The Sapphire - A.E.W. Mason - ebook

The Sapphire ebook

A.E.W. Mason

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Major Alfred Edward Woodley Mason (7 May 1865 Dulwich, London – 22 November 1948 London) was a British author and politician. He is best remembered for his 1902 novel „The Four Feathers”. His short story „The Sapphire” follows a Sapphire given to a Captain Michael Crowther by his Burmese wife who he is deserting. When he finally decides to return to them he finds them now out of his reach and so he becomes a Buddhist Monk. However, The Sapphire that now adorns a temple is stolen and so begins an adventure to track down the missing gem. Sometimes violence or threatened violence accompanies it. Also, love and adventure followed Sapphire’s trail across half the world...

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Liczba stron: 397

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Contents

CHAPTER I. IN THE FOREST

CHAPTER II. THE PACKET

CHAPTER III. FIRST APPEARANCE OF THE SAPPHIRE

CHAPTER IV. PRISONERS OF THE SUN

CHAPTER V. THE DOOR CLOSES

CHAPTER VI. CHILDREN AT PLAY

CHAPTER VII. UNCLE SUNDAY

CHAPTER VIII. THE FIRST ASCENT OF THE DENT DU PAGODA

CHAPTER IX. ON ADAM’S PEAK

CHAPTER X. AGAIN THE SHADOW

CHAPTER XI. THE MAGIC PIPE

CHAPTER XII. FEAR AND IMOGEN

CHAPTER XIII. THE INDIAN

CHAPTER XIV. A COUNCIL AT THE ROCK TEMPLE

CHAPTER XV. THE LAST OF THE PEAK

CHAPTER XVI. THE SILENT ROOM

CHAPTER XVII. THE MAN FROM LIMOGES

CHAPTER XVIII. IMOGEN ASKS QUESTIONS

CHAPTER XIX. JILL LESLIE

CHAPTER XX. THE FIRST NIGHT OF DIDO

CHAPTER XXI. A SUMMARY

CHAPTER XXII. AT THE MASQUERADE BALL

CHAPTER XXIII. LETTY RANSOME’S HANDBAG

CHAPTER XXIV. THE FOURTH THEFT

CHAPTER XXV. THE CROWN JEWEL

CHAPTER XXVI. CROOKS ALL

CHAPTER XXVII. THE LAST

CHAPTER I. IN THE FOREST

I CANNOT pretend that the world is waiting for this story, for the world knows nothing about it. But I want to tell it. No one knows it better than I do, except Michael Crowther, and he, nowadays, has time for nothing but his soul.

And for only the future of that. He is not concerned with its past history. The days of his unregenerate activities lie hidden in a cloud behind his back. He watches another cloud in front of him lit with the silver–I can’t call it the gold–of the most extraordinary hope which ever warmed a myriad of human beings. But it is in that past history of his soul and in those activities that the heart of this story lies. I was at once near enough to the man and far enough away from him to accept and understand his startling metamorphoses. I took my part in that dangerous game of Hunt the Slipper which was played across half the earth. Dangerous, because the slipper was a precious stone set in those circumstances of crime and death which attend upon so many jewels. I saw the affair grow from its trumpery beginnings until, like some mighty comet, it swept into its blaze everyone whom it approached. It roared across the skies carrying us all with it, bringing happiness to some and disaster to others. I am Christian enough to believe that there was a pattern and an order in its course; though Michael Crowther thought such a doctrine to be mystical and a sin. Finally, after these fine words, I was at the core of these events from the beginning. Indeed I felt the wind of them before it blew.

Thus:

My father held a high position in the Forest Company and I was learning the business from the bottom so that when the time came I might take his place. I had been for the last six months travelling with the overseer whose province it was to girdle those teak trees which were ripe for felling. The life was lonely, but to a youth of twenty-two the most enviable in the world. There was the perpetual wonder of the forest; the changes of light upon branch and leaf which told the hours like the hands of a clock; the fascination to a novice of the rudiments of tree-knowledge, the silence and the space; and some very good shooting besides. Apart from game for the pot, I had got one big white tiger ten feet long as he lay, a t’sine, and a few sambur with excellent heads. I had the pleasant prospect, too, of returning to England for the months of the rainy season, and giving the girls there a treat they seldom got.

I parted from the overseer in order to make the Irrawaddy at Sawadi, a little station on the left bank of the river below Bhamo, but above the vast cliff which marks the entrance to the Second Defile. The distance was greater than a long day’s march, but one of the Company’s rest-houses was built conveniently a few miles from the station. I reached it with my small baggage train and my terrier, about seven o’clock of the evening. A small bungalow was raised upon piles with steps leading up to the door, and a hut with the kitchen and a sleeping-place for the servants was built close by. Both the buildings were set in a small clearing. I ate my dinner, smoked a cheroot, put myself into my camp bed and slept as tired twenty-two should sleep, with the immobility of the dead.

But towards morning some instinct alert in a subconscious cell began to ring its tiny bells and telegraph a warning to my nerve centres that it would be wise to wake up. I resisted, but the bells were ringing too loudly–and suddenly I was awake. I was lying upon my left side with my face towards the open door, and fortunately I had not moved when I awaked. The moon rode high and the clearing to the edge of the trees lay in a blaze of silver light. Against that clear bright background at the top of the steps, on the very threshold of the door, a huge black panther sat up like a cat. His tail switched slowly from side to side and his eyes stared savagely into the dark room. They were like huge emeralds, except that no emerald ever held such fire.

“He wants my terrier dog, Dick,” I explained to myself. I could hear the poor beast shivering under the bed. “But that won’t help me if he crouches and springs.”

My rifle lay on a table across the room. To jump out of bed and make a dash for it was merely to precipitate the brute’s attack. Moreover, even were I to reach it, it was unloaded. So I lay still except for my heart; and the panther sat still except for his tail. He was working out his tactics; I was hoping that I was not shivering quite so cravenly as my unhappy little terrier dog beneath my bed. As I watched, to my utter horror the panther began to crouch, very slowly, pushing back his haunches, settling himself down upon them for a spring. And that spring would land him surely on the top of the bed and me.

I found myself saying silently to myself, and stupidly:

“Here I finish. This is where I get off. I hope it won’t hurt.... People who have been mauled say that it doesn’t. I shall know about that, however. He’ll probably smash my face in. Beastly!”

But while my thoughts were stupid, my right hand was acting very cleverly. It slipped down to the floor on the far side of my narrow camp bedstead. It sought, found, and grasped one of my heavy walking shoes. Until that moment it seemed to have been acting quite independently of me. But as I felt the weight of the shoe, I took command of it. I sat up suddenly, yelled with all my voice and threw with all my strength. By good fortune my aim was straight. The heavy, nailed heel struck the beast hard between the shining eyes when he was on the very point of springing. No doubt the shoe hurt, but the panther even so was more startled than hurt. He uttered one yelp, turned tail, and streaked across the clearing into the forest, black and swift as some incarnation of Satan overtaken by the dawn. I was out of bed the next instant; I slipped a dressing-gown over my pyjamas, put on my shoes, and fixed a clip of cartridges in my rifle.

I fumbled over that proceeding. For now that the moment of danger had passed, I felt the animal’s great pad slapping down on my face and wiping it away. I smelt its fetid breath. And I probably felt and smelt more acutely than I should have done had it actually leaped. However, the clip was shot into its sockets at last. Then I waited on the verandah in the hope that my panther might return. And I waited. And I waited.

I had an odd feeling that the forest was waiting for him too, listening for the tiniest rustle of its undergrowth, watching for him to charge out of that tangled wall. I had never known silence so complete. I was prepared, of course, for my camp servants to sleep through that or any other racket. It would have needed the last trump to rouse them and they might have overslept themselves even then. But the hush was so deep that I was aware of it less as a negation of sound than as a new form of activity. I tried my pulse; it was now perfectly steady. I was not excited. There was not a drop of sweat upon my forehead. Nor do I think that I am particularly vain. But for the rest of that night I felt myself to be the axis of a world in suspense.

The panther did not return. My fox-terrier crept out, and still whimpering and shivering, nestled close against my side. The glamour of the moonlight took on a shade of grey. The clearing, the crowded boles of the great teak trees were bathed now in a spectral and unearthly light. Then darkness came, black and blinding, like a cloak flung over the head. There was no longer forest or clearing. There was nothing but one man with a rifle across his knees of which he could only see the speck of its ivory foresight. But during all these changes my sense of expectation never lifted. It changed, however, as the night changed. I no longer waited for my panther. My mind had lost sight of him, as my eyes had lost sight of the forest. What it was I waited for I had no idea. But it was for something big, forming somewhere out of the reach of knowledge. Nor did the morning help me. I marched into the little village of Sawadi merely conscious that I had passed the oddest night in all my experience.

On the stern-wheel steamer Dagonet I made the acquaintance of its Captain, Michael Crowther.

CHAPTER II. THE PACKET

DURING the morning Captain Crowther stood beside his helmsman at the high wheel on the roof of the steamer. The Second Defile with its monstrous, high cliff, its racing waters, and the unmanageable great rafts of teak wood floating down to Rangoon presented always a delicate problem in navigation. But Captain Crowther certainly knew his business. He edged his steamer in here, thrust a raft aside there, and by lunch-time the hills had fallen back and we were thrashing down the broader waterway to Schwegu. At luncheon Crowther took the head of the table and I found that a place had been laid for me at his elbow. He was a man of thirty-six years or so, and he had the sort of hard, leering, and wicked face the early craftsmen were so fond of carving on the groins and pillars of French cathedrals. I took a dislike to him at my first glance.

“You are Mr. Martin Legatt of the Forest Corporation,” he said to me as I took my seat.

“Yes.”

“I am Michael D. Crowther, the Captain of the Dagonet”; and he spoke with so violent an American accent that I felt sure at once that he was an Englishman.

“Press the flesh,” said I, extending my hand, and equal, I hoped, to the occasion.

The stewards placed great basins of soup in front of each of us. There were eight passengers besides myself, so far as I remember. Michael Crowther consumed his soup with a little finger crooked from a suburban past and almost an excess of good breeding. When he had finished–and he deserved every drop of it for his skill in wriggling so quickly through the Second Defile–he said:

“A solitary life yours, Mr. Legatt. Gee, I don’t think that I could stick it for a week.”

I had all a young man’s inclination to make his ways look magnificent and unusual; and the presence of the eight tourists was a temptation to embroidery. But Captain Crowther was the last man in the world to whom I would have tried to explain the magic which forest life then held for me. So I answered with a show of indifference:

“There are compensations, Captain. I don’t suppose, for instance, that there is a single person on board who is feeling half the pleasure I am at this moment from simply stretching my legs out under a civilised dining-table with the knowledge that I have nothing to do all the afternoon except lounge in a long chair and watch the river-banks go by.”

“Well, each man to his taste,” Captain Crowther remarked. He was kind enough to look me over with approval. “I should have thought that a young fellow like you, however–why, holy snakes! I reckon you never came across a bird from one end of the month to the other.”

For a moment I was mystified, but the knowing wink with which Crowther supported his remark was a sufficiently explanatory footnote.

“Nary a bird,” I answered.

The tourists looked up intelligently. They were going to obtain information at first hand about the forests of Burma. Two ladies of middle age sat opposite to me–the two inevitable English ladies to be met with on any steamer and any train within the world’s circumference. One of them, the younger I suppose by a couple of years, said eagerly:

“Not a bird! Now isn’t that strange? Would you say that that was particularly Oriental?”

“My dear!” the friend chided her by the right of, say, her two years’ seniority. “After all, we have our birdless grove at Goodwood–or rather the Duke has his.”

She was standing up gallantly for her country. Privately she might think it was down and out, publicly you couldn’t beat it. Even if it came to a comparison of birdlessness, the gorgeous East had nothing on England. Wasn’t there the famous Grove?

The junior of the pair, however, objected to corrections at the dinner-table. She bridled and answered with a definite tartness.

“I have heard grave doubts thrown upon that story–” she began, but I thought it time to stop a rift which might in the end split a pleasant fellowship. I interrupted her.

“I am afraid that the birds of Captain Crowther’s vocabulary are not the birds which nest in trees.”

The ladies were puzzled; Captain Crowther was noisily delighted. He slapped the flat of his hand upon the table.

“That’s a good one! That’s a witticism, that is, Mr. Legatt!” He felt in his pockets. “I keep a little book to jot down the wise-cracks I hear. “Not the birds...’ ” And pulling out his book he wrote my poor little remark down, with a final stab of his pencil at the end which no doubt it deserved. “And not a pal to hobnob with over a glass of something?” he continued.

“A pal to hobnob with from time to time, yes, but not a glass of something. And talking of glasses”–I turned towards the steward–“I would like a whisky and soda.”

“With me,” said the Captain.

I sat up.

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