Sindbad On Burrator by Arthur Quiller-Couch

Story type: Literature

I heard this story in a farmhouse upon Dartmoor, and I give it in the words of the local doctor who told it. We were a reading-party of three undergraduates and a Christ Church don. The don had slipped on a boulder, two days before, while fishing the river Meavy, and sprained his ankle; hence Dr. Miles’s visit. The two had made friends over the don’s fly-book and the discovery that what the doctor did not know about Dartmoor trout was not worth knowing; hence an invitation to extend his visit over dinner. At dinner the talk diverged from sport to the ancient tin-works, stone circles, camps and cromlechs on the tors about us, and from there to touch speculatively on the darker side of the old religions: hence at length the doctor’s story, which he told over the pipes and whisky, leaning his arms upon the table and gazing at it rather than at us, as though drawing his memories out of depths below its polished surface.

It must be thirty–yes, thirty–years ago (he said) since I met the man, on a bright November morning, when the Dartmoor hounds were drawing Burrator Wood. Burrator House in those days belonged to the Rajah Brooke–Brooke of Sarawak–who had bought it from Harry Terrell; or rather it had been bought for him by the Baroness Burdett Coutts and other admirers in England. Harry Terrell–a great sportsman in his day–had been loth enough to part with it, and when the bargain was first proposed, had named at random a price which was about double what he had given for the place. The Rajah closed with the sum at once, asked him to make a list of everything in the house, and put a price on whatever he cared to sell. Terrell made a full list, putting what seemed to him fair prices on most of the furniture, and high ones– prohibitive he thought–on the sticks he had a fancy to keep. The Rajah glanced over the paper in his grand manner, and says he, “I’ll take it all.” “Stop! stop!” cried Terrell, “I bain’t going to let you have the bed I was married in!” “As you please; we’ll strike out the bed, then,” the Rajah answered. That is how he took possession.

Burrator House, as I daresay you know, faces across the Meavy upon Burrator Wood; and the wood, thanks to Terrell, had always been a sure draw for a fox. I had tramped over from Tavistock on this particular morning,–for I was new to the country, a young man looking around me for a practice, and did not yet possess a horse,–and I sat on the slope above the house, at the foot of the tor, watching the scene on the opposite bank. The fixture, always a favourite one, and the Rajah’s hospitality–which was noble, like everything about him–had brought out a large and brightly-dressed field; and among them, in his black coat, moved Terrell on a horse twice as good as it looked. He had ridden over from his new home, and I daresay in the rush of old associations had forgotten for the while that the familiar place was no longer his.

The Rajah, a statue of a man, sat on a tall grey at the covert’s edge, directly below me; and from time to time I watched him through my field-glass. He had lately recovered from a stroke of paralysis, and was (I am told) the wreck of his old self; but the old fire lived in the ashes. He sat there, tall, lean, upright as a ramrod, with his eyes turned from the covert and gazing straight in front, over his horse’s ears, on the rushing Meavy. He had forgotten the hounds; his care for his guests was at an end; and I wondered what thoughts, what memories of the East, possessed him. There is always a loneliness about a great man, don’t you think? But I have never felt one to be so terribly–yes, terribly–alone as the Rajah was that morning among his guests and the Devonshire tors.

“Every inch a king,” said a voice at my elbow, and a little man settled himself down on the turf beside me. I set down my glasses with a start. He was a spare dry fellow of about fifty, dressed in what I took for the working suit of a mechanic. Certainly he did not belong to the moor. He wore no collar, but a dingy yellow handkerchief knotted about his throat, and both throat and face were seamed with wrinkles–so thickly seamed that at first glance you might take them for tattoo-marks; but I had time for a second, for without troubling to meet my eyes he nodded towards the Rajah.

“I’ve cut a day’s work and travelled out from Plymouth to get a sight of him; and I’ve a wife will pull my hair out when I get home and she finds I haven’t been to the docks to-day; and I’ve had no breakfast but thirty grains of opium; but he’s worth it.”

“Thirty grains of opium!” I stared at him, incredulous. He did not turn, but, still with his eyes on the valley below us, stretched out a hand. It’s fingers were gnarled, and hooked like a bird’s claw, and on the little finger a ruby flashed in the morning sunlight–not a large ruby, but of the purest pigeon’s-blood shade, and in any case a stone of price.

“You see this? My wife thinks it a sham one, but it’s not. And some day, when I’m drunk or in low water, I shall part with it–but not yet. You’ve an eye for it, I see,”–and yet he was not looking towards me,– “but the Rajah, yonder, and I are the only two within a hundred miles that can read what’s in the heart of it.”

He gazed for a second or two at the stone, lifted it to his ear as if listening, and lowering his hand to the turf, bent over it and gazed again. “Ay, he could understand and see into you, my beauty! He could hear the little drums tum-a-rumbling, and the ox-bells and bangles tinkling, and the shuffle of the elephants going by; he could read the lust in you, and the blood and the sun flickering and licking round the kris that spilt it–for it’s the devil you have in you, my dear. But we know you–he and I–he and I. Ah! there you go,” he muttered as the hounds broke into cry, and the riders swept round the edge of the copse towards the sound of a view-halloo. “There you go,” he nodded after the Rajah; “but ride as you will, the East is in you, great man–its gold in your blood, its dust in your eyelids, its own stink in your nostril; and, ride as you will, you can never escape it.”

He clasped his knees and leaned back against the slope, following the grey horse and its rider with idolatrous gaze; and I noted that one of the clasped hands lacked the two middle fingers.

“You know him?” I asked. “You have seen him out there, at Sarawak?”

“I never saw him; but I heard of him.” He smiled to himself. “It’s not easy to pass certain gates in the East without hearing tell of the Rajah Brooke.”

For a while he sat nursing his knee while I filled and lit a pipe. Then he turned abruptly, and over the flame of the match I saw his eyes, the pupils clouded around the iris and, as it were, withdrawn inward and away from the world. “Ever heard of Cagayan Sulu?” he asked.

“Never,” said I. “Who or what is it?”

“It’s an island,” said he. “It lies a matter of eighty miles off the north-east corner of Borneo–facing Sandakan, as you might say.”

“Who owns it?”

He seemed to be considering the question. “Well,” he answered slowly, “if you asked the Spanish Government I suppose they’d tell you the King of Spain; but that’s a lie. If you asked the natives–the Hadji Hamid, for instance–you’d be told it belonged to them; and that’s half a lie. And if you asked the Father of Lies he might tell you the truth and call me for witness. I lost two fingers there–the only English flesh ever buried in those parts–so I’ve bought my knowledge.”

“How did you come there?” I asked,–“if it’s a fair question.”

He chuckled without mirth. “As it happens, that’s not a fair question. But I’ll tell you this much, I came there with a brass band.”

I began to think the man out of his mind.

“With the instruments, that is. I’d dropped the bandmaster on the way. Look here,” he went on sharply, “the beginning is funny enough, but I’m telling you no lies. We’ll suppose there was a ship, a British man-of-war–name not necessary just now.”

“I think I understand,” I nodded.

“Oh no, you don’t,” said he. “I’m not a deserter–at least not exactly–or I shouldn’t be telling this to you. Well, we’ll suppose this ship bound from Labuan to Hong-Kong with orders to keep along the north side of Borneo, to start with, and do a bit of exploring by the way. This would be in ‘forty-nine, when the British Government had just taken over Labuan. Very good. Next we’ll suppose the captain puts in at Kudat, in Marudu Bay, to pay a polite call on the Rajah there or some understrapper of the Sultan’s, and takes his ship’s band ashore by way of compliment, and that the band gets too drunk to play ‘Annie Laurie.’” He chuckled again. “I never saw such a band as we were, down by the water’s edge; and O’Hara, the bandmaster, took on and played the fool to such a tune, while we waited for the boat to take us aboard, that for the very love I bore him I had to knock him down and sit on him in a quiet corner.

“While I sat keeping guard on him I must have dropped asleep myself; for the next I remember was waking up to find the beach deserted and the boat gone. This put me in a sweat, of course; but after groping some while about the foreshore (which was as dark as the inside of your hat), I tripped over a rope and so found a native boat. O’Hara wouldn’t wake, so I just lifted him on board like a sack, tossed in his cornet and my bombardon, tumbled in on top of them, and started to row for dear life towards the ship’s light in the offing.

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“But the Rajah, or rather his servants, had filled us up with a kind of sticky drink that only begins to work when you think it about time to leave off. I must have pulled miles towards that ship, and every time I cast an eye over my shoulder her light was shining just as far away as ever. At last I remember feeling sure I was bewitched, and with that I must have tumbled off the thwart in a sound sleep.

“When I awoke I had both arms round the bombardon; there wasn’t a sight of land, or of the ship, anywhere; and, if you please, the sun was near sinking! This time I managed to wake up O’Hara. We had splitting headaches, the pair of us; but we snatched up our instruments and started to blow on them like mad. Not a soul heard, though we blew till the sweat poured down us, and kept up the concert pretty well all through the night. You may think it funny, and I suppose we did amount to something like a joke–we two bandsmen booming away at the Popular Airs of Old England and the Huntsmen’s Chorus under those everlasting stars. You wouldn’t say so, if you had been the audience when O’Hara broke down and began to confess his sins.

“Luckily the sea kept smooth, and next morning I took the oars in earnest. We had no compass, and I was famished; but I stuck to it, steering by the sun and pulling in the direction where I supposed land to lie. O’Hara kept a look-out. We saw nothing, however, and down came the night again.

“Though the hunger had been gnawing and griping me for hours, yet– dog-tired as I was–I curled myself at the bottom of the boat and slept, and dreamed I was on board ship again and in my hammock. A sort of booming in my ears awoke me. Looking up I saw daylight around–clear morning light and blue sky–and right overhead, as it were, a great cliff standing against the blue. And there in the face of day O’Hara sat on the thwart, tugging like mad, now cricking his neck almost to stare up at the cliff, and now grinning down at me in silly triumph.

“With that I caught at the meaning of the sound in my ears. ‘You infernal fool!’ I shouted, staggering up and making to snatch the paddle from him. ‘Get her nose round to it and back her!’ For it was the noise of breaking water.

“But I was too late. Our boat, I must tell you, was a sort of Dutch pram, about twelve feet long and narrowing at the bows, which stood well out of water; handy enough for beaching, but not to be taken through breakers, by reason of its sitting low in the stern. O’Hara, as I yelled at him, pulled his starboard paddle and brought her (for these prams spin round easily) almost broadside on to a tall comber. As we slid up the side of it and hung there, I had a glimpse of a steep clean fissure straight through the wall of rock ahead; and in that instant O’Hara sprawled his arms and toppled overboard. The boat and I went by him with a rush. I saw a hand and wrist lifted above the foam, but when I looked back for them they were gone–gone as I shot over the bar and through the cleft into smooth water. I shouted and pulled back to the edge of the breakers; but he was gone, and I never saw him again.

“I suppose it was ten minutes before I took heart to look about me. I was floating on a lake of the bluest water I ever set eyes on, and as calm as a pond except by the entrance where the spent waves, after tumbling over the bar, spread themselves in long ripples, widening and widening until the edge of them melted and they were gone. The banks of the lake rose sheer from its edge, or so steeply that I saw no way of climbing them–walls you might call them, a good hundred feet high, and widening gradually towards the top, but in a circle as regular as ever you could draw with a pair of compasses. Any fool could see what had happened–that here was the crater of a dead volcano, one side of which had been broken into by the sea; but the beauty of it, sir, coming on top of my weakness, fairly made me cry. For the walls at the top were fringed with palms and jungle trees, and hung with creepers like curtains that trailed over the face of the cliff and down among the ferns by the shore. I leaned over the boat and stared into the water. It was clear, clear–you’ve no notion how clear; but no bottom could I see. It seemed to sink right through and into the sea on the other side of the world!

“Well, all this was mighty pretty, but it didn’t tell me where to find a meal; so I baled out the boat and paddled along the eastern edge of the lake searching the cliffs for a path, and after an hour or so I hit on what looked to me like a foot-track, zig-zagging up through the creepers and across the face of the rock. I determined to try it, made the boat fast to a clump of fern, slung O’Hara’s cornet on to my side-belt and began to climb.

“I saw no marks of footsteps; but the track was a path all right, though a teazer. A dozen times I had to crawl on hands and knees under the creepers–creepers with stems as thick as my two wrists–and once, about two-thirds of the way up, I was forced to push sideways through a crevice dripping with water, and so steep under foot that I slid twice and caked myself with mud. I very nearly gave out here; but it was do or die, and after ten minutes more of scratching, pushing, and scrambling, I reached the top and sat down to mop my face and recover.

“I daresay it was another ten minutes before I fetched breath enough and looked about me; and as I turned my head, there, close behind me, lay another crater with another lake smiling below, all blue and peaceful as the one I had left! I gazed from one to the other. This new crater had no opening on the sea; its sides were steeper, though not quite so tall; and either my eyes played me a trick or its water stood at a higher level. I stood there, comparing the two, when suddenly against the skyline, and not two hundred yards away, I caught sight of a man.

“He was walking towards me around the edge of the crater, and halting every now and then to stare down at my boat. He might be a friend, or he might be a foe; but anyway it was not for me, in my condition, to choose which, so I waited for him to come up. And first I saw that he carried a spear, and wore a pair of wide dirty-white trousers and a short coat embroidered with gold; and next that he was a true Malay, pretty well on in years, with a greyish beard falling over his chest. He had no shirt, but a scarlet sash wrapped about his waist and holding a kris and two long pistols handsomely inlaid with gold. In spite of his weapons he seemed a benevolent old boy.

“He pointed towards my boat and tried me with a few questions, first in his own language, then in Spanish, of which I knew very little beyond the sound. But I spread out my hands towards the sea, by way of explaining our voyage, and then pointed to my mouth. If he understood he seemed in no hurry. He tapped O’Hara’s cornet gingerly with two fingers. I unstrung it and made shift to play ‘Home, Sweet Home.’ This delighted him; he nodded, rubbed his hands, and stepped a few paces from me, then turned and began fingering his spear in a way I did not like at all. ‘It’s a matter of taste, sir,’ said I, or words to that effect, dropping the cornet like a hot potato; but he pointed towards it, and then over a ridge inland, and I gathered I must pick it up and follow him–which I did, and pretty quick.

“From the top of this ridge we faced across a small plain bounded on the north with a tier of hills, most of which seemed by their shape to be volcanoes, and out of action–for the sky lay quite blue and clear above them. The way down into this plain led through jungle; but the plain itself had been cleared of all but small clumps dotted here and there, which gave it, you might say, the look of an English park; and about half-way across, in a clear stretch of lalang grass, stood a village of white huts huddling round a larger and much taller house.

“The old man led me straight towards this, and, coming closer, I saw that the large house had a rough glacis about it and a round wall pierced with loopholes. A number of goats were feeding here and a few small cattle; also the ground about the village had been cleared and planted with fruit-trees,–mangoes, bananas, limes, and oranges,–but as yet I saw no inhabitants. The old Malay, who had kept ahead of me all the way, walking at a fair pace, here halted and once more signed to me to blow on the cornet. I obeyed, of course, this time with ‘The British Grenadiers.’ I declare to you it was like starting a swarm of bees. You wouldn’t believe the troops that came pouring out of those few huts–the women in loose trousers pretty much like the men’s, but with arms bare and loose sarongs flung over their right shoulders, the children with no more clothes than a pocket-handkerchief apiece. I can’t tell you what first informed me of my guide’s rank among them– whether the salaams they offered him, or the richness of his dress– he was the only one with gold lace and the only one who carried pistols–or the air with which he paraded me through the crowd, waving the people back to right and left, and clearing a way to a narrow door in the wall around the great house. A man armed with a long fowling-piece saluted him at the entry; and once inside he pointed from the house to his own breast, as much as to say, ‘I am the Chief, and this is mine.’ I saluted him humbly.

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“A verandah ran around the four sides of the house, with a trench between it and the fortified wall. A plank bridge led across the trench to the verandah steps, where my master–or, to call him by his right name, Hadji Hamid–halted again and clapped his hands. A couple of young Malay women, dressed like those I had passed in the street, ran out in answer, and were ordered to bring me food. While it was preparing I rested on a low chair, blinking at the sunlight on the fortified wall. It had been pierced, on the side of the house, for eleven guns, but six of the embrasures were empty, and of the five pieces standing no two were alike in size, age, or manufacture, and the best seemed to be a nine-pounder, strapped to its carriage with rope. Hadji Hamid saw what I was looking at, and chuckled to himself solemnly. All through the meal–which began with a mess of rice and chopped fowl and ended with bananas–he sat beside me, chewing betel, touching this thing and that, naming it in his language and making me repeat the words after him. He smiled at every mistake, but never lost his patience; indeed it was clear that my quickness delighted him, and I did my best, wondering all the while what he meant to do with me.

“Well, to be short, sir, he intended to keep me. I believe he would have done it for the sake of the cornet; but before I had finished eating, up stepped a sentry escorting a man with my bombardon under his arm. I had left it, as you know, in the boat, and had heard no order given; but the boat I never saw again, and here was my bombardon. Hadji Hamid took it in both hands, felt it all over, patted it, and ended by turning it over to me and calling in dumb show for a tune. I tell you, my performance was a success. At the first blast he leaned back suddenly in his chair; at the second he turned a kind of purple under his yellow skin; but at the third he caught hold of his stomach and began to roll in his seat and laugh. You never saw a man laugh like it. He made scarcely any sound; he was too near apoplexy to speak; but the tears ran down his face, and one minute his hand would be up waving feebly to me to stop, the next he’d be signalling to go on again. I wanted poor O’Hara; he used to give himself airs and swear at my playing, but among these people he and his cornet would have had to stand down.

“They gave me a bed that night in a corner of the verandah, and next morning my master came himself to wake me, and took me down to the village bathing-pool, just below the fortifications. It hurt my modesty to find the whole mob of inhabitants gathered there and waiting, and it didn’t set me at ease, exactly, to notice that each man carried his spear. For one nasty moment I pictured a duck-hunt, with me playing duck. But there was no cause for alarm. At a signal from Hamid, who stripped and led the way, in we tumbled together–men, women, and children–the men first laying their spears on the bank beside their clothes. Six remained on shore to keep guard, and were relieved after five minutes by another six from the pool. There was a good deal of splashing and horse-play, but nothing you could call immodest, though my fair skin came in for an amount of attention I had to get used to.

“My breakfast was served to me alone, and soon after I was summoned to attend my master in one of the state rooms of the house. I found him on a shaded platform, seated opposite an old native as well-dressed and venerable-looking as himself, but stouter. The pair lolled on cushions at either end of the platform, smoking and smoothing their grey beards. I understood that the visitor was a personage and (somehow) that he had been sent for expressly to hear and be astonished by my performance.

“The two instruments were brought in upon cushions, and I began to play. The visitor–who had less sense of humour than Hamid–did not laugh at all. Instead, he took the mouthpiece of his tchibouk slowly from his lips and held it at a little distance, while his mouth and eyes opened wider and wider. Hamid eyed him keenly, with a kind of triumph under his lids; and the triumph grew as the old man’s stare lit up with a jealousy there was no mistaking.

“This, too, passed as I wound up with a flourish and stood at attention, waiting for orders. The visitor put out his hand, but as I offered him the bombardon he waved it aside impatiently and pointed to the cornet. I passed it up to him; he patted and examined it for a while, laid it on his knee, and the two men began talking in low voices.

“I could see that compliments were passing; but you’ll guess I wasn’t prepared for what followed. Hamid stood up suddenly and whispered to one of his six guards stationed below the platform. The man went out, and returned in five minutes followed by a girl. Now that the island girls were beautiful I had already discovered that morning, and this one was no exception–a small thing about five feet, with glossy black hair and the tiniest feet and hands. She seemed to me to walk nervously, as if brought up for punishment; and a thought took me–and I shall be glad of it when I come to die–that if they meant to ill-use her I might do worse than assault that venerable pair with my bombardon and end my adventures with credit.

“My eyes were so taken up with the girl that for a full minute I paid no attention to my master. She had come to a halt under the platform, a couple of paces from me, with her eyes cast down upon the floor; and he on the platform was speaking. By and by he stopped, and glancing up I saw that he was motioning me to leave the room. Well, they had made no show as yet of ill-treating her; so I flung her one more look and obeyed, feeling pretty mean. I went out into the verandah, walked the length of it and turned–and there stood the girl right before me! Her little feet had followed me so softly that I had heard nothing; and now, as I stared at her, she crept close with a sort of sidelong motion, and knelt at my feet, at the same moment drawing her sarong over her head to hide it. Then the truth came upon me–I was married!

“Aoodya was her name. What else can I tell you about her, to describe her? She was a child, and all life came as play to her, yet she understood love to the tips of her little madder-brown fingers. She was my teacher, too, and I sat at her feet day after day and learned while she drilled the island-language into me; learned by the hour while she untwisted her hair and rubbed it with grated cocoanut, and broke off her toilet to point to this thing and that and tell me its name, laughing at my mistakes or flipping bits of betel at me by way of reward. I had no wife at home to vex my conscience at all. All day we played about Hamid’s verandah like two children, and Hamid watched us with a sort of twinkle in his eye, seemingly well content. It was plain he had taken a fancy to me, and I thought, as time passed, he grew friendlier.

“I blessed the old fellow, too. Had he not given me Aoodya? I puzzled my head over this favour, until Aoodya explained. ‘You see,’ she said, ‘it was done to oblige the Hadji Hassan.’ This was the old man who had listened to my performance on the bombardon. He lived in a stockaded house on the far side of the island, the chieftancy of which he and Hamid shared between them and without dispute.

“‘How should it oblige Hassan?’ I asked.

“‘Because Hassan could not see or hear my lord and lover without longing to possess such a man for his very own. As who could?’ And here she blew me a kiss.

“‘Thank you, jewel of my heart,’ said I; ‘but yet I don’t see. Was it me he wanted, or the bombardon?’

“‘I fancy he thought of you together; but of course he did not ask for the big thing–that would have been greedy. He would be content with the little one, the what-you-call cornet; and–don’t you see?’

“‘No doubt it’s stupid of me, my dear,’ said I, ‘but I’ll be shot if I do.’

“She was sitting with a lapful of pandanus leaves, blue and green, weaving a mat of them while we talked, and had just picked out a beater from the tools scattered round her–a flat piece of board with a bevilled edge, and shaped away to a handle. ‘Stupid!’ she says to me, just like so, and at the same time raps me over the hand smartly. ‘He thought–if peradventure there came to us a little one–‘

“‘With a what-you-call cornet?’–I clapped my hand to my mouth over a guffaw; and, with that, She–who had started laughing too–came to a stop, with her eyes fastened on the back of it. I saw them stiffen, and the pretty round pupils draw in and shrink to narrow slits like a cat’s, and her arm went back slowly behind her, and her bosom leaned nearer and nearer. I thought she was going to spring at me, and as my silly laugh died out I turned my hand and held it palm outward, to fend her off. On the back of it was a drop of blood where the bevelled edge of the beater had by accident broken the skin.

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“Somehow this movement of mine seemed to fetch her to bearings. Her hand came slowly forward again, hesitated, seemed to hover for a moment at her throat, then went swiftly down to her bosom between bodice and flesh, and came up again tugging after it what looked to me a piece of coarse thread. She tossed it into my lap as I still sat there cross-legged, and with that sprang up and raced away from me, down to the verandah. There was no chance of catching her, and I was (to tell the truth) a bit too much taken aback to try. I picked up the string. On it was threaded a silk purse no bigger than a shilling; and from this I shook into my palm a small stone like an opal. I turned it over once or twice, put it back in the purse, and stowed string, purse, and all in my breeches’ pocket.

“I strolled down the verandah to our quarters in search of Aoodya, but the room was empty; and after that I’m afraid I smoked and sulked for the rest of the day, until nightfall. After playing the Hadji Hamid through his meal I went out to our favourite seat on the edge of the dry ditch, when she came to me out of nowhere across the withered grass of the compound.

“‘Have you the charm, O beloved?’ she whispered.

“‘Oh, it’s a charm, is it?’ said I, partly sulky yet.

“‘Yes, and you must never lose it–never part with it–never, above all, give it back to me. Promise me that, beloved; and I, who have wept much, am happy again.’

“So I promised, and she snuggled close to me, and all was as before. No more was said between us, and by next morning she seemed to have clean forgotten the affair. But I thought of it at times, and it puzzled me.

“Now, as I said, my master had taken a fancy to me quite apart from the bombardon, and a token of it was his constantly taking me out as companion on his walks. You may think it odd that he never troubled about my being an unbeliever–for of course he held by the Prophet, and so did all the islanders, Aoodya included. But in fact, though his people called themselves Mahommedans, each man treated his religion much as he chose, and Hamid talked to me as freely as if I had been his son.

“In this way I learned a deal of the island and its customs, and of the terms by which Hamid and Hassan between them shared its rule. But that any others laid claim to it I had no idea, until one day as we were walking on the coast, and not far from the crater where he had found me first, my master asked suddenly, ‘Was I happy?’

“‘Quite happy,’ I answered.

“‘You would not leave us if you could?’ he went on, and began to laugh quiet-like, behind his beard. ‘Oho! Love, love! I that am old have been merry in my day.’ We walked for another mile, maybe, without speaking, and came to the edge of a valley. ‘Look down yonder,’ said he.

“Below us, and in the mouth of the valley, which grew broad and shallow as it neared the sea, I saw a hill topped by a round wall and compound. There might have been half a dozen houses within the compound, all thatched, and above them stood up a flag painted in red and yellow stripes, and so stiff in the breeze that with half an eye you could tell it was no bunting but a sheet of tin.

“Hullo!’ said I. ‘Spaniards?’

“‘Puf!’ Hamid grinned at the flag and spat. ‘A Captain Marquinez inhabits there, with four Manila men and their wives. He is a sensible fellow, and does no harm, and if it pleases him to hoist that toy on a bamboo, he is welcome.’

“‘They claim the island, then?’

“‘What matters it if they claim? There was a letter once came to us from the Spanish Governor in Tolo. That man was a fool. He gave us warning that by order of the Government at Manila he would send a hundred men to build a fort inland and set up a garrison. Hassan and I took counsel together. ‘He is a fool,’ said Hassan; ‘but we must answer him.’ So we answered him thus. ‘Send your men. To-day they come; to-morrow they die–yet trouble not; we will bury them.’

“‘Were they sent?’ I asked.

“‘They were not sent. He was a fool, yet within bounds. Nevertheless a time may come for us–not for Hassan and me, we shall die in our beds–but for our sons. Even for this we are prepared.’ He would have said more, but checked himself. (I learned later on that the islanders kept one of the craters fortified for emergency, to make a last stand there; but they never allowed me to see the place.) ‘We have gods of our own,’ said Hamid slily, ‘who will be helpful–the more so that we do not bother them over trifles. Also there are–other things; and the lake Sinquan, and another which you have not seen, are full of crocodiles.’ He stamped his foot. ‘My son, beneath this spot there has been fire, and still the men of Cagayan walk warily and go not without their spears. For you it is different; yet when you come upon aught that puzzles you, it were well to put no questions even to yourself.’

“‘Not even about this?’ I asked, and showed him the purse and stone which Aoodya had tossed to me.

“‘You are in luck’s way,’ said he, ‘whoever gave you that.’ He pulled a small pouch from his breast, opened it, and showed me a stone exactly like mine. ‘It is a cocoanut pearl. Keep it near to your hand, and forget not to touch it if you hear noises in the air or a man meet you with eyes like razors.’

“I wanted to ask him more, but he started to walk back hastily, and when I caught him up would talk of nothing but the sugar and sweet-potato crops, and the yield of cocoanut oil to be carried to Kudat at the next north-east monsoon. I noticed that the fruit-trees planted along the shore were old, and that scores of them had ceased bearing. ‘They will last my day,’ said he. ‘Let my sons plant others if they so will.’ He always spoke in this careless way of his children, and I believe he had many, for an islander keeps as many wives as he can afford; but they lived about the villages, and could not be told from the other inhabitants by any sign of rank or mark of favour he showed them.

“For a long while I believed that Aoodya must be a daughter of his. She always denied it, but owned that she had never known her mother and had lived in Hamid’s house ever since she could remember. Anyhow, he took the greatest care of me, and never allowed me to join the expeditions which sailed twice a year from the island–to Palawan for paddy, and to the north of Borneo with oil and nuts and pandanus mats. He may have mistrusted me; but more likely he forbade it out of care for me and the music I played; for the prahus regularly came back with three or four of their number missing–either capsized on the voyage or blown away towards Tawi-Tawi, where the pirates accounted for them.

“Though I might not sail abroad he allowed me to join the tuburing parties off the shore. We would work along the reefs there in rafts of bamboo, towing with us two or three dug-outs filled with mashed tubur-roots. At the right spot the dug-outs would be upset, and after a while the fish came floating up on their sides, or belly uppermost, to be speared by us; for the root puddles the water like milk, and stupefies them somehow without hurting the flesh, which in an hour or so is fit to eat.

“We had been tuburing one afternoon, and put back with our baskets filled to a spit of the shore where we had left an old islander, Kotali by name, alone and tending a fire for our meal. Coming near we saw him stretched on the sand by his cooking-pots, and shouted to wake him, for his fire was low. Kotali did not stir. I was one of the first to jump ashore and run to him. He lay with his legs drawn up, his hands clenched, his eyes wide open and staring at us horribly. The man was as dead as a nail.

“I never saw people worse frightened. ‘The Berbalangs!’ said someone in a dreadful sort of whisper, and we started to run back to the raft for our lives–I with the rest, for the panic had taken hold of me, though I could see no sign of an enemy. I supposed these Berbalangs, named with such awe, to be pirates or marauders from Tawi-Tawi or some neighbouring island, and the first hint that reached me of anything worse was a wailing sound which grew as we ran, and overhauled us, until the air was filled with roaring, so that I swung round to defend myself, yet could see nothing. To my surprise a man who had been running beside me dropped on the sand, pulled a sigh of relief, and began to mop his face–and this in the very worst of the racket. ‘They are gone by,’ he shouted; ‘the worse the noise the farther off they are. They have taken their fill to-day on poor old Kotali.’

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“Suddenly the noise ceased altogether, and we picked up courage to return and bury the body. We had a basket of limes on the raft, and these were fetched and the juice squeezed over the grave; but no one seemed inclined to answer the questions I put about these Berbalangs. It seemed that unless they were close at hand there was ill-luck even in mentioning them, and I walked back to the village in a good deal of perplexity.

“I should tell you, sir, that by this time I was the father of a fine boy; and that Aoodya doted on him. When she was not feeding him or calling on me to admire his perfections, from the cleverness of his smile to the beautiful shape of his toes, he lay and slept, or kicked in a basket slung on a long bamboo fastened across the rafters, Aoodya would give the basket a pull, and this set it bobbing up and down on the spring of the bamboo for minutes at a time.

“Now when I reached home with my string of fish, I walked round to the back of the house to clean them before going in. This took me past the window of our room, and glancing inside–the window was unglazed, you understand–I saw Aoodya standing before the cradle and talking, quick and angry, with a man posted in the doorway opening on the verandah.

“I was not jealous. The thought never entered my head. But I dropped my fish and whipped round to the doorway in time to catch him as he turned to go, having heard my footstep belike.

“‘Who the something-or-other are you?’ I asked. ‘And what’s your business in my private house?’

“The man–a yellow-faced fellow, but young in figure–muttered something in a gibberish new to me, and made as if excusing himself. It gave me an ugly start to see that his eyes were yellow too, with long slits for pupils; but I saw too that he was afraid of me, and being in a towering rage myself, I out with my kris.

“‘Now look here,’ I said; ‘I don’t understand what you say, but maybe you understand this. Walk! And if I catch you here again, you’ll need someone to sew you up.’

“I watched him as he went across the compound. The guard at the gate scarcely looked up, and if the thing hadn’t been impossible, there, in the broad daylight, I could have fancied he saw no one. I turned to Aoodya and took her hands, for she was trembling from head to foot. At my touch she burst out sobbing, clung to my shoulder and begged me to protect her.

“‘Why, of course I will,’ said I, more cheerfully than I felt by a long sight. ‘If I’d known you were frightened like this, I’d have slit his body to match his eyes. But who is he, at all?’

“‘He–he said he was my brother!’ she wailed, and clung to me again. ‘I cannot–I cannot!’

“‘I’ll brother him!’ cried I. ‘But what is it he wants?’

“‘I cannot–I cannot!’ was all she would say; and now her sobs were so loud that the child woke up screaming and had to be soothed. And this seemed to do her good.

“Well, I got her to bed and asleep early that night; but before morning I had a worse fright than ever. Somehow in my dream I had a feeling come to me that the bed was empty, and sat up suddenly, half awake and scared. Aoodya had risen and was standing by the cradle, with one hand on its edge; in the other was the lamp–a clam-shell fastened in a split handle of bamboo, and holding a pith wick and a little oil. The flame wavered against her eyes as she held it up and peered into the baby’s face–and her eyes were like as I had seen them once before, and devilish like the eyes I had seen in another face that afternoon.

“A man never knows what he can do till the call comes. There, betwixt sleep and waking, I knew that happiness had come to an end for us. Yet I slipped out of bed very softly, took the lamp from her as gentle as you please, set it on a stool and, turning, reached out for her two wrists and held them–for how long I can’t tell you. She didn’t try to fend me away, or struggle at all, and not a word did I utter, but stood holding her–the babe asleep beside us–and listened to her breathing until it grew easier, and she leaned to me, weak as water.

“Then I let go, and lifting the child’s head from the pillow pulled Aoodya’s charm, the cocoanut pearl, from my neck and hung it about his. ‘That’s for you, sonny,’ said I, ‘and if the Berbalangs come along you can pass them on to your father.’ I faced round on Aoodya with a smile which no doubt was thin enough, though honestly meant to hearten her. ‘It’s all right, old girl. Come back to bed,’ said I, and held her in my arms until I fell asleep in the dawn.

“But of course it was not all right; and after two days spent with this dismal secret between us, and Aoodya all the while play-acting at her old tricks of love for me and the babe–as if, God knows, I doubted they, and not the horror, were her real self–I could stand it no longer, but did what I ought to have done before; sought out my master and made a clean breast of it.

“I could see that it took the old man between wind and water. When I had done he sat for some time pulling his beard and eyeing me once or twice rather queerly, as I thought.

“‘My friend,’ said he at last, ‘I suppose you will be suspecting me; yet I give you my word–and the Hadji Hamid is no liar–that if Aoodya is a Berbalang, or a daughter of Berbalangs, the same was unknown to me when I married you.’

“‘I’ll believe that,’ I answered; ‘the more by token that I never suspected you.’

“‘She had no known father, which (as you know) is held a disgrace among us; so much a disgrace that she grew up without suitors in spite of her looks and my favour. Therefore I seized my chance of giving her a husband, and in that I am not guiltless towards you; but of anything worse I was ignorant, and for proof I am going to help you if I can.’ He frowned to himself, still tugging at his beard. ‘Her mother was of good family, on this side of the island. Therefore she cannot be pure Berbalang, and most likely the Berbalangs have no more than a fetch upon her’–he used a word new to me, but ‘fetch’ I took to be the meaning of it. ‘If so, we must go to them and persuade them to take it off. They owe me something; for though, as we value peace and quiet, Hassan and I leave them alone in their own dirty village and ask no tax nor homage, we could make things uncomfortable if we chose. Yes, yes,’ said he, ‘I think it can be done; but it will be dangerous. You are wearing your cocoanut pearl, of course?’

“I told him that I had given it up to the baby.

“He nodded. ‘Yes, that was well done; but you must borrow it for the day. Run and fetch it at once; we have a long walk before us.’

“So I ran back, and without telling Aoodya, who was washing her linen behind the house, slipped the pearl off the child’s neck and returned to Hamid. I found him, with two spears in his hand, waiting for me. He gave me one, and forth we set.

“The Berbalangs’ village stands on a sort of table-land in the hills which rise all the way to Mount Tebulian, near the centre of the island. After the first two miles I found myself in strange country, and Hamid kept silence and signed to me to do the same. In this way we sweated up the slopes until, a little after noon, we reached a pass, and saw the roofs of the village over the edge of a broad step, as it were, half a mile above us. Here we sat down, and Hamid, drawing a couple of limes from his pocket, explained that I must on no account taste any food the Berbalangs set before us unless I first sprinkled it with lime juice. It might look like curried fish, but would, as likely as not, be human flesh disguised, the taste of which would destroy my soul and convert me into a Berbalang; a touch of the lime juice would turn such food back to its proper shape and show me what I was being asked to eat.

“We now moved forward again, very cautiously, and soon came to the village. The houses, perhaps a dozen in all, were scandalously dirty, otherwise pretty much like those in Hamid’s own village. But not a living creature could be seen. Hamid, I could tell, was puzzled, and even a bit frightened. He put a good face on it, all the same, and began to walk from house to house, keeping his spear handy as he peered in at the doors. Still not a soul could we find, barring an old goat tethered and a few roaming fowls. The stink of the place sickened us, and I wanted to run, though we came across no actual horrors. In one room we found a pan of rice lately boiled and still smoking, and sprinkled it with lime juice. It remained good rice. Out into the street we went, and Hamid, growing bolder, raised a loud halloo. The noise of it sent the fowls scudding, and the hills around took it up and echoed it.

“He looked at me. ‘They must be out on the hunt,’ said he.

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“‘Good Lord!’ I gasped. ‘And the child at home–without the pearl!’ I turned and plunged for it down the slope like a madman.

“What to do I had no idea; but I hadn’t a doubt that the Berbalangs were after Aoodya or the child, or both, and I headed for home with the wind singing by my ears. At the foot of the pass I looked back. Hamid was following, skipping from one lava stone to another at a pace that did credit to his old legs. He waved a hand and called–as I thought, to encourage me; and away down I pounded.

“I must have reached the edge of the plain in twenty minutes (the climb had taken us more than two hours), and, once there, I squeezed my elbows into my sides and settled into stride. Luckily the season was dry, and a fire, three weeks before, had swept over the tall lalang grass, leaving a thin layer of ash, which made running easy. For all that, I was pretty near dead beat when I reached the compound and ran past the sentry. The man cried out at sight of me as I went by; but I thought he was just pattering out his challenge, being taken unawares; and knowing he would not let off his musket if he recognised me, I paid no attention.

“I had prepared myself (as I thought) for anything–to find Aoodya dead beside the child, or to find them both unharmed and flourishing as I had left them. But what happened was that I burst in and stared around an empty room. That knocked the wind out of my sails. I called twice, leaned my head against the door-post and panted; called again, and, getting no answer, walked stupidly back across the compound to the gate.

“The sentry there was pointing. I believe he was telling me, too, that Aoodya, with the child in her arms, had passed out some while before. But as he waved a hand towards the plain I saw a figure running there, and recognised Hamid. The old man was heading, not towards us, but for the seashore, and, plain as daylight, he was heading there with a purpose. I remembered now his cry to me from the head of the pass. So I pressed elbows to side again and lit out after him.

“He was making for a thick patch of jungle between us and the sea, and though I had run at least a mile out of the way I soon began to overhaul him. But long before I reached the clump he had found an opening in it and dived out of sight, and I overtook him only when the growth thinned suddenly by the edge of a crater, plunging down to a lake so exactly like Sinquan that I had to look about me and take my bearings before making sure that this was another, and one I had never yet seen.

“I caught him by the arm, and we peered down the slope together. At the foot of it, and by the edge of the lake, there ran a strip of white beach; and there, and almost directly below us, were gathered the Berbalangs.

“They were moving and pushing into place in a sort of circle around a small bundle which at first sight I took for a heap of clothes. At that distance they seemed harmless enough, and, barring the strangeness of the spot, might have been an ordinary party of islanders forming up for a dance. But when, all of a sudden, the ring came to a standstill, and a figure stepped out of it towards the bundle in the centre, my wits came back to me, and I flung up both arms, shouting ‘Aoodya! Aoodya!’

“She must have made three paces in the time my voice took to reach her. She was close to the child. Then she halted and stood for a moment gazing up at me. I saw something bright drop from her. And with that she stooped, caught up the child, and was racing up the slope towards us.

“‘Steady!’ muttered Hamid, as a man broke from the circle, plucked up the knife from the sand and rushed after her. ‘Steady!’ he said again.

“Aoodya had a start of twenty yards or more, and in the first half-minute she actually managed to better it. Hamid, beside me, rubbed a bullet quickly on the rind of one of his lime-fruits and rammed it home. He took an eternal time about it; and below, now, the man was gaining. Unluckily their courses brought them into line, and twice the old man cursed softly and lowered his piece.

“Flesh and blood could not stand this. I let out a groan and sprang down the cliff. It was madness, and at the third step all foothold slipped from under me; but my clutch was tight on a fistful of creepers, and their tendrils were tough as a ship’s rope. So down I went, now touching earth, now fending off from the rock with my feet, now missing hold and sprawling into a mass of leaves and roots, among which I clutched wildly and checked myself by the first thing handy–until, with the crack of Hamid’s musket above, the vine, or whatever it was to which I clung for the moment, gave way as if shorn by the bullet, and I pitched a full twenty feet with a rush of loose earth and dust.

“I fell almost at the heels of Aoodya’s enemy, upon a ledge along which he was swiftly running her down. Hamid’s bullet had missed him, and before I could make the third in the chase he was forty yards ahead. I saw his bare shoulders parting the creepers–threading their way in and out like a bobbin, and jogging as the pace fell slower; for now we were all three in difficulties. Perhaps Aoodya had missed the track; at any rate the ledge we were now following grew shallower as it curved over the corner of the beach and ran sheer over the water of the lake. A jungle tree leaned out here, with a clear drop of a hundred feet. As I closed on my man, he swerved and began to clamber out along the trunk; and over his shoulder I saw Aoodya, with the babe in the crick of her arm, upon a bough which swayed and sank beneath her.

“I clutched at his ankle. He reached back with a hiss of his breath and jabbed his knife down on my left hand, cutting across the two middle fingers and pinning me through the small bones to the trunk. I tell you, sir, I scarcely felt it. My right went down to my waist and pulled out the kris there. He was the man I had caught within the verandah three days before; these were the same eyes shining, like a cat’s, back into mine, and what I had promised him then I gave him now. But it was Hamid who killed him. For as my kris went into the flank of him, above the hip, Hamid’s second shot cut down through his neck. His face at the moment rested sideways against the branch, and I suppose the bullet passed through to the bough and cost me Aoodya. For as the Berbalang fell, the bough seemed to rip away from where his cheek had rested, and Aoodya, with my child in her arms, swung back under my feet and dropped like a stone into the lake.

“I can’t tell you, sir, how long I lay stretched out along that trunk, with the Berbalang’s knife still pinned through my hand. I was staring down into the water. Aoodya and my child never rose again; but the Berbalang came to the surface at once and floated, bobbing for a while on the ripple, his head thrown back, his brown chest shining up at me, and the blood spreading on the water around it.

“It was Hamid who unpinned me and led me away. He had made shift to climb down, and while binding up my wounded hand pointed towards the beach. It was empty. The crowd of Berbalangs had disappeared.

“He found the track which Aoodya had missed, and as he led me up and out of the crater I heard him talking–talking. I suppose he was trying to comfort me–he was a good fellow; but at the top I turned on him, and ‘Master,’ I said, ‘you have tried to do me much kindness, but to-day I have bought my quittance.’ With that I left him standing and walked straight over the brow of the hill. I never looked behind me until I reached the Spaniards’ compound, and called out at the gate to be let pass.

“Captain Marquinez was lying in a hammock in the cool of his verandah when the gate-keeper took me to him. He was, I think, the weariest man I ever happened on. ‘So you want to leave the island?’ said he when my tale was out. ‘Yes, yes, I believe you; I’ve learnt to believe anything of those devils up yonder. But you must wait a fortnight, till the relief-boat arrives from Jola’–“

Here the story-teller broke off as a rider upon a grey horse came at a foot-pace round the slope of Burrator below us and passed on without seeing. It was the Rajah, returning solitary from the hunt, and his eyes were still fastened ahead of him.

“Ah, great man! England is a weary hole for the likes of you and me. It’s here they talk of the East, but we have loved it and hated it and known it, and remember. Our eyes have seen–our eyes have seen.”

He stood up, pulled himself together with a kind of shiver, and suddenly shambled away across the slope, having said no good-bye, but leaving me there at gaze.

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