The Return Game by Ethel M. Dell
They went side by side, for she would not let him take the lead. Her hand was in his, and he knew by its convulsive pressure something of the sheer panic that possessed her. And he marvelled at the power that nerved her, though he held his peace.
They entered the dense shadow of the strip of jungle that separated them from the stream, and very soon he paused to strike a match. She stood very close to him. He was aware that she was trembling in every limb.
He peered about him, but could see very little beyond the fact that the path ahead of them lay clear. On both sides of this the undergrowth baffled all scrutiny. He seemed to hear a small mysterious rustling sound, but his most minute attention failed to locate it. The match burned down to his fingers, and he tossed it away.
"There's nothing between us and the water," he said cheerily. "We'll make a dash for it."
"Stay!" she whispered, under her breath. "I heard something!"
"It's only a bit of a breeze overhead," said Hone. "We won't stop to listen anyway."
He caught her hand in his once more, grasping it firmly, and they moved forward again. They could see the moonlight glimmering on the water ahead, and in another yard or two the low-growing bush to which Hone had moored the boat became visible.
In that instant, with a jerk of terror, Nina stopped short. "Pat! What is that?"
Hone stood still. "There! Don't be scared!" he said soothingly. "What would it be at all? There's nothing but shadow."
"But there is!" she gasped. "There is! There! On the bank above the boat! What is it, Pat? What is it?"
Hone's eyes followed her quivering finger, discerning what appeared to be a blot of shadow close to the bush above the water.
"Sure, it's only shadow--" he began.
But she broke in feverishly. "It's not, Pat! It's not! There's nothing to cast it. It's in the full moonlight."
"You stay here!" said Hone. "I'll go and have a look."
"I won't!" she rejoined in a fierce whisper, holding him fast. "You--you shan't go a step nearer. We must get away somehow--somehow!" with a hunted glance around. "Not through the undergrowth, that's certain. We--we shall have to go back."
Hone was still staring at the motionless blot in the moonlight. He resisted her frantic efforts to drag him away.
"I must go and see," he said at last. "I'm sure there's nothing to alarm us. We can't run away from shadows, Princess. We should never hold up our heads again."
"Oh, Pat, you fool!" she exclaimed, almost beside herself. "I tell you that is no shadow! It's a snake! Do you hear? It's a huge python! And it was a snake I trod on just now. And they are everywhere--everywhere! The whole place is rustling with them. They are closing in on us. I can hear them! I can feel them! I can smell them! Pat, what shall we do? Quick, quick! Think of something! See now! It's moving--uncoiling! Look, look! Did you ever see anything so horrible? Pat!"
Her voice ended in a breathless shriek. She suddenly collapsed against him, her face hidden on his breast. And Hone, stooping impulsively, caught her up in his arms.
"We'll get out of it somehow," he said. "Never fear!"
But even his eyes had widened with a certain horror, for the blot in the moonlight was beyond question moving, elongating, quivering, subtly changing under his gaze.
He held his companion pressed tightly to his heart. She made no further attempt to urge him. Only by the tense clinging of her arms about his neck did he know that she was conscious.
Again he heard that vague rustling which he had set down to a sudden draught overhead. It seemed to come from all directions.
"Ye gods!" he muttered softly to himself. And again, more softly, "Ye gods!"
To the woman in his arms he uttered no word whatever. He only pressed the slender figure ever closer, while the blood surged and sang tumultuously in his veins. Though he stood in the midst of mortal danger, he was conscious of an exultation so mad as to be almost delirious. She was his--his--his!
Something stirred in the undergrowth close to him, and in a moment his attention was diverted from the slow-moving monster ahead of him. He became aware of a dark object, but vaguely discernible, that swayed to and fro about three feet from the ground seeming to menace him.
The moment he saw this thing, his brain flashed into sudden illumination. The shrewdness of the hunted creature entered into him. Without panic, he became most vividly, most intensely alive to the ghastly danger that threatened him. He stopped to ascertain nothing further. Swift as a lightning flash he acted--leapt backwards, leapt sideways, landed upon something that squirmed and thrashed hideously, nearly overthrowing him; and the next moment was breaking madly through the undergrowth, regardless of direction, running blindly through the jungle, fighting furiously every obstacle--forcing by sheer giant strength a way for himself and for the woman he carried through the opposing tangle of vegetation.
Branches slapped him in the face as he went, clutched at him, tore him, but could not stay his progress. Many times he stumbled, many times he recovered himself, dashing wildly on and still on like a man possessed. A marvellous strength was his. Titan-like, he accomplished that which to any ordinary man would have been an utter impossibility. Save that he was in perfect condition, even he must have failed. But that fact was his salvation, that and the fierce passion that urged him, endowing him with an endurance more than human.
Headlong as was his flight, the working of his brain was even swifter, and very soon, without slackening his speed, he was swerving round again towards the open. He could see the moonlight gleaming through the trees, and he made a dash for it, utterly reckless, since caution was of no avail, but alert for every danger, cunning for every advantage, keen as the born fighter for every chance that offered.
And so at last, torn, bleeding, but undismayed, he struggled free from the undergrowth, and sprang away from that place of horrors, staggering slightly but running strongly still, till the dark line of jungle fell away behind him and he reached the river bank once more.
Here he stopped and loosened his grip upon the slight form he carried. Her arms dropped from his neck. She had fainted.
For a few seconds he stared down into her white face, seeing nothing else, while the fiery heart of him leapt and quivered like a wild thing in leash. Then, suddenly, from the water a voice hailed him, and he looked up with a start.
"Hullo, Pat! What on earth is the matter? You have landed the wrong side of the stream. Is anything wrong?"
It was Teddy Duncombe in a boat below him. He saw his face of concern in the moonlight.
He pulled himself together.
"I was coming to warn you. This infernal jungle is full of snakes. We've had to run for it, and leave the boat behind."
"Great Scotland! And Mrs. Perceval?"
Again Hone's eyes sought the white face on his arm.
"No, she isn't hurt. It's just a faint. Pull up close, and I'll hand her down to you!"
Between them, they lowered her into the boat. Hone followed, and raised her to lean against his knee.
Duncombe began to row swiftly across the stream, with an uneasy eye upon the two in the stern.
"What in the world made you go wrong, I wonder?" he said. "No one ever goes that side, not even the natives. They say it's haunted. We all landed near the old bathing ghat."
Hone was moistening Nina Perceval's face with his handkerchief. He made no reply to Teddy's words. He was anxiously watching for some sign of returning consciousness.
It came very soon. The dark eyes opened and gazed up at him, at first uncomprehendingly, then with a dawning wonder.
"St. Patrick!" she whispered.
"Princess!" he whispered back.
With an effort she raised herself, leaning against him.
"What happened? Were you hurt? Your face is all bleeding!"
"It's nothing!" he said jerkily. "It's nothing!"
She took his handkerchief in her trembling hand and wiped the blood away. She said no more of any sort. Only when she gave it back to him her eyes were full of tears.
And Hone caught the little hand in passionate, dumb devotion, and pressed it to his lips.