She stood for a moment laughing silently, looking down upon him, and turning, ran swiftly across the flags to the block of fallen stones. There she paused and glanced at the white man bound to the wall with the light of battle in his eyes, before she disappeared, beckoning to the priest who followed as she ran down the passage of the gods, making obeisance before them as she passed.
"The soil out of which such men as he are made is good to be born on, good to live on, good to die for, and to be buried in."—Lowell.
Leonie lay motionless on the stained stone before the altar; her hair, pulled back clear from her neck, swept behind her head like a cascade of rust-coloured water to the floor; her hands were clasped between her breasts, and her great unfathomable eyes stared up into those of the stone woman who looked down at her and seemed to laugh with joy at her long coveted prize.
In every corner black shapes danced; advancing, retreating, springing towards the roof and vanishing utterly. The place seemed infested with goblins, or devils, things of untold evilness and vice, although, in reality, they were but the shadows thrown by the little lights which were like tongues licking the lips of darkness in sensuous anticipation of the coming feast of blood.
The old priest stood looking up at his god with perplexity in his sunken eyes.
Arrayed in snow-white garment, with long hair hanging down, he held the knife of sacrifice in one hand, and in the other the sacred roomal.
The terrible picture shone softly in the light of the full moon which struck straight down upon the altar through a hole in the ruined roof.
"Tell thy servant thy pleasure, O Black One!" prayed the priest, swaying slightly to and fro. "Make him understand it the roomal shall be knotted about the neck of this white sacrifice, or if the knife shall draw a necklace of red about the white neck and upon the white breast. Give me an answer, O Mother, that I may right the wrong of many moons ago. A sign, a sign, O Mother!"
As he spoke; and for no apparent reason, Leonie's hands unclasped, her arms opened and fell towards her sides, leaving the beautiful breast bare with the jewel in shape and colour of a cat's eye winking craftily with the cunning and knowledge of the sins of all ages, just above the heart.
The priest shouted in worship, and his words, caught, echoed and re-echoed from the dome, drowned the sound of footsteps running at high speed across the flower-strewn floor.
Madhu Krishnaghar, naked save for the turban which bound his handsome head and the loin cloth which girt the slender middle, sped like the wind to the rescue of his beloved.
In the black shades of the jungle, understanding at last that for him there could be no life outside the life of the white woman he loved, and no happiness outside her happiness, he had raced Time down the jungle path, through the outer gates and temple door, pausing not for the fraction of a second; realising, as he ran, that upon his speed alone depended the life of his beloved. And even as the priest flung back his arm with a scream of ecstasy, the knife was wrenched out of his hand from behind.
O Madhu, you splendid heathen, who defied the anger of your strange gods for the love in your noble heart.
"Ha!" said the old man as he swung round in fury; then he smiled and opened wide his arms. "Thou! O my son! thou! Thou wouldst offer the great sacrifice thyself to our most gentle mother. And art thou not in the right? Thine has been the task and the toil, therefore is it meet that thou shouldst have the reward."
He laid his hands upon the shoulders of the youth, who straightway gripped the veined old wrists and raised the withered arms high up above their heads, while their eyes met in a sudden-born, subconscious enmity, and the knife lay glittering along the wrinkled brown skin.
Only for an instant, and Madhu let go his hold, and turning, stood looking down upon the jewel above the woman's heart. As he looked, the thing, catching the reflections of the lights, shone strangely bright upon the snow-white skin, and the lust of blood swept him from head to foot.
He longed to drive the dagger through the breast above the shining jewel; he craved to see the whiteness of the skin stained with red, to throw himself upon the still form and shut the dead mouth with kisses.
He was mad with passion, intoxicated with the heavy perfumed air, drunk with the atmosphere of his surroundings, and his slim body shook as he ran the needle-point of the dagger into his own breast.
He closed his eyes in the ecstasy of that pain which is twin to the ecstasy of desire fulfilled, and in their closing woke suddenly to the purity of his strange love. He turned with a snarl and hit up the old man's hand as it almost touched the nape of his neck, and stretching wide his arms made a shield of his body between Leonie and the intent he read in the priest's eyes, just as a brick fell and split to pieces at their feet.
"Linger not, my son," said the old priest fiercely. "Behold! the rites have been performed, the chants sung, and the offerings made. Drive the knife home, and give drink to thy mother of that which she loves. Hasten! for she is angry at thy slowness, and the very earth trembles at her wrath."
But Madhu Krishnaghar looked straight back into the fierce, suspicious old eyes, and moved quickly towards the priest who, taken by surprise, retreated hurriedly.
"Father!" came the words in the musical, steady voice. "O servant of the Black One, I cannot, nay, I will not, for I love yon white woman with a love passing all understanding. Nay, hearken! A sacrifice there must be this night, and there shall be one. Even me, O my Father. Let it suffice, for behold is my love so great, that she, the slender white flower, seems but one with me. Let her go, let her go, and lay me on the stone, warm with the life of her dear body, and drive the knife through my heart, that through my love peace may be made with thy god and my god!"
The whole world seemed bound in a great terrible silence as the two men stood staring at each other in the soft silver light of the moon; then the old man smiled gently, with the cunning of all time in his eyes, and creeping close to his pupil spoke in the merest whisper; tempting, as have always tempted, those who desire to gain their own ends, and who justify all means as long as that end is gained.
"Thou lovest her, my son. The infidel white woman, the sacrifice long dedicated to thy god. And why not, for thou are marked even with the mark which shows between the breasts like lotus buds. But thinkest thou, O son of princes, O descendant of the great, that thou art fit to mate with her. She is white, a daughter of the all-conquering race; thou—thou art black—a pariah—a dog—thou wouldst be whipped from her presence, thou high-born son of India."
The old man never moved his eyes from the young face, and neither the one nor the other saw the great striped terrified beast which slunk past them and disappeared into the shadows, seeking protection in its terror.
"But why shouldst thou let this woman, whom thou lovest, go? Why not make sacrifice of love as well as life to the great one? Behold is she soft and white and all-pleasing! Why, therefore, should she not come unto thy intent neath the eyes of the Sweet One, while I make offerings in the shadows towards thy well doing; so that the Black One will be twice pleased."
Of all the horrible temptations in that place of horror! And where in the name of all the gods did the native, unshackled by convention or code, find the strength to resist?
For while the priest whispered the young face was swept by a flood of conflicting emotions—which passed—leaving it as pure, as soul-stirring as the Taj Mahal at dawn.
"No! O Holy One! I will not—I love her—I love her—I will not!"
The words were firm and the young mouth like steel, and the eyes looked steadily back into those of the priest as the latter rushed upon him in mighty, inhuman wrath.
"And I say that thou shalt, thou begotten son of evil. I say that thou shalt encompass this woman with thy might, and then offer her in sacrifice to Kali, the Goddess of Death. I say that thou shalt."
It was a case of will pitted against will, for the old man knew that the younger would not dare raise hand against him for fear of everlasting damnation.
And Madhu Krishnaghar girded himself for the battle by putting his love for the white woman in the forefront of his mind.
And as they fought, desperately, with one last terrific pull which caused the hide to cut down to the wrist bone, Jan Cuxson wrenched the ring he had loosened from the wall, and stood swaying, sick with pain. Sweat poured down his face and bare chest, and blood flowed from his wrists while his burst finger-tips fumbled clumsily with the deep embedded thongs.
"I did it—I did it," he kept on repeating savagely, as his knees trembled and his body turned cold in agony. "I did it—I did it—God grant I am in time—in time."
Free at last, smothered in blood, dragging his heavily booted feet with difficulty, he sought and found the broken blade, staggered across the floor, stooped, and entered the passage of the gods where the imprint of his beloved's bare feet marked the dust of ages.
And Leonie lay quite still; to all appearance dead, with her open eyes turned back beneath the lids and her mouth half open showing her even teeth.
Not a word passed between the two men as they fought for her, one for her life, the other for her death. This way and that they moved; the one trying to escape from the direct range of the relentless will-power, and yet keep himself between the girl and the religious fanatic; the other striving to press his opponent back even to the altar stone.
Like iron to a magnet Madhu's hand was closed about the dagger hilt, and try as he would he could not relax the grasp nor fling the knife far back into the shadows; neither could he keep his footing, for strive as he would the priest's magnetic power, developed and trained through years and years of study and practice, drove him back inch by inch towards the god who looked down upon them with her fish-shaped eyes.
A glint of triumph shone in the eyes of the priest, and twisted the corner of his mouth as the heel of his enemy thudded against the stone upon which lay the white girl; and he concentrated every ounce of his strength for the last moment when, by sheer force of his will, the knife should be lifted and driven down, deep, even to the hilt. And the white man hastened as best he could, reeling at every step, with blood streaming from his wrists and spattering upon the stones beneath the leering eyes of the gods. Not one of the three heeded the low moaning of the wind as it swept past the temple and through the trees, to die away into a great, uncanny, unnatural silence, unbroken by sound of beast or bird.
Fate feeling for her shears, and peevish through want of sleep maybe, or mayhap irritated by their obstreperous behaviour, jerked the strings which bound those marionettes called humans to her palsied old fingers.
The old priest, misjudging the pull given to his string, in what he mistook to be his triumph, laughed.
It is better to laugh last indeed, but oft-times it is best not to laugh at all, for who can foresee the particle of dust which may enter your indecently and injudiciously wide open mouth to choke you in your ill-timed mirth.
Only for an instant did he triumph above his enemy, but for just that instant he loosened his will power; and Madhu Krishnaghar, sensing the relief, and whipped by the laugh to one final desperate effort of his failing powers, raised his hand and flung the knife far back to fall with a clatter in some distant corner.
It was done.
Youth had mocked at experience, life at death, love at opposition, as it has done since the beginning of time, and will do, let us hope, until the end.
For as the knife hurtled into the shadows, Madhu bent swiftly and lifted Leonie into his arms, holding her in this his last moment of heaven upon earth, tenderly and firmly, as he glared defiance over her head at the priest.
And he, understanding at last that he had failed, cast himself at the feet of his god who, in her fury, stamped with both her blood-stained feet.
"Greater love hath no man."—The Bible.
There was a shout from the doorway leading to the secret places of the temple as Cuxson, covered with blood and dust, half-crazed with horror, paused for a moment as he took in the awful picture before him.
Leonie, with her hair almost sweeping the ground, lay half clothed and seemingly dead in the arms of a native, whose face was a picture of triumphant love for all to see; and a wild-eyed priest beat his breast before the horrible image of the terrible, all powerful Goddess of Destruction.
He sprang forward with another shout, which was lost in the shriek and crash of the raging elements.
For even as he moved there was a terrific roar as of tons of exploding dynamite, and a shriek of wind as it tore through the building, blowing out the little flickering lights, leaving the place pitch black save for the steady light of the full moon.
Then he swayed like a drunken man as the floor rose in a great wave and yet another, heaving the flags this way and that, cracking and splitting in every direction as it subsided.
"Leonie!" he shouted, though no sound could be heard above the appalling din. "Leonie! Leonie!"
He saw her lying in a pool of moonlight as though asleep, and near her knelt the native, with arms outstretched above her, sheltering her.
There was a moment of complete dead silence, and then with a tearing, rending sound the dome and the temple walls split from top to base; and with a thundering crash the great block of stone upon which was carved the image of Kali the Terrible split in two, toppled over and fell upon the kneeling priest.
Herds of screaming beasts hurled themselves through the riven walls and fled across the temple floor, fighting blindly to escape. Monkeys in hundreds scrambled over the mounds of fallen bricks, chattering and calling like lost, frightened children; a tiger with one bound landed noiselessly a few feet from those two in the moonlight, half reared with a short coughing roar and bounded as noiselessly away. And God alone knows what saved the three from instant death among the tottering ruins.
The power of Love perchance.
The son of princes sheltering the girl slowly, oh! slowly straightened himself, when a prolonged silence seemed to indicate the end of the greatest earthquake that ever swept the Sunderbunds Jungle.
Blood streamed from the side of his head, battered in by a broken fragment of the high altar that had been hurled through the air; his left shoulder was in splinters, crushed by the collapse of the roof which must have killed Leonie if he had not covered her with his body; blood spouted from some great severed artery in the arm which seemed to hang by a thread from the splintered shoulder; yet was his face aglow with light and love, and his eyes afire with happiness as he raised a tawny tress of hair and pressed it to his lips.
He was dying, quickly, yet he turned his head and smiled at the sound of Jan Cuxson's boots scrambling over the impeding heaps of stone. For one second only the torture of the sacrifice required of him flared in the soft brown eyes; and then in the pride of his great race, and with an effort of will beyond all telling, he put his unbroken arm round the woman he loved so well, lifted her, got somehow to his feet, and walked, aye! walked steadily across the few yards which separated him from the white man.
Cuxson, not realising his terrible plight, with eyes only for the woman he loved, wrenched Leonie from his hold and swept her from head to foot with frantic eyes.
"What have you done to her?" he demanded fiercely. "Before the earthquake what did you do to her? Tell me—or by God I'll——"
He stopped the bitter words in time to save himself from everlasting remorse.
For Madhu Krishnaghar suddenly straightened his battered body, and looked the white man in the eyes.
"She is safe, O white man, safe and unharmed. Take her, keep her—carry her by the—the short road without the—the temple gates—to—happiness, I give her—to—you—because I—I love—her—for ever!"
There was a moment's terrible silence in which the two men stood divided, yet united, in their great love for the one woman.
The native of India put his hand to his forehead and salaamed before the woman for whom he had sacrificed all, then turned slowly around towards the place where the image of his god had so lately stood.
"Kali!" he called, and his young voice was as the clashing of golden bells at sunset. "Kali! Mother of all—I come!"
And unwitting of the great reward awaiting those who attain everlasting peace through the victory of the greater love, he crashed face downwards, dead, upon the flower-strewn floor, and passed for ever into the safe keeping of the one and only God.
"When the day breaks and the shadows flee away!"—The Bible.
Jan Cuxson lifted Leonie's face to the light of the moon, and caught his breath at the sight of the turned back eyes and drooping mouth.
This was the outcome of it all! This was how she was left to him; saved from physical hurt but with her mind for ever bound by the will of yon dead priest. Hypnotised, mesmerised, to be under the influence of the Goddess of Destruction until her death; maybe to pass her life in the security of a padded cell; she, his Leonie, his love, his wife-to-be.
He crushed her in fierce despair against his heart as the ground moved gently under his feet, and prayed aloud to his God to bring the riven walls down upon them there in the moonlight, that in merciful death the awful fate of his beloved might be lifted from her.
The only answer to the desperate prayer was silence and shadows enveloping them like a mantle, and he lifted his stern face to the radiance of the moon, with the light of battle in the grey eyes.
"I will find a way out, dear heart," he cried, as he turned her face gently against his shoulder. "There is a way and I will find it." And he strode as hastily as the masses of fallen stone would allow him towards the door and the short path which would lead him to the water's edge and safety.
As he skirted the half of the fallen altar which lay across the body of the priest, he paused for a moment and looked down upon the man who had won even in death.
As he looked the fingers of the out-flung hands twitched, and a violent shiver shook the old frame. Slowly, very slowly the gnarled old arms were gathered in under the breast as inch by inch the Hindu priest raised himself from the floor. The lower limbs were hidden, crushed under the fallen stone, and the old head hung down between the shoulders, the grey hair tangled in a wreath of jasmin flower.
He lifted his face, and the dim old eyes looked wistfully up into the grey ones staring down at him out of the shadows.
"Thou hast conquered, sahib, thou hast conquered in love," he whispered. "And she is safe, for behold my—my power—has gone—from her. I—even I—have not obeyed, and my god—has destroyed me!"
Lifting his voice he cried aloud and died.
And as he died Leonie turned her face from the shelter of her lover's shoulder and closed her eyes, and opening them again laughed sweetly as she looked up into his face.
"You, Jan, you! Why—whatever has happened, and—why—wherever are we?" And he looked down into the sweet face and laughed aloud, an exultant, ringing laugh which was caught and echoed and re-echoed from the dome until the place seemed filled with the sound of happiness.
"There has been a bit of an earthquake, dear, and you got hit on the head by a piece of falling brick. See, sweetheart," and he swept the masses of hair together and twisted it between her head and his coat, "turn your face this way until I have you safely out of here, it's nice and soft, and shut your eyes, darling——"
"Yes! but," said Leonie, as she turned her face as bidden and closed her eyes with a sigh of great content, "but—but how did we escape?"
"You were saved, dear!"
"Saved!—from what? By whom?"
She tried to turn her head, but he held it pressed close against his heart.
"From death—dear heart!"
"And by whom—tell me—Jan—by whom?"
Jan Cuxson paused a moment as he looked across towards the still figure of Madhu Krishnaghar stretched peacefully upon the ground.
"By the whitest man that has ever lived, dear!—by him!"
And he turned without another word and strode through the temple and out of the gates to the narrow way which led to safety. And where the trees met in an arch above his head he stopped and looked back, and Leonie, turning her face, passed her hand wonderingly over the tousled masses of her hair and the silken drapery about her body.
"Where are we going to? Where are you taking me?"
He shifted her completely into his left arm, pulled at a golden slender chain round her neck with his right hand, caught it in his strong white teeth and wrenched it in two.
And he answered her as he flung the jewelled cat's-eye far out into the jungle.
"To Devon, beloved, to Devon and happiness!"
And as he closed her red mouth with kisses the earth shook gently under his feet, and the temple, with a terrific crash, caved in; burying for ever the dead priest, the broken image of Kali, the Goddess of Destruction, and Madhu Krishnaghar, son of princes, her splendid Indian lover.