The Project Gutenberg eBook of Tales of Destiny

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Title: Tales of Destiny

Author: Edmund Mitchell

Release date: August 10, 2006 [eBook #19017]

Language: English

Credits: Produced by R. Cedron, Joseph R. Hauser and the Online
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Introduction    1
Chap. I.    The Maid of Jhalnagor. Told by the Rajput Chief    5
II.    The Hollow Column. Told by the Tax-Collector    19
III.    What the Stars ordained. Told by the Astrologer    35
IV.    The Spirit Wail. Told by the Merchant    60
V.    The Blue Diamonds. Told by the Fakir    101
VI.    The Tiger of the Pathans. Told by the Afghan General    128
VII.    Her Mother Love. Told by the Physician    146
VIII.    The Sacred Pickaxe. Told by the Magistrate.    170


[Pg 1]


Just without one of the massive bastioned gates of the city of Fathpur-Sikri there stood in the year 1580 a caravanserai that afforded accommodation for man and beast. Here would alight travellers drawn by the calls of homage, by business, or by curiosity to the famous Town of Victory, built, as the inscription over the gateway told, by "His Majesty, King of Kings, Heaven of the Court, Shadow of God, Jalal-ad-din Mohammed Akbar Padishah."

At the time of our story Akbar was at the zenith of his glory. He had moved his court from Agra, the capital of his predecessors on the throne of the Moguls, after having raised for himself, on the spot where the birth of a son had been promised him by a hermit saint, this superb new city of Fathpur-Sikri, seven miles in circumference, walled and guarded by strong forts at its seven gateways. Emperor and nobles had vied with each other in erecting palaces of stately design and exquisite finish of adornment. A beautiful mosque commemorated the good deeds of the saint, and provided a place of prayer for those of the Moslem faith. In the palace of the Emperor was a magnificent audience hall, with marble columns and stone-carved galleries, in the centre of which stood the throne of gold sprinkled with rubies, emeralds, and diamonds, surrounded by a silver rail[Pg 2]ing, and covered by a canopy of rich crimson brocade. In this audience hall the great and good Akbar was wont to receive not only his subjects, rich and poor, the former assembled to pay their court, the latter to lay their grievances before the Imperial judge; but he also extended welcome to strangers from afar. On the question of religion his mind was at this period in a state of change, for he had broken from the strict faith of the Moslem, had publicly announced that there was good in all beliefs, had overthrown ceremonial rules, whether of Islam or of Hinduism, and had proclaimed all things lawful except excess. His thoughts thus drifting toward a new religion, a divine faith that would bring into one fold the votaries of all religions, he was glad at his court to give audience to learned doctors from distant lands as well as from every part of India. All were welcome—Brahmins and Buddhists, Moslem schoolmen, Hindu fanatics, pantheists, the worshippers of fire, the Jews whose prophets are Abraham and Moses, even Christian padres from far-off Europe. It was Akbar's delight to listen to their expositions and discussions, and to the defence of their varied dogmas.

Thus did the fame of the king for tolerance, benevolence and wisdom become noised abroad far and wide, so that visitors flocked in ever-increasing numbers to the beautiful city. At our caravanserai without the gate there would often, in the cool of an evening, be gathered together on the shaded veranda a group of travellers representing diverse races[Pg 3] and classes. Some of the town-dwellers, too, would be there, resting and refreshing themselves after their walk to the city walls, while from the near-by camp of the Rajputs, who formed a portion of the royal bodyguard, there would oftentimes stroll over a few men-at-arms.

On such occasions it would generally happen that the debates recently listened to in the Imperial Hall of Assembly would be subjected to comment. And from discussion of this kind the conversation would quite frequently change to story-telling, dear to the hearts of all natives of Hindustan, and by no means to be despised, for in a good story there may be implanted the kernel of a sound philosophy.

On a summer night in the year named eight men were assembled on the veranda of the caravanserai. The full moon had just risen above a tope of tamarind trees, and its silvern radiance revealed every detail of the scene. A Rajput chief occupied the place of central prominence, cushions arranged for his convenience, on one of which rested his scimitar, the emblem of his soldierly profession. Not far from him, in a half-reclining posture, was a general of the Afghans, also of the bodyguard of the Emperor. A hakeem, or physician, and an astrologer, both in the Moslem style of dress, were seated close together, legs crossed beneath them; while a little apart were two Hindus, as the caste marks on their foreheads showed, a tax-collector from the country and a kotwal, or city magistrate. Just above the steps leading on to the veranda, surrounded by his[Pg 4] bales of merchandise, sat a merchant from Bombay, a big and stalwart man, attired in spotless white raiment, on his head a voluminous muslin turban. In striking contrast, squatting on the ground below the steps, at his feet a wooden begging bowl, was a fakir, or religious ascetic, a loin cloth his sole covering, his face bedaubed with ashes, his lean chin resting on his upraised knees while he listened to the dialogue and watched each speaker's face with eyes of keen alertness.

There had been some desultory conversation, which finally resulted in the Rajput chief being begged to relate in detail an experience at which he had previously hinted. The first story led to another story, and the third to yet another, and so on, until each member of the company had contributed to the general entertainment. And these are the tales that were told by the travellers on the veranda of the caravanserai outside the walls of Fathpur-Sikri that moonlight night in the days of the mighty Akbar:

[Pg 5]



Well, since you would have it so, listen to the story of Rukpur Singh, hereditary chief of Jhalnagor, mansabdar of five hundred men, captain of the bodyguard of Akbar the Great, King of Kings, Lord of the Earth.

"This day in the Hall of Assembly, in the presence of the great Padishah himself, we have listened to the arguments of men of diverse faiths. It is well. As Akbar, the Most High, himself has said, all religions are good; each man has the god or gods of his fathers; let there be no obstacle placed against worshipping the divine power in any manner that seemeth fit. That is both wisdom and justice. That is why I, a Hindu, a Rajput, one of the twice born, can serve my lord, the Moslem Emperor Akbar, with loyalty of heart and of sword that no man may question."

At these words the captain of the bodyguard touched the jewelled hilt of his scimitar lying on the cushion by his side. He glanced around, as if to see whether anyone present dared to question the fidelity he had professed. But there was neither movement nor remark among his listeners, and with a disdainful little smile of self-complacency he resumed.

"During to-day's discussion, in the spirit of tolerance that Akbar[Pg 6] teaches to all of us, we Rajputs have had to harken to severe upbraiding. We are accused of inhumanity because in our homes a female child may be done away with at birth, lawfully and without dishonour. Be it so; the fact itself I shall not dispute. Nor shall I defend the practice except to point out that a woman more or less in the world does not matter, that the babe suffers no pain and knows no ill, that had she lived it might have been to a life of widowhood—if courage were wanting to choose the suttee—and therefore to long days of shame and sorrow.

"Furthermore, has it to be remembered that the marriage of one of our daughters costs much money. According to the rules of our caste and the customs of our race, the ceremony must be worthy of the parents and of the position they occupy; all of the district must be feasted, and let the expense be grievous as it may it must be borne. To some who are rich the money thus spent is of no account. But to others who are poor yet proud—and all Rajputs are proud—a wedding that is seemly for a daughter of the house may mean poverty and ruin for the father and brothers during twenty years to follow. In certain circumstances this misfortune cannot be thought of. The honour of the race, the very safety of a whole clan, may depend on rigid economy as a provision against danger. So it may be both right and wise for an infant daughter to be put painlessly to her death. Such was the doctrine my father taught me, and his name is blessed."

The speaker dropped his eyes, folded his hands across his breast, and[Pg 7] for a full minute remained in silent meditation. When at last he looked up again, there had come over the usually stern and haughty face a wonderful glow of kindliness, and his voice took a softer modulation.

"However, know this, my friends, that in my zenana at Jhalnagor there are little girls—three, and more will be welcome should the divine Krishna send them. Three little daughters have I, all born of my wife Lakmibai, the jewel of Jhalnagor. With sons also am I blessed—two brave little boys, of whom I may well be proud. But I love them not more than my daughters, nor would I change any one daughter for a son. This do I say out of the truth of my heart, and in no wise because fortune has been kind to me and mine, and has given us such prosperity that there is a fit dower for each daughter without my treasury knowing the loss.

"So when the learned mullah from Stamboul denounced infanticide, I was one with him in sympathy, for my inclination is to cherish with love and care every female child the gods send.

"Now would you hear how a Rajput came to this manner of thinking? My story is that of a little maid. Listen. It happened just five years gone by.

"Under the firm and just rule of our master Akbar there has been peace for many years in our part of the world. Except when, as now, I come to Fathpur-Sikri for my yearly month of service in providing[Pg 8] part of the Emperor's bodyguard, I live quietly among my own people. The soil around our villages is tilled, our shopkeepers buy and sell, we worship in our temples, and we are happy, for no enemy comes to disturb the peace of our beautiful little valley of Jhalnagor embosomed among the hills.

"One day it befell that I had gone on a hunting trip with a party of my friends. In the early dawn we had descended from the fort on the hill top which is my home and the rallying-place for my clan—a small clan, numbering but a few thousands, but nobly born as any tribe in Rajputana, brave and of honour unsullied, men who have never yet given a daughter to the harem of a Moslem."

The features of the Rajput flashed with pride. His brother-at-arms, the Afghan, met the defiant look, and said, with a quiet smile:

"There are many Rajput women wed to Moslem lords."

"Yes, but not Rajput women of Jhalnagor. They would have died first—many of them did so prefer to die when the Moslem host first swept over our land. In the hour of defeat, against overwhelming numbers, within the citadel of Jhalnagor the women of my race, refusing to accept dishonour, bared their bosoms to the spears of those they loved, husbands, brothers, and fathers, and so they died."

With hands outstretched and eyes upraised in rapt pride and reverence for the deeds of his ancestors, again the Rajput fell into momentary silence.

"The story of the little maid." It was the voice of[Pg 9] the physician recalling the narrator to his task.

"Yes, the story of the little maid," resumed the Rajput. "As I have said, we had gone to the hunt one morning—a party of twelve, riding on three elephants. For we were in pursuit of a tiger, a destroyer of men, which the villagers had marked down in a patch of jungle by the river side. Of the hunt I need say nothing; we killed the tiger, and, with the huge, striped body slung across the neck of my elephant, we were returning home. It was toward evening, for we had rested in the forest during the heat of the day.

"We were just entering the narrow gorge that leads to the fort on the hill, when, right on the pathway before me, I saw the prone figure of a child. Almost my elephant's feet were upon it before the sage brute himself stopped and trumpeted a warning to us in the howdah, for, the tiger's body occupying the place where the mahout was wont to ride, the latter was walking, and he, too, had not noticed the tiny bundle of bright yellow clothing lying on the road.

"Glancing down, I beheld a little girl with her forehead touching the dust. At my calling she arose, and spread her hands across her breast.

"'Listen, O chief, to my warning, listen, O my lord,' she called out in a shrill tone of supplication. Already had I observed that her face was one of great beauty, although that of just a little child, but six or seven years old.

"The other two elephants had halted behind mine,[Pg 10] and some of the party had descended. But at the approach of these men the maid shrank away, and, keeping her eyes fixed in my direction, she continued to address me:

"'Listen to my words, O chief, and be saved from death.'

"In another moment I had sprung to the ground. As I advanced the child ran toward me, absolutely fearless. Taking her in my arms, I sat me down by the roadside. Close to my breast she nestled, and, with sobs and tears now, told me her story.

"A robber band was in the nullah—less than a mile further along—full a hundred strong, fierce men and murderers. For they had already slain the father and the mother of the little maid, humble woodcutters. I had known them well; they were poor, but of mine own people, and instantly in my heart I vowed that I would be avenged.

"The little girl, Brenda her name, as she told me in her childish way of confidence, had hidden in the brushwood all day, trembling and afraid. But at last she divined that the men had come to slay me, for as the afternoon advanced they disposed themselves among bushes and behind trees, also in the hut of her dead parents. And even now were the assassins in waiting for me, for the girl had seen our party ride forth in the early morning, and she knew that I had not yet returned.

"When, with wonderful intuition for a child so tender in years, the thought came to her mind that I was to be assailed, she stole down the gorge, moving[Pg 11] cautiously through the undergrowth, and awaited at the spot we found her to give me warning.

"The child had described to me the leader of the gang, and I had immediately recognized Gunesh Tanti, accursed son of a pig, a robber from across the desert of Sindh, who had more than once ravaged peaceful villages of Rajputana. He would know that I had treasure in the fort, and of an instant I could read his wily plan. Moving through the country, he had doubtless heard a day or two before of this projected expedition of mine for the killing of the man-eating tiger. So he had designed to slay me on my homeward way, and, the deed accomplished, would rely on gaining access to the citadel by loading his ruffians into the howdahs of my elephants. Once over the drawbridge and within the portcullised gateway, his murderous scheme might have been easy, for my score of men-at-arms on duty would have been taken by surprise and so at a disadvantage.

"But knowing now the danger, I laughed in my beard, for Gunesh Tanti, this human tiger and slayer of innocent men, just as had been the tiger now slung across the back of my elephant, was fairly delivered into my hand. He who had come to trap me was himself entrapped. And thanks all to this little maid of the glen! At the thought, I patted her soft cheek with my hand, and in response she smiled up into my eyes with wondrous trust and winsomeness.

"Our party, as I have said, numbered twelve, this[Pg 12] without counting the three mahouts, lithe and active men, and brave as any one of us. The neck of the gorge was narrow, and for a hundred yards on either side there were steep precipices down which rocks could be tumbled on fleeing men. By a goat path over the hillside the fort could be reached by one sure of foot and knowing the way. Such a lad was of our party, a cousin of my own, who could race with the deer.

"In a few minutes he had girded his loins and was on his mission, disappearing over the crest of the almost perpendicular crag up which he had clambered. He was to warn the garrison, turn out every man and boy fully armed, and bid them to sweep down on the ambushed robbers. The mothers and the maidens would hold the fort. No other garrison, when once on the alert, was needed for such an enemy."

Again the Rajput smiled proudly, but the silence of intent listening was unbroken, and he continued:

"The firing of a matchlock was to be our signal that my men held the upper end of the pass, and were descending on our enemies. Meanwhile, my immediate followers prepared the rocks above the narrow neck of the defile and got them ready for instant rolling down. To this last task four of our number were deputed. The others abided with me. Our plan was to block the narrow passage by ranging the elephants abreast of each other, and, so that the animals themselves might not be stampeded by the unexpected din of battle, we chained their forelegs,[Pg 13] first each animal separately, and then the middle one to his comrades on either side.

"At last all our preparations were completed, the huge beasts in line, my companions mounted into the howdahs. I alone remained on foot, I and the little woodcutters' daughter, standing by my side, holding trustfully to my hand, and no longer weeping.

"'You must come with me, my almond-sweet,' I said, as I raised the child in my arms, and passed her up into the howdah of my own elephant, the central one. Then I myself clambered aloft. The tiger's corpse had been flung to the ground, and our three mahouts sat in their proper places, iron goads in hand, ready to perform their task of keeping the elephants under control.

"At last, after a tense period of waiting, the welcome report of the matchlock reverberated from among the hills.

"The fight does not really concern my story," said the Rajput, grimly. "It is sufficient to say that Gunesh Tanti and all his band perished to a man—some slain by the swords of my horsemen charging down the pass, some crushed by the falling rocks, some of the last survivors, who flung themselves desperately against our living barrier, dying on our handpikes or being trampled under foot by the elephants. Not one of more than five score men lived to carry back the tale of death to the robber haunts whence they had come.

"On our side some lives were lost, seven in all; but this is the penalty that brave men have to pay in the[Pg 14] doing of righteous deeds. Their memory is honoured.

"As for the little maid, I had nested her in the best-protected corner of the howdah, and in the thick of the fray, when a shower of arrows had fallen upon us, I had covered her tiny form with my shield. But during the final hand-to-hand fight, when all was din and turmoil with the shouting of the men and the angry trumpeting of the elephants, I had not paid her any special heed. From her lips came no sound to attract my attention—no cry of fear, nor wailing murmur.

"But at the end I looked for the little child, lifting the shield that had partly guarded her. She met my gaze with a smile. But straightway I noticed that an arrow, descending almost perpendicularly, had pierced her soft little arm, and transfixed it to her side. Yet had she not cried out, nor even now, when I was tending her, did she whimper.

"I drew forth the arrow, breaking it in twain, so as to let the shaft pass through the arm. Although blood flowed freely, I saw at a glance that the wound in the body was a mere puncture, and also that on the limb only a piercing of the flesh. Therefore was her hurt not serious, although of a certainty painful, and terrifying too for a child so young. But even now not one word of complaining did she utter. She kept her sweet smile on me. Brave little maid!

"Tearing a length of cambric from my turban, I had bound both arm and tender breast, and readjusted the sari of yellow-dyed cotton that formed her[Pg 15] simple garment. And now she reposed, happy and contented, in my arms. I remained in the howdah, while my companions cut off the heads of the robbers, and loaded these trophies of victory on one of the other elephants, so that a triumphal pile might be made in the courtyard of the citadel. Then, with the tiger replaced on the neck of my own elephant, we moved for home, a group of fifty horsemen now forming our escort. The headless bodies of our enemies were left as fitting spoil for the jackals and the vultures, the latter of whom, scenting the carrion, were already beginning to drop down, it might seem, from the blue vault of heaven.

"By the time we gained the fortress the dusk was gathering. Across the drawbridge, promptly lowered at the sound of our joyful shouting, I saw my wife standing beside the big carronade that commanded the roadway up the hill. The smoking match was in her hand, but at sight of me she stooped and smothered in the dust the spark that would have dealt out death to the robbers had they ever gained a near approach. Descending from my elephant, I greeted her and thanked her for the courage of herself and all the other women, our loved ones.

"Then my friends above handed down gently into my arms the form of the little maid. At sight of my wife's sweet and kindly countenance the eyes of the child were lighted with joyousness. But with a quick motion wife drew her veil completely over her features. Ere this was done, however, I had caught a strange look in her face—a look of mingled sur[Pg 16]prise and terror. At the same moment her old attendant and confidant, Rakaya, flung herself at my feet, and began to babble for my forgiveness.

"'What means this?' I asked, glancing in profound amazement from the woman's prostrate form up into my wife's eyes. There again I read the strangely troubled expression. Puzzled, yet restraining my curiosity before the others gathered around, I placed the wounded child in my wife's arms, and, with a gesture to signify that she and Rakaya were to follow, I led the way to the women's quarters.

"Once within the zenana, I told my story briefly: how the little damsel of the glen had saved me from certain death, and then, through danger and through pain, had been brave as the noblest-born Rajput maid could be. After this recital, I commended the child to my wife's affections, bidding her love the orphan as she would a daughter.

"Then was the lovely countenance of my wife, the jewel of Jhalnagor, suffused with great joy. Hugging the child to her motherly bosom, she exclaimed:

"'Oh, my lord, I have a confession to make, but now you will forgive me. Do you remember our first-born babe?'

"My brow darkened. I felt the hot flush of shame on my cheeks. For our first-born had been a girl, and I—disappointed and aggrieved, because I was then strongly under the influence of my father's teachings, proud of my family's position and wealth, and fearful to be impoverished in the future—had given the[Pg 17] word that the babe must die. This in spite of my wife's pitiful tears and pleadings. And it was not the memory of the deed itself that made me now ashamed, but the memory of those tears and of how I had repelled her. Through the intervening years I had tried never to think of this painful episode, and, with two little boys playing at my knee, had well nigh forgotten the first child that had come. Mention of the dead and buried past now made me resentful.

"'Why do you speak thus?' I asked, angrily.

"'Because, my lord,' exclaimed my wife, dropping on her knees at my feet, yet with the little child still pressed to her breast, and drawing me down to her with her free hand, so that we were all three close together, 'because, oh, my lord, in our arms now this very moment is our first-born, our daughter. We spared her, Rakaya and I; we bribed Runjit, who is now dead, and to whom you gave the terrible orders, and Rakaya smuggled the babe safe away to the cottage of the woodcutters. Since then I have managed to see her sometimes by stealth, and have loved her; but I have never dared to clothe her in any but humble garments—no silks, no bangles, no jewels of any kind—lest suspicion should be aroused.'

"'Oh, great master, forgive your humble slave,' moaned the old crone, Rakaya, grovelling in a corner of the room.

"But to my wife only I paid heed. 'Can this be?' I murmured, surprised and deeply moved.

"'She is our very own, our little girl.' And back into[Pg 18] my arms she placed the child, whose tresses I straightway fell to fondling, as her sweet, trustful eyes looked up into mine, beaming with love as if she had indeed long before divined in her heart that I was her father and her natural protector.

"'And, oh, my dear lord,' continued my wife, her eyes brimming with tears, 'thou knowest now it was to save thee that, in the mysterious workings of fate, this little child was saved.'"

The Rajput paused in his story, bending his head to hide the emotion that caused his lips to tremble. "A month later," he went on, softly, "a little sister was born to Brenda, and only last year a third daughter came to our home. And all, as I have said, are well beloved."

The speaker's face was now upraised. The soldierly sternness had gone out of it: it shone only with paternal pride and love as he added:

"To-day Brenda, our first-born, is the light of my home, and a year hence she will be married to the Rajah of Jodhpur, to make the heart of that great and noble prince of the Rajputs happy for ever-more."

And so ended the Rajput's tale.

There was silence for a time, broken at last by the voice of the ash-besprinkled devotee:

"Allahu akbar! God is great! Over many things he gives his servants power."

[Pg 19]



"Every man's fate is fore-ordained," said the tax-collector, reflectively stroking his beard. "Although we may not understand it at the moment each particular event that happens is simply a means prepared for some destined end that may be many years remote in time. Vishnu the Preserver saved the life of the little maid of Jhalnagor so that her father's life might later on be saved. But none can read the future, so that we are all blindly doing the things of to-day without knowing their real bearing on the things of a far-away to-morrow. And one man can make or mar the happiness of another man, even though their lives be separated by hundreds of leagues in space or hundreds of years in time."

"In your mind doubtless is some tale to illustrate the truth of what you teach," remarked the astrologer, with a shrewd uplifting of his eyebrows. "The stars can help us to read the future, as I can prove to you by a story of actual experience. But before I proceed to my narrative, pray, friend, let us hear from you."

"Gladly," assented the tax-collector. "The story of this noble Rajput has brought to memory an incident in my own life many years ago, likewise serving[Pg 20] to show that the gods prepare long years ahead for the working out of each particular man's destiny. Listen:

"As a youth I was a keeper of accounts in the service of a rich zemindar, whose estate lay in the Country of the Five Rivers. He was a usurer as well as a landowner, as had been his fathers before him for many generations. So in his castle was an accumulation of great stores of wealth—gold and silver and precious stones, cloth of gold, silks, brocades, and muslins, ivory and amber, camphor, spices, dye stuffs, and other merchandise of divers kinds."

The Afghan general stirred, and the scabbard of his sword rattled on the floor as, raising himself from his elbow that rested on a cushion, he sat up and assumed an attitude of keen attention.

"Where is this place?" he asked, a wolfish gleam in his eyes, and his lips curved to a smile that revealed, under the black, curled moustache, the white gleam of sharp-pointed teeth.

The story-teller also smiled, knowingly, and raised a deprecatory hand.

"Nay, friend, this zemindar, my first master, was not fated to be relieved of his treasure, as my story will tell, even though a skilful plot had been laid for his spoliation. Which is the very point of my tale, although I may seem to come to it by a roundabout way of telling."

The Afghan sank back on his cushion, but his gaze remained riveted on his narrator's face.

"One day I was seated in my home, casting up my books of account, for I[Pg 21] had only that morning completed the taking of taxes from the crops of the rayats, the tenants of my lord. All of a sudden a white-robed figure entered the doorway and threw himself prostrate before me. When at last the face was raised I recognized the dhobi of the village that nestled under the hill on which was perched the castle of the zemindar.

"'O thou washer of clothes,' I asked, 'what is thy plaint?'

"'Protector of the poor,' replied my visitor, 'behold my bandaged feet, beaten with rods until they are swollen and torn.'

"I looked, as requested, and saw the blood-stains soaked through the wrappings of linen.

"'Thou art an honest and a peaceful man, Bhagwan. Why this cruel punishment?'

"'I know not, indeed. But I have come to thee, because I have endured the wrong at the hands of thy master.'

"'Tell me thy story.'

"'As you have said, O my protector,' began the dhobi, assuming a sitting posture and spreading the folds of his loose-flowing cotton garment over his bandaged feet, 'I am an honest man. And it is for that very reason I have suffered. Yesterday, among the apparel I received from the home of the zemindar to be made clean and white was the bodice of a woman, and tied in one corner of this piece of raiment was a ring set with bright red stones that[Pg 22] gleamed as if they were aflame. Straightway I returned to the palace of the zemindar, and, entering the audience chamber where, as is his wont at that particular hour each day, he was seated receiving the complaints of the oppressed, did my humble obeisance, and then placed in his hand the jewel I had discovered. He asked me where I had found it, and when I replied truthfully, his eyes flashed with anger, and his voice thundered at me in rebuke. Although I had done no wrong, but rather a virtuous deed, I implored for pardon. But in vain. My mind grew confused, and the next thing I remember was the sharp cut of bamboo rods upon the soles of my feet. I was in a small vaulted chamber, bound to a wooden bench, surrounded by the zemindar's soldiers, and powerless except to scream out in the agony of each blow. Thirty strokes were counted, and then I was flung out of the gates of the castle, to limp my way home.'

"Tears of self-pity were in the dhobi's eyes as he recounted his tale of woe. Even then I was reflecting on the real cause of the zemindar's wrath. The jewel had been discovered in the folds of a garment worn by one of the women in his zenana, and his quick access of anger showed that the gift had come from some other hand than his. Savage jealousy, therefore, had prompted the act of injustice inflicted upon the unfortunate washerman. I knew my master so well his sullen moods, his outbursts of passion, that already I could arrive at this conclusion with certainty.

"'Proceed,' I said, indifferently, for it is well that a[Pg 23] man should keep his own counsel in such delicate affairs. 'What is my concern with your misfortune?'

"'Harken, O dispenser of bounties! Last night when I lay nursing my wounds, I remembered that the ring which had proved the cause of my misery had been wrapped in a fragment of paper whereon were some strange marks and lines as in the books of learned men. This I had flung away, at that time deeming only the ring to be of any consequence. But the thought came to me in the night that perhaps the paper might tell something about the ring. So all this day have I searched among the bushes by the stream where I beat the clothes on stones and wash them. And behold, I have found that for which I have been seeking.'

"Hereupon the dhobi loosened the loin cloth beneath his upper garment, and extracted from its folds a tiny roll of paper. This he presented to me, with a bow of deference to my superior understanding of such things.

"'This time I have come to you,' he said, 'a man of learning and of justice, not like unto the cruel zemindar. Does the paper tell why I should have suffered such shame and pain at his hands?'

"I had unrolled the scroll, the folds of which showed that it had served as a wrapping for the ring. The writing was in neat Persian characters, and I had no difficulty in deciphering it, for the four lines that met my eyes had been recited to me only a few days before by the very man who claimed to be their author.

"Now did my very heart tremble with agitation.[Pg 24] But to the dhobi I appeared cold as the waters of the snows that melt on the mountains.

"'This writing would only add to your troubles,' I said. 'Here, let me destroy it.' And, turning to the red ashes burning in a brazier near at hand, I dexterously substituted a fragment of paper, on which I had been figuring my accounts, for the paper received, from the dhobi, placing the former on the glowing charcoal embers and bestowing the latter in the security of my girdle. A curl of white smoke, a puff of flame, and the work of destruction was, to all appearance, completed.

"'In view of your misfortune, my friend,' I resumed, 'I bestow upon you in the name of my master ten maunds of dal, which will be sent to your home on the morrow.'

"The recipient of this unexpected bounty prostrated himself before me.

"'O prince of justice, no longer do my wounds pain me. The bellies of my children will be filled for many long days to come.'

"'Then go thy way, rejoicing in thy heart even though limping on thy feet. And remember that silence is golden. Say not one word more to anyone about the ring or the paper, your punishment or the reward that has now redressed the wrong. Go in peace.'

"And the dhobi, after profuse expressions of gratitude, hobbled from my presence.

"Alone with my thoughts, I felt sorely troubled. The writer of the verses of ardent poetry written on[Pg 25] the paper brought to me by the washerman was my cherished friend, a youth from far-away Bokhara, Abdul by name. This young man had come to our country only a year or so before, bringing several beautiful Arab horses for sale. These the zemindar had purchased, and had retained Abdul in his service, for the youth was skilled in the management of horses, and in the rearing of young stock.

"Abdul and myself were much of an age, and my regulation of expenditures in the stables had brought us constantly together. So a close friendship had resulted, valued greatly on my side, for I had soon come to know that Abdul was a man of refinement and learning such as I had never before encountered in any man of so humble a calling. And despite the fact that he was a Moslem and I a Hindu, he had chosen me as his intimate friend, his only confidant. Thus had it come about that at times he had read to me of an evening songs of his own composing, and even on occasion had sung them to the accompaniment of a small harp, the strings of which he touched with wondrous skill and sensibility.

"Now did I know that this dear friend of mine had endangered not only his well-being but his life, by sending into the zenana of our master, the zemindar, a love token and a love message for one of the women dwelling there.

"Thus ran the fateful lines, written after the style of the famous Persian poet, Omar the Tent-Maker, which I now read again on the paper withdrawn from my girdle:

This ring, O idol mine, tells one is here
[Pg 26] To bring thee joy, to kiss away the tear.
Keep in thy heart the ruby fire of love;
The hour of thy deliverance is near.

"And, after reading, I felt thankful that the message had not fallen into the hands of the zemindar, else had the intriguer's identity been quickly determined and his fate as quickly sealed.

"Yet the lines breathed the spirit of honourable love, and my heart was stirred to aid my friend in his daring enterprise.

"Patiently during the afternoon I waited, cogitating the while, and counting the chances. At last about an hour before sunset Abdul came to me with his usual gay smile and happy greeting.

"He read trouble in my look, for straightway he asked of me:

"'What is wrong? What matters have gone amiss?'

"I motioned him to sit by my side, and then without more ado told him of the evil turn that had befallen the dhobi, and showed him the quatrain of verses.

"'These you wrote?' I questioned.

"'With my own hand,' he answered, gravely, but without excess of fear.

"'And the ring with the flaming red gems?'

"'Was her mother's own ring. Zuleika would know it in an instant.'

"'Zuleika—who is she?'

"'Listen, my brother, for fate points that to thee should I give my fullest confidence. Zuleika is a maid[Pg 27] of the Turkmans, betrothed to me. But a year ago, when gathering flowers in our valley, she was stolen by roving freebooters. And, true to my love, I have followed her here, to the home of the zemindar, your master, who purchased her from the marauders.'

"'How came you to know that she was here?'

"'Never mind. I am a man of resource and observation, and I tracked the maid. Moreover, gold opens the gates of confidence, and of this I have goodly store.' As he spoke, he touched a pouch that hung from his girdle, 'For I am not, as I may have seemed to you, a mere dealer in horses, but the son of a great chief in my own land.'

"He had drawn himself up proudly, and I bowed my head, in homage as well as in acquiescence. For the news did not surprise me, and in a friend of such noble bearing and high attainments I was well content to recognize an overlord.

"More did he tell me—about a grass-cutter in the stables who had ridden with the robbers, and knew where the captive had been disposed; and about a dancing girl who had carried the ring into the zenana, and brought forth Zuleika's answer in return, telling that she was well, that she was destined as the bride of the zemindar's eldest son, but that she would resist all advances until rescued by her lover, the pearl of her heart, now thrice dear because he had followed her so faithfully and so far.

"Abdul, fearful of danger to Zuleika because of the discovery of the ring, was for instant action—the hiring of bravoes, and a bold attack on the zemindar's[Pg 28] person, taking him unawares, carrying him off and holding him to ransom, deliverance of the captive maid of the Turkmans being the price of his freedom.

"But I had more subtle counsel to offer. For by foreordaining of Providence there rested in my breast certain knowledge, the real use of which was only now being revealed.

"'Harken to me, Abdul,' I said, 'and I shall show you a way out of your difficulties—a way, too, that will lead to the attainment of your heart's desire. Send out to-night relays of horses along the northern road, and reserve for your own use the fleetest and strongest steed in the zemindar's stables. To-morrow morning early the dancing girl will carry a message to Zuleika, bidding her to watch and wait for you near the door in the women's quarters that leads to the treasure room of the zemindar.'

"'Of a surety you jest at me,' interposed Abdul. 'How can I gain access either to zenana or to treasure chamber?'

"'All will presently be made clear. At the appointed place Zuleika must await your coming, to-morrow during the hour of the zemindar's public audience. Him shall I engage in business matters while you carry off your beloved. In this you cannot fail, for God, the Lord of the Universe, pitying and helping you, has long years ago prepared the precise means for the accomplishment of your purpose.'

"'Still do you speak in riddles, friend.'

"Nay; listen, Abdul, and though you, a follower of Mohammed, may think of me as an idol-worshipping[Pg 29] Hindu, you will yet see that the same supreme spirit rules both our destinies, making me the instrument of your happiness, because of certain knowledge which I possess. There is a secret which my father entrusted to me before he died, bidding me to guard it jealously until occasion for its application might arise. And behold now the appointed hour has come.'

"'You know the council chamber of our lord, the zemindar, with its three-and-thirty columns of white marble. These are massive, seeming to have been hewn out of single pieces of rock—base, pillar, and capital all in one, each column in its entirety a single piece of quarried stone. But learn that this is not so, for these monoliths are in reality artificially made, having been fashioned by clever workers from the Coromandel country, who brought with them here supplies of a certain hard white stone, which they first roasted to a great heat, and then ground to the fineness of flour, finally compounding this material with other things, and constructing therefrom the columns of marble you now behold.'

"'Indeed have I marvelled at their size,' commented Abdul, 'and wondered how such mighty blocks of hewn stone could have been obtained or set in place.'

"'Well, you learn now that they were not quarried but moulded. This work was done in the time of my father, when he was treasurer in the service of the zemindar, then a young man. Now, know that the architect of the zemindar's palace was a dishonest knave, for he contrived that one of the three-and[Pg 30]-thirty columns of marble should be hollow, and fitted inside with steps or holding places of iron, so that a lissom man might ascend and gain access to the treasure chamber above. This he confided to my father, seeking to gain him as a confederate in systematically robbing their master. But my father had a heart of gold and a hand of steel, for he slew the would-be thief after disdainfully rejecting his base proposal. Yet did he keep locked up in his own breast exclusively, knowledge of the hollow marble column, and of the sliding sections that gave access to it both above and below. For knowledge is power, he argued, and no man should squander such power any more than he would squander wealth. The destined time would come for the use of the knowledge, and it was in this faith that, just before he died, he confided the secret to me, his successor in the office of treasurer.

"'And with me unto this day the secret has remained. But now at last the workings of fate are disclosed. How old art thou, Abdul?'

"'Four-and-twenty summers,' he replied.

"'Well, a full score years before you were born God so contrived that there should be a means for you to rescue the pearl of your heart, and escape, both of you, back to your own country. Go now and arrange the relays of horses, as I have directed, and when to-morrow's sun has risen, send by the hand of the dancing girl the message to your betrothed within the zenana, bidding her to be prepared. An hour before the zemindar's noontide council I will meet you, and,[Pg 31] conducting you to the vaults below the assembly hall with its three-and-thirty columns of marble, will show you that particular column which, by the touching of a hidden spring, will open a passage way whereby you can climb to the zemindar's treasury. The door of that chamber you can open on the inside, simply by pushing back the wooden bolt which serves as a lock and answers only to a key on the other side. Let the maid be waiting there at the appointed time for your coming. Now go, brother of my soul, and make your preparations. Then sleep, for sleep is the best surety of success when wakefulness and courage come to be required.'

"Next day shortly after the hour of noon, the zemindar was seated in council. He was a big stout man, having waxed fat with age and prosperity. His beard descended to his waist like the moss on an old tree, and, above, his moon-like face surveyed complacently the circle of courtiers, soldiers, and retainers. Petitions had been presented, judgments had been spoken, and affairs of the day had been discussed, and we, the few close counsellors who tarried, were only awaiting the raised hand that would have bidden us go our several ways.

"'Where is Abdul?' of a sudden asked the zemindar, casting a glance of inquiry around.

"'He has been smitten with a fever, my lord,' I answered, taking upon my shoulders the burden of excuse, and telling no falsehood, for surely love is the fiercest burning fever of all.

"'Ah, ha!' muttered the zemindar, in a guttural[Pg 32] note of disappointment. And there and then I saw him toying with a ruby ring, not worn upon one of his fingers, but held lightly between his two hands.

"'Does anyone here know aught of this bauble?' he added, raising the gem aloft.

"There were glances of inquiry from all around, then bows and gestures and murmurs of disavowal. I alone remained irresponsive, for at that very moment every fibre of my being was strained to nervous rigidity. My senses were preternaturally at work. The marble column against which I was leaning with seeming carelessness, vibrated under my hand. Within its circular depths I could see Abdul descending stealthily and slowly, his one free arm pressing a silken bundle to his breast. Even to my nostrils there was wafted the fragrance of attar of roses, and with the exhalations of perfume came a gentle sigh of timidity almost at my very ear.

"I was moistening my parched lips with my tongue, when I awoke from my momentary trance. The zemindar's eyes were blazing down at me.

"'Villain, this ring is yours!' he cried, struggling to his feet.

"'Not mine, my lord,' I protested, flinging myself at full length before him.

"But at that very moment there rang forth the sharp tattoo of a horse's hoofs on the paved courtyard without, followed by the sharp challenge of a sentry, the bang of a matchlock, and then a very babel of excited yelling.

"Every one in the audience hall swept outside, even[Pg 33] the zemindar, his dignity all forgotten. Left alone, with swift consciousness of the suspicion that had fastened itself upon me, and of my powerlessness to deny connivance with the escape of my friend, I gathered myself up and fled by a side passage to a ghat on the river. Here I had a boat prepared for just the emergency that had happened, and because of this happy foresight I am enabled to-day, after more than two score of years, to tell the tale."

"And the zemindar?" asked the Afghan soldier.

"Dead long since."

"The hollow marble column?" pressed the interlocutor.

"Its secret remained unrevealed," replied the tax-collector. "Trusty friends told me later that the flight of Abdul on a fiery stallion, with a female figure clinging to him on the saddle behind, ever remained a mystery. So the youth had had the presence of mind to close the sliding panels above and below."

"He escaped? He lived?" queried the Rajput.

"Assuredly," came the quiet reply. "I have never seen nor heard from Abdul from that day to this. But as destiny had provided, long years before the actual event, a means for the accomplishment of his happiness, I have ever rested content in the belief that all was well with him—that all is well with him even yet perhaps—with him and his beloved in the valley of far-away Bokhara."

"I should like to find that hollow column," muttered the Afghan.[Pg 34]

"As I have said, the column was contrived for love and not for rapine, my friend. Should the white stone from Coromandel that can be cunningly wrought into marble ever cross your fate, be on your guard lest the omen mean, not the gaining of a fortune, but the making of a tomb."

The Afghan smiled, half disdainfully, half uneasily, and silence reigned for a spell.

[Pg 35]



"And now, master star-gazer, your proffered story," said the tax-collector, bestirring the company from its meditative mood.

"As I have promised," responded the astrologer, "I shall recount an experience that shows how the stars, if read aright, can tell us the influences for good or for evil that weigh upon a man and inevitably determine his destiny at the critical moments of his life. What is written is written, and it is impossible to strive against fate."

"Nay," objected the Rajput, "that is a teaching of helplessness to which I cannot subscribe—the pitiful excuse of the coward who folds his hands in the hour of danger, or of the self-indulgent weakling who yields to seductive temptation because his heart inclines to seize the pleasure of the moment even when his conscience counsels otherwise. I hold that man is the master of his own fate. Most assuredly have I been the master of mine," he added with a proud smile, his fingers closing significantly on the handle of a dagger at his belt.

"Be it so," answered the astrologer. "But as Allah knows everything that is to happen, so must it happen."

"Which does not forbid the exercise of my own free will," argued the[Pg 36] Rajput. "The Supreme Being, the presiding power of creation, call him Allah if you will, understanding my heart as he understands all things, knows beforehand what choice of action I shall make at the moment of an emergency. But that still leaves me responsible for the deed which I elect to do. Such is my understanding of destiny. It gives fore-knowledge to God, but leaves free will to man."

"From all of which I do not dissent," rejoined the astrologer. "It is only the ignorant or the base that makes kismet the excuse for helplessness or for wrongdoing. But as the stars under which a man is born influence that man's acts, then does the reading of the stars guide us as to what the future has in store."

"I know little about your stars," replied the Rajput. "But let us have the story," he added, crossing his hands on his knees in an attitude of expectancy. The astrologer, saluting his audience generally with a bow of acquiescence, thus began:

"By your courtesy let me first explain, as necessary to the understanding of the tale which is to follow, that I am from Persia, from the city of Teheran, where for many generations my ancestors were profound students of astrology, some of them famous men because of their skilful divinations, with reputations that reached even to Stamboul. For thither in my early boyhood to the court of the Sultan of the Osmanlis was my father summoned, and him I never[Pg 37] beheld again. It was from my aged grandfather that I learned my first lessons in astrology—about the twelve houses, the ruling star of each day, the coming and the going of the planets, their conjunctions and oppositions, and the influences they exercise on men's lives. I learned with avidity, and was an apt pupil, for at fifteen I had begun the practice of my profession, casting horoscopes and reading the nocturnal heavens with constant care, understanding also the flight of birds and the cries of wild beasts of the jungle.

"Yet at that time was my mind assailed with grievous doubts. I often caught myself wondering whether the stars did really rule the fates of men. And with this inward questioning a restless spirit grew upon me. I longed to see more of the world—to enlarge the sphere of my observations. Just then I chanced to hear some gossip in the bazaars about a great expedition that was getting ready at Kabul to descend upon Hindustan. The hunger of adventure seized me, and was not to be denied. Despite the tears and implorings of my family, I set forth on foot for Afghanistan, a stripling; in my hand the staff I used in my divinations, in the bag slung at my side a single change of raiment. Money I had none, but my ability to read the stars I knew well would earn me a livelihood wherever I might wander.

"With my adventures during the next two years this story has no concern. It is enough to say that, after many vicissitudes of fortune, I found myself installed as astrologer in the court of a Moslem[Pg 38] prince, sovereign over an extensive region in Kashmir.

"My lord was a man of noble heart and of high mental gifts. He ruled over his people not by fear of the sword, but by absolute justice, which he himself personally administered, every day holding audience so that grievances, even those of the most poor, might be heard and wrongs redressed. And his royal duties were shared by his wife, who, although she might sit behind the screen of the women's quarters, none the less shared in the counsels of state, and contributed words of wisdom in the direction of affairs.

"Never in my experience have I encountered such mutual love, trust, and devotion as subsisted between this pair. For no other woman in the world had Mirza Shah thought or regard or desire—I call him Mirza Shah, but that was not his real name. For reasons that will presently appear, I refrain from disclosing the identity of places and persons connected with my story.

"Well, it was my privilege from the outset to be on relations of close intimacy with my master. He used to come through the palace gardens to the shrub-embowered tower which I occupied, and from the roof of which I nightly contemplated the heavens. For long hours he would abide with me, learning something of the stars while enjoying the cool of the night air after the heat and fatigues of the day. And many times of an afternoon the sultana, veiled, would come with her lord, and together they would[Pg 39] seek to gain from me knowledge of the heavenly bodies and of divination. Some things I told to them, but others I withheld, which is just and right, for skill in astrology is hereditary, descending from father to son, and new minds are unprepared for such teachings, so that too much knowledge conveyed to outsiders may become a source of disturbance to themselves and perchance of danger and hurt to their fellow men. Thus, following the rules laid down for me by my grandfather, always, even when closely pressed with questions, did I exercise a discreet reserve.

"Gradually the friendship accorded to me by my lord and his lady waxed stronger, and I found myself being admitted to some of their innermost thoughts. Thus did I come to learn the passionate longing of the wife to become a mother: for six years had she waited, but no child had blessed her love for her husband. As for Mirza Shah, just so soon as the subject was mentioned I could see the cloud of melancholy rest on his brow. And when, as time went on, sadness seemed to settle upon him continuously, I knew full well that this disappointment in his wedded life had at last taken complete possession of his mind, to the exclusion of all other matters.

"And from the sultana's manner I could see the trepidation that filled her heart—the dread that her childlessness might in the end rob her of her husband's love. It was not given to me to look upon her face—to get more than a glimpse of her eyes as they shot an occasional glance at me through the parted folds[Pg 40] of her veil. But in these glances I had read the prayers of entreaty that I should use all the spells of my art in her favour, so as to obtain for her from God the gift of a son.

"Well, after a time an unexpected thing happened. Mirza Shah was absent from his home—gone on a full week's journey, engaged in the settling of some dispute on the confines of his territory. To me there came one afternoon the sultana, attended by one of her women—the most trusted one, I knew, for both were from the same country, near to Amritsar, where the famous rugs are woven. So much I had learned, and this further I also knew, that by birth the sultana was a Hindu, although on being wed to her lord as a little girl, she had of course embraced the true faith of Islam, in so far as it matters for a woman to have any religion at all.

"It was the female attendant who spoke to me, her mistress listening in silence. But the questions came so readily that it was clear the lesson had been well rehearsed by the twain.

"'Astrologer,' she began, 'can you swear on the Koran that the stars speak truth?'

"'That I can swear,' I replied, with due dignity and respect for myself and my profession.

"'Can the stars bring about the wishes of man or of woman?'

"'Nay, that I do not declare. They rule the lives of men and women only in so far as their movements forecast the future. If we can read the stars aright, we may gain foreknowledge of events destined to[Pg 41] happen. For what is written in the scroll of fate cannot be changed. From kismet there is no escape."

"'Then tell me this, O astrologer, from your stars: is my noble lady here ever going to have a child, a son?'

"'That question I cannot answer. Unless I have the horoscope of her highness, cast by skilled hands at the time of her birth, I cannot tell which planet rules her destiny.'

"'Alas, we knew not these things among my people down in Amritsar,' I heard my lady murmur.

"'Bah!' exclaimed the serving woman contemptuously. She had flung open her veil, unashamed as are women of her station that I, not her brother or her husband, should gaze upon her face. It was a pleasant enough face of a woman of five-and-twenty years of age; yet, methought, as I looked into it now, that there was unseemly boldness in her eye and even something of wanton abandonment in her manner.

"'Bah! If your stars cannot get us what we wish, what good are they? Better pray at a Hindu shrine to Krishna, god of love revels, than waste time in consulting a Moslem astrologer. That is what I have said all along, dear lady'; and with undoubtedly great affection the woman folded to her breast her now sobbing mistress.

"I turned away, as was proper, and busied myself with a chart of the heavens over which I had been poring when my visitors had arrived. On again raising my eyes, I found that I was alone.

"This incident I had well nigh forgotten, and near a year had elapsed. For some months I had not seen[Pg 42] the sultana; she remained in the strict seclusion of the harem. Her highness was unwell, most people said. But I knew the truth; Mirza Shah himself had told it to me, his face beaming with pride and pleasure. At last his dearest hopes were to be realized; the sultana was about to become a mother.

"Meanwhile I was on the alert to cast the horoscope of the child the very hour it should arrive. My preparations had been all made for some time past. Now was I only studying the stars night by night, so that I should be the better prepared to read them correctly.

"At last, almost at the midnight hour, came a messenger running to the tower with the news that a child had been born—a son, Allah be praised. Then I set me instantly to my task, and it was with deep thankfulness I saw that the conjunction of the planets and stars was highly favourable. I carefully recorded the exact position of each heavenly body, and had already read from my rough chart strength and valour for the boy that had just been born, beauty of figure, good endowments of mind, when once again I lifted my eyes to the heavens. But to my horror and dismay at that very instant a streak of fire shot from west to east across the first house, straight toward the planet there ruling, where it disappeared. Just the fraction of a second had passed in the passing of that fiery star. But I knew what it meant, for my grandfather had instructed me in this matter. The child into whose horoscope had come this dread intruder was destined, if he lived beyond[Pg 43] infancy, to slay his own father. And with the heaviness of lead this foreknowledge of destiny settled on my soul.

"My head had sunk dejectedly on my breast, when I started up at the touch of a hand on my shoulder, and the greeting of a joyous voice—that of Mirza Shah.

"'A son, Syed Ali, a son. Joy, joy, joy! And now, what do the stars say?'

"Was it cowardice, was it pity, was it sympathy for him in his long deferred happiness, that prompted me to act as I did? Even at this day I myself cannot answer the question. Perhaps it was just unthinkingly on the spur of the moment that I did what I did. Without a word I thrust into Mirza Shah's hand the roughly completed horoscope. There was no note in it of the flaming star that at the last had marred the favourable showing.

"Mirza Shah, under my instructions, had become skilled enough to interpret the general significance of such a diagram with its accompanying symbols.

"'Ah, my friend,' he exclaimed in fervent delight, 'this is indeed excellent. He will be clever and brave and handsome, everything that a father could wish. Get ready the emblazoned scroll at once. Now I shall go. There are others to whom to tell the glad news, and to your mistress even now shall I try to whisper the splendid omens the stars have traced for us here.'

"He tapped the rough chart with a forefinger, then handed it back to me, and was gone.

"Let my story hasten on, just as the years hastened on. The boy grew up[Pg 44] to be a comely lad, much in my companionship, for he came to me to learn to read and write Persian and Arabic. But although I loved him well, never any single day did he come into my sight but my heart was smitten with self reproach. Why had I, by suppressing the truth, allowed this child to live even for an hour beyond the hour of his birth? The foreordained murderer of his good and noble father!—to my eyes the decree of fate was branded on the very brow of the boy.

"Yet did I console myself and justify myself. At times I even dared to indulge a doubting mood as to the certainty of the celestial writing of fate. Could a bright, open-faced child like this one seated at my knee, book in hand, ever come to commit the most abominable of human crimes—to slay his own dearly loving father?

"'Impossible!' I would murmur to myself, and would thus resolutely shut the gates of my heart to the whispering of conscience.

"But in any case it was now too late to speak. The boy was endeared to his father and to his mother, the idol of both their lives. Mirza Shah would have gladly died, well I knew, for his son. Why then should I interfere? Kismet! Let destiny take its course. Even I, in withholding the truth, had been an instrument in the hand of fate. And had it not been written that I should so act? Who, indeed, but Allah can change the course of events?

"By such arguments I became reconciled to abide[Pg 45] with peace of mind the workings of destiny. And so years rolled on.

"When Prince Hasan, as the lad had been named, had attained the age of seventeen, it befell that the Emperor Humayun, son of Baber, made a progress through the Kashmir Valley, receiving homage from his feudatories, among whom was Mirza Shah. And the magnificent retinue of the mighty Mogul so impressed our young prince, that he must needs beg the privilege of joining the imperial bodyguard. This request was readily granted, for Humayun was trying to gather around him the best young blood in Hindustan, Rajput as well as Moslem, so that each race alike might be keen in the defence and proud of the glory of the great Mogul Empire.

"Thus it came about that Prince Hasan, superbly mounted and dressed in a suit of fine chain armour beneath his upper silken garments, rode forth from the valley where he had been reared, accompanied by the tearful blessings of his father and mother.

"A year passed, and then Mirza Shah himself, summoned by special messenger, departed on a visit to the Court at Agra. When two months later he returned, never did I know such a change to have been wrought in so brief a time on any man. He was grey and haggard; his eyes were sunken. And to me he came almost first of all in the palace, to consult the stars.

"And for my better guidance he told me some things. Prince Hasan had fallen into ways of dissipation and habits of drunkenness—most accursed of[Pg 46] vices—in the city of Agra. It was in the hope of reclaiming him that an old friend had called Mirza Shah to the capital. But at the meeting of father and son, instead of repentance on the part of the misguided youth, there had been defiance and revilement, and at last, as the father confessed to me, with the tremor of shame in his voice, an insulting blow in the face. This was too much to endure. Mirza Shah had disowned his son. He declared he was henceforth childless, for, perhaps as I have told you, there had been no other babe born all these years to the sultana.

"Even now did I conceal my guilty knowledge, though well I knew that the inexorable scroll of destiny was beginning to unfold itself. In fact, I was afraid to speak, for Mirza Shah had challenged me straightway to show a flaw in the happy horoscope I had drawn. And flaw in the emblazoned scroll there was none that I could lay finger on; only in my secret heart was the one sinister line traced—surely traced, as I remorsefully reflected.

"For months thereafter Mirza Shah kept away from me—I knew that his faith in the stars or in my skill to interpret them aright had been shaken. But I held my place and kept to the even tenor of my ways, for I had resolved that, if ever Prince Hasan should return home, then assuredly would I be on hand to warn Mirza Shah, so that, the crisis approaching, steps might at least be tried to avert the blow of destiny. Of this I was determined, even though death itself would come to me as the penalty of my long silence.

"But all of a sudden the storm of impending events broke. One day there[Pg 47] came to Kashmir the intelligence that Prince Hasan, incensed at his father's just rebukes, was marching against him with a mighty host gathered together from the forces of his companions in revelry. Preparations for defence on our side were at once made, the armed men gathered in from the surrounding villages, and carronades mounted on the walls and at the gateway of the citadel, which hung on sloping ground, with a precipitous mountain guarding it in the rear.

"Too true proved to be the news. One morning the army of Prince Hasan came into view ascending the valley, and before nightfall the semi-circle of ground beneath the walls of the citadel, at a distance of four or five hundred yards, was occupied by the hosts of our enemy. Among these were both horsemen and foot soldiers, also full two score of great elephants dragging a train of siege guns.

"Now at last were the seals of silence broken from my lips. Without further delay I must tell everything to Mirza Shah. Just as the sun was setting I intercepted him when making a round of the walls, and begged of him to come with me to my tower.

"'Later,' he said, sternly, as he passed on to complete his plans for repelling the assault expected at daybreak on the morrow.

"The night was far advanced when at last my lord came to me, and, to my surprise, clinging to his arm, was his wife, the sultana. I placed cushions for her close to one of the casements, where she had been[Pg 48] wont to sit on the occasions of her visits in days gone by. Without a word she sank into the place thus assigned to her.

"But Mirza Shah strode into the centre of the little circular room, and took his stand right under the lamp that illuminated it.

"'Now what have you to say, thou false astrologer?' he demanded, without word of prelude.

"Then did I take my courage in both hands, and told him everything—that the stars had in truth revealed to me that the son was destined to be his father's slayer, and that in my foolish desire to give the parents immediate joy I had suppressed the incident of the flaming star.

"As my narrative reached the end I watched the changes in the face of Mirza Shah. I had expected anger-righteous anger against my own self, but in place of this there came over his handsome countenance a serene look of happiness.

"'I thank you, Syed Ali,' he said, 'for the service you have done me. Had you told me eighteen years ago what you tell me to-night, then for a certainty would the guilt of murder be now upon my soul. To-day I am indeed in sore sorrow, but, Allah be praised, there is not my own child's blood upon my hands.'

"As he spoke he spread out his palms, as if in testimony of their stainlessness.

"But at that moment a great burst of lamentation came from beneath the sultana's veil, and, in a shrill tone of agony, she began to reproach herself.

"'It is I who am the cause of all this misery,' she wailed.[Pg 49]

"Instantly Mirza Shah bent down and silenced her, then gathered her, almost like a bundle, into his arms.

"'I shall return straightway,' he cried to me, as he disappeared down the narrow stairway.

"Two full hours passed, however, before Mirza Shah came back. His face was white as marble—every feature seemed set, as the sculptor's chisel fixes each line of the carved stone. He spoke to me quite abruptly:

"'Syed Ali, ask no questions, but do my bidding immediately. Yours will be a dangerous task, but it is right that you, who have so long concealed the truth from me, should be called upon to take the risk. The successful accomplishment of your mission is the only reparation I require.'

"'Most gladly will I die for you, Mirza Shah,' I murmured, kissing the hem of his robe.

"'I know it,' he answered, 'and that is why I trust implicitly in you, relying both on your courage and on your discretion. Take this ring,' he went on, handing me a finger ring set with a large turquoise, 'and hide it among your garments. Use your best wits to evade the enemy's outposts. Follow the mountain path. You will get a horse from Abdulla Beg at the head of the gorge. Then ride night and day for Talakabad. There you will go to the house of a man named Gholab Khan, overlooking the town. You will hand to him the finger ring I have[Pg 50] just given you. And this you will say: 'Mirza Shah is dead. You are to come to the person who has sent this ring.'

"'But my lord lives—Allah be praised! he will yet live many a long day.'

"'I like not deceit, Syed Ali, but when deceit has been used, then must deceit reply. Carry to Gholab Khan the ring and the exact words I have spoken: "Mirza Shah is dead. You are to come with me to the person who has sent this ring. Hasten." Gholab Khan will without delay respond to this summons. And here will I await your return,' added my lord grimly, 'for your stars have told me beyond all peradventure that I can hold this citadel until Gholab Khan arrives. Now go. Here is the key for the postern in the wall.'

"I had already tied the ring into a fold of my inner garment, and, taking only my staff, I set forth straightway.

"This is not a story about myself, but about Mirza Shah and his family," said the astrologer, with a glance around his circle of auditors, whose fixed attention showed the keen interest with which they were awaiting the unfolding of the destiny proclaimed by the stars. "So once again will I pass over my adventures. The end of them all was that, ere the passing of a full week, I was back in my little tower, and with me was Gholab Khan. It was night, for we had evaded the besiegers' watchfulness under cover of the darkness by taking the same mountain defile by which I had travelled forth on my expe[Pg 51]dition, and gaining entrance to the citadel by the private gateway the key of which had been entrusted to me.

"I lighted the lamp in the tower, and then turned to Gholab Khan. He was a petty chieftain of the mountains, a handsome man of middle age, resolute-looking and daring. In a few words I bade him wait awhile. Then I stole forth to apprize Mirza Shah that my mission was achieved.

"My lord had given orders to his attendants that he was to be immediately aroused, so soon as I returned, whatever the hour of the night might be. In a moment he strode forth from his sleeping chamber all ready dressed. I started back with affright, for in his hand was a naked sword.

"'Fear not, Syed Ali,' he said to me. 'Where is this Gholab Khan?'

"'In my tower,' I answered.

"'Good,' he replied. 'Come.' And at the word his bodyguard, all with drawn blades, closed around their master.

"About fifty paces from the tower he halted his men, and we two advanced alone.

"I entered the building first. Close behind me, up the winding stairway, pressed Mirza Shah, and I had but crossed the threshold of the room when he thrust me aside.

"'Surrender!' he cried, the point of his sword at Gholab Khan's neck before the latter could utter one word or make any movement in self-defence.

"'Bind his hands,' went on my lord, his enemy[Pg 52] pinned helplessly against the wall. Gholab Khan dared not move, but his bulging eyes mutely protested.

"I did as I was told, using a turban cloth gathered from a peg on the wall. Of my own accord I tied ankles as well as wrists. Then Mirza Shah dropped his sword.

"'Now leave us,' he said to me. 'I wish some words with this man. Remain on guard below. Permit no one to intrude.'

"Some time passed. At the base of the stairway I could hear the voices from above, but could distinguish no words. Then came a call from Mirza Shah, bidding me to ascend.

"'Syed Ali,' he said, on my entry into the room, 'this man, Gholab Khan, has to-night had the choice between two alternatives, either to die here now at my hands, or to set forth at dawn and fight in single combat the leader of my beleaguering enemies. He has chosen the latter—the wise course.'

"'The only course,' interpolated Gholab Khan, with a shoulder shrug of protest. The fellow had recovered his equanimity, and, knowing him as I did from our few days of travel in company, I reflected that in mortal combat he would be likely to give good account of himself. But there was no time to indulge in surmises. Mirza Shah still claimed my attention.

"'My men will guard our guest here,' he continued. 'Food will be served to him.'

"'And some wine, please,' growled Gholab Khan.

"'Wine, too, then, if you will,' assented Mirza Shah, contemptuously,[Pg 53] for he never by any chance used the fermented juice of the grape forbidden by the Prophet, and now rendered doubly hateful to him by reason of his son's excesses. 'At dawn weapons will be brought to you, and six horses from among which you can make your choice. Meanwhile the challenge will have gone forth. And once again, in the presence of this witness, I pledge my word that if you return successful from the combat, Gholab Khan, having killed your man, then will you be free to return unscathed to your home at Talakabad, and with a lac of rupees for your pains.'

"'Bismillah! I would fight any day and with any man for such a prize,' cried Gholab Khan, his face all aglow, showing that, despite the kidnapping trick played upon him, he was now well pleased.

"'That is good,' said Mirza Shah, coldly.

"Then he blew a shrill whistle, which straightway brought the guard running to the tower.

"But my narrative must hasten. With the first morning light a messenger, his mission announced by the blare of trumpets, went forth from the citadel, daring Prince Hasan to single combat with a champion fighting on behalf of Mirza Shah. There came back, as we expected, an exultant acceptance of the challenge.

"The sun had mounted only spear-high when Gholab Khan, armed with lance and sword, rode out through the gates of the citadel. For his reception the whole host of our enemies had been drawn up,[Pg 54] and in the middle of the curved line was the massed troop of some forty elephants, their howdahs crowded with spectators eager to witness the joust at arms.

"From my observation tower Mirza Shah and I watched the scene. Although my mind was clouded with all manner of uncertainties, yet in my heart was a faint flutter of hope. Would this mountain fighter break the spell of the stars, and actually kill Prince Hasan, before the latter could accomplish the portended crime of dealing death to his father? I was torn by distracted arguments; at one moment I believed firmly as ever in the stars, at the next my trust was in the lance of the burly freebooter I had brought down with me from the mountains.

"With bated breath I watched the combat—first the riding at full tilt; the thud of the galloping horses we could hear at this distance. But both lances were successfully parried, and a moment later the combatants had leaped with one impulse from horseback, and were rushing upon each other with swords. We saw the mirror-like flash of the blades in the morning sun.

"Then next I beheld one figure go down, and, while I was yet wondering which of the twain had fallen, a mighty shout of triumph from the beleaguering army told me, alas! that it was our champion who had been worsted. And now a dissevered head raised high on sword-point by Prince Hasan told the bloody tale with final certainty. Gholab Khan was not only down but dead. At this display of the[Pg 55] gruesome trophy of victory there were further frantic yells of delight from the assembled hosts across the valley. The sack of our citadel and town seemed now assured to them.

"I just glanced at Mirza Shah. To my surprise his face wore a look of perfect calm, and, on meeting my eyes, there came a gleam of triumph into his.

"'The stars were right,' he exclaimed, in a low, tense voice. 'Praise be to Allah! All is well. A base bibber of wine shall never rule over my people and destroy their happiness, for now that he has fulfilled his destiny Allah will assuredly deliver him into my hands.'

"I was perplexed. So far from Prince Hasan's destiny having been fulfilled, it appeared to me that the dread tragedy foretold by the stars was inexorably drawing nearer and nearer—the death of Mirza Shah at the hands of his unworthy son, a bibber of wine, as he had contemptuously called him.

"While this thought was passing through my mind, all of a sudden there arose another mighty tumult, this time from our side—a shout of astonishment, followed by cries of delight. But the roar of voices was quickly drowned by the thunder of mighty hoofs and the excited trumpeting of elephants. Turning round, I saw at a glance what had happened. The elephants, frightened by the first wild huzzas of victory, had stampeded, and were madly careering in a solid body across the plain.

"Prince Hasan, as he held aloft the severed head of[Pg 56] his adversary, saw the oncoming danger. He made a dart for his horse, but the animal, terrified by the noise and confusion, leaped forward, and was gone up the valley like the wind.

"The youth made no attempt to run. It would have been useless. Yes, be it admitted, he died like a man. Ere the elephants were upon him, he had folded his arms across his breast, calmly prepared to meet his doom. In another instant he was whirled through the air, like a straw caught up by a tornado; then the living, irresistible billow swept over him.

"My eyes were still glued in frozen horror to the scene. The screaming of the frightened troop of elephants had receded into the distance. Out on the open, through a haze of dust, I saw the blot of coloured raiment that showed where the body of Prince Hasan lay. And for the moment there was naught but pity in my heart for the youth who had played by my side, and gathered knowledge, if not wisdom, from my lips.

"But a hand was laid on my shoulder, and, turning round, I looked into the face of Mirza Shah. It was lighted by a smile of stern satisfaction.

"'Syed Ali, as you have ever declared, even though I have detected that your faith at times has wavered, the stars cannot speak falsely. He died, that dog out there, but not until he had slain his own father.'

"'His own father!' I stammered. The truth began to break in upon my dazed brain.

"'Yes. It is right that you at least should have the explanation, if for no other reason than to confirm[Pg 57] your trust in the stars. Beguiled to wrong by the arguments of a serving woman, the sultana had a son. It is a shameful story, yet do I know that she begot the child out of pure love for me. Hasan was no son of mine. Enough! I have spoken. You can guess the rest.'

"Mirza Shah paused. I could but drop my eyes and remain silent, for I dared to make no comment.

"After a brief pause he resumed:

"'In the end she confessed everything to me, that night when you revealed to us the full truth of what the stars had foretold. As for me, I helped the stars to run their courses: that is why I sent for Gholab Khan. Now, you who know my secret, travel away far from here. Respect the confidence I have given you. There is a bag of gold for you in my treasurer's charge. We part friends, Syed Ali. Fate, working through you, its blind instrument, spared the child so that my shame might be fully atoned. Now go, for I, too, must be up and doing. One timely sally now from the citadel, and yonder disordered host will be swept back whence it came.'

"The result was as Mirza Shah had predicted. The beleaguering army fled at the first onslaught, leaving many hundreds of dead on the field to keep the mangled corpse of their leader company.

"So, you see, my friends," commented the astrologer, concluding his tale, "as Mirza Shah most truly said, the stars cannot speak falsely. Never again have I doubted. The destiny read by me in the heavens that night when the sultana's babe was born was fulfilled in every detail."

"And the faithless wife?" asked the Rajput. "What became of her?"[Pg 58]

"Nay, do not presume to judge her," protested the astrologer. "Judgment is for Allah. When Mirza Shah returned from his victorious charge, it was to find his sultana dead on the roof of the women's quarters. She had seen her son—yes, her son, her own flesh and blood, although not her husband's—pounded to death under the elephants' feet. So the unhappy mother had pierced her breast with a dagger, and, by her side, similarly self-slain, lay the serving woman who had miscounselled her to wrongdoing, yet, as I could quite well comprehend, from motives of sincere affection, to safeguard for her her husband's love and to give her the joy of motherhood for which she craved.

"Mirza Shah lived and ruled well for five-and-twenty years longer. He remained to the end a childless man: Allah had decreed it so. But he ever revered the wife who had loved him so well, for she had sinned because of her very love for him, nor had she persisted in her sin. Mirza Shah built to her memory a splendid mosque, and these are the words engraved on her tomb beneath the central dome, showing how her virtues were esteemed and her one act of wrong was forgotten:

"'Before my tomb, O stranger, stay thy way,
Reflect on fate's inexorable decree;
But yestere'en I was as thou to-day,
What I am now to-morrow thou wilt be.
Right good the grave for those whom good deeds bless,[Pg 59]
Gentle the rest of them who tried to spread
Around their lives the balm of gentleness.
Trustful in God repose the worthy dead.
For such as they the living need not weep—
Their death is only faith-abiding sleep.'

"By her side now lies her husband, at rest and in peace, for only death brings true rest and peace. And even now, after many years, I am on my way to pay a pilgrimage to the tombs of that truly noble man and his good—aye, his worthy—spouse, for, as I have said, let no man take upon himself to judge her. Allah alone can search the hearts of men."

[Pg 60]



"Allah alone can search the hearts of men," said the hakeem, slowly and reflectively repeating the words with which the astrologer had closed his tale. He was a man of venerable appearance, with flowing, white beard that descended to his waist. And yet, although his face was furrowed with the lines of old age, his eyes were wonderfully youthful in their contemplative calm.

"No truer words have been spoken to-night," he continued. "Yet must we further reflect that, while a man cannot sit in judgment upon his fellows, he can assuredly judge himself, which goes to show that within the breast of every man there dwells the very spirit of God, the power to search his own heart, whether in condemnation or for approval. Life is a problem, and it requires a full lifetime to solve it. Only as we grow older do we come to know our own souls—our strength and our weakness, the measure of our true nobility of character and likewise the measure of our inherent meanness, the temptations not merely from without but from within that assail us, our power to conquer these or our miserable yielding at times, with no one, perhaps, even guessing at our degradation except the divine spark of[Pg 61] conscience that inexorably turns a searching ray on every thought and on every motive for action."

"So you would argue that man is God?" queried the Rajput.

"Not so, but that the soul of man is of the essence of God, the proof of which is this very power of searching out our own hearts and sitting in judgment on our own failings: for the judgment seat belongs to Allah alone."

"A subtle philosophy which I do not presume fully to understand," interposed the merchant from Bombay.

During the night's entertainment he had shown himself to be a man of few words, yet an attentive listener. He was of middle age, of a mild dignity of mien, and of robust physique, as befitted one accustomed to long journeys through regions infested with robbers or with beasts of prey.

"But in my practical experience of life," he proceeded, "I have come to realize that, while I may know myself, no other man can I know. Therefore, if it be right to be sparing of condemnation for another, it is also wise to be chary of undue commendation. The world too often acclaims a deed as noble when the real motive prompting it is utterly ignoble."

"A true philosopher, despite your bales of merchandise," murmured the hakeem, with a smiling nod of approval for the sentiments expressed.

"Well, I suppose that every one who travels becomes a philosopher, more or less," assented the[Pg 62] trader. "Change of scene and of companionship stimulates new ideas. Now will I relate an actual experience which aptly illustrates that, in our dealings with those around us, we never really penetrate their minds. Man knows himself; he knows no one else—friend or intimate, the child of his heart or the very wife of his bosom."

"It is more easy to discover a white crow," muttered the fakir, "than know what a woman has in her heart."

The merchant paid no heed to the interruption. He went on:

"Each of us is an inscrutable mystery to the other. Each soul is veiled to every other soul, and is naked to itself alone."

"O prince of philosophers in pedlar's disguise!" murmured the hakeem.

"If our souls sat naked for the common gaze," commented the Rajput, "if we could all read each other's hearts, then indeed would life be an abomination—an utter misery, with the twin devils of shame and disgust seated at our elbows all the time."

"Most true," concurred the trader. "For too much knowledge of another's inmost thoughts brings only disillusionment and regret, as my tale will show. The story takes us among humble people, but human nature is the same everywhere—the same in the hut of the rayat as in the palace of the rajah.

"Once in every two years it is my custom to travel from Bombay to Benares, and invariably I break[Pg 63] the journey at a certain village some six or seven days from my final destination. Here dwells an old friend and caste brother, formerly, like myself, a merchant in the Bombay bazaar where silken stuffs are sold, but retired now to his own country with modest savings sufficient for the rest of his days. Baji Lal, as he is named, is all the closer to me because his wife Devaka is a sister of my own wife, and the two are always eager to have news of each other's welfare.

"At the house of this friend I rest for a day or two, enjoying his companionship, the reminiscences of old times, and the gossip of the hour. So, on my long and fatiguing journeyings, I have always looked forward to these meetings with pleasurable anticipation and remembered them with tranquil satisfaction.

"But on the occasion of one of my periodical visits judge of my surprise when I was received in silence and with apathy that made no pretence at disguise. Devaka did not rise from her cushions on the floor to bid me welcome, and her husband, similarly irresponsive, returned my customary cordial greeting with nothing better than a look of wearied dejection.

"Disturbed, I made inquiry:

"'Baji Lal, my friend, what is the matter? Are you ailing?'

"But he only shook his head, and turned away.

"To Devaka I then appealed.

"'What is the meaning of this?' I asked. 'Sadness and silence where everything used to be joy.'

"She drew aside the sari that had concealed her face, and I was shocked[Pg 64] at its grief-stricken aspect. Her trembling lips parted to answer me, but her husband checked her with a sharp word, such as I had never heard him use to her before. Her eyes filled with tears, and I could see the big drops rolling down her cheeks as she silently replaced the sari over her head, and, bending low, rocked herself to and fro.

"For the moment I imagined that I had intruded on some scene of domestic unhappiness which would be dissipated in an hour. So, hiding my embarrassment, I turned to the door, intimating that I would seek some other lodging for the night, and return on the morrow, when I hoped my friends would be in fitter mood to receive me.

"At last Baji Lal spoke, raising his face but still remaining seated on the divan we were wont in former times to share.

"'Go thy way, Chunda Das,' he said. 'The sword of fate has descended upon this house. Come not again to a place accursed.'

"Then did I realize that the trouble was serious.

"'But, my friend and brother,' I protested, 'I cannot depart and leave you thus. Let me at least understand what calamity has befallen you, so that I may help toward its repair.'

"'Nothing can be done, so nothing need be said,' he answered, in a tone and with a look of dignified resignation to the will of God. 'If you must have the story of our misfortune, you have only to ask the first of our neighbours you encounter.'

"And he, too, covered his face with his garment, leaving me no choice[Pg 65] but to withdraw without further attempt at this manifestly inopportune time to probe the mystery.

"If I was to be of service to my friends, however, knowledge of what had befallen was the first essential. So I took the road that would lead me to the great pipul tree in the village square, close to the tank and to the temple, where all day long there was coming and going, and where therefore I would be most likely to glean the information I desired. By a happy chance I found reclining under the pipul tree the village barber, a loquacious fellow, who counted it as part of his business to know the last detail about other people's affairs.

"After greetings, and a few remarks about the weather and the crops and the season's epidemics, I carefully broached the real purpose of my interview, for a prudent man will never divulge his thoughts to another until he knows that other's thoughts.

"'I have just come from the house of Baji Lal,' I said, in a seemingly casual way.

"The barber's face instantly lost the smile it had worn.

"'How did you find him?' he asked.

"'Strangely altered,' I replied.

"'And so does every one,' he concurred.

"'Why so?' I ventured.

"The barber looked at me squarely, and then said:

"'You and he were very good friends, Chunda Das.'

"'Yes, and are still, so far as I am concerned,' I answered.[Pg 66]

"'I thought so. Well, I am his friend likewise. Many years I have known him and his wife, Devaka. Both are good, kind people, always willing to help their neighbours, and ready to give their last bowl of rice to a vagrant beggar. Perhaps you can assist me to clear away the shadows that have fallen around them and obscured the sunshine of their home. Let me tell you the story. A few months ago a stranger came to this village. He was on his way to Fathpur-Sikri, to witness the glories of the court of the mighty Akbar. But on the road he had fallen ill, and, arriving here, was too sick to proceed. I am ashamed to say that none of us were willing to take him in, for sickness goes from one person to another. So we have to be careful, especially in my calling, where I come into such close contact with so many.

"'There was quite a little crowd just here by the tank, discussing the situation, the sick man in their midst resting upon the ground, when Baji Lal and his wife, who happened to be passing, came forward to see what the commotion was all about. They listened to the story, and then told the stranger he might come with them. He gratefully accepted, and, after whispering some instructions to a servant by whom he was accompanied, he motioned to Baji Lal to lead the way. The little group moved off, the servant in the rear, leading the horses, which included a pack animal laden with the traveller's bedding, cooking pots, and other belongings.

"'After unloading the baggage at Baji Lal's home, the servant, as we[Pg 67] learned later in the day, had, in obedience to orders, straightway mounted his horse, and ridden away. He had exchanged no words with any of us.

"'For weeks Baji Lal and his wife attended to the wants of the invalid, until at last he was able to move about the village, and talk with one and another. From the first we had recognized the stranger as a man of distinction. Now we learned his name—Sheikh Ahmed, a Moslem, I need not say. But in these days of Akbar all religious feuds are to be set aside, this by direct command of the Emperor himself—blessed be his name and exalted his glory! So this follower of the prophet was made quite welcome among us, a community of Hindus.

"'Day by day the Sheikh regained his strength, and often would he come of an evening when the village folk gathered under this pipul tree, listening to the chit-chat going on, sometimes joining in the conversation. Soon he began to tell us stories of far lands, for he had travelled to many distant places, even outside of Hindustan, so we grew to like him, and to watch each evening for his coming.

"'But all of a sudden he disappeared from our midst. The day before he had been with us, sitting almost on the very spot where you are seated now. He did not say he was going away, nor even hint that he intended doing so. When Baji Lal was questioned, he said that the servant had returned during the night with saddle and pack horses, and that, after[Pg 68] conferring with Sheikh Ahmed, had gathered together his master's belongings, and announced their immediate departure. Baji Lal had tried to persuade his guest to wait until daylight, but this advice was unheeded. The Sheikh promised, however, that he would come again to the village when he passed that way on his homeward journey.

"'At this time Baji Lal's story seemed a perfectly natural one, and the people only regretted that they had not had the opportunity of bidding the Sheikh farewell. Still the prospect of soon seeing him again softened this regretful feeling.

"'And now began the change in our friends. Baji Lal ceased to come to our village meetings, and Devaka shunned every woman, even her most intimate friends. For a while this strange behaviour did not attract special attention, although noted and commented on afterwards. For just a few days after Sheikh Ahmed had gone away the monsoon had burst, and the stormy weather would account for Baji Lal and his wife remaining much at home. But as time wore on, and their furtive ways grew more and more pronounced, people began to talk, and from talking they took to watching and spying. For, believe me, there is nothing so all-absorbing as for once respected and well-thought-of people to be under a cloud. We allow our imaginations to run riot, and our tongues do not rust for want of wagging.

"'Thus suspicion gradually filled the air, and it was whispered that Baji Lal and Devaka had murdered their guest for his money, and had merely invented[Pg 69] the story of his midnight departure to hide their crime. Children who once used to run to them shrank back, or were called away by their parents.

"'But, most extraordinary thing of all, and one that brought convincing confirmation to what had at first been mere suspicion, at night there could be heard heartbreaking cries and sobs coming from the house of Baji Lal. The voice was not his, nor that of his wife; it was, in all truth, the wail of a spirit, plaintive at times, then angry as if shrieking aloud for vengeance. For I myself have heard these sounds with mine own ears; twice in the darkness of the night I mustered courage to steal forth as far as the hedge that hides the house from the roadway, and, although the monsoon winds were still boisterous, above all other noises again and again arose that wail of a soul in anguish. Others, too, went to listen, and fled from the place in terror. And soon the house of Baji Lal came to be shunned by every one as if it had been plague-stricken.

"'Now you understand why your old friends greeted you with woe-begone looks. The inner meaning of the story I do not know, but I have told you the facts that are in my possession. And glad shall I be if you can conceive any solution for the mystery, and free Baji Lal and his wife from the terrible accusation of having murdered the man who was their guest within the gate and had eaten of their salt. If you cannot, then we must just say kismet, I suppose. Man cannot strive against fate.'

"'Is it your belief, Bimjee,' I asked, 'that the[Pg 70] stranger was really done to death in Baji Lal's home?'

"'No,' he answered decisively. 'But all the same, I have the evidence of my own ears that a curse has fallen upon the place.'

"For the moment I made no further comment, but sat silent, revolving the strange story in my mind. My reverie, however, was of short duration, for all of a sudden Bimjee sprang to his feet in great excitement.

"'Look, look,' he cried, pointing to a crowd of villagers coming in our direction. 'At last they have laid hold of Baji Lal and his wife, and are bringing them here for punishment.'

"Bewildered by the suddenness of this blow, I could but watch in helpless silence the advancing throng, with my poor friends in their midst, their hands bound, their tottering footsteps directed by rude shoves towards the pipul tree, the accustomed assembly place of the villagers and the village council.

"A minute later, however, I had regained my self-possession, and when the procession came abreast of me, I stepped in front of it and commanded a halt. Courtesy to me as a visitor to the village was sufficient to exact this measure of obedience. But when I demanded that the ropes should be cut and the prisoners liberated, a storm of angry protests was the only result.

"The leader of the crowd approached me, and in a respectful voice said they were sorry to refuse my[Pg 71] request, but a crime had been committed that disgraced the whole community. The spirit of a murdered man haunted the house of Baji Lal and Devaka, and cried to heaven for vengeance. The villagers would never prosper if they allowed this foul deed to pass unpunished; why, only that very morning a strange sickness had seized some of their cattle, and two sacred cows had died in spasms of pain—an omen from the gods that could not be disregarded.

"I saw that it was useless to argue with the man. But I made another attempt to have the prisoners' bonds at least loosened, for I could see that the cords bit cruelly into their arms. After some consultation this point was conceded. Baji Lal shot at me a look of gratitude, but his poor little wife merely used her freed hands to hide her face in the folds of her sari.

"'Now my friends,' I cried boldly, 'this case must be properly tried. Where is the patel?'

"I had noticed that the headman of the village was not present, and in asking for him had in mind that he was my personal friend, so that I might appeal to him with better success for the release of the prisoners.

"'The patel is away on a day's journey,' cried a voice in the crowd.

"'Then must the accused be taken to the village constable,' I declared, 'and kept by him until the patel returns and the council of elders can be properly assembled.'

"My bold assumption of authority had stilled the[Pg 72] tumult, and to my surprise every one now seemed willing to do my bidding.

"'Come along then,' cried several voices, as the prisoners were once more urged forward. I kept close by their side, and when we gained the constable's house and the staked enclosure that served as a place of detention, I too passed within, leaving the leaders of the crowd to guard the gateway.

"When we were alone, Baji Lal and Devaka threw themselves at my feet, and thanked me for the aid I had rendered them.

"'My children,' I said, as I raised them up, 'were I not assured in my own mind that there is some grievous mistake, and that you can explain the mysterious disappearance of your guest, I should not be here by your side. But tell me your story, and I shall advise you to the best of my powers.'

"Baji Lal lifted his eyes, and gazed at me mournfully but fearlessly.

"'Chunda Das,' he began, 'you have known me now for many years. Have I ever done aught to shake your confidence?'

"'Never,' I affirmed.

"'Have you ever heard me tell a lie?'

"'Never,' I again replied.

"'Well, then, you will believe me when I say that I told the truth in declaring that the stranger went away in the night. His servant came back all in a hurry for him, and he would not tarry even until daylight, although I pleaded with him to stay.'

"'I believe you,' I said, for, even apart from my[Pg 73] prior trust, the man's look convinced me that he was speaking true words.

"'Yes, this is the simple truth,' he went on. 'And yet'——here his voice faltered, and he glanced down pityingly on his wife crouched upon the ground, rocking herself and wringing her hands. 'And yet I know, we know, Devaka and I, that Sheikh Ahmed has been murdered.'

"I started aghast, and involuntarily drew my garments around me.

"'Nay,' he said reproachfully, reading my unacknowledged and almost unformed thought, 'but not at our hands, Chunda Das.'

"'Then how do you know that he is dead?' I questioned, already ashamed that a doubt could have crossed my mind as to my friends being art and part in such a dastardly deed. 'What makes you think so?'

"'I do not think; I know,' he said decisively. 'And I will tell you why. The night after the Sheikh left was cold and windy, for the monsoon was approaching. Devaka and I were sitting together, and as we listened to the wind blowing outside she expressed the hope that our guest was safely at his destination, for in his state of health the inclement weather would be harmful. Before I could answer her we were startled to hear quite close to us a faint cry. I got up and looked around, and so did Devaka, for she is brave, my wife. But we could not find anything to account for the disconcerting sound.

"'We sat down again, but before long we heard once[Pg 74] more the wailing cry, louder now and more prolonged. We started up, and this time went outside in spite of the rain carried by the lashing wind. However, we could discover no one—neither man nor beast. So we went in again, and shut the door.

"'And all that night long this strange thing continued. Sometimes the sound was softly sobbing, then it would grow to a heartbreaking wail. We could not go to bed. Fear kept us awake, for we had come to the conclusion that it was the spirit of Sheikh Ahmed trying to make us understand that he had been murdered on the road.

"'Day after day, and night after night we were haunted by the cries and sobs of this spirit. Can you wonder that our hearts grew weak from fear, that we shunned our neighbours lest they should enter our dwelling and, hearing these sounds, suspect that we had done some grievous wrong? That is my story, Chunda Das.'

"And the strong man sank to the ground, as he buried his face in his hands.

"'It is even a relief to be here,' he cried, in broken tones, 'here, prisoners in this place of shame, because at least we are no longer haunted by the voice of the dead Sheikh.'

"He flung his hands out in an abhorrent gesture, and raised tear-filled, pleading eyes to mine.

"I had been listening intently to Baji Lal's story, and had watched the changes on his impassioned face. When the tale was ended, Devaka threw herself prone at my feet, and pressed her lips to the hem of[Pg 75] my robe. I was touched by her silent beseeching, though I hastily, and I fear roughly, commanded her to arise.

"'Dear friends,' I said, 'this is indeed an extraordinary occurrence. And how I can help you is more than I at present know. But rest assured that I will exert myself to the utmost to remove from your heads the infamy of such an accusation.'

"I mused awhile, then put a few questions as to the personal appearance of the stranger, Sheikh Ahmed, and also that of his servant, the exact hour of their departure, and the direction in which they had gone. After learning these things, I took my leave, commending Baji Lal and his wife to the care of the constable, whose promise that nothing would happen to his prisoners until the patel's return I sealed with a handful of rupees.

"This matter settled, I strolled back to the pipul tree beside the tank, thinking that it might be useful to pick up the remarks of the loiterers. But to my surprise I found virtually the whole village in assembly, and to my dismay soon gathered that it was their fixed intention to kill Baji Lal, give to Devaka the privilege of committing suttee, and then burn down the haunted house whence the accusing sounds came, making of their own home the funeral pyre of both victims.

"I plucked my beard in my distress; I felt so helpless. If only the headman was here, together we might have devised something. But alone I was powerless. Plunged in gloomy forebodings, I did not notice the[Pg 76] approach of the barber, until he touched my sleeve to announce his presence.

"'You have heard what they mean to do?' he asked.

"I nodded.

"'We must save them, Chunda Das. But I beg of you not to place any reliance on the patel's coming, for he sides with the rest of the villagers, and will help them to deal out the swift justice which he believes to be well deserved. Besides it was his cows that died this morning.'

"At this statement, then indeed my last hope was gone. For we were far away from any town where I could have invoked the aid of the Emperor's soldiers. I shook my head despairingly.

"'Oh, yes, Chunda Das, you will devise some way,' protested the barber, reading the hopelessness in my mind. 'You have a fleet horse, and can ride after Sheikh Ahmed, find him, and call him back again. Or, if he be really dead, you can bring word of how his end came.'

"'Will there be time for all this?' I asked dubiously.

"'We must make time,' he answered. 'The patel will be back before long. You can use the interval in getting some food, and in preparing for the road. I think your influence with him will at least secure delay for some days, until you can return with the information in quest of which you go. But mark my words, unless the Sheikh shows himself, or you can prove how he met his death on the road, then assuredly will the doom of our friends be sealed.'

"'Very well,' I said, contented in my mind; for if my search for Sheikh[Pg 77] Ahmed failed, I could bring back with me some of our master Akbar's soldiery to rescue the prisoners.

"During the afternoon the headman returned, and I lost no time before interviewing him. I told him how firmly convinced I was that Baji Lal and Devaka were innocent, and that I would prove it if he gave me the chance to do so. At first he shook his head, but on my promising that the unfortunate couple would in the interval make no effort to escape, and that I would surely be back in two weeks' time whether or not success in my mission attended me, he yielded to my entreaties, the less reluctantly because I further undertook to pay him the value of his dead cows.

"So, after a brief good-bye visit to Baji Lal and his wife, I set forth on my journey.

"Six days later I entered the bazaar of Punderpur. I went to a travellers' rest house with which I was familiar, to see whether I could glean any information as to the present whereabouts of Sheikh Ahmed, who, in his travels, I had discovered, had been making for this place.

"Seated around the courtyard of the caravanserai were many visitors and their friends of the town. With some of the latter I was acquainted, but for the present I only returned their greetings with a silent salaam. I was anxious to meet with an old friend, a munshi, learned in many languages, whose profession kept him on the outlook for the numerous travellers from distant parts who passed this way.

"I had just espied the man of whom I was in quest, seated at some[Pg 78] distance among a group of idlers, when I was accosted by a stranger handsomely accoutred and of line bearing. He said that he had heard I was recently arrived from Sengali. He had friends in that village, and would be glad to hear of them.

"I told him that for the present I was occupied with pressing business, but a little later I would be at his disposal, and pleased to give him any information in my power. He thanked me courteously, and said he would return in the evening, when, perhaps, I would be more at leisure. I had cut short this interview, paying, indeed, little heed to the stranger, for I had noticed that my friend, the munshi, not knowing of my presence in the inn, was in the act of taking his departure. I hastened after him.

"The venerable munshi was delighted to see me, and insisted on my sharing his evening meal. We moved in the direction of his home, and he gave me the chit-chat of the day. Until our repast was finished I did not mention the object of my visit. Only after we were comfortably seated on the veranda, enjoying the cool night air, did I approach the subject, discreetly, as was fitting, by talking on topics quite at variance from the one in my mind. But after a time I ventured to ask whether many travellers had passed recently. He looked at me shrewdly and smiled.

"'At last, my friend, you tell me the reason of your coming here. You are in search of some one.'

"'Truly I am,' I replied, 'and it is a matter of life or death to find[Pg 79] the man I am seeking.'

"Thereupon, without further preamble, I related the story of Baji Lal and the missing Sheikh.

"At the end of my narrative Munshi Khyraz—such was my host's name—sat silent for a spell. I knew my friend, and allowed him his own time to make any comment. Presently he broke from his reflections.

"'About the time you mention,' he began, 'just before the first rains, a stranger was brought into this town by some woodcutters. Their story was that the wounded man had been attacked by his servant when travelling, and left for dead in the jungle.'

"I started, and leaned toward him eagerly.

"'A clue!' I cried. 'A clue! Where is he now?'

"The old sage looked at me with disapproval in his eyes.

"'Excitement and impetuosity of speech are for the young, my friend,' he said, gravely. 'They are not becoming in the matured.'

"I lay back again on my cushions, feeling justly censured. The light of displeasure dying from his eyes, the munshi proceeded:

"'I had the victim of this outrage carried to my house, and, his wounds not proving serious, he was soon well, and able to think of resuming his journey. He was very reticent concerning the motive of his servant for attempting his life, and foolishly, to my mind, made no effort to trace the miscreant. When leaving he said that in all probability he would return this way a few weeks later. So, my friend, he[Pg 80] may be here any day, for it is a good long while since he left.'

"Repressing my eagerness this time, I sat still for a few minutes, then said:

"'I think it is certain from what you have told me that the wounded man was the one I am now seeking.'

"'Perhaps, perhaps, but only time will decide,' he replied, cautiously. 'You must wait and see.'

"'Wait! wait!' I cried, impatiently. 'There is no time to wait. I must act, and that quickly.'

"The munshi looked at me commiseratingly, but contented himself with a shrug of his shoulders.

"Just then a servant approached, and whispered in his master's ear. The old man sat up from his half-reclining attitude, and methought for a moment that an amused smile crept over his face.

"'Admit him,' he said to the attendant. 'Admit him at once.'

"Then, turning to me with his accustomed gravity, he added in explanation: 'A friend of mine has called. He is an interesting man, and I want you to know him.'

"I was about to protest that I had not come there to make new acquaintances, when the curtain was pushed aside, and none other than the stranger who had addressed me at the caravanserai stepped on to the veranda. He crossed over to the master of the house, and greeted him affectionately. I decided to remain at least a short time, and waited quietly until my host should introduce his visitor. This he[Pg 81] straightway proceeded to do, presenting us to each other with a courteous wave of his hand.

"A glow of pleasure suffused the newcomer's face when he recognized me.

"'Fate is indeed kind,' said he. 'I was going to try and find you again at the rest house, when, lo and behold! here you are, the guest of my good friend, the munshi.'

"'What! Are you already acquainted?' exclaimed our host, visibly surprised, despite the philosophy of self-restraint he was so fond of preaching.

"It was my turn now to bestow a reproving look.

"'We have met,' I rejoined, with proper dignity, 'but as yet I have not the honour of acquaintance.'

"To cover this well-deserved rebuke, the munshi clapped his hands and bade the servant who responded to the summons to bring sherbet for our refreshment. After the cooling draught, and when we were all comfortably settled, the stranger, whose name had not yet been spoken, turned to me and said:

"'Now perhaps you will give me the news from Sengali.'

"'It is grievous,' I returned, 'and it is owing to trouble there that I am now here.'

"'Indeed. And what may the trouble be? As I told you this afternoon, I have friends in the village, and am consequently interested.'

"'Aye, aye, tell him the story you have just told me,' called out the munshi.

"Courteously the stranger awaited my response, in[Pg 82] his eyes an anxious look of inquiry. As I proceeded with my recital his excitement grew apace, and he leaned forward in his eagerness to miss not a word. At the finish he started to his feet, and, catching hold of my arm, exclaimed:

"'What! You tell me they will burn down their very home?'

"I nodded assent.

"'Then must we start in all haste for Sengali,' he continued, excitedly. 'To-night, now, or it may be too late.'

"I was moved by this display of fervid sympathy on the part of a stranger for my humble friends in their sorry plight. But I could not avail myself of his proffered assistance.

"'Pardon me,' I replied, 'but I have first to find Sheikh Ahmed, who has been the cause—the innocent cause—of all this grievous anxiety, and whose presence is needed to put an end to the false charge of murder.'

"'Don't you know that I am Sheikh Ahmed?' cried the stranger.

"'Yes, yes, he is no other,' laughed our host, the munshi. 'I avoided giving the wounded traveller's name a while ago, Chunda Das, as a fitting curb to your eagerness, and now, thanks to the Sheikh paying me a visit, you have met somewhat quicker than I expected.'

"For full a minute I was speechless. Was it possible that I had so soon found my man, or, to put it more correctly, that the man had found me? The gods be[Pg 83] praised for working on behalf of the helpless and oppressed!

"But my meditations were rudely interrupted. The Sheikh had again gripped me by the shoulder, and was speaking rapidly:

"'Rouse yourself, friend; rouse yourself. This is no time for wonderment.'

"'So you are indeed alive and well, Sheikh Ahmed?' I asked, in blundering fashion.

"'You can see for yourself,' he replied, impatiently. 'But I little thought I should have been the means of doing to these kind people who nursed and nourished me so grievous an injury. But, Allah be praised! there is yet time to repair the wrong and make amends. Let us away, away, without the delay of another hour.'

"The munshi clapped his hands once more, and the servant was quickly in attendance.

"'These friends of mine will take the road,' he said to the man, 'so soon as the moon is up. Go you now to the inn, and bid the grooms make ready their horses for a long journey. Quick—lose no time!'

"The Sheikh motioned the servant to his side, and added some whispered instructions. Then, turning to me, he said:

"'The moon will serve us ere very long.'

"By my silence I had acquiesced in the plan of speedy departure, for nothing could better suit my own wishes. But meanwhile there would be an interval of patient waiting.

"'Can you account for the strange wailing around the house of Baji Lal?'[Pg 84] I asked of the Sheikh.

"He hesitated a moment before making answer.

"'To me it is all a mystery,' he said at last. 'Some one, perhaps, is playing a trick upon them.'

"'A sorry trick,' I commented bitterly.

"'But their home must certainly be saved,' he added.

"'Not merely their home,' said I. 'Their lives are also in jeopardy.'

"'We must save them! we shall save them!' cried the Sheikh, with upraised hand and in a tone of determination that brought great comfort to my anxious heart.

"The time soon passed, and, our horses having been brought round from the rest house, we took leave of our good host, Munshi Khyraz.

"Just as we turned on to the high road, ten or a dozen mounted troopers emerged from the shadow of a tope of trees, and came clattering behind us.

"'These are my escort,' explained the Sheikh. 'I have already encountered too many dangers on this road to run further risks.'

"I made no comment, but inwardly reflected that once more kind fate was working in my favour. Of course, with Sheikh Ahmed alive, there would be no need to use force for Baji Lal's rescue. But safeguarded on the way, we should be all the quicker in reaching our destination.

"It was toward noon on the fourth day from Punderpur—for there were now no inquiries to delay[Pg 85] me—that we came in sight of the village of Sengali. It was just ten days then since the date of my departure in quest of the missing man. So my mind was at ease; according to the patel's promise, there remained yet four days of safety for Baji Lal and Devaka.

"But all at once fear smote my heart. There was a strange absence of people in the fields and on the outskirts of the village. Dreading I know not what, I begged of the Sheikh to press forward. Our escort was some distance behind us on the road, but, without waiting for the troopers, we set our tired horses to their best speed.

"Coming to the pipul tree and the tank, we found this usual place of congregation deserted. Now indeed was I thoroughly alarmed, likewise my companion, and of one accord, without waiting to visit the constable's compound, we turned our horses' heads in the direction of the home of Baji Lal.

"And there indeed we found a dense crowd, the hoarse murmur of their voices being borne to our ears before we turned the corner. The first thing that smote my eyes was a thin column of smoke mounting skyward.

"Sheikh Ahmed too had seen, for he whipped up his horse unmercifully. As he flashed past me, I was struck by the ashen grey that had stolen over his features. His face was drawn, his nostrils quivered from excitement.

"I could not but admire his eager determination. 'What gratitude! What unselfishness!' I thought[Pg 86] to myself. 'Here is this man, rich and highly placed, ready to endure prolonged fatigues and hardships, to face any adventure, and all for the sake of a humble villager and his wife who did but nurse him when he was sick. Not often do we find such men, not often do we see the rich incommoding themselves for the poor.'

"Emulating his example, I urged my lagging beast to a final effort. In a brief minute we were on the outskirts of the crowd, where perforce we had to dismount. The Sheikh led the way as, afoot, we passed through the throng.

"When we got within clear view of the house, I saw that faggots had been placed all around it, and that these were already alight, giving forth the smoke we had seen from a distance. I looked about me in dread. Where were Baji Lal and Devaka? I questioned a man who was blocking my way. He turned round, and, to my joy, I recognized Bimjee, the barber. He gazed at me sadly, and, without expressing surprise at seeing me, pointed to the flat roof.

"There, beyond the low parapet, tied to a stake, was poor little Devaka. Her face was covered by her sari, and whether she were living or dead it was impossible to tell.

"'And her husband?' I asked, trembling. 'Not yet dead?'

"'No. But when the sun is at its highest point, which will be in a few minutes now, he will be dispatched with a sword and his body flung into the fire. See! they are already pouring oil on the faggots,[Pg 87] so that the haunted house may be quickly consumed. It will soon be all over with our poor friends.'

"'Not so, not so,' I cried, 'for Sheikh Ahmed has come back. See, there he is, hastening to rescue his humble friends. He has not rested day or night since he heard of the disaster that had befallen them.'

"The crowd had parted before the Sheikh, and through the rift I now beheld Baji Lal, standing with his hands tied behind him at a little distance from his burning home. But to my surprise Sheikh Ahmed darted past him.

"'Ah!' exclaimed the barber, noticing my disconcerted look. 'He thinks that Devaka is in greater peril, and leaves you to rescue her husband.'

"I looked at the curling smoke, and shuddered. Assuredly there was no time to be lost if the woman was to be saved.

"'You are right, Bimjee,' I cried. 'We'll look after Baji Lal. Come along.'

"And I gained my friend's side none too soon, for already a sword was pointed at his breast. Leaping on the man who held it, I thrust the weapon aside.

"The patel, standing by, turned on me with a ferocious look.

"'How dare you hinder justice, Chunda Das?' he demanded. 'This is by decree of the panchayet.'

"'Your promise bound the village council as well as yourself,' I retorted. 'It is but ten days since I departed on my quest for Sheikh Ahmed, and you assured me faithfully that for two weeks at least nothing would be done to this man and his wife.'

"'More cattle have died,' he answered, sullenly.[Pg 88]

"The crowd were pressing round us, with angry gestures and threatening looks, like wild beasts baulked of their prey.

"'Pull his beard,' 'Knock off his turban,' and such like impertinences were hurled at me. But, taking no heed of these, I again addressed the patel, raising my voice so that all around might hear.

"'You gave me fourteen days to find the stranger whom you say was murdered, and ahead of time I have returned and brought him with me. And Baji Lal, whom this very minute you were about to murder—aye, murder—is an innocent man, and his wife a maligned woman.'

"And such is human nature, that they who a short time before had been so keen to see Baji Lal done to death, were now loud in their acclamations at his escape.

"But the patel looked at me with lowering brow.

"'Fine words, Chunda Das, but I do not see the Sheikh?'

"The crowd hushed their outburst, and faces again looked serious.

"'Oh, yes,' cried some one. 'Let us see him. Where is Sheikh Ahmed?'

"'Where, indeed, but in the burning house, endeavouring to save your other victim?' I made answer, turning round and pointing with uplifted arm to Devaka, who now was standing with hands held out beseechingly to the throng, her face uncovered, full of entreaty.

"And even as we gazed the flames burst through the roof beneath her[Pg 89] feet, and the clouds of smoke almost hid her from view.

"There was no sign of Sheikh Ahmed, and I was greatly perturbed. What had happened to him? Why did he not appear on the roof? From their countenances I could see that the spectators were still unconvinced of the presence of the man.

"Baji Lal up to this time had remained passive, his head bowed as if in helpless acknowledgement of the power of destiny. But at my call he cast his eyes upward with the others, and, beholding the form of his wife through the eddying smoke wreaths, he broke out in loud and passionate appeal.

"'Chunda Das, friends, neighbours, do not let her burn. She is innocent of any crime. Do not let her perish. Chunda Das, cut my bonds, that I may save her or die with her.'

"I was about to sever the thongs that confined his wrists and ankles, when the patel laid a detaining hand on my shoulder.

"'Not so fast, not so fast, if you please. We have not yet seen Sheikh Ahmed, and Baji Lal is still condemned to die.'

"I flashed an indignant look at the relentless man, but a cry of 'There he is, there he is,' broke from the mob. And, sure enough, through the clouds of smoke, could be seen the figure of the rescuer, crouching low as he cautiously crept along the roof, with a hand on the parapet to guide his movements. With bated breath we watched as he neared the fainting woman,[Pg 90] and then, rising to his full height, tore at the rope which bound her to the stake.

"At last he had released her, and gathered her senseless form in his arms. But a billow of black smoke blotted out the grim scene. A moment of tense silence and sickening uncertainty. Then a great shout from the throng, a shout of pent-up joy and relief, when the hero with his burden came staggering out through the flame-framed doorway of the building.

"I rushed forward with the rest, and received Devaka in my arms. She had swooned. I gazed at her rescuer in admiration, his face blackened, his hair singed, his clothes torn. But could I believe my eyes? The brave man who had sunk to the ground in a heap was not Sheikh Ahmed, but Bimjee, the village barber!

"Hastily consigning Devaka to the care of women standing by, I hurried forward.

"'Sheikh Ahmed is in that house,' I cried, 'probably overpowered by the smoke. We must save him. Who will come with me?'

"All remained silent. Then some one called out:

"'It is no use, Chunda Das. It is impossible, the walls are falling.'

"But at that very instant the Sheikh appeared through the clouds of smoke rolling from the doorway. He tottered forward, bearing in his arms a large bundle wrapped in a cotton quilt. Outstretched hands caught him as he fell, and carried him away from the burning ruins, for the walls had now indeed collapsed.

"Neighbours vied with each other in offers of help. Baji Lal and Devaka[Pg 91] were taken to one house. Sheikh Ahmed and myself went to another. The barber had recovered, and had quietly departed for his own home.

"Next day I sent round word that all the villagers were to come to the usual place of public gathering, the widespread pipul tree. No second bidding was required; the open space was soon crowded, right to the edge of the tank and to the wall of the temple.

"When all were assembled, with Sheikh Ahmed, Baji Lal and Devaka, also Bimjee the barber, standing by me, I faced the throng.

"'Good people,' I said, 'our worthy friends, Baji Lal and his wife, have been publicly disgraced. They are now to be publicly reinstated as honoured members of the community. Sheikh Ahmed will explain the sobbing and wailing that used to distress them just as much as it mystified you all, and eventually caused suspicion of an abominable crime. Listen to the story Sheikh Ahmed has to tell.'

"As I stepped back a pace, the Sheikh came forward. His handsome countenance beamed goodwill to all, and a murmur of friendly greeting bore testimony to his popularity. In soft, melodious voice, he addressed the eagerly expectant crowd.

"'I am indeed heartily grieved that through any fault of mine my kind host and his wife Devaka should have suffered so severely. I may now inform you that when I tarried in your midst some time ago, I was on my way to the court of Akbar on an[Pg 92] important mission. I was, as you know, accompanied by a servant. I had in my possession a most valuable harp, encrusted with diamonds, rubies, and other precious stones. It had formerly belonged to the Maharanee of Kholtan, and had been looted from her palace during the last war. Our Emperor, the Padishah, had long been desirous of possessing it, for the fame of the instrument, its beauty and value, was widespread. By a fortunate chance I became acquainted with the man who was hiding it in the city of Poona. I promised, in the name of my lord and master, the mighty Akbar, a lac of rupees, and undertook to carry the instrument safely to the Emperor at Fathpur-Sikri. On account of its extreme value we decided to conceal it in a rough packing, and, with a view to avoid attracting attention, that I should be attended on the road by no more than one body servant, a man who had been long in my employment and in whom I placed implicit confidence.

"'Well, all went right until, just as we neared this village I fell sick—as I now believe, through the agency of my faithless attendant, who would have poisoned me so that he might possess himself of the precious harp. Fortunately I was succoured by our good friend, Baji Lal, and nursed back to health by him and his devoted wife Devaka. I had sent my servant on to Punderpur, there to await a summons when I again felt well enough to travel. But one night he returned of his own accord, bringing the news that the Padishah himself was approaching[Pg 93] Punderpur, and now would be the time for me to complete my mission.

"'But there was something in the fellow's manner that awakened my distrust. At this time my suspicions were but vague, yet sufficient to prompt me to caution. Without discovering my inmost thoughts, I acquiesced in his proposal, and, disregarding the entreaties of my kind hosts, prepared to take the road without an hour's delay.

"'But first I had to dispose of the bejewelled harp in a place of safety, for I had made up my mind not to carry it any longer with me. At Punderpur it would be possible to get an escort of Akbar's cavalry, and then I could return with them for the treasure. So meanwhile I had to find some sure hiding-place, this in preference to burdening anyone here with my secret.

"'The walls of my room in Baji Lal's house were covered with a thick tent-cloth. While my servant was feeding the horses, I loosened one edge of this, and to my joy found the space between the inner and the outer covering sufficient to take the harp. I stripped off the bulky wrappings in which the harp had been carried up to this time, leaving only a swathing of fine silk. Then I carefully bestowed the instrument in its place of hiding, tying it securely to a beam high up toward the ceiling, and finally I restored the tent-cloth wall exactly as I had found it. Thereafter I stuffed a few billets of wood into the empty casing of the harp, and when my servant returned I bade him carry forth the package, and[Pg 94] secure it across my saddle-bow, just as I had been wont to travel heretofore. Even though it was yet dark, we rode forth on our way.

"'Next day I noticed that my servant kept watching me in a furtive manner, and I congratulated myself on the precaution I had taken, and inwardly resolved to be more than ever on my guard not to be caught unawares. But, alas! I was still weak, and exhausted nature overcame vigilance, so that one night I slept soundly. I remember nothing of what took place. But when I came to myself some woodcutters were bathing my head. They said I had been beaten and wounded, and had bled profusely. I tried to stand up, but was seized with a great faintness, and would have fallen had not my succourers steadied me. With tender care I was carried to Punderpur, happily not far distant, where I was yet once again kindly bidden to the home of strangers.

"'A munshi named Khyraz was the name of my new benefactor. He was most wishful that I should hunt down my faithless servant, who, I need not say, after leaving me for dead, had disappeared with my horse and the package which was supposed to contain the precious harp. However, as I had still the instrument in safe keeping, and as I did not want the story of its being in my possession to get noised abroad, for this would have robbed me of the pleasure of surprising our King of Kings with the production of the coveted prize, I let the rascal go, for the time being at all events. But his day will come, the son of a pig who betrayed the master whose salt he had eaten[Pg 95] for years. May the tombs of his ancestors be defiled!

"'Of course the news that had brought me to Punderpur was false. So far from Akbar being in the vicinity, I now learned that he had gone on a journey to Gwalior, and would not be back to Fathpur-Sikri for several months. Therefore, I took the opportunity of paying a business visit to Benares, resting content in my mind that the harp could be in no safer place than in its snug hiding at the home of Baji Lal, where no robbers would ever dream of prying.

"'However, I was just on the eve of retracing my steps to this village when Chunda Das came to Punderpur in quest of me. We met at the house of Munshi Khyraz, and there I learned of the disaster to my friends here, and the terrible doom that was contemplated for them. Imagine my dismay, too, when I discovered that their house was to be burned. My beautiful harp! It would be destroyed! So we hurried back, sparing neither ourselves nor our beasts.

"'When I saw the tongues of flame actually curling about the home of Baji Lal, I became oblivious of aught else save the rescue of the priceless harp from destruction. Through the blinding smoke I groped my way to my old sleeping room. I nearly succumbed three or four times before I managed to tear down the tent-cloth. Then, by the flicker of the flames I could see the harp reposing in its hiding place in all its gleaming beauty. I had no time to feel surprised that its silken covering had been blown aside, and[Pg 96] indeed was at that very moment fluttering in a current of air.

"'Just as my hand reached forth to seize the precious instrument, I was startled by a subdued plaintive cry. For an instant I paused and wondered. Then I discovered that the wind was blowing through a crevice in the wall just behind the harp, and that it was the breeze rushing through the opening that was causing the strings to vibrate and give forth their weird complaining.

"'And this, good people, is the explanation of the unrestful spirit. When the wind blew strong, the cries were loud and insistent; when the blast came gently, the sobbing was low and wailing.

"'I am distressed that so simple a thing could have caused such trouble. But in reparation I will undertake to build for Baji Lal and his wife a new home. I hereby give to their good friend, Chunda Das, an undertaking to that effect'—he passed a paper to me as he spoke—'whereby I make myself liable for all moneys expended. And to Devaka I give this chain, which I hope she will always wear in remembrance of her good deed in nursing Sheikh Ahmed back to health.'

"And, throwing a long gold chain around the neck of Devaka, the Sheikh bowed to the company, and, with salaams of farewell, passed through the throng, toward his escort waiting for him all ready mounted at a little distance. Soon there was the clatter of hoofs, and they were riding away across the plain. I had noticed that at Sheikh Ahmed's saddle-bow was a[Pg 97] bulky package, undoubtedly the precious harp in its wrappings.

"That was all there was to be said, and after a while the crowd began to disperse. On every hand there was loud acclaim for the Sheikh and his noble generosity, and Devaka's gold chain, which she now held timidly in her hand, was the object of many admiring glances, and drew for her general words of congratulation.

"At last all had gone their several ways, leaving Baji Lal and his wife, Bimjee and myself, alone beneath the pipul tree. A first look into each other's eyes showed that we were all of the same mind. In their excitement of the moment the unthinking throng had approved; but for us there was nothing but bitter disappointment.

"It was Baji Lal who first voiced his feelings.

"'Chunda Das,' he said slowly, 'Sheikh Ahmed has promised to recompense me for my losses; he has given a costly present to my wife. We want neither his gifts nor his promises. They are as dust to us. The little we did for him was not done for gold. Yet we took him into our home, and fought death for him, and won. He left a valuable treasure under our roof without consulting or trusting us. When this act of his brought disaster on our heads, it was no thought for Devaka or for me that brought him back in hot haste. It was the possible loss of the harp that occupied all his thoughts. When he came upon the scene, he saw me tied and ready for the word to die. On the roof he saw my wife with the flames already leaping[Pg 98] to devour her. Yet not one finger did he put forth to save either her or me. He just rushed into the smoke-filled house, that he might secure the harp—an instrument of great price, let it be. But you, my dear friend, had ridden night and day to find the man whom our neighbours thought we had murdered. Our faithful friend Bimjee'—Baji Lal stretched out his hand to the barber—'defied fire and smoke to rescue a defenceless woman from an atrocious death. Neither of you had anything to gain by these deeds of bravery and self-sacrifice. You did them for pure love of us. What do we want with that selfish man's gifts? Chunda Das, give me the paper which binds him to his promise to restore my home, that I may tear it into fragments and scatter it to the winds. Devaka, my wife,'—and his voice fell to a tone of great gentleness—'hand the necklet to Chunda Das, that he may restore it to the giver.'

"Devaka, who, as I have said, had already removed the chain of gold from her neck, looked at it perhaps a little lingeringly, let it slip through her fingers caressingly, then with a sigh placed it in my hands and turned away. But her sigh, I knew, was less for the surrender of the gift than for the unworthiness that had prompted its bestowal.

"Her husband contemplated her compassionately. 'You have not many trinkets, little wife,' he said, 'but this one would not remind us so much of good deeds done as of base ingratitude. I have no home to take you to at present, but Bimjee wants us to stay with him until I can build you another.'

"He stretched forth his hand to Devaka, and, leading her away, departed.[Pg 99] Bimjee, after a salute to me, followed his bidden guests at a little distance. For myself, I remained awhile to ponder all these happenings.

"To say that I was disappointed in Sheikh Ahmed would not adequately express my feelings. From the first I had been attracted to the man, by his handsome figure, distinguished bearing, and pleasant smile. During our intimacy of four days on the road I had admired the brilliancy of his conversation, and had taken great delight in his entertaining recitals of adventure in many far lands. From one like him I had certainly never expected this display of callous selfishness. But such is life. We have to keep ourselves prepared for many disillusionments. And, as I remarked at the outset of my narrative, an experience of this kind teaches that, if in judging our fellow men we are to be chary of condemnation, it behoves us also to be discreet in commendation."

And so ended the Bombay trader's story.

After an interval of silence, the voice of the Rajput chief spoke up:

"What became of Baji Lal and Devaka?"

"Oh," replied the merchant, "from that day their happiness returned and continued. For the villagers were ashamed to have doubted them, so all contributed to the building and furnishing of their home, and would take no denial. Good fortune seemed to settle on their roof-tree. Little Devaka is now the[Pg 100] mother of a fine boy, and she wears a chain of gold around her neck, one given to her by the women of the village when they heard that she had scorned the proffered gift of Sheikh Ahmed, and understood the reason why."

"And the Sheikh and his wonderful harp?" questioned the Afghan soldier. "Did the costly toy reach its destination?"

"The harp is in the treasury of our Sovereign Akbar. Sheikh Ahmed started back for Poona with the lac of rupees he had promised in the name of the Padishah and half a lac more for his own recompense. But he and his company were attacked by a swarm of Mahrattas, and perished to a man."

"And the treacherous servant?"

"About him I know nothing. My tale is told."

[Pg 101]



"You have certainly improved on the moral of my story," said the astrologer, addressing the merchant, silent now after the telling of his tale. "If it is for God alone to pronounce the censure on mankind, then assuredly it is for God also to award the praise. As the story of Sheikh Ahmed and his jewelled harp well shows, deeds may be done openly by the hand, but the motives for their doing lie secretly in the heart. And the heart is the innermost temple where none but the high priest, the individual soul, holds communion with his God, the supreme Deity of the universe."

"So that a man's life is an unsolvable riddle to all but himself," concurred the hakeem.

"And not to be solved even by himself," remarked the Afghan with a laugh, half of bitterness, half of bravado. "We may know in our secret heart the motive that prompts to a deed, but we cannot tell the consequences of that deed as affecting even ourselves who wrought it. Take this very story of the Sheikh; when recovering his precious harp he was but digging his own grave. So with all of us; we imagine we are marching bravely to accomplish some preconceived plan, when all the time we are merely[Pg 102] groping with blinded eyes along the path of destiny, avoiding the mud holes, it may be, but failing to see the tiger, crouched for his spring, a few paces further along."

"Shabash!" cried the fakir, in a shrill tone of approval that drew all eyes to the lean and naked and ash-besprinkled figure seated at the foot of the veranda steps. "Shabash! shabash!" he cried, again and yet again.

"And your story?" asked the Rajput, with a nod of inquiry and encouragement.

"Is one that shows how a man may keep on running all his life yet never reach the goal he has in sight," replied the ascetic. And with the sturdy independence of his calling he beat a peremptory tattoo with finger-tips on wooden begging-bowl to command attention to his tale.

"Behold in me a man who possesses nothing in this world excepting a begging-bowl and a loin cloth. Yet was I at one time the owner of lands and of cattle, of a home bountifully stored for comfort and for sustenance, of wives who wore rich jewels, necklets of pearls, armlets of gold, and bangles of silver, with maid-servants to minister to their needs and children to play around them. All gone! by my own doing, or undoing, call it which you will.

"And know, too, that in those days I also was a soldier"—this with a defiant glance first at the Rajput chief and then at the Afghan general. "At my side rattled the steel scabbard, and in my belt[Pg 103] was the sharp poinard, swift messenger of death when it came to hand-to-hand fighting, and the horse I rode had its rich trappings of gold and silver. It may all seem strange, to hear me tell those things of the long ago and to look upon me now"—and the speaker stretched forth his skinny, twisted fingers and attenuated arms, and for a moment ruefully contemplated them.

"But I speak the truth," he went on, "for to-night, prompted by the stories to which I have listened and the thoughts they have engendered, will I unseal my lips after fifty long years of wandering alone, giving no man my confidence, seeking no man's confidence, intent only on the attainment of the one desire deeply seated in my heart, and which, in my eager striving to achieve, seems to be ever more remote from accomplishment. To-night will I reveal the story of my life, so that, perchance, the lesson it teaches will show still more clearly the impotence of man to constitute himself the avenger of wrongs. For if judgment belongs to Allah, so does vengeance. And the choice of instrument, of time and place, of the very manner of the deed—all this belongs to God alone, as this night, listening to the stories that have gone before, have I for the first time come fully to comprehend."

The fakir paused to gaze around his audience. The look of interest and expectancy on each face showed the impression his impulsive flow of language had made. No interrupting word was spoken, but every eye remained fastened on the lean, keen face peering[Pg 104] over long slender shanks and hand-clasped knees. The narrator continued:

"In those days I had twenty retainers at my call, and these men I commanded when I rode forth to service with a certain Nawab, from whom I held my lands for the feudal service I thus performed. It was my fate to take part in many a fight and in many a foray, and to send many a man to his doom. But God had ordained it so; the fault was not mine.

"Well, it befell that a certain city was given over to sack and carnage, for the word had gone forth that the only way to break the power of its Hindu occupants was to demolish their temples, destroy their idols, and thereby show the impotence of their false gods to protect them."

The Rajput drew himself up proudly, and a flush of resentment stole over his face. But the Moslem fanatic, unconscious now of anything but his reminiscences of the past, went on unheeding and unabashed:

"It was toward the hour of sunset when a body of our soldiery broke into a temple devoted to the worship of Siva the Destroyer. We had battered in the heavy wooden doors that protected the inner court, and within the threshold a score or more of priests fell to our swords, and a dozen dancing girls as well, attendants on the idols—self-slain these women, for when they saw that there was no quarter for the men they rushed on us like female panthers and flung themselves on our dripping blades."

The Hindu listeners were visibly disturbed and af[Pg 105]fected by this cold recital of bloody deeds. The hands of the Rajput clenched and unclenched themselves nervously, and the merchant gave a deep, guttural groan of horror as he flung the end of his robe over his face as if to shut out a vision of sacrilege and shame.

"It was written in the beginning, nay before creation it was written," murmured the Moslem astrologer, quoting, in courteous sympathy, the familiar formula of his faith. "And as your priests themselves say," he added, addressing himself more particularly to the Rajput, "'The destiny of each man is irrevocably inscribed on his forehead by the hand of Brahma himself.'"

The Rajput bowed his head in acquiescent silence, and as the fakir proceeded with his story the trader also regained his composure and withdrew the covering from his face.

"When the shadows of night fell, the temple made a bonfire that illuminated the scenes of pillage going on all around. The big idols of loathly aspect had been thrown down, broken to pieces, and despoiled of their jewels and the heavy plates of gold that encumbered them. Our soldiers had swarmed out of the building, past a tank to the houses of some priests beyond. Not one single custodian of the temple survived, and I stood alone in the outer courtyard, watching in idle fashion the tongues of flame licking the beams and rafters and paint-bedaubed walls of the wrecked edifice.

"Then did my eyes chance to light on a small idol[Pg 106] in the passage-way between the two courtyards of the temple, set in a deep niche, on which account it had escaped the notice of the despoilers. It was the familiar elephant-headed idol of the Hindus, Ganapati, as I knew they called him, their god of wisdom and the remover of obstacles according to their creed.

"Even as I looked, methought that the eyes of the idol twinkled knowingly and entreatingly at me. After a moment I saw that this fancy was but due to the play of the flames on jewels, comprehending which, I said to myself that the little fat man might perchance be of some considerable value. So I plucked him from his resting-place, not without difficulty, for the base of the idol was fastened by iron clamps to the altar, and only just in time before a surge of fire and smoke swept through the vestibule. Then, without more ado, I carried forth this Ganapati, wrapped in a cotton cloth I had gathered from one of the slain priests, and tied it to the saddle-bow of my horse, which had been standing tethered under a tree close at hand.

"Thus did it come about that, a full month later, I was seated in my home, in a secret inner chamber that served me as a treasury, and to which the only access was through the women's quarters. And before me on a stool rested the cross-legged figure of the four-armed and elephant-headed god, fat, complacent, smiling, to all appearance recovered from the fatigues of a journey of near a hundred leagues and thoroughly contented amidst his new surround[Pg 107]ings. The idol was of bronze, and the eyes, which at times gave it such life-like semblance, were clusters of rubies set around with white sapphires.

"And it followed that, day after day, after the siesta hour, I found myself in the company of this accursed idol—for accursed it came to be, bringing me misfortunes and ruin, as my story will unfold. No doubt it was by my own doing that the wrath of Allah was brought down upon my head. For had not I, a follower of the Prophet, and therefore a despiser of graven images in every shape or form, come to treat this monstrous and misshapen creature, half man, half beast, as a sort of familiar, even greeting him on my entry with the words with which I might have saluted a living unbeliever, 'May your days be peaceful,' spoken in goodnatured jest, of course, and without one thought at the time of the sacrilege of which I was guilty? Yea, I would pat the fat little fellow on the head, and, when the humour seized me, would show him my hoard of gold mohurs, even jingle before him a bag of silver rupees, or ask his opinion on the colour and quality of some gem, speaking words of foolishness the while, like a child playing with a toy. And when I lay back on my cushions, sometimes I fancied that the little jewelled eyes in the elephant head of bronze twinkled at me in merry and friendly understanding. All which things I have since remembered with bitter shame.

"But it happened one day that I was in angry mood—some contrary thing among the women of my[Pg 108] household had vexed me. And when I sat brooding over my trouble, it seemed that the eyes of the Ganapati laughed at me in mockery. And, angry now at the idol himself, I arose and pressed the balls of my thumbs on the two scintillating clusters of jewels, as it were to shut out the gleam of their impertinence, even ready, in my insane access of wrath, to force them from their sockets as I might have done with the eyeballs of a slave who had offended me.

"But in a moment all passion faded from my heart. For an extraordinary thing happened.

"As I pressed with my thumbs, the clicking sound of moving wheels smote my ear, and the elephant head began slowly to raise itself and revolve backward on some concealed pivot, forming a gaping opening right across the body of the Ganapati. And, as the opening gradually widened, by some devilish contrivance the hammer of a gong concealed within the idol was set in motion, and there resulted a loud continuous clanging din that could have been heard at a far distance. Instinctively I thrust my fingers in my ears to shut out the infernal noise. But after a time the clangor ceased, and now I observed that the elephant head had moved completely back on its hinges, and lay at rest, its single tusk raised aloft. Within the body of the Ganapati a cavity was revealed.

"But before I could explore this, I was distracted by the frightened outcries of my womenfolk, and I sallied forth to pacify them, and give assurance that[Pg 109] the bell need cause no alarm, it being one I had purchased in the bazaars with the intent some day to use it as a protection against thieves—its obvious utility, as I guessed even now. When all was again at peace I returned to the secret chamber. Everything was as I had left it a few minutes previously.

"In the hollow body of the bronze idol there lay disclosed to view a small casket of rock crystal, round and polished, and provided with a cap of gold. For me to snatch this casket from its hiding-place was the work of an instant. Straightway I removed the golden lid, and there, in the smooth, transparent nest of crystal, lay a little heap of gems that flashed and gleamed like living fire.

"Recovering from my first emotions of astonishment and delight, I poured forth the treasure into the hollow of my hand, and found it to be a necklace of diamonds, as I could tell from the dazzling sparkle of the stones despite their uncommon colour, which was blue, like the vault of the sky or the eyes of the fair-skinned women of Circassia. Each stone was cut with many facets, and all were strung together by a delicate chain of gold, a solitary large stone in the centre, then smaller ones on either side, each succeeding pair carefully matched as to size, and constantly diminishing till the last were no bigger than grains of millet. All the diamonds were of dazzling lustre and of the one uniform tint, the blue that is so rare, and, as I gazed upon my treasure trove, well could I believe that not such another necklace existed in any part of the world, not even in the[Pg 110] jewel caskets of the Great Padishah himself, nor of the Kings of China or of Persia, nor of the Princes of the Franks, who are reputed to have untold stores of diamonds, rubies, topazes, and amethysts.

"For a time I was stricken dumb and motionless, from very fear of the great wealth that reposed in my hollowed palm. Then did I replace the necklace in its casket, and the casket in its receptacle within the body of the bronze god, and, grasping the tusk, I drew forward once again the elephant head, which, at my gentle pressure, rose easily on its pivot, winding again the clicking wheels as it moved, and finally closing at its accustomed place with a sharp snap but without any further sounding of the gong, at which I was well pleased.

"Overcome with varied emotions, I sank down on the carpet, and, gazing up at the idol, beheld the jewelled eyes once more twinkling at me, merrily and mockingly.

"After an interval I withdrew from the chamber, securing the padlock on the outside, and slipping back the artfully concealed panel that hid the secret doorway from prying intruders. The corridor without led to the women's quarters, through which I passed, vouchsafing word to no one. It was only when I had gained the outer courtyard that I drew my breath freely, and recovered my wonted tranquillity of mind and mien.

"Several days passed before I ventured again to visit the Ganapati, and this at last I did in the full belief that the whole affair had been naught but an[Pg 111] idle dream. But when I pressed again on the eyes of the elephant head, there came once more the clicking of wheels, followed by the clangor of the gong. This I succeeded in muffling somewhat by throwing a thick cotton quilt, which I had brought for the purpose, over the figure of the god.

"A minute later I held the necklace of flashing blue diamonds in my trembling hand. I lingered just long enough to satisfy myself of the reality of the jewels, of their flawless quality and their matchless lustre. Then, replacing everything as before, I left the chamber with the usual precautions, and gained the divan in the vestibule of the outer courtyard, where I was accustomed to sit and receive my friends. There I meditated for several hours, and at last had formed a definite plan.

"Well I knew that to disclose the treasure would mean its instant surrender to the Nawab, most probably my own doing to death, so that the new owner of the gems might feel more secure in their possession. To realize the value of those blue diamonds they must be sold one by one, or, at most, in separate pairs, and this with infinite care, so as not to arouse suspicion among the banians who are the traders in precious stones, and are ever on the outlook to screw the last copper paisa out of the seller unlawfully trafficking in them. And first of all it would be necessary for me to gain some true idea as to the value of brilliants of so rare a hue.

"Three days later I rode into the city of Lahore, and, after seeing to the wants of my horse, repaired[Pg 112] to the bazaar of the Hindu shroffs and banians. All my actions having been carefully thought out and decided upon beforehand, I approached with a bold swagger the shop of a reputable-looking banian, and, in the usual manner of business, took my seat cross-legged before him. Two other merchants were seated near by, but to them I gave no heed.

"After some desultory conversation with the owner of the shop, I unloosed my waistband, and drew therefrom a tiny piece of silk stuff, in whose folds were wrapped two of the smallest of the blue diamonds, a pair, which I had carefully detached from the necklace before setting forth on my journey. These I placed in the banian's hand, and I waited, with all proper patience, while he carefully examined them. His face gave no sign as at last he laid the gems on the lap of his robe. With this I extended my right hand, and thrust it into his right hand, covering both with the loosened end of my waistband, so that he could tell me the price he was willing to pay by the secret pressure on my fingers that would reveal to me the value he had set on the stones without disclosing it to the rival traders seated at our side.

"But to my surprise his hand remained absolutely impassive, giving no response to my movement of inquiry. Then, looking again into the banian's eyes, I detected there a strange menacing look that greatly perturbed me. As his fingers were still limp over mine, signifying unmistakably that there was no willingness to buy, I hastened to withdraw my hand,[Pg 113] and, retying my little package, restored it to its place of security. After I had adjusted my waistband, again we spoke some tittle-tattle of the hour before I arose and, with a courteous salaam, took my departure.

"Glancing back from a short distance, I saw the three banians in close colloquy and eagerly gesticulating. Thoroughly alarmed now, and feeling sure that they had recognized the blue diamonds as the spoil of one of their temples, I made all speed to regain the caravanserai where my horse had been bestowed, and, offering no explanation of my hurried departure, immediately rode from the city. Gaining the open country, I gave rein to my horse, although I took the precaution of making a detour before I finally struck out in the direction of my home.

"Before nightfall of the succeeding day I had regained my house, and had replaced the detached stones on the necklace by the little golden hooks that formed their fastenings. With all speed I quitted the presence of the Ganapati, vowing that I would make no more attempt for the present to dispose of the treasure hidden in his entrails.

"A full month had elapsed, and I had ceased to give my exclusive thoughts to the necklace of blue diamonds; for the harvest time was approaching, and I had to make arrangements for the garnering of my crops. My house was in the open country, half a league or so from the nearest village. It was the evening hour, and I was seated in the vestibule of the outer courtyard, having just dismissed the head[Pg 114] reaper with whom I had come to terms for the services of himself and his fellows in the fields of grain.

"Glancing along the road I descried what I took to be a band of travelling yogis, in rags, unkempt, some hobbling on crutches. But as I was accustomed to treat with contempt such Hindu beggars, I gave no special heed to their approach.

"All of a sudden, however, when within less than a bow shot of the house, the pretended yogis raised a loud and terrifying yell, and rushed toward me, brandishing staves and daggers. Then did I realize that I was in the presence of a gang of armed dacoits. Before I could summon help, I was mercilessly beaten over the head with bludgeons; after which I was bound hand and foot, and thrown face downward on the divan on which I had been seated. I could hear the sound of a scuffle in the courtyard, and the dying scream of the eunuch who guarded the entrance to the women's apartments, rising high above the frightened cries of my two wives and the children and of the female slaves who attended them. Then, because of the grievous blows that had assailed me, as well as the agony of my mind, consciousness fled, and I lay like one dead unto the world.

"It must have been hours before I was awakened from this stupor, for the moon was riding high in the heavens. Over me was bending the demoniac face of a Hindu priest, a worshipper of Siva as I knew from the caste marks on his forehead.

"'Where is the Ganapati?' he hissed in my ear. 'It is that which we[Pg 115] want. We will spare your life if you surrender the stolen god and the blue diamonds.'

"Instantly great joy surged through my heart, for I knew that, whatever other evil fortune had befallen, my secret treasure chamber had not been discovered. And with this joy came the determination that I would rather die than surrender the necklace of blue diamonds, or allow the mocking elephant-headed god to be returned to his place of honour before a crowd of idolatrous worshippers.

"I shall not recount the details of that terrible night. I need but say that I was tortured in a dozen different ways—the soles of my feet were burned with hot embers, the flesh of my thighs was pierced with daggers, I was beaten all over with clubs, and when I lost my senses for a spell I was revived by chatties of cold water being dashed on my face. But I never spoke a word. The very spirit of Shaitan had entered into my soul; if they were devils, then was I the prince of devils in my resolve to defy them.

"I was but faintly conscious of my surroundings, when I heard a whispered colloquy among the priests disguised as robbers.

"'We must not kill him,' I heard one voice say. 'Only if he lives shall we recover the Ganapati.'

"Then also I heard some faint cries from afar off, from the village, showing that the dacoits were discovered, and that courage was being mustered for some attempt to drive them away.

"After a moment the same priest who had ad[Pg 116]dressed me before bent his face once again over mine.

"'Listen, you Moslem son of a pig,' he hissed in my ear. 'Three more warnings will be given to you, and if these do not succeed in making you restore the Ganapati and the jewels then assuredly will you die. You know whence you stole it. Take back the idol to Ferishtapur, or go to the nethermost hell to which you belong.'

"With that he slapped my face again and again, with a slipper taken from his foot, and, writhing in my bonds, I was powerless to revenge, even at the cost of my life, this crowning and abominable insult.

"I must have swooned once more, for dawn was breaking when the craven villagers, satisfied that the robbers and murderers had departed, at last arrived upon the scene, and, loosening the thongs that bound me, re-awakened me to consciousness of my pitiful plight.

"My womenfolk and my three children were uninjured. I found them, cowering and terrified, in an inner chamber. But the infidels had searched every room in their quarters, scattering the contents of chests on the floors. And at sight of this vile desecration the iron of revenge even then entered into my soul.

"The eunuch lay dead in the vestibule leading to the harem. My other servants, who had happened to be outside the house at the time of the assault, had fled, and in the shame of their desertion never again dared to show their faces in my presence. The kot[Pg 117]wal of the district made an investigation, but I held my own counsel, and spoke not one word about the Ganapati or the blue diamonds. So the outrage was set down as the work of dacoits, and although in point of fact nothing had been stolen I felt no call on me to disturb this finding of the magistrate.

"About a week later a new disaster overtook me. In the full light of day, when a breeze happened to be blowing, my standing crops were burned, and my fields left a blackened wilderness. By whose hand the fire-brand had been applied, no man could tell. An accident, or the first of the promised warnings?—this I asked myself, and I strove hard to believe that it was ill-luck and nothing more.

"Another full week passed, and I began to hope that the threatened persecution had indeed been abandoned. Recovered from my wounds and bruises, I was able now to be out and about again, endeavouring to restore order to my troubled affairs. One afternoon on my home-coming, I found the women lamenting with loud outcries over the body of my eldest son, a lad of seven years. Unseen by any of the household he had been knocked down on the road and crushed under the wheels of a heavy wagon that was travelling past.

"That night, when his poor little body was being made ready for burial, my elder wife, his mother, led me to the side of the bier. Uncovering the child's shoulder, she showed me a strange mark, as if branded upon the flesh by a hot iron. In the red, angry lines I had no difficulty in tracing the head of[Pg 118] a bull, the sacred mark of Siva. I said nothing, and indeed commanded my wife to hold her peace.

"I knew now that this cruel calamity was indeed a warning from the accursed priesthood, who had not even scrupled to murder an innocent child so that they might wreak their vengeance on me or break my will.

"But, if I had been determined before, ten times more now was I resolved never to yield. No cowardly surrender could bring me back my child. The boy was dead, and what was done could not be undone, for the will of God is eternal.

"That very night I visited the Ganapati, and in the frenzy of my bitter grief and righteous wrath I swore, with clenched fist shaken before his twinkling eyeballs, that I would break him into pieces, throw the blue diamonds into a fire of charcoal, and myself die, rather than restore him to the infidels who had destroyed my happiness and my home.

"The next blow fell swifter than ever. Only four days had passed when the bereaved mother, who had refused to be consoled for the death of her only child, was found drowned at the bottom of the well in the harem garden. The household was plunged in lamentation over her pitiful act of self-destruction, and now I became vaguely conscious that friends and neighbours, as well as servants, were looking at me askance, and were beginning to shun my presence as if a curse had fallen upon my head.

"It was at the funeral ceremonies of my wife that I was first made pointedly to feel that there rested[Pg 119] over me the suspicion of some terrible crime that had drawn down the special wrath of Allah. Standing in isolation, at a time when my sorrowing heart yearned for brotherly comfort, I realized that already I was an outcast from among my own people, one whom they deemed to be marked by heaven for special vengeance, a moral leper, a menace to the community, to be shunned for all time by his fellow men.

"And there and then I made up my mind to flee secretly to another country, sending later for my surviving wife and children, abandoning all my other possessions in the shape of land and cattle and accumulated stores, but clinging to the blue diamonds which would yet bring me riches out of all proportion to those of which fate was robbing me at the present time.

"For the third and final warning had passed, although no one but myself had thought of my wife's death otherwise than as a case of grief-demented suicide.

"But, as she had lain on her bier, I had looked secretly, and had found the brand of the bull on her shoulder blade, just as she had found it on that of her murdered boy. Allah alone knows how this last crime was wrought—how access to the women's quarters had been gained, and how the fatal seal of Siva had been impressed upon her flesh before she had been flung into the well.

"To me has this ever remained a mystery of mysteries.

"So the three warnings had been delivered—the burning of my crops, the slaying of my child, the[Pg 120] drowning of my wife. Unless by the morrow I made signs of submission by taking the road to Ferishtapur, there to surrender the Ganapati, it would assuredly be upon myself that the sword of fate would next descend.

"That very night of the funeral, after securely barricading the outer gates of the house, I locked myself in the treasure chamber. Not a servant had remained in the home upon which the curse of God had descended; even the two women slaves had fled in the dusk of the evening, gone, I knew not whither, and now I little cared. My surviving wife and children, tiny infants, a girl and a boy, were asleep in an inner room; I had glanced at their slumbering forms when passing to the corridor that led to the secret doorway.

"I lost no time in beginning my preparations for departure. First of all I unlocked my strong box, and drew therefrom a small sack of gold mohurs, and another of gold pagodas, also sundry family jewels, armlets and necklets of gold, gemmed rings, and other trinkets of price. All these I tied tightly in a cotton cloth, forming a package that I could conveniently and without undue attention carry at my saddle-bow or in my hand. The bags of silver money, likewise the store of silver bangles, I would leave behind; they were cumbersome, and moreover they would serve to meet the necessities of my wife and children during our period of severance.

"Then I turned to the Ganapati, and after swathing him as before in the cotton quilt, so as to deaden the[Pg 121] sound of the gong, with my hands beneath the covering I pressed upon the jewelled eyeballs. I had not gazed upon the blue diamonds since the day when I had restored the two stones shown to the banian merchant in Lahore. As the wheels now clicked and the muffled bell commenced its dulled clangor, the uneasy thought came to my mind that perhaps the treasure had in the interval been spirited away by some devilish jugglery. But when at last silence fell, and I whipped the cloth aside, there reposed the crystal casket, and, the lid of gold removed, my eyes fastened with grim satisfaction upon the clustered heap of gems, gleaming in the light of my tiny oil lamp like drops of rain in a flash of lightning.

"Assured of their safety, I pressed down the cap on the casket, and bound the crystal ball securely in my waistband.

"Then I turned round to seize an iron hammer which I had brought with me for the deliberate purpose of smashing the accursed idol to pieces, partly in revenge, partly to secure the bejewelled eyeballs. But at that very moment I became possessed with the notion that I was not alone in the room. My heart beat wildly, and I raised aloft the little lamp. Nothing but four bare walls, and not even a window through which an enemy might be peering!

"I breathed again, and grasped the handle of the hammer. Yet my uneasy dread was still with me, for I paused once more, this time to listen. Not a sound without, or the whisper of a sound!

"But what was that?—the creak of a timber not louder than if a mouse[Pg 122] had stirred. And, directed by the faint sound, I saw the wooden bolt that fastened the door on the inside heave, just once, as if by the pressure of a lever cautiously at work on the other side. The hammer slipped to the rug from my unnerved fingers.

"Lamp in hand, I stole to the door, on tiptoe, step by step, afraid to awaken the echo of a footfall. I touched the wooden bolt with a finger tip; I pressed my ear against the panel. And now, every fibre of my being at tension, my senses quickened by the unseen but certain presence of danger, I could hear at the other side of the thin boards the eager breathing of the fanatic devil of a priest who had come to slay me, miserably trapped like a panther in a pit. At this thought the very blood froze in my veins. My hand relaxed its hold on the lamp, and in its fall the light was extinguished.

"Alone in the dark with the Ganapati, and with the human tiger at the other side of the door, I shrieked aloud.

"In prompt answer to my cry of pent-up agony came the sharp sound of splintering timber, and before me, revealed by the flare of a torch held aloft in one hand, appeared the dread visage of the Hindu priest, contorted now by his mingled emotions of hate and triumph. For his eyes had lighted on the idol, and it was with a shout of joyful recognition, 'Ganapati! Ganapati!' that the fanatic flung himself upon me, and plunged a dagger into my throat. Then[Pg 123] the curtain of black forgetfulness descended and covered me with its folds.

"I know not what time elapsed, but I was awakened to the consciousness that I was yet alive by a tongue of flame that leaped at my face, and, scorching my skin, caused me to stir instinctively in self-preservation. Raising my head from the pool of blood in which it had been weltering, and moving my stiffened neck with difficulty because of the dagger wound, the mark of which I carry to this day"—upraising his chin, the fakir laid a finger on a tiny but palpable scar—"I struggled to a sitting posture, and looked about in dazed bewilderment. But ere I could realize what had happened, again the blistering heat of fire that ran along the walls of the room caused me to stagger to my feet. Then as I gazed around, through a haze of smoke illumined by fitful, flickering gleams of ruddy radiance, all of a sudden came remembrance of the deadly assault and comprehension of my present danger.

"One swift sweeping glance showed me that the Ganapati was gone, and that my strong box, too, with its silver hoard had disappeared, together with the package of gold coin and jewellery. My hands went instantly to my waistband; it had been torn open, and the crystal casket that held the blue diamonds abstracted.

"So the murderous priest had not only recovered his own, but had robbed me of my all!

"There was no time, however, to reflect or to moralize, for the loud crackling of fire amid the woodwork[Pg 124] warned of my imminent peril. Flinging the skirt of my robe across my face, I made one frantic dash for safety through the splintered panels of the door, the only exit from the room, regardless of the billows of mingled smoke and flame that were now rolling along the corridor.

"Half suffocated, almost blinded by the pungent fumes, my flesh seared, my garments aflame, I reeled into the courtyard of the women's quarters, and threw myself into the fountain splashing in the middle of the marble pavement. Then, drawing myself out of the water like a bedraggled rat, I crawled on hands and knees to the apartment of my wife.

"God! God! It was to find her and our two little children dead—stabbed to the heart on the sleeping mats where they lay."

A sobbing wail burst from the narrator's lips, and he covered his face with his hands. After a time he recovered his self-possession, and resumed, although still in broken tones and with shoulders heaving from emotion.

"I need not dwell on the pitiable story. Gaining the open country, I gazed upon the fierce flames now bursting in a dozen places from the roof of my doomed home, the funeral pyre of the last ones dear to me on earth.

"As I gazed I rent my garments, and raised my voice in loud lamentations. Soon all was consumed, and there remained only the dull glow of red embers. Then I wandered out into the night, stupefied and[Pg 125] broken-hearted by the crowning calamity that had overtaken me, afraid even to face my neighbours of the village, naked, penniless, and alone.

"Thus did it come about that I, a man of estate, feudatory of a prince, within the period of a single moon lost wives and children, slaves and retainers, land and crops and cattle, family jewels, stores of gold and of silver, and also the blue diamonds of the idol for the retention of which I had rashly but unknowingly ventured all that I had of happiness in this world.

"And since that day of final disaster I have journeyed over the face of the land trying to find, not the blue diamonds, not my stolen hoard, but that fiend incarnate, the priest of Siva, who slew my wives and children.

"I go about, now a Moslem fakir with the right of entry to the mosques where I may worship the only true God and Mohammed his prophet, now disguised as a Hindu yogi, crying 'Ram, Ram,' so that I may gain access to the temples of the idolators, there to find the Ganapati with the jewelled eyes, and by that token discover the man for whom I am ever seeking. Every year I revisit Ferishtapur, whence the idol was originally taken by my hand from the wrecked temple, but thither neither the priest nor the Ganapati has ever returned. At other times I travel from one city to another, searching for temples, mingling with the devotees at the recurring festivals, the Holi, the Durgapuga, the feast of lanterns, and watching the processions when the[Pg 126] idols and their custodians visit each other's shrines or go to the river for the blessing of the waters. But wander where I may, priest or Ganapati have I never seen again.

"Thus have passed fifty long years, during which I have lived for one thing alone, and that——revenge!"

Pausing before the last word, then uttering it in a scream that pierced the night air, the fakir sprang to his feet, and, swept by a sudden gust of overmastering passion, raised his hands high to heaven—a weird and eerie figure in the silver sheen of the moon.

"Deen! deen! deen!" he cried, dancing around as he shrilly voiced the fanatic call to massacre—the dread call which through the centuries has drenched with human blood a thousand shrines, both Moslem mosques and Hindu temples.

"Subah!" shouted the Afghan general, half rising, his hand on his sword hilt. "Stop that, you son of a dog, or I will make you meat for jackals. Subah!" At the reiterated stern command the dancing figure became instantly rigid. Then, just as suddenly as he had leaped from his crouching attitude, the fakir sank to the ground in a huddled heap, his face buried in the dust.

"You would be happier to-day, O man of many sorrows, had you followed the philosophy of 'kooch perwani'—had you said to yourself: 'What is done is done, and cannot be undone. Let it pass. Kooch perwani—no matter.'"

It was the Rajput who was speaking, in rebuke yet in commiseration.[Pg 127]

"Even when all seemed lost" continued the Hindu soldier, "you should have forgotten the blue diamonds, the abiding greed for which was the real cause of your undoing; you should have forgotten your lost wealth and honourable position, your dear ones gone to the abode of bliss, the enemies who had despitefully used you but who, as your own religion teaches, were in truth only God's emissaries sent to punish you for your sins. It is the philosophy of 'kooch perwani' that teaches us to forget the dead past, do the work of the vital present, and by doing it aright build for the future an edifice of happiness and contentment. Had you followed that philosophy, O fakir, you might have been again to-day rich in the good things of the world."

The mendicant raised his face from the dust. "To which I reply, O prince,—kooch perwani. By the ordeals through which I have passed I have come to learn that the treasures of this world are of no account. Therefore is my philosophy to-day greater than your own. You wear costly robes, I the loin cloth of the beggar. Kooch perwani; for when death comes, we are equals. There is no pocket to a shroud."

[Pg 128]



"In my case the philosophy of life is of the simplest," remarked the Afghan general. "I neither crave the wealth of the prince, nor do I inflict upon myself the mortifications of the ascetic. For the one rich robes and the sceptre, for the other a loin cloth and a begging-bowl; but for me the good sword that commands respect from my enemies, confidence from my friends, and my due share of the good things of existence. In this frame of mind I find the full measure of joy in each day that passes."

He smiled the smile of the man contented with the world and with himself, but there was the light of proud determination in his eyes that belied the mere sybarite.

"Then for you the greatest good consists in the happiness you can snatch from the passing hour," suggested the magistrate.

"That is so," concurred the soldier, "if to the word happiness you give the right interpretation. To me the performance of one's present duty is the only real thing that brings contentment. And duty need not always be stern and forbidding; to laugh and play and be merry may, at the proper time and in the proper circumstances, be a duty both to ourselves[Pg 129] and to others. When one lives philosophically for the present, he takes men in all their moods and life in all its phases. The past is counted as dead and to be forgotten, except for the experience gained to guide the doing of the things that lie now to one's hand. The future is unseen, but is none the less determined by our deeds, words, and thoughts of the passing moment, each one of which, be it remembered, whether deed or rash word, or unspoken thought, has consequences that are eternal."

"So for the man whose mind is thus attuned," again interposed the magistrate, "the present becomes all supreme, shaped by the past, shaping the future."

"Which means that destiny never degenerates into mere blind and helpless fatalism," responded the Afghan. "To do the right now suffices to give absolute trust in God for the hereafter. That is the key of destiny, and each man holds it in his own keeping."

"A simple religion," smiled the Rajput.

"And therefore the best. It is the religion of Islam freed from all the controversies of rival sects and over-learned mullahs. It is the religion of my fathers and the religion of my youth, and in it I abide. Let me tell you a story of the rough school in which I received my early training and where such thoughts as these first began to sink deep into my mind.

"Have you ever heard of Shir Jumla Khan? No? Well, that is doubtless because he has been dead for a full score of years, and because he held his sway in a land remote from these plains of Hindustan, up[Pg 130] in the rugged mountains, where brave tribesmen guard the valleys which their ancestors tilled, and yield allegiance to no one but their own hereditary chieftains. Such was my country and my people, for I am proud that in my veins runs the blood of the man who for a hundred miles around my boyhood home was known as The Tiger of the Pathans. Behold in me a grandson of Shir Jumla Khan."

The narrator folded his arms across his breast, in an attitude of quiet dignity. After just a moment's pause he continued:

"We were all born fighters, the members of my clan, for during hundreds of years many a swarming host had swept past the gateways of our territory, Persians, Arabs, Afghans, Moguls, Turkmans, hordes of fighting men of every race and tongue, sometimes marching south bent on conquest, at other times returning to their homes laden with rich spoils, and yet at other times defeated and broken, with enemies pressing at their heels. And it was the patrimonial right of our tribe to take toll from all alike, from victors and vanquished, from pursuers and pursued.

"Sometimes an army would pass through our mountains under safe conduct from all the tribes, and the price paid in money, horses, camels, and cattle, cloths and other goods, would be divided among the several clans. But in this practice there had grown to be more danger for ourselves than from forays or assaults on passing enemies, because over the division of the spoils there would be[Pg 131] quarrelling, followed by fighting, among the tribes. Thus had originated many a blood feud enduring through many generations.

"In the early days of Shir Jumla Khan it had come about that several rich caravans had fallen exclusively into his hands. With the money thus provided by the bountifulness of Allah, he had been enabled to build for himself a citadel that for vastness and security surpassed those of all his rivals among the tribal chiefs. Within its wide walls were wells and water tanks, gardens for the growing of fruits and vegetables, warehouses for goods, granaries stored with barley, wheat, and dal, stables for a hundred horses, sheds for the housing of cattle, sheep, and camels, and dwelling places for a goodly multitude of armed men, their wives and their children. And all of these things endure until this day, for the fortress town amid the mountains built by my grandsire, The Tiger of the Pathans, has ever remained unconquered and unconquerable.

"But as Shir Jumla Khan grew rich in possessions and in power—for scores of fighting men from afar were attracted to his service—at the same time did his position among the tribesmen become one of increasing isolation. All feared him and envied him, and fear and envy have ever been breeders of hate. Yet was he a just and a benevolent man, honoured and beloved by every one within his domain, where his slightest word was gladly accepted law, not because of the might he wielded but because of his fairness to all men.

"I was yet a young man when a widely spread plot among the rival[Pg 132] tribesmen to destroy Shir Jumla Khan's power had come to a head, and had resulted in a determined and prolonged attack upon his citadel. Numbers had told, our outlying fields had been devastated, our flocks and herds driven away, and crowded within the walls of the fortress were refugees from all the surrounding countryside. We had been cooped up through the summer, we had lost our annual crops, and without the usual replenishment granaries and warehouses were beginning to wear an empty look, with but sorry promise for the winter. But, calm and undismayed, his proud look and serene smile ever the same, Shir Jumla Khan continued to feed the hungry host within his gates and now absolutely dependent upon his protection.

"The coming of winter would mean for us some relief, for the first snows would scatter the beleaguering hosts, sending them back to their own valleys, and giving us the chance, in the intervals of the season's storms, to make a few forays on our own account on neighbouring communities, which, taken one at a time, would be pretty well at our mercy. But if we reasoned in this wise so did our enemies; for it was now toward the close of the month of August and redoubled efforts were being put forth to accomplish the breaching of our walls, so that The Tiger of the Pathans might be slain before there was the chance of his fangs and claws again becoming dangerous.

"The tribesmen, no doubt by capture and enforced service, had secured[Pg 133] the help of some engineers versed in the methods of sieges and assaults on fortified places as practised in Hindustan. At that time I had never before seen a sabat, but now from our fortifications I beheld the gradual extension, day by day, of a broad covered way, with bull-hide roof stretched across the trench being dug, and effectually protecting the labourers below from our guns and muskets and catapults. We had made several sallies with a view to try and stop this work, but these had only resulted in losses on our side out of all proportion to the harassment and delay inflicted on the besiegers. So we could but impotently watch the subtle and inexorable approach of the skilled men who would eventually reach our walls, drive mines beneath them, and blow us to perdition.

"Our one chance lay in the question of time. If the winter began early we should be saved, but if the snows held off till late in the year it looked as if our doom must be sealed.

"But quite unexpectedly a ray of hope came from another quarter. Dissension had broken out in the ranks of our foes!

"The first word was brought to us by a deserter from the besiegers' camp, who one night had crept up to the gateway of the fort and whined for admittance, declaring that he had important news to tell and hoped for a reward.

"I was with my grandfather when, awakened from his sleep, he listened to the man's story. It told of a[Pg 134] fierce quarrel the preceding evening between two of the leading chieftains. They had been conversing alone in one of their tents, when suddenly those without had heard angry words. Then it would seem that the owner of the tent had sent for one of the slippers which his visitor had left at the doorway, and with this had administered five or six strokes over the head, driving his guest forth insulted and disgraced. Every one in the camp was on the alert for fighting in the morning.

"With a grim smile Shir Jumla Khan listened to this narrative. But he made no comment; he merely issued instructions for the informer to be fed and for the present closely guarded.

"But if there had been any lingering doubt as to the truth of the story, confirmation came ere the breaking of the dawn. For we were once again disturbed from our rest, this time by the noise of a great tumult in the camp of the besiegers, loud shouting followed by the discharge of muskets, the sounds gradually dying away in the distance as if a fight and a pursuit had taken place. When day broke such indeed proved to be the case; we could descry in the camp a row of tents thrown down and dismantled, also dead or wounded men being brought in from the country beyond, while away on a distant ridge was a considerable body of tribesmen retreating toward their homes.

"At this sight joyful huzzas resounded through the fortress, and we did indeed all feel that Allah, by disrupting the forces of the enemy, was fighting on[Pg 135] our side. And as I spread my prayer carpet, and prostrated myself toward Mecca, the pious thought in my heart was one that had many times been inculcated by my noble grandsire himself: 'Let the wise man reflect that he can in no way succeed without the help of God Most High.'

"During the day we took counsel as to the advisability of an attack on the somewhat attenuated host without the walls. But from our posts of observation we could see that every one in the camp was under arms and on the alert, no doubt foreseeing that such an attempt was likely on our part. So we concluded to let events develop, and contented ourselves with watching the progress of the sabat. Here there was no relaxation of endeavour, for the protected trench made a considerable advance ere the sun once again sank over the western hills.

"Darkness had not long fallen when another bleating voice of a suppliant for admittance was heard by the sentry at the gateway. Introduced to our presence, the newcomer, a goatherd by his appearance, and with the signs of travel on his garments, removed his head dress, untwisted the long locks of hair bound according to custom around his head, and, producing a small packet from the midst of his tresses, flung it on the floor. I picked up the missive, and handed it to our chieftain.

"Shir Jumla Khan untied the packet, and produced therefrom a heavy gold signet ring. While he was examining this, the seeming goatherd raised his voice:

"'O prince of princes, protector of the poor and oppressed, by the token[Pg 136] in your hands know that I who wear this humble disguise am the son of Mustafa Khan, thy brother chieftain, who craves a refuge within the walls of this God-guarded citadel. I am empowered to propose terms which will bring substantial reward for you and sure deliverance from the pack of wolves yelping at your gates.'

"The youth soon convinced us that he was none other than he claimed to be, an additional guarantee to the possession of the ring being afforded by the full and detailed messages which he brought from his father. At the council which followed I was privileged to be present. The son of Mustafa Khan first recounted the story we already knew, of the deadly insult inflicted on his father, and then told briefly the tale of the morning flight and fight. His fleeing clansmen were now concealed in a gorge not a mile away, some two hundred fighting men, and would be glad to join their forces with those of Shir Jumla Khan, so that they might wipe out the stain of the dishonour they had suffered. If the gates were opened to them, they would come to the citadel that very night.

"But, watching my grandfather's face, I could see him smiling through his beard.

"'I want no more mouths to feed, young man,' replied The Tiger of the Pathans. 'But take this message to your sire. Let him come here, alone and unattended, and thus serve as a hostage for his own good faith. Then shall we two together concert a[Pg 137] plan whereby an attack by his men from the other side of the camp will be made at the same moment as a sortie by my men on this side, so that together we shall crush our common enemy as we would break a nut between two stones. I have spoken.'

"'But my mother,' faltered the youth, 'and my sister? They and two women attendants are with my father, and he cannot leave them alone and unprotected.'

"Shir Jumla Khan stroked his beard; the appeal was one that reached his benignant heart.

"'How could they come here?' he asked, addressing the young man.

"'We have a camel with panniers. In that they escaped from the camp last night. I myself could lead them hither.'

"'Then in the name of God let the women too come into this place of refuge. You and your father, and the camel with the panniers, will be admitted, if you can reach the gates before the breaking of the dawn.'

"'And a place of seclusion for the ladies?'

"'What need to ask that?' exclaimed my grandsire, abruptly and angrily. 'I will show the respect to Mustafa Khan's women which I should expect him to show to mine. A house will be got ready ere you return.'

"And he waved the youth from his presence.

"I was at the gateway in the grey of the morrow's dawn when the fugitives arrived—Mustafa Khan, a big burly figure wrapped in his camel robe, the son still in the garments of a goatherd, and, led by[Pg 138] him, a camel from the back of which was slung panniers for women, one on each side, enveloped in the usual coverings that safeguarded those within from forbidden eyes.

"But although, both out of proper respect for women and in duty toward our guests, I had not attempted to look at the camel or its burden, having indeed inclined my head downward as the animal passed, yet as I again raised my eyes did I involuntarily catch sight of a dainty white hand and the gleam, through momentarily parted curtains, of a beautiful face—that of a young girl, fair as a lily, sweet and innocent as the half-opened blossom of a rose. And methought that, in her very childlike innocence, as our eyes met for a single instant, she smiled into mine ere she gathered together the curtain that hid the vision of loveliness from my ravished gaze.

"My heart was hammering against my breast as I watched the father and the brother, with the swaying camel, disappear under the archway of a building sheltered by the encompassing wall of the fortress. This I knew had been designated as the home of the refugees during their stay among us, but never had I imagined that such a treasure was to be bestowed in so rough a casket.

"All that day Mustafa Khan and my grandfather remained in close and secret conclave. Again I occupied my time by watching the approaching sabat. The work was progressing quicker than ever. At this rate, within two or three days the covered trench would be within a short stone throw of the fortress[Pg 139] walls. After the evening meal I reported this position of affairs to Shir Jumla Khan.

"He only smiled gently at me.

"'Rest easy in your mind,' he said. 'Everything is understood and arranged between me and Mustafa Khan. On the day after to-morrow our enemies will be delivered into our hands.'

"But that night sleep would not come to my eyes. The face of the beautiful girl haunted me, and a great longing came over me to behold her again. I even began to hope that the conjoining of our fortunes might bring the damsel to me, to be the joy of my life and the pride of my future home. Already I was framing in my heart the sentences wherewith I would plead my cause after the battle was over, both with my grandsire and with Mustafa Khan. And I vowed that, in the fighting to come, I would do some deed of daring that would surely win the girl's father to my side.

"Meanwhile I wandered around the battlements, and half unconsciously I found myself on the walls at a place that surmounted the house which sheltered my beloved, with her mother and their women attendants, God is my witness, but I had no thought of profane prying, contrary alike to the laws of the Prophet and to the laws of hospitality. But my eyes fell on a beam of light coming from a tiny window niched deep down in a recess of the building. And even as I saw this, there came to my ears a faint, regular sound—a muffled 'tap, tap, tap.' Instantly every fibre of my being was in a quiver.

"I know not what instincts guided me—to burst asunder the bonds both of[Pg 140] conventionality and of religion that might have restrained me, to make suspicion of some vague unseen danger stifle within my breast every tender thought of awakening love. But in my surge of excitement love and faith were alike forgotten. I ran from the walls, and without consulting anyone returned but a few minutes later with a coil of rope in my hands. To fasten this to one of the parapets, to tie a few knots at intervals so as to give me handhold and foothold—all this was the work of another minute or two. Then, slowly and cautiously, hand under hand, I was descending into the well-like recess toward the one tiny shaft of light that pierced its black darkness.

"'Tap, tap, tap'—the mysterious sound grew more and more distinct as I dropped down and down. Then, all of a sudden, the playing of a zither and the full-throated song of a woman smote my ears, and I arrested my descent. Almost could I have climbed back again, unseeing and ashamed. But in a brief momentary interlude in the music I heard, loud and unabashed now, the steady 'thump, thump, thump' as of a hammer, and straightway I knew that the song and its accompaniment were but part of some devilish plot—a means devised to muffle the sound of the other operations, whatever these might be. In another moment I was abreast of the window, small as a loophole for musketry, but all-sufficient for my requirements, I had the rope[Pg 141] twisted around my leg, and, secure against slipping, I craned forward to peer inside.

"My irreverent eyes fell on no woman's face—the music was floating upward from an adjoining chamber. But in the room into which I gazed was a strange sight—four men stripped to the waist and toiling for all the world like diggers of a well. The flagstones of the floor had been torn up, and a great hollow cavern had been dug below. From this cavity two of the figures were passing up baskets of mud and gravel, into the hands of Mustafa Khan himself, who was bestowing the material around the walls of the room. The fourth man, also in the pit that had been dug, was tapping a long iron crowbar into a hole that had evidently been pierced in the soft ground in the direction of the fortress wall.

"I knew little enough about engineering in those days, but it needed only common sense for me to realize that the miscreant Mustafa had betrayed our hospitality for no other purpose than to breach the walls of the citadel. If there had been women in one pannier there had been men in the other, and, to balance the camel's load, there had been powder and tools for the nefarious task, the crowning achievement, no doubt, of an elaborate conspiracy.

"But I lost no time then in trying to piece together the details of the scheme. It was action that was needed now. So, just as silently and cautiously as I had descended, I climbed back again by my rope and regained the battlements. I paused just for a moment to listen to the sweeping chords of the[Pg 142] zither, played by no unskilled hand, and to the rich notes of the woman's voice swelling into the midnight air. Then I gathered the rope in my arms, and sought the sleeping quarters of my grandfather.

"The old Tiger of the Pathans, as I knew well, was prepared to be aroused at any hour of the night. Even his tulwar was buckled to his belt when, in answer to my summons, he stepped forth into the outer chamber. He listened to my eager story, peering at me the while from beneath his shaggy eyebrows. But not even the twitching of a muscle in his face betrayed surprise.

"At the close of my narrative he laid a kindly hand on my shoulder.

"'O son of my dead son,' he said gravely, 'if what you have seen to-night be not a dream, then have you done me great service. But go now and sleep, and prepare yourself for what is to come. Rest assured, more than ever before, that Allah is on our side, and that, even as I said to you last night, our enemies are being delivered into the hollow of our hands.'

"But sleep still refused to come to me that night. The call for morning prayer found me wide awake, turning over in my mind the many perplexities of the situation. Had the quarrel in the camp of our adversaries been nothing but a cunning pretence, the fight among the tribesmen before the dawn a mere sham, even the gathering in of the supposed dead and wounded an artful deception for our eyes, all contrived so that this devil of devils, Mustafa Khan, should gain access to the citadel with skilled[Pg 143] sappers and mining munitions? And was the youth who had played the part of a goatherd really a son of the man, or a serpent-tongued liar, a chosen master of craft whose seeming guilelessness had helped to delude us? It had been a crude first idea on his part to suggest the admission as refugees of a swarm of armed men, but, when this had failed, there had been glib readiness with the other and more subtle plan that had so nearly succeeded. And as I reflected on these things, I marked the young hypocrite for my own particular prey.

"During the morning hours I was surprised to see the two khans, guest and host, betrayer and betrayed, walking around the gardens in seeming amity. But after a time my grandsire beckoned me to his side.

"'This is a grandson of mine,' he said, presenting me to Mustafa Khan. 'He has reported to me that the sabat is approaching too close to your present quarters, and that any explosion would endanger the members of your household.'

"I saw the traitor pale under the quiet eye of The Tiger of the Pathans.

"'There will be no explosion to-day,' he stammered.

"'You seem to be fully and precisely acquainted with the plans of our enemies. Nay, do not draw that sword by your side, Mustafa Khan. Look behind you, man.'

"With haggard face now, Mustafa turned round. It was to see half a dozen pikes pointed at his ribs. At a signal from their master a guard had noiselessly drawn near.

"'You know what to do, jemadar,' said the old Tiger to the officer in[Pg 144] charge. There was a vicious smile now on his face, such as I had never seen there before and never saw again—a savage curling of the upper lip that showed the white fangs of the relentless hunting animal.

"And, prodded by the encircling spikes, Mustafa Khan went to his doom—calmly and proudly erect, be it said, for a Pathan always knows how to die with dignity and resignation to the will of God. Nor must we forget that he was a brave man, for in coming to the citadel he had boldly ventured his life on a desperate chance, and perfidy in the game of war brings shame only when it meets with discomfiture. Peace be with his soul!

"My grandsire and I were now alone.

"'You will let me fight that crawling snake, his son?' I cried, with a gesture of appeal.

"'He is already carrion for the vultures,' was the reply. 'He was no son of Mustafa Khan, just a low-born hireling schemer, and it needed only a prod of the dagger to make him betray the whole plot, and whine for the mercy which I would have scorned myself to bestow. The two skilled sappers are still mining—under my directions this time. We shall make a feint of a sally to-morrow morning at the hour prearranged by Mustafa Khan with the tribesmen outside. But it is the sabat and its occupants that will be blown into the sky, and not my good stout walls'—this last with the old familiar smile, stern but pleasant to look upon.

"'And the girl who sang?' I ventured, falteringly.[Pg 145]

"'She is safe in the protection of my home. On her rests no blame, for in the part she played she was but obeying her father's bidding. Now, that is all for the present. Keep your own counsel, and be with me to-morrow at the dawn.'

"And with the dawn came the swarm of Mustafa Khan's clansmen, running eagerly toward the opened gateway of the fort, with their fellow conspirators shouting and shooting and waving their swords in pretended pursuit. But just within the entrance were ranged a dozen guns and arquebuses on swivels, loaded to their muzzles with slugs of iron. And almost at the same moment as the rain of death mowed down the onrushing horde, a great explosion shook the earth outside, and the fragments of a hundred bodies blown from the sabat by our countermine filled the air. Then indeed did our men-at-arms, footmen and horsemen, sally forth to pursue with sword and spear their scattered and dismayed enemies, sending scores to their deaths and the survivors scampering to their dens among the mountains.

"And none ever again dared to attack my grandsire, The Tiger of the Pathans."

With a proud smile the Afghan surveyed his audience. No one ventured to question him, yet there was a look of unsatisfied curiosity on more than one face.

"Oh, yes," laughed the soldier, lightly, "I heard the fair zither player and singer again—often again—in my own home."

[Pg 146]



By general although unspoken assent, the eyes of all the company were now directed to the venerable hakeem, as if to invite from him the next contribution to the night's entertainment. Meditatively for a moment the man of medicine stroked the broad white beard that descended almost to his girdle, and then began:

"Familiar to us all is the thought that death is but a birth into another state of existence, whether that state be the eternal paradise which is the final goal of every man's hopes, or merely another stage thitherward. Death is a birth, the truth of which will more forcibly appeal to our minds when we reflect also that birth is a death."

"How can that be, except for the still-born?" queried the astrologer.

The hakeem raised a hand deprecating the interruption.

"Nay, follow me in my argument," he continued quietly. "If death is a birth, then is a birth truly death. For the babe has been living through a prior stage of existence. To it the nine months passed in its mother's womb may have meant a long span of life. For time is but a relative term, and, measured against eternity, the whole period of man's sojourn on[Pg 147] earth, be it three score or four score years, is but as the puff of a single breath. So the child in the womb lives there a full span of existence; it is nurtured and it grows, it sleeps and it wakes, it lies passive and it disports itself, it is sensitive to cold and to heat, to thirst and to hunger, and God alone knows what it thinks and what mental impressions it forms of the existence through which it is passing. And the hour of its birth is truly the hour of its death, for in pain and travail it is plucked from its warm and comfortable surroundings, and with the shock of physical change and unseeing dread it cries aloud in sharp anguish. Thus precisely do we ourselves die when we pass from this world to another existence, physically and mentally resenting the harsh change, terrified because of our very ignorance of what is really happening."

The physician paused, amid a deep hush that bore eloquent testimony to the impressiveness of the thought to which he had given utterance.

"But the parallel does not end here," he resumed.

"When the infant is born, then for the first time does it see face to face the divinity who through all the preceding stage of its existence has protected it, warmed it, and nourished it. In the presence of its mother it is in the presence of the God who has hitherto enveloped it, wholly and completely, in His own divine being. So when we die will we be face to face with the now unseen God who everywhere encompasses us, beholding Him at first only with the dazzled vision and dim half-consciousness of the new-[Pg 148]born babe, but growing to know Him and to love Him as we have all known and loved the devoted mothers who bore us. For mother love is man's first foretaste of God love, the full glory of which we shall comprehend only when by death we are born into a higher and more spacious sphere of existence."

There was another brief interval of silence, again unbroken by any comment from the auditors. Then the hakeem continued in lighter tone:

"Now let me point my moral by telling you a story of a mother's supreme devotion for her son.

"At one time I practised my profession in the capital city of a state ruled over by a maharajah, who, although he had been a brave and honourable man in his prime, had degenerated into a mere voluptuary, spending his days in the companionship of nautch girls and disreputable men, indulging constantly in immoderate potations of strong wine, and given at times to the use of bhang, which does more than anything else to dull the faculties and deaden the conscience of the unfortunate who surrenders himself to its seductive spells. The inevitable results were for him the premature loss of health and strength, and for his people misrule, extortion and widespread unhappiness.

"It happened that, after several Hindu physicians had failed to restore their royal master from a fainting spell, I, a Moslem, was summoned in haste to the palace. I carried with me a small jar containing a certain pungent liquid, which I applied to the nos[Pg 149]trils of my patient, with the result that he was straightway brought back from seeming death to consciousness of his surroundings. I take no special credit for effecting this recovery, but the maharajah himself deemed me to be a veritable worker of miracles, and, dismissing all his other doctors, kept me thenceforth constantly by his side. From the first I knew, by his trembling limbs and enfeebled condition, that death had marked him for its own; but I could, at least, prepare aromatic drinks to mitigate his pains and saffron meats to drive out the evil spirits that possessed him.

"Thus did it come about that I gained the confidence of the maharajah, and when it happened that one of his favourite wives had fallen into a decline, and had begged for the services of a physician, the honourable trust of ministering to her needs was confided to me. My examination of the invalid was in accordance with the usual restrictions. Accompanied by the feeble old maharajah himself, I was conducted to an apartment across which a heavy curtain was suspended. After an interval of waiting, the rustle of silken garments behind the purdah, followed by the gentle sigh of a woman, told me that my patient had arrived. It was the husband himself who bade her thrust her tongue through an orifice in the curtain. My inspection of this member revealed no internal disorder, and I requested from my master permission to touch the lady's hand so that I might feel the pulsing of the blood in her veins. Not too willingly he ordered her to push her arm through the opening.[Pg 150]

"It was a dainty white hand, with many jewelled rings upon the taper fingers, and the nails, as with all ladies of quality, dyed the deep orange red of henna. Although I knew well that the jealously watchful eyes of her lord were upon me, I made no hesitancy in encompassing the wrist with my own fingers. But the little hand within mine was clenched tight, and, the better to conduct my examination, I freed my fingers from her wrist so as to straighten out hers as I required them. When I attempted to do this, however, I was conscious of some resistance and then of the presence of a small packet concealed in the palm of her hand. With a flash of comprehension I knew that the package must be intended to be conveyed to me surreptitiously, and, with no thought at that critical moment of what the ulterior object might be, I aided the act by a deft movement of my shoulder, which for a moment intercepted the maharajah's gaze.

"In another second he could see my finger-tips lightly pressed on her wrist, and her empty hand extended; but the package was safe in my other hand, and not the quiver of a muscle on my face betrayed that anything unusual had happened. Both to mask my feelings, and to give the lady behind the curtain confidence that she could repose trust in my discretion, I counted the pulse beats aloud.

"These indeed told me that the heart of my patient was beating at a mad gallop, but this I divined was simply caused by the daring deed she had essayed and successfully accomplished. I deemed it wise and[Pg 151] prudent, however, to announce that the lady was suffering from a fever, and that I would send her a powder that would speedily restore her to good health. At this the maharajah was sufficiently overjoyed to permit of my withdrawal without obvious embarrassment. I had a smile upon my lips, and the secret package secure in the folds of my girdle. A chuprassi accompanied me to my home to bring back the medicine.

"I knew, of course, that it was only a dry powder that this high-born Hindu lady could take from my dispensary, for to have swallowed a liquid drug would have been a violation of her caste. I took pains to let the chuprassi see that my hands did not touch the powder, which, after due weighing, I bestowed in a paper carefully sealed, instructing him to deliver it to no one but his highness the maharajah. It was only finely ground sugar that the man carried away. But perhaps this is a harmless little trick of my profession which even now I should not disclose."

But a general smile among the company showed the hakeem that his calling was held in no undue reverence, at least by those without present need of his ministrations.

"When I was alone with my mortars and my drugs," resumed the narrator, "I lost no time in examining the mysterious packet. I unwound the silk threads that tightly tied it, both to restrict its bulk and to render it secure. Soon, to my amazement, I uncovered a string of ten pearls, of a size and lustrous[Pg 152] purity that bespoke a high value even to my untutored eyes. Also there was a little seal of red chalcedony, with the antlered head of a deer and some scroll of lettering engraved upon it; but there was not one scrap of writing to explain to me the reason of these gifts.

"Had the lady, as often happens, imagined herself to be seriously sick, and devised this plan of invoking my interest and most skilful services on her behalf? But why, then, the seal, the value of which was quite insignificant?

"Even as I was pondering these questions, there came a clapping of hands at the gateway of my home that announced the arrival of a visitor. Hastily concealing the pearls and the seal in my girdle, I stepped forth into the outer court and took my seat upon the divan.

"Straightway there was ushered into my presence a big man clothed in rich garments. His sable complexion and thick lips declared him to be a moorman from across the seas, and his beardless chin further told at a glance that he was an attendant at the seraglio of some rich noble.

"He salaamed me with the cool confidence of his kind, and, without waiting for an invitation, seated himself on the carpet at my feet.

"'My name, O learned hakeem, is Malik Kafur,' he began in the shrill treble voice I had anticipated, 'and you know why I come here.'

"As my knowledge had been taken for granted, I bowed in acquiescence.

"'But her highness said that you would first of all show me her signet[Pg 153] so as to prove that you are acting with her authority.'

"With all due gravity I produced the chalcedony seal from my belt, and, without quitting hold, extended it for my visitor's inspection. There was a swift gleam of recognition in his eyes.

"'That is right,' he murmured.

"'Then proceed,' I said, quietly. 'You can speak in the fullest confidence.'

"'I have promised the maharanee that to-morrow, when the fourth of the day is over, I shall conduct her into the bazaars. She bade me explain her plans precisely, so that you in turn should know how to act. Well, her highness will be, as usual, in her palankeen slung between two mules. When we turn from the coppersmiths' bazaar into the secluded bazaar where the money changers dwell, the two grooms in charge of the mules will be assailed by budmashes and beaten with sticks. I, too, will be knocked down and my clothes torn; but do not worry on my account.'

"I gave a cheerful nod to signify that his anxiety on this score might be set at rest.

"'It will devolve on you to have two men ready to take advantage of the confusion of the scuffle and lead away the mules with the palankeen, conducting the maharanee to a place which she herself will indicate. This you understand?'

"'I understand.'

"'At night, when I shall come to you again, under[Pg 154] cover of the darkness, you will pay over to me the agreed-upon price—the ten pearls which her highness has placed in your custody.'

"'They are here,' I assented, holding aloft the little string of pearls, the purpose they were intended to serve at last made clear to my understanding.

"The eyes of the negro flashed with cupidity, and he reached forth a big, fat, black hand.

"'I can be trusted to do my share of the task,' he said, eagerly. 'To save trouble, let me be paid now.'

"'Not so, thou slave,' I replied, curtly and with authority, as I returned the pearls to their place of safe-keeping. 'The price will be paid when the service is performed. To-morrow night you will be admitted, Malik Kafur, if you knock three times at my gate.'

"The fellow rose to his feet, with a servile and submissive smile, and, by a wave of my hand, I dismissed him from my presence.

"Here, indeed, was an adventure thrust upon me, a man of peace and of studious habits, who had ever shrunk from deeds of violence; but the hand of fate was clearly beckoning me along the path of duty, and not for a moment did I shrink from the dangers into which, perchance, I was being hurried.

"For the maharajah, worthless, besotted, and on the verge of dishonoured death, I could have no respect. For the lady of his household, who was confiding to me her very life, whose soft hand I had touched with due reverence, there was an instinctive feeling of sympathy. In her hour of dire need,[Pg 155] most likely of extreme danger, she had turned to me, a man of staid repute and old enough, no doubt, to be her father. So this was no affair of conjugal wrong, from which my religious scruples and my abiding principles alike, would have repelled me. Clearly was I the instrument in God's directing hand for some great happening, and it was not for me, through thought of self or cowardice, to interpose obstacles to the carrying out of the divine will.

"And as I thus ruminated there came from a minaret close by the call to evening prayer. 'The world is but an hour,' I murmured to myself as I spread my carpet; 'spend it in devotion, the rest is unseen.'

"On the morrow I was astir even before the morning call to prayer. 'Prayer is better than sleep'—I listened to the familiar cry of the muezzin. But while again I prayed I felt that a good deed done may count more for a man at the gates of Paradise than the record of many prayers.

"Full an hour before the appointed time I was at the corner of the coppersmiths' and the money-changers' bazaars. Here I posted two of my retainers, in whom I could place complete confidence. They had already been instructed how to act when the proper moment arrived. For myself, I sauntered through the crowded and noisy bazaar of the makers and menders of copper vessels, so as not to attract undue attention. In my heart was not one flutter of excitement or of uncertainty: I felt the quiet confidence which in the crises[Pg 156] of life comes to a man whose trust in God the Most High is implicit.

"After a period of waiting there came into sight the huge black moorman, in his hand a white wand of office, and, following close behind him, a brilliantly decorated palankeen suspended between a pair of mules and attended by two grooms, leading the animals. The throng had parted before this little procession, averting their eyes from the covered palankeen, as was beseeming.

"But suddenly, at the intersection of the two bazaars, a group of loiterers sprang forward, and with cries assailed the moorman and the grooms, turning the mules into the quieter thoroughfare. There I had now posted myself, and, while the shopkeepers ran up the street to see what had befallen, the cavalcade under my directions, and with my attendants at the animals' heads, hurried along, and as we threaded our way through the maze of streets the tumult of voices soon died away behind us.

"After a little time I ventured to approach the curtained palankin.

"I spoke just loud enough to be heard by its occupant:

"'May your day, O queen, be peaceful! Your servant, most humble and devoted, awaits your orders.'

"'Peace be to thee, O thou trustful and brave hakeem. Take me to the protection of thy wife and home.'

"It was a soft, melodious woman's voice that had[Pg 157] spoken, tremblingly, imploringly, and yet withal in a tone of authority.

"'As thou hast commanded, so shall it be done,' was my brief reply.

"After a little time the cavalcade, without any undue attention being attracted, had passed through the gateway of my home, and the doors had been barred behind us.

"To my surprise a gallant youth, some twelve years of age, sprang through the momentarily parted curtains of the palankeen.

"'I salute thee, O hakeem, our deliverer,' he exclaimed, kissing the hem of my robe. 'My royal mother is in the palankeen, and craves for sanctuary in your zenana.'

"'Let her pass,' I replied, and I urged the docile mules toward the second archway that led to the women's courtyard.

"At my bidding the inner gates opened, and they closed again when the palankeen had entered.

"'Within is sanctuary for your royal mother, and here is sanctuary for yourself, O prince,' I continued, with a profound obeisance, for, despite the modest garments he wore, I had recognized the eldest royal son of the maharajah, whom I had seen several times in his father's presence, and on one occasion at an affair of state clad in a robe of honour of silk and gold brocade, festoons of jewels around his neck, and a tiny sword with scabbard of gold girt at his side.

"Having once more impressed secrecy on my attendants, and bidding them give admission to no one,[Pg 158] I led my young guest into an inner reception room. There, in a few concise sentences, he told me his story.

"A plot had been hatched in the royal zenana that, just so soon as the maharajah died, this youth, and seven or eight younger brothers, sons of other wives, should be slain, so that the undisputed succession might descend on one particular son, elder by several years, but not in the regular line of succession because born of a slave mother. It was this slave woman's brother who commanded the maharajah's bodyguard, and, in collusion with his sister, had conceived the damnable conspiracy. Only by the whisper of a woman who was close to the officer, but whose heart was tender, had the mother of the young heir to the throne been warned. With my aid, and that of the eunuch who had visited me the day before, they had made their escape, the youth having been hidden in the palankeen of his mother before the latter left the seraglio on one of her occasional visits to the bazaars.

"Such was the story. Now the future had to be planned, for up to this point the maharanee had acted blindly and impulsively—just swiftly—the moment she had realized the supreme danger for her son. In the boy I found high courage and a clear brain, and together we devised the measures to be followed that would best allay suspicion as to the whereabouts of the fugitives.

"As a first step I sallied forth as usual to pay my professional visit on the maharajah a little before[Pg 159] the noontide hour. Perhaps I felt that, if by any chance suspicion had already alighted upon me, I was taking my life in my hands by entering the palace; but, trusting to the protection of Allah, I gave no second thought to any fear of this kind.

"I had not yet reached the palace gates when I encountered a messenger running in hot haste to summon me. His highness the maharajah had been seized with a fit, and the whole palace was in a turmoil.

"When I gained the royal apartment I saw at a glance that the sufferer was beyond human aid. I could but watch the deep laboured breathing, growing ever fainter and fainter, until the death-rattle in the throat proclaimed the end.

"During that hour of watching my soul had been gravely perturbed, not because of the dying debauchee, but in dread of sinister happenings in the royal zenana when the news of the maharajah's demise should come to be announced. But how was I to give warning without betraying to certain death the youth and his mother who had sought sanctuary in my defenceless home? For there, at the door of the sick room, stood the captain of the king's bodyguard, Todar Rao, the very man who, I knew, held his corrupt soldiery in leash for any villainy.

"Another high officer of the court, the diwan, had shared my vigil in the death chamber, and just before the end came had informed me that it was news of an attack by budmashes on one of the royal palankeens that morning in the bazaars that had[Pg 160] inflicted the fatal stroke upon his master. But this treasurer was an aged man, who would have quailed under the eye of the stern and relentless soldier keeping watch and ward at the doorway, and, for all I knew, he, too, might be in the conspiracy—indeed, his furtive glances and the nervous twitching of his hands forewarned me of this danger.

"Surrounded by uncertainties, and utterly helpless in my isolation, I could but drift whither the stream of destiny carried me.

"'The king is dead,' I announced, when the last flutter of the heart had ceased. 'May God in His compassion give him peace.'

"The diwan summoned the captain of the bodyguard, and the latter, to make certainty doubly sure, brutally shook the dead man by the shoulder. I could see the savage gleam of satisfaction on his face when he threw from him the already stiffening arm. The two men, in close conclave, hastened from the chamber, and when the attendants set up the accustomed cries of wailing I profited by the clamour and confusion to slip discreetly from the palace and gain my own home.

"The terrible events of the next few days were, alas! just the same as have befallen a hundred times on the passing of a king. The outside world knew few details, but the news from the palace current in the bazaars was that all the sons of the late maharajah had perished excepting only the eldest. And this youth, although the whisper passed freely[Pg 161] that he was merely the son of a slave woman, duly ascended the throne.

"Revolt by some of the nobles over such an indignity might come later on. But meanwhile, at all events, the show of military power quelled all opposition, while a judicious remission of taxes pleased the general populace, and indeed caused them joyfully to acclaim the new maharajah as he made a triumphal procession through the city, mounted on an elephant caparisoned with cloth of gold and bedecked with silver chains and bells, preceded by priests and the dancing girls of the temples, and surrounded by troops, both horsemen and foot soldiers.

"Only I and the members of my household knew that the rightful heir to the throne was alive and in safe hiding. For the moorman had never come to claim his string of pearls, and it was not until some days later that I had learned of his having been summarily dispatched by order of the dead maharajah, in the latter's first paroxysm of anger over the abduction of his favourite wife when visiting the bazaars. In this opportune removal of a greedy hireling and possible traitor I once more recognized the hand of Providence working for the noble woman whose quick wit had aided mother love to save her son.

"A noble woman I have called her, and such indeed she was. For me the maharanee had discarded the purdah, and in the sanctity of my harem, with my wife as her devoted attendant, I was privileged to converse with her hour after hour, gazing freely[Pg 162] upon the most beautiful countenance I had ever beheld—beautiful not only by reason of soft and rounded features and the peach bloom of the skin, but also because of the soul-lit eyes that illumined it with joyous radiance. For this queen lived in her son, forgot every other sorrow in his safety, and now experienced all the glowing pride of a leader on the field of battle in planning the campaign for the vindication of his rightful claims to the royal inheritance.

"Her first step had been to send secret word to her father—she was the daughter of a mountain chieftain—bidding him to dispatch one of her brothers to me as a trusted messenger. The distance was far, and three months elapsed before the hillman arrived, a sturdy young fellow, serene of eye, slow of speech, and muscled like a panther. He departed back home again, carrying our tale by simple word of mouth for greater security, and having concealed on his person some of the gems which the maharanee had saved and which would be readily convertible into money. Then, after a second interval of time, other tribesmen came sifting into the city by twos and threes, until we had full fifty of the finest material for a bodyguard a young prince could desire. These men were quartered at different places in the vicinity of my home, armed and ready for a general muster when the moment should be ripe for action.

"Meanwhile a widespread spirit of dissatisfaction with the new raj was daily growing, and on every hand in the bazaars mutterings of trouble began to[Pg 163] be heard. The young ruler had proved to be a mere puppet in the hands of his mother and uncle, who had not hesitated to advance their base-born relatives and associates to places of highest honour and emolument, thereby giving grievous offence among the families of proud and ancient lineage, both Hindu and Moslem, which had hitherto supplied the principal officers of state and had been the real buttresses of the throne. Then, to fill full the measure of discontent, came ominous rumours that the prince, although still a mere youth, had, like his father, become addicted to the use of bhang and strong wines, and, encouraged by a worthless following, was abandoning himself to all manner of expensive debauchery. And when at last the screw of heavily increased taxation gave proof to these stories the first timid whispers of displeasure among the populace swelled to sullen and continuous murmuring.

"For the true queen mother and her son the hour of destiny was approaching!

"But, although the embers of revolt were ready to burst into flame at the first fanning of a breeze, Todar Rao, now sirdar in command of the whole army, still dominated the situation. At his slightest word the mercenary soldiery under his control would have rushed into the bazaars with sword and torch, like ravening wolves among sheep helpless to defend themselves. As for the nobles, each surrounded by his own bodyguard, they were torn into rival factions, the one jealously watching the other lest open revolt should be made the excuse for[Pg 164] usurpation of the throne by the strongest and best prepared among them.

"In these circumstances it would have been fatal to let word go forth prematurely that the rightful heir was alive, for disappointed ambitions among the feudal lords might have become an added danger to the fury of the sirdar. But any prolonged delay would also be disastrous, for it was only now that the boy prince would be recognized and received as the undoubted heir to his father's throne; a few years later he would, to a certainty, be looked at askance as a mere pretender—a pawn in the game of some unscrupulous king-maker playing for his own aggrandizement.

"It was the maharanee who devised the bold stroke which involved undoubted danger yet promised the best chance of success. Her idea was to take the whole court unawares at one and the same moment, so that the nobles might have presented to them, not only a common rallying-point for loyalty, but the chance by united action to break for all time the hated military power of the slave-born sirdar.

"It was the appointed day when the recently installed maharajah, according to custom immemorial, was to be publicly weighed, and the gold he counterbalanced distributed in charity. In the great courtyard of the palace all the people were assembled, nobles and officers of state, soldiers and traders, rich and poor, among the latter the halt, the blind and the maimed, the deformed and the leprous, in pitiful evidence as fitting objects for a share of the pro[Pg 165]mised bounty. On a raised dais, seated upon a throne covered with cloth of gold, and sheltered by a canopy and awnings of crimson brocade, sat the reigning maharajah, a puny and sickly-looking stripling.

"Before the main ceremony of the day, heralds had announced that the sovereign was prepared to listen to any grievances or complaints from his people. For a few minutes no one came forward, but at last a pair of sleek mules, handsomely caparisoned, with a richly adorned palankeen slung between them, the identical equipage of the maharanee which had been harboured in my home, emerged from the crowd, and advanced at a grave pace toward the royal dais. That some high-born lady was within the silken coverings of the palankeen every one surmised, and at this extraordinary spectacle a hush of tense expectancy fell upon the assemblage.

"But the silence changed to murmurs of amazement and admiration when a queenly woman stepped upon the edge of the dais, and faced, not the maharajah on his throne, but the nobles and courtiers and officers clustered around.

"With a proud gesture she flung even the sari from her face, which the play of the sunbeams among the jewels in her hair and around her neck invested with a shimmering halo of radiance. On such a woman's face the multitude had never looked before. But stately and unabashed, serene in the purity of her womanhood, the dignity of her motherhood, and the majesty of her rank, she raised aloft a hand, and[Pg 166] spake aloud in tones clear as the notes of a silver trumpet.

"'O nobles and O people, the royal son and heir of my husband, the late maharajah, is alive, spared by divine Providence from the massacre of his brothers and playmates in the seraglio of the palace. Many of you know him well, and behold now he comes to claim his heritage.'

"As these words were spoken, the crowd again parted, and there stepped forth the young prince, my protégé. At the edge of the throng he discarded a loose mantle of cotton that had concealed the rich garments befitting his rank. Then he advanced, looking proudly and gaily about him, while close behind, and pressing eagerly around his person, came full fifty stalwart tribesmen, treading with the bold swinging gait of the mountaineer, their drawn tulwars flashing in the sun, their voices shouting 'Jai, jai,—Hail, hail!' in deafening chorus.

"The effect was instantaneous and tremendous, and from all the assembled multitude went up the loud acclaim—'Jai, jai, jai!' There seemed to be not a dissentient in the throng. And a moment later the young prince was standing on the dais by his mother's side, one hand resting proudly on her shoulder.

"Among the nobles there had hitherto been the silence of stupefaction. But at last, one of their number, an elderly man, advanced, and prostrated himself on the rich carpet spread in front of the dais, thus rendering public homage to his rightful king. 'Jai, jai, jai!' shouted the mob, and soon a[Pg 167] dozen others among the nobles had given the pledge of fealty.

"Meanwhile the kinglet on the throne of gold had been forgotten. He had made no move, but had contented himself with staring around in confused and helpless surprise. But now Todar Rao, the sirdar, had sprung to his side and dragged the youth to his feet.

"'O princes and people, this is your rightful king,' cried the soldier in stentorian tones, 'crowned and proclaimed and accepted by your pledges of loyalty. My orders to the troops are death to those who now betray him.'

"But the words had hardly passed his lips, when two score of the mountaineers, shouting 'Deen, deen,—Kill, kill,' had swarmed over the silver railings surrounding the throne. There was the momentary clash of steel on steel, the impotent curse of an angry man, a shrill pitiful cry of anguish from the youth who in his terror had crouched behind the awnings descending from the canopy. And when the tribesmen again faced the multitude, the soldierly figure of Todar Rao had disappeared, and the throne was vacant for the reception of its rightful occupant.

"Amidst a wild tumult of joy the young prince ascended from the dais and took the royal seat, showing in his every movement the natural grace and dignity that might almost in themselves have proved his right of heritage, and that certainly won to his cause the last waverers among the onlooking[Pg 168] multitude. Even the bodyguard of the slain sirdar were now joining in the universal acclaim.

"The first to bend a knee to the rightful king enthroned was the royal queen, his mother. And then the lady stepped back, a little to the rear and to the side of the throne, drawing her silken sari over the lovely countenance that would never again be beholden by the people.

"'Never again!' The thought had scarce passed through my mind, as I watched the scene from the fringe of the crowd, when a more grim and terrible reality was given to the unspoken words than I had ever intended. Close to the spot where the maharanee had halted were some hangings of brocade arranged, as we understood later, so that the seated and veiled figure of a woman might observe the brilliant pageantry of the day from the privacy of this purdah.

"And from out these hangings there now stretched, stealthily but swiftly, a bejewelled hand, which plunged a long dagger between the shoulders of the queen mother.

"Without a cry she fell. I was quickly by her side, and the young maharajah and myself, as we bent over her, caught her dying words.

"'All is well, my beloved son,' she murmured. 'I have accomplished that which I was sent into the world to perform. In peace I yield my soul to God.'

"With the last word she breathed her last breath. And such is mother love."

There was a suppressed sob in more than one breast at the close of the[Pg 169] venerable hakeem's tale. Down his own furrowed face the tears were streaming.

"And the woman who struck the foul blow?" inquired the Afghan in an eager whisper.

"The slave mother of the dead pretender. Well, she too had given her all for mother love. The tribesmen tore her limb from limb."

And the hakeem pressed a hand to his eyes to shut out the memory of a dreadful scene.

[Pg 170]



The first wolf-grey of the dawn was creeping over the scene, and turning to a sickly yellow the flare of the little oil lamps arranged around the veranda. The morning air bit shrewdly, and more than one of the seated or reclining figures had gathered his robes more closely around him. All eyes were now turned on the kotwal. He alone of the company had not contributed from his store of experiences.

"Methinks it is too late for any more story-telling," he protested diffidently, with gesture and glance toward the east in token that he spoke truly.

"Nay, nay," cried the Rajput, "this night will not be complete without the full measure of our entertainment. Come, come, friend; the sun is yet an hour below the horizon."

Murmurs of approval showed that the general wish had been interpreted.

"Be it so, then," assented the magistrate. "I have heard so many stories this night that it would indeed be churlish on my part to refuse to give you one of mine. Well, listen.

"Know, my friends, that I am a district judge in[Pg 171] Delhi, presiding over that quarter known as the Bara Bazaar, where the merchants most do congregate. One day some few years ago it befell that I was seated alone in the hall where I hold my court. It was the afternoon hour, all the suits of the day had been disposed of, punishment had been meted out to those who deserved it, justice had been done to rich and poor alike, in accordance with the orders of our most righteous master Akbar, to whom be all honour and glory.

"I had taken from my garments my silver betel-nut box, and was leisurely spreading on a leaf the smear of lime preparatory to enjoying my pan supari, musing the while on the strange little ironies of life that came to my knowledge each day in the discharge of my magisterial functions. All at once a shadow from the open doorway fell across the room. Raising my eyes, I beheld the tall figure of a man. On meeting my look he bowed his body, and with both hands outstretched, courteously salaamed me.

"'Protector of the poor, listen to my story,' he said.

"In silence, while I adjusted the fragments of betel-nut on the limed leaf and rolled up the morsel, I motioned him to a place on the edge of the carpet whereon I myself sat. For my first glance had shown me that the stranger was a man of consequence, his garments being rich and his look that of one accustomed to the exercise of authority.

"He took his seat, and arranged his flowing and finely embroidered robes around him. I proffered[Pg 172] him the pan supari I had prepared, but with a wave of the hand he declined this courtesy. So I placed the morsel in my own mouth, fell to its meditative mastication, and awaited the beginning of his tale.

"'I am a well-to-do traveller, as you would think. O kadi—a pilgrim on my way to the sacred shrine of Juggernaut, as I profess myself to all who make inquiry and to whom an answer is due. But I am not what I appear to be. In reality you behold in me—a thug.'

"The man lowered his voice mysteriously when he pronounced the last word, bending forward so that I might hear it.

"'And what may be a thug?' I asked, for the name to me was quite a new one.

"'Listen,' he said eagerly, and still in a low whisper. 'The thugs are worshippers of Bowani.'

"'There are countless thousands who worship Kali, the dread goddess,' I replied.

"'Yes, but we, the thugs, not only worship her as the wife of Siva, god of destruction, but we are her devoted priests who put men to death in her name and for her glory.'

"Now indeed did I prick up my ears and listen intently. But I did not suffer my awakened interest to betray itself in look or tone of voice.

"'Some fanatics may seek to justify human sacrifice,' I said. I was treading cautiously; later I would tell the man that such foul deeds were against the decrees of Akbar, and involved the penalty of death[Pg 173] under the feet of elephants. But meanwhile I wanted his confession.

"'Ah, you know nothing about the thugs,' continued the stranger. 'But hearken to me, for I have come to tell you all, and for a reason you will presently understand. We are thousands strong, and we live in all parts of Hindustan and the Deccan. We are caste brothers, and are bound together by our worship of Bowani. The traditions of our creed have been handed down for generations from father to son. You have never heard of the thugs, O kadi, although you sit in the place of justice. Do you know why? Because I am the very first of the sect who has broken his vows of silence, and spoken the word thug to one outside our secret association.'

"'Yet you say you are thousands strong.'

"'Yes, we are strong in numbers, but stronger still in our fidelity to our vows. When once we have sworn on the sacred pickaxe, it is impossible to speak words of treachery.'

"'If it be for the good and happiness of all men,' I interpolated, encouraging him to keep on speaking freely, 'there can be no treachery, no breaking of vows in revealing the truth.'

"'It is to reveal the truth that I have come to you. It is by the orders of Bowani herself; for I have wronged her, and she is angry and has loudly proclaimed to me that thuggee is ended—that her protection is for ever withdrawn from me and my fellows, because, O misery, we have grievously offended her. Hark! Do you not hear the voice of Bowani even now?'

"The man raised his face toward the rafters of the room, and, with right[Pg 174] hand uplifted, his attitude was one of intent listening.

"'Unworthy, unworthy, unworthy,' he murmured, in a strange absent monotone, as if repeating words he was actually hearing. 'You have broken my laws. Go now to your doom, you and all your brothers. Such priests Kali will not have. Thuggee is no more. I will seek some other worshippers.'

"After a pause of tense silence, as if the listener was awaiting for more, he dropped hand and eyes. And now my mind took a new turn of thought. There was the confused, unmistakable glare of insanity in the man's eyes. Half unconsciously, I leaned back on my cushions and placed a hand upon the dagger in my kummerbund.

"The stranger noticed the movement, and, lunatic though he undoubtedly appeared to be, interpreted my thoughts.

"'Be not afraid of me, master,' he said. 'This is the only weapon I carry.'

"And with these words he slipped off a silken scarf that he had been wearing loosely around his throat, and tossed it on the carpet between us.

"Now was I all the more confirmed in my estimate of his madness. To call such a thing a weapon!—a strip of soft fabric that might kill a butterfly but would be poor defence indeed to rely on against sword or dagger. I suppose I smiled contemptuously, for again the man read my thoughts.

"Then instantly did he do a thing that made my[Pg 175] blood run cold. With a toss of the scarf into the air, he formed it into a noose, and this he threw over one upbended knee. Next with a swift twist of fierce hands he drew the knot tight, and so terribly realistic was his action that for the moment I saw above his knee the contorted mouth and protruding eyes of his suddenly strangled victim.

"There was horror in my gaze now, but only calm professional pride in his, as he flung back the still looped and knotted kerchief on to the carpet.

"'Yes, I am a strangler,' he said calmly, 'as are all the thugs, born to become stranglers, and taught how to use the roomal in early youth by their own fathers' hands.'

"Of strangling as a means of murder I of course knew, and, indeed, during the years of my magistracy, I had heard vague rumours of robbers habitually resorting to this method of dispatching their victims rather than to clubs or swords. But such appalling dexterity as this man displayed in the handling of an innocent-looking silken scarf I had never imagined.

"'You look dismayed,' commented the miscreant, no longer a madman now to my thinking, but a very dangerous character indeed. 'I am not surprised. Now prepare yourself for a story that will freeze the very marrow in your bones. Know that I am from Daibul, the city by the sea where great Mother Indus flows into the black waters. There for six months of the year, just before and during the season of the monsoon, I live peacefully in my home, doing[Pg 176] no wrong to my fellows, in the eyes of all my neighbours a man of wealth and respectability, who goes periodically to his own country to draw rents from his lands. Little do my friends know that when I do travel it is to worship Bowani by sacrificing to her other travellers on the road. She gives us the omen to kill and we obey her. Once the omen has been declared, it would be sacrilege not to kill her destined victim.'

"'And you rob them too?' I asked discreetly.

"'Oh, naturally. But that is a mere incident. We kill those marked for death by our divine Kali, and she freely bestows on us the wealth of her victims. But we never kill to rob. That would be truly abominable. We kill only in honour of Kali, of Bowani, the all-mighty, great Mother of the Universe. For to her devout worshippers, the thugs, did she not give one of her teeth for a pickaxe, a rib for a knife, and the hem of her lower garment for a noose? So we strangle in her service, and with every victim the act becomes more and more a delight to the soul.' As he spoke, his muscular fingers and wrists automatically went through the motions of tying and drawing the fatal noose. 'Once a man has become a thug, he will remain a thug all the rest of his days. Even if he come to possess the wealth of the world, he will continue to serve Bowani.'

"I had regained my momentarily disturbed composure, and was studying the face of the man before me. It was a fine face, clear-cut, that of a clean liver, unmarked by sensuality, unharmed by wine, keen of[Pg 177] intelligence, resolute of will. I could no longer deem him a madman. But I saw I had to do with one so filled with fanaticism that he could look upon murder as religion, plan it without misgiving, execute it without pity, and remember it without remorse. But now there had occurred something so to upset his mental balance that he feared the wrath of his own goddess and fancied he heard her threatening voice in the air.

"'You have journeyed to Delhi from Daibul?' I asked, prompting him to resume his story.

"'Yes, we were six thugs at the start, with fifteen others, merchants and pilgrims, all of us agreeing to journey together for greater protection on the road. As we proceeded day by day more travellers joined us, some peaceful voyagers, the others thugs to a man. Of the latter several were our own inveiglers, who had gone on in advance to gain the confidence of likely victims and delay them until our coming. The rest were strangers to us, yet none the less thugs. For we had left signs on the road telling such as could read them that more help was needed and in what direction we were moving; and, although those who responded to this call were in varied disguises, one, perhaps, coming up to us as a petty chief with a mounted escort, another as a merchant with a bullock cart to draw his packages of goods and a servant in attendance, yet another as a juggler or a musician, we could instantly recognize them as belonging to our brotherhood of Bowani by the secret signals with which they introduced themselves.[Pg 178]

"'So we fared onward, increasing our numbers until our caravan was full one hundred strong. We walked or rode together, ate together, worshipped at the wayside shrines together, chatted and amused ourselves at night around the camp fire, slept side by side, thugs and our intended victims, until our strength should be sufficient and a suitable place for the final deed attained.

"'At last these two requirements were satisfied. We were now three to one, just the proper proportion—a strangler to use the roomal, a holder of legs, and a holder of arms, three thugs for each man to be sacrificed, so that there could be no mistake, no outcry for help, no possibility of escape for our victims. And one day's journey ahead, as we knew well from previous experience, there was a lonely gorge densely grown with jungle. Here the sacrifice to Bowani would be consummated, so the grave-choosers and the grave-diggers were sent on in advance. We acted now with the certainty of good fortune, for day by day every omen had continued to be propitious, as interpreted by the movements and cries of beasts and birds.'

"The man's story fell on my ears in an even flow. He spoke without emotion. I feared to interrupt with a single word, lest any untoward comment from me should put an abrupt end to the appalling confession. So I just listened while I chewed my betel-nut.

"'On the succeeding night,' continued the thug, 'we reached the nullah. The camp fire was lighted[Pg 179] the bullocks and riding ponies were placed within the circle formed of the carts, for the gorge beneath us was full of wild beasts, and we had even heard the roar of a tiger disturbed from his hunting. The bales and boxes of merchandise had been piled up in heaps, close to where each of the owners would sleep, some on the open ground, some in tents erected by their servants. The evening meal had been cooked and eaten. The half-moon had risen, and at a little distance from the fire a troupe of musicians was performing—zithers were playing, cymbals clanking, tum-tums beating. From the peculiar rhythm of the drums, which all we thugs knew well, we were made aware that the appointed hour had come.

"'Our leader stood in the midst of the gathering, ostensibly warming his hands at the blaze of the fire. Gradually and naturally we took our appointed places, many of them customarily taken before this night so as to excite no suspicion at the final moment. And little did the destined victims of Bowani dream that behind each of them now was an accomplished strangler, with the roomal ready to his hands, while on either side squatted a holder of legs and a holder of arms.

"'Then there happened a thing that will explain, O kadi, why I have come to you this day to tell my story. I am an adept in my craft, and therefore was one of those entrusted to use the roomal. My particular victim was a comely youth, perhaps seventeen years of age—son of a landowner, he had told[Pg 180] me in confidence, travelling with a bag of gold mohurs for his father. This lad had been in my close companionship during the journey, and he had come to show great affection for me. I liked him well, but there was no pity in my heart, for it is good to die in honour of Bowani.

"'At last came the signal of death—the jhirnee we call it. Our leader raised aloft his right hand, and said aloud so that all could hear the agreed-upon words: "The moon shines bright to-night." This was our command to act, and in an instant every appointed victim was in the death throes. Five minutes later all were dead—four-and-thirty of them—and not one faintest cry of alarm or of agony had been uttered. Thus skilfully had our work been done. When all was over, the musicians were still playing their stringed instruments and hand-drums, softly now after a great volume of sound that would have overwhelmed any chance scream of terror.

"'But in the very act of strangling, a dreadful revelation had come to me. Just before the signal was given the lad had turned his countenance toward me, and his eyes were looking into mine. In his fixed regard, as I realized later, there was the glow of love. But this was transformed of an instant into affrighted horror, as my hand at his ear gave the noose the deft and fatal twist. In the space of a single heart-beat, I saw incredulity change to the realization of sudden death, the first wild appeal for pity turn into rigid despair. But this momentary flash of revelation had shown me something else. It was a maid into[Pg 181] whose soul I had gazed. I had put to death a woman.'

"Now for the first time in his narrative did the strangler betray emotion. Bending forward, he raised a hand to shield his quivering features from my scrutiny. I turned away, that he might the better recover himself. After a little time he resumed:

"'Oh, the horror of it!' he cried, uplifting haggard eyes to mine. 'The frightful crime against Bowani! To have killed one of her own sex! For a thug there is no crime in all the world to equal this one. Too late I realized what I had done. But in my first impulse of fear I resolved to keep the dread secret to myself. With my own hands I rifled the body, and laid the spoil of gold and other valuables on the cotton cloth outspread in the moonlight for the reception of such gifts to the goddess. I removed the outer garments, robes of cost, silken, and heavily wrought with gold. Then, when the grave-diggers emerged from the nullah to show us the places of burial prepared, one for each victim, in my own arms I carried the body down into the darkness, laid it in its narrow bed, filled in the sand, and heaped on top the stones already gathered together in a pile, so that hyenas or jackals should not disturb the grave, finally covering all with brushwood cut and ready, that even the signs of recent excavation should be hidden from prying eyes and the sacrifice to Bowani disclosed to none besides her votaries.

"'I kept my secret—the terrible knowledge that a woman had died at our hands. By the morning dawn[Pg 182] the spoil had been divided, and our cavalcade, smaller now by nearly one-third, moved on. At the first cross-roads we split up into several groups, and later on into smaller parties still, so as to divert attention from us. And thus have I come on to Delhi, only I and one other member of that body of thugs, dispersed to assemble again as the omens of the goddess should direct. At Delhi we two await another gathering of thugs. But meanwhile my heavy secret has weighed upon my soul. I have heard incessantly, these last few days and nights, Bowani denouncing me as false to her because I have taken the life of a woman in her name, and bidding me hand over all the thugs to the justice of Akbar. Therefore have I come first to you, O kadi, one of the judges of Akbar.'

"I looked steadily at the man. Methought I saw once more the furtive, shifty eyes of the maniac.

"'What proof have you of this story?' I asked.

"'Take some sowars, and ride back with me three days' journey. There will I show you the graves of these last victims, and of some hundreds of others buried on previous occasions in the same gorge.'

"'Where is your companion—your brother thug?'

"'He has a shop at the corner of the Chota Bazaar and Dhurmtola. There he is now selling his merchandise.'

"'But that is the shop of Kubar Bux. He dwells here in Delhi.'

"'Kubar Bux is his name.'

"'He is a well-known and respected merchant.'

"'None the less is he a thug,' answered the informer, with what I took[Pg 183] to be a vindictive little smile.

"Then once again did a new thought leap into my mind. This man might have a feud with Kubar Bux, and peradventure he had merely invented the story of thugs and wholesale murder for the latter's undoing. I know well the wily ways of some men—how they will even imperil their own lives to compass the ruin of an enemy.

"'If I go with you now,' I said, 'to the shop of Kubar Bux, what proof will you give me of his connexion with this story of thuggee?'

"'On his person he carries the sacred pickaxe of Bowani, which makes him our leader when thugs come together. And hidden in one of his bales of silk you will find a case of jewelled rings that actually belonged to another Delhi merchant, who was of the party of travellers that recently perished, on his way home from a visit to Baroda. You will but have to inquire as to this same merchant's disappearance, and get his relatives to identify the casket as the dead man's property.'

"'That, indeed, will be proof,' I assented. 'Come, let us go to the Chota Bazaar.'

"As we passed out of the courthouse, I signalled to two sepoys on guard there to follow us.

"Keeping close to the denouncer, I allowed him to lead me through the narrow crowded streets. Soon we were at the corner where was the shop of Kubar Bux, and there amidst his bales of merchandise the[Pg 184] man himself was seated, a venerable and dignified figure. Yet at sight of me and my companion I thought an ashen pallor stole into the nut-brown of his complexion.

"As I stood with the informer in front of the tiny shop, which was too small for all of us to enter, the two soldiers closed up behind us. Then unmistakably did Kubar Bux turn grey from trepidation.

"'Kubar Bux,' I began, without ceremony, for I saw that a crowd would soon be gathering, 'open the bale of silk among your merchandise in which a casket of jewels is hidden, or I shall order your shop to be searched by the sepoys I have brought here with me.'

"The merchant rose to his feet. I noticed now, further back in the shop, another figure seated—that of a man who, on our entry, had drawn his garments around him so as to conceal his face. But to him at the moment I gave no particular attention. My eyes were on Kubar Bux. He moved toward a pile of fabrics, silks and embroidered cloths, as if to comply with my demand. He pressed against the bales, and then all of a sudden sank down upon the floor in a huddled heap. Then I saw the crimson stain of blood upon the merchandise.

"I sprang forward. Driven up to the very hilt, in the breast of Kubar Bux was a dagger. He was not quite dead, and I heard him with his last breath murmur the words: 'Bowani, great goddess, all hail!' Then with a rattle in his throat he died.

"I had gathered the dying man in my arms, and now[Pg 185] beneath the flowing garments, laid flat against the breast, I could feel the shape of something fashioned like a small pickaxe.

"When I saw that Kubar Bux was indeed dead, I drew forth this implement. It was carefully swathed in white cloths, a pickaxe bright from the hammer of the smith who had forged it, unsullied by earthy stain but curiously marked from the head to the point by seven discs of red paint, showing it to be an object of worship at an altar rather than for actual use in the ground. But at this stage I did not pause further to investigate, and hastily replaced the wrappings.

"'Keep close guard on this man,' I said to the sepoys, pointing to the informer. But he whom I would thus hold safe remained standing impassively, making no attempt to escape.

"Then with a push of my hands I tumbled down the pile of bales. In the one next to the bottom was a protuberance, and from this I drew forth a casket of silver, delicately chased and inlaid with ivory.

"By this time a throng of passers-by had stopped outside the shop, and some had even crowded into the little place. But these I now ordered out. Then I turned to seek the man who had been Kubar Bux's companion at the moment of our coming. He was no longer there. The shop was tenantless—except for myself and the dead man.

"I need tell but little more. The silver box was identified by several people as the property of[Pg 186] Govind Chung, a jewel-seller in the Bara Bazaar, who had made a recent journey to the court of the Rajah of Baroda, but had not yet returned home, although for some time expected.

"That night the paint-bedaubed pickaxe, sacred emblem of Kali's worship, lay on the table in my sleeping chamber. But in the morning it had disappeared—gone how and where no one has ever discovered. The informer had been confined in the public prison, guarded by two sepoys. Thither, on discovering my loss, I straightway repaired.

"The soldiers were still on guard in the corridor; nothing had happened during the night to disturb their watch.

"But within his cell the informer was found dead—strangled, eyes and tongue protruding from blackened face, the twisted knot under his ear tied in the very manner I had seen him himself tie it over his upraised knee on the afternoon of his confession.

"That is the end of my story."

The narrator of the grim tale folded his hands across his breast, bowed his head, and thus remained in an attitude of meditation. There was an interval of silence.

"Who murdered the informer?" at last asked the astrologer.

"We never learned," replied the magistrate.

"Was he strangled with his own silken scarf?"

"No. A plain cotton loin-cloth had been used for the[Pg 187] deed. It had never been worn or washed. It must thus have come straight from some shop in the bazaars. But scores of the same kind are bought and sold every day. We could discover nothing from this, the only clue the murderer had left behind him."

"The assassin must have been the mysterious individual you saw in the rear of the shop of Kubar Bux," commented the Afghan general. "Himself a member of the thug fraternity, he no doubt took swift vengeance on the informer for having betrayed its secrets."

"As I believed then, and believe now. But the whole affair remained a puzzle. For how was access gained to the locked and guarded prison cell, and to my sleeping chamber as well whence the sacred pickaxe was stolen?"

"Well, who can be certain even of his associates or followers? According to the miscreant's own story, there are thugs all around, knowing each other but not known to us."

"Can such things be?" asked the merchant, his eyes showing the fear and horror that had smitten him. "Many times have I travelled in company with just such a promiscuously gathered crowd as the strangler described."

"You have been in luck," laughed the Afghan.

"Doubtless on those occasions the omens proved unpropitious for the final deed. A jackal crossing the road or the hoot of an owl at midnight may have spared your life, my friend."

With a shudder, the trader drew his white garments more closely around[Pg 188] him.

"Well," remarked the magistrate, "for my own part, ever from that day when I heard the story of thugs and thuggee I have exercised the precaution of never travelling a single mile on the road with strangers, however fair-spoken. Although I have never again met anyone whom I could positively accuse of such practices, that the evil exists in our midst, and is widely spread, I am convinced. For a religion that provides a rich livelihood, while at the same time exalting the attendant crime into positive virtue is at least convenient enough to have many ardent devotees." The words were accompanied by a glance around the listening group, and a disdainful half-smile that expressed distrust of all humanity.

"But of a truth," he went on, "I know no more than my story has told. And hark! There is the trumpet call that heralds the coming of the sun."

Saying this, the kotwal uncrossed his legs and rose erect.

The long winding note of a horn was floating from the camp of the soldiery near the city gateway, and in a moment there came from the same direction the confused sound of men's voices afar off, calling the one to the other.

"I must away," exclaimed the Afghan, springing alertly to his feet, and buckling his sword belt. Three or four servants of the Rajput chief had ap[Pg 189]proached, and were gathering together the cushions and rugs on which he had been reclining. One of them placed in his master's hand the bejewelled hilt of his scimitar.

"This for my enemies and the enemies of Akbar," cried the Rajput, drawing the curved blade half way from its scabbard. "But I would not soil it with the heart's blood of a thug. For him the gibbet, and the crows to pick out his eyes."

Just then the first lance-tips of the dawn flashed above the horizon, gilding the domes and minarets of the marble city. Away in the distance could be heard the wailing cry of a muezzin calling the faithful to prayer.

Other members of the party had now arisen, each intent on his own affairs, one arranging his garments, another settling his turban straight on his head, the hakeem adjusting the little box of instruments and simples he carried at his girdle, the Moslem astrologer spreading his prayer carpet at the end of the veranda and prostrating himself in the direction of Mecca.

Only the fakir had remained motionless; but now he gathered up in his hands his wooden begging-bowl, and held it forth, crying, "Ram, Ram," in the plaintive whine of his profession. But there was none to pay heed to his untimely importunity. Indeed, the Bombay merchant, when the cry smote his ears, started uneasily, and in descending the steps gave the lean, ash-bedaubed figure of the ascetic the widest berth possible.

"Who can tell a thug from a honest man?" he asked of the magistrate in[Pg 190] passing.

"Who indeed can tell?" came the reply, in measured tone and with an enigmatic smile.

And a minute later all had gone their several ways.


Transcriber's Notes:
Normalized punctuation and quotes
Left one instance of fore-ordained and one of foreordained
Page 26: Changed access to excess (Printer's error)
Page 30: Changed four-and twenty to four-and-twenty (Printer's error)