Table of content

Chapter 9 The Man-Eater by Edgar Rice Burroughs

Mrs. Scott had met Virginia and Gordon at the dock, where, in the excitement and rejoicing of the reunion of the mother and daughter, the manila envelope and its contents were forgotten until long after Gordon had seen the two safely aboard their train for home.

Before parting with him both had urged that he visit them at an early date, and gladly indeed had Gordon promised to do so. It was not until their train had pulled out of the station that Virginia recalled the paper for which Gordon had made the long journey and risked his life.

"He must have forgotten it, too," she said; "but he'll probably discover it and mail it to you today."

Mr. Richard Gordon did not, however, discover the manila envelope for many days thereafter. It had crossed the Atlantic in one of his bags in the special care of the loyal Murphy, and that gentleman had removed it, with other papers, as was his custom, to a certain drawer in Gordon's desk where "unfinished business" reposed, awaiting the leisurely pleasure of Mr. Gordon.

But that young gentleman found upon his arrival in New York a matter of far greater interest than unanswered letters and unpaid bills.

It was an urgent demand from an old school friend that he accompany the former a-motoring into Canada on a fishing expedition.

He had met this friend in the grill of one of his clubs the day he landed in New York, and fifteen minutes later had promised to leave with him early the following morning.

Mrs. Scott and Virginia waited a reasonable time, and then, hearing nothing from Gordon, the girl wrote him, and as fate would have it her letter reached New York the very day that witnessed the return of Taylor and Kelley, and the latter, sent to ascertain the whereabouts of Gordon, preceded the postman into the apartment building where Gordon's bachelor home was located by a few paces.

Turning to see who was behind him, Kelley had an inspiration born of former practice and long years of taking anything that he could get his hands on, provided it belonged to another.

"If there's anything for my friend Gordon," he said to the mail carrier, "I'll save you a trip up as I'm going up to see him now."

Unsuspicious, the carrier shuffled off a half dozen pieces of mail matter and handed them to Kelley, who resumed his way to the elevator, stuffed the letters in his pocket and a moment later rang the bell of Gordon's door. Murphy answered the summons and, thanks to a slight disguise, failed to recognize the card sharp of the trip out.

"No, sir, Mr. Gordon is not in," he replied to Kelley's inquiry. "He has gone out of town for a couple of weeks. What name, sir?"

"Oh, he doesn't know me," replied Kelley. "I'll call again after he comes home. It's just a little business matter," and he turned and departed.

Back in the flat on West One Hundred and Forty-fifth Street, Kelley handed the mail to Taylor. One by one the envelopes were steamed open and the contents read. Only the letter from Virginia was of interest or value to the conspirators.

"He's still for the paper," announced Taylor when he had finished reading Virginia's note, "and he'll go down there with it. That's the place to get him and the paper at the same time. I know the lay of the land there. We'll duck for Scottsville and lay for Mr. Buttinski Gordon. Seal up those letters, Kelley, and put 'em into Gordon's mail box."

Two weeks later Dick Gordon sat once more before his desk in his apartment and attacked the accumulated correspondence in the "unfinished business" drawer at his right hand.

"Well, I'll be—what do you know about that?" he exclaimed, as he read Virginia's letter, and then he rummaged through the mass of envelopes before him, drawing a great sigh of relief as his search finally uncovered the long manila envelope.

"Hey, Murphy!" he called. "Ring up and find out when the first train through Scottsville, Virginia, leaves."

The following day he alighted at the station of the sleepy little town, engaged a negro to drive him to The Oaks, and was presently making his dusty way in the direction of the stately Scott household.

Two minutes after he had driven off Kelley rushed breathlessly into the ballroom of the tavern where Taylor was engaged in a game of cards with a marooned traveling man.

Leaning close to Taylor's ear Kelley whispered; "He's come!"

"Where is he?" asked Taylor.

"Driven off toward The Oaks," replied Kelley.

"All right—he'll keep 'til tonight," and Taylor resumed the pleasurable task of separating the traveling man from his expense money.

At The Oaks Gordon discovered that Mrs. Scott and Virginia were visiting friends at a nearby town.

"Dey'll be back to-morrer, Mistah Gordon," said the old colored butler, "an' Ah knows dey'll be mighty prolashus to see you-all. Dey's been expectin' you for a right smaht. Yo come right along of me, an' I'll show you yore room—you mos' suttiny gotter stay till Miss Ruth an' Miss 'Ginia returns."

"It's mighty good of you," said Gordon, "and I'll do it. Let me see, you are Washington, are you not? I've heard Miss Virginia speak of you."

"Yassah, I'm Washington Scott, sah," replied the old fellow, beaming with pride and pleasure to learn that he had been the subject of 'Quality's conversation.' "Yassha, Marssa Jefferson Scott's great gran' daddy bought my great gran' daddy 'bout fouah hundred yeahs ago and we been in de fambly eber since. Ah been de Gen'l's body servant evah since Ah ben a li'le shaver."

"Your people have sure been with the Scotts for some time, Washington," commented Gordon, with a smile, as he followed the old man up the grand staircase to the second floor.

Gordon's room lay at the far end of a long hall, overlooking the roof of the veranda, and a pleasant, wooded lawn at the side of the house.

The young man passed the balance of the day wandering about the grounds, chatting with the negroes, and longing for the coming of the morrow that would bring Virginia Scott. In the evening he sat upon a settee beneath a tree on the front lawn, smoking and listening to the banjos and the singing of the negroes in their quarters down the road.

Bordering the fence grew thick shrubbery which hid the road, as it also hid from his eyes the two silent figures that crept stealthily in its shadow.

As they watched him Gordon arose, tossed his cigar aside and turned toward the house. From across the bottom lands two miles away came faintly the rumble of a train. Suddenly a shrill whistle from an engine screamed through the quiet night, almost immediately afterward followed by a dull, booming sound that seemed to shake the earth.

Gordon paused and listened. "If that wasn't a wreck," he mused, "it at least sounded mightily like it, but it probably wasn't at that. Noises always seem exaggerated at night."

For a moment Gordon stood listening, then he turned toward the house again, entered it and ascended to his room. The two figures in the shrubbery circled the grounds until they reached a point where they could see his windows. There they waited until a light appearing proclaimed that Gordon had gone to his room.

"We'll loaf around until he's asleep," whispered one of the prowlers.

Fifteen minutes later the light in Gordon's chamber was extinguished.

"He's turned in," whispered the other prowler.

"We'll stick for a quarter of an hour longer," said the first, "an' give him a chance to get to sleep."

For a while both were silent.

The quiet of the soft summer night was broken only by the cicadas, the subdued croaking of frogs in the bottoms, and strains of Southern melody from the negro quarters.

"Don't them coons never go to bed," growled Kelley querulously.

Taylor made no response. He was fidgeting uneasily. He wished the job were over. Time and again he fingered the automatic in the side pocket of his coat. Once he drew the weapon out and for the dozenth time that day removed the cartridge clip and counted the shells. "Nine of 'em and one in the chamber," he commented. "That's ten—oh!—" The clip had slipped from his nervous fingers and fallen to the ground.

Hastily he snatched it up and slipped it back in the grip of the weapon.

"Come on!" he whispered to Kelley. "We'll sneak in up to his door and listen there—this waitin' gets my goat."

"Mine, too," said Kelley, and the two slunk from tree to tree until they were well in the shadows of the house. Then they circled to the veranda steps, mounted and paused beside the French doors opening into the library. Taylor was in advance. He was about to enter when a telephone bell broke the silence of the interior with a brazen clanging, bursting upon their startled ears with all the terrific volume of a pounding fire gong. The two men drew back hurriedly, slinking into the deeper shadows at the end of the porch and crouching behind a swinging porch seat.

Presently a light shone in the library—waveringly at first, and then brighter and steadier as the old butler entered with a lamp and set it upon the table. The telephone bell was still ringing intermittently. Taylor and Kelley strained their ears to catch his words, but could not.

He was talking to Virginia Scott. "We decided to come tonight instead of tomorrow," she said. "There was a wreck about half a mile from the station which delayed us—we had to walk in from where the accident occurred. Send Jackson to town with the machine for us at once."

"Yes, Miss 'Ginia, Ah send him punctiliously," replied the old man.

A moment later he was routing Jackson out of bed and posting him off to the village. Taylor and Kelley remained in hiding, for the old butler waited out upon the veranda until he had seen the car turn into the pike and disappear in the direction of Scottsville. Then he turned slowly and entered the house, plodding upward to his room that he might dress to properly receive his returning mistress. He took the lamp with him, leaving the library lighted only by the moon which now streamed a silver shaft through the doors and windows.

When they were sure that he had gone Taylor and Kelley crept from their hiding place and entered the library, leaving the French doors wide open. At the foot of the stairs they paused, listening. Some one was moving about on the floor above. It was the butler. Fearing that he was returning to the first floor the conspirators dodged into the music room, the doorway of which was close to the bottom of the stairs.

Ben, King of Beasts, objected strenuously to being loaded upon a flat car. Although the process consisted merely of rolling his wheeled cage up an incline onto the car, he objected to every change of location which necessitated the closer proximity of hated man, and the disturbing of his royal reveries.

But loaded he was, and then came the hateful jolting and pounding of the rumbling train, the screech of whistles, the grinding of brakes, and all the other noises of a switching circus train in a railroad yard. It seemed an eternity before the long train pulled out of the village and the nerve racking discords gave place to the rhythmic rumble of the open right of way, which finally lulled the irritable beast to slumber—a slumber that was rudely awakened by a piercing shriek of the engine's whistle, followed almost immediately by a terrific crash, and the pounding of the derailed flat over the ties for a hundred yards until at last it toppled into the ditch, hurling its cargo of terrified beasts through a barbed wire fence into a field beyond.

Ben's cage rolled over and over, one end of the top snapping a telegraph pole off short a few feet above the ground. After it had come to rest beyond the tangled wire of the demolished fence the lion lay half dazed for several minutes. Then he rose gingerly, as though expecting to discover that all his bones had been broken. He shook his giant head and rumbled out a low roar. His cage was lying on its side. What was that? Ben cocked his head upon one side and gazed incredulously at a gaping rent in front of him. The roof had been torn away by impact with the telegraph pole—there was a great hole, barless, through which two lions might have walked abreast.

Ben approached the opening and looked out. Before him stretched an open meadowland. He raised his nose and sniffed. A little tremor of joy ran through his great frame.

For an instant he stood there, listening. He heard the shouts of approaching men mingled with the screams and roars of terrified beasts about him. Lightly he sprang through the opening in the broken cage. He was free! Men were running toward him from the rear of the train. They had not seen him yet. For an instant he hesitated as though minded to remain and wreak vengeance on the human race; then a glimpse of distant woods and the lure of the open was too much for him. In long, easy bounds he loped away across the meadowland. A shallow swale running upland from the railroad appealed to his primeval instinct for cover. It hid him effectually from the sight of the men now crowding about the derailed flat.

Dropping into a swinging stride, he moved straight upwind. All about him was the scent of cattle. He licked his chops and whined. A barbed wire fence presently barred his way. This was something new! He sniffed inquiringly at it; then he curled his lips disdainfully at the puny strands that the foolish man-creatures had thought to imprison him with, for he believed that this was a new sort of cage constructed especially to hold him.

He raised a mighty forepaw and smote it. The sharp barbs pierced his flesh, eliciting an angry growl. He raised his eyes to measure the height of the barrier. It was low, pitifully low.

Still growling, Ben bounded over it. The wind now brought down to his nostrils the strong scent of sheep and cows and swine, filling him with lust for the hot blood, the dripping flesh of the warm, new kill.

Further on a Virginia rail fence loomed before him. He took it without a pause and an instant later stood in the dust of a white turnpike. Across the road was a hedge and from beyond the hedge came the mingled odors of man and herbivora. The lion lowered his head and walked through the hedge. He found himself upon a well kept lawn, dotted here and there with shrubs and trees. At the far side of the lawn rose a large white structure, gleaming in the moonlight.

Majestically the imperial beast moved across the close cropped sward—a golden lion on a velvet rug of green. A settee lay in his path. It was something new, and all new things were to be investigated. He sniffed at it, and on the instant his whole manner changed. A nervous tremor of excitement ran through his supple body. His tail twitched and trembled. His eyes glowed brighter. A low whine broke from his savage lips.

Down went his nose to the grass. The spoor was fresh and plain—it was the spoor of his one man-friend.

Ben followed it across the lawn to the foot of the veranda steps. Here he paused, looking dubiously up at the man-made structure. It might be another trap built for his capture; but no, the man-friend was there, and it must be safe.

The lion mounted the steps, still sniffing with lowered nose. Upon the veranda a new spoor lay fresher over that of the other—a spoor that set his tail to lashing angrily and put a hideous light into his yellow eyes—wicked and implacable now. The scent led through open doors into the interior. The beast thrust his head within and surveyed the room. He saw no one, but plainly he caught the scent of those whose scent he first had learned where it mingled with the blood of his slain mate.

Treading softly, he entered the room, the thick rug beneath padded feet giving forth no sound. In the center of the library he halted. A flood of moonlight pouring through the open doorway fell full upon him, revealing him in all his majesty of savage strength and alertness.

For all he moved now he might have been a mounted specimen standing there upon the Oriental rug beneath his feet, for he was listening.

A slight sound had come to those sensitive ears from out of the darkness of the music room. His yellow eyes bored straight ahead through the open doorway before him.

Taylor, hearing no further sounds from above, whispered to Kelley to follow him. Cautiously he moved toward the doorway leading into the library at the foot of the stairs. As he peered out his eyes suddenly went wide, his lower jaw fell, his knees trembled, for, standing motionless in the center of the library, he saw a huge lion.

For an instant the man was paralyzed with terror; and then the lion, giving voice to a single quick, short growl, charged. Taylor dodged back into the music room, too terrified to scream. Directly behind him was Kelley. In his mad panic of fear Taylor hurled his accomplice backward to the floor. Then he scrambled beneath a grand piano just as the lion leaped into the room.

The first object that the beast's eyes encountered was the prostrate form of Kelley. For an instant the beast's attention was occupied, and Taylor took the slender advantage that was his to scurry from the room and race madly up the staircase to the second floor.

He ran straight for the closed door at the far end of the hall, the door leading into Richard Gordon's room. He scarce reached it when the lion, abandoning the grisly thing upon the music room floor, bounded from the room and up the stairway in pursuit.

Table of content