The Track of a Lie
"Consequences of our acts eternal? Bosh!" said Blawkins, at the Club. "That's what the Padres say. See, now!" The smoking-room was empty, except for Blawkins and myself. "I'll tell you an idiotic little superstition I picked up the other day," said he. "The natives say that Allah allows the tiger one rupee eight annas a day for his food; and if you total up the month's cattle-bill of an average tiger, not a man-eater, you'll find that it's exactly forty-five rupees per mensem."
"I know that," said I. "And it happens to be true."
"Very good," said Blawkins. "Do you mean to say that anything is going to come of an idle sentence like that? I say it. You hear it. Well?" Blawkins swung out of the Club, leaving me vanquished.
But the statement rang in my head. There was something catching about the words, "Allah allows the tiger one rupee eight annas a day for his food." It was a quaint superstition, and one not generally known. Would the local paper care for it? It fitted a corner, empty for the moment; and one or two readers said, "What a curious idea!"
That the tiny paragraph should have wandered to Southern India was not very strange, though there was no reason why it should not have trickled to the Bombay side, instead of dropping straight as a plummet to Madras. That it should have jumped Adam's Bridge, and been copied in a Ceylon journal, was strange; but Blawkins had been transferred to the other end of the Empire, just two days before the Ceylon papers told their cinchona planters that "Allah allows the tiger one rupee eight annas a day," etc.
Three weeks passed, and from the eastern side of the Bay of Bengal came in the Burma mail. Boh Ottima was dead, and the Field Force was hard worked; Mandalay was suffering from cholera, but at the bottom of the last page the rest of the world might read that "Allah allows the tiger," etc. Blawkins was on duty in the Bolan, very sick with fever. It was not worth while to follow him with a letter.
Week by week Europe grew to be a hornet- hive, throbbing and humming angrily, as the messages pulsed through the wires. Then Singapur reported that "Allah allows the tiger," etc. Here, assuredly, was the limit of my paragraph's wandering. It might struggle into the Malayan Archipelago, but beyond that scattered heap of islands it could not pass.
Germany called for more men; France answered the call with fresh battalions on her side; and the strangely scented, straw-hued journals of Shanghai and Yokohama made public to the Far East the news that "Allah allows the tiger," etc. Blawkins, now at Poona, was desperately in love with a Miss Blandyre. What were paragraphs to a passionate lover? I never sent him a line, though he bombarded me with a very auctioneer's catalogue of Miss Blandyre's charms. What would my paragraph do? It had reached the open Pacific now, and must surely drown in five thousand miles of black water. After all, it had lived long.
Yet, I had presentiments, and waited anxiously for what might come. The flying keel stayed at the Golden Gate, where the sea-lions romp and gurgle and bask: Europe shook with the tread of armed men, but—where was my paragraph? In America—for San Francisco wished to know, if "Allah allowed the tiger," etc., how much a Los Angeles hotel-keeper would be justified in charging a millionaire with delirium tremens? Would Eastern America accept it? The paragraph touched Salt Lake City; and thenceforward, straight as a homeward-bound bee, headed New York-wards. They took it; they cut, chipped, chopped, laughed; were ribald, pious, profane, cynical, and frankly foolish over it; but, as though it were under a special and mysterious protection of Providence, it returned, always, to its original shape. It ran southward into New Orleans, northward to Toronto; and week after week the weather-beaten exchanges recorded its eastward progress. Boston appreciated it as something perfectly original; and at last, as a lone light dies on an extreme headland, Philadelphia sent back the news that the Emperor William was dead, and "Allah allows the tiger," etc. But Blawkins had, long ago, wedded Miss Blandyre. What was the use of writing to him ? The main point of existence was, whether the paragraph could come over the Atlantic to the West Coast of England, where the country papers were lichened with the growth of local politics.
There was a long pause, and I feared that my paragraph was dead. But I did it an injustice. Over the foaming surf of the local Government Bill, through the rapids of compensation to publicans, in the teeth of the current of Mr. Gladstone's appeals to the free and enlightened electors of Wales, came my paragraph—for Birmingham found room for the announcement that "Allah allows the tiger," etc. Blawkins sent an announcement also. It cost him two rupees, was a purely local matter, and ended up with the words "of a son." But the paragraph was Imperial—nay, Universal. I felt safe, for there was one journal in London whom nothing unusual, or alas, unclean, ever escaped. I waited with confidence the arrival of the "Yellow Wrapper." When the mails came in, the Bombay papers had already quoted and commended to the notice of the Bombay Zoological Society the curious statement hailing from England in the "Yellow Wrapper" that "Allah allows the tiger," etc.! The circuit was complete; and as the shears snipped out the announcement, before putting it afresh into the very cradle in which it had been born fifteen months and six days before, I felt that I had shaken hands with the whole round world. My paragraph had come home indeed!
Tenderly as a mother shows the face of her sleeping child, I led Blawkins through the paper- cuttings, and step by step pointed out the path of the paragraph. His lower jaw dropped. "By Jove!" said he, "I was wrong—it should have been a rupee—one rupee only—not one eight."
"Then, Blawkins," said I, "you have swindled the whole wide world of the sum of eight annas," nominally one shilling.