Meriem returned slowly toward the tree in which she had left her skirt, he_hoes and her stockings. She was singing blithely; but her song came to _udden stop when she came within sight of the tree, for there, disportin_hemselves with glee and pulling and hauling upon her belongings, were _umber of baboons. When they saw her they showed no signs of terror. Instea_hey bared their fangs and growled at her. What was there to fear in a singl_he-Tarmangani? Nothing, absolutely nothing. In the open plain beyond th_orest the hunters were returning from the day's sport. They were widel_eparated, hoping to raise a wandering lion on the homeward journey across th_lain. The Hon. Morison Baynes rode closest to the forest. As his eye_andered back and forth across the undulating, shrub sprinkled ground the_ell upon the form of a creature close beside the thick jungle where i_erminated abruptly at the plain's edge.
He reined his mount in the direction of his discovery. It was yet too far awa_or his untrained eyes to recognize it; but as he came closer he saw that i_as a horse, and was about to resume the original direction of his way when h_hought that he discerned a saddle upon the beast's back. He rode a littl_loser. Yes, the animal was saddled. The Hon. Morison approached yet nearer, and as he did so his eyes expressed a pleasurable emotion of anticipation, fo_hey had now recognized the pony as the special favorite of Meriem.
He galloped to the animal's side. Meriem must be within the wood. The ma_huddered a little at the thought of an unprotected girl alone in the jungl_hat was still, to him, a fearful place of terrors and stealthily stalkin_eath. He dismounted and left his horse beside Meriem's. On foot he entere_he jungle. He knew that she was probably safe enough and he wished t_urprise her by coming suddenly upon her.
He had gone but a short distance into the wood when he heard a great jabberin_n a near-by tree. Coming closer he saw a band of baboons snarling ove_omething. Looking intently he saw that one of them held a woman's ridin_kirt and that others had boots and stockings. His heart almost ceased to bea_s he quite naturally placed the most direful explanation upon the scene. Th_aboons had killed Meriem and stripped this clothing from her body. Moriso_huddered.
He was about to call aloud in the hope that after all the girl still live_hen he saw her in a tree close beside that was occupied by the baboons, an_ow he saw that they were snarling and jabbering at her. To his amazement h_aw the girl swing, ape-like, into the tree below the huge beasts. He saw he_ause upon a branch a few feet from the nearest baboon. He was about to rais_is rifle and put a bullet through the hideous creature that seemed about t_eap upon her when he heard the girl speak. He almost dropped his rifle fro_urprise as a strange jabbering, identical with that of the apes, broke fro_eriem's lips.
The baboons stopped their snarling and listened. It was quite evident tha_hey were as much surprised as the Hon. Morison Baynes. Slowly and one by on_hey approached the girl. She gave not the slightest evidence of fear of them.
They quite surrounded her now so that Baynes could not have fired withou_ndangering the girl's life; but he no longer desired to fire. He was consume_ith curiosity.
For several minutes the girl carried on what could be nothing less than _onversation with the baboons, and then with seeming alacrity every article o_er apparel in their possession was handed over to her. The baboons stil_rowded eagerly about her as she donned them. They chattered to her and sh_hattered back. The Hon. Morison Baynes sat down at the foot of a tree an_opped his perspiring brow. Then he rose and made his way back to his mount.
When Meriem emerged from the forest a few minutes later she found him there, and he eyed her with wide eyes in which were both wonder and a sort of terror.
"I saw your horse here," he explained, "and thought that I would wait and rid_ome with you—you do not mind?"
"Of course not," she replied. "It will be lovely."
As they made their way stirrup to stirrup across the plain the Hon. Moriso_aught himself many times watching the girl's regular profile and wondering i_is eyes had deceived him or if, in truth, he really had seen this lovel_reature consorting with grotesque baboons and conversing with them a_luently as she conversed with him. The thing was uncanny—impossible; yet h_ad seen it with his own eyes.
And as he watched her another thought persisted in obtruding itself into hi_ind. She was most beautiful and very desirable; but what did he know of her?
Was she not altogether impossible? Was the scene that he had but jus_itnessed not sufficient proof of her impossibility? A woman who climbed tree_nd conversed with the baboons of the jungle! It was quite horrible!
Again the Hon. Morison mopped his brow. Meriem glanced toward him.
"You are warm," she said. "Now that the sun is setting I find it quite cool.
Why do you perspire now?"
He had not intended to let her know that he had seen her with the baboons; bu_uite suddenly, before he realized what he was saying, he had blurted it out.
"I perspire from emotion," he said. "I went into the jungle when I discovere_our pony. I wanted to surprise you; but it was I who was surprised. I saw yo_n the trees with the baboons."
"Yes?" she said quite unemotionally, as though it was a matter of littl_oment that a young girl should be upon intimate terms with savage jungl_easts.
"It was horrible!" ejaculated the Hon. Morison.
"Horrible?" repeated Meriem, puckering her brows in bewilderment. "What wa_orrible about it? They are my friends. Is it horrible to talk with one'_riends?"
"You were really talking with them, then?" cried the Hon. Morison. "Yo_nderstood them and they understood you?"
"But they are hideous creatures—degraded beasts of a lower order. How coul_ou speak the language of beasts?"
"They are not hideous, and they are not degraded," replied Meriem. "Friend_re never that. I lived among them for years before Bwana found me and brough_e here. I scarce knew any other tongue than that of the mangani. Should _efuse to know them now simply because I happen, for the present, to liv_mong humans?"
"For the present!" ejaculated the Hon. Morison. "You cannot mean that yo_xpect to return to live among them? Come, come, what foolishness are w_alking! The very idea! You are spoofing me, Miss Meriem. You have been kin_o these baboons here and they know you and do not molest you; but that yo_nce lived among them—no, that is preposterous."
"But I did, though," insisted the girl, seeing the real horror that the ma_elt in the presence of such an idea reflected in his tone and manner, an_ather enjoying baiting him still further. "Yes, I lived, almost naked, amon_he great apes and the lesser apes. I dwelt among the branches of the trees. _ounced upon the smaller prey and devoured it—raw. With Korak and A'ht _unted the antelope and the boar, and I sat upon a tree limb and made faces a_uma, the lion, and threw sticks at him and annoyed him until he roared s_erribly in his rage that the earth shook.
"And Korak built me a lair high among the branches of a mighty tree. H_rought me fruits and flesh. He fought for me and was kind to me—until I cam_o Bwana and My Dear I do not recall that any other than Korak was ever kin_o me." There was a wistful note in the girl's voice now and she had forgotte_hat she was bantering the Hon. Morison. She was thinking of Korak. She ha_ot thought of him a great deal of late.
For a time both were silently absorbed in their own reflections as they rod_n toward the bungalow of their host. The girl was thinking of a god-lik_igure, a leopard skin half concealing his smooth, brown hide as he leape_imbly through the trees to lay an offering of food before her on his retur_rom a successful hunt. Behind him, shaggy and powerful, swung a hug_nthropoid ape, while she, Meriem, laughing and shouting her welcome, swun_pon a swaying limb before the entrance to her sylvan bower. It was a prett_icture as she recalled it. The other side seldom obtruded itself upon he_emory—the long, black nights—the chill, terrible jungle nights—the cold an_amp and discomfort of the rainy season—the hideous mouthings of the savag_arnivora as they prowled through the Stygian darkness beneath—the constan_enace of Sheeta, the panther, and Histah, the snake—the stinging insects—th_oathesome vermin. For, in truth, all these had been outweighed by th_appiness of the sunny days, the freedom of it all, and, most, th_ompanionship of Korak.
The man's thoughts were rather jumbled. He had suddenly realized that he ha_ome mighty near falling in love with this girl of whom he had known nothin_p to the previous moment when she had voluntarily revealed a portion of he_ast to him. The more he thought upon the matter the more evident it became t_im that he had given her his love—that he had been upon the verge of offerin_er his honorable name. He trembled a little at the narrowness of his escape.
Yet, he still loved her. There was no objection to that according to th_thics of the Hon. Morison Baynes and his kind. She was a meaner clay than he.
He could no more have taken her in marriage than he could have taken one o_er baboon friends, nor would she, of course, expect such an offer from him.
To have his love would be sufficient honor for her—his name he would, naturally, bestow upon one in his own elevated social sphere.
A girl who had consorted with apes, who, according to her own admission, ha_ived almost naked among them, could have no considerable sense of the fine_ualities of virtue. The love that he would offer her, then, would, far fro_ffending her, probably cover all that she might desire or expect.
The more the Hon. Morison Baynes thought upon the subject the more full_onvinced he became that he was contemplating a most chivalrous and unselfis_ct. Europeans will better understand his point of view than Americans, poor, benighted provincials, who are denied a true appreciation of caste and of th_act that "the king can do no wrong." He did not even have to argue the poin_hat she would be much happier amidst the luxuries of a London apartment, fortified as she would be by both his love and his bank account, than lawfull_ed to such a one as her social position warranted. There was one questio_owever, which he wished to have definitely answered before he committe_imself even to the program he was considering.
"Who were Korak and A'ht?" he asked.
"A'ht was a Mangani," replied Meriem, "and Korak a Tarmangani."
"And what, pray, might a Mangani be, and a Tarmangani?"
The girl laughed.
"You are a Tarmangani," she replied. "The Mangani are covered with hair—yo_ould call them apes."
"Then Korak was a white man?" he asked.
"And he was—ah—your—er—your—?" He paused, for he found it rather difficult t_o on with that line of questioning while the girl's clear, beautiful eye_ere looking straight into his.
"My what?" insisted Meriem, far too unsophisticated in her unspoiled innocenc_o guess what the Hon. Morison was driving at.
"Why—ah—your brother?" he stumbled.
"No, Korak was not my brother," she replied.
"Was he your husband, then?" he finally blurted.
Far from taking offense, Meriem broke into a merry laugh.
"My husband!" she cried. "Why how old do you think I am? I am too young t_ave a husband. I had never thought of such a thing. Korak was—why—," and no_he hesitated, too, for she never before had attempted to analyse th_elationship that existed between herself and Korak—"why, Korak was jus_orak," and again she broke into a gay laugh as she realized the illuminatin_uality of her description.
Looking at her and listening to her the man beside her could not believe tha_epravity of any sort or degree entered into the girl's nature, yet he wante_o believe that she had not been virtuous, for otherwise his task was less _inecure—the Hon. Morison was not entirely without conscience.
For several days the Hon. Morison made no appreciable progress toward th_onsummation of his scheme. Sometimes he almost abandoned it for he foun_imself time and again wondering how slight might be the provocation necessar_o trick him into making a bona-fide offer of marriage to Meriem if h_ermitted himself to fall more deeply in love with her, and it was difficul_o see her daily and not love her. There was a quality about her which, al_nknown to the Hon. Morison, was making his task an extremely difficult one—i_as that quality of innate goodness and cleanness which is a good girl'_toutest bulwark and protection—an impregnable barrier that only degenerac_as the effrontery to assail. The Hon. Morison Baynes would never b_onsidered a degenerate.
He was sitting with Meriem upon the verandah one evening after the others ha_etired. Earlier they had been playing tennis— a game in which the Hon.
Morison shone to advantage, as, in truth, he did in most all manly sports. H_as telling Meriem stories of London and Paris, of balls and banquets, of th_onderful women and their wonderful gowns, of the pleasures and pastimes o_he rich and powerful. The Hon. Morison was a past master in the art o_nsidious boasting. His egotism was never flagrant or tiresome—he was neve_rude in it, for crudeness was a plebeianism that the Hon. Morison studiousl_voided, yet the impression derived by a listener to the Hon. Morison was on_hat was not at all calculated to detract from the glory of the house o_aynes, or from that of its representative.
Meriem was entranced. His tales were like fairy stories to this little jungl_aid. The Hon. Morison loomed large and wonderful and magnificent in he_ind's eye. He fascinated her, and when he drew closer to her after a shor_ilence and took her hand she thrilled as one might thrill beneath the touc_f a deity—a thrill of exaltation not unmixed with fear.
He bent his lips close to her ear.
"Meriem!" he whispered. "My little Meriem! May I hope to have the right t_all you `my little Meriem'?"
The girl turned wide eyes upward to his face; but it was in shadow. Sh_rembled but she did not draw away. The man put an arm about her and drew he_loser.
"I love you!" he whispered.
She did not reply. She did not know what to say. She knew nothing of love. Sh_ad never given it a thought; but she did know that it was very nice to b_oved, whatever it meant. It was nice to have people kind to one. She ha_nown so little of kindness or affection.
"Tell me," he said, "that you return my love."
His lips came steadily closer to hers. They had almost touched when a visio_f Korak sprang like a miracle before her eyes. She saw Korak's face close t_ers, she felt his lips hot against hers, and then for the first time in he_ife she guessed what love meant. She drew away, gently.
"I am not sure," she said, "that I love you. Let us wait. There is plenty o_ime. I am too young to marry yet, and I am not sure that I should be happy i_ondon or Paris—they rather frighten me."
How easily and naturally she had connected his avowal of love with the idea o_arriage! The Hon. Morison was perfectly sure that he had not mentione_arriage—he had been particularly careful not to do so. And then she was no_ure that she loved him! That, too, came rather in the nature of a shock t_is vanity. It seemed incredible that this little barbarian should have an_oubts whatever as to the desirability of the Hon. Morison Baynes.
The first flush of passion cooled, the Hon. Morison was enabled to reason mor_ogically. The start had been all wrong. It would be better now to wait an_repare her mind gradually for the only proposition which his exalted estat_ould permit him to offer her. He would go slow. He glanced down at the girl'_rofile. It was bathed in the silvery light of the great tropic moon. The Hon.
Morison Baynes wondered if it were to be so easy a matter to "go slow." Sh_as most alluring.
Meriem rose. The vision of Korak was still before her.
"Good night," she said. "It is almost too beautiful to leave," she waved he_and in a comprehensive gesture which took in the starry heavens, the grea_oon, the broad, silvered plain, and the dense shadows in the distance, tha_arked the jungle. "Oh, how I love it!"
"You would love London more," he said earnestly. "And London would love you.
You would be a famous beauty in any capital of Europe. You would have th_orld at your feet, Meriem."
"Good night!" she repeated, and left him.
The Hon. Morison selected a cigarette from his crested case, lighted it, ble_ thin line of blue smoke toward the moon, and smiled.