He gathered up the unconscious girl as tenderly as a woman, oh! a good deal more so, and turning her face to his shoulder, carried her out of the temple; stopping for a second to hold her more securely in his left arm as he bent to pick up something which glittered in the moonlight: a piece of orange silk heavily embroidered in silver, for which Leonie had ransacked the Old, the New, and the Lal Bazaars; a bit of her ayah's sari torn and caught in a sundri breather. "And she stayed behind on the boat," said Jan to himself, with a flash of inspiration as he turned the thing over in his hand, and slipped it into his pocket.
And though his heart ached over his beloved's mental and physical distress, he inwardly rejoiced at the untoward occurrences of the day which had supplied his solid, trustworthy brain with the outline of a key to the problem.
Dear, stolid old Jan, who, given the time, could beat anyone at unravelling the hardest, hard-tied, knotted problem.
With a tale of sudden faintness he gave her into the care of Edna Talbot, who cooed and fluttered over her like the woman she was, in spite of her workmanlike appearance and her outrageous craving for a big meal. And she herded the sahibs to the far end of the court, where lay the sick man, after the big meal in which Leonie had joined right heartily; a little white about the face, truly, and shadowed about the eyes, but normal and content, with not the vaguest recollection of what had happened after the killing of the tiger.
"Oh! don't be dense," Edna Talbot said quite brusquely when Guy Dean, having brutally ignored the suffering native, suggested returning to the others. "You surely don't want to make a triangle."
"Well, you know the old saying about two being company, don't you?"
"Of course I do—that's where it comes in," replied the lad not over lucidly, "I want to make the two!"
The major laughed at the rueful countenance, as he clapped the boy on the shoulder.
"You'll get over it all right, old fellow; it's just like inoculation, a feeble taste of something which might have been ever so much worse. Trust me, you'll get over it!"
"Never!" stoutly maintained young Dean as he heaved a stone at something which fled across the court, his mental vision failing to register a picture of the future in which Jill Wetherbourne, daughter of Molly and Jack, occupied the principal position.
Later, Leonie, sitting with Jan Cuxson on a block of fallen masonry, smiled sweetly upon the head shikari, who, salaaming, prayed her to honour him by accepting a little memento of the shikar which had terminated so successfully upon the slaying of the tiger.
In his open palm he held two small bones about two and a half inches in length, two little superstitious tokens which ensure sons to the woman who treasures them, and which, he told her in his broken English, were only found in the tiger, one on each side of the chest, unconnected with any other bone at all.
"It is a charm, O! Mem Sahib, defender of the poor, which will assuredly bring you happiness.
"And may the sons of the sahib grow straight as the pine tree," he added slowly in his own tongue, as he felt the sahib's eyes fixed steadily upon him.
"What did he say to you, Jan?"
As the shikari turned away Cuxson caught the girl's hands and crushed them up against his heart.
"I will tell you some day!"
"Tell me now!"
"No! not now! It is of love that I should have to speak, and in all these past weeks you have not let me touch your hand or speak to you of love. You have put a barrier between us, a barrier of a misplaced fear, which has grown higher and stronger since I have had to confess to failure in finding any trace of your old servant. India is wide, dear, and its villages uncountable, and I am not distressed over the empty return of these last months; all that worries me is, that while prowling about the Himalayas out of reach of the post, I never knew what had happened to you, or that you were in India."
Leonie sighed as she opened her hand and looked at the small bones.
"Tell me now, Jan!" she insisted.
"No! Leonie, I cannot. There will be no one near us when I do tell you, and except as a souvenir of that very fine old man, you need not keep them, because my love is a still greater and surer charm to bring you the great happiness they promise."
"And thou shalt become an astonishment, a proverb, a byword."—The Bible.
When Leonie returned to Calcutta she found that the tale of her courageous act which had preceded her, and of which home and local papers had exhausted themselves in praise, had not served to endear her to that little white community, which suffers from social myopia, and the self-adjusted chains of what it most mistakenly calls caste.
Not likely that the feminine members of Jute, military, railway, or law circles would open their arms any wider to this young, and beautiful, widowed creature with the mop of naturally curling hair, now that, if so minded, she could verbally and positively flap one of the finest tiger skins that had ever come out of Bengal in their heat-stricken faces.
In fact some of the young ones as they wrestled with the nightly problem of their own dank, straight particular bit of woman's glory, would doubtless, if questioned, have upheld the Hindu custom of completely shaving the widowed head.
Many, in fact, had been the meetings of these younger mem-sahibs in bungalows, or flats, at Firpoes, or in clubs, where, under the pretext of criticising the latest fashions from overseas, they discussed the pros and cons of accepting this person into the haven of their Anglo-Indian bosom.
The elder ones kept out of the clatter, having suffered and fought in similar crises in their own day as had their mothers, and their mothers' mothers before them since the days before the mutiny; being moreover resigned to the corrugated appearance of their faces, and the, in consequence, perambulatory instincts of their lords.
"Her undies," said a woman who, with the excuse of borrowing a book, had essayed to spy out the land of Leonie's cabin. "I saw her running ribbons in them—the most ex-quisite crepe de Chine, hand embroidered and trimmed with real lace!"
"How de trop!" had answered a matron, whose household linge and personal lingerie showed complete only in the sections of finger napkins and undervests, as is the way of a careless, untidy woman's linen stock.
"Well, that's easily understood," chimed in a third. "After all she is trade."
And the no's had carried it.
Wherefore, although in ignorance of the verdict, she did exactly what every other woman did, and went where they went, she most certainly did not have what one would call a good time. She loved the Maidan and golf at the Jodhpur Club, or Tollygunge, before breakfast; she cordially loathed shopping and duty calls; grudged the hours lost out of life in the daily afternoon siesta, and took part in dances, bridge, dinners, and all the usual monotonous effort to kill time, with the air of an indifferent, disgruntled statue.
Gossip was no joy to her, scandal she would not tolerate, and the women commenced the task of ostracism by means of half-uttered phrases and little invidious smiles; and most men voted her odd owing to a certain indescribable barrier which they invariably encountered when they approached her over impulsively, and which really did not tally with her enticing, bizarre beauty.
Yes! they voted her odd, certainly, but in the secret places of their hearts and bungalows some of them would ponder.
Had not the major sahib's bearer curled himself up on the mat beneath the bed and gone to sleep, while the major sahib, after the ball, had sat in his shirt-sleeves upon that bed until three in the morning; and over and over again mentally slid up and down the room with supple, slender Leonie in his arms, where, in the earlier hours of the night, she had rested seemingly content for one half-second before he had let her go under the palms.
And, "Damn it all, she's not a flirt," did not a certain youthful sahib who worshipped openly at her shrine exclaim, as he thought, in the unpleasantly heated watches of the night, of that moment when she had smiled down sweetly into his adoring eyes, as his cheek brushed her hand while she was arranging her habit, and he her stirrup leather.
How were they to know that, distracted by an ever-increasing fear, and lost in an overwhelming love, Leonie had no more remembrance than the man in the moon of the fact that she had danced with the one, and smiled upon the other.
It was the final flare of the season in the shape of a ball at Government House; one of those mixed massed gatherings to which you are invited either on account of your rank, or your unblemished reputation, or the fact that you've had the forethought to inscribe your name in the visiting-book.
Leonie was standing with Jan Cuxson near an open door under a revolving fan which disturbed the outer masses of the hair she had piled haphazard upon the top of her small head, catching the great coils together with huge pins, and strengthening the entire structure by means of a finely wrought, diamond-hilted steel dagger, looted in the Mutiny by a not over-punctilious forbear.
"I wonder you don't cut your hair to bits," had once remarked before a multitude, an envious dame, whose curls reposed cosily in a box o' nights, and who had grave doubts as to the sincerity of Leonie's tawny locks.
"I run it through in its sheath," Leonie had replied, pulling the sheathed dagger out as she spoke, so that her hair had fallen in a jumbled scented mantle all over her, causing the men to put their hands in their pockets, or behind their backs, and the women to mechanically pat their heads; just as you fidget unconsciously with your veil, or the curls above your ear, when someone of your own sex, and far better turned-out, happens upon your horizon.
On this night her absurdly small feet made her head look almost top heavy, just as the uncorseted small waist emphasised the width of her shoulders, and the violet shadows enlarged the opalescent weird eyes looking wearily on the scene around her.
Why didn't she go back to England if she hated it all so much?
Because she couldn't! Because India held her and she waited upon Fate as patiently as ever did Mr. Micawber.
"Lady Hickle ought to go to the hills, she's looking absolutely fagged!"
The male voice drifted in through the window upon a pause in the music.
"Well! continuous sleep-walking's not likely to make you look your best, is it?"
The damnable giggle at the end of the remark brought a frown to Jan Cuxson's face as he picked up somebody's wrap from a chair, put it round Leonie and led her unresistingly down the steps into the grounds.
It sounds better to say "grounds" rather than "compound" when speaking of Government House.
"I—I hate all this," Leonie said impulsively as she sat down on a marble seat. "I hate India—I—I——"
She flung her head back, and it came to rest upon the man's shoulder, and she shivered ever so lightly when he pressed it still further back, pinioning her arms so that she could not move.
The sudden authority in the voice brought a light to the eyes on a level with his mouth; she moved unconsciously, and Cuxson suddenly letting her go caught both her hands in one of his, pulled her round sideways, and jerked them up to his chin, and she laughed softly as she fell slightly forward; and laughed even more softly when he crushed her back again against him with his hands upon her breast.
Both heedless in their love of the eyes watching, of the hidden form, and above all of that relentless will which causes some of us uncontrollably to do odd things at odd moments under the Indian stars.
If only he had not hesitated, if only he had turned the face to him then and there and closed the gold-flecked eyes with kisses.
But instead he held her crushed to the point of agony against him with his mouth upon the sweetness of her neck, leaving the gold-flecked eyes to open wider, and still wider as they stared straight into the shrubbery around, where the flaming poinsettia flowers looked black under the stars.
"Beloved! Leonie, listen——"
"Don't! please don't!"
She pulled herself free and knelt on one knee upon the bench, with both hands outstretched against him; and he, not grasping the psychological points of the moment, sat down dumbly beside her, instead of mastering her physically, or mentally on the spot as it behoved him to do.
Heavens! what fools some men can be with that jungle animal woman within their hands.
"Leonie, listen dear, I want you to marry me, dear—soon!"
The words fell upon Leonie's clamouring soul as dismally as the raindrops of your childhood fell upon the window-pane when you were waiting to start for a picnic.
"You don't know what you are saying!" she replied. "It is criminal even to think of such a thing—mad as I believe I am—mad as I shall be when I end in a padded room!"
Her voice was barely a whisper, but it cut like slate on slate, and her eyes stared straight ahead as she continued speaking rapidly, almost uncontrollably, and yet with a certain air of relief as though glad to give vent in words to the horror which pressed upon her brain.
"Although you pretend it is only sleep-walking," she went on, heedless of his efforts to interrupt her, "you know perfectly well there is something wrong with me. You know it, so did your father, so does Auntie, people here are whispering it. Yes! they are, they are," she reiterated, "and they are right. Something more than just being frightened by my ayah happened to me in India all those years ago, oh! you know it did, I'm under a spell or bewitched—sometimes I have a—a—" she struck her forehead with her open hand as she crouched back upon the bench like some animal at bay—"a—oh! my God—you see—I cannot even say what it is. Can't you tell me, Jan? Can't you help me? You—you say you love me—you say you have found a clue—for pity's sake follow it, follow it and save me—you—you——"
"Leonie, look at me!"
Something in his voice forced her to look at him, and her eyes shone like flat pieces of opalescent glass so contracted were the pupils, but they widened even as she looked into the steadfast grey eyes, and her mouth relaxed into the shadow of a smile.
Good heavens, why didn't he take her in his arms and smother her up against his heart, or put a bag over her head, or failing the bag, put his hand before her eyes?
What fools some men can be with the woman they love within their reach.
But instead he left her, hurt and humiliated and desolate, to sit half crouched by herself, whilst her eyes, against all striving, slowly veered round to the shrub.
He held her hand, it is true, whilst he talked, but what good is that to a frightened woman whose heart is crying for protection, and whose body is clamouring to be forced into submission?
"Dear," he said as Leonie stared at the poinsettia bush, "I am on the track at last, and in a very little time shall know exactly what happened to you all those years ago. There is only one link missing, and that I shall surely find, as I find everything when I set my mind to it. Then the whole thing will be cleared up, and this mysterious cloud lifted from you. Look at me, dear!" Leonie turned and looked at him blankly, and as he continued speaking, slowly, and as though against her will, turned her eyes back to the poinsettia bush. "I want you now in your distress. I want you in the storm as well as in the sunshine, dear; I love to see you smile, it would be heaven to make you smile. Marry me, beloved, now. Dear, won't you? Let me lift the cloud from my wife. Oh! Leonie, think of it—my wife!"
Leonie answered mechanically, as though she were repeating a lesson and had not heard one word of the man's pleading.
"What have you found out? And what is missing?"
"I have found the woman who was your ayah."
Leonie pulled her hands away, and pushing the hair off her forehead, sat quite still listening, but not hearing the music as it floated through the night air, watching without seeing the couples as they strolled about the grounds.
And then she answered, but without any real interest, although very distinctly, shivering slightly as the man put the wrap over her bare shoulders.
"Have you? And who is she, really? Of course I know her name—but—but what do you know about her? I have had no answer to my letters since I've been out here, is the poor thing still working?"
"She's—not exactly working for a living, dear, and she is—is——"
He stopped short with a world of perplexity in his eyes, then went on as slowly and mechanically as Leonie had done.
"Perhaps, dear, I—I had—better not say any more until—until I have everything quite clear."
And he drew his hand sharply across his eyes as Leonie sighed.
"Very well!" she replied gently. "Just as you think best."
"Tell me you love me, Leonie, let me be sure of that, let me just hear you say it once."
She put out both her hands, and he took them and kissed them.
"Dear, do you count me as so little? Don't you know, cannot you feel that a love like mine endures for ever?"
"Do you still want the little white house behind the white wall—Leonie, do you!"
"Well, marry me—marry me, beloved, and give me the right to protect you—from trouble, and these slanderous, murderous tongues."
Leonie's face was lovely to behold, swept by a wave of colour, and with eyes like stars; but she shook her head although a little smile parted the crimson mouth.
"No! Jan! Nothing will make me change. Not until we know and until I am cured. Do you think I would risk our love, and our happiness? I shall never, never marry you as long as I have this—this longing to—this desire to—to—oh! what is it. Find out what has happened to me, find out what I do when I walk in my sleep—just how mad I am, and if the madness can be cured, and if it can, then I will—will——"
It was no pretty sight to watch her striving to speak, her mouth opening and shutting without sound, her hands against her throat.
Then she looked at him suddenly, smiling sweetly, and put both hands in his, while he, sick with pain and unconfessed fear, changed the conversation abruptly by the grace of understanding.
"I think you ought to go away, Leonie—to the hills—for a change. It's getting frightfully hot, why don't you?"
"Yes!—I might—I think I will—I'm so tired of everything—so very—very tired!"
"Where to, dear?"
Leonie bent her head a little sideways as though listening, made a strange little movement with both her hands, then placed the open palms against her forehead and replied:
She had barely whispered the words, so quietly did she speak, as the poinsettia flowers bent slightly—to a passing breeze—may be!
"Dona praesentis cape laetus horae, ac Lingue severa."—Horace.
Leonie's first long-distance journey was just like other people's first long-distance journey in India.
And being of the type which revels in the new and unknown, she loved it.
The seething masses of dusky humanity enchanted her; she delighted in the glaring colouring, the clank of the holy man's chains, the incessant call of the water carrier and sweetmeat vendor, and the clang of iron on iron which announces the train's departure.
She absolutely thrilled on disrobing the first night in the little bathroom while her ayah spread her sheets and pillows and blankets upon the lower berth; and when her bodywoman disappeared through the door leading to the servants' compartment, she lay for a time watching the stars, and the glimmer of passing mosque, or temple, or tomb.
Then she laughed aloud in sheer content, wedged Jan Cuxson's box of chocolate biscuits safely into the side of the bunk, and turned to the side table to look for light literature in the shape of a magazine.
Having acquired the pernicious habit of eating biscuits and reading before going to sleep, she frowned upon the discovery that her ayah appeared to have left the books upon Howrah Station; and had stretched her arm to rap upon the wall to summon the woman, when her eye caught sight of a paper volume lying under the opposite bunk.
India is certainly a most dusty land, but a traveller can keep his railway compartment and boots spotless by distributing a few pice to the dusky, cheery youngsters, who, salaaming, solicit the favour of using boot polish, or floor brush, to the mutual benefit of self and the sahib. Leonie, therefore, felt no repugnance when, clutching the table with her left hand, she made a long arm and secured the book, which proved to be a guide to India's most famous beauty spots.
She turned the leaves casually and laughed.
"Why! I'd completely forgotten it," she said aloud, turning the book sideways to look at an illustration. "The wonderful tomb Guy Dean insisted upon my visiting if I ever went to Benares. How beautiful! Must be the tomb of some ancestor of that young prince he was talking about. Oh! how beautiful, and—oh! how helpful! I suppose some Englishman must have left the book in the train by mistake."
She had picked up a bit of paper which had fallen from the book; a rough time-table with directions in English as to the best means of getting to the world-famed monument.
"That decides it," she said sleepily as she switched off the light, pulled a miniature mosquito net, deftly arranged by the ayah, over her head, and the sheet up to her neck. "We get to the station to-morrow—sometime—disembark—put luggage into cloak-room—find elephant and—and dak bungalow—and—oh! almost full moon—how—how delicious—-ride out and see the—the——"
She slept, oblivious of the fact that she was carrying out implicitly the programme mapped out for her.
Travelling in India is real sport when the train doors are likely to swing open at no given spot, soft-footed natives to enter surreptitiously and disappear as quietly upon sight of your open eyes; and guards to clamour for your ticket, while a mob collects outside your door at the junction to look at the pretty unveiled mem-sahib awakened from her slumber by a dignified bearer with his offering of chotar hazri, which means the thrice blessed early tea-tray.
Her restless spirit was soothed by the rush of the train through the endless plain; strange scenes, strange sights wrenched her mind from the terrible question everlastingly throbbing in her brain; and her eye was not quick enough to distinguish one delicate oval face from another, or to notice that at each stopping place her ayah meandered down the length of the train to a compartment where, in consequence of his high caste and rank, a man sat utterly alone—unconcerned and totally oblivious of the screaming, chattering crowd upon the platform, of beggars, pilgrims, and bona fide native travellers.
True, for one moment at the station where she alighted for the world-famed tomb, she glanced back hurriedly at a native who placed himself between her and an unsightly epileptic; and she looked back once again as her intuition rapped out a message she did not grasp, and her ayah suddenly besought her help with the coolies.
A dilapidated tonga, drawn by a pony of the same description, took her and her servant to the dak bungalow, built on a concrete platform in a jungle clearing about two miles outside the village.
There she gave carte blanche for the arrangement of the evening trip to the guide who materialised serenely, all smiles and extreme deference. Bathed, and fed, she had her hair brushed for half an hour by her ayah; refused the offer of massage, which process she abhorred, and turned in and slept the afternoon away upon her own bedding spread on a charpoy.
Later she bathed again, attired herself in a simple low-cut, white silk dress, dined, and wrapping herself in a heavy white Bedouin cloak, wedding present from Jill Wetherbourne, who had got it from her godmother in Egypt, seated herself on the verandah to await the arrival of whatever means of locomotion the guide had chosen to take her to the tomb.
And down the jungle path loomed the shape of a great elephant, moving at a gentle shuffle but an almost incredible speed.
Without audible instructions it stopped in front of the verandah, threw back its trunk, twined it gently about the middle of the mahout or driver, lifted him from his seat behind its ears and placed him on the ground; then on a word, trumpeted shrilly in greeting to Leonie.
"Oh!" said she as she almost sprang from her chair in delight. "Oh!"
The mahout salaamed, standing in the moonlight at the animal's head.
He made a vivid eastern picture, dressed as he was from head to foot in white, with two pleated side-pieces to the turban, hanging in suchwise as to conceal half the face; and the guide, who had been squatting on the edge of the path, also salaamed, smiling in glee at the mem-sahib's delight.
"Behold, mem-sahib," he said, "is the elephant even Rama, the pearl of the prince's stables." His English was not quite as intelligible as these printed words, but Leonie made shift to understand.
"I have never seen such a beautiful elephant," she said, walking up to the great beast, followed by the guide, the ayah and the bungalow factotum.
The mem's statement was quite within the range of possibility seeing that her elephant lore had been gathered from the Zoo and other low-caste specimens with their straight backs, mean tails, and long stringy legs.
"Does the—the mahout speak English, because my Hindustani is not very good. I would like to have the—the beauty of the animal explained to me, and why it has its face and body painted; and why does he, the mahout, I mean, wear those side pieces to the turban, they are very unusual."
A moment's pause, during which the mahout stood like a rock, and then the guide, shuffling his feet, answered to the effect that the driver could not speak English, but that her humble servant would translate if the mem-sahib would deign to listen to his mean speech; that the man was the prince's best beloved—mahout, he added after a second's pause, and that the side pieces were part of the uniform worn by the prince's head-mahouts.
Not a bit of which information was true, mais que voulez vous?
So they all walked round Rama the beautiful, the guide translating the soft Hindustani into lamentable English.
Rama, it seemed, was a koomeriah, a royal or high-caste elephant, and still a youth, being but forty years of age, vide his ears. His height was ten feet at the shoulder, and would the mem-sahib note the perfect slope of the back down to the beautiful, long, feathery tail. Also the massive chest and head, with the prominent lump between the eyes so bright and kind, and full of knowledge. Notice also the deep barrel, and short, so very short, hind legs, the heaviness of the trunk, the plump cheeks which would indeed grace a comely elephant maiden; count the eighteen nails upon the lovely feet, and place her hand upon the soft skin which fell in folds about the tail.
Leonie did as she was bid and ran her hand also down the nearest magnificent tusk, with tip cut off and ringed about the middle with bands of gold inlaid with precious stones.
"Perfect ivory," continued the guide, "five feet in length with tip, curving upwards with the curve of the sickle moon, and sloping slightly from each other as though in anger."
Leonie smiled at the guide's verbal imagery, and put her hand upon a cream coloured mark near the base of the broad trunk.
"Why, I thought it was paint!" she said, speaking over her shoulder to the mahout, who, unperceived, held a fold of her white cloak in his hand. "This is paint, surely," she added, running a finger-tip down the vermilion and white lines which covered the great beast's face and sides.
It seemed that the yellowy-white blotches raised the animal's value above that of sacksful of rubies, and the painting of the face and sides served two purposes; one to render it easier for the animal to find favour in the eyes of the gods, the other to bring about the same result in the eyes of man; even as does woman when she accentuates the night blackness of her eyes with antimony; and the slenderness of her finger-tips with henna.
In state procession it seemed that Rama the perfect carried a gold and jewel encrusted howdah upon his beautiful sloping back; that what was left uncovered of his anatomy was hung with a net of silver, with tassels of pearls; that strings of seed pearls were entwined in the glorious meshes of hair in the beautiful tail; and that his nails were manicured, bracelets of golden bells hung about the ankles, and buckets of perfume poured into his bath.
"The mahout has placed the humble cushioned seat this night upon the back, mem-sahib, so that nothing shall be between the mem-sahib and the light of the moon."
Leonie gave orders that a succulent cake full of currants and flavour should be brought forthwith from her hamper, and having pushed it as far back into the mouth as possible, where it was demolished to the accompaniment of the most disgusting masticatory noises, laughed aloud when the elephant stood on its short hind legs to show its appreciation, and said thank you by means of a soft purring sound in the throat.
The process of getting to the knees reminded Leonie somewhat of a sailing vessel she had seen rolling in a rough sea, but she settled herself comfortably in the cushioned seat and waited with glee for the mahout to get into position upon the animal's neck and order it to rise.
"What is he waiting for?" she asked, as he made no movement.
"He wishes to know where the ayah is to sit," answered the guide.
"Ayah!" said Leonie, and laughed gently. "But I am going alone!"
The mahout said something swiftly.
"The way is many miles through the jungle, mem-sahib; there is no dak bungalow, no people, the mem-Sahibs and also the sahibs go always accompanied."
"I am going alone," said Leonie quietly. "Tell the mahout to get up."
Upon a word of command the elephant got to its feet, and raised one knee; the mahout placed one foot upon it and swung himself up to his seat upon the short neck, said something to the elephant, who moved off up the jungle path, while the servants salaamed deeply to Leonie, and again even more deeply in the direction of the elephant's head.
"Some little talk awhile of me and thee There seem'd—and then no more of thee and me."—Omar Khayyam.
The elephant trumpeted before the gate.
The two halves of the door opened from within, clanged against the sides, and the durwans in scarlet and silver bent almost double as they salaamed before the white woman who passed under the red-stone, centuries-old gate upon the back of Rama the Great and Perfect.
The elephant knelt and Leonie stepped on to the marble pavement, placing her hand for one instant upon the mahout's arm to steady herself.
She looked up and down the double line of cypress trees and gave a little cry, which was almost one of pain, at the sight of the glory before her; and pressing her hands above her thudding heart, longed with all her soul for the man she loved and had denied.
For a moment she stood absolutely still, the heavy cloak swinging gently in the slight breeze, then walked down the steps, and like some ghost passed noiselessly beside the lily strewn water tanks towards the marble, wondrous Tomb. Madhu Krishnaghar, waiting until she was well out of earshot, spoke to the elephant, bringing it to its feet, and gave a sharp order to the keepers of the door, which caused them to speed from the scene as fast as their feet would carry them towards the village where they had been commanded to stay until sunrise, leaving the girl, a prey probably to that inexplicably sensuous feeling which the desolation, and beauty, and pity of this place arouses in some, alone with the man who loved her as men love in the East.
He followed her slowly beside the water tanks, and absorbed in his love and the joy of being alone with her, failed to catch the sharp call of apprehension when Rama, as faithful as a dog, and far more intelligent than many humans, rapped the ground smartly with the end of his trunk.
Having been told by his beloved master to stand where he was until his return, and being obedient even unto death, he did not move; but he eyed the form which had slipped in through the gates with dislike, and shuffled his feet in distrust as the man disappeared behind the cypress trees.
It was only a foolish curiosity-bitten shudra; a wretched member of the lowest and most servile class, who, passing on his way to his miserable hovel, had noticed the gate open at the untoward hour of midnight, and the absence of the ferocious durwans.
His low caste, which is the least of all, had prevented him, up to this day, from entering what he thought must surely be paradise; and now he took the risk and slipped in, not only stricken with curiosity, but obsessed with a desire to tell a wonderful tale to his patient wife and four sons, who, because they were his sons, were doomed to remain of the lowest servile caste; as would be their sons far, oh! far beyond the third and fourth generation.
How was he to know that a woman with unveiled face was visiting the tomb at midnight, or that she was beloved by his master whose word was life, or death, to those who served him.
Leonie passed through the silver gates into the tomb, and stood beside the marble, flower-strewn sarcophagi, which lie side by side, and over which, day and night, hangs a lighted lamp.
She did not move when a whispered golden sound fell gently through the shadows. Like a cobweb thread, so fine it was; like a thread of gold, so sweet it was; rising and falling, to rise again in one throbbing cry of love, pleading, insisting, despairing.
The echoes caught and held it in the dim corners of the marble cupola, and answered cry with cry until the place seemed full of the sobbing of lost souls. Back and forth, at the girl's feet and around her head, surging over the dead lovers, beating against the walls and roof, to die away, sobbing, sobbing like a weary child.
Leonie, transfixed with ecstasy, stretched out her hands to catch the dying notes; and for that infinitesimal fraction of a second, when the golden sound crossed the boundary of human sense, felt as though she stood upon the edge of eternity.
She turned to see the driver of elephants standing like a bronze statue outside the doorway; but speak she could not in that dim place fragrant with the loves of the past, neither could she support the divine pain alone, and picking up a rose and a sprig of bay from the marble, tucked them into the V of her bodice and walked out.
But she did speak, to remonstrate, in the sweetest, most imperfect Hindustani in the world, when the man followed her at a quite respectful distance.
"It is not safe for the mem-sahib to go alone," he answered. "A wild animal, a man, a snake, might be in hiding. The mem-sahib should have been accompanied by her guide."
Thus spoke Madhu Krishnaghar, who had not one evil thought about, nor intent towards her, and who, having pushed the mandates of his religion into the background for this one night, was living in the intoxication of the actual moment.
Leonie walked round the outside of the marble dream bathed in moonlight, occasionally stopping to ask a question of the man who followed.
"Is it the tomb of an ancestor of the present prince?" she inquired haltingly.
"No! mem-sahib! look at the lettering in black marble inset in the white; right round the tomb run those verses from the Koran. A Mohammedan emperor built it—I am a Hindu," the pause was scarcely noticeable as he added quietly, "as is everyone upon the prince's estates."
She stopped in front of one of the four towers which stand at each corner of the marble terrace, and looked upwards.
"I am going up," she said.
"Nay! mem-sahib. These towers are climbed only with a guide and a lamp. They are not clean, they are not safe. A snake, a pariah dog, a man might be on the stairs which wind round and round, and are as black as a night of storm."
Leonie had climbed the few outer steps and was standing inside the door. Not once had the untowardness of the whole proceeding struck her, nor had she given a thought to the fact that the man with her was a low-caste elephant driver, not fit to touch her shoe-string.
She made no reply, and disappeared into the darkness. You can see fairly well up to one half of the tower, then pitch blackness surrounds you, and you begin to feel cautiously with hands and feet for that reason; also because just about here your head begins to whirl owing to the stifling atmosphere, and the architect's corkscrew design.
She had no idea that the man, alarmed for her safety, was following her, and she stopped and gasped near the top, wondering how much farther she had to go, and almost wishing that she had not started; and so black was it that she did not even see the white turban which was on a level with the step upon which she stood.
Then there was a glimmer of light and more. Presently it grew quite light and she staggered up the last few steps, and reeled on to the small round cupola of the tower unprotected by rails.
Well for her was it that Madhu, divining the danger, raced up the last steps in one bound, reached her as she stood swaying on the edge, and drew her quickly, roughly back into his arms, where, forgetting his role of servant, his religion, caste and colour, he held her safe and crushed against his heart.
She, with her eyes shut and her head spinning, remained there without understanding one word of what the man was saying.
"And having held thee in my arms, how am I to let thee go," he whispered, with his mouth near the scented masses of her hair. "Nay, I cannot, thou white, wonderful flower in a land of drought. Behind the purdah will I place thee, hidden from all eyes but mine. Thy body-woman shall not touch thee, for I will be thy servant, and my hands will draw the lace from about thy bosom, and my hands will perfume thee, and my love shall encompass thee until thou swoon upon the ground even at my feet. Waiting for thee I have known no woman, and I will have no wife but thee, and many sons shalt thou bear me. Yea! each year shall see thee bowed beneath the fruit of love, for I will not spare thee. And thou shalt be honoured before all men; a high estate shall be thine, and a flood of jewels and gold and grain shall flow at thy small feet which I shall kiss. And thou shalt veil thy face, for I would kill him, torture him who looked upon thee."
Leonie opened her eyes and stared at the shimmering whiteness of the tomb, and she smiled and did not move, for the witchery of the full moon had fallen upon her.
"Red!" she whispered, pointing to the dull glow of dead bodies burning somewhere near, and laughing till her teeth flashed between her scarlet lips.
The man searched with one hand and found a small flat jewelled case in the folds of his turban, and opening it, with the long, deft fingers took out two pellets.
He watched her as she lay upon his arm, and suddenly forced the pellets between her teeth, and himself laughed, as she grimaced at the bitter taste but swallowed them.
He had not the slightest intention of doing her any harm, but with the whole of his vividly mature brain and virgin body, he delighted in the effect of the drug upon the woman he loved.
There was no doubt about it that she suddenly awoke to the passion of the man looking down upon her, and responded to it.
Wave after wave swept her from head to foot, causing her body, untrammelled by whalebone, to tremble against his, and he loosened the white cloak and let it fall, holding her pressed to him in her thin silk dress, laughing down at her, delighting in her eyes, her mouth, her throat.
Handsome men are an everyday sight in India, but this man was as the gods, and Leonie, beautiful, drugged Leonie, looked at him from the corner of her eyes as looks the wanton, and laughed.
"I will not kiss thee," he whispered, watching the colour sweep her face at his words, and smiling at the thudding of the heart beneath his hand. "Nay, I will not bruise thee nor cause thee blemish until the purdah hangs between us and the world. Look not at me thus-wise, and lift not the glory of thy lips, for I will not seize thee as a beggar seizes upon the pice. I am thy king and thy slave, and I will carry thee to the gate. Nay, move not thy body for fear I throw thee upon the ground and set my seal upon thee. Lie still! and yet—why not, why not! perchance has the hour struck."
The man was crazed with love, and the girl intoxicated with the drug, and they were perched up there above the world alone, in the stillness of the Indian night.
He hastily wrapped her in the cloak, and taking her into his arms, hid her face against his shoulder, and stood for a moment staring out towards the spot from whence had come the ill-omened jackal cry.
"Not yet," he whispered. "Not yet!"
Sure-footed as a goat he carried her down the winding stairs out into the moonlight, and across the terrace, and up the marble steps, and placed her upon the wide marble seat, and sat sideways upon it behind her, unwitting of the miserable wretch who watched from between the cypress trees.
Leonie sat quite still until the mystery of the place, or whatever it is, entered into the innermost recesses of her being; and she held out her arms to the light burning day and night above the dead lovers, and sobbed.
Madhu Krishnaghar laid his hand upon hers on the cold marble of the seat, and lost himself in ecstasy at the tears which welled into the strange gold-green eyes and fell, then opening the collar of the white linen coat, he lifted a necklace of priceless pearls over his turban and passed it over the girl's head, holding it lightly until one end had slid down into the scented laces of her bosom where lay a cat's-eye on a golden chain.
"Thou white doe," he said, "thou virgin snow," and added fiercely, "give me the rose from above thy heart, that I may press it to my couch."
Obediently Leonie gave it, faded and warm, and looked at him with a strange little gleam of anger in her eyes; and he, understanding that the effect of the drug was passing, and that wrath maybe would follow love, led her by the hand down through the double row of cypress trees towards the gate.
Alas! a twig cracked under the wretched shudra's foot, snapping with the report of a pistol in the stillness of the night; and the man, feeling the hands of his gods upon him, fled like a hunted hare towards the gate.
Madhu Krishnaghar, with his face one blaze of fury, stood still and called.
"Rama," he called. "Rama, hold," and as the wretched creature, forgetting the animal in his fear, sped past him, Rama curled his trunk swiftly about him and jerked him to a standstill.
Useless to strive against that strength; useless to fight against the gods or raise his voice in shrieking prayer.
For had he not looked upon the unveiled face of his master's woman.
Slowly Madhu Krishnaghar led Leonie up the marble steps and stopped.
"Thou dog," he said gently, "thou low-caste dog!"
Then he drew Leonie into his arms and covered her completely with the heavy coat.
But the man, submitting to fate with the terrible resignation of the East, let fly one last poisoned arrow.
"The dog goes to his death," he cried. "But behold, the shame of the lord is great, for have not the eyes of the low-caste dog rested upon the woman's face."
"Usko marro! Kill quickly!" thundered the son of princes, and turned indifferently away.
But even as the elephant threw the man upon the ground, and placing his foot upon his head, tore him in twain, Leonie wrenched herself free, and flinging up her arms to the moon, laughed and laughed until the night echoed and re-echoed with the horrible sound, stopping only when the smothering folds of the cloak were thrown about her.
"And thou shalt grope at noonday."—The Bible.
Jan Cuxson, hurt to the quick at Leonie's refusal to marry him, also at her rejection of his offer to accompany her upon her travels, shut his hurt away, and set his mind to the completion of his task.
His suspicions had been aroused by the finding of that orange and silver scrap of sari near the temple, when the ayah had presumably been left miles behind on the launch; and fully realising the futility of employing the methods of the West against the subtlety of the East he decided to pit native craft against native cunning.
The only result of the investigation, however, was that Leonie's present ayah had been traced back via the Ranee's house to the days when she had been in the service of the Colonel-Sahib Hetth, V.C., but beyond that was a blank wall.
She had suddenly left the Ranee's service to become body-woman to Leonie; without a single reference to the time when she had been nurse to Leonie as a baby.
Who was keeping her silent, and why? And what was she doing, and who was she with in the deserted temple in the jungle?
Whose tool was she?
Certainly not the Ranee's. She was wrapped up in her duties toward the fast ageing Rajah, and her only son, who seemed much the same as other sons of princes.
Having finally decided that the answer to the problem lay in the temple, to the temple he decided to go, more with the intention of having a look round than with any definite plan.
The decision was made with the fixed though unspoken determination that if the solving of the problem should involve a sojourn of ten years in India, for ten years he would remain.
He hired a guide and a coolie, both of whom looked exactly like any other guide and coolie, and having much to think out, and sure thinking being anything but a rapid process with him, also because he did not wish to draw too much attention to his movements, he chose as a means of conveyance the ugly flat-bottomed public paddle-boat which floats unconcernedly down the Hoogli from Calcutta, through the bigger creeks of the Sunderbunds, and up the Pusaka River to Kulna.
If you want a few days' rest, or time in which to unravel a knot, pray take that means of locomotion; you can be dropped anywhere into a nukur or native boat which will deposit you for a few annas on any island you choose, but don't do it if you are in a hurry, or are filled with a desire to see the lesser creeks, and the quite small ones, where tigers are supposed to sit in rows upon the water's edge, monkeys to swing across the water by means of the creepers interlacing the dark and dismal trees, and crocodiles to lie in tumbled masses waiting to be turned into portmanteau, dressing-case, or shoes.
Cuxson's method and brain were rather like his gait; as he had said in Rockham cove, he was slow! He could not and never had, even at Harrow, been able to run a hundred yards without becoming most uncomfortably blown; but he could walk anyone to death at a set plodding steady tramp, accomplishing twenty miles without turning a hair; while after a series of terrific spurts, and enforced periods of rest, his companions would give up dishevelled, sweating, and unpleasantly mortified miles away from the desired goal.
Problems, mathematical or medical, were treated in just the same way. The more brilliant of his fellow-students would seize upon a pen, fill reams of paper and slap the result down triumphantly at the end of an hour, to find themselves later, and again with mortification at the bottom of the list, or not on it at all; whereas Cuxson, after hours of searching here and there in the convolutions of his grey matter, would light on a thread, a grain or a speck of dust which he would proceed to turn inside out, or tear to pieces; the outcome of which process would be printed at length in the Lancet or some such-enlivening journal.
So he lay on the long chair in the corner reserved for sahibs, and was not too uncomfortable, nor in any way uneasy as to the result of his investigations, although all that he had to build his hopes upon was the word of a native, and a piece of orange silk picked out in silver with the dust of a sundri breather adhering, which lay in his pocketbook with a ring of seaweed, and some glistening strands of tawny hair.
The serang, meanwhile, parleyed with certain gatherers of golaputtah which is a special palm leaf growing in the Sunderbunds for the express purpose of thatching boats and suapatti huts; and having discussed the ins and outs, and pros and cons of the situation with every male upon the boat, had transferred the sahib with his guide and coolie to a native boat, after a gratifying give and take in silver rupees which are so much nicer to handle than dirty notes.
And an old priest made sacrifice of a black kid unto his god, having been apprised in the mysterious native way of the approaching arrival of the last person on earth he wished to see.
"What hath night to do with sleep?"—Milton.
"What a nuisance!"
Leonie turned on her bed and frowned through the chick at the two girls who had ensconced themselves in long chairs on the verandah outside her bedroom.
Broad-minded and big-hearted, she had tried to overcome the intense irritation which the Eurasian manner of speech invariably aroused in her. Some get accustomed in time to the parrot-like monotony; some don't; and to the end of his days the young, immaculately groomed and turned-out assistant in Hamilton's will wonder why the beautiful girl with gold-flecked eyes had suddenly frowned, and placing the trifle intended for a wedding present upon the glass counter, had left the shop with an appallingly inadequate excuse.
Fortunately for him the pukka European has not been endowed with the gift of hearing himself speak as others hear him.
Like the broken flight of maimed birds over a lawn in the process of being mown is the Eurasian speech and intonation; with the inevitable dip in the middle, the rise at the end of each sentence, and the ceaseless clipping of syllables.
And Leonie frowned as she lay under the mosquito netting awaiting the warning of the dressing bell, and even felt thankful to a crow which suddenly perched itself on the top twig of a fir tree, and shrieked its condemnation of the sunset, the star just above its head, and the chatterers in the chairs.
In an effort to break through the overpowering lethargy which lately had fallen upon her at odd moments of the day, she lifted herself on to her elbow, only to sink listlessly back on the very hard bed. After all, why worry over problems to which there seemed no answer? Why fret over the silence of the man she loved when she had curtly refused his offer of companionship; for there always comes a time when mere man, subjected to the unsatisfactory daily menu of snubs and refusals, tense moods, and moody silences, will refuse it, and clear for a diet, which, although somewhat lacking in salt and spice, will have the advantage of being substantial, therefore satisfying.
Also there was no doubt about it the social ostracism of Calcutta had followed her to Benares; she had not failed to notice that the people packing the hotel looked at her furtively, smiling spasmodically when caught in the act, and seemed ill at ease when left alone with her.
Another thing which annoyed her intensely was the habit she had developed of peering into the shadows of the compound at odd moments, and listening for a sound she could not even describe to herself, and which she never heard; while through the blazing hours of the day, and the stifling hours of the night, like a black thread woven into a tissue of gold, ran the ghastly fear which had been with her since the day when a schoolgirl had taunted her, and to which she had given voice near the poinsettia bush to Jan Cuxson.
She had done Benares en tourist.
She had watched the worshippers thronging the Praying Steps at dawn from the deck of a boat rowed slowly up and down the holy river; had enticed the monkeys with gram from the niches in the Doorga Kond, the world-famed Monkey Temple; gazed fascinated and with reverence at the firing of the pyres about the dead bodies shrouded in white or red according to their sex upon the Burning Ghats; averted her eyes steadfastly from the bloated bodies in process of being torn to pieces by crows or vultures as they floated on the soft bosom of Mother Ganges to everlasting peace; and had passed restful hours in the wonderful ruins of the Buddhist temple some miles outside the city.
She had done all that others have done and will do, and still she waited, doing absolutely nothing and with no excuse for loitering in the hotel with its long broad verandah; learning much of the city's history from the charming manager who walks with a stick, and has the blue-green-brown shadow of the peat bog in his eyes.
"Shoo, you brute!" said one, of the girls on the verandah, and continued speaking when the crow had flown farther afield. "Well, the manager says we are not to go to the bazaar to-night on any account!"
"Why ever not?"
"Says there's a row or something brewing—something to do with the natives and their religion!"
The girl with the reddish-brown hair put a final polish to the nails, which damned her everlastingly, as she spoke condescendingly of one half of her forbears; while the other, a bona fide blonde as to hair, half opened the long sleepy brown eyes, which, combined with the shape of her silken-hosed leg from ankle to knee branded her even before she uttered a word.
"Don't believe it," the latter replied. "It's a do on the part of the guide to get more backsheesh; you simply can't trust these natives a yard. I'll tell you what, though," she sat up with an energy surprising in one of her kind, "let's ask Lady Hickle. She's such a pet, and there's nothing she doesn't know about the place, she's been here a whole month."
Followed a short spell of peace in which Leonie raised her hand to summon her ayah squatting on the dressing-room matting, and put an end to the incessant chattering.
But bolts do not wait upon the clapping of hands before they crash down upon your defenceless head from out the blue, and the one destined for her from all time hurled itself at her from out a wispy cloud of Eurasian gossip.
"Oh! but we can't do that!" announced the peevish high-pitched voice.
"Ma says we're not to be with her alone. There's all sorts of weird tales going round about her. Thought you knew. They say she killed her first husband, and tried to stab someone in Calcutta with that dagger she wears in her hair; that she lives on the q.t. with a native—he gave her that gorgeous necklace of pink pearls; has been seen with him in the compound after dark—Ma watched—and she's positively dotty at the full moon. Fact! Mrs. Oswald told Ma that there's no doubt that she's quite mad at times."
The blonde slid her slightly bowed, silken-hosed limbs to the ground, her face the colour of greenish putty through the superstitions of one half of her forbears.
"Let's go and find your ma!" said she. "It's full moon to-night."
And after their departure Leonie sat very still on the edge of the bed, with one foot tucked under her, and the other bare and very perfect stretched down to the matting; the netting fell in folds behind her, and her eyes stared into the corner where a one time nameless, unshaped spook, having taken form and name at last, stood mouthing at her from the shadows.
She started violently and looked down when her body-woman touched the arched instep with her wrinkled, dusky hand.
Keenly intuitive, as are all the peoples of India, she had crept noiselessly across the matting and crouched at Leonie's feet in her desire to be near the beloved child in her distress.
There was a heaven of love and a world of indecision in the monkey eyes, but not a trace of fear when the beloved child suddenly twisted the sari from about the sleek head and pock-marked face and shook her violently by the shoulder. Instead she rocked herself gently to and fro, crooning in the toneless cracked voice of the native woman who tends a white child and loves it.
"Missy—baba, it's ayah!" went the tuneless song, "it's ayah—it's ayah—be not afraid, baba—baba—it's ayah—ayah—ayah."
Over and over again she repeated the words with her eyes on the terror-stricken face above her.
"Why!" said Leonie, frowning till her straight brows met as she pressed the palms against her temples, "why, you used to sing that in—in—you used to call me—in the name of all the gods, woman, tell me—help me, oh! help me to understand!"
Great tears stood in the native woman's eyes, and she opened her mouth to speak, then turned her head slightly and looked towards the chick which had rustled; scowled, and bowing her head ever so little placed the palm of her hand against her forehead for an instant.
"Won't you or can't you speak?" said Leonie almost roughly, her voice ending on a sharp note which changed to a little bubbling uncanny laugh as she sat back on the bed holding her ayah at arm's length.
She took no notice of the dressing-bell when it clanged throughout the building, nor of the swish of the water as it was heaved into the tin bath in the bathroom, but sat on with the plaits of her hair coiled like snakes on each side of her, and the whiteness of her bare arms and shoulders shining in the light from the bathroom.
"Ayah! ayah!" she said in a dull sing-song sort of way, "do you know what they say? Do you know what they think? They think, they say I'm mad! And do you know I think I am. Sometimes there's the sound of drums in my brain, great big drums beaten by giants, and sometimes the sound of bells. And the sound of the bells is hot, it burns great scars on—on—and there are hours for which I can't account, and cuts and bruises on my feet and—and——"
Very quietly the native woman rose, and passing one arm behind the bare shoulder drew a hand across the low broad forehead, singing in her own tongue so softly as to be almost inaudible.
"I dream of blood, ayah," went on Leonie, "so often—so often—it is warm to the fingers and drops so—so slowly—and——"
The ayah pressed her fingers a little as she drew them behind the ears to the nape of the neck, and raised her voice ever so slightly in the Vega chant she had learnt as a lullaby.
"The women," she crooned, "that are lying on a bench, lying on a couch, lying in a litter; the women that—are—of—pure odour—all—of them we—make—sleep!"
The cracked voice sank suddenly as her child's face softened and relaxed, but the dark hand passed to and fro ceaselessly above the eyes and down behind the ears.
"It walks so softly, ayah—it's—it's in that—corner now—look! can't you see—its—its eyes—and the small—light—and she is—she is calling—calling—just as she—has—has—always——"
The tawny head fell backwards on to the white sari picked out in coloured silk, pulling it away from the head, and the marriage dower of thirteen silver earrings in the left ear, and the turquoise studded nose ring which shone dully in the dim light.
"And it's dark—it's—quite——"
Leonie slept, and her neighbours in the dining-room went through certain anatomical gymnastics such as lifting the eyebrows, shrugging the shoulders, and pursing the lips, all of which are supposed to denote suspicion; while the native woman kept guard behind the reed blind through which she watched a figure clothed in spotless white flitting among the shadows of the trees.
When those shadows marked the hour of midnight she sprang quickly to her feet.
With one violent uncontrollable movement, Leonie had risen to her knees with the tips of the fingers of one hand against her lips and her eyes slanting sideways towards the window near her bed.
"Hush!" she whispered. "Listen!"
Very softly, very sweetly there fell upon the night air the single stroke of a temple bell.
Once it fell, and twice, and yet again. And as it stopped the night was filled with the dull faint throbbing of many drums.
Calling! calling! calling!
Hidden in the shadows close to the reed blind, Madhu Krishnaghar watched the girl with intent half-shut eyes as, outlined against the dim light from the dressing-room, she twisted the heavy plaits of hair about her head, pinning them with the diamond hilted dagger; then stripping her flimsy garment from her, lifted the sheet from the bed, and twisted it deftly about her waist; watched her as she mechanically took a white sari embroidered in silver from the ayah, and without hesitation folded it in true native fashion about her body and small head.
The light of his religion flared into a flame of love and passion almost uncontrolled when Leonie, lifting the chick, stood by his side in the full light of the moon, with a smile of welcome on her lips, and the light of unholy knowledge in her eyes.
Quite close to him she stood with one hand upon his arm, as he hung garlands of scented flowers about her neck, and then with a little beckoning gesture was gone; and the ayah crouching on the floor, beat her withered breast with her withered hand, a world of doubt in her monkey eyes.
Like two white moths they flitted through the gloom and the hanging ropes of the banyan trees, down the narrow native path, and on through strangely empty streets and deserted bazaar to the Praying Ghats.
The air beat about them with the incessant throbbing of many drums, calling to prayer—calling to sacrifice.
Calling! calling! calling!
"Let us pass our lives at Benares, living by the banks of the divine river, clad only in a single garment, and with our hands uplifted over our heads."—The Vairagya Sataka.
The Praying Ghats or Steps lay desolate in the light of the full moon.
Hundreds of small lights twinkled and flickered before the countless temples; hundreds of fading flower garlands, hung about the temple doors or festooned about the gods—some of which are quite indescribable—perfumed the night air; and to the right and to the left the smouldering bodies on the Burning Ghats cast a crimson glow on the slow, silvery waters of India's most holy river.
Of worshippers there was not one.
Of the countless priests who crowd the steps at dawn there was but one.
The mad priest.
Naked save for a loin cloth, he stood as he always stands from dawn to dawn with feet wide apart and hands upraised to the heavens, outlined against some one of the Rajah's palaces which crown the top and stretch the length of the terraces like a mighty rampart between the holiness of the place, and the fret and traffic of the outer world.
The holy man's arms, his legs, his emaciated body are covered with a fine ash powder, his long hair is matted with cinders and cow-dung, his mad eyes stare across the river into the infinite, at that which we cannot see, as he stands shouting unintelligible, maybe mad words, maybe not, to the glory of his goddess, Kali the Terrible.
Was he born mad? no one knows! What does he eat or drink? A handful of rice, a sip of water from his glittering bronze vessel! When does he sleep? No one can tell you.
Who knows! who cares!
He is a holy man! the mad priest of the Holy City!
He alone had taken no heed of the incessant resistless throbbing of the drums behind him in the city; neither did he take notice of the two white figures as they ran lightly, swiftly, hand-in-hand down the sunken, crooked, granite steps to a place between the praying rafts at the water's edge.
For a moment Leonie hesitated with the water lapping her feet on the third step, then she turned her head slowly, and looked straight into the man's eyes which had been fixed intently on the nape of her neck.
She gave a little sigh, drew out the dagger and let fall the plaited glory of her hair, and lifting the garlands from about her neck threw them out on to the waters; then with a native woman's movement pulled the sari backwards from her head, and unwound it from her shoulders which gleamed like ivory in the moonlight. Slowly, but without hesitation, even as the man dropped his shawl and long white garment upon the waters, she untwined the sari from about her body, dropped it across a suttee stone, and the dagger upon the step behind, and stood swaying gently with naught but the sheeting about her waist and limbs.
The man, naked save for a loin cloth, stood like some splendid bronze statue two steps lower; straight as a pine was Madhu, the descendant of princes, with a width of shoulder most unusual in the native of India, and which served to emphasise the slimness of the waist. Muscle rippled under the bronze skin of back, and chest, and limbs; and between the breasts gleamed the painted symbol of his religion, just as it shone between the brows.
The lean face with its hawk nose, and curved mouth set close in a straight line, had the look of an eagle as he stood gazing up at the girl with burning eyes, in which fanaticism, heightened by the lapping movement of the holy water about his knees, warred with an overwhelming passion roused by the slenderness of the white girl's waist, the virginity of her beautiful breast, and the satin whiteness of her skin.
And she placed her hand in his and followed him submissively down the steps.
The waters bathed her ankles, her knees, her waist, as she made a cup of her two hands and drank of the holy water; the jackals yelled from the far shore, and the unseemly body of a dead youth floated past face downwards a few yards away.
For some long minutes she stood with her face uplifted, then dipping her hands again into the water raised them and poured it upon her head until she glittered as though beset with diamonds. Strange little movements she made to right and left with both hands, circles she drew on the face of the waters, and the man within an inch of her beautiful body stood with arms folded hiding his hard clenched hands.
Raising both arms straight above her head she called aloud in answer to the spirit which moved her:
"Flowing on, devoted to it," she cried in the soft words of India's holy writ, "by day and by night flowing on; I, of desirable activity, call upon the heavenly waters!"
From the temple above the mad priest took up her words as he scourged himself in the ecstasy of his worship, and shouted:
"Kali! Kali! Kali!"
Which eerie solitary cry brought the pigeons out of their nests in thousands, to wheel and whirl madly in their fright before resettling in the facade of the palaces, of the niches and nooks of the temples, and the slender minarets of the Mosque of Aurangzeb.
Bending backwards Leonie laughed up at the priest above, whose body was running blood, then descending the last three steps worn by the feet of thousands of pilgrims, and tilted by time and the resistless waters, flung out her arms and sank beneath the surface while the great plaits of hair floated towards the man and crept about his waist like loving, living arms.
Three times she sank, and three times she rose, singing gently to herself, while great tremors shook the man from his turbaned head to his slender feet.
Love or religion? Who knows!
Are they divided by much more than the breadth of a hair?
Leonie turned and walked up the steps, the wet heavy sheeting hobbling her about the knees and ankles, clinging to her as the skin to the peach, her dripping hair making little pools of holy water upon the holy steps; until, standing upon the one where lay the little crumpled heap of her silken sari, she unplaited it and shook it out in the night breeze.
She picked up the sari and the dagger, and ran a finger along the razor edge, looking sideways at the man who moved not an inch when she drove the point of the blade beneath the skin above his heart until the blood ran; neither did she move when he dipped his finger in his own blood and marked her between the brows with the sign of Kali.
The mad priest, frothing at the mouth, swooned upon the slanting temple roof, the drums were silent, the jackals had ceased their indecent noise, being intent doubtless upon the task of tearing some body to pieces before the arrival of the hosts of enemy pariah dogs; and Leonie, beautiful, bewitched Leonie, holding the white sari picked out in silver against her breast, held out her hand, and with the sweetest, maddest laugh in all the world sped like a deer up the great nights of steps.
And at the top when the man, moving swift and as surefooted as a buck, closed in upon her, her heavy drapery folded itself soddenly about her ankles so that when she essayed to save herself she twisted round and fell backwards.
Her mouth quivered in a smile, and her eyes, like stars, flashed back into the flaming ones so near her own as the man, lost to all but his consuming love for the girl, bent above her, and with slender hands crushed her back against the edge of the steps until the skin of her shoulders was torn and bruised.
"As the creeper!" he said, whispering the words of the Vega hymn with his eyes staring straight into her eyes. "As the creeper has completely embraced the tree so do thou embrace me, that thou mayest be one loving me, that thou mayest be one not going away from me!"
He smiled softly as she half raised her arms and whispered to her, the words sounding like a summer breeze blowing upon the hill-top.
"As the eagle, flying forth, beats down his wings upon the earth, so do I beat down thy mind, that thou mayest be one loving me, that thou mayest be one not going away from me!"
And his delicate finger-tips pressed about her temples as he whispered to her.
"As the sun goeth at one about the heaven—and—earth here, so do I go about thy mind, that thou mayest be one loving me, that thou mayest be one not going away from me!"
Slowly he bent still closer, and gently put one hand upon the gracious curve of her slender throat; and Leonie, wanton, seductive, bewitched Leonie smiled as she too whispered in the tongue of India's holy writ.
"Let yon man love me; being dear to me let him love me; ye gods send forth love, let yon man burn for me.
"That yon man may love me, not I him at any time, ye gods send forth love, let yon man burn for me!"
The silence which followed was pierced by the call of the holy conch shell, so low, so sweet, to prayer, to sacrifice.
Those who have not heard that call can never understand, those who have heard will forgive this feeble description of the intoxicating, soul-shattering, maddening sound.
Soft and sweet it will steal insidiously into your ear, your brain, and the whirlpool of your senses until you stand rooted in ecstasy in a flooded field of sweet desire. Rising swiftly and shrilly it will tear like racing waters at the ramparts we and our forefathers, have assiduously and mistakenly built around our inner selves; built until you and I and our neighbour have been metamorphosed through the ages from that mighty thing which went forth and took exactly what it wanted, to the almost shapeless slug form which, in the peace times of the present enervated century, contentedly eats lettuce in the damp seclusion of an overturned flowerpot.
Yes! that call will pull those ramparts to pieces about your feet; and at the last indescribable, insistent scream of triumph which sears your brain and soul, it would be wise to be on the look out, and to keep a strong hand upon the vows you may have vowed, and upon those of the commandments you may not already have broken; because at that strange seductive sound the solid chunks of love, honour, chastity and right thinking; everything, in fact, that is in any way decent and above board is likely to break into a thousand infinitesimal, unconsidered atoms, and be blown broadcast by the wind of indiscretion.
Leonie lay still, unconscious of the sound and the subtle change creeping over the man who bent down to her, and who, high caste, over-educated, overstrung, aflame with love and afire with the sensuality of his religion, slowly tightened his hand upon the gracious curves of the slender throat.
Years ago Kali, his dire deity, had been outraged by denial in her desire for sacrifice, and since then, in her wrath, the black goddess had scourged the land with plague, pestilence, famine, and earthquake.
Truly sacrifice of goats and buffaloes had been made until the altars and the courts of her temples ran blood; offerings had been made to her priests of grain and jewels, yet had she continued to whip the land until thousands died of hunger and disease.
Why should not his hand bring the long-desired and long-sought peace to his well-loved land, and what more fitting place and time for sacrifice than the steps of the Holy River, under the light of the full moon which is Kali's lamp?
Ah! and why should he not have his earthly reward in love, one short, full hour of the delight he had denied himself, and then, even upon the suttee stone, that little memorial of the burning alive of the young widow upon the funeral pyre of the beloved husband, drive the diamond hilted dagger through the soft breast in worship of his god, and through his own heart that he might follow his beloved quickly as she passed to Paradise.
Yes! sacrifice of the woman he loved that his god might be twice pleased.
He was crazed with the delirium of his religion, mad with the call of the senses lashed to frenzy by the restraint which had been unnaturally forced upon him throughout his life; his eyes had the look of the eyes of those gods who spy down upon you from the shadowy corners of India's temples, and his nostrils dilated as he touched the dagger in her hand.
Only for a moment! For even as he touched it the single beat of a drum fell heavily upon the air, causing him to sit back on his heels with a smile upon the full curved lips, and a light of sudden understanding in his eyes.
There was more toward than a mere sacrifice!
The Holy City was, and had been for days, in a positive ferment of religious excitement; the bazaars were thronged with pilgrims who, by boat and train and on foot, had hurried to the city of a thousand temples.
Something unusual was in the air although no one could clearly explain what it was; something was to happen although no one could name the hour or the day!
Rice, and flowers, and jewels cemented with blood had been thrust into and pressed down until they completely filled the great crack which had suddenly appeared before the altar of the oldest and most venerated image of Kali, the Goddess of Destruction, in the Holy City; and the foreigner had been warned not to place his profane foot within the precincts of the city upon this night of the full moon.
The native laughed as he sprang to his feet, standing bare and exceeding beautiful beside the indescribable graven images; and he laughed as he searched in the folds of his turban, and having found the pellets bent down and pressed them between Leonie's teeth, then jerked her to her feet, steadying her with his eyes.
He flung her back against the kiosk wall, and encircling her with his arms drove them fiercely down and against her as he met his splendid teeth in the whiteness of her shoulder—in love; and taking her hand sped with her to the inner places of the city, shouting as he ran in the frenzy of his religion.
"Neither let her take thee with her eyelids."—The Bible. "And making a tinkling with their feet."—The Bible.
The bazaars were moving in one solid mass in the direction of, but not to, the Cow Temple.
For hours the endless streams had moved inch by inch through the narrow streets lined with shops and gaily painted houses, towards the heart of India's Holy City.
Young women and old, young men and old, children, fakirs and holy men pressed patiently forward, impelled and called by some mystic summons they could not explain.
There was no pushing nor striving, neither was there laughter nor any kind of merry-making, although a flower garland hung around every neck, although the multi-coloured raiment was of the best and cleanest and brightest, and the different marks of the different religious sects shone as though fresh painted between the eyes and upon the face and body.
The holy cows walked slowly with the people, hung with garlands and painted on the face and sides; holding up the traffic as, unafraid, they snuffled their velvety muzzles in the unguarded baskets of grain, and pushed their way unconcernedly and by holy right across the human stream into the Cow Temple as they passed the ever-open door.
There was certainly no pushing nor striving to get one before the other, but underneath the calm pulsated a certain restrained excitement, to be read in the light of the thousands of eyes, and the extraordinary spasmodic, almost uncontrolled, movements of the delicate dusky hands.
Mothers would suddenly jerk their children up into their arms and press their little faces against one of the thousands of tiny shrines, where the gods sit all day and all night behind the bars through which are thrust offerings of flowers, of food, of jewels.
Men would suddenly strip themselves of all except the loin-cloth and, casting their clothing at the feet of some holy man, proceed calmly upon their way. One out of a number of beautiful, fragile girls, with cast-down painted eyes and half-veiled face, for no apparent reason would sidle up against some man; rest for one moment against him, and continue with him upon the road, his arm about her, crushing her body to his; and the drums throbbed, and the horns screamed in and around the temple of their goddess.
Yet one did strive, and, heedless of rebuke, did push her way ruthlessly through the throngs, slipping on the greasy pavement covered with refuse and cow-dung; sliding, ducking, squirming her way in and out, breathless and dishevelled, with a simple brown sari slipping from about her sleek head and pock-marked face.
Her monkey eyes flashed this way and that in search of something or someone she could not find; her withered hands beat her withered breast; the sweat streamed down her face until at last the crowd gave way, and looking upon her as one mentally afflicted, helped her stumbling passage up to and through the temple gateway.
Priests stood at the entrance to the outer court of the temple. They did not stand there, as do the ushers in the West, in order to keep the riff-raff, those humble, poverty-stricken children of God, from occupying the plush-covered seats in His House; but knowing the intimate connection between religion and the senses, and the limited space of the court of sacrifice and the temple itself, they stood there in order to keep a finger upon the pulse of that mass of humanity's passions.
The full moon flung her silver on to the stained worn flags of the roofless court; hundreds, thousands even of tiny wicks in tiny earthenware saucers flickered in the niches and on the outer edge of the walls; hundreds of torches flung a smoky veil around the restless figures passing in and out of the narrow entrance, and over dark heaps which lay at the foot of the walls and in the corners.
Black heaps which, lay upon dark carpets, heaps big and small which seemed to move, around which hung an overpowering, sickening stench of blood.
Heaps revealed when touched by the fluttering drapery of some worshipper to be the decapitated bodies of goats and bullocks lying in their blood, and from which would rise the millions of ever-moving flies which had given them a semblance of life in the torch-light.
Millions of flies, bloated offences, which settle for a second heavily on your face or arm and fly slowly back to their feasting.
It had been a day of stupendous sacrifice, and the place ran blood.
From the inner temple came the sweet never-stopping clang of a silver bell, as in one continuous stream the worshippers climbed slowly up the flight of steps, passed in, struck one note by swinging the tongue of the bell to announce their arrival to their goddess, and passed out; while babies of both sexes, naked save for a silver bead upon their rotund little bellies in the male, or a profusion of tiny bracelets and a nose-ring in the female, heaped the flower offerings in masses at Kali's feet.
Kali! Ah! formidable, terrible image graven in stone!
Pictures, highly coloured and blatant reproductions which will shock your artistic sense, can be bought for a few annas at the native shops which swarm outside the temple walls; but it is probable, nay, it is certain that not a single one of the Europeans who may read this book will ever see the original goddess in all her terror, and all that inexplicable power with which she holds the Hindu multitudes in the palms of her black hands.
Black, and crowned and heaped with jewels, she looks down at, or through, or over you with her slanting fish-shaped eyes. Her small ears, her flat nose, her arms, her pendant breasts are smothered in priceless gems; a huge red tongue protruding through the stretched mouth hangs far down upon the chest, ready to lick up the flames of sacrificial fires; a magnificent tiara binds the black hair which streams in masses behind her small distorted body; rows of pearls, flower garlands, and a string of skulls hang about her short neck; one hand holds a knife, the other a bleeding head, two are raised in blessing, while behind her shines a sun of flaming tongues of fire, and over all is spread an umbrella.
Yet it is not the horror of the repulsive physique hewn in stone which holds you breathless before her; you know it is stone you are looking at, just as you know that the Sphinx is stone; but as with the Sphinx you feel the life of centuries throbbing through the carved monster; you feel that its breath, which is about you, is the wind which has swept across the desert places and teeming cities of the East; you feel that the eyes which are upon you have seen all things; in fact you are almost mesmerised by the force of ages into falling upon your knees in worship, before you suddenly wrench yourself violently round to face the sun outside the open door; and even as you do it involuntarily put your hands to your neck, upon the nape of which, by the suggestion of unconfessed fear, you have felt the stealthy, longing, jewelled fingers.
On this night the slanting fish eyes of the goddess seemed to look through the doorway, and to linger upon the exquisite figure of a child dancing upon the extreme edge of the terrace between the two flights of steps.
Dancing!—hardly that, as she stood, her body swaying slightly in the whirl of her mixed emotions, and totally unconscious of four young men who, arms entwined, stood below, watching the beauty of her body and her movements with half-shut eyes.
Her ankle-length, full muslin skirt swung this way and that, as she moved slightly from her bare, over-slender waist, which accentuated the wonder of the young bosom out of all proportion in any but an eastern maid of ten years.
Jewels flashed in her delicate nose and ears, and on her slender fingers and parted toes, for was she not on the eve of her marriage, this little maid? Who, finding herself upon this unwonted night, alone for the first time in her life, had broken purdah, with her senses strung by days and nights of never-ceasing preparation for her marriage; during which she had been massaged by skilful, cunning hands; bathed and perfumed, forced to dance, forced to over-feed; until roused to a pitch of terrible excitement by drugs and curiosity, and the religious ecstasy of all around her, she had crept out alone, and into the temple with the teeming multitude to dance for the glory of her goddess.
Her little feet made patterns in the dust as she turned slightly, this child of ten, until her snake-like arms seemed stretched in invitation to the four pairs of burning eyes fixed upon the virgin beauty of the little body.
Who noticed in all that crowd when four pairs of hands shot up and seized her about the knees, lifting her gently down, or who, in the tumult, heard the cry smothered in the muffling cloth of a white coat in a distant shadowed corner.
And one dead body more or less in the morning, what does it signify or matter in a place which reeks of blood?
And just as this happened, and just as a dishevelled pock-marked woman stole swiftly up the temple steps, every face turned in one direction, and wave after wave of indescribable excitement swept the multitude.
And yet there was nothing, no sound, no sight to account for it; only the high priest, tall and terrible, with the face of a Roman emperor or a Jesuit, came from behind the altar and stood at the open door, looking first at the throngs and then at a mass of black cloud which, as is sometimes the way in India, had suddenly spread itself towards the east, and was slowly climbing the heavens.
"The gods approve The depth, and not the tumult of the soul."—Wordsworth.
"What a frightful row the natives are making in the city," was the fractious comment of one heat-distracted tourist to another through the mosquito netting which divided the two beds.
"Disgraceful!" peevishly assented the other as she turned restlessly upon the thin, hot mattress, and heaved the one thin sheet to the foot of the hot bed.
A sharper note had topped the heavy murmur which, like the rumble of a distant sea, had beaten the air without ceasing throughout the night.
A film operator would have said that a crowd had woken up; a London policeman, that a crowd was turning nasty, as the sharp note went crescendo right along, until it took the definite tone of thousands of human voices upraised in unrest of some kind.
This way and that surged the multitude, bowing unconsciously before the gusts of passion which swept from every quarter.
The fret of the thousands of feet upon the paving sounded a silky accompaniment to the strange throaty murmur of fast rising religious hysteria; sharp, uncontrollable cries stood out like steel pencilling against the velvet monotony of the throbbing drums; the never ceasing tinkle of rings, and clanking of bracelets and holy chains against the blare of the horns sounded as out of place as a child singing in a thunder storm.
The high priest, with the face of Rome, with a beckoning gesture, drew towards him other priests. Some also with the face of Rome, and some with the face of the field labourer; some, gaunt and stern; some, jolly and rotund; well, just like any gathering of clergy, of any creed, you can see any day, in any country of Europe.
The chiming of the silver bell had stopped when the worshippers, upon the peremptory command of the priests, fled pell-mell out of the temple and down the steps to join the frenzied crowd; while from the direction of the Praying Ghats there arose a roar of voices as two slim figures sped swiftly up the narrow lane, which seemed to open of its own accord before them.
The woman, clad from the waist downwards in one linen piece, came running swiftly, lightly, undisturbed, almost hidden in the masses of her hair blown before her by the rising wind.
Her naked body gleamed in the mixed lights; one hand, thrust out through the hair, held a dagger with diamond hilt; the other was clasped in the hand of the man who ran evenly and steadily beside her.
There was not apparently an inch of space to spare in all those narrow streets; but by the madness of religion which drove the packed humanity back against the walls, a way was made for her who appeared to the multitude as the long-promised earthly incarnation of the Goddess of Death.
When she had passed, those who were against the wall remained there, standing crushed to death, supported by the indifferent neighbours who had helped to drive in their ribs; and those who had slipped to their knees in religious fervour, or by reason of the state of the street, also remained prone upon the ground, the mass of people treading indifferently upon their broken backs and necks, while the threatening heavens were rent with screams of physical agony and cries of sensuous delight.
Straight up the steps ran Leonie, and into the interior of the temple, just as a priest, a lad, with his face twitching spasmodically, and calling upon his god, fell dead at her feet, smitten by the force of his religion.
Leonie, throwing up her arms, laughed as she put her cut and bleeding foot upon the boy's neck—laughed until the place pealed and echoed with the unseemly clamour, causing the crowds outside, held only in check by the mental force of the handful of priests, to strain against the invisible hypnotic barrier, and cry to high heaven for a sacrifice.
Then Leonie turned about and ran out on to the terrace, standing a ghastly, beautiful figure before the multitude; and only a pair of monkey eyes, in a pock-marked face, hidden by the deep shadows of a corner inside the temple, saw the high priest with roomal in hand, creep stealthily up behind the girl.
No one in the tumult heard the growling of the elements; no one noticed the clouds bent on enveloping the moon; no one but the pock-marked woman understood what was towards for the appeasing of the outraged god.
"Blood!" screamed the tight packed ranks; "a sacrifice of blood! Kali is hungry! Kali is thirsty! Give unto the Black Mother that which she demands!"
Leonie flung up both arms and laughed, even as the high priest drew back one step, scowling at the averted sacrifice.
"A sacrifice!" went up the cry from thousands of throats; "a sacrifice! a sacrifice!"
Again Leonie flung out both arms, and, just as the roomal was slipping over the small head, with the scream of a tigress whose cub is in danger, the ayah leapt straight at her beloved child, wrenching the knotted handkerchief from the priest's hand.
A horrible cry of disappointed blood lust shook the very earth; drums beat, horns screamed, daggers flashed in the dense mass, and fingers met round many a throat.
They were mad indeed the people, but none so mad as Leonie as she stood with feet apart glaring down at the ayah's sleek head, which she held by the hair, in one hand.
So mad was she that the priests drew back as from one divine; all but the high-caste youth who stood unnoticed amongst them and who advanced one step as Leonie raised her face to the moon.
"She of the full moon," she chanted, "was the first worshipped one with depths of days, of nights. They who, O worshipful one, gratify thee with offerings, those well doers are entered into thy firmament!"
To which the waiting multitude thundered a response.
"A sacrifice! A sacrifice! A sacrifice!"
Over and over again went up the cry as men and women and children fell foaming to the ground, "and conches and kettledrums, tabors and drums, and cow-horns blared."
Then came a silence, deep, sinister, and foreboding; only for one second before it was broken by a gasp, the catching of the breath in ecstasy of thousands of mankind.
And followed screams of pure delight as Leonie flung back her hand, in which gleamed the diamond hilted dagger, just as a terrific peal of thunder crashed upon the searing flash of lightning, which flamed from the dense clouds as they swept over and blotted out the moon.
"Could I come near your beauty with my nails, I'd set my ten commandments in your face!"—Shakespeare.
Leonie was sitting on the edge of her bed waiting for the gharri to take her to the station; she had lunched and breakfasted in her bedroom, in fact she had lived there since her interview with the manager, which had been indescribably unpleasant for him, in that it had been so distressing to the gentle girl as she had sat and nodded her head and looked at him out of agonised, forgiving eyes.
The hotel en masse, at least the feminine portion of it, had had a prior interview with the manager which had been superlatively unpleasant for him.
Coerced by a force which was closely allied to the brute; almost shouted down when he essayed to argue in favour of the hounded girl; threatened by the immediate transfer of the entire visiting list to the books of a rival hotel, he had ultimately owned to defeat; and Leonie sat on the edge of her bed, staring vacantly into the denuded dressing-room, while the native staff, yea! even unto him who had done her no service, buzzed round in the vicinity of her door.
Strange things had happened, things undefined, and therefore not capable of bearing the light of honest dissection or discussion.
What had happened during the night of rioting—so-called—in the city? What had been the meaning of those white-robed figures which had fluttered near her door? And oh! why had her faithful ayah been found on the edge of the river the morning after, stabbed through the heart?
As if anyone in India with any sense at all would make inquiries about the last event.
All that and a lot more! and quite enough to slam the gates of heaven or the hotel upon any lovely woman on her own!
Yes! but—did all that really do the actual slamming?
Not a bit of it!
It was the most convenient excuse the womenfolk could find to hang upon the peg of jealousy which had been knocked into the wall of feminine conceit and bad intent, by the hammer of Leonie's beauty, and irritating indifference to both men and women, especially the former.
Let any woman lure to her side some other woman's own particular bit of masculine property; poach successfully upon her understocked male preserves; and figuratively, maybe verbally, most assuredly positively if she live east of Blackfriars, the claws of jealousy will be sharpened upon her; but—ignore the bit of masculine property, pass it by on the other side, consider it as belonging to somebody else, leave the preserves severely alone, and vials of execration, anathema, and denunciation, which are all synonyms for the same thing, will be poured upon her because of her lack of the appreciative faculty.
Very few women can see the difference between joyfully hoarding genuine antique pewter, and wearing a second-hand neglige.
So Leonie was fleeing home via Calcutta, and she sat without movement, hating herself and the world, even the man who, having taken her at her word, had left her alone to stumble as best she could along the crooked, lonely road which would end, as far as she could see, in a padded cell.
"How could you?" she suddenly cried aloud, and the natives made surreptitious signs, and withdrew to a certain distance out of respect to the disorder of her mind. "How could you leave me! Didn't you know that it is because I love you so that I would rather die than let you share my curse? But couldn't you have done something, tried to follow that clue, gone somewhere, oh! done anything just to show that——!"
The rumble of wheels cut her agitation short, and drew the native element closer to the door, in order that it should be quite near the mem-sahib when she appeared—with her purse in her left hand.
And while she sat on her bed, and later on in the train, striving to break the mental thongs which bound her to some intangible stake, Jan Cuxson was sitting in the secret places of the jungle temple, striving to break the bonds of raw hide by which he had found himself fastened to a ring in the wall.
As he struggled he speculated savagely upon that insensate sense of security, common to most Britishers, which had caused him to try and find the Hindu temple under the guidance of an unknown native.
He mentally reviewed his journey from the boat to the temple, fighting through the tiger-grass, breaking through the delicate impeding branches of the sundri trees, crushing the sundri breathers under his heavy boots as he tramped behind the guide, having failed to notice, owing to the resemblance that exists between one ordinary native and the next, that the guide and coolie of the jungle were not the guide and coolie of the paddle boat.
He remembered that once he had stopped dead and laid a detaining hand on the guide's shoulder, as through the darkening forest had come a cry, eerie as it wailed through the shadows, to be taken up ahead of them, and echoed and re-echoed until it became faint in the distance and died away altogether.
The native had not hesitated.
"The cry, O Sahib, Protector of the poor, of the jungle owl as it seeks its food!"
Cuxson, unobservant for once, and anxious to get to the end of the trail again failed to notice that it was still far too light for any member of the owl family to be abroad.
Also, when he sat down on a fallen tree trunk to readjust his boot strap, he had mistaken for the booming of a huge jungle insect something which whizzed through the space where his head had been a second before.
It is true he had questioned the guide as to the route they were taking, pointing out that it was not the one traversed in the shikar.
To which the guide had replied that doubtless the shikari had taken the sahibs many miles out of their way to ensure a big toll to the sahibs' guns, and those of the mem-sahibs.
Jan Cuxson had accepted every explanation.
Extraordinary is this complacent sense of security of the British male when he butts into the paths and customs of countries of which he knows literally nothing; and he had arrived at the temple all in good time.
Silence, intense and rather overwhelming, had hung about the forbidding place which allied to the abomination of desolation had disconcerted him, and made him turn to the guide for further reference.