THE WATER HOLE which the maharaja had said was near-by proved to be a good six miles from the camp. Here a shooting platform had been constructed for some previous hunt, and to this the three men and the gun bearer mounted by means of a ladder, while the mahout took the elephant away.
The hunters waited expectantly at the water hole until sunset without sight of a single sambar.
“Be very quiet now,” said the maharaja. “The jeraos will soon be coming down to the water to drink.”
They waited patiently, but no sambar put in an appearance. The sun dropped below the horizon and the stars blossomed forth in the gathering dusk.
Suddenly Trevor cupped his hand to his ear and said, “I hear shooting. It is in the direction of the camp. Can it be possible that they have been attacked during our absence?”
“I hardly think so,” the maharaja replied, “but we will return and find out. No use waiting longer for the sambar. They must have taken fright at something and gone to another water hole.”
He fired his rifle into the air and presently the mahout came up directly beneath their shooting platform with the elephant. One by one they lowered themselves to the beast’s broad back and entered the howdah.
“Back to camp! Make haste!” the maharaja told his mahout.
It was dark when they reached the camp and when they did they found it in the utmost confusion.
Georgia Trevor and Doña Isabella were frightened and tearful. Only a few of the maharaja’s men were in evidence and half of the elephants were gone.
“What is wrong? What has happened?” Trevor shouted, springing down from the howdah and closely followed by Don Francesco.
“The camp was raided by Rajputs,” Georgia Trevor replied, “and Ramona has disappeared. We do not know whether she escaped and has become lost in the jungle or whether the robbers carried her off.”
“Why, this is terrible!” exclaimed Trevor.
“It is worse than that, amigo,” said Don Francesco, passing a comforting arm about the shoulders of his sobbing wife.
The maharaja had meanwhile dismounted and was now speaking rapidly in Urdu to a small group of his frightened men. After a few moments’ conversation with them he returned to his guests.
“I am devastated with grief that this attack should have occurred in my camp and under the eyes of my own men,” he said. “Unfortunately, the raiding Rajputs were all armed with rifles, and my guardsmen could do nothing against them with their spears. Also the elephants stampeded and more than half of them have disappeared. The mahouts are out trying to recapture those that have not yet been found. However, I hope that we will be able to take the trail at the first break of day. I know in advance where it will lead because these Rajputs could only have come from Rissapur, and I intend to see to it that they be made to pay for this unwarranted and illegal raid upon my camp in British territory. It must be that they marked the beauty of the girl, and taking her for an oriental, decided to raid the camp and steal her for their maharaja.
“Do you expect us to wait here all night while Ramona is being carried off by those ruffians?” Trevor demanded.
The maharaja shrugged his shoulders deprecatingly. “Much as I deplore inaction in a case of this kind,” he said, “I do not see what else there is for us to do.”
“We have flashlights in our baggage,” said Trevor. “Give me a gun and, by God, I’ll set out on that trail afoot. You may follow at your leisure with your elephants.”
“I, too, amigo,” said Don Frencesco.
“Why, if you feel that way about it we will start at once,” said the maharaja, coolly adjusting his monocle. “However, as I attempted to explain, there can be but one distination for these miscreants, and that is Rissapur. They hare two hours’ start on us, and in any event, it will he impossible for us to overtake their swift horses when we have only elephants to ride.”
Three elephants were quickly requisitioned. On the first rode the maharaja and his two male guests, all armed with rifles. The two ladies, similarly armed, rode in the second howdah, and behind them came the third elephant bearing a half dozen of the maharaja’s guards.
A tracker ran ahead carrying a flashlight. The prints of the horses’ hoofs were plain enough in the soft earth and led them directly to an abandoned camp, where the remains of a huge fire smoldered.
“Odd that they should build such a tremendous fire,” said Trevor, getting out of the howdah and slipping to the ground. “I wonder why?”
He poked about in the ashes, and at the edges discovered the singed remains of a false beard and several bits of smoldering cloth. These he stamped out and on a sudden impulse thrust all into his pockets for evidence.
Further poking about in the ashes revealed a calcined human thigh bone and several other bones less easily recognizable, but which he judged must be human.
“Some one has been burned—perhaps burned alive here,” he cried. “Good God! I wonder—But surely these Rajputs would not have abducted Ramona for the purpose of burning her alive. The Muslims don’t do such things, do they?”
“One cannot tell what these Rajputs will do,” replied the maharaja. “However, I would not suspect them of that. My men informed me that an old Brahmin disappeared from the camp along with the girl. It is possible that he was slain to seal his lips and his body burned to hide the evidence of the crime.
“Then let us proceed on the trail at once,” said Trevor, mounting once more to the howdah.
They rode onward through the night and all the following day. Evening found them on the outskirts of a small village surrounded by rice paddys. The old village headman, accompanied by a number of natives, advanced to greet them.
“Have you seen any horsemen pass this way?” the maharaja asked the old headman.
“Nay, I did not see them, highness, though I heard the clatter of hoofs during the night,” replied the headman. “But I saw a much stranger sight.”
“What was that?” the maharaja asked.
“Tonight at dusk the dogs began barking near the edge of the paddy fields and my people investigated. They saw a naked white man of marvelous strength and agility, whose hair was the color of burnished copper. They hurled their spears at him, but he escaped by swinging away through the trees more swiftly than a monkey.”
“Good Lord! That was Jan! It must have been!” cried Trevor. “Which way did he go?”
“That we do not know,” the old headman replied, “nor were we able to find out, as he left no trail, but traveled through the trees.”
Trevor shook his head hopelessly.
“I know,” he replied. “It was thus he traveled in the South American jungle. If Jan wishes to hide his trail there is no man on earth who can follow him.”
He turned to the maharaja.
“Let us proceed on the trail of Ramona,” he said. “Perhaps we will again cross the trail of my son.”
The half hour’s ride brought them out upon a broad moonlit highway.
“As I predicted,” said the maharaja, “the trail leads toward the capital of my neighbor prince. This is the road to Rissapur.”
He had only ridden a short distance along this road when Babu Chandra Kumar came hurrying up behind them, riding his small, swift pad elephant, piloted by Sarkar, the mahout, and accompanied by Kupta, the hillman.
He rode up beside the howdah of the maharaja.
“Where have you been, you fat toad?” said the maharaja, glaring down at the babu through his monocle.
“Came as fastly as could do, highness,” Chandra Kumar replied, and continued with a meaning look, “Is great news abroad among villages. It seems that youngly sahib, son of Trevor Sahib, is in vicinity.”
“I have already heard that news,” the maharaja told him, and there was a look in his eyes which caused the babu to cringe. He had told his master that Jan was dead—had believed it himself—and the evidence that he was still alive struck terror into his heart. “We are following the trail of the miscreants who ran off with the young memsahib. In the meantime you will take six men and go in search of the son of Trevor Sahib, and,” he added meaningly, “you will bend every effort to find him. Do you understand?”
“Yes, highness, humbly servant understands with perfection,” said Chandra Kumar.
He nudged the mahout, who kicked the elephant behind the ear, and the great beast turned and lumbered off in the opposite direction.
They had ridden for another mile along the road when they met another party mounted on elephants and just coming onto the highway.
The royal trappings and the magnificent howdah of the elephant in the lead made it manifest that the beast carried a personage of considerable importance.
The two leading elephants met, and instantly their mahouts caused them to stop and raise their trunks in salute.
Seated in the ornate howdah in solitary state was a large, powerful looking man whose skin was so light that he might have been mistaken for a European. His thick, jet black beard was parted in the middle and combed outward toward both sides in the manner common among Rajputs. An enormous ruby blazed from the clasp on the front of his white turban and behind it two aigrettes pointed upward. His rich clothing was wholly oriental, and gems of fabulous value sparkled on his fingers.
As the beasts raised their trunks in salute, he called out:
And the Maharaja of Varuda replied, “Salaam!”
Then he introduced his two companions.
“Maharaja, permit me to present Trevor Sahib of North America and Suarez Sahib of South America.” And to the two men he said: “This is my friend and neighbor, Abdur Rahman, Maharaja of Rissapur.”
The Rajput maharaja acknowledged the introduction with a smile that showed powerful white teeth.
“You honor my little kingdom with your presence,” he said. “I trust that I may have the pleasure of entertaining you in my capital.”
“We should be delighted, but unfortunately our call is not a social one,” replied the Maharaja of Varuda. “We have come on business of a serious and delicate nature.”
“If it is of a private nature perhaps we had best find another place to discuss it.”
“No, it is not private, since all within earshot know of it already. Our camp was raided last evening by a band of your Rajput warriors, and a young memsahib was stolen. No doubt they made the mistake of believing her an oriental and perhaps one of your subjects, and will expect your commendation for this act. We demand that the lady be immediately released and that her abductors be punished.”
The Maharaja of Rissapur looked dumfounded.
“Where did this raid take place?” he asked.
“In British territory,” the other ruler replied, with a significant accent on the word “British.”
“Unless steps are taken to right this wrong at once, I shall be compelled to report the matter to the British Resident.”
“Come with me,” invited Abdur Rahman. “We were searching for an elephant of mine and found his trail with that of another beast, both evidently stolen by a man and boy who had built a camp fire nearby. They eluded us, but that matter can wait, in view of this shocking news you bring me. I will make a full investigation at once, and if any of my people have been guilty of such a dastardly act you have my assurance that they will be punished, and that so far as I am able to do so, I will make restitution.”
The two parties rode on to Rissapur together, and when he had lodged his guests in his palace, the Maharaja of Rissapur immediately launched an inquiry into the affair of the evening before. But though he set every agency at his command to the task of tracing the miscreants, who were supposed to have ridden straight to the city of Rissapur, he was unable to obtain the slightest trace of them.
At noon, the following day, the British Resident, Sir Cecil Bayne, called.
He was a tall, angular man with a florid face, a tremendous Roman nose and a drooping, sandy mustache. He was immediately informed of the mission of the visitors, and expressed his regrets that such an outrage should take place in British territory, assuring the distracted friends and foster parents of the girl that the powerful arm of the British Raj would be exerted on their behalf.
The Maharaja of Rissapur continued his inquiries about the culprits who were supposed to be lodged within the city, but in vain. No party of Rajputs such as that described by the two ladies had been seen to enter the city at any time.
After tiffin Sir Cecil sat tête-à-tête with Georgia Trevor on the broad veranda. For the moment the others were out of earshot.
“Really,” he said, “I can’t understand the Rajputs committing such a crime. I have been the Resident here for ten years and have never heard of anything to equal it.”
“Do you know,” said Georgia Trevor, “I have been wondering if they really were Rajputs. Our rifles had been tampered with, loaded with blank cartridges, showing that the raid had been planned in advance, and that here was at least one accomplice in the camp, and as I struggled with one of them, I grasped his beard and it came away in my hand.”
“Ah! A planned raid and a false beard,” exclaimed Sir Cecil. “A light begins to dawn on me. I shall start some investigations of my own immediately. In the meantime do me the favor of keeping this matter a secret from both of the maharajas. I may have some interesting news shortly.”
“I do hope you will be able to find Ramona soon,” said Georgia Trevor.
“And I assure you,” replied Sir Cecil with a bow, “that your hopes are well founded.”
At this moment the Maharaja of Varuda and the other guests came up.
“I am afraid we can accomplish nothing more here,” he said, “and suggest that we start at once to my capital. We should be able to reach it some time this evening if we start immediately. We can then set going the forces at my disposal and operate from there as a base.”
He bowed to the ruler of Rissapur, who had just returned from a conference with his deewan.
“With your leave,” he said, “we will take our departure. Your hospitality has been magnificent. I trust that you will pay me the honor of a visit soon.”
“You are most kind,” Abdur Rahman replied. “It is my hope that I shall soon be able to bring you news of the memsahib and a complete solution of her mysterious disappearance.”