Manbane

EDWARD WOODWARD July 1 1929

Manbane

EDWARD WOODWARD July 1 1929

Manbane

A story of the love of woman, the violence of man and the terror that stalks in the jungle

EDWARD WOODWARD

FOLLOWING a nearly successful attempt on his life, Cleedman of the Police went up to Hadjpur for a rest, or a period of distraction, which is the only sort of recuperation for a man with the tireless energy of a spitting Maxim. Bob Grant of the Woods and Forests was unfeignedly glad of his company.

“It’s a solitary spot, this,” growled Grant after dinner the first evening. “There’s a temptation for a man to pal up to his secret sins when he’s buried from month’s end to month’s end amidst these infernal trees.”

Andrew Cleedman sighed and stretched his long legs.

“After bad-man hunting they are nothing but soothing,” ' he said. “Anyway, you look as though you were standing it all right.”

“I’m hardened.” Grant squirted soda into his after-dinner “peg” as he spoke, his powerful, sunburned hands steady on glass and syphon cap; his strong, heavily lined and tanned face intent on his job. “But this sort of solitude kills the soul and soddens intellect.” He finished and crossed to his chair, glass in hand.

Cleedman twitched his eyebrows and gazed out from the lamp-lit verandah into the closecrowding jungle. It was like peering into a cavern. Save where the lamp-light touched the tree-trunks, turning them into a purplish red, all was a sinister and living blackness; and from its depths there came periodically the death-scream of some beast paying tribute to the law of the wild

“Creepy orchestra you keep out there,” he grinned, feeling for his pipe. “Must be a bit trying for feminine nerves.” 1

Grant grunted, and fished a twisted cheroot from the pocket of his drill-tunic (white, in honor of the noliçe-wallah’s arrival.)

*■ “It’s killing Wilbur Morton’s wife,” he said, r" “Wilbur Morton got a wife?” Cleedman was named “Cherub” down at Bombay. He took the sun red, and now his eyes were two vivid spots of blue light. “You don’t mean to tell me that bird of prey, has got a wife and brought her up here?”

“Arrived with her a few months back.” Grant leaned back in his chair and spiralled cigar smoke.

“Well, I’m dashed!” The policeman finished lighting his pipe and jettisoned the spent match into the night. “Morton is. a nice chap but a confirmed roamer.”

“It’s part of his job,” said Grant. “Anyway, he brought this gal up from Bombay—let’s see what was her name? Ah, Mary Lingard. Beautiful bit of porcelain. Saw her once and then kept clear. She ain’t good for the peace of mind of an unwilling hermit, especially as she’s left alone for weeks at a stretch ...”

Spating on, as is the manner of lonely men suddenly discovering tolerant ears, Grant failed to notice that Andrew Cleedman had ceased to listen.

“. . . She hates it, too,” he continued, swigging at his drink. “Anyone can see she lives in mortal terror of the place and its people . . . Think she’s scared of Morton, too, in a way . . . These professional big-game hunters are an odd crew, you know. They grow furtive like their prey, and always give the feeling that they are watching you. Ever noticed that?”

“Yes,” Cleedman answered, absently, his mind busy asking: “Why, in the name of holiness, Mary Lingard had done it?” Mary Lingard, whose life had been spent in the conventional atmosphere of a. country rectory. Young Geoffrey Lingard, Mary’s brother, had described that life to Cleedman often enough; and loving her with a passion which made self-sacrifice simple, Cleedman had refrained from asking her to share the life of risk in which his lot was cast. He’d felt she was miles above him, and now she had married Morton!

He glanced up to find Grant regarding him with an interrogative smile.

“Did you know her, by any chance?”

Cleedman nodded.

“Met her once or twice in Bombay. Her brother and I were by way of being pals. You may recall young Geoffrey Lingard? He got slugged up at Rantab by a thug.”

“Good lord ! Was he her brother?”

“Twin,” said ^Cleedman. “They loved each other mighty fondly. She came out to be near him. She’s a beautiful woman.”

Silence fell between the two men, while outside the refrain of death continued. Presently Grant spoke: “By the way,” he said, “if you want a nice tiger-skin to take home on your next leave, get Wilbur Morton to take you out after a man-eater we’ve got hanging around. Even Morton has failed to get him to date.” Cleedman answered abstractedly.

“Many victims?”

“Twenty-five so far. I’ve a job to get my woodcutters to go “deep” without a body-guard.”

“Morton ought to have settled him,” said Cleedman. “Last time he had a go at the blighter, the tiger nearly settled Morton, and the very next morning we found the mangled remains of one of my “blazers,” just about where Morton had seen the brute.”

“Poor devil,” muttered Cleedman. “I’ll go over and see Morton. It would be fun to wipe a big-game hunter’s eye and get the pelt into the bargain.”

“Don’t let him catch your eye on his lady,” chuckled Grant.

“It’s the tiger which interests me,” laughed Cleedman, tapping out the dottle from his pipe. “I’m so sick of hunting elusive slave-dealers with nothing more lethal than guile, that a bit of direct action with a soft-nosed bullet would be balm to the soul.”

Grant lifted his eyebrows.

“Slavers still troubling, you?” he asked. “Thought the gentle vocation had been killed by Act of Parliament?”

Cleedman shrugged.

“A trade never becomes really profitable in the East until it is made illegal. Then fancy prices can be charged. I’ve been hunting a slick swine for months. He’s given me the slip at every turn, but I’ve seen some of his handiwork and I’d sooner have him at the spout end of a rifle than even this tiger.

“They are both manbane,” yawned Grant, who stood up preparatory to turning in.

ANDREW CLEEDMAN rode over to see Wilbur • Morton the next morning. The bungalow lay three miles on the other side of the native village on the crest of a bluff which shelved down in terraces to the banks of a Krishtna River “feeder.”

It was larger and more ornate than the average forest bungalow. Apparently Morton, besides being a biggame hunter of international repute and the source of supply of half the menageries in the world, possessed a gift for horticulture and a definite eye for beauty. He had reclaimed a dozen acres of forest on three sides of his dwelling, and had transformed a wilderness of unguided growth into a wondrous arboretum of luxurious palms, rioting masses of color and. by some alchemy of his own, smooth turf lawns. He had turned red sandstone caves into flower-bearing grottoes and peopled the trees with humming-birds of blinding plumage. Peacocks strutted in the shade, a giant wolf-hound lay asprawl on the top step of the verandah. It was a spot of English fairy-land in a setting of menace and suffering.

Entering the heavy gate in the stockade which surrounded this pleasance, Cleedman sniffed the heavy scent of the Mahwa tree, the flower-juice of which, natives say, sends men to Paradise and then to everlasting sleep. Its heady perfume was mitigated by the sharper odor of sun-sprayed gum-trees; and under a dome of stately satin and teak to the left of the bungalow where, amid acacias of feathery softness, huge boulders dragged from the nullah had been heaped into a rockery bound together by million-tendrilled, bright-blossomed ground-creepers, was Mary Morton.

She was dressed in white, a broad-brimmed hat shielding her head from the sun which even in its early morning youth has a steel-pointed barb ready for the liberty-taker. Seeing a caller she came forward, and as yet, ignorant of his identity, her oval face held an aloof expression; but when, lifting his pith helmet Cleedman disclosed his short-cropped, corn-colored hair, his broad forehead and vivid blue eyes, she smiled a quick and impulsive welcome.

“Why, Captain Cleedman!” she exclaimed, “What brings you here?”

“A policeman goes everywhere, Mrs. Morton,” answered Cleedman. “Bob Grant, the timber-wallah, told me you were here. I’m staying with him, and came along to pay my respects and congratulate your husband.”

“How nice of you!” Her tone was conventionally polite, and looking at her Cleedman thought how exactly Grant’s description fitted her. She was a beautiful bit of porcelain, but beyond her perfection of feature there was nothing ceramic about her face. It was warm and vital, but in her eyes lay the hint of terror to which Grant had referred. Touching her cool fingers, Cleedman realized that Mary Morton was a very brave woman, and all the love he had felt for her back in Bombay returned to him.

There followed a moment or so of awkward interchange of commonplaces, and then Cleedman referred to the glory of the garden.

“Oh, Wilbur is crazy about his garden,” smiled Mary. “Come and talk to him about it and he’ll be your friend for life.”

“Matter of fact,” said Cleedman, following to the verandah, “I want to ask him a favor.”

“Praise his grottoes and he’ll grant you anything. But what is it?” There was a suggestion of caution in the question, and Cleedman smiled.

“Only to ask him to take me with him the next time he goes after that man-eater Grant tells me is plaguing the district. Think he would?”

They had mounted the steps of the verandah, and, with the disturbed wolf-hound nuzzling her hand, Mary turned quickly; but before she could speak, a soft bass voice purred from a long chair in the shadow of the awning: 1

“Not if I know it.”

Cleedman started, arid peering into the shadow, made blacker by the sun outside, he beheld Mary’s husband.

TT WAS five years since he had seen Wilbur Morton, and five years in the East, especially in the junglelands of India, play odd tricks with a man’s appearance. Cleedman knew that, but he was not prepared for the change he saw. Back in Bombay at their previous meeting, when Cleedman was freshly out, and Morton down shipping a motley collection of wild things to captivity, the big-game hunter had appeared pretty much of a hero to the neophyte. He was gay and debonair, and rumor had it he hunted women as .adroitly as he hunted animals and with the same success.

He was a small-boned man, lean and strong as a steel cable, with a scarred face carrying amber eyes of a strange stillness. One felt he would be at his best, tensed to spring, watching and waiting for his prey to slacken for an instant its vigilance. For all his scars Morton had then been wickedly handsome; but now his features had taken on a sort of aggressive passivity, a kind of vengeful brooding.

He did not speak again for a second, but when Cleedman with:“ Hallo, Morton, long time since I saw you!” held out his hand, he took it in a velvet vise, his lips twitching into a smile. For an instant the amber eyes slunk to his wife, then returned to Cleedman.

“Forgive me, Captain Cleedman,” he said. “I lack the adroitness of my wife. I am rendered gauche by surprise. We thought you were dead! I was told you were dead.”

A faint color had come to Mary’s cheeks, and Cleedman chuckled.

“Whoever told you that was stretching truth to breaking point,” he said. “A thug tickled my ribs with a lucky shot. I bled to the edge of beyond, but managed to hold on; and now I’mgetting fit.”

“Excellent,” said Morton, and signalled for drinks. “So now you wish to commit suicide by going after a man-eater. Take my advice and leave them alone—there are a brace of ’em. Drinkers of human blood become dangerously cunning in spite of stories to the contrary. I’ll not take you out with me. I don’t want your death on my hands.”

“Then will you give me a pointer or two as to their hunting ground? I’m keen to get a good skin.”

“Even if you lose your own?” chuckled Morton. “Well, the police were always a foolhardy crowd, and you’ll find the man-eaters aprowl wherever there is a native to be garnered. They like Grant’s wood-cutters, so he ought to be able to help you; but if I were you I’d stick to deer. There are samburs, chital and nilgai, besides wild-pig for a change. Leave the maneaters to me. You’ll pay dear if you don’t.” While he spoke, his strange, still eyes lay on Cleedman’s face, giving the words a deeper meaning, not so much threat as a pungent warning. Then suddenly he laughed, rose to his feet and held out his hand in dismissal.

“I know what I’m talking about,” he said. “Good-by.”

For an instant Cleedman hesitated. It was evident to him that Morton was a pukka dogin-the-manger, and as such had to be humored.

“Good-by,” he said, touching the silk-coated steel of Morton’s fingers. “I, too, know a bit about things and I’m keen to bag the brutes. I wonder whether you or I will be the successful man.”

He turned, saluted Mary and descended the steps, knowing as he crossed to his pony that Morton’s brooding eyes were on him. It was as he prepared to mount that he found Mary at his side.

“Captain Cleedman,” she said, in a hurried voice. “Please don’t do anything too unwise.”

Cleedman grinned grimly.

“I love a challenge, Mrs. Morton,” he said. “And when I’ve potted that man-eater, I’ll send you the skin.” Before she could answer, Morton’s steel-cored voice called her name, and with a fleeting smile she sped back to the bungalow.

Riding away, Cleedman found that Mary Morton dwelt in his mind. He tried to banish her, knowing that another man’s wife is a dangerous tenant for any fellow’s thoughts, but she stayed; and he was still thinking of her when Grant returned from the forest at mid-day.

“Well, what do you make of our tame trapper?” asked Grant.

Cleedman told him of their interview, and Grant grinned.

“He don’t want any blacklegs butting in, evidently,” he murmured. “Are you going to take his advice?”

“I’m going after ‘stripes’ tonight, if you can give me any idea where I’m likely to find him or them. Morton says there’s a brace of ’em.”

Grant scratched his iron-gray head.

“The last time they made a kill was on the far side of the village just short of where I had a gang working among the sal trees. They got one of my wood-cutter3 as the poor blighter was going home late.”

“Then I’ll await his excellency there,” said Cleedman. “Anyone handy who can show me the spot, help rig up a platform and hobble the bait?”

“I’ll come along, too,” said Grant. “It’s too risky a job to tackle single-handed.”

“Splendid,” said Cleedman, and went off to overhaul his guns.

It was not, by a long shot, the first time Cleedman had spent the night in a tree waiting for tiger; but for some reason during that first night after the man-eaters, he had an eerie sensation at the back of his neck. Hour after “black hour passed with never a sound but the sinister and furtive pulse-throb of the jungle. He ached for sleep. ached for a smoke, ached for speech. Only by sheer will-power did he keep alert. Occasionally he heard a stifled yawn come from where Grant, perched like a huge bird in the fork of a tree five yards to his right, strove actively for wakefulness.

It was with a vast sense of relief, mitigating to some degree his disappointment at a blank night, that he heard the dawnwind stir the dry grass and felt the trees shudder into wakefulness.

“Thank goodness it’s time to move,” called Grant. “There’ll be nothing doing now. Lord! How many hours are there to a minute when you’re balanced in a tree fork watching for a man-eater?”

Cleedman lowered himself to the ground, stretched his long limbs, and felt for his pipe.

“Don’t know,” he grinned. “But the pains I’ve suffered are another score against the blighter. I’ll get him before I’m through.”

“Resolute youth,” quoth Grant, as they strode off to a bath and breakfast.

fT'HAT was the first of many nights L Cleedman and Grant lay in wait for the man-eaters. The beasts seemed to have an almost human wit, for while Cleedman would be watching in one place where their tracks had been seen, they’d help themselves to an unfortunate native a mile away. During the next fortnight it became a game of hide-and-seek: Cleedman never fired a shot, and two more of Grant’s woodmen were taken.

Once or twice when out riding, Cleedman met Mary Morton and her husband. Mary on these occasions looked nervous and seemed to wish to pass on with just a tossed greeting, but Wilbur always reined up, and treated Cleedman to a tolerant smile.

Always would he ask the same question: “Still after the man-eaters, Captain Cleedman?”

And when Cleedman answered “yes,” he would smile in that furtive way of his; his eyes would take on a caressing expression and he would sigh: “Mind they

don’t get you before you get them, my friend.”

And when he said that, Mary would glance at Cleedman with frank terror in her eyes, and the policeman would be left with his heart beating, and a firm conviction that the girl he loved feared acutely for his safety.

One evening a runner brought him a note from her:

“Please go away. I am sure evil

will come of this rivalry. M.M.”

And although there was no word of love in that brief note, Cleedman treasured it as a monk does his missal.

TT WAS at the end of a sweltering day ^ when Cleedman had been at Hadjpur three weeks that Grant came back to his bungalow excited.

“Now’s your chance to beat Morton at his own game,” he declared. “Two of my ‘blazers’ have volunteered to act as decoys. They are brothers and have seen the beasts’ tracks three mornings running down by a water-hole against our workings, and they offer to rig up a tent under some trees in which we can perch, and occupy it from midnight onward. They say their scent is sure to draw the tigers.”

“By gad, they are sportsmen,” exclaimed Cleedman. “Are you going to let ’em do it?”

Grant shrugged his shoulders.

“They are keen,” he said. “And they declare it is better to take one great risk for one night than go on fearing every day. I’ve accepted, and they are getting things ready now. We’ll go over at ten if you’re agreeable.”

“I’ll go and get my guns,” said Cleedman. “And if your braves help us to beat friend Morton, I’ll treat ’em proud.”

ANDREW CLEEDMAN is not likely to forget that night so long as breath remains in his body. From the first moment that they entered the forest and commenced threading their way through the tangled undergrowth, a sense of foreboding assailed him. He felt in his bones that something terrible was going to happen.

After the heat of the day the atmosphere of the jungle was rancid. In the distance thunder rumbled, and every now and then the whole forest seemed to shudder with apprehension. Most of their path beneath the trees was so black that Cleedman was only conscious of Grant’s proximity by hearing his harddrawn breath as he plugged along; and once the swift slither of a snake brought him to a sharp standstill trembling in every limb.

“By gad, my nerves are on the jump

tonight,” he said. “How much farther is it to the spot?”

“Tent should be a hundred yards ahead now,” answered Grant. “We shall come to a patch of tall grass on the left in a second or two. The river lies on the other side by a cart track to the village, and our roosting place is on the right of the clearing.”

Stealthily they went ahead, and presently the cool smell of water came to them.

“Now bear right a bit and we should see the tent,” said Grant.

“There it is.” Cleedman pointed to a dingy bell-tent which made a blur against the blackness of the trees.

“Good,” grunted Grant, and going forward pushed his head inside. “Hadi!” he whispered.

There was no answer, and with a pencil torch Grant shone a streak of light round the tent.

“Good lord!” he gasped. “It’s empty!”

“Maybe their courage failed them at the last minute,” suggested Cleedman.

“The grass is trodden.” Grant spoke with sharp concern in his voice.

“You aren’t suggesting that we’ve arrived too late, are you?” asked Cleedman.

“My fellows swore that the man-eaters never hunted before early morning,” said Grant. “Perhaps they’ve gone back to the village to gather hero-worship from their relations in the shape of illegally brewed grog and will come back later.”

“Hope they won’t get lagged on the way,” said Cleedman. “Anyway we’d better get up to our platforms.”

And then once again the ordeal of silent watch commenced for Grant and Cleedman. Hour after hour passed, and as the night deepened the hell-echo of feeding-time in the jungle tore at the watchers’ nerves.

A black bear, winding them, sniffed disdainfully aloft; but not being aggressive to man, lumbered off in search of grubs, ants or perchance the precious gift of a nest of wild bees. A panther glided up to the tent-flaps, sniffed enquiringly, and then gazed up the tree, its yellow eyes two spots of eager fire, and then slunk away. Soon the death-c-ry of a deer told that the cat had got its meat. In the distance an elephant trumpeted and set a jackal-pack barkmg.

“Those braves of mine have either got drunk or cold feet and let us down,” growled Grant under his breath.

“The tent and our scent may do their work for them,” muttered Cleedman. “But I wish to the Lord something would happen.”

Slowly, toward dawn, as though sated with blood, the jungle began to still. A pale light began to show through the upper branches of the trees, and the surface of the river on the far side of the tract of tall dead grass took on the appearance of a mackerel’s back.

“Another dud!” muttered Grant. “This is the last time of asking for me. I like my bed too well to take to this sort of idiocy as a hobby.”

It was then that the scream came !

'“PHERE are many sorts of screams.

There is the scream of breaking selfcontrol, the scream of acute physical pain, the scream of acute fear. You hear them all in India pretty often and get used to them; but the one cry which every jungle-man dreads, which has the power of robbing the brain of thought and the limbs of volition, is that uttered by a man struck down by a tiger.

It has a quality of horror all its own, and hearing it both Cleedman and Grant gripped their rifles and stopped breathing.

Then it came again, close at hand, and with one impulse both the watchers scrambled down from their platform.

“The devils have got someone!” gritted Cleedman, as he swung himself to the ground and started to run forward.

“Go steady!” cautioned Grant; but Cleedman paid no heed. The odd mewling of a tiger at meat came to his ears as he reached the clearing, and there in the centre was a huge tiger, his paws pinning a sprawling native to the earth.

Cleedman was quick With his gun; it came to his shoulder automatically. The report sent a flock of parrots screaming away, and the great striped beast rolled over.

“Got him!” said Cleedman grimly.

“Look out!” Grant cried. “There’s another moving in the grass!”

But before a second shot could be fired, the grasses parted and a scared eyed native woodman peered fearfully out into the clearing. In the pale light of dawn the dusky features looked almost animal in their furtive terror.

“Sahib!” he cried, hands to forehead, and shambled forward; but, white to the lips, Cleedman had gone up to where the dead tiger lay across the body of its victim. Grant had followed, and for a moment they stood staring down, bareheaded. It needed no close examination to tell them that Wilbur Morton was dead!

There was no sign of a rifle; but by his side, flung from his hand in his fall, was a short knobkerrie; and afraid of his thoughts Cleedman avoided Grant’s eyes.

“Poor devil,” muttered Grant.

“What brought him here?” Cleedman’s tone was low and speculative. “Do you suppose he had heard we were after the man-eaters, and planned to snatch and claim our game?”

“Without a rifle, and only armed with a club?” With pursed lips Grant turned to the woodman who had come up and now stood beside them.

“Well?” he asked. “What do you know, brother of Hadi?”

“Sahib,” whimpered the native. “The eaters of men have taken my brother also.”

"How do you know?” asked Cleedman.

“Because, behold, he is not,” said the woodman. “I came to look for him.”

“But,” snapped Grant, “you ought to have been with him in the tent all night.”

The native spread his hands.

“Sahib, our father being suddenly stricken sick, one of us had to stay. Hadi, my brother, being fearless, promised to occupy the tent alone and return at the first peep of day. As he came not, I grew anxious lest evil had befallen him and came to learn the truth. I heard the cry as I approached the clearing, and thought it was he . . . ”

He broke off abruptly and scudded toward the grasses. Looking round, Cleedman and Grant saw Hadi, his feet and hands bound and a gag round his mouth, wriggling toward them like a snake.

They watched in silence while the man was freed from his bonds, and then going forward Cleedman examined the rope.

“Stoutish stuff,” remarked Grant.

Cleedman nodded, his lips set grimly.

“Steel-cored trapper’s rope,” he said. “Stuff used by big-game hunters when taking wild animals alive. The knots, too, were trapper’s knots . . He

paused, and then added very quietly. “I think that while we settled the man-eater the man-eater settled the man-snatcher!”

Grant started back.

“You mean . . .’’he commenced.

“That Wilbur Morton was a dealer in human beings as well as in wild animals.”

“My God!” There was stark horror in Grant’s tone. “No wonder his wife looked scared to death of him. Do you think she knew?”

“She’d not have stayed with him a minute if she had,” declared Cleedman. “She may have guessed there was something horrible going on, but she didn’t know what.”

He turned to Hadi, now free and panting with combined fear and excited relief.

“What happened to you?” he asked.

Hadi waved his liberated hands and broke into a deluge of explanation. He spoke in the argot of the jungle, but boiled down and clarified it came to this: that he had been sitting in the tent awaiting the arrival of the Sahibs when he had been suddenly struck on the head . . .

“By such a thing as that,” he said, pointing with his foot to the knobkerrie.

He had come to his senses some time later to find himself trussed up and gagged, and lying in Sahib Morton’s game cart. “Which even now stands on the cart track!” he finished with a flourish of eastern emphasis.

Cleedman remained silent and glanced at Grant. For the sake of the white man’s prestige foul facts must be twisted into a seemly story. It was clear to both him and Grant that Morton had refrained from accounting for the man-eaters, because so long as they were aprowl the disappearance of the natives would be attributed to them; and he had brazenly come to the forest that night because he had heard that the two woodmen were acting as bait. He looked squarely at Hadi.

“It was the bad men from the north who seized you,” he said gravely. “They have now made their escape; but had it not been that Sahib Morton came after them and scared them, they would have taken you to Nepal or Bhutan in the game cart which they had also stolen. Now help us to remove your saviour’s body, and let your gratitude be shown by your honor and reverence.”

rT'HE police,” mused Grant, as an hour later they made their way homeward, “are an agile-witted race; but I wonder whether the two woodmen believed you?”

“They are wise men,” murmured Cleedman, “and know they have been delivered from manbane. For the rest there will be feasting!”

Two hours later Cleedman rode over to the Morton bungalow, and broke the news of her widowhood to Mary. What he said and what he left unsaid is a matter of privacy between them.