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NERVES
 To
Sievek{322}ing Pollard
WHEN Dr. Julian Sylvester arrived at Doiran, he took a room at the house of{323} Draco’s mother, and his mule was put to grass in the fields behind the town. Draco, rather shy, but hot with curiosity, carried his baggage upstairs—a large trunk, six wooden boxes clamped with iron, and a small sack of provisions. Placing these on the floor against the wall, he turned to leave, but stopped when Sylvester called him.
“You speak Greek, eh?” asked the doctor.
“Yes, sir, and Bulgarian as well.”
“Well, I’m going to stay here a week—see? And I want you to get me a young and strong guide—a man who knows the country—every yard of it. I’m collecting butterflies and taking photographs.”
Draco’s face lit up and shone.
“See here—this is the kind of thing,” said Sylvester, going down on his knees and opening one of the wooden boxes with a key he took from his pocket. “By the way, what is your name?”
“Draco.”
“Draco—right. Well, mine is Sylvester.”
“Xilvesta?”
“That’s near enough. Now, Draco, look at these bottles. Butterflies—all butterflies, see? And here are some photographs I took outside Salonika. I want more butterflies, more photographs. Ten drachm? a day for the man who’ll come with me and show me where to find what I want.”
“I’ll come, sir.”
“Will you? Yes, I think you’ll do. You look strong enough.{324}”
Draco was dark and bronzed and tall. He had quick, restless eyes, and a smile that said: “How fine it is to be alive!”
“Well, that’s a bargain, see?” said Sylvester. “We’ll start to-morrow at six.”
If ever there was a man made for the open air, that man was Draco. He accepted his mother’s cottage as one of the unavoidable evils of life. And he was a born hunter. His eyes swallowed everything, and his quick elastic step was as graceful as the walk of a thoroughbred. His mind was stored with facts. To look at his eager face with its large, vehement eyes and sensitive mouth—all so desperately alive—was to receive the impression that here was a man who, even in his sleep, could never be entirely at rest. The sun, one felt, was in his blood. He was as unstable and fluid as quicksilver.
Sylvester took to him at once, and in their day-long walks over the lonely, uninhabited mountains he learned many curious things from the man who, engaged as a servant, at once became a friend.
It was during one of these walks that, peering over a precipitous cliff, they saw a golden eagle standing on a ledge below them. They lay watching it for a long time, the almost vertical sun smiting their prone bodies.
“Its nest is sure to be somewhere near, Draco. I would give a hundred drachm? to get a photograph of the female sitting on her eggs.”
“That is the female,” said Draco, who was examining the bird through Sylvester’s field-glasses.{325}
Presently, the great bird rose, flapped its heavy, bright wings, and flew upwards until it had reached a ledge thirty feet below the two watchers. There, just visible, was its nest.
“Ah!” breathed Sylvester, drawing himself away, and sitting down well out of sight of the eagle. “Can it be done, Draco? Can we get down to her?”
Draco was still looking down at the bird, his face alive with excitement. He stayed there a long time. When, at length, he joined Sylvester, his face and bared chest and arms were covered with sweat. He pressed his hands to his forehead.
“Yes, it can be done. But we shall want ropes. I could climb down with the camera, fix it up a yard or two from the nest, return here and pull up the rope. After that, it’s simply a matter of waiting for her to settle again. The only thing is—have you got enough tubing? I reckon you’ll want about thirty-five feet.”
“Oh yes: I’ve plenty of tubing. It’s a great find this, Draco. If only we can pull it off, see? Now, what do you say?—shall we leave it till to-morrow, or go back home now, get our ropes and tubing, and come back this evening an hour or so before sunset?”
“Just as you like. But this evening would be a splendid time; for we shall then have the sun shining straight on the nest.”
As he spoke, he again pressed his hands against his forehead. He licked his lips with the tip of his tongue.
“You look a bit overwrought, Draco. Are you feeling all right?”{326}
“Well, it’s my eyes. The sun has got into them. My head aches a bit—but it’s nothing.”
They made their way down the hot, broken rocks until they saw Doiran, white and gleaming, at their feet. Beyond was the wonderful blue lake, and beyond the lake rose the Belashitza Mountains cutting the sky with their fanged crests.
“How wonderful it is!” exclaimed Sylvester.
Draco gazed on the scene with his swollen pupils.
“Yes,” he agreed. “I never, never get tired of it. I was born down there.”
It was now midday and the sun was at its hottest. The atmosphere danced before them liquidly. No birds sang, for it was Pan’s hour. The sun had smitten that world to silence.
Five hours later they were again climbing the mountains. Draco’s head was one intolerable ache, but he made no complaint. He had been like this before; it would soon pass.
But when they had nearly reached their destination, he was compelled to stop and lie down in the shade of a rock.
“You are feverish, Draco, see?” said Sylvester. “You really ought not to have come out a second time. You’ve got a touch of the sun. Look here: we’ll go back and come again to-morrow.”
“No,” said Draco, “no.”
And he tried to rise; but, his legs crumpling up beneath the weight of his body, he fell down and lay full-length on the bare rock.{327}
Sylvester sat down by his side, took off his coat, folded it into a pillow, and placed it beneath Draco’s head.
For half an hour they remained in silence; then:
“I feel better now,” said Draco.
“Good. But you mustn’t go any farther. Do you feel fit to walk back?”
“You go alone—to the nest, I mean. Can you climb down the rope and up again?”
“Oh yes: I’ve done that sort of thing many a time.”
“Well, you go alone. I’ll wait here until you return. As soon as it gets cool I shall feel much better. You are bound to come this way on your way back.”
“Very well, I’ll do that. Sure you’re well enough to be left alone?”
Draco, his eyes large and bloodshot, glanced at his companion and laughed.
“Of course. This is not the first time I’ve been left alone in the mountains.”
Sylvester disappeared round the corner, and Draco, closing his eyes, soon fell asleep. He breathed heavily, and for two hours he did not move. The air grew cooler, and the sun was lurching fantastically behind the mountain-tops when he awoke. The pain had gone, but he awoke with an acute feeling of apprehension. For a moment or two, he could not remember where he was or how he came to be there. Then, remembering Sylvester,
“It’s time he was back,” he said to himself.{328}
He looked at the sun: in an hour it would be dark.
Scrambling to his feet, he hastened up the mountain, his heart beating rapidly with a fear that he had never felt for himself. He blamed himself for allowing Sylvester to go alone, for, after all, it was a job for two men. Increasing his pace every minute, he reached the place, breathless and alarmed.
The rope was there. One end of it was securely fastened round a boulder. Lying down at the edge of the cliff, Draco peered over and saw the other end of the rope resting on the ledge; by its side was the camera. But there was no sign of Sylvester.
Seized by panic, Draco shouted into the chasm below.
“Dr. Sylvester! Dr. Sylvester!”
But the great spaces swallowed up the sound of his voice. A vulture swam past him and disappeared. Again he called and, straining, listened. No answer. No sound. Almost mad with a fear that crawled into his very vitals, he shouted again and again without pause.
Dark blue shadows crept out of the rocks; the purple sky darkened. He could no longer see the ledge below him.
It was then that his nerves conquered him and he became their victim.
He rose and, running, retraced his steps. Anxiety made havoc of his reason. If only he knew the worst! Almost blindly he ran, but instinct and knowledge guided him.
Half-way down the mountains he pulled him{329}self up suddenly. He had thought himself incapable of further suffering, but now he felt a pain like a fretted blade sawing at his brain. Why, they would say that he had murdered Sylvester! Who would believe his story? Would even his mother believe it? It was as clear as the sun. He had taken Sylvester up into the mountains, had robbed him, and then thrown him over the cliff! His body would never be found in those inaccessible heights!
He stood, chilled and trembling. Oh, God! if he only knew!
Then reason left him. He scrambled hither and thither on the rocks on hands and knees, calling “Sylvester! Sylvester!” as he went. His hands and knees were bleeding, and something like blood seemed to be washing about within his brain. Occasionally, he stopped with exhaustion, but on each occasion before he had got back his breath he started again, saying aloud: “I must waste no time. Where is he? Where is he?”
The inhumanly human cry of jackals desolated the night. He paused and imitated them. Then, having scrambled faster and faster in the dark, he lay full-length, his airless lungs seeming to be about to burst open his great, hairy chest.
The pale-green dawn came up the sky and washed the rocks with its colour. Looking around him he saw close at hand the rope by which Sylvester had climbed down the face of the cliff. The place seemed friendly: here he could find release.
He stepped to the edge of the cliff and looked down. A fain{330}t mist clouded the hollow below where his companion was lying. For a moment he swayed, and then, with a start, drew back. He tried to totter over the brink, but could not. Something held him back—fear!
With an effort he fixed his mind on death and on the desire for death. And again he tried to let his body go. But it hung stupidly back: he had a coward’s body.
He would try another way. Having walked fifty paces away from the cliff’s edge, he turned about and began to run, his crimson hands and knees dropping blood as he went. As he neared the edge, his body instinctively tried to stop. But it was too late, the momentum he had gathered was too great. Mind had conquered matter, and he ran and vanished into space.
At that moment, Dr. Sylvester, tired and weary-eyed, entered the cottage of Draco’s mother. He had been walking all night.
THE END


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