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   Chapter 32 THE HORROR IN THE SWAMP.

Jack Haydon's Quest By John Finnemore Characters: 11831

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


He breathed more freely when he saw that the men who led the villager forward had coils of rope in their hands and nothing else. In a trice the man was bound to the cross, his arms at full length, his body firmly lashed to the upright.

The half-caste now beckoned to Jack.

"Come down the slope," said Saya Chone. "I want you to look at this man now. You will see him again in the morning. Perhaps you will find it useful to note the difference."

Jack was led down the descent and brought face to face with the native. The English lad saw at once that the man bound to the cross was stupefied with an extremity of terror. His brown skin was a frightful ashen shade, his eyes were wide, distended with horror, and fixed on the swamp, his mouth open, his jaw hanging limp.

"You will see him again in the morning," repeated the half-caste; "and you will see, I assure you, another kind of man."

"Yes," said Jack, "after you have practised your brutal devilries on him."

"No, no, oh no," laughed Saya Chone in his soft, cunning tones. "We shall do no more to him. His whole punishment consists in remaining here in bonds from sunset to sunrise. Then we shall loose the ropes, and he will be free."

"Yes," said Jack, who thought now that he saw daylight, "with every vein full of the fever and malaria that haunt this swamp."

"Fever," laughed Saya Chone, "this fellow is absolutely safe against fever. You could no more give him jungle fever than you could make him ten feet high. A night here would give you a fever that would kill you in ten days, never him."

Jack was puzzled once more, and said nothing. He resolved to ask his father what it all meant.

But he soon found that this chance was not to be afforded him. He was led back up the rise, and placed at some distance from the spot where his father stood. He saw his father taken down the slope and confronted with the condemned native, then brought back. At once the procession was reformed. Jack was placed at the head, his father at the rear, and they were not allowed to exchange a word.

Jack's heart sank a little. Did this mean that they were to be separated? It did. When the great house was once more gained, Jack was shut up by himself in a room which he had not seen before, and there he spent the night.

The sun had been up a couple of hours next morning before Jack heard the sound of any movement outside his cell. Then there was a rattle of creaking bolts and the door was flung open. Saya Chone stood in the doorway with the usual band of blue-kilted and well-armed Kachins.

He did not speak, only beckoned with his hand, his malicious eyes lit up with their usual evil grin. Nor did he speak throughout the subsequent journey when Jack was led over the track he had followed the night before. Jack looked round for his father, but no sign of Mr. Haydon was to be seen. The half-caste ambled ahead on a pony, Jack and four of U Saw's retainers followed behind, and that was the whole of the party.

As they approached the edge of the declivity which ran down towards the swamp, the sound of a loud, measured voice came through the air.

Saya Chone started, touched his pony with his heel, and cantered forward. Then he dropped back to his former pace as they cleared a patch of bamboo and saw the origin of the sound. On the edge of the slope stood a man dressed something like a monk. His head was close shaven, and he carried a large yellow parasol through which the sunlight poured, and made his polished skull shine like gold. He carried a large basket on a pole slung over his shoulder.

Jack had seen such a figure before, and Buck had told him all about it. It was a pothoodaw, a man who, without belonging to the order of regular monks, still leads a life of prayer and pious works. The holy man had paused on the edge of the slope to recite his prayers, moved doubtless thereto by the sight of the condemned man below. Now, as the little procession arrived, he swung up his basket and moved away without a glance at them.

Nor, save for Jack, was a glance cast at him. A pothoodaw is a familiar sight in every corner of the country, and his wanderings from place to place take him to every nook, however desert or solitary.

Jack, too, soon had eyes for something beside the holy man. They reached the edge of the slope. Saya Chone turned with a grin and spoke to one of the Kachins. The latter at once whipped off his turban, unrolled it and folded it over Jack's eyes, and so the latter was led down the slope.

"Now you can look," said a mocking voice, and the turban was whipped aside.

Jack gave a cry of horror. He could not help it. He had meant to restrain all signs of feeling, but this was too much. He had been placed so that he stood almost breast to breast with the most dreadful and grisly horror that the mind of man could conceive. He looked upon the horrible, dry, shrivelled mummy of something which had been a man. The shape of the villager hung there in the bonds, but it was a mere framework of bones, upon which hung wrinkled brown folds of shrivelled skin. The haunting terror of the vision was beyond all description.

Jack tried to speak, to ask what had done this fearful thing. But his dried tongue refused its office; it clung to the roof of his mouth.

The half-caste at his shoulder now broke into a chuckling laugh.

"He looks pretty, does he not?" said Saya Chone. "And you see nothing has happened but what I said. He has been tied here all night." He was silent for a few moments in order to let the awful sight sink deeply into Jack's mind, then he went on. "You are puzzled. I can see it in your face. What has happened to him? I will tell you. You now see what a man looks like when every single drop of blood has been sucked out of his body."

The half-caste paused a little, then laughed gaily. "It is having a better effect on you than I

should have hoped for, my young friend. You look sick with horror. But even through your disgust I see a glimmer of wonder as to the manner in which it is done. Simply enough, I assure you. This swamp is famous throughout the valley for the immense size and virulence of the mosquitoes which breed in it. With the fall of dusk they pour from its recesses in vast swarms, and fasten on man or beast or any creature into whose skin they may drive their stings, and from whose body they may suck its blood. Here has been a feast royal for them."

He waved his hand towards the dry, rattling, shrivelled remnants of humanity, fastened to the cross, and Jack understood the awful, the sickening cruelty of this exquisite torture.

"It is a slow death, but terribly sure," went on the half-caste. "As one gorged horde drop off, be certain that a thousand hungry swarms hover round, eager to fill the empty places, and taste also of the feast. Think of it to-day, think of it well."

He waved his hand and the Kachins marched away up the hill, leading Jack with them. The road back to the great house was taken in silence, and Jack was thrust once more into his solitary cell. There he spent the whole day alone, not seeing even those who thrust his dish of meat and rice through a small trap in the door.

The afternoon had worn far on, and he was sitting on his bench deep in thought. He had striven to keep out of his mind the spectacle he had seen that morning, but the impression it had produced upon him was one of such terrible power that it was before his eyes at every moment. What did it threaten to them, to his father and himself? His mind recoiled before the idea.

Suddenly, without a sound, the door of his cell swung back, and there was a swift rush of naked feet on the floor. Four of the guard were upon Jack before he could lift a finger, and at the next moment his hands were bound behind him, and his ankles fastened together with a rope which permitted him to walk with fair ease, but gave him no freedom to do aught beside take short steps. Within five minutes again he was in a procession such as he had walked in the night before.

In front once more rode Saya Chone and the Ruby King. The latter rode on a fine white pony, and was attended by a couple of retainers, one of whom held a huge scarlet umbrella above U Saw's head, and the other carried his betel-box of solid silver. Jack turned his head, and saw at first no sign of his father, but when they had gone about half a mile, he looked back and saw his father's tall figure, conspicuous among the short, sturdy Kachins who guarded him, among a group now setting out from the gate.

This order of the march was kept until they reached the edge of the slope. Down this Jack was hurried, and now saw a sight which filled him with the gloomiest of fears. The villager still hung in his bonds, and two yards in front of the cross to which he was bound stood two similar crosses, each surrounded with a framework of strong cane.

Jack stiffened himself for a struggle against the horrible fate which menaced him, but his struggles were all in vain. His enemies, small perhaps, but many, and with muscles of iron, had him strung up to the cross in a trice, and here he was gagged, after he had been bound securely.

In a few moments he saw his father bound in like fashion, and then, to his surprise, he saw a couple of men swiftly and thoroughly cover the framework of cane around each cross with strong mosquito-netting.

"What does this mean?" thought Jack. "Are they only putting us here to terrify us? The mosquitoes cannot get at us through this netting." But at the next moment he learned that this was but a trick to prolong their agony, and cause them to endure an extremity of mental suffering which the villager had never known. Saya Chone, as ever, was the spokesman of his master's will.

"You will be safe under these nettings until these cords are pulled," he said. Jack and Mr. Haydon looked to the ground whither the half-caste pointed. There they saw a couple of stout cords, one fastened at the corner of each mosquito-net.

"A sharp tug at the cord will displace the nets," went on Saya Chone. "But you will have a chance to save your skins before that is done. In any case, the first cord will not be pulled until an hour after sunset. Then," went on the half-caste, addressing himself to Mr. Haydon, "this is the cord which will be pulled," and he pointed to the cord fastened to Jack's net. Mr. Haydon ground his teeth. "If you don't want it pulled," purred Saya Chone softly, "you know what you have to do, a few words, nothing more. An hour later the other cord will be pulled, and you will be left for the night. On the other hand, if you wish for release, you have only to shout that you will tell us, and a dozen men will rush down with torches and smoking green boughs to beat aside the mosquitoes, and bring you out in safety. I myself shall remain under shelter and within earshot."

Without another word he turned and marched up the slope. The attendants had already retired, and within a few moments the edge of the swamp was empty save for the prisoners and the dead villager.

Jack closed his eyes. He and his father were so placed that straight before them, almost at arm's length, was the horrible, shrivelled figure which was so dreadful a pledge of the terrible powers which lurked within the dismal swamp behind them.

Jack now heard his father begin to speak. "I see you are gagged, Jack," said Mr. Haydon. "It is a compliment to your staunchness, my poor boy, if nothing else. Had they fancied there was the least chance of your showing the white feather, they would have left you your powers of speech, that you might beg for release. This is a frightful position. I have been expecting some cunning device, but this is awful beyond what I could have dreamed of."

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