Reginald promised to pay them another visit; and he confessed to Burnett that he had learned many important truths from these men, whom, had he met casually, he should have looked upon as ignorant heathens. He was also much struck by their firm confidence in the goodness and love of God to fallen man, and the desire of that Great Being to reconcile sinners to himself by the all-sufficient and complete atonement wrought out by his well-beloved Son on Calvary.
"Ah, sahib," exclaimed Wuzeer Singh, "how merciful God is to demand from us a simple, loving faith alone as the condition on which we are saved. Were he to insist on our good works and pure and holy lives, who could ever hope to merit heaven? For sinners we were, and sinners we remain; but, praised be his name, 'the blood of Jesus Christ cleanseth from all sin.'"
Such was the faith of these men, and it supported them, isolated as they were in the midst of a heathen population, who would have torn them to pieces had they suspected the creed they held.
On Reginald's return to the palace, he found the rajah alone. He had anxiously wished for an opportunity of renewing the conversation so suddenly broken off, and of obtaining information regarding his father's property, and the important documents which he supposed the rajah had in his possession. He again tried to get him to lead to the subject; but finding this in vain, he remarked, "Your highness appeared anxious some time ago to know what had become of the son of the Englishman who was once in your service, and who had the happiness of saving your life in battle."
"You speak of Rinaldo Khan," said the rajah, fixing his eye on Reginald.
"That was the name by which my father was known," was the answer; "for I am the boy whose fate you desired to learn."
"You the son of Rinaldo Khan!" exclaimed the rajah. "Come nearer, my son, and let me see your features. Yes, yes, I believe you; these are the lineaments of my beloved daughter. Did your father ever tell you who was your mother?"
"I know only that she was a native lady of high rank, and that it cost my father much pain to be compelled to leave her."
"Did he tell you that you were his only child?" inquired the rajah, still keeping his gaze fixed on Reginald's countenance. "But why do I ask? Your sister Nuna was born after he, as you say, was compelled to fly from the country in order to save his life. The English in those days had not the power they now possess, or he would have quickly returned and taken vengeance on the traitors who deprived me of his services; for a truer and a better friend I have never possessed."
"I feel almost overwhelmed at what your highness has told me," exclaimed Reginald. "Am I then your daughter's son, and the brother of the Ranee Nuna?"
"You are truly, I believe, my grandson. My heart felt drawn towards you from the first; and as I am now childless, I would desire to place you in the position your father would have enjoyed had he remained with me."
Reginald could scarcely speak for astonishment. He had expected to gain important information from the rajah, but what he now heard was of a totally different character to that which he was seeking. Though his mother was an Oriental, his heart was English, and he had no wish to spend his days in India, however high the rank he might enjoy.
The extraordinary information he had received made him still more anxious to recover Nuna, who, if she was really his sister, had a right to claim all the assistance he could afford her; and he at once, therefore, begged the rajah to allow him to set forth on his expedition without delay. Before going, however, it was of the greatest importance to know what had become of the documents which the rajah was supposed to possess.
He had learned from his father that his mother was a Christian, but he found a difficulty in reconciling this with the communication the rajah had just made him. He was afraid, however, of putting the question abruptly. "Your highness tells me that my mother was your daughter," he said at length. "I have long earnestly wished to know more about her than my father told me. I was young when he died, and though his words were fixed on my memory, I might not probably have comprehended the meaning of all he said."
"My daughter was one of those beings who are seldom found on earth," answered the rajah; "and so was she who gave her birth. Her mother was fair as the houris in Paradise; the daughter of an English officer sent here on a mission by that great man Lord Clive. Her parents died, and she was left under the protection of my father. I saw and loved her, and she consented to become my wife; but nothing would induce her to change the faith she held. I respected her opinions, the more so as they made her that which I esteem most excellent; and she taught me to regard women in a very different light to that in which I had formerly held them. Her only child she brought up in the same faith; and when that child—your mother—grew to womanhood, she was married to your father, according to the rites of your religion, by an English minister, who was travelling through the country."
"That fact my father impressed on me; and, as far as my interests are concerned, much depends on it," said Reginald, who had been listening eagerly to the account the rajah had been giving him. "There were certain papers signed on the occasion, which, with other documents, my father left behind in the country, and which to me are of the greatest importance. Has your highness possession of them, or can you inform me where they are to be found?"
"Papers! Documents! Of what do you speak? I remember that some time back Khan Cochut, in whom I then placed unlimited confidence, at my order examined into the state of my treasures, and found some papers which I was unable to decipher. He informed me that they were of no value; but I directed him to allow them to remain in the casket in which they were placed. Some time afterwards, on visiting my treasury with the intention of placing the documents in the hands of some person understanding English, to be certain that Khan Cochut had not deceived me, I found that the casket had disappeared. Cochut protested that he knew nothing about the casket, and pretended to make diligent search after it."
"If they were the papers which my father directed me to recover, they are, as I before told your highness, of the very greatest consequence, and I entreat you to assist me in recovering them."
While Reginald was engaged in this exciting conversation with his supposed grandfather, an attendant entered the room, announcing that an officer who had just arrived, bringing important information, requested an audience immediately; and Reginald was compelled to wait till he could again speak in private to the rajah.
REGINALDS'S EXPEDITION IN SEARCH OF NUNA—BURNETT SETS OFF FOR THE SAME PURPOSE—ADVENTURES IN A TEMPLE—DISAPPEARANCE OF FAITHFUL—THE BRAHMIN'S TREACHERY—BUXSOO GAINS IMPORTANT INFORMATION—PLANS FOR LIBERATING NUNA—FAITHFUL ESCAPES FROM HER PRISON, AND TURNS THE TABLES ON THE TRAITORS.
The important information which had arrived was to the effect that the expected English resident, with two regiments of sepoys and a company of English troops, was on his way to Allahapoor, and would in the course of a few days reach the city.
The preparations for their reception now gave ample occupation to the rajah and his nobles.
As soon as Reginald had an opportunity, he told Burnett of the unexpected information the rajah had communicated regarding his birth.
"I have no reason to doubt it, yet it seems so strange, that I can scarcely believe the fact that I am the grandson of the old man, and that the beautiful girl of whom we caught a glimpse is my sister."
"I can believe it very readily," answered Burnett. "To tell you the truth, I fancied that I saw a likeness, and it struck me that she was far more like a European than an Oriental; besides which, no Indian woman of high rank would have been allowed to be present at the introduction of strangers. It was very evident that the rajah had broken through the usual customs of the country when he permitted us to see his grand-daughter. The more I think of it, the more anxious I am to try and recover her, as it seems strange that she should have been spirited away without any clue to the place in which she is concealed. You must get the rajah's leave to set off at once; and beg him to allow us to go together. My plan will be to scour the country with two or three hundred horsemen; and if she is concealed, as I suspect is the case, by some fugitive rebels, we are certain to come upon them, and shall be able to compel them to surrender her."
"You may command the horsemen, if the rajah will give them, and I will try a plan I have thought of. My idea is to set out with Dick Thuddichum and Faithful, and one native as a guide. I have fixed upon one of the sons of Dhunna Singh,—a fine, intelligent young fellow, who will, as we travel through the country, pick up information from the natives, and thus we shall be more likely to find out where Nuna is concealed than will be any number of armed men."
Burnett confessed that Reginald's plan might be more successful than his; but they had to wait till the next morning for the rajah to decide.
The morning came at length, and as soon as the rajah was on foot they hurried into his presence. He received Reginald with marked affection, and was most gracious to Burnett. Reginald having described his plan, pointed out the advantages of having two expeditions; and although the rajah continued very unwilling to let both of them go together, he at length consented to Burnett's proposal, and issued an order for two hundred horsemen to accompany him,—a sufficient number to overawe any rebels who might still be in arms.
Having paid their farewells to the rajah, the friends hastened away to make preparations; Reginald at once repairing to the house of Dhunna Singh, to explain his intended plan. He did not hesitate to tell him also of the discovery which he had made, that he was the rajah's grandson.
"Praise be to Him who governs the world that you are so, for we may then hope to have a Christian prince to reign over us who will help the oppressed and suffering, and will see justice done to all men," was the answer. "I do not so much congratulate you, khan, as I do myself and all those beneath you, for your post will be one of difficulty and danger. You little think of the dark deeds often done in the palaces of our nobles and rulers. I would not throw a shade over your path, yet I warn you to beware of secret as well as of open foes, for many of the former will surround your throne and smile most blandly when they are most actively plotting to destroy you."
"I will remember your warning, should I ever become Rajah of Allahapoor; but I hope the day may be far distant when my grandfather shall cease to rule the country. But of the matter on which I came to see you: I have to ask that one of your sons will accompany me, for I know that I can trust them all. Had Wuzeer Singh been sufficiently recovered, I would have engaged his services; but as he is not yet able to travel, I must depend on the assistance of one of them."
"They are all at your service, sahib; but I would recommend Buxsoo, my second son, as he has travelled much about the country, and has intelligence and ready wit."
The old man forthwith summoned the son he named, and he, without hesitation, agreed to accompany Reginald. He begged, however, that he might take a faithful servant—Sambro, a black slave, who was powerful and brave, and thoroughly to be depended on. Reginald accepted his offer; and in a few minutes both were ready to accompany him to the palace, where Dick Thuddichum and Faithful were waiting for them. Buxsoo and Sambro were there introduced to Faithful, who showed at once that she understood she was to treat them as friends.
They waited till the shades of evening settled down over the city, that they might take their departure without exciting observation, when they quickly traversed the numerous deserted streets till they reached the northern gate. It was instantly opened on Reginald's showing an order from the rajah. No one recognised them, or inquired where they were going; indeed, the inhabitants of Allahapoor were not addicted to troubling themselves about affairs that did not concern them.
The travellers had got a mile or two from the city when the moon arose and enabled them to continue their journey during the greater part of the night. There was no lack of ruins of mosques and pagodas, of forts and once gorgeous tombs, in which they could find lodging when they needed rest; so at length Buxsoo proposed that they should stop at a pagoda which, though deserted by the priests, was almost entire. To this Reginald at once agreed, for, unaccustomed to walking such long distances, he felt very tired. A quantity of dried wood having been found, Sambro, assisted by Dick, soon had a fire lighted in the courtyard, on which they cooked their provisions—Buxsoo, having become a Christian, had thrown aside all prejudice of caste; and Reginald always made a practice, when on expeditions on shore, of messing with his men. They therefore seated themselves together around their frugal fare, under the shelter of an arcade, with a fire burning brightly in front of them. Faithful had had her usual supper before starting, but her long march had perhaps given her an appetite, and seeing her master thus employed, she stole away, forgetful of her duty, to forage for herself.
A curious spectacle the scene would have presented to the eye of a native: Reginald, though in his nautical costume, looking, as he was, a high-born gentleman; Dick had the cut of a thorough British tar; Buxsoo could not be distinguished from an ordinary high-caste Hindoo; while Sambro's black skin and scanty garments clearly showed the class to which he belonged.
The repast was nearly over, when Dick looking up, his keen eyes discovered a figure stealing along under the shadow of the arcade on the opposite side of the court.
"Hallo! There's an eavesdropper of some sort. We must capture him, and ask him what he wants," he exclaimed, starting up.
Reginald and the rest of the party followed; but when they reached the spot where the figure had been seen no one was visible. They hunted about in every direction, aided by such light as the moon afforded, but without success; and at length returned to the spot where they had left their supper. Buxsoo was inclined to believe that Dick had been deceived by the shadow of a column falling against the wall.
"No, no, I tell you. My sight never plays me false," answered Dick. "I set eyes on a fellow in the long petticoat sort of robes the natives wear, as sure as I have seen salt water; and how he got away from me, unless he darted through the wall, is more than I can tell."
"I don't think you are likely to have been deceived," said Reginald. "But what can have become of Faithful? Had she not gone off her post, she would have caught the fellow."
No one had remarked when the tigress stole away, and her disappearance was another mystery to be solved.
Fatigued with their long march, rest was absolutely necessary; they therefore determined to sleep where they were, one at a time keeping watch.
"Please your honour, I will keep the first watch," said Dick; "and if you will lend me one of your pistols, I will send a bullet through the body of the first petticoated gentleman who heaves in sight, whether he is a ghost or not. If so be I starts off, just be good enough to follow me when I make chase, and we will have him in limbo before many minutes are over."
Reginald now lay down, feeling perfectly confident that Dick would keep wideawake; and recommending his companions to follow his example, they were all in a few seconds fast asleep.
We must now follow Faithful, who maybe was in search of a lamb or goat from some flocks feeding at no great distance from the temple. She had not left the precincts of the place when a person in the robes of a Brahmin fearlessly approached her, and patting her head, offered her something which he held in his hand. She took it, and fawning on him, followed as he led the way to a distant part of the ruin. Here was a high tower with some winding steps leading to the summit. The Brahmin, for such he was, began to ascend, the tigress still following. When on the summit, the stranger opened a door and proceeded along a narrow gallery, scarcely affording room for the shoulders of the animal to pass. Suddenly he slipped through another small door. The poor tigress, missing him or the tempting bait he held, advanced stealthily, when there came a crash, and down she fell head foremost; her betrayer looking over the parapet, exulting in the success of his treachery.
"Aha! I have often tried to poison you, but you were too sagacious to be taken in," he said. "Now I have succeeded in finishing you, your master the young rajah will easily become my prey. He expects to rule this country, does he, and reform abuses and destroy our ancient religion! Clever as he thinks himself, he will find that he is mistaken, and that there are those who can outwit him. It has been prophesied that when the Feringhees rule the land the ancient institutions of the country will be destroyed and caste abolished. What will then become of us Brahmins? We must put off that evil day, if it is ever to arrive, as long as possible."
Thus the Brahmin Balkishen continued muttering. He was an ally of Khan Cochut, and had been a chief agent in the late rebellion, as, through having been the rajah's principal secretary, he was fully informed of all that took place at the palace. But though an ally of the ex-barber, he hated him cordially, both on account of his religion—or rather his utter want of it—and the familiar and somewhat coarse way in which Khan Cochut treated him. He had also assisted in carrying off Nuna, and was afraid that Reginald, though the instrumentality of Buxsoo and Sambro, would discover her place of concealment.
Notwithstanding his boasted enlightenment, he had a superstitious dread of the tigress, whom he fully believed to be a "familiar" of the young Englishman, and that while she was his protectress it would be useless to make any attempt against his life. He had often tried to ingratiate himself with Faithful for the purpose of destroying her; but being unable to succeed, he bethought him of making use of a secret he possessed, by means of which he believed that even the most savage wild beast could be tamed. He had ordered one of his slaves—whom he had left in the city—to keep a watch on the Englishmen, to follow them wherever they went, and to bring him information of their movements. Fortune, as he thought, had favoured him more than he could have expected, and they had actually taken shelter in the very temple in which he was lying concealed.
Having disposed of Faithful, as he hoped, he must next attempt to get hold of the sturdy sailor—a more difficult task, as he rightly judged. He was afraid to proceed by force, and he trusted that stratagem would prove more successful. He felt an eager desire to carry his plan into execution at once, but the watchful vigilance of Dick Thuddichum foiled him. He had, indeed, been nearly captured by the sailor, and saw that he must be more prudent in future. Little did honest Dick suppose that a pair of keen eyes were fixed on him as he paced up and down on his watch, and that had he gone a few yards further he might have found a rope thrown round his neck, which would have prevented him from crying out, and rendered his strength of no avail.
Sambro succeeded Dick, and was equally vigilant; Buxsoo kept the morning watch; while Reginald, who was the most fatigued of the party, slept till daylight.
Faithful's disappearance caused considerable anxiety. In vain they searched about in all directions—no trace of the tigress could be found; and at length, as it was important to take advantage of the cool morning air, they started, hoping that her sagacity would enable her quickly to follow them. Often and often Reginald looked back, hoping to see his pet. They overtook numerous country-people,—some on foot, others on asses or on horseback,—nearly all the men being armed. They regarded the two Englishmen with suspicious eyes; but Buxsoo mingled among them, inquiring what news was stirring. All had something to tell, and he thus picked up a good deal of information. People were generally full of the expected arrival of the English troops, wondering what they were coming for. Their suspicions were generally aroused; and some even declared that the rajah had sold his country to the English. Buxsoo did not think it worth while to contradict this, as it would have excited their enmity against him, and they might believe that he was in favour of the transaction. This, however, was not the information he was anxious to obtain.
Two more days passed by. Reginald began to despair of recovering Faithful; and he had, as yet, received no tidings from Burnett. They were resting during the heat of the day in the shade of a banyan-tree, at a little distance from which was a well. They had not been seated long, when several natives, with a couple of laden camels, drew near to the well to quench their thirst. Buxsoo, begging his companions to remain quiet, went forward to meet the strangers. After the usual salutations, he inquired the price of ghee, corn, and lentils; and they, believing him to be a trader like themselves, willingly imparted the information he requested. His first questions led to others, and they soon got into familiar conversation. He asked if they had heard anything of the late rebellion, or of the audacious way in which the ranee had been carried off. They knew very little about the matter; but rumours had reached them that there had been disturbances in the country. At length one of the party informed him that, on the previous day, he had gone to a village at some distance from the high road to sell his goods, and that on his return he passed near a deserted temple on the summit of a hill, the doors of which were all closed; but that on looking up he was greatly surprised to see a female at the top of one of the towers, waving to him, apparently to attract his attention. Wondering what was wanted, he was approaching, when two armed men rushed out of the building with threatening gestures. To escape them, he ran off at full speed; but after pursuing him for some distance the armed men turned back, and he reached his friends in safety. Buxsoo also inquired whether the merchants had heard anything of the movements of a body of the rajah's cavalry; but they could give him no information on the subject.
He waited till they and their camels, having quenched their thirst, had moved forward on their journey, and then he hurried back to his friends with the important information he had obtained.
Reginald was, of course, eager to move on at once to the place where the female had been seen, feeling almost sure that it could be no other than Nuna.
"That may be the case," observed Buxsoo; "but, supposing that the temple is guarded by a strong garrison, how are we to get in and rescue her? Would it not be wiser to try and fall in with the cavalry, who may take the place by storm should the rebels refuse to deliver up their prisoner?"
"The cavalry would have less chance than we should have, my friend," answered Reginald. "If the place is fortified, we must trust to stratagem rather than to an open attack. A handful of men, well provided with ammunition, may keep at bay the whole of Captain Burnett's cavalry. I would rather attempt to scale the walls; and I feel sure that Dick and I might accomplish the feat. We sailors are as active as goats; and as no one within would suspect our intentions, we might get to the top of the tower, and perhaps liberate the ranee, before any of the garrison could discover what we are about. It is very evident that she must be confined in the tower, where her guards think that she is perfectly safe; while they probably keep in the large hall in the lower part of the building. However, we must get there first and survey the place before we can decide what is to be done."
Reginald then explained his plan to Dick Thuddichum, who replied—
"Of course, of course. It would be a rum sort of a tower that we couldn't get to the top of, provided there are but a few holes and crannies into which we can stick our toes and fingers. But, to my mind, it will be as well to secure a few coils of rope, as it may be an easier task to get up than to come down again—especially if we have got a young lady with us."
"But if we were to be seen carrying the rope, suspicion of our intention would be excited, and the rebels would take measures to counteract it," observed Reginald.
"Then we must not let them see it," answered Dick. "I would not mind carrying a coil covered up in a piece of muslin, to look like a turban, on the top of my head; and I dare say Mister Buxsoo and the nigger here would do the same. And though I am pretty stout already, I would coil a few more lengths round my waist; and if the natives were to find out by chance what I had got about my body, they would only fancy that I was doing a bit of penance like themselves. Keep up your heart, sir; and if the young lady is shut up in the old tower, as you suppose, we'll manage, by hook or by crook, to get her out."
We must now return to the temple in which Reginald and his party had taken shelter a few nights before. The Brahmin Balkishen and his slave were not the only occupants; and as soon as the travellers had gone, another personage crept out of a small chamber in which he had been hidden during the time of their stay, an interested spectator of their proceedings. He was no other than Khan Cochut. Hearing of the rajah's restoration to power, he was on his way back to Allahapoor with a cunningly-devised tale, by means of which he hoped to be restored to power. The astounding information, however, that he received from Balkishen made him change his plans, and he resolved, at all events, to defer his visit till a more convenient opportunity. The two worthies were actually holding a discussion together, when they were interrupted by the arrival of Reginald's party. Khan Cochut, though not very scrupulous, hesitated about firing, although he might have done so from his place of concealment, and have killed Reginald and Buxsoo, whom he himself feared; but, on the other hand, he might have missed, and have been caught and killed himself. Altogether, he came to the conclusion that it would be more prudent to try and ingratiate himself with the young rajah, till he could safely retire with the wealth he had accumulated.
His plan had been to go boldly to the court, to assert that he had been carried off by the orders of the rebel Mukund Bhim, and pretending to be greatly surprised on hearing of the abduction of the ranee, to offer to go in search of her. It was a hazardous scheme; but Khan Cochut was a daring man, and had convinced himself that timid measures rarely meet with success.
As soon as he had seen Reginald's party to a safe distance, he sat down to a breakfast which Bikoo, Balkishen's slave, had prepared for him; while the Brahmin, who would have considered himself defiled by eating in company with his friend, sat down to a more frugal meal by himself. After having washed his hands and said his prayers, the Brahmin rejoined the khan,—who considered neither of such ceremonies necessary,—and the two then discussed their plans for the future. Balkishen undertook to follow Reginald's party, accompanied by Bikoo, and to prevent them by every means in his power from reaching the place of Nuna's concealment, should they by any wonderful chance discover it; while Khan Cochut came to the final resolution of returning to Allahapoor, and carrying out his original plan.
They were about to part, when they were startled by a loud roar, such as had never before echoed amid the walls of the temple. The Brahmin trembled and looked very yellow, for he could not be said to turn pale.
"It must be that abominable tigress which I thought had been killed," he exclaimed. "No mortal beast could have escaped being dashed to pieces from the height she fell. I always said she was a djinn; and this convinces me of the fact."
"She must have a hard head and strong bones, at all events," observed Khan Cochut. "For my part, I don't believe either in good or evil spirits; and the simplest way of stopping her roaring will be to put a bullet through her head."
"Not unless you wish to bring curses on your own head and on mine," exclaimed the Brahmin, becoming still more yellow.
Meanwhile the roars continued.
"The brute will attract the attention of the whole neighbourhood," exclaimed Khan Cochut. "As for bringing a curse on my head, I am very ready to run that risk. Only let me get a fair shot and I will quickly silence her."
"There must be some opening at the foot of the tower, or we should not hear the sounds so plainly," observed the Brahmin, "I will send Bikoo to try and find out. It would be more satisfactory to have him torn to pieces than ourselves."
"There is wisdom in that remark," coolly observed Khan Cochut; and Bikoo was forthwith despatched by his master to explore the place into which the tigress had tumbled.
He went—though with no great alacrity—to obey the order he had received, taking with him a long stick; not that it would have served him much against the enraged tigress, but it was the only weapon he possessed. The roars grew louder and louder as he advanced, till after mounting a flight of steps he started back on finding himself face to face with the tigress,—some iron bars, however, intervening. Faithful was evidently in a furious rage. As she saw him she seized one of the bars in her mouth, while she grasped the two next to it with her powerful claws, working away to wrench them asunder. Bikoo attempted to drive her back with his stick, but she utterly disregarded the blows aimed at her, only stopping a moment to roar and snarl, her loud cries drowning his voice as he shouted to Khan Cochut to come and shoot her— which he might very easily have done. Already the bars were seen to bend, the upper ends coming out of their sockets. Bikoo saw that in another instant the tigress would be at liberty; so springing down the steps with a very natural rapidity, fully expecting to be torn to pieces should he not make haste, and shouting, "The tigress! The tigress is at my heels!" he rushed into the presence of his master and Khan Cochut. They, hearing his cries, judged that their safest course would be to betake themselves to the upper chamber in which they had before been concealed,—Bikoo following them without asking leave, and only wishing that they would move somewhat faster. They had just climbed up by means of some winding steps in the wall, when the tigress, with her mouth and paws bloody from the exertions she had made, sprang into the courtyard and looked around, with the apparent intention of taking vengeance on the person who had so treacherously endeavoured to destroy her. As she was gazing about, her eye fell on the long nose and sallow visage of Khan Cochut, who was peering from his hiding-place through a slit in the wall. She sprang up at him with a suddenness which made him draw back with considerable rapidity, knocking over the grave Brahmin as he did so, and sending him sprawling prostrate on the ground. Poor Faithful, however, missed her aim, and fell backwards in a manner which did not at all improve her already irritated temper. Up and down the courtyard she rushed, looking out for an opening; and had not an iron-clamped door stopped her she would probably have torn the whole party to pieces, unless Khan Cochut had contrived to shoot her. Several times he poked one of his pistols through the slit, but the Brahmin entreated him not to fire. Whether or not Faithful suspected what he intended, she kept at such a distance that he would, in all probability, have missed her had he fired. At length, wearied with her exertions, she retired to the end of the court, where she lay down in the shade, keeping her eye fixed alternately on the slit in the wall and the door through which her enemy had passed.
She had now completely turned the tables on them, for, as they had no provisions, they must either die of starvation or surrender at discretion. At length the Brahmin proposed sending Bikoo down, that, while the tigress was tearing him to pieces, they might make their escape. To this inhuman proposal the slave very naturally objected, observing that the tigress must before long fall asleep, when they might slip out, favoured by the darkness, and so make their escape,—he, as being the most active, hoping, should the tigress awake, to get ahead of them, and leave them to the fate his master so generously proposed for him. Had Faithful suspected their intentions, she would probably have allowed her captives to have made the attempt to carry them out, and would have caught them all in succession.
As she lay in the shade, she began to meditate after her own fashion on what had occurred; and suddenly recollecting her beloved master, she got up and bounded towards the spot where she had last seen him. As she did so she passed within range of Cochut's pistol. Notwithstanding the Brahmin's prohibition, he fired. Though the ball missed her, she was somewhat frightened by the report; and her mind being set on discovering Reginald, she sprang through the gateway, and trotted off in the direction her instinct told her he had taken, as she certainly did not follow him either by sight or scent.
THE TEMPLE IN WHICH NUNA IS A PRISONER REACHED—DICK'S PLAN FOR RESCUING HER—THE TOP OF THE TOWER GAINED—ESCAPE—PURSUED—FAITHFUL APPEARS AT THE PROPER JUNCTURE—ANOTHER TEMPLE REACHED—AN UNEXPECTED ATTACK— FAITHFUL PLAYS HER PART—BURNETT ARRIVES—CAPTAIN HAWKESFORD FINDS THAT HE HAS MADE A MISTAKE—THE JOURNEY TO THE CAPITAL—A DAY'S SPORT— REGINALD AGAIN ESCAPES FROM A TIGER—THE JOURNEY CONTINUED—THREATENED BY THE REBELS—TAKE REFUGE IN A FORT—THE MAJOR'S ASTONISHMENT.
Reginald and his party continued their journey, but they had considerable difficulty in discovering the temple of which the trader had told Buxsoo. At length, as evening was drawing on, they caught sight of a tall tower rising above the trees on the top of the hill. It being of the greatest importance not to be discovered by any of the rebel garrison, they waited till dark to approach the building, as they could not take that careful survey of it at a distance which was so necessary before commencing operations. They had provided themselves with a supply of rope at a distant village, where their object was not likely to be suspected, and had carried it as Dick had suggested. Reginald and Dick were well armed, and felt themselves able to engage a dozen natives; but Buxsoo and Sambro carried no weapons,—for the former professed not to be a fighter, though the slave was active and powerful, and would not have feared a combat on equal terms with two or even three brown-skinned natives.
Concealed among the trees, they got close enough to the temple to ascertain whether any person entered or left it, as also to see the top of the tower. With anxious eyes Reginald looked out for the appearance of Nuna, convinced as he was that she must have been the female seen by the trader. He watched, however, in vain, and darkness came on without any human being having been seen, or any sign being discernible that the building was inhabited. Reginald, in his eagerness, would at once have approached the walls; but Buxsoo advised him to wait, in the hope that those within might have a lamp burning, the light from which, streaming through any window or crevice, might betray the part of the building they were occupying.
"Depend upon it, also, that some cunning officer commands the party, and he will be on the watch for the approach of enemies," observed Buxsoo. "My advice is that we wait till later in the night, when the sentries are likely to be drowsy, and we may then make our survey with less risk of being discovered."
Reginald agreeing to this proposal, the party lay down to rest,—he and Dick with their arms ready for instant use,—while they kept their eyes turned towards the building. Before long a ray of light shone forth from the dark walls. It proceeded, judging from its height, from a small window in an upper storey, and in a part of the edifice at a considerable distance from the tower. Though they watched carefully, no light appeared from the tower itself; but that might have been accounted for by the supposition that there were no windows in the sides towards them, and did not prove that the tower was uninhabited. The appearance of the light, moreover, made it probable that the persons seen by the trader were still there.
An hour or more passed, when Dick suggested that, as it was important to make their survey before the moon rose, it was time to get to the foot of the tower, and there judge what was to be done. So, still keeping under the shelter of the trees, they crept round to the further side of the building, on which the tower was situated, in order that they might get up to it without being seen by any one on the watch in the temple itself. A sentry posted on the top of the tower might have discovered them if he was awake and on the lookout; but they must of necessity run the risk of that—hoping, should one be there, to take him by surprise, and gag him before he could give the alarm. In the manner described they reached the foot of the tower,—as they hoped, without being observed by any one. They examined it as far as the darkness would allow; but neither a door nor a window was to be discovered. The stucco, however, with which it had formerly been covered, had in many places fallen out. Accustomed to climbing as Dick was, he confessed that even a cat would have a difficulty in reaching the top without other means than her claws. However, of this they felt sure—that no sentry was posted on the top of the tower; and that the chambers inside must either be lighted from the top or by very narrow loopholes.
"I have it, though," whispered Dick. "Just let me get a score or two of pegs: I will fix them one above another in those holes in the wall without making any noise; and then, by giving a turn with a rope round each of them, they will be kept all together—so that we may get to the top without the risk of breaking our necks."
Reginald at once agreed to Dick's proposal. It was the only way, indeed, by which they could hope to succeed. Next they all crept silently round the building, examining every portion in the hope of finding some loophole or aperture into which one of them might climb if such a place existed, and, if possible, to draw off the attention of the garrison while Reginald and Dick were lowering the ranee from the tower. There were apparently doors, but they were firmly closed; and the windows, and the other apertures which time had made in the walls, were too high up to be reached. It was evident that the building had lately been put into a state of defence, and that all openings by which an enemy could enter had been barricaded. This confirmed them in the belief that the ranee was imprisoned within, and that only by the plan they proposed could her liberation be effected.
As some time would be occupied in making the pegs as proposed by Dick, considering they had only their knives for cutting them, they had to defer the execution of their plan till the next night. They therefore stole back into the forest, in the far recesses of which they formed their camp. As, however, it was possible that the garrison might leave their fortress and carry the ranee with them, just before daylight, Sambro, who undertook to keep watch, stole back to the border of the wood,—where, concealed among the thick trees, he had a perfect view of the building, and could see if anybody went in or came out of it.
As they calculated that the tower was sixty feet in height, it was considered that thirty pegs, at least, would be required to reach the top. As soon as it was daylight they searched about for some hard wood, which, on being found, they set to work diligently to form into pegs. Its hardness made the operation a slow one, and they had to use great care for fear of turning the edges of their tools. Buxsoo was totally unaccustomed to the sort of work. Dick, indeed, had cut three pegs before either of the rest of the party had completed one. Reginald constantly looked out in the direction Sambro had taken, in the expectation of seeing him return with some tidings or other from the fort. But the day wore on and he did not appear. As he had taken provisions with him, they knew that he could remain at his post without any necessity for coming back for food, and they concluded, therefore, that nothing had occurred worth communicating.
Eager to carry their plan into execution, Reginald proposed returning to the tower without further delay, when a rustle was heard in the bushes, and Sambro crept up to the camp. He had seen, he said, several lights streaming from the upper part of the building, which made him suppose that there must be a good many people within. Still, as they could have no suspicion of the attempt about to be made, they would probably not interfere with their proceedings, and he thought that they might at all events commence operations without delay. Each of them, therefore, carrying a bundle of pegs, they crept back to the foot of the tower. Dick wisely selected the dark side, looking the same way as the back of the temple, on which the moon, when she got up, would not shine, and at once began fixing in the pegs. He soon found that he could not place them one above another, but had to choose the spots from which the plaster had fallen out; so that the pegs were sometimes on one side and sometimes on another. He could have proceeded much faster had he been able to use a stone for driving them in; but, of course, the noise that would have made would have led to the discovery of their proceedings. Up and up Dick climbed, fastening the rope securely to the pegs, so that did one come out he might save himself by the rope fixed to the others. Perseverance overcomes all difficulties. The end of the rope which hung down enabled him to haul up the other pegs as they were required.
At length he reached the parapet, and, climbing over, found himself standing on a flat roof. Reginald climbed up next, carrying the rope by which it was proposed to lower Nuna down. Sambro followed them, though, less accustomed to climbing than Reginald and Dick, he had much more difficulty than they had in getting up. Buxsoo remained below to keep watch, and to receive Nuna on her arrival at the bottom.
On searching about, a trap-door was found in the roof. It was easily lifted. Reginald stationed Sambro at the top, whilst he, revolver in hand, and followed by Dick, descended a flight of stone steps, carefully feeling his way, and not knowing what was at the bottom. By this time the moon was up, and her light streaming through the open trap enabled him to ascertain that he was in a large unfurnished chamber. Carefully groping his way round, he discovered another flight of steps, leading to the lower storey. He and Dick cautiously descended, feeling the wall with their hands, on the chance of discovering the door of a lower chamber, which they guessed must exist. They were right in their conjectures. Not only was a door found, but through the chinks proceeded the light of a lamp burning within. Could Nuna be there? That such was the case was probable; but the room, on the other hand, might be tenanted by a party of armed men, and should they open the door, there would be no little danger in finding themselves among them. The steps, it was evident, continued on to the lower part of the building. There might be other chambers, one of which might be that occupied by Nuna. Should they enter, or descend to the bottom of the tower? They listened at the door, but no sound came forth. This made Reginald believe that Nuna must be its occupant. Still, he thought it prudent to explore the lower part of the building before attempting to gain an entrance. He and Dick therefore descended, till he calculated that they were close at the bottom; and here they were stopped by a door. They remained perfectly quiet, when the sound of loud snoring reached their ears. Listening, they were convinced that it came from the other side of the door; and probably was produced by a sentry, either leaning against it or sitting on the ground. This convinced Reginald that the upper chamber was not occupied by armed men, and he therefore made a signal to Dick to reascend the steps. They crept carefully up, so as to avoid creating any noise which might awake the slumbering sentry.
On reaching the door, through which the light could still be discerned, he knocked gently, and putting his mouth to one of the crevices, he uttered Nuna's name in a low tone.
"Who is there?" was asked in a voice which he felt sure was his sister's.
He told her who he was, and that he had come to rescue her; when, a bolt being withdrawn, the door was opened, and there stood Nuna, pale and trembling with agitation. As there was no time to be lost, Reginald briefly told her that he had, with the rajah's permission, set out on an expedition to find her, and had been happily directed to the right spot.
"I have much more to tell you," he added, "but only understand that I have every right to protect you, and will do so with my life. Trust to me, and I hope to carry you back safely to your grandfather."
"I place perfect confidence in you," she answered.
He took her hand and led her up the steps to the top of the tower, preceded by Dick Thuddichum; and as soon as they had passed though the trap, Sambro gently closed it. Dick now lost no time in uncoiling the lengths of rope he had brought to the top for the purpose they had in view. To one end was attached a sort of cradle which he had thoughtfully constructed.
"If the young lady won't mind getting into this, we will lower her handsomely," he observed; "and she shall be safe at the bottom in less than no time."
Reginald explained to Nuna what was necessary, and she at once consented to be placed in the cradle, into which she was carefully fastened with Reginald and Dick's handkerchiefs.
"I hear some one moving below," whispered Sambro. "No time to lose;" and Reginald and Dick carefully lowered Nuna over the wall, and let her slowly descend, while Sambro kept watch on the trap. The end of the rope had been secured to some ironwork on the roof, and it was an immense relief when Reginald felt that Nuna had safely reached the ground.
"Now, sir, you go down by the rope, and take care of the young lady," said Dick, "and I will make the black find his way down by the ladder."
Before Reginald had reached the bottom, Buxsoo had released Nuna, who expressed her thankfulness at finding Reginald by her side.
"We must wait for our two followers before we take to flight," he said. "We will then endeavour to get to a distance from the place. Here comes one of them."
As he spoke, Sambro was seen descending the ladder. Before he reached the bottom, however, the sound of men struggling was heard, with the loud cries of a native, responded to by Dick Thuddichum's gruff voice.
"I must go and assist my faithful follower," exclaimed Reginald, preparing to ascend the ladder.
"Oh, do not leave me," cried Nuna.
The sound of the struggling now became more distinct. For a moment it ceased, and then a noise followed, as if a heavy body had fallen to the ground, apparently on the other side of the tower. Reginald sprang to the spot, dreading to find that it was that of honest Dick; but the white dress which covered the mangled heap of humanity showed him that it was a native who had been thrown down from that fearful height. Hurrying back, he caught sight of Dick rapidly descending the rope.
"We must be away from this pretty sharp, sir," he exclaimed; "for if we are not, we shall have a whole tribe of the ugly blackamoors after us. I pitched half-a-dozen of them down the steps, and then had to run for it. However, all is right at present, and it may be some time before they find their way out of the front door."
On receiving this startling intelligence, Reginald seized Nuna in his arms and bore her down the hill, Buxsoo keeping by his side, while Dick and Sambro brought up the rear to cover their retreat.
"I wish, Sambro, that you had had a musket or a brace of pistols, and we would have kept the enemy at bay till our masters had carried off the young lady out of danger," exclaimed Dick. "But, as it is, I must fight alone. Only let them come near enough; I'll plant my fist in the faces of some of them, and make their noses flatter than they have ever been before."
In a couple of minutes the fugitives had got to the bottom of the hill, and were making their way along the high road by which they had come, when Dick, turning round, discovered a number of men rushing out of the building, who had evidently caught sight of them. On they came, yelling like fiends; but they did not fire, apparently for fear of wounding the ranee. It seemed but too likely that the whole party would be taken prisoners, for what could two men do against the vastly superior number pursuing them!
"On, sir! On, sir!" cried Dick; "we will tackle the fellows, and Sambro will soon get hold of a musket or cutlass for himself. You meanwhile push ahead to the nearest village with the young lady, and Mr Buxsoo will tell the people who she is."
Dick, however, was calculating too much on his own powers, though he truly felt ready to do battle with the infuriated rebels coming up to him. They were not many paces off, when at that instant a tigress was seen bounding along towards them. Nuna, who caught sight of the savage-looking animal, uttered a scream. "There it comes! Oh, it will kill us!" she exclaimed. Reginald immediately called out, "Faithful! Faithful!" and the seemingly savage tigress came fawning up to him. Then turning round, he pointed at the pursuing foes, and a pat on Faithful's head made her leap on towards them. The moment they caught sight of her, as she flew at them snarling fiercely, they turned round and scampered up the hill faster than they had descended. Reginald hereupon—fearing that some of them, regaining their courage, might fire at her—called her off; upon which she came trotting back and took up a position immediately behind the party.
Once more they moved on; Dick and the tigress every now and then looking back to ascertain whether or not the enemy were following. The fright given them by the sudden appearance of the tigress prevented the rebels from again issuing out of their fortification, and Reginald and his friends were able to get some distance before daylight.
Nuna had repeatedly asked Reginald to set her down, but to this he would not consent, as she was not accustomed to walk over a rough road, and her delicate feet, shod only with embroidered slippers, were ill-fitted to support her. At length, however, he began to feel fatigued, and anxiously looked out for a place of safety, where they might rest till an elephant could be found to convey them to the city. They had observed on their way a temple in a very similar situation to the one from which they had just escaped. Buxsoo believed that that also was deserted, although it was not in a very ruinous condition. Being not far off, they made their way to it. A place of shelter was soon found within it, and Reginald placing his jacket and Buxsoo his outer robe on the ground, entreated Nuna to rest while they watched at a little distance. Faithful, who came in last, lay down in the gateway; evidently considering that it was her duty to keep a guard over the premises while her master and his friends occupied them.
Their chief inconvenience arose from want of food; for the provisions they had brought with them had been exhausted on the previous day, and Reginald felt that it would be impossible to proceed without some refreshment. Nuna assured him that she herself was not hungry, as she had had some supper brought to her soon after nightfall. She had been treated, she told him, with perfect respect.
They were still apprehensive of being pursued by the mutineers, so as soon as there was sufficient light they set to work to fortify the temple, and to close all the openings in the lower part of the building. This done, Buxsoo and Sambro hastened away to obtain provisions at the nearest village they could find; intending also to try and procure an elephant for the convenience of Nuna and Reginald, and, if possible, one for themselves and Dick.
After his companions had gone, Reginald seated himself by Nuna, and took the opportunity of recounting his history, and explaining to her who he was. She listened to him with great astonishment. At length she answered—
"I now understand why I have been brought up in a manner so different from the other women of rank in this country. My mother taught me her own religion, which she was allowed to enjoy; and she charged me, with her dying breath, should I ever marry, to teach my children the same. But I fear I really know little of its truths. I must get you, my brother, to instruct me, and tell me all about the country of our mother's ancestors."
While they were speaking Dick hurried up, exclaiming—
"Hurrah, sir! I see a body of sepoys with some English redcoats among them coming this way. We need no longer have any fear of the rebels."
"Are you certain that there are English soldiers among them? For if not, the men you take for sepoys may be the rebels themselves," observed Reginald. "It may be safer for you, my sister, to take shelter in the tower till we ascertain the truth; and we shall be able to defend you, as only one man at a time can force his way up."
Scarcely had Nuna ascended a few steps when half a company of sepoys, with a corporal and five English soldiers, and led by a British officer, appeared in front of the building.
Reginald shouted out to them that he was an Englishman, and that having rescued the rajah's daughter from a band of rebels, he was returning with her to her father.
"I don't believe you," answered the officer. "On, my lads, and capture the young fellow! From the information I have received, he is himself a rebel."
A second glance at the speaker showed Reginald that it was his acquaintance, Captain Hawkesford; but in another instant the gates were burst open, and the soldiers, rushing in, captured Dick, who was making his way to the foot of the steps on which Reginald stood with Nuna behind him, while Faithful crouched by his side glaring at the assailants.
"Back, I say—back; you are mistaken, my men," cried Reginald, drawing his revolvers. "Your lives be on your own heads, if you advance.—Fly up the steps, Nuna. Fly under shelter: in case they should dare to fire, the bullets may strike you."
Still the English soldiers advanced,—though the sepoys hung back, afraid of facing the tigress, and awed by Reginald's daring attitude. Unhappily the corporal, a brave fellow, believing that it was his duty to seize the supposed rebel, rushed forward, and began to mount the steps, presenting the point of his bayonet at Faithful; on which, no longer able to restrain herself, she sprang at his throat and gave him a death-gripe, hurling him down backwards a lifeless corpse, while his musket fell from his band.
"Fire!" cried Captain Hawkesford.
"If you do, I must fire in return," shouted Reginald.
As he spoke the bullets rattled thickly around his head; so he discharged both his pistols, and again urging Nuna to escape, he with a bound sprang after her, before another musket could be aimed at him; while Faithful, who had wonderfully escaped, kept the soldiers at bay, notwithstanding their commander's urgent orders to them to advance.
At that moment there was a cry raised by the sepoys—
"We are betrayed! We are betrayed! The rebel cavalry are upon us. We shall be cut to pieces."
On hearing this Captain Hawkesford turned round, and saw a large body of horse advancing, with an Englishman at their head. From their appointments and general appearance, he at once knew that they were a well-organised body of troops, and not like a rebel band; and as they advanced he recognised Captain Burnett, with whom he was personally acquainted. Even had they been rebels, they so far outnumbered his own company of sepoys and his small party of Englishmen that he would have had very little hope of contending with them successfully,—especially as the sepoys showed no inclination to fight. He had indeed from the first suspected that he had been misled by the information he had received. It had been given by the traitor Balkishen, in the hope that it would lead to the destruction of Reginald and the young ranee. He therefore considered that it would be wise to assume a pacific attitude; so as Burnett and his troopers advanced towards the gate he ordered his own men to ground their arms, and going forward, he shouted out—
"Glad to see you, Burnett! We have made a terrible mistake, misled by a rascally Brahmin; but, except that one poor fellow has lost his life, no great harm has been done."
"Who is it?" asked Burnett anxiously, fearing that he might allude to Reginald, of whom he had gained information from Buxsoo and Sambro at the village where he had met them as they were purchasing provisions.
Captain Hawkesford's answer relieved his anxiety; and he soon had evidence that Reginald was unhurt, by seeing him descend the steps, accompanied by Nuna; while Faithful stood at the foot glaring round at the strangers, of whose intentions she was not yet fully satisfied.
Reginald, from the place in which he had taken shelter, had observed Burnett's approach; and overhearing the conversation which had ensued, he knew that the tables were turned, and that his sister was at length in safety. Captain Hawkesford, who feared that very awkward consequences might ensue from his conduct, apologised to Reginald, and made all the excuses he could think of.
Reginald, however, received these somewhat stiffly. "Had the ranee, whom I had undertaken to conduct to her grandfather, been injured, the case would have been very different," he observed. "As it is, although you refused to believe my word when I assured you I was not a rebel, and that you had been deceived, I am ready to receive your apologies; and I must now request you to assist in making immediate arrangements for the conveyance of the young lady to Allahapoor, where her grandfather is anxiously awaiting her return."
Burnett, however, undertook that task, and despatched a party of his horsemen to the nearest place where elephants were to be found, to bring one with a proper howdah for the conveyance of the young ranee; while he also sent off another party to Allahapoor, to announce her recovery to the rajah.
Captain Hawkesford volunteered to remain in the meantime, with his men, for her protection. But Burnett politely declined his offer; observing, in a somewhat sarcastic tone, which he could not restrain, that she was as perfectly safe, guarded by his troopers, as she would be with the sepoys and the corporal's guard he had brought with him.
"Well, then," said Captain Hawkesford, "if my services are declined, it is my duty, I conceive, to rejoin the main body of the force sent to the assistance of the rajah. I will inform Colonel Ross that we were deceived by the information given us by the Brahmin, and that the supposed rebel was no other than Mr Hamerton, who was escorting the young lady home whom he had so gallantly rescued from imprisonment."
"Colonel Ross, did you say?" asked Reginald.
"Yes, sir. He is in command of the troops marching to Allahapoor; and he and his daughter—who accompanies him—will be much interested on hearing of your gallant exploit."
Reginald hesitated what remark to make. The news he had just heard gave him great pleasure, as he hoped that he might soon again meet Violet. At the same time, he felt sure that Captain Hawkesford would give a false colouring to what had occurred, and would try to make her jealous of the ranee and suspicious of his conduct. He was much inclined to explain the true state of affairs to Captain Hawkesford, so that he might be prevented from making out a story to his prejudice. Captain Hawkesford, however, saw very clearly that Burnett did not wish for his presence; so desiring his syce to bring up his horse, he hastily mounted, and ordering his men to march, rode off—the dead body of the unfortunate corporal being carried by some of the sepoys, whose low caste allowed them thus to employ themselves.
Dick Thuddichum, who had been liberated, watched them with no very friendly eye. "The next time you manhandle a fellow, just be good enough to ask whether he is a friend or an enemy," he shouted out. "If it had not been for the sharp points of your bayonets, I should have laid not a few of you sprawling on the ground before you had got me down, I can tell you."
Reginald, however, soon pacified his follower, and told him to look after Faithful, who seemed disposed to chase the sepoys, and might possibly have laid her paws upon some of them, or have fought to recover her victim, whom she probably considered her lawful prey.
"I am glad that the fellow has gone," exclaimed Burnett, who had heard from Reginald of Captain Hawkesford's manner towards him on board the Glamorgan Castle. "I never liked him; and his conduct in this affair has not favourably impressed me. You, at all events, will soon have an opportunity of seeing Miss Ross, and explaining matters to her."
While waiting the arrival of the expected elephants, Nuna was resting beneath the shade of some wide-spreading trees, close to the walls of the temple. Reginald seated himself by her side, and invited Burnett to join them. Nuna seemed in no way displeased, and listened with eagerness to the conversation which ensued between the two; though unable, from her imperfect knowledge of English, to understand more than a few words. Reginald told Burnett more of her history than he was yet acquainted with—that she not only had English blood in her veins, but had been instructed in her mother's faith; and the more, indeed, Burnett saw of the young creature, the more he admired her, and a warmer feeling than he had yet allowed himself to entertain took possession of his breast. He could not believe that she would willingly consent to become the wife of a native prince; so he resolved to devote his life to her service, hoping to be the means of preserving her from the dangers to which, from the unsettled state of the country, she must be exposed, and to win her some day as his bride. That he was her brother's friend, he naturally felt was much in his favour; and he believed he was not too presumptuous in thinking she would regard him with interest. He was able to converse with her in her native tongue; and for the next few days, till their arrival at Allahapoor, he would enjoy her society far more easily than he could expect to do when she had returned to the rajah's court.
The troopers meantime were resting beneath the trees scattered around, while their horses were picketed near. They probably looked on with astonishment at the familiar way their leader and the young stranger were conversing with the ranee, so contrary to the customs of the country.
Some time had passed, when two elephants were seen approaching, with several men on foot. On the back of one was a handsome howdah without occupants; on the other rode Buxsoo, with Sambro, who had engaged the animals, and made all arrangements for the journey. He had also brought some provisions, which were very welcome both to the ranee and her brother. They spent but a short time in discussing these; after which, the elephant kneeling down, the ranee took her seat in the howdah, urgently begging Reginald to accompany her.
"The sooner our relationship is known the better," she observed. "Our grandfather can have no objection. A few words to Buxsoo will be quite sufficient; and if you tell him that the fact need not be kept secret, it will soon be known among all our followers."
Reginald saw no objection to this; and scarcely had the elephants begun to move on when loud shouts rent the air, issuing from the throats of the troopers, and the peasantry who had accompanied the elephants, expressive of wishes for the happiness and prosperity of the young rajah and his sister the ranee. Thus they moved on, the news preceding them, spread by the advance-guard of cavalry.
As the roads were far from good, the elephants travelled at a slow pace. Having no tents, they were compelled to deviate from the high road in order to remain during the night at the house of a wealthy khan; who, of course, was highly honoured in receiving the grandchildren of the rajah, though he looked askance at Reginald, as if he doubted whether the account he had heard was true. He received them, however, with every outward mark of respect. As the elephant knelt down, they dismounted from the howdah, and Nuna was conducted to the apartments of the females of the family. An entertainment was afterwards prepared for Reginald and Burnett; but at this it was contrary to the custom of the country for Nuna to be present. She, indeed, was far too much fatigued and agitated to leave her couch; and the next morning she appeared to be worse, and unable to proceed on the journey. Reginald and Burnett were anxious to place her in safety with the rajah, and were much disappointed, besides being grieved at hearing of her illness. She sent them word, however, that she hoped, after another night's rest, to be so far restored as to be able to proceed without further delay.
To pass the time away, their host proposed a hunt in the forest. While Reginald was getting ready, Dick Thuddichum presented himself, and asked whether he was to go also.
"No, Dick; I wish you to remain with Faithful, and act as a guard to my sister. Our host may be a very honest gentleman, but I don't like to leave her without protection; and had it not been for the sake of Captain Burnett, I would myself have remained behind."
As Reginald was going through the courtyard to mount his horse he met his friend Buxsoo, who, in a low voice, said—
"Be on your guard. I would that you had refused the invitation of the khan. There are foes on the watch to injure you; and if you can, unobserved, get the ear of your friend, I would urge you to tell him what I say, and to make an excuse for returning speedily without exciting suspicion. I have told Sambro to accompany you. Trust to him."
From the experience Reginald had already had of the natives, he fully believed that Buxsoo had good reason for warning him, and he promised to follow the advice he had received.
As they rode along he took the opportunity of telling Burnett what he had heard.
"It may be the case; but I should like to stick a few pigs first," was his friend's answer.
The khan had ordered some tents to be pitched, in which, before returning, they could take refreshment. The distance was greater than Reginald had expected; but they were rewarded for their long ride by finding ample sport, and soon, excited in the chase, he forgot all about the warning he had received. At length, by some chance, he was separated from his companions. When quite alone he encountered a wild boar, which the low underwood prevented him from assailing to advantage, while the savage beast with its sharp tusks severely injured his steed before he could plunge his spear into its side. In doing so his weapon broke. The animal again attacked him, and he was compelled to draw his pistol and shoot it dead, to save his horse from further injury. Unwilling to lose the spear, however, he dismounted to draw it out; and while thus engaged he inadvertently let slip his rein. For a few moments the horse stood quietly by his side; but, suddenly seized with a panic, off it started at full speed before he could catch hold of the rein. Having recovered the spearhead, he sprang after the animal, hoping to catch it before it had got far. He continued on for several minutes, keeping the steed in view, in spite of the obstructions in his way, when he caught sight of the tents, near which he had no doubt he should find the rest of the party; and thinking it probable the instinct of his horse would lead it towards its companions. Considering, therefore, that it was useless to exert himself further, he was walking leisurely on, when, to his horror, he saw a huge tiger in the act of springing at him from the jungle. He had just time to shout at the top of his voice, in the hope of attracting the attention of any of his companions who might be near, and to grasp the broken end of his spear, when, as he instinctively leaped on one side to avoid the first spring of the tiger, his foot slipped and he fell on his back, holding the spear in a perpendicular position, with the point upwards. The savage animal came directly down upon him, with its huge jaws open to seize him by the neck; but as it did so, the point of the spear entering at its chest made it again attempt to bound backwards. Still one blow of its mighty paw, in its death-struggle, might, Reginald knew, break a limb or inflict a mortal injury; so again he shouted out, while he endeavoured to drag himself from under the savage animal, which still retained life sufficient to destroy him. He had now cause to regret that he had not brought Faithful, who would undoubtedly have fought bravely in his defence, and might have prevented the tiger from springing on him. Retaining his presence of mind, he kept the spear in a perpendicular position, hoping that it would soon find its way to the heart of his assailant. Still the tiger struggled more to escape than to attack him, when suddenly there came the sound of a shot, and the creature rolled over dead with a rifle-ball in its head. On looking up, he saw Burnett hurrying towards him.
His friend now assisted him to rise; and though his clothes were torn and his flesh deeply scarred with the claws of the animal, he found that he had received no material injury. He and Burnett soon reached the camp, where the khan and their other companions, with apparent cordiality, congratulated him on his escape.
"Knowing the courage of you Englishmen, I am sure that your adventure will not induce you to abandon the sport for the day," observed the khan, in a tone which at once raised Reginald's suspicions, and instantly the warning he had received from Buxsoo flashed into his mind.
The same thought occurred to Burnett, who replied:
"I cannot allow my friend to exert himself further, as, slight as his injuries may appear, a fever might be brought on; so I must insist on his returning to the house."
"As the sahibs think fit; but they will take some refreshment before they start," observed the khan.
Rich viands were placed in the centre of the tent, around which the party seated themselves. Sambro appeared among the attendants. As he passed behind Reginald and Burnett he whispered, "Take only what I give you." Neither of them had any great appetite. Reginald, indeed, even without Sambro's warning, had no inclination to eat, and after partaking of a dish the faithful slave placed before him, declined all other food. He likewise simply drank a glass of sherbet which Sambro poured out for him.
Immediately the repast was over, Burnett desired that the horses might be brought up, and declining the pressing request of their entertainer that he would hunt for a short time while his friend rested in a tent, he rode off with Reginald, the natives being compelled to follow. Well accustomed to traversing a wild country, even without a guide, Reginald had taken careful note of the way they had come, and was thus able to go ahead without waiting for the rest of the party. They reached the khan's house in safety, where they found a party of horsemen arrived from the city, with a despatch from the rajah to Reginald, highly praising him for his conduct, and expressing a desire that he would at once assume the costume becoming his rank, with which he had sent an officer of state to invest him. Though Reginald, whose notions were very far from Oriental, would much rather have retained his unassuming dress, he felt that it was right to obey his grandfather. Burnett being of the same opinion, he therefore submitted to being rigged out, as he called it, in the jewelled turban and rich robes which had been prepared for him.
"I hope, sir, as how they don't want me to dress up in petticoats?" observed Dick, with a comical twist of his features. "I'd rather be as I am, unless you order me."
"No, Dick; I think that will not be necessary except on state occasions, when, if I want a henchman, I would rather have you than any native."
Dick was satisfied, and agreed to rig himself out like a Turk, or in any other strange fashion, whenever his master required him to do so.
Next morning, Nuna had sufficiently recovered to continue the journey; and for the first time Reginald sat by her side on the back of the elephant, and appeared in public as an Indian prince. As they moved through the villages crowds assembled to do them honour, though Reginald felt more pain than pleasure as he witnessed the abject way in which the natives bowed down, touching the ground with their foreheads on either side of the elephant as they moved along.
Having started at an early hour, they made good progress, but they were still several days' journey from the capital. Burnett, who rode at the head of his troopers, was some little way in advance of the elephants, when, towards evening, a horseman came galloping up. He brought unsatisfactory intelligence. The rebels having reunited, were in great force not far off, and with so valuable a prize in view as the ranee and the young rajah, as Reginald was already called, they might be tempted to make an attack on the party. They had some light field-pieces, as well as horse and foot, against whom Burnett's troopers would find it difficult to contend. Had he been called on to meet them without having the ranee to defend, he would not have hesitated; but the risk was too great to run if it could be avoided. Not far off was a strong fort, however, and he judged it wise to throw himself into it till he could obtain reinforcements, either from Allahapoor or from the troops under Colonel Ross.
Reginald of course agreed to his proposal, and before nightfall the party was safe within the fort. It had, it appeared, been occupied a short time before by the rebels, but had been again abandoned by them. An apartment was quickly made ready for the ranee. The night passed away without the appearance of the insurgents; indeed, they were not likely to attack the fort with the garrison it now contained.
The next morning, as Reginald and Burnett were walking on the battlements, they caught sight of a body of men approaching the fort, so the garrison were immediately called to arms. As the advancing forces drew nearer, however, Burnett and Reginald discovered, to their great satisfaction, the English flag; and in a little time they could distinguish a body of sepoys and a small party of Europeans. They immediately ordered their horses out to meet the officer in command, who was some way ahead of his men.
"Faith, I am glad to see you all alive!" exclaimed the officer, as he and Captain Burnett shook hands. "We were given to believe that you were surrounded by a whole host of rebels, and I expected by this time to be engaged in cutting them to pieces like mincemeat."
"We have not so much as seen an enemy," answered Burnett; "but understanding that they were likely to attack us on the road to Allahapoor, I thought it prudent to halt here, in order to wait till we could obtain reinforcements from the capital, as we have the young ranee in our charge."
"So Colonel Ross understood," observed the officer "And now have the goodness to introduce me to this young prince, sultan, or rajah, or whatever he is; and just interpret what I say, for I am no great hand at talking their lingo."
"With all my heart," answered Burnett.
"Then just tell him that Major Molony, of Her Britannic Majesty's 990th Regiment of Foot, desires to express his delight and satisfaction at having arrived with a force under his command to defend him against all the foes, past, present, and future, who may venture to interfere with him in the execution of the humane and beneficent laws which he has established for the peace and prosperity of his people. I conclude he does not cut off more than half-a-dozen heads a day, and only confiscates the property of those of his nobles who are unable to defend themselves."
Burnett began to translate what the major had said. Unfortunately Reginald could not command his countenance, so putting out his hand, he exclaimed, laughing heartily—
"I assure you, my dear major, you scarcely do me justice. Half-a-dozen heads a day! That's nothing. How do you think I could keep the country in order by such simple means? People would look upon me as a mere milksop. Put it down as a hundred, and you would be quite as near the mark."
Burnett now joined in the laugh at the major's astonishment and confusion.
"I beg your highness's pardon," he exclaimed. "I had no idea you could speak English. Faith, you speak it remarkably well too, I assure you, on my honour; and I hope your highness is not offended at the remark I made."
"Not at all," said Reginald, still laughing. "May I ask after Mrs Molony, and whether she has recovered from her voyage in the Glamorgan Castle?"
"Why, as I am alive," exclaimed the major, "I do believe that you are Mr Reginald Hamerton! And your highness will pardon me if I make a mistake."
Reginald at once acknowledged who he was, and the major, greatly relieved, rode on with him and Burnett to the fort. Scouts were at once sent out to ascertain, if possible, the position and strength of the enemy. Major Molony said that he had received orders to assist in escorting the ranee to Allahapoor; and it was agreed that, as soon as they received intelligence that a force was marching out of that city to assist them, they should proceed,—the major feeling confident that his sepoys would be able to keep in check any number of the rebel forces.
A GUNPOWDER PLOT—COCHUT CAUGHT—BALKISHEN HOISTED WITH HIS OWN PETARD— THE MAJOR'S NARROW ESCAPE—COCHUT GIVES IMPORTANT INFORMATION—DICK DESPATCHED WITH IT TO CALCUTTA—REGINALD ENTERS THE CITY—THE RAJAH'S ILLNESS—TIDINGS OF THE CASKET—VISIT TO THE TEMPLE—THE CASKET RECOVERED—DEATH OF THE RAJAH.
The traitor Balkishen had not been idle. He had managed to collect the rebel forces, and had been with them in the very fort that Reginald and his party now occupied. When they evacuated it, he with his slave Bikoo had remained behind, intending to proceed from thence secretly to Allahapoor, according to the information he might receive from his ally, Khan Cochut. Below the fort were some vaults in which, some time before, the rebels had stowed a large supply of powder and other munitions of war, concealed in huge oil-casks. Just as he was about to set out, he was joined by Cochut, who brought intelligence which seemed to afford the two conspirators immense satisfaction.
"The fatal draught has been taken,—there can be no doubt of it. The whole city will soon be in a tumult!" whispered the khan, as if afraid the very walls would hear him. "Our friends will take possession of the city, and the young rajah will be disappointed of his hopes. When you arrive, they will receive you with shouts of joy, as they know you will restore the good old ways, and have nothing to do with the infidel Feringhees. For myself, I detest the English, and should delight in seeing them driven out of the whole of India."
Balkishen assured Khan Cochut that his services should be amply rewarded; and they agreed to remain a day or two longer in the fort, and then to proceed leisurely to Allahapoor, calculating that they should receive the expected intelligence of the rajah's death just before they reached the city. The sudden arrival of Burnett's advance-guard, however, prevented them from escaping, and they found themselves shut up like rats in a hole, with a scanty supply of food, and afraid to strike a light lest a spark should set fire to the combustible materials around them.
A day and a night passed away. Unless they could make their escape, all their plans would be defeated; for if Balkishen could not make his appearance in the city at the right moment, a rival might gain the power, from which it would be difficult to displace him.
They were neither of them very conscientious persons. A bright idea struck Balkishen. "We may blow up the fort," he whispered to his friend, "destroy the ranee and her brother, and make our escape in the confusion. You are a brave man, Khan Cochut, and shall have the post of honour. While Bikoo and I seize three horses, you shall have the privilege of lighting the slow match; and we shall have time to reach our steeds and gallop off before the stones come rattling about our heads."
"I am much obliged to you for the compliment," answered Cochut; "but I must leave that honour to you. I am unable to run fast, and should prefer securing the horses."
Cochut was so positive, that at length Balkishen, who calculated that the task of setting fire to the slow match might be the least dangerous, undertook it. Afraid of creeping out by daylight, they were unable to ascertain what was taking place in the fort above them; but they calculated that the most propitious time for putting their nefarious project into execution would be just before daybreak.
At length the time arrived. Balkishen had prepared a long slow match.
"Now, my friend," he said, "do you and Bikoo creep out and secure three horses, and I will light the slow match."
Khan Cochut, who was unusually brave when any wicked deed was to be done, silently made his way out of the vault through a door which led into a narrow passage, and from this into an open court. Knowing that he might meet with opposition from some of the syces in charge of the horses, he held a pistol in his hand. A few threatening words, he thought, would induce them to keep silence. He was surprised to find that the dawn had already broken. He hesitated a minute; but recollecting that Balkishen would by this time have set fire to the slow match, he boldly stepped out from behind the wall which concealed him, closely followed by Bikoo. As he did so, he found himself face to face with a powerful-looking black slave conducting an elephant across the yard. The slave looked at him for an instant, and, pronouncing his name, asked him where he was going. Instead of replying, he pointed his pistol at the black's head, expecting to intimidate him. The next instant his weapon was knocked out of his hand; and the slave, seizing him by the throat, exclaimed, "You are the traitor who carried off the young ranee. You must come with me to the rajah, and tell him what you have been doing here."
"I'll come, my friend, willingly," exclaimed Cochut; "only take me out of the fort. You don't know what is going to happen. You and I and the elephant may be blown into atoms in a few minutes. Take me out of the fort,—take me out of the fort! Quick! Quick!"
"That's where I am going to take you," answered Sambro; for he was the black slave. "Come along, my friend; come along."
At that moment casting his eyes on Bikoo, who stood trembling near by, he made a sign to the elephant, which immediately wound its trunk round the slave's body, and walked behind Sambro and the khan. To the surprise of the latter, he found the gates open, and saw a number of elephants and a large party of foot and horse winding along the road. He and his fellow-conspirator, not being aware of the custom of English troops to perform their marches during the cooler hours of the day—that is to say, in the latter part of the day and early in the morning—had not calculated on the possibility of their prey escaping them. Still, apparently, some of the troops had not left the fort; and he could only hope that those he wished to destroy were still there. He therefore turned many an anxious glance back at the fort, and kept urging Sambro to move faster.
Meanwhile, Balkishen having waited till he thought his accomplice would have been able to secure the horses, set fire to the train, and then hurried away to join him. On ascending the steps, however, his foot slipped and down he fell. In vain he shouted to Khan Cochut and Bikoo to come and help him. The slave was too far off to hear his master's voice. The match went on burning, approaching the fatal barrel with fearful rapidity. In vain Balkishen endeavoured to rise. He had dislocated his ankle, or otherwise injured it. Again and again he shrieked out. Though unable to stand, he crawled up the steps. To save his life, he must have run faster than he had ever before done. In his imagination he pictured the match not an inch from the barrel. In a few seconds the fire would touch the powder, and all would be over.
Major Molony had mounted his horse, and the sepoys having moved on, the European troop had just fallen in outside the fort, and were beginning to march, when suddenly an awful roar was heard, and a vast sheet of flame ascended from the middle of the fort. The major, clapping spurs into his horse's flanks and dashing forward, ordered his men to run for their lives. But the warning came too late, for many of the poor fellows were struck down. Though pieces of stone and huge masses of timber fell around on every side, the gallant major escaped uninjured, as did happily the larger portion of his men; and, as he rode forward to meet Burnett, who came galloping up, he passed Sambro, dragging on Khan Cochut, and the elephant carrying the slave Bikoo. Sambro explained the way in which he had captured the khan and his companion, and described their suspicious conduct. Burnett ordered him to give them in charge of a party of sepoys, who were directed on no account to let them escape.
A short halt was called, for the purpose of burying the dead. During the time, Burnett and the major examined the fort, but made no discovery which enabled them to fathom the mysterious circumstance. Not a living being remained within it. Should any unfortunate persons have been left behind, they must have been blown to pieces. Burnett then rode forward to explain what had happened to Reginald; but as a long delay was unadvisable, he deferred the examination of Khan Cochut and his companion till their noonday halt.
Though Reginald was very happy to devote himself to his young sister, and to go through any amount of ceremony which his new position demanded of him, he soon got tired of sitting in a howdah; so ordering a horse to be prepared, he mounted, and took his place with Burnett at the head of his troops.
The scouts sent out returned with the report that the enemy had retreated—probably overawed by the imposing force protecting the ranee—and the intelligence that other troops were advancing from the capital. A strong body of these troops were met at the spot fixed on for the noonday halt, and handsomely-furnished tents were already pitched.