The ethnologist considered Bhimraj’s pen thoughtfully.
“He didn’t seem to care much about parting with it,” he said.
“It is sacred to the chiefs,” replied the lieutenant, “as yellow silk is sacred to the Emperor of China.
The ethnologist did not answer. He hesitated; then suddenly entering the matter, he asked:
“What is this standing tale they tell about a flying man?
The lieutenant gave a weak smile.
“What did they tell you?
“I see,” said the ethnologist, “that you are aware of your fame.
The lieutenant began to roll a cigarette.
“I’d like to hear that story one more time,” he said, to see where it is now.
“She’s so stupidly childish! resumed the somewhat irritated ethnologist. How did you play them that trick?
The lieutenant remained silent and, still smiling, leaned back in his chair.
“So here I made a detour of five hundred kilometers to collect the folklore that these people were able to preserve, before they were completely demoralized by the missionaries and the military, and I only find a bunch of legends impossible about a devil of a red-headed infantry lieutenant. How invulnerable he is, how he can jump over elephants, how he can fly! And many other nonsense! A respectable old man described your wings to me saying they were black plumage, but not quite as long as a mule. He claims he has seen you often in the moonlight hovering over the hills towards the land of Shendon. May the devil take you! …
The lieutenant laughed merrily.
– Continue, he said, continue …
The ethnologist continued until he had had enough.
“To make these still ingenuous mountain children believe it too!” How could you have done this?
“I’m very sorry,” said the lieutenant, “but I really had to. I can tell you that it was necessary and I had not then, the slightest idea how the imagination of these people would take it.
“Not the slightest curiosity either. I can only claim that it was indiscretion and not malice that made me replace folklore with a new legend. But since you seem sorry, I will try to explain the matter to you.
“It was around the time of the penultimate expedition against the Lou-Chai, and Walters believed that these people you have just visited had friendly intentions towards us; so, with a cheerful confidence in my ability to get out of the woods, he sent me up there, down the gorge, twenty kilometers from here, with three European soldiers, a dozen sepoys, two mules and his blessing , to give me an account of the popular feelings of the village you visited. A strong force of ten men without counting the mules, twenty kilometers to go and in times of hostility! Have you seen the road?
-The road! said the ethnologist.
“She’s better now than she used to be. We had to follow the bed of the river for fifteen hundred yards where the valley narrows. There was a swift current that foamed around our knees and rolled over rocks as slippery as ice. It was there that I dropped my rifle. Later, the sappers blasted the rock with dynamite to make the route more convenient that you know. At that time, we followed from below, along the high sheer rocks and we had to constantly go around the river, not to mention that we had to cross it a dozen times over a length of three kilometers.
“We came in sight of the square early the next morning. You know where it is! On a buttress halfway between the heights, and as we began to appreciate the deceptive tranquility of the sunny village, we stopped to take advice.
“So as a welcome they sent us a piece of copper idol: the block descended the right slope, slipped an inch from my shoulder and stamped the mule that carried the provisions and utensils.
“Never, neither before, nor since, have I heard such an uproar. At this point we saw a number of gentlemen carrying flintlock guns, dressed in some sort of colored checkered tea towel, and making a detour along a path between the village and the heights to the east.
– “About-face!” I commanded, and step aside.
“With this encouragement, my ten-man expedition turned around and began to descend the valley at a swift trot. We did not linger in saving a single thing from the burden of our death — but out of a feeling of friendship we took with us the second mule, which carried my tent and various items of clothing.
“So ended the battle — inglorious! Glancing back, I saw the valley strewn with victors screaming and shooting at us. But no one was hit. These people are hardly to be feared with their guns; they can only hit a fixed goal. They have to take aim and aim for hours, and when they shoot while running, it’s just to make a noise. Hooker, one of my white soldiers, thought he was a good shot, and he paused for half a minute to risk the chance to shoot one down, but he caught up with us empty-handed.
“I’m not a Xenophon to tell a long story about my retreating army. During the two or three kilometers which followed, we had to stop twice the enemy which pressed us a little too much, and to exchange some shots. But the whole thing was quite monotonous — we were only getting out of breath — until we had reached the place where the heights descend to the river and narrow the valley in a simple defile. There, fortunately, I saw half a dozen blackheads coming and slinging us up from the top of the rocks to the left — to the east, actually.
“At this sight, I ordered halt.
“‘Watch out now. What are we going to do? I say to Hooker and the others, pointing to the black heads.
“‘I don’t mind being a nigger, if we’re not stuck,’ said one of the men.
“‘We will,’ replied another. You know the ways of these buggers, eh, Georges?
“‘They’re going to pull us to the lodge fifty yards,’ Hooker said, where the river chokes. As much to commit suicide as to continue to descend.
“I looked at the height to our right. It was falling almost steeply at the bottom of the valley, but it looked climbable and all the enemies we had seen so far were on the other side of the water.
“‘That’s it, or stop! said one of the sepoys.