Two-Fisted Tales

Tales of Mystery and Adventure



 
"Terminal" Talbot Pratt previously brought us the Two-Fisted tale The Tiger Trap and here is a sort of companion piece, again set in exotic India. Jonathon has been invited to spend a month in the regal home of the beautful wife of a local king. But he will soon discover the wife has set a trap with him as the bait...and death itself as the prize!

 

 

She Hunts Tigers
A Tale of Eastern Adventure

By Talbot Pratt


India, 1913.

"You may have noticed the Shiraz wine you drank was poisoned."

The begum's words were spoken with such casual ease that at first Jonathan barely noticed them.  So many other matters vied for his attention — the begum herself, for example.

Together they perched in a gilded, rocking howdah mounted precariously atop the mountainous spine of an elephant.  There was barely room for the two of them in the swaying contraption, and Jonathan was intensely aware of her lithe brown body pressing close through the whispering folds of her sari.  A filmy yashmaq veil covered her head and face, revealing only the startlingly vivid emeralds of her kohl-lined eyes.  When she spoke, the veil floated dreamily, riding on the sensuous waves of her strawberry-scented breath.

He recalled the night he had set out from Bombay to spend a month in the Sher Mahal at the begum's invitation.  The wizened owner of the dak bungalow where he was then staying took him quietly aside, clearly troubled.

"Sahib, there is one thing you should know of Panna begum," the man explained, wringing his bony hands and casting furtive glances through the open windows.  "She enjoys shikar, sahib.  She hunts tigers."

Jonathan had thought he understood the man's meaning plainly enough.  It was unusual for women to take part in shikar, the tiger hunt; the man was warning him that the begum was perhaps independently minded, even willful.  Hardly a reason for such concern, however; she was a begum after all — wife of the nawab of Samudra.

In fact, in practical terms, she was virtually an independent monarch herself, living alone as she did in the nawab's summer residence for much of the year.  She commanded an army of ayahs — serving girls — and a lesser platoon of eunuchs whose supposed duty was to ensure her continued fidelity in the absence of her husband, but who more properly performed the chores of servants, whether it be keeping the punkah fans stirring the sultry Indian air or ensuring her jewelled carafes of quenching arrack punch remained eternally filled to their silver brims.

But now, poised dizzily atop an elephant, in the very midst of a tiger hunt, he was no longer certain.  The begum was so near her sandalwood perfume mingled subtly with the more pungent scent of her sweat — a strangely arousing combination, Jonathan found.  Her fiery emerald eyes, for which she was named, flashed with eager vibrancy, her long jezail musket raised to her shoulder, all her supple body throbbing with an almost orgasmic thirst for the hunt, for the kill.  She seemed less a human hunter than a tiger stalking its own kind and, in spite of the oval shade cast by their swaying, fringed parasol, Jonathan found himself perspiring unnaturally in his khaki attire and sun pith helmet.

He glanced at her, a frown pressing on his gleaming brows.  "Pardon, begum?  I'm not sure I caught that."

Her attention turned to the mechanism of her jezail.  Her response was given absently, as if placidly discussing the advantages of the ancient weapon over the modern Lee-Enfield.  "I put poison in the Shiraz wine you drank at tiffin.  I would expect you to begin feeling the first effects by now.  Are you?"

For a moment, he was too stunned to speak.  His eyes travelled to the gaunt, near-naked mahout riding the knife edge of the elephant's wrinkled neck, driving the beast with jabs of his iron hook.  The situation seemed surreal; surely this was some sort of game, one more amusement for the thrill-seeking begum.

But, then, he noticed the perspiration soaking his jodhpurs to his legs, his jacket to his spine.  It was true he had been feeling queerly for some time now; feeling more and more ghastly by the second, now that he... reflected... on it...

With a sudden frigid rush of horror, he realized she was telling the truth.  He had been poisoned.  She had poisoned him! 

"But...but why?" he blurted out, swallowing past the sudden constriction in his throat.

The fear in his voice turned her to him reluctantly, her breath stirring her veil, her lashes black and lush.  "You recall the conversation we had during your first week in my palace?"  He shook his head, bewildered as much by her casual manner as by her words.  "You spoke of religion, do you recall?  We discussed the difference between Hinduism and Christianity."

Though her husband, the nawab, was a Moslem, the begum had been born and raised to the Hindu faith.  Her husband had agreed to allow her her beliefs so long as she consented to live in purdah, wearing her yashmaq veil in public.

"You said you thought the major difference lay in each religion's view of death.  Because we Hindus see death only as a part of life, as a transition between one life and the next, death to us is merely an event, a process."

His thoughts were confused, an unruly jostle in his head, though whether this was the shock of the thing, or the poison's lethal progress, he could not be sure.  He found her words difficult to follow, his vision as unsteady as the cushion beneath him.

"But to the western mind, death is something more... frightening.  We Hindus have gods for everything, the sun, the wind, the mountains.  It is said there are 330 million Hindu gods."

Her voice was throaty and sensual, and he recalled how mysterious and alluring he had found it before.  But now there was a childish discord, a strange naive innocence.  She spoke as if wanting him to understand as she thought she understood.

"But you Christians... you have a god who is good and you have a devil who is bad.  Two principle gods who answer all your questions and meet all your needs.  And then — and this is the part which intrigued me — then there is a third deity.  In fact, you said no feringee would even call it a god, though in every way it would seem to be one.  It is neither good nor evil, but simply..."  She dropped her dark eyes, searching her memory for the word; with a mounting sense of dizzy dislocation, Jonathan numbly obliged.

"Inexorable."

Her eyes returned to his face, squinting as she smiled.  "That was the word you used, yes, thank you.  Inexorable.  It is because it must be, not through any malice nor even any divine will.  It is inevitable, even necessary.  And you call it...  'death'."

As the final word passed her lips, her eyes suddenly closed and a strange convulsion shook her slender frame, her sleek body momentarily straining as if an electric current was surging through her flesh.  Then, just as suddenly, the fit passed away.

"This is insane," Jonathan gasped, clutching at the rocking rim of the howdah.  In the distant wilderness of deodar trees arose the din of beaters slowly approaching, methodically forcing the great cat from its ancient lair.  "What does any of this have to do with... with... poison!"

"Don't you see?  This creature you spoke of — this 'death' — it is completely new to me.  It is fascinating; more deadly than sher, the tiger, more powerful than hathi, the elephant, more patient than the python.  Such a beast — to have it in my sights, to bring it down as I have brought down so many creatures, to place its regal head amongst my trophies, to skin it and to wear that cold, black hide draped luxuriously against my naked flesh..."

Her lean body convulsed again, all her supple muscles straining in concert, her eyes rolling up beneath their trembling lids, a breath of rigid ecstacy stirring her veil.  Jonathan had seen similar fits among Quakers during a visit to America some years before and in Haiti among practitioners of the voodoo faith.  He felt a chill having nothing to do with the venom coursing in his veins.

"That's insane," he gasped, his vision swimming, his bowels clenching.  "You can't hunt death like some bloody tiger!  I was just being figurative — death isn't really a beast to be caught and skinned.  Death is...is...death is death!"

Slowly the begum's vision cleared, the fit passing from her like a fever, leaving her breathless, her slim brow glistening.  She frowned, not angrily, but hurt, wounded.  Dimly Jonathan detected the dry rustle of something bounding through the greenery ahead.  The cacophony of the beaters was stifling now, nearly drowning out her voice.

"Why do you say it is impossible?" she asked, petulance catching the words in her throat.  "Merely because it has never been tried?  I have killed many tigers, many maneaters.  Surely this is but the greatest maneater of all."  Her small hands closed on the jezail, her tapering fingers gently stroking the brass-banded barrel.  "I have a fine weapon," she said proudly.  "I have my experience.  I have a plan."

His spinning gaze was fixed on her emerald stare, a dangerous lassitude stealing over him, robbing him of strength, of will.  As if in a dream, out of the corner of his eyes he caught a flash of orange and black, a sheen of glossy pelt.  He felt the elephant rock suddenly beneath them, trumpeting in primordial alarm; heard the mahout gasp in surprise.

"And I have bait," she finished, even as she shrugged the jezail fluidly to one brown shoulder and spat ivory fire from the end.  Then the world gyrated wildly and the tiger's deathscream followed Jonathon into merciful night. 

***

When he awoke it was through a clinging web, fighting every inch, like a man rising with heavy strokes through a viscous pool.

He lay on a lavish four poster bed, violet silk sheets gathered in shimmering folds around him.  His limbs were leaden and numb, his head pounding and bathed in running sweat.  Fighting to raise his head, he surveyed a vast chamber festooned with engrailed arches, stretched gilded mirrors and grim, furious tapestries depicting the bloody tiger hunt over and over again — as if reflections in other darker mirrors.

With a start, he realized this must be the begum's bedchamber, that he must be lying on the begum's bed, and he felt a momentary flush of embarrassment — until his memories returned in a sudden pulse and he recalled the circumstances which had brought him here.

"Don't try to move."  A filmy curtain parted beside the bed and Panna begum looked down on him, her body draped in a diaphanous sari, her yashmaq discarded revealing her face to him for the first time.  Her dark beauty nearly drove him to forget the nightmare horror of his situation.

She was much younger than he had thought, perhaps only seventeen or eighteen.  Her features were delicately sculpted, her skin almond brown and glossy as polished sandalwood.  Her lips were startlingly full, but narrow, like two ripe orange slices and painted in a pale pink hue that was vivid against the dark of her skin.  A gold ring glittered, piercing her nose, a delicate chain looping to the lobe of her ear.  Yet, in spite of all this, it was still her emerald eyes that won his gaze, nearly hypnotic in their scintillance.  "It won't be much longer.  The poison will do its job soon."

"Please," he croaked, straining to rise, then falling back with a hopeless groan.  "Please, bring a doctor.  There is still time.  There must be an antidote.  You don't want to be a murderer.  They will hang you, do you understand?  They will hang you if I die."

"Shhh."  She touched a finger to her satiny lips, then gently stroked the damp hair from his eyes with her other hand.  "It won't hurt — I made sure the poison would not cause pain.  And don't worry for me.  They won't hang me because you won't die.  I will be here with you all night."  She reached down and raised up her long jezail musket, the brass bands glinting in the hazy ghost-light of hanging ghee lamps.  "When death comes for you, I will be ready.  I will not let it take you."

Jonathan shook his head in an anguish of frustration, his fists balled against the rich silk at his thighs.  "How can I make you understand?  You can't shoot death.  You can't—"

He paused, a sudden desperate idea taking form.  "How will you see to shoot?  Surely even you can't kill something you can't see?  It's not your fault; I should have told you that death is invisible.  But, you must see, if you can't see it you can't shoot it."

A faint smile turned the corners of her lips, a light flashing like green fire in her eyes.  "Don't worry about that," she assured him.  "When death comes, we will both see it — I promise you that."

***

As the night wore on, a storm broke.  There were no windows in the bedroom, but Jonathan could hear each savage clap of thunder as it smashed the air like shivering gongs beyond the marble walls.  He could detect the whispering rush of torrential rains washing the orange groves and banana plants and he could imagine the peepul trees whipped to a dancing frenzy by the howling winds of the rising monsoon.

But in the begum's bedchamber the atmosphere was still as the air in the mouth of a corpse.

It took all his energy to remain conscious, but at least she had spoken the truth: there was no pain.  But there was suffering just the same.  His futile pleas had given way to a hollow silence, hopeless and spent.  It was not for himself that he suffered now; rather it was for this poor deluded creature, doomed to die miserably in a noose for a madness which he had helped fashion — if however unwittingly.

The begum sat on the floor beside the bed, the long jezail perched on her knee, her flashing eyes staring unwavering at the shadowed archway to the hall.  Her patience, her stamina was astonishing.  Then, quite suddenly, she broke the breathless silence in a voice husky and contained.

"It was a night much like this," she said.  "The monsoon was raging outside.  I was barely fourteen but my breasts were swollen with milk and my belly glistened with the sweat of my labours.  For nine months I had dreamed of the child growing within me, imagined how it would feel, her body against mine, her lips suckling."

Suddenly her voice caught in her throat; a fierce tremor shook her narrow shoulders and her teeth clenched until the spasm reluctantly passed.  Then she licked her dry lips and resumed in an unsteady cadence.

"It was a difficult birth, very long and painful.  It had begun at noon as we sat to tiffin and continued far, far into the night — so long I thought perhaps it would never end.  The midwife was nearly as exhausted as I, and my husband, the nawab, fainted through worry — so they told me.  But finally the child came and her cries fell on my ears like the most melodious raga ever composed.  Tears ran in my eyes and I begged to hold her, all my body afire with the need to feel her, to know she was mine.  But the midwife...the midwife insisted she must clean her, wash her first."

The begum swallowed, tears tracing glistening threads on her dusky cheeks, glittering like diamonds on the rim of her lips.  She stared at the archway unblinking as if in a sort of trance.  Jonathan too found her words hypnotic, his eyes fixed on her young tortured features, his breathing shallow with failing strength.

"She placed my child on a table and then...  the crying stopped."  Her dark head shook slowly, as if negating the evidence of her memories.  "They told me it was her heart.  They said it must have been weak.  But they didn't see.  None of them saw what I saw."

Jonathan felt a cold breath whispering across his skin.  "I saw the thing that gathered over her even as the crying stopped; I saw it as I see you — the darkness, the terrible, ravenous darkness.  I saw how it moved; I saw the claws, the teeth, the eyes.  I did not know what it was.  My world was a world of rebirth, reincarnation, of dancing gods and karma.  But this was not rebirth; this was something loathsome and shambling; something fierce and stalking; something come crawling out of the howling wilderness on padding paws to devour my child, my baby, without reason, without justice, without remorse.  A maneater.  A terrible incessant maneater."

For a moment, silence held the chamber in caressing hands.  Her sari had fallen from her soft shoulders and they shook in concert with her ragged sobs.  Her dark head was pressed to the long gun perched on her knee, silver tears spilling from beneath the wings of her ebony lashes.  Jonathan knew the end was very near.  It was only through a sustained effort that he marshalled the strength to speak.

"Panna."  It was the first time he had used her name without the honorific.  "Panna, you must listen to me.  I'm sorry for you, for your child, but this won't bring her back.  You can't kill death.  It simply isn't poss—"

Her breath sucked through her teeth, her green eyes dilating, all her frame suddenly stiffening.  "There," she gasped.  "In the archway, do you see it?  There."

Startled, he followed her stricken stare.  For just a moment, he really did find himself half-expecting to see...  something... beneath the engrailed arch.  But there was no one there.  Then, before he could speak, she twisted to her knees and drew lithely back behind the filmy curtains.

"Jaldi!" she hissed, and he knew it must be a command to a hidden servant for she never spoke to him in Hindi.

Almost on the instant, a cloud of soft whiteness burst in a roiling swirl from the chamber's honeycombed ceiling.  It drifted downward, spreading and diffusing in the still air, tiny rocking flakes like the finest snow.

"It is kapok," she explained in a shivering whisper.  "The most delicate of kapok, more light than the softest down."

There was again that strange orgasmic tension in her voice, but he no longer mistook it for simple passion.  It was passion of a sort, to be sure, but a dark passion, a terrible hungry lust grown of pain and loss; a ruthless need sated only through the lovemaking of the hunt and the climax of the kill.  "There?"  She could barely speak through her excitement.  "There — do you see it now?"

His eyes could barely focus.  A weight seemed pressing on his ribs, each breath a battle.  But suddenly a cool prickling worked along his scalp.  His eyes grew wide.

Something was moving in the suffused haze of drifting kapok.  Not something he could see, but rather something which disturbed the white tufts around it, conforming the suspension to its shape.

Jonathan swallowed drily.  An hallucination, surely.  The final stages of madness brought on by the poison.  And yet — the thing moved.  Slowly it approached through the ivory fog — with an easy grace, padding without hurry.  Dimly he sensed the long barrel of the jezail piercing the slit in the soft curtain near his head, levelling, taking aim.

"Now," he croaked, his voice sounding alien to his ears.  The swirling shape loomed massive and slouched, striding ever closer.  He noticed how the lamp flames danced in its passing and wondered how often before he had witnessed the same, ignorant of its significance.

"Now."  His voice was stronger, grated between clenched jaws, his eyes starting.  Sweat blurred his vision; his heart thundered in the cage of his chest.  The sculpted shape seemed to fill the chamber beyond the bed, seemed to reach out with heavy arms, closer and closer and clo—

"Now!" he screamed, shrill with terror.

The jezail exploded like a stunning clap of thunder in his ears.

On the heels of the concussion a terrible wail rent the air, a hideous, wounded shriek that cut Jonathan's brain like daggers.  In a titanic whirlwind of white, the shape rushed screaming from the chamber.  The begum tore away the curtains, the jezail still curling smoke, her breath panting and furious.

"It's only wounded!" she exclaimed, her voice breaking with the anguish of her failure.  "I have to finish it!"

"Wait!" he cried, grabbing for her.  But she slipped easily away, chasing after her prey on bare, flashing feet.

Suddenly he found his strength returned, his vision clear, as if the poison had been purged from his veins in an instant.  He tumbled off the bed, weaving drunkenly a moment, then sprang after.

He followed her out into the crashing rain, only the scent of her perfume to guide him.  Then the wind swept even this away and he could only blunder blindly through the orange groves, screaming her name in the hollow echoes of the storm.  Suddenly he paused as a frightened cry pierced the night.  He sped after it, skidding in splashing puddles, one hand raised against the driving spray.

Abruptly the trees parted before him and he stumbled to a halt, a shard of ice exploding in his chest.  It wasn't possible, he knew it wasn't — but he saw it with his own eyes.

A vast monstrous shadow was outlined in the storm's wash, shaping the sheets of rain as it had shaped the drifting kapok.  In its arms, the begum writhed and twisted, her terrible screams heaving from her lungs in shuddering sobs of horror.  With a single wrench, the shadow tore the sari from her throbbing body, casting it to the howling gale.  For a moment Jonathan saw her brown form struggle frantically, her naked limbs flashing with glistening rain, her emerald eyes wide and stricken with the realization that she was at last living her most dreaded nightmare.  Then the shadow reached forth a vast paw, laying it almost lovingly over her mouth.

For a long moment, even the thunder quieted and the begum grew passive, as if stunned, unable to comprehend what was being done to her.  Then, suddenly, her lean body arched with a final frenzy of horrid realization and a strangled shriek, tinged with a reeling madness, found its way past the cold, insistent thing reaching deep inside her.

A second later, she fell limply to the shining earth and the rain-shadow slouched silently away into the flashing Indian night.

***

On his return to London, Jonathan told no one.  The nawab's doctors had insisted her death was a heart attack — like her child, she must have had a weak constitution.  In keeping with her Hindu faith, they placed her body on a burning ghat and sent her soul to be reborn in another form, another place — whatever her karma might decree.

But though he told no one, he could not forget that night and the horrors it had brought.  Was it all some strange hallucination brought on by the poison given him?  But why then had the poison not killed him?

Now this.

The London papers were filled with the news of a man's death in Europe, an Archduke of some sort.  He had been assassinated and there was talk of reprisals, even war.  As Jonathan read those words, a strange chill had touched his shoulders, a premonition.  He had thought back to that night — and wondered.

Only wounded, the begum had said.  Only wounded.

Somewhere in the dark of the world, Death stalked the earth on silent, invisible paws — incessant, implacable...but wounded.  And he knew what men said of a wounded maneater....

The End.




 
 

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She Hunts Tigers is copyright 1998, Jeffrey Blair Latta. It may not be copied or used for any commercial purpose except for short excerpts used for reviews. (Obviously, you can copy it or print it out if you want to read it!)