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Copyright © 2017 by Guy Boothby
Published by Jovian Press
Interior design by Pronoun
Distribution by Pronoun
I AM OF COURSE PREPARED to admit that there are prettier places on the face of this earth of ours than Singapore; there are, however, I venture to assert, few that are more interesting, and certainly none that can afford a better study of human life and character. There, if you are so disposed, you may consider the subject of British Rule on the one hand, and the various aspects of the Chinese question on the other. If you are a student of languages you will be able to hear half the tongues of the world spoken in less than an hour’s walk, ranging say from Parisian French to Pigeon English; you shall make the acquaintance of every sort of smell the human nose can manipulate, from the sweet perfume of the lotus blossom to the diabolical odour of the Durien; and every sort of cooking from a dainty vol-au-ventto a stuffed rat. In the harbour the shipping is such as, I feel justified in saying, you would encounter in no other port of its size in the world. It comprises the stately man-of-war and the Chinese Junk; the P. and O., the Messagerie Maritime, the British India and the Dutch mail-boat; the homely sampan, the yacht of the globe-trotting millionaire, the collier, the timber-ship, and in point of fact every description of craft that plies between the Barbarian East and the Civilized West. The first glimpse of the harbour is one that will never be forgotten; the last is usually associated with a desire that one may never set eyes on it again. He who would, of his own free will, settle down for life in Singapore, must have acquired the tastes of a salamander, and the sensibility of a frog.
Among its other advantages, Singapore numbers the possession of a multiplicity of hotels. There is stately Raffles, where the globe-trotters do mostly take up their abode, also the Hôtel de l’Europe, whose virtues I can vouch for; but packed away in another and very different portion of the town, unknown to the wealthy G.T., and indeed known to only a few of the white inhabitants of Singapore itself, there exists a small hostelry owned by a lynx-eyed Portuguese, which rejoices in the name of the Hotel of the Three Desires. Now, every man, who by mischance or deliberate intent, has entered its doors, has his own notions of the meaning of its name; the fact, however, remains that it is there, and that it is regularly patronized by individuals of a certain or uncertain class, as they pass to and fro through the Gateway of the Further East. This in itself is strange, inasmuch as it is said that the proprietor rakes in the dollars by selling liquor that is as bad as it can possibly be, in order that he may get back to Lisbon before he receives that threatened knife-thrust between the ribs which has been promised him so long. There are times, as I am unfortunately able to testify, when the latter possibility is not so remote as might be expected. Taken altogether, however, the Hotel of the Three Desires is an excellent place to take up one’s abode, provided one is not desirous of attracting too much attention in the city. As a matter of fact its patrons, for some reason of their own, are more en evidence after nightfall than during the hours of daylight. They are also frugal of speech as a rule, and are chary of forming new acquaintances. When they know each other well, however, it is surprising how affable they can become. It is not the smallest of their many peculiarities that they seldom refer to absent friends by their names. A will ask B when he expects to hear from Him, and C will inform D that “the old man is now running the show, and that, if he doesn’t jump from Calcutta inside a week, there will be trouble on the floor.” Meanwhile the landlord mixes the drinks with his own dirty hands, and reflects continually upon the villainy of a certain American third mate, who having borrowed five dollars from him, was sufficiently ungrateful as to catch typhoid fever and die without either repaying the loan, or, what was worse, settling his account for the board and lodging received. Manuel, for this was the proprietor’s name, had one or two recollections of a similar sort, but not many, for, as a rule, he is a careful fellow, and experience having taught him the manners and idiosyncrasies of his customers, he generally managed to emerge from his transactions with credit to himself, and what was of much more importance, a balance on the right side of his ledger.
The time of which I am now writing was the middle of March, the hottest and, in every respect, the worst month of the year in Singapore. Day and night the land was oppressed by the same stifling heat, a sweltering calidity possessing the characteristics of a steam-laundry, coupled with those of the stokehole of an ocean liner in the Red Sea. Morning, noon, and night, the quarter in which the Hotel of the Three Desires was situated was fragrant with the smell of garbage and Chinese tobacco; a peculiar blend of perfume, which once smelt is not to be soon forgotten. Everything, even the bottles on the shelves in the bar, had a greasy feel about them, and the mildew on one’s boots when one came to put them on in the morning, was a triumph in the way of erysiphaceous fungi. Singapore at this season of the year is neither good for man nor beast; in this sweeping assertion, of course I except the yellow man, upon whom it seems to exercise no effect whatsoever.
It was towards evening, and, strange to relate, the Hotel of the Three Desires was for once practically empty. This was the more extraordinary for the reason that the customers who usually frequented it, en route from one end of the earth to the other, are not affected by seasons. Midwinter was to them the same as midsummer, provided they did their business, or got their ships, and by those ships, or that business, received their wages. That those hard-earned wages should eventually find themselves in the pocket of the landlord of the Three Desires, was only in the natural order of things, and, in consequence, such of his guests as were sailors, as a general rule, eventually boarded their ships without as much as would purchase them a pipe of tobacco. It did not, however, prevent them from returning to the Hotel of the Three Desires when next they happened to be that way. If he had no other gift, Manuel at least possessed the faculty of making it comparatively homelike to his customers, and that is a desideratum not to be despised even by sailor men in the Far East.
As I have said, night was falling on one of the hottest days of the year, when a man entered the hotel and inquired for the proprietor. Pleased to find that there was at last to be a turn in the tide of his affairs, the landlord introduced himself to the stranger, and at the same time inquired in what way he could have the pleasure of serving him.
“I want to put up with you,” said the stranger, who, by the way, was a tall man, with a hawk’s eye and a nose that was not unlike the beak of the same bird. “You are not full, I suppose?”
Manuel rubbed his greasy hands together and observed that he was not as full as he had been; thereby insinuating that while he was not overflowing, he was still not empty. It will be gathered from this that he was a good business man, who never threw a chance away.
“In that case, I’ll stay,” said the stranger, and set down the small valise he carried upon the floor.
From what I have already written, you will doubtless have derived the impression that the Hotel of the Three Desires, while being a useful place of abode, was far from being the caravanserai of the luxurious order. The stranger, whoever he might be, however, was either not fastidious, or as is more probable, was used to similar accommodation, for he paid as little attention to the perfume of the bar as he did to the dirt upon the floor and walls, and also upon the landlord’s hands. Having stipulated for a room to himself, he desired to be shown to it forthwith, whereupon Manuel led him through the house to a small yard at the back, round which were several small cabins, dignified by the name of apartments.
“Splendeed,” said Manuel enthusiastically, throwing open the door of one of the rooms as he spoke. “More splendeed than ever you saw.”
The stranger gave a ravenish sort of croak, which might have been a laugh or anything else, and then went in and closed the door abruptly behind him. Having locked it, he took off his coat and hung it upon the handle, apparently conscious of the fact that the landlord had glued his eyes to the keyhole in order that he might, from a precautionary point of view, take further stock of his patron. Foiled in his intention he returned to the bar, murmuring “Anglish Peeg” to himself as he did so. In the meantime the stranger had seated himself upon the rough bed in the corner, and had taken a letter from his pocket.
“The Hotel of the Three Desires,” he reads, “and on March the fifteenth, without fail.” There was a pause while he folded the letter up and placed it in his pocket. Then he continued, “this is the hotel, and to-day is the fifteenth of March. But why don’t they put in an appearance. It isn’t like them to be late. They’d better not play me any tricks or they’ll find I have lost none of my old power of retaliation.”
Having satisfied himself that it was impossible for any one to see into the room, either through the keyhole or by means of the window, he partially disrobed, and, when he had done so, unbuckled from round his waist a broad leather money-belt. Seating himself on the bed once more he unfastened the strap of the pocket, and dribbled the contents on to the bed. They consisted of three Napoleons, fifteen English sovereigns, four half-sovereigns, and eighteen one-franc pieces. In his trouser-pocket he had four Mexican dollars, and some cosmopolitan change of small value.
“It’s not very much,” he muttered to himself after he had counted it, “but it ought to be sufficient for the business in hand. If I hadn’t been fool enough to listen to that Frenchwoman on board, I shouldn’t have played cards, and then it would have been double. Why the deuce wasn’t I able to get Monsieur ashore? In that case I’d have got it all back, or I’d have known the reason why.”
The idea seemed to afford him some satisfaction, for he smiled, and then said to himself as if in terms of approbation, “By Jove, I believe you, my boy!”
When he had counted his money and had returned it once more to its hiding-place, he buckled the belt round his person and unstrapped his valise, taking from it a black Tussa coat which he exchanged for that hanging upon the handle of the door. Then he lighted a Java cigar and sat down upon the bed to think. Taken altogether, his was not a prepossessing countenance. The peculiar attributes I have already described were sufficient to prevent that. At the same time it was a strong face, that of a man who was little likely to allow himself to be beaten, of his own free will, in anything he might undertake. The mouth was firm, the chin square, the eyes dark and well set, moreover he wore a heavy black moustache, which he kept sharp-pointed. His hair was of the same colour, though streaked here and there with grey. His height was an inch and a half above six feet, but by reason of his slim figure, he looked somewhat taller. His hands and feet were small, but of his strength there could be no doubt. Taken altogether, he was not a man with whom one would feel disposed to trifle. Unfortunately, however, the word adventurer was written all over him, and, as a considerable section of the world’s population have good reason to know, he was as little likely to fail to take advantage of his opportunities as he was to forget the man who had robbed him, or who had done him an ill turn. It was said in Hong Kong that he was well connected, and that he had claims upon a Viceroy now gone to his account; that, had he persevered with them, might have placed him in a very different position. How much truth there was in this report, however, I cannot say; one thing, however, is quite certain; if it were true, he had fallen grievously from his high estate.
When his meditations had continued for something like ten minutes, he rose from the bed, blew a cloud of smoke, stretched himself, strapped his valise once more, gave himself what the sailors call a hoist, that he might be sure his money-belt was in its proper position, and then unlocked the door, passed out, re-locked it after him, and returned to the bar. There he called for certain curious liquors, smelt them suspiciously before using them, and then proceeded deliberately to mix himself a peculiar drink. The landlord watched him with appreciative surprise. He imagined himself to be familiar with every drink known to the taste of man, having had wide experience, but such an one as this he had never encountered before.
“What do you call it?” he asked, when the other had finished his preparations.
“I call it a ‘Help to Reformation,’ “ the stranger replied. Then, with a sneer upon his face, he added, “It should be popular with your customers.”
Taking the drink with him into the verandah outside, he seated himself in a long chair and proceeded to sip it slowly, as if it were some elixir whose virtue would be lost by haste. Some people might have been amused by the motley crowd that passed along the street beyond the verandah-rails, but Gideon Hayle, for such was his name, took no sort of interest in it. He had seen it too often to find any variety in it. As a matter of fact the mere sight of a pigtail was sufficient to remind him of a certain episode in his career which he had been for years endeavouring to forget.
“It doesn’t look as if they are going to put in an appearance to-night,” he said to himself, as the liquor in the glass began to wane. “Can this letter have been a hoax, an attempt to draw me off the scent? If so, by all the gods in Asia, they may rest assured I’ll be even with them.”
He looked as though he meant it!
At last he rose, and having returned his glass to the bar, donned his topee, left the hotel, and went for a stroll. It was but a short distance to the harbour, and he presently found himself strolling along the several miles of what I have already described as the most wonderful shipping in the world. To Mr. Hayle the scene was too familiar to call for comment. He had seen it on many occasions, and under a variety of auspices. He had witnessed it as a deck-hand and as a saloon passenger; as a steerage passenger, and in the humble capacity of a stowaway. Now he was regarding it as a gentleman of leisure, who smoked a cigar that had been paid for, and round whose waist was a belt with gold in it. Knowing the spot where the British India boats from Calcutta usually lie, he made his way to it, and inquired for a certain vessel. She had not yet arrived, he was informed, and no one seemed to know when she might be expected. At last, tired of his occupation, he returned to his hotel, and in due course sat down to supper. He smoked another cigar in the verandah afterwards, and was on the point of retiring for the night, when two men suddenly made their appearance before him, and accosted him by name. He immediately sprang to his feet with a cry of welcome.
“I had made up my mind that you were not coming,” he said as they shook hands.
“The old tub didn’t get in until a quarter to nine,” the taller of the two new-comers replied. “When did you arrive?”
“This afternoon,” said Hayle, and for a moment volunteered no further information. A good poker-player is always careful not to show his hand.
“I suppose this place is not full?” inquired the man who had last spoken.
“Full?” asked Hayle scornfully. “It’s full of cockroaches and mildew, if that’s what you mean?”
“The best company we could possibly have,” said the taller man. “Cockroaches and blackbeetles don’t talk and they don’t listen at keyholes. What’s more, if they trouble you, you can put your heel on them. Now let’s see the landlord and see what he’s got to offer us in the way of rooms. We don’t want any dinner, because we had it on board the steamer.”
Hayle accompanied them into the bar, and was a witness of the satisfaction the landlord endeavoured, from business motives, to conceal. In due course he followed them to the small, stifling rooms in the yard at the back, and observed that they were placed on either side of himself. He had already taken the precaution of rapping upon the walls in order to discover their thickness, and to find out whether the sound of chinking money was to be heard through them.
“I must remember that thirty-seven and sixpence and two Mexican dollars are all I have in the world,” he said to himself. “It would be bad business to allow them to suppose that I had more, until I find out what they want.”
“The last time I was here was with Stellman,” said the taller of the men, when they met again in the courtyard. “He had got a concession from the Dutch, so he said, to work a portion of the West Coast for shell. He wanted me to go in with him.”
“And you couldn’t see your way to it?”
“I’ve seen two Dutch gaols,” said the other; “and I have no use for them.”
“And what happened to Stellman?” asked Hayle, but without any apparent interest. He was thinking of something else at the time.
“They got his money, his boat, and his shell, with three pearls that would have made your mouth water,” replied the other.
“Oh, they buried him at Sourabaya. He took the cholera, so they said, but I have heard since that he died of starvation. They don’t feed you too well in Dutch gaols, especially when you’ve got a concession and a consul.”
The speaker looked up at his companion as he said this, and the other, who, as I have already said, was not interested in the unfortunate Stellman, or had probably heard the tale before, nodded his head in the direction of the room where the smaller man was engaged on his toilet, to the accompaniment of splashing water. The movement of the head was as significant as the nod of the famous Lord of Burleigh.
“Just the same, as ever,” the other replied. “Always pushing his nose into old papers and documents, until you’d think he’d make himself ill. Lord, what a man he would have been for the British Museum! There’s not his equal on Ancient Asia in the world.”
“And this particular business?”
“Ah, you shall hear all about it in the proper time. That’ll be to-morrow morning, I reckon. In the meantime you can go to bed, and content yourself with the knowledge that, all being well, you’re going to play a hand in the biggest scoop that ever I or anybody else have tackled?”
“You can’t give me an inkling of what it is to-night, I suppose?”
“I could, but I’m not going to,” replied his companion calmly. “The story would take too long to tell, and I’m tired. Besides, you would want to ask questions of Coddy, and that would upset the little man’s equilibrium. No! Go to bed and have a good night’s rest, and we’ll talk it over in the morning. I wonder what my curtains are like? If ever there’s a place in this world for mosquitoes, it’s Singapore, and I thought Calcutta was bad enough.”
Having no desire to waste time in discussing the various capabilities of this noxious insect, Hayle bade the other good-night, and, when he had visited the bar and had smoked another cigar, disappeared in the direction of his own apartment.
Meanwhile Mr. Kitwater, for such was the name of the gentleman he had just left, had begun his preparations for the night, vigorously cursing the mosquitoes as he did so. He was a fine-looking man, with a powerful, though somewhat humorous cast of countenance. His eyes were large, and not unkindly. His head was a good one from a phrenological point of view, but was marred by the possession of enormous ears which stood out on either side of his head like those of a bat. He wore a close-cropped beard, and he was famous for his strength, which indeed was that of a giant.
“Hayle, if I can sum it up aright, is just the same as ever,” he said as he arranged the mosquito-netting of his bed. “He doesn’t trust me, and I don’t trust him. But he’ll be none the less useful for that. Let him try to play me false, and by the Lord Harry, he’ll not live to do it again.”
With this amiable sentiment Mr. Kitwater prepared himself for slumber.
Then, upon the three worthies the hot, tropical night settled down.
Next morning they met at breakfast. All three were somewhat silent. It was as if the weight of the matter which was that day to be discussed pressed upon their spirits. The smallest of the trio, Septimus Codd by name, who was habitually taciturn, spoke scarcely a word. He was a strange little man, a nineteenth century villain in a sense. He was a rogue and a vagabond, yet his one hobby, apart from his business, was a study of the Past, and many an authority on Eastern History would have been astonished at the extent of his learning. He was never so happy as when burrowing amongst ancient records, and it was mainly due to his learning in the first place, and to a somewhat singular accident in the second, that the trio were now foregathered in Singapore. His personal appearance was a peculiar one. His height was scarcely more than four feet six inches. His face was round, and at a distance appeared almost boyish. It was only when one came to look into it more closely, that it was seen to be scored by numberless small lines. Moreover it was unadorned by either beard or moustache. His hair was grey, and was worn somewhat longer than is usual. He could speak fluently almost every language of the East, and had been imprisoned by the Russians for sealing in prohibited waters, had been tortured by the Chinese on the Yang-tse, and, to his own unextinguishable disgrace, flogged by the French in Tonquin. Not the least curious trait in his character was the affection he entertained for Kitwater. The pair had been together for years, had quarrelled repeatedly, but had never separated. The record of their doings would form an interesting book, but for want of space cannot be more than referred to here. Hayle had been their partner in not a few of their curious undertakings, for his courage and resource made him a valuable ally, though how far they trusted each other it is impossible to say.
Breakfast over they adjourned to the verandah, where the inevitable cigars made their appearance.
“Now, let’s hear what you’ve got to say to me?” Hayle began.
“Not here,” Kitwater replied. “There are too many listeners. Come down to the harbour.”
So saying he led his companions to the waterside, where he chartered a native boat for an hour’s sail. Then, when they were out of earshot of the land, he bade Hayle pay attention to what he had to say.
“First and foremost you must understand,” he said, “that it’s all due to Coddy here. We heard something of it from an old Siamese in Hanoi, but we never put much trust in it. Then Coddy began to look around, to hunt up some of his fusty records, and after awhile he began to think that there might be something in the story after all. You see it’s this way: you know Sengkor-Wat?”
“Sengkor how much?”
“Sengkor-Wat—the old ruin at the back of Burmah; near the Chinese Border. Such a place as you never dreamt of. Tumble-down palaces, temples, and all that sort of thing—lying out there all alone in the jungle.”
“I’ve seen Amber,” said Hayle, with the air of a man who makes a remark that cannot be lightly turned aside. “After that I don’t want any more ruined cities. I’ve got no use for them.”
“No, but you’ve got a use for other things, haven’t you? You can use rubies as big as pigeon’s eggs, I suppose. You’ve got a use for sapphires, the like of which mortal man never set eyes on before.”
“That’s certainly so,” Hayle replied. “But what has this Sengkor-Wat to do with it?”
“Everything in the world,” Kitwater replied. “That’s where those rubies are, and what’s more, that’s where we are going to find them.”
“Are you joking, or is this sober earnest?”
He looked from Kitwater to Codd. The little man thus appealed to nodded his head. He agreed with all his companion said.
“It’s quite true,” said he, after a pause. “Rubies, sapphires and gold, enough to make us all millionaires times over.”
“Bravo for Sengkor-Wat, then!” said Hayle. “But how do you know all this?”
“I’ve told you already that Coddy found it out,” Kitwater replied. “Looking over his old records he discovered something that put him on the track. Then I happened to remember that, years ago, when I was in Hanoi, an old man had told me a wonderful story about a treasure-chamber in a ruined city in the Burmese jungle. A Frenchman who visited the place, and had written a book about it, mentions the fact that there is a legend amongst the natives that vast treasure is buried in the ruins, but only one man, so far as we can discover, seems to have taken the trouble to have looked for it.”
“But how big are the ruins?”
“Bigger than London, so Coddy says!”
Coddy nodded his head in confirmation of this fact. But still Hayle seemed incredulous.
“And are you going to search all that area? It strikes me that you will be an old man by the time you find the treasure, Kitwater.”
“Don’t you believe it. We’ve got something better to go upon than that. There was an old Chinese traveller who visited this place in the year ... what was the year, Coddy?”
“Twelve hundred and fifty-seven,” Codd replied without hesitation.
“Well, he describes the glory of the place, the wealth of the inhabitants, and then goes on to tell how the king took him to the great treasure-chamber, where he saw such riches as mortal man had never looked upon before.”
“But that doesn’t tell you where the treasure-chamber is?” argued Hayle.
“Perhaps not, but there are other ways of finding out; that is, if a man has his wits about him. You’ve got to put two and two together if you want to get on in this world. Coddy has translated it all, and this is what it amounts to. When the king had shown the traveller his treasure, the latter declared that his eyes were so blinded by its magnificence that he could scarcely mount the steps to the spot where his majesty gave audience to his people. In another place it mentions that when the king administered justice he was seated on the throne in the courtyard of the Three-headed Elephants. Now what we’ve got to do is to find that courtyard, and find it we will.”
“But how do you know that the treasure hasn’t been taken away years ago? Do you think they were such fools as to leave it behind when they went elsewhere? Not they!”
Though they were well out of earshot of the land, and alone upon the boat, Kitwater looked round him suspiciously before he answered. Then a pleasant smile played over his face. It was as if he were recalling some happy memory.
“How do I know it?” he asked by way of preface. “If you’ll listen for a moment, I’ll tell you. If you want more proof, when I’ve done, you must be difficult to please. When I was up at Moulmein six months ago, I came across a man I hadn’t met for several years. He was a Frenchman, who I knew had spent the most of his life away back in Burmah. He was very flush of money at the time, and kept throwing out hints, when we were alone, of a place he knew of where there was the biggest fortune on earth, to be had for the mere picking up and carrying away. He had brought away as much of it as he could, but he hadn’t time to get it all, before he was chased out by the Chinese, who, he said, were strong in the neighbourhood.”
Kitwater stopped and rubbed his hands with a chuckle. Decidedly the recollection was a pleasant one.
“Well,” he continued, “to make a long story short, I took advantage of my opportunity, and got his secret out of him by ... well never mind how I managed it. It is sufficient that I got it. And the consequence is I know all that is to be known.”
“That’s all very well, but what became of the Frenchman? How do you know that he isn’t back there again filling his pockets?”
“I don’t think he is,” Kitwater replied slowly. “It put me to a lot of inconvenience, and came just at the time when I was most anxious to leave. Besides it might have meant trouble.” He paused for a moment. “As a matter of fact they brought it in ‘suicide during temporary insanity, brought on by excessive drinking,’ and that got me over the difficulty. It must have been insanity, I think, for he had no reason for doing away with himself. It was proved that he had plenty of money left. What was more, Coddy gave evidence that, only the day before, he had told him he was tired of life.”
Hayle looked at both with evident admiration.
“Well, you two, taken together, beat cockfighting,” he said enthusiastically. Then he added, “But what about the secret? What did you get out of him?”
“Here it is,” said Kitwater, taking an old leather case from his pocket, and producing from it a small piece of parchment. “There’s no writing upon it, but we have compared it with another plan that we happen to have, and find that it squares exactly.”
He leant over Hayle’s shoulder and pointed to a certain portion of the sketch.
“That’s the great temple,” he said; “and what the red dot means we are going to find out.”
“Well, suppose it is, what makes you send for me?” Hayle inquired suspiciously.
“Because we must have another good man with us,” Kitwater replied. “I’m very well, but you’re better. Codd’s head-piece is all right, but if it comes to fighting, he might just as well be in Kensal Green. Isn’t that so, little man?”
Mr. Codd nodded his head.
“I said, send for Hayle,” he remarked in his quiet little voice. “Kit sent and now you’re here, and it’s all right.”
“Codd speaks the truth,” said Kitwater. “Now what we have to do is to arrange the business part of the matter, and then to get away as quickly as possible.”
The business portion of the matter was soon settled and Hayle was thereupon admitted a member of the syndicate for the exploration of the ancient town of Sengkor-Wat in the hinterland of Burmah.
For the remainder of the day Hayle was somewhat more silent than usual.
“If there’s anything in their yarn it might be managed,” he said to himself that night, when he was alone in his bedroom. “Kitwater is clever, I’ll admit that, and Coddy is by no manner of means the fool he pretends to be. But I’m Gideon Hayle, and that counts for something. Yes, I think it might be managed.”
What it was he supposed might be effected he did not say, but from the smile upon his face, it was evident that the thought caused him considerable satisfaction.
Next day they set sail for Rangoon.
The shadows of evening were slowly falling as the little party of which Kitwater, Codd, and Hayle, with two Burmen servants, were members, obtained their first view of the gigantic ruins of which they had come so far in search. For many days they had been journeying through the jungle, now the prey of hope, now of despair. They had experienced adventures by the score, though none of them were of sufficient importance to be narrated here, and more than once they had come within a hair’s-breadth of being compelled to retrace their steps. They rode upon the small wiry ponies of the country, their servants clearing a way before them with their parangs as they advanced. Their route, for the most part, lay through jungle, in places so dense that it was well-nigh impossible for them to force a way through it. It was as if nature were doing her best to save the ancient city from the hand of the spoiler. At last, and so suddenly that it came upon them like a shock, they found themselves emerging from the jungle. Below them, in the valley, peering up out of the forest, was all that remained of a great city, upon the ruined temples of which the setting sun shone with weird effect.
“At last,” said Hayle, bringing his pony to a standstill, and looking down upon the ruins. “Let us hope we shall have penetrated their secret before we are compelled to say good-bye to them again.”
“Hear, hear, to that,” said Kitwater; Septimus Codd, however, never said a word; the magic hand of the past was upon his heart, and was holding him spellbound.
They descended the hill, and, when they had selected a suitable spot, decided to camp upon it for the night.
Next morning they were up betimes; the excitement of the treasure-hunt was upon each man, and would not let him tarry. It would not be long now, they hoped, before they would be able to satisfy themselves as to the truth of the story they had been told, and of the value of the hopes in which they had put their trust. Having eaten their morning meal, they took counsel together, examined the plan for the thousandth time, collected their weapons and tools, bade their servants keep a sharp lookout, and then set off for the city. The morning sun sparkled upon the dew, the birds and monkeys chattered at them from the jungle, while above them towered the myriad domes and sculptured spires of the ancient city. It was a picture that once seen would never be forgotten. So far, however, not a sign of human life had they been able to discover; indeed, for all they knew to the contrary, they might be the only men within fifty miles of the place.
Leaving the jungle behind them, they found themselves face to face with a curious stone bridge, spanning the lake or moat which surrounded the city, and in which the lotus flower bloomed luxuriantly. When they had crossed the bridge, they stood in the precincts of the city itself. On either hand rose the ruins in all their solitary grandeur—palaces, temples, market-places, and houses in endless confusion; while, at the end of the bridge, and running to right and left as far as the eye could reach, was a high wall, constructed of large stones, each one of which would have required the efforts of at least four men to lift it. These, with a few exceptions, were in an excellent state of preservation. Passing through the massive gateway the travellers found themselves in an open square, out of which streets branched off the right and left, while the jungle thrust in its inquisitive nose on every possible occasion. The silence was so impressive that the men found themselves speaking in whispers. Not a sound was to be heard save the fluttering of birds’ wings among the trees, and the obscene chattering of the monkeys among the leaves. From the first great square the street began gradually to ascend; then another moat was crossed, and the second portion of the city was reached. Here the buildings were larger, and the sculpture upon the walls more impressive even than before. The same intense silence, however, hung over everything. In the narrower streets creepers trailed from side to side, almost shutting out the light, and adding a twilight effect to the already sufficiently mysterious rooms and courtyards to be seen within.
“This is by no means the most cheerful sort of place,” said Hayle to Kitwater, as they passed down a paved street side by side. “Where do you expect to find the great temple and the courtyard of the Three Elephants’ Heads?”
“Straight on,” said little Codd, who was behind, and had been comparing the route they were following with the plan he held in his hand.
As he spoke they entered another square, and saw before them a mighty flight of steps, worn into grooves in places by the thousands of feet that had ascended and descended them in days gone by. At the top was a sculptured gateway, finer than anything either of them had ever seen, and this they presently entered. Above them, clear of the trees, and towering up into the blue, were the multitudinous domes and spires of the king’s palace, to which the gateway above the steps was the principal entrance. Some of the spires were broken, some were covered with creepers, others were mutilated by time and by stress of weather, but the general effect was grand in the extreme. From courtyard to courtyard they wandered, but without finding the particular place of which they were in search. It was more difficult to discover than they had expected; indeed, they had walked many miles through deserted streets, and the afternoon was well advanced, before a hail from Codd, who had gone on ahead of them, informed them that at last some sort of success had crowned their efforts. When they came up with him they found themselves in a courtyard somewhat larger than those they had previously explored, the four corners of which were decorated with three united elephants’ heads.
“By the great poker we’ve got it at last,” cried Kitwater, in a voice that echoed and reechoed through the silent halls.
“And about time, too,” cried Hayle, upon whom the place was exercising a most curious effect. “If you’ve found it, show us your precious treasure-chamber.”
“All in good time, my friend, all in good time,” said Kitwater. “Things have gone so smoothly with us hitherto, that we must look for a little set-back before we’ve done.”
“We don’t want any set-backs,” said Hayle. “What we want are the rubies as big as pigeon’s eggs, and sapphires, and gold, and then to get back to civilization as quick as may be. That’s what’s the matter with me.”
As I have already observed, the courtyard in which they were standing was considerably larger than any they had yet entered. Like the others, however, it had fallen sadly to decay. The jungle had crept in at all points, and gorgeous creepers had wreathed themselves round the necks of the statues above the gateway.
“I don’t see any sign of steps,” said Hayle, when they had examined the place in silence for some minutes. “I thought you said a flight of stone steps led up to where the king’s throne was placed?”
“Codd certainly read it so,” Kitwater answered, looking about him as if he did not quite realize the situation. “And how are we to know that there are not some steps here? They may be hidden. What do you think, little man?”
He turned to Codd, who was looking about him with eyes in which a curious light was shining.
“Steps must be somewhere,” the latter replied. “We’ve got to find them—but not to-night. Sun going down. Too late.”
This was undoubtedly true, and so, without more ado, but none the less reluctantly, the three travellers retraced their steps to their camp upon the hillside. Hayle was certainly not in a good temper. The monotony of the long journey from civilization had proved too much for him, and he was ready to take offence at anything. Fortunately, however, Kitwater was not of the same way of thinking, otherwise there would probably have been trouble between them.