Without another word, the Prince got up and shuffled in his decorated slippers to a door at one end of the cloister. Five minutes later Ali Partab—high-chinned, but looking miserable—was led between two men through the same door, while the old woman went on very ostentatiously with her sweeping about the yard. She even turned her back, to prove how little she was interested.
Ali Partab was hustled forward into a high-ceilinged room, whose light came filtered through a scrollwork mesh of chiselled stone where the wall and ceiling joined. There were no windows, but six doors opened from it, and every one of them was barred, as though they opened into treasure-vaults. The Prince sat restlessly in a high, carved wooden chair; there was no other furniture at all, and Ali Partab was left standing between his guards. The Prince drew a pistol from inside his clothing.
"Leave us alone!" he ordered; and the guards went out, closing the door behind them.
"I gave no orders for your capture," said Jaimihr, with a smile.
"Then, let me go," grinned Ali Partab.
"First, I must be informed on certain matters."
Ali Partab still grinned, but the muscles of his face changed their position slightly, and it took no expert in physiognomy to read that questions he would answer must be very tactfully asked.
"You are Mahommed Gunga's man?"
"Yes. It is an honorable service."
"Did he order you to stay here?"
"Here—in this palace? Allah forbid!"
"Did he order you to stay in Howrah?"
"He gave me certain orders. I obeyed them until your men invited swift death for themselves and you by interfering with me!"
"What were the orders?"
Ali Partab grinned again—this time insolently.
"To make sure that the Jaimihr-sahib did not make away with the treasure of his brother Howrah!" he answered.
"If you were released now what would you proceed to do?"
"To obey my orders."
Jaimihr changed his tactics and assumed the frequently successful legal line of pretending to know far more than he really did.
"I am told by one who overheard you speak that you were to take the missionary and his daughter to Alwa's place. How much is my brother Howrah paying for Mahommed Gunga's services in this matter? It is well known that he and Alwa between them could call out all the Rangars in the district for whichever side they chose. Since they are not on my side, they must be for Howrah. How much does he pay? I might offer more."
"I know not," said Ali Partab, perfectly ready to admit anything that was not true.
"It is true, then, that Howrah has designs on the missionary's daughter? Alwa is to keep her prisoner until the great blow is struck, and Howrah dare take possession of her?"
"That is not my business," answered Ali Partab, with the air of a man who knew all of the secret details but would not admit it. Jaimihr began to think that he had lit at random on the answer to the riddle.
"Where is Mahommed Gunga?"
"I know not."
"At Alwa's place?"
"Am I God that I should know where any man is whom I cannot see?"
"Oh! So he is at Alwa's, eh?" That overdose of opium had rendered Jaimihr's brain very dull indeed; he considered himself clever, and overlooked the fact that Ali Partab would be almost surely lying to him. In India men never tell the truth to chance-met strangers or to their enemies; the truth is a valuable thing, to be shared cautiously among friends.
"If Mahommed Gunga is at Alwa's," reasoned Jaimihr, "then he is much too close at hand to take any chances with. I must keep this man close confined." He raised his voice in a high-pitched command, and the guards opened the door instantly; at a sign from the Prince they seized Ali Partab by the wrists.
"I will send a message to Mahommed Gunga for thee," said Jaimihr. "On his answer will depend your release or otherwise." He nodded. The guards took their prisoner out between them—led him past the wrinkled old woman in the courtyard—and halted him in a far corner, where an evil-smelling cage of a place stood open to receive him. A moment later, in order to make sure, the master of the horse sent for the old woman and made her sweep out the cell a little; then he drove her away with a fierce injunction not to let herself be caught anywhere near the cell again unless ordered. Following the line of eastern reasoning, had he not given that order he would not have known what her object could be should she make her way toward the cell; but now, if she risked his wrath by disobeying, he would know beyond the least shadow of a doubt that she had a message to deliver to the prisoner—the man who was hidden in the dark corner need entertain no hope of keeping the secret to himself for purposes of sale or blackmail!
They trust each other wonderfully—with an almost childlike confidence—in a household such as Jaimihr's!
Ho! I am king! All lesser fry Must cringe, and crawl, and cry to me, And none have any rights but I,— Except the right to lie to me.
JAIMIHR was not the only man who would have dearly liked to know of the whereabouts of Mahommed Gunga. It had been reported to Maharajah Howrah, by his spies, that the redoubtable ex-Risaldar of horse had visited his relatives in Howrah City, and, though he had not been able to ascertain a word of what had passed, he was none the less anxious.
He knew, of course—for every soul in Howrah knew—that Jaimihr was plotting for the throne. He knew, too, that the priests of Siva, who with himself were joint keepers of the wickedly won, tax-swollen treasure, had sounded Jaimihr; they had tentatively hinted that they might espouse his cause, provided that an equitable division of the treasure were arranged beforehand. The question uppermost in Maharajah Howrah's mind was whether the Rangars—the Moslem descendants of once Hindoo Rajputs, who formed such a small but valuable proportion of the local population—could or could not be induced to throw in their lot with him.
No man on the whole tax-ridden countryside believed or considered it as a distant possibility that the Rangars would strike for any hand except their own; they were known, on the other hand, to be more or less cohesive, and it was considered certain that, whichever way they swung, when the priest-pulled string let loose the flood of revolution, they would swing all together. The question, then, was how to win the favor of the Rangars. It was not at all an easy question, for the love lost between Hindoos and Mohammedans is less than that between dark-skinned men and white—a lot less.
Within two hours of its happening he had been told of the capture of Ali Partab; and he knew—for that was another thing his spies had told him—that Ali Partab was Mahommed Gunga's man. Apparently, then, Ali Partab—a prisoner in Jaimihr's palace-yard—was the only connecting link between him and the Rangars whom he wished to win over to his side. He was as anxious as any to help overwhelm the British, but he naturally wished to come out of the turmoil high and dry himself, and he was, therefore, ready to consider the protection of individual British subjects if that would please the men whom he wanted for his friends.
Mahommed Gunga was known to have carried letters for the missionaries. He was known to have engaged a new servant when he rode away from Howrah and to have left his trusted man behind. Miss McClean was known to have conversed with the retainer, immediately after which the man had been seized and carried off by Jaimihr's men. Jaimihr was known to have placed watchers round the mission house and—once—to have killed a man in Miss McClean's defense. The deduction was not too far-fetched that the retainer had been left as a protection against Jaimihr, and consequently that the Rangars, at the behest of Mahommed Gunga, had decided—on at least the white girl's safety.
Therefore, he argued, if he now proceeded to protect the McCleans, he would, at all events, not incur the Rangars' enmity.
It was a serious decision that he had to make, for, for one thing, he dared not yet make any move likely to incite his strongly supported brother to open rebellion; he dared not, therefore, interfere at present with the watchers near the mission house. To openly befriend the Christian priests would be to set the whole Hindoo population against himself, for it had been mainly against suttee and its kindred horrors that the missionaries had bent all their energy.
The great palace of Howrah was ahum. Elephants with painted tusks, and loaded to the groaning-point under howdahs decked with jewels and gold-leaf, came and went through the carved entrance-gates. Occasionally camels, loaded too until their legs all but buckled underneath them, strutted with their weird, mixed air of foolishness and dignity, to be disburdened of great cases that eight men could scarcely lift; on the outside the cases were marked "Hardware," but a horde of armed and waiting malcontents scattered about the countryside could have given a more detailed and accurate guess at what was in them.
Men came and went—men almost of all castes and many nationalities. Priests—not all of them fat, but every single one fat-smiling—sunned themselves, or waited in the shade until they could have audience; no priest of any Hindoo temple had to wait long to be admitted to that Rajah's presence, and there was an everlasting chain of them, each with his axe to grind, coming and going by day and night.
Color rioted in the blazing sun and deep, dark shadows lurked in all the thousand places where the sun could never penetrate. It was India in essence—noise and blaze and flouted splendor, with a back-ground and underground of mystery. Any but the purblind British could have told at half a glance, merely by the attitude of Howrah's armed sepoys, that a concerted movement of some kind was afoot—that there was a tight-held thread of plan running through the whole confusion; but no man—not even a native—could have guessed what secret plotting might be going on within the acres of the straggling palace.
From the courtyard there was no least hint obtainable even of the building's size; its shape could only have been marked down from a bird's-eye view aloft. Even the roof was so uneven, and so subdivided by traced and deep-carved walls and ramparts, that a sentry posted at one end could not have seen the next man to him, perhaps some twenty feet away. Building had been piled on building—other buildings had been added end to end and crisscrosswise—and each extension had been walled in as new centuries saw new additions, until the many acres were a maze of bricks and stone and fountain-decorated gardens that no lifelong palace denizen could have learned to know in their entirety.
Within—one story up above the courtyard din—in a spacious, richly decorated room that gave on to a gorgeous roof-garden, the Maharajah sat and let himself be fanned by women, who were purchasable for perhaps a tenth of what any of the fans had cost. Another woman, younger than the rest, played wild minor music to him on an instrument not much unlike a flute; they were melancholy notes—beautiful—but sad enough to sow pessimism's seed in any one who listened.
His divan—carved, inlaid, and gilded—faced the wide, awning-hung opening to the garden. Round him on all three sides was a carved stone screen through whose interstices came rustlings and whisperings that told of the hidden life which sees and is not seen. The women with the fans and flute were mere court accessories; the real nerves of Asia—the veiled intriguers whom none may know but whose secret power any man may feel—could be heard like caged birds crowding on their perches.
Now and then glass bracelets tinkled from behind the screen; ever and again the music stopped, until another girl appeared to play another melancholy air. But the even purring of the fans went on incessantly, and the poor, priest-ridden fool who owned it all scowled straight in front of him, his brows lined deep in thought.
It is a strange malady, that which seizes men whom fate has elevated to a throne. It acts as certain Indian drugs are known to do—deprives its victim of the power to act, but intensifies his ability to think, and theorize, and feel. Howrah, with untold treasure in his vaults, with an army of five thousand men, with the authority and backing that a hundred generations give, could long for more—could fear the loss of what he did have—but could not act.
The priests held him fear-bound. His brother held him hate-bound. His women—and not even he knew, probably, how many of them languished in the secret warren inside those palace walls—kept him restless in a net of this-and-that-way-tugged intrigue. Flattery—and that is by far the subtlest poison of the East—blinded him utterly to his own best course, and kept him blind. Luxury unmanned him; he who had once held the straightest spear in western India, and for the love of feeling red blood racing in his veins had ridden down panthers on the maidan, was flabby now; deep, dark rings underlined his eyes and the once steel-sinewed wrist trembled.
His brother Jaimihr in his place, unsapped yet by decadent delights, would have loosed his five thousand on the countryside—butchered any who opposed him—pressed into service those who merely lagged—and would have plunged India in a welter of blood before the priests had time to mature their plans and arrange to keep all the power and plunder to themselves. But Jaimihr had to stalk lesser game and content himself with pricking at the ever-growing hate that gradually rendered the Maharajah decisionless and sorry only for himself.
A first glimpse at Howrah, particularly in the shaded room, showed a handsome man, black-bearded, lean, and lithe; a second look, undazzled by his jewelry or by the studied magnificence of each apparently unstudied movement, betrayed a man whose lightest word was law, but who feared to give the word. Where muscles had been were unfilled folds of skin that shook; where a firm if selfish mouth had once smiled merrily beneath a pointed black mustache, a mouth still smiled, but meanly; the selfishness was there, but the firmness had faded.
His eyes, though, were his most marked feature. They were hungry eyes, pathetic as a caged beast's and as savage. No one could see them without pitying him, and no man in his senses would have accepted their owner's word on any point at all. A man looks as he did when the fire of a burning velt has circled him and there is no way out. There was fear behind them, and the look of restless search for safety that is nowhere.
In one of the many-columned courtyards of the palace was a chained, mad elephant whose duty was to kneel on the Rajah's captive enemies. In another courtyard was a big, square tank with a weedy, slippery stone ramp at one end; in the tank were alligators; down the ramp other of the Rajah's enemies, tight-bound, would scream and struggle and slide from time to time. But they were only little enemies who died in that way; the greater ones, who had power or influence, lived on and plotted, because the owner of the execution beasts was afraid to put them to their use.
Below, in damp, unlit dungeons, there were silken cords suspended from stone ceilings; their ends were noosed, and the nooses hung ten feet above the floor; those told only, though, of the fate of women who had schemed unwisely—favorites of a week, perhaps, who had dared to sulk, listeners through screens who had forgotten to forget. No men died ever by the silken cord, and no tales ever reached the outside world of who did die down in the echoing brick cellars; there was a path that led underground to the alligator tank and a trap-door that opened just above the water edge. Night, and the fungus-fouled long jaws, and slimy, weed-filled water—the creak of rusty hinges—a splash—the bang of a falling trap—a swirl in the moonlit water, and ring after heavy, widening ring that lapped at last against the stone would write conclusion to a tragedy. There would be no record kept.
Howrah was childless. That, of all the hell-sent troubles that beset him, was the worst. That alone was worse than the hoarded treasure whose secret he and his brother and the priests of Siva shared. Only in India could it happen that a line of Rajahs, drag-net-armed—oblivious to the duties of a king and greedy only of the royal right to tax—could pile up, century by century, a hoard of gold an jewels—to be looked at. The secret of that treasure made the throne worth plotting for—gave the priests, who shared the secret, more than nine tenths of their power for blackmail, pressure, and intrigue—and grew, like a cancer, into each succeeding Rajah's mind until, from a man with a soul inside him he became in turn a heartless, fear ridden miser.
Any childless king is liable to feel the insolent expectancy betrayed by the heir apparent. But Jaimihr—who had no sons either—was an heir who understood all of the Indian arts whereby a man of brain may hasten the succession. Worry, artfully stirred up, is the greatest weapon of them all, and never a day passed but some cleverly concocted tale would reach the Rajah, calculated to set his guessing faculties at work.
Either of the brothers, when he happened to be thirsty, would call his least-trusted counsellor to drink first from the jewelled cup, and would watch the man afterward for at least ten minutes before daring to slake his thirst; but Jaimihr had the moral advantage of an aspirant; Howrah, on the defensive, wilted under the nibbling necessity for wakefulness, while Jaimihr grinned.
What were five thousand drilled, armed men to a king who feared to use them? Of what use was a waiting countryside, armed if not drilled, if he was not sure that his brother had not won every man's allegiance? Being Hindoo, priest-reared, priest-fooled, and priest-flattered, he knew, or thought he knew, to an anna the value he might set on Hindoo loyalty or on the loyalty of any man who did not stand to gain in pocket by remaining true; and, as many another fear-sick tyrant has begun to do, he turned, in his mind at least, to men of another creed—which in India means of another race, practically-wondering whether he could not make use of them against his own.
Like every other Rajah of his line, he longed to have sole control of that wonderful treasure that had eaten out his very manhood. Miser though he was, he was prepared at least to bargain with outsiders with the promise of a portion of it, if that would give him possession of it all. He had learned from the priests who took such full advantage of him an absolute contempt for Mohammedans; and their teaching, as well as his own trend of character, made him quite indifferent to promises he might make, for the sake of diplomacy, to men of another creed. It began to be obvious to him that he would lose nothing by courting the favor of the Rangars, and of Alwa in particular, and that he might win security by coaxing them to take his part. Of one thing he was certain: the Rangars would do anything at all, if by doing it they could harm the Hindoo priests.
But, being of the East Eastern, and at that Hindoo, he could not have brought himself to make overtures direct and go straight to the real issue. He had to feel his way gingerly. The thousand horses in his stables, he reflected, would mount a thousand of the Rangars and place at his disposal a regiment of cavalry which would be difficult to beat; but a thousand mounted Mohammedans might be a worse thorn in his side than even his brother or the priests. He decided to write to Alwa, but to open negotiations with a very thin and delicately inserted wedge.
He could write. The priests had overlooked that opportunity, and had taught him in his boyhood; in that one thing he was their equal. But the other things that they had taught him, too, offset his penmanship. He was too proud to write—too lazy, too enamoured of his dignity. He called a court official, and the man sat very humbly at his feet—listened meekly to the stern command to secrecy—and took the letter from dictation.
Alwa was informed, quite briefly, that in view of certain happenings in Howrah City His Highness the Maharajah had considered it expedient to set a guard over the Christian missionaries in the city, for their safety. The accompanying horse was a gift to the Alwa-sahib. The Alwa-sahib himself would be a welcome guest whenever he might care to come.
The document was placed in a silver tube and scaled. Within the space of half an hour a horseman was kicking up the desert dust, riding as though he carried news of life-and-death importance, and with another man and a led horse galloping behind him. Five minutes after the man had started, in a cell below the temple, of Siva, the court official who had taken down the letter was repeating it word for word to a congeries of priests. And one hour later still, in a room up near the roof of Jaimihr's palace, one of the priests—panting from having come so fast—was asking the Rajah's brother what he thought about it.
"Did he say nothing—," asked Jaimihr.
The priest watched him eagerly; he would have to bear back to the other priests an exact account of the Prince's every word, and movement, and expression.
"Then I, too, say nothing!" answered Jaimihr.
"But to the priests of Siva, who are waiting, sahib?"
"Tell them I said nothing."
Eyes in the dark, awake and keen, See and may not themselves be seen; But—and this is the tale I tell— What if the dark have eyes as well?
BESIDE the reeking bear's cage in which Ali Partab stood and swore was a dark, low corner space in which at one time and another sacks and useless impedimenta had been tossed, to become rat-eaten and decayed. In among all the rubbish, cross-legged like the idol of the underworld, a nearly naked Hindoo sat, prick-eared. He was quite invisible long before the sun went down, for that was the dingiest corner of the yard; when twilight came, he could not have been seen from a dozen feet away.
Joanna, sweeping, sweeping, sweeping, in the courtyard, with her back very nearly always turned toward the cage, appeared to take no notice of the falling darkness; unlike the other menials, who hurried to their rest and evening meal, she went on working, accomplishing very little but seeming to be very much in earnest about it all. Very, very gradually she drew nearer to the cage. When night fell, she was within ten feet of it. A few lamps were lit then, here and there over doorways, but nobody appeared to linger in the courtyard; no footfalls resounded; nothing but the neigh of stabled horses and the chatter around the big, flat supper pans broke on the evening quiet.
Joanna drew nearer. Ali Partab came forward to the cage bars, but said nothing; it was very dark inside the cage, and even the sharp-eyed old woman could not possibly have seen his gestures; when he stood, tight-pressed, against the bars she might have made out his dark shape dimly, but unless he chose to speak no signal could possibly have passed from him to her. He said nothing, though, and she-still sweeping, with her back toward him—passed by the cage, and stooped to scratch at some hard-caked dirt or other close to the rubbish hole where the Hindoo waited. Still scratching, still working with her twig broom, still with her back toward the rubbish hole, she approached until the darkest shadow swallowed her.
There were two in the dark then—she and the man who listened. He, motionless as stone, had watched her; peering outward at the lesser darkness, he lost sight of her for a second as she backed into the deepest shadow unexpectedly. Before he could become accustomed to the altered focus and the deeper black, her beady eyes picked out the whites of his. Before he could move she was on him—at his throat, tearing it with thin, steel fingers. Before he could utter a sound, or move, she had drawn a short knife from her clothing and had driven it to the hilt below his ear. He dropped without a gurgle, and without a sound she gathered up her broom again and swept her way back past the cage-bars, where Ali Partab waited.
"Was any there?" he whispered.
"There was one."
"Good! Now will the reward be three mohurs instead of two!"
"Where are they?"
"These pigs have taken all the money from me. Now we must wait until Mahommed Gunga-sahib comes. His word is pledged."
"He said two mohurs."
"I—Ali Partab—pledge his word for three."
"And who art thou? The bear in the cage said: 'I will eat thee if I get outside!"'
"Mother of corruption! Listen! Alwa must know! Canst thou escape from here? Canst thou reach the Alwa-sahib?"
"If the price were four mohurs, there might be many things that I could do."
"The price is three! I have spoken!"
"'I would eat honey were I outside!' said the bear."
"Hag! The bear died in the cage, and they sold his pelt for how much? Alive, he had been worth three mohurs, but he died while they bargained for him!—Quick!"
"I am black, sahib, and the night is black. I am old, and none would believe me active. They watch the gates, but the bats fly in and out."
"Find out, then, what has happened to my horses, left at the caravansary; give that information to the Alwa-sahib. Tell the Miss-sahib at the mission where I am. Tell her whither I have sent thee. Tell the Alwa-sahib that a Rangar—by name Ali Partab—sworn follower of the prophet, and servant of the Risaldar Mahommed Gunga—is in need and asks his instant aid. Say also to the Alwa-sahib that it may be well to rescue the Miss-sahib first, before he looks for me, but of that matter I am no judge, being imprisoned and unable to ascertain the truth. Hast thou understood?"
"And all that for three mohurs?"
"Nay. The price is now two mohurs again. It will be one unless—"
"Three, sahib! It was three!"
"Then run! Hasten!"
The shadows swallowed her again. She crept where they were darkest—lay still once, breathless, while a man walked almost over her—reached the outer wall, and felt her way along it until she reached low eaves that reached down like a jagged saw from utter blackness. Less than a minute later she was crawling monkeywise along a roof; before another five had passed she had dropped on all fours in the dust of the outer road and was running like a black ghost—head down—an end of her loin-cloth between her teeth—one arm held tight to her side and the other crooked outward, swinging—striding, panting, boring through the blackness.
She wasted little time at the caravansary. The gate was shut and a sleepy watchman cursed her for breaking into his revery.
"Horses? Belonging to a Rangar? Fool! Does not the Maharajah-sahib impound all horses left ownerless? Ask them back of him that took them! Go, night-owl! Go ask him!"
Almost as quickly as a native pony could have eaten up the distance, she dropped panting on the door-step of the little mission house. She was panting now from fright as well as sheer exhaustion. There were watchers—two sets of them. One man stood, with his back turned within ten paces of her, and another—less than two yards away from him—stood, turned half sideways, looking up the street and whistling to himself. There was not a corner or an angle of the little place that was not guarded.
She had tried the back door first, but that was locked, and she had rapped on it gently until she remembered that of evenings the missionary and his daughter occupied the front room always and that they would not have heard her had she hammered. She tapped now, very gently, with her fingers on the lower panel of the door, quaking and trembling in every limb, but taking care to make her little noise unevenly, in a way that would be certain to attract attention inside. Tap-tap-tap. Pause. Tap-tap. Pause. Tap-tap-tap-tap-tap. Pause. Tap-tap. The door opened suddenly. Both watchers turned and gazed straight into the lamplight that streamed out past the tall form of Duncan McClean. He stared at them and they stared back again. Joanna slunk into the deep shadow at one side of the steps.
"Is it necessary for you to annoy me by rapping on my door as well as by spying on me?" asked the missionary in a tone of weary remonstrance.
The guards laughed and turned their backs with added insolence. In that second Joanna shot like a black spirit of the night straight past the missionary's legs and collapsed in a bundle on the floor behind him.
"Shut the door, sahib!" she hissed at him. "Quick! Shut the door!"
He shut it and bolted it, half recognizing something in the voice or else guided by instinct.
"Joanna!" he exclaimed, holding up a lamp above her. "You, Joanna!"
At the name, Rosemary McClean came running out—looked for an instant—and then knelt by the old woman.
"Father, bring some water, please, quickly!"
The missionary went in search of a water-jar, and Rosemary McClean bent down above the ancient, shrivelled, sorry-looking mummy of a woman—drew the wrinkled head into her lap—stroked the drawn face—and wept over her. The spent, age-weakened, dried-out widow had fainted; there was no wakened self-consciousness of black and white to interfere. This was a friend—one lone friend of her own sex amid all the waste of smouldering hate—some one surely to be wept over and made much of and caressed. The poor old hag recovered consciousness with her head pillowed on a European lap, and Duncan McClean—no stickler for convention and no believer in a line too tightly drawn—saw fit to remonstrate as he laid the jar of water down beside them.
"Why," she answered, looking up at him, "father, I'd have kissed a dog that got lost and came back again like this!"
They picked her up between them, after they had let her drink, and carried her between them to the long, low sitting-room, where she told them—after considerable make-believe of being more spent than she really was—after about a tenth "sip" at the brandy flask and when another had been laughingly refused—all about Ali Partab and what his orders to her were.
"I wonder what it all can mean?" McClean sat back and tried to summarize his experiences of months and fit them into what Joanna said.
"What does that mean?" asked his daughter, leaning forward. She was staring at Joanna's forearm and from that to a dull-red patch on the woman's loin-cloth. Joanna answered nothing.
"Are you wounded, Joanna? Are you sure? That's blood! Look here, father!"
He agreed that it was blood. It was dry and it came off her forearm in little flakes when he rubbed it. But not a word could they coax out of Joanna to explain it, until Rosemary—drawing the old woman to her—espied the handle of her knife projecting by an inch above the waist-fold of her cloth. Too late Joanna tried to hide it. Rosemary held her and drew it out. Beyond any shadow of a doubt, there was blood on the blade still, and on the wooden hilt, and caked in the clumsy joint between the hilt and blade.
"'Joanna—have you killed any one?"
Joanna shook her head.
"Tell me the truth, Joanna. Whose blood is that?"
"A dog's, Miss-sahib. A street dog attacked me as I ran hither."
"I wish I could believe it!"
"I too!" said her father, and he took Joanna to one side and cross-examined her. But he could get no admission from her—nothing but the same statement, with added details each time he made her tell it, that she had killed a dog.
They fed her, and she ate like a hyena. No caste prejudices or forbidden foods troubled her; she ate whatever came her way, Hindoo food, or Mohammedan, or Christian,—and reached for more—and finished, as hyenas finish, by breaking bones to get the marrow out. At midnight they left her, curled dogwise on a mat in the hall, to sleep; and at dawn, when they came to wake her, she was gone again—gone utterly, without a trace or sign of explanation. The doors, both front and back, were locked.
It was two days later when they found a hole torn through the thatch, through which she had escaped; and though they searched the house from cellar up to roof, and turned all their small possessions over, they could not find (and they were utterly glad of it) that she had stolen anything.
"Thank God for that!" said the missionary.
"I've finished disbelieving in Joanna!" said his daughter with a grimace that went always with irrevocable decision.
"I've come to the conclusion," said McClean, "that there are more than just Joanna to be trusted. There is Ali Partab, and—who knows how many?"
Against all fear; against the weight of what, For lack of worse name, men miscall the Law; Against the Tyranny of Creed; against the hot, Foul Greed of Priest, and Superstition's Maw; Against all man-made Shackles, and a man-made Hell— Alone—At last—Unaided— I REBEL!
No single, individual circumstance, but a chain of happenings in very quick succession, brought about a climax, forcing the hand of Howrah and his brother and for the moment drawing the McCleans, father and daughter, into the toothed wheel of Indian action. As usual in India, the usual brought about the unexpected, and the unexpected fitted strangely into the complex, mysteriously worked-out whole.
Two days after Joanna left the mission house, through a hole made in the thatch, the spirit of revolt took hold of Rosemary McClean again. The stuffy, narrow quarters—the insolent, doubled, unexplained, but very obvious, guard that lounged outside—the sense of rank injustice and helplessness—the weird feeling of impending horror added onto stale-grown ghastliness—youth, chafing at the lack of liberty—stirred her to action.
Without a word to her father, who was writing reports that seemed endless at the little desk by the shaded window, she left the house—drew with a physical effort on all her reserve of strength and health—faced the scorching afternoon wind, as though it were a foe that could shrink away before her courage, and walked, since she had no pony now, in any direction in which chance or her momentary whim might care to lead her.
"I won't cry again—and I won't submit—and I'll see what happens!" she told herself; and the four who followed her at a none-too-respectful distance—two of the Maharajah's men in uniform and two shabby-looking ruffians of Jaimihr's—grinned as they scented action. Like their masters they bore no love for one another; they were there now, in fact, as much to watch one another as the missionaries; they detected the possibility of an excuse to be at one another's throats, and gloated as they saw two messengers, one of either side, run off in a hurry to inform the rival camps.
It was neither plan nor conscious selection that led Rosemary McClean toward the far end of the maidan, where the sluggish, narrow, winding Howrah River sucked slimily beside the burning ghats. When she realized where her footsteps were leading her she would have turned in horror and retreated, for even a legitimately roasting corpse that died before the Hindoo priests had opportunity to introduce it to the flames is no sight for eyes that are civilized.
But, when she turned her head, the sight of her hurrying escort perspiring in her wake—(few natives like the heat and wind one whit better than their conquerors)—filled her with an unexpected, probably unjustifiable, determination not to let them see her flinch at any kind of horror. That was the spirit of sahibdom that is not always quite commendable; it is the spirit that takes Anglo-Saxon women to the seething, stenching plains and holds them there high-chinned to stiffen their men-folk by courageous example, but it leads, too, to things not quite so womanly and good.
"I'll show them!" muttered Rosemary McClean, wiping the blown dust from her eyes and facing the wind again that now began to carry with it the unspread taint—the awful, sickening, soul-revolting smell inseparable from Hindoo funeral rites. There were three pyres, low-smouldering, close by the river-bank, and men stirred with long poles among the ashes to make sure that the incineration started the evening before should be complete; there was one pyre that looked as though it had been lit long after dawn—another newly lit—and there were two pyres building.
It was those two new ones that held her attention, and finally decided her to hold her course. She wanted to make sure. The smell of burning—the unoutlined, only guessed-at ghastliness—would probably have killed her courage yet, before she came close enough to really see; but the suspicion of a greater horror drew her on, as snakes are said to draw birds on, by merely being snakes, and with red-rimmed eyes smarting from smoke as well as wind she pressed forward.
The ghats were deserted-looking, for the funeral rites of those who burned were practically over until the time should come to scatter ashes on the river-surface; only a few attendants hovered close to the fires to prod them and occasionally throw on extra logs. Only round the two new pyres not yet quite finished was anything approaching a crowd assembled, and there a priest was officiously directing the laying of the logs. It was the manner of their laying and the careful building of a scaffold on each side of either pyre that held Rosemary McClean's attention—called all the rebellious womanhood within her to interfere—and drew her nearer.
Soon the priest noticed her—a cotton-skirted wraith amid the smoke—and shouted to the guards behind; one of them answered, laughing coarsely, and Rosemary understood enough of the dialect he used to grit her teeth with shame and anger. The men left off building, and, directed by the priest, came toward her in a ragged line to cut her off from closer approach; she stood, then—examined the new pyres as carefully as she could—walked to another vantage-point and viewed them sideways—then turned her back.
"Oh, the brutes!" she ejaculated. There were tears in her voice, as well as helpless anger. "There is not one devil, there are a million, and they all live here!"
She looked back again once, trembling with an overmastering hate, directed less at the priest who grinned back at her than at the loathsome rite he represented. In two actual words, she cursed him. It was the first time she had ever cursed anybody in her life, and the wickedness of doing it swept over her as a relief. She revelled in it. She was glad she had cursed him. Her little, light, graceful body that had been quivering grew calm again, and she turned to hurry home with an unexpected sense of having pulled some lever in the mechanism that would bring about results. She neither knew nor cared what results, nor how they were to happen; she felt that that curse of hers, her first, had landed on the mark!
But she had come further than she thought. Distance, hot wind, and emotion had exhausted her far more, too, than she had had time to realize. Before a mile of the homeward journey had been accomplished, she was forced against her stubborn Scots will to sit down on a big stone by the roadside and rest, while the four that followed came up close, grinning and passing remarks in anything but under-tones. If the meaning of the words escaped her, their gestures left little to be misunderstood. A crowd of stragglers drew together near the four—laughed with them—took sides in the coarse-worded argument about Jaimihr's known ambition—and shamed her into pressing on homeward.
But she was forced to rest again, and then again. Physical sickness prevented her from obeying instinct, reason, will, that all three urged her on. No false pride now told her to dare the insolence of the guards; nothing appealed to her but the desire to hurry, hurry, hurry, and do whatever should appear to need doing when she reached the mission house. She had no plan in her head. She only knew that she had cursed a man, and that the curse was potent. But her feet dragged, and her vitality died down. It was sundown when she reached the mission house, and she could hear the rising, falling, intermittent din of drums before she saw her father in the doorway.
"Father!" She ran to him, and he caught her in his arms to save her from falling headlong. "Father, there is going to be a suttee tonight! Hear the drums, father! Hear the drums! It'll be tonight! That's to stop the screams from being heard! Listen to them, father—two suttees, side by side—I've seen the pyres and the scaffolds—do they jump into the flames, father, from the scaffolds?—tell me! No-don't tell me—I won't listen! Take me away from here—away—away—away—take me away, d'you hear!"
He carried her inside, and laid her on the caned couch in the living-room, looking like a great, big, helpless, gray-haired baby, as any man is prone to do when he has hysteria to deal with in a woman whom he loves.
"I cursed a man, father! I cursed a man! I did! I said 'Damn you!' I'm glad!"
"Don't, little girl—don't! Lassie mine, don't! Never mind what you saw or what you said—be calm now—there is something we must do; we must act; I have determined we must act. We must act tonight. But we can't do anything with you in this state."
Slowly, gradually he calmed her—or probably she grew calm, in spite of his attentions, for he was too upset himself to exercise much soothing sway over anybody else. At last, though, she fell into a fitful sleep, and he sat beside her, holding rigid the left hand that she clutched, letting it stiffen and grow cold and numb for fear of waking her.
Outside a full moon rose majestically, pure and silvery as peace herself, bathing the universe in blessings. And each month, when the full moon rose above the carved dome of Siva's temple, there was a ceremony gone through that commemorated cruelty, greed, poisoning, throat-slitting, hate, and all the hell-invented infamy that suckles always at the breast of stagnant treasure.
Since history has forgotten when, at each full moon, the priests of Siva had gone with circumstantial ceremony to view the hoarded wealth tied up by jealousy and guarded jealously in Howrah's palace. With them, as the custom that was stronger than a thousand laws dictated, went the Maharajah and his brother Jaimihr—joint owners with the priests.
There had not been one Maharajah, since the first of that long line, who would not have given the lives of ten thousand men for leave to broach that treasure; nor, since the first heir apparent shared the secret with the priests and the holder of the throne, had there been one prince in line-son-brother-cousin—who would not have drenched the throne with his relation's blood with that same purpose.
Heir after heir could have agreed with Maharajah, but the priests had stood between. That treasure was their fulcrum; the legacy, dictated by a dead, misguided hand, intended as a war reserve to stay the throne of Howrah in its need, and trebly locked to guard against profligacy, had placed the priests of Siva in the position of dictators of Howrah's destiny. A word from them, and a prince would slay his father—only to discover that the promises of Siva's priests were something less to build on than the hope of loot. There would be another heir apparent to be let into the secret—another man to scheme and hunger for the throne—another party to the bloody three-angled intrigue which kept the Siva-servers fat and the princes lean.
Past masters of the art by which superstitious ignorance is swayed, the priests could swing the allegiance of the mob whichever way they chose—even the soldiers, loyal enough to their masters under ordinary circumstances, would have rebelled at as much as a hint from holy Siva. It was the priests who made it possible for Jaimihr to dare take his part in the ceremony; without them he would not have entered his brother's palace-yard unless five thousand men at least were there to guard his back—but, if there was danger where the priests were, there was safety too.
As the custom was, he rode to the temple of Siva first with a ten-man guard; there, when the priests had finished droning age-old anthems to the echoing roof, when his brother, the Maharajah, also with a ten-man guard, had joined him, and the two had submitted to the sanctifying rites prescribed, eleven priests would walk with them in solemn mummery to the palace-entrance—censer-swinging, chanting, blasphemously acting duty to their gods and state.
The moon—and that, too, was custom-rested with her lower rim one full hand's breadth above the temple dome as viewed from the palace-gate, when a gong clanged resonantly, died to silence, music of pipes and cymbals broke on the evening quiet, and the strange procession started from the temple door, the Maharajah leading.
Generally it passed uninterrupted over the intervening street to the palace-entrance, between the ranks of a salaaming, silent crowd, and disappeared from view. This time, though, for the first time in living memory, and possibly for the first time in all history, the unforeseen, amazing happened. The procession stopped. Moon-bathed, between the carved posts of the palace-gate, two people blocked the way.
The music ceased. The sudden silence framed itself against the distant thunder of a hundred drums. The crowd—all heads bowed, as decreed—drew in its breath and held it. A sea of pugrees moved as brown eyes looked up surreptitiously—stared—memorized—and then looked down again. There was no precedent for this happening, and even the Maharajah and the priests were at a momentary loss—stood waiting, staring—and said nothing.
"Maharajah-sahib!—I must interrupt your ceremony. I must have word with you at once!"
It was Duncan McClean, bareheaded, holding his daughter's hand. They had no weapons; they were messengers of peace, protesting, or so they looked. No longer timid, but resigned to what might happen—they held each other's hands, and blocked the way of Siva's votaries—Siva's tools—and Siva's ritual.
Jaimihr whispered to his brother—the first time he had dared one word to him in person for years—the high priest of the temple pressed forward angrily, saying nothing, but trying to combine rage and dignity with an attempt to turn the incident to priestly advantage. Surely this was a crisis out of which the priests must come triumphant; they held all the cards—knew how and when rebellion was timed, and could compare, as the principals themselves could not do, Howrah's strength with Jaimihr's. And the priests had the crowd to back them—the ignorant, superstitious crowd that can make or dethrone emperors.
But some strange freak of real dignity—curiosity perhaps, or possibly occasion—spurred desire to act of his own initiative and keep the high priest in his place—impelled the Maharajah in that minute. Men said afterward that Jaimihr had whispered to him advice which he knew was barbed because it was his brother whispering, and that he promptly did the opposite; but, whatever the motive, he drew himself up in all his jewelled splendor and demanded: "What do you people wish?"
The McCleans were given no time to reply. The priests did not see fit to let the reins of this occasion slip; the word went out, panic-voiced, that sacrilege to Siva was afoot.
"Slay them! Slay them!" yelled the crowd. "They violate the sacred rites!"
There were no Mohammedans among that crowd to take delight in seeing Hindoo priests discomfited and Hindoo ritual disturbed. There came no counter-shout. The crowd did not, as so often happens, turn and rend itself; and yet, though a surge from behind pressed forward, the men in front pressed back.
"Slay them! Slay the sacrilegious foreigners!" The yell grew louder and more widely voiced, but no man in the front ranks moved.
The Maharajah looked from the company of guards that lined the palace-steps to the priests and his brother and the crowd—and then to the McCleans again.
He remembered Alwa and his Rangars, thought of the messenger whom he had sent, remembered that a regiment of lance-armed horsemen would be worth a risk or two to win over to his side, and made decision.
"You are in danger," he asserted, using a pronoun not intended to convey politeness, but—Eastern of the East—counteracting that by courtesy of manner. "Do you ask my aid?"
"Yes, among other things," Duncan McClean answered him. "I wish also to speak about a Rangar, who I know is held prisoner in a cage in the Jaimihr-sahib's palace."
"Speak of that later," answered Howrah. "Guard!"
He made a sign. A spoken word might have told the priests too much, and have set them busy fore-stalling him. The guards rushed down the steps, seized both McCleans, and half-carried, half-hustled them up the palace-steps, through the great carved doors, and presently returned without them.
"They are my prisoners," said the Maharajah, turning to the high priest. "We will now proceed."
The crowd was satisfied, at least for the time being. Well versed in the kind of treatment meted out to prisoners, partly informed of what was preparing for the British all through India, the crowd never doubted for an instant but that grizzly vengeance awaited the Christians who had dared to remonstrate against time-honored custom. It looked for the moment as though the high priest's word had moved the Maharajah to order the arrest, and the high priest realized it. By skilful play and well-used dignity he might contrive to snatch all the credit yet. He ordered; the pipes and cymbals started up again at once; and, one by one—Maharajah, Jaimihr, high priest, then royal guard, Jaimihr's guard, priest again—the procession wound ahead, jewelled and egretted, sabred and spurred, priest-robed, representative of all the many cancers eating at the heart of India.
Chanting, clanging, wailing minor dirges to the night, it circled all the front projections of the palace, turned where a small door opened on a courtyard at one side, entered, and disappeared.
Oh, is it good, my soldier prince and is the wisdom clear, To guard thy front a thousand strong, while ten may take thy rear?
Now, because it was impregnable to almost anything except a yet-to-be-invented air-ship, the Alwa-sahib owned a fortress still, high-perched on a crag that overlooked a glittering expanse of desert. More precious than its bulk in diamonds, a spring of clear, cold water from the rock-lined depths of mother earth gushed out through a fissure near the Summit, and round that spring had been built, in bygone centuries, a battlemented nest to breed and turn out warriors. Alwa's grandfather had come by it through complicated bargaining and dowry-contracts, and Alwa now held it as the rallying-point for the Rangars thereabout.
But its defensibility was practically all the crag fort had to offer by way of attraction. Down at its foot, where the stream of rushing water splashed in a series of cascades to the thirsty, sandy earth, there were an acre or two of cultivation—sufficient, in time of peace, to support an attenuated garrison and its horses. But for his revenues the Alwa-sahib had to look many a long day's march afield. Leagues of desert lay between him and the nearest farm he owned, and since—more in the East than anywhere—a landlord's chief absorption is the watching of his rents, it followed that he spent the greater part of his existence in the saddle, riding from one widely scattered tenant to another.
It was luck or fortuitous circumstance—Fate, he would have called it, had he wasted time to give it name—that brought him along a road where, many miles from Howrah City, he caught sight of Joanna. Needless to say, he took no slightest notice of her.
Dog-weary, parched, sore-footed, she was hurrying along the burning, sandy trail that led in the direction of Alwa's fort. The trail was narrow, and the horsemen whose mounts ambled tirelessly behind Alwa's plain-bred Arab pressed on past him, to curse the hag and bid her make horse-room for her betters. She sunk on the sand and begged of them. Laughingly, they asked her what a coin would buy in all that arid waste.
"Have the jackals, then, turned tradesman?" they jeered; but she only mumbled, and displayed her swollen tongue, and held her hands in an attitude of pitiful supplication. Then Alwa cantered up—rode past—heard one of his men jeering—drew rein and wheeled.
"Give her water!" he commanded.
He sat and watched her while she knelt, face upward, and a Rangar poured lukewarm water from a bottle down her tortured throat. He held it high and let the water splash, for fear his dignity might suffer should he or the bottle touch her. Strictly speaking, Rangars have no caste, but they retain by instinct and tradition many of the Hindoo prejudices. Alwa himself saw nothing to object to in the man's precaution.
"Ask the old crows' meat whither she was running."
"She says she would find the Alwa-sahib."
"Tell her I am he."
Joanna fawned and laid her wrinkled forehead in the dust.
"Get up!" he growled. "Thy service is dishonor and my ears are deaf to it! Now, speak! Hast thou a message? Who is it sends a rat to bring me news?"
"Soho! And who is Ali Partab? He needs to learn manners. He has come to a stern school for them!"
"Sahib—great one—Prince of swordsmen!—Ali Partab is Mahommed Gunga-sahib's man. He bid me say that he is held a prisoner in a bear-cage in Jaimihr's palace and needs aid."
Alwa's black beard dropped onto his chest as he frowned in thought. He had nine men with him. Jaimihr had by this time, perhaps, as many as nine thousand, for no one knew but Jaimihr and the priests how many in the district waited to espouse his cause. The odds seemed about as stupendous as any that a man of his word had ever been called upon to take.
A moment more, and without consulting any one, he bade one of his men dismount.
"Put that hag on thy horse!" he commanded. "Mount thou behind another!"
The order was obeyed. Another Rangar took the led horse, and Joanna found herself, perched like a monkey on a horse that objected to the change of riders, between two troopers whose iron-thewed legs squeezed hers into the saddle.
"To Howrah City!" ordered Alwa, starting off at an easy, desert-eating amble; and without a word of comment, but with downward glances at their swords and a little back-stiffening which was all of excitement that they deigned to show, his men wheeled three and three behind him.
It was no affair of Alwa's that a full moon shone that night—none of his arranging that on that one night of the month Jaimihr and his most trusted body-guard should go with the priests and the Maharajah to inspect the treasure. Alwa was a soldier, born to take instant advantage of chance—sent opportunity; Jaimihr was a schemer, born to indecision and the cunning that seeks underhanded means but overlooks the obvious. Because the streets were full of men whose allegiance was doubtful yet, because he himself would be too occupied to sit like a spider in a web and watch the intentions of the crowd unfold, Jaimihr had turned out every retainer to his name, and had scattered them about the city, with orders, if they were needed, to rally on a certain point.
He did think that at any minute a disturbance might break out which would lead to civil war, and he saw the necessity for watchfulness at every point; but he did not see the rather obvious necessity for leaving more than twenty men on guard inside his palace. Not even the thoughtfulness of Siva's priests could have anticipated that ten horse-men would be riding out of nowhere, with the spirit in them that ignores side issues and leads them only straight to their objective.
Alwa, as a soldier, knew exactly where fresh horses could be borrowed while his tired ones rested. A little way beyond the outskirts of the city lived a man who was neither Mohammedan nor Hindoo—a fearful man, who took no sides, but paid his taxes, carried on his business, and behaved—a Jew, who dealt in horses and in any other animal or thing that could be bought to show a profit.
Alwa had an utterly complete contempt for Jews, as was right and proper in a Rangar of the blood. He had not met many of them, and those he had had borne away the memory of most outrageous insult gratuitously offered and rubbed home. But this particular Jew was a money-lender on occasion, and his rates had proved as reasonable as his acceptance of Alwa's unwritten promise had been prompt. A man who holds his given word as sacred as did Alwa respects, in the teeth of custom or religion, the man who accepts that word; so, when the chance had offered, Alwa had done the Jew occasional favors and had won his gratitude. He now counted on the Jew for fresh horses.
To reach him, he had to wade the Howrah River, less than a mile from where the burning ghats glowed dull crimson against the sky; the crowd around the ghats was the first intimation he received that the streets might prove less densely thronged than usual. It was the Jew, beard-scrabbling and fidgeting among his horses, who reminded him that when the full moon shone most of the populace, and most of Jaimihr's and Howrah's guards, would be occupied near Siva's temple and the palace.
He left his own horses, groomed again, and gorging their fill of good, clean grain in the Jew's ramshackle stable place. Joanna he turned loose, to sneak into any rat-hole that she chose. Then, with their swords drawn—for if trouble came it would be certain to come suddenly—he and his nine made a wide-ringed circuit of the city, to a point where the main street passing Jaimihr's palace ended in a rune of wind-piled desert sand. From the moment when they reached that point they did not waste a second; action trod on the heel of thought and thought flashed fast as summer lightning.
They lit through the deserted street, troubling for speed, not silence; the few whom they passed had no time to determine who they were, and no one followed them. A few frightened night-wanderers ran at sight of them, hiding down side streets, but when they brought up at last outside Jaimihr's palace-gate they had so far escaped recognition. And that meant that no one would carry word to Jaimihr or his men.
It was death-dark outside the bronze-hinged double gate; only a dim lamp hung above from chains, to show how dark it was, and the moon—cut off by trees and houses on a bluff of rising ground—lent nothing to the gloom.
"Open! The jaimihr-sahib comes!" shouted Alwa and one of his horsemen legged up close beside the gate.
Some one moved inside, for his footsteps could be heard; whoever he was appeared to listen cautiously.
"Open for the Jaimihr-sahib!" repeated Alwa.
Evidently that was not the usual command, or otherwise the gates would have swung open on the instant. Instead, one gate moved inward by a fraction of a foot, and a pureed head peered cautiously between the gap. That, though, was sufficient. With a laugh, the man up closest drove his sword-hilt straight between the Hindoo's eyes, driving his horse's shoulder up against the gate; three others spurred and shoved beside him. Not thirty seconds later Alwa and his nine were striking hoof sparks on the stone of Jaimihr's courtyard, and the gates—that could have easily withstood a hundred-man assault with battering-rams—had clanged behind them, bolted tight against their owner.
"Where is the bear cage?" demanded Alwa. "It is a bear I need, not blood!"
The dozen left inside to guard the palace had recovered quickly enough from their panic. They were lining up in the middle of the courtyard, ready to defend their honor, even if the palace should be lost. It was barely probable that Jaimihr's temper would permit them the privilege of dying quickly should he come and find his palace looted; a Rangar's sword seemed better, and they made ready to die hard.
"Where's Ali Partab?"
There was no answer. The little crowd drew in, and one by one took up the fighting attitude that each man liked the best.
"I say I did not come for blood! I came for Ali Partab! If I get him, unharmed, I ride away again; but otherwise—"
"What otherwise?" asked the captain of the guard.
"This palace burns!"
There was a momentary consultation—no argument, but a quickly reached agreement.
"He is here, unharmed," declared the captain gruffly.
"Bring him out!"
"What proof have we that he is all you came for?"
"My given word."
"But the Jaimihr-sahib—"
"You also have my given word that unless I get Ali Partab this palace burns, with all that there is in it!"
Distrustful still, the captain of the guard called out to a sweeper, skulking in the shadow by the stables to go and loose Ali Partab.
"Send no sweepers to him!" ordered Alwa. "He has suffered indignity enough. Go thou!"
The captain of the guard obeyed. Two minutes later Ali Partab stood before Alwa and saluted.
"Sahib, my master's thanks!"
"They are accepted," answered Alwa, with almost regal dignity. "Bring a lamp!" he ordered.
One of the guard brought a hand-lantern, and by its light Alwa examined Ali Partab closely. He was filthy, and his clothing reeked of the disgusting confinement he had endured.
"Give this man clothing fit for a man of mine!" commanded Alwa.
"Sahib, there is none; perhaps the Jaimihr-sahib—"
"I have ordered!"
There was a movement among Alwa's men—a concerted, horse-length-forward movement, made terrifying by the darkness—each man knew well enough that the men they were bullying could fight; success, should they have to force it at the sword-point, would depend largely on which side took the other by surprise.
"It is done, sahib," said the leader of the guard, and one man hurried off to execute the order. Ten minutes later—they were ten impatient minutes, during which the horses sensed the fever of anxiety and could be hardly made to stand—Ali Partab stood arrayed in clean, new khaki that fitted him reasonably well.
"A sword, now!" demanded Alwa. "Thy sword! This man had a sword when he was taken! Give him thine, unless there is a better to be had."
There was nothing for it but obedience, for few things were more certain than that Alwa was not there to waste time asking for anything he would not fight for if refused. The guard held out his long sword, hilt first, and Ali Partab strapped it on.
"I had three horses when they took me," he asserted, "three good ones, sound and swift, belonging to my master."
"Then take three of Jaimihr's!"
It took ten minutes more for Ali Partab and two of Alwa's men to search the stables and bring out the three best chargers of the twenty and more reserved for Jaimihr's private use. They were wonders of horses, half-Arab and half-native-bred, clean-limbed and firm—worth more, each one of them, than all three of Mahommed Gunga's put together.
"Are they good enough?" demanded Alwa.
"My master will be satisfied," grinned Ali Partab.
"Open the gate, then!" Alwa was peering through the blackness for a sight of firearms, but could see none. He guessed—and he was right—that the guard had taken full advantage of their master's absence, and had been gambling in a corner while their rifles rested under cover somewhere else. For a second he hesitated, dallying with the notion of disarming the guard before he left, then decided that a fight was scarcely worth the risking now, and with ten good men behind him he wheeled and scooted through the wide-flung gates into outer gloom.
He galloped none too fast, for his party was barely out of range before a ragged volley ripped from the palace-wall; one of his men, hampered and delayed by a led horse that was trying to break away from him, was actually hit, and begged Alwa to ride back and burn the palace after all. He was grumbling still about the honor of a Rangar, when Alwa called a halt in the shelter of a deserted side street in order to question Ali Partab further.
Ali Partab protested that he did not know what to say or think about the missionaries. He explained his orders and vowed that his honor held him there in Howrah until Miss McClean should consent to come away. He did not mention the father; he was a mere side issue—it was Alwa who asked after him.
"A tick on the belly of an ox rides with the ox," said Ali Partab.
"Lead on, then, to the mission house," commanded Alwa, and the ten-man troop proceeded to obey. They had reached the main street again, and were wheeling into it, when Joanna sprang from gutter darkness and intercepted them. She was all but ridden down before Ali Partab recognized her.
"The mohurs, sahib!" she demanded. "Three golden mohurs!"
"Ay, three!" said Ali Partab, giving her a hand and yanking her off the ground. She sprang across his horse's rump behind him, and he seemed to have less compunction about personal defilement than the others had.
"Is she thy wife or thy mother-in-law?" laughed Alwa.
"Nay, sahib, but my creditor! The mother of confusion tells me that the Miss-sahib and her father are in Howrah's palace!"
They halted, all together in a cluster in the middle of the street—shut in by darkness—watched for all they knew, by a hundred enemies.
"Of their own will or as prisoners?"
"As prisoners, sahib."
"Back to the side street! Quickly! Jaimihr' rat's nest is one affair," he muttered; "Howrah' beehive is another!"
Now, secrets and things of the Councils of Kings Are deucid expensive to buy, For it wouldn't look nice if a Councillor's price Were anything other than high. Be advised, though, and note that the price they will quote Is less at each grade you go deeper, And—(Up on its toes it's the Underworld knows!)— The cheapest of all is the Sweeper.
JOANNA—when Alwa forgot about her and loosed her to run just where she chose—had sneaked, down alleys and over roof-tops, straight for the mission house. She found there nothing but a desultory guard and an impression, rather than the traces, of an empty cage. About two minutes of cautious questioning of neighbors satisfied her where the missionaries were; nothing short of death seemed able to deprive her of ability to flit like a black bat through the shadows, and the distance to Howrah's palace was accomplished, by her usual bat's entry route, in less time than a pony would have taken by the devious street. Before Alwa had thundered on Jaimihr's gate Joanna had mingled in the crowd outside the palace and was shrewdly questioning again.
She arrived too late to see McClean and his daughter seized; what she did hear was that they were prisoners, and that the Maharajah, Jaimihr, and the priests were all of them engaged in the secret ceremony whose beginning was a monthly spectacle but whose subsequent developments—supposed to be somewhere in the bowels of the earth—were known only to the men who held the key.
Like a rat running in the wainscot holes, she tried to follow the procession; like everybody else, she knew the way it took from the palace gate, and—as few others were—she was aware of a scaling-place on the outer wall where a huge baobab drooped century-scarred branches nearly to the ground on either side. The sacred monkeys used that route and where they went Joanna could contrive to follow.
It was another member of the sweeper caste, lurking in the darkness of an inner courtyard, who pointed out the bronze-barred door to her through which the treasure guardians had chanted on their way; it was he, too, who told her that Rosemary McClean and her father had been rushed into the palace through the main entrance. Also, he informed her that there was no way—positively no way practicable even for a monkey or a bird—of following further. He was a sweeper-intimate acquaintance of creeper ladders, trap-doors, gutters drains, and byways; she realized at once that there would be no wisdom in attempting to find within an hour what he had not discovered in a lifetime.
So Joanna, her beady eyes glittering between the wrinkled folds of skin, slunk deeper in a shadow and began to think. She, the looker-on, had seen the whole play from its first beginning and could judge at least that part of it which had its bearing on her missionary masters. First, she knew what Jaimihr's ambition was—every man in Howrah knew how he planned to seize Miss McClean when the moment should be propitious—and her Eastern wisdom warned her that Jaimihr, foiled, would stop at nothing to contrive vengeance. If he could not seize Miss McClean, he would be likely to use every means within his power to bring about her death and prevent another from making off with his prize. Jaimihr, then, was the most pressing danger.
Second, as a Hindoo, she knew well how fiendishly the priests loathed the Christian missionaries; and it was common knowledge that the Maharajah was cross-hobbled by the priests. The Maharajah was a fearful man, and, unless the priests and Jaimihr threatened him with a show of combination, there was a slight chance that he might dread British vengeance too much to dare permit violence to the McCleans. Possibly he might hold out against the priests alone; but before an open alliance between Jaimihr and the priests he would surrender for his own throne's sake.
So far Joanna could reason readily enough, for there was a vast fund of wisdom stored beneath her wrinkled ugliness. But her Eastern limitation stopped her there. She could not hold loyalty to more than one cause, or to more than one offshoot of that cause, in the same shrewd head at once. She decided that at all costs Jaimihr must be out of the way so that the Maharaja might be left to argue with the priests alone. For the moment no other thought occurred to her.
The means seemed ready to her hand. A peculiarity of the East, which is democratic in most ways under the veneer of swaggering autocracy, that servants of the very lowest caste may speak, and argue on occasion, with men who would shudder at the prospect of defilement from their touch. There was nothing in the least outrageous in the proposition that the sweeper, waiting in a corner for the procession to emerge again so that he might curl on his mat and sleep undisturbed when it had gone, should dare to approach Jaimihr and address him. He would run no small risk of being beaten by the guards; but, on the other hand, should he catch jaimihr's ear and interest him, he would be safe.
"Wouldst thou win Jaimihr's favor?" asked Joanna, creeping up beside him, and whispering with all the suggestiveness she could assume.
"Who would not? Who knows that within week he will not be ruler?"
"True. I have a message for him. I must hurry back. Deliver it for me."
"What would be the nature of the message?"
"This. His prisoner is gone. A raid has taken place. In his absence, while his men patrolled the city, certain Rangars broke into his palace—looted—and prepared to burn. Bid him hurry back with all the men he can collect."
"From whom is this message?"
"From the captain of the guard."
"And I am to deliver it? Thou dodderest! Mother of a murrain, have I not trouble sufficient for one man? Who bears bad news to a prince, or to any but his enemy? I—with these two eyes—I saw what happened to the men who bore bad news to Howrah once. I—with this broom of mine—I helped clean up the mess. Deliver thine own message!"
"Nay. Afterward I will say this—to the Jaimihr-sahib in person. There is one, I will tell him, a sweeper in the palace, who refused to bear tidings when the need was great."
"If his palace is burned and his wealth all ashes, who cares what Jaimihr hears?"
"There is no glow yet in the sky," said Joanna looking up. "The palace is not yet in flames; they loot still."
"What if it be not true?"
"Will Jaimihr not be glad?"
"Glad to see me, the bearer of false news, impaled—or crushed beneath an elephant—ay—glad, indeed."
"The reward, were the Jaimihr-sahib warned in time, would be a great one."
"Then, why waitest thou not to have word with him. Art thou above rewards?"
"Have no fear! He will know in good time who it was brought thee the news."
They argued for ten minutes, Joanna threatening and coaxing and promising rewards, until at last the man consented. It was the thought, thoroughly encouraged by Joanna, that the penalty for not speaking would be greater than the beating he might get for bearing evil news that at last convinced him; and it was not until she had won him over and assured herself that he would not fail that it dawned on Joanna just what an edged tool she was playing with. While getting rid of Jaimihr, she was endangering the liberty and life of Alwa—the one man able to do anything for the McCleans!
That thought sent her scooting over housetops, diving down dark alleyways, racing, dodging, hiding, dashing on again, and brought her in the nick of time to a ditch, from whose shelter she sprang and seized the hand of Ali Partab. That incident, and her intimation that the missionaries were in Howrah's palace, took Alwa back up the black, blind side street; and before he emerged from it he saw Jaimihr and his ten go thundering past, their eyes on the sky-line for a hint of conflagration, and their horses—belly-to-the-earth—racing as only fear, or enthusiasm, or grim desperation in their riders' minds can make them race.
A little later, in groups and scattered fours, and one by one, his heavy-breathing troopers followed, cursing the order that had sent them abroad with-out their horses, damning—as none but a dismounted cavalryman can damn—the earth's unevenness, their swords, their luck, their priests, the night, their boots, and Jaimihr. Forewarned, Alwa held on down the pitch-dark side street, into whose steep-sided chasm the moon's rays would not reach for an hour or two to come, and once again he led his party in a sweeping, wide-swung circle, loose-reined and swifter than the silent night wind—this time for Howrah's palace. There was his given word, plighted to Mahommed Gunga, to redeem.
Ha! my purse may be lean, but my 'scutcheon is clean, And I'm backed by a dozen true men; I've a sword to my name, and a wrist for the same; Can a king frown fear into me, then?
IT is the privilege of emperors, and kings and princes, that—however little real authority they have, or however much their power is undermined by men behind the throne—they must be accorded dignity. They must be, on the face of things, obeyed.
Inspection of the treasure finished and an hour-long mummery of rites performed, the thirty wound their way, chanting, in single file back again. The bronze-enforced door, that was only first of half a hundred barriers between approach and the semi-sacred hoard, at last clanged shut and was locked with three locks, each of whose individual keys was in the keeping of a separate member of the three—Maharajah, Prince, and priest. The same keys fitted every door of the maze—made passages, but no one door would open without all three.
Speaking like an omen from the deepest shadow, the sweeper called to Jaimihr.
"Sahib, thy palace burns! Sahib, thy prisoner runs! Haste, sahib! Call thy men and hasten back! Thy palace is in flames—the Rangars come to—"
As a raven, disturbed into night omen-croaking, he sent forth his news from utter blackness into nerve-strung tension. No one member of the thirty but was on the alert for friction or sudden treachery; the were all eyes for each other, and the croaking fell on ears strained to the aching point. He had time to repeat his warning before one of Jaimihr's men stepped into the darkness where he hid and dragged him out.
"Sahib, a woman came but now and brought the news. It was from the captain of the guard. The Rangars came to take their man away. They broke in. They burn. They loot. They—"
But Jaimihr did not wait another instant to hear the rest. To him this seemed like the scheming of his brother. Now he imagined he could read between the lines! That letter sent to Alwa had been misreported to him, and had been really a call to come and free the prisoner and wreak Rangar vengeance! He understood! But first he must save his palace, if it could be saved. The priests must have deceived him, so he wasted no time in arguing with them; he ran, with his guards behind him, to the outer wall of Siva's temple where the horses waited, each with a saice squatting at his head. The saices were sent scattering among the crowd to give the alarm and send the rest of his contingent hurrying back; Jaimihr and his ten drove home their spurs, and streaked, as the frightened jackal runs when a tiger interrupts them at their worry, hell-bent-for-leather up the unlit street.
Then Maharajah Howrah's custom-accorded dignity stood him in good stead. It flashed across his worried brain that space had been given him by the gods in which to think. Jaimihr—one facet of the problem and perhaps the sharpest—would have his hands full for a while, and the priests—wish how they would—would never dare omit the after-ritual in Siva's temple. He—untrammelled for an hour to come—might study out a course to take and hold with those embarrassing prisoners of his.
He turned—updrawn in regal stateliness—and intimated to the high priest that the ceremony might proceed without him. When the priests demurred and murmured, he informed them that he would be pleased to give them audience when the ritual was over, and without deigning another argument he turned through a side door into the palace.
Within ten minutes he was seated in his throne-room. One minute later his prisoners stood in front of him, still holding each other's hands, and the guard withdrew. The great doors opening on the marble outer hall clanged tight, and in this room there were no carved screens through which a hidden, rustling world might listen. There was gold-incrusted splendor—there were glittering, hanging ornaments that far outdid the peacocks' feathers of the canopy above the throne; but the walls were solid, and the marble floor rang hard and true.
There was no nook or corner anywhere that could conceal a man. For a minute, still bejewelled in his robes of state and glittering as the diamonds in his head-dress caught the light from half a dozen hanging lamps, the Maharajah sat and gazed at them, his chin resting on one hand and his silk-clad elbow laid on the carved gold arm of his throne.
"Why am I troubled?" he demanded suddenly.
"You know!" said the missionary. His daughter clutched his hand tightly, partly to reassure him, partly because she knew that a despot would be bearded now in his gold-bespattered den, and fear gripped her.
"Maharajah-sahib, when I came here with letters from the government of India and asked you for a mission house in which to live and work, I told you that I came as a friend—as a respectful sympathizer. I told you I would not incite rebellion against you, and that I would not interfere with native custom or your authority so long as acquiescence and obedience by me did not run counter to the overriding law of the British Government."
Howrah did not even move his head in token that he listened, but his tired eyes answered.
"To that extent I promised not to interfere with your religion."
"Once—twice—in all nine times—I came and warned you that the practice of suttee was and is illegal. My knowledge of Sanskrit is only slight, but there are others of my race who have had opportunity to translate the Sanskrit Vedas, and I have in writing what they found in them. I warned you, when that information reached me, that your priests have been deliberately lying to you—that the Vedas say: 'Thrice-blessed is she who dies of a broken heart because her lord and master leaves her.' They say nothing, absolutely nothing, about suttee or its practice, which from the beginning has been a damnable invention of the priests. But the practice of suttee has continued. I have warned the government frequently, in writing, but for reasons which I do not profess to understand they have made no move as yet. For that reason, and for no other, I have tried to be a thorn in your side, and will continue to try to be until this suttee ceases!"
"Why," demanded Howrah, "since you are a foreigner with neither influence nor right, do you stay here and behold what you cannot change? Does a snake lie sleeping on an ant-hill? Does a woman watch the butchering of lambs? Yet, do ant-hills cease to be, and are lambs not butchered? Look the other way! Sleep softer in another place!"
"I am a prisoner. For months past my daughter and I have been prisoners to all intents and purposes, and you, Maharajah-sahib, have known it well. Now, the one man who was left to be our escort to another place is a prisoner, too. You know that, too. And you ask me why I stay! Suppose you answer?"
Rosemary squeezed his hand again, this time less to restrain him than herself. She was torn between an inclination to laugh at the daring or shiver at the indiscretion of taking to task a man whose one word could place them at the mercy of the priests of Siva, or the mob. But Duncan McClean, a little bowed about the shoulders, peered through his spectacles and waited—quite unawed by all the splendor—for the Maharajah's answer.
"Of what man do you speak?" asked Howrah, still undecided what to do with them, and anxious above all things to disguise his thoughts. "What man is a prisoner, and how do you know it?"
Before McClean had time to answer him, a spear haft rang on the great teak double door. There was a pause, and the clang repeated—another pause—a third reverberating, humming metal notice of an interruption, and the doors swung wide. A Hindoo, salaaming low so that the expression of his face could not be seen, called out down the long length of the hall.
"The Alwa-sahib waits, demanding audience!" There was no change apparent on Howrah's face. His fingers tightened on the jewelled cimeter that protruded, silk-sashed, from his middle, but neither voice nor eyes nor lips betrayed the least emotion. It was the McCleans whose eyes blazed with a new-born hope, that was destined to be dashed a second later.