THE man with the squint appeared to be under no delusions. He spoke with an air of finality that would have been a fine party asset in parliaments and places where they wrangle. The thing was there and to be had for the asking. Poor old Bill had said so, and Bill had seen it. It had always been one of the aforesaid, and late, Bill Magness's proclamations that he never told lies. He had been neither particularly sober nor conspicuously honest, but he couldn't lie. Probably an utter lack pf imagination had had something to do with it.
"As big as a small egg" the man with the squint went on. "You've got the word of Dan'l Adams on it, and that's me. An' Bill, he's seen it. Along of the flyin' detachment, 'e was, an' young Fox-Brabazon a-leadin' of 'em. Exceeded his orders, 'e did, but 'e'd 'eard of the big stone, and naturally, bein' a bit of a sport, wanted to get 'is 'ooks on to the same. 'E'd orders from the bloomin' Commissioner to punish these yer niggers back of the Zambesi— where we are now—an' burn down a few villages, an' not go beyond Nanzar Kiver. We'd got no trouble with the Nanzar tribe, and their autonomy was to be respected— mainly because our column wasn't 'eld to be strong enough. Now, Fox-Brabazon, 'e likes 'is work. Got a weakness for disguisin' hisself and paddlin' about amongst the natives and pickin' up their lingo. And that's how 'e got to 'ear all about the big temple acrost the river and the great god N'Tsu, with the one big diamond eye of 'im a-blazin' in 'is forrid. And 'e an' poor old Bill, they seen it. Swam the river on a bright night an' seen it—usin' glasses, lyin' on their bellies in the scrub and watchin' the crowd doin' Mumbo-Jumbo. For 'is nibs N'Tsu is out in the open, set in a sart of tank arrangement, an' watchin' over the fortunes of Nanzar population. An' if the detachment hadn't been ordered back sharp, Fox-Brabazon would 'ave been all the richer for a diamond as big as an 'en's egg. Fairly groaned, 'e did, Bill said. And now Bill's dead and Fox-Brabazon is down on the coast, and nobody but you and me knows the story, Peter, ole sport. And we're reported to head companies now as wounded, dead, and missin', sniped by the dusky foe and finished off by the vultures. And only five miles between us and the big glass marble in N'Tsu's forrid. An' only ten miles back again to the detachment. An' all we've got to do is to fake up some story of bein' cut off and fightin' the foe like the fine gritty Tommies that we are. An', when we do go back, old N'Tsu's eye goes with us."
"Got to get it first," the pessimistic Peter said without enthusiasm.
Private Daniel Adams eyed Peter Macmanan scornfully. The latter warrior was feeling slightly homesick. He had been persuaded to this adventure against his better judgment. He was missing his tobacco and his comrades and the muddling caravanserai of the forest camp. He was naturally gregarious, and the vast, moist, sweating solitude of the forest oppressed him. Moreover, he was a deserter in the face of the foe. They had provisions and rifles, a revolver each, and a full complement of cartridges, to say nothing of the prospect of glorious loot before them. By this time they had doubtless been written off the strength and mourned, briefly but luridly, by their comrades. There would be no inquiries—little casualties of this sort happened every day.
The whole thing looked absurdly easy. They had only to go there and back again, so to speak, and the deed was done. The Nanzar priests might start some absurd argument, and, if so, it would not be a very difficult matter to desert for the second time. And yonder, beyond the Napaur Hills, were Belgian settlements after rubber, and there was a welcome there for anyone with an insane desire for work. A couple of resolute men with a modern rifle each might successfully raid the great god N'Tsu and deprive him of his glittering eye; and, if they could get it, their fortunes would be made—they could luxuriate in it on the fat of the land in future.
Not that violence formed any part of their programme—the primrose path of diplomacy was better and far more safe. If they could steal the stone without unnecessary advertisement, all the better. Daniel Adams had armed himself with a pair of pliers for the purpose. They had talked the whole thing over, and their plans were made. They had been discussing the campaign all the afternoon, as they lay in the forest almost within earshot of the village in the midst of which the god stood. Probably the great soapstone monstrosity had stood there for a thousand years. Where his fine blazing eye had come from, nobody knew nor cared. Undoubtedly the tribe of Nanzar had been far more highly civilised in the dead ages, for here and there in the heart of the jungle were evidences of stone buildings, mosaic and concrete, and here and there adorned with the acanthus and the lotus, though these things conveyed nothing to the adventurers lurking hard by. They did not speculate as to whether or not the Queen of Sheba might have had a hand in this business. They lay there sweating and gasping in the wet, dripping heat, cursing the need of tobacco, stripped to their shirts and ammunition belts, dirty, grimy, almost unrecognisable. Their uniforms had been hidden in a place of safety, where the white ants could not get at them, their bodies were blistered by mosquito and fly-bites. The expedition was not precisely in the nature of a picnic. Their bandoliers were hung about them, the rifles lay within easy reach.
Darkness shut down presently like the lid of a box. The jungle rustled with unseen life. From somewhere close by came the purr of some gliding beast, uneasy and restless in the presence of humanity. It was a nasty, creepy business altogether, and Peter Macmanan was wishing himself well out of it. Something cold and slimy wriggled across his feet. The darkness, like that of Egypt, could be felt. Glory be to goodness, there would be a moon presently!
It came, after a long, sweating, humid hour or two, like a great golden arc, rising over the shoulder of the distant Napaur Hills. A yellow light filtered through the jungle, throwing long black shafts of shadow, picking out the swiftly moving bats in search of their evening meal. The whole jungle seemed to be full of eyes—round, yellow, gleaming balls turned menacingly on the two men crouching there, silent and not a little dismayed.
Macmanan scooped the sweat from his forehead with a shaky hand.
"'Ere, let's get out of this," he said huskily; "it fairly gives me the 'orrors! If I'd known it was goin' to be like this, I wouldn't ha' come. Wot's the matter with the open?"
"You don't think o' nothin' but yourself," Adams grumbled. "Did you expect a perishin' Pullman car and a brass band at the other end to meet you, or the idol's eye by registered post? All the same, I'm game to get out of this."
They pushed their way sullenly through the scrub on to the open plain. They were wearing practically nothing now besides their boots and shirts and cartridge belts. They were dirty and disreputable beyond words. The most cunning natives would never have taken them for Tommies, and this Adams regarded as a valuable asset.
On the far side of the opening the huts of the village were clustered together. A larger structure of brick and mud and cane stood out from the rest, marking the spot where some chief rested. The place was still and silent as the grave. No living soul could be seen. There was not so much as a dog prowling about, no wandering animals scratching the earth for a lean meal. The huts divided in the centre, and between them the great grotesque idol raised its ugly head. As the deserters moved along, they could catch the flickering gleam in the forehead of the idol. The golden glow of the moon, hanging in a sky of indigo blue, glittered and flashed on the facets of the stone. Macmanan flicked a dry tongue over his still drier lips.
"Perish me, if you ain't right, Daniel!" he said hoarsely. "In me 'eart of 'earts, I never expected to see it. Worth about a quarter of a million at least. I've 'eard chaps what's served in India tell the tale before, but I never believed 'em. We'll get it easy as kiss me 'and!"
They moved along cautiously till the village was reached. They were trembling with excitement from head to foot now, not afraid, but with a queer, crumbling sensation in the pit of the stomach. Then suddenly from behind a low stockade of cactus plants a dark figure rose and confronted them, a ragged figure with a clean-cut Arab type of face, in strange contrast to the woolly mat of his hair. He started back half fearfully, half defiantly, with a conch at his lips. Then a second man appeared to materialise out of nowhere, and the fun began.
There was no fear in the hearts of the two deserters now. The nerve-destroying suspense was over, and the moment for action had arrived. And they had been in tight places before. Without a moment's hesitation, Adams dashed forward and flung his revolver full into the face of the man with the shell. The thud of steel on bone fairly rang as the fellow staggered back, dropping the shell and pressing his hands to his face in the agony of the moment. Adams could hear the patter of blood on the dry leaves. He snatched up the revolver, eager, ready, full of zest to kill, and beat his reeling antagonist with cruel force about the head. He seemed to give at the knees, as if he had been an empty sack; he dropped and lay without a sign of life.
Macmanan was faring none too well. He was lying on the flat of his back, with a pair of hands tearing at his throat and a bony knee pressing cruelly on his chest. The stars were dancing in a cloud of blue and gold and crimson before his eyes, his breath was coming in fitful gasps, a steam-hammer was pounding in his brain. Then something cracked, and he staggered to his knees. There was just the suggestion of acrid smoke in the stagnant air.
"I 'ad to pot 'im," Adams gasped; "he'd 've strangled you in another tick. 'Ope nobody 'eard. We've managed to do in on both the guards, anyway."
Apparently the little spitting crack of the revolver had aroused no alarm. The adventurers crouched panting there, waiting for any further sign of life, but none came.
"It's all our own!" Adams said exultingly. "'Ere, let's drag the bodies away and shove 'em in the water yonder. Both of 'em as dead as mutton, but get 'em out of the way, all the same."
The gruesome task was finished. The camp lay there white and clear in the light of the moon. These men were armed; they feared nothing. They moved on swiftly in the direction of the great god. All about it appeared to be a kind of empty moat, some six feet deep, with sheer smooth sides, and some forty feet across.
"Now, wot's the meanin' of all this 'ere fortification?" Macmanan asked. "Mind you don't fall in and break your bloomin' neck. Bit of a precipice, ain't it?"
But Daniel was not seeing the humour of it. In his own vernacular, "he didn't perishin' well like it." He did not altogether lack the rudiments of an imagination, or he had not been here at this moment. And, besides, he was in the land of Mumbo-Jumbo. He was thinking now of vivid stories told round many a camp fire, things occult and mysterious and terrible. He mistrusted the smooth sides of the empty moat, and the hard floor piled here and there with heaps of rocks and stones. If the simple natives regarded this as a protection for their god, then they were unsophisticated indeed. But were they quite as simple as they appeared to be? Might there not be some livid danger there?
Well, they had to risk it. There was no point in being turned back at the last moment by a mere empty moat. In the moonlight the floor looked solid enough. The village was silent as the tomb, and the big diamond was blazing in the eye of the idol. Adams let himself down the side of the wall, gasping as he went. With his lip between his teeth, he was silently cursing his own cowardice. He took a step or two forward, like Agag, followed by Macmanan. They were half-way across the smooth floor in the direction of the idol before anything happened. Here and there were little hillocks of rock and stone, like islands in a smooth sea.
And suddenly these islets became things of life. Under the astonished eyes of the two adventurers they moved and trembled as solid objects move behind the haze of a flame. From every nook and cranny round, bloated objects bubbled out and squatted hideously, straddling on long, hairy legs with dropsical bodies suspended over them, their yellow beaks emitting a noise not unlike that of a grasshopper, with a deeper metallic note. The wicked yellow eyes of them gleamed viciously. Other hillocks were tremulous with movement now, hairy red objects straddled over the floor in all directions. They would dart swiftly forward for a few yards, and then pull up as if dead. The still, stagnant night air fairly hummed with their hoarse, splitting note.
"What on earth have we struck?" Macmanan gasped. "Spiders, ain't they?"
Adams had no reply for the moment. He was beginning to understand what the hard, shining sides of the moat were used for, and he had heard of these spiders, great big fellows of the tarantula type, but twice the size of the American variety and far more fierce. A trader with a hideous scar on the side of his face and half the calf of his left leg gone had once told Adams a gruesome story of a night's torture in connection with one of the tarantulas, and the man had told it in a hoarse whisper and with a sweating brow.
"For 'Eaven's sake, get back!" he whispered. "They're afraid of us for the moment, but it won't be long. The first one as goes for us'll be followed by the whole hell-spawn of 'em! They'll run all over you, like rats up a wall. 'Op it, Peter!"
Peter needed no second bidding. He ran like a hare, sweating horror at every pore. They scrambled somehow to a place of safety and looked down shudderingly into that pit of abomination. A score or more of the spiders had followed them. They skated here and there, as if impelled by some invisible spring; they stopped motionless, with their great hairy bodies poised above the long legs that looked like those of a dog.
"Nice little, interestin' pets, ain't they?" Macmanan gasped. "'Minds me of the time I won that two quid in the 'Amburg lottery and spent it in boozing! Awful, ain't it?"
"I know," Adams shuddered. "Fancy havin' a 'undred of 'em all over you at once! Take a piece out of you, they do, like a kid eating an apple. So this is the game those chaps play. Wonder how they get to the old image in his glory yonder at spring-cleanin' time? Rig up a rope-bridge or something of that kind. So long as they keep them spiders 'ungry, the diamond's safe."
"But we ain't got no rope-bridge," Peter murmured. "Have to chuck it, I s'pose?"
"Not me," Adams grunted. "We've got to see it through, my son. Here, let's see if we can't frighten the brutes. If not, we'll stir up the village and get them to take a hand at the game. We'll twist flowers in our hair and pretend we're gods. And we've got the guns, too. In for a penny, in for a pound, old sport. I didn't want to have any fuss over this thing, being modest in my notions; but if a jamboree is necessary, then a jamboree it's goin' to be. Got any matches?"
"Got a whole boxful, for the matter of that, mate."
"Good! Get your knife out and open a dozen of the cartridges. We'll lay a train of powder way across the old moat—scatter powder all over the place. They won't like that."
It was not pleasant work dropping down the smooth side of the moat again and laying the powder train. A cold stream played up and down the spines of the conspirators, but they were aided by the discovery that the spiders had no liking for the burning flame. A match held within a yard of one caused him to back like a ship with reversed engines; he spat and scuffled headlong for safety. A tiny point of flame touched the gunpowder, and a zigzag sheet of blue and gold darted across the floor. At the first spurt every bloated black object vanished. In the clear, silver light of the moon, the spiders could be seen fighting and struggling for cover. The acrid smell of the powder hung in the air. Adams smiled his complete satisfaction.
"We've done the trick," he grunted. "Easy on with those matches. Don't forget that we've got to get back again. Come on, mate! A dash for it, and the thing's done!"
Macmanan waited for no second bidding. He was anxious to get along before his imagination began to play tricks with him again. They sprinted across the intervening space and climbed the wall of the island upon which the great grotesque god was seated. The strange features were worn smooth and shiny by the sun and storm of the ages, but the great eye still glittered in the forehead, embedded there in some metal that Adams rightly took for gold. He produced the pair of pliers, which he had taken the precaution to thrust into his boot, and got to work without delay. His spirits rose, he could have shouted and danced in the joy or the moment as the stone came away in his hand. He had fortune in his grasp, probably the best part of a quarter of a million safely knotted away in the tail of his grey flannel shirt. He had his rifle and revolver and the belt full of cartridges, and the way to safety lay in the broad path of the moon.
"Got it!" he gasped. "Bloomin' well got it! We'll buy ourselves out quite in the proper way, old pard. And then back to the Old Country once more, shootin' an' fishin' an' huntin', like the rest of the nobs. Five thousand quid a year interest on our bloomin' capital. Come on!"
No wild outburst of enthusiasm came from Macmanan. He was seeing things hidden from the optimistic eye of his comrade. For instance, he could see a little knot of dusky figures on the far side of the moat, watching the proceedings with intelligent curiosity.
"Here's the gentry of the place come to meet us," he said. "Seem to be annoyed about something. Downright disrespectful, I call it. What's the next game?"
A wild wail of anguish rose from the black figures on the opposite bank. It was followed presently by a yell of rage and the rush of spears. They hurtled all round the statue of the god, but not one of them struck the sacred figure. Adams and his companion crouched in a little gutter at the base, not undisposed to admire the marksmanship of the foe. They were comparatively safe there. They could see how the figures on the far side were getting thicker; the rattle of spears was continuous.
"Open some more cartridges," Adams whispered. "Let's have a flare at the foot of the old fossil 'ere. Ten to one those chaps have never heard a gun or smelt gunpowder in their natural."
Macmanan touched off the contents of a dozen cartridges. The great blue flare exploded, and the din on the opposite bank ceased suddenly. A fantastic figure, garbed in some grotesque robes, danced in a wild saraband slow movement, gesticulating wildly. "The head medicine-man of the tribe, no doubt," Adams thought, as he drew a bead on him. There was a little crack, a puff of flame, and the big man crumpled up in a heap, and so he died.
When Adams looked up again, he could see that every man there had fallen forward on his face. The black heads were pressed to the ground in token of utter subjection.
"The trick's done!" he yelled. "Come on while they've still got the fear of us in their hearts. A match or two here and there, and there's no fear of the spiders. I expect those chaps think we have bewitched them. Get a move on you, Peter—the game's ours!"
They were across the danger zone at length, up the far wall, and walking with the conscious majesty of moral superiority over the bodies of the prostrate natives. Here and there a curious head was raised, only to go swiftly down again. Surely these were beings from another and higher world, those dark, grimy men with strange footwear and queer garments fluttering from their shoulders. They held in their hands magic sticks that spat fire and killed beyond the range of spears. The medicine-man had defied them, and the gods of these strangers had killed him with flame.
They lay there long after Adams and Macmanan had vanished into the scrub and donned their clothes. There was no suggestion of pursuit, and the adventurers knew it. Moreover, they knew their way, and would in two days' march be back with the detachment again. But few questions would be asked; besides, they had their story all ready cut and dried.
They dropped down at the foot of a bluff and lighted their fire, and slept the sleep of clear conscience and duty nobly done. They dreamt of the happy days to come, of beer and baccy and kindred joys so dear to the heart of their clan. And when they awoke and had breakfasted, Adams produced the diamond and gazed on it lovingly.
"A bit of real all right," he said. "I know. I wasn't with a Sheeny in Clerkenwell for a year without knowing something of stones. And you can test 'em as easy as easy. Just give me your knife. Open the little nail-file on the back and scrape it over what they call the facets of the stone. A real diamond resists the file, like this one does, and—Cuss me, if it ain't a perishin' paste one!"
They sat there for an hour or more in silent misery. Then Adams dragged himself wearily to his feet and pointed the homeward way.
"Don't ask me," he said, with concentrated bitterness. "It's a fake, anyway. We've been anticipated, my lad, by a regular genius—a chap what took proper precautions and got a dummy diamond to take the place of the real stone, and thus deluded those poor innocent savages. And he got away safely with the proper marble. Worked it out like a detective, 'e did. Forget it, mate, forget it. And now back to the bally camp. By the right, quick march!"