense. Go and tell your master that my business is important."

After a moment the boy returned again, the tray still in his hand.

"Gone out, Sahib," he said, resolutely, and without waiting for any more Hartley turned the pony's head and drove out slowly.

Twice in two days Heath had lied, to his certain knowledge, and as he glanced back at the bungalow, a curtain in an upper window moved slightly as though it had been dropped in haste.

Just as he turned into the road he came face to face with Atkins, Heath's bungalow companion, and he pulled up short.

"I've been trying to call on the Padre," he said, carelessly, "but he was out."

"Out," said Atkins, in a tone of surprise. "Why, that is odd. He told me he was due at a meeting at half-past five, and that he wasn't going out until then. I suppose he changed his mind."

"It looks like it," said Hartley, dryly.

"He hasn't been well these last few days," went on Atkins, quickly, "said he felt the weather, and he certainly seems ill. I don't believe the poor devil sleeps at all. Whenever I wake, I can see his light in the passage."

"That is bad," Hartley's voice grew sympathetic. "Has he been long like this?"

"Not long," said Atkins, who was constitutionally accurate. "I think it began about the night after the thunder-storm, but I can't say for certain."

"Well, I won't keep you." Hartley touched the pony's quarters with his whip. "I'm sorry I missed Heath, as I wanted to see him about something rather important."

"I'll tell him," said Atkins, cheerfully, "and probably he'll look you up at your own house."

"Will he, I wonder?" thought the police officer, and he set to work upon the treadmill of his thoughts again.

There is nothing in the world so tantalizing, and so hard to bear, as the conviction that knowledge is just within reach and that it is deliberately withheld. Heath stood between him and elucidation, and the more firmly the clergyman held his ground, and the more definitely he blocked the path, the more sure Hartley became that he did so of set purpose.

"But why, why?" he asked himself, as he drove through the Cantonment towards Mrs. Wilder's bungalow.

Atkins got off his bicycle and handed it over to his boy as he arrived at the dreary entrance.

"The Padre Sahib is out?" he said, in his brisk, matter-of-fact tones.

"The Padre Sahib is upstairs," said the boy, with an immovable face; and Atkins went up quickly.

"Hallo, Heath, I met Hartley just now, and he said you were out."

Heath looked up from a sheet of paper laid out on the writing-table before him.

"I did not feel up to seeing Hartley," he said, a little stiffly. "It is not a convenient hour for callers, so I availed myself of an excuse."

"He told me to tell you that it was rather a pressing matter that brought him here, and I said that I would give you his message, and that you would probably go round to see him."

"You said that, Atkins?"

His face was so drawn and unnatural that Atkins looked at him in surprise.

"I suppose I was right?"

"If Hartley wants to see me," said Heath, in a loud, angry voice, "or if he wants to come bullying and blustering, he must write and make an appointment. I have every right to protect myself from a man who asks personal and most impertinent questions."

"Hartley, impertinent?" Atkins' eyes grew round.

"When I say impertinent, I mean not pertinent, or bearing upon any subject that I intend to discuss with him."

The Rev. Francis Heath got up and walked towards the window, turning his back upon the room.

"I don't mix in social politics," said Atkins, soothingly. "But at the same time, I can't understand you, Heath. What the devil does Hartley want to know?"

The clergyman caught at the curtain and gripped it as he had gripped the back of his chair at the Club.

"Never ask me that again, Atkins," he said, in a low, hoarse voice. "Never speak to me about this again."

Atkins retreated quickly from the room; there was something in the manner of the Rev. Francis Heath that he did not like, and he registered a mental vow to let the subject drop, so far as he, a lieutenant in His Majesty's Royal Engineers, was concerned, and never to allude to it, either for "fear or favour," again.



Draycott Wilder was a man who hoarded his passions and concentrated them upon a very few objects. His work came first, and his intense ambition, and after his work, his wife. She was the right sort of wife for a man who put worldly success first, and through the years of their marriage had helped him a great deal more than he ever admitted. Clarice Wilder was beautiful, and had a surface cleverness combined with a natural gift of tact that made her an admirable hostess. She could talk to anybody and send them away pleased and satisfied with themselves, and she had made the best of Draycott for a good number of years. She had married him when marriage seemed a big thing and a wonderful thing, and her country home in Devonshire a small, breathless place where nothing ever happened, and where life was one long Sunday at Home, and Draycott, back from the East, had appeared as interesting as a white Othello.

For a time she received all she needed out of life, and she threw herself into her husband's promotion-hunger; understanding it, because she, too, wanted to reign, and it gave her an inexplicable feeling of respect for him, for Clarice knew that had she been born a man, she, too, would have worked and schemed and pushed herself out into the front of the ranks. She combined with him as only an ambitious woman can combine, and she supplied all he lacked. It filled her mind, and she never awoke the jealousy that lay like a sleeping python in the heart of Draycott Wilder. It was when they were in India that Clarice, for the first time, lost her grip and allowed her senses to get the better of her common sense, and she became for a brief time a woman with a very troublesome heart. Hector Copplestone, a young man newly come to the Indian Civil Service, was sent to their Punjaub station. He made Mrs. Wilder realize her own charm, he made her terribly conscious that she was older than him, he made her anxious and distracted and madly, idiotically in love with him. She forgot that there were other things in life, she put aside ambition for a stronger temptation, and she did not care what Draycott thought or supposed.

No one ever knew what happened, but everyone guessed that Wilder had made trouble. They left India under the same cloud of silence, and they reappeared in Mangadone to outside eyes the same couple who had pulled together for successful years of marriage; and if some whisper, for whispers carry far in the East, came after them, no one regarded it, and the Copplestone incident was considered permanently closed. Draycott Wilder was the same silent man who was the despair of his dinner partners, and Clarice had her old brilliancy and her old way of making men pleased with themselves; and though some people, chiefly young girls, described her as "hard," she represented a centre of attraction, and her one mad year was a thing of the past.

Among the men who went to the terraced house in its huge gardens, she always particularly welcomed Hartley, the Head of the Police. He never demanded effort, and he had a good nature and a flow of small talk. Nearly every woman liked Hartley, though very few of them could have said why. He had fair, fluffy hair and a pink face; he was just weak enough to be easily influenced, and he fell platonically in love with every new woman he met without being in the least faithless to the others. Mrs. Wilder had a corner in her heart for him, and he, in return, looked upon Mrs. Wilder as a brilliant and lovely woman very much too good for Draycott. He did not know that he took his ideas from her whenever she wished him to do so; Mrs. Wilder, like a clever conjurer, palmed her ideas like cards, and upheld the principle of free will while she did so, and if she had desired to impress Hartley with fifty-two new notions he would have left her positive in his own mind that they were his own.

Thus, Clarice Wilder may be classed as that melodramatic type that goes about labelled "dangerous," only she had the wit to take off the label and to advertise herself under the guise of a harmless soothing mixture.

The bungalow in which the Wilders lived was an immense place, standing over a terraced garden beautifully planted with flowers. Steps, covered with white marble, led from terrace to terrace, and down to a jade-green lake where water-lilies blossomed and pink lotus flowers floated. Dark green trees plumed with shaded purple flowers accentuated the massed yellow of the golden laburnums. The topmost flight of steps led up to the house, and was flanked on either side with variegated laurel growing in sea-green pots, and the red avenue, that took its lengthy way from the main road, curved into a wide sweep outside the flower-hung veranda.

Hartley arrived at the house just as Mrs. Wilder was having tea alone in the big drawing-room, and she smiled up at him with her curious eyes, that were the colour of granite. Without exactly knowing what her age was, Hartley felt, somehow, that she looked younger than she was, and that she did not do so without some aid from "boxes," but he liked her none the less for that, and possibly admired her more. He sat down and asked her how she was, and, as he looked at her, he wondered to think that she had ever fainted. Clearly, she was the last woman on earth who could be accused of Victorian ways, and to see her in her white lace dress, dark, distinguished, and perfectly mistress of her emotions, was to be bewildered at the memory. She treated the question with scant ceremony, and remarked upon the fact that the night had been hot, and that everyone had felt it.

"I've got an excellent reason for remembering the date," said Hartley reflectively. "By the way, wasn't Absalom, old Mhtoon Pah's assistant, once a dressing-boy or something in your establishment?"

"He was, and then he went sick, and took to this other kind of work."

"He was quite honest, I suppose?"

"Perfectly honest," said Mrs. Wilder, with a slight lift of her eyebrows, "and a nice little boy. I hope that question doesn't mean that you are professionally interested in his past?" she laughed carelessly. "I am quite prepared to stand up for Absalom; he was the soul of integrity."

Hartley put down his cup on the table.

"The boy has disappeared," he said, talking with interest, for the subject filled his mind.

"But when, and how? I saw him quite lately."

Hartley's round, China-blue eyes fixed upon her.

"Can you tell me when you saw him?"

"One night—evening, I should say—I was out riding and I passed him going towards the wharf, not towards the wharf exactly, but to the houses that lie out by the end of the tram lines."

"What evening? I wish you could remember for me."

"It was the night of my own dinner-party."

"Then that was July the twenty-ninth?"

Mrs. Wilder looked at him, and bit her lip.

"Was it the twenty-ninth?" Hartley repeated the question.

"Probably it was, if you say so. I told you just now that I had Burma head. But where has Absalom gone to?"

Hartley took up his cup again and stirred the spoon round and round.

"Forgive me for pelting you with questions, but did you see Mr. Heath that evening?"

"Now, what are you trying to get out of me, Mr. Hartley? Did Mr. Heath tell you that he had seen me?"

Hartley stared at his feet.

"Heath has got Burma head, too, and won't tell me anything. It might help his memory if you were able to say whether you had seen him or not that evening."

Mrs. Wilder's fine eyes glittered into a smile that was not exactly mirthful or pleasant.

"I don't see that I can possibly say one way or another. I often do . . . I often do see him going about the native quarter when I ride through, but I do not write it down in my book, so it is quite impossible for me to say."

"Anyhow, you saw Absalom?"

"Oh, yes, I saw the boy. What a persistent man you are, and you haven't told me a word yourself."

"Absalom was to have got a gold lacquer bowl that you ordered from Mhtoon Pah?"

"Quite correct," laughed Mrs. Wilder with more of her usual manner. "That old Barabbas has never sent it to me yet, either. I ordered it a month ago. I love lacquer because it looks like nothing else, and particularly gold lacquer."

"Well, all I can tell you is that Absalom had an order from Mhtoon Pah to get the bowl the next morning, if it was to be got, and he went away as usual the night of the twenty-ninth, and never appeared again. Heath saw him, and you saw him, and that is pretty nearly all the evidence I can collect."

"Evidence?" Mrs. Wilder's voice had a piercing note in it.

"Yes, evidence. You see the only way to trace a man is to find out exactly who saw him last, and where."

"Ah, I see. You find out what everyone was doing, and where they were, and you piece the bits in. It's like a jig-saw, and how very interesting it must be."

Hartley laughed.

"Not what the other people were doing exactly, but where they were. It is something to know that you saw the boy, but I wish you could remember if you saw Heath."

Mrs. Wilder got up and walked to the window.

"I do hope he will be found. Did he take my lacquer bowl with him?"

"He had not got it," said Hartley, in his steady, matter-of-fact voice.

"Are you worried about it?" She turned and looked across the room. "Why should you be? If Absalom has chosen to leave, I really don't see why he shouldn't be allowed to go in peace."

"I don't know that he did choose to leave; that is just the point."

He was longing to ask her another question about Heath, and yet he did not like to press her.

"Here are some callers," she remarked, and then, with a short laugh, "I wonder if they were out and about that evening. If you go on like this, Mr. Hartley, you will make yourself the most popular man in Mangadone. Take my advice and let Absalom come back in his own way. Perhaps he is looking for my bowl." She turned her head and glanced at some cards that the bearer had brought in on a tray. "Show the ladies in, Gulab."

In a few minutes the room was full of voices and laughter, and Mrs. Wilder became unconscious of Hartley. She remained so unconscious of him that he felt uncomfortable and began to wonder if he had offended her in any way. He looked at her from time to time, and when he got up to go she gave him her hand as though she was only just sure that he was really there.

The disappearance of Absalom was taking strange shapes in his mind, and he had so far come to the conclusion that Heath knew something about Absalom, and his visit to Mrs. Wilder added the puzzling fact to his mental arithmetic that Mrs. Wilder knew something about Heath. It was one thing to corner Heath, but Heath standing behind Mrs. Wilder's protection, became formidable.

Yet it was not in the Cantonment that Hartley expected to find any clue to the vanished Absalom: it was down in the native quarter. Down there where the Chinese eating-houses were beginning to fill, and where the night life was only just awaking from its slumber of the day, was where Absalom, the Christian boy, had last been seen, and it was there, if anywhere, that he must be searched for and found.

What possible connection could there be between an upright, Godly man who went his austere way along the high, cold path of duty, and a woman whose husband was madly grasping at the biggest prize of his profession? What link could bind life with life, when lives were divided by such yawning gulfs of space and class and race? To connect Mrs. Wilder with Heath was almost as mad a piece of folly as to connect Absalom with the clergyman, and yet, Hartley argued, he had not set out to do it. Something that had not begun with any act or question of his had brought about the junction of the ideas, and he felt like a man in a dark room trying to make his way to the window, and meeting with unrecognizable obstacles.

The small tinkle of the church bell attracted his attention, and, following a sudden whim, he went into the tin building and sat down near the door. Mr. Heath did not look down the sparsely-filled church as he read the evening service, and he prayed with an almost violent fervour. Certainly to-night the Rev. Francis Heath was praying as though he was alone, and the odd imploring misery of his voice struck Hartley.—"To perceive and know the things that we ought to do, and to have grace and power faithfully to fulfil the same."

Heath's voice had broken into a kind of sob, the sound that tells of strain and hysteria, but what was there in Mangadone to make a respectable parson strained and hysterical?



Just as Draycott Wilder stood high in the eyes of the Powers that govern the Civil Service of India, so, too, in his own way, was Craven Joicey, the Banker, a man with a solid reputation. If you build a reputation solidly for the first half of a lifetime, it will last the latter half without much attention or care, and, contrariwise, a bad beginning is frequently stronger than any reformation, and stronger than integrity that comes too late.

Joicey had begun well, and had, as the saying goes, "made his way." He was a large, heavy man, representative in figure and slow and careful of speech. He kept the secrets of his bank, and he kept his own secrets, if he had any, and was a walking tomb for confidences not known as "tender." No one would have attempted to tell him their affairs of the heart, but almost anyone with money to invest would go direct to Craven Joicey. He had no wife, no child, and, as far as anyone knew, no kith or kin, and he had no intimate friends. He had one of those strange, shut faces; a mouth that told nothing, eyes that were nearly as expressionless as the eyes of Mhtoon Pah, and he had no restless movements. A plethoric man, Joicey, a man who got up and sat down heavily, a man who looked at his business and not beyond it, and never troubled Society. He probably knew that Heath lived in Mangadone, that was if Heath banked with him; otherwise, he might easily not have known it.

He knew of the Wilders. He knew what Draycott Wilder owned, and he knew that Mrs. Wilder had a very small allowance of her own, paid quarterly through a Devonshire bank, but more than this he neither knew nor wished to know of them, and he never went to their house.

Joicey had not "worn well"; there was no denying that sweating years of Burmese rains and hot weathers had made him prematurely old. His thick hair was patched with white, and his face was flabby and yellow. Craven Joicey was one of those men, who, if he had died suddenly, would have made people remember that they always thought him unhealthy-looking. There was nothing, romantic, exciting, or interesting about him; his mind was a huge pass-book, and his brain a network of facts and figures. He played no games, went only seldom to the Club, and knew no one in the place better than he knew Hartley, which was little, but at any rate Hartley dined once or twice in the year with him, and he occasionally dined in return with the Head of the Police.

Hartley was so occupied with his trouble of mind on the subject of Absalom that he very nearly forgot that he had invited Joicey to dinner the following Saturday. The police had discovered nothing whatever, and he had received another visit at his house from the curio dealer. Mhtoon Pah, in a condition bordering upon frenzy, stated that when he had stood on his steps in the morning, intending to go to the Pagoda to offer alms to the priests, he had noticed his wooden effigy and gone down to look closer at him. The yellow man pointed as was his wont, but over the pointing hand lay a rag soaked in blood.

Mhtoon Pah, immense and splendid in his silk, had given forth wild noises as he produced the rag, noises that reminded Hartley irresistibly of the trumpeting of elephants, but they were terrible to hear.

"It is enough," he said, his face quivering. "This is the work of the Chinamen. They slit his veins, Thakin, they are doing it slowly. The Thakin can understand that Absalom still lives, his blood is fresh and red, it is not dead blood that runs like treacle, it is living blood that spouts out hot, and that steams and smokes. Thakin, Thakin, I cry for vengeance."

"I'm doing all I can, Mhtoon Pah," said Hartley, desperately. "I can't go and arrest Leh Shin on suspicion, because there isn't a vestige of suspicion attached to the man."

"Not after this?" Mhtoon Pah pointed to the rag that lay loathsomely on the table.

"That may be goat's blood, or dog's blood; we can't say it is Absalom's," objected Hartley. "Leave the horrid thing there, Mhtoon Pah, and I will have it analysed later on."

Mhtoon Pah gasped and beat his breast.

"He was a good boy, he attended the Mission with regularity, and they are doing terrible things. They wind wires around the finger-nails and the toe-nails until they turn black and drop off. You do not know these Chinamen, Thakin, as I know them. Have you seen the assistant of Leh Shin?"

Hartley wished that he had not; he frequently wished that he had never seen that man.

Mhtoon Pah bent near the Head of the Police and spoke in low, sibilant tones:

"He is a butcher's mate, Thakin. He is a slayer of flesh. He kills in the shambles. Oh, it is true. I saw him slit the mouth of a dog with his knife for his own mirth—"

"Swine!" said Hartley.

"Why he left there and went to live with Leh Shin is unknown. He has secrets. He knows the best mixtures of opium, he knows—"

"I don't want to hear what he knows."

"He knows where Absalom is."

"You only think that," said Hartley, roughly. "It is a dangerous thing to make these assertions. It is only your idea, Mhtoon Pah."

The Burman groaned aloud and held the rag between his hands.

"Put that down," said Hartley. Mhtoon Pah's very agony of desire to find the boy was almost disgusting, and he turned away from the sight. "There is no use your staying here, and no use your coming, unless there is more of this devil's work," he pointed to the blood-stained cloth. "Leave the thing here, and I will see what the doctors have to say about it."

"Thakin, Thakin," said Mhtoon Pah. "The time grows late. My night's rest is taken from me, and the Chinaman, Leh Shin, walks the roads. I saw him from my place at sunset. I saw him go by like a cat that prowls when night falls and it grows dark. He passed by my wooden image of a dancing man, and he touched him as he passed—" he gave a despairing gesture with his heavy hands. "Oh, Absalom, Absalom, my grief is heavy!"

"He will be either found or accounted for," said Hartley, with a decision and firmness he was far from feeling, and Mhtoon Pah, with bent head, went away out of the room.

The rain that had held off all day began to come down in pitiless torrents, blown in by the wind, and fighting against bolts and bars. It ruffled the muddy waters of the river, ran along the kennels of the Chinese quarter, drove the inhabitants of Paradise Street indoors and soused down over the Cantonment gardens, and battered on the travelling carriage of Craven Joicey, that came along the road, a waterproof over the pony's back and another covering the syce, and Joicey sat inside the small green box, holding the window-strings under his heavy arms.

Joicey was not a cheerful companion, and in his present mood Fitzgibbon, the Barrister, would have suited Hartley better; but he had asked Joicey, and Joicey was on his way, thinking about Bank business in all probability, thinking of money lent out at interest, thinking of careful ledgers and neat rows of figures, and certainly not in the least likely to be thinking of the Chinese quarter, or of a person of so small account, financially, as Absalom, the Christian native. The river or the ships or the back lanes of Mangadone might swallow a thousand Absaloms and make no difference to the Bank, and therefore none to Craven Joicey.

Absalom, that shadow of the night, had gone to heaven or hell, and left no bills behind, and it is by bills that some men's memories are recorded. He was only another grain of red dust blown about by the wind of Fate, and though the Rector of St. Jude's might consider that, having been marked by the sign of the Cross, he was in some way different from the rest, neither Craven Joicey nor Clarice Wilder could be expected to take very much heed of the fact.

All stories of disappearance, from time immemorial, have held interest, and everyone has known of some case which has never been explained or accounted for. Someone who got into a cab and never appeared again, and left the impression that he had driven over the edge of the world into space, for the cab, the cab driver, the horse, the vehicle and the passenger inside were lost from that moment; someone who went for a bicycle ride in England, and was found later selling old clothes in Chicago; someone who went away by train, someone who went away by boat; the world is full of instances, and they are always tinged with the greatest mystery of all mysteries, because they foreshadow the ultimate mystery that awaits the soul of man. For this universal reason, it might be concluded that Joicey might listen with attention to the story of Absalom, though his lowly station and his total lack of the most necessary form of balance, very naturally made him merely a black cypher of no special account in the eyes of a man of figures.

Certainly Craven Joicey had not worn well. Hartley noticed it as he stood taking off his scarf in the hall, and he noticed it again as the Banker sat sipping a sherry and bitters under the strong light of the electric lamp. He looked fagged and tired, and though he cheered up a little as dinner went through, he relapsed into a heavy, silent mood again, as if he was dragged at by thoughts that had power over him.

"There is nothing the matter with you, is there, Joicey?" asked his host. "You don't seem to be up to the mark."

"What mark?" said Joicey, with a laugh. "Up to your mark, Hartley, or my own mark, or someone else's mark? The average mark in Mangadone is low water. There have been a lot of defaulters this year, and even admitting that the place is rich, there is a good deal more insolvency about than I like or than the directors care for. It keeps me grinding and grinding, and wears the nerves."

"By George," said Hartley, "I should have said that my own job was about the most nerve-tattering of any. I had an interview with Mhtoon Pah this afternoon that shook me up a bit."

"Ah, I heard that his boy has disappeared."

The door between the dining-and the drawing-room was thrown open, and dinner announced as Joicey spoke, and the conversation took another turn. Many things were bothering Joicey—the financial year generally, a big commercial failure, the outlook for the rice crop—and as the meal wore on he grew more dreary, and a pessimism that is part of some men's minds tinged everything he touched.

"Did Rydal's disappearance affect you at all, personally?" Hartley asked, with some show of interest.

"Not personally, but it cost the Bank close upon a quarter of a lakh." Joicey drummed his square-topped fingers on the table. "I can't imagine how he managed to get away."

Hartley frowned.

"I had all the landing-stages carefully watched, and the plague police warned. He must have gone before the warrant was out, that is, if he has ever left the country at all."

Joicey shrugged his heavy shoulders.

"In any case, the man's not much use to us, and the money has gone. I'm not altogether sorry he got away." His eyes grew full of brooding shadows and he sat silent, still tapping the cloth with his fingers.

"It's an odd coincidence," said Hartley, and his face grew keen again. "Mhtoon Pah's boy, Absalom, disappeared that same night. I wish you could tell me, Joicey, if you saw Heath that evening when you went down Paradise Street. It was the same evening that the Bank laid their information against Rydal, the twenty-ninth."

Joicey had just poured himself out a glass of port, and was raising it to his lips as Hartley spoke, and the hand that held the glass jerked slightly, splashing a little of the wine on to the front of his white shirt. Joicey did not set the glass back on to the table, he held it between him and the light, and eyed it, or, rather, it should be said that he watched his own hand, and when he saw that it was quite steady he set down the wine untasted.

"Paradise Street? I never go down there. I wasn't in Mangadone that night," his face was dead white with a sick, leprous whiteness. "If Heath said he saw me, Heath was wrong."

"Heath didn't say so," said Hartley. "It was the policeman on duty at the corner who said that he had seen you."

"I tell you I wasn't in the place," said Joicey again.

Hartley coughed awkwardly.

"Well, if you weren't there, you weren't there," he said, pacifically.

"And Heath, what did Heath say?"

"I told you he said nothing, except that he had seen Absalom. I can't understand this business, Joicey; directly I ask the smallest question about that infernal night of July the twenty-ninth I am always met in just the same way."

"I know nothing about it," said Joicey, shortly. "I wasn't here and I don't know what Heath was doing, so there's no use asking me questions about him."

The Banker relapsed into his former dull apathy, and leaned back in his chair.

"I've had insomnia lately," he said, after a perceptible pause. "It plays the deuce with one's nerves. I believe I need a change. This cursed country gets into one's bones if one stays out too long. I've forgotten what England looks like and I've got over the desire to go back there, and so I rot through the rains and the steam and the tepid cold weather, and it isn't doing me any good at all."

They walked into the drawing-room, Hartley with his hand on Joicey's shoulder. The Banker sat for a little time making a visible effort to talk easily, but long before his usual hour for leaving he pulled out his watch and looked at it.

"It may seem rude to clear off so soon, but I'm tired, Hartley, and shall be much obliged if I may shout for my carriage."

He looked tired enough to make any excuse of exhaustion or ill-health quite a valid one, and Hartley was concerned for his friend.

"Don't overdo it, Joicey," he said.

"Overdo what?"

Joicey got up with the heavy lift of an old, weary man, and yet there was not two years between him and Hartley.

"The insomnia," said Hartley.

"Good night," replied Joicey shortly, and closed the carriage-door behind him.

He drove along the dark roads, his arms in the window-straps and his head bent forward. The head of the Mangadone Banking Firm was suffering, if not from insomnia, from something that was heavier than the heaviest night of sleeplessness, and something that was darker than the dark road, and something that was deep as the brown waters that carried outgoing craft to sea.



Social life went its way in Mangadone much as it had before the 29th of July, but Hartley was not allowed to rest and feel comfortable and easy for very long. Mhtoon Pah waylaid him in the dark when he was riding home from the Club, and waited for him for hours in his bungalow. Like his own shadow, Mhtoon Pah followed him and dogged his comings and goings, always with the same imploring tale, but never with any further evidence. Leh Shin was officially watched, and Leh Shin's assistant was also under the paternal eye of authority, but all that authority could discover about him was that he led a gay life, gambled and drugged himself, hung about evil houses, and had been seen loitering in the vicinity of the curio shop; but, as Paradise Street was an open thoroughfare, he had as much right to be there as any leprous beggar.

Hartley's peace of mind was soon shattered again, this time by a new element that Hartley had not thought of, and so he was caught in another net without any previous warning.

Atkins, the rector of St. Jude's bungalow companion, was a dry little man, adhering to simple facts, and neither a sensationalist nor an alarmist; therefore his words had weight. He was a small man, always dressed in clothes a little too small, with his whole mind given up to the subject of his profession; besides which he was religious, a non-smoker, a teetotaller, and particular upon these points.

Being but little in the habit of going into Mangadone society, he seldom met Hartley except at the Club, and it was there that he ran him into a corner and asked for a word or two in private. Hartley took him out into the dim green space where basket chairs were set at intervals, and drawing two well away from the others, sat down to listen.

Sweet scents were wafted up on the evening air, and drowsy, dark clouds followed the moonlike heavy wisps of black cotton-wool, drowning the light from time to time and then clearing off again; and all over the grass, glimmering groups of men in white clothes and women in trailing skirts filled the air with an indistinct murmur of sound.

"It is understood at the outset," began Atkins, clearing his throat with a crowing sound, "that what I have to say is said strictly in a private and confidential sense. I only say it because I am driven to do so."

Hartley's basket chair squeaked as he moved, but he said nothing, and Atkins dropped his voice into an intimate tone and went on:

"You came to see Heath one day lately, and I told you he was ill. Well, so he was, but there are illnesses of the mind as well as of the body, and Heath was mind-sick. I am a light sleeper, Hartley. I wake at a sound, and twice lately I have been awakened by sounds."

"The Durwan," suggested Hartley.

"Not the Durwan. If it had been, I would not have spoken to you about it. Heath has been visited towards morning by a man, and it was the sound of voices that awoke me. It is no business of mine to pry or to talk, and I would say nothing if it were not that I admire and respect Heath, and I believe that he is in some horrible difficulty, out of which he either will not, or cannot, extricate himself."

"Who was the man?"

Atkins ignored the question.

"I admit that I listened, but I overheard almost nothing, except just the confused sounds of talking in low voices, but I heard Heath say, 'I will not endure it, I am bearing too much already.' I think he spoke more to himself than to the man in his room, but it was a ghastly thing to hear, as he said it."

"Go on," said Hartley. "Tell me exactly what happened."

"I heard the door on to the back veranda open, and I heard the sound of feet go along it—bare feet, mind you, Hartley—and then I went to sleep. That was a week ago."

"And something of the same nature has occurred since?"

Atkins dried his hands with his handkerchief.

"I said something to Heath at breakfast about having had a bad night, and he got up at once and left the table. After that nothing happened until last night. I had been out all day, and came home dog-tired. I turned in early and left Heath reading a theological book in the veranda. I said, I remember, 'I'm absolutely beat, Padre; I have had enough to-day to give me nine or ten hours without stirring,' and he looked up and said, 'Don't complain of that, Atkins; there are worse things than sound sleep.' It struck me then that he hadn't known what it was for weeks, he looked so gaunt and thin, and I thought again of that other night that we had neither of us spoken about."

"Heath never explained anything?"

"No, I never asked him to."

"What happened then?" Hartley's voice was hardly above a whisper, and he leaned close to Atkins to listen.

"I slept for hours, fairly hogged it until it must have been two or three in the morning, judging by the light, and then I awoke suddenly, the way one wakes when there is some noise that is different to usual noises, and after a moment or two I heard the sound of voices, and I got out of bed and went very quietly into the veranda. Heath's lamp was burning, his room is at the far end from mine, and I stood there, shivering like a leaf out of sheer jumps. I had a regular 'night attack' feeling over me. I heard a chair pushed back, and I heard Heath say in a low voice 'If you come here again, or if you dog me again, I'll hand you over to the police,' and the man laughed. I can't describe his laugh; it was the most damnable thing I ever listened to, and I thought of running in, but something stopped me, God knows why. 'Take your pay,' said Heath; I heard him say it, and then I heard the door open again, and the same sound of feet." He shivered. "They stopped outside my room, and I caught the outline of a head, a huge head and enormous, heavy shoulders, and then he was gone."

"Why the devil didn't you raise the alarm?" Hartley's voice was angry. "You've got a policeman on the road. Why didn't you shout?"

"Because I was thinking of Heath," said Atkins a little stiffly. "He is the man we have both got to think about. Some devil of a native is blackmailing him, and Heath is one of the best and straightest men I know. Not one item of all this mystery goes against him in my mind, but what I want you to do, is to have the bungalow watched."

"I shall certainly do that," said Hartley with decision. "And as for your opinion of Heath—well, it strikes me as curious that a man of good character should be a mark for blackmail."

"I explain facts by people, not people by facts," said Atkins hotly. "And I have told you—"

"I think it is only fair to say that you have told me something that lays Heath under suspicion," said Hartley, slowly. "He behaved very oddly, lately, when I asked him a simple question, and he chose to refuse to see me when I went to his house. All that was a small matter, but what you tell me now is serious."

"Serious for Heath, and for that very reason I particularly want him protected. But as for suspicion, I know the man thoroughly, and that is quite absurd." Atkins got up and terminated the interview. "It is absurd to talk of suspicion," he said again, irritably. "I hope you will drop that attitude, Hartley. If I had imagined for a moment that you were likely to adopt it, I should have kept my mouth shut."

He went away, his narrow shoulders humped, and his whole figure testifying to his annoyance, and Hartley sat alone, watching the moonlight and thinking his own thoughts. He was interrupted by a woman's voice, and Mrs. Wilder sat down in the chair left vacant by Atkins.

"What are you pondering about, Mr. Hartley? Are you seeing ghosts or moon spirits? You certainly give the idea that you are immensely preoccupied."

"Do I?" Hartley laughed awkwardly. "Well, as a matter of fact, I was not thinking of anything very pleasant."

"Can I help?"—her voice was very soft and alluring.

"No one can, I am afraid."

She touched his arm with a little intimate gesture, and her eyes shone in the moonlight.

"How can you say that? If I were in any sort of fix, or in any sort of trouble, I would ask you to advise me, and to tell me what to do, before I would go to anyone else, even Draycott, and why should you leave me outside your worries?"

"You see, that's just it, they aren't exactly mine. If they were I would tell you, but I can't tell you, because what I was thinking about was connected entirely with someone else."

Mrs. Wilder's eyes narrowed, and she lifted her slightly pointed nose a very little.

"Ah, now you make me inquisitive, and that is most unfair of you. Don't tell me anything, Mr. Hartley, except just the name of the person concerned. I'm very safe, as you know. Could you tell me the name, or would it be wrong of you?"

"The name won't convey very much to you," said Hartley, laughing. "I was thinking of the Padre, Heath. That doesn't give you much clue, does it?"

It was too dark for him to see a look that sprang into Mrs. Wilder's eyes, or perhaps Hartley might have found a considerable disparity between her look and her light words.

"Poor Mr. Heath, he is one of those terribly serious, conscientious people, who go about life making themselves wretched for the good of their souls. He ought to have lived in the Middle Ages. I won't ask you why you are thinking about him"—she got up and lingered a little, and Hartley rose also—"but you know that you should not think of anyone unless you want to make others think of them, too; it isn't at all safe. I shall have to think of Mr. Heath all the way home, and he is such a gaunt, scraggy kind of thought."

"I wish I could replace him with myself," said Hartley, in a burst of admiration.

Mrs. Wilder accepted his compliment graciously and walked across the grass to the drive, where her car panted almost noiselessly, as is the way of good cars, and he put her in with the manner of a jeweller putting a precious diamond pendant into a case. He watched the car disappear, and considered that some men are undeservedly lucky in this life.

Hartley was nearly forty, that dangerously sentimental age, and he began to wonder if, by chance, he had met Clarice Wilder years ago in a Devonshire orchard, life might not have been a wonderful thing. He called her a "sweet woman" in his mind, and it was almost a pity that Mrs. Wilder did not know, because her sense of humour was subtle and acute, and she would have thoroughly enjoyed the description of herself. She could read Hartley as quickly as she could read the telegrams in the Mangadone Times, and she could play upon him as she played upon her own grand piano.

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