NOW, when Professor Cyrus Axiom went to the Chief Commissioner for a permit to hunt butterflies in North-West Samaraland, Hugloff asked him a question. And Commissioner Hugloff was there to ask questions.
"Did you ever hear of one Ulysses P. Odgers?" he said.
"Name sounds familiar," the Professor said thoughtfully. "Wasn't he the man who ate nothing but tripe?"
"I never heard of him in that connection, Professor."
"Then he was the man who always fainted at the sight of it," Axiom responded obligingly. "What's he got to do with African butterflies!"
"Well, he had a good deal to do with them at one time. I dare say it is an interesting study. Have you always followed lepidoptera?"
"I didn't quite get the hang of that remark, Mr. Hugloff, somehow."
"No? I mean, have you always made a hobby of entomology?"
The Professor remarked mildly that he must be a little deaf that morning. The same distressing malady possessed him when Hugloff spoke of the natural fauna of the district. And the Commissioner smiled. He did not often smile; his face was usually grave, which often goes to a man possessing an exquisite sense of humour.
"Mr. Odgers came here, like yourself, in search of insects. He was ten years up country, and I lost sight of him altogether. He sent a good many cases home—heavy cases—so I concluded that some of the butterflies in the interior were somewhat hefty. Well, one of those cases came to grief one day, and I had a look at the butterflies. Some of them had tusks quite six feet long. Then I knew that the Professor had been feeding his butterflies upon our elephants. Now, Professor, I want you to know that elephants are our star crop. They are strictly preserved, and that dodge of shepherding the flock over the frontier line and rounding 'em up afterwards doesn't cut any ice in Samaraland."
"What's all this got to do with me?" the Professor asked politely.
"Oh, nothing! I was only telling you the story. When I tumbled to what was going on, I went after Ulysses P. Odgers. He'd a Maxim gun and a whole battery of Winchesters and Brownings, and he'd taught his natives how to shoot—butterflies. But, all the same, he's dead."
"These things happen daily in the best-ordered families."
"They do. They happen here very often, and they are sometimes painfully sudden. What I mean is, I don't make international affairs of them. I don't give the British or the American Governments a chance to write a Blue Book on the subject. You won't find a word of it in the Yellow Press. I prefer my diplomacy to be a little more abrupt than that."
The Professor nodded thoughtfully. He was not asking any more questions just for the moment. He was making a mental contract between himself and the Commissioner. And Hugloff was doing much the same thing. The Professor took his permit and his papers generally and departed. The Commissioner looked out of his office door towards the forest, shimmering in the heat of the sun, and smiled dryly.
"Well, I've given him his warning," he muttered, "and I think he must have a pretty good idea of what I meant. Not a bad dodge of his, coming here in his own name and tacking 'Professor' in front of it. He looked the part, too—make-up and everything excellent. Who would think that that mild-looking old boy with the stoop and the grey hair and spectacles was an expert shot and noted game poacher?"
Now, Hugloff prided himself upon the way he ran the territory; he was proud of the way in which he kept out the inquisitive stranger and the peripatetic M.P. with the smug accent and the amazing aptitude for making mischief—so far even he had been free from missionaries. So the district throve and the elephants increased in number. It was a criminal offence to shoot one of these beasts in Samaraland, and Hugloff rejoiced in the fact. And he had a way of his own of dealing with poachers.
But there are poachers and poachers. There was trouble with the natives sometimes. Now and then a wandering shikari would bob up serenely, all unconscious of the law of the Medes and Persians, but he was easily dealt with. Professor Axiom was a different matter, however. He had come here cleverly disguised as a man of science, but Hugloff was not to be deceived. He had been warned, too, what to expect. For Axiom had a world-wide reputation as a poacher. He had poached sealskins from the rookeries, he had poached pearls at the imminent risk of his neck, he had poached anything and everything where profit and real live danger went hand in hand. And now he had come down here to try his hand with Hugloff and the British Government.
Hugloff had recognised him at a glance, despite his disguise. He did not regard Axiom exactly as a criminal, for everybody has a kind of sneaking admiration for a poacher. The man's audacity and bravery were beyond question. On neutral ground Hugloff would have most likely forgathered with him, for they had many interests and virtues in common; but when the man came here like this, looking for trouble, there could only be one end to it. Certainly Samaraland was not large enough for both Hugloff and Axiom; one of them would have to go, and that exit would be both violent and painful.
And Axiom had been warned. The story of Ulysses P. Odgers had been a mild fiction invented for the occasion; it was Hugloff's way of telling the other that he had been found out. There never had been any Ulysses P. Odgers—still, the parable was there for ordinary intelligence to read; and Axiom had read it with the greatest possible ease. Hugloff had told him quite plainly that he could go into the interior if he liked, but that he undertook the journey at his own risk, and that, if he tried on any of his little games there, he would be shot on sight. Norman Hugloff meant every word he said. And Axiom knew it; he knew exactly what risks he was taking—a fact which did not deter him for a moment. He bore no malice against Hugloff; on the contrary, he was grateful for the language in which the intimation had been couched. If he failed, he would be shot like a dog, and there would be an end of him.
So he packed up his traps and his cases and departed. He made his way into the interior, with no white man for company. He was going to depend entirely on the natives, a wild, treacherous, hardy lot; but Axiom had a way with him and a knack of getting the best out of everybody that he came in contact with. At the expiration of a couple of months he had about him a force of a dozen armed men, and every nigger for a hundred miles round was his spy and slave. And Hugloff, to whom vassals brought news of the thing, could only sit at home and groan, and wait for his opportunity. So long as Axiom left the precious elephants alone, he was powerless to act; and, so far as he could hear, not so much as a single shot had been fired.
"This chap's going on a different line altogether," Tremayne, Hugloff's second-in-command, said; "he's driving the game. By Jove, his knowledge of the country beats mine, and I've had ten years of it! He's got over four hundred elephants in a sort of ring fence of black humanity, and they just edge the herd exactly where they want them to go. They're gradually getting the beasts accustomed to trekking. It's a long job, and it requires patience; but one of these fine days those elephants will be over the border into the Sad Lands, and then the Professor can have all the ivory he needs."
"It wouldn't be the first time we fetched the herd back, Tremayne."
"Quite right, sir; but those were strictly family affairs. If Axiom gets away with the herd out of our beat, he'll make an international business of it. We should have a score of asses asking questions in Parliament, and next recess one or two of 'em here weeping on the bosoms of the natives. And, begad, the beggars are beginning to laugh at us as it is! They know exactly what is going on. Question is, how can we stop it?"
Hugloff pondered over the difficulty. It was necessary to force Axiom into some open act of defiance. If they could only compel him to lay his hand upon one of the sacred elephants! It came to the Commissioner presently.
"I fancy I've got it," he said. "Now, listen carefully, Tremayne, for this part of the campaign will be left in your hands."
Tremayne expressed his whole-hearted approval. He set out at daybreak with two pack-mules and himself alone, with the object of picking up Axiom's tracks. There were cogent reasons why this shy solitude was necessary. Axiom's camp must be approached without the Professor being any the wiser. There would not be much difficulty about that, for the Professor was not suspicious, and, moreover, he was conscious that his conscience was clear. He was going to win the game without taking any risks, and he half regretted the fact.
Under the cover of a black, starless night, Tremayne crept away from the near vicinity of Axiom's camp and waited for results.
The fire had a good hold by this time; the wind was blowing strong from the west, so that Axiom and his retinue were hard put to it to save their skins. They were glad to get away with their guns and cartridges—the mere fact that all other supplies were destroyed seemed a mere trifle at the time. Nor was there the least suspicion of anything in the way of treachery. These spurting bush fires were constantly happening—must happen as long as tobacco formed a part of the pioneer's religion. Tremayne lurked about for another twenty-four hours, and then returned to headquarters with a water blister on either heel and a peaceful content down inside his moral anatomy. But his face was grave and officially correct as he limped into the Commissioner's office.
"I've come to make a report, sir," he said. "I regret to inform you that the American Professor Axiom has been poaching. I found the carcase of an elephant in the immediate proximity of his tent. I produce a portion of the carcase with some of the bullets, also some empty shells. I am prepared, sir, to lay an information in proper form."
Hugloff took it all down with great gravity. He was seriously disturbed. He dismissed his subordinate in quite his best official manner, but it was quite another Hugloff who met Tremayne at dinner.
"We can act now," he said, when the cigarette stage was reached. "I am going to take matters into my own hands."
"It's a serious business," Tremayne said thoughtfully.
"Perhaps the most serious we ever had in hand. Axiom will fight. It will be a case of shooting at sight. One or the other of us has to go. Did I ever tell you what happened over those poached pearls? No? Axiom got the pearls all right, and they caught him as he was leaving one of the islands—I don't remember which it was, but no matter. He killed four of them and plunged into the sea. How he reached the schooner nobody knows. I had it all from Gilray, who was on the coast at the time. It was Gilray who warned me that Axiom was coming this way."
"We'd better take all the force we can get together, sir."
"We'd better do nothing of the kind," Hugloff said grimly. "My dear boy, the last thing we want in the world is to be talked about. Axiom has just got to fade out and be forgotten. The natives with him are not under our control, so we need not fear gossip from them. What we have to fear is talk on the part of our niggers. I don't want to have a commission over here some fine morning to inquire into the violent death of a distinguished scientist called Axiom—the whole thing engineered by some confounded member of Parliament. We are going out to do the thing alone. Axiom will guess what to expect—he will know that the killing of the elephant would come to my ears. It's just you and me and nobody else. No ostentation, no notice, nothing but hard business. Strangers are slaying our elephants, and we are going to punish them. If somebody is killed in the fight, that's no fault of ours."
Tremayne accepted the situation with proper philosophy. All this, of course, was in the day's work.
"I'm quite ready when you say the word, sir," he said. "I suppose the sooner we are off the better. It will take us three days to get up to Axiom, and goodness knows how long afterwards. I'll see to the provisions and the rifles. Like to start to-morrow, perhaps?"
Most emphatically the Commissioner would, There was a grim look on his face as he explained his plan of campaign. He had been through this kind of thing before, though usually in connection with native troubles, but he had never had a foeman so worthy of his steel. By the time that the expedition was finished, one or the other would be finished, too. And Axiom had had a fair and solemn warning. He had known from the first exactly what penalty he was incurring. Hugloff had told Axiom in as many words that he knew exactly what and whom he was dealing with, and if the alleged Professor cared to go on in the face of danger, then his blood would be on his own head. They had parted on friendly terms enough, but the next time these men met it would be as deadly enemies.
Hugloff knew pretty well where he could pick up his man. Axiom was too old at the game to start off on a long and perilous expedition with only one baggage and provision train. He would have other stores safely hidden away, and these his native servants would fetch. The elephant had probably been slaughtered for the sake of immediate food, and perhaps also for the tusks, which might be given to the natives as a sweetener of extra labour.
"We shall find him pretty close to the spot where you—I mean where the fire broke out," Hugloff said. "I wish I had that beggar's wonderful way with the natives. I never could do anything with them. Yet Axiom comes along, and he's 'Hail, fellow, well met,' with them directly. I've heard that he is just as successful amongst cannibals. And it makes it all the harder for us."
Tremayne recognised the force of the argument. They were not only after Axiom, but they had the niggers to guard against as well. They would not be indifferent, not disposed to throw in their lot with the winning side. On the contrary, they were much more likely to turn their arrows against the attacking force. They might also be on the look-out for Axiom's pursuers. Anyway, Axiom must be pretty sure of his ground, or he had not been so careless over the elephant and the evidence of his crime left on the great plain for such as could read.
For the next day or two Hugloff and his companion pushed their way cautiously on. It was not safe to light a fire, it was not safe to smoke even. They had to put up with dried food, their bed was the open bush. It was on the evening of the third day that they reached Axiom's camp. It was a dark, still night, in favour of the expedition in one way, but against it in another. It was possible to creep forward under cover of the darkness, but, on the other hand, the slightest sound could be heard. Inch by inch the Commissioner and his companion drew nearer to the tent where Axiom lay. A bright fire crackled in front of the tent, a score of dusky forms lay all about it. A stick under Tremayne cracked like a pistol-shot, and instantly a dozen black, shaggy heads were raised like feeding rabbits at the first sign of danger. Axiom was standing in the door of the tent, looking suspiciously about him. The air and manner of the Professor had vanished, his stoop was gone, so also was the grey tinge in his hair. He looked a grand specimen of fine-drawn humanity as he stood there shading his eyes with his hand. Even in that moment of danger Hugloff could not repress a feeling of admiration.
For a long time Axiom stood there gazing into the darkness. He seemed to be satisfied at length that his suspicions were groundless, for he turned on his heel and disappeared, but not until he had said something to the natives round the fire.
"No use," Hugloff muttered. "We shall have to try strategy. He's too wide awake for us to take him by surprise. Anyway, we know where he is and something of the geography of the place. We'll do nothing further to-night."
All the next day they dogged Axiom through the bush as the camp moved along. They were amongst the elephants now—a restless, uneasy herd, none too good-tempered at being shepherded from their favourite feeding-grounds. Another week of this and they would be hustled over the border, and, once that happened. Axiom could laugh at the Commissioner. To kill him now would be justified; to shoot him across the border would be murder.
They lay there in the heat as the sun dropped down—lay there almost under the feet of the restless, uncertain herd. It was dangerous work, and more than once they had to roll over quickly to avoid the crushing weight of a passing foot. It was quite dark at length, and in the distance Axiom's camp fire twinkled. Hugloff rose to his feet, every inch of the ground about him photographed indelibly on his mental retina. His plan was quite clear, and he was going to put it into execution. He felt his way round to the rear of the herd of elephants, now feeding more or less restlessly. He crept behind one of the great slate-coloured monsters, a box of fusees in his hand. He slid one of these down the leg of his breeches, and, as the flame sputtered and roared, pressed it hard against the flank of the elephant.
A mighty trumpeting filled the forest, the fusees flared one after the other. The big fellow lunged forward, followed by the rest of the herd. Whether they were frightened or angry, Hugloff neither knew nor cared. He and Tremayne were behind them, following now openly and recklessly.
"They only needed touching off," he panted. "Axiom has been trying their tempers the last few days. And they're heading right for the camp. We'll just follow and take our chance in the confusion."
The forest seemed to shake under the thud of heavy feet; the elephants charged forward straight for the camp as if it had been an enemy. They were mad with rage and terror now, as Hugloff's trained eye could see. Between the swaying, wobbling bodies he caught glimpses of the camp fire, he heard the sharp crack of a rifle.
A dozen natives rose to their feet and waved blazing torches snatched from the fire. It was just possible that they might stop the stampede. But the big fellow was quite out of hand now, and, in any case, it would be impossible for the leaders to pull up with that ponderous weight of flesh and muscle pressing on behind. Over the camp and over the fire they swept like a torrent. They scattered the natives right and left, like a handful of chaff in a gale.
Hugloff was taking it all in now—he was pressing close behind the rearmost elephant. He saw Axiom burst from the tent and hurl himself into the bush. He marked the spot where the poacher lay almost to an inch, then he dropped himself as if he had been shot. For a moment the camp fire had been beaten flat, but now a stick or two caught fire and blazed brilliantly. With his head upraised cautiously, Hugloff could see something moving in the scrub. He did not need anyone to tell him that this was Axiom, and it was any odds that the American was unarmed. In that wild rush for safety he would not have time to snatch his revolver. The natives seemed to have vanished altogether; it was even possible that they would not return. When a herd of elephants once gets out of control, they are cruelly ugly customers to tackle, revengeful and vindictive, and intelligent withal. And Hugloff had taken this into consideration when he started the circus with the box of fusees. For all the natives would know to the contrary, the elephants had actually been attacking the camp, and it is not good, or even commonly prudent, to face a herd of maddened elephants with a bow and arrow. Hugloff knew also that an infuriated elephant will track a foe for days, and the natives could not possibly discover that the animals were merely frightened.
Thus it seemed to Hugloff that his stratagem had succeeded, and that he had Axiom entirely at his mercy. Where Tremayne was, and what had become of him, he did not know, and did not care very much, either. The two had lost one another in the mad scramble, and probably Tremayne was hiding somewhere in the brush, waiting on events. Hugloff drew a revolver from his pocket and fingered the trigger; by the fitful light of the fire he could mark the very spot where Axiom had dived into the brushwood. He saw a twig move; his lips set into a smile of grim satisfaction.
"You can rise up out of there, Professor," he said. "I know exactly where you are, and I've got you covered. Stand up at once, or I'll fill you with lead!"
No reply came from Axiom, save a queer throaty sound that might have been intended for a chuckle. Something flashed and spat, and a hot pain caught Hugloff along the ridge of his right ear. Without hesitation he emptied his revolver in the direction of the spot where Axiom lay.
"Guess it's you or me," a harsh voice said. "I guess—"
The voice broke off with a choke and a cough. And Hugloff knew that cough. He had heard it rattling in the throat of many a hard-hit native—he knew as well as if a doctor had told him that he had shot Axiom through the lungs. He had only to lie there and wait; to move forward now would be madness. The wounded man might still be full of fight and resource, and there was no getting away from the fact that he was armed. The cough came again. A little distance away Tremayne was whistling gently.
"It's all right," Hugloff muttered. "Just stay where you are, Tremayne; don't show as much as the end of your nose, because I've got him. I'm not boasting—fact is, I'm more than sorry. But the fact remains that I've got him, and I've shot him through the lungs."
"Now, how in thunder did you find that out?" Axiom asked.
He put the question out of the darkness in a spirit of friendly curiosity. He might have been a mere spectator watching the grim game from a place of safety.
"Practice. We all play for our own hands here, Professor, and I'm not taking any risks. But if you'll give me your word—"
Axiom staggered to his feet. He threw his revolver towards the flickering fire.
"There," he said, "that's my last chance. Now, boys, take me and put me on my back by the side of the fire. Make me as comfortable as you can, for I'll not trouble you for long. I'm just bleeding slowly to death inside, and that's a cold fact you can gamble on."
"I'm sorry," Hugloff said unsteadily. "I was never more ghastly sorry for anything in my life. Come and give a hand, Tremayne."
They settled him down carefully by the fireside, and he asked for his pipe. There was brandy somewhere, if they could find it. There was a cheerful smile on his face, the friendliest gleam in his eyes.
"No, there's no pain," he said. "And don't you go asking yourself questions. You gave me as fair a warning as a man ever had. You told me plainly that you knew exactly whom you were dealing with and what the penalty might be. And I took all the risks, pard—I went in with my eyes open. And, if I could get over this bout, I should be doing it again before long. Sorter in the blood, mates. I've been poaching all over the world, and I was bound to get it good and hard some of these days. And I don't leave anyone behind me, and not a red cent out of all the money I've made times. Here, shake!"
He shook hands solemnly and heartily with the others, his eyes closed, and he died without another word or sound. And they buried him, and lit a fire upon his grave in the silence of the forest, with no human eye to see. They were very still and very silent, and Hugloff's eyes were not quite dry.
"Don't say anything," he muttered—"at least, not just yet. I'm sorry, Tremayne, sorry to the bottom of my soul. For he was a real white man, and in this old world of ours there are none too many of them."