Arthur Greening

The Curse of Kâli

A Tale of the Thugs in India

To Rene

This story originally appeared serially, under the title of “The Thugs’ Revenge,” in a now defunct South London weekly called Ye Merrie Magpie about thirty-five years ago, when its author was nineteen years of age. It was afterwards used in a Christmas number of The Favourite Magazine, called “Yule Tide Tales,” published by Greening and Co. in 1897, and now reappears, rewritten and extended, in volume form. The author hopes that its third appearance may be lucky.

A.G.

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The Thugs

“The terrible Indian goddess whose devotees wore compelled to commit in her name the awful crimes of Thuggu; The ghastly ‘Kâli,’ worshipped even to this day, with rites too abominable to be described.”—Daily Express, September 19th, 1921.

“Besides the robbers who kill for the sake of booty, there is a class of assassins, organised into a society, with chiefs, a service, a freemasonry, and even a religion, which has its fanaticism, its devotion, its agents, its emissaries, its assistants, its moving bodies, its passive comrades, who contribute by their subscriptions to ‘the good work.’ It is the community of Thugs, a religious and working confraternity, who war against the human race by exterminating them, and whose origin is lost in the night of ages.

“Up to 1810 their existence was not only unknown to their European conquerors, but even to their native governments. Between the years 1816 and 1830 many bands were taken in the act and punished, but up to the latter period all the revelations made on this subject by officers of high experience seemed too monstrous to obtain public attention and belief, and had been refused credence as the dreams of a wild imagination. Yet for very many years, at least for half a century, this social plague spot had consumed immense populations, from the foot of the Himalayas to Cape Comorin, from Cutch to Assam.

“Whoever was in India in the years 1831 and 1832 will remember the stupor and affright caused by the discovery of the vast infernal machinery spread throughout society. A great number of magistrates of the provinces refused to believe it, and could not comprehend how a system so vast had for so long a time absorbed a social body under their eyes, silently and without betraying itself.”—British India in 1831. By M. Edward der Warren. 2 vols, 8vo. Paris, 1844.

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Chapter I

The Hidden Temple

“Ah!”

What it was that flitted across her horse’s path, Maude Gordon was never able to say. A silent figure, gaunt and grim—that of a wandering fakir, perhaps, on his way through the jungle to the nearest village; but the effect on Rob Roy was disastrous.

Swerving violently, the horse set off at a mad gallop, leaving Maude’s companions far behind. The frightened girl tugged at the reins in desperate alarm. These jungle paths were strange to her; indeed, she had only come out to India to join her guardians—Colonel and Mrs. Clinton—two months ago. It seemed to her that some dreadful accident was inevitable. Before them she could see the grey water of a deep ghât. Here, where the jungle fringed a desolate waste-land of grey rocks and craggy hills, she knew that she would have no control over her terrified steed.

Pulses drummed in her ears, a mist rose before her eyes. It seemed that before her lay some place of death—a home of jackals and kites. Already she saw the yawning mouth of an abyss, when, through the trees on her right, the figure of a horseman emerged. He was bending low in the saddle, urging his sturdy pony to its greatest speed.

A glance told her that it was Tom Tempest, a subaltern in the 3rd Fusiliers, and her own particular admirer.

Heedless of danger to himself in galloping at such a pace over broken ground, the young man succeeded in reaching Maude’s side at the crucial moment. For several tense seconds it seemed that her horse must make the fatal plunge—its front hoofs were already buried in the long grasses at the edge of the ghât. But Tempest’s hand had shot out and gripped the rein. Another second and a desperate struggle was being waged, whilst grey-faced death watched from the depths below.

If Tempest’s own horse had not been the perfect little animal it was, the pursuit would have been fatal, but already Rob Roy was being forced back—inch by inch—from the threatening gap.

Inch by inch, whilst the sweat poured down Tempest’s face, and Maude’s cheeks grew white.

Safe!

The struggle was over. Exhausted, trembling, beaten, Rob Roy stood still, his black neck, lathered in foam, outstretched, whilst Tempest, quickly dismounting, caught the half-fainting girl in his arms.

“Thank God!” he whispered as he held her fast. And then . . . well, of course he had intended to ask stern old Colonel Clinton’s permission first . . . as young men were accustomed to do in that year o’ grace 1880, before the era of the great independence! But even in those times of well-ordered discipline, youth was still youth—and love still love.

So Tom’s arms did not relax their hold, and pretty Maude seemed quite content to rest in their embrace as he made his petition in the breathless, eager fashion of lovers all the world over.

“You care for me, Maude? Darling! if you knew how I loved you . . . if you only knew.”

He did his boyish best to explain, and Maude must have been quite satisfied with his success, for the bright colour rushed in her pale cheeks and her blue eyes looked sweetly up into her lover’s handsome face. For . . . of course, she loved him too . . . and all the dark tangle of the jungle had become fairyland, radiant in rose colour.

But, since it was hot fairyland after all, and because the shrill barking of the jackals carried a word of warning from the region of rocks and grey shadows yonder, the two young people came back to the prosaic present with a sigh.

“Don’t know where the others have got to,” said Tempest. “I don’t fancy they quite realised that Rob Roy was out of hand. We’d better ride straight back to Nagpoor, and, if it’s not tremendously late, I’ll come in and see the Colonel. I mightn’t have a chance to-morrow before the Willoughbys’ dance.”

Maude laughed; she liked Tom’s impatience! As they rode back through the jungle, it seemed to them both that the future lay in a golden roadway to the stars.

Rob Roy had not taken account of paths in his flight, and it needed all Tom’s bump of locality to judge as to the right turnings to take.

“Odd,” said he, “but, do you know, Maude, though we can’t be far off from home, I don’t recognise this part of the jungle at all. Hullo!”

He stretched out to take Maude’s bridle rein in fear that Rob Roy’s nerves might still be on edge, for a turn of the path brought them upon an unexpected sight.

A small temple, in a ruinous state, stood in a clearing amongst the trees. Unlike most of such forest temples, it was squat in shape and built of some dark-coloured stones without any sort of gilding.

A gloomy, sinister spot, yet Tempest’s quick glance told him that, however secret or remote, this was no neglected shrine.

“Queer old place,” he continued. “I wonder who the particular deity is to whom it is dedicated? Doesn’t look like one of the usual kind at all.”

Maude shuddered, but she looked towards the place with fascinated eyes.

“I have never been inside one of the native temples,” she said. “Daddy won’t let me; but this is only a ruin—may I have one peep?”

Tempest would have refused in the ordinary way, but did not like to say no just then. So he helped Maude to dismount, and, tethering the horses, led the way towards the building with its broken centre court. The door, low down, and also the stone showed great cracks.

As Tempest thrust the frail barrier back he put his arm round his sweetheart’s waist. They did not cross the threshold, but stood peering into that strange place. An offensive smell of decaying vegetable matter made them hold their breath. This temple to some Hindoo god had the atmosphere of a charnal-house. There were no windows, merely the light from the open door, and the glimmer of the many native lamps arranged about the shrine showed to their horrified gaze the unwieldy figure of a grotesque and hideous idol, bedaubed and smeared with some pigment. The pedestal upon which the idol was placed was completely hidden by flowers, fruit, and other offerings—the flowers being the large blossoms of the yellow lotus.

“I don’t want to see any more,” shivered Maude. “How horrible . . . how horrible! Come, Tom, I wish I had never even peeped in. Ugh! that dreadful smell!”

Tom was only too ready to turn away. As they crossed the court, they noticed the bent figure of an old man who seemed searching for something upon the ground.

A strange old man, shabby and grimy, and yet, as he straightened himself to look towards the new-comers, there was a curious dignity in his attitude. Tempest noticed how keenly the black eyes flashed under bushy white brows.

“Is he a fakir?" asked Maude in low tones. "How thin and wrinkled he is. Look! I wonder if this is what he has lost."

Her quick eye had noticed the dull gleam of a red stone amongst the grass which forced its way between the tiles, and, picking it up, she stepped impulsively forward, smiling as she held the jewelled charm in the palm of her outstretched hand.

The old man—priest or fakir—uttered a deep exclamation of gratitude, and, taking Maude’s hand, pressed it to his forehead. Then, having thrust the charm into his robes, he was about to shuffle off, when, pausing, he addressed Tempest in Hindoostani.

Maude, watching, saw the colour flush under her lover’s tan, and, whilst the old man disappeared amongst the trees, Tom hurriedly helped his sweetheart to remount.

“The sooner we get home the better,” he remarked. “Just as well we saw your queer old friend, Maude, for he gave me timely warning not to come this way again. It appears that the temple is dedicated to the goddess Kâli.”

“Kâli!” echoed Maude. “Who is she?”

Tempest hesitated in his reply.

“Oh, one of the Hindoo deities. A pretty beastly one, too. A regular Goddess of Evil. She has a special delight in bringing along the cholera and such pleasant trifles, and is the goddess of these fiendish Thugs, who, I hope, the Government is going to stamp out before they commit many more horrors.”

Maude looked grave. She had been out in India long enough to have heard of this terrible sect which, in secret and with incredible skill, had already spread fear throughout India.

“I certainly shan’t want to go to that part of the jungle again,” she declared. “Don’t let us think any more about it—but only——”

She smiled across to her lover.

The “only” seemed quite sufficient!

Chapter II

An Interrupted Proposal

“You are going to give me this dance, Miss Gordon?” Captain Grenford spoke eagerly. He was Tom Tempest’s greatest chum, and had only that day returned to Nagpoor from a Government mission. Though not so handsome as Tom, he was a good-looking fellow of about twenty-eight, with a lean, sun-tanned countenance and humorous grey eyes.

Maude was looking lovely to-night, in her white frock, and with a wreath of tiny pink roses in her fair hair. The acknowledged “belle” of the ball, she carried her triumph with such girlish charm as to still even the envy of her rivals.

Never had she been so happy, never so light-hearted. For that afternoon her guardian, Colonel Clinton, had told her that he was willing to sanction the engagement between herself and Tom Tempest.

Tom, indeed, was a partie any guardian might be glad to choose for his ward. He was the only son of a Berkshire squire—rich, well bred, clever, and honourable.

No wonder Maude felt that she could sing aloud for happiness!

So far the engagement had not been publicly announced. Had Tom told his friend? Maude smiled up at Jack Grenford shyly. She longed to tell Tom’s chum the news and to receive his congratulations—but she was shy of her great new happiness, and did not like to speak of it.

“Of course I want to dance with you!” she said quickly. “Isn’t it a perfect floor? I love waltzing, and this is one of my favourites.”

The man did not reply, but, placing his arm round her waist, drew her into the maze of dancers.

Tom, watching the pair, smiled. He had meant to tell old Jack the great news earlier in the evening, but either opportunity had lacked, or shyness had held him dumb.

The station always looked upon the Willoughby dances as events of special importance. Not only was “Old Willoughby” a rich man, but both he and his wife knew how to do things very perfectly.

No item in the evening’s programme was other than “the best procurable,” and consequently the guests were out to enjoy themselves.

In a shady corner amongst a bower of exquisite ferns and flowering plants Captain Grenford sat softly swaying Maude’s dainty fan to and fro. He had noted the enthusiasm of her welcome, her evident pleasure, her brightened colour, the shy hesitation which told of a secret, and he had misinterpreted the sign.

Without the least conceit on his part, the girl had given him hope that his dream might be realised. And now, with the glamour of that Eastern night around them, he put his fate, to the venture.

Laying down the fan, he took Maude’s hand.

“I have wanted to tell you,” he said gently, “for weeks past, how much I love you, Maude, but . . . but I dared not. I feared——”

The girl checked him with a little gesture of distress. Tears started to her eyes. She had been on the point of telling her own great news, and never once had she expected this rather grave and wholly enthusiastic soldier of being her lover.

After all, unsophisticated eighteen does not always possess the wisdom of the wise; and admiration, courtship, love, were so new to this girl fresh from an English school.

“Oh, no!” cried Maude. “No, you mustn’t, please, please, you must not even mean it! For . . . for I was just going to tell you that I am going to marry Tom Tempest. We . . . love . . . each other.”

She clasped her hands nervously, her big blue eyes grown wistful and pleading. There was none of the triumph of a coquette in having won the heart of a man said to be impervious to Cupid’s dart—on the contrary, she could have cried in pity because a brave man suffered for her sake. Jack Grenford was a brave man—and he had never had more need of his courage than now.

For he, too, had been blind—this confession came as a shock. He had dreamed his dream. The awakening showed him a grey world!

But—for Maude’s sake, and Tom’s, he must not show his wounds.

From the room near drifted the music of a gay dance. The scent of the flowers was overpowering.

Captain Grenford stood up and went across to where from the verandah he could see the massed trees of the jungle and hear the ceaseless murmur of the wild creatures which roamed in the darkness.

Overhead glittered the myriad stars. A night for lovers’ dreams, a night for——

Grenford turned and went back to where Maude sat, her cheeks wet with tears, her breath coming in quick sobs.

“Little friend,” said he gently, “I am more sorry than I can say to have caused you pain. Forget what I asked, but remember always that I am Tempest’s loyal friend—and your own. Friend—but no more. You can trust me.”

Maude looked up, as a child might have done, smiling through her tears.

“How good you are,” she whispered; “how wonderful! And . . . and Tom thinks there is no one in the world like you. He is right . . . I am sure of it.”

Grenford did not answer, and he was glad when Maude rose to return with him to the ballroom. The girl was still pale and agitated, but her lips smiled.

“How hot it is!” she said, as they paused by the verandah. “And—listen—what was that?”

From out of the darkness—a darkness heavy with the sweetness of Datura blossom—came the long echoing note of a cry . . . a cry which rang throbbing on a dreadful note of pain.

Maude clung to her companion’s arm.

“What is it?” she asked breathlessly. “It was not a beast . . . or a bird. Captain Grenford, tell me—I am afraid!”

The man could see it in the fear-stricken eyes, in the quick intake of her breath, the trembling of her slender body, and, with all his might, he fought back the mad surging of his passion. This was Tom’s sweetheart! And he had promised her his friendship.

“No doubt it was a jungle bird,” he replied, as carelessly as he could. “Some of the brutes have the most weird cries. The waltz music will drown it, never fear.”

Maude was glad of his sang-froid, and her eyes sparkled again as Tempest came up and joined them.

“I have been asking for Captain Grenford’s congratulations, Tom,” she said gently, “ and he has given them to me. He . . . is going to be my . . . friend . . . as he is yours.”

The two men clasped hands. Tom was so wrapped up in his seventh heaven that he did not notice the other’s abstracted air. But, after Grenford had watched the two lovers re-enter the ballroom, he went back to the verandah to listen.

The murmur of the jungle, the rustling of leaves, the flapping of the beadwork screen outside, were all the sounds he heard.

The mysterious wail had ceased!

“But unless I am very much mistaken,” muttered Grenford to himself, “that cry was a signal. Those infernal Thugs are at their devil-games again!”

Chapter III

The Curse Is Spoken

“Tell me about your home, Tom,” commanded Maude; “about your father, your sister, everyone—I want to picture it.”

Tempest laughed. He was still living in his rose-tinted paradise. His engagement to Maude was proving to be one of those happy affairs of the heart which have everyone’s approval. The station—as a station—regarded these two young people as its special pets. Colonel Clinton grimly remarked that everyone was conspiring to spoil them. But there were the “dark women” or “sinister men” to weave jealous plots and ruin the destiny of these “darlings of the gods.” Only Mrs. Clinton remarked sub rosa to her husband that she regretted that Maude had not chosen Captain Grenford.

“He is such a man,” the good lady declared, “and a strong one at that. Tom Tempest is the ideal boy—but he has almost too many of the sugar plums.”

But Maude had made her own choice, and had decided that Tom Tempest, with his handsome face and sunny nature, was to be her life companion.

She listened attentively now to Tom’s vivid description of his home amongst the Berkshire hills, the fine old Squire, his father, and all his friends.

“How I shall love them all,” the girl cried wistfully; “how I wish I could see them now. Do you know, Tom, I possess that strangest of gifts, second sight. There are people . . . those I love . . . whom I can see at times in vision though they are far away. Just in the same way that I can look . . . vaguely . . . into the future with strange conviction. You remember, for instance, that old temple in the jungle which we found on the day we became engaged? I have a haunting presentiment that I shall see the place again, that I shall see it when Destiny threatens to destroy our golden dream of happiness.”

All at once Maude had fallen into a strange prophetic mood; her blue eyes were dilated, she gazed before her as though she saw some veiled picture of horror.

Tempest instantly set to work to dispel such gloomy notions.

“It is an extraordinary coincidence,” he said, “but I possess the same power—or a gift, as my old nurse used to call it. Though they may be far distant, I can if I wish see those I love if I concentrate my mental forces on the object. It is—second sight, but I don’t tell other people about it; no one out here knows of it excepting my friend Grenford. I often wonder what use such a gift will be to me—there are times when I should prefer to be without it. I hate to have any part or share in forces that I do not understand.”

Maude smiled as she rested her head against his shoulder. “I am glad,” she whispered, “for if ever we are separated, this will be our magic mirror . . . to look into . . . and see each other.”

So they talked, so they dreamed; and so the happy days slipped by.

Tom was an enthusiastic lover, but he was no less a keen soldier and the last man to neglect a duty. It happened one night, when on picket duty, that as he was going his round he was startled to hear a series of terrible cries issuing from the jungle.

Only the day before, Colonel Clinton had been warned that the Thugs were again active in their murderous work.

These Thugs had for some time past been the terror of India. Belonging to a sect of the Hindoos, their creed commanded human sacrifice to the most vengeful of all Hindoo deities—the malignant Kâli, who, with her son Deva, controlled the cholera plague and brought woe upon mankind. The practice of the Thugs was to steal stealthily behind their victims and strangle them with a cunningly twisted silk handkerchief, known as a roomal. The tale was told of terrible orgies of native sacrifice being practised afterwards.

Naturally the British authorities were resolved to stamp out this terror, and young Tempest no sooner heard these agonized cries than he called on some of his men to follow, whilst sending others back to camp for further assistance.

Guided by the cries, the little party of Englishmen ran towards the part of the jungle from which they proceeded. As he went, a strong conviction oppressed Tom.

He knew, long before they reached the spot, that they would find themselves near the forest temple discovered by Maude and himself.

He was right. Halting amongst the densely growing trees, the new-comers stood for a few moments to witness one of the most startling scenes imaginable.

In front of the squat and gloomy temple was a large group of villainous-looking natives. At the moment of Tempest’s arrival, these people—for there were several women amongst them—were kneeling upon the ground, chanting some weird song. In the centre of the temple court had been placed the grotesque figure of the idol itself. It was even more grotesque . . . more horrible now, because the head and shoulders of the goddess dripped with human blood.

Louder and louder rose the chant. The natives sprang to their feet . . . circling about the image. In the clear moonlight which shone down into this open space the whole tableau was ghastly in the extreme. And, as the circling figures fell back into two lines, the onlookers saw that two dead bodies lay at the foot of the black pedestal, whilst already a third victim was being forced onto his knees by an aged man, having the appearance of some skinny fakir, and a hag equally horrible to look at.

The victim himself was the old man to whom Maude had returned a treasured amulet!

The chant, silenced for a moment, recommenced. The helpless victim knelt huddled where he had been placed. The resignation of despair was upon him!

Holding each a small twisted handkerchief—the fatal roomal—the “high-priest of Thuggism” and his female companion approached the idol with dancing steps and waving arms.

Alone, the priest himself made his frightful prayer to the image before him:

”O Kâli . . . Goddess of the Thugs! whose lips may only be steeped in human gore.

Who delightest in the red-hot blood of thy victims.

Who tearest the babe from its mother’s bosom.

O thou black one, fierce and terrible, who art girt around with gory skulls!

O thou bloody-toothed, horrible of horribles!

Dark as the night, mighty and unspeakable.

O Kâli, Kâli—the terrible and pitiless . . . we offer to thee . . . the heart of thy victim. Take it. . . O Kâli . . . for ever.”

Then, swaying his lean body to and fro with frightful writhings, he yelled with diabolical intensity his praises to the fiendish shape above him.

Again the worshippers echoed the cries. The air was filled with the hideous chant.

At the conclusion of the horrible song the priest, muttering to himself, beckoned some of the natives near. They came, dragging the old grey-beard to his feet.

“Go!” cried the priest suddenly, pointing to the jungle.

The victim, with one terrified glance, turned to flee.

The moment his back was turned, the old hag’s eyes sparkled with mocking laughter, and, mechanically twisting the silken handkerchief in her wrinkled hand, she noiselessly crept up behind him—raising her body gradually to its full height, all the time quivering violently.

In another moment the strangling roomal would have tightened about the fugitive’s neck, but at that instant a shot rang out from the bushes, and the vile old creature threw up her lean arms whilst her death-scream echoed the report of Tom’s pistol. With a wild cheer the Englishmen rushed into the clearing.

With yells of terror the Thugs fled in all directions—but several fell, shot or bayoneted by their furious pursuers. Shriller cries echoed now where Chaub and Nowle had rung, but the fight—if fight it could be called—only lasted a few minutes. The Thugs knew well enough what punishment awaited them at the hands of the dreaded Government, and they thought only of escape.

Tempest was intent on capturing the chief instigator of the crime they had witnessed. It was just possible that this might be the famous Juzzedera—the leader, organiser, and so-called “high-priest” of Thuggism.

The old man did not resist capture, but the look he bestowed on Tom was not pleasant.

The white-bearded victim lay unconscious amongst the tall grasses. Tom ordered the soldiers to pick up the unfortunate man and carry him, while Tom charged himself with the care of Juzzedera. He was as proud as any other subaltern might be of his capture, for so far the Thugs had succeeded most cleverly in covering their tracks.

The Colonel would give one of his rare and brief words of approval. Maude would bestow her brightest smile!

As Tom thought pleasurably of his triumph, a long melancholy cry—resembling that which Grenford had heard on the night of the Willoughbys’ dance—echoed from the jungle, and at the same moment a severe pain shot up Tom’s leg. It was as if some snake or other reptile had fastened its fangs into his ankle. So severe was the pain that Tom involuntarily let go his grasp on the old Thug’s arm. Instantly the priest, uttering a yell of defiance, leapt into the closely-growing thicket near.

In vain Tempest pursued, calling upon his men to help him. Search as they might, not a sign of this chief villain could be found. It was as if the very ground had opened and swallowed him up! Disappointed, anxious, and as depressed as before he had been triumphant, Tempest led the way back to camp.

Colonel Clinton bestowed his brief word of praise. Fellow-officers and friends loudly commended Tom’s promptness and courage; Maude smiled her sweetest . . . but, for all that, Tom’s depression could not wholly be dispersed.

He was haunted by the memory of the old Thug’s glittering eyes of menace, as the wretch leapt away into the jungle.

Without speaking a word, the native had conveyed his dire threat. The curse of Kâli and the vengeance of Juzzedera would not remain empty boasting.

Chapter IV

The Warning

The scattering of the Thugee worshippers from the Temple of Kâli seemed to have had a salutary effect on those murderous gentry. No further blood-curdling tales were brought by the trembling relatives of victims to Nagpoor.

Was it possible that fear of the Government had at last dispersed this blood-thirsty sect?

There were some who were only too ready to believe this, and Tom Tempest perhaps received more praise than he merited for that successful raid.

The old Hindoo who had been rescued from the fatal roomal had remained for several days in camp, suffering from shock. It was on the fourth day after the “affair of Kâli” that the old fellow came to Tempest’s tent.

Tom was alone. Raising the flap of the tent, in his wish to avoid attracting the attention of the sentry, the Hindoo entered noiselessly—then he paused, amazed. Tempest had fallen into one of his inexplicable trances, and lay back in his chair, his eyes fixed, his hand twitching nervously.

The Hindoo started back.

“Great Buddha!” he muttered, “what can this mean? Is he an adept? He . . . a European . . . an English Sahib . . . one of our brotherhood!”

He crept towards Tom and gazed earnestly into his face. As he did so, Tempest slowly recovered; then, staggering to his feet, he became aware of his visitor’s presence.

“What are you doing here?” he asked, startled to find how easily a native had entered the tent.

The old man salaamed humbly.

“I crave thy pardon, Sahib,” he answered. “I came to offer thanks to my preserver ere leaving camp. May Buddha protect thee, O my deliverer. See, as I entered, I called aloud, but thou didst not answer thy slave.”

“Sorry,” smiled Tempest, “or rather—that’s all right, old chap. But you are not going to leave the camp, eh? You’ll only fall into the hands of those Thugs again. Pity we didn’t scotch that old cobra, wasn’t it?”

The white-bearded native gave the speaker an enigmatical look.

“It is necessary, my preserver,” he replied, “that I should go. But, O most honourable, I wish first to entrust a secret to thy most reverent keeping. Thou . . . thou hast heard of Koot Hoomi?”

Tom stared. “Heard of him!” he retorted. “I should think I have. Koot Hoomi the seer. Koot Hoomi, the Eastern magician. The prince of occultism.”

The Hindoo salaamed again, then drew himself up proudly.

“I am Koot Hoomi,” he explained, with dignity. “I am now on my guard, and I can protect myself against the Thugs. It is not of myself, but of my preserver, that I come to speak. In the secret of my personality lies the value of my promise. On the head of Siva, I vow to be the slave of my benefactor. Your gift, Sahib, is a great one. The gift of second-seeing. That gift shall be a protector, even as Koot Hoomi also is the protector, not only of the preserver, but of her who is dearer than his life. Remember, Sahib, Koot Hoomi owes to thy protection his life. Remember that a link binds Hindoo and Feringhee in an unseen bond.”

With these mysterious words the old seer glided away, leaving Tempest very much perturbed, and only partly amused by what he tried to call the Eastern love of melodrama!

But he could not forget Koot Hoomi’s warning which the more impressed him when he remembered the renown of the great Hindoo occultist.

Knowing his own strange gift of second sight, Tempest rather shrank from than hankered after the raising of the Curtain which veils the Unseen World. Meantime, being young and healthy, he resolutely banished morbid fancies and threw himself heart and soul into the business and pleasures of life.

Christmas was approaching, and the magic of that season of goodwill was felt by all. Parcels and letters came pouring in from distant houses, entertainments and festivities were the order of the day.

Only . . . now and again . . . ever mysterious . . . ever sinister . . . the hand of relentless Thuggism appeared—red with menace to warn all that the peril of that terrible secret society still stalked murderously in their midst.

Three times arrests were made—punishment was inflicted. Every effort was made to discover from the prisoners the identity and whereabouts of the fateful Juzzedera, but without result!

It was on the morning before Christmas Day that Tempest found an unexpected message awaiting him.

Calling Jack Grenford, he told his chum what had happened.

“Odd!” said the young man, sitting partly dressed on the side of his bed, “but what do you make of this, Jack? Not a cobra could have slid into my room without rousing Histna, but somehow this note was planted on that chair over there when I woke up.”

Tom belaboured his curly hair with a couple of brushes as if desirous of drumming understanding into it.

Grenford read the note, which had been fantastically twisted into the shape of a paper arrow.

It was from Koot Hoomi, written from Akola, a small town south of Nagpoor, asking Tom to be alone in his tent at four o’clock next day.

“Don’t take any notice,” urged sturdy common sense, tossing the note into a basket; “these natives think themselves clever, but you’ll only be following some wandering fire if you have anything to do with Koot Hoomi. Out you come, you old rotter, for a morning ride! Miss Maude will be waiting.”

Grenford had fulfilled that promise of his to Maude Gordon. Even the girl herself believed that his love had been transformed to friendship!

Tom was only too ready to obey. He loved riding, and he revelled in the joy of this Christmas season. Life was indeed a bed of roses to this “darling of the gods.”

And, for once, the station declared its perfect satisfaction with the season’s gaieties. Stern old martinet as Colonel Clinton was, he was very human, and Maude with her charm and her youth had worked a miracle at the Colonel’s bungalow. Both Mrs. Clinton and her husband loved the girl as if she were their own daughter. Her youth indeed had renewed their own.

It was a remarkable fact that in the midst of so much jollity Tom Tempest should recall Koot Hoomi’s request, and, stepping away from the merry company engaged in rendering every child belonging to the station utterly unmanageable, he entered his tent. The sense of chill came as a mental rather than physical shock, and Tempest stood, frowning in the doorway, half inclined to chuck so weird an appointment and return to the boisterous fun taking place yonder. His mood was rather that of a merry schoolboy who rebels at having his pleasure curtailed. He was not attune to the call of occultism.

And . . . there was no one here. He would scoot back and just be in time for the Christmas-tree festivities!

As he held the tent flap in his strong brown hand, his quick glance espied a scrap of white paper come fluttering down from the top of the tent almost to his feet.

The billet was folded to represent an arrow!

How could it have come there?

Springing back, Tempest made a rapid circuit of his tent. Not a soul was in sight! Fight as he might against the impression, Tom knew that he was again in touch with mysterious forces far beyond the comprehension of Western minds.

Trying to banish the disagreeable impression which began to haunt him as some evil warning, the young man opened and read the note. It was written in Hindoostani:

Sahib,—Thou wilt doubtless be much surprised at the strange way in which this note reaches thee. I am still at Akola. My message reaches thee by the power of that higher science in which thou knowest I traffic. I am now quite safe from any attack of the Thugs. But I warn thee to beware. Thou art known to Juzzedera, the high priest. He pursues his prey like the panther, and when the path is clear he strikes. A warning, my preserver, is a wise man’s amulet. I give thee another of a different nature. Yet not to thee so much as to the lotus bloom lying on thy heart. Bid Koozeh Bai—the little rose lady of the Feringhees—care for the wounded bird which will claim her pity. If its wings are soiled, its heart is true. And I hold that bird in my hand.

Koot Hoomi.

For an hour or more Tom sat musing over that extraordinary epistle. The first warning was plain enough, and, brave man though he was, Tom could not wholly repress a shudder as he realised what it meant to be marked down as the prey of the Thugs. But the danger was not only to himself. The black cloud spread far . . . threatening his darling! The thought was too terrible to be permitted. Something must be done! More active steps must be taken. The horrible curse of this threat must be removed.

All very well, Tom Tempest! But the fanatical vows of a religious maniac are not easily destroyed.

All Tom could do was to put his letter in his pocket, resolved to read only the second part to Maude. The girl was as perplexed as he. Was the meaning to be accepted as literal? Maude smiled over the question. It would not need a Koot Hoomi to bid her tender heart care for any wounded creature!

Yet—the old fakir’s meaning was soon proved to be not literal, after all, and . . . was the warning necessary?

It was only three days later that Maude and some friends were present at a dramatic scene in the bazaar, when a temple girl, whilst buying fruit from an old native woman, was set upon and stabbed. The girl, uttering loud cries, fled from the bazaar down a back street towards the river, followed by the rabble. Young Tempest and some brother officers formed a barrier, however, across the road—and it was Maude who, finding the wounded nautch-girl, presently, crouched under the shade of some high reeds by the river bank, dressed her wounded arm with her own silken scarf torn into long strips, whilst Tom offered her spirits from his flask.

The girl did not utter a word whilst the “Feringhee girl” staunched the blood, and, with pitying eyes and soft words, helped to restore her. She had feared death, this poor child, a victim of one of the most cruel of native laws. For these temple dancers were in their infancy offered to the gods, and deliberately set apart to pursue a life of shame. They could be bought—body and soul—by the richest bidder, and were powerless to refuse their fate. They were the scorn of their fellow-women and the mock of the men; yet in strange variance they were the only women of India to whom education was given!

Of such was this poor Chentari—temple dancer—who had nearly lost her life through the jealous rage of a defrauded lover.

She was a beautiful creature, very young, very passionate, and now, as she crouched there, her dark eyes watched in wonder the white woman who had so unexpectedly befriended her.

Maude’s smile had neither contempt nor patronage in it—but only the friendliest pity. She herself was too innocent to understand this other young girl’s shame. She only saw “the wounded bird” which claimed her help—and she gave it freely, and without hesitation.

Tempest watched the little drama with very mingled feelings. Maude’s women friends had not left the bazaar, and Tom was quite aware that Maude’s conduct would be criticised, and quite probably condemned.

It would have been more conformable with British dignity to have allowed these native folk to deal as they pleased with the poor deva-dazi.

Tom was glad to find that Maude had forgotten dignity in loving pity. But—well, Mrs. Grundy has many ways of retaliating, and the sooner this little fracas were over the better.

The temple girl’s pursuers had gone—possibly they believed their work completed. Tom and his sweetheart were alone on the river bank with the girl.

“We can’t leave her here,” declared Maude; “we must either take her back to the bungalow, or——”

Tom rubbed the back of his curly head. He couldn’t imagine even kind Mrs. Clinton befriending a deva-dazi!

Then a happy thought came to him.

“If we pay old Santan and his wife,” he suggested, “I am sure they’d take care of the poor thing. And she would be safe enough out there in the back of beyond. I wonder if the girl could walk that distance.”

He spoke to Chentari in Hindoostani—a language of which Maude only knew a few words.

The deva-dazi replied briefly. She would go wherever her preserver took her!

She looked long at Tom as she spoke—then at Maude.

Tom suddenly remembered Koot Hoomi’s warning in the letter which had reached him in such a mysterious manner.

What a mercy that it had not been in vain!

If the old fakir had not given it, it was quite probable that Tom would not have remembered Santan the herdsman and his wife, who lived amongst the rocky ghâts not far from the camp.

Yet—how was this deva-dazi to protect his Maude? At present the shoe looked very much on the other foot! He was frankly puzzled, but there is so much in the East that outsiders cannot understand.

Together, the young people supported their protegée up the hill slope towards the hut cave of Santan.

Here, for the time, this unfortunate girl would be safe.

When she had recovered sufficiently, Tom supposed vaguely that she would return to her temple dancing, and very possibly to the exciting of further jealousy in the hearts of various lovers.

Santan was quite ready to bargain. Chentari was quite content to remain where she had been brought. The only person who did not seem content was Santan’s wife, who gabbled and muttered and looked at the beautiful young girl who lay back there at the entrance of the hut, as though she were some foul thing.

Maude, still not understanding, knelt by Chentari’s side and kissed her brow. The poor deva-dazi’s dark eyes flashed, her little hands clenched, then a long shudder thrilled her frame. She was half swooning as she lay back. But this time she did not look at the young Sahib who stood behind the English girl. Her dark lashes veiled her eyes . . . and beneath them the slow tears trickled.

Did Chentari weep because of the scorn of a herdsman’s wife . . . or for the compassionate kiss of the Feringhee woman whose innocent blue eyes had failed to read the story of a temple dancer’s shame?

Chapter V

Bad News from Home

“Hullo, Tempest! anything wrong?” Tom raised haggard eyes to the speaker, but at first he could not reply. News had come with the latest mail from England which filled him with distress. His father, gallant old Squire Tempest, lay ill—so desperately ill that if Tom wished to see him in life again he must come at once.

It is strange how those who are said to possess occult powers are at times given no presentiment of coming trouble—such powers cannot be used for a personal or selfish purpose. Only the evening before Tom and Maude had been the merriest amongst the merry at a children’s party. This letter of bad tidings came as a bolt from the blue.

Fortunately the young man had home leave due to him, though he had not intended to take it till his wedding with Maude in three months’ time. The plan had been for the young couple to be married at Nagpoor and then make a long honeymoon trip to England.

All these arrangements were now knocked on the head, for Tom had already cabled that he would return home at once. Between him and the widowed Squire lay the closest bond of love, and even Maude was given secondary consideration in this crisis.

“I must go and tell her,” said Tom when he was calmer. “It will be a terrible wrench to leave her behind, but I owe it to the dear old Dad not to lose an hour willingly. Maude will be the first to say ‘Go.’”

And he was right. Yet . . . unavoidable though this sudden upheaval of cherished plans and dreams was, it did not make the parting less hard.

Tom met his little fiancée as she stepped from the verandah of the Clintons’ bungalow to greet him.

She was laughing merrily, and Tom never forgot the vision he had of her at that moment—before she had caught a glimpse of his face. She held a tiny monkey in her arms—the gift of the youngest sub. in the regiment—and was laughing at the indignant jealousy of her small dog which ran barking by her side.

In her white dress and wide rose-coloured hat she made a charming picture of English girlhood; girlhood, without a shadow of the dark clouds which, even when past, leave their traces behind them.

It was the last time Maude Gordon would be able to look and laugh quite so gaily, so carelessly—the next moment she had seen her lover.

“You have had bad news,” she whispered, as she clung to him. “It is—your father?”

Tom put his arm around her.

“You know what he is to me, darling,” he replied in choked tones.

Maude went white. All at once, without warning, the strange illusion of a trance held her, so brief in duration that Tom was unaware what it was that caused the momentary stiffening of her slender frame. But, brief though it was, Maude would never forget the fear which seemed to concentrate into that moment. She knew that some dreadful danger threatened their happiness.

She had seen, standing at the further end of the compound, the figure of an Indian fakir—strange, wild, unkempt. A figure, rigid in its posing, its hand held high above the matted head—and in the hands a fragment of twisted silk which showed red in the sunlight!

Maude, shuddering, thought of the temple in the jungle dedicated to the goddess Kâli . . . and the mysterious ceremonial of the Thugs who met to pay their offerings at her shrine.

Then—it was of Tom she thought; Tom, who must be sent strengthened and heartened on his way.

Not for the world would Maude have betrayed the facts of her fear and her presentiment.

“You must catch the first boat,” she said in as bright a tone as she could command, “the very first. Perhaps your return will help your father to rally. It is so easy to misread a letter. The writer is so apt to give his hopes, his fears, his own impressions—rather than the simple truth. I shall be praying, Tom darling, that you will find your father already convalescent.”

She did not falter in taking this cheerful view, and gradually Tom’s mood of despair passed, and he could not help voicing the passionate regret that he had to go home without her.

“I don’t know why,” he confessed, “but I hate leaving you behind me in this country. Of course, I know there is no danger. Everything is right as rain, but——”

“The sudden shock of bad news has unnerved you,” said Maude gently, “but don’t give way to presentiment, Tom. Behind the clouds the sun is shining. I shall be here to welcome you back, darling, and oh! what a sunny day that will be. All the birds of the jungle will be singing—when my sweetheart comes home to me.”

He kissed her again and again. In an hour he must be leaving Nagpoor, yet he could not tear himself away. At last it was Jack Grenford who came for him. The Colonel was waiting on the verandah to say good-bye.

Tom reluctantly loosened his hold of the girl he loved.

“Ah! here is Jack,” he said, trying to speak naturally. “Grenford, old man, I shall leave Maude in your charge, as well as in that of her guardian. Take great care of her for your old chum’s sake.”

The words, if lightly uttered, carried an appeal that was strangely earnest. Poor Tom felt at this moment that he could not go!

A voice cried aloud in his ear . . . a voice far off but very clear:

“The curse of Kâli! Beware that curse, Feringhee dog—the curse of Kâli!”

He sickened in his dread, but resolutely tried to throw off the hateful memory. He had heard no more from Koot Hoomi, and nothing had been reported as to the activities of Juzzedera for a long time.

After all, this bad news about his father had thoroughly upset him. He saw everything through the dark mist of his grief.

Jack Grenford had heard his friend’s words, and for him they echoed with a bitter mockery, very far from the speaker’s thoughts. For Jack had not ceased to love the girl who had been won by his friend. Now Tom was asking him to watch over Maude during his absence.

Grenford dared not look at the girl who leaned against Tom’s arm, white and grief-stricken. It was a moment of supreme pain for the gallant soldier—dared he accept the charge? Could he be loyal?

Then across his memory, too, drifted the dramatic tableau of that forest scene so often described by Tempest.

And only yesterday there had come to Nagpoor the story of Thug vengeance—a vengeance following its object with the fatal step of Nemesis.

“I will do all in my power,” he said gravely. “Now, Tempest, you must not delay. I will go on and see if that servant of yours has got everything into the trap.”

He knew that the lovers would not want a witness standing by at the moment of their final farewell. And this was more than a casual lovers’ parting.

Tom kissed Maude’s quivering lips again and again.

“We shall see each other, darling,” she said in a low tone.

“Even before we meet again! I pray heaven that my visions of you may always be happy ones. I do not think I could endure to see you . . . weeping.”

He had almost said “in danger”; and she knew it.

But Maude gave no second thought to her own danger. It was of his she considered.

Would the Thugs, with their almost magical system of tracking down victims, follow Tom to distant England?

She would not believe in the possibility. Yet, as she stood in the bungalow garden after Tempest and Grenford had left, she distinctly heard, echoing from the direction of the forest, the same wailing cry which had reached her ears on the night of the Willoughbys’ dance.

Trembling, she clasped her hands, and prayed. She was afraid . . . so very afraid. . . . Yet, she must not be a coward. She was safe here, amongst friends, well guarded and watched over. No Thugs had ever dared to come into a British station in search of victims.

And, at this moment, Maude felt that nothing would induce her to go even across the compound unattended.

It is lucky that our moods veer easily round from the North Pole to Land’s End! Before another two hours had passed, Maude was writing herself into resignation, if not to cheerfulness, by penning a letter to Tom already. She would not keep him waiting for the news of how dreadfully lonely she was without him, and how certain she was that he would come back to her bringing the best of news, and . . . and all would be well that ended well.

But the echo of the wailing cry from the jungle was in her ears as she wrote—Maude Gordon’s heart grew chill with grim presentiment.

Could they escape? Would they ever escape the fate which hung like the sword of Damocles over their heads!

Chapter VI

Out of the Darkness

Pensleen Manor was a fine old place situated in the Berkshire Downs. The house itself lay in a slight hollow, around which clustered a belt of trees. Tom loved his home, indeed the affection he felt for Pensleen, and the strength of his home ties, had almost debarred him from choosing the roving life of a soldier.

As the carriage drove the young man down the avenue, he was asking himself how he could have voluntarily given up this home to be an exile for years.

A growing excitement was upon him as one after another he noted familiar objects.

Ah! there stood the old place, a splendid Tudor mansion, many gabled, with gorgeous creepers half hiding the brickwork. In the doorway stood a fair-haired girl, so like Tom in feature as to make it unnecessary to enquire as to the relationship between them.

“How is he, Daisy?” was Tom’s breathless greeting. “Adams tells me that he is still alive.”

His sister flung her arms about her brother’s neck.

“He could not die without seeing you, dear,” she whispered; “for days he has just been watching the door.”

Tom did not trust himself to ask more questions, and, together, he and Daisy crossed the great hall with its oak wainscotting and ascended the shallow stairs to the Squire’s room.

The crimson rays of western sunshine were flowing in through the open window, shedding a curious glow of colour over the white counterpane and tinting the wan features of the dying man with an unnatural lustre.

Tom ran forward and knelt beside the four-poster bed.

It was true, then, that his darling father was dying. The shock was great. All through the long days and weeks of the seemingly endless journey, Tom had hoped against hope. One glance into those grey eyes, those shrunken features, told the son that soon he must be fatherless.

For a few minutes neither spoke. With hands clasped, and eyes each and only for the other, father and son gave the silent welcome which needs no words.

“Ah, Tom,” whispered the Squire at length, “ I knew you would come. I had to wait for you, my dear lad.”

Tears dimmed Tom’s eyes, but he dashed them quickly aside.

“I wish,” he muttered, “that I had never gone to India.” Then—he remembered Maude! No, he could not wish that wish.

Daisy had left the two alone. The doctor had told her that the Squire might have his way in seeing his son. Tom’s coming was the last possible restorative.

And, for a few days, the doctor seemed to be a true prophet; indeed, so strongly did the patient rally that those around him began to hope that his ultimate recovery was possible.

Tom, seated by his father’s side, began to make plans.

“I shall leave the Army, sir,” he declared. “I know it is your wish. Squires of Pensleen have always looked after their own property. I won’t be the first to break the record.”

How the old man’s eyes sparkled, as he gazed upon his son!

He had hoped for this, but had resolved never to breathe a word of such a hope. If Tom had felt the need for a more strenuous career, his father would not have stood in his way.

But Tom’s decision was one which filled him with great content. The Squires of Pensleen had always been the best and most interested of landlords. They had personally cared for their tenants’ well-being.

“You have given me my heart’s desire, Tom,” said the dying man. “God bless you, lad.”

Tom smiled. How thankful he was that he had come home in time to bring such happiness to the dear old Dad. And he had given him other welcome news too. Nothing could have pleased the Squire more than to hear that Tom was going to marry, settle down, and carry on the old family.

The brief rally proved to be only the flare of the lamp before final extinction. Slowly the old man sank to his rest.

It was all so peaceful, so resigned, that passionate grief seemed out of place.

Tom and Daisy, watching by that bedside, felt that all was well indeed with their dear one.

Daisy was unfeignedly delighted to hear that Tom was going to return home to take up his future duties.

“Will you have to go out to India at all?” she asked wistfully. “Could you not cable to ask Maude to come to England? You could be married here.”

Tom shook his head.

“I only wish I could,” he replied. “I do not like India and I am sure that Maude shares my dislike. But I shall have to go back—there are a lot of things to be seen to, and I may have to stay on with the regiment whilst Carruthers goes on leave. One mustn’t leave chums in the lurch. And, besides, the Clintons might very reasonably object to Maude’s coming alone. I shall have to go—but with luck we ought to be home for Christmas.”

He sighed as he spoke. Christmas without his father seemed so impossible a thing.

“Is Jack Grenford still at Nagpoor?” asked Daisy cautiously.

Tom smiled. “Of course! Where else should he be? Jack will be my greatest regret in leaving the Army. He’s the finest pal a man ever had.”

“Perhaps he will leave—-if you do,” said Daisy, the colour coming to her cheeks in a soft flush.

Tom looked amused.

“You don’t know Jack,” he replied, “or you would not have made that remark. His people have been soldiers for generations, and he hasn’t a thought outside his profession. He knows more about Indians and India than any other man in the British Army.”

Daisy did not continue the conversation. She would not risk her brother discovering the secret which no one must know!

For she fully realised that Captain Grenford did not love her as she loved him. To Jack she had never been more than “Tom’s little sister.” Poor little sister! How lonely she felt at times! But the future did not look quite so black as it had done before Toni’s coming. She must be brave and patient.

Who knows? Possibly . . . Captain Jack . . . home on leave . . . would come to look on her with other, eyes. If so, she would be the happiest girl in the wide world.

Meantime, Squire Tempest was drifting out of life very peacefully. For hours he would lie with Tom’s hand clasped in his, perfectly content because his boy was with him.

For Tom, as the end approached, seemed to find it impossible to leave the bedside.

“He might want me,” he would say—and that was enough.

But nature has her own way with most rebels, and Tom actually fell asleep at his post that same evening.

The hours crept on, and the moonlight filled the room. The Squire slept too, his son’s hand in his own. There were deep shadows in the many corners, for the room was old-fashioned in every way. A huge wardrobe filled one side; there were niches and recesses, as well as the deep bay of the window. The curtains had not been drawn and the blinds flapped in the summer breeze.

But the sound was too soft . . . too intermittent to awake the sleepers.

Tom’s head rested against his father’s pillow. The old face and the young looked strangely alike in the white light.

An owl hooted from the branches of the great old walnut tree outside. A dog howled.

Daisy, tossing restlessly in her bed, in a room in another wing of the house, shuddered at the sounds of ill-omen.

Tom and his father smiled in their sleep. No presentiment disturbed them.

A brown hand stole round the blind which screened the open window. A brown lean hand with nothing to cover it but skin and muscle.

The blind was gently raised.

A man’s face peered into the room.

A dark-hued terrible face. A brown turban was set on the brow, and, under the shadow of the many folds, a pair of black eyes glittered evilly.

Without a sound a man slid over the window-sill into the room. He was naked excepting for a small loin cloth. In his hands he held . . . what might have been a twisted fragment of silk.

The owl hooted again, a dirge-like note.

The clouds which sailed over the moon wrapped the scene in momentary darkness. A new chill was in the air. Around the gables of the old house a flight of bats winged their way—not more reluctantly, though, than the man who had crept back from the bedside and climbed rapidly down, holding to the sturdy branches of the tree. Again the owl hooted.

Then silence reigned.

No sign, no sound told of what had happened. The brown and naked figure of the man had vanished.

Tom woke to find daylight flowing into his father’s bedroom.

The heaviness of his sleep dazed him for a time. As he stretched his arms, he was as a man fighting against the nausea of drugged insensibility.

Then—he looked towards the bed.

Outside, his sister was knocking against the panel of the door.

“Are you in there, Tom,” she called. “Have you overslept? We thought——”

The key turned and Tom stood on the threshold. Daisy caught back her breath; she was horrified to see her brother’s face. Every atom of colour had drained from it.

His eyes stared unseeingly past her towards the opposite window.

“Tom!” panted the frightened girl. “Oh, Tom, do speak to me. Tell me . . . tell me . . . is Dad worse? Oh, Tom . . . he is not dead? And you never called me.”

She made a movement to enter the room, but to her astonishment her brother checked her.

“No, Daisy, no,” he muttered, “you must not go in.”

The poor girl was utterly perplexed.

“Not go in?” she echoed. “Tom, what has happened? Oh, do tell me! Our dear father is dead? He passed away in his sleep? You——”

Tom shook his head.

“He is dead,” he replied. “Yes, that is true. He is dead. I dare not tell you more now, dear. Send for the doctor at once. At once!”

Daisy Tempest obeyed, running downstairs, her knees trembling, her brain confused by shock.

She believed that her father must have died in his sleep, as Dr. Evans had often warned them might be the case. Tom may have slept, too, and the shock would account for his wild looks.

Dr. Evans—a long-tried and proved family friend—came at once. He found Tom standing on the threshold of his father’s room, and his professional eyes saw at once that the young man had had some fearful shock.

Taking him by the arm he spoke to him firmly.

“Rouse yourself, lad,” he urged. “After all, your father’s death was expected. He could not have lived a week longer. For your sister’s sake you must play the man.”

Tom shuddered.

“Come,” he said hoarsely, “and tell me, doctor, what it means. Then . . . I will tell you my story.”

Dr. Evans followed him into the room. The blinds were still drawn, but it was light enough to see the figure which lay on the bed.

The doctor gave an exclamation of horror.

Instead of seeing the peaceful calm of death stamped on his old friend’s face, he saw the convulsed and blackened features of one who has met a violent death. The bedclothes were disarranged about the upper part of the corpse, and the top button of the night-shirt was off.

Bending over the bed, he saw to his horror a thin blue line circling the neck.

For a few seconds there was profound silence in the room of death. Tom had sunk on to a chair and covered his face with his hands.

“Merciful heavens!” whispered Dr. Evans. “My poor friend has been strangled.”

He passed a trembling hand over his brow as he spoke, for there were beads of sweat upon it.

“What does it mean?” he added. “What hellish agency has been here?”

Tom started to his feet.

“Hellish is the right word, sir,” he groaned. “Devilish, fiendish. This ghastly deed is part of a threatened vengeance upon me. The Thugs have tracked me from India! Whilst we slept, one of the murderous gang entered this room . . . and performed that ghastly deed. The mark you see is that of the roomal.”

“Impossible!” exclaimed the doctor.

He looked anxiously at Tom. Was it possible, he wondered, that the young fellow was unstrung, and, in his mania, had done this thing? But already Tom was handing him a piece of paper with writing upon it. The paper was not of British fabric and emitted a faint Eastern perfume. The doctor turned it over several times.

“Hindoostani, eh?” he asked. “Can you read it?”

Tom obeyed. In hoarse tones he read the message brought so mysteriously by a grim assassin.

Lieutenant Tempest.

Beware of Kâli’s vengeance. Wherever thou goest thy footsteps will be dogged by true devotees of the great unspeakable Goddess. Kâli the black one, Kâli the mother of slaughter, thirsts for the living blood of her victims.

Cursed Feringhee, thou art doomed. Thou canst not escape from the net which stretches its meshes over the seas and enfolds those to whom thou givest thy heart’s love.

Juzzedera.

“Juzzedera!” exclaimed Dr. Evans. “What does that mean?”

Tom raised his haggard face.

“Juzzedera,” he replied, “is the name of the high priest of the Thugs. A fiend in human shape is the only description possible. Without him the society or whatever it calls itself would disappear. These Thugs are the worshippers of Kâli, who is the Hindoo goddess of evil. She must have human sacrifice. We prevented such a sacrifice being offered. Indeed, I was very nearly the means of cutting Juzzedera’s career short! Hence his thirst for vengeance. But why, when the black fiend who did this deed saw me helpless here, did he not strangle me too?”

I have no knowledge of Eastern ways,” the doctor replied, “ but if possible we must capture this murderer. The police must be sent for. Tom, my poor boy, I am sorry for you, more shocked at this tragedy than I can say. However, I can hardly believe the evidence of my senses.”

Tom closed his eyes wearily.

“You have not seen what I have seen, sir,” he muttered, “or you would believe in the curse of Kâli—and more.”

Chapter VII

The Footsteps Which Followed

The mystery—so easily explained, and yet so inconceivable in its swift and terrible consummation—had the added horror of a crime perpetrated on an already dying man. The deed showed such a lust for vengeance that it could and would spare none! No wonder that Tom Tempest felt a nameless dread overwhelm him, and without an hour’s delay the police were made cognizant of the whole story.

Of course, the detectives were certain that a speedy capture would be made, but, during the interminable hours of that fateful day, no clue of the slightest importance could be found, beyond the fact that the murderer must have been surefooted and had performed the amazing feat of climbing to the window of the Squire’s bedroom.

Tom himself broke the news to Daisy. The poor girl was heartbroken at first; but when Tom, moaning, in an anguish of spirit, began to blame himself for being the indirect cause of the tragedy, Daisy rallied from her grief and strove to play the comforter.

“Of all unselfish girls, you are the most unselfish in the world,” vowed her brother lovingly, as he kissed the pretty lips which tried so bravely to smile.

“Oh, you mustn’t say that,” protested Daisy. “I am not nearly so unselfish as you think me. What are you going to do now, Tom dear? Do you want me? If not I feel that I ought to go and see poor old Grannie Wishart—she is dying of cancer and won’t go to the infirmary. She loves me to go and read to her.”

“Yes, go,” urged Tom, “and if Lawyer Thorne leaves in time, I will come through Hoxley Woods to meet you.”

He was at first relieved to be alone in the house. He had hoped that Daisy would not be present during his interview with the family lawyer, since it was his intention to make his own will at once—this was a grim necessity, he felt, seeing the awful menace now definitely shadowing his life. It was far later than he had expected it would be when he left the Manor, crossing the pleasant lawns over which the long shadows were beginning to fall slantwise.

An oppression, hardly even to be accounted for by his recent grief, weighed on the young man’s spirits. Though it was still light, it seemed to him all at once as if he walked through the dark woods which lay more than a mile distant—he even raised his hand as though to push at boughs which obstructed his path.

There were no boughs there, of course; yet he could have sworn that he saw a slender brown figure crouched amongst the undergrowth, peering down to some unseen lower depths.

For what . . . or for whom . . . did the Indian wait? For what . . . or for whom?

No need to ask for what purpose. Tom could have sworn that he saw the red strands of twisted silk held dangling in the watcher’s left hand.

Then—the illusion had gone, and he was striding over the soft turf towards the sunken wall along which roses climbed in summer time.

With a growing fear at his heart, Tom ran across the paddock, along the lane, and over the stile into Hoxley Woods. Such deep, restful woods, where Tom had spent so many hours of happy boyhood. What birds’-nestings he had enjoyed amongst the clustering bushes; how gallantly he had scaled those black-stemmed pines where the wood-pigeons had their homes!

The shadows come prematurely beneath these forest trees.

It was growing dusk when Tom reached Grannie Wishart’s cottage. The doctor’s car stood outside, and, as Tom came up, Dr. Evans himself stepped briskly out from across the threshold. He looked surprised to see young Tempest.

“You weren’t looking for me, eh?” he enquired sharply. “What’s the matter, Tom, boy? You look as if you’d seen—a ghost.”

Tom pulled himself up with a jerk.

“No, no,” he replied, “everything is . . . all right. But I came for Daisy. She is here still, I suppose?”

The doctor frowned.

“What? Your sister? No, Mrs. Wishart’s niece is remaining with her aunt till the end. The old lady will not be here in the morning. Miss Tempest left more than an hour since.”

More than an hour since!

Tom leaned back against the gate. He looked ghastly.

Possibly Dr. Evans was more perturbed than he allowed to appear, but he spoke irritably.

“My dear boy, don’t cultivate nerves. If Miss Daisy did leave here more than an hour since, it does not necessarily mean that she returned home at once. Probably she has gone to tea at the vicarage. What more natural? Very likely Mrs. Wishart may have asked her to call and tell the vicar that she wished to see him. Come, don’t make mountains out of mole-hills. There are far too many police on the watch to allow any nigger, however slippery, to hide round here.”

Tom shook his head.

“I had the warning!” he said hoarsely. “For Daisy’s sake I ought to have returned to India at once. Doctor, can you leave the car here? I want you to come with me to Hoxley Woods. It is there we shall find my sister.”

Sceptical but pitying, the doctor obeyed, and a few minutes later they were searching the woods which Tom knew so well. It was no aimless searching either. Forcing his way amongst the undergrowth, Tom led his perplexed companion towards that part of the wood known as Sandy Pits. Here a number of old gravel pits had long been abandoned to the quickly growing brambles. The best blackberries in the neighbourhood grew here—where also the greatest number of minor accidents to youthful pickers was recorded.

“We must search these pits,” urged Tom. “It is here that we shall find my sister.”

The doctor would have protested had not his quick eye caught sight of a fragment of material fluttering on a bramble bush.

He stepped forward—the few inches of black crepe told a sinister tale. He no longer tried to dissuade Tom in his strange search.

At first their efforts were quite useless. The shallow pits were entirely overgrown with grass, brambles, or ferns. There was no sign of these being disturbed by the falling of a heavy weight amongst them.

But love’s eyes are keen, and it was Tom who, with a faint cry of dismay, stooped over the spiky phalanx of a low-growing gorse, lifting from the depths amongst which it had been completely hidden, the slender black-robed figure of his sister Daisy.

Stooping low, the young man peered anxiously to where the white line of the girl’s throat showed over the stiff frilling of her dress.

Beads of perspiration broke over his brow, his heart grew faint, his pulses hammered, whilst a cry of unutterable relief broke from his parched lips when he saw that no cruel mark told of Juzzedera’s vengeance upon an innocent victim.

“She has only fainted,” was Dr. Evans’ verdict; “we must get her back to my car and take her home at once. She must have fallen over the edge of the pit—though I cannot understand how she came to be wandering so far from the main path.”

It was not till two or three horns later that the curiosity—if one may call it so—of the doctor and Tom was satisfied. Daisy quickly responded to the restoratives applied, and, as soon as she recovered consciousness, she showed even greater eagerness to tell her story than her listeners to hear it.

“I left Grannie Wishart’s cottage about four o’clock,” she said, “and of course came home through Hoxley Woods. Hardly had I climbed the stile, and lost sight of the main road, than I was aware of being followed. It was more instinct and the oppression of a strange fear than any more practical conviction, for I turned several times, but could see no one on the path. Yet, as soon as I resumed my way, I heard those stealthy footsteps which pattered so quickly after me. I seem to hear them now—the footsteps in the woods!”

A convulsive shudder seized her, but in spite of the doctor’s orders she insisted on completing the tale.

“A wild dread gripped me,” she continued. “I thought . . . of father’s death . . . of the warning . . . the wicked threat . . . I knew that the curse of Kâli still dogged the destinies of our family. I turned very quickly to the right, and as I left the path I had a half vision of a naked brown figure precipitating itself forward for some fateful leap—I fancied I saw a glint of red silk—and I ran—like a mad thing!

“Almost immediately I knew that the footsteps which had followed me through the wood were again pursuing me. I was looking back to see if anyone was in sight—when the ground seemed to give way under me and I fell down into that horrible prickly bush.”

“Horrible, indeed,” agreed Dr. Evans grimly. “But it saved your life, young lady—eh, Tempest.”

But Tom was too sick with horror to be able to reply.

Too vividly he recalled his own vision of a brown figure and turbaned head—a figure, crouched cat-like in the shadow of many bushes, whilst cruel restless eyes searched vainly for the victim which—no doubt the Indian had decided—must have been spirited away by supernatural means!

The incident which might have added tragedy upon tragedy helped both to impress upon the police the difficulty of their task and the need for redoubled vigilance,

Till after the funeral no definite arrangements could be made, but Tom had resolved to return to India at the earliest possible moment. Daisy would, he prayed, be immune from peril after his departure. It was determined that she should go for a short time to friends in London, returning home after the lapse of a month or so.

Tom could not conceal his anxiety to return—not firstly or chiefly because of his wish to take up his work as a panacea to his grief, but because he could not rid himself of the presentiment that Juzzedera might be practising his vengeance on Maude Gordon also.

No definite warning had come to him, however, so he buoyed himself up with the hope that he might now be the chief, if not the only, object for Thug vendetta.

Daisy spent the day after her adventure in bed. She had been considerably bruised and shaken by her fall, and, as is often the case, she suffered more in the rebound from her adventure than she had done in the crisis of her peril.

Tom went in the afternoon to say goodbye to his old tutor, now the head master of a flourishing local school. As was natural, conversation became protracted beyond the limits intended by the visitor, and Tom was dismayed to find that darkness was closing in when he took his leave. It was past eight o’clock, and he had no right to risk Daisy’s anxiety!

As Tom walked home he was quickly lost in a reverie of the past, mingled with sad thoughts of to-morrow’s ceremony.

It would be a most trying day, and he longed for it to be over. Real grief does not love spectators, and poor Tom specially dreaded the thought of seeing relatives of whom he knew little and cared less. He dreaded the ordeal of conventional sympathy, and shrank still more from the fear lest any of these distant connections should hear the story of the poor old Squire’s murder.

The murder of a dying man! The inhumanity of it! If the devotees of Kâli could not spare an old man, upon whom Death’s seal already had been set, would they spare him . . . or any whom he loved?

With the torture of the thought upon him, Tom halted in his walk. He had heard the sound of following footsteps! Light, quick, falling softly, as when a barefooted runner passes swiftly along a path . . . came the stealthy patter.

It was strange that Tom should have heard the sound at all. Strange that even his quick ear could have roused his dormant senses. Now, he was acutely aware of the sound.

Following footsteps! The footsteps of Juzzedera’s emissary!

Tom turned, trying to pierce the gloom. He could see nothing, but he knew that the pursuer was close.

Above him the bough of an oak tree touched with its summer foliage the cap he wore.

Stretching up, he grasped at the strong branch, swinging himself as he had often done as a boy, till his feet locked round the wood close to the trunk.

Hanging thus, with the pulses drumming in his head, Tom heard the soft pattering of those footsteps coming along the path below. The man must be almost immediately beneath him now! Would he pause? Would he guess what had happened?

The sweat gathered upon Tom’s brow; he was cold and hot in turn. Unarmed as he was, he knew that he would be no match against the Indian, with his crooked knife and relentless purpose. Not a sound broke the silence. Then—an owl hooted!

Silence! No—not complete silence now. Once again those footsteps fell lightly upon the beaten track of the pathway, but this time they did not follow . . . they preceded.

It was not a moment too soon. Tom’s muscles, strained to breaking-point as they were, could not have endured any longer torture. He fell, dizzy and suffering, to the ground.

    *

It was past nine when Tom reached home.

To his intense relief he heard that Daisy had been asleep during the greater part of his absence, and had only just aroused. There was no need to tell her of the strange adventure!

But Tom did not attempt to go to bed that night. He had the excuse of much necessary business to be done before the morrow’s funeral. He worked in the library, where a single lamp flung its light on the mass of papers around.

Purposely he had left both shutters and window open. On the rug beside him reposed Midas, the wolf-hound. Tom had half-forgotten the real reason for his vigil, when he heard a deep-throated growl.

Instantly he was on his feet, his revolver in his hand. The next second he had turned out the lamp and sprang towards the open window. For the fraction of a second he had seen a pair of terrible eyes gazing in on him—eyes which held his own, eyes which menaced, eyes which doomed!

But Tom Tempest also had his purpose! Till this threat was laid he could not leave his sister, even to return to India, to safeguard his darling Maude.

Midas was a few seconds before his master—and seconds count, at such times of crisis.

Only the faint light of the stars showed the outline of the larger trees. Shrubs and view were merged in the blackness of night.

Tom raced forward, still holding his revolver ready.

But he already realised that there would be no use for the weapon—Midas had vanished as swiftly as the dusky native figure!

Tom stopped short with a gasp.

Far off . . . from the direction of the river . . . he heard a cry. Such a cry as he prayed he might never hear again.

Then—silence!

By the time the young man had reached the river bank the moon was rising. He could hear the thunder of Blattock Falls, see the white spume rise and vanish into the darkness. Presently something moved.

A lank grey form topped the bank. Midas, dripping from his bath, crept forward to crouch at his master’s feet. Tom stooped to take something which had fallen from the animal’s jaws.

Midas growled, but he did hot otherwise protest.

A shudder ran through Tom Tempest’s veins. He held a small bloodstained piece of brown loin-cloth in his hand. This time it was not the vengeance of Kâli which had been at work—but the justice of God.

Tom thanked Heaven from the depths of a grateful heart. He could return to India without further fear on Daisy’s account.

But even with the glad thought in his head, Tom sighed. One emissary of Kâli was dead, as he might well hope. What of the others who awaited not only his return, but threatened another life dearer than his own? The young man felt that he could not rest till he held Maude Gordon safely in his arms again.

Chapter VIII

Where Was Maude?

Those were dark days for the household at Pensleen Manor, and not only for Squire Tempest’s own immediate friends and relatives. The whole neighbourhood mourned the fine old English gentleman, who had been an example of chivalry, courtesy, and that wide charity which seeks the welfare of others first.

The emissary of Juzzedera had come and gone to his own place unseen, but leaving the ghastly token of one successful mission at least behind him. Tom felt that his sister’s life might ultimately depend on his own hasty return to India. Daisy did not dare ask her brother about his plans. She was obliged to play the woman’s part of patient waiting.

The detectives employed in searching out the Squire’s murderer never so much as discovered a single clue. From the first they recognised the difficulty of their task.

“Of all the criminals,” the Inspector had told Tom, “the religious fanatic is the most to be feared. Mistaken enthusiasm carries him far above the dread of discovery. His audacity is his safeguard. And in this case we have the subtle genius of the Eastern mentality to contend with. I fear that, if you are determined to find your father’s murderer, you will have to return to India.”

“I should have to do so in any case,” replied Tom; “and, as you assure me that your task is a hopeless one, I shall take the next boat.”

Daisy heard her brother’s decision with foreboding.

“You are going into danger,” she sobbed.

“Oh, Tom! I could not bear it if anything happened to you.”

He tried to cheer her—but, with the newly dug grave as a witness of this relentless vengeance, how could he convince?

“We must trust in the protection of Providence,” Tom said simply. “And, Daisy dear, do you not realise how frightfully anxious I must be about my darling Maude? I know that the threat of danger reaches her, too, and however watchful her guardians may be, they are no match for those devils. My only hope of peace of mind is to return to India, never resting till I have persuaded the authorities to track down and destroy these fanatics. Till Juzzedera suffers for his crimes, these hideous murders will continue. But I have an inward conviction that that old fiend’s days are drawing to a close. I know that I shall never rest till I see his dead body lying stretched before me.”

Tom’s voice rose in a passionate cry, whilst Daisy covered her face, shuddering. It was no longer the jolly boy of a few months back who spoke. The careless, happy-go-lucky Tom of other days had gone, never to return. But it was terrible to his sister to see the handsome young face of this dear brother grow haggard and terrible in its grim passion.

Tom Tempest was a man grown swiftly old through a tragedy which had stepped panther-footed from the heart of an Eastern jungle to confront him.

Only once since his coming to England had Tom fallen into one of those strange trances, which, before leaving India, he had hoped would prove to be Magic Mirrors, helping him to see the girl he loved.

He had seen Maude on the steps of the bungalow, talking to Jack Grenford—the two had seemed perfectly happy, and as the vision lingered before the dreamer’s eyes a restless jealousy had taken possession of him. Jack was seeing Maude day by day, week by week. Was it possible that he could accept the frank friendship offered without learning to love the beautiful girl who was his friend’s fiancée?

“I am utterly wretched,” muttered Tom miserably. “I ought to be ashamed of myself for having such a thought. Jack is as much the last man as Maude is the last girl to betray love. The fact of the matter is my nerves are regularly smashed! The sooner I am back at work the better.”

Daisy cried bitterly when the moment of parting came.

“You must come home soon,” she pleaded. “I know, if you don’t, that I shall never see you again.”

It was a depressing parting. How could it be otherwise? A dark fate hung over the heads of both brother and sister. All the joy of life had gone.

Yet, no sooner was he on board than Tom’s spirits revived. Every hour would now be bringing him nearer to Maude. Before many weeks his darling would be in his arms! Then and not till then the haunting presentiment which dogged him would have passed.

It was one starry night as Tom, too restless to sleep, hung over the taffrail talking to one of the officers, that without warning, his mysterious phase of unconsciousness crept over him. His companion spoke—but received no reply. Tom stood rigid, his right hand twitching with a nervous spasm, his eyes fixed before him.

But he no longer looked out upon the dark waste of waters. What he saw were the tossing boughs of an Eastern forest, stirred by a night wind. A pale moonlight showed up the white stems, which gleamed amongst the darker boles like slender ghosts. Gradually, as the vision became clearer, he saw the outline of a Hindoo temple. Not one of those domed sanctuaries of white marble and glittering gold, but a dark and sinister place with broken stone-work and weed-grown courts. A place for jackals and kites.

Yet he remembered it at once.

It was the Temple of Kâli.

Into the picture glided moving figures. Not one or two, but many. A rabble of natives, evil-eyed, sinister, terrible. The gazer’s breath came in sobs; like some sleep-walker he leaned farther over the taffrail, pointing to a spot where his companion looked in vain to see anything but sea mists and tossing midnight waves.

“Look,” gasped Tom, “ look! do you see him? It is Juzzedera himself. . . . I recognise him. There is no image; it is not a time of sacrifice! What are they doing? Juzzedera is going forward towards the temple. He leads the way, they are chanting praises to Kâli. Listen!

“Look! Look! It is Maude, Maude herself. She is their prisoner! Can’t you see them? They are unfolding the wrap over her head. Maude! Maude! She is trying: to escape. She is crying to me! Oh, Heaven! and I cannot reach her, I cannot reach her!”

“Steady, Tempest,” urged his friend Dongers. “Steady, old chap. It’s a nightmare or an hallucination. There’s nothing there at all but the moonlight on the water. It’s beginning to fade already. You’re dreaming.”

Tempest leaned heavily against the rail. He was breathing with difficulty; his face was grey and bathed in sweat. Whatever he had seen, or thought he had seen, the vision appeared to have utterly unnerved him. He was only half-conscious of Dongers helping him to a seat on deck, and shouting to one of the sailors to go below for the doctor and a strong peg of brandy.

“You’re a sick man, Tempest,” he declared, as he saw Tom was beginning to rally. “You ought to be under a doctor. What was wrong anyway? Ah, here’s old Grigson bringing along the brandy. You’ll feel better for a drink.”

Tom mechanically drained the glass—he felt intensely cold and exhausted.

When Dr. Grigson felt his pulse, he looked grave.

“I’d better get him off to bed,” he told Dongers. “The symptoms are there, though I can’t imagine——”

Dongers shrugged his shoulders.

“Nor I, doctor,” he replied; “yet I fancy that it was some sort of delirium. Can’t be D.T.—Tempest is one of the most abstemious beggars I ever met.”

Fortunately for Tom, the Scotch doctor was not a man to worry about diagnosis whilst his patient slipped through his fingers!

He took Tom off to bed, gave him a powerful sedative, and then sat by his side during the remainder of the night.

Tom was better in the morning, but he looked like a man who had come through a severe illness.

Dr. Grigson was no less curious than many others on board, for Tom was a general favourite, and his strange illness had been the talk of the first class dining saloon.

But it was difficult to ask questions for fear of provoking a fresh attack of illness. As a matter of fact Tom himself told the doctor his story next day. To conclude with, he described the extraordinary vision he had seen on the previous night.

“I saw my fiancée distinctly,” he said in low tones. “She was in the hands of the Thugs. They were dragging her towards the Temple of Kâli. She was terrified. I am sure that she was calling to me, and I could not reply. Give me more of that sleeping stuff, doctor, or I shall go mad.”

Dr. Grigson shook his head.

“No,” he replied, “I have far too good an opinion of you, Tempest, to suppose that you will do anything of the kind. You will not go mad, nor will you dull and deaden your cuteness of perception, your thinking powers, and your very sensitive instinct, by drags. You need all your self-control, all your strength of will. In other words, for the sake of the girl who loves and trusts you, you have got to play the man!”

The speech braced Tom instantly. He found hope in the worthy medico’s words, though he hardly dared entertain such a feeling. For nothing would have convinced him that the vision of Maude had not had its counterpart in reality.

But, if Maude was in danger, she needed him. He must not weaken himself by believing the worst. He would not believe that Maude was dead! He could even find reason for such a hope—had his sweetheart been merely selected for a sacrifice to Kâli, the Thug would at once have employed the fatal roomal.

This daring kidnapping of an English girl pointed to something more elaborate—more far-reaching. But of one thing Tom was convinced: nothing less than a miracle would be needed to save Maude Gordon if she were indeed a prisoner in the power of Juzzedera. If she was still alive, it was only because it was the intention of the Thug to deal some staggering blow to the British Government—or to lure many others with the trap prepared.

“Whatever the reason may be,” vowed poor Tempest, “if Maude lives, I will find and save her. Thank Heaven! Grenford must already be searching for her. He will guess what has happened.”

A sigh escaped the young man at this point of his meditations. He remembered that the detachment of men, who had gone with him to disperse the Thugs around the forest temple, had been drafted to another station. Literally no one—not even Grenford—knew the exact locality of the Temple of Kâli.

Tom was convinced that at this very hour Maude was lying helpless, wholly in the power of Juzzedera and his diabolical gang.

Chapter IX

A Vain Search

Maude had not found it easy during her lover’s absence to keep up her spirits. Her moods were variable and uncertain, and though she never lost the sweetness of a singularly lovable nature, it was clear to all that the girl was fretting. Mrs. Clinton was the only one who dared speak to Maude on the subject.

“You will make yourself ill, my dear,” she urged, “if you give way to this depression. It is not only foolish but harmful. Think of the cloud you are bringing over everything. It is not courageous, child—and courage is what we had all looked for in you. If you think of others, and of making life easier for them, you will forget the length of this time of waiting.”

Maude had promised to do her best. She felt that she was being unfairly judged, but would rather leave it at that than have to give her kind guardian a hint of what she was really suffering.

Only when she was alone did she fully realise the mental strain that she was putting on herself—then she broke down and cried passionately.

“I do not believe I shall ever see Tom again,” she moaned to herself; “or why, when I dream of what he is doing, should I find some thick fold, of what appears to be a veil, interposed between my eyes and the vision of my darling? If only I were not alone!”

But she was alone, and was powerless to control her Fate.

Jack Grenford offered his friendship, sympathy, watchful guardianship, with a most perfect chivalry, but Maude shrank from accepting even such legitimate gifts from the man who had inadvertently betrayed the force of his love to her.

Supersensitive as she was, Maude felt that every smile she bestowed on Jack was disloyal to Tom.

Yet she could not wholly avoid Tom’s friend, for Fate threw them so much together.

They were always meeting! And the lynx eyes of the station gossips took full advantage of the fact.

“Maude Gordon is in love with Captain Grenford,” was Mrs. Barley’s summing up; “but she is not going to forgo the triumph of making a fine match. Tom Tempest is richer and a handsomer man.”

No one yet had arrived in Nagpoor who dared to contradict Mrs. Barley!

It was Jack Grenford who met Maude coming out of the bungalow, on the day she had received a cable from Tom. The poor girl looked very white, and she welcomed Grenford as she had never done before.

“Tom has cabled the name of his boat,” she informed him. “His father is dead.”

Grenford was shocked, for he had not thought that the old Squire’s illness would terminate in death. Tom’s luck had always been so amazing. Surely it could not turn whilst he was destined to marry Maude.

“Tom will feel the Squire’s death acutely,” Grenford remarked. “I had quite hoped that no news was good news—and we have not heard from him for some time. By the way, Miss Maude, were you coming down to the Yorkites?”

“No,” replied Maude. “How could I just after hearing such news? As a matter of fact, I am going up to Santan, the herdsman—he sent a message to say that Chentari, the temple girl who has been hidden in their hut, is now well enough to leave. Santan evidently wishes me to go and make some sort of arrangement.”

Grenford looked strongly disapproving.

“You are not going up the Malai path alone!” he exclaimed. “You have no business to do so. I will go and see Santan this evening.”

The speech was not very wise, but Jack was off his guard. The news of Squire Tempest’s death had unnerved him.

Maude flushed. “There will be no need for you to go, Captain Grenford,” she said coldly, “for I shall have been—I am going at once.”

“Not alone?” repeated Grenford.

Maude raised her eyebrows. “Certainly, alone,” she answered.

“Does Colonel Clinton know?”

But Maude was becoming pettish and irritable.

“It is hardly complimentary to me, Captain Grenford,” she said with spirit, “to suppose that I should deceive my guardian. If I did not actually tell Daddy that I was going to see that poor girl, it was because he is the last man on earth to stop me befriending a fellow-creature.”

This speech sounded well, Maude thought.

But Jack Grenford was far too perturbed to be impressed by highfalutin.

“Helping friendless fellow-creatures is right enough,” he retorted grimly, “but there are plenty of other people—myself for one—to see to the well-being of this Chentari. I entreat you not to go, Miss Maude. Tempest would be equally insistent were he here in my place.”

Maude hesitated. The moods of a woman are many—the moods of a girl are even more!

Maude would now have given much never to have planned this late trip of mercy. But a streak of obstinacy urged her to persist in her plans.

She did not wish Grenford to think that she could be so easily influenced by himself. She disliked his lord-chief-protector manner. She was secretly of opinion that one of the reasons for this interference lay in the fact of poor Chentari’s trade as temple dancer.

Maude’s ayah had already told the young girl a great deal about the deva-dazis, and Maude had looked after her ever since out of pity, and from horror over such a fate. Instead of wishing to draw aside her stainless robe of innocence from contamination, she longed to put her arms in protection around this outcast daughter of shame. In Grenford she fancied—quite unjustly—that she saw the Pharisee, and she promptly rebelled.

Jack was more distressed than he dared show. He had a very important duty waiting performance, and could not turn back to go with Maude. As he saw that persuasion was useless, all he could do was to make as much haste as he could over his official task, and return in the direction of the Malai gates to meet Miss Gordon.

Grenford was a favourite with both officers and men in his regiment, and the former were at a loss to understand his unusual curtness that evening. He was impatient, irritable, and, instead of remaining to chat when the inspection was over, he hurried off.

“What’s in the wind?” queried young Dalrymple to Horace Vane. “Is Grenford turning Benedict? I never knew a chap in such a confounded stew, unless he had an appointment with a petticoat.”

Vane laughed. “I can’t imagine old Grenford making tender speeches,” he retorted, “but if he has lost his heart, the young woman, whoever she may be, is lucky. He’s one of the very best.”

Grenford did not return to his quarters, but turned sharply to the left, passing down a diminutive valley, and then climbing up what was known as the Malai path, towards the rocky ghâts amongst which Santan, the herdsman, tended his goats.

It was getting late, and the faint breeze which stirred the broad green leaves of the aloes, and set the blossom of the pomegranates whispering together, was very welcome. Grenford could see in the distance the quaint figure of old Santan bringing home his goats. The herdsman was carefully carrying a kid which had fallen down one of the ghâts.

What a lonely and sinister place it was! Grenford wondered at the courage of Maude in coming here alone. Of course, the girl was comparatively ignorant of the peculiar perils of India, and Mrs. Clinton—indolent, amiable, and much occupied as the chief lady of the station—would not be the most careful of careful guardians.

Turning a corner of the path, Grenford saw before him the graceful figure of the temple dancer. Chentari had recovered from her cruel stabbing, but she had shown the greatest dread of returning to her owner.

She feared perhaps the pursuit of that vengeful lover.

She had remained at the hut of old Santan, cleverly contriving to win the hearts of her host and hostess. She had learned to milk the goats and to make cheeses. She would drive the animals to pasture, and be ready to perform any task required of her. In fact, she was gradually taking the place of daughter in the humble home.

And all the time poor Chentari wove her own plans, danced, sang, and thought of the White Sahib who had saved her from that fiend Tonsi, the water-carrier.

Grenford was no general admirer of female beauty—Maude Gordon was, indeed, the only woman he had ever felt attracted to. He loved her as such men do love—with a strong and controlled passion which would fade only in death itself. He looked without approval into Chentari’s glowing face. The girl held a pomegranate blossom to her lips, and, from over the delicate bloom, the dark eyes smiled into Grenford’s.

The officer looked round in surprise.

“You have been visited by the little rose lady?” he asked the deva-dazi—giving Maude the name bestowed on her by Chentari.

But his companion looked surprised.

“No, O my illustrious lord,” she replied. “Koozeh Bai comes not alone up the Malai path. The stones would injure her little white feet.”

Jack Grenford frowned.

“But she had an errand here,” he retorted. “She herself told me that Santan had sent for her to speak concerning you.”

Chentari clapped her hands, making a curious clashing with her bangles, whilst she called swiftly to the herdsman.

Grenford could hardly follow the rapid interchange of question and reply, but almost immediately Chentari turned to him.

“My most illustrious benefactor mistakes,” she said. “Santan has had no thought of sending for Koozeh Bai. He also says that the Malai path is not fit for any Missie Sahib. There are evil men who come and go that way. The cry of the Koto bird is in the air. Fires burn above the trees of the jungle about the Temple of Kâli.”

A swift dread, too horrible to be seriously-entertained, stabbed Grenford. Was it possible that the Thugs were again in the neighbourhood?

Was it conceivable that Tempest’s fear of Juzzedera’s warning had grounds? Perspiration bathed his brow. Calling Santan, he cross-questioned him. Chentari sat upon a great fragment of sandstone watching the two intently.

She was far more intelligent than the ordinary Hindoo woman. She had received education and—by virtue of her trade—had mingled amongst the men both of her own country and others. Her dark eyes read riddles which would have remained inexplicable to a girl like Maude Gordon.

She rose as Grenford, looking ghastly in his anxiety, turned to descend the precipitous path.

“O my benefactor,” she said boldly, laying a small brown hand on the Englishman’s arm, “listen to the words of Chentari, the temple dancer. Should Koozeh Bai, indeed, be lost; should the Thugs have dared to steal the daughter of an English Sahib, thus bringing upon them the vengeance of the Great White Hand, then let my benefactor seek out Koot Hoomi, the wisest of fakirs, who alone will help him. These are the words of one who is but a poor deva-dazi, but they are wise!”

Grenford thanked the speaker, but even now he would not believe the worst.

Maude could not have been hurrying. He would find her at Colonel Clinton’s bungalow. No doubt she had turned back, like a wise girl, from a foolish enterprise—though she may not have cared to own as much in his presence.

With all haste the young man returned. As it chanced he met the Colonel himself just leaving the bungalow. The latter paused at sight of the officer.

“Hullo, Grenford!” he exclaimed. “I am glad to see you. I’ve just had a message from Arkola. Those fiendish Thugs have been at their tricks again! We shall have to take the business more seriously. I should like to urge on the authorities to know no rest till the whole sect of fanatics is stamped out.”

Grenford caught at the post of the gate.

“Sir,” he gasped, “I hope . . . I trust . . . you will be able to tell me that Maude . . . Miss Gordon . . . is at home.”

The Colonel raised his brows. He had never seen this very matter-of-fact young Captain so agitated.

“Maude?” he echoed, “why, what of the girl? Ah, I suppose you wish to congratulate each other. Tempest wired me today from Bombay—he will be back in a day or so. By the way, I did not know that Maude had heard the news yet. She was not in to tiffin. Runga thought she had gone to spend the afternoon with the Thomsons.”

Grenford told his story rapidly.

The Colonel frowned, but did not show much anxiety.

“Ten to one that as you asked her not to do such a mad thing as she suggested she turned back and went round to the Thomsons,” he said. “She and little Freddie are tremendous friends. Maude is never so happy as when she is playing with him. I am quite sure she would not go off alone into the jungle, or ever venture by herself up the Malai path after your warning.”

“I hope not . . . I trust not!” was all Grenford could say, but he could not disguise his dread.

The Colonel himself began to look grave, when enquiries at neighbouring bungalows resulted in no trace being found of the missing girl.

No one had seen her, with the exception of Grenford himself!

The Colonel and several friends joined Jack in returning to the Malai path. Across the valley and up the rocky roadway, which was little more than a goat track, they made their way.

It was young Dalrymple who at last set a period on their nameless dread, and placed the matter of the poor girl’s danger beyond dispute.

“Look!” exclaimed the lad, as he stooped, pushing back the high-growing stems of sainturn grass near by. “Isn’t this a piece torn from Miss Gordon’s scarf? It must have caught on a thorn—see——”

He held up a jagged strip of gauze, pink and white, which had been hidden by the thick stems of the grasses.

Colonel Clinton took the fragment in his hand; his rugged old face was ashen in hue. . . . “Merciful heavens, it is from Maude’s scarf!” he exclaimed. “What can have happened? Has some jungle beast carried off the poor child, or”—he shuddered—“is it conceivable that she is in the hands of those inhuman Thugs!”

The only answer to his question came in a long wailing cry—haunting, sinister, but insistent, which echoed and was answered from different parts of the jungle.

The cry as of an unnameable threat!

What would that threat be?

Chapter X

Koot Hoomi Proves His Gratitude

Presentiments, fears, the dread of ill-tidings, were banished from Tom Tempest’s mind as he neared Nagpoor.

In a few hours’ time he would receive Maude’s welcome, and the nameless dread which had filled his thoughts, ever since the strange vision he had seen on his voyage out, would be allayed.

He had already heard that the Government was bestirring itself at last over the checking of Thuggism, and altogether the soft glow of hope, and the old happy content in life, began to fill Tempest’s heart as he sprang down from the conveyance which had brought him to the bungalow he shared with Grenford.

He had been surprised that his chum had not met him at the station, but knowing the man’s inexorable rule never to allow anything personal to interfere with his military duties, he did not worry over the apparently cold welcome. Now, however, he gave a shout of greeting as Jack’s tall figure appeared on the verandah.

“All well, old chap?” was his query, and instinctively he turned to look towards the Colonel’s bungalow.

Grenford did not reply, and Tom, restlessly uneasy, came quickly up the steps.

“Maude well?” he asked.

Grenford’s strong fingers closed over his, as the elder man drew the younger into the room behind, not wishing his friend’s grief to be pried on by the curious glances of the native servants.

“I have news to tell you so difficult to speak of,” said Jack hoarsely, “that my heart fails me. Tempest, old chap, you have already had to bear the weight of a bitter blow. It is terrible to have——”

“No more of that,” replied Tom, and his voice had grown hard, almost fierce; “I want to know the truth. Is Maude—dead?”

“We don’t know,” Grenford unwillingly- admitted. “All we do know is that she has been captured by Thugs. No trace of her whereabouts can be discovered.”

Tom reeled—but, though Grenford put out a sympathetic hand to steady him, he rallied at once.

“Have you searched the Temple of Kâli?” he asked.

Jack hesitated.

“We have searched the jungle,” he replied at last. “And also several Hindoo temples—but I could not swear that we have discovered the particular one you speak of. As you may imagine, old fellow, we have left no stone unturned.”

He paused. It was too horrible to add that in the opinion of every expert, and even that of poor Colonel Clinton, the girl victim so ruthlessly seized must long ago have perished.

But Grenford left the gap for Tom to fill in as he must inevitably do. The ghastly horror was unspeakable.

“I am convinced,” said Tom in dull tones, “that Maude is not dead—that she is in great danger. Jack, Jack, I know that as far as you can understand I have your sympathy. But only the man who loves Maude as I love her can realise the despair of knowing her to be alone, in terror, in awful dread of her life, or worse, and be unable to help.”

Grenford turned, and, walking towards the sideboard, he poured out a stiff whisky and soda. He hardly knew what he was doing—only that it was necessary that Tempest should not see his face at that moment.

Only the man who loved Maude could understand!

Did Tom—the friend who yesterday was no more than a light-hearted boy—did he understand what love was?

With iron resolve Grenford fought down his anguish, and his dark face was once more a mask as he returned with the tumbler in his hand.

“What makes you think that Miss Gordon is alive?” he asked quietly.

Tom closed his eyes.

“I saw her,” he replied slowly, “in the hands of the Thugs. I saw her being dragged towards the Temple of Kâli—the temple we both explored on the day Maude promised to be my wife. It was on the same spot that I and some of the men surprised the Thugs at their murderous game, with the result that I saved the life of Koot Hoomi.”

“Koot Hoomi!” echoed Grenford. “That is the man whose aid Chentari, the temple dancer, suggested that I should appeal to. She has faith in his occult powers.”

“So have I,” agreed Tom; “but first we must go to the Temple of Kâli. I must satisfy myself that my darling girl is not hidden in some secret recess of that dark building.”

Grenford looked very grave. He knew vastly more about Hindoos and their ways than his friend, and he guessed that such an errand would be as futile as it was dangerous.

Yet he might as well have tried to check a river in spate as turn Tempest from his purpose.

That impatient young man could not even wait to see Colonel Clinton. Impulsive to a fault, he must needs rush off now towards the jungle without waiting to hear a word of argument. He was sure that his strange vision called him. This gift of second sight had not been bestowed on him without purpose. He had seen Maude in the hands of the Thugs so that he might be enabled to save her.

Grenford accompanied his distracted friend. Having applied for and obtained a month’s leave, he was free to devote himself to a search which he scarcely dared call hopeless.

Tom Tempest possessed the bump of locality, yet in his mad impatience he= all but missed the path which led to the mysterious temple where Kâli—goddess of the Thugs—received the awful sacrifices offered by her devotees.

There stood the temple which those who had till now searched for Maude Gordon had failed to discover. A hidden sanctuary, shielded by thick undergrowth on all sides but one, the extraordinary part being that though for centuries this temple had remained undiscovered by thousands who lived in the vicinity, the one path was open for all and any to tread. Had the Englishmen consulted natives they would have heard the reason for this guarded, yet unguarded, secret. For the path leading to the Temple of Kâli led past a haunted clearing, supposed to be the rendezvous of certain grim man-eating tigers.

“This is the place,” muttered Tempest, shuddering as he looked around. “I saw it distinctly in my vision. Juzzedera stood there, on the pavement of the court, beckoning to the men who were dragging Maude forward.”

Grenford did not reply, but with stern, set features accompanied Tom across the two courts till they reached the entrance of the temple.

Again they inhaled the sickening stench which came from the rotting mass of vegetable matter. Though fresh flowers and fruit garnished the pedestal on which the idol was placed, the decayed and mouldy offerings beneath had not been removed. And in the dim half-light the hideous features of the idol appeared to grin mockingly at the strangers who entered the bloodstained sanctuary.

Kâli the black! Kâli the vengeful! Kâli the drinker of blood! Kâli the cholera-bringer!

The very air seemed cursed by the dying breath of the victims who had been, from time immemorial, sacrificed here.

Tempest and Grenford did not flinch from their task. Slowly, methodically, they searched.

Stone after stone was struck, but no hollow echo told of a void beneath. The floor round the pedestal was paved with slabs of red-brown marble, but these too were immovable.

No hole, no crevice could be discovered which might lead to a secret hiding-place!

The awful fear became more and more a conviction that if Maude Gordon had been brought here, she had been brought to her death. As they emerged once more from the temple, and stood together in the court without, Tom’s face was drawn and haggard as that of an old man.

“She is not here,” he muttered. “Jack, Jack, give me hope! Speak some word of comfort. Do you believe that the worst can have taken place? Am I too late?” Grenford clenched his hands.

“What can I say?” he retorted. “It is true that Clinton—and, in fact, all who have joined in the search—has given up hope. But I do not finally resign myself to the belief that Miss Gordon is dead. These Hindoos are subtle as cobras in their scheming. If Juzzedera had had no further ideas in his scheme of vengeance, he would merely have ordered Miss Gordon to be strangled in the orthodox Thuggist fashion. What I suggest is that we go to Akola and consult Koot Hoomi—though I have no great faith in native gratitude, it does occasionally shine forth as the noonday sun. And there is no doubt that, outside the Thuggist circle, no human being knows more about Thuggism than Koot Hoomi.”

Tom nodded gloomily, but with decision.

“We will go to Akola,” he replied, “and we will find Koot Hoomi.”

But there was no need.

On returning to their bungalow, Tom was obliged to go at once to report to the Colonel. He was shocked to see the change which had come over his superior officer since their last meeting. Nor was Colonel Clinton less grieved to see the broken lad, who had always seemed such a favourite of the gods.

Silently the two men shook hands.

“It seems unreasonable and selfish, sir,” said Tempest, “to suggest sending in my papers, but I see no other course. Before my father’s death I decided to return to England and learn how to manage the estate. The tragedy of that father’s end only strengthened my determination, whilst at present it seems to me quite impossible that I should take up military duties when my whole thought, my whole mind, my whole energies, must be concentrated on one object—the finding of Maude . . . or the avenging of her death.”

His voice choked over the last words, and Colonel Clinton groaned aloud.

“I understand, lad,” he replied, “and will take the necessary steps to relieve you of your obligations here. Every one of your brother-officers will be willing to help. I know that you could not remain here inactive—and yet I must be quite frank in my speech. Tom, you may succeed in avenging our darling, but I fear it is too late to talk of saving her. We can only pray that the torture of her captivity is at an end.”

Age may find resignation possible. Youth cannot! Tom would not permit himself to give up hope.

The first person he saw on entering his compound was Koot Hoomi. The old Mahatma salaamed to the Englishman with profound respect, but without any sign of servility.

“I have come, my preserver,” he said, “at your bidding and that of the illustrious benefactor, the Sahib your friend.”

Tempest looked puzzled.

“It is true that we were coming to Akola in search of you, Koot Hoomi,” he replied; “ but why is it that you talk of our sending for you? We did not even know where you were living!”

The old Mahatma gave him a keen and curious look, then stroked his beard gravely.

“There are more ways of sending messages, O my preserver,” he replied, “than you may account for. It is true that I received no letter, that no runner arrived at the door of my dwelling, but my spirit listened to your spirit, and the voices of the winds told the story of your need. So—I came, most illustrious, and I have talked with the Sahib Grenford, who is wise in the secrets which the cobra tell to their young beneath the stones of the palace courts.”

At this moment Grenford himself joined them.

“Koot Hoomi is of your opinion, Tempest,” he said at once. “He believes that Miss Gordon is still alive. His idea is that Juzzedera has some far-reaching plot by which he means to threaten the British Government itself. One thing is certain, however—that not a moment is to be lost. I suggest that we act entirely in accordance with Koot Hoomi’s plans.”

Tempest agreed, though very reluctantly. He was only a youngster in the understanding of the natives, and possessed the somewhat arrogant contempt for the latter which has always been such a regrettable feature in the attitude between European and Eastern.

Koot Hoomi might be able to advise—but he was not the “Captain” that Tom would have chosen for such an expedition.

Koot Hoomi’s next words were still less to his liking.

“When the panther seeks his prey,” said the Hindoo, “does he stand waiting in the path? Nay, rather, he creeps up into the tree of many branches to hide himself, and when he for whom he watches passes beneath he falls upon him.”

“If that means,” retorted Tempest, “that we have to wait for the passing of Juzzedera, we may as well give up all thought of search for the Missie Baba who has been stolen from us.”

Koot Hoomi stretched out a skinny hand, and pointed in the direction of the distant hill-side.

“The little rose lady trod the Malai path,” he said, “but she never reached the hut of Santan. Still, in that hut sits one who thinks gratefully of Koozeh Bai. Listen, Sahib. This is your part. You shall go to the hut of Santan and listen to the words of Chentari, the temple dancer. The girl is willing to serve the white lord who saved her from death. Yes, the debt of Chentari is the debt of Koot Hoomi. Both girl and man are grateful. Go, Sahib, and listen to one who has a woman’s guile in tracking serpents to their holes. Go!”

Tempest hesitated. He had fully expected that Koot Hoomi would go with him to some secret meeting-place of the Thugs, and either capture Juzzedera and induce him to yield up Maude, or else discover his sweetheart’s prison. Naturally he strongly resented being sent to a native woman such as this deva-dazi. How could such a person as Chentari, the temple dancer, assist him?

In his indecision Tom looked at his friend.

Grenford was watching him. “It is the best way, Tempest,” he said slowly. “I have talked it over from A to Z with the Mahatma. I confess that I should have preferred a different arrangement. But, after all, nothing must be allowed to stand in the way of Miss Gordon’s recovery.”

Tom flushed. “I am the first to realise that,” he replied; “but I must say I should have thought the right quarry to track was! Juzzedera. How can a temple dancer help me in this?”

“Chentari,” Grenford explained, lowering his voice, “is evidently well known to Koot Hoomi. Indeed, I fancy she is his tool in certain occult practices. He tells me that she is a clever girl, and—these are his own words—to be trusted as far as any woman may be trusted. She owes and acknowledges gratitude to you and Miss Gordon; she may be able to pay her debt. It appears that one of her admirers, a seemingly respectable Hindoo merchant, living in the town, is in reality a Thug, and the confidant of Juzzedera. Chentari tells Koot Hoomi that if you will allow yourself to be disguised as a water-seller, she will go with you into Nagpoor to the house of a friend. From this house she will get into touch with her admirer, and, in this way, there is more than a slight chance that you will be able to discover Miss Gordon’s fate—or prison. Whilst you are so employed—and Chentari refuses to act without you—Koot Hoomi and I will be on the track of Juzzedera. I have often disguised myself as a native and shall not fear detection. You will have to be more careful, but Chentari is clever enough to provide for all emergencies. Of course, you will consent?”

“I will do exactly what Koot Hoomi advises,” replied Tom; “but I would certainly have preferred your company, or that of the Mahatma, to that of this dancing girl.”

Under any other circumstances Grenford would have smiled. As it was, the remark passed without comment. Each of the two Englishmen told himself that no sacrifice—even the hardest one of dignity—was too great in such an enterprise.

Chapter XI

The Mark of the Roomal

Tom had need of all his resignation to the inevitable to face the next three days. Disguised in the filthy rags of a Hindoo beggar, with bandaged eyes and limping gait, he had submissively accompanied his pretty companion through the maze of mean streets which spread like a net about the native quarters of Nagpoor.

Chentari had decided against the role of water-seller. She rightly judged that Tom would never make a successful impersonation. It would be better for him to remain very much in the background—till the moment for action arrived.

Would the moment ever come!

Chentari, after installing her “blind brother” in the meanest lodgings, went out in search of news. She herself had changed her gay dress, and wore a blue saree wound carefully about her head and shoulders—she was too well known in the bazaar to escape recognition without close veiling.

Tom waited with all the patience possible for the girl’s return. Koot Hoomi had repeated his conviction that Chentari might be even more successful than himself in unravelling the secret which was most probably known to Sundra Lal, the merchant.

If so, it would be a triumph for the temple dancer, since Sundra Lal was the craftiest and most secret of mankind, living his double life of respectability and villainy with apparently the most suave unconcern as regards discovery.

Chentari did not make the mistake of undervaluing the skill of this man, but she placed her trust in her own unsurpassed power of fascination.

The spell she wove showed the vivid imagination which had been encouraged by her somewhat lurid life. To Sundra Lal she came as the missing temple dancer who had been reported dead. She gave a fantastic tale of having purposely “died,” so that she might steal back to life with the hope of being possessed by her lover and benefactor, the magnanimous Sundra Lal. Smiling, alluring, swaying before her would-be master with all the matchless grace of a trained dancer, she wove her subtle spells, and intoxicated this middle-aged villain who smiled in such complaisance from his place in the bazaar.

Gradually Sundra’s ever-active suspicions were lulled to rest. He believed in the story of Chentari’s love, even when the temple dancer withheld her lips from him. For Chentari wished to drive a bargain—she pretended to aspire to being the merchant’s wife!

The thing was impossible, quite impossible. And yet——

Chentari laughed, gyrated, watched, and then quite suddenly displayed a furious jealousy. With well-simulated passion she raged, tearing at her veil, her hair, clashing her bangles, stamping her feet, whilst she vowed that Sundra deceived her. He had given his love to another! He possessed a secret—and the secret without doubt was another woman, hidden in the jungle depths.

Sundra paled, looked askance, and demanded what the deva-dazi meant.

Chentari would not reply at first, but gradually she allowed Sundra to suppose that in her love and jealousy she had spied upon him. Not a word of Thugs or of Kâli the black; only of some forest sanctuary and a soft-eyed houri, who wove counter spells in mockery of Chentari.

Divided between passion and dread, the merchant protested that Chentari dreamed. He had never loved before the present hour! He would never love again!

That evening the deva-dazi returned in triumph to Tempest.

“The hour dawns,” she said. “To-night I follow Sundra Lal into the forest. Tomorrow we will go together, you and I, Sahib.”

“Why cannot I come to-night?” urged Tom. “Anything, anything, whatever the danger! I can’t endure any more of this waiting.”

Chentari laughed. “To-morrow,” she said, “I pay my debt to my preserver. What will he give to poor Chentari for her gift?”

“My gratitude,” cried Tempest. “My most heartfelt gratitude. And if I can buy your freedom, Chentari——”

The dancer laid her soft little hand over his lips.

“Hush!” she whispered. “Say no more. The day for reward is not here—yet.”

Tom did not reply. But with all his heart he wished that he could have had Koot Hoomi for a companion.

Women—could be—the very devil!

Were they only hours which passed before the return of Chentari from her midnight errand?

Tom, sitting huddled on the floor of a miserable den, wondered if there were any deeper depths of sheer physical discomfort. He had unbandaged his eyes, and sat staring into the darkness.

How the minutes crawled! How intolerable was the suspense! At last he heard the signal—a gentle scratching at the door. Crawling to it, he opened it and felt the long ends of a woman’s scarf swish against him as someone entered.

It was Chentari—she was breathing heavily.

Tempest felt his tongue dry and swollen; he could not speak at first, for his heart thumped wildly, and he was sick with dread.

“You . . . you . . .” he stammered, as he inhaled the faint Eastern perfume Chentari invariably used.

Presently she lighted the native lamp which she had brought in with her, and he could see her crouching on the mat near.

“I have heard the secret of Juzzedera,” said Chentari, “a secret that it is death to discover. For your sake, my benefactor, I have braved the threat of Kâli’s vengeance. My debt is paid.”

“And Maude . . . the Koozeh Bai . . panted Tom. “You have learned——”

“Yes, Sahib, Koozeh Bai lives. But she is doomed. Nothing can save her. She must die.”

“She shall not die!” cried Tempest passionately. “I must save her. Tell me quickly, Chentari, where she is? I must go to her.”

The girl raised her dark face; seen in the lamplight her eyes burned brightly.

“Listen, and I will tell you the truth. Koozeh Bai lives in the place of Kâli. To reach her you take your life in your hands. You will die there, in the darkness, with her who is already doomed. Who ever escaped the curse of Kâli? And the curse is upon you! Listen, my benefactor. I, Chentari, the temple dancer, love you a thousand times more than the little rose lady. My love is a fire to warm and strengthen you. Give your love to me and we shall know happiness before we die. Is not poor Chentari as beautiful as Koozeh Bai? Is not her heart——”

“Hush! Chentari,” replied Tom sternly. “You must be mad to talk like this. A white man’s love is not the wandering fire you suppose. I love Koozeh Bai, and I shall never love another woman! To you, Chentari, I give gratitude. I ask your help now in the finding of what means life itself to me. Life and happiness! I ask this, Chentari, in return for what we did in the bazaar here at Nagpoor.”

Chentari sat huddled on the mat, her dark head bent. She gave no sign of having heard, and, presently, extinguishing the lamp, she rose to her feet and glided from the room.

Tom lay against the mud wall, his brain whirling. What in the world was he to do now if Chentari left him without the clue to the all-important secret? Ought he to have dissembled, and made love to the deva-dazi?

His cheeks burned at the very thought. Not even to save Maude would he . . . could he allow another woman’s lips to press his own!

Dawn came at length, the swift dawn of the East. Tom looked with loathing at the dirty rag which usually covered his eyes. Must he continue to be Chentari’s blind brother, whilst Maude was in such peril?

Impatiently he flung the rag away—then stood doubtful, as a muffled figure darkened the doorway. Who was the woman?

A second later he drew a breath of relief, as Chentari unbound the long ends of her saree—Tom noticed that she was unusually pale and her lips quivered.

“You are ill,” he exclaimed, “or—afraid?”

The temple dancer clenched her hands convulsively.

“Why should I fear?” she mocked in reedlike tones. “It is not I—but Sundra Lal who lies within his chamber, yonder, with the mark of the roomal about his neck.”

Chapter XII

The Prison Beneath the Tank

Sundra Lal had paid swiftly for his indiscretion. Death had found him between night and the dawning. Silent and terrible, the avenger had come and gone.

The worshipper of Kâli, goddess of the Thugs, would not permit the shadow of treachery.

Tom Tempest shuddered as he listened to Chentari’s story and looked into the girl’s dark eyes.

What new and enigmatical expression did he see in those mysterious depths?

He could not determine, though he was only too eager to follow .their owner’s counsel.

If Maude was to be saved, it must be done at once.

Possibly nightfall would be too late. If the roomal had fitted Sundra Lal’s throat within a few hours of his indiscretion, would it not be waiting even now for those who attempted to thwart Juzzedera and the devotees of Kâli the black?

“Come,” urged Chentari, “without delay. Come quickly. The forest will be empty. There will be no worshippers before nightfall in the Temple of Kâli.”

“Is it there that Koozeh Bai is hidden?” asked Tempest sceptically. “Since when, Chentari? Grenford Sahib and I searched every hole and corner within and without.”

Chentari laughed.

“Did you lift the stone near the tank on which the flowers of the yellow lotus float?” she asked. “Alas! my preserver, there are more subtle brains than yours, keener eyes than yours—but . . . it is time for the little rose lady to welcome her lover. Come!”

Tom obeyed, forgetting the warning of Koot Hoomi to let him know first before any crisis was brought to the issue.

Impulsive Tom felt that every second’s delay was too great. Would they never arrive?

The full heat of midday was pouring down upon the forest as the strangely assorted pair stepped out into the clearing made around the Temple of Kâli. Parrots and paroquets screamed shrilly to each other as they fluttered or swung from branch to branch. Here, a pair of love birds talked foolishly together—there, a black snake lay curled contentedly upon a rock. The snarling cries of forest creatures came drifting from the denser and more distant part of the jungle with ominous portent.

Despite the exquisite beauty of Nature’s dress, the whole atmosphere of the place was depressing.

But Tom had neither eyes nor ears for his surroundings.

Before him stood what now appeared to be the temple of destiny itself. Maude was here! Maude was near! But his sweetheart lay in peril of her life. At this moment Tom could not help recalling the fates of both his father and Sundra Lal. Who would be the next victim of Kâli?

Chentari stole very close to her companion, stretching a shapely arm to point to the tank—ever a feature of the Hindoo temples.

“The stone!” she panted. “Lift it. It hides the jewel which the Sahib would wear on his heart.”

Tom did not wait for further instructions. Across the clearing he strode, looking neither to right nor to left.

Forward, till he stood beside the tank with the floating lotus blossoms.

Then he turned to glance towards the spot where he had left Chentari. The girl stood watching him, the trees of the jungle making a dark background for her slender figure. She made a gesture, pointing downwards. She was right. A large flat stone lay on a level with the ground, close to the tank.

Tempest stooped and lifted it.

A pepeeheh poured out its exquisite flood of melody from a tree near. A clump of thick grasses rustled in the faint breeze. The heat was oppressive; sweat poured down Tom’s face as he raised the slab. He became dizzy with excitement. And at that moment . . . from some distance . . . there came to his ears the long, plaintive note of that mysterious cry.

“Talk of secret hiding-places,” muttered Tom, “this one looks more like a grave.”

But it was not a grave. It was a staircase leading down—whither?

No wonder he and Grenford had failed to find it. A hiding-place under a temple tank! A passage winding its way into . . . darkness.

But Tom did not turn back. He plunged down the evil-smelling passage, wondering where the air—such as it was—came from. Ah! a door . . . a door . . . reached at long last. Tom was considering matters—as far as he could judge, he must be standing somewhere beneath the Temple of Kâli, or perhaps the outer court.

A very low doorway stood before him—he pushed against the door. There were neither bars nor bolts to this prison, but he was obliged to crawl on hands and knees before he could enter.

His flesh crept with the fear of snakes or other noxious reptiles . . . only the cold damp stones of the flooring did he feel beneath his touch.

Light!

Amazed, the young man drew himself to his feet. Native lamps were set on ledges along the farther wall. The underground chamber was about ten feet square, moisture oozed everywhere, and, on a heap of mats in a corner, lay a still figure which Tom recognised at once.

It was Maude, still wearing the white dress in which she had been captured.

Tempest cried the loved name aloud and ran to her.

“Maude! Maude!”

The girl roused at once, and, as she moved, a rattling of chains gave him the reason for that unlocked door. Slender but strongly wrought chains were fastened about the poor girl’s wrists and ankles, being secured to the wall above her.

At first neither of the lovers spoke. In an ecstasy of thankfulness and welcome they clung together.

Maude was the first to question.

“You have come to rescue me? You are all here? Oh, Tom! and I believed this was to be my last day on earth.”

Tom kissed her passionately again and again.

“My darling,” he groaned, “it has been hell. If it had gone on . . . much longer . . . I must have died. The horror passes description. Grenford and I are the last to believe that you still live. The others have for some time mourned you as dead.”

Maude trembled violently.

“At times I have prayed for death,” she whispered; “ the dread was so fearful. Several times I have been taken up to the court of the temple to see other executions! All the poor creatures were natives. Each time he or she was first freed—and bidden to go. Each time one of those terrible Thugs pursued and strangled the victim. I fainted on the last occasion. To-day, Juzzedera told me that it was my turn next! ‘Afterwards,’ he added, ‘your lover will die. Then the vengeance of Kâli will be complete. Let those who care for life take warning.’”

“Do not talk of it,” urged Tom, “but be content to know that Juzzedera will find that he must fall into the net spread for others. Thuggism is doomed rather than we. Providence has led me here, dear; let us make haste and go.”

By sheer force Tom wrenched the staple from the wall, but he could not remove the chains from the girl’s wrists and ankles—and he dared not delay.

On hands and knees they crawled through the low doorway and up the passage.

Together they stood at the foot of the stained steps.

From somewhere far above and beyond them they fancied they heard the long, ill-omened wailing. Maude clasped Tom’s arm as she heard that fateful cry!

“Together!” was the one word her pale lips formed. Tom raised himself. He dared not be afraid. So far, no sort of warning had come from Chentari, who was acting as sentry. With Maude slightly in advance they climbed the steps, emerging close to the lotus-covered tank.

As they stood there, together, looking towards the trees where Tom expected to see Chentari, five figures sprang into view from where they had been hiding close to the tank.

Tom drew his revolver, firing at random, and with a cry one of the natives fell—but the others came on at a rush! Before Tom had time to take aim at the bare old figure in which he recognised the high priest of the Thugs, he was seized and thrown to the ground. How furiously he fought, but how futile such fighting was! Within three minutes the young man was bound hand and foot, lifted from the ground, and carried across the court into the Temple of Kâli itself.

He heard Maude’s cry—but could not save her. He heard her agonized prayer on his behalf, and once more strove with his captors. But it was no use. A violent blow on the head deprived him of his senses.

Everything became a blank . . . the darkness of kindly unconsciousness settled down upon him.

Chapter XIII

The Heart of Chentari

A man came down the jungle path, followed by another. Natives both. One old and white-bearded, the other lean and long of limb—a scarecrow, whose rags flapped round his carcase. They were Koot Hoomi and Jack Grenford. They halted under a peepul tree and looked around.

“We are close to the Temple of Kâli,” said the Mahatma. “We know now for a certainty that Juzzedera is in the neighbourhood—some scheme on a large scale is evidently afoot. The meeting-place of the Thugs is yonder, but at present that is all we know for certain. Still, if there is any truth in my occult powers, we shall soon know much more. Three times I have seen the vision of the girl Chentari. I feel that there are powerful forces at work—apparently in our favour. Never, Englishman, have I realised how limited are my powers, how impotent my purpose in learning the secrets of the unseen world. Shapes, figures, illusions, they all flit before me. Whither? Yet Something I can see, Something I can feel, that is more than other men. My powers now are concentrated on one object. If Irvara favours me, Juzzedera shall surely die. If I succeed, then Thuggism dies too. What is a body without a head? Answer me that, Sahib.”

But Grenford did not answer. Instead, he sprang lightly forward, stooping as he swept aside the brittle stems of sainturn grass.

A woman lay huddled there, her face buried against her knees!

It was Chentari, the temple dancer. Koot Hoomi uttered a low exclamation; even he, the reader of the future, had not bargained for that surprise! The girl, finding herself discovered, at first tried to escape. But a single word from the Mahatma brought her to a standstill.

Grenford could not help comparing her to some wild, though beautiful, forest creature as she stood before them, every limb and muscle quivering in some suppressed passion.

Koot Hoomi stood with folded arms regarding the girl with fixed intensity.

It was evident that he exercised some hypnotic influence over her.

Not a word was spoken for several minutes. Then the Mahatma stretched out his arm, pointing a wrinkled finger at the temple dancer.

“Oh, most miserable wretch!” he murmured in deep tones. “Oh! vile slander of fair womanhood. Thou hast betrayed my trust.”

Chentari swayed like grass in the wind. She pressed both hands to her heart, moaning pitifully. Her gaze, like that of a frightened gazelle, never left the Mahatma’s face.

Grenford was conscious of a keen sense of pity. Gentle in all matters concerning; women, the young man’s chivalry was roused to defend this terror-stricken girl.

“Koot Hoomi!” he exclaimed, “what are you doing? This is but a child—she is innocent of wrong. We should succour, not harm her. At least let us listen to her tale.”

“I will tell you her tale,” retorted the Mahatma, making several rapid passes in the air, so that Chentari stood rigid before them in some sort of a trance, “or rather the traitress herself shall confess. Chentari, slave of the gods!” he added, speaking in slow stern tones, “what hast thou done with the task—the golden task of thy gratitude?”

The girl moaned, but she did not move so much as an eyelash. She stared before her as though the picture of the past confronted her.

“The golden task, O my master,” she replied. “See! It has broken on the ground. I slew it with my jealousy.”

“Tell me the tale of thy treachery,” repeated Koot Hoomi, “so that I may give thee the penance which shall succeed it. Lose no time in vain wailing. The cymbals are dumb. There is no round of dancing feet around the Temple of Siva. The nail of Buddha is driven between thy brows! There is no return.”

Still the girl did not move. The Mahatma had completely hypnotised her.

“I took the Sahib to the house of Talsi,” she whispered. “He lay in filth and rags whilst I beguiled Sundra Lal. Sundra Lal lay dead when I saw him last—with the line of the roomal embracing his throat. Then together the Sahib and his servant reached the Temple of Kâli. But the heart of Chentari was steeped in the gall of hatred.

“Twice had I, Chentari the beautiful, Chentari the song-bird, the silver-footed, offered love to the Sahib. Twice he had refused me. Hatred came with the black feet of Diva to my heart. I saw Juzzedera, the high priest of Kâli, in the bazaar at Nagpoor. I made my bargain with that wicked one. I brought the Sahib to the Temple of Kâli; I showed him Koozeh Bai lying in her prison beneath the temple tank. But, as the Sahib and his white doe stepped out into the forest, lo! Juzzedera and his men rose up and seized both the Sahib and the woman.

“Then my heart sang and I said to Juzzedera: ‘The bargain is a golden one. Give me the English Sahib. Give me the Feringhee. He is mine. He shall belong to Chentari, the temple dancer, whose arms he will choose sooner than those of Death.’ Then Juzzedera laughed in his beard. He mocked me, the deva-dazi. He called me evil names! But he told me that the golden bargain was made. My revenge was sure. Master—I saw the Koozeh Bai dragged back to her prison. At moon-rise to-night she, the little rose lady, will become a sacrifice to Kâli the black one. But the Sahib lay stricken with closed eyes, and with blood upon his brow. Then the world became dark to poor Chentari, and, when she opened her eyes, only Juzzedera stood there, mocking her.

“‘The golden bargain!’ he cried. ‘Come, Chentari, slave of the gods.’

“He dragged me to my feet, master, he took me to that place—the place of Kâli. There I saw him—my preserver, my benefactor. He lay bound upon the black stone that is stained with the blood of many victims. His eyes were open, and I cried out when I saw him, but Juzzedera laughed.

“‘Choose,’ he cried to the Sahib, ‘choose then upon whose head the curse of Kâli shall burn. Will you die as others have died in this place? Will you die as the white girl will die presently—or will you live in the arms of Chentari, the temple dancer, who for love of you betrayed the other woman to her death? Choose, hated of Kâli. Choose, cursed Feringhee.’

“I tried to cry out, but my lips were dumb. I knew what the Sahib would say. I heard the words. He chose death, master. He chose cold death rather than the embrace of Chentari, for whose love men have fought like the beasts of the forest!”

Her voice, rising shrill, sank to a whisper like that a of storm-blast dying into silence. The woman shook once again in her passion, she tore at her own flesh in her anguish.

Koot Hoomi’s piercing gaze never left her face.

“So you return, Chentari,” he said, “to the Temple of Siva. You will dance with your comrades. You will smile when you are bidden to smile, you will kiss when you are ordered to kiss. You will forget the Feringhee who lay down to die because of your treachery.”

The unfortunate woman fell to her knees.

“Master,” she sobbed, with gusty breaths which told of her despair, “give me thy command. My heart is as water. How shall I live after he is dead. I love him! I love him! Does not your wisdom tell you what is in the heart of Chentari?”

The Mahatma raised both arms aloft. Then he begun to speak, softly, quietly, as one who chants, and all the while he regarded the crouching figure of the woman who lay swaying to and fro.

It was as if the old man clothed the helpless creature in a spell.

When he became silent again, Chentari in turn raised her arms.

Grenford watched, fascinated. The voluminous saree of soft blue silk had slipped from the girl’s dark head and lay in a heap of spangled azure around her lower limbs. Never had the Englishman seen a face so wrapt in silent ecstasy as that of this poor deva-dazi. With hands folded on her breast she crooned as though telling herself some story. Then, with a wonderful gesture, she wrapped her saree once more about her head and shoulders.

“I go, my master,” she said softly, as she knelt at Koot Hoomi’s feet. “The sacrifice shall be made. I go!”

The Mahatma gave no sign of approval or disdain. With his dark features set in an expressionless mask, he watched the woman rise and, with faltering footsteps, go down the jungle path before them.

Not till she was out of sight did Koot Hoomi turn to Grenford.

“It is the last act in the great drama,” he murmured, “but, as I listen, my Sahib, I hear the death-voices in the air, chanting their mystic melody. There are those who will die to-night . . . as also those who will live. What hast thou to say to death, brother?”

Grenford smiled.

“If those whose well-being we seek to preserve, Koot Hoomi,” he replied, “is assured, then I shall have no quarrel with the Messenger who comes to tell the greatest of all secrets.”

Koot Hoomi stroked his beard.

“Thy nation, Sahib,” he said thoughtfully, “is a great nation. It breeds the strong and the brave. It breeds the pure and the noble. My magic is great—as we of India speak of magic. But you of another race understand best another magic, of which we, the wise, the learned, the seers of this land of mystery, know but little in the way you know it.”

Grenford raised his brows.

“And this magic?” he asked. “What do you mean, Koot Hoomi, for I do not know its name?”

The Mahatma spread out his hands, as one who gives up a riddle too hard to solve.

“It is the love of woman, Sahib,” he replied; “the love which calls itself sacrifice. Come . . . it is for us to play what Fate bids us—we are each content.”

As the old man spoke, a long wailing cry rang through the jungle. A strange and piercing note, like and unlike to that of a jungle bird.

It was the death-signal of the Thugs!

Chapter XIV

The Supreme Sacrifice

Tom Tempest was racked with torture as he lay bound in the Temple of Kâli.

It was an agonising mental torture, quite apart from the acute physical discomfort which he suffered.

Bound hand and foot, he lay outstretched on a huge slab of black marble not far from the hideous idol. The nauseating smell of rotting flowers and vegetation, mingled with a yet more putrid odour, almost suffocated him. Every nerve and muscle was racked by intolerable pain. He longed to swoon, but it was impossible. His lips were parched, his throat dry.

Hours must have passed since Juzzedera and Chentari had left him. He had been horrified to hear of the temple dancer’s treachery, still more at the revolting offer which had been made. But, in his present state of suffering, his brain was too confused for him to be able to realise whether he definitely hated the poor dancer, whose unbridled passions had made her the tool of that arch-fiend Juzzedera.

Beads of sweat broke over the prisoner’s brow as he asked himself what could be the fate reserved for Maude. The girl had been snatched from him in that awful moment, when, upon the very threshold of freedom, those grim jailers had risen from the gloom to re-arrest them. Was it possible that Ghentari’s wild words contained the germ of truth? Was Maude, his darling, his beautiful Maude, going to be the victim of a hideous orgie of blood no later than the coming night?

Desperately the poor fellow tried to move. The cruel bonds only cut more deeply into his flesh, and the agony brought a stifled cry to his lips.

Maude to die! And he lay there, helpless to save her. Maude to stand alone and defenceless amongst those accursed villains! Again the prisoner cried out. Death would have been the most welcome friend to him at that moment; his brain reeled, he wondered why he did not go mad in his agony.

But Tom did not lose his mental balance, nor did oblivion come to relieve him. He lay there helpless, whilst the torture of his thoughts became more active as his bodily weakness increased.

Only the light of the native lamps illumined the shrine of the temple. In the garish flare he could see little beyond the idol itself, which towered above him. The walls of the temple could not be seen, and he appeared to be ringed round by darkness. Close beside him he could see the huge blossoms of the yellow lotus, but the subtle perfume was lost in the more pungent stench of decayed refuse. The black marble pedestal, on which the image of Kâli reposed, was almost buried beneath the gifts of devout worshippers.

As Tom raised his eyes, he could see the black figure of the goddess towering above him. To the growing fever of his imagination, it seemed to take life and glower down upon him in malignant hate. He could see the gleam of the oblique eyes, the sinister clenching of the black hands—could see the red smearings around the savage mouth!

Kâli was gloating upon her still living victim.

Kâli the ruthless mocked the stranger, who lay there in such helpless misery.

Kâli the terrible laughed as she stooped to curse him.

The curse of Kâli, the curse of Kâli! The unwieldy figure swayed in his imagination—striking vengeful hands together. The thirster after vengeance, Kâli the terrible, triumphed—but Tom Tempest had his desire at last—for he had fainted.

But consciousness returned only too soon; consciousness . . . and perplexity.

Tom’s mysterious trance mood had come upon him in his weakness. Staring into the shadows, he saw a figure completely veiled in a blue and silver-spangled saree.

Who was his visitor? Was she but a phantom . . . or . . . or . . .

Tom’s gaze remained fixed. He had to watch as a hand was raised, and the otherwise motionless figure slowly unwound the saree. He was looking into the face of Chentari, the temple dancer, but so transformed as to be scarcely recognisable.

Never had he seen the girl look so beautiful!

All the grosser passions had faded from the delicate features. Chentari smiled. In her hand she held a spray of crimson pomegranate blooms which she pressed to her heart. But . . . as she raised her face to look upward, away from Tom, the latter saw to his horror a faint bluish line about the slender neck!

The vision faded!

Darkness wrapped the prisoner round. But Tom felt himself bathed from head to foot in perspiration. He was nearer madness at that moment than ever before.

And above him towered the black and threatening figure of Kâli the terrible.

Whether he swooned again or slept in sheer exhaustion, Tom did not know, but he was roused by feeling the severing of his bonds.

Opening his eyes he gazed wildly around.

The Temple of Kâli was thronged by dark figures, many of whom held torches in their hands. Before the prisoner stood Juzzedera himself, knife raised.

At first Tom believed that the end had come, and, with one prayer for mercy offered from his heart, he prepared to face death bravely.

But the long knife fell only to cut the remaining cords, whilst three villainous-looking Thugs helped to lift him from the stone to which he had been bound.

Tom was aware of acute pains which stabbed and burned all over him, as the prisoned blood slowly flowed back into cramped veins.

He noticed at the same time that the figure of the goddess had been removed, leaving only the pedestal and scattered offerings.

Juzzedera proffered him a small phial.

“Drink, Feringhee dog,” he said authoritatively.

Tom took the phial and obeyed. He vaguely wondered whether the draught were poisoned, but in his present semi-conscious state he did not greatly care. Everything possessed the unreality of a dream—dream or nightmare—in which he acted automatically.

The draught revived him in a miraculous fashion; he could feel it coursing like fire through his frame, but it was the fire of new life. He awoke from the mental haze into which weakness and exhaustion had thrown him, and once more his fighting spirit was aroused.

He looked around with a keener interest. What were these fiends going to do with him? Where were they taking him?

Strong hands gripped and dragged him forward. He could not have struggled against such odds in any case, but as it was his legs would hardly support him, and twice he fell. The groan wrung from his lips only provoked the laughter of his captors.

Never, however, had Tom felt anything so refreshing as the cool night air which presently fanned his brow. He had been stifled in that nauseous atmosphere, but he had not fully recognised its foulness till once more his lungs drank in the purer air outside the temple.

For a few moments he leaned back against the temple wall, inhaling great draughts, of this reviving ozone. Gradually his brain cleared. It no longer seemed to him as if some heavy weight pressed down over his eyes—he could think once again, without effort.

Presently he became aware of what was going on around. The scene was practically the same as on that night when he had brought men of the guard to surprise the Thugs at their murderous ceremonial.

From the various paths of the jungle, men came stealing towards the temple. They had evidently found disguise necessary on their way hither, but had discarded it as soon as they knew themselves to be safe amongst the brotherhood. Evil faces, dark-hued and sinister, were raised in the moonlight as comrade greeted comrade.

Slowly the clearing filled with a considerable crowd of natives—mostly drawn from the lowest criminal class, though there were exceptions. Unknown, unsuspected, many rich and influential Hindoos had become initiated into this fanatical society, whose creed was murder of the most sinister sort. And, under the white light which showed each object with the clearness of day, could be seen the huge black image of the goddess, hideously smeared and terribly significant.

Tom glanced rapidly from side to side. He was being carefully guarded by the most truculent rascals; he could not have moved without being overpowered.

Escape was clearly impossible. There was only one thing that he could do, and that he did. He closed his eyes, hoping to shut out a repulsive sight.

Presently he heard the high-pitched chanting of Juzzedera’s voice. It was the same weird prayer to which he had listened with contemptuous disgust some months previously.

With very different feelings he heard the words again:

O Kâli, goddess of the Thugs, whose lips, may only be steeped in human gore.

Who delightest in the red-hot blood of thy victims.

Who tearest the babe from its mothers bosom. O thou black one, fierce and terrible, who art girt around with gory skulls. O thou bloody-toothed horrible of horribles.

Dark as the night, Mighty and Unspeakable! O Kâli, Kâli, the terrible and pitiless. We offer to thee the hearts of the victims, take them, we entreat thee, for ever.”

Each word throbbed echoing in Tom’s brain. His head seemed to reel. To escape from the sensation of some headlong falling into oblivion, he opened his eyes. A second later his gaze became riveted.

Standing before the idol, his lean and scraggy figure erect, his arms extended, was Juzzedera, knife in hand.

Around him in a circle stood grouped the devotees of Kâli—a crowd of the most evil-visaged Thugs it was possible to see. But what Tempest noticed, even in that crucial moment, was the strange rigidity of every single spectator. Not one man moved—it almost seemed as though none breathed. All were gazing to where Juzzedera stood before the idol. But now the high priest had stepped to one side and Tom saw what before had been hidden from him.

Kneeling on the grass, where the shadow of Kâli fell over her bowed figure, was a young girl, her arms bound to her sides, her head completely covered by a soft pink scarf, which fell below the waist of her white dress.

In a moment of unutterable horror Tom recognised both dress and scarf as belonging to his sweetheart, Maude Gordon.

This then was Juzzedera’s vengeance. He had been brought here so that he might see, without a chance of being able to interfere, the cruel death of the girl he loved!

A frenzy, of anguish convulsed him. He attempted to leap forward, but he would have fallen had it not been for the grasp of the guard on either side of him. A gag was thrust into his mouth, but his eyes remained unbound . . . nor could he have closed his lids, even had he tried to do so. He felt compelled . . . compelled against his will . . . to look on the tragedy about to be enacted before him.

With sobbing breath and pounding pulses Tom Tempest stood in the grasp of the powerful Thugs and watched Juzzedera, high priest of the Thugs, approach the victim, who knelt so still that she might have been a statue.

The spectators around this ghastly scene held their breath.

Would the murder be enacted now—and here?

Juzzedera held his knife high. He was chanting praises to Kâli the terrible. . . .

In the distance a tiger began to roar; the chattering of the monkeys might have been the mockery of demons.

The moonlight fell alike on the black image of Kâli—and upon the slender little figure in the white frock and gauzy pink veiling!

“The little rose lady!” as Chentari had called her.

The veins stood out like cords on Tempest’s forehead. Impotent in his weakness, he struggled in sheer despair only to fall back against the temple wall.

Ah! Juzzedera’s knife had fallen flashing, but only to sever the cords which bound those tender wrists and arms.

Maude was free, free! But of what use was this momentary freedom to the doomed girl—it only served to intensify her suffering and suspense.

Slowly the girl rose to her feet, shrouded still like some rose-bud, which folds pink petals over a heart of gold.

There she stood—alone—while all around her gathered those crowding devils in human shape.

Juzzedera dropped his knife.

“Go!” he screamed, pointing towards the jungle. “Go! Go!”

As he spoke the devotees of Kâli swayed and parted, leaving a path open to where the forest trees dropped leafy branches over a shadowy path.

For one moment of keen crisis the girl stood motionless—a slim slip of womanhood, quivering in the supreme moment when death meets life in spring-time.

Then, swift as thought, she turned, unwinding the gauze veil which had been thick enough to completely conceal face and shoulders, and stood facing the temple, facing Tom Tempest, holding the tinted scarf high about the back of her head as a screen from the gaze of Juzzedera.

Tom’s heart seemed to stand still, as Chentari’s flute-like tones rose in a paean of ecstasy.

“I have remembered my debt, O my preserver!” cried the temple dancer. “May the lives of my benefactor and of Koozeh Bai be long as the thoughts of wisdom.” Then turning, the girl fled towards the jungle—Maude Gordon’s scarf streaming behind her.

But, swifter than a panther, dark as Fate, the infuriated Juzzedera leaped after his victim.

He . . . the high priest of Kâli . . . had been deceived by a mere temple dancer, but he would have his revenge.

Tom again tried to hurl himself forward. He had heard Chentari’s words, he had seen in the dark eyes the ecstatic look of one who offers the supreme sacrifice, and a great pity as well as horror impelled him to fight for the girl’s rescue.

But it was useless.

As the wild cub makes its spring with unerring aim upon its prey, so Juzzedera made the fatal leap. The twisted silk in his skinny hands showed red for a moment as he held it taut—then——

But Tom saw no more. He had fallen senseless into the arms of his guards.

Chapter XV

“My Sister—Maude”

That Chentari would expiate her crime of treachery, Koot Hoomi did not doubt. The finely tempered tool he had so often and so successfully used might fail him once—but not twice.

Maude Gordon, dazed by the strange and rapid flow of events, clung to Grenford’s arm, asking wildly what it all meant.

She had fainted after seeing Tom struck down by the men who had intercepted them in their flight, and, on recovery, she had found herself back in her old prison. She was alone.

In that moment of grim reawakening Maude had given up all hope. She had already been told by Juzzedera that this day was to be her last on earth. She now resigned herself to prayer.

Of the manner of her death she dared no think!

But even death itself, at the hands of these fanatics, had been robbed of much of its horror, since the girl believed that she had seen her lover lying dead at her feet.

If Tom were dead, what did life hold for her?

But this mood of despair had passed with the coming of Chentari. At first the two girls had looked at each other in shrinking aversion. Each saw in the other a doom of grim horror.

Then Chentari spoke, very slowly, with a word or two of English here and there.

“Give me your dress, Koozeh Bai,” she said, “and the scarf from about your head. Quickly give them to me. Chentari, the temple dancer, must wear them at the feast of Kâli to-night.”

As Maude hesitated, drawing her scarf more closely about her head, the Hindoo girl laid her hand on her arm.

“Listen and understand, daughter of the Feringhees,” she said. “You and I, women of different races, love one man, the Sahib Tempest. The Sahib loves one woman. You are his choice. It was Kâli’s own whisper that I should betray you and him in my fury. Then came other voices. The white Buddha, of whom Koot Hoomi has spoken to me, bids me obey my master, the Mahatma. Give me your dress and veil, Koozeh Bai, and tell the Sahib Tempest when he comes for you that the kiss of death was sweeter to the poor temple dancer than the grief there would have been in his eye if Koozeh Bai had gone forth to the feast of Kâli.”

“I do not understand,” faltered Maude, but she unwound the scarf from her head and shoulders, and slipped off the white summer frock in obedience to Chentari’s commanding gesture.

In exchange, the English girl donned the temple dancer’s fantastic dress and gay saree.

Afterwards they waited, until steps came pattering down the stone stairs. Then Chentari took Maude by the shoulder.

“Speak no word to me,” she whispered in suppressed tones. “What I do is for the Sahib Tempest. If I look long at you, Koozeh Bai, I shall hate you. Go! Go!”

Stumbling, trembling, Maude again obeyed. In the underground passage she encountered two figures. A small native lamp burned in a niche, but the light was poor. Maude shrank back in terror at sight of these gaunt brown faces, lean limbs, and turbanned heads. These were no doubt her murderers.

A cry froze on her lips, and everything became blurred.

Then—a strong hand gently grasped her arm—a familiar voice spoke her name.

“Miss Gordon! Maude! Thank heaven!”

Even in those garish garments Grenford had recognised her, since it is only fools who say that love is blind. It was a difficult moment, even for a man of such iron self-control as Jack Grenford, as he felt the slender figure sway towards him.

“Oh!” sobbed Maude, “it is you . . . you . . . you! You will help me, Captain Jack. You will not let me be afraid. But . . . Tom?”

“Tom is still alive,” said Grenford hoarsely. “Koot Hoomi and I are here to save you both. But we could not have hoped for success had it not been for Chentari. It is to her you owe all your thanks, little girl. She takes your place.”

Maude shuddered.

“I must go back,” she whispered. “I cannot take such a gift from her. Oh, it is impossible! I will not take it.”

Koot Hoomi stepped forward.

“It is useless,” the old man said, “for Koozeh Bai to speak thus. Chentari does not give to the little rose lady. It is her gift of expiation—it is her gratitude, also her punishment, as it is her fate. Does not Buddha write with his nail upon the foreheads of the newly born? What Buddha writes cannot be wiped out. And now, because Koozeh Bai loves the Sahib Tempest, she will do what must be done to save him from his enemies. This is the night of destiny. Listen, Koozeh Bai. Do you hear the grinding of the knife upon the stone? It is Fate who holds that knife. Its edge points outward to the forest. It points to the heart of Juzzedera. If that black one does not die to-night, then Koot Hoomi will have ceased to exist. Destiny! Destiny!”

Maude listened in silence. She had grown cold with fear, yet her pulses thrilled. She experienced that breathless feeling of one being carried swiftly, inevitably, to some unseen destination.

Whither? Whither?

In her terror and exultation she turned to Grenford.

“You are here,” she whispered. “Oh, how good that is!”

The strong man’s grey eyes flashed.

“Thank you,” be replied very quietly. Together they moved towards the steps.

Maude’s lips were dry, but intuitively Grenford guessed what she wished to ask.

“Koot Hoomi has arranged everything,” he said. “He has two of his servants disguised as Thugs—they are acting as sentries at present. Juzzedera has returned to Nagpoor to make certain arrangements with an influential devotee of Kâli. He may be back at any time. Koot Hoomi takes the risk. Pray Heaven. you and he will reach headquarters in safety.”

Maude gave a cry of astonishment.

“But—Tom?” she asked. “Where is Tom?”

There could be no hiding or disguising the truth.

“He is a prisoner,” Grenford admitted, “in the Temple of Kâli. His death is decided on, but it has not taken place yet. I am going across now to the temple. There is only one way in which I can enter, for the door is closely guarded. The secret of that other entrance was discovered by Chentari, who described it to me. When necessary,. I can enter the temple, and there I hope . . . I trust . . . Tom will be found waiting, for the coming of our friends—the friends whom you must send to rescue us.”

Maude held out both hands.

“Take me with you to the temple,” she whispered. “Koot Hoomi will travel more quickly alone.”

Grenford shook his head.

“Impossible,” he replied gently. “Colonel Clinton would not be easy to persuade that a native can speak the truth. The chances are that he would suspect Koot Hoomi of being a Thug. He would not consider that he had the right to lead his men into what might easily be a trap. Koot Hoomi might fail in his mission, or cause it to be delayed, with fatal results. You will serve Tom best by going with our old friend here. You could not serve, but would only increase both our anxiety and our danger by accompanying me. This, Maude, is not an easy task—but it is your task, just as much as the separate tasks we others must undertake.”

How little Maude suspected the seething emotions, the strong passions, which were concealed so well beneath a calm—almost indifferent—manner.

How hard she would have found it to believe, if she had been told, that she would have refused compliance had argument or sentiment been introduced into the speech.

The measured tones, the simple quiet statements, came as a shock indeed—but they were shocks that convinced. Without another question Maude accepted the inevitable. Together, the three companions left the hiding-place, which no doubt had often served as a prison for condemned prisoners.

Two natives stood under the shadow of the trees. Swift darkness was wrapping the forest in a subtle cloak.

In the chamber beneath the tank they left Chentari, the temple dancer, alone.

Remarkable as such a statement may sound, Maude Gordon could have found it possible to envy that doomed victim, who wore her dress and had accepted her fate. The natives drew back against the trees. They gave no sign. Koot Hoomi glided silently from one to the other.

A profound stillness reigned.

The moon would not rise for an hour.

In darkness and danger the forest path must be trodden.

Such a prospect had no terror for Koot Hoomi. The old man had the greatest faith in his own occult powers—and such powers were invariably successful in dealing with wild beasts.

Maude did not remember that wild beasts existed!

She was bidding farewell to Jack Grenford.

Maude herself possessed what some have termed the “Eighth Sense.” In this moment of crisis she seemed to know what loomed on the horizon of their lives.

A moment of moments, tense, dramatic, even sacred. For she was bidding farewell to a man who went in danger of his life, to rescue or defend his friend—and her lover.

Nor was there time for any long speech.

The stage was set; the actors waited their call. Chentari, the dancer, had already wound the scarf of Koozeh Bai about her own glossy hair.

In the Temple of Kâli, Tom Tempest awaited full knowledge of what Fate had in store for him.

Already Juzzedera was returning in haste to the forest shrine.

And—Jack Grenford was prepared to find a secret way into the Temple of Kâli.

Maude held out both her hands.

“My friend,” she whispered, with short sobbing breaths.

Jack took both the girl’s hands.

“Again I thank you,” he said. “And never think, child, that I regretted anything. All is as I should have wished. Heaven gives us our desires, but often calls them by other names. But I thank Heaven none the less. Good-bye, Maude.”

She held his hands convulsively. “You are so good, so brave,” she sobbed. “I could not have loved a brother more dearly.”

She did not know why she said it . . . the words were wrung from her heart.

The parting was to be one of honour at the utmost.

“A brother,” said Grenford. “Then . . . may I claim a brother’s kiss?”

Without other reply, the girl raised her face, her lips sought his in the darkness. “My brother Jack!” she whispered.

Never had a man to fight more desperately for self-control. It was at this moment that Grenford forgave Chentari for her treachery. He had learnt that wonderful lesson called “Understanding.”

“My sister Maude!” he replied quite quietly.

He did not say good-bye.

Koot Hoomi caught at the girl’s sleeve.

“Follow quickly,” he urged, “quickly. We must reach the camp of the Feringhees by moon-rise. If it had not been for Chentari, nothing could have saved you. Nothing! The nail of Buddha writes what cannot be unwritten.”

Maude allowed the tears to roll down her cheeks. She was glad of the darkness.

Koot Hoomi’s hand sought and gripped hers.

“I hear footsteps,” he murmured, “and the moon will soon rise. We must not delay.”

Maude allowed herself to be hurried forward. This was to be a nightmare walk, yet she did not fear it. Other thoughts, the knowledge of that tragedy from which they fled, prevented her from remembering that the leaves she brushed with her skirts might conceal the deadly cobra—that from amongst the undergrowth yellow eyes might gleam out upon her. Once she fancied that she heard the deep purring which told that death in other shapes than one crouched near.

Dark, dark, dark—and the pattering of footsteps on the paths around!

It was as well that Maude trusted implicitly to her guide, or her fear of this haunted forest would have overcome her.

Night birds screamed their tales; animals went roaring in search of prey. The leaves rustled, as some reptile glided or crawled on its loathly way.

But only one sound struck terror at the girl’s heart, and that was the pattering of footsteps . . . the ceaseless pattering of Kâli’s many mysterious guests.

It was a night of feasting and song. A night for lovers—and moonlit dreamings.

A night when . . .

Silence!

Chapter XVI

The Vengeance of Juzzedera

Tom Tempest sat up. He had not been rebound, but he was once more in the Temple of Kâli.

A deserted temple, even the figure of the goddess had not been replaced.

Tom stood looking around, though it needed a cat’s eyes to pierce the gloom of those shadows.

Only about the heavy marble pedestal the blue flames from tiny native oil lamps shed their thin streak of light.

What had happened?

Ah!

Tom saw it all again in his mind’s eye.

The crowd . . . the priest of Kâli . . . the victim . . . and the tragedy!

Tom muttered a curse. Had Juzzedera stood within the temple, Tom would have had a good deal to say; and, after listening, Juzzedera would have . . . would have . . .

The young man’s brain seemed to reel; he could not think clearly or consecutively. Oh! the tragedy of that mental blank.

He found himself muttering a name. But it was not that of Juzzedera or of Maude.

Chentari! Chentari!

“Greater love hath no man than this.”

The poor deva-dazi, with her passionate nature, her ignorance and her blind instincts, had grasped the meaning of the All-Eternal Truth.

In the prisoner’s ears echoed the fearsome chant with which the worshippers of Kâli performed the “pûja.” It was devil-worship—no less.

Tom was haunted by the picture of the frowning demoniacal face, the clenched hands, the cruel lips.

Kâli . . . goddess of the Thugs . . . seemed to become a living personality in this temple of hers.

The low entrance from the forest was blocked by a human figure.

This would be Juzzedera, the high priest of Kâli, come to drag him to the last act in the drama.

This was the End!

This . . .

Tom stiffened, trying to pull himself together, into the outward semblance of a man again.

The figure which rose to the full height was not that of Juzzedera.

“Jack!”

Grenford came forward, and the two men clasped hands.

“Maude?” whispered Tom in agony.

“Koot Hoomi is taking her back to the Clintons’ bungalow. She is safe, unharmed.”

“Thank God!”

Strong and self-controlled as he usually was, Tempest broke down into tears.

“Thank God!” he repeated.

After that prayer, speech was difficult between the two keenly strung-up men. The whole atmosphere of the place seemed to be electrified—by hope—or by . . .

Grenford was the first to speak.

“The Thugs have been searching for Miss Gordon. They are returning now. Juzzedera will have only one thought—he will not risk losing you. He knows that Koot Hoomi, the one man in India whom he fears, has been up against him, and he will guess that our people will likely receive some sort of warning. Listen!”

Suddenly on the night air rose the long, weird wailing which both men recognised.

The death-signal of the Thugs carried its own grim message!

Juzzedera was a clever old rascal.

No sooner had he realised that Chentari, the temple dancer, had tricked him, than he guessed that she had had a partner in her cleverness. The little traitress, having repented her treachery, had been given a penance.

By Koot Hoomi! Yes! it could not be otherwise.

Juzzedera was convinced as to that, and the fear which the Mahatma alone could inspire in that shrivelled breast had thrown the old villain off his guard.

Having ordered Tom to be carried back into the temple, he had dispersed the Thugs to make a thorough search of the jungle.

Koot Hoomi and the escaped prisoner must be overtaken! The English girl, being weak, and a woman, would not walk quickly. Juzzedera satisfied himself that the tank prison was empty, then he made his fatal mistake.

He left the clearing about the temple, and hurried off with his anxious companions, leaving a guard only in front of the outer court of the temple.

Jack Grenford, crouched at the secret entrance, below the second and inner door of the building, had entered unperceived. Tom Tempest listened to a rapidly given outline of the story.

“And now,” concluded Grenford quietly, “it is up to us to keep any niggers out of this place till Clinton sends help. You have a revolver?”

“No,” said Tom, “I have no weapon.”

“Never mind, I have two. Four would have been better, but we shall manage. They can’t get in in a crowd.”

“I don’t know about that,” replied Tempest. “There must be a larger opening somewhere, to enable the Thugs to get their cursed idol outside.”

Again the shrill wailing was heard from the direction of the jungle.

How the listeners’ hearts beat!

Had their enemies overtaken Koot Hoomi and his companion? All hinged on that.

If Maude were safe. . . .

Each pictured the grim tableau of Koot Hoomi, and the girl they both loved, hurrying along the dark forest path, whilst behind them, panther-footed, the twisted silk of the fatal roomal held between murderous fingers, came the pursuing Thugs.

Had they escaped?

“Why did you come back?” asked Tom hoarsely, as he took one of the native lamps from the pedestal and moved towards the entrance.

He waited for Grenford’s reply. Waited, while watching the dark face of his friend in the blue light of the feeble flame.

“Because Maude would not have left you alone here to die,” was Grenford’s response.

Tom groaned.

“Ah, Maude!” he whispered. “My Maude!”

His left hand sought Jack’s.

“What a friend you have been to us both,” he cried impulsively. “And to think that for a moment I could have been jealous of you.”

“Jealous—of me?”

“Yes, yes, I saw you together—in one of my trances. I thought that you were stealing her from me, Jack. Forgive me?”

“I forgive you, Tom.”

“You’re a splendid friend, Jack. You have been—to us both. Maude will thank you better than I can do. We’ll go back to England together, eh? My little sis, Daisy, will give you a warm welcome. She thinks the world of you, old man.”

“Ah, your sister. I am grateful for her kindness, but I don’t think I shall be returning to England.”

“Not return! Great Scott! I can’t imagine anyone wishing to stay in such a black hole. But Juzzedera has got to be wiped out to-night, Jack, I swear it. If not—but I won’t say those words—come over here and let us see——”

Grenford took up a lamp also, and together they crossed towards the inner entrance of the shrine.

Tom’s surmise had been correct. A larger doorway was discernible, but there were strong bolts and fastenings on the inner side. These were temporarily undone, since the idol had been carried into the outer court.

Grenford fastened both bolts and chains.

As he did so a loud yell told them that the guard had heard the clanking of metal. A few seconds later a native figure blocked the low entrance.

Grenford set his teeth and fired.

It was not a nice job, and the Englishmen, who preferred a fight in the open, shuddered as they heard the howl of agony which greeted the surprising defiance.

The Thug’s death-cry was drowned in a still louder howling.

Grenford’s challenge had been accepted. The sound of rushing feet and sharp ejaculations of amaze told of the consternation felt by the foe in discovering that the defenceless prisoner was armed.

Then—silence, followed by Juzzedera’s shrill tones.

“The old fiend! “ muttered Grenford. “He is pouring fanatical hate and rage into his followers. He means them not to stop at anything. Stand back, Tom, for a moment. I’ll try and get a squint through.”

Stretching himself upon the reeking floor, Jack managed to see part at least of the court without.

It was crowded by Thugs!

“Armed, of course—in spite of the Government,” muttered Grenford. “It’s . . . going to be . . . tough work . . . if they attack the door. I’m afraid if we shoot at random it will only lame the brutes at worst.”

Juzzedera’s speech had been followed by a ferocious yell, and once again a rush was made.

But the low entrance was left severely alone. Blow upon blow was being dealt to the great door, and at first the besieged could do nothing.

Then Grenford thought of a scheme.

“If we could roll up that pedestal thing,” he said, “it would make a barrier . . . as long as ammunition lasts.”

Silently Tom ran back, and for the next few minutes the blows of native weapons without were answered by the rumbling and scraping of stone against stone.

With sweat streaming down their faces the Englishmen strove at their task, piling all they could lay hands on against the doorway.

The question was, had Koot Hoomi and Maude reached headquarters?

How soon would help come—and would it arrive in time?

Time was everything! Time——

Crash! Crash! Crash!

A yell of triumph from the court—and a flood of moonlight poured into the building—but almost immediately the light was blotted out by dark forms which swarmed to the gap.

Only a portion of the door had been broken down, and now the report of the revolvers rang sharp and clear.

Crack . . . crack . . . ping . . . ping . . . each shot took full effect.

In the face of a crisis such as this, the Englishmen became cool and collected. With grim and quiet faces they stood watching the nightmare picture of leaping, writhing brown bodies.

It was more like some dream of the inferno than a real happening, thought Tom.

The faces of the Thugs were convulsed by passion and hate. As one by one they swarmed up over the broken woodwork, they screamed their curses and flung their weapons in a wild frenzy.

But again and again death answered them; again and again lean brown arms flung high into the air and, with terrible screaming, their owners fell back upon comrades beneath.

Neither Tempest nor Grenford spoke, but as minute after minute passed the conviction of their fate overwhelmed them. Soon the entire fabric of the larger door must cave in, and that brown avalanche of murderous humanity would be hurled at them—sweeping them into eternity.

Yet . . . it was possible to die . . . if Maude were safe.

Above the howling and turmoil their reeling senses, could hear a continuous screaming sound. At first they hardly noticed it, but gradually it forced itself upon them.

It was Juzzedera, and a few select spirits, invoking the aid of Kâli the blood-lover, Kâli the terrible . . . Kâli the black.

The hideous chanting added its note of terror to the grim drama.

Another three minutes and the Thugs would be in!

Another two minutes and . . .

Another one . . .

Now the two men were at the end of their ammunition!

With a groan Tom hurled his empty weapon into the sweating brown face of a native, and stooped to pick up one of the knives which lay at his feet.

Life was to be measured by seconds now!

And then—oh! moment of moments! Moment never to be forgotten, whilst the blood flowed through living veins!

A cheer broke through and topped the fiendish yelling which had grown faint in tired throats.

A British cheer, which came roaring like a lion through the jungle, as the men who formed the rescue party burst through the trees, led by Colonel Clinton himself.

“At them! At them! Hurrah!”

Grenford had fired his last shot, too—a salute in welcome to the friends who roared back their joy in knowing that they were not too late.

Great Scott! what those soldiers felt as they saw the scene before them!

As young Dalrymple declared afterwards, it was just a bit of hell!

But the Thugs knew what those red-coated Feringhees would be talking about, and would have fled into the jungle had they not been covered by another British party which broke cover to the left.

Hemmed in, the natives turned like rats at bay and made their rush too.

Koot Hoomi, the Mahatma, stood still beneath a peepul tree and watched.

He held a knife in his hand, and he was looking for one man amongst the yelling rabble.

He was looking for Juzzedera, the high priest of Kâli!

Now . . . he saw him at last . . . saw the lean shrivelled form, the basilisk eyes, the vengeful lips . . . saw Juzzedera glide like a snake towards the tank . . . saw him disappear.

Then Koot Hoomi left the shade of the pomegranate tree . . . and he too reached the temple tank. . . .

Within the temple, two men were standing side by side, panting and breathless.

The gap through which the moonlight shone was empty now. No brown bodies, no evil faces, blotted out the light.

Saved!

The two Englishmen gripped hands.

“Maude is safe!” said Grenford quietly.

Tom drew a deep breath. He could hardly believe the miracle.

Another cheer rose in a paean of victory. Something crashed! It was the black image of the goddess!

“At them! At them! Don’t let the rats escape!” shouted a boyish voice.

Tom moved towards the broken door. He wanted to get a glimpse of the fight. He . . .

It was all over so quickly that description is impossible.

From a secret entrance at the back of the temple, known only to himself, Juzzedera had stolen forward. The temple was partly in darkness, since the lamps had been extinguished—only where the fitful moonlight shone were objects visible. The figures of Tempest and Grenford were silhouetted against that light when Juzzedera made his spring.

Like a wild cub of the jungle he leapt. Long practice had made him perfect! Those piercing eyes judged a distance unerringly; the fatal roomal was taut between his shrivelled fingers.

Death lay between those clawlike hands! The twisted silk showed red . . .

But—was it Fate who intervened?

Grenford had seen the white-robed figure, the bare arms, the frenzied face of rage. There was no time to give warning, but, as Juzzedera leapt, so did the Englishman! Together they fell—at Tom Tempest’s feet. Ah! the pity . . . the pity of it! Quick as thought . . . quicker than the intaking of a breath, Juzzedera had flung out his wrists, and . . . and . . .

It was Koot Hoomi who reached the spot, before Tempest had realised what had happened.

It was Koot Hoomi into whose face Juzzedera looked his last!

Fate is a strange thing!

Koot Hoomi had always been the one man whom Juzzedera had feared.

The Mahatma’s knife flashed. There was a choked cry; then Koot Hoomi rose to his feet.

“By one second of time I was too late, Sahib,” he sighed. “The Sahib Grenford was one whom I loved. A brave man, Sahib, with the wisdom of the Vedas in his thoughts.”

Tempest did not heed the old priest’s lament. With a loud cry of horror and distress, he flung himself by the side of the man who had given his life to save his own.

Jack Grenford lay dead with the blue mark of the fatal roomal about his neck.

Koot Hoomi stood by his side, raising his arm over his bowed head.

“The Mystery of Mysteries!” the old seer breathed. “Life, Death . . . Love, Hate! But is not the greatest . . . Love?”

In a lamp-lit room of Colonel Clinton’s bungalow Tom Tempest stood waiting the coming of Maude.

Haggard, weary, with strange fires in his grey eyes, the young Englishman stood, still half dazed by the miracle of what had happened.

Was it possible . . . that Maude . . .

The curtain of beads was drawn back, and a slender figure, in a white dress, stole into the room.

“Maude!”

“Tom!”

They clung together, sobbing, thanking Heaven, rejoicing as only those who have come safely through the valley of the shadow can rejoice.

“Juzzedera is dead,” said Tom huskily; “the curse of Kâli is lifted. My darling, there is nothing more for us to fear.”

Maude had ceased to fear the moment his arms had enfolded her. But she raised a glowing face from which tragedy had faded.

“Oh, Tom!” she whispered. “Oh, my dear! How I love you! And you are safe too. But . . . but where is Jack? I want to thank him too.”

Tom bent his head low over the fair one which rested against his shoulder.

“We could not—both—return from the Temple of Kâli, Maude,” he said hoarsely. “And so . . . old Jack . . . truest of friends . . . sent me to you. Do you understand?”

Maude did not reply.

She knew that it was the speaker who did not understand!

And she?

Was there ever a woman who did not cherish some feeling of tenderness for the unloved man who loved her?

Maude turned and hid her face against her lover’s breast.

“I want to thank him,” she sobbed. “I want to thank him. Oh, Tom! do you think he can hear?”

But Tom could give no answer to that question!

*  *  *

Thud . . . thud . . . thud. . . .

The last turfs had been replaced over Jack Grenford’s grave . . . the last volley fired.

Tom Tempest stood looking down at the brown mound, with a sense of desolation in his heart. What a friend the dead man had been, what a splendid, noble friend!

Poor little Daisy would be heart-broken when . . . when she heard the news.

With a deep sigh, Tom turned, to find Koot Hoomi standing beside him.

The old Mahatma was looking sorrowfully at the grave. When he lifted his face to that of the Englishman, Tempest noticed the curious expression in the dark eyes.

“Behold,” said Koot Hoomi, without giving the usual profound salaam, “Fate writes with his nail upon the forehead of the newly born. None can wipe out those words which are in the thought of Brahma. But now, Sahib, we part. I do not see where again our paths shall join, since across the seas you go, with your life joined to her who loves you. You go to happiness, to prosperity. As for me—I know peace at last. Juzzedera, high priest of the Thugs, is dead—killed by my hand. It is fate! The curse of Kâli is lifted from my land!

Peace, Sahib! The blessings of the seven Vedas be upon you!”

Inclining his white head with the dignity of one addressing his equal, Koot Hoomi turned—turned to perform his most deferential salaams above the grave of a dead man.

Tom Tempest was already looking towards Colonel Clinton’s bungalow. He was young . . . and how easily youth forgets all griefs but the one!

His beloved Maude lived!

*  *  *

Within her room in the low-roofed bungalow Maude Gordon knelt in prayer. She had not gone to the burial of Jack Grenford, but had remained grieving alone in her bedroom. How glad she was that the dead man’s secret remained known only to herself—and the inscrutable Mahatma!

Dead! Her loyal friend dead! Her unclaimed lover gone beyond her gratitude . . . beyond her . . . love. Gone before she could thank him . . . or even read the riddle of her own heart.

From the jungle rose the ceaseless babel of the unworded songs of the forest. Music sweet . . . savage . . . unfathomable!

But the death-cry of the Thugs was silent.

Maude clasped her hands. She was thinking of Chentari, the temple dancer; the ignorant deva-dazi who . . . had understood what sacrifice meant.

Expiation . . . yes! and far more.

Against the wildly beating passionate heart was pressed the crimson blossom of the pomegranate. Perhaps Chentari had smiled as the fatal roomal had encircled her throat.

A bird had poured out its loveliest song from the mimosa bush yonder.

And then—suddenly—Maude’s slender figure stiffened, her blue eyes dilated. Out of the shadows, merging with them, yet not of them . . . a face looked into her own.

A figure stood there!

Jack Grenford smiled.

Yes . . . he smiled . . . into the eyes of the woman he loved.

He had come back . . . to accept her . . . gratitude. With a low cry, Maude flung out both arms.

“Jack!” she sobbed. “Jack . . . I love you!”

But the vision faded.

*  *  *

In all Berkshire there is no happier couple than Squire and Mrs. Tempest. The Squire’s sister, gentle, pretty, rather wistful, lives with them. She is devoted to her brother and his family, but perhaps her keenest love is given to their eldest boy—sturdy little Jack!

Oddly enough, the boy is his mother’s darling, too . . . and there are times when the mother’s love is roused to a vague shadow of jealousy—when Jack too openly shows his devotion to his aunt. But it is only a shadow, and such shadows soon pass.

It is a happy household, though there is one subject never alluded to by any of the inmates of that English home.

The curse of Kâli lies buried in the deep recesses of the jungle. Let it be!

But a woman never forgets to thank Heaven for the love . . . of a man . . . for the sacrifice of one who, for her sake, went bravely out into the Great Beyond.

Flowers still bloom on the grave of Jack Grenford.

His was the greatest Sacrifice!

The End