AS SOON as the babu had ridden well out of sight of the camp on the pad elephant, he ordered Sarkar, the mahout, to halt the beast, and called Kupta to come and ride with him. Then they started off once more, this time at a swifter pace, and straight for their objective, without any pretense of following a trail.
After a ride of about five miles, they came to a small camp situated in a pleasant grove of trees, through which a clear brook meandered. A short distance from the camp a herd of horses was grazing under the watchful eyes of two mounted and armed Pathans. Swarthy, bearded men lounged about in the shade, smoking and chatting.
As the elephant approached, one of these seized a rifle, sprang to his feet, and shouted a challenge in Pashto.
“Ho, strangers. What do you want?”
“I seek a word with Zafarulla Khan,” replied the babu in the same language.
“Then you are Chandra Kumar?”
“In the flesh.”
“In very good flesh, I observe,” said the Pathan with a sly wink at his comrades, who laughed uproariously as the babu closed his umbrella and clumsily dismounted from his seat on the kneeling elephant.
“Said the crow to the pigeon,” replied Chandra Kumar with a bland smile.
Whereupon the laugh was turned against the jester, for he was a very lean and cadaverous man. But like many jesters, he could give with better grace than he could receive.
“Our leader expects you, O father of a pig,” he snarled.
“Lead on, my son, and I will follow,” retorted the babu, with his same bland smile.
Goaded by the laughter of his comrades at this unexpected retort, the Pathan glared furiously and raised his rifle threateningly, as if he would brain the babu with it.
But the latter stood his ground without a change of countenance, so he turned and strode away, Chandra Kumar waddling after him.
He stopped before one of the tents. “The Bengali has come,” he announced. Then he stalked away.
The babu paused at the doorway.
“Adab, Zafarulla Khan,” he said pleasantly.
“Adab araz, babuji,” was the deep voiced reply. “Bismillah! Enter, in the name of Allah.”
The babu kicked off his slippers, dropped his folded umbrella across them, and stepped inside.
Zafarulla Khan, a perfect giant of a man with a beard dyed flaming red with henna, and a fierce, hawk-like countenance that was seamed with battle scars, sat cross-legged on a blood red Baluchi rug, smoking a hookah. His rifle leaned against a bale of rugs nearby, and his heavy tulwar lay beside him. A huge churdh, the terrible Afghan knife, kept company with a pair of pearl handled revolvers that were thrust into his sash.
“Fahdul,” he invited with a wave of his hand. “Be seated.”
The babu sat down ponderously and accepted the flexible, ivory bitted stem of the hookah which his host passed to him. Placing it to his lips, he inhaled deeply, making a neroli scented water bubble noisily in the ornate bowl.
The Pathan clapped his hands, and a beardless boy appeared in the doorway.
“Chai,” roared Zafarulla Khan.
In a few moments, the boy returned with two small glasses of sweet, syrupy tea. Minutes were consumed in sipping, puffing, and polite inquiries as to the state of each man’s health, as well as his family and all his immediate relatives.
This formality concluded, the babu got down to business.
“It is set for tonight,” he said.
“It is not set until I give the word,” growled Zafarulla Khan. “Where is the money?”
“Here. Count it.” Chandra Kumar tossed a clinking bag between them. “Twenty-five hundred rupees.”
“What’s that!” roared the Pathan. “Wallahi! You were to bring five thousand. The agreement was for ten thousand rupees, one-half down and one-half when the girl is delivered to the priest. Now by my head and beard—”
“Wait!” The babu checked him with upraised hand, then continued blandly: “You must have misunderstood. I told you the priest would pay you five thousand when the girl was delivered, and I would pay you half that sum before the raid.”
“You said five thousand, O dog and son of a dog!”
“I distinctly said, one half of that amount.”
“One-half of ten thousand!”
“No, of five.”
Zafarulla Khan raged, fumed, blustered and pleaded. He called upon Allah, Mohammed, and all the Moslem saints and prophets to bear him witness. But through it all, the babu remained placid and unruffled.
When the storm had somewhat subsided, Chandra Kumar proffered his betel box, but the Pathan struck it from his hand, then drew his churdh and fingered the keen blade significantly.
“Do you realize, O unbelieving swine,” he growled, “how easy it would be for me to slit your throat, take the money, and leave you here for the hyenas and jackals? The conviction grows upon me that this is what I should do.”
“But it is not what you will do,” said the babu calmly enough, though he had grown somewhat pale beneath his brown skin.
“And why not?”
“Because if you did, you would have but twenty-five hundred rupees, whereas, for a bloodless raid and a pleasant ride you will have seventy-five hundred. Furthermore, both my master and the British would hunt you and your men down like mad dogs.”
“Who says the raid will be bloodless and the ride pleasant? It is no light thing to kidnap a memsahib. For such a crime the British would hunt a man to the ends of the earth. Better to slit the throat of such as you, take my small gain, and have done with it.”
“But as I have told you, the girl is not a memsahib, but an oriental. You have but to look at her great languorous eyes—her raven hair—”
“Hah! Perhaps I shall keep her for myself.”
“Then you will make the raid?”
“Ayewah! But not for this paltry bag of coin—only for the sake of a look at this ravishing beauty.”
The babu chuckled.
“Remember, she is to be turned over unharmed to the priest, if you would collect the five thousand rupees. And no slave girl is worth such a sum. Nor would you chance losing it, were the lovely Nour-mahal herself in your power. Your love of gold is too great for that.”
“So you think,” rumbled Zafarulla Khan. “But what of the plans?”
The babu again tendered his betel box, and this time the Pathan helped himself to a quid. Then he reached behind him for a brass cuspidor which he placed on the rug between them.
“The raid is to be staged just after sunset, when it will be light enough to see, yet dark enough so details and disguises will not be seen too clearly.”
“Eh? There will be disguises?”
“I have brought them in a bundle on the elephant, Rajput clothing for all, great black false beards such as the Rajputs wear, and a can of petrol with which beards and clothing may be soaked when you have done with them and are ready to burn them.”
“So The Rajputs are to take the blame.”
“Why not? It is the only logical disguise.”
“But the only Rajputs in this vicinity are men of the true faith, Moslems like ourselves.”
“Upon whom, then, would you place the blame? And all of the Rajputs in Rissapur are not Muslim. Many have held to the faith of their forefathers.”
“Billahi! Rissapur! I begin to smell a mouse in the rice bag! It is said there is no love lost between your Hindu kingling and the Muslim Maharaja of Rissapur.”
“You smell a mouse which does not exist. They are warm friends.”
“Well, perhaps. But I have my doubts. Proceed.”
“You will ride down upon the camp, wearing the Rajput disguises, shouting the Rajput war-cry, and firing your guns into the air.”
“Only to be shot by the sahibs.”
“Nay, the sahibs will not be in the camp, and the guards will run into the woods at the first sounds of the raid.”
“But I have heard that some of these memsahibs can shoot as well as a man.”
“Not these,” replied the babu. “Besides, their guns will be loaded with blank cartridges. You will seize the young one and ride off with her, taking care that no harm shall come to her or the others. On arriving at this camp, you will pile your disguises on the ground, pour petrol over them and burn them. Then you will ride on into Rissapur territotyr.”
“Subhanallah! So I thought. The mouse scent again grows strong.”
“When you reach the road that leads into the city, you will follow it until you come to the red shrine of Ganesha. Your men will ride on into the city, but you, carrying the girl, will turnoff there, and ride alone with her due north until you reach the river. There Thakoor, the priest, will await you with the money.”
“Or an ambush to shoot me down.”
“Not at all. My master does not wish the plot disclosed, and your men could go to the Maharaja of Rissapur with their grievances if you did not return with the money.”
“So they could. Say on.”
“When you have received the money you will ride on into Rissapur, pay your men, and order them to leave separately, by various ways, to reunite in any other place you may designate.”
The Pathan slapped his thigh.
“Mashallah!” he exclaimed. “It is a good scheme, and we are just the men to carry it out. But still the mouse scent lingers. It is whispered that the British Raj would force a union of Varuda and Rissapur, and that the prince who succeeds in winning their favor will rule both. Now if this scandal were brought to the door of the Maharaja of Rissapur—”
“Pure bazaar gossip,” the babu interrupted him, rising. “Heed it not, and think no more of super-plots which do not exist.”
Zafarulla Khan thrust the bag of coins into his sash, and stood up. He towered above the portly babu like a cedar above an olive tree as the two made their way to where the elephant knelt.
With the help of Kupta, the Bangali cast off the ropes which held the bundle of disguises and the means to destroy them, and lowered the bundle to the ground. At a curt command from their leader, two of Zafarulla Khan’s men took up the bundle and carried it to his tent.
Then the babu resumed his seat on the pad beside Kupta, and the elephant heaved its pon-derout bulk erect.
“Salaam,” called Chandra Kumar in farewell, as the beast lumbered away.
“Salaam,” replied the Pathan leader, and turning, stalked to his tent.
The babu was quite jovial as they rode back toward their own camp, joking first with Kupta, then with Sarkar, the mahout. He was very happy, for though he had forsaken the gods of his forefathers, a new god had taken their place—gold. And he found it very pleasant to contemplate the twenty-five hundred rupees which were the profits of this trip, resting his heavy money belt along with the money he had mulcted from Kupta and Sarkar. Also, it was exceedingly gratifying to estimate the infinitely greater profits yet to come from this venture.
Within a half mile of the camp, they turned down a side path and halted, it being the babu’s purpose to wait there until after the raid had taken place. He and Kupta dismounted and took their ease beneath a shady tree, but Sarkar was content to keep his seat on the elephant’s neck while the beast tore off leaves and tender twigs and thrust them into his huge mouth.
Back in the camp of the maharaja, tiffin was followed by the customary nap, which lasted well into the afternoon. Then the maharaja assembled his guests for tea.
For some time, as was natural, the talk was only of Jan, and the possibility of catching up with him. Naturally, all were anxious to continue on the trail as swiftly as possible, with the exception of the maharaja. But he simulated anxiety on the subject very well.
“There’s no use going on,” he said, finally, “until we hear from the babu. Also, we must wait for the elephants that are bringing up our baggage. In the meantime,” looking at his two male guests, “I think I’ll have a try for sambar. There’s no fresh meat in camp for my men. And I know of a water hole nearby where the jeraos, as we call them, are sometimes thick as fleas. You probably won’t care to eat any of the meat—most Americans and Europeans don’t, as it is rather coarse in texture. But I think I can promise you two gentlemen some ripping sport if you care to come with me.”
Don Francesco turned to Trevor. “What do you say, amigo?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” replied Jan’s father. “I simply, can’t get the boy off my mind, and if I thought—”
“Oh, go with him,” said Georgia Trevor. “There isn’t a thing we can do at present—and you like to hunt.”
“Yes, do come,” urged the maharaja. “We’ll only be gone for an hour or two at the most, and will be back in camp before the babu can possibly get here. Then we’ll have a good night’s rest and get an early start on the trail in the morning.”
“Very well. I’ll go. But the ladies—will it be safe to leave them here?”
“I’ll leave all my spearmen here,” the maharaja promised, “and rifles for the ladies.”
“We’ll take only one elephant and his mahout. Rare sport, shooting from the howdah—and we may flush a tiger.”
Shortly thereafter, the maharaja and his two male guests rode away on the back of the largest elephant.
Georgia Trevor and Doña Isabella retired to their couches. Ramona sat down in front of the tent to read a travel book on India which she had in her hand luggage. There was no breeze, the leaves hung motionless on the branches, and the air seemed fairly to quiver with the heat. Several times she caught herself nodding over her book, and presently, overcome by heat-induced drowsiness, she fell asleep in her chair.
When she awoke, the sun had set and a breeze had sprung up. She arose and went for a stroll about the camp. She noticed that wood had been brought in for the cooking fires, but that not one had been lighted. Puzzled, she spoke to an old wrinkled Brahmin beggar who sat a little apart from the others with his back against a tree.
“Why is it you have not lighted your fires and prepared your evening meals?” she asked.
“It is not our custom, memsahib,” he replied softly. “This interval between sunset and the first glimmer of stars is the moment of silence. No one cooks or lights fires at this time. It is a sacred moment when we sit still, meditate, and listen for the voice of silence.”
One by one the stars came out. A man arose and touched a match to his cooking fire.
Then, as if this were a prearranged signal, the silence was broken by the thunder of charging hoofs, and the frenzied yelling of a host of riders, punctuated by the loud reports of rifles and pistols.
Instantly, the camp was thrown into wild confusion. The elephants began milling and trumpeting, their mahouts trying ineffectually to calm them. Then one big bull snapped his tether and fled into the jungle. He was followed by another and another, until all had disappeared into the jungle shadows. The guards seized their spears and ran hither and thither, shouting excitedly.
A dozen black bearded riders charged into the camp, shouting and shooting, their puggrees streaming behind them. Others deployed to the right and left.
With frightened cries, the spear-men plunged into the jungle, leaving the camp defenseless.
Cut off from retreat to the tent, Ramona saw Jan’s mother and Doña Isabella emerge with rifles in their hands. She saw the former level her rifle at a yelling raider and fire. The raider sprang from his horse and confronted her. Again she fired, point blank at his heart. But he only laughed, wrenched the rifle from her grasp, and pushing both women aside, plunged into the tent. Another rider disarmed the doña, and seized her by the arm, while a third, who tried to hold the fiery Georgia Trevor found he had captured a tartar. She kicked, scratched, and finally seized him by the beard which, much to her surprise, came off in her hands, revealing a scraggy, gray beard beneath it.
The first man then came out of the tent, and spoke rapidly in Pashto.
Ramona, about to rush to the assistance of the others, felt a light tug at her sleeve. The old Brahmin who had told her of the voice of the silence was there.
“Come,” he said softly. “It is you they want. The others will not be harmed. Follow me. Perhaps I can help you to elude them.”
For a moment Ramona stood irresolute. Then she saw the marauders release the two women. One shouted a harsh command, and other raiders began searching the remaining tents. So far none of them had seen her standing there in the shadow. Silently, she turned and followed the old Hindu into the jungle blackness.