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A.E.W. MASON

THE CONJURER

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First published in The Queen's Book of the Red Cross, 1939

This e-book edition: Roy Glashan's Library, 2015
Produced by Paul Moulder and Roy Glashan

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The Queen's Book of the Red Cross with "The Conjurer"



I.

"WILL you sit down, please?" said Otto Reimer to the square bullet-headed man who had just marched into his shabby sitting-room in a second-rate hotel of Mandalay. "You are Mr. Straws of the Wolf Dry Goods Store. I shall make you some magic."

"Excuse," said Mr. Straws, lifting an authoritative hand.

Otto Reimer continued imperturbably.

"Across the room on an Indian tray of the best Birmingham craftsmanship rises a small pile of steamship and railway tickets, luggage labels, bar-room vouchers, every printed thing, in fact, which connects Otto Reimer with Paul Haussmann, passenger on the tourist ship Dordrecht."

"They must be burnt," said Straws.

"They will be. At five o'clock; that is, in five minutes exactly." Otto Reimer was sitting at a table with his watch propped in front of him. "The special train will steam out of Mandalay station carrying the Dordrecht's tourists back to Rangoon. As the whistle blows, the papers on the tray will burst into flames."

"I have no time for these fooleries," barked the aggressive Mr. Straws.

Otto Reimer sighed. He was a slight graceful man of forty with a worn dark face and a look of breeding.

"Well?"

Straws sat upright in a chair, his knees apart, his feet turned out.

"Otto Reimer, Captain, Austrian Artillery, wounded March 1915 on Russian Front, transferred on recovery to General Staff and, owing to proficiency in languages, sent out to do Intelligence work in India and Burma."

Straws was quoting from a paper in his hand. "The reports of your work were favourable."

"I thank you for those kind words," said Otto Reimer, but no irony could penetrate the solid ivory head of Mr. Straws. He bobbed it once and severely.

"But you were faithful to the old regime," he sneered. "The Hapsburgs! The fine friends! So when the Reich marches into Vienna, you lose your lovely valley in Carinthia, the snow on the mountains, the light shining in the village windows—"

And Reimer broke in upon him with a command sharp and imperious:

"Hold your tongue!"

Mr. Straws wished his chair back in a hurry. He saw a strange man, who looked as if he was going to hurt him, certainly not a man he could override and bully.

"I make a little picture," he began, all smiles, and was interrupted again.

"Make them to yourself then! I was ruined—yes. I escaped to London penniless—yes. I did conjuring tricks at the Irving statue in the luncheon hour—yes. I was recognised by a man who had served under me—your chief now, Mr. Straws. I was promised that if I came out again to the East and stirred up trouble enough, I should get back my valley in Carinthia. So I came. If I wanted money, I was to get it from you. If I wanted to send a export home, I was to send it through you. My purse and my letter-box, Mr. Straws, that's what you are, and that's all that you are."

Having foiled to bully, it was in the natural order of things that Mr. Straws should now cringe. He said with a smirk:

"They may have to tighten their belts about their stomachs in the Fatherland, but there's always money for a nice little rebellion in somebody else's country."

Straws, as he spoke, pulled a thick wallet from his pocket. At the same moment a whistle blew from an engine in the railway-station.

"That's the Dordrecht's special," said Otto, and an unexpected pop behind Straws' shoulder made that crestfallen man jump in his seat. He looked round towards the window and back again at Otto. Otto had not stirred from his chair. Yet amongst the papers on the brass tray in the window a flame was burning, a devouring flame which reduced them to white flakes like threads of torn linen.

"Colossal!" exclaimed Straws.

"You want the best magic? We have it," said Otto.

It was a trick which had served to burn a munition factory or two in 1914. A small metal phial divided by a slip of glass. One compartment was filled with sulphuric acid, the other with hydrofluoric. As long as the slip of glass divided them, nothing happened. But as soon as the hydrofluoric acid ate trough the glass and the acids mixed, there was a little explosion and a fire. By the thickness of the glass you could regulate the outbreak of the fire to a split second.

"I set my time-ruse for an hour," said Otto, pocketing his watch. "It's all known now, of course, but I reckon it'll serve my turn on the upper river."

He took the wallet from Straws's hand and got up. "I'm off," he said. "Bill paid, luggage gone. For all you know, Straws, I'm on the Dordrecht's special for Rangoon."

Mr. Straws saw his face soften and a wistful gleam in his eyes. Beyond the darkening window he was looking down a long Carinthian valley where the lights were clustering in the villages and the stars coming out above the snow on the mountain crests.


II.

THE shops were already lit, and he turned into a narrow, crowded street which led to the great Negyo Bazaar. He walked warily but without haste.

A native policeman stood idly in the road. Otto stopped before an open booth where rolls of silk were piled one upon the other, bright pink and pale green and sunset gold. But the pretty shopgirl with the gold tubes in her ears had hardly taken the big cheroot from between her lips to praise her wares when a hubbub arose at the market end of the street. The policeman sprang to attention; the idlers in the street moved; and then an Indian boy burst through the crowd like a rocket. He was running blind, thrusting, stumbling, staggering, dodging, and through all these manoeuvres swift as a young stag. But his luck was against him. He ran straight into the arms of Otto Reimer and was held there in a grip of steel.

"Let me go!" the boy sobbed, and in English.

"Why?" asked Otto, and the policeman raised a shout:

"It's Nath Singh! Stop him!"

And immediately Otto loosened his grip. It might be the King of the Cannibal Islands for all he cared. It was not within his plans to be detained as a witness. The boy dived under the policeman's arm. A woman was upset; a kerosene lamp was knocked off the shelf of a booth, a stall crashed with its wares, and the policeman ran, calling loudly upon all to stop that limb of Satan, Nath Singh. Otto Reimer laughed. He had a fellow-feeling with Nath Singh—they were both of them fugitives.

He entered the shop of a tailor and came out with a package under his arm. He bought food at a café and turned into a side-street. It was ill-lit, with great patches of black shadow between a few dim lamps. Otto kept close to the wall and at the mouth of the street saw, stretched out under a clear sky of stars, the vast foreshore of the Irrawaddy; acres and acres of sandy slopes, cluttered and piled with rice bags, balks of timber, rows of barrels, and mountains of crates—the cargoes of all those double-decked, stem-wheel steamers which stretched in line with their riding-lights burning and now and then a shower of sparks bursting from their funnels. In a hollow of the sand midway between the steamers and the town Otto laid down his package and set out his meal. It was a good meal—fresh river fish, still warm from the oven, a meat pie, bread and butter were flanked by a flask of whisky and a water-bottle.

"Here goes," he said, and as he raised his first morsel to his mouth, he caught a glimpse of something white moving above a pile of logs at his back. He looked up quickly and saw beneath a white turban the lace of the boy who had cannoned into him in the street. Nath Singh was watching him, round-eyed with envy.

Otto looked at his fish.

"Good?" he asked. He munched it. "Yes, very good," and he saw the boy's face crumple up as if he was in pain. Remorse seized upon Otto.

"Hungry, Nath Singh?"

"Ooooh!"

"All right! Comedown! There's enough for two. But don't make a noise."

The boy slid like a seal over the logs into the hollow.

"I thank you, Sahib," he said politely, and waited, his mouth watering. Otto divided the fish and pushed one portion towards the boy. Nath Singh opened his mouth to speak, but thought twice and put the fish into it instead. Otto nodded his head gravely.

"You can always talk. But you can't always eat. There is a meat pie to follow."

"Meat!" Nath Singh whispered in a voice of reverence.

"You are Indian?" Otto asked, opening his jack-knife.

"Yes, Sahib."

"Let us hope for your soul's sake that it is mutton," and he divided the pie.

"My father," said Nath Singh, "had liberal ideas about meat."

"Just as well," said Otto dryly. "For this is beef. Or rather was," he added as the lad devoured it. "A drink of water?"

He poured it into the palms of Nath Singh's outstretched hands.

"Now I shall smoke."

As he took a pipe and a tobacco pouch from his pocket Nath Singh unrolled from his linen jacket a fat pale cheroot.

"So you smoke cheroots, Nath Singh?"

"This was given to me by a girl in the bazaar. She said I was to keep it until I was very, very hungry. I was going to light it, Sahib, when you were kind to me."

Otto Reimer tossed his match-box across to the boy. "Keep your head down whilst you light it," he said, and he watched him as he cupped his hands over the lighted match. Nath Singh had not whined. He had good manners besides. Otto would want an assistant.

"What were you running away from when you bounced into me?" he asked thoughtfully.

"Missionaries' Orphan School," Nath Singh answered simply.

"Very human," said Otto. "You speak English well."

"My father taught me."

"What was your father?"

Nath Singh raised his head and thrust his chin forward.

"My father was subadar retired, 60th Punjab Infantry. Last stationed at Fort Akat. Very fine soldier. I am going to join his regiment after I've seen the world."

"Here, certainly," thought Otto, "is the assistant for me."

A silence followed. But Nath Singh was thinking too, and he began respectfully to ask questions.

"Perhaps the Sahib will tell me why he too runs away."

"That was a nasty one," Otto reflected. Aloud he answered, "I'm not running away. I'm going up country to sell things."

"What things?" the boy asked gravely.

Otto was annoyed. Who was this boy that he should cross-examine him like a judge?

"I'll tell you." He flung the words out in a sudden rage against the world, which forced him to his underhand work, against himself for submitting, against the boy for stinging him into the confession. "I sell riots and treason and plots and rebellions. I sell trouble for Governments. I sell fire for villages. I sell miracles. I sell wickedness. What do you think of that?"

Nath Singh stared and shifted his position. "I've lost him like a fool!" thought Otto. But the neat moment Nath Singh grinned. His face creased from ear to ear.

"My father," he said with a gurgle, "would have walloped my hide off if I had talked like that. He'd have said I was boasting."

Otto leaned back with his hands behind his head.

"Boasting? Well, perhaps I am." He sat up straight and said suddenly, "Come up the river with me and see!"

Nath hitched himself forward again, his eyes shining, his hands clasped together.

"As far as Fort Akat?"

"Beyond it. To the great forests black as night."

"Tigers?" Nath Singh whispered in a tremulous delight.

"Big stripey tigers, their jaws dripping with gore."

"Ooooh!" said Nath Singh, drawing in a great breath.

"And black panthers with eyes like jewels that stretch themselves out on branches and wait for you to pass underneath."

Again a sigh of longing to see these wondrous beasts and run these shivery perils burst from the boy.

"And great crocodiles," Otto went on, "that jump out of the water and go snap-snap at your toes just after you've snatched them away."

"Ooooh!" cried Nath Singh. "Sahib, when do we go? Now!"

Nath Singh looked behind him. At any moment a policeman might descend upon this hiding-place and drag him back to the missionaries and his lesson-books.

"We're safe enough here," said Otto.

Far away to the right and the left lights glimmered in little huts; and down by the water's edge electric flares showed coolies passing up the gangways on to the steamers with loaded backs, small as marionettes. Here there was nothing but silence and the starlit darkness.

"If the police should find us," said Otto, "I'll do some magic and we'll vanish."

"Magic!"

The boy was sitting up again, his eyes staring.

"You're a magician, Sahib?"

"The best. I read the Heavens like an open book. The monsters of the deep swallow their tails when they hear my voice."

And still Nath Singh looked at him gravely.

"My father said that magicians were the sons of the devil."

"Look here, Nath Singh," exclaimed Otto Reimer. "I agree that your father was an A.1 copper-bottomed subadar. But wasn't he a bit of a bore?"

Nath Singh's face grew set and stubborn.

"All right," continued Otto, "you go back to the missionaries' school. Better for you than stripey tigers and monkeys hanging upside down in the forest."

"Ooooh! Monkeys!" said Nath Singh.

"Nothing to do with you," Otto replied shortly; and he turned his back on Nath Singh and stretched himself out on the sand with a yawn. But Nath Singh couldn't go to sleep so easily. On the one side were the classroom and the lesson-books; on the other the forest, the burnished silver of the river, the thrilling dangers escaped by an inch with his heart in his mouth; and these things were more than any reasonable boy could bear to miss.

A small voice whispered into Otto's ear: "Sahib, when do we go?"

Otto was not asleep. He had been waiting for just those words. He answered with a secret smile:

"In four hours. It will still be dark," and after that in the silence of sleep the stars wheeled above the heads of these two waifs.


III.

OTTO'S bundle contained the yellow robe of a pongyi. He put it on in the dark of the morning and sank his own clothes with a weight in the river. At the first village upstream he had his head shaved, and there he was a monk, complete with acolyte and begging-bowl. He had the right of entrance into any monastery. He could stay just as long as he liked if he conformed with the simple regulations. No one could challenge him. With his dark face, a queer touch of the Mongol about his eyes, and his mastery of the native dialect, he passed quite easily as a novice.

They slipped into monasteries before their gates were closed and spread their sleeping-mats in the dark hall. Nath Singh would watch the stars for a second through the open doorway, and then knew no more until the stir of the monks and the dawning light waked him to another day.

For him morning could not come too soon nor sunset too late. There was the swim in the river with the joy of it tingling down to his toes to begin with, and then the leisurely progress along the bank with a new and adorable spectacle for every hour. Great rafts of teakwood came gliding down the stream, each with a little house built upon the planks and a high throne at the stem where a man sat and steered with a long sweep for a rudder. They rounded a bluff, and there were buffaloes knee-deep in the shallows or girls bathing in their saris amidst shouts of laughter. Bright-green fields ran down to the water's edge; and always ahead, to be dreamed of with luxurious shudders, were the dark forests, the slinky silent tigers, and the black panthers with the topaz eyes. The big river steamers would meet or overtake the travellers, lashing the water into a yellow foam and coughing and hooting as they rumbled by.

At the village of Kepal, Otto said:

"We're safe from detection now. Tomorrow we'll take the bazaar boat Segan."

There was a note of regret in his voice. On this pilgrimage up the Irrawaddy, he had been sharing his acolyte's raptures and enthusiasms. He had become a boy himself and had recaptured a boy's delight in simple things—the breaking of the dawn, the long unspoilt day, the sense of freedom, the animal pleasure of health. But it had come to an end now.

"At Segan, Nath Singh, I shall want your help," he said.

Nath Singh's face grew grave.

"Magic, Sahib?" he asked doubtfully.

"Magic? Miracles, Nath Singh. And no more Sahib. I'm Talaban the monk, and don't you forget it!" Otto was not very pleased with the boy's steady look. "Just keep those brooding eyes and the silent tongue—yes, above all, the silent tongue." Otto bore it off boisterously enough. But he had an uneasy suspicion that the old subadar of Fort Akat was in the boy's mind warning him, perhaps threatening him with wallopings. "You've got to help me, Nath Singh." He dropped to pleading, hating himself the while, "I have given you a good holiday, haven't I? You've enjoyed it—every minute of it. And that's nothing to what will be when we reach the forest!"

A mean sort of argument? Very likely. But at Segan Otto Reimer was to strike. The old Abbot of Segan, U Wisaya, a man of great fame, a preacher of discontent and rebellion, and an old friend of Reimer, had died—months ago, to be sure, but his body had been preserved in honey until the fit moment for a great funeral. The fit moment had come. There would be gathered at Segan the wild rebels of the northern villages, the dacoits, the thieves, their leaders, men with whom Reimer had intrigued and conspired in olden days. At Segan rebellion was to be launched and Reimer was to press the button and send the ship sliding down the grooves. But he must have Nath Singh as an instrument.

"You owe me a little help, Nath Singh," he insisted. No, it wasn't fair. "Of course, you can go back, if you like, to Mandalay. A steamer goes south, an hour after I go north. You can desert me if you like. I'll pay your passage."

Nath Singh was in distress. He was divided between two loyalties. Otto Reimer had talked of revolts and rebellions. Had he been boasting after all? If he had not been, why, the old subadar had bequeathed to his son a code of service and honour. On the other hand, if he had been, Nath Singh was making him an ungenerous return for his kindness, by leaving him at the moment when his help was needed. And that compunction was strong within him.

"I'll go with you to Segan," he said at length, and relief spread like a wave over Otto Reimer's face.


IV.

TWO days later Segan glided to them rather than they to it—an island of golden spires gleaming against a background of dark trees, like a city in a fairy tale.

Today, however, it had the look of Epsom Downs on Derby Day. A funeral is a festival, and a wide-open space was covered with the gaudy machinery of a country fair—huts with sides of matting, gambling booths, stalls where food and sweetmeats could be bought. In the front stood a truck with a great rope of jungle grass at each end. The truck held the Abbot's coffin, and the prime attraction of the Pwe would be the tug-of-war between the true friends who wanted him to pass on and the false friends who wanted him to stay. The tug-of-war would last out the three days. Anybody could join in on either side at any time and leave off when he was tired. The true friends would win in the end, and the coffin in a gaudy little temple would be run up to the top of a pagoda of pasteboard and gilt paper. Rockets would be fired at it, and in the end, after a good many casualties had been suffered, the whole glistening contraption, pagoda and temple and Abbot, would be burnt.

As soon as they had landed, Otto hired a hut, put on the dress of a layman, and leaving Nath Singh on guard went amongst the gambling booths and the stalls in search of old friends. Amongst that wild and ugly throng of hillmen and fanatics Otto recognised and spoke with many, and of each he asked where was Nagein. Nagein was at Segan. Otto could learn no more, but he had little doubt that he would come face to face with him before the day was out.

He bought food and, taking it back to the hut, he ate it with Nath Singh. In a while darkness fell and Otto lit a candle and squatted on the ground beside it opposite to the door. And in a little while, again, he saw the latch rise slowly without the tiniest click and someone was within the room.

"I am Nagein."

Otto spoke to Nath Singh:

"You shall leave my friend with me for an hour," and the boy went out. Otto patted the ground at his side.

"Sit down with me, Nagein," he said with a smile. "It is long since we talked together, you and I and Wisaya. But you expected me?"

"A message was brought to me at my village, Talaban. It is still 'Talaban'?"

Nagein sat as he was invited. The cruelty and cunning which had made his name terrible in the turbulent country to the north were stamped in the very shape of his body. He was thick and squat, and his shoulders were corded with the muscles of a bull. But his neck was topped by a narrow head ridiculously small, a thin face with a long nose, and small foxy eyes as sharp as beads. Look at his trunk, and you could imagine him in the prize-ring. Look at his face, and his proper setting was a money-lender's office in Jermyn Street with some poor spendthrift babbling for time on the carpet in front him.

"Yes, I am Talaban," said Reimer with a smile, and he poured out his story. The giant was old and weak. Now was the time to strike—suddenly and fiercely. The villages were restless. They would storm Fort Akat first with a surprise attack. They would have arms then. The priests should give the rebels a charm against bullets. Nagein laughed. They were always ready to believe in the charm—poor fools.

"But once before, Talaban, we talked of these things," Nagein objected.

"And nothing happened. I know," Otto replied. "The war ended and there was no money. But this time there is money," and he saw Nagein's eyes light up. "You will be the King, Nagein, over all this land. You shall march down to Mandalay..." Otto Reimer might be leading on this ignorant adventurer to the ruin of his country and his death. But he didn't care. He was thinking of a distant valley in Carinthia where once more he might sit at ease in his own house.

"I have some magic too. Listen, Nagein," and he lowered his voice to a whisper. "On the third day—that will give you time to warn your friends—" And his voice sank lower still, urgent, persuasive.

Once Nagein murmured to himself, "The burning heart of Wisaya," in a voice of awe, and in a moment he took fire.

"The burning heart of Wisaya," he cried again.

"A miracle," said Otto, slapping him on the back. "More than a miracle. The flag of a great rebellion."

And meanwhile Nath Singh wandered through the crowd; and he too asked questions, even as earlier that day Otto Reimer had done. How far was it to Fort Akat, and how should a stranger find the way?


V.

ON the morning of the third day Nagein, smiling and odious, came jauntily into Otto's hut.

"Look!" he said, and he took his stand behind Otto, who was seated on his mat.

The door stood open, and between the doorposts Otto looked out upon such a scene of confusion and changing colours as no kaleidoscope could ever shake together. A blazing sun rode overhead, and below it a swarm of men shifted and gathered into groups and broke away into short rushes. Here a man preached and chanted; there some homely orator with whirling arms made passionate appeals. But not one of them could keep his audience for long. The gambling booths were doing a roaring trade, there were drunken men screaming. Hysteria was in the air.

"Look!" said Nagein.

There had been two days and two nights, excited days and sleepless nights, of carnival. The dead Abbot had brought together in this small area the turbulent spirits of his faction. All was set for riot and disorder.

"When the heart burns, Talaban! At sunset. In the presence of the burning heart—all these who run like sheep and stop and run again,"—and he threw out his arm towards the rabble in its gaily coloured dress, melting and loitering and collecting again—"an army, Talaban"; and himself as frenzied as any of his followers, he ran shouting from the hut.

Otto remained seated upon his carpet. Not a spark of the excitement showed in him. He sat very still with a face which was very grave. He was entering on the most dangerous day of his life. If each step was smoothly taken, just at the exact right moment—a triumph. He could go back to his master and claim his reward. But let him make one mistake, let one little accident intervene to spoil the perfect climax of his trick, Nagein would turn on him, he would go down, stamped into the earth by the feet of a maddened crowd—and Nath Singh with him.

"Nath Singh!" he said gently.

"Sahib," the boy answered.

"I offered to send you back to Mandalay."

"Yes, Sahib."

"And you would not go."

"No."

"It is now too late, Nath Singh. You must obey me today without question. Your life and mine hang upon your obedience."

Nath Singh did not answer.

Otto showed him a rather gaudy red velvet jacket.

"I bought that as a present for you on the bazaar boat," he said. "You shall wear it this afternoon. Come to me half an hour before sunset."

Left to himself, he sewed a small sheet of tin shaped like a shallow cup into the lining of the jacket just over the heart, and in the outside of the velvet he cut a small pocket. In the afternoon, half an hour before sunset, Otto took from the tin box of his conjurer's paraphernalia a couple of small metal phials and a glass bottle of which the inside was divided by a glass slide. Into each of these partitions he poured one of his acids until it was full. Then he stopped the mouth of the bottle with a screw cap and placed it into the pocket of the jacket.

"Now, Nath Singh, it is time," and Nath Singh slipped the jacket on. As he spoke Nagein entered the hut.

"All is ready," he said.

"There will be no delay?" Otto asked anxiously. "At the exact moment of sunset the pagoda will be fired?"

"Have no fear," said Nagein.

They went out of that quiet hut. A throng of people was moving in the one direction. Otto and Nath Singh fell in amongst them. Ahead of them rose the gimcrack pagoda of gilt paper. By the ropes which were to sling the little temple and the Abbot's coffin up on to its platform, men stood ready. The tug-of-war was nearing its close. Those who would burn the Abbot were winning. Those on the other side, duly acting their parts or defeated by sheer fatigue, were staggering and sliding on the ground. Shouts rose to the Heavens:

"To the fire! To the fire!"

Otto pressed forward. Nath Singh noticed that he had wrapped himself once more in his yellow gown, but Nath Singh noticed nothing else. Nagein held his arm in a cruel grip, but the boy was thankful for it. He would have fallen and been trampled under foot but for that grip. As it was he could scarcely breathe, so close was the throng about him, so high did their heads overtop him. At the last corner of a row of shacks they were brought to a stop. They were on the edge of the strange arena, and a loud shout had risen from it which was taken up and repeated and went rolling away to the furthest rim of the crowded rabble. The spirits of light had won, the truck with the gaudy little temple was rushed towards the ropes which were to lift it into the high pagoda. In a second they saw it sidling up the guy ropes, rocking and bobbing ridiculously as it mounted.

"You too, Nath Singh," said Otto sharply in a low voice. "Up with you." There was a stool behind him set against the corner of the shack. "You'll see better. Up with you," and Nath Singh was lifted by the arms of Otto and Nagein on to the stool, helpless as a doll. But hardly one man at this time remarked him. A priest on a mound near to them was screaming:

"He will come back to lead us. When his heart burns, he will send us a sign, O Wisaya, Wisaya." And his voice went out in a long wail. That word too went up. What it meant, no one but Otto understood. But they were mad with the passion of the moment.

"When the heart burns! When the heart burns."

Nat Singh had dreamed of forests and tigers. Here they were about him and at his feet, brown arms, a jungle of tigers. He stood up high above that sea of wild faces and glistening eyes, his ears deafened by the uproar, his mind whirling in terror. The little temple reached the stage of the pagoda. A rocket was fired with a roar and a hiss and another and another. It seemed to Nat Singh that Otto had gone mad with the rest. He was stamping on the ground, his face working, his mouth muttering curses. And suddenly there was a crackle of fire. Flames ran up the dry wood and gilt paper of the temple. The pagod itself caught fire, turned red, and blazed—and Nat Singh was aware that the priest upon the mound was pointing at him and that all those wild fierce faces tossing below him were turning in awe and wonder towards him.

"Keep still," said Otto. "This is the moment. Obey!"

Nath Singh obeyed. Paralysed by terror, he stood high before them all. He was conscious of a smell of burning, and then the priest cried:

"The burning heart! Wisaya lives again. The prophet of rebellion. On your knees!"

And it seemed with one accord all that wild throng was upon its knees, beating the ground with its hands, shouting, "Wisaya! Wisaya!" Smoke rose into Nath Singh's eyes, and as he looked down, he saw flames bursting from his jacket above his heart.

For Otto and for Nagein too, the real hour of danger had now come. They lifted the boy down.

"Go slowly to the hut," whispered Otto. "Don't look at anyone. Don't stop for anyone. Go as if you walked in your sleep!"

A few moved as though they would rise, but the voices of the priest on the mound and of Otto rose in a high command:

"Let no one dare to stand in his way."

Many rose to their feet, following with their eyes the boy's progress through their ranks. Would the spell hold, Otto wondered? Once he was in the hut, the danger would have vanished. He and Nagein and Nagein's friend, the priest on the mound, could claim that the boy must be left until he was moved to speak.

After that Talaban would be his interpreter. The rebels would march up into the forest. At every village their numbers would swell. And in the midst of them Nath Singh, the boy Wisaya, would be carried in a litter, sitting cross-legged like a god, his face wrapt in ecstasy.

But Nath Singh walked so slowly—so dangerously slowly! Otto turned his face towards the burning pagoda. He extended his arms.

"To the Wisaya who was, peace!" he cried, and the crowd swung round with him. The pagoda was tumbling down now in burning fragments like incredibly bright strings of laburnum. And just as Nath Singh disappeared into the hut it collapsed with a roar like thunder.

"Leave the boy to me for half an hour," Otto whispered to Nagein. "In half an hour we march."

Otto's face was transformed. His trick had triumphed. He was, indeed, selling riots and rebellions. In a day he would have that wild country flaming as the pagoda had flamed. As for Nath Singh, let him disobey if be dared!

"Get them together! Marshal them," Otto cried, and Nagein, looking at his fierce and tyrannous face, wondered whether he was human or a Nat.

"You are the Lord of Magic," he cried, and whilst he turned back to the crowd, Otto slipped into the hut.

He stood for a moment shocked out of his senses. Of the clamour outside he heard not one sound. He was only aware that in the very midst of his victory, his world had crashed about him utterly like the burning pagoda of the Abbot. A single candle was alight on the floor of the hut. The red velvet jacket lay upon the floor. The tacking which made the wall of the hut was torn. Nath Singh had gone.

Otto sank down on the floor. He noticed that a piece of paper was pinned to the velvet jacket, and on it was scrawled in a boy's handwriting:

"I will wait for an hour for you on the path to the Fort at Akat."

Otto Reimer shook his head over that.

"So the old subadar has beaten me, conjuring tricks and all," he said. In a little there was a murmur of men gathering about the door.


THE END


Roy Glashan's Library
Non sibi sed omnibus
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