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Perhaps Colonel Templer’s language, as he came to the end of the letter he had just received by the English mail, had better not be recorded. He gave further vent to his feelings of annoyance by banging the offending epistle down on to his camp table, thereby awakening his two dogs, who rushed barking out of the tent under the impression that a gun had been fired. Their master picked up the letter and followed them, and stood gazing about him with an expression of helpless exasperation on his purple countenance.
It was early April in Upper India, and the late afternoon sun pierced perseveringly through the dark luxuriant foliage of the mango grove, casting mottled shadows on to the three light tents and couple of ‘shelters’ for the servants, that constituted the camp. There was an air of preparation on all sides, the mid-day rest being over, and an early start intended for the following day. A thin blue column of smoke rose from the open air kitchen-range. This consisted of three bricks and some firewood, yet was amply sufficient to enable a good native cook to produce a dinner that might do credit to a French chef.
Rifles were being cleaned and cartridges sorted, for the camp was that of two sports men on the march. Crates and boxes lying about in abandoned confusion were being filled with stores, wine, and soda-water. The baggage-camels, squatted in a resentful group, were already anticipating the loading hour with loud gurgles and moans of complaint, and clusters of servants and camp-followers made bright patches of colour.
The horses were neatly picketed, bedded down with dry yellow grass, and each fastened to a stout bamboo pole; while further away stood four sporting elephants with huge leaf-covered branches and sugar cane heaped before them; their ‘mahouts,’ or keepers, were busily overhauling pads and howdahs, and attending to details of the ponderous paraphernalia.
The Colonel crossed to the tent which faced his own.
“Mullins!” he roared. “Mullins!”
A dapper little gentleman with a bald head, a long nose, and an eyeglass, emerged from the tent, and held up a protesting hand. “My dear fellow, you have a very kind heart, but a devil of a voice,” he said. “What on earth is the matter?”
“Read that!” said the Colonel tragically, and handed his companion the letter that had so disturbed him. “Was ever a wretched brute placed in such an infernal hole?”
Mr. Mullins, late of the Bengal Civil Service, whose debts and inclinations kept him in India, though he had fully completed his thirty-five years’ service, carefully adjusted his eyeglass, and standing in the shade of his tent, read as follows:
Dear Colonel Templer,
Owing to entirely unforeseen family circumstances, I am suddenly forced to break up my establishment, and am therefore taking upon myself the responsibility of a proceeding which I think and hope will meet with your entire approval. I am sending your daughter out to you by next mail, as a cousin of my own is proceeding to India by that ship to resume her mission work in Badrabad, your head-quarters, and it seemed such an excellent opportunity of providing Ray with a suitable chaperon, that I hardly felt justified in not taking advantage of it, seeing that I can no longer keep her, and that her aunts are unable to receive her owing to the elder Miss Templer’s precarious state of health.
I am providing Ray with small outfit, suitable to the voyage and the Indian climate, though naturally with so little time, and so much else to arrange, it cannot be an extensive one. Owing to your kind consideration in always paying in advance for your daughter’s education and maintenance I had almost sufficient money in hand to defray her passage, and have advanced what more is necessary myself. I enclose a memo of how we stand as regards accounts. My cousin Mrs. Lobb will telegraph to you directly they reach Bombay, so that you may know exactly when to expect them at Badrabad, and this letter should give you ample warning of their arrival.
I sincerely trust that you will pardon any inconvenience this sudden move on my part may cause you; but as it was already decided that Ray should join you in any case this autumn, no doubt the change of plan may make but little difference to your arrangements. It is also quite time that she took her place in the world, being now over eighteen years of age and a high-spirited, intelligent girl. In accordance with your wishes she has learned to ride, and is an excellent horsewoman. I am sure you will find her companionship a comfort and a pleasure, and she is eagerly anticipating her meeting with you after twelve years of separation. She has passed her junior and senior Cambridge local examinations with honours, is a good musician, and has distinct artistic talent; and in the matter of personal appearance she is everything desirable. I hope you will consider that I have done my duty by your motherless child. For my part, I shall always remember her with pride and affection; and though I cannot deny that she has been a responsibility, and that her high spirits have sometimes made her difficult to manage, I am exceedingly sorry to lose her.
Believe me, with kind regards, yours very truly,
Mr. Mullins looked up from the letter and burst into a chuckle,
“For goodness sake stop that, Mullins,” said the Colonel, testily. “What am I to do? What the devil am I to do? The girl was to have come out in November, though I didn’t particularly want her then, but I meant to take a house in Badrabad for the winter instead of living at the club as I have always done, and then, if she wasn’t married by the spring, get some woman to take her up to the hills; and now here she is arriving in April just as we’re starting on our tiger-shoot. I haven’t a house to put her into, and I don’t know anyone I can ask to take her to the hills. Besides, there’s no time. We ought to be with Furnival in three days.”
“Just about the date she’ll be arriving at Badrabad,” said Mr. Mullins, carefully scrutinising the envelope. “You ought to have had this letter four days ago. It has been delayed somewhere. You must go back to Badrabad to-morrow. How lucky that we are only one march out!”
“Let me look,” cried the Colonel, snatching the letter from the other’s fingers, and when he found that Mr. Mullins was right he danced and exclaimed with fury.
“Tut! tut!” said his friend, reproachfully. “Remember I’ve nothing handy to mop up your language with. You’ll have to do chaperon to the lady yourself and take her to the hills. This comes of living at the club and paying no calls. I must explain matters to Furnival, and I’ve no doubt we shall manage all right with only two guns.”
He gazed maliciously at the Colonel through his gold-rimmed eyeglass, for despite his years and bald pate, Mr. Mullins possessed a faculty for tormenting other people that any schoolboy might have envied.
“You must give up your tiger-shooting for this season,” he added with complacency.
“I’ll do nothing of the kind!” shouted Colonel Templer. “How dare you make such a suggestion! I’ve no doubt you would be only too delighted to take advantage of all my arrangements without me, but I’m hanged if I’ll let you. The girl shall come too!”
“The heat will knock her up,” observed Mr. Mullins, “and she’ll be terrified of everything.”
“Not a bit of it,” said the Colonel, doggedly; “people straight out from home never feel the heat much at first, and if she’s a chip of the old block she’ll put up with danger and discomfort willingly for the sake of the sport. I’ll go back to Badrabad to-morrow, and I’ll get her a tent and camp furniture. If you won’t wait till I bring her out you must go on, and we’ll overtake you.”
“Oh, I don’t mind waiting a few days,” said Mr. Mullins, magnanimously; “there’s plenty of good quail shooting to be got about here; but what will Furnival say?”
“Yes, that’s the nuisance! Just as I’ve been lucky enough to get hold of him, this confounded upset to everything comes along. Well, I must send off a runner with a letter to explain the situation, and say we shall be a few days later in joining him than we had arranged. I can’t do more.”
“You had better do less, my friend! If Furnival hears you’re bringing an unmarried daughter of eighteen with you into camp he’ll be the other end of India before can say knife.”
“Then he shan’t hear it till he’s obliged. I tell you, girl or no girl, I’m not going to be done out of one of the best shoots I’m ever likely to have, and if Furnival backs out we shall be in a nice fix. Once we have joined him he can’t help himself, and he needn’t speak to the girl if he doesn’t want to.”
Mr. Mullins laughed softly. The predicament was certainly annoying, but at the same time highly entertaining. Furnival, who was the keenest sportsman and the most learned in jungle craft in all India, and whose co-operation in a shooting expedition was coveted by every man in the country who could hold a gun, was a notorious woman-hater! So that at any rate Mr. Mullins expected to get some amusement out of the situation; even the Colonel’s state of annoyance, disgust and perplexity was worth seeing; and the little civilian smiled, and swung his eyeglass, and rubbed his prominent nose till his friend could have beaten him, and was obliged to order a whisky-and-soda to cool his wrath.
In spite of their perpetual differences Mr. Mullins and Colonel Templer were old and firm friends. Both were devoted to sport, both were typical Anglo-Indians in their habits—Mr. Mullins a confirmed old bachelor, who had been in debt since his early days in India, when he had gone the pace, and kept his four-in-hand in Calcutta; Colonel Templer, one of the last of the old Local Cavalry officers, doing what is known as “general duty” (equivalent to nothing at all) until his off-reckonings were due, and he was free to leave India. Of this last privilege he had no intention of availing himself; for after nearly forty years’ service in the country he had made up his mind to remain in it till the end of his existence.
He was a bad-tempered, red-faced old soldier, who was unpopular with ladies, and suspicious of new friends, but who loved dogs and horses, read nothing but ‘Jorrocks’ and the sporting papers, was well known in racing and pig-sticking circles, and had a passion for big-game shooting. He was supposed to have bullied his wife into her grave, and had certainly never been home to see his daughter since he had consigned her, as a child of barely seven years old, to the care of a school mistress and a couple of semi-invalid maiden aunts. Then had come the day when he could shirk the fact of her existence no longer, and he had been obliged to consent to her joining him in India the following autumn. This, from the Colonel’s point of view, was quite bad enough, but to have the girl suddenly thrown on his hands six months before he expected her was a great deal worse.
However, there was no help for it, and the Colonel went grumbling back to Badrabad to meet his daughter. A runner was despatched to the expectant Furnival with a brief note stating that the delay of few days in joining his camp was unavoidable and Mr. Mullins was left to console himself with the quail, which he shot, and ate, with equal enjoyment.
Ray Templer got out of her father’s dog cart and stood in the middle of the little camp in a state of delighted anticipation. She looked more like a boy than a grown-up young lady, with her slim active figure, short auburn curls, eyes the colour of old madeira, and bright, clear skin. She was full of interest and excitement, charmed with the prospect of the tiger-shoot, longing to ride an elephant, dying to see a tiger, frightened of nothing, and sublimely unconscious of the inconvenience her company was likely to cause.
To do the Colonel justice he had, so far, betrayed his annoyance as little as possible; and to tell the truth he felt unwillingly proud of the girl, much to his own surprise; still his love of sport was stronger than his paternal pride, and nothing would have induced him to forego his jungle expedition. He had made a feeble attempt to induce Mrs. Lobb to continue her chaperonage for the present, but without success, and Ray herself had promptly rebelled at the suggestion.
“I can’t stand any more missionaries,” she frankly informed her father. “Mrs Lobb is a kind, good creature, but she and I haven’t an idea in common. Just fancy, when I asked her if she had any children she said quite cheerfully, ‘Yes, three little girls in heaven!’ I put up with her on the voyage, but I’m going to stay with you now.”
So Ray was provided with a saddle, a tent and its requisite furniture, a big sun hat, and a pair of blue goggles, and arrived in the camp fully prepared to enjoy herself.
“You won’t get any parties, or dances, or young men here,” said her father, leading the way to the tents, “but you’ll see the three finest shots in Asia, and have a taste of tiger-shooting that many men would sell their souls for!”
Ray laughed, and turned towards the dogs, who were being brushed in her honour by their attendant slave. Their necks were outstretched and their front paws on tiptoe; they remonstrated with the interference, yet could not altogether deny that the most delightful sensations were caused by the scratching of the brush. They raised a clamour the moment they caught sight of their master and his companion, and breaking away from their valet rushed forward in noisy welcome. ‘Mum,’ the Colonel’s old fox-terrier, though stout with advancing years and the effects of a weakness for bed and meals, laid back her ears and flew ponderously round them, barking with joy, recognising a relation in the new comer; but ‘Jackson,’ who called himself a spaniel (though his pedigree was uncertain and his coat suspiciously short and wiry), after duly welcoming the Colonel, walked gingerly round Ray, regarding her with jealous, bulging eyes.
Then Mr. Mullins appeared, smart and dapper as usual in his khaki drill shooting-coat, his gun under his arm, and behind him a native carrying a cartridge bag.
“Ah! here you are,” he said, raising his pith hat, and shaking Miss Templer by the hand with extreme politeness. “I didn’t expect you so early. I was just going out amongst the crops to pick up some quail.”
“We came out as early in the afternoon as possible, because I want everything arranged for starting to-morrow morning,” explained the Colonel. “Ray said she didn’t mind the heat. We’ll have our tea while her tent is being pitched. I sent a cart off with all her things this morning and I see it has arrived. And then we’ll come and join you. We shall know your whereabouts by the shots.”
But Mr. Mullins had had plenty of quail shooting, and he was rather fond of young ladies, so he declared he would have some tea too, and then they could all go out together.
“I hope we shall be able to show you some good sport,” he said, ambling along by her side, as they approached the small tent used as a dining and sitting-room, the furniture of which consisted of a rickety table and a camp what-not. On this latter stood an array of brandy, whisky, and gin bottles, varied by sherry and bitters, and strange liqueurs of which Ray had never even heard the names. There was only one chair, but others were brought over from the sleeping tents.
Tea appeared in a brown earthenware tea pot, the cups and saucers were of enamelled iron, and thick slabs of toast lay on an iron plate, also there was a tin of plum jam, a pat of white buffaloes’-milk butter, and some deformed looking sponge cakes (created by the cook in honour of the Miss Sahib’s arrival).
However, the butter was clean and wholesome, though smoky in taste, the toast fresh, the tea strong, and the milk straight from a bleating goat tethered to a tree outside; and Ray was glad of the meal after her hot, dusty drive of seventeen miles. Her father and Mr. Mullins helped themselves to ‘pegs’ instead of tea, and Mum reposed on the tail of her skirt, the unsociable Jackson sitting in a corner with his back to her, looking sourly over his shoulder.
Afterwards, when the wind had dropped and the sun was less powerful, they sauntered out of the camp, the men with their guns, Ray armed with a stout walking-stick, and two or three native followers carrying cartridge bags and game sticks. They passed through a sun-baked little village with walls composed of mud, and grass-thatched roofs on which flourished yellow pumpkins, and a fine crop of weeds. The naked brown children came out to stare at the party, and the lean pariah dogs yelped insults at Mum and Jackson from a respectful distance.
Then once away from the village they plunged into the rich fields of sugar-cane, gram, and pulse, but with the exception of these crops the country presented a bare yellow appearance, for the cold weather harvests of barley, wheat, carrots, and mustard had been gathered a few weeks previously. In the dusty distance a purple line of trees marked the straight course of the canal from which the country was irrigated.
The Colonel, Mr. Mullins, and the natives spread themselves into line, Ray walking in the centre, and presently with a rattling whir-r-r up flew a dozen quail one after the other, their wings curving downwards as they sailed away. Bang! bang! went the Colonel’s twelve bore, and the same from that of Mr. Mullins, under whose nose a second lot had risen. Thud, thud, went several plump little bodies on the hard ground, while others fell into impenetrable crops, or, wounded, ran into the sugar-cane out of sight.
Ray picked up a dead quail and stroked the warm brown plumage with pity, yet she had the instinct of sport engrained in her nature, and she watched with eager excitement as the birds rose splendidly, and the bag increased.
“We’ve got about enough, I think,” said the Colonel, taking the cartridges out of his gun. “It’s no use shooting too many. We shan’t be able to eat them all as it is.”
“I can eat a great many quail,” said Mr. Mullins, “and I am anxious to try that patch of arhar over there.”
“Very well, but I’m going back. I want to give orders about to-morrow. Which will you do, Ray? Come back with me, or go on with Mr. Mullins?”
Ray hesitated. She felt sure there must be hundreds of quail in the arhar patch.
“I think I should like to go on,” she said apologetically.
“Oh! please yourself by all means,” said the Colonel, hastily. He had no desire to have his daughter for ever at his heels, and he had a great deal to settle at the camp.
So Ray and Mr. Mullins went on and beat their patch of arhar, from which they obtained fifteen quail, and evicted a porcupine; and finally they struck the village cart road and turned towards the camp.
“And so we start to-morrow morning?” said the girl, by way of beginning a conversation now that business was over.
“Yes, and pretty early too. We’re not after tigers for the next two days till we join Furnival, and we are going to do long marches to make up for lost time.”
“And where do we go?”
“We shall follow the canal for some distance to-morrow, and then take to the jungle, shooting any game we may come across, and running the risk of meeting tigers, wild elephants, and leopards, not to speak of disturbing a wild bees’ nest, and getting stung to death, or being bolted with in the forest by terrified elephants!”
“I hope all those exciting things will happen,” said Ray calmly, knowing instinctively that he was trying to tease her.
“And the next day,” he continued, paying no heed to her interruption, “we shall have another long march through the jungle, at the end of which we hope to join Captain Furnival’s camp.”
“And who is this Captain Furnival? You and my father seem to think such a lot of him.”
“He is a great authority on sporting matters, and since he left the army some years ago he has devoted his existence to nothing else. Luckily for him he is a rich man, and can easily afford his yearly tiger-shoots, his trips into Cashmere and Thibet, his visits to the Rockies, and his journeys to Central Africa. Oh! he’s a mighty hunter is Furnival, and there’s only one kind of game he does not pursue.”
“And what is that?” inquired Ray, with unsuspecting interest.
“He never runs after a woman,” chuckled Mr. Mullins; “he hates ’em all!”
“Ah! thereby hangs a tale. Would you like to hear it?”
“No, thanks,” said Ray, carelessly, but with inward satisfaction at having deprived this mischievous old person of his gossip.
“Oh! very well,” he replied readily, “it won’t matter much whether you know it or not, as I don’t fancy you are likely to see a great deal of him. He hasn’t an idea that you are with us, and if he remains with a party containing a lady I shall be somewhat surprised.”
“Then my father hasn’t told him I am coming?” she exclaimed, aghast. “How disgusted he will be!”
“Undoubtedly!” said Mr. Mullins, with relish.
“Well, at any rate I shan’t interfere with him, so he need not be afraid,” she retorted, scornfully.
But her pleasurable anticipations of the coming expedition were greatly damped, and to conceal her disappointment and annoyance, which she vaguely felt would delight her companion, she changed the conversation, and hastened her steps towards the camp.
To anyone who has never before passed a night within sight and sound of an Indian village, the first experience of such novel surroundings must of necessity be charged with disturbance and alarms. For the first two hours Ray was unable even to doze after going to bed, for there was evidently a festivity of some description taking place in the village, probably a wedding or a funeral, and the regular beat of the tom-toms, accompanied by a curious minor chanting of women’s voices, continued without intermission. The concert was occasionally varied by the blast of a discordant instrument resembling a horn, and sometimes the music was almost drowned by the howlings of the pariah dogs, who apparently had arranged amongst themselves that they should all lift up their voices at one and the same moment. Mum, who had elected to sleep in Ray’s tent, objected to this proceeding, and growled and barked every time it occurred. The servants in the camp also seemed wakeful and sociably inclined, and kept up a low murmur of conversation, sometimes enlivened by a heated argument or sudden snatches of nasal song, until the Colonel, who was apparently unaffected by the other noises, roared abuse and remonstrance from his bed, and for a time all was quiet in the camp. But presently there arose long drawn snores either from the Colonel’s tent or that of Mr. Mullins (Ray preferred to accuse the latter gentleman); and, in addition to this, two of the camel men began to cough, and seemed to vie with each other as to who could make the most noise.
At last, overcome by weariness, she was falling into an uneasy sleep when she was cruelly awakened by a succession of blood-curdling yells approaching the camp. Nearer and nearer came the unearthly and appalling cries, until she cowered beneath the bed clothes trembling with apprehension. The shrieks swelled to a volume of sound and swept through the camp, dying away in the distance to a few feeble yelps and whines. Mum ran to the entrance of the tent and barked herself hoarse till the hideous noise had dwindled down to silence, when she returned with her hackles bristling and an aggrieved air, and curled herself up again under the bed with a disgusted grunt which meant ‘jackals’ as plainly as possible, though Ray was too inexperienced to understand her; and the commotion had to be explained the next morning by Mr. Mullins, who was ever ready with information.
“Yet in spite of your disturbed night you look remarkably fit,” he added gallantly; “and are, if you will permit me to say so, the only woman I ever beheld who looked well in a sola topee!”
“I’m afraid you won’t say anything so nice when you see me in my blue goggles,” laughed Ray. “I absolutely refuse to wear them to-day; I want to see everything properly. Fancy stepping from a select boarding school for young ladies into the Indian jungle. I can’t believe I’m not dreaming!”
The start should have been quite sufficient to convince her that she was wide awake, for all was bustle and animation. Hardly had the party left their tents and begun a light meal spread on a camp table under a tree, when the ‘tent-pitchers’ were at work, pulling up pegs and striking the tents with much noise and unnecessary exclamation; while grumbling camels were being loaded by the kitchen department amidst loud abuse, and the alarmed cackling of some unlucky fowls that were imprisoned in a wicker crate.
It had been agreed that the first part of the march should be accomplished on horseback, the breakfast having been sent on half-way with the elephants, after which they were to take to the howdahs and shoot their way into camp, which by that time would be ready for them at the next halting-place.
Accordingly the trio rode for five or six miles along the bank of the canal which irrigated the district crops, Ray mounted on her father’s second horse, a small grey Arab whose legs were clean and whose wind was sound in spite of his seventeen years, which he carried nobly like all well-bred members of his class that have not been overworked.
As they started the sun was not yet too powerful, and the air was full of the strong scents of the Indian spring, the canal-banks being bordered with plantations of trees thick with blossom; the sweet scented babool, or acacia, with its little dusty yellow balls, nint trees with their pungent leaves so dear to the Indian housekeeper for warding off moths; prickly thorn, half-grown mango, giant shisham, noble cotton tree, and here and there a feathery tamarind. Small grey squirrels danced across their path and flights of green parrots flew shrieking above their heads towards the crops that lay ripe on either side. Sometimes a jackal ran hurriedly into covert disturbed at his morning drink, and was pursued frantically by the dogs, with no result save that the pair returned panting and crestfallen with an explanatory air to account for their failure to run him to earth.
A gorgeous peacock appeared in view, sunning himself on the edge of the water, surrounded by his anxious, admiring, long necked harem. He strutted and shrieked and turned slowly about to display his splendours to the best advantage, and then, on suddenly catching sight of the approaching party, his hasty undignified retreat was absurd to witness. With closed tail and nervous jerky movements he scuttled towards the plantation, followed by his flustered court.
Then, again, they came upon crowds of brown monkeys, good-naturedly searching each other for fleas, and the dogs created an angry panic among them, causing them to rush up the trees furiously scolding, and shaking down showers of leaves, and sticks, and pieces of bark; while the dogs clamoured and quivered below in baffled eagerness, and were with difficulty persuaded to come on.
The halt for breakfast was made at a canal rest-house, and then for Ray came an exciting moment. The four elephants were drawn up in an imposing line, two with towering howdahs, and two with thick massive pads on their backs, their great heads swaying ponderously, and their cunning little eyes peering about anxiously in search of Mum and Jackson, who, with the horses, had been banished to the background—for an elephant dreads a small dog infinitely more than he fears a tiger.
The Colonel’s elephant, a large tusker named Rajah, crouched to the ground in obedience to the mahout’s orders, and the Colonel mounted to the front seat of the howdah by means of a short ladder. His daughter scrambled after him to the back seat, and then in answer to another word of command the huge creature rose, first in front, then behind, while Ray clung wildly to her perch and felt very much relieved when she found herself lurching along in safety.
Now they began to strike towards the jungle and leave the canal, the crops, and the peaceful little villages behind, to cross open, arid plains and dry beds of streams, to traverse enormous tracts of waving yellow grass, and to push through luxuriant tangles of creepers and prickly bushes. Then they passed among high trees with only scanty patches of undergrowth, where the grass was intersected with little tracks made by animals towards the nearest water, almost resembling human rights of way. Here a golden oriole flashed across in front of the elephants, and a hornbill, with his prehistoric-looking head, watched them, unmoved, from the branch of a tree.
The Colonel and Mr. Mullins shot several couple of plump quail, two or three leverets, some pea-fowl and green pigeon. Once some spotted deer sprang out of a clump of bamboos, and Mr. Mullins brought down a fine buck with a masterly rifle shot.
The time had seemed all too short to the happy, interested girl when they reached their tents ready pitched near a small jungle village in a cool glade, with short grass under foot and trees scattered at intervals. That night she slept soundly and dreamed of the wonders of the jungle, and her pleasure the following day was only marred by the knowledge that the meeting with the woman-hating sportsman was so inevitable, and so near at hand.
Jim Furnival stood in front of his camp shading his eyes with his hand, and looking across the sea of grass, as bright as yellow straw, in anticipation of the arrival of his two friends. He felt puzzled and ill at ease, for their camp had preceded them and their tents had been pitched, and among the latter was an extra tent which the head man had asserted was that of a ‘miss sahib.’ Furnival had felt sure the man must be delirious from fever, or a touch of the sun, until he had further investigated matters. Then he had seen with his own eyes the neat little leather trunk marked R. T., which certainly could claim no male owner, and had noted the extreme newness of the extra tent and its furniture. All he could gather from the advance guard of servants was that the Colonel Sahib’s ‘miss-babba’ had arrived from England, and was coming with the party.
Therefore Furnival was fuming. To bring a girl out tiger-shooting was to degrade the sport to the level of garden party games, and what Templer could be thinking about to do such a thing was past Furnival’s comprehension. The jungle was no place for women. The whole expedition would be ruined. It was too bad! and with a gesture of impatient disgust he walked over to a large peepal tree, in the shade of which was pegged out a fine tiger-skin slowly drying in the warm air, and well rubbed with ashes from the camp fire. What grand sport the fellow had given him only that morning, and how he had shown fight! Furnival recalled the angry snarl, the flattened ears, the wicked eyes, and the beauty of the creature as it had stood up to the elephant and then fiercely charged, though already in its death agony.
Takri, his old shikari, sat over a fire melting the fat of the animal in an iron pot, for the grease of the tiger is highly prized by natives as a remedy for rheumatism. The old man was nearly naked, with a wrinkled brown skin, a shrivelled face and beady black eyes, a wisp of red turban bound untidily about his head, and across his chest the old deep score of a tiger’s claw. Takri had more than once escaped death by a miracle in the exercise of his duties, and he was wont to boast that his extreme leanness was an infallible safeguard from the attentions of wild beasts. He was brave to rashness, devoted to Furnival, in whose service he had been for nearly ten years, and was in the very front rank of his profession—that of a tracker of wild animals. There were few tigers living that could elude him; he knew their habits, their haunts, their peculiarities.
He could tell almost to a moment when a pug-mark had been made, he could trace signs of a wild beast’s vicinity invisible to the ordinary mortal, and he feared nothing small or great, save demons and evil spirits; of these he had all the superstitious, unreasoning horror of the jungle-native, and to him there was not an object in nature that was without its particular ‘ghost’ to be propitiated and taken into account.
As Furnival approached, the old man rose for a moment out of respect for his master’s presence, and then squatted on his heels once more before the steaming pot.
“Is it truth that the Colonel Sahib brings his daughter with him?” he inquired, for Takri was anxious to hear the unwelcome news contradicted. Females gave trouble wherever they went. Was not even a tigress more difficult to outwit than a tiger?
“I know not,” answered Furnival shortly; and Takri gathered that the prospect of the addition of a lady to the party displeased his master as much as it annoyed himself.
“The horses have come in, and on the Colonel Sahib’s grey Arab there is the saddle of a mem,” went on Takri. Then his sharp eyes scanned the horizon. “And here come the elephants, and in one of the howdahs sits a memsahib. Wah!”
He spat behind him in disgust, a proceeding that, luckily for him, was unnoticed by his master, who was gazing at the four large forms that were slowly approaching. Furnival’s own elephants in the background trumpeted a welcome to the newcomers, and as the distance lessened he could plainly distinguish a female figure seated in the back seat of Colonel Templer’s howdah. He switched at the tall clumps of grass with his stick in impatient vexation as he returned to the front of his tent.
He was a distinguished-looking man with short iron-grey hair inclined to curl crisply, with skin burnt to the colour of a nut, and bright blue eyes that were almost startling in their vivid contrast to the rest of his face.
He looked older than his thirty-six years, from constant exposure to hardship and extremes of heat and cold; his features were large and firm, and his figure strong and muscular. A man accustomed to lead, with an unflinching will, and perhaps a hot temper. His expression was anything but amiable as the elephants halted and knelt, and the Colonel, on reaching the ground, began hastily to explain the situation.
“Look here, Furnival, I was obliged to bring my girl or lose all the fun. She’s just arrived from home quite unexpectedly. No time to make any other arrangement. Very sorry, but she won’t be any trouble; she’s all right.”
What could be said in reply to this speech?
Furnival glanced at the girl standing slim and graceful in her cool grey habit, the colour heightened in her cheeks, and a flash of angry humiliation in her golden brown eyes. What a young vixen she looked, and what a nuisance she would be! He felt that if there was to be a woman in the camp at all, he would have preferred one of the timid, shrinking, appealing sort, who would stay in her tent, or sit under a tree with an umbrella and a sketch book. But this girl was not of that persuasion, and he could only make the best of a tiresome situation, especially since Colonel Templer had not been very considerate towards her in his speech, and also as old Mullins was regarding the scene with ill-concealed enjoyment.
“Glad to see you, Miss Templer,” he said, raising his hat and reddening a little under the lie. “Let us hope we may be able to make the time as pleasant as possible for you under the circumstances.”
The tone was courteous though charged with suppressed disapproval, but Ray’s generous, impulsive nature at once appreciated the innate chivalry which had prompted the words, untrue though she knew them to be.
“I am afraid I am not a very welcome addition to the party,” she said, “but I hope I shan’t be any trouble. I am not nervous and I am never ill, and I can do what I’m told without arguing.”
“A rare virtue,” murmured Mr. Mullins.
Then she turned to find her tent and left the group to themselves, the Colonel still explaining, Mr. Mullins rubbing his eye glass and smiling, and Captain Furnival tapping his boot with his stick and saying nothing.
As Ray approached her tent, she passed a little wizened being squatting over a small fire and stirring something in a pot.
“He is like a live mummy,” she thought, looking curiously at him as she went by; and she little knew that when her back was turned Takri was unmannerly enough to make the sign with his fingers that averts the evil eye, and to murmur words regarding her presence that were anything but complimentary.
Being unaware of the animosity she had aroused in the breast of the old shikari, she inquired concerning him, with interest, that evening when they were all seated at dinner in the tiny mess tent, which was opened at both ends to allow what air there was to reach them, and was only a partial protection from the night insects that, attracted by the light, did their best to spoil the meal.
“Who was that funny little dried-up man I saw sitting by your tiger-skin to-day, Captain Furnival?”
“That was Takri, my tracker, commonly called a shikari, and a good specimen of his kind, though he certainly is no beauty.”
He then described how nearly ten years before, he had gone to a certain district in search of a famous man-eating tiger, and how, on arrival, he had found that the village shikari, none other than Takri himself, had tackled the tiger alone on foot, armed only with an ancient matchlock gun loaded with nails and bits of iron, and had actually come off victorious, though at the price of a severe mauling, the marks of which he would carry on his chest for the rest of his days.
“His information about a tiger is very seldom at fault. I can nearly always trust him, but he’s so abjectly superstitious that it becomes quite a nuisance sometimes, and I think he is getting worse as he grows older.”
“Does he think the chances of sport are good in this neighbourhood?” asked the Colonel.
“Oh, yes, there are tigers about most certainly, and one in particular that I’ve been waiting to tackle till you arrived. He’s a noted cattle-killer in these parts, and destroys an incredible number of valuable animals in the year. He has nearly ruined the wretched little villages about here, but the people seem to have got on terms of apathetic friendliness with him, and now make no attempt to get rid of him. They say he’s possessed of a devil, and that no one can kill him. He appears to have been hunted with elephants, and on foot, to have been driven, baited, and trapped, and yet he is still at large, and Takri thinks we shall have a lot of trouble to get him. My own theory as to his charmed existence is that he has grown particularly cunning from frequent hunting, and when he is obliged to show himself, does so at unexpected moments. Probably during a beat he hurries forward instead of back. As far as the native shikaris are concerned their weapons are generally harmless with a tiger, and an old and cunning animal like this gentleman would soon learn to outwit traps and baits.”
“How do you propose to do for him?” asked Mr. Mullins.
“Takri says he knows where he is, so I’ve told him to tie up bullock in the most likely place, and build the machans1 to-morrow. It appears that when the brute kills, he usually takes care to drag the carcass into such impenetrable jungle that it’s impossible to get near it. It’s just about his killing time again now, and we must try and shoot him when he comes for the bullock, if he does so at all.”
“We shall be here for some days, I suppose, if we have good luck?” said the Colonel.
“Yes, and then I thought we’d move on to Rambagh, where I hear there’s a man-eater knocking about.”
“Good business! By the way, how many machans have you ordered for to-morrow? I don’t like being cramped.”
“Don’t you think two will be enough? We will have a third if you like, but I thought you and Mullins could go in one, and Takri and I in the other.”
Ray looked eagerly up from her plate. “Am I not to come?” she asked impetuously. Captain Furnival frowned, and then quickly straightened his forehead. He looked enquiringly at Colonel Templer.
“Certainly not!” said the latter. “Women are out of place in a machan. They cough and fidget and put a man off.”
Ray bit her lip and stole an angry glance at Captain Furnival. She was horribly disappointed, and she felt sure that one word from him would have gained her the longed-for permission to join the sportsmen the following day. But he made no attempt to intercede for her, and evidently approved of the way in which the matter had been settled; so Ray could only swallow her wrath and act up to her declaration that she could obey without arguing. Nevertheless she felt she almost hated Captain Furnival.
The three sportsmen went off unrelenting the next afternoon on a pad elephant, without their unwelcome encumbrance, and Ray was left to amuse herself as best as she might, either in the stuffy little tent or in the shade of the huge peepal tree that protected the camp from the sun and wind. She unpacked her camera and took snapshots of the horses, the tents, and the servants, also of the dogs, who followed her about disconsolately, even Jackson making friends over the common grievance of being left behind; and then they all sat down on the roots of the tree, Mum snapping at the flies, and Jackson making frantic darts at the squirrels as they whisked up and down the trunk. Ray herself sat idle, her chin on her hand, and gave herself over to venomous criticism of Captain Furnival, feeling that but for him she might now have been seated in a machan, breathless with excitement, watching for a tiger.
Perhaps she might have been rather more kindly disposed towards him had she known that, seated on his leafy platform, with probably two or three hours waiting before him, she was paramount in his mind. The hot stillness of the afternoon, combined with the cramped position and necessary silence, had turned his thoughts to other matters than tigers for the moment, and smiling to himself as he recalled a pair of angry brown eyes, he reflected that he must be very much in Miss Templer’s black books.
That he, who years ago had eschewed the society of women, and since lived out of reach of their charms and wiles, should now be brought into daily companionship with a girl of eighteen, was almost preposterous to contemplate, and yet so it was, and he must see and speak to her every day, however much he might endeavour to avoid her. She was going to give trouble, too, he felt sure. How furious she had looked when she found she was not to come to-day. Little spitfire! He could imagine how she was mentally abusing him at this moment. Captain Furnival smiled again, and as the memory haunted him of the brilliant brown eyes and shapely little head he fell to wondering whether she was feeling the heat. A small tent in the jungle in April was no fit place for an English girl just out from home, and old Templer ought to have known better than to bring her with him; but he was always a selfish old beggar, though a rare sportsman, and it was certainly rather a joke to see him saddled with a grown-up daughter to claim his time and attention.
Captain Furnival was in a relenting mood, and presently he resolved that Miss Templer should have the claws of the tiger he was hoping to shoot, to make up for her disappointment, and then he began to wonder if she would be much in the way if she came out with the guns when they went on a beat with elephants. She would enjoy that, keen and fearless as she seemed to be, though of course the sun might prove too much for her.
He brought his attention back to the bullock that was tied up within sight of the machans in a small open glade, and wondered when the tiger meant to make his appearance.
Being a hot, cloudless day he was not likely to be on the move till an hour or so before sundown, and as they had occupied the machans shortly before four o’clock there might be a long wait before them. Perhaps it would be necessary to stay there till the moon had risen. He settled his back against the tree and let his thoughts run riot again. This time they wandered back to the days when he had been a light-hearted boy thinking of nothing but his regiment, his polo ponies, his shooting, and his chances of seeing service. Then had come a storm into his life, before his years and experience had fitted him to face it. He had suffered keenly, had endured shame, dishonour, and disgrace, for the sake of woman. For her he had given up his regiment, his friends, his people, his place in the world—and she had played him false, had taken all he had to give, and left him, in return, with shattered ideals, a broken career, and his faith in women gone.
And so, soured and miserable, he had turned to nature and sport for comfort and now there was not a hunting ground he had not visited, not a country in which he had not shot. His property was sold, his relations scattered, and there seemed every prospect of his continuing the existence he had chosen until he became too old to hunt any more, or met with a violent end on one of his shooting expeditions.
He reviewed his past life with a sigh half of regret, half of relief. After all, what could be better than the freedom of the jungle, the excitement of sport and adventure? No ties, no responsibility, no petty cares or worries, and, above all, no women! Then he remembered Miss Templer again with a sensation of protest and annoyance, and the next moment a slight sound in the distance brought him back to the importance of the time and place, and every other thought and feeling merged into a strained attention.
The sound was so slight that, as yet, only he and old Takri had caught it. The Colonel’s red face, glowing under his sun-hat, betrayed no sign of animation, and Mr. Mullins was gazing vacantly ahead, and stifling his yawns. The sound, like a very faint humming, was repeated a little louder, and this time the elder sportsmen became aware of it and alert. The bullock had heard too, and was staring intently into the jungle, his head held down, his eyes starting, his breath coming in quick snorts. The question now was, under which tree would the tiger pass, and to whose gun would he fall?
The light was rapidly failing, and the creatures of the jungle were on the move. A jackal ran past, then another, and presently the trees across the glade opposite Furnival’s machan became violently agitated as a party of monkeys set up a commotion and chattered in anger and fear. They had spied the tiger, and were following his movements by their tree-paths overhead. Then, cautiously, from out the undergrowth there appeared a round object which seemed to grow larger as the moments passed. It was the tiger reconnoitring the ground before he stepped from his shelter. Tigers rarely look upwards, and therefore the fear of his catching sight of the machans was slight, the chief danger being of his winding his enemies.
With careful steps, crouching body, and great head lowered, the animal crept out and moved along the ground (like a cat stalking a bird) till it reached a clump of grass behind which it paused to watch the unfortunate bullock. It was a very large tiger, and evidently the famous enchanted cattle-killer, for its build was thick and heavy, and the skin extraordinarily brilliant. The bullock began to shake its head uneasily, and for some breathless moments the tiger remained motionless behind the grass. Then suddenly, without apparent reason, he quietly turned and slunk back into the jungle, and the three disappointed men realized that any chance of bagging the animal that night was over. He had either winded them suddenly, or else the bullock had not taken his fancy sufficiently to tempt him to make a meal. Perhaps he had already just killed, and considered it less exertion to return to the half finished carcass.
Whatever the reason might have been, he was gone, and in an hour would probably be five miles off; so it was useless to remain in the trees any longer, and the men scrambled ruefully from their perches and summoned the elephant that had been waiting for them in a dry watercourse within reach. They returned crestfallen to the camp, and when they arrived, to Furnival’s sudden irritation, he saw Miss Templer seated outside her tent. Though it was dark, and the moon had not yet risen, the light of a lantern, hung from the tent rope above her head, showed up her eager face and bright eyes, as she rose from her chair full of anxiety to see the dead tiger, her resentment drowned in her curiosity. Furnival felt oddly humiliated that they had failed, and Miss Templer contrived to hit upon the question most likely to annoy him in answer to his curt information that they had killed no tiger.
“Did you miss him?” she asked, not without a spice of malice.
“Of course not, of course not,” interrupted her father testily; “he came and went, that was all.”
“Then why didn’t you kill him between you?”
“Because he is possessed of a devil, of course,” said Mr Mullins, as the two other men proceeded to their tents in contemptuous silence, “and because he came from an unexpected and rather improbable direction, did not touch the bullock, and returned to the jungle before he could be safely potted. Now have I made the situation clear and restored your respect for us as sportsmen?”
Dinner that evening threatened to be an uncomfortable meal in more ways than one. The night was very oppressive and the insects more than usually troublesome, penetrating into the tent, and causing disgust and confusion. An enormous stag-beetle, after banging and booming round the heads of the party, fell with a splash into the Colonel’s soup, scattering the liquid all over the table with his kicks and struggles. A swarm of flying ants then invaded the feast, and instantly everything became smothered with loose brown wings and wriggling bodies, and when all traces of these unwelcome visitors had been removed, the diners continued their meal in silence.
The Colonel was brooding over the loss of the tiger, and Captain Furnival told himself savagely that he was in no mood for making small talk with ladies. The question of the beat with elephants next day would have to be discussed that evening, and he sincerely trusted that it would arise after Miss Templer had retired for the night. Ray, on her side, also dreaded the subject being opened, and feared a repetition of her humiliation of the previous evening. So, since Mr. Mullins seemed to be the only cheerful person present, she encouraged him to talk, and he soon became exceedingly loquacious on the topic of his own prowess in the matter of big-game shooting, and his stories grew taller with each whisky and soda that he consumed.
“Talk of remarkable incidents!” he said, though nobody had as yet been guilty of doing so except himself, “why, once when I was shooting in the Dhoon, sitting up over a young buffalo with a skin as black as ink, two tigers came and walked round him all night. It was so dark I couldn’t get a shot at either of them, and each tiger was in too much of a funk of the other to go for the buffalo, so towards morning they both walked off, and when I got down from my tree I found that the buffalo had turned snow-white.”
“That’s an old yarn,” growled the Colonel; “I’ve read it somewhere.”
“Dear Mullins,” said Captain Furnival, “try to remember what happened to your forefather Ananias.”
“Well,” put in Ray, “you often hear of a person’s hair turning white in a single night from trouble or fright, so why shouldn’t a buffalo’s?”
“Exactly!” said Mr. Mullins. “I cannot say I see anything in the story that might cause my high character for veracity to suffer. Now you might perhaps begin to doubt if you had heard what our excellent friend Captain Furnival told me once in an unguarded moment!”
“What was that?” asked Furnival, endeavouring to remember what incident he could have related to the little man on which an impossible story might be built.
“My good boy, surely you haven’t forgotten your own remarkable adventure—which certainly beats mine hollow—the one about the big buffalo, the enormous tiger, and the long rope?”
“I never even heard of it—much less told you; but by all means let us have it, and lay it to my account if it pleases you.”
“Talk of Ananias!” ejaculated Mr. Mullins, casting up his eyes in pious horror. “Well, perhaps you will remember when we get little further.” He turned and addressed himself to Ray. “The gentleman who told me these facts described the finding of the most enormous pug-marks he had ever seen in his life. No young buffaloes were available in the district, so he was forced to annex a full-grown bull, and promise to pay a long price for it too, in the event of its being killed or damaged. The shikari took off the buffalo and tied him up, and when our hero arrived on the scene he found that the animal had been fastened by the horns, a method which we all know,” turning to Furnival for a moment, “you highly disapprove of!”
Furnival made a gesture of hopeless dissent, and smiled involuntarily at Ray as he caught her eye.
“However,” continued the story-teller, “it was then too late to make any change that might occasion a scrimmage with the buffalo and cause an undesirable disturbance, so he left matters as they were. The rope was a very long one, and attached to a large iron tent-peg with a ring in it. That is an important point in the story, so please take note.”
Ray nodded comprehendingly.
“Well, the tiger came pretty soon, and prowled round for a while, then rushed at the buffalo and seized him by the throat, but either over-reached himself or was pitched over the other side. Anyway, he got up from the scuffle with the rope round his neck!”
“What the devil are you talking about, Mullins?” asked the Colonel, whose attention had been suddenly arrested, but Mr. Mullins waved him scornfully to silence, and proceeded with his story.
“The buffalo, I should mention, had rolled over too, so the rope had slackened for a second or so, and thus, no doubt, had formed a loop. The tiger was therefore moored a couple of yards from the buffalo, and though he roared and struggled, could not free himself. So, wishing to save his cartridges, our gallant friend descended from his perch, intending to kill the beast by a single shot, but, as ill-luck would have it, he dropped his rifle and broke it at the stock. Here was a dilemma! The buffalo was straining at the rope violently and the tiger seemed unable to do anything, so, approaching the beast very cautiously, the sportsman seized him by the tail and pulled it through the ring of the iron tent-peg, gave it a round turn, doubled it back, and lashed it together firmly with the silk puggaree from his hat, and there was the tiger anchored stem and stern!”
“Wah!” said the Colonel, in a disgusted voice.
“Then, going to the buffalo, my friend seized him also by the tail—”
“This seems to be a tale of tails,” murmured Captain Furnival.
“—and adding his weight also to the strain he soon had the satisfaction of seeing the tiger’s eyes start out of his head, and his death take place from strangulation. You may imagine the astonishment of the simple village folk at this novel and satisfactory method of killing a tiger. The buffalo was only slightly scratched, and, if I remember right, very ungratefully did his best to gore my brave friend when he rather incautiously released him. The tiger measured thirteen feet six inches, and the buffalo, as you may imagine, was an exceptionally big one.”
“Like the story,” laughed Furnival. But the Colonel had grown restive.
“I never heard such utter rubbish in my life,” he began argumentatively. “To start with, there’s no such thing as a tiger measuring even thirteen feet”—and it took considerable tact and skill on the part of the rest of the company to calm him down, and lead him away from the subject.
But when this was safely accomplished he began discussing the plans for the next day, and it was eventually decided that they should start from the camp at nine o’clock in the morning. Then, with an unaccountable feeling of shyness and effort, Furnival turned to Ray.
“Do you think you would find the sun too much for you, if you came with us?” he asked rather awkwardly.
Her cheeks flushed and her eyes sparkled.
“Oh, no!” she answered eagerly. “I should like it of all things. I will be no trouble. I may come, mayn’t I, father?”
“Much better not,” grunted the Colonel; but presently finding that Furnival was really not opposed to the plan he gave way.
“My elephant, Moti, is much stauncher and safer than that Rajah of yours, Colonel. I know that brute of old, and his paces are rough, too. Perhaps you had better change elephants with me to-morrow. Then Miss Templer will be perfectly safe in the back seat of your howdah, and will see all the fun splendidly. I hope we bag the cattle-slayer to-morrow. He must have killed somewhere in the neighbourhood, and Takri will find out all about it before we start. If we don’t get him, or others, we must move on to Rambagh.”
So Ray went to bed that evening in a very different frame of mind from that of the previous night, and neither the heat nor the howls of the jackals kept her from sleeping soundly, and dreaming of elephants and tigers the whole night through.
Early next morning Takri reported a ‘kill’ beyond a small jungle village some three or four miles distant from the camp, undoubtedly the work of the ‘possessed’ one; and it was arranged that, after a short beat in another direction through likely grass, the vicinity of the slaughter should be examined to discover where the animal had last drunk after his evening meal, and to be able to track him to his mid-day resting place. The day was cloudless, with a blazing sun and a hot, high wind. Ray submissively donned her large pith hat (which she declared was only kept on by her shoulders), protected her eyes with unbecoming blue goggles, and wielded a huge umbrella. Mr. Mullins gently suggested a flowing green gauze veil as a finishing touch, but the proposition was received with silent scorn, though before the day was over she was quite ready to acknowledge that the hat, umbrella, and spectacles were not to be despised. She was also, like all the rest of the party, natives included, provided with a coarse brown blanket in which to envelop her head in case of an encounter with bees in the jungle.
The heat, the glare, the parched yellow country, and the restless burning breeze, were almost hypnotising in their combination; and as they started across an arid tract of country covered with tall bunches of coarse reed-like grass, and hillocks of sand, the heavy breathing of the elephants, the swish of the grass against their sides, and the heavy tramp of their huge feet, made a drowsy accompaniment. Sometimes a hare bolted out, like a brown streak, and created a momentary diversion, and now and then partridges and quail flew up with a sound like the works of a clock running down. They crossed large pieces of ground completely uprooted by sounders of wild pig, and once they caught sight of an old boar cantering away in and out of the grass tufts, his small red eyes gleaming wickedly above his white tusks as he glanced resentfully over his shoulder.
Then came a sea of withered grass, with here and there wiry-looking trees standing up isolated and apart. A line was formed with the elephants, and beating began in real earnest. Ray, looking over the side of the howdah, caught fleeting glimpses of small animals breaking back and rushing in terror through the thick dry grass: little brown hog-deer that leapt along, their slender legs almost doubled beneath them, jackals that slunk furtively past the elephant’s feet, a gliding black snake that opened its hood and hissed, and plunged into the dense grass in angry protest, and once there was a heavy rustling as of some larger animal, when the little pad elephant on which Takri was installed filled his trunk with air and rapped it on the ground, making a noise like a kettle-drum. Had Moti indulged in this performance it might have been taken as a sure sign that a tiger was at hand, but the pad was a young makna, or tuskless male, and had not as yet learned that the sign was not needed for pig or hyena, or even for panther, just then. Presently they came upon a small open space where the grass had been pressed down round the carcass of a deer evidently slain some days ago, for the bones had been picked clean by jackals and carrion birds.
On went the beat slowly, thoroughly searching every piece of ground straight through the waving sea of grass, until just as they approached the further end, something sprang up with a loud, discontented growl, and a tiger broke back through the line of elephants, but not before a bullet from Captain Furnival’s rifle had hit him hard, as the blood on the grass testified. The line was turned and a wide semicircle formed to beat up through the grass from either side, and every moment brought nearer the chance of finding the tiger dead, or mortally wounded.
At last Takri, who was standing up on his pad, pointed forwards, and there, stretched out in the grass, groaning savagely and unable to move, lay a fine tiger, too far gone to show fight further than an angry snarl, and a futile effort to rise.
A bullet from Colonel Templer’s rifle finished him off, though the skin of course belonged to Captain Furnival as having drawn first blood, a law which the Colonel was obliged to explain to his delighted daughter, who in her ignorance was rejoicing that the tiger had fallen to her father’s gun. The tiger was not a particularly large one, but was a fine specimen, being young and in capital condition, and with a perfect skin. The corpse was tied on to a spare pad and the majestic beat continued. At Furnival’s suggestion they again traversed the long expanse of grass in a different direction, for one tiger generally means that there are others with him, especially when, as in this case, the animal’s age and experience has not made him formidable to his companions. An old male tiger will occasionally kill the younger males, and is therefore more frequently found alone.
The plan succeeded, but this time it was a large tigress that bounded out of the grass on to a patch of bare ground, in full view of the whole line. Her mouth was open, showing the cruel teeth and rough, red tongue, her tail lashed angrily, her eyes shone like yellow lamps, and, in spite of the bullets, she came on without wavering, and sprang with a furious roar on to the head of the nearest elephant, which happened, unluckily, to be the inexperienced makna. The angry beast clawed viciously at the mahout, who, being a nervous individual and addicted to the use of opium, promptly gave himself up for lost and fell helplessly to the ground.
The makna shrieked with fear and pain, and, with its tail up, turned and fled wildly in the opposite direction. The scene became one of confusion and uproar. The mahouts yelled, the Englishmen swore, the elephants squealed and trumpeted and clubbed together, with the exception of Moti and Mr. Mullins’ mount, who retained their self-possession and obediently gave chase to the flying makna and his unwelcome load.
The terrified little elephant continued his headlong career for about a hundred yards, and Takri, who had been jolted off his back, ran madly in his wake, shouting torrents of abuse on all the generations of the coward’s ancestors. Then the elephant stumbled and fell, and went down in a great black heap, with the tigress underneath. But in a moment he was up again, free of the clinging, clawing beast, and continued to run and trumpet till he was a speck on the horizon, while the tigress, bewildered and furious, stood glaring at her advancing opponents.
Furnival shouted to Takri to come back, but the old man was either too excited to heed him, or else was running too fast to be able to check himself. The tigress sprang to meet him with a roar, blood pouring from her head and chest; Takri fell flat on his face, and with a mighty leap she over-reached him, and the next moment lay choking and gurgling, shot through a vital spot by the Colonel. The stout-hearted Moti had outdistanced the other elephant, and so saved one of Takri’s many lives, for the tigress would undoubtedly have turned on him again had she retained the power to do so. When she was dead she was measured with the tape from the tip of her nose, over her head, along her broad back to the end of her tail. Nine feet was the result—large for a tigress, and she was sent to join her late companion, perhaps offspring, on the pad.
The makna’s mahout was afterwards picked up in a condition of nervous imbecility; and subsequently the chicken-hearted elephant returned to the camp, crestfallen and ashamed, and as a punishment for his cowardice was degraded to the duty of fetching and carrying fodder for the camp, since he and his keeper were clearly no acquisition to the shooting party.
Then came a well-earned halt for refreshments in the shade of some tangled thorn bushes that skirted one side of the tract of grass. The dust blew up in clouds and the heat was overpowering, the men’s faces were wet with perspiration, and Ray’s head ached from the blaze of the sun, and her back from the motion of the elephant. But nothing would persuade her to adopt her father’s suggestion that she should return to the camp under the charge of Moti’s mahout.
She declared she “was quite cool, and really enjoyed the heat, and felt no discomfort whatever.” She had tasted the excitement of hunting the creature that, of all others, embodies the sense of cruelty and cunning, and, if she died for it, she was going to see the day out.
She resumed her place behind the Colonel after luncheon, feeling quite an experienced sportswoman, and strained her eyes through her blue goggles for the sight of another yellow skin with markings of jet black. They then traversed jungle composed of matted bushes, thick undergrowth, and stunted trees, making for the locality where the cattle-killer had slain his last victim.
The density of the scrub rendered their progress slow, but in time they reached a squalid village inhabited by thin, half-starved, apathetic people, who straggled out in listless groups and appeared to take but little interest the proceedings. Their profound belief in the supernatural attributes of the tiger probably rendered them sceptical as to his destruction, and accounted for their indifference. They readily pointed out the spot where the cow had been struck down and carried off, but, beyond that, they had no advice or information to impart.
On the other side of the village the shingly bed of an almost dry watercourse was reached, near which, owing to the few remaining pools of stagnant water, the tiger was likely to have selected his hiding place. There, clear and distinct in the wet patches of sand, were his pug-marks, and these were followed carefully up the bed of the water course till they were lost amongst the increasing pebbles and rocky boulders; and then Takri, after some deliberation and careful reconnoitring, expressed his opinion that the tiger was ‘lying up’ in a thick patch of jungle overhanging the nullah some fifty yards ahead.
All was quiet as they drew near the spot, and Furnival skirted round to the further side to cut off the retreat, while the two other guns stationed themselves in readiness. On a tree overlooking the covert were perched some large black crows, evidently regarding something beneath them with serious attention. As Furnival’s elephant began to push through the bushes from the opposite side a stealthy rustling was heard. The tiger was trying to escape without showing a fight. A clod of hard earth was flung into the place where the bushes were shaking with the passage through them of some heavy body. Instantly the tiger answered to the challenge with a savage snarl; then he suddenly emerged from his retreat and sprang across the white shingle of the bed of the watercourse.
The Colonel fired and hit him behind the shoulder, and, as he turned to charge, a bullet from Mr. Mullins’ rifle crashed into his skull. A few minutes later the tiger that had been possessed of a devil lay stretched out on his side motionless, never again to stalk defenceless cattle, never more to prowl round the villages robbing the people of their property. The country was rid of a scourge, and now, attracted by the firing, the villagers hastened to the scene and beheld with wonder and relief their enemy lying dead.
Once they realised the truth, they became as excited as previously they had been apathetic, and men, women, and children crowded round to touch the tiger and strike him with their palms, to beg for the whiskers, the lucky bones, the fat, and the claws, and to point out certain marks by which they had always recognized the ‘devil’ cattle-killer. Finally they followed the corpse to the camp in a clamouring procession, and kept up their noisy rejoicings far into the night.
No skins were added next day to the three pegged out in the shade of the peepal tree, and the beat, in spite of encouraging news of a tiger’s whereabouts, proved blank and disappointing. The ‘kill’ was found only half eaten, the grass around it trampled and blood-stained, but the tiger had either found an effectual hiding-place or else had travelled far from his larder for some unexplained reason. So after a wearisome day over grass, sand, river-beds and jungle, the party turned towards their camp.
Partly for the sake of the welcome shade, and partly on the chance of stray shots at leopard, deer, or pea-fowl, they chose a route that led them along the edge of a broad belt of sal trees with long straight stems rising erect from the matted undergrowth. The evening was approaching, and the hot, roaring wind was dying down. A soft, warm calm fell over the land, and the hum of the insects, and the calls of birds and animals rousing themselves in preparation for the night’s foraging, followed the burning, choking dreariness of the mid-day. The stately procession of elephants was headed by Colonel Templer and his daughter mounted to-day on Rajah, for Moti had run a long sharp thorn into her foot the previous evening, and was having it attended to in camp. Mr. Mullins followed, and then came Captain Furnival, and the pads behind. The big beasts pulled up roots and grass, and chumped the food as they went along. Furnival was whistling softly, and one of the mahouts was croning a nasal ditty to himself.
Ray felt sleepy and tired. The day had been uninteresting. Rajah was rough in his paces, lurching and rocking from side to side; her face was scorched and her eyes aching. She had fallen into an uncomfortable doze when she was suddenly roused by the elephant stopping with a jerk, and blowing a warning snort through his trunk. She heard a sharp exclamation from her father.
“What is it?” she asked, looking over the side of the howdah, but seeing nothing.
“A python,” said the Colonel; “and if we’d gone a few yards further he would probably have caught me a crack over the head.”
Ray looked up and saw an enormous snake hanging from a tree. His flat head swung to and fro, his forked tongue rippled in and out, his eyes gleamed like jewels, and the glistening coils of his body twisted up and around the tree trunk till they were lost amongst the branches. The Colonel fired at the swaying head, and the jaws, great with teeth like barbed fish-bones, opened wide, emitting a loud stinging hiss. The Colonel had missed, and the python in a rage lashed at the mahout. The elephant backed with a startled squeal, and Mr. Mullins, hastening to the front, fired, and blew the snake’s head off. The great coils slowly untwisted, and fell with a heavy thud to the ground, where the headless body lay wriggling and arching with the violent muscular movement that sometimes continues for hours after death, and makes the python such a difficult trophy to carry away. The seventeen feet of boa leapt and danced till the elephant Rajah could stand it no longer, and, trumpeting indignantly, backed away from the terrifying object. With difficulty he was induced to kneel, and Colonel Templer descended with the intention of helping the others to control the python’s muscles and tie the body on to one of the pads. But he had hardly reached the ground when an unexpected enemy made its appearance. The reports of the rifles under the trees had disturbed a swarm of bees, the little black Indian bee so dreaded and feared by all sportsmen, and in a moment all was panic and uproar.
Someone shouted to Ray to kneel down in the howdah and use her blanket, and she obeyed mechanically, bewildered and alarmed, smarting from some stings on her hands, her large hat having fortunately protected her head and face. Then she found herself being rattled about in the howdah like a pill in a box, as her elephant rose violently and sped along, rolling, crashing, tearing over the hard ground, while the shouts and squeals and agonised trumpetings that came to her muffled ears sounded fainter and further away, till they ceased altogether. Still she was carried along at a breakneck speed, every bone in her body bruised, her hat smashed, her glasses ground to powder beneath her feet, till even at the risk of being injured by the bees she felt she must raise her head and discard the suffocating blanket. She dragged herself up to the seat of the howdah and peered out cautiously.
Apparently the bees had been left behind, for there were none buzzing round her, so clinging to the howdah rail to steady herself she leaned forward to ascertain the condition of the mahout. To her horror and dismay no dirty turban met her gaze, nothing but the round bald head of the elephant, his ragged ears cocked, his trunk stretched out, running, tearing—guideless, without a driver. The mahout had fallen off. She was alone on the back of a runaway elephant!
For a moment a sick despair seized her, and tears of terror blinded her eyes. Then her natural pluck reasserted itself, and holding on desperately with one hand to the bar of the swaying howdah, she shaded her eyes with the other from the piercing rays of the evening sun, which was setting blood-red directly in front of her. She noted with relief that the country was fairly open and that the line of forest ahead was dim and purple in the distance. If only Rajah would restrict his flight to the comparatively free ground he might tire himself out and perhaps find his way home to the camp. But should he enter the forest in search of his wild brethren, heaven help her, for death would then be practically a certainty. She looked back, but groups of bushes and clumps of stunted trees lay between her and the line of sal trees, and she could distinguish no sign of the other elephants.
Still Rajah ran madly, goaded by the stings of the bees that had crawled up his trunk and blinded his eyes, and Ray stood swaying in the howdah gazing despairingly around for rescue which seemed hopeless. Nearer they drew to the purple line which was rapidly changing colour: now a faint blue, now blue-green; soon it would be green in good earnest, soon they must reach the edge of the dense forest. She leant over the howdah and shouted, as nearly as she could remember them, the words she had heard the mahouts use in bidding the elephants kneel, and to her relief, though Rajah made no pretence of actually obeying her, he slowed down gradually, the hideous jolting grew less, and the elephant brought his pace to a walk, though he still indulged in occasional short runs and spurts, accompanied by squeals of irritation and discomfort.
She cast her eyes along the horizon to her right, where the country was flat grassy plains, varied by tree-dotted jungle. Was it her fancy, or could she see something that seemed to grow larger as she gazed? Was it the mahout running after his truant charge? Was it a tiger taking its evening prowl? Or an old wild boar in search of roots for his supper? Larger and blacker grew the object, and as Rajah’s pace became once more normal, she saw that it was an elephant advancing rapidly. But it was a long way off, and she could not yet tell whether it had a pad on its back, or was a solitary wild elephant. Her heart beat fast with doubt and apprehension, until at last, with relief, she made out that the animal was carrying a pad and a mahout, and also someone who was shouting to her and waving a handkerchief encouragingly; in a moment she was waving back, and answering the shout. As her deliverer came within recognisable distance, she saw that it was Captain Furnival, and her first feeling was one of regret that, under the circumstances, she could not permit herself the relief of a burst of tears, which she certainly would have done had the pad carried her father or even Mr. Mullins.
As they came alongside, the pad elephant, excited and restless from her chase, knelt unwillingly to allow Furnival to scramble to the ground, and Rajah peered round with a small vicious eye greatly disfigured by bee stings, whisked his tail, gave a squeal of defiance, and half-turned as though about to bolt again.
What was to be done? The mahout dared not leave his own elephant, and Rajah paid not the smallest attention to the man’s shouts of command for him to kneel.
Furnival was powerless to control him, and there was a wicked gleam in his eye that meant mischief to anyone approaching too near.
“Beware!” warned the mahout.
“Climb over the back of the howdah,” called Furnival in desperation, “and then jump. I will catch you.”
With shaking limbs the girl did as he told her, and a thrill of admiration went through him as he noted her undiminished spirit in spite of her exhausted condition.
“That’s right!” he encouraged. “Now jump!”
He held out his arms and she sprang into them, the elephant giving a spiteful shuffle to one side as she did so. Furnival clasped the slender figure firmly for a moment to break the force of the descent, then he let her gently down on to her feet. She looked up at him with a little gasp, her eyes weary and heavy, full of the strain she had endured, the bright colour faded from her cheeks; and a rush of sudden tenderness filled the man’s empty heart, such a sensation as he had not felt for many long years, such as he had never expected to feel again.
“I am all right,” said Ray hoarsely, swaying as she spoke, “but I’m so giddy.”
She raised her hand to her head, on which the curls stood up in wild confusion, and then clutched at Furnival’s sleeve as everything seemed to spin round her. Passing his arms about her waist he supported her to the roots of a mighty forest tree, where she sat down with a sigh of relief. Then, diving into his pocket, he produced a whisky flask.
“Take a good pull at that,” he said, handing it to her, and wondering if she would make a face and declare she could not touch it. But she obeyed him, feeling the sore need of something to restore her, mentally and physically, and gradually her colour returned and the look of fear and fatigue left her eyes.
“Feel better?” asked the man.
“Oh! much. I’m all right now.”
“You are a plucky girl,” he said heartily, and she laughed, pleased with the compliment, “though you have no business out tiger-shooting at all,” he added, with a severity born of the fright he had experienced on her account; “it’s much too dangerous a game for women.”
“What happened to the others?” she asked, ignoring his scolding. She was too tired to retaliate.
“Oh! they’ll be all right, though they are probably unrecognisable by now! I and this little pad elephant somehow escaped the attentions of the bees, so it was better for me to come after you with her, and let your father and Mr. Mullins collect the other elephants, and go on into camp to attend to their stings.”
“What a nuisance I am!” she said with a sigh.
“No, you’re not,” he answered impulsively, “don’t say that,” and then wondered what had possessed him to speak in such a way. “It’s getting dark,” he continued rapidly, before she had time to answer, “and I’m much afraid we shall have to wait for the moon to rise before we can get back. We might lose our way and have to wander all night if we started now.”
“Then what are we to do till the moon rises? Sit on the roots of this tree?”
“No, certainly not. We must get on to the pad elephant. You can lie down in the middle of the pad, and perhaps get a sleep.”
Night was fast approaching, for in India there is little or no twilight, and the darkness drops like a curtain once the sun has disappeared. Already the burning yellow distance had become a purpling haze, and the large forms of the two elephants, now amiably browsing side by side, stood out dim and shadowy, with the white patch of the mahout’s turban just visible.
Furnival summoned the pad, and soon they were comfortably settled on the huge mattress, and silence fell between them as they listened to the increasing jungle sounds. Mysterious rustlings began in the undergrowth, little chirrupings and squeakings as of small creatures busy over some important matter, the flapping of monster night-birds high up in the branches of the trees, and the elastic sweeping of bats’ wings passing and repassing. The air was soft, though still very hot, the drowsy swaying of the elephant soothed the girl’s tired, aching limbs, and she lay dreamily interested, and content. Her slight figure nestled easily into the hollow dip in the centre of the pad, and Furnival had taken off his coat to make it into a pillow for her in spite of her protests.
He sat with his feet dangling over the edge of the pad, and one hand passed beneath a rope to steady himself—he was giving her all the space possible in which comfortably to rest.
When it became quite dark, sharp patterings told that the porcupines, that come out to feed at night, were foraging over the rat-riddled ground, and then suddenly the air was rent with the loud discordant yells of a pack of jackals as they swept across the country, the hideous noise gradually dying down to a few faint howls. A sambur stag belled in the distance away to the right, and a sonorous answer promptly rose from the left, the duet being sustained for fully ten minutes; then all became silent again an oppressive thick silence filled with heavy scents from the forest, until the trumpeting of myriads of insects broke out into one frantic chorus.
Presently Furnival touched Ray on the arm. “Look,” he whispered.
She raised herself slightly on her elbow, and saw two large burning spots of light moving swiftly along the ground. They were the shining eyes of some animal, probably a hyena, since the elephants made no signal; and as the beast moved swiftly backwards and forwards it growled and snuffled to itself. There was a trampling of hoofed feet as a group of deer passed by, halting for a moment to sniff the air as they detected the presence of the elephants, and then dashing away with spasmodic leaps and rushes through the jungle.
Once, away over the open plain, they heard a tiger moving, uttering at intervals his peculiar low, complaining sound, which grew fainter as he passed off, and, far more alarming, was the distant trumpeting of a wild elephant, that made Rajah flap his ears and snort through his trunk. But he had recovered his common-sense by this time, and a word from the pad’s mahout quieted him down again.
Then Ray began to doze in good earnest, and finally fell asleep, while Furnival sat like a sentinel, waiting for the moon to rise. Once the girl stirred a little, and throwing out her arm, her hand rested unconsciously on Furnival’s knee. He let it stay there, fearing that any movement might wake her, and a sudden fierce temptation assailed him to cover it with his own. He had, in a moment, awoke to the fact that this girl attracted him strongly, and he felt that he should have hard work to resist her spell. He was determined that he would not fall in love a second time, he who had sworn to have nothing more to do with women, who had kept himself out of their reach, and been contented with his lonely existence. Was he now in danger of falling a victim to a chit of a girl just on the threshold of life, an unformed child whose character must yet be undecided, who might, for aught he could tell, possess all the capacities for falsehood and heartlessness that he had met with in his former experience of the sex? And yet how fearless and open she seemed, how steadfast and brave were those odd, tawny-coloured eyes. He could imagine how she would lavish her whole heart’s devotion on some man in the future; and a craving seized him to be the one to win the love of this child, as yet unspoilt by contact with the world. He tried to stifle the feeling, for what had he to offer her in return? An old name, money in plenty, but a wasted youth, a soured life, a worn-out heart. Besides, he was nearly old enough to be her father. No; he might be a selfish brute, but he was not so bad as all that. So he sat on like a rock, with clenched teeth, and the small hand lay on his knee otherwise untouched by him.
She awoke with a start a few minutes afterwards, and perceived that the smothering darkness was lifting, and the rising moon throwing the glimmer of her reflection across the sky. Gradually it grew lighter with a curious creeping effect, as though some great limelight were being turned on to the landscape, and one by one the scattered trees, and clumps of grass and bushes, began to show up clearly and to cast long dark shadows on to the open ground before the huge black vastness of the forest.
“Now we can move on, I think,” said Furnival, and something in his voice sounded strange to Ray, and puzzled her. Rajah was summoned by the mahout and responded obediently, following at a respectful distance behind the pad, whose head was turned camp-wards.
It was a long ride, but to Furnival it seemed all too short. In the last hour his lost youth had returned, and he had realised that life might hold something more for him than sport and travel; but his resolve was strong, and he gave no hint or word of his feelings. He talked to the girl of his sporting adventures, telling her story upon story of his experiences, knowing how she loved such things, tales of hair-breadth escapes, of scrambles down hideous precipices after ibex, of strange happenings and weird sights that wildly excited her imagination; of tigers, bears, elephants, leopards, snakes, till when the camp came in sight, with two agitated old gentlemen attended by a couple of anxious dogs pacing up and down in front of the tents, Ray was a great deal more sorry than glad.
“You have been very good to me,” she said softly, as they parted; and by the light of the moon Furnival looked into the brown eyes and smiled, and went off to his tent to lie awake thinking of a woman for the first time for many years.
It took the camp a couple of days to recover from the confusion and damage caused by the bees among the elephants and their riders. Takri’s head was swollen to the size of a bees’ nest itself, the Colonel had one eye closed and a protruding upper lip, and Mr. Mullins’ prominent nose had not escaped. The elephants were restless and inclined to be unmanageable, and Ray herself was so bruised and stiff after her shaking in the howdah that she found exertion literally impossible until the effects had worn off.
But once the atmosphere again became normal it was decided to move on to Rambagh, which lay three marches off, though Takri behaved in a most unaccountable manner over the arrangements, putting ridiculous obstacles in the way, and declaring there were no tigers in that locality at all. Finally Furnival lost all patience with him, and told the old hunter he might please himself about coming, but that for Rambagh and nowhere else was the camp bound. So tents were struck, camels loaded, and the move took place, while Takri subsided into an injured silence, and went about with a countenance, as Mr. Mullins expressed “like a mute at a funeral.”
“Why he so against Rambagh?” asked Ray, as they stood in group waiting for the elephants to come up to them for the first day’s journey.
“I can’t imagine,” said Furnival, “unless he thinks the place haunted, and perhaps, since it is a deserted city, it may be. Takri firmly believes in spooks, and is equally terrified of them. But if there are ghosts, there are also tigers. It’s the very place for them, and to my certain knowledge a man-eater has been the scourge of the few villages the district can boast of for the last twelve months, and plays old Harry with the pilgrims on their way to Raodhur to bathe. I wanted to get at him last year but hadn’t time, and nobody else has interfered with him yet.”
“But surely,” said Mr. Mullins, “Rambagh must be very much out of the way for pilgrims to Raodhur?”
“Yes it is. But some particularly holy being has a shrine on the outskirts of Rambagh, and the attendant fakir’s blessing is said to be so powerful that to secure it the fools will go miles out of their road, and run the risk of being carried off by the tiger!”
“Then if we kill him the fakir ought to give us an extra blessing, for the tiger must interfere considerably with his profits.”
“Yes, you would think so, but you can never tell with these people. The fakir and the tiger may be personal friends. I should think it was very likely!”
“How extraordinary!” said Ray, much excited at the prospect of hunting down a notorious man-eater. “This Rambagh place promises to be interesting. How old is the deserted city?” she added to Mr. Mullins, as Furnival turned away for a moment to give an order.
“Oh! I’m no good at archaeology,” said Mr. Mullins, and then a hpppy thought seized him. “But you should ask Furnival. He knows all about ruins and inscriptions and prehistoric remains. Let me advise you, Miss Templer, to desert your father for once and join Captain Furnival to-day on his elephant. It would be such an excellent opportunity for hearing the history of the place we are bound for.”
“Oh, no,” said Ray, hastily, “he would not like it, and neither should I.”
“Of course he would like it!” persisted Mr. Mullins cheerfully, though Ray plucked at his sleeve and did her best to stop him.
“Here, Furnival, wouldn’t you like to take Miss Templer on your howdah this morning? She is most anxious to hear all you can tell her of the history of Rambagh.”
Furnival looked surprised and doubtful. He suspected Mullins, and noted that the girl was flushed with vexation.
“No, no, I am going with my father as usual,” she said, moving away.
Furnival followed her. He had suddenly made up his mind that he would take advantage of the position in which old Mullins had mischievously placed him.
“Would you come with me if I asked you?” he said in a low voice.
She looked up at him with a little vexed laugh.
“That tiresome old man! How he loves to make everybody uncomfortable. Of course it was all his stupid suggestion, and I never even thought of coming with you.”
“But I wish you would,” he said emphatically, and something in his keen blue eyes made her heart beat fast and the colour deepen in her cheeks. All at once she felt that she should be really disappointed now if she were not to go in Captain Furnival’s howdah!
“If you really mean it,” she said, with some hesitation; and Furnival hastened off to settle matters with the astonished Colonel, and transfer Miss Templer’s cushion, umbrella, and blanket to his own elephant.
As he did so he smiled to himself in grim amazement. He, the woman-hater, who was wedded only to sport, making a lady welcome in his howdah, and, not only that, but feeling eager and willing for her company! He told himself that in another month he and Miss Templer would be far apart and rapidly forgetting each other’s existence, and that since they had a long, uninteresting march before them with no particular likelihood of tigers, he might just as well permit himself the pleasure of her society, (and there was no denying the fact that it was a pleasure).
“Well, I came with you to hear about Rambagh,” said Ray, when they had started; “so begin and tell me all you know.”
“According to Takri there are no tigers at Rambagh, and the place is infested instead with the deadliest of evil spirits. He has just told me so.”
“But the history of the place? A deserted city sounds so fascinating and mysterious.”
“I have never actually been there, though I know the district pretty well. It’s frightfully un-get-at-able, and for that reason has been very little exploited. I believe the remains of the city contain the usual temple ruins, and some traces of an old aqueduct and arrangements for a water supply. Labour was cheap in those days, and they built things well while they were about it—all except their houses, which soon became completely decayed and hidden by jungle. I’ve seen a good many ruined and deserted towns and villages right in the heart of the forest, and they all look much alike. Mounds and ruins, and big stones, and weeds and creepers over the whole thing.”
“But why have they been deserted?”
“Well, a town may have sprung up and prospered to a certain point, and the surrounding country been tilled and cultivated, and then after years of prosperity there may have come one or two seasons bringing a malignant disease or disaster, and thinning the population till cultivation on any large scale became impossible. Then food would become scarce and a general exodus would ensue. Jungle creeps in through the forsaken streets and covers the roofs, and nothing remains but mounds of earth and tangled masses of thorny vegetation. Then another cause of deserted villages is that the people grow too rich, and a small patch of land with a good soil yields each man enough to keep himself in fair comfort, which is all the average native asks. The consequence is that the jungle is not kept properly at bay and the watering of the crops makes the rank vegetation denser; fever is the result, and in no time the place is devastated.”
A sudden exclamation from the mahout interrupted Furnival’s instructive lecture and caused him to turn quickly and grasp his rifle. Lying in the grass was the carcass of a spotted deer, the body ripped open and the intestines gone.
“A leopard,” said Furnival.
If it had been the work of a tiger the hind quarters would have been eaten, but they were not touched. The kill was a perfectly fresh one, and Takri got down to examine the ground and determine which direction the leopard had taken. A delay of some minutes ensued, and several patches of grass and bushes were carefully beaten with no result. Seeing that the march was a long one and time an object, it was finally decided to abandon the search, and Takri was about to unwillingly resume his seat on the pad, when he suddenly pointed upward in silence.
There, calmly watching them from a tree, was the leopard, his ears flattened back to his round head and his bulging eyes shining from the dense foliage.
The Colonel was in the best position and fired. With a fierce snarl the animal sprang from the tree and bounded in front of the elephants, clawing the air. The next moment he was a limp spotted corpse, and was securely fastened on to a pad.
“I hate leopards,” said Furnival, as they moved on; “they’re mischievous pests and seem to be increasing, instead of getting less, like the tiger. They have such diabolical cunning too, and don’t care where they penetrate, or what they attack. I’ve several times sat over a kill for a leopard, and come away without seeing him, only to find afterwards by his marks that he must have been watching me the whole time! What they dearly love is a dog. We must watch Mum and Jackson carefully at Rambagh, or they are sure to be taken.”
They were now pushing through tangled jungle, and conversation became difficult as they shielded their heads from branches and thorny brambles. From this they emerged on to the edge of a dry river-bed, on the opposite bank of which Ray was surprised to see a building with a flat roof, mouldering pillars, and a square courtyard.
“That must once have been a royal hunting box,” said Furnival, in answer to her inquiries; “perhaps built by one of the Moghul emperors, though I should hardly think it could be quite as old as that. A local rajah used to come out here not many years ago. Do you see that mound over there? That was once a flourishing village, but if you were to explore it you would only find pieces of brick, scraps of broken pottery, and perhaps some roughly carved stones.”
Ray looked at the silent scene with interest, and listened enchanted, as Furnival described how the rajah must have arrived with his tatterdemalion following to amuse himself with a few days’ big game-shooting, bringing his favourite ladies and retinue of courtiers, and the luxuries with which he would not dream of dispensing. Here he had stayed in semi-state, and in the jungle huge platforms had been erected on which he and his friends and followers crowded, while a mob collected from the village, added to the rajah’s own camp servants, drove the game from every direction past the point of vantage. And how if a tiger or leopard were slain riddled with bullets, great were the jubilations, but if a wounded beast got away it was never followed up, and allowed to creep off to die slowly in the forest, or live sufficiently incapacitated for killing its natural food to force it to resort to man for prey. He also told her how the beaters were often killed or severely mauled by the wild beasts, while the gaudy crowd on the platform smoked and chatted and fired wildly at anything that passed; and of dreadful rumours concerning the tying up of human bait for the tigers.
Luncheon was eaten here, and the remainder of the march was unmarked by any particular adventure except the killing of a stag and a few birds. The following two marches were also practically without incident, but it may be noted that Ray passed them both in Captain Furnival’s howdah, and Mr. Mullins began seriously to question whether, instead of placing Furnival in an awkward position, he had not, after all, done him a good turn, which was not in the least what that interfering old gentleman had intended.
The Fakir of Rambagh sat Buddha-wise at the entrance to a curious little squat temple covered with time-worn carvings and inscriptions, and watched with fierce, inscrutable eyes the sun sinking behind the distant hills, whence rose the holy river that healed the sick, purified the sinner, and eased the road to heaven.
The priest’s face was white with paint and ashes, his hair matted with hardened mud and twisted round his head like a turban with long ends hanging loose below his shoulders, his bones protruded through his black wrinkled skin, and his dirt-caked body was naked save for a narrow loin cloth. He was a loathsome object, and yet the people of the few surrounding villages, and the pilgrims who journeyed from all parts of India to bathe in the sacred pool at Raodhur, held him in the deepest awe and veneration.
He was said to have lived at Rambagh beyond the memory of the oldest man, and to have known the city when it flourished and the now ruined aqueduct had carried water to the town. His powers were supposed to be superhuman and his curse fatal. On the other hand, his cures and miracles were famous, and his blessing so highly valued that few failed to turn from their course to solicit the benedictions with offerings and oblations. Outside the low door leading to the black interior of the temple were scattered rags, and ashes, and wisps of dirty straw, and among all the refuse were heaps of rice and flour, coarse balls of sugar and treacle, pots of clarified butter, and bunches of pungent marigolds—all deposited by the pilgrims during the day, for just at the present time, for some astronomical reason, the virtue of the water in the Raodhur pool was increased tenfold, and the people were travelling thither in thousands, to bathe during the auspicious period.
Even so late in the afternoon a family party of down-country villagers had just continued their journey to Raodhur after leaving their gifts of food and money at the feet of the fakir, and the harsh squeakings of the cart-wheels could be heard plainly as it crawled along the rough jungle track that had once been a broad thoroughfare. There had been half a dozen women and children packed and wedged tightly into the cart, together with the patriarch of the family, and the necessary pots and pans for cooking purposes. Behind had walked the son of the house, leading a miserable cow-hocked pony which bore a young native woman, his bride of the previous year, her face modestly hidden in folds of muslin, and her bare legs astride the bundle of quilts that served as a saddle.
The discordant creaking of the cart-wheels was growing fainter, and the sun had just disappeared behind the sharp peaks of the hills, when a succession of terrified cries filled the air. Again and again rose the shouts and screams of distress and fear, and yet the fakir sat impassive, gazing into the distance where the sun had set. Presently a man came running from the direction the cart had taken; his puggaree was gone, his black hair stood on end, his face was bleached with terror.
“Tiger! tiger!” he gasped, stumbling, and clutching at the air before he fell on his face grovelling and shuddering, and gasping out his awful news. His wife had been struck off her pony by the man-eating tiger and carried away before his eyes.
The fakir paid no attention. His face was fixed and expressionless; he might have been carved out of stone.
But a newcomer had appeared at the shrine—Takri the shikari, who on his arrival with the shooting party at Rambagh had hastened from the camp, pitched on the further side of the deserted city, to propitiate the fakir. To him the wretched villager turned in his desperate grief.
“The tiger hath taken her—she is dead. I followed, but I was helpless—my liver had turned to water—aree! aree!—the tiger—the tiger—!”
The man was well nigh mad with grief and terror, and Takri, forgetting the fakir and everything but his profession, pulled him to his feet, and ran with him in the direction of the cries that were being kept up by the other women in the cart. When they reached the scene of the tragedy, they found the pony with the bundle of quilts turned round beneath his belly, the cart-driver and bullocks paralysed with fear, the women screaming, and along the ground, and on the high grass at the side of the track, a trail of blood that showed where the wretched victim had been carried off. Takri examined the spot with care, noting in his mind the direction the tiger must have taken, and calculating how far the beast would have borne his prey. Then, with characteristic native philosophy, he advised the fear-stricken little band to push on at once, adding the consoling assurance that they were not likely to be attacked twice in the same evening.
After this he left them, since he could be of no further assistance and had gained all the information he needed, and returned to the temple, where the fakir was still sitting motionless, wrapped in meditation. Takri proceeded to behave in an abject manner. He touched the ground with his forehead, uttering prayers and incantations; from his loin-cloth and puggaree he extracted coppers which he laid before the priest, and humbled himself to the dust for having first considered the tiger before doing obeisance to the shrine.
At last the fakir turned and spoke. He enquired abruptly whence his visitor had come, and extracted from him all details concerning the sportsmen and their camp, and their reason for halting in the neighbourhood. Then the impassive, paint-smeared countenance became distorted with rage, and the priest poured forth an angry speech that sent Takri back to the camp seriously uneasy in his mind.
As in duty bound he sought his master and informed him of the disaster that had occurred to the pilgrim party, and the probable whereabouts of the tiger.
“But, sahib,” he said solemnly, standing outside the tents facing Furnival in the failing light, “this is an evil spot. Long have I heard of it and the fakir-jee. Him have I now seen, and he is the priest of Durga, the goddess of destruction that rideth the tiger. We may not hunt the man-eater, for to this striped-one the fakir-jee maketh offerings, and doeth pooja in the jungle. Better to move on before misfortune overtake us.”
“Oh! stop this nonsense,” said Furnival. “What harm can the fakir of the place do us? The tiger must be killed, and as soon as possible. You heard what the villagers said as we came along to-day—that he has murdered over a hundred people in the last twelve months. You must make all arrangements for our going after him to-morrow.”
Takri turned away with a hopeless gesture. “I have warned thee,” he said, gravely; “what will be, will be. It is Fate.”
Furnival went back to the mess-tent, where the Colonel and Mr. Mullins were quarrelling over a game of picquet, and Ray was trying to read an uninteresting book, to give them the news he had just received.
“And I am to come to-morrow?” exclaimed the girl, eagerly; “you won’t leave me behind, will you?”
“Not this time,” said Furnival, smiling. “But I tell you what, you’ll die of heat apoplexy and never be able to go out again if you stay in this tent much longer! It’s hot enough to roast an ox. Come outside, Miss Templer; the wind has dropped and it’s not quite dark yet.”
She rose willingly, and together they went outside. The ground in front of the tents was bare and level, the soil light and sandy, and the air was full of the fragrance of oleander and orange blossom from the trees that still bloomed in memory of old gardens, in which their parents had been watered and tended in years gone by. The pair walked on a short distance and stood at the top of what had been the principal street of the deserted town, now a huddled heap of shapeless jungle-covered ruins. The walls had fallen, the once well-kept pleasure grounds were tangled masses of weeds given over to the birds, monkeys, and jackals, and creepers had torn down the copings of the verandahs and pushed up the slabs of stone. But traces of the city’s lost beauty still remained, for little corners of time-stained marble peeped out in places, uneven platforms and door-carvings protruded from the mass of vegetation, and here and there a broken pillar or the cracked dome of a temple stood up from the surrounding wilderness, speaking sadly of a former grandeur.
“Ichabod!” said Furnival, looking over the scene of desolation.
“If we could look forward as well as we can trace the past, perhaps we should see this a flourishing city again with trams and electric light, and hotels and all kinds of wonderful European improvements,” said Ray.
“I wish it were as easy to look forward as to look back,” said Furnival, with a sigh. “I think hell must be made up of memories!”
The girl, who had no past to trouble her, looked inquiringly at the man who spoke so bitterly. What could his story have been? She would like to know, and she now wished she had let Mr. Mullins tell her; however, it would be easy enough to make the old man gossip again on the subject. She regarded Furnival with renewed interest, as he stood staring moodily over the heaps of stone and tangled mounds of jungle, and she felt intensely sorry for him. He was very handsome, she thought, and so clean—with his crisp frosted hair and clear brown skin, and how well his rough shooting clothes became his broad, strong figure. She was very glad he had made friends with her, and that he did not find her such a terrible encumbrance after all.
He turned suddenly, and found her eyes fixed on him. “What are you thinking about?” he said.
She blushed and stammered. And he laughed, for he knew by her eyes, from his world-experience, that she had been thinking of him! The warm scented evening intoxicated him, the girl’s beautiful fresh young face, her supple, slender figure, the pleasure of her nearness, got into his blood, and he was sorely tempted to make her care for him; he knew he could do it if he tried. He felt that in another minute he should lose his self-command, so he turned abruptly towards the tents, and left her standing alone, puzzled, angry, and disturbed.
Tears came into her eyes, she hardly knew why, and she stood for some moments blinking them away, and pretending to be absorbed in the view. He had guessed what she had been thinking about! How had he known? And why had he laughed at her? How horrid he could be, as well as how perfectly charming.
“Ray!” said a remorseful voice behind her.
She turned and saw that he had come back, and it struck her with an odd sensation of pleasure that he had called her by her Christian name.
“Yes?” she faltered. “You must forgive my bad manners and rough ways, and make allowances for me. Remember how long I have lived away from civilization. You are the first woman I have really talked to for years.”
“Well, if it comes to that,” she said gaily, “you are the first man I have seen anything of who wasn’t a relation, or a doctor, or a clergyman—except Mr. Mullins!”
“Yes,” he answered, drily; “I know. That is the worst of it!”
“The worst of it? What is the matter with you this evening, Captain Furnival? I am beginning to think Takri was right about the demons and ghosts here, and that they are disturbing your mind!”
“Yes, ghosts are disturbing my mind,” he said; “but they are ghosts of the past, and have nothing to do with Rambagh!”
Thenext morning Takri, instead of having been out at daybreak to track and mark down the tiger, was found to have developed a severe attack of jungle fever, and was rolled up, groaning, in his coarse cotton wrapper, at the foot of a large banian tree on the outskirts of the camp. From this position nothing would move him, and he also declined to answer any questions, declaring from the folds of sheet that enveloped his head and shoulders that he was much too ill to remember anything about the tiger. Finally the sportsmen were obliged to start in a somewhat undecided direction, possessing no further information than the little imparted by Takri the previous evening.
No animal is more rapid and uncertain in its movements than the man-eating tiger. The terrible beast may carry off a victim from a village one day, and the next he may be heard of twenty miles from the scene of his last murder. Also he does not always return to human remains after his first meal, and is therefore much harder to track and circumvent than his game and cattle-killing brothers, whose whereabouts can, as a rule, be safely conjectured.
However, it was agreed that all the ground in the vicinity of the last disaster might just as well be thoroughly beaten, and if with no success they could only wait for further news of a like ghastly nature, which would be pretty certain to follow in two or three days, if not sooner. The elephants swung out of the camp in a stately procession, and, skirting the deserted mass of bricks and jungle, passed close by the temple of the fakir. Ray was in her father’s howdah, and Captain Furnival, whose elephant followed close behind, called out to her to look at the ‘bogey’ that had filled the old shikari with such ghostly alarms.
The fakir sat in the midst of the offerings that had been pouring in since sunrise, though perhaps they were not quite so numerous as usual, owing to the news of the tiger’s latest misdeed, which by this time had spread far and near. The priest was beating a little copper gong, and chanting a hymn in a wild, unnatural voice:
“Hail! hail! To the gods! To Shiva, and Durga his lady.
Honour, glory, and power to Durga, that rideth the tiger.
He that be sun and moon, the spirit and lord of the jungle.”
He suddenly ceased singing as the tramping of the elephants came to his ears, and slowly the fierce fanatical face, with the burning, bloodshot eyes, turned towards the approaching party. Then he flung his naked arms above his wild locks.
“Hail! hail! To the gods!” he shouted. “Gifts for the creator and destroyer—money to feed the priest of life and death. Offerings for the shrine of the goddess—prayers for the spirit that reigneth over the forest.”
“The chap’s as mad as a hatter,” said Colonel Templer, “and drunk with bhang.”
“What’s bhang?” asked Ray, looking at the strange being with unwilling curiosity.
“A preparation from Indian hemp. These religious fanatics send themselves perfectly crazy with it. Don’t look at him, Ray, you’ll only make him troublesome.”
But the girl gazed, fascinated, at the grotesque figure, which yet held a certain weird dignity and the priest, rising from his cross-legged attitude, stood up and met her eyes with long, intent stare. A shiver ran through Ray, and a deadly presentiment of vague and unknown evil turned her white and cold. The priest was horrible; he frightened her with his mad eyes, and she turned away hastily. But she glanced back in spite of herself as they swung down the rough track, and saw him standing motionless in the same attitude, gazing after them, his arms held above his head, and the chant still issuing from his lips. She could hear it long after the elephants had left the path and struck into the jungle.
Without Takri it was difficult to ascertain the exact spot of the tragedy; pilgrims had been passing since dawn which would have obliterated the traces of the struggle, and any bloodmarks on the side of the road had probably been removed by wild animals during the night. However, some distance off, over a spot where the trees were thick and the country less arid, suggesting the presence of water, there soared a circle of vultures high up in the air. Round and round wheeled the huge carrion-birds, while now and then one of them darted down, showing that, on the ground beneath, there must be remains of some sort or description.
On arriving at the place the rags of the unfortunate woman’s clothes were found, also a little distance on some ghastly remnants of the tiger’s meal. On the bark of a neighbouring tree were long deep scratches, showing that the animal had cleansed and sharpened his claws before leaving to drink. Further off was a deep nullah, and a pool of water, probably the only jungle drinking spot in the locality, the river being some miles away. Here the countless tracks of animals were imprinted in the wet edges of the pool, and it was impossible to ascertain exactly how long ago the tiger had visited the place. Furnival was inclined to think he had drunk during the night, and not in the early morning, and a few pug-prints further down the nullah seemed to indicate that he had departed in the direction of the river. Hours of fruitless beating followed, no other game being fired at for fear of warning the man-eater, and the three men grumbled resentfully over the unlucky fact of Takri having chosen that particular day on which to fall ill. Their complaints would have been changed to angry denunciations could they have known that an hour after their departure, instead of groaning on the ground wrapped in a sheet beneath the banian tree, Takri had betaken himself to the temple of the fakir of Rambagh.
Yes, once the camp was clear and the servants had settled down to their daily duties, Takri slowly unwound himself and sat up in a listening attitude. His bones ached with fever, his head was swimming, and he had not the very smallest doubt that the sickness had descended upon him through the will of the priest. All night long, and throughout the morning, he had been battling against a strong inclination to rise and seek the fakir’s presence; and finally, as the feeling of compulsion grew stronger, and he found himself less able to withstand it, he struggled to his feet, shaking with ague and fear, wound his wrapper about his shoulders and tottered forth from the camp. The sun blazed upon his burning head, protected only by the red wisp of turban, as he made his way to where the temple-roof showed above the surrounding grass and rubbish, and once round the corner and in sight of the fakir he sank into a weak heap on the ground.
“Master, thy slave is here,” he gasped, crawling forward.
The fakir paid no attention to him, but sang and chanted, and presently the hymn of praise was charged with a vindictive note full of sinister meaning.
“Angered be the spirit and revenge will he demand.
He prowleth in vexation and watcheth for the unwary.
Take heed, take heed, for evil will approach thee,
And the demons of the jungle will he loosen to thy hurt
A sacrifice, a sacrifice—even an offering of blood—
The lord of the jungle be offended and his wrath be swift and sure.”
“Wherefore?” whimpered Takri, “wherefore is he angry? And is it the tiger, fakir-jee? or is it the goddess Durga herself? I have done my best. I have besought the sahibs to get hence, and seek no more the death of this striped-one that hath the power of witches, whose head is bent with spirits. Well do I know, O fakir-jee, that he is no ordinary beast, but a king and the lord of the jungle. Therefore I entreat thee pray to him and say that Takri the old shikari meaneth him no evil, and will have no hand in his undoing.”
“A sacrifice, a sacrifice—even an offering of blood must be given,” went on the fakir, relentless, “and see that it be made with haste, else will the churel meet thee in the jungle, else will the tiger-ghost follow thy footsteps, else will the masan doom thee to madness, and thou mayest ask for mercy in vain.”
“Speak, O holy being, and command this wretched one!” wailed Takri, whose nerves were completely unstrung between the fever and his superstitious terrors; and he listened with blanched lips and eyes that grew wide with horror, as the fakir slowly chanted forth the details of the only sacrifice that might propitiate the jungle-god (who wandered in the shape of the man-eating tiger) for the insult offered him by the white men. Takri listened to the end. Then he fell on his face.
“It cannot be arranged, fakir-jee! Ask it not of me. The wrath of my sahib would be great though he loveth not women, and this white girl hath her father also at hand to protect her. I cannot do it. The thing is impossible.”
The fakir raised his claw-like hand, and as the first words of a dreaded curse fell from his lips, Takri once more cast himself on the ground and grovelled.
“Give me time, O father let me consider the matter. Curse me not! Have pity, have mercy—give me but till to-morrow at sun-down, then will I show my face and speak my decision. Truly will I come, thou protector of the poor—I swear it by the skin of the tiger, but now let thy servant depart, for melted are my bones, and my strength hath flown.”
And a few moments later a depressed figure, wrapped in a white sheet, crept back to the camp, aching and sick with fever, in dread of the churel—the evil ghost of the woman who has died in childbirth and who walks with her feet turned backwards; expecting every moment to see the masan, the black and hideous demon who comes from the cremation grounds and terrifies people to madness; and in an agony of apprehension that the tiger-ghost was stalking him with stealthy footsteps. A stray creeper caught in his ragged puggaree and dragged it off—truly an evil omen; and as he again bound the red rag about his temples, Takri prayed fervently, with parched lips and trembling limbs, that he might be spared from the horrors that compassed him about.
Perhaps had he been in his usual health, with no fever to disturb his reason and magnify his superstitious beliefs, he might have braved the situation and held out against the horrible suggestion that the fakir had chanted into his unwilling ears. But Takri was a native of the jungles; his only real knowledge was that of the habits of wild beasts, his only religion abject superstition; and now the influence of the Rambagh fakir, added to his natural dread of the jungle spirits and the severe attack of fever that had laid hold of him, had absolutely paralysed his few reasoning powers.
He curled himself up again among the roots of the banian tree, torn with conflicting emotions. Loyalty to his master waged fierce war with his superstitious terrors, and the battle continued far on into the night. Long after the elephants had returned, and the unsuccessful sportsmen had sought their beds, Takri lay groaning, murmuring, and rolling from side to side, miserable, frightened, and half delirious with fever; and what he saw towards dawn in the camp removed all doubt as to the answer he must give the fakir the following evening at sundown.
While Takri was wrestling with his difficulties at the foot of the banian tree, Ray was also lying wakeful and restless, unable to sleep soundly, and haunted with the hideous recollection of the tiger’s habits, mingled with the memory of the fakir and the gaze of his wild, unnatural eyes. She had dozed for the first part of the night, and had then found herself wide awake, stifled with the heat, worried by the mosquitoes, and possessed with an uncomfortable suspicion that a cat was in her tent. She had always been peculiarly sensitive to the presence of a cat.
She felt uneasy, disturbed, nervous; and as she lay listening for she hardly knew what, her heart beat quickly, and the silent night seemed full of vague mystery. She wished she had encouraged Mum to sleep in her tent, but since the experience of her night in camp near the native village when the old dog had been so restless, Ray had sternly resisted all her blandishments and persuasions. Mum was relegated, together with Jackson, to the rear of the tents, where they slept, under protest, with the dog-boy among the camels and baggage trunks.
At last the feeling of nervous tension became so strong that Ray got up and searched her tent, half expecting a wild cat to spring at her from every corner, and when she had at last persuaded herself that her fears were groundless, she lingered for a moment before returning to bed to look out at the late moon, pale and feeble, that was just giving place to the dawn. Then a sound made her heart stand still, a measured regular footfall passing behind her tent. A heavy body brushed along outside the flap, and a rasping, sawing noise came with it, followed by a smothered snarl, soft and deep. She waited breathless, and a long low form glided out into the open space before the camp, with a great round head held low, and the nose carried along the ground—a tiger!
The girl stood petrified with a horrible excitement. This, then, was the explanation of what she had always called her ‘cat-feeling.’ How long had the beast been prowling round her tent? Was it the famous man-eater? and would he turn and see her? She remained perfectly still, watching the long, undulating body steadily moving on with the supple feet coming down in firm lingering pressures—one, two, three, four. To her intense relief the animal made no pause, but, snarling softly under its breath, continued on its way, passing out of sight behind a tall clump of grass at the far end of the camp. A few moments afterwards a long hoarse roar came from the direction of the deserted city, rolling out on to the still moonlit air, and causing a sudden uproar in the camp. Horses neighed, elephants squealed and trumpeted, the dogs barked violently, and the servants sat up and whispered to each other the dread word ‘tiger.’
In the middle of the sudden clamour Ray found a figure wrapped up in a white sheet standing before her. For a moment she nearly screamed aloud, but then, seeing that it was only old Takri the shikari, she asked him, in a few halting Hindustani words, what he wanted.
“It was the ghost tiger! the spirit and lord of the jungle!” he whispered huskily. “Behold a sign, a sign! Miss sahib, take heed to the warning of Takri the shikari. Entreat the sahibs to leave this place, else will evil and misfortune follow. Yea, there is danger for thee, little white lady, and it is a solemn truth that I speak. Tell the Colonel-sahib thy father, tell Furnival sahib the great hunter, tell them all they must get hence ere the coming sunset, or the trouble be on thy head and theirs.”
He peered anxiously into her face, and the girl, bewildered, shook her head, for she could understand nothing of the speech that Takri had poured out. He looked at her for a long moment, standing like a wraith in the moonlight in his cotton wrapper; and then, as the Colonel shouted inquiries from his tent as to the meaning of the commotion in the camp, the native turned and shuffled back to his tree.
Ray called out to her father that she had seen a tiger pass the tents, but as the Colonel roared back incredulously that she must have been dreaming, she returned to bed to finish her interrupted rest, wondering what could have been the cause of Takri’s strange behaviour.
Long before she was dressed the next morning the Colonel had discovered that his daughter had seen no dream-tiger, but an animal of flesh and blood, and he and Furnival had been out on foot tracking the great square pug-marks that led from the camp round the deserted city, and on into the jungle, where it would have been sheer madness to follow without elephants. The locality was beaten after breakfast, but no further trace of the tiger found, and it was agreed, on returning to camp, that nothing could now be done in the way of pursuing such a bold and cunning beast until fresh news of his depredations was brought in. Therefore the camp was idle, and the only amusement that presented itself was an expedition to Raodhur, which was within a ride, to see the sacred city and the concourse of pilgrims that had assembled for pious visitation and to bathe in the holy water.
Raodhur, the curious old city at the foot of the hills, on the banks of the holy river that is said to have descended from heaven, was worth seeing even when not crowded with representatives of every Hindu sect, brought by their religious enthusiasm from all parts of India. The river was fringed with temples, flights of steps leading down to the very edge of the water, and appearing to rise direct from the blue surface. White domes, turrets, spires and pinnacles grouped irregularly together ran in a glittering border as far as the water could be seen, till a curve of the river bed carried the last few buildings from sight, and they seemed to have melted into the blue distance of the mighty Himalayas.
The small, narrow streets of the town were packed with people, the bathing steps thronged with priests, and their clients awaiting immersion in the holy pool. Gongs and bells clanged perpetually to waken the gods and draw divine attention to the ceaseless prayers of priests and pilgrims. Sonorous praises rang out to Mahadeo the Great God, Brahma the creator, and all the important members of the Hindu mythology. Cries of “Hail to the gods!” and invocations for blessings sounded on every side, and temporary as well as permanent shrines were everywhere to be seen on the public thoroughfares, and in private alleys and courtyards, glimpses of which could be caught through half-open wooden doors. Some of the altars had children seated on them, who, with drug-dimmed eyes and painted faces, were jewelled, bedizened, and clothed outrageously to represent the gods. The brass shops were crammed with images, both large and small, of Vishnu, Shiva, Krishna, Kali the destroyer, Devi the goddess of smallpox and misfortune, and Durga, the dreaded female who rides the tiger, Ganesh the genial elephant deity, and Hanuman the heroic monkey-god.
Mingling with the crowd of pilgrims were members of various religious mendicant orders, some in yellow garments familiarly Biblical in shape, carrying strange gourds for holy water and quaint brass vessels for alms. Some had bare shaven heads, and rosaries of large brown beads, others were clothed in little save a loin cloth, and sometimes part of a leopard skin flung over the shoulders. Hideous figures, white with ashes and dried mud, clanked along in self-imposed fetters, ropes of tow plaited in with their own filthy locks of hair, and carrying in their hands clumsy iron tongs for grasping holy cinders.
Groups of musicians marched through the streets with garlands of jessamine and marigolds hung about their necks, bearing curiously shaped stringed instruments. Little crowds of nervous, anxious villagers huddled together, with the grandparents of the families and the latest born babies in their midst, and knots of more independent individuals from the large towns elbowed steadily through the throng. Hill people were to be seen with good-tempered Mongolian faces, rosy cheeks, and dirty blankets. Some from the further interior had lank black hair, round hats, and coarse woollen garments. Tall Sikh women with free bearing, handsome features, full trousers and barbaric jewellery, their husbands with twirled moustaches, beards tucked back, huge jaunty turbans, and a fine military swagger; wild-looking men from Kabul, fat merchants from down-country; Rajputs with neat narrow turbans, gypsy women with odd horn-like head-dresses and beautiful clothes that had been heirlooms for generations—all pushing, clamouring, eager to make their offerings, to dip into the purifying waters, to gain the blessing and virtue of the holy pool, to feel that they had played their individual parts in the great religious ceremony.
Those on the outskirts of the crowd stared at the English riders in frank curiosity, and some of the women called out to Ray. She felt she could have sat for hours watching the teeming, variegated throng so full of eager, religious ardour. It was an engrossing sight, but the sun still blazed from a vivid blue sky without a speck of cloud, the strong steamy smell of spice and densely-packed Eastern humanity rose thick in the atmosphere, and the two combined rendered lingeringunadvisable. Also the Colone and Furnival were anxious to move on, both possessing strongly the British reluctance to exposing a lady to the stares and comments of a native crowd.
They left the town and turned down the dusty road that was covered with late arrivals and those already departing to their homes. They passed a fakir sitting by the wayside as though carved out of rock, with one arm pointing solemnly sky-wards to show that he had taken the vow of perpetual silence, and that we all worship one supreme power. Close to him squatted an old blind beggar who kept his mouth open, into which the pilgrims placed morsels of food as they went by. The whole road seemed lined with evidences of religious belief and superstition, from the wayside shrines and attendant priests, to the very trees, which were hung with little rags and tattered fluttering flags to propitiate the spirits that dwelt in the branches.
“Oh!” said Ray to Furnival, with a sigh of wonder as they followed the Colonel and Mr. Mullins, who had ridden on in front, “I can never see enough of these extraordinary people. What is it makes them so fascinating? Think if we had been looking at an English crowd! They would all have been men about the same size, with shabby overcoats, battered bowler hats, and dirty neck cloths, and perhaps a few draggled women among them with babies. You know the kind of individual who appears, as if by magic, directly anything happens in a street at home? Nothing could ever make them interesting or picturesque!”
“I know what you mean,” said Furnival, “though I can’t say I am as enthusiastic on the subject of a native crowd as you are, and I don’t suppose you will want to see so much of them once you get accustomed to the country, but I grant you that there is a mysterious attraction in these scenes. I suppose it’s the colour and the atmosphere, and a certain subtle sense of an ancient civilization that has stood still for nearly two thousand years. The mysticism and magical beliefs of these people are as fresh and real to them to-day as they were in bygone centuries, and I fancy anyone with a sensitive imagination feels the influence of it all when brought into contact with a scene such as we have just left. But you must remember that the wonderful order and peace of it all belongs to the English rule. Awful things used to go on at these fairs until the Government stepped in and regulated matters.”
“What kind of things?” asked Ray, edging her horse nearer that of her companion, and listening with rapt attention.
“Priests used to jump into the river hundreds at a time, singing praises to the gods and drowning themselves deliberately. They imagine that voluntary drowning in the Ganges ensures bliss in an after life, and even now they will try and do it sometimes if not carefully watched. Then at one time there was only a narrow flight of steps leading down to the sacred pool, and large numbers of pilgrims used to be crushed to death every year. There were frequent cases of awful cruelty and human sacrifice, and endless murders and robberies, and women used to be dragged under the water and drowned for the sake of their jewelry. Now these festivals are controlled by Government, and a sufficient number of police put on duty to keep order and report irregularities. So you see the fairs were not always quite so fascinating!”
“But you like India, don’t you?”
“Not altogether; and I should loathe it if I were an official and obliged to stay in the country. But, as it is, one continent is much the same to me as another so long as there something to shoot.”
Ray hesitated before she spoke again, casting doubtful glance at her companion’s bronzed profile.
“Shooting doesn’t seem to me quite worth giving up one’s life to entirely—”
“It’s all I have to live for,” he said moodily.
“But—I wonder you will think me impertinent, I don’t mean to be—surely there must be somebody in the world you care for and would like to be with—who must be able to give you better object in life than just sport and solitude—always?”
He turned towards her quickly, his blue eyes alight. He longed to burst out that ‘someone’ did exist who might give him all he could ever ask to make life perfect. He was so happy in being alone with her (the two old men riding safely on ahead deep in an argument), his love was struggling fiercely for utterance; it had grown in leaps and bounds, and was rapidly becoming too strong for him to control. Either he should have to leave the camp until Ray was safely out of his path, or else he must speak. And, he asked himself, why should he not tell her? Why should he throw away a great happiness that might be within his grasp? His pulses throbbed with hope and excitement. The girl’s glinting brown eyes met his, her cheeks were flushed the deepest pink with embarrassment at her own interfering speech—she looked adorable. He opened his lips to speak, and at the supreme moment Mr. Mullins must needs turn in his saddle, and refer his latest dispute with the Colonel to Furnival.
“What year was it Hermit won the Derby?” he shouted, reining in his horse to catch Furnival’s sulky reply, and, much to the latter’s disgust, continued to make an unwelcome third for the remainder of the ride.
The sun was just setting as they passed within sight of the fakir’s temple, on approaching the camp, and the priest was in his usual attitude, gazing towards the rose-tipped hills. At a respectful distance from the holy man squatted another figure with bowed head, and arms clasped limply round the knees.
“By jove, I believe that’s Takri,” said Mr. Mullins, screwing in his eyeglass. “If the old devil is well enough to visit the fakir he is capable of tracking the tiger.”
“Oh! let him alone,” said Furnival, crossly.
“Takri’s gone all to pieces since we came here. I can’t think what’s the matter with him. He has probably crawled down to the temple to ask the priest for a charm to cure his fever.”
And the quartette rode on to their camp, little guessing the real import of Takri’s presence at the temple; while the sun slid down behind the hills, leaving them grey and ghostly, and the fakir bade his servile visitor depart in peace, since, having sworn to assist in appeasing the anger of the jungle spirit, the protection of the gods was vouchsafed to him against all diabolical dangers.
Fate seemed dead against Furnival for the rest of the evening, and he had no chance of a word in private with Miss Templer. He had thrown every scruple to the winds, and definitely made up his mind to speak on the first opportunity, therefore he was full of impatience for the following morning, when he intended to waylay her as she left her tent. However, again he was doomed to be thwarted, for after dressing early he emerged from his tent only to behold her already strolling up and down in the distance, with Mr. Mullins at her side. Furnival abused the little civilian roundly under his breath, and his maledictions would doubtless have turned to deeds of violence could he have caught the drift of Mr. Mullins’ remarks at that very moment.
Ray had got up early, for the night had been hot and the mosquitoes maddening, and on going out she had almost immediately encountered Mr. Mullins, also intent on a morning walk. They had joined each other, as was only natural, and proceeded to pace up and down the open piece of ground that bounded the front of the camp.
“The worst of this kind of life is the early rising,” said Mr. Mullins; “but you must go in for it when you are out in the jungle. I hate going to bed, and I hate getting up.”
“I like getting up early when it is not cold,” Ray replied.
“You ought to have been a boy, my dear,” said her companion, in a paternal voice; “you take to a sporting life like a duck to water. Even our misogynist friend Captain Furnival can find no fault with your behaviour, and not only tolerates your presence but seems to like it! I little anticipated that the experiment would prove so successful.”
“Captain Furnival is very kind and nice; and considering how much I know he dislikes the idea of women out tiger shooting I think he has been a brick to me.”
“Yes, he is a good fellow,” said Mr. Mullins, thoughtfully, “but ah!” shaking his head with an ominous sigh, “what a wasted life that is—” and glancing sideways at the girl he paused intentionally.
Ray’s curiosity and desire to hear the story of Furnival’s past life struggled with her pride (just as Mr. Mullins had intended that it should), and finally the latter was overcome.
“What makes him live this kind of life?” she asked, with reluctance.
“Oh, I thought you didn’t care to know?” said Mr. Mullins, provokingly.
“I had not seen Captain Furnival when you wanted to tell me before; now I know him and am so much interested in him, I should like to hear about his trouble for I am sure he has one and I suppose it is not a secret?”
“Certainly not oh! dear no, everybody knew about it at the time; but it’s ancient history now, and I really don’t feel quite sure if I ought to tell you. It was not a particularly nice episode,” concluded the gentleman in a sudden access of morality. Ray’s heart began to beat with nervous apprehension and a curious dread of what she might be going to hear, which surprised and puzzled her. Why should she be affected by anything Captain Furnival had done in the past? She tried to stifle the feeling, and made no answer, being certain that Mr. Mullins would proceed to relate the story in spite of his scruples. She was right.
“I don’t suppose any man ever had more brilliant prospects than Furnival,” he continued. “He comes of a very good family, and besides that a rich one, which nowadays is not a common combination. He was in a crack cavalry regiment, and probably could have married almost any heiress in England had he chosen to try, instead of which he ran away with a married woman older than himself, and with apparently nothing to recommend her!”
The girl gave a little gasp as if something had suddenly stung her. She had seen and heard but little of the world, and the statement Mr. Mullins had just made horrified her inexpressibly.
“Oh!” she cried, “why did he do such a thing? It’s not true. I don’t believe it!” Her thoughts went back to the evening when she and Furnival had stood together looking out over the desolate deserted city, and she remembered his words with vivid distinctness:
“I think hell must be made up of memories”—and all at once there came to her the vague sense of a vast world of experience that was far beyond the pale of her knowledge, and she realised how little she understood of human life and its great machinery. Then her heart ached for all he must have suffered through this drama in his past, and immediately afterwards her mind revolted against the feeling of pity—for, she asked herself, with the hard one-sidedness of youth and innocence, was not the man the active agent in such matters? could the woman have run away with him if he had not persuaded her to do so? Furnival was to blame. He had deliberately robbed another man of his wife, and Ray would not be tempted to extenuate the wrong because she liked the individual.
“Oh, yes, it is true enough,” went on Mr. Mullins, with a short laugh; “and, of course, he was obliged to leave the army and efface himself for a bit from polite society; and then I suppose he liked this kind of wandering existence and stuck to it. A thousand pities, and very regrettable altogether.”
“And where—where is she now?” asked Ray, with dry lips, and waited breathless for Mr. Mullins to answer.
“Where is she now?” he repeated, shrugging his shoulders. “Goodness knows! I never heard what became of the lady, but no doubt she took good care of herself. The husband divorced her, and Furnival did not marry her, where, to my mind, he showed uncommon sense for once in his life.”
“What a wicked, cruel thing to say! ‘‘ blazed Ray, relieved to find a vent for her bewildered feelings. “If a man persuades a woman to give up her husband and home, and perhaps her children, for his sake, he should stand by her through thick and thin. How can you talk like that? Oh! I wish you had never told me about it. How shall I be able to meet Captain Furnival now I know all this? I can never feel the same towards him again!”
“My good child,” said Mr. Mullins, in some alarm at the storm he had raised, “you must reflect that, after all, this did not happen yesterday! I have no doubt that the lady was just as much, if not more, to blame than Furnival. He was very young at the time, and, I fancy, more sinned against than sinning. She was not a good woman.”
“She couldn’t have been,” retorted Ray, “but that doesn’t justify Captain Furnival in my eyes. I wish you had never told me!”
“Well, you evidently wanted to hear it, if you will pardon my reminding you of the fact. But do let me implore you, Miss Templer, not to make a mountain out of a molehill. You must put it out of your mind and not permit it to make any difference. You should take into consideration that in this world man cannot arrive at Furnival’s age and be a bachelor without having had some experience of the heart, pleasant or otherwise. Also remember that you are only a young lady with hardly any knowledge of life or the world, and that you cannot expect to have any real opinions on such matters.”
“At any rate I am old enough to know right from wrong,” she answered, hotly.
They turned side by side towards the camp, and saw Furnival standing outside his tent looking in their direction. Ray noted the tall, strong figure, brave, handsome, upright, in the morning sunshine, and a wave of helpless regret wrung her heart. This man had lived through his love story, and it was over. A wild jealousy of his past seized her; anger and resentment, mingled with disappointment and the blow to her dawning love, hurt her with a pain that was almost physical.
“But, of course, you musn’t say anything to him,” said Mr. Mullins, who was morally a coward, and had noted her perturbation, “or he would guess I had told you. Naturally he doesn’t like the story being raked up.”
“That I can understand,” said Ray, with scorn, “and I certainly should not dream of mentioning such a subject to him.”
Thus relieved in his mind Mr. Mullins trotted off to his tent, and Ray stood endeavouring to command her bewildered senses and to control the feeling of regretful foreboding that oppressed her. The next moment Fufnival was at her side.
“Good-morning,” he said gaily, his blue eyes dancing and a happy smile on his lips.
The day to him was full of gladness. The shrieks of the green parrots, the dismal call of the black-partridge, the irritating note of the brain-fever bird, all sounded like music in his ears; the strong scents of the blossoms, even the hot high wind that was rapidly rising, seemed charged with a joyous excitement, and a sense of blissful anticipation. He meant to wake the girl’s shy liking for him into a passionate love, and ask her to be his wife.
“I am so glad old Mullins has departed. I was just coming to ask him if he had ever read a book called ‘Two’s company, three’s none!’”
Ray looked up at him with dazed eyes. This was the man who had run away with a married woman, who had loved her and then deserted her. This was a man who had been not only wicked, but faithless, so far as the girl had interpreted the matter, and yet Ray knew how strongly he attracted her, how glad she really was to see him. She meant to speak, but no words came, and the moment that passed while he waited, his triumphant expression changing to one of puzzled surprise, seemed an eternity to her. With unbounded relief she welcomed the sudden interruption that came in the shape of two breathless, dishevelled villagers, who rushing into the camp flung themselves at Furnival’s feet with loud appealing cries.
Last night the man-eater had been skulking round their village and had seized and carried off a child; the inhabitants, barred in their houses, had waited for the dawn, when the two men had been deputed to take the news to the sahib’s camp, and had journeyed through the jungle in terror of their lives. Their cries and incoherent statements brought the Colonel and Mr. Mullins to the spot, and soon all was in active preparation to proceed with the elephants to the vicinity of the village, where the tiger might still be lurking, on the watch for another victim.
Much to Furnival’s perplexity and vexation Ray refused to come, making the excuse of a headache, and saying she felt unequal to the long day in the sun; and, to add to his irritation, Takri pronounced himself too ill to move. So, taking the pair of trembling villagers as guides, the three men left the camp after substantial breakfast, and the two invalids were abandoned to their own devices.
Ray watched the elephants move slowly out of sight, standing inside her tent where she had taken refuge from Furnival’s anxious eyes and ill-concealed disappointment. She felt wretched and sore at heart, for Mr. Mullins’ gossip had opened her eyes to the fact that she had been on the verge of falling very deeply in love with Captain Furnival, if she had not actually done so, and she knew it would take her some time to recover from the shock of the discovery. Apart from the jar to all her preconceived notions of honour and chivalry where Furnival was concerned, she suffered a bitter, helpless jealousy for that first love of his given away so long ago; and mingled with it all was a vague sense of mortification that she must appear nothing but an insignificant little schoolgirl to this man of the world. And yet, surely his eyes had told her a different story.
“I won’t think of him. He shan’t make me unhappy!” she exclaimed, half aloud, and she determined that she would fight her battle bravely, that there should be no question of a spoiled youth, that circumstances should not master her, and that she would learn to control her feelings.
She turned back into her tent and dragged her folding deck-chair to the entrance, arranged her pillows at her back, and tried to fix her attention resolutely on her book.
Mum lay near, extended on the ground, exhausted with the chasing of squirrels, which she still continued in her dreams, uttering short muffled barks, and twitching her legs spasmodically. Jackson had furtively betaken himself to the Colonel’s tent, where, after first immersing himself in the comparatively cool bath water, he had curled himself up on his master’s bed with the utmost satisfaction, a proceeding he was much addicted to, but which of course invariably brought dire retribution in its train.
The camp gradually became very still as the servants repaired to their mid-day rest, and birds and animals alike grew torpid with the heat. The sun blazed without pity, and the hot wind came in fitful blasts as though from the heart of a furnace. The green lizards crawled from their crevices and lay basking in the warmth, and Ray watched them vacantly, her eyes heavy with the wind and glare. Finally she succumbed to the overpowering drowsiness in the atmosphere, and fell into a light sleep.
Apparently the only person awake in the camp was Takri, who had witnessed the departure of the elephants from beneath the folds of his cotton sheet, and now squatted on the roots of the banian tree, a shivering heap of fever and ague. As everything around him grew silent he slowly unwound his covering and stole past the tents, with trembling limbs and nervous backward glances, to the fakir’s temple, noticing the girl sleeping in the long deck-chair on his way. Circumstances had proved unexpectedly favourable to the fulfilling of the unholy compact Takri had reluctantly concluded with the priest the previous evening; and now, as he stood before the grotesque figure and faltered out his information, the old shikari wept with mingled fear and hesitation. A short consultation followed, after which Takri stole back to the camp, and noiselessly approached Ray’s tent, then he suddenly snatched up the dreaming Mum, and enveloping her in the cotton wrapper bore her swiftly away before she could collect her senses, or make any effectual protest.
Ray slept on peacefully for another half hour, till a few loud Hindustani words in her ear startled her into wakefulness.
“Hasten! Hasten! Miss-sahib, arise, arise!” She sat up, bewildered and stupefied, to see Takri standing before her, his eyes bloodshot, his hand gesticulating wildly. He pointed towards the deserted city.
“Mum!” he shouted, in agitated accents.
“Mum?” said Ray, still hardly awake, and on glancing round she perceived that the old dog was no longer present. “What is it? What has happened?” she added in English, feeling utterly helpless in her ignorance of Hindustani.
A dozen possibilities chased each other across her brain. Perhaps Mum had been caught in a trap, perhaps she had been stolen, perhaps a leopard had taken her; and Ray remembered Captain Furnival’s remark as to care of the dogs being necessary at Rambagh on account of the leopards. She seized her sun hat, which was lying on the ground, and prepared to follow the shikari, who was urging her forward with voluble persuasions of which she understood nothing, save the fact that something had happened to Mum, and that Takri wished her to hasten to the rescue. She hurried after him, and, still feeling dazed and bewildered, found herself running with him along the jungle path that was bordered with tall grasses and dusty aloes, and led direct to the fakir’s temple beyond the deserted city.
As they approached the building Ray caught the sound of a faint, distressed yapping, which caused her to quicken her pace anxiously, for she had now no doubt that Mum was in some serious danger or difficulty, and, apart from her own desire to help the dog, she well knew how much the Colonel would feel it should anything happen to his favourite. She wondered, as she ran, if the fakir had stolen Mum, and would demand a ransom, but when they reached the temple the priest was nowhere to be seen, and the howls of the dog seemed to proceed from the back of the building, which was partly in ruins. Takri laid a trembling hand on her arm and pointed eloquently to the dark interior of the temple, and then a louder and more desperate yelp made the girl start forward in consternation. Mum was being really hurt—perhaps tortured!
“Where? In here?” she cried, and as Takri nodded his head vehemently, and attempted to draw her towards the open door, she advanced and peered into the black, evil-smelling little chamber. Instantly she received a violent push, and, unable to recover her balance, she stumbled headlong into the darkness, the heavy wooden door studded with iron knobs closing behind her with a crash.
For a few moments she lay on the stone floor half stunned with the fall, and when her senses cleared she sat up trying to pierce the gloom, feeling puzzled and suspicious, and furiously indignant at the manner in which she had been treated. At first all seemed impenetrable darkness, but gradually, as her eyes became accustomed to the dim light, she made out that she was surrounded by walls composed of huge blocks of stone, roughly carved with figures of men and animals. A tiny line of light showed beneath the door, and she groped her way towards it, beating on the woodwork and shouting with all her power. But she received no answer and when, bruised hands and aching throat, she paused to listen, the only sound that reached her from without was the roar of the hot high wind. Even the yelps and cries that had led her into the trap seemed to have ceased entirely.
At last she turned from the door to consider the situation. She concluded that she had been kidnapped for some reason, and never doubted but that Takri and the fakir were both in the plot. Yet what object could they have in placing her in such a cruel predicament, and what could they intend to with her now she was their prisoner? Her eyes caught a faint soft gleam at the opposite end of the chamber, and she groped her way forward with out-stretched hands, hoping that the gleam came from the crack of another door or some possible loophole of escape. She arrived at a niche in the opposite wall, and found a low platform or altar, on which were grouped some heavy stone idols. Behind, as though keeping a sleepless watch over the images, rose a huge silver cobra, highly polished, with shining jewelled eyes, and modelled with the head erect, and hood distended. Ray shrank back horrified. The idea of snakes made her almost frantic. Perhaps the fakir kept live cobras in the temple as well as the silver model; perhaps she might tread on one, and she stood rigid for some moments fearing to move, listening intently for the slightest rustle.
She noticed a strange smell in the close, stifling atmosphere that seemed to be growing stronger, and reminded her of the fumes of incense. It mounted to her brain, and turned her sick and giddy. She became thoroughly frightened. The thick silence of the dark room was charged with nameless horror. She could bear it no longer; and throwing off the increasing dizziness with a desperate effort, she once more screamed and called for help. She dashed her body against the massive door, ran wildly round the rough walls, and wept till she was nearly blind. The heat was awful, the air suffocating, and a raging thirst had seized the girl, who thought of the black hole of Calcutta, and tales of human sacrifice and murder, until, faint and sick, she gave up her futile efforts for liberty, and, sinking to the ground exhausted, like a wounded bird, her senses gradually left her.
Meanwhile, the three sportsmen, unconscious of Ray’s plight, had reached the village round which the tiger had been prowling the previous night, and were shown the spot where he was supposed to have pounced on the unfortunate child. However, there were no guiding marks or pug-prints, and the finding of the brute seemed doubtful; but, as his meal could have been but a scanty one, it was possible that he was awaiting his chance of another victim in some adjacent hiding place, and the two villagers who had brought the information seemed confident that he was near at hand.
They cautiously kept close to the elephants as the surrounding covert was thoroughly reconnoitred, until at last, in some soft sandy soil, recent pug-marks were discovered leading from the direction of the village to a patch of grass of about an acre in extent, surrounded on three sides scrubby jungle.
Slowly and carefully the elephants began to wade through the rustling grass, but nothing stirred. At one corner of the grass-patch stood a clump of thorny trees, much overgrown with creepers, the whole forming an ideal retreat and one likely to find favour in the eyes of the jungle king. The party came to the unanimous conclusion that the object of their search was quietly watching them from this ambush in the vain hope that the spot might be overlooked. The low group of trees was surrounded by the elephants, and Moti, as the staunchest of the lot, was encouraged to shove apart the tangled masses of knotted tendrils and foliage, to drag away branches, and snap the gnarled trunks of the stunted trees.
There was a pause of expectation when the opening was made, and a stealthy rustle was distinctly heard. Then, instead of the man-eating tiger, there suddenly emerged the brown hideous figure of the fakir of Rambagh. A murmur of astonishment rose from the party, and Furnival called to the priest and asked him if he had seen the tiger that morning.
“Verily have I beheld the lord of the jungle,” was the curt reply, and the repulsive object, with its crown of dirty hair and paint-smeared face, turned and strode across the open ground and plunged into the thicket beyond, out of sight.
“Well, I’m blowed!” said the Colonel, completely nonplussed. “How on earth did he get there? Why, we only passed him as we came out sitting in front of his beastly temple.”
“These fellows take short cuts through the jungle that we know nothing of, and where the elephants couldn’t penetrate,” said Furnival.
“He must be either the tiger or the devil himself, I should think,” said Mr. Mullins, in a disgusted voice. “The natives say that a witch or a wizard can change into a tiger and back again at will!”
“Why, Mullins, you’re as bad as Takri!” laughed Furnival.
“Sahib, the fakir-jee hath warned the striped-one,” put in one of the villagers, who had been stricken with awe and alarm on beholding the fakir; “we shall not discover him. The holy one desireth not the death of the man-slayer, for he is without doubt a ghost tiger, and ridden by Durga-jee herself, the consort of Siva.”
“It were well not to molest him,” added the other villager hastily, glancing over his shoulder in nervous dread; “those he hath devoured sit on his head and give him wisdom and cunning. Is it not written—’Thy head shall be bent with the spirit?’”
“Oh, those idiots would chatter here all day if we’d let them,” said the Colonel, impatiently bidding the two natives be silent. “What’s to be done? We shall get no more assistance from these fools now.”
“The brute must have got away at the side of the grass-patch, before we came,” was Furnival’s opinion. “He was probably waiting for the cattle to come and graze on the open ground and then he would have carried off one of the cowherds. I could have sworn he was here, but of course that beastly fakir must have disturbed him. I wish the tiger had eaten the old bag of bones instead!”
They then toiled through thick jungle, and beat every acre of ground in the close vicinity of the village, but not another trace could they find of the man-eater save the mysterious pug-marks that had led into the patch of grass.
“We shan’t get him properly tracked till Takri is well,” said Furnival, regretfully; “and I’m inclined to think that won’t be while we’re in touch with that wretched fakir, who has somehow managed to play the dickens with the old fool’s nerves. The tiger must be a wopper, judging by his pug-prints.”
“Ray said he looked as big as a pony when she saw him pass through the camp the other night,” said the Colonel.
The sudden mention of the girl’s name turned Furnival’s thoughts from the tiger, and a sense of uneasiness troubled him as he remembered that she was all alone in the camp with no one to attend to her but the servants, whose language she could not speak or understand. He blamed himself and the Colonel for having left her, especially when she was not feeling quite up to the mark, and a violent desire possessed him to return to the camp and make sure that she was all right.
“What are you going to do?” he shouted to the Colonel, who was moving on.
“Beat about till we find some further trace,” was the answer.
“Well, I’m going back to camp,” announced Furnival boldly, well aware that a storm of reproaches and inquiries would descend on his head.
“What on earth for?” exclaimed the Colonel, turning round in amazement.
“Are you mad or ill?” demanded Mr. Mullins.
“I’m certainly not mad, but I think I feel rather seedy, the sun, I suppose,” answered the culprit lamely, at a loss for a suitable excuse.
“Love-sick, perhaps?” suggested Mr. Mullins softly.
“Have some whisky and don’t be an ass,” admonished the Colonel, who had not caught the last remark; “but if you must go back, mind you tell the bearer to cool the drinks well before we get in. It’s as hot as blazes.”
“All right,” assented Furnival, as he gave his astonished mahout orders to turn the elephant’s head campwards; and once safely on his way he whistled happily under his breath, while his heart beat fast with anticipation.
Then a reaction set in as he recalled Ray’s manner to him that morning. What had been the matter? Something more than a mere headache, he felt convinced, and then a possible solution of the mystery darted into his mind. Had that wretched old Mullins been raking up the past and making mischief? Of course he would have withheld all extenuating circumstances, and Ray was shocked and disappointed. Therefore she cared for him sufficiently to be seriously disturbed by the story! A wave of excitement rushed through his veins, and his spirits rose, then sank again. What if this old madness of his should appear hopelessly sordid and evil to her pure young mind? What if the knowledge of it should have changed the dawning love to aversion and dislike? He burned with impatience to reach her side, to demand a hearing, to tell her his story with his own lips, to plead his cause with all the strong passion of a man in the mature vigour of life; and, if she loved him, to compel her to look forward and not back, and to take him as he was—a man whose hair was frosted, whose face was furrowed with experience and trouble, whose years were double her own—but who would love and cherish and guard her as few young men with their lives before them could know how.
He glanced eagerly about as he reached the camp. There was her long chair with her book and cushions in it at the entrance to her tent, but where was Ray herself? Probably dreaming away the long hot hours on her camp bed. He would not disturb her till he had bathed and changed, for he felt hot and sticky, and then he would call to her, and perhaps she would come and pour him out some tea. He sang gaily as he got into his tub, and dashed the water over his broad shoulders; and when, presently, he emerged from his tent clean and cool in his blue-grey flannels, his eyes shining like burnt steel in his brown face, and his strong white teeth gleaming in a happy smile, he looked many years younger than his age. He fervently trusted that the Colonel and Mr. Mullins would remain out till sundown searching for the tiger, which would give him time to conduct his wooing without unwelcome interruptions.
“Miss Templer!” he called softly, standing outside her tent discreetly to one side of the opening. “Miss Templer!” he repeated in a louder tone, and at last, receiving no answer, he tapped on the outer fly.
All seemed mysteriously silent. He listened intently, but could hear no breathing or movement. He called again, until, puzzled and concerned, he ventured to look inside, and saw with some alarm that the little camp bed was empty. He crossed to the mess tent. She was not there. He entered the Colonel’s tent, where Jackson, with a guilty conscience, growled pugnaciously at him from the bed. He ran to the servants’ quarters, but none of them had seen the Miss Sahib leave the camp, and all had imagined she was resting in her tent. He inquired for Takri, who was also not to be found, and then the dog-boy having discovered Jackson and dragged him from the Colonel’s tent, drew notice to the fact that Mum was absent as well.
“Doubtless the Miss Sahib desired to eat the air,” suggested the youth, who was anxious to turn the sahib’s attention from his own negligence in having allowed Jackson to indulge in his favourite misdoing. “And Takri would follow to see that no evil came near. Mum also.”
Furnival felt somewhat relieved. The boy’s suggestion was a likely one, yet he could not rid himself of a deep sense of uneasiness, and he skirted the camp on all sides looking for the return of the truants. Finally he made his way to the fakir’s temple, thinking that perhaps Ray had taken it into her head to photograph the building, but he found it deserted, the heavy wooden door standing wide open, and no sign of life about. He walked round to the ruined part, which had formerly been an additional chamber, and looking into the shadow of the leaning pillars and broken masses of masonry, he gave a shout, just for the sake of satisfying himself that the place was really empty.
As the echo of his voice died away he caught the sound of a convulsive struggling of some small body behind an adjacent heap of rubbish, accompanied by a stifled whine, and the next moment he discovered Mum, dusty and bleeding, tied to a block of carved stone, a filthy piece of rag stuffed into her mouth, and a sharp cord cruelly binding her jaws.
Furnival could hardly believe his eyes. Why was Mum gagged and bound? Who had done such a cruel thing? And could it mean that something had happened to Ray? With his mind full of suspicion and misgiving, he quickly released the unhappy little dog, who tried to bark her joy and gratitude, but could produce but little sound from her parched and swollen throat. He carried her round to the front of the temple where he had noticed a brass vessel containing water, and allowed her to drink, regardless of the fakir’s religious scruples.
After the reviving drink of water Mum proceeded to behave very strangely. She limped into the temple uttering sharp, short barks, then outside again, and backwards and forwards with her nose to the ground. Finally, with a delighted yelp, she struck the trail she was seeking, and started off towards the jungle. Furnival stood irresolute for a moment, some instinct suggesting to him that the old dog was, like himself, looking for Ray. Then his eye caught something white entangled in a bush some distance from the temple. It proved to be a little cambric handkerchief, and without further hesitation he plunged into the jungle after the yapping terrier.
Ray recovered consciousness with the sensation of awakening from a hideous nightmare. She felt, with relief, that she was in the light and air, and at first imagined herself to be still resting in her long chair, with the horrors of the temple, Mum’s cries of distress, and the treachery of Takri all part of a terrible dream. But she found she was weary, stiff, and strangely uncomfortable; and as she opened her eyes and tried to move, she realised to her dismay that her dream had been stern reality, and that she was still a captive, though no longer in the stifling darkness of the temple.
Her prison was now the forest. She was firmly tied to the trunk of a tree; her arms were bound to her sides, and her ankles fastened together. She gazed about her in helpless bewilderment. The tree stood alone in a small, clear space dotted with clumps of tall grass, and closed in on every side with thick jungle.
As far as she could judge, the afternoon was well on, for the sun filtered lazily through the thick foliage above her head; the metallic note of the coppersmith-bird sounded clear and monotonous, the hot wind was dying down, mosquitoes were beginning to buzz, and the ceaseless cooing of doves came from the tree branches in all directions. The place seemed to be buried in the jungle; the atmosphere was heavy and oppressive, and full of the smell of uncultivated vegetation; but at least Ray could see and hear, and she proceeded to struggle, and shout for help, with all her remaining strength.
She writhed and strained, and tried to reach the rope with her teeth, but found it impossible, and as she raised her aching head something that was stuck low down on the bark of the tree caught her attention. She stared fixedly for a few moments, her mind full of an agonising fear, which slowly grew to a hideous certainty. A little tuft of coarse yellow hair was clinging to the trunk. She remembered the long, deep claw-marks she had seen on another tree two days ago, and felt a dreadful conviction that the hairs had been left by a tiger—that this was, in all probability, the favourite tree of the man-eater against which he preferred to rub himself when in that part of the jungle, and that he might seek the spot now, while she was powerless and alone!
It dawned on her, with a sickening despair, that for some obscure reason she had been tied here and left as food for the tiger, and she could but trust that the animal might be wandering in some other direction, and that help might arrive before he passed that way again. She tried to pray for rescue from such a ghastly ending to her life, but the words refused to take shape, and her thoughts ran wild. She could only recall her peaceful monotonous existence in England, her pleasure when the day of emancipation had arrived, her delight in the jungle experience, her meeting and friendship with Furnival.
The tears rained down her cheeks as before her rose the vision of his kind, strong face. The story Mr. Mullins had told her now seemed but a small thing. She felt she had been hard, unsympathetic, intolerant; she knew now that she loved the man with all her heart whatever he had done, and that she was perhaps to die without seeing or speaking to him again.
A rustle in the grass almost caused her to shriek aloud, yet she controlled the inclination with a mighty effort, dreading lest any sound should attract the attention of some wandering beast of prey, or perchance of the man-eater himself. She feared her brain might give way under the awful strain of such suspense and terror, and she found herself lapsing into silent, imbecile laughter as a little red fox trotted out of the grass, and, on seeing her, stood for a moment petrified with astonishment before he bolted in hasty alarm.
A family of seven-sister birds indulged in a dust bath a few yards away from her, and a pair of hoopoes fought a pitched battle almost at her feet. Her limbs had grown numb and had ceased to hurt her, but her eyes were hot and heavy, and her throat was burning. Thoughts passed idly through her mind, and she wondered vaguely what object Takri and the fakir could have in treating her so cruelly.
Now and then the fall of a leaf, or the cracking of a twig, or the sudden movement of some small jungle animal, would rouse her with a start, and all the horrors of her position would rush over her again more desperately than ever, only to subside into the almost unconscious apathy that had begun to cloud her brain.
The fakir of Rambagh lurked in the shelter of the jungle, and watched his victim with fiendish exultation. His brain was inflamed with the fumes of bhang, his eyes were fierce with religious fanaticism and the triumph of having achieved his evil design. The gods had approved, all had gone well; it now only remained to witness the sacrifice completed, to know that the insult to the lord of the jungle was avenged, his anger appeased.
The fakir crouched behind a thorn bush, and muttered prayers and praise to the spirit in the shape of the sacred tiger, mingled with curses against Takri, his accomplice, who, after bearing the unconscious form of the English girl to the meeting-place in the forest where the fakir awaited him, had suddenly refused to have any further hand in the business, and had turned and fled through the jungle like a maniac.
Hark! was not that the voice of the monarch?—did he at last draw near? No it was but the ‘pheeaow’ the provider, the servant of the lord.
The dreadful, paint-smeared face, with the crazy unreasoning eyes, peered through the thicket and beheld, with fierce delight, a little mangy jackal, with scanty grey fur, emerge from the opposite jungle, picking its feet up gingerly, and advancing into the open patch of ground with nervous caution, moving its sharp nose as it sniffed the air. Then, after a rapid and comprehensive scrutiny of the motionless figure against the tree, the creature began to caper and dance as though it had suddenly taken leave of its senses, uttering long unearthly howls. It sang its discordant song of invitation to its lord and master the tiger whose disciple it was, giving notice that food was at hand, in the hopes of a meal for itself when the great beast should be satisfied. Presently the jackal ceased its weird antics, and lowering its scanty brush ran into the jungle, repeating its awful cry at intervals.
At last, seemingly in answer to the yells of the ‘provider,’ there arose a long, hoarse call. Ray heard it through the haze of creeping unconsciousness, and raised her head. Her flesh crept; she felt her hair rise from her scalp; she began once more to struggle desperately, and then a human voice rang out, and forth from the shelter of the thorn bush stepped the repulsive figure of the fakir. “The sacrifice—the sacrifice,” he cried, turning his face in the direction whence the tiger was approaching, and bending in low salaams to the coming object of his worship. “I make way for thee—my lord, my king. Behold, I warned thee in the jungle, and turned thy steps from the pathway of the swine that sought thy death with fire-breathing weapons. Thou wentest at my bidding, and now, O spirit, whose wisdom be great and whose rage be terrible, the feast is prepared, the sacrifice of blood that shall wipe away thine anger.”
Nearer came the sound of the tiger now—low, grating growls, now a short roar; and again rose the frantic yells of the sycophant jackal, guiding the huge beast to his meal. Then followed a short silence, and the fakir, kneeling on the ground, pressed his forehead to the earth in a last act of adoration.
There was a sudden rush, a short, vicious snarl, a flash of yellow striped with black, a loud cry of despair,—and the tiger had struck down and carried off his worshipper. The priest had been but a few moments too long over his devotions, and had unwittingly sacrificed himself to his god.
Ray heard the tiger dragging his victim through the jungle, and the shrill voice of the ‘pheeaow’ as it followed close, uttering cries of satisfaction and applause. Then a long scream burst from her dry lips.
Furnival, following Mum along the almost untraceable forest track, breathless, and streaming with perspiration, heard the sound and doubled his pace with an anxious feeling of foreboding and alarm; and pushing his way through the last few yards of jungle, came suddenly upon the tree with the trembling, fear-stricken girl tied to the trunk.
“My God! who has done this?” he cried in horror, as he dashed forward, and began hastily to cut the bonds that held her.
She looked at him with glazed eyes, while Mum ran round her, leaping up to lick her hands.
“Hush!” she whispered, shivering, “the tiger will hear you—”
Her head fell forward, and in an agony of mind Furnival set her free, gathered her tenderly in his arms, and started for the camp. The journey was a difficult one; the path was rough, the heat appalling, and the unconscious girl no light burden. But he pushed on with untiring perseverance, and Mum trotted at his heels in complacent self-approval.
Ray was young and healthy, and the happy possessor of a considerable fund of vitality. She recovered her senses soon after she had been laid on her camp bed, the Colonel awkwardly bathing her forehead with tepid water, Mr. Mullins prescribing brandy in strong doses, and Furnival having galloped off to Raodhur to fetch the medical official who was in charge of the sanitary arrangements for the pilgrims. He returned late that evening with the doctor, to learn with relief that Ray was in no apparent danger, had been able to relate her terrible experiences, and though stiff and sore, and a little feverish, was already almost herself again.
The doctor administered a soothing dose, advised rest in bed for at least the following day, had an excellent dinner with the three sportsmen and a rubber of whist, slept on the camp dining table, and departed at day break, after ascertaining that no evil consequences had declared themselves in his patient.
Ray took his advice and stayed quietly in her tent until the heat of the next afternoon had begun to subside; then, becoming weary of the enforced idleness and her own company, she had slowly and painfully risen from her bed and dressed herself, intending to ask her father to place her long chair outside in the shade, where she could see and hear all that was going on in the camp.
Colonel Templer had paid her a visit at mid-day to tell her that Mullins and Furnival were just off for another beat after the man-eater, but that he himself was remaining in the camp, and would hear her call at once should she require anything. After this she had slept soundly for some time, and now, as she hobbled to the entrance of her tent to summon her father, she was surprised to see Captain Furnival strolling up and down, his head bent and his hands in his pockets.
“I thought you had gone out with Mr. Mullins,” she said, flushing, as he hurried towards her.
“No, I stayed to keep guard, and persuaded your father to go in my place. It was not very difficult,” he added, smiling. “And he knew I could take care of you.”
He held out his arm for her to lean on, and she took it gratefully. “Now where will you have your chair? I think here in the shade of your tent would be more comfortable and less dusty than under the banian tree. How thankful I am that you are all right! Are you sure you ought to be up?”
“Oh yes,” replied Ray, as the chair was arranged and she settled herself into it, Furnival sitting by her side on camp stool. “But I am so sorry you stayed behind because of me.”
“I followed my own inclinations,” said Furnival, lighting a cigarette, and looking at her through the smoke with a twinkle in his eyes.
“Where have the others gone?” asked Ray hastily.
“To the place where I found you yesterday. There can be no doubt the tiger killed the fakir, and serve the brute right too, but whether he stayed to devour him remains to be seen. I described the locality as well as I could to them. I don’t think it can be very far from where we saw the fakir yesterday morning. That was an extraordinary thing. Did your father tell you how we put up the fakir instead of the tiger?”
“Yes, he told me when he brought in my breakfast this morning. I can’t help thinking that the fakir must have disturbed the tiger on purpose, knowing he would be likely to wander about the nearest jungle, and then he tied me up to be killed. Takri must have carried me there from the temple, where I am sure I had been purposely stupefied by some poisonous fumes.”
She shuddered and turned pale again at the recollection of her horrible danger in the forest, and at the mention of Takri’s name a dark look of rage swept over Furnival’s face.
“Takri has not returned to the camp yet,” he said, with a menacing ring in his voice, “and when he does—”
“I don’t believe he ever will. I suppose he imagines I’m killed and devoured, and he would be afraid to come back.”
“The old devil!” said Furnival. “But I’d bet anything the fakir worked on his superstitious feelings until he was almost out of his mind. There was something uncanny going on between them from the day we arrived here; once or twice he wanted me to move the camp, but I thought it was all humbug. He has been rather queer for the last year or two, and had constant fever, which probably muddled his very limited brains. Anyway he has behaved like a scoundrel and ought to be punished, and he shall be if I can get hold of him. Good heavens!”—he passed his hand over his eyes “to think what might have happened!”
There was a silence between them, while Mum came and sat with her broad back against the tent, and her front legs spread out in the attitude of Caldecott’s “fat pig smiling in a ditch,” and blinked at them benignly. Jackson dug a large hole with energy a few yards off, where he fancied he had seen a squirrel disappear. The sinking sun glowed red over the deserted city, and the voices and movements in the camp rose clear into the warm, quiet air. Ray lay with her head thrown back against the scarlet cushions, her face pale and her eyes closed. She was still suffering somewhat severely from the effects of all she had gone through, and Furnival, as he looked at her, marvelled at the courage and endurance she had shown. Most girls under like circumstances would have died of fear, or at any rate had a serious illness.
Should he speak out now and tell her all that was in his heart, or would it be more considerate to wait till she had entirely recovered her strength? Suddenly she looked up and met his eyes fixed on her, and the rich colour stole back into her cheeks till Furnival yearned to take her in his arms and kiss her. He busied himself with the making of a cigarette, and so gained time to control his impatience; and she watched him rolling the paper, taking pleasure in the deft movements of his strong brown fingers, and feeling a calm content in being in his company. She had cast all thoughts of the past and the future away from her, and was now simply enjoying the present while she could. She inhaled the scent of the orange and mango blossom that pervaded the evening air. It caused a quick quiver in her heart, and added to her sensation of elation and happiness.
“I have never yet heard how you found me,” she said presently, breaking the silence.
“I came back earlier than the others, and you weren’t in the camp.”
“But what possessed you to come back? It was very unlike you.”
“Yes, very,” said Furnival, recalling the feelings and intention with which he had deserted his companions, “and I couldn’t find Takri or Mum, and thought you might have gone to photograph the fakir’s temple, taking them with you; so I went there, and found poor old Mum tied up amongst some ruins at the back of the temple.”
“That was how Takri enticed me there! He must have stolen Mum while I was asleep and tied her up so that she howled, and then he persuaded me to look for her.”
“Well, he gagged the poor old lady afterwards then, for I found a piece of rag stuffed into her mouth, and directly I had set her free, and given her some water, she bolted into the jungle. I had a suspicion she was looking for you, and then I found your handkerchief caught in a bush, so I followed post-haste. My goodness! it was a providence that beastly fakir stayed a minute too long over his prayers! Your father, of course, told me what you saw!”
“It was awful,” said Ray, drawing a deep breath, “I shall never forget it—never. The scene will haunt me all my life.”
“No, no; you must try and forget it, and only remember what mercy it was you escaped. I can’t bear the thought of it either! Let’s change the subject, and talk about something else. By the way, what were you and old Mullins discussing so earnestly yesterday morning?”
Ray flushed guiltily.
“I—I don’t think I can tell you,” she faltered.
“Why not? Was it about me?” he enquired with persistence. He was determined to find out why she had been annoyed with him.
“Yes, it was,” she answered simply. Ray could never prevaricate.
“He was telling you the story of my past life, I suppose?” said Furnival, bluntly.
“And you were shocked and horrified?”
“Yes, I can’t say I wasn’t.”
“But you are nice to me now, though yesterday morning you wouldn’t speak to me, and yet you have not heard anything since to soften your opinion?”
“I thought over it yesterday when I was in the forest, and it seemed to me that I had perhaps been hasty and unjust. I had not heard your side of the story—I know nothing of the world—I can only see what is right and what is wrong as it affects myself, but I know it may often be quite different for other people. Besides, I have no business to put forward what I think.”
He laid his hand on one of hers.
“Listen, Ray,” he said, looking earnestly into her eyes, “and I will tell you my story myself. Then you can judge me, and say if I deserve what I am going to ask for, or not.”
With the slender nervous hand beneath his strong brown palm, Furnival told Ray of the step in his life that had wrecked his career, and sent him far from his fellow creatures. He made no excuses, no attempt to defend his actions; he just related the simple facts of his youthful mistake, his suffering, his awakening, his retribution. She listened quietly, only now and then her hand trembled under his, and when he had finished her bright eyes were dimmed with tears.
“Ah, don’t cry, child! It’s a common-place story enough, worse luck,—and now I’ve made a clean breast of it I must go on, though I meant to hold my tongue till you were stronger and better. I love you with all my heart and soul, little girl. Am I a battered old fossil, with a grey head and a wasted life, to you? or can you care for me as a husband who will worship the ground you walk on?”
He lifted her hand and held it to his cheek, then drew her fingers round to his lips. Her shyness and agitation suddenly left her, and her boyish frankness came to the fore.
“I love you more than I can ever tell you!” she cried; “and oh! how glad I am you care for me. Is it really true? You won’t ever remember old days? You will never think of them? I am so young—and—and such an idiot.”
“You need not fear,” he said, laughing softly; “you have only to realise that I love you,—you. Do you hear and understand?”
“Yes,” she answered, as he bent his head to hers.
Then Jackson suddenly left the pit he had been digging, and came and stood in front of them, his head held inquiringly on one side and his nose covered with dust, which made them both laugh; and after that Ray discovered that she was unromantically hungry. So Furnival shouted for tea to be brought out to them in the shade of the tent, and they ate tinned butter and thick toast with the enjoyment and appetite of two children.
The sun sank in a gorgeous crimson pomp, casting a rose-coloured flame over sky and hills, and deepening to orange the yellow of the dusty earth. Ray and Furnival, sitting in silent happiness, felt the witchery of the great calm that broods over the vast mysterious land at eventide, and the peaceful dying of the Indian day. But presently, breaking into the soothing pause, there arose a distant tumult of shouts and song, accompanied by the resonant thumping of tom toms; and the pair looked up and listened in surprised expectation, while the dogs removed their ardent gaze from the remains on the tea-table, and cocked their ears inquiringly. Louder grew the clamour, and gradually, against the red sunset background, the ponderous forms of the elephants, with the towering howdahs, became sharply silhouetted.
Surrounding the elephants, crowding in front and behind, running ahead, dancing and gesticulating, men, women, and children, swarmed a concourse of natives, singing, shouting, beating drums, and waving branches and garlands of flowers. In the middle of this enthusiastic crowd marched a group of stalwart villagers bearing a heavy burden, which, as they approached, proved to be the body of a dead tiger slung on a stout bamboo pole, the four legs tied together. The bearers came jauntily on, the crowd surged and sang, the elephants moved imperturbably amongst the excited throng till the camp was reached, and as Ray and Furnival rose from their seats in eager curiosity, the lifeless beast was lowered from the men’s willing shoulders, and laid with triumphant ceremony on the ground in front of the camp.
Instantly Mum and Jackson rushed forward barking furiously, but keeping at a safe distance from the striped body; then finding there was no movement, and that everyone else seemed brave enough, they advanced with the greatest caution, their hackles bristling, their lips curled back, their necks out stretched. The first close sniff at the tiger caused the two dogs to jump nervously backwards, but finally gaining confidence they returned boldly to the charge, and in a few minutes might have been the slayers of the tiger themselves from the evidence of valour they displayed.
Colonel Templer stiffly descended the ladder from his howdah, arriving on his feet with a grunt, while Mr. Mullins alighted with an agile spring, and both advanced swelling with pride.
“There he is!” said the Colonel, exultantly. “There’s the man-eater of Rambagh. We found him in the very patch of grass we were beating yesterday, when we turned the fakir out instead. Anyway the tiger did for that gentleman pretty effectually, for we came upon his remains in the jungle and tracked the tiger from there. The brute’s got half a dozen bullets inside him!—Now then, clear out, you people,” he continued to the vociferous natives that were pressing round. “Ray, come and have a look at him.”
The mob gave way, forming a deep semicircle in front of the elephants, and with Furnival’s assistance the girl came forward. The scene was one to be remembered, the elephants ranged in the background, black and majestic against the crimson of the sky; the motley crowd of eager villagers in many-hued garments, rejoicing in the death of the tyrant, and all anxious to singe his whiskers, extract his claws, and lay claim to the two curious little bones, buried in the flesh of the shoulder, which are said to possess such potent charms; while in front lay the heavy body of the dead tiger stretched out on its side as though calmly sleeping.
The animal was a splendid specimen, not the popular type of man-eater, old and mangy, but a steed worthy to bear the great goddess Durga on her nightly journeys through the jungle. The skin was clean and a vivid black and golden, the teeth and claws were perfect, the muscles enormous, and from the tip of the nose to the end of the tail he measured fully ten feet. The only blemish was a deep scar across the broad forehead, probably caused by one of his victims with a bill-hook in a futile attempt at self-defence.
To Ray there was a weird attraction in standing close to the dreaded beast that had wrought so much terror and distress in the neighbourhood, and that would undoubtedly have caused her own death had not the fakir unintentionally intervened. Fascinated, she bent and touched the harsh, glistening skin, fingered the murderous claws, and looked into the cruel mouth. They stood in a group discussing the dead animal, the Colonel and Mr. Mullins describing how savagely he had fought for his life, and then, the villagers being warned against any tampering with the claws or whiskers, the tiger was carried away to be skinned, the Colonel following to superintend the process.
“Well, it was a piece of luck our potting that devil—eh?” said Mr. Mullins, adjusting his eyeglass, and turning his attention to Ray and Furnival. “There he was skulking in the grass, waiting for some unlucky wood cutter, or cowherd. He didn’t appear to have appreciated the fakir much, and I don’t wonder. He’d only eaten a little bit of him, but the beggar was as dead as a door nail of course. The villagers have sent word to the priests at Raodhur to come and take the body away for cremation. Any news of Takri?”
“None,” answered Furnival; “and if he has any sense he’ll never come near me again!”
“Well, we shan’t want a shikari now. The Colonel thinks he’s had about enough of a daughter in the jungle, Miss Ray! He says he’s going to make tracks for the nearest railway station as soon as you can move. What shall you do, Furnival?”
“It is not necessary to break up the camp on my account,” said Ray, returning to her chair. “I’m only stiff and sore. I could go on perfectly well.”
And indeed she no longer appeared like an invalid, for her cheeks were flushed and her eyes sparkling. Mr. Mullins regarded her attentively; then he looked at Furnival.
“Didn’t you say you weren’t well yesterday, my dear fellow?” he enquired with an air of concern. “All this excitement has put your ailments into the background. Do you still feel sick?”
“I never said I felt sick,” replied Furnival, shortly.
“Oh! were you seedy yesterday?” asked Ray, anxiously; “and was that why you came back to the camp?”
He looked at her with an amused expression, and she understood.
“When I am not well,” continued Mr. Mullins, “I prefer to suffer from a disease that can be made public.”
“You possess the disease of curiosity at any rate, old chap,” said Furnival, rising. “I am now going to tell the Colonel what is the matter with me, and, if you really want to hear, you had better take my seat and ask Miss Templer. She knows all about it.”
He walked off to join the Colonel, and Mr. Mullins took possession of the vacated camp stool.
“I’m very angry with you,” said Ray, frowning at him.
“Good gracious! why?”
“Captain Furnival and I are engaged,” she announced with importance.
“But is that my fault?” queried Mr. Mullins, in bewildered humility.
“No, it certainly isn’t. You very nearly prevented it.”
“This is extremely interesting! Pray explain.”
“That story you told me yesterday morning—”
“But you wanted to hear it!”
“You didn’t tell me the truth—”
Mr. Mullins raised his wiry eyebrows.
“At least,” continued Ray in some confusion, “you never told me any reasons nor explained things properly. I thought from what you said that—that Captain Furnival wasn’t a nice man.”
“Reflect a moment,” said Mr. Mullins, quite unruffled, “and you will perceive that such an impression arose entirely in your own imagination. I merely gave you a few facts—the rest you supplied yourself.”
Ray became speechless with vexation.
“However,” continued Mr. Mullins pleasantly, “since Captain Furnival seems to have explained matters satisfactorily, and you have evidently arrived at the conclusion that he is not a villain after all, I may say that I am charmed to hear you are going to marry him. We shall have many more tiger shoots together, I hope, and I will give you a handsome wedding present if I can borrow the money to pay for it!”
“Oh!” said Ray, unable to help laughing, “you are a horrid old wretch!”
To which Mr. Mullins replied in a tone of hostility:
“Did I understand you to say ‘old’?”
That night when the stars were out, and the camp was quiet, and the fitful murmur of servants’ voices had ceased, a weary, fever-stricken figure crawled slowly past the tents on all fours, and dragged its way painfully to the foot of the banian tree.
There, the following morning, was discovered the lifeless body of old Takri the shikari. He was lying on his back, with the cotton wrapper, now stained and ragged, thrown to one side, showing the old deep scar of the tiger’s claw across the wasted chest.
The primitive, ignorant soul had fled beyond the evil power of the churel and the masan, to wander in those peaceful jungles that are guarded only by the spirits of benevolence and mercy.
^ ^Seats in trees. ↩