Classics, thriller

The Most Dangerous Game

Richard Connell, first published January 19, 1924 in Collier’s. Translated into modern English, otherwise exactly the same. 

“There’s a large island off to the right somewhere. It’s a bit of a mystery…” Whitney said.

“What island is it?” Rainsford asked.

“The old charts call it Ship-Trap Island. A suggestive name, isn’t it? Sailors have a curious fear of the place. I don’t know why. Some superstition…” Whitney replied.

“Can’t see it.” Rainsford remarked, trying to see through the damp, tropical night. The night was palpable as it pressed its thick, warm blackness on the yacht.

“You have good eyes, and I’ve seen you shoot a moose moving through fall brush at four hundred yards, but even you can’t see four miles through a moonless, Caribbean night.” Whitney said with a laugh.

“Nor four yards, ugh! It’s like moist, black velvet.” Rainsford admitted.

“There will be plenty of light in Rio. We should be there in a few days. I hope the jaguar guns from Purdey’s arrived. We should have good hunting in the Amazon. Hunting is a great sport.” Whitney promised.

“The best sport in the world.” Rainsford agreed.

“For the hunter. Not for the jaguar.” Whitney corrected.

“Don’t talk nonsense, Whitney. You’re a big-game hunter, not a philosopher. Who cares how a jaguar feels?” Rainsford asked.

“Perhaps the jaguar does.” Whitney observed.

“Bah! They don’t understand.” Rainsford said.

“Even so, I do think they understand one thing — fear. The fear of pain and the fear of death.” Whitney said.

“Nonsense! This hot weather is making you soft, Whitney. Be realistic. The world is made up of two classes — the hunters and the hunted. Luckily, we are hunters.” Rainsford laughed. “Do you think we’ve passed that island yet?”

“I can’t tell in the dark, but I hope so.”

“Why?”

“The place has a bad reputation.”

“Cannibals?” Rainsford guessed.

“Hardly. Even cannibals wouldn’t live in such a God-forsaken place. It has somehow become sailor’s lore. Didn’t you notice the crew’s nerves are jumpy today?”

“Now that you mention it, they were a little strange. Even Captain Nielsen…”

“Yes, even that stubborn, old Swede, who’d go to the devil himself to ask for a light. Those fishy blue eyes held a look I never saw there before. All he said was `This place has an evil name among seafaring men. Don’t you feel anything?’ — as if the air around us was poison. You can’t laugh when I tell you this, but I did feel a sudden chill. There was no wind, and the sea was flat as glass. We were getting near the island then. I felt a mental chill; a sort of sudden dread.”

“Pure imagination! One superstitious sailor can infect the whole crew with fear.” Rainsford said.

“Maybe, but sometimes I think sailors have a sixth sense that warns them of danger. I think evil is a physical thing — with wave lengths, like sound and light. An evil place can broadcast vibrations of evil. Anyhow, I’m glad we’re leaving this area. I think I’ll turn in now.”

“I’m not sleepy, I’m going to smoke another pipe on the back deck.” Rainsford said.

“Goodnight. See you at breakfast.”

“Right. Goodnight, Whitney.”

There was no sound except the engine’s muffled throb and the swish of the propeller. Rainsford sat in a lounge chair, lazily puffing his favorite pipe. A heavy sleepiness set in. “It’s so dark, I could sleep without closing my eyes; the night can be my eyelids—” He thought.

A sudden sound startled him. It came from the right, and his expert ears could not be wrong. Again and again he heard it. Somewhere, off in the darkness, a gun fired three times.

Rainsford jumped up, moving quickly to the rail, mystified. He squinted in the direction the shots came from, but it was like trying to see through a blanket. He leapt higher, onto the rail; his pipe hit a rope and fell from his mouth. He lunged for it, and a short, hoarse cry escaped his lips as he lost balance. The cry was cut short as the blood-warm waters closed over his head.

He struggled to the surface and tried to cry out. The waves from the speeding yacht slapped him in the face, and he choked on the salt water. Desperately, he chased the departing yacht but stopped before he went fifty feet. He became very calm; it was not his first time in a tight spot. There was a slim chance his cries could be heard by someone, but that chance grew slimmer as the yacht raced on. He wriggled out of his clothes and shouted with all his power. The lights of the yacht dimmed, then the night blotted them out entirely.

Rainsford remembered the shots and swam in their direction with slow, deliberate strokes, conserving his strength. For a seemingly endless time, he fought the sea and counted his strokes. He could maybe do a hundred more, but then…

The high, screaming sound of an animal in extreme pain and terror came from the darkness. He did not recognize what animal; he did not try to. With fresh energy, he swam toward the sound. He heard it again; then it was cut short by a separate, crisp noise.

“Pistol shot.” Rainsford muttered, swimming on.

After ten minutes of determined effort, he heard the most beautiful sound he ever heard — the growling of the sea breaking on a rocky shore. He was almost on the rocks before he saw them; on a night less calm he would have been shattered against them. With his remaining strength, he dragged himself out of the swirling waters. Jagged rocks shot up into the darkness, and he forced himself to climb, hand over hand. Gasping, hands raw, he reached a flat place at the top. Dense jungle came down to the cliff’s edge. Rainsford was not concerned with dangers from the tangle of trees and underbrush. He only knew he was safe from the sea and utterly tired. He dropped at the jungle’s edge and fell into the deepest sleep of his life.

When he woke, the sun’s position told him it was late afternoon. Sleep gave him new vigor, and he was very hungry. He looked around, almost cheerfully. “Where there are pistol shots, there are men. Where there are men, there is food.” He thought but wondered what kind of men would be in such a forbidden place. An unbroken stretch of snarled and ragged jungle outlined the shore.

He saw no sign of a trail through the tight web of weeds and trees. He found it easier to follow the shore and walk along the water. Not far from where he landed, he stopped. Evidence suggested a large, wounded animal had thrashed around in the underbrush. The weeds were crushed, the moss was cut, and one patch of weeds were stained crimson. A small, glittering object caught his eye. It was an empty cartridge.

“A twenty-two, that’s odd. It must have been a fairly large animal. The hunter had nerve to tackle it with a light gun. It’s clear the brute put up a fight. I suppose the first three shots were when the hunter flushed his prey and wounded it. The last shot was when he trailed it here and finished it.” He remarked.

He examined the ground closely and found what he hoped for — tracks of hunting boots. They pointed along the cliff, in the direction he was going. With night approaching, he hurried, slipping on rotten logs and loose stones but making progress.

Bleak darkness was blacking out the sea and jungle when Rainsford saw lights. He saw them as he turned a crook in the coast-line. There were so many lights, he thought he found a village at first. As he got closer, he was astonished to see the lights were in one enormous building — a lofty structure with pointed towers extending up into the gloom. He saw the shadowy outlines of a large residence sitting on a high bluff. Three sides sat on steep cliffs descending into sea and shadow.

“Mirage.” Rainsford thought, but it was no mirage when he opened the tall, spiked, iron gate. The stone steps, massive door, and leering gargoyle knocker were real; yet it all seemed unreal.

The knocker creaked stiffly, as if never used before, and its loud boom startled him. He thought he heard footsteps inside, but the door remained closed. He lifted the heavy knocker again and let it fall. The door opened suddenly, and Rainsford stood blinking in glaring, gold light.

He saw the largest man he’s ever seen — gigantic, solid, and black bearded to the waist. The man held a long-barreled gun pointed at Rainsford’s heart, two small eyes regarding him from the tangled beard.

“Don’t be alarmed, I’m no thief. I fell off a yacht. My name is Sanger Rainsford, I’m from New York City.” Rainsford said with a disarming smile.

The threatening stare did not change. The giant stood still as a statue, giving no sign he understood English. He was dressed in a black uniform with gray, fleece trim.

“I’m Sanger Rainsford from New York, I fell off a yacht. I’m hungry.”Rainsford began again.

The man raised the gun’s hammer, saluted, clicked his heels, and stood at attention. Someone was coming down the wide, marble steps – a tall, slender man in evening clothes. He approached Rainsford and held out his hand.

His cultivated voice and slight accent made his words sound precise and deliberate. “It is pleasure and honor to welcome Mr. Sanger Rainsford, the celebrated hunter, to my home.”

Rainsford automatically shook the man’s hand.

“I’ve read your book about hunting snow leopards in Tibet. I am General Zaroff.” The man explained.

First, Rainsford noticed the man was singularly handsome; second, there was an original, almost bizarre quality about the general’s face. He was tall, past middle age, and had vivid white hair. His thick eyebrows and pointed, military mustache were black as night. His eyes were also black and bright. He had high cheekbones, a sharp-cut nose, a dark, aristocratic face, and was accustomed to giving orders. The general signaled the uniformed giant who then put his pistol away, saluted, and withdrew.

“Ivan is incredibly strong but has the misfortune of being deaf and dumb. He’s a simple man, but like all his race, he’s also a bit savage.” The general remarked.

“Is he Russian?”

“He and I are Cossack.” The general’s smile showed red lips and pointed teeth.

“Come, we shouldn’t be chatting here. We can talk later. Now you want clothes, food, rest. You’ll have them. This is a most-restful spot.”

Ivan reappeared, and the general spoke with moving lips but no sound.

“Please follow Ivan, I was about to have my dinner when you came. I’ll wait for you. You’ll find my clothes will fit.” The general said.

Rainsford followed the silent giant to a huge bedroom with a canopied bed big enough for six men. Ivan laid out an evening suit from a London tailor who never worked for anyone below the rank of duke.

The dining room was remarkable in many ways. Its oak panels, high ceiling, and large dining tables gave it a medieval magnificence. It resembled a baron’s manor of feudal times. Around the walls were many mounted heads — lions, tigers, elephants, moose, and bears; Rainsford had never seen more perfect specimens.

The general was sitting alone. “You’ll have a cocktail?” He suggested. The cocktail was surprisingly good, and the linen, crystal, silver, and china were of the finest quality. They had borsch – the rich, red soup with whipped cream popular to Russian palates. “We do our best to be civilized here, but please forgive any oversights. We’re off the beaten track. Do you think the champagne suffered from its long ocean trip?” General Zaroff said, half apologetically.

“Not in the least!” Rainsford declared. He was finding the general a very thoughtful and friendly host, but there was one small trait that made him uncomfortable. Whenever he looked up from his plate, he found the general studying him, appraising him narrowly.

“Perhaps you were surprised I recognized your name. I read all books on hunting in English, French, and Russian. The hunt is my one life’s passion.” General Zaroff said.

“You have some wonderful trophies here. That Cape buffalo is the largest I ever saw.” Rainsford said as he ate a well-cooked filet mignon.

“Oh, yes, he was a monster.”

“Did he charge you?”

“Hurled me against a tree and fractured my skull, but I got the brute.” The general said.

“I’ve always thought the Cape buffalo is the most dangerous of all big game.” Rainsford said.

The general did not reply at first; he was smiling his curious, red-lipped smile. “No, the Cape buffalo is not the most dangerous big game.” He said slowly, sipping his wine. “Here on my preserve, I hunt more dangerous.”

Rainsford expressed surprise. “Is there big game on this island?”

The general nodded. “The biggest.”

“Really?”

“Oh, it isn’t here naturally, of course. I have to stock the island.”

“What have you imported, general? Tigers?”

The general smiled. “No, hunting tigers stopped interesting me years ago. I exhausted their possibilities. No thrill or real danger left. I live for danger.” The general took out a gold cigarette case and offered his guest a long, silver-tipped, black cigarette. It was perfumed and smelled like incense. “We will have some wonderful hunting together. I will be very glad to have your company.”

“But what game—” Rainsford began.

“I know you will be amused. I think I can modestly say I’ve done a rare thing. I’ve invented a new sensation. May I pour you another glass of champagne?”

“Thank you, general.”

The general filled both glasses before speaking. “God makes some men poets, some kings or beggars. He made me a hunter. My father said my hand was made for the trigger. He was a very rich, enthusiastic sportsman with a quarter million acres in the Crimea. When I was five, he gave me a custom-made gun to shoot sparrows with. When I shot some of his prize turkeys, he did not punish me, but complimented my marksmanship. I killed my first bear in the Caucasus at age ten. My life has been one prolonged hunt. As expected of a nobleman’s son, I joined the army and commanded a cavalry division, but my real interest was always hunting. I have hunted every game in every land; it would be impossible to say how many animals I have killed.”

He puffed his cigarette. “After the debacle in Russia, I left the country; it was careless for an officer to stay there. Many noble Russians lost everything. Luckily, I invested in American stocks, so I will never have to open a tearoom or drive a taxi. I continued to hunt — grizzlies in the Rockies, crocodiles in the Ganges, rhinos in East Africa. Africa is where the Cape buffalo laid me up for six months. Then I hunted jaguars in the Amazon after hearing they were unusually smart, but they weren’t.” The general sighed. “They were no match for intelligence and a high-powered rifle. I was bitterly disappointed. One night, I was lying in my tent with a splitting headache when I realized hunting was beginning to bore me! Remember, hunting is my life. I heard American businessmen often fall apart when they give up their life’s work.”

“Yes, that’s so.” said Rainsford.

The general smiled. “I had no wish to fall apart, I had to do something. I have an analytical mind, that is why I enjoy the puzzle of the chase.”

“No doubt, General Zaroff.”

“I asked myself why the hunt no longer fascinated me. You are much younger and have not hunted as much, but maybe you can guess the answer.” The general continued.

“What was it?”

“Hunting stopped being `sporting.’ It became too easy, I always got my prey. There is no greater bore than perfection.” The general lit a fresh cigarette. “No animal had a chance against me. I’m not bragging; it’s the truth. Animals have nothing but legs and instinct. Instinct is no match for reason. Realizing this was a tragic moment for me.”

Rainsford leaned forward, absorbed in his host’s words.

“An idea came to me, and I knew what I must do.” The general continued.

“And that was?”

The general smiled the quiet smile of one who has overcome an obstacle. “I had to invent a new animal to hunt.”

“A new animal? You’re joking.”

“I never joke about hunting. I needed a new animal; I found one. I bought this island, built this house, and do my hunting. The island is perfect for my purposes. There are jungles with a maze of trails, hills, swamps—”

“But the animal, General Zaroff?”

“Oh, it supplies me with the most exciting hunting in the world. Nothing else compares. Every day I hunt and never grow bored. I have a prey able to match my wits.” The general said.

Rainsford’s confusion showed in his face.

“I wanted the perfect animal, one with courage, cunning, and, above all, intelligence.” The general explained.

“But no animal can reason.” Rainsford objected.

“There’s one that can.” The general said.

“But you can’t mean—” Rainsford gasped.

“Why not?”

“I can’t believe you’re serious. This is a horrible joke.”

“Why should I not be serious? I’m talking about hunting.”

“Hunting? Good God, you’re talking about murder.”

The general laughed sportingly. He regarded Rainsford quizzically. “I refuse to believe a modern and civilized young man like yourself has romantic ideas about the value of human life. Surely your experiences in the war—”

“Did not make me condone cold-blooded murder.” Rainsford finished stiffly.

The general shook with laughter. “How extraordinarily unusual you are! Nowadays, one doesn’t expect to find an educated young man with such a naive point of view. It’s like finding a dip-jar in a limousine. Doubtless you had Puritan ancestors like many Americans. I bet you’ll forget those ideals when you go hunting with me. You’ve a genuine new thrill in store for you.”

“Thank you, but I’m a hunter, not a murderer.”

“There’s that unpleasant word again, but I think I can show you your morals are ill-founded.”

“Yes?”

“Life is to be lived by the strong, and – if needed – taken by the strong. The weak were put here to give the strong pleasure. I am strong. Why should I not use my gift? I hunt the scum of the earth: sailors from tramp ships, thieves of all races — a thoroughbred horse or hound is worth more than dozens of them.”

“But they are men.” Rainsford said hotly.

“Precisely, that’s why I use them. It gives me pleasure. They can think, so they are dangerous.”

“But where do you get them?”

The general winked. “This island is called Ship-Trap. Sometimes an angry god sends them. Sometimes, when fate is less kind, I help. Come to the window with me.”

Rainsford looked to the sea.

“Watch! Out there!” The general exclaimed, pointing into the night. Rainsford’s eyes saw only blackness. Then, with the push of a button, lights flashed at sea.

The general chuckled. “They indicate passage where there’s only giant, razor-sharp rocks like a sea monster’s jaws. They crush a ship as easily as I crush this nut.” He dropped a walnut on the hardwood floor and stepped on it. “Yes, I have electricity. We try to be civilized here.” He said casually.

“Civilized? And you shoot men down?”

The general’s black eyes held a trace of anger, but it was there only a second. “How righteous you are! I assure you it’s not what you suggest, that would be barbaric. I treat these visitors with every consideration. They get plenty of good food and exercise, and they’re in splendid physical condition. You’ll see tomorrow.”

“What do you mean?”

The general smiled.“We’ll visit my training school, it’s in the cellar. I have a dozen pupils there now. They’re from the Spanish ship, San Lucar, that had the bad luck to crash on the rocks. A very inferior group, I regret to say. Poor specimens and more accustomed to a ship than jungle.” He raised his hand, and Ivan brought thick, Turkish coffee. With effort, Rainsford held his tongue in check.

“It’s a game. I suggest to one of them that we go hunting. I give him food, an excellent hunting knife, and three hours head start. I follow armed with only a small, short-ranged, caliber pistol. If my prey eludes me for three days, he wins. If I find him, he loses.” The general smiled.

“Suppose he refuses to be hunted?”

“Oh, he doesn’t have to play if he doesn’t want to. If he doesn’t t want to hunt, I give him to Ivan. Ivan once had the honor of serving as official torturer for the Great White Czar, and has his own ideas of sport. They always choose the hunt.” The general said.

“And if they win?”

The smile on the general’s face widened. “I have never lost.” He said, then added hastily: “I don’t wish you to think I’m bragging. Many of them offered little challenge. Occasionally, I get lucky. One almost won; I eventually had to use the dogs.”

“The dogs?”

“This way, please. I’ll show you.”

The general steered Rainsford to a window. The lights sent a flickering illumination that made grotesque patterns on the courtyard below. Rainsford could see a dozen huge, black shapes moving around. As they turned toward him, their eyes glittered greenly.

“I think they’re a good lot. They’re let out at seven every night. If anyone tried to get in my house — or out — something extremely regrettable would happen.” He hummed a snatch of song from the Folies Bergere. “Now, I want to show you my new collection of heads. Will you come to the library?”

“I hope you will excuse me tonight. I’m really not feeling well.” Rainsford said.

“Ah, is that so? Well, I suppose that’s only natural after your long swim. You need a restful night’s sleep. Tomorrow you’ll feel like a new man; then we’ll hunt, yes? I’ve one promising prospect—” Rainsford hurried from the room. “Sorry you can’t go with me tonight, I expect a fine game. He looks resourceful. Well, goodnight; I hope you rest well.”

The bed was good, the pajamas were silk, and he was tired in every fiber of his being, but Rainsford could not quiet his brain with sleep. He lay, eyes wide open. Once he thought he heard stealthy steps in the hall outside his room. He tried to open the door, but it was locked. He went to the window, his room was high up in one of the towers. The lights of the chateau were out, leaving it dark and silent. By a fragment of the moon’s wan light, he could dimly see the courtyard.

Weaving in and out of the shadows were black, noiseless forms. The hounds heard him and looked expectantly with their green eyes. Rainsford went back to bed, trying to fall asleep. He achieved a doze just as morning began, then he heard a gunshot far off in the jungle.

General Zaroff did not appear until lunch. He was dressed perfectly in the clothes of a country squire. He was overly concerned about Rainsford’s health. “As for me, I do not feel so well. I am worried. Last night, I detected traces of my old complaint.” The general sighed.

To Rainsford’s confused look, the general said, “Ennui. Boredom.”

Taking a second helping of crepes, the general explained: “The hunting was not good last night, the man panicked. He made a straight trail that offered no problems at all. That’s the trouble with these sailors; they are dumb and don’t know how to move in the woods. They do excessively stupid and obvious things. It’s most annoying. Will you have another glass of Chablis?”

“General, I wish to leave at once.” Rainsford said firmly.

The general raised his thick eyebrows; he seemed hurt. “But, you’ve only just come. You’ve had no hunting—” The general protested.

“I wish to go, Rainsford said. He saw the dead, black eyes of the general, studying him. General Zaroff’s face suddenly brightened.

He filled Rainsford’s glass with aged Chablis from a dusty bottle.“Tonight, we will hunt.”

Rainsford shook his head. “No, I will not hunt.”

The general shrugged and delicately ate a grape. “As you wish. The choice is entirely yours, but I think you will find my idea of sport more fair than Ivan’s.”

He nodded toward the corner where the giant stood scowling, thick arms crossed on his hog’s chest.

“You don’t mean—” Rainsford cried.

“I told you, I always mean what I say about hunting. This is really an inspiration. I drink to a foe worthy of my skill — at last.” The general raised his glass, but Rainsford sat staring at him.

“You’ll find this game worth playing. Your brain, woodsman skills, strength and stamina against mine. Outdoor chess! Plus, the stake is not without value, eh?” The general said enthusiastically.

“And if I win—” Rainsford began huskily.

“I’ll cheerfully acknowledge defeat if I do not find you by midnight on the third day. My boat will place you on the mainland near a town.” The general knew what Rainsford was thinking. “Oh, you can trust me, I will give you my word as a gentleman and sportsman. Of course you, must agree to say nothing of your visit here.”

“I’ll agree to nothing of the kind,” said Rainsford.

“Oh, in that case — but why discuss it now? Three days hence we can discuss it over a bottle of Veuve Cliquot, unless—” The general sipped his wine.

Then, he became businesslike. “Ivan, will supply you with hunting clothes, food, and a knife. I suggest you wear moccasins, they leave less trail. Also, avoid the big swamp in the southeast corner of the island. We call it Death Swamp, there’s quicksand. One foolish man tried it. The worst part was that Lazarus followed him. You can imagine my feelings. I loved Lazarus; he was the finest hound in my pack. Well, I must beg you to excuse me now. I always take a nap after lunch. You’ll hardly have time for one. No doubt you’ll want to get started. I won’t follow until dusk. Hunting at night is so much more exciting than by day, don’t you think? Goodbye.” With a deep, courtly bow, General Zaroff left the room.

Ivan entered from another door. He carried khaki hunting clothes, a sack of food, and a long-bladed hunting knife in a leather sheath. His right hand rested on a cocked gun in the crimson sash around his waist.

Rainsford fought his way through brush for two hours. “I must keep my nerve. I must keep my nerve.” He said through gritted teeth.

He had not been entirely thinking straight when the gates snapped shut behind him. At first, his idea was to put distance between himself and General Zaroff. He had plunged along, forced on by the sharp prodding of something very like panic. Now he had a grip on himself and was taking stock of the situation. Running was pointless; it would eventually bring him to the sea. He could not get away.

“I’ll give him a trail to follow.” Rainsford muttered, leaving the small pathway for the trackless wilderness. He walked a series of intricate loops and doubled on his trail again and again, recalling all the dodges of the fox. Night found him exhausted, hands and face cut by branches, on a thickly wooded ridge. He knew it would be insane to stumble through the dark, even if he had the strength.

His need for rest was imperative. “I have played the fox, now I must play the cat.” A big tree with a thick trunk and outspread branches was near. He climbed into the branches, careful not to leave the slightest mark, and stretched out on a large limb. Rest brought him confidence and almost a feeling of security. He thought even an enthusiastic a hunter like General Zaroff could not track him there; only the devil could follow that complicated trail through the jungle after dark. Yet, perhaps the general was a devil…

An apprehensive night crawled by slowly as a wounded snake, and Rainsford could not sleep. The jungle was silent as a dead world. Toward morning, when the sky was dingy gray, the cry of startled birds focused his attention. Something was coming, slowly, carefully, by the same winding way he came. He flattened himself down, and through a screen of thick leaves, he watched. A man was approaching.

It was General Zaroff. He made his way along, eyes focused on the ground in utmost concentration. He paused, almost beneath the tree, dropped to his knees and studied the ground. Rainsford’s impulse was to jump down like a panther, but he saw the general held a small automatic pistol.

The hunter shook his head several times, as if puzzled. Then he straightened up and took out one of his black cigarettes. Its smelly, incense-like smoke floated up to Rainsford’s nostrils, and he held his breath.

The general’s eyes left the ground and traveled up the tree, inch by inch. Rainsford froze, every muscle tensed, but the hunter’s sharp eyes stopped before they reached him. A smile spread over his brown face. Very deliberately, he blew a smoke ring into the air; then turned his back on the tree and walked away carelessly. The swish of the underbrush against his hunting boots grew fainter and fainter.

Rainsford’s breath burst hotly from his lungs. His first thought made him feel sick and numb. The general could follow a trail through the woods at night, an extremely difficult trail; he must have uncanny powers. Only by the slimmest chance had he failed to see his prey.

Rainsford’s second thought was even more terrible. It sent a shudder of cold horror through his whole being. Why had the general smiled? Why had he turned back? He did not want to believe it, but the truth was as evident as the sun pushing through the morning mists. The general was playing with him, saving him for another day’s sport! The general was the cat; he was the mouse. Then Rainsford knew the full meaning of terror. “I will not lose my nerve. I will not.”

He left the tree and went into the woods. His face was set, and he forced his mind to function. Three hundred yards from his hiding place, he stopped where a huge, dead tree leaned on a smaller, living one. Throwing his sack of food down, Rainsford took his knife and began to work with all his energy.

When the job was finished, he hid behind a fallen log a hundred feet away. He did not have to wait long. The cat was coming to play with the mouse.

General Zaroff was following the trail with the sureness of a bloodhound. Nothing escaped those searching, black eyes – no crushed grass, bent twig, or mark, no matter how faint. He was so focused on his tracking, he noticed nothing else of his surroundings.

Rainsford could not see the general, nor could he see the pit. He lived a year in a minute. Then he felt an impulse to shout with joy when he heard the sharp crackle of breaking branches as the pit cover gave way. He heard the sharp scream of pain as the pointed stakes found their mark. He leapt from his hiding place, then cowered back. Three feet from the pit, a man was standing with a flashlight.

“You’ve done well. Your Burmese tiger pit claimed one of my best dogs. Again you score. I think I’ll see what you can do against my whole pack. I’m going home for a rest now. Thank you for a most amusing evening.”

Rainsford, lying near the swamp, woke at daybreak to a terrifying sound. It was distant, faint and wavering, but he knew it. It was the howling of hounds. He could do one of two things. He could stay, but that was suicide; or run, postponing the inevitable. For a moment he stood, thinking. An idea with a wild chance came to him, and he walked away from the swamp.

The sound of hounds drew closer, then still closer, closer, ever closer. On a ridge he climbed a tree. Down a watercourse, not a quarter mile away, he saw the bush moving. Squinting, he saw the lean figure of General Zaroff. Ahead of him was the giant Ivan, who seemed pulled forward by the pack’s leash.

They would be there any minute. His mind worked frantically. He thought of a native trick he learned in Uganda. He slid down the tree, caught hold of a springy, young sapling, and attached his knife, the blade pointing down the trail. With a wild grapevine, he tied back the sapling, and ran for his life. The hounds raised their voices as they hit the fresh scent.

Rainsford now knew how hunted animals felt. He had to catch his breath. The hounds’ howling stopped abruptly, and his heart stopped too. They must have reached the knife.

Excited, he climbed up a tree to look back. His pursuers stopped, but the hope in Rainsford’s brain died. In the shallow valley, he saw General Zaroff was still on his feet, but Ivan was not. The knife, driven by the recoil of the springing tree, was not a total failure. Rainsford fell to the ground hard when the hounds began howling again.

“Nerve, nerve, nerve!” he panted, as he ran. A blue gap showed between the trees ahead. The hounds drew closer. He forced himself toward the gap. He reached it. It was the sea shore. Across the cove, he could see the gloomy, gray stone of the chateau. Twenty feet below, the sea rumbled and hissed. He hesitated. He heard the hounds. Then he leaped far out into the sea…

When the general and his pack reached the place by the sea, they stopped. For several minutes, he stood regarding the blue-green water. Shrugging his shoulders, he sat, took a drink of brandy from a silver flask, lit a cigarette, and hummed Madame Butterfly.

General Zaroff had a very good dinner in his dining hall that evening. He had a bottle of Pol Roger and half a bottle of Chambertin. Two slight annoyances kept him from perfect enjoyment. One was how difficult it would be to replace Ivan; the other was his escaped prey. “The American hadn’t played the game.” The general thought as he tasted his liquor. In his library, he read from the works of Marcus Aurelius to soothe himself. At ten, he went up to his bedroom.

He was deliciously tired as he locked himself in. There was a little moonlight, so he went to the window looking down at the courtyard. “Better luck next time.” He called to the hounds. Then he switched on the light.

A man who hid in the bed curtains was standing there.

“Rainsford! How in God’s name did you get here?” The general screamed.

“Swam. I found it quicker than walking through the jungle.” Rainsford said.

The general sucked in his breath and smiled. “I congratulate you, you have won the game.”

Rainsford did not smile. “I am still a beast on the hunt. Get ready, General Zaroff.” He said in a low, hoarse voice.

The general gave a deep bow. “I see. Splendid! One of us is to supply a meal for the hounds. The other will sleep in this very excellent bed. On guard!”

Rainsford never slept in a better bed.

5 thoughts on “The Most Dangerous Game”

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