Read CHAPTER VII of Dragon's blood, free online book, by Henry Milner Rideout, on ReadCentral.com.

IPHIGENIA

“Don’t chop off a hen’s head with a battle-axe.” Heywood, still with a malicious, friendly quirk at the corners of his mouth, held in his fretful pony. Rudolph stood bending a whip viciously. They two had fetched a compass about the town, and now in the twilight were parting before the nunnery gate. “A tiff’s the last thing I’d want with you. The lady, in confidence, is not worth ”

“I do not wish,” declared Rudolph, trembling, “I do not wish you to say those things, so!”

“Right!” laughed the other, and his pony wheeled at the word. “I’ll give you one month no: you’re such a good, thorough little chap, it will take longer two months, to change your mind. Only” he looked down at Rudolph with a comic, elderly air “let me observe, our yellow people have that rather neat proverb. A hen’s head, dear chap, not with a battle-axe! No. Hot weather’s coming, too. No sorrows of Werther, now, over such” He laughed again. “Don’t scowl, I’ll be good. I won’t say it. You’ll supply the word, in two months!”

He let the pony have his way, and was off in a clatter. Lonely, fuming with resentment, Rudolph stared after him. What could he know, this airy, unfeeling meddler, so free with his advice and innuendo? Let him go, then, let him canter away. He had seen quickly, guessed with a diabolic shrewdness, yet would remain on the surface, always, of a mystery so violent and so profound. The young man stalked into his vacant nunnery in a rage, a dismal pomp of emotion: reason telling him that a friend had spoken sense, imagination clothing him in the sceptred pall of tragedy.

Yet one of these unwelcome words had stuck: he was Werther, it was true a man who came too late. Another word was soon fulfilled; for the hot weather came, sudden, tropical, ferocious. Without gradation, the vernal days and languid noons were gone in a twinkling. The change came like another act of a play. One morning though the dawn stirred cool and fragrant as all dawns before the “boy” laid out Rudolph’s white tunic, slipped in the shining buttons, smeared pipe-clay on his heaviest helmet; and Rudolph, looking from his window, saw that on the river, by the same instinct, boatmen were stretching up their bamboo awnings. Breakfast was hardly ended, before river, and convex field, and huddling red tiles of the town, lay under a blurred, quivering distortion. The day flamed. At night, against a glow of fiery umber, the western hills broke sharp and thin as sheet-iron, while below them rose in flooding mirage a bright strip of magical water.

Thus, in these days, he rode for his exercise while the sun still lay behind the ocean; and thus her lively, pointed face and wide blue eyes, wondering or downcast or merry, were mingled in his thoughts with the first rousing of the world, the beat of hoofs in cool silences, the wide lights of creation over an aged, weary, alien empire. Their ponies whinnying like old friends, they met, by chance or appointment, before the power of sleep had lifted from eyes still new and strange against the morning. Sometimes Chantel the handsome rode glowering beside them, sometimes Gilly, erect and solid in the saddle, laid upon their talk all the weight of his honest, tired commonplaces.

But one morning she cantered up alone, laughing at her escape. His pony bolted, and they raced along together as comrades happily join forces in a headlong dream. Quivering bamboo swept behind them; the river, on their other hand, met and passed in hurrying panorama. They had no time for words, but only laughter. Words, indeed, had never yet advanced them beyond that moment on the pagoda. And now, when their ponies fell into a shambling trot, came the first impulse of speech.

“How lucky!” she cried. “How lucky we came this way! Now I can really test you!”

He turned. Her glowing face was now averted, her gesture was not for him, but for the scene. He studied that, to understand her.

The river, up which they had fled, now rested broad and quiet as a shallow lake, burnished faintly, brooded over by a floating, increasing light, not yet compounded into day. Tussocks, innumerable clods and crumbs of vivid green, speckled all the nearer water. On some of these storks meditated, sage, pondering heads and urbane bodies perched high on the frailest penciling of legs. In the whole expanse, no movement came but when a distant bird, leaving his philosophic pose, plunged downward after a fish. Beyond them rose a shapeless mound or isle, like some half-organic monster grounded in his native ooze.

“There!” said the woman, pointing. “Are you all excuses, like the others? Or do you dare?”

“I am not afraid of anything now,” retorted Rudolph, and with truth, after the dash of their twilight encounter. “Dare what?”

“Go see what’s on that island,” she answered. “I dared them all. Twice I’ve seen natives land there and hurry away. Mr. Nesbit was too lazy to try; Dr. Chantel wearing his best clothes. Maurice Heywood refused to mire his horse for a whim. Whim? It’s a mystery! Come, now. Do you dare?”

In a rare flush of pride, Rudolph wheeled his stubborn mount and bullied him down the bank. A poor horseman, he would have outstripped Curtius to the gulf. But no sooner had his dancing pony consented to make the first rebellious, sidelong plunge, than he had small joy of his boast. Fore-legs sank floundering, were hoisted with a terrified wrench of the shoulders, in the same moment that hind-legs went down as by suction. The pony squirmed, heaved, wrestled in a frenzy, and churning the red water about his master’s thighs, went deeper and fared worse. With a clangor of wings, the storks rose, a streaming rout against the sky, trailed their tilted legs, filed away in straggling flight, like figures interlacing on a panel. At the height of his distress, Rudolph caught a whirling glimpse of the woman above him, safe on firm earth, easy in her saddle, and laughing. Quicksand, then, was a joke, but he could not pause for this added bewilderment.

The pony, using a skill born of agony, had found somewhere a solid verge and scrambled up, knee-deep, well out from the bank. With a splash, Rudolph stood beside him among the tufts of salad green. As he patted the trembling flanks, he heard a cry from the shore.

“Oh, well done!” she mocked them. “Well done!”

A gust of wholesome anger refreshed him. She might laugh, but now he would see this folly through. He tore off his coat, flung it across the saddle, waded out alone through the tussocks, and shooting forward full length in the turbid water, swam resolutely for the island.

Sky and water brightened while he swam; and as he rose, wrapped in the leaden weight of dripping clothes, the sun, before and above him, touched wonderfully the quaggy bank and parched grasses. He lurched ashore, his feet caked with enormous clods as of melting chocolate. A filthy scramble left him smeared and disheveled on the summit. He had come for nothing. The mound lay vacant, a tangled patch, a fragment of wilderness.

Yet as he stood panting, there rose a puny, miserable sound. What presence could lurk there? The distress, it might be, of some small animal a rabbit dying in a forgotten trap. Faint as illusion, a wail, a thin-spun thread of sorrow, broke into lonely whimpering, and ceased. He moved forward, doubtfully, and of a sudden, in the scrubby level of the isle, stumbled on the rim of a shallow circular depression.

At first, he could not believe the discovery; but next instant as at the temple pond, though now without need of placard or interpreter he understood. This bowl, a tiny crater among the weeds, showed like some paltry valley of Ezekiel, a charnel place of Herod’s innocents, the battlefield of some babes’ crusade. A chill struck him, not from the water or the early mists. In stupor, he viewed that savage fact.

Through the stillness of death sounded again the note of living discontent. He was aware also of some stir, even before he spied, under a withered clump, the saffron body of an infant girl, feebly squirming. By a loathsome irony, there lay beside her an earthen bowl of rice, as an earnest or symbol of regret.

Blind pity urged him into the atrocious hollow. Seeing no further than the present rescue, he caught up the small unclean sufferer, who moaned the louder as he carried her down the bank, and waded out through the sludge. To hold the squalling mouth above water, and swim, was no simple feat; yet at last he came floundering among the tussocks, wrapped the naked body in his jacket, and with infinite pains tugged his terrified pony along a tortuous bar to the land.

Once in the river-path, he stood gloomily, and let Mrs. Forrester canter up to join him. Indeed, he had almost forgotten her.

“Splendid!” she laughed. “What a figure of fun! But what can you have brought back? Oh, please! I can’t wait!”

He turned on her a muddy, haggard face, without enthusiasm, and gently unfolded the coat. The man and the woman looked down together, in silence, at the child. He had some foolish hope that she would take it, that his part was ended. Like an outlandish doll, with face contorted and thick-lidded eyes shut tightly against the sunshine, the outcast whimpered, too near the point of death for even the rebellion of arms and legs.

The woman in the saddle gave a short, incredulous cry. Her face, all gay curiosity, had darkened in a shock of disgust.

“What in the world!” she scolded. “Oh! Such a nasty little Why did What do you propose doing with it?”

Rudolph shook his head, like a man caught in some stupid blunder.

“I never thought of that,” he explained heavily. “She has no no friends.”

“Cover it,” his companion ordered. “Cover it up. I can’t bear to see it.”

With a sombre, disappointed air, he obeyed; then looked up, as if in her face he read strange matter.

“I can’t bear,” she added quickly, “to see any kind of suffering. Why did It’s all my fault for sending you! We were having such a good ride together, and now I’ve spoiled it all, with this. Poor little filthy object!” She turned her hands outward, with a helpless, dainty gesture. “But what can we do? These things happen every day.”

Rudolph was studying the ground again. His thoughts, then, had wronged her. Drenched and downhearted, holding this strange burden in his jacket, he felt that he had foolishly meddled in things inevitable, beyond repair. She was right. Yet some vague, insurgent instinct, which would not down, told him that there had been a disappointment. Still, what had he expected? No woman could help; no woman.

Then suddenly he mounted, bundle and all, and turned his willing pony homeward.

“Come,” he said; and for the first time, unwittingly, had taken charge.

“What is it?” she called. “You foolish boy! What’s your plan?”

“We shall see,” he answered. Without waiting, he beckoned her to follow. She came. They rode stirrup to stirrup, silent as in their escape at dawn, and as close bodily, but in spirit traveling distant parallels. He gave no thought to that, riding toward his experiment. Near the town, at last, he reined aside to a cluster of buildings, white walls and rosy tiles under a great willow.

“You may save your steps,” she declared, with sudden petulance. “The hospital’s more out of funds than ever, and more crowded. They’ll not thank you.”

Rudolph nodded back at her, with a queer smile, half reckless and half confident.

“Then,” he replied, dismounting, “I will replenish my nunnery.”

Squatting coolies sprang up and raced to hold his pony. Others, in the shade of the wall, cackled when they saw a Son of the Red-Haired so beplastered and sopping. A few pointed at his bundle, with grunts of sudden interest; and a leper, bearing the visage as of a stone lion defaced by time, cried something harshly. At his words, the whole band of idlers began to chatter.

Rudolph turned to aid his companion. She sat watching them sharply. An uneasy light troubled the innocent blue eyes, which had not even a glance for him.

“No, I shan’t get down,” she said angrily. “It’s just what might be Your little brat will bring no good to any of us.”

He flung away defiantly, strode through the gate, and calling aloud, traversed an empty compound, already heated by the new-risen sun. A cooler fringe of veranda, or shallow cloister, lined a second court. Two figures met him, the dark-eyed Miss Drake, all in white, and behind her a shuffling, grinning native woman, who carried a basin, in which permanganate of potash swam gleaming like diluted blood.

“Good-morning.” With one droll look of amusement, the girl had understood, and regained that grave yet happy, friendly composure which had the virtue, he discovered, of being easily forgotten, to be met each time like something new. “What have you there for us?”

Again he unfolded the jacket.

“A child.”

The naked mite lay very still, the breath weakly fluttered. A somewhat nauseous gift, the girl raised her arms and received it gently, without haste, the saffron body appearing yet more squalid against the Palladian whiteness of her tunic, plain and cool as drapery in marble.

“It may live,” she said. “We’ll do what we can.” And followed by the black-trousered woman, she moved quickly away to offer battle with death. A plain, usual fact, it seemed, involving no more surprise than repugnance. Her face had hardly altered; and yet Rudolph, for the first time in many days, had caught the fleeting brightness of compassion. Mere light of the eyes, a half-imagined glory, incongruous in the sharp smell of antiseptics, it left him wondering in the cloister. He knew now what had been missing by the river. “I was naked, and” how ran the lines? He turned to go, recalling in a whirl snatches of truth he had never known since boyhood, never seen away from home.

Across a court the padre hailed him, a tall, ungainly patriarch under an enormous mushroom helmet of solar pith, and walking along beside, listened shrewdly to his narrative. They paused at the outer gate. The padre, nodding, frowning slightly, stood at ease, all angles and loose joints, as if relaxed by the growing heat.

Suddenly he stood erect as a grenadier.

“That lie again!” he cried. “Listen!”

The leper, without, harangued from his place apart, in a raucous voice filled with the solitary pride of intellect.

“Well, men shall revile you,” growled Dr. Earle. “He says we steal children, to puncture their eyes for magic medicine!”

Then, heaving his wide shoulders,

“Oh, well!” he said wearily, “thanks, anyhow. Come see us, when we’re not so busy? Good! Look out these fellows don’t fly at you.”

Tired and befouled, Rudolph passed through into the torrid glare. The leper cut short his snarling oration. But without looking at him, the young man took the bridle from the coolie. There had been a test. He had seen a child, and two women. And yet it was with a pang he found that Mrs. Forrester had not waited.