Chapter XXXI. Nicol Brinn's Story of the City of Fire
 

"The statement which I have to make, gentlemen, will almost certainly appear incredible to you. However, when it has been transcribed I will sign it. And I am going to say here and now that there are points in the narrative which I am in a position to substantiate. What I can't prove you must take my word for. But I warn you that the story is tough.

"I have a certain reputation for recklessness. I don't say it may not be inherent; but if you care to look the matter up, you will find that the craziest phase of my life is that covering the last seven years. The reason why I have courted death during that period I am now about to explain.

"Although my father was no traveller, I think I was born with the wanderlust. I started to explore the world in my Harvard vacations, and when college days were over I set about the business whole-heartedly. Where I went and what I did, up to the time that my travels led me to India, is of no interest to you or to anybody else, be- cause in India I found heaven and hell--a discovery enough to satisfy the most adventurous man alive.

"At this present time, gentlemen, I am not going to load you with geographical details. The exact spot at which my life ended, in a sense which I presently hope to make clear, can be located at leisure by the proper authorities, to whom I will supply a detailed map which I have in my possession. I am even prepared to guide the expedition, if the Indian Government considers an expedition necessary and cares to accept my services. It's good enough for you to know that pig-sticking and tiger-hunting having begun to pall upon me somewhat, I broke away from Anglo-Indian hospitality, and headed up country, where the Himalayas beckoned. I had figured on crossing at a point where no man has crossed yet, but that project was interrupted, and I'm here to tell you why.

"Up there in the northwest provinces they told me I was crazy when I outlined, one night in a mess, of which I was a guest at the time, my scheme for heading northeast toward a tributary of the Ganges which would bring me to the neighbourhood of Khatmandu, right under the shadow of Everest.

"'Once you leave Khatmandu,' said the mess president, 'you are outside the pale as far as British influence is concerned. I suppose you understand that?'

"I told him I quite understood it.

"'You can't reach Tibet that way,' he said.

"'Never mind, sir,' I answered. 'I can try, if I feel like it.'

"Three days later I set out. I am not superstitious, and if I take a long time to make a plan, once I've made it I generally stick to it. But right at the very beginning of my expedition I had a warning, if ever a man had one. The country through which my route lay is of very curious formation. If you can imagine a section of your own west country viewed through a giant magnifying glass, you have some sort of picture of the territory in which I found myself.

"Gigantic rocks stand up like monstrous tors, or towers, sometimes offering sheer precipices of many hundreds of feet in height. On those sides of these giant tors, however, which are less precipitous, miniature forests are sometimes found, and absolutely impassable jungles.

"Bordering an independent state, this territory is not at all well known, but I had secured as a guide a man named Vadi--or that was the name he gave me whom I knew to be a high-caste Brahmin of good family. He had been with me for some time, and I thought I could trust him. Therefore, once clear of British territory, I took him into my confidence respecting the real object of my journey.

"This was not primarily to scale a peak of the Himalayas, nor even to visit Khatmandu, but to endeavour to obtain a glimpse of the Temple of Fire!

"That has excited your curiosity, gentlemen. I don't suppose any one here has ever heard of the Temple of Fire.

"By some it is regarded as a sort of native legend but it is more than a legend. It is a fact. For seven years I have known it to be a fact, but my tongue has been tied. Listen. Even down in Bombay, the coming of the next great Master is awaited by certain of the natives; and for more than ten years now it has been whispered from end to end of India that he was about to proclaim himself, that disciples moved secretly among the people of every province, and that the unknown teacher in person awaited his hour in a secret temple up near the Tibetan frontier.

"A golden key opens many doors, gentlemen, and at the time of which I am speaking I had obtained more information respecting this secret religion or cult than any other member of the white races had ever collected, or so I thought at the time. I had definite evidence to show that the existence of this man, or demi-god--for by some he was said to possess superhuman powers--was no myth, but an actual fact.

"The collecting of this data was extremely perilous, and one of my informants, with whom I had come in contact while passing through the central provinces, died mysteriously the night before I left Nagpur. I wondered very much on my way north why I was not molested, for I did not fail to see that the death of the man in Nagpur was connected with the fact that he had divulged to me some of the secrets of the religion of Fire-Tongue. Indeed, it was from him that I first learned the name of the high priest of the cult of Fire. Why I was not molested I learned later.

"But to return to Vadi, my Brahmin guide. We had camped for the night in the shadow of one of those giant tors which I have mentioned. The bearers were seated around their fire at some little distance from us, and Vadi and I were consulting respecting our route in the morning, when I decided to take him into my confidence. Accordingly:

"'Vadi,' I said, 'I know for a positive fact that we are within ten miles of the secret Temple of Fire.'

"I shall never forget the look in his eyes, with the reflection of the firelight dancing in them; but he never moved a muscle.

"'The sahib is wise,' he replied.

"'So is Vadi,' said I. 'Therefore he knows how happy a thousand pounds of English money would make him. It is his in return for a sight of the Temple.'

"Still as a carven image, he squatted there watching me, unmoving, expressionless. Then:

"'A man may die for nothing,' he returned, softly. 'Why should the sahib pay a thousand pounds?'

"'Why should the sahib die?' said I.

"'It is forbidden for any to see the Temple, even from a distance.'

"'But if no one ever knows that I have seen it?'

"'Fire-Tongue knows everything,' he replied, and as he pronounced the name, he performed a curious salutation, touching his forefinger with the tip of his tongue, and then laying his hand upon his brow, upon his lips, and upon his breast, at the same time bowing deeply. 'His vengeance is swift and terrible. He wills a man to die, and the man is dead. None save those who have passed through the tests may set eyes upon his temple, nor even speak his name.'

"This conversation took place, as I have already mentioned, in the shadow of one of those strange stone hillocks which abounded here, and it was at this point that I received a warning which might have deterred many men, since it was inexplicable and strangely awesome.

"My attention was drawn to the phenomenon by a sudden cessation of chatter amongst the bearers seated around their fire. I became aware that an absolute stillness had fallen, and in the eyes of the Brahmin who sat facing me I saw a look of exaltation, of wild fanaticism.

"I jerked my head around, looking back over my shoulder, and what I saw I shall never forget, nor to this day have I been able to explain the means by which the illusion was produced.

"Moving downward toward me through the jungle darkness, slowly, evenly, but at a height above the ground of what I judged to be about fifteen feet, was a sort of torch or flambeau, visible because it was faintly luminous; and surmounting it was a darting tongue of blue flame!

"At the moment that I set eyes upon this apparently supernatural spectacle the bearers, crying some word in Hindustani which I did not understand, rose and fled in a body.

"I may say here that I never saw any of them again; although, considering that they took nothing with them, how they regained the nearest village is a mystery which I have never solved.

"Gentlemen, I know the East as few of my fellow-citizens know it. I know something of the powers which are latent in some Orientals and active in others. That my Brahmin guide was a hypnotist and an illusionist, I have since thought.

"For, even as the pattering footsteps of the bearers grew faint in the distance, the fiery torch disappeared as if by magic, and a silken cord was about my throat!

"As I began a desperate fight for life, I realized that, whatever else Vadi might be, he was certainly an expert thug. The jungle, the rocks, seemed to swim around me as I crashed to the ground and felt the Brahmin's knee in the small of my back."