THE old fakir held out an arm picturesquely dingy with the dirt of many wanderings. On the stringy muscles stood a pink and angry lump, where the skimming "Colonel" had made impact with his holy flesh. Altamount was moved only to passion.
"Serve you right, you filthy old rascal!" he roared. "You were right in line with the hole. Why didn't you clear out when the boy called you?"
The fakir drew himself up rigidly. Two electric points of fire seemed to dazzle in his weary old eyes. He muttered shibboleths the while, only adding to Altamount's rage.
"Look at the old blackguard!" he spluttered to the Commissioner. "Cursing me by his tin gods, I suppose. Why do they allow such cattle to stray about the finest golf links in India? I've a good mind to have the ruffian flogged. Hang me, if I don't have him flogged if he spoils my round! Do you hear that, you rascal? If I don't put in a record round to-day, I'll have you flogged! What is the record of the course, Challoner?"
Challoner replied curtly that the record was 69, made by an Olympian travelling overland home from Australia. Challoner was a bit of a radical in racial matters, and deeply versed in the lore of the East. He was a little disgusted at Altamount's outbreak, especially as the latter's drive at the first hole had lost little distance by the accident. The fakir smiled in a dry way, with a smile like that of a face which is seen shimmering behind a haze. He took from his rags a scrap of papyrus and a stump of red pencil looted from somewhere. On the papyrus he drew two figures roughly—68—and handed the paper to Altamount. The flickering smile was on his face still, the needle points of wrath in the pupils of his eyes.
"It is no new thing to me, sahib," he said—"no new thing, this game of the long shaft and the little ball. Three hundred years ago even here they played it. Me, Rana Sani, who cannot die till the curse is worked out, saw them—short men with breeches such as the sahibs wear, only larger, and hats sloping like the peak of Pindi yonder. Oh, yes!"
"What is the maundering old fool talking about?" Altamount asked impatiently.
"He is telling you something like the truth," Commissioner Challoner said gravely. The old fakir had passed on towards the jungle grass with his head buried in his beard. "There is little doubt that the Dutch played a species of golf here three centuries ago. Funny how history repeats itself. Do I believe the old chap saw it? Well, frankly, I don't know. 'There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio.' Shakespeare must have had the purple East in his mind when he said that. I'm a student of the cult, you know. Sometimes I get up against things that fairly frighten me... Come along. And don't—don't despise that talisman. It's going to give you a record round."
Altamount laughed scornfully. After all said and done, his ball lay in an excellent lie, though not quite so close to the first hole as Challoner's. It was just possible to reach the green with a full mashie* shot. Altamount gripped his club with a certain nervous confidence. He seemed to feel that his stance was correct. The ball described a perfect parabola, and, landing on the edge of the green, trickled up to the lip of the hole. It was a good shot for the striker's medal round. Challoner gravely recorded a 3 on his partner's card.
[* mashie - a now obsolete golf club corresponding to the modern 4-iron. ]
"On the top of your game to-day," he said. "That's a bit too good for a five-handicap man."
Altamount replied that he did not feel in the least fit; on the contrary, he was shaky and nervous. He nearly as possible topped his next tee shot, but not quite, so that the consequence was a long, fine, raking ball, quite a professional shot, in fact. It was a long hole, a 6 bogey, but Altamount was on the green with his third shot holing a long putt for a perfect 4. It was a fine effort altogether, and the Commissioner remarked gravely that the spell was working. Altamonnt did not even swagger, a habit of his that did not specially endear him to the members of the Kalpore Club; on the contrary, he looked white and shaken. He was feeling the confounded heat, he said. But for the fact that they were playing a medal round, he was disposed to chuck the game altogether.
"And yet I'm playing the game of my life," he muttered. "That old fakir seems to have brought me luck. Of course, that papyrus was all rot. By Jove, that's a long drive!"
It was a beautiful, long drive, a superlative effort quite. Altamount grinned in spite of himself. There were two holes here—the sixth and the seventh—that always spoilt his round. But he negotiated the two in seven strokes, bringing off marvellous putts at each green .
"Naylor did this hole the day he made his 69 in 2," the Commissioner remarked, as they stood on the ninth tee. "Took a cleek* for his drive, and played for the run over the shoulder of the hill. Better try it, as you are doing so remarkably well."
[* cleek - an obsolete golf club with a very narrow face and little loft, roughly corresponding to the modern 1-iron.]
"So I will," Altamount said recklessly. "Give me the cleek, boy. A very low tee."
The cleek came through with a rushing sweep, and the ball flew straight and true for the angle of the hill. It hung just for a moment, and trickled over the sloping green close to the pin. Altamount laughed, but there was no triumph in his laugh. Challoner totalled up the score for the outward journey.
"3, 4, 5, 4, 5, 4, 3, 4, 2—total 34," he said. "Nothing like it has been done on the Kalpore links before. Naylor's score for the outward half was 35. And, so far as I can see, there is not a semblance of a fluke in it at all. I should like to make you a large bet that you will not do the homeward journey in the same score. But the thing is impossible."
"No, it isn't," Altamount burst out. "You may laugh at me, if you like, and say that I am swaggering, but I feel certain that I shall repeat my performance home. And yet I feel shaky and jumpy as a 'sub' before his first mess dinner. A fiver I get home in 34!"
Challoner accepted the bet with a mental reservation that the discipline would be good for Altamount. It was annoying, therefore, as hole after hole reeled off, to realise that the discipline was not there, and that the Commissioner was going to lose five pounds which he could ill afford. Eight holes produced a score of 30, but the last hole was an exceedingly difficult 5, and there was hope yet. Surely, in his eagerness, Altamount would spoil this. He was looking very white and shaky; there was an ominous quivering of the muscles of his mouth as he took his driver.
"Play short and make a possible chance of it," Challoner suggested, in a fine sportsman's spirit. "There are only two men in the club who can carry that bunker. If you get in it, you lose your money for a certainty; whereas, if you are just short, why--"
"As if I didn't know that," Altamount responded. "I tell you I'm going for it. I know it's a good hundred and sixty yards' carry, but I shall get there to-day. Tee it low, boy."
It seemed to Challoner that Altamount snatched at his ball in a jerky sort of way. The ball was half topped, too, but it was exactly what was necessary. The new "Colonel" flew straight as an arrow well over the other side of the bunker, and a rasping second laid it on the green. A long putt lipped the hole, and Altamount was down in 4, giving him a record of 68 for the course. It was a fine performance from first to last, and without the semblance of a fluke in it. And not the least remarkable part of the whole thing was that Altamount showed not the slightest inclination to swagger. The fact would go to the golfing world; it would be recordcl in the sporting papers; from St. Andrews to Melbourne men would talk of this wonderful thing. The committee would assuredly bring Altamount down to scratch, which was a calamity that all good Kalporites prayed against steadily. And yet the hero of the affair hardly smiled. He thoughtfully placed three balls on a spare tee by the side of the last green, and drove them in the direction of the club-house. They were execrable shots, that any 18-handicap man might well have been ashamed of.
"Overstrung," Challoner murmured in sympathy. "Funny thing how often one goes to pieces after a really tight round is finished. Let me congratulate you, old chap."
Altamount took his honours with amazing meekness. In the club-house he allowed Challoner to tell the story of his prowess; his modesty was phenomenal. Plainly, it was his duty to gather all the club-house about him and tell step by step, Homerically, how the thing was done. That is the penalty which the mediocrity pays for golfing greatness. But Altamount did none of these things.
"I'm ill," he said. "I feel so sick, so dreadfully faint, so sure that something awful is going to happen. It all seems like a dream to me. Bring me a large brandy peg, waiter, and not much soda. Put those balls in your pocket, Hicks; the sight of them makes me shudder. Think I'll turn in for a spell."
"Well, there's one thing certain," remarked a scratch player jealously; "he'll never do it again. These perfectly amazing flukes come off sometimes. As a matter of fact, I'm Altamount's partner in the Regency Cup to-morrow, and I shall keep a close eye on him."
Members present grinned. Hassall was a martinet in the game, also a gambler. Most listeners hoped that Hassall would spoil this particular Egyptian. After his performance to-day, Altamount could do no less than play Hassall for his usual pound per hole and a fiver on the match. There would be fine sport for the gallery on the morrow.
Altamount turned up for his match looking terribly ill and shaky, so ill, indeed, as to gain what his clubmates had never expended on him before—sympathy. He was very sick, he explained; also, he had not been able to sleep a wink all night. Only the iconoclastic Hassall refused to recognise anything but the exigencies of the game. He made his offer of a pound a hole, and Altamount snarled an affirmative.
"Make it two, if you like," he said. "I'm more fit for bed than anything else, but I'm going to give you a proper beating to-day. Two pounds per hole and ten on the match, and the same on the bye, if you like. Is that good enough for you?"
Hassall grinned that it was so. His was the lower handicap, so the honour was his. The man of iron nerve drove a perfectly straight long ball, and then, to the surprise of the gallery, Altamount outdrove Hassall.
Somebody muttered that there was a chance for a half in 4. Altamount smiled as he announced his intention of doing the hole in three. Hassall snapped at him with the offer of a fiver against it, and Altamount nodded. He proceeded to lay his next shot on the hp of the hole, and won in 3 to 4.
His face was deadly pale now, great drops passed off his forehead. With something like a snarl, he turned to Hassall, whose light operatic whistle was woefully out of tune.
"You love a bet," he said. "Well, I'll make you a sporting one. A fiver each that I do the next four holes in 4, 5, 4, 5 respectively. No money to be paid unless I do all the holes in the exact score that I mention. If I do, you pay me twenty pounds. Are you on?"
Hassall nodded with the air of a man who feels that he is decidedly favoured by fortune. But the stolid Scotchman's face fell as Altamount reeled off the 4, 5, 4, 5, as he had forecast, without the shadow of a fluke or the semblance of a mistake. From the point of view of fine golf, it was perfect—long, raking drives, perfect brassie* strokes, and equally perfect approaches, followed by putts of deadly accuracy.
[* brassie - an obsolete golf club corresponding to the modern 2-wood. ]
Challoner, who followed silently behind, grew grave. He could see something hidden from the crowd of excited golfers. Hassall was only alive to the fact that he was 3 down at the fifth hole, and that he had lost twenty-six pounds. With a quivering lip and a ghastly, twitching eye, Altamount announced that be was prepared to nominate his score for the next four holes for money—a most absurd thing to do, as everybody there knew. And yet there were no takers of the tempting offer, Hassall grunting that this was his unlucky day.
"Isn't there one of you who has pluck enough to take an offer like that?" Altamount snarled. "Come, isn't there one of you who will bet me twenty pounds that I don't do the last four holes of the outward round in 4, 3, 4, and 2 respectively. No takers, eh?"
But Hassall shook his head. He played his own steady game, doing wonderfully well, with a very few mistakes; but then, on the other hand, Altamount was making no mistakes at all.
"Never saw anything like it in my life," he said to a neighbour. "Altamount only wants two more 4's to equal his score of yesterday. But he is not likely to get the eighteenth score with this gentle breeze against him. Ah, that was a fine drive!"
"Can't make a mistake!" Altamount yelled. "I should have done it with the putter. A million to one I get a 4 here and equal my score of yesterday!"
It was even as the speaker said. A brassie laid him on the green, and two putts completed the hole. For the second afternoon in succession, Altamount had equalled the score of the links. He burst through the knot of yelling partners, and fled as if possessed to the club-house. He glanced furtively over his shoulder to see if be were pursued. The crowd would have dragged him back and plied him with many pegs, but Altamount was not to be found. It was certain that he had not returned to his own quarters. The only man who mastered his coolness was Challoner.
"A touch of sunstroke," he suggested, "and the excitement has done the rest. Altamount has gone somewhere where he can be quiet for a turn, and it will be a kindness of you fellows to leave him alone. No wonder the poor chap is upset after two such rounds."
Ohalloner's words were words of wisdom, and the clamour gradually subsided. He walked thoughtfully home a little before dinner. A native was waiting in his compound with a note for him. He recognised Altamount's handwriting, shaky and sprawling as it was. It was only a short note.
"I am at Belcher's," it ran, "keeping out of the way. Belcher is away from home. For Heaven's sake, come over and see me as soon as you can! This thing is killing me!"
"Tell the Captain Sahib I will come to-night," Challoner said quietly.
But Challoner had his journey for his pains. The Captain Sahib had dined at the bungalow of Belcher Sahib, so the butler said, but after that he had departed hurriedly for Kamadi, saying that he would be there for a few days. With the knowledge of the East full in his eyes, Challoner decided to wait. He could guess pretty well what had happened, though he said nothing to anyone; nobody would have believed him. It was soon after daybreak on the fifth day that he was disturbed by the presence of Altamount in his bedroom. The latter looked brown and lean and scraggy, and there was a wild gleam in his eyes, a nervous plucking of the fingers that suggested a man on the verge of delirium tremens.
"It isn't that," Altamount muttered, as he followed Challoner's inquiring gaze. "I am prepared to swear that I haven't touched a peg for a week. It isn't that—it isn't that!"
Altamount fell into a chair and rocked himself in a slow abandonment of grief.
"I couldn't stand it," he said. "It was bad enough when I beat you, but after I did Hassall down, there was a feeling like death at my heart... A cold sweat and the presence of some unseen thing behind me. I could feel it gripping my hands as I held the clubs. If I had told the other chaps, they would simply have laughed at me. You can imagine the hoary old chaff, and I going mad all the time!"
"You made a pretty good fight for it, all the same," Challoner said quietly.
"Of course I did," Altamount went on, in the same vague, distant way. "I meant to tell you because I felt sure that you would understand; then I changed my mind, and went off to Kamadi. If the same thing happened there, I knew that the cursed thing had mastered me. I couldn't give up the game; it seemed so cowardly... There were very few people at Kamadi, and I played three times a day—not with anybody, mind you, because that would have given the whole thing away. I went alone, for the most part without a caddie. And played! Jove, what a game I played!"
The speaker paused and wiped his damp forehead. It was no cue of Challoner's to interrupt.
"But you can guess—you know. I started the first morning at daybreak. Guess what my round was?"
"Sixty-eight," Challoner said softly. "This is a most interesting case, by far the most--"
"Quite so. Now, doesn't it strike you as being something more than a coincidence? Listen! My hole scores on both occasions were 3, 4, 5, 4, 5, 4, 3, 4, 2 out, and 3, 4, 3, 4, 5, 3, 4, 4, 4 home. Heaven knows, I can repeat that from memory fast enough! The thing was on my nerves. It came to me that I should go on doing the same thing all my life. Think of it, man, the maddening monotony of it! Impelled by some hidden fate to play a game I loathe, doomed to play the same score in every hole for evermore! No mind could stand the strain; gradually one would grow mad, and take one's own life. Something said that that was what the old fakir had done for me! The second night I could not close my eyes... I started to play at Kamadi as soon as I could see. Challoner, I went round in 68! I played every hole with exactly the same score that I played here; for the life of me, I couldn't vary it. I tried to make 4's into 5's, and 5's into 4's, but all to no purpose. There was no possibility of making any mistake. For five days I have been playing two and three rounds a day at Kamadi, with the same result. You may say: Give the game up. I can't! I am impelled to go on and try and break the spell. If I admit failure, I feel that my brain will give way. And I can't possibly go on playing alone. See how solitude increases the torture. On the other hand, look at the result of my making matches."
"You've made a pretty big reputation, anyway," said Challoner.
"Well, I'm not afraid of that. So far as that goes, I could tour the world and win everything. I should be fêted and flattered; my style could be copied everywhere. And the discovery would be made at once that I always did a round in 68. This would be followed by the further discovery that I also do every particular hole in a certain number of strokes. And the thing is absolutely true. It's the curse laid upon me for interfering with the fakir. When I think of what I have to go through, I could yell and dance and tear my hair. I sat up all last night and thought of my razors. But I daren't do it, Challoner; there's a little girl waiting for me in England.... Could you find the old rascal for me?"
"I dare say," Challoner said. "You see, I am pretty friendly with all the wandering vagabonds who come this way. I can speak their language, there is always a handful of rice for them at my bungalow, and in return they tell me many things. I can trace your old man of the sea, beyond doubt. You think that--"
"That it may be possible to propitiate him. Yes, I was foolish to lose my temper. It seems wildly ridiculous to a Western mind, but I should like to see the old man muttering some shibboleth over that scrap of papyrus, and destroying the spell. I was going to chuck that piece of papyrus away, but after my experience with Hassall, I decided to keep it... Try to find the man, old chap."
"I will. I will set the ball rolling tomorrow. Is that all you want?"
"Pretty well. There's just one more thing. I dare say you will laugh at me. Perhaps, after all, I have been merely overcome with something that gives me absolute accuracy, but I am going to make certain. Both of us know the links pretty well, don't we?"
"Walk round in the dark," Challoner said, "and never make a mistake."
"Well, I am going to play round them in the dark. At any rate, you are going to accompany me whilst I play a game in the pitch darkness. All we shall want is a box of vestas to locate the exact spot where the ball lies. We shall walk it up without the smallest difficulty. And if we do find the ball as easily as I expect, why, the sooner the fakir is unearthed the better."
"You can count on me," said Challoner. "Really, this is the most interesting experiment-- I beg your pardon, old chap. And now I'll go and make a few inquiries as to the whereabouts of the fakir."
Altamount wrung Challoner's hand in silence. There was a more hopeful expression on his face now, but the twitching of his lip still betrayed the agitation that moved him to the soul.
It was a perfectly dark and moonless night as the twain moved in the direction of the first tee. Altamount carried his own clubs. In a spirit of fatalism, he had come with only one ball—a new one. He never doubted for a moment that it would not be lost. Challoner had a box of matches. There was a swing and a crack, a swinging rush through the silent darkness, and Altamount strode forward.
"I shall find the ball to the left of a patch of sword grass near the hole," he said. "My second will lip the hole, I know it as well as if I could see the whole thing."
It was even as Altamount said; there lay the ball in exactly the same spot as it had fallen on the two previous drives. A second shot in the direction of the green lipped the hole. The same thing happened as the couple moved from tee to tee, Altamount prophesying the lie of the ball to an inch. They were half way round, and Challoner had not used more than two matches.
"We'll sit and smoke a cigarette before we turn," said Altamount. "Now you understand the full curse of my torture, Challoner. It will be the same wherever I go. I am bound to try on and on in the hope that time will break the spell. It would be the same at St. Andrews. After I had been once round the links, I should know where to look for my ball for ever. To preserve my reason, I should have to go wandering from link to link for the sake of half a day's variety. I should be known as a moody man, the Wandering Jew of the golf world, who never rests and who does the round in 68... Let us get along."
It was just the same on the way home again. At the fourteenth hole a sloping patch of jungle grass had to be negotiated, with a stone quarry on the left. With a sudden spasm of rage, Altamount smote his ball away to the left clear of the line. The impact of the ball on the rock could be heard distinctly. Challoner smote his companion on the back wearily.
"Broken the spell!" he cried. "You're miles away with that shot from the hole. We'll call that pill well lost, and go back for a peg and cheroot in an easy-chair."
"Not yet," Altamount said between his teeth. "Let's go and have a look at tbe hole. After all, I should not be in the least surprised to find my ball lying on tbe spot designed for it—a pit of gravel past the bole, with a mimosa bush on the right."
Challoner strode through the tufts of grass with an impatient curiosity that he made no effort to conceal. He struck a match, and the blue flame twinkled in his fingers. Even with the light in his hand, he could see nothing of the ball. Altamount worked unerringly across the grass down the rugged scarp to a patch of grass with a mimosa bush on one side. With a groan, he bent down and touched something round and gleaming.
"What did I tell you?" he said. "Hold the match down here. This is my ball right enough. No use pretending that it might have been lost by somebody else, because I see my brand upon it. I did pull it to the left, but it struck the rock in the quarry, and after that it took a course to the right, and landed in the place where I expected to find it. Challoner, in all your experience, did you ever see the like of this before?"
Challoner was bound to admit that he never had. Altamount picked up his ball and pocketed it. He refused to play out the other four holes; it was merely prolonging the torture.
"I'll go home to bed and try to sleep. Find the fakir as soon as you can, for poor human nature could not stand much more of this. Good night."
Challoner went thoughtfully homewards. He paused at the club for half an hour on the way, for he felt in need of the tonic of human companionship. A light was burning in his sitting-room, the blinds were open. It was a little unusual, seeing that the servants had all retired. Standing quietly before the table was the fakir. He raised both hands to his forehead in a profound salaam.
"Because the sahib is good to us, and you need me, I return," he said. "I go to a far country, to Thibet, to look for the death that is mine before I am born again, and I depart, as is necessary, without blackness of soul against any man."
"Not quite," Challoner said quietly. "There is my friend who hit you with the golf ball, for instance. You are going to take that spell off him before you go."
The fakir smiled until the countless wrinkles in his face expanded like a cobweb that lengthens in the wind. It might almost be said that he winked.
"There are mysteries and mysteries," he said slowly. "Many are known to the sahib, and many there are that can never be known till all things are finished. It was a small matter, and in the great holy time I had forgotten. And because you have been very good to us, yes, it shall be done. Three centuries ago there was something like it before. I was young then, and the men with the hats like the peaks of the hills yonder, they threatened me... And they came no more because they held the spot to be accursed... Your friend has the papyrus?"
Challoner explained that the talisman had not been destroyed. At sunrise the following morning the fakir would meet Altamount at the spot where the indignity had taken place. With an eagerness at which he would have laughed at any other time, Altamount was there. It was not pleasant to feel small in the presence of a native, but there are things that come like that.
"I was wrong," the fakir said. "I was wrong even because I have lived before, and seen big men as children, giving the gifts of the great God to the pursuit of the ball. It was of feathers and leather then, and it hurt not as the ball of the sahib. The papyrus?"
The last words came in a commanding tone of voice, the pin points of flame gleamed in the old man's eyes. With a hand none too steady, Altamount produced the scrap of paper. The figured 68 danced before him. Already the cold numbness seemed to be leaving his heart, the humming wheel in his head was slowing down.
"Reverse the paper," the fakir said, " and what do you see now? 68 no longer. You cry and whine to do one thing for a few days. What of me, who am doing the same thing since the world began? Yes, you have paid the debt, for your eyes tell me so, and the twitching of your lips. Not for your sake, but for the Challoner Sahib, who is good to us. What do you see?"
"It was 68," Altamount muttered. "But now it is upside down; it is 89. Does that mean—mean, hang it, you can't mean that number 68 is going to be 89 evermore?"
The fakir shook his head grimly; there was a glint of a smile amongst his wrinkles.
"Not so," he said. "I have seen this before, and I know. I ask questions of your servants, who sometimes carry the long clubs for you, and they say that the greatest of the sahibs who play golf vary between 68 and 89. It is a matter of eye, of temperament, of the dinner the night before, or the extra peg at luncheon. As for me, it is as a child playing in the gutter. But never shall it be less than 68 or more than 89, for the papyrus says so."
The fakir turned on his heel and vanished in the scrub. A great revulsion of feeling had come over Altamount. In the first place, the spell was broken. The curse had been removed, and he was a free man again. And never was he going to play outside 89 again, never more inside 68. The former reflection was most pleasant. People would call his achievement of two days a great fluke, if they liked. They would also in future learn to regard him as a most consistent player.
"I'll have a go and see now," Altamount told himself. "Shouldn't be surprised to find that I get round in 89 exactly. That means putting an extra stroke in each hole. Here goes!"
To Challoner, at breakfast, Altamount burst in excitedly. The flame of health was on his face, the look of power in his eyes, the healthy beads had gathered on his forehead.
"It's all right," he panted. "I saw the fakir, and he made the thing right by the simple dodge of turning the papyrus upside down—from 68 to 89, you see. When I started just now, I was delighted to find myself playing just good average stuff. When I got up to the eighteenth, I had 5 for the hole for an 86. And, hang me, if I didn't get into a rut and take 8 for the hole, doing the round in exactly 89! But the spell is broken, and I'm going to play between 68 and 89 for the rest of my life. It doesn't sound much to an outsider, but the infinite variety of it, Challoner!"
Challoner nodded. As a golfer, he perfectly understood. He did not profess to explain; he had been too long in the East for that.
"But you'll always look back with pleasure to your two rounds of 68," he said.
"Nothing like the pleasure with which I look back on my 89 this morning," Altamount said fervently.