The Camp of the Snake/Chapter 2

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CHAPTER II

THE FIRST TOUCH

IT WAS a sort of public garden opening off the hotel, with a mosque at the other end. The trees were thick overhead except in the center where there was an opening over a narrow well. Later I learned there was one of those big tanks alongside the mosque wall, where it was hidden by some bushes.

A lantern was over the entrance, and as I came up a boy and a girl walked out. They looked about old enough to be just out of high-school, but the English always look young, and the girl might have been nineteen. She glanced at me once and went on talking, probably thinking an American tourist was nothing but a necessary flaw in the landscape.

She was worth looking at twice, and then some. Her wide, white hat hid her eyes, but she carried her chin up. I don't know what a Greek profile is; still I'll lay odds she had one. She could have stepped into line at the "Follies," and the other girls would have taken time out to give her the double-O.

"Captain Dixon will take you out after barasang," she was saying to the boy, "if you'll be an angel and come."

"Rats!" he mumbled. "You know perfectly well the lower Chitral region is all shot out. The only thing really worth while is the high hill game."

They might as well have been talking about psychic research, for all the meaning I got out of that. Not that I stopped to listen; I was watching the girl and wondering how a dress made out of such flimsy stuff seemed to be tailored to fit her. Before they were out of hearing I gathered that he was her brother and broke, having backed the wrong horse at the racetrack, that afternoon. Also that he'd had several shots of the whisky and soda variety. She was urging him to go somewhere with her, and he was kicking about it. That was how I guessed she was his sister.

I scratched a match to start up my pipe, and tried to find a cool spot in the park. The heat was like a veil wrapped over my head, and the place was rank with some kind of flower, acacias, as I saw the next day. There weren't any benches, and I sat down on the stone edge of the well.

The conjuror and the boy were not to be seen, and I wondered how the girl of the white hat looked cool, and what barasang was. And then a voice overhead whispered at me, "Do not be frightened, sahib. Atcha, sahib——"

The stars were blotted out as I looked up, and a human body dropped past me, splashing a dozen feet below, in the well. The light was bad and the thing happened quickly, but I thought it was the boy of the mango trick. At least the voice sounded like his. He had flashed down a foot from my eyes and had hit the narrow mouth of the well without scraping any of the stones.

It takes more than that to make me jump. I scratched a match and shaded it, to look down. The water was quivering and the scum on its top had been split apart. The sides, about four feet apart, were solid rock, without a handhold anywhere.

A few bubbles broke at the surface and then quit coming. The skin on my back began to prickle a bit, when I noticed a snake wiggling around in the scum and thought that the Hindu kid would have a pleasant surprise when he came up. He didn't come. I lit another match from the first, and it burned out. After a third one I knew that anything down in that well would stay down, and half started to slide in after the kid, figuring that he had bumped his head on a rock.

The snake and another thing helped to keep me where I was. Something tugged at my coat, pulling me back. When I got to my feet and swept an arm around in the darkness under the trees, nothing more happened. For a while I listened at the well without hearing anything.

When a diver comes up after a two minute stay under water he makes a noise like a fat man breathing after a hundred yard dash. I was certain the boy had not taken the air again. The trick began to look serious, and I was half angry, half worried about him. Someone else was in the garden, the gent or lady who had laid a restraining hand on me, and was acting like an unlawful-abiding citizen.

Without striking any more matches I walked back to the hotel veranda and called to the first white man visible. It was the young bird who had been ragging the girl.

"One of the village lads," I said, "has committed suicide in the well, and I am the party who saw him last. Either I've been seeing spooks or we'd better hustle up a pulmotor and a rope."

He looked me over and laughed. "It's a dashed good trick, isn't it? Didn't the old budmash come around for some baksheesh?"

"No," I told him. "And no bran-mash either. Suppose the drinks are on me, eh?"

The thin face of the English boy split in a grin and he explained that it was remarkable, very, that the conjuror had not pursued me to the hotel for a tip; baksheesh, they called it. It was a regular stunt of theirs, and this was how they worked it.

The Hindu child climbed the tree near which I'd been sitting and jumped from a branch, out into the well. He was an experienced diver, and knew how to swim through an under-water-conduit that led to the temple tank, not far away.

Well, we had that drink on the porch, and a couple more, each one different, Arnold Duggendale Carnie doing the suggesting while I did the paying. He told me his name and what horse was sure to win in the race the next day—they only had one, but it was a steeplechase and lasted until tea time. Told me he'd been in the saddle of one of the ponies last week and broken a foreleg—of the horse.

Carnie had alert black eyes and a pleasant laugh and did not seem the type for a jockey. I liked him at sight, thinking of his sister, and he invited me to come and shoot mountain sheep with him where it was not so damnably hot.

When I started to undress that night I found that several items were missing from my ensemble. A wallet, with letters from the Pan Am. people, with my passport, letters of- identification, and a few time-tables. Luckily my traveler's checks were safe, as I kept them scattered, with the big ones in my hip pocket.