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Chapter 8 The Man-Eater by Edgar Rice Burroughs

At the coast they found that they would have to wait a week for a steamer, and having cabled Mrs. Scott that Virginia was safe under his care, Gordon felt at liberty to rejoice that they had made reasonably good connections. It might have been worse—chance might have brought them to the coast only a day ahead of a steamer.

Gordon, unspoiled by wealth and attentions and scheming manias, lacked sufficient egotism to think that Virginia Scott might be attracted to him as he was to her. There had been other girls whom he had known desired him, but these he had not cared for. Very soon after he had met Virginia he had realized that here at last, in the wilds of Africa, he had found the one girl, the only girl, and straight-away he had set her upon a pedestal and worshipped silently from afar.

To think that this deity might stoop to love a mortal did not occur to him, and, strange to say, he was content to love her without declaring his love—but that was while he had her alone and all to himself. How it would be when she returned to the haunts of eligible men did not occur to him.

Very adroitly—at least he thought it was adroitly accomplished—he discovered from her own lips that she was not engaged, and thereafter his bliss knew no bounds. It had been difficult for Virginia to repress a smile during the ponderous strategy with which he maneuvered the information from her, and also it had been her first intimation that Richard Gordon might care for her. It troubled her, too, not a little, for Virginia Scott was not a young lady to throw her heart lightly into the keeping of the first good looking man who coveted it. That she liked Gordon immensely she would have readily admitted; but she had given no thought to a deeper interest nor but for the suggestion the young man blunderingly put into her head might such a thought have occurred to her—at least not so soon.

But the idea, implanted, became food for considerable speculation, with the result that she now often discovered herself appraising Gordon in a most critical manner. "As though," she mused, "he were a six cylinder limousine, and I wanted to be sure that I like the upholstery—which I do but there's something wrong with his sparking device," and Virginia laughed softly to herself.

"What's the joke?" asked Gordon, sitting beside her on the hotel veranda.

"Oh, nothing—just thinking," replied Virginia, evasively; but she turned her face away to hide a guilty flush, and as she did so her eyes alighted upon the head of a long column marching into town.

"Oh, look!" she exclaimed, glad of any pretext to change the line of thought. "Who do you suppose it can be?"

Gordon looked in the direction she indicated, rose and walked to the end of the veranda, and then called back over his shoulder.

"They're the collectors. I wonder if they got their man-eater?"

Virginia was at his side now, and at her suggestion the two walked down the street to meet the incoming caravan. The collectors were delighted to see them again, and in response to Gordon's inquiry pointed to a stout cage in the middle of the long line.

"There he is," said one of them, "and he's a devil."

Gordon and the girl dropped back to have a look at the latest capture, finding a huge, black-maned lion crouching in the narrow confines of his prison. His yellow eyes glared balefully out upon them, his tail moved restlessly in angry jerks, and his bristling muzzle was wrinkled into a perpetual snarl that bared long, ugly looking fangs.

"He does look like a devil, doesn't he?" remarked Gordon.

A crowd was gathering about the cage now, and as one approached more closely than his majesty thought proper he leaped to his feet and dashed madly against the bars. Roaring loudly and clawing viciously in an attempt to reach the presumptuous mortal—who shrank back in terror, much to the amusement of the other onlookers.

"What a beauty!" exclaimed Virginia.

Gordon was looking very closely at the lion, and instead of replying moved forward nearer the cage. The lion growled savagely, hurling himself against the bars, and then Gordon stepped quite close to him. The beast stopped suddenly and eyed the man in silence. A look, almost of human recognition, changed the expression of his face.

He growled, but no longer angrily—a growl of friendly greeting Gordon could have sworn.

"I thought as much," said the man, turning toward Virginia and one of the collectors at his back. "See that jagged scar on the inside of the forearm there?" he asked.

The collector nodded.

"This is the fellow I liberated from the pit," continued Gordon, "and he remembers me."

"Well, I shouldn't bank too strongly on his gratitude if I were you," warned the collector.

"No, I don't intend to," laughed Gordon.

Two days later Virginia Scott and Richard Gordon took passage upon a northbound steamer, and among the other passengers and cargo were the collectors and their wild beasts.

For several days after receiving his wound Taylor was down with fever; but the moment he could travel he and Kelley set off on their return to the coast, the former bent now upon carrying his felonious designs to a successful conclusion even if he had to rob and murder Gordon in the heart of New York. The man was desperate. His expedition had cost him all the money that he could beg, borrow or steal. He owed Kelley not alone the promised reward but several hundred dollars in cash that the latter had advanced toward the financing of the work. He must have money—he must have a lot of it—and he was determined to get it.

Never in his life had Scott Taylor been so dangerous an enemy; and in this state of mind he and Kelley caught the steamer following that upon which Virginia and Gordon had sailed.

Gordon whiled away the hours of the voyage, when he could not be in Virginia's company, before the cage of the great lion. No one else could approach the beast, with the possible exception of Virginia Scott, whom the animal seemed to tolerate so long as Gordon was near. Toward all others the tawny man-eater evinced the most frightful rage; but when Gordon approached he became docile as a kitten, permitting the American to reach inside the bars and scratch his massive, wrinkled face.

At Liverpool Gordon bade farewell to his savage, jungle friend, for he and Virginia were to take a fast liner for New York, the collector following upon a slower vessel.

"Goodbye, old man," said Gordon in parting, stroking the mighty muzzle. "The chances are we'll never see each other again; but I'll never forget you—especially as I most vividly recall you as you stood over me there in the jungle debating the question of your savage jungle ethics, while gratitude and appetite battled within your breast—and see that you don't forget me; though you will, of course, within a month."

The lion rumbled in his throat and rubbed his head luxuriously against the bars as close to the man as he could get, and thus Gordon left him.

Within a few days the huge beast was sold to a traveling American circus, where he was presently exhibited to wondering crowds, "Ben, King of Beasts, the Man-Eating Lion from the Wilds of Central Africa." He roared and ramped and struggled for liberty for days, but at last he seemed to realize the futility of his efforts, and subsided into a sullen quiet which rendered his keepers even more apprehensive than had his open rebellion.

"He's a ugly one," commented the big Irishman, whose special charge Ben was; "an' deep, too. He'll get some 'un yet. Yeh can't never trust these forest critters; they're all alike, only Ben he's worse."

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