In which white man's magic dices with Death and probes the secret of the Wild Wa's shrine
GEORGE EDWARD ALLEN
The story: Dr. Walter Granger is a distinguished surgeon at a great New York hospital. Because of his overbearing attitude he is disliked by his associates. He plans to marry a society girl and practice surgery only for the money he can make: but when the girl jilts him he decides to do something for humanity by accepting a medical research post in Burma.
On board ship he meets Vivian Smith, who has learned nursing at the New York hospital, and intends to serve with her doctor father who is already in Burma When Granger speaks slightingly of her father's ability, she retorts that the latter's humanity makes htm a better doctor than Granger. When they reach My it-Asa, a Burmese town which supports a hospital, Vivian declines Granger's offer of a nursing position and joins her father at La-Taung. a post in the territory of a head-hunting tribe called the Wild Wa.
Granger makes a slightly more favorable impression on Vivian when he kills a wild tiger and when he operates successfully on her ailing father she consents to accept his nursing position in erne week's time She fails to appear as promised, and Walter learns Huit she’ has been kidnapped by the Wild Wa.
Disguised as a native medicine man from another district and accompanied by two Burmese servants, he enters the headhunters' principal village, and there meets Vivian, who is close guarded as a prisoner. He escapes immediate death by promising to bring rain that has been predicted by the Government Meteorological Service, but is told that if it doesn’t come before the South Stars rise his life will be forfeit.
BUT Ramong did not give Walter a chance to treat the village maladies and demonstrate his value alive. The people were not troubled just now by fever devils, he said—actually the long drought had banished malaria and his own medicine men would cure the present crop of minor ailments.
So Walter looked and could see nothing more to do. His pistol must not be shown or even disco vert'd on his body or among his effects. So he sat in the door of his prison hut and watched the sky.
Once a dark bank of cloud pushed up above the horizon, but the wind changed and slowly it «ink from sight. After
that, the villagers counted his head as good as on the post.
‘‘I don’t blame you for not going to work,” he thought cynicallyfor he was still Walter Granger, and would be up above or down below. “It isn’t every day that three travellers with fine heads bring a little joy into your humdrum lives. 1 don’t mind you squatting like vultures around a dying buffalo, or the children romping about with eager anticipation on their little faces. But I’m darned if you need to keep pointing so cheerfully at the sky. I can see for myself the end of a perfect day.”
The sun went down. Walter asked that Mah Kyi and Moung Ne be brought to his hut. And because there was nothing to lose, perhaps the favor of a powerful ghost to gain, this was done.
"Tonight we go to our gods,” he told them, calling them his Kale Mya children. “Mine is the blame for leading you here. But I ask you to make peace with me. in your hearts, before we go.”
“There was ever peace between our hearts and yours. Sahib Saya-Sawbwa.” Moung Ne answered. “And perhaps the rain will fall between now and the time.”
Walter shook his head. Nor was he denying Moung Ne a hope that he harbored himself. He knew that in life as well as in books seeming miracles happened in the nick of time, and certainly there was new feeling in the air. but every weather sense told him that if rain fell tonight it w'ould be after their heads fell.
“Yet I have a small image in my pouch, to help me address my mind to Lord Buddha.” Moung Ne went on. “I will pray fervently for immediate and drenching rain.”
“But pause in your prayers to eat heartilyboth of you. In this my saddlebag, are many good things. Also there is a bottle of Scotch arrack, to strengthen the heart against the Wa knives.”
"My heart is already strong. Yet I will drink a little, to make merry.”
"And I will drink a little too. so my tongue will be quick for jests.” Mah Kyi said.
“There is another notion in my head.” Walter confessed. “I have certain powders which would put you to
sleep, not to waken until you are with your gods. A few hours of anxious waiting, and a few' seconds when the skin crawfls on the body, w'ould be saved.”
“Will you eat those powders, lord?” Moung Ne asked.
“Would you want us to eat the powders?” he persisted cunningly.
“You are free to eat them, if you will, but I would rather you stand straight and proud on your feet, until the knives fall.”
“That is my Burra Sahib.” Mah Kyi murmured under her breath. Her eyes were glow'ing.
“Then I shall not eat them, either,” Moung Ne said. “You are the Burra Sahib, and I am only Moung Ne, but w'e be two men. and although Mah Kyi is only a woman, tonight she seems not so.”
“Yes, we be three,” Walter said. His heart was leaping in a little different way than it had ever leaped before. “Also we have kept faith with what gods we have. Now I would be alone until the time.”
OUT Walter was not alone for very long. When still an hour remained before he could expect the Southern Cross to rise above the hills, a small figure slipped like a dark ghost through his door. It was Saromo.
Walter looked up w'ith burning eyes and a stifled heart. He was ready to clutch at a straw. “Why are you here?”
“To beg a charm -or any other favors a great guru might give a village girl.”
“A charm to win the love of a great chief?”
“I already have his love. O Guru.” She tossed her head proudly. “But my dreams go higher than any Wa in these hills.”
“If I give you the charm you want, what price can you pay?”
“I would free you. if I could. But I might as well try' to free the stars in Karom-Simung. I have told Ramong that unless he spares y'ou, he can never have my favors, but I had as well tell Karom-Simung not to rise tonight. And Ramong raged like num pare, the thunder.”
Ss it was a straw ! Walter let go his held breath. But a feeling of kindness swept him, and he said:
“I will give you a charm, for your heart’s desire, but go quickly.”
“My heart’s desire is—that I not go quickly.”
“I do not understand.”
“I want a charm upon the giver of the charm. I want him to lay a spell whereby my eyes would seem as stars, my face beautiful as a flower, my body as a dream in the night. I would be his slave until he leaves me. It is a little time, but the warmth and spirit of a full basket of rice can be poured in one bowl.”
This was one of the most extraordinary things that had ever happened to him, Walter was thinking. “Would not Ramong slay you, it he knew?”
“Not if he gave me time to look into his eyes—thus—and stroke his hand—so. Anyway he will not know. He sits sulking in his great house. When I stroke his hand—so— he clasps me to him quickly, but I laugh and twist away . But the great guru does not clasp me to him—and if he did, I would laugh only in happiness and not twist away.”
“But this is folly, Saromo. Hardly before three pots can boil, I go.”
“Folly, lord? Never have I seen such a man, and never will again. I have never seen white men, but I have heard many tales, and save for your brown skin I would think you were one of them.”
Her voice trembled, but she went on very softly and earnestly:
“And when you are gone, I would have what would make me stand above the Wa women as our hills stand above the fields of the Lem Shan.”
So hero worship was not confined to the young daughters of civilization beyond the Indian seas! Of course the doom hanging over him added to her romance; although the daughter of a head-hunter, and never doubting that the practice was pleasing to her gods, still she had enough imagination to see tragedy unrolling before her eyes. That she expressed her hero worship according to her primitive instincts, made it none the less touching to the cynical and
worldly man towering above her. She wanted to give him all she had.
"If I am like a sahib, you are like a memsahib in your heart. Saromo," he told her. “But I cannot take your gift."
“Am I so ugly in your eyes? Your heart is cold to me?"
“No, you are beautiful in my eyes, and my heart is warm. This is the proof.”
He bent and kissed her full upon her dark lips. Her eyes grew enormous, shining like lamps in this dim room, but she did not misunderstand. With a little sob she crept away, out the door, into the darkness.
But the part Saromo played in his life was not over yet. He heard a man’s voice shouting in fury not far from his door, then a voice that he felt sure was Saromo’s, shrilling spitefully in answer.
The uproar swelled. Standing at his door, he saw the villagers dashing from the cooking fires to join the growing crowd in the firelight by the chief’s house, where there might be opportunities for a bold and desperate man.
Walter steadied his nerves and stalked out the door toward the crowd. His guards gathered about him, their faces drawn with some new and intense excitement, but although his skin shrank on his body he paced on.
Ramong himself met him on the trail. There w^as fury on his face, and frenzy, and unless Walter’s cold, trained eyes deceived him, horror. He ran at Walter, brandishing his knife.
Walter thought of his pistol. But he thought of V’ivian too—she was the light of his mind—anyway the weapon was useless against this frenzied horde. So he held up one hand in an imperious gesture to Ramong, and with the other pointed to the Southern sky.
“If you break your vow\ my gods will destroy this village,” Walter cried.
Ramong turned in a dazed way to Jak, who spoke Burmese. The latter interpreted. Ramong answered like the snarling of a mad dog.
“What does he say?” Walter asked Jak.
“He goes to his house, but we, the Wa men, are to wait beside you until our stars rise. And Ramong prays to his gods that they shine before their time.”
“What have I done that he would make such haste?”
“By your wicked magic you have driven him mad. so that he slew Saromo.”
So Ramong had not given her time to look into his eyes and stroke his hand ! But there moved such an electric shock along his spine as to lift the hair of his head, and he asked distinctly:
“Has she ceased to breathe?”
“Not yet, for the knife was slim and small, with a jewelled hilt, not the heavy blade that is bared for you.”
“Does the blood spurt fast and bright?”
“No, it seeps but slowly from the deep wound, and darkly, so that she may wait for Karom-Simung and go
with you. Perhaps that too is by your potent magic.”
“It is not my magic that makes great chiefs thrust knives into beloved breasts,” Walter answered in a ringing voice. “That is the wicked work of jealousy and anger. But sometimes my magic can undo that work. I go to try to bring Saromo back from the grave.”
AUGHT up by a solemn exultation, as men are when suddenly they catch a glimpse of destiny moving straight and sure, Walter hurried toward the chief’s house.
Ramong overtook and swung in front of him, Jak at his side. But they were not dangerous now*; Walter knew it when he looked into their grey faces and wide, lightless eyes. The situation was too deep for them.
“Fool, get out of my way.” Walter ordered. Ramong understood and stepped aside, but his open mouth poured out a stream of sound. Because the chief’s co-operation was necessary for any work in hand, Walter paused to let Jak interpret.
“Ramong says that if you work your magic on Saromo. it is not his pidgin or with his favor. You cannot save her, and even if you do you cannot save your own head from the post.”
But Walter did not stop to bargain, or to think how strange and new this was.
The girl was stretched on a mat on the floor where Ramong had laid her, three or four women waiting for her to die. Walter ordered the oil lamps brought nearer, and sent one of the women after Mali Kyi and Moung Ne. Then he knelt at the girl’s side.
The wound was just to the left of her breastbone. Her pulse was w'eak and fast, and when he felt it disappear as she inhaled, he was almost certain what his diagnosis would be. It wras like a flash in his brain, perhaps more intuition than reasoning, an instance of that snap judgment that experienced diagnosticians often make, above and beyond all apparent symptoms.
He believed that Ramong’s knife had pierced the right ventricle of Saromo’s heart, neither a deep cut nor a quickly mortal one, but the blood from the wound was flooding the pericardium, the sack enclosing the heart. Unless the cut was sewed up and the sack drained, the heart would be stifled like a tired swimmer in deep water.
Walter began to give orders. He gave them not too fast, or in too loud a voice, lest Jak become confused and the tribespeople run about in circles. It was quicker to move the patient than his equipment, so he ordered four men to pick up gently the mat on which she lay, holding it taut as a stretcher, and carry her to his "joss house.” He directed that every stone lamp in the village lx* brought there, that something in the way of a table lx* found or made, and that great quantities of water lx* set to boil.
With a hypodermic needle purified by a torch. Walter introduced a quarter of a grain of morphine into Saromo’s thigh. This would strengthen her heart for a while and perhaps give him a little more time.
In the first pot that boiled he sterilized the largest needle he possessed, then thrust its long point inch after inch into the girl’s breast. But he was not finishing her off before the villagers’ eyes, only making sure of his diagnosis and relieving a little of the pressure on her laboring heart. Nor did the point pierce her heart at all. only the fUxxied sack in which it fluttered.
He drew back the plunger. The glass filled with dark blood. He was sure now.
In a few minutes more he and Mah Kyi were naked to the waist and scrubbed and gloved. The rtxmi was well lighted by nearly a score of oil lamps and he was ready to begin the operation.
But as he stopped to catch his breath, a dim sense of the drama enacting here opened wide his glittering eyes. Even in a great American hospital the operation would be a dramatic one, although not especially delicate or in itself unusually dangerous. Here, under a thatched roof in a village of head-hunting Wa. performed by a doctor under sentence of death whether he killed or cured, on a patient stabbed by her lover in jealousy of that same doctor, with the aid of two Burmese comrades in a great adventure— but he had picked up his scalpel.
Before he touched its edge to Saromo’s brown flesh, he turned to the two Wa head-hunters whom he had appointed to hold lamps and run errands. One was Jak and the other was Ramong.
“Are you men or barren women?” he demanded.
“We be men,Guru," Jak answered. "We have taken heads in the field.”
“That was child’s play. Tonight you will see that which will turn your hearts inside out in your breasts. But if you drop the lamps, or faint, or fail to heed an order, by my gods I will take your own heads and put them on the roof beam for the vultures.”
"We hear. O Prince of Gurus. We will stand firm.”
"DUT WHAT a test to savage hearts this was, was not revealed for nearly three hours, when Ramong sat in his house. Jak at his side, and as many people as could possibly pack in the long room squatting in one brown mass before him and scores of others huddling outside under the eaves.
“Know then, O People, thaï 1 was given to hold one lamp an arm’s length of Saromo’s breast, so I saw all that took place. And you know that 1 had drunk but one stoop of arrack, so I saw not things which were not there, and if I were bewitched so was Jak to the same degree.
"The guru took up a knife whose blade was scarcely longer than my little finger. But it was sharper than the beard-cutting knives that the Chinese sell, for when he touched Saromo on the breast the flesh parted, right and left, neatly as the Gurkha soldiers that our fathers saw, when the officer sit-bo spoke.’’
Ramong was referring to another memorable day in the history of the Wa. They had taken the heads of two English officers, and British troops came to burn the villages. But one of those heads had become the village idol.
“My people, he made a cut in Saromo’s breast long as my hand and the gods only know how deep. Often the blood ran. but the guru called in a loud voice to his Burmese priestess and like him she wore the skin of a dead man’s hands upon her hands— and she gave him what appeared to be little sinews by which he made the bleeding stop at once.”
"This lx magic,” Htao, the village priest, broke in. “But 1 remember—”
“Magic? It had not begun. In the wound he placed an instrument of shining iron to keep it gaping wide. Now we have seen that when we leave dead men on the trail and later return, that within the chest there is a cage of bones. The bars of that cage in Saromo’s chest were too small to admit the guru's hand, so what did he do?”
Ramong paused for the sake of suspense. The audience held its breath.
"O People, he took another knife, and thrice cut away the little curved bones where they join the upright big bone. But Saromo did not die. Looking closely, I saw her breathe.
“And then the guru took little wads of cloth or cotton, and pushed aside what seemed to be* a kind of membrane. This seemed a little thing compared to the rest, but I looked upon the guru's face, and then ujx>n his hand, and I knew this was great magic, although I did not know why. His eyes were very thin and gave forth sparks, and his hand moved like a snail, without one little tremor. And then he called down the wrath of his gods upxm my head, because I had jiggled the lamp.”
If there had been a surgeon in Ramong’s audience, he would have understood perfectly Walter’s extreme care during this phase of the operation. He had been pushing aside the delicate pleura, the membrane connecting the lungs with the wall of the body. If he had injured it, his case was lost.
"And then I kxiked into the wound, and saw there a little sack, and in that sack 1 saw the narrow slit made bv the point of my knife,” Ramong went on.
“And then the guru called for a tool made of tw'o little knives fastened together midlength, with rings for his thumb and linger, arid he cut that sack its full length.”
“You jest with us,” Ramong’s brother cried.
"As I live, I speak truth. Chit of that sack came much blood, which the guru blotted up with wads of cloth. 1 thought then that my eyes would lx blinded if 1 saw any more. But I am Ramong. the chief of all the Wa, so I stcxxl fast and gazed. And then I saw what will lx before my eyes until 1 die.
“The guru reached his hand into the sack and drew forth the end of Saromo’s heart. I saw it. O People, plain as I have seen the hearts of slaughtered deer. But it moved. 1 saw it. It lay throbbing in the guru's hand, out and in, out and in. at the sfxed we beat the drum at the finish of tlie dance. 1 swayed on my feet, and the room turned black before my eyes so that I thought surely I was blinded by the mercy of the gods, but the guru barked at me like a dog. and the light cleared and 1 stcxxl firm.
“Then the guru began to work with great swiftness. The sweat w as on his face and his eyes were like lanterns. With sinew he sewed up the cut in Saromo’s heart made by my knife. I saw him do it with these eyes, stitch after stitch, and put Saromo’s heart back in its sack. Then he sewed up the sack he had ojxned, and fastened the thin curved bones back to the big upright bone with silver wires. And then, calling most angrily upon his gods, he sewed up the wound in Saromo’s breast, as our women sew a tear in our winter garments.”
“And Saromo lived?” one of the elders marvelled,
“With my own eyes I saw her come back from the Land of Shadows. Her breathing became as one who slumbers, and the look
as of ashes went out of her face, and after a long time she sighed in her sleep. I heard her. Then in his own tongue, which Jak changed into our tongue, the guru called me a name, and he laughed very loud and wildly. And if I have lied in one word, may I drop dead.”
"She lives,” came a solemn voice from the audience. It was old Htao, whose nose had been un jointed by tonight’s miracle. "I myself went to the spirit house, and grappled with the Nut who would make her die. But Ramong, does not the guru live also?”
Ramong did not answer.
“What then of your vow? Did you not say that if she lived or died, the guru’s head went on a post?”
“But also I said that if the guru brought rain before our stars arose, he should walk from our village alive. When Saromo returned to life and I went out into the night, the sky was overcast and a fine rain falling. How do I know when it began? But I know I am Ramong, chief of all the Wa.”
Htao knew better than tell him that the Southern Cross was high in the sky when the first cloud topped the horizon. But he fingered some chicken bones he carried around his neck, and then asked:
“But shall he live to tell w'hat he has seen? Would you have the soldiers come again, to cheat the White Ghost of his bride, slaughter our buffalo, and set our houses in flames? You did not swear he should walk alive beyond our village. Be wise, O Chief!”
CROUCHING beside the mat on which Saromo lay, Walter knew nothing of this. He was still absorbed by the case in hand; if he won it his fortunes were uncertain, but if he lost it everything seemed lost. He did not share in the tribal opinion that the girl was saved. The drugs he had administered were beginning to wear off, and others must be given to see her through the inevitable reaction.
But with the same care that he watched her pulse and bkxxi pressure, he listened to her babbling. Although she spoke mostly in the Wa tongue, at times she felt his presence and confided to him in Burmese. Her tongue was unguarded tonight and he hoped to hear something he could use, such as tribal fears and superstitions, or plans for the spirit wedding, or possibly the location of the white skull, the guardian of the village.
But not only her tongue was free. As so often happens in semidelirium, the gates of her subconscious mind were opened, and she laid bare secrets she did not know' she knew, unguessed yearnings, guilty passions, events of her childhood normally forgotten. And one of these secrets, an inkling in her inmost mind which her heart’s wishes had repressed and denied, made Walter gasp.
"I know why you have come among us, O Prince of (turns.” she told him, her eyes burning in the shadows. “It
was not your Nat who sent you here, but your man’s heart.”
Walter did not answ'er. He did not want such dangerous impressions crystallized.
“You did not come to see the white girl wedded to the Great White Ghost,” she went on. “You want her for yourself. You love her.”
“Go to sleep, Saromo.”
“I saw love in your eyes when you stood beside her, heard it in your voice. The words I did not know were meant for her ears, not Ramong’s. But no brown man would aspire to a white wife. You are a white man.” “Look at this hand. Is it white? Speak no more, lest fever burn your heart.”
"It is only paint. I have heard of such things long ago. But you shall not have her, guru. The fever already burns my heart, but not the fever of sickness.”
“You will be well in the morning. Go to sleep.”
“No, I will never be well until I lie in your arms. And if I cannot, neither can the white girl, if I live. So you had best withhold your magic, so I may die.”
Would she forget by morning? This was his lone hope. Even for Vivian, he could not take steps to make sure she would forget. He could not even fail to take steps that might make her remember.
He was Walter Granger, M.D.
LIFE WAS one continuous forging of one’s own chains, * Walter was thinking as he sat beside sleeping Saromo. Bound to Vivian by ties of friendship—love, for all he knew—he had had to mortgage his life. Bound to his profession by even more intangible ties, he could not let Saromo die, regardless of the fee, and he could not neglect her treatment to go to bed and rest.
Was this nobility of soul? Walter chortled infernally in the silence. He was simply the same kind of sucker that almost all men were, when the shoe pinched not a Napoleon or a Stalin, just an ordinary guy.
But when the tide of the night had reached full fkxxl and had begun to ebb, when the stars were most brilliant and would soon begin to dim, Saromo showed she would last till morning and he turned toward his mat. But the business of the night was not yet over. Someone was knocking lightly on the rear wall of his hut.
Walter answered lightly, then crept to his door. The wall was unclimbable, the tunnel secure, so his Wa guards were stretched on the ground asleep. Not a light burned in the village.
He stepped between the brown bodies and encircled the hut. Here he expected to find some villager with an axe to grind, [xrhaps another maiden seeking a love charm, more likely an outraged husband craving vengeance on his rival, but who or why, Walter resolved he would pay high. So when the starlight showed him a slim palecolored form with misty hair he could not believe his eyes.
"It’s okay,” Walter whispered. “My little pals are deep in the hay. How —” “I’ve always thought I could get out. if I needed to. I didn’t try it before - no use. There’s a gap between the top of the wall and the rooi—”
"But it’s hardly a foot—”
“No salad dressing, and very little pie and candy. What chance of being caught?” “None here. Just be ready to fade out. How about you?”
“My gang’s asleep too. You ought to hear them. It’s never occurred to them I could wiggle through the gap.”
“But how are you going to get back? The wall’s high.”
“I can climb it, I think. Cracks between the planks. Do I have to get back? There’s no chance tonight?”
Walter considered, then shook his head. “The village wall’s unclimbable without equipment. As for the tunnel —”
“That’s out for good. Three or four Wa sleep just inside the gate, some more at the exit.”
“But we’ll find a way, Vivian. Some other night—”
“I know it. That’s why I had to see you. We’ve got over two weeks, if you don’t get reckless. Don’t, Walter, don’t force any issues. If you do. they’ll chop first and think afterward. Just keep your head and play along and think.”
“They’re mere children. Remember that. They think they’re doing me a great honor—and my father too. But remember they won’t let you go, now you’ve seen me here. So when we’re ready, we’ll go the whole hog.”
“Good work, Miss Smith.”
“Thanks, doctor. One thing more, then I’ll scoot. Walter, we’re in a pickle, but also we’ve got the greatest opportunity that ever came to two white people in this neck of the woods.”
"What in heaven’s name do you mean?” “You saw all those skulls on the posts. There’s nearly as many at half a dozen other villages. Every year there will be more, as long as they have that white skull. They’ll think they can defy the Government and everyone.”
“Don’t be a fool, Vivian.”
“Huh! Don’t you be, and always be sorry. When we go, let’s take that white skull with us and put an end to all this killing.”
“It may be concealed in the spirit house, just above the village road. Try to find out, if you can. If we could set fire to it, that would probably do the business.” “Great heavens, you don’t suggest we add to our own risk !”
“Not much, of course. A little won’t hurt; the odds will still be with us. Aren’t we going to keep on living in this country? It would turn the tables so beautifully, Walter. Don’t be a dumb cluck.”
“Well, I’ll be—”
“Are you going to let them get away with this kind of thing? Now I’ve got to go—”
“I should say so. Go to bed and go to sleep; you’re hysterical.”
“Am I?” He could feel her eyes, if he could not see them in the darkness.
“No; you’re probably the sanest human being I ever met. But I’m crazy enough for both of us. That’s why I’m going to kiss you good night.”
“You call that crazy?”
“I was mistaken. Most sensible thing I ever did. When we’re dead, we’re good and dead. But when we’re alive . . .” “Good night!”
A FTER a glance at his ow n guards, who Tk had not moved a finger, Walter went with Vivian to the chief’s house, in case she would need a boost up the wall. She did not, and presently was squirming over the top. On a blind hope, he reached into the pitch darkness under the eaves and touched her hand reaching down to his.
He returned to his own jail and was soon asleep. No one disturbed the rest of the Great Guru, so the sun was high, and the little noises of village life were in full chorus, when again he opened his eyes. For a moment he did not know where he w'as or how he had got here.
He took a look at his patient. He had never seen such a quick comeback. “I am Saromo (the dream).” she told him in Burmese. “But is it a dream that I live?” “Unless it is a dream that all of us live, as believe the people of Hind,” Walter answered.
Meanwhile he was searching her face. He might as well find out if she remembered her delirious dream of a white spy coming to steal the White Ghost’s bride. But not a glimmer of cunning came into her wide, dark eyes.
“When one of us saves another’s life, that life belongs to the saver,” she told him. “You, Guru, not only saved my life but gave it back to me when I was among the dead. So I am your slave in this life and the next. If you say to me, ‘live,’ I shall live, but if you say, ‘die,’ then I must lie down and my heart stop.”
“Then may your servant arise and put your cooking pot upon the fire?”
“Arise? You must not stand on your feet for many days. But you shall be carried at once to your own place.”
‘‘The place of a slave is beside her master.”
“No, where her master sends her.” Her
eyes became like those of a whipped dog. “But so your «strength may return quickly for my service, you shall go to Ramong’s house. His women will serve you, and there the magic is good for healing.”
“And you will come there to make medicine for me?”
Her eyes changed again. They narrowed and shone. “But you must make it in the inner room, where the memsahib waits for her bridal night?”
Walter kept his countenance. “If my Nat leads me there.”
“I would rather I do not see your face, and be left to fight Hsiawm-yum (death) alone, than that you should see her face.” “This is great evil, Saromo. The high gods—”
“What does the pain under my left breast care for the high gods?”
“It is to remind you of Ramong’s knife and of your visit to the Land of Shadows.” “I am known as the most beautiful of all the Wa,” she went on passionately, “but what is my face compared to hers? A Chinese kite to the moon. A murky fire on a hill to the sun.”
In his pity for her, Walter almost failed to realize the menace of her words, how much might hang or fall on this girl’s passions. “What do I. a holy man, care for any woman’s face, let alone one white as skimmed milk?” he demanded.
“I do not know, lord. But last night I knew—I saw it in a dream. And soon, perhaps, that dream will come back to me.”
T) UT there was nothing for Walter to do but battle and blunder on.
Saromo was carried to the chief’s house. Remorseful of his deed, and in a childlike awe of the greatest miracle in tribal history, Ramong made no objection to Walter coming often to her bedside to continue the healing. There he learned all he could of Wa life and customs, the weak spots in their lines, and the routine of Vivian’s guards. But he never suggested that he enter her cell. He had too much respect for Saromo’s bright black eyes.
Soon he was given the run of the village. On his fourth night his guards quit their posts, trusting wholly to the high wall and the deep guarded tunnel. Meanwhile he was lobbying in the name of the gods for a carnal rather than a spirit marriage between the memsahib and the Great White Ghost. If a hair of her head was harmed, their wrath would be terrible to see.
But Htao, the chief wizard, stood his ground. It stood to reason that a ghost should want a ghostly bride, he said, not a creature of flesh and blood. If this strange guru was not actually in league with evil spirits, at least his greatest contribution to tribal welfare would be his head on a post. So Walter did not let grass grow under his feet in plotting escape.
Mah Kyi and Moung Ne were also given leg room. Walter saw the faithful pair whenever he liked, and soon they settled on what seemed a first-rate plan. About midway on the east wall there was a small thorn thicket. With this to shield them— and apparently the Wa never entered the tangle—they could burrow through the wall to freedom. The earth was baked hard by a hundred years of sunlight, it was a tangle of roots from the thorn hedge above, and to play safe they could dig only an hour or two between midnight and dawn, but in three operations a large enough incision could be made. Then Walter could send up his rockets—if these were seen by any villager they could be interpreted as signs in the sky—summoning an armed party to the hillside below.
In between would rear the precipitate slope of the knoll on which the village was built. But if the rescue party had no equipment for easing the fugitives down, they could slide down with the support of sharp poles or perhaps with ropes from Walter’s pack outfit. So when the first night’s digging gained four feet from the ten-foot village wall, Walter’s hopes soared high.
But there was a penalty for these high prospects. Now that the sky was clearing, he found himself gazing off to that greater victory Vivian had pictured. He objected strenuously. He snorted and argued and swore. His business was to bring his party back alive, a plenty big job without trying to make off with the tribal totem to save future lives.
But great forces were moving upon him. One was the undeniable feasibility of Vivian’s scheme. This totem alone nerved the Wa to defy the white man’s law. Without it, they would soon follow the tame Wa in posting graveyard skulls. The Government knew this and for years had tried to recover it. Cool-headed native agents had deliberately risked their lives for it and lost.
Moreover, the habit of lifesaving had got into his blood and bone. You can’t fight Death for seven years, man and boy, and then catch him bending without giving him a swift kick behind.
But the greatest force of all was the most vague, the hardest to pin down and fit in. Vivian felt so strongly about headhunting that she would add to her own risk to stop it. He felt so strongly about Vivian that he wanted to be the one to stop it. Strutting his stuff, he guessed; hoping to be the hero in her eyes.
Well, they were gorgeous eyes. Most of the great deeds of men were inspired by women. And if he missed this great chance she would never regard him the way he wished to be regarded, such a long way from the way he really was. And if his digging was discovered and his plans blown up. it would be an enormous advantage to control the white skull !
His chance to scout for it came the following night. The Wa were feasting the young moon, their high fires and drunken ramblings had prevented tunnel digging, but toward morning the fires burned low and the roisterers lay asleep where they had fallen. And as old Htao had stepped high tonight, the spirit house was probably unguarded.
YTTALTER took his little pistol from YV his armpit and put it in his breeches pocket. In another pocket he slipped his small, closely guarded flashlight. Then making sure that the coast was clear, he crept around his house to the rear of a loweaved building on the highest ground of the village.
It was the first time Walter had even approached this place. It was the holy-ofholies of the Wa, taboo to strangers, women and children, and to young hunters who had not yet “touched meat;” and Htao himself slept and cooked his rice in a hut off the main building. The latter was surrounded by a bamboo paling.
Stealthily, for dry bamboo is treacherous stuff, given to snappings and crackings and pistol-like explosions, Walter eased himself over the fence. And in the black dark under the eaves, his bare toes touched something smooth and warm.
For a terrific minute he stood there, half off his balance, not making the slightest sound, hardly daring to breathe. He had all but stepped on a sleeping Wa.
The man gave a little sigh and muttered as if to waken. Walter’s hand moved slowly to his breeches pocket, grimly proposing to knock him on the head and put him back to sleep. But the Wa—Walter decided it was old Htao—turned over and grew still.
Walter crept up the notched log into the spirit house. He could see nothing, hear nothing, but he smelled bones and blood. But those bones were mostly of chickens, used in divination, and of pigs, buffaloes, and dogs hung in bundles under the eaves as mementoes of sacrifice, as his first timid flash of his electric torch revealed.
It was a long wait, and the darkness very thick and evil-smelling, before he found the courage to flash the light again. It would shine through the door and under the low eaves, and some half-awake Wa might wonder . . . But his next flash revealed a bamboo box hung on the roof beam in the very middle of the room. On that box was the crude picture of a skull.
Was this the depository of the tribal totem? But perhaps he would never know. Sometimes he forgot, but now he remembered, what a deadly game this was.
There was a noise outside. Old Htao had wakened and had come up the ladder far enough to show his head.
"Who’s there?” he called in the Wa tongue.
There was no other door to the spirit house. Walter could handle Htao alone, but the shout was answered by other Wa who were springing up and would cut off his escape. And the almost bare room afforded no hiding place.
He thought hard and lie thought fast, before he remembered Vivian’s way of coming and going. Yes. there was a gap between the top of the walls and the roof, but whether he could climb up, crawl through, drop off . . . He took no stock in it but he would try.
But he was given a little break. The cocoanut in the doorway lowered and disappeared. Some of Htao’s friends were coming with flaring bamboo torches, and he had gone down the notched log to meet them. If the gods and devils who haunted the spirit house had become so bold as to flash lights about, be would rather not confront them alone.
Walter made an appalling noise, climbing up the wall, but it seemed to delay the investigation a little longer. Soon he was hanging by his hands. But the ground beneath was lighted intermittently by the flaring torches, and as the very low eaves shielded him he did not drop off. Instead he rested his feet on a projecting joist and waited developments.
When a score or more of Wa men had collected about the door, yelling and shrieking in Wa fashion, Walter recognized Ramong’s loud and lordly voice. At once the cracks in the walls became pale yellow streaks as th intrepid chief climbed the steps and ent ved the spirit house.
Walter watched him through one of the cracks. When Ramong saw nothing, he began to revile his followers as drunken fools and ghost-chasers. But if he looked a little closer, he would see the ends of eight fingers clutching the top of the wall.
Ramong advanced farther into the room. Htao and his bravest men behind him. As he reached the centre. Walter saw his knees and his back bend, and his head bow. At the same time he lifted his free hand to his forehead.
Walter did not give much thought to this action, at the time. He had completely forgotten his reason for coming here in his anxiety to go. Yet he noticed that when Htao reached the same place in the room he too salaamed, almost to the floor, and so did every Wa behind him.
With a final grunt of disgust Ramong turned on his heels and tramped out, followed quickly by his men. And it was the last gleam of the last man’s torch, leaping back over his shoulder, that changed an ill-starred escapade into glorious victory.
That final gleam picked up and blazoned forth a crudely painted skull on a bamboo box hung from the roof beam. It was exactly under that box that the Wa men had prostrated themselves.
Walter had located the white skull.
To be Concluded